Labor and class, again

Paul Norton has alerted me to a new book by Michael Thompson, published by rightwng outlet Labor’s Forgotten People: The Triumph of Identity Politics  It appears to be a rehash of Thompson’s Labor Without Class which I reviewed back in 2000 (reprinted over the fold).

One point mentioned in the review was a positive blurb from Martin Ferguson, who was clearly well on the path to his current position as a rightwing mining company hack, but still managed to pass himself off as a Labor stalwart for another decade or more.

The blurb of Forgotten People states that “this title is sure to cause a stir within the Labor Party membership”, and I’ll confine my remarks to the title. The idea that the left had an excessive focus on identity politics was popular, and not entirely baseless, back around 2000. But it’s been obvious for years that it’s the right that is dominated by identity politics.

More precisely, it’s what might be called “default identity politics”, the idea that “real Australians/Americans/Englishment” are white (more specifically Anglo-Celt) heterosexual Christians, working in private sector jobs, and living in rural and regional areas. The policies of the right don’t actually help people like this (their benefits are directed to high-income earners and wealthy retirees), but attracts their vote by reassuring of them of their superiority over urban “elites”

Labor without Class was wrong in all important respects, but at least it was up with the times. Thompson’s latest is an absurdity in the era of Trump, Johnson and Morrison.

Review of Labor Without Class

The basic thesis of this book is simple. There is a fundamental conflict in Australia between the middle class (managerial, professional and para-professional workers) and the working class (including not only manual workers but routine clerical workers and those employed in sales and personal services). From the time of Gough Whitlam onwards, the Labor Party has been taken over by the middle class. Members of the middle class have secure careers and favour post-materialist policies of feminism, environmentalism and multiculturalism which are hostile to the working class. It was Paul Keating’s embrace of these policies that led Labour’s traditional supporters to abandon the party in 1996. What working class voters care about is economic security, and this, they understand, will be given to them by the policies of economic rationalism adopted by the Hawke-Keating government until from 1983 to 1990. Most of the book consists of Thompson’s critical analysis of the writings of his middle-class opponents within the Labour Party, a group he extends to include all those who take seriously the party’s stated socialist objective. Not surprisingly, the book has the endorsement of prominent economic rationalists like Peter Walsh and P.P. McGuinness. More surprising, perhaps, is a laudatory foreword by Martin Ferguson, referring ominously to Labor’s ‘courage and responsibility in revisiting policies – on welfare, employment and education, for example – that were once treated as sacred.’

Undoubtedly, Thompson is correct to point out that some middle-class advocates of postmaterialist ideas have a patronising and condescending view of the working class as rednecks obsessed with narrowly economic goals, and that middle-class people of this kind were prominent among those (not very many as it turned out) who swung to Keating after 1993. But Thompson simply presents a mirror-image of these views. He accepts without question, and without supporting evidence, the view that the working class is anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, anti-Aboriginal and so on. The view that environmental concerns are alien to the working class comes particularly oddly from someone who claims to have spent ten years as a builder’s labourer ‘active during the Mundey, Owens and Pringle era’. Evidence from opinion polls and similar studies suggests that both pro- and anti-environmental attitudes are well represented in all social classes. There is some tendency for younger people and those with more education to hold more pro-environmental views, but even these correlations are not particularly strong.

Accepting however, that Thompson’s distaste for the ‘chardonnay set’ who gravitated to Keating after 1993 is shared by many traditional Labour voters, this point does not yield anything like the consequences he wants to derive. His argument suffers from crucial analytical, economic and political errors.

As far as analysis is concerned, it is bizarre to read a book, supposedly about labour and class, that does not even mention employers, capital or wealth. In claiming that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the urban middle class, it might be expected that Thompson would try to refute the more traditional labour view of an irreconcilable conflict between labour and capital. Thompson simply ignores the question.

Even Thompson’s conception of the middle class is incredibly narrow. The only groups mentioned are teachers, academics and public servants (most of whom, on Thompson’s classification, are actually members of the working class). Thompson describes himself as a consultant to the law firm Clayton Utz, but neither consultants nor lawyers (both groups heavily overrepresented in the political system) get a mention. Although ‘urban’ and ‘professional’ are dirty words for Thompson, he ignores the fact that of all the professional groups in the workforce, teachers are the least concentrated in urban areas and work under conditions most similar to those of the clerical workers he wants to assimilate to the working class.

In economic terms, Thompson is committed to the thesis that economic rationalism is necessary for the welfare of the working class and has their political support. The first part of this proposition is simply assumed. Thompson repeatedly and correctly refers to the economic insecurity that faces the working class (though he might have the decency to observe that much the same insecurity faces his betes noires, teachers and academics). He does not explain how privatisation and the accompanying mass redundancies, the abandonment of Keynesian macroeconomic policies, the gutting of the award system and so on are supposed to enhance workers’ security. The argument can perhaps be made that any policy that attempts to protect workers’ interests is doomed to failure, so that there is no alternative to economic rationalism. However, Thompson does not attempt to make it.

Thompson does make a half-hearted attempt to defend the proposition that the Australian working class actually supports economic rationalism. To do this he has to ignore the entire period from 1983 to 1990 when, as he agrees, the economic rationalism of the Hawke-Keating government was at its peak. During this period, Labor’s share of the primary vote fell from 49.5 per cent in 1983, to 47.5 per cent in 1984, 45.8 per cent in 1987 and 39.4 per cent in 1990. The only time Labor’s vote increased was in 1993, when the Liberals were led by the ultra-rationalist John Hewson. In any case, Thompson’s claims on this point are simply incredible. I invite him to walk into any working class pub in the country and announce himself as an economic rationalist.

The final problem with Thompson’s argument is political. Suppose we accept that the Australian working class wants or needs a combination of economic rationalism and cultural conservatism. Precisely that policy mixture is offered to them by John Howard. In the only direct reference to Howard’s views in the book, Thompson says of the 1996 election

The Coalition did not mobilise women around more government intervention, less economic orthodoxy and pro-environment policies. Its leader was John Howard of ‘white picket fence’ fame. But having captured 53 per cent of the women’s vote in 1996, could it not be argued that the Coalition is rather more astute at gauging ‘women’s’ needs and aspirations, and winning their support. (quotation marks in original)

The obvious inference from Thompson’s book is not that Labor should change its position but that he, and others who share his views, should join the Liberals. In fact, Gary Johns, the only figure in the Keating government whom Thompson quotes with any approval, is now affiliated with the Institute for Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank with close historical ties to the Liberal party. P.P. McGuinness, who gives an approving plug, is a former Labor staffer who has long been identified with the most free-market elements of the Liberal party, and now edits the right-wing magazine Quadrant. Senator Peter Walsh has followed a similar trajectory without, so far, actually joining the Liberals. Doubtless, Thompson will not be far behind him when he does.

9 thoughts on “Labor and class, again

  1. The idea that the left had an excessive focus on identity politics was popular, and not entirely baseless back around 2000.

    ‘Not entirely baseless’?

    So, then, almost entirely baseless?

  2. P.P. McGuinness died in 2008 according to wiki, so he really is a re-animated corpse aka zombie being taken out for a stroll.

  3. McGuinness lives on in his daughter’s column in the AFR. The apple truly does not fall far from the tree.

  4. Nick, yes, I’m aware of that.
    The issues raised are complicated. A big problem for Labor is that much of the white working class gets its news from News corp, which does its best to cleave them away from Labor with narratives like the one used in this book.

  5. Well Labor hasn’t done very well at the Federal level since it took up identity leftism. And the rich have gotten richer.

  6. Yeah don’t know about this one. Don’t know if you’ve got the ground reality on this particular issue. I miss those old labour union bully-boys who were after a hi-paid workforce, rather than who uses which toilet. I didn’t really appreciate these hard-core unionists when they were around. Now that they are gone, and its all these slave issues to do with developmental disorders, then its like we have really lost something valuable.

    If the Labour party isn’t for powerful manufacturing and good wages for the working man, why would we need them around? Like a Liberal party who cannot balance the budget. Useless as teats on a bull. These people cannot sing or dance, so you have to wonder what they are good for? Those boys who hung around Bob Hawke. They really wanted people like me to have solid well-paid manufacturing jobs. Thats something they felt right down to their bones.

    They meant it, they felt it. I’ve been on strike with these bovver-boys advising us. They were deadly serious about improving our wages. Real passion.

    Thats all gone now in my view.

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