New collection of essays explores the needed Left Turn

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left
Edited by Antony Loewenstein & Jeff Sparrow
Melbourne University Press, 2012
RRP $32.99

In the past few years, the world economy has fallen into its deepest crisis for eight decades with no end in sight, shocked scientists have reported new evidence the climate is changing quicker than feared and opinion polls have reflected widespread anger and cynicism with mainstream political parties openly tied to business interests.

There are fewer reasons to be confident of a rosy capitalist future than ever before. Yet in Australia, the left has not made any big political breakthroughs. Business, and politics, as usual seems entrenched.

This is the premise of Left Turn, a new selection of political essays edited by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow. The book is an attempt to launch a wider discussion about the unusual period we’re in, where “crisis stalks the old political order and yet no new alternatives seem possible”.

Loewenstein and Sparrow reflect on the contradiction between the few thousand people who took part in Australia’s Occupy protests last year and the very high public sympathy (up to 69%) for Occupy’s radical message that our economic and political systems have been captured by the richest 1%.

They say Occupy had such wide support because “capitalism’s accomplishments no longer seem distinguishable from its failings … If the times feel apocalyptic, the widespread unease about what’s to come does not translate into an enthusiasm for the status quo, since it’s in this very present that we discern, however dimly, the shape of the future that scares us.”

Loewenstein and Sparrow say this situation demands an alternative to the status quo. Left Turn doesn’t offer a single alternative view, but many.

The selection begins with a sharp analysis of Australia’s climate change dilemma by Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys. They say the mainstream environmental movement’s decision to endorse the Labor government’s carbon trading scheme has led it to become “a cheerleader for an unpopular and ineffectual neoliberal policy”.

Tietze and Humphrys say the better option is the one “most quickly ruled out by politicians [and] also the simplest and most likely to work: a commitment to consciously and collectively plan how society must change to meet this great challenge”.

Jeff Sparrow compares the Occupy movement with the summit-hopping anti-corporate movement that reached its high point 10 years earlier under the slogan “another world is possible”. The anti-corporate movement petered out within a few years, but Sparrow says there are good reasons to think Occupy will have a longer-lasting impact.

He says: “The Occupy Wall Street slogan ‘we are the 99%’ contrasted the immiseration experienced by ordinary people with the spectacular wealth of a tiny minority … It reflected, in other words, an important shift from the movement of 10 years earlier …

“The possibility of another world doesn’t necessarily imply anything about how that world might be created, whereas the recognition of a fundamental divide between neoliberalism’s beneficiaries and its victims has obvious political ramifications.”

Larissa Behrendt remarks on the empty symbolism and top-down paternalism that now dominates the Labor party’s approach to Aboriginal affairs. She says: “The idea of black empowerment that was so central to the politics of the Tent Embassy is still relevant today — and still confronting to governments.”

Tracker managing editor Chris Graham blasts White Australia’s hypocritical obsession with blaming Aboriginal people for creating their own problems: “Aboriginal Australians have no chance of pricking the conscience of a First World nation whose criminal indifference allows a level of violence to be waged against Aboriginal people that has led to a mortality rate equivalent to sheep in a paddock.”

Equal marriage rights activist Rodney Croome challenges the ideas of “progressive” opponents of marriage equality, who say lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people should not campaign for the right to marry because marriage is a conservative and oppressive institution.

“Marriage equality began as a grassroots campaign,” Croome says, “with the demand coming from the bottom not the top, and has often taken professional gay advocates by surprise just as much as established political elites.”

Palestine solidarity campaigner Kim Bullimore explains why the international boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s military occupation is justified and answers the corporate media’s baseless claim that BDS is anti-Jewish.

Guy Rundle looks at how capitalism constantly shapes and reshapes our concept of time and the spatial environment. He urges the left to challenge to the right’s widely-accepted notion that freedom amounts to restricted consumer choices in the supermarket aisle.

Refugee advocate Pamela Curr exposes the grubby politics of fear and panic that defines Australia’s mainstream political debates about the rights of refugees. Tom Bramble examines the Australian labour movement’s militant past for evidence that a new, radical union upsurge is possible today.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon looks back on the past 20 years of the Greens, which has now risen to third party status in Australia. She says the future growth of the party will depend on it holding on to its democratic internal culture: “It is the [Greens] members’ sense of involvement and ownership of the process and policies that lays the basis for success.”

Two essays in Left Turn deliver some stinging attacks on the mainstream media. Antony Loewenstein remarks on the West’s “journalistic and political culture that rewards loyalty to an establishment class without accountability”.

Wendy Bacon says media activists should support and help widen the reach of progressive, alternative media, while still “taking every opportunity to get the message out through the existing media”.

Left Turn also includes essays by novelist Christos Tsiolkas, human rights lawyer Emily Howie, Fear of a Brown Planet comedian Nazeem Hussain, Overland magazine’s Jacinda Woodhead and Marxist academic Rick Kuhn.

The selection of essays in Left Turn is broad enough that all readers across the left spectrum — from reformers to revolutionaries — will find at least something to agree with. The essays are lively, well-written and often provocative.

Put together, Left Turn is an important contribution from people serious about building a left alternative to a social system that today concentrates 40% of the world’s wealth in the hands of just 500 corporations, while it condemns billions of people to miserable poverty.

Tags: anti-corporate Cultural Dissent