Quick Post: On how @prestontowers’ ‘The Link’ shows what’s wrong with politics #auspol

Over on AusOpinion, Preston Towers suggests a new political party called ‘The Link’ (link broken):

The Link would be a wholly more positive and welcoming name for a new party with a new approach to advocating a progressive line of thought.

The policies of The Link would be unashamedly “leftist” and be unfettered by the compromises and pragmatism that parties like the Greens and the ALP have had to negotiate over the past few years.  I can’t imagine The Link would ever go into a coalition with a Major Party in the way the Greens have in Canberra and Tasmania.  That would help their policy purity considerably. [Source]

‘Unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’.  Right.  Because that’s what we need, yet another party ‘unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’.  Over on Twitter, he qualifies the merit of his new party:

But within this short sketch of a proposal is a problem that reflects broader issues within Australian politics.  What does it mean to be ‘unashamedly “leftist”‘?

Let’s start elsewhere on the Internet and wind our way back.  Over on The Drum, there is a — quite frankly — weird and demented piece by Grant Wyeth which reads like a checklist of pseudo-intellectual commentary:

In mainstream political discourse we talk about ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, or ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’, as political groups, hanging on to antiquated notions of consistent political ideas, but in fact it is becoming increasingly evident that these are now simply cultural groups. […]

For the ‘Left’ we have positions that fall under the umbrella of socially liberal and economically interventionist. For the ‘Right’ it is the binary opposite: socially conservative and economically liberal. Regardless of the outcomes they produce these are the standpoints of the tribe.

As a result public debate has now become an endless game of Pong, where these two cultural groups simply expel rhetoric into public space to be rejected by the other. The suspicion between the two cultural groups is so strong, that if one iterates a position then the other simply claims the opposite must be the truth.

Persuasive arguments aren’t worth communicating because there is little intention of them being considered. Greater comprehension or even conversion are not motives. The objective is solely about expressing one’s outrage at topic du jour. [Source]

What Wyeth misses in his rush to sound clever is that his thesis is internally incoherent.  First, what distinguishes a ‘political’ group from a ‘cultural’ group?  Strictly, aren’t political groups a subset of cultural groups?  Wyeth is trying to say something deeper: that the political aspects are less relevant to the commentary than the cultural aspects.  The ‘endless game of Pong’ arises from rejection of whatever position the other ‘side’ has espoused, says Wyeth, but this leaves open the question of who makes the opening assertion and on what grounds they make that assertion.  In other words, even if our politics is about reacting to our opponents’ P with a reflexive not-P, we still have the question of P’s origin.

Had Wyeth been sharper, he would have realised that he had a few options available to him.  Importantly, he could have said that our politics was becoming increasingly about people rather than about ideas.  Thus, whatever Bob Brown says is a ‘Left’ position and whatever Tony Abbott says is a ‘Right’ position.  In the game of affected authenticity, we express views that we think our political heroes and peers would wish us to say and this shapes our categorisation of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.  Indeed, this is the best way to understand why the ‘Left’ wanted a market-based strategy for carbon emissions, but the ‘Right’ did not.

It also affects our categorisation of other political terms.  I explored the issue of Melinda Tankard Reist — who is pro-life — being a feminist here.

It even affects our ability to evaluate and understand political arguments.  The asylum seeker debate is one of those areas which is heavily influenced by the affectation of authenticity — even to the point that people from the Refugee Action Coalition appear in the comments to my posts declaring that I should be better informed of the ‘facts’, by which they mean their ideological assertions.

The cure to this malaise is capital-T Theory.  We start to talk about the deeper philosophy that goes behind our relevant positions.  We grapple with how we use intuitions and ideology to frame conversations that are favourable to us.

And thus we return to Preston Towers’s proposal.  What does it mean for his proposed party to be ‘unashamedly “Leftist”‘?  He provides five possible policy platforms, one of which was ‘Equality’:

Equality.  One of the biggest philosophical cores for The Link would be Equality – whether it be social, economic, access, accepting asylum seekers or in terms of marriage. It would act as the main driving force for recruiters and policy.   The challenge for The Link would be how to pursue equality while negotiating within the existing political infrastructure.   Many in The Link would be advocating for a Change in the system, to get away from the current economic strictures of things like the Wages Accord – to the extent where some would argue that the Accord was a terrible thing for the Working Class, even though it was negotiated by members of that class.   Would certainly make for lively policy discussions.  [Source]

‘Accepting asylum seekers’ is part of the ‘equality’ package?

This should cause us to think deeply about what it means to use the word ‘equality’.  Here are two hypothetical people using the word:

Prima: I believe in equality.  I think that everybody should have a fair go which is why I support policies which help disadvantaged minorities get into university.

Secunda: I believe in equality.  I think that everybody should have a fair go which is why I support making racially based university entrance policies illegal.

Both are talking about affirmative action and both are using the word ‘equality’ coherently.  Our reaction is to say to the person with whom we disagree: ‘Oh, you’re using the word “equality” incorrectly.  You should use it the way that preferences my interpretation of the world.’

[REDACTED: Lengthy essay about Hegel]

‘Equality’ is only an ‘unashamedly “Leftist”‘ principle when you use the word ‘equality’ in a particular way.  In the current state of discourse, that way is ‘Such that it results in positions advocated by the people that I identify as being “Left”‘.

This isn’t a problem unique to Preston Towers.  No, no.  Far from it.  We saw the same thing happen when Kevin Rudd said that asylum seeker policy was ‘lurching to the right’.  What did that mean?  It didn’t mean anything; it was just an appeal to people who identified as ‘Left’.

What we need in Australia is not yet another party which describes itself as ‘Left’.  What we need in Australia is a party that comes out and connects ordinary voters with what it means for a party to be progressive, or conservative, or libertarian, or socialist, or Tory, or communist, or fascist, or whatever.  We need a party that has the genuine courage to be something.  We need a party that has the intellectual chops to define the political landscape and give people the language they need to express their own political views.

Alas, it’s way easier to just declare ‘Hi, Lefties.  We’re Left too’ and call it a day.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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