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                                Editorial: September 2006                   

                   Labor’s presidency hijacked by activists

‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. That proverb - often wrongfully attributed to Samuel Johnson - readily came to mind when Senator John Faulkner announced his intention to stand for Labor’s national presidency.

Labor’s dual constituency

For those urging Labor along the difficult road to economic and social credibility, Senator Faulkner’s candidacy must be viewed with deep misgivings. Admittedly, such doubts would puzzle many. The senator enjoys extremely good press, and more than any other contemporary parliamentarian deserves the hackneyed label ‘darling of the Canberra press gallery’. That alone should ring alarm bells, however. Journalists tend to appraise political questions by markedly different criteria than most of the electorate.

Journalists are representative of the tertiary educated professional class, whose increasingly progressive views are championed inside the ALP by Senator Faulkner, amongst others. As we have argued, the workforce is still divided between 30 per cent or so with ‘careers’ and the broad 70 per cent majority in routine ‘jobs‘. Professional or knowledge workers, like journalists, clearly belong to the former category, while the latter includes not only blue collar workers, but also several routine white collar occupations. Many journalists are slow to acknowledge that the two categories are diverging in terms of values, income security, and geographic location. Yet this development represents a political watershed, and a fundamental challenge for Labor.

Senator Faulkner is a passionate advocate of the prevailing - if shaky - Labor consensus that the party must retain constituencies in both camps. This is a lifelong cause for him. Writing on the 1980s ALP in Sydney’s Leichhardt municipality, labour historian Tony Harris points out that as NSW Labor assistant secretary, the senator was a leading proponent of ‘accommodating the extra-party, urban environmental and resident action tradition‘, as opposed to ‘the traditional union-based left‘.

Faulkner himself insists that there was nothing new about this approach. ‘Labor has always had two main constituencies‘, he suggests - ‘union members, and community activists’. Says Faulkner:

The ‘latte set‘, the ‘chattering classes’ - these are just the latest epithets for the party members and branch activists who have been one of the party’s two great supports throughout our history. Most have been union activists and branch activists at the same time, and have devoted their lives and their passion to the labour movement.

Clearly, Senator Faulkner understates Labor’s historic transformation during the 1960s and 1970s. The class of workers engaged in advanced or complex technical occupations - mostly university trained - reached critical mass throughout the industrial economies at this time. Conscious of their nascent economic power, they naturally sought to match the incumbent political power of finance capital. Many gravitated towards forces on the political left, not least the ALP.

As Michael Thompson argued in Labor without class: the gentrification of the ALP, these new recruits came to dominate the organisational and parliamentary wings of the party, on the assumption that working class supporters would follow unconditionally: what he calls ‘Whitlam’s strategy‘. Senator Faulkner was one of this new breed. Over succeeding decades, however, so-called knowledge workers rose to positions of power across the new services and information economy. Inevitably, their interests diverged from those of routine workers. By the mid-1990s, ‘Whitlam’s strategy’ collapsed under the strain. Contemporary Australian politics are dominated by the consequences of that collapse.

The politics of cultural-intellectual capital

Advocates of a dual ‘knowledge worker-routine worker’ constituency, like Senator Faulkner, and other contributors to the recent Barry Jones edited book Coming to the Party, misconceive the way that wealth is produced in the service economy.

In The Work of Nations, former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich proposed that ‘in the high value enterprise the claims of both routine labor and financial capital are subordinated to the claims of those who solve, identify, and broker new problems’. Reich coined the term ‘symbolic analysts’ to describe workers who ‘solve, identify, and broker problems by manipulating symbols‘. According to Reich:

[T]he symbolic analyst wields equations, formulae, analogies, models, constructs, categories, and metaphors in order to create possibilities for reinterpreting, and then rearranging, the chaos of data that are already swirling around us. Huge gobs of disorganized information can thus be integrated and assimilated to reveal new solutions, problems, and choices.

The cultural-intellectual capital owned by symbolic analysts - call them knowledge workers - is as significant to the service and information economy as finance capital. Like all forms of capital, the value of cultural-intellectual capital is a function of its scarcity. Its owners benefit from policies that restrict its abundance. Since this type of capital has a cultural or social dimension, knowledge workers benefit when they are perceived, in the public sphere, to have superior insights and values to the majority.

Accordingly, many knowledge workers seek to enhance their asset by resorting to a predictable type of activism. They will push the envelope on issues like uranium mining, climate change, nuclear energy, civil liberties and asylum seekers beyond the point that reasonable routine workers - a clear majority of the population - will follow. Naturally, these causes may also deliver more immediate benefits to inner-suburban professionals, like career opportunities, tax breaks and improved property values.

Some corporations are now following suit, since they have as much interest in protecting their cultural-intellectual capital as academics, journalists, artists, architects, engineers, lawyers, planners, administrators, public servants, publishers, editors, programmers and others.

The failure of routine workers to tag along is typically put down to racism, fear (‘the politics of fear’) or plain stupidity. Yet the relationship between knowledge workers and routine workers is obviously prone to inherent tensions, just like that between routine workers and finance capital. Their socio-economic interests are different. That is why the prevailing Labor consensus in favour of a dual constituency is untenable.

Mining the symbols

None of this will deter Senator Faulkner, who now pursues Labor’s national presidency as the flag-bearer for socially progressive knowledge workers. The tendency for progressive activists to push the envelope, to adopt positions that are heavy on symbolic gestures while light on practical solutions, is perfectly illustrated by the issue spurring his candidacy: uranium mining. Faulkner will fight opposition leader Kim Beazley’s proposal to drop the ‘no new mines’ policy from Labor’s platform at next year’s national conference (where he hopes to preside).

Yet opposition to uranium mining represents the height of empty gesture politics. In a world where 35 per cent of electricity in Europe (including such environmental paragons as Sweden, Finland and Germany) is generated by nuclear reactors, where China, India, South Korea and Japan have commercial nuclear power, and where Indonesia and Vietnam have started building their first nuclear power plants, uranium will certainly be imported by these nations in large quantities whether it comes from Australia or not. China, the world’s fastest growing economy, is scheduled to have 19 new nuclear power stations by 2020.

Moreover, Australia is already the world’s second-largest supplier of uranium. By 2013 the existing Olympic Dam mine will be the largest on earth.

In these circumstances the ‘no new mines’ policy is nonsense.

As the exporter of one fifth of all mined uranium, and with 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, Australia can be in a position to exert significant control over the conditions in which uranium is used - to avoid nuclear weapons proliferation and other negative consequences. Senator Faulkner and friends would have these conditions set by less scrupulous suppliers. They would also rob the nation of significant wealth and employment opportunities - to the value of $500 million a year and rising.

According to Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review, ‘Faulkner has made it clear he doesn’t want a change in uranium policy, but also that he doesn't want the presidency vote to become a proxy for a uranium vote …’ Be that as it may, this issue will stir vast numbers of Labor’s rank and file to vote for, and probably elect, him. As Tingle says, ‘most people think Faulkner will romp in‘. This is a result of Labor’s fundamental organisational weakness: the demographic imbalance of local branches, which, as we argued previously, are controlled disproportionately by social activists at the expense of routine workers.

‘He is held in exceptionally high esteem by the party's rank and file‘, writes Tingle, ‘who still regard themselves as true believers and think of Faulkner as one of the few figures in the party who actually is a true believer …’ It’s a shame the activists stole this title from the party’s traditional manual workers. Still, the real question is not whether the activists should be called true believers, but whether anything they believe is true.

 TNC  17 September 2006                  Like to respond?                                      Top