Toughen up, princess
Why is Mark Latham so obsessed with mental illness?

Mark Latham is a man of rare abilities. Not many of those abilities are positive, but that doesn’t stop them from being impressive. Few people, for example, can make left-wingers reminisce about the reign of John Howard with gratitude, or make them feel sorry for Chris Kenny. But Latham’s strongest super-villain power is to make other hacks write about him. It’s one I feel myself resisting right now. After all, I’m late to the party, and the police have already been called.

And if Latham’s latest column (you know, the one about mental illness being a government hoax) was just the usual tired goading, or an exercise in projection by old Mr Stability, then I wouldn’t stick the key into this sticky wicket. But this piece wasn’t just announcing his induction as a full-time trollumnist. It’s also something more significant: his final transformation from thirdwayism to classical liberalism. Sure, that’s now a transition akin to falling out of a first-storey window, but for a time Mark Latham was one of the most detailed thinkers about Third Way politics in the world. Sadly, we must pay attention.

Distance can breed prodigies. You can make the case that modern “competition socialism” was invented in Australia under the ALP, the same way that punk rock was born in Brisbane. Arriving after Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Latham tried to add the theory to the practice, and the result was Civilising Global Capital. Now he’s left politics, he’s become less and less interested in the “civilising” part, and more of an unfettered fan of the other bits. The sections of The Political Bubble that aren’t about Gerard Henderson are a mash note to the market, and its policy prescriptions not far from an Institute of Public Affairs wish list.

The emancipatory power of capitalism for the working class has always been a strain in Mark Latham’s thinking; now it’s a crescendo. His lunch interview with Andrew Bolt sounded like it was going to end with the two of them booking a hotel room. He has fully converted to the idea that government should get out of the way of the market, and that educated workers can thrive as nimble, free-transforming agents in a global economy, a process society has already begun. Completing it is just destiny.

But one of the great mysteries for Latham is why people haven’t responded to this liberation with more confidence. This is the “paradox” he details in the column: “Even though a high proportion of people are living lives of comfort, the political class wants us to believe we’re a bunch of headcases.” Specifically, he rejects the idea that the conditions of deregulation and globalisation make workers uneasy because they erode community, certainty about employment, human connection and control over their circumstances.

People in the West might report lower life satisfaction than those living on dumps in Nicaragua, but for Latham this anxiety is a phantasm. It’s not conditional but conditioned, propagated by ideological and institutional voices that scare voters for political ends. He’s now expanded that critique to psychology in the medical sense. The left (and statist conservatives) are now forced to make people feel more anxious about their circumstances than they really are. Because otherwise, what are they for?

Right now, elements of both left and right are dealing with this anxiety (a Marxist could call it alienation) in more explicit ways. On the fringes of the right, from Red Toryism all the way to France’s Front National, the response is a return to sovereignty, family certainty and a moral social order, usually driven by religion. On the left, you see it in ideas about a “real” sharing economy, efforts to find union alternatives to organising, and the remains of the Occupy movement. These are very different, often antithetical, but there’s enough shared concern over the problem that even Nigel Farage and Russell Brand can find some common ground.

There might even be some long shadows here of the old semi-alliance between the nobility and the working class against the merchant class. You can see it, for example in radical left and paleo-conservative criticisms of “commercialism”. It’s part of the reason why Latham sets himself against both inner-city types and old-school Tories. It’s not just exaggerated tribal identification with his working-class roots, it’s also hostility to the groups most concerned about alienation – which Latham believes they are not responding to, but creating themselves. His new ideological pose is something like Tory anarchism, driven by a palpable delight in the market’s power to smash the stuffy existing order.

It’s also why he has so much in common with his sworn enemy Nick Cater, whose anti-elitism is really an exaltation of the mercantile class. Both believe entrepreneurial confidence is the antidote for Western society’s chronic pussyitis, that we’d all be fine if it wasn’t for weepy human rights organisations and art-house movies. For both, this brand of confidence is also explicitly male.

It also seems that Latham applies this confidence in the personal as well as the business sense. This robustness is more than just provocation. It’s his way of saying, “Toughen up, princess, and get ready to compete in the global economy”. Which dovetails nicely with his long-standing commitment to being, ah, cantankerous.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US Correspondent and Contributing Editor. He is also The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.

@rgcooke

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