From the Rudd legacy to the Gillard wars

I have an article in The Conversation about Kevin Rudd’s legacy. In the next Overland I will have a longer article on Rudd and Gillard. I don’t find Rudd particularly interesting. Even his parliamentary supporters such as Richard Marles can only tell us he was a nice bloke, at least some of the time. The attempt to define Rudd as exemplifying some ‘anti-politics’ seems far fetched, especially when it is undertaken by Marxists. Marxism is no more than an anti-politics than it is an anti-capitalism (but more on that another day).

Gillard is more interesting and she turned out to be a more substantial figure than I anticipated back in 2010. The most interesting sign of this are the ‘Gillard wars’. They have become rather like a parody of Stalinists and Trotskyists at City College New York in the late 1930s. On Facebook I saw the following comment by someone annoyed at post-election feminist celebrations of Gillard:

Actually so disturbed by it I’m considering ending a friendship with someone I really care about over it, because I have lost all respect for them. Feel shocked that I am even considering it.

The old-guard feminist enthusiasm for Gillard is readily explainable, although misguided, but why should the Marxist left care? I suggest it is because Gillard’s combination of rhetorical labourism and feminist identity politics was seen by the left as an invasion of their discursive territory. Labourist intellectuals such as Nick Dyrenfurth were traumatized by the applause of Tasmanian timber workers for John Howard in 2004. Similar the Marxist left is perplexed by Gillard’s labourism. Yet both Gillard and her Marxist critics are locked into the same problematic. Both assume that ‘class’ interests are non-political, that they are defined at the level of the ‘economy’. Thus Gillard’s boasts of being a labourist rather than a social-democratic Prime Minister, and the Marxist left aspire to be better labourists than Labor. So Labor’s contemporary woes are traced back to the real wage cuts of the 1980s under the Accord (although they never consider that high unemployment and inflation made it inevitable that real wages would have fallen during this period).  For another example of the left challenged by an invasion of their discursive territory see the response to Phyllis Schlafly.

Socialism is a political project it aims to transform property relations. As Leninput it: ‘Politics must take precedence over economics. To argue otherwise is to forget the ABC of Marxism’. An economic class only becomes a political entity when it identifies opposing classes as enemies to be fought ‘either in the form of a war of state against state or in a civil war’, as Carl Schmitt noted. The Gillard wars point to the continued belief of many on the left that socialist or feminist consciousness will simply arise naturally from the social position of the oppressed..

I am reminded of this point by the recent excitement on the left about the election of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant  to Seattle City Council. Many on the socialist left in the United States chased for decades a chimera of ‘class’ politics in the belief that if only workers could be persuaded to focus on their ‘objective’ economic interest they could be won back from the appeal of populist social conservatism. Perhaps the left would have done better if it argued for socialism from the start.

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