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National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Book Review

Civilising Global Capital

New Thinking for Australian Labor

by Mark Latham

Sydney, Allen & Unwin, pp.384

This book has received much publicity. It has been put forward as providing an impetus to the Australian Labor Party to adopt new ideas which are both consistent with a process of globalisation that has been taking place and also with historical Labor objectives.

Accordingly this book is based on contradictions. On the one hand lip-service is paid to Labor traditions. The foreword is written by Gough Whitlam, possibly the least successful prime minister since the Second World War. Reciprocal comments by the author include a reference to "the great era of Gough Whitlam's reforms and the triumphs of the Hawke and Keating Governments". On the other hand there is a message that financial globalisation the breaking down of all barriers to the international movement of money and resources is a desirable process, to be supported by a modern Labor Party.

The author's thesis is set out thus:

"This is a book about transition: the changing role of government as society drifts from the industrial to the informative age; the changing role of Labor as it adapts its methods to the global sphere of capital; and the challenges faced by social democracy in dealing with the changing nature of work, welfare and society."

In this regard he refers to a "new radical centre": the policy prescriptions of the old Left and Right dichotomy have been abandoned as unsuitable during a time of globalisation and widespread insecurity: "They have been replaced by the constitution of a new social consensus around the values of responsibility, reward for effort , devaluation and the interdependence of society." Referring approvingly to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, he remarks that the "new radical centre" is formed "by moving to the centre of the old Left/Right spectrum and, most critically, lifting [scil., rising] above this plane of politics through the expression of new and radical social values".

The author's approach reflects a strategy of many former parties of the left, which have seen their ideological foundations disappear with the failure in many parts of the world of communist and socialist regimes. This strategy is so general that its consequences are unpredictable and, indeed, depend on the "new and radical social values" chosen and on the accuracy of the understanding of the facts to which it is sought to apply them.

But it may be asked, how, with this fundamental change in policy, can the British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party fairly include a word such as "Labor" in their titles? The answer may be, not at all. The new Blair Labour Party, and the Hawke-Keating-Beazley Labor Party in Australia have very little to do with labour, their traditional base. By their new party policies, the justification for their description as "Labor" Parties has gone. Whereas in the past such parties have often appropriately represented the interests of those who have provided labour, not only do they not do so any longer, but they do not even claim to do so. It may perhaps therefore be regarded as fraudulent to retain the use of the words "Labour" or "Labor".

What is also remarkable is the uncritical haste with which the new "Labor" parties have embraced global rationalism. Under Hawke and Keating, for example, large reductions in tariffs were set in motion and a free movement of capital was authorized. A consequence has been the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Australia, particularly for blue-collar workers who traditionally constituted the Labor Party's main electoral support.

Advocates of globalisation dismiss out of hand such questions as the following. If Australia preserved, say, a twenty per cent tariff, would not many Australian industries be prevented from closing down? Would not many jobs be preserved? Without tariffs, and with relentless competition, should Australian workers be required to work extraordinarily long hours at extraordinarily low rates, as do Chinese and other Asians? American, Japanese and European industries have extraordinary economies of scale; can Australian industries be expected to compete without tariffs? If by reason of tariffs consumers paid slightly more for some goods, would that not be justified in view of higher Australian employment, especially amongst the young? And is it really true, as is sometimes alleged, that when on the removal of tariffs many "uncompetitive" industries close, those industries will be wholly or even largely replaced by other "competitive" industries?

These questions are not answered satisfactorily by the author, who to a large extent has assumed the correctness of most of the globalisation arguments that are generally put forward today, particularly by United States interests.

I.C.F. Spry

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999