Breathing the haunted air
Richard Di Natale and the ideological roots of pragmatism


The surprise election of Victorian GP and relative political newcomer Richard Di Natale to the leadership of the Australian Greens caused a certain amount of consternation in Canberra: in the press gallery because the transition was achieved with a minimum of fuss, and among the party faithful because it was achieved with a minimum of discussion. But while the media discuss the lack of fuss and the rank-and-file fuss about the lack of discussion, the question of what Di Natale’s election means for the Greens, and for Australian politics more generally, remains unclear. The sense is that the transition from Christine Milne to Di Natale is a development of greater political consequence than the transition from Bob Brown to Milne in 2012. As yet, no very firm idea of what this development may entail has materialised.

One emphasis has emerged as dominant, however, and looks likely to become the political mood music to which any future changes in policy will be set. In interviews, Di Natale has so far come across as pragmatic and even a little conservative; he is down on what we might call the politics of politics, preferring to concentrate on “real issues” (an expedient line to take, incidentally, when you’ve just been parachuted into the top job). He is in politics, he says, to get things done, not to grind an ideological axe. Indeed, he has little time for “ideology”. “I am not an ideologue” he declared at a press conference shortly after his election to the leadership. Later in the day, on the ABC, he turned his guns on the current administration: “They are a deeply ideological government.” Clearly an “ideological government” is something it is not good to be.

It is always difficult to know what politicians mean by “ideology” and “ideological”. My sense is that when they use these words they are describing a set of framing ideas, a sort of rigid philosophical template into which policy will be placed and, if necessary, squeezed. To this extent, when something is ideological it is, by implication, unworldly or impractical, the enemy of “pragmatism”. The ideologue is more concerned with political purity than with issues that matter to “real people”.

This is certainly a legitimate usage of the word; but ideology can also refer to the taken-for-granted assumptions that obtain in a society at a time, to the distortions of thought inevitable in a society set up along certain lines. In his book The Liberal Imagination (1949), the literary critic Lionel Trilling provided an unimprovable definition of this second meaning:

Ideology is not ideas; ideology is not acquired by thought but by breathing the haunted air. The life in ideology, from which none of us can wholly escape, is a strange submerged life of habit and semi-habit in which to ideas we attach strong passions but no very clear awareness of the concrete reality of their consequences.

For Marxists, this second meaning of ideology is identical with what Friedrich Engels termed “false consciousness”: it denotes the beliefs and attitudes that prevent the exploited labouring classes from seeing the reality of their situation, from recognising their exploitation. Marx’s proposed answer to this situation, communism, would spell the end of ideology; false consciousness would give way to class consciousness and man would at last inherit the earth. Ideology would give way to reality.

That this idea degenerated into one of the world’s most rigid ideologies (in the non-Trilling sense) is thus one of history’s most bitter ironies – one that led eventually to its effective demise as a political concept. For the collapse of communism in the early 1990s was a defeat not only for communist ideology in the sense of a rigid set of ideas, but also for the philosophical idea of ideology that gave rise to it. Since communist ideology was now defunct, it followed that its arch-enemy, capitalism, was not the generator of false consciousness Marx had always assumed it to be; it was life as it must be, ideology’s absence – a natural state of affairs, more or less. Thus commentators began to talk of “the end of ideology” (and even “the end of history”), while “third way” politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (and, in Australia, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating) began to strut their centrist stuff. Politics, once a clash of worldviews, became merely a problem of management.

This is, I accept, a crude sketch. But my point is that the politics of pragmatism, of anti-ideology, has a history, and that it is in many ways deeply ideological. For while no one on the left – at least no one with any sense – has any nostalgia for communism, the idea that capitalism is history’s final say, that it entails no “false consciousness”, is patently absurd. Moreover, it’s a short step from accepting this idea to deciding that the electorate must always be right, that its values are not to be challenged but reflected. In that case, pragmatism is tantamount to saying, “Tell me where you want to go and, by God, I’ll lead you there!” It is a way of getting into power without the effort of changing people’s minds.

On the same day that Di Natale was elected, the ALP released its draft platform, in readiness for its national conference in July. This document appears to leave open the possibility of an endorsement of the government’s “sovereign borders” policy and, as such, is yet another bloody nose for the party’s increasingly disillusioned left wing. This “ideological” wing of the party is understandably angry about the ALP’s immigration policy – a policy, we may remember, cobbled together by a dysfunctional and embittered former prime minister who, after a long and barely secret campaign of destabilisation against his own party’s leadership, attempted to reinsert himself into the Lodge by running against Tony Abbott from the right on the most sensitive issue in Australia at that time. This filthy episode in Labor’s history was, I suppose, pragmatic in two senses: one, it reproduced, and even honed, the Coalition’s vulgar logic of deterrence; and, two, it was popular with that section of voters whose support Kevin Rudd needed to win in order to avoid a crushing defeat. I don’t think for a moment that Di Natale will change his position on mandatory detention (in an interview with Patricia Karvelas he set out his position in no uncertain terms: ‘If you’ve got a five year-old in detention it doesn’t matter what the problem is, you’ve got the wrong solution”), but he should prepare himself for the charge that will inevitably be made by his political enemies – namely that on this issue, as on others, the Greens lack the “pragmatism” it takes to be a ruling party.

My worry is that all this talk of pragmatism, of non-ideology, is preparing the Greens to change ships on a falling tide. With the global financial crisis it became clear (even to many conservative commentators) that the idea of “the end of ideology” was absurd, that capitalism is in many respects utopian and delusional. That is why, in Europe and elsewhere, old hatreds and ideologies are re-emerging. Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the National Front in France, UKIP in the UK: all of these extremist right-wing parties are doing very well indeed, thank you, out of the chaos caused by the GFC. The one ideology that seems to have gone missing, with a couple of very striking exceptions, is democratic socialism. Now is not the time, I would suggest, for progressive parties to come over all coy.

The Greens have always looked a bit, well, green. They can seem unworldly, even naïve. But their “unworldliness” is also part of their strength. They look unworldly because they know in their hearts that the world is not a rational place; that the economic system we have is disastrous for the environment and unfair to the people who have to live in it; that it is wicked to allow capital to globalise itself (even to the extent of choosing its own tax rates) but treat poor people who try to do the same as criminals to be locked up in shitty camps. I’m not arguing for a splendid isolation. But it would, I think, be unwise to be cowed by the jeers of those who call this attitude, or set of attitudes, “ideological” and, as such, irrelevant to ordinary, pragmatic Australians. Di Natale has spoken of his determination to represent “progressive mainstream values”. Well, he will have to say what he means; and in a great many cases he will have to decide how much relative weight to attach to those two, ill-assorted adjectives. 

Richard King

Richard King is a freelance writer based in Fremantle. He is the author of On Offence. His website is The Bloody Crossroads