Corruption & machine politics

I have an article in the Conversation about the trade union and home insulation Royal Commissions held by the government. The article doesn’t imply any judgement about the significance of the matters that they investigate. Actually I think that trade union political funds (I refuse to use the meaningless term ‘slush funds’) are a notable own goal by the union movement. The use of funds raised from members in support of political campaigns in other unions is entirely inappropriate and funds raised by employer donations place in serious doubt the independence of union leaderships.


‘Corruption’ is a complex matter for the left. It recalls the heritage of machine politics often associated with the political mobilization of subordinate social classes. American cities were famous for this, as newly arrived immigrants were offered jobs and assistance with government services in exchange for votes. This style of politics was challenged by liberals. James Q Wilson’s influential the Amateur Democrat described a conflict between middle-class reformers and machine politicians. This analysis anticipated his own later conservatism it tended to cast this as a class battle between traditional Democratic constituencies and middle-class elites (some media presentations of the Obama/Clinton battle revived this meme).


There is little particularly egalitarian about machine politics it was based on the support of local capital, corruption was part of this the distribution of favours to business, contracts for public services and support for industries that needed police protection, such as ‘vice’. The big city bosses were initially unenthusiastic about the New Deal.  Machine politics encouraged patron/client system in which members of subordinate groups were rewarded for their loyalty by the allocation of jobs, and capitalists from these groups win favours in contracts and sympathetic administrative treatment. ‘Big man’ politics in Australian indigenous organizations is a version of this. The left has benefited by this in the past and are then horrified when this style of politics is turned against them. The case of Alison Anderson illustrates this.


The issues has relevance to contemporary debates about reform of the Labor Party. Patron/client politics is rife in the party. Those who possess social capital (which in Labor equals machine power) battle with those who possess other assets such as media profile, publicity & intellectual ability (to a degree). Troy Bramston thinks he would be a better Labor MP than David Feeney. Bramston has chosen to invest in the development of a different kind of personal capital than has Feeney.

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