[Marxism] Liberalism, conservatism and Australia

Nicholas Siemensma nsiemensma at yahoo.com.au
Fri Jun 25 06:54:05 MDT 2004

This is an interesting discussion. It concerns the role of the state in
both the facilitation and legitimation of accumulation. Neoliberal
ideologists like Paul Kelly and Gregory Hywood clearly find Howard's
social conservativism somewhat distasteful, and would prefer
straight-up union-busting and regressive tax breaks without the
accompanying dogwhistling to Hanson supporters. In short, they want
John Hewson. Keating - with his combination of neoliberal doxa and
republicanism, "engagement", and the Redfern speech - was in many ways
preferable to Howard, but in the end he became unelectable. On the
other hand, Howard's basic electoral trick has been very successful -
to ally with the leading capital fractions while carrying populist
cultural notations, enabling him to dismiss the Keating "elites,"
chardonnay set etc. Serious neoliberal types hold their noses for the
sake of his "sound economic management". Howard's time as PM has, jokes
aside, provided the popular legitimacy and credibility which are
necessary for the functioning of the capitalist system as a whole, and
which is the job of the state. Keating's snobbish liberalism couldn't
achieve this. The problem for the dominant power bloc arises if for
whatever reason Howard cannot deliver the goods: further reform of
industrial relations, superannuation, media ownership and welfare. In
this case he can be ditched in favour of Costello, Latham or,
eventually Malcolm Turnbull, who are "responsible" neoliberal types
without the populist baggage. Howard himself isn't a true believer or
die-hard dry, having been initially hesitant on the Keating-Hawke
financial deregulation. Hence the periodic rumblings about replacing
Johnny whenever his poll numbers drop. 

But I don't think it's that simple. The success of Howard's social
conservatism is related, IMHO, to the peculiar configuration of capital
in Australia. In the US the basic Democrat constituency is in the
northwest and mid-Atlantic/northeast cities where those blocs of
finance and high-tech capital, which are broadly linked to the party,
are located and responsible for the core city gentrification that
serves those sophisticated yuppies who vote Democrat. This is the
basis, as I see it, for Clinton liberalism. On the other hand those
auto-industrial sections tied to the Republicans are based in the most
socially conservative and outwardly racist places. The social and
ideological geography of Australia is different, as of course is the
organisation of capital and institutions of the state. Australia
certainly has a prototype spec-flex post-Fordist economy, which is
heavily skewed towards banks and financial services. The base for
social liberalism is there, as can be seen by the maverick
neoliberalism of Jeff Kennett and his accumulation regime of inner city
revitalisation. But finance has long been structurally and functionally
interlinked with mining and agribiz, going back to the days of Collins
House and probably to the pastoral age. A base for social conservatism
(and for Hanson) can be found in internal conflicts within the National
Party and National Farmers' Federation, linked to the basic opposition
between small family farms and big capital in the extractive and
agrifood sector, mining, fibre, broad-acre and large-scale irrigated
farming. The NFF was formed in 1979, during the years after Whitlam had
failed to engineer an alliance - underpinned by organised labour -
between the industrial and mining fractions of monopoly capital.
Whitlam's defeat, prompted by Treasury disapproval of Labor's dabbling
in petrodollar markets, also signalled the destruction of social
democracy which was completed under the supposedly corporatist regime
of Hawke, and signalled a re-orientation in which the hegemonic bloc at
the heart of the Australian state was re-moulded to ally finance and
rural-extractive capital. Howard's government is the purest expression
of this state project, for which the waterfront dispute - backed by the
NFF - was the defining moment. Howard's political rhetoric and imagery
is saturated with bullshit about Gallipoli, mateship, Bradman and race
patriotism. Is this a strange personal preference for
Anglo-conservatism or is there something deeper at work? Would Costello
or a populist Latham change this conservative social policy very much?
At first glance it seems obvious but I'm not sure. Keating belatedly
paid the price when the Eighties party wound up in 1989-1992, which
produced Howard's racist-populist neoliberalism as antidote to
Keating's multicultural neoliberalism. The bursting of this debt bubble
is likely to be much worse, and so could the political product be much
more retrograde. Probably I'm saying something quite banal here.


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