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Why we’ll never see the likes of Tony Abbott again

Crikey logo Crikey 7/10/2022 Guy Rundle
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Your correspondent made the decision not to attend last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference Australia (CPAC), and judging by Cam Wilson’s excellent report, it appears to have been a good choice.

My memory of these is that they’re funny for about 90 minutes, and then the grey, sludgy wall of the speakers’ obsessions and delusions — and above all their focus on the left — starts to overwhelm you. 

But I would have liked to see Tony Abbott in full flight, telling the faithful that the times would once again suit them because they were, after all, right. The old Abbott, the one who looks like a man assembled from cuts of meat, like an animatronic butcher’s shop window. 

The ironies encase the man. He will probably live to 100 because every time he had to do something boring — like read and master a policy document — he’d jump on his bike and ride 130km. During all those decades, he’ll get to contemplate whether he would now still be prime minister had he read those damn briefs. 

The return of the right is for Abbott the return of Tony. He has a Churchill narrative in his head that there will be a time of crisis when he is called back to the despatch box, and the ghastly comic failure of his premiership will then become mere prelude, a man ahead of his time. 

But Churchill had been a soldier, a commander, he ran the British Navy, was chancellor of the greatest empire in the world and was a brutal class warrior in the era of great class struggle. Tony was a right-wing uni activist — back when that meant protesting student stalls that gave out the pill and pro-Khmer Rouge literature — and, after a footling career as a journalist, a professional politician. 

His entire career has been spent in a polity that’s going steadily rightward in economic matters — from the relatively left position of post-war social democracy — and steadily left-progressive in social and cultural matters.

A few minor pushbacks on either side have not interrupted this general double movement. The underlying logic of both is the relentless acid of individualism (or the ideology of such) eating away at any capacity to assert a collective will by class or group. 

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Those of us on the left hope that the rightward economic process will eventually reach a dialectical crunch point. We are encouraged by something like the British Tory disaster, which brought the British capitalist economy to an unforced general crisis.

Why? Because the crisis came from borrowing to cut revenue in pursuit of growth. In other words, it was a last desperate attempt to fix British capitalism — low productivity, low inward investment, over-financialisation — without making any structural change whatsoever. 

The absolute disaster of this was caused by the belief of the new Tory neo-Thatcherite leadership that the markets would go along with the idea. It has served to do what the left has not been able to do through advocacy itself: make the case for the nationalisation/socialisation of key industries in such a way that the proposals are becoming common sense.

With that comes the idea that the production side of the economy must be attended to directly, not by the circuitous route of hoping that increased demand would somehow magic productivity and structural change into being.

That necessitates pretty much what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had proposed, and really what any advanced capitalist economy is going to have to do: use the state to coordinate private development, fill the perpetual demand hole, start to redistribute towards wages, and judiciously reintroduce new forms of socialised economic activity that reflect the changing nature of technology and capital. 

Such moves are the first stages of post-capitalism, and there is really no other direction for capitalism to go that would be successful.

Its other option, actual fascism and the end of parliamentary democracy in some states may well be tried, but it would simply face the same problems as neoliberal capitalism does now, and it would lack the resources to solve them. You can use terror to run an industrial economy, but not a distributed network-knowledge-consumer one.

So the world Mr Tony wants back — the Thatcherite vision where the “animal spirits” virtue of free-market capitalism is complemented by the integrating effects of state-enforced traditional culture — is gone forever. Imposing the principles of laissez-faire would simply have ensured that thousands of people would freeze to death in their homes this winter, as they did in Russia when laissez-faire was imposed there in the 1990s.

No one has the courage to do it, and there are no new “natural” markets to be efficient for anymore, unless tomorrow we discover Martians with sterling accounts and a desire for Fortnum & Mason tinned pudding.

Even in their chaotic interventions, the Tory neo-Thatcherites conceded that the economy must be considered as a structural systemic whole within which individuals live, rather than the product of virtuous individual action. 

So if that economy is never coming back, what about the traditional culture? Despite the best efforts of the knowledge class’ culture-production elite to impose a culture that no society can sustain for long — self-determined gender and identity, unlimited immigration and indifference to neighbourhood transformation, hatred and disavowal of one’s own cultural heritage — the mass resistance to this only goes so far. 

Mr Tony and others might have been encouraged by the recent and substantially heartfelt mourning of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and the marked return to forms of Christianity in Western society. But a great deal of this is a case of old content filling out new social forms.

The mix of patriotism, collective feeling, gratitude and human destiny that the queen’s passing and funeral stimulated does not translate into a willingness to find the meaning of one’s life in dying on a foreign field, or living humbly in service, as it once did even only a few decades ago. 

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The ceremony and the event filled out something for millions, but it was more than celebrity and less than the fully sacred, somewhere between the Eucharist and the Kardashians, which is where our culture hangs at the moment.

The evangelical Christianity that people are increasingly attracted to — the kookier seven-mountain stuff aside — is largely conducted in the terms of modern, atomised life and the solutions to it. Progressives who rabbit on about “the prosperity gospel” have no idea how simple, daggy and Christocentric most evangelical religion is. Much of it seems to be theologised counselling. 

It certainly has little in common with the Grand Guignol Catholicism that Abbott wants back — a faith with a mystery, majesty and hierarchy to anchor social life. Barring a catastrophic global event that blasts us back to small group life, the social and psychological process we depend upon to make meaning — reflexive thinking, inquiry, self-realisation and desire — will determine how we live.

Even the parties labelled “fascist” have the same position on same-sex marriage now that Julia Gillard did in 2010. It’s not exactly blood, family and altar stuff. The only social group that can ensure its success is arrogant ultra-progressives, using the state to impose their morality. 

How much mythologising we have to live through — around capital and “Make (Country X) Great Again”, around the notion that the concrete and monolithic cultures of the past can return — is not determined.

But sooner or later, what is becoming visible in these crises will have to be acknowledged: that the economy is an abstract system to be reshaped by conscious application, not an expression of individual right; that culture and social life can now only be reshaped by negotiation between multiple value systems.

CPAC is cosplay. But so is a lot of the progressive ultraism, endlessly re-fighting the 1978 Mardi Gras. We will eventually conclude that there is no one but we ourselves making the worlds we live by.

Then our troubles really begin…

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