There is no Left
A figment of the Right's imagination
In July, incoming senator James McGrath became the latest Liberal Party politician to accuse the ABC of bias. “While it continues to represent only inner-city leftist views, and funded by our taxes, it is in danger of losing its social licence to operate.” His most senior colleague, Tony Abbott, told the Australian Financial Review while he was opposition leader that “there is still this left-of-centre ethos in the ABC”. Last year, Cory Bernardi launched an impassioned attack on the national broadcaster in a party-room meeting, reportedly calling it “a taxpayer-funded behemoth that is cannibalising commercial media while spreading a message that ignores the majority views of Australians”.
A belief that the ABC is biased toward the “left” is an article of faith among the Right that emerged during and after the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution. Bias is now assumed by a small army of media commentators, including Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Peter Reith, Gerard Henderson, Alan Jones, Piers Akerman, Greg Sheridan, Sharri Markson, Judith Sloan, Tom Switzer, Paul Kelly, Niki Savva, Nick Cater, Chris Kenny, etc, etc.
The main problem with the theory that the ABC has a left-wing bias is that it’s not true. None of the neverending stream of independent reviews commissioned by both the ABC and governments from time to time has ever found bias.
To qualify as a “leftist” for Bolt, one must believe at least one of the following heresies: that climate change is happening and man-made; that the Stolen Generations exist; that minorities should be protected from bigotry; that companies should be restricted from selling harmful food products to consumers on the free market; that governments should go into debt during downturns or times of slow growth; that experiences of Indigenous people should be incorporated into the narratives of Australian history; that education should promote critical thought; that governments should support education, health care and public broadcasting out of general revenue; that social security is a vitally important safety net; that taxes should be progressive and redistributive; that prison should be used only rarely; that employees should be entitled to minimum wages and conditions, and penalty rates for long or irregular hours; that drug use should be decriminalised; that fossil fuel-based energy should be replaced by renewable energy sources; that the powers and activities of police, security and intelligence organisations should be kept in check and subject to scrutiny; that most government information should be freely available; that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry; that the power of governments and corporations should be limited and subject to scrutiny; that the rights of people seeking asylum should be protected; that Australia should be a multicultural community. Together, this is broadly the policy platform of the Australian Greens – a political party the Right describes as “extreme”.
“Extreme” – or just evidence-based and respectful? Most of the positions in the above paragraph are standard positions based on the best available evidence in respective fields – climate science, history, nutrition science, economics, pedagogy, criminology. Even the idea that governments should invest in preventive health and public education is an uncontroversial conclusion based on economic evidence that governments get a substantial return from investment in these areas – unlike defence, which is often a sunk cost. The above positions on same-sex marriage and asylum seekers and multiculturalism are based on a philosophy of respecting and empathising with people who have come from backgrounds and had experiences different to one’s own.
Labelling these positions “left-wing” is akin to labelling scientific and sociological research as a leftist activity, and compassion and empathy as leftist impulses. This side of the Enlightenment, that’s patently ridiculous.
Not that the ABC or the universities, for instance, can be said to preach these views, or even hold them to the exclusion of all others. What the ABC does, uncommonly among broadcasters in Australia, is allow the space for the discussion of secular and humanist ideas in rational ways. It also allows space for the discussion of non-secular, conservative and dogmatic views, including occasionally socialism and capitalism, though nearly always in a pluralistic framework. The universities do largely the same thing. The Right curiously marginalises itself by calling this kind of pluralism left-wing. Are we to assume the Right wants dogma instead?
The Right in the inappropriately named Liberal Party and its media cheer-squad, however, often take strong positions against the evidence base, and in favour of so-called “conservative” ideas that in practice stigmatise and marginalise people who aren’t causing anybody any harm. Global warming isn’t happening and, if it is, it’s a natural event. The carbon “tax” wasn’t working and it was costing jobs. No Indigenous child was ever stolen for “purely racist” reasons. The responsibility for healthy eating choices rests with individuals, and for children’s choices, with parents. Government budgets should always be in surplus, so downturns should be met with austerity – and Australia’s current budget deficit represents a crisis. We’re spending too much on health and education. Schools should teach children about the achievements of western civilisation, “Judeo-Christian culture”, British settlers and the Australian nation. Welfare recipients are probably bludgers, or “leaners”. Taxes should be regressive and should “reward hard work”. More criminals should go to jail to keep the community safer. Coal should continue to power Australia’s energy needs and its exports. Nobody who has nothing to hide should be worried about more powers for ASIO. Marriage is between a man and a woman.
Many of these positions, when they inform policy, actively cause harm, socially or to the environment. Many ignore lessons of history and research. They’re based on a set of values that are clearly out of step with our best knowledge about human behaviour and the world around us.
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Our values inform our theories of human behaviour and social relations, and our theories in turn become the “frames of reference” we use to understand and analyse other people’s statements or behaviour. If we’re not careful, we can misinterpret another person’s motivations entirely, by applying to them our own frame of reference. Psychologists call this “projection”.
The “Left” that the right complains about – a small, self-interested, influential but out-of-touch and loopy elite that’s engaged in a fierce battle of ideas in the pursuit of weird policy outcomes – doesn’t actually exist. If there’s a group of people that could be described in that way, it’s not “leftists”. It’s the Right.
Those of the Right assume that people who disagree with them are engaged in a similar, explicitly ideological project. Very often, they’re not. Very often, “leftists” are climate scientists, nutritionists, historians, researchers, social workers, teachers, lawyers, humanists. When they intervene in a public debate on the side of the evidence, they often disagree with the Right’s project – and are attacked and/or dismissed as “leftists”.
When Joe Hockey, Gerard Henderson and Judith Sloan establish themselves as unswervingly “pro-business”, they align themselves with the private interests of corporations – and often against the private interests of employees (in industrial relations disputes), or the public interest in environmental protection, nutritious food and relative social equality. When they establish the maximisation of shareholder returns as the highest value, they see people with different, pro-social values – people for whom the maximisation of shareholder returns has nasty consequences in terms of health and job security – and dismiss them as “left-wing”.
When Andrew Bolt and George Brandis establish themselves as unambiguously in favour of the free expression of bigotry, they align themselves with the private interests of racists, against the private interests of their victims and the public interest in multicultural harmony. When they establish the freedom of bigoted speech as the highest value, they see people with different values and dismiss them as “left-wing”.
The frame of reference the Right uses is self-interest, based on rational choice theory, the theory of human nature that informs economic rationalism. So when the Right sees unions pushing for better pay and conditions for their workers, it sees their activities through the frame of self-interest – and assumes rent-seeking. (The right remains oblivious to, or approving of, the far more prevalent rent-seeking behaviour among corporations.) When the Right is confronted by scientists and governments urging reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, it assumes rent-seeking and goes looking for possible motives. Do the scientists benefit through career advancement? In grant applications?
I’m not suggesting there’s no rent-seeking in unions, that there’s no self-interest in ABC journalists protesting against budget cuts. But the modern Right sees only self-interest through its myopic frame of reference, and dismisses any evidence of alternative values as either deceptive or “extreme”.
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There are senses in which the “Left” can be said to exist, of course. The theory of communist socialism after 1848 and especially 1917 dominated an explicitly left-wing agenda for much of the 20th century, with terrible consequences wherever its proponents took the power of the state. When the modern Right complains about “leftists”, it’s as if it’s still fighting the Cold War. But for practical purposes this communist Left doesn’t exist anymore in Australia, and hasn’t for at least 40 years.
There’s an even older Left. The democratic ideas the French commoners propagated in 1789 were “left-wing”, if only because they sat on the left of the Estates General and demanded a National Assembly. “Left” politics came to be associated with the challenge to illegitimate power and privilege.
If this challenge is what the Right objects to when it dismisses scientists, researchers and humanists as “leftists”, then surely that exposes its own project as illegitimate. Surely we’re all democrats now? Even if a pro-democracy, pro-equality attitude could have been described in 1789 (or 1989) as “left-wing”, it’s now being demonstrated – through the work of social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, among others – that policies that encourage greater levels of equality within societies actually do generate both material and intangible benefits for everyone.
If a Left exists in Australia at all, now, it’s simply as a shorthand description of those who don't agree with the prescriptions of the modern Right, which seems primarily interested in reversing many of the intellectual and democratic gains of recent decades and centuries and restoring and confining power and privilege to the few rather than the many. To be labelled “left-wing” by the modern Right is probably an endorsement that one’s ideas are sound.
In the end, the Left exists largely in the Right's own mind – as a straw man onto which to project its delusional and self-interested chatter.
Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015).
In July, incoming senator James McGrath became the latest Liberal Party politician to accuse the ABC of bias. “While it continues to represent only inner-city leftist views, and funded by our taxes, it is in danger of losing its social licence to operate.” His most senior colleague, Tony Abbott, told the Australian Financial Review while he was opposition leader that “there is still this left-of-centre ethos in the ABC”. Last year, Cory Bernardi launched an...
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