Number 982


Michael Gawenda was the editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne from 1997 until 2004. He is currently a Fellow of University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, after serving as the inaugural Director of the Centre in 2009. After finishing school, he studied economics and politics, then he moved to Papua New Guinea to work as an economist. He returned to Australia in 1970 after deciding that economics wasn’t the career path for him.

An internship at The Age in 1970 led to a 37 year career in which Michael rose to become the Editor in Chief in 2003. Along the way, he was awarded three Walkley Awards and was a feature writer, news writer and foreign correspondent. The Age endorsed the Liberal Party in the 2004 federal election while Gawenda was Editor in Chief — something that was condemned by Crikey at the time. Ironically by 2009, Gawenda was writing the Rocky and Gawenda blog for Crikey.

All in all, Michael Gawenda is respected in his profession and has made an outstanding contribution to Australian life. Gawenda is also a refugee. Gawenda’s family are of Polish descent and Michael Gawenda was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria in 1947. His family arrived in Australia three years later and lived with his father’s cousin. You can read his personal account of early life in Australia here on the Refugee Council’s website.

Most Australians have heard of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The scheme was a result of the Curtin Government’s ‘populate or perish’ policy, designed to protect Australia from invasion by Japan. Briefly, adults from any Commonwealth country could gain passage to Australia for the sum of ten pounds — accompanying children were free. While the policy was changed over the years to increase the level of skill required, as well as to allow entry for immigrants from other European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, the policy of increasing the population of this country for economic and security benefits continued, supported by both ALP and Coalition governments.

The scheme’s peak year was 1969 when more than 80,000 people immigrated to Australia using assisted passage arrangements and, while it is estimated that approximately one quarter of those that immigrated returned to their country of origin, ‘Ten Pound Poms’ have made a significant contribution to Australian life. Some of the better known assisted immigrants include Tony Abbott (current prime minister), Julia Gillard (past prime minister), The Bee Gees (musicians and song writers), Noni Hazlehurst (actor), Alan Bond (businessman), Frank Tyson (English test cricketer) and Harold Larwood (English test cricketer of ‘bodyline’ fame). In addition, actor/musician Kylie Minogue’s mother, and the parents of both Whitlam government minister Al Grassby and actor Hugh Jackman, were also assisted immigrants.

Tony Le Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1968. Le Nguyen has worked as an actor, writer, director and producer — as well as being the first official Vietnamese Australian to be appointed as a Prison Visitor in Victoria. He had a role in Romper Stomper as well as a number of other Australian productions as varied as GP, Fast Forward, Stingers and Sea Change. Le Nguyen founded the Australian Vietnamese Youth Media in 1994 and has directed a number of community and professional productions since then.

Le Nguyen’s father was a teacher and interpreter working for the South Vietnamese government. The family made two attempts to escape from Vietnam using unsuitable boats and spent some in refugee camps in south-east Asia. In 1979, his family was accepted for resettlement in Australia. You can read his personal account of the struggle to live in Vietnam, leave Vietnam, and life in Australia on the Refugee Council’s website.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is a hip and knee orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney. You may have seen some media coverage recently when he used a pioneering technique to ‘install’ artificial limbs. The Australian Women’s Weekly told the story of Mitch Grant in the November 2013 issue and the News Limited Sunday papers recently carried an article regarding his work with Michael Swain, a British veteran of the Afghanistan War. In both cases Dr Al Muderis affixed posts to the remaining stumps of legs and connected the artificial limb to the post. This ensured that artificial limbs would not be subject to the customary problems where the artificial limb rubs or doesn’t make contact with the remaining natural limb. In Michael Swain’s case, he arrived in Sydney in a wheelchair but walked down the aerobridge when it was time to return to London.

As you have probably deduced by now, Munjed Al Muderis is also a refugee — in this case from Iraq, where he was ordered as a junior surgeon to cut the ears off people accused of crimes against the Hussein government. His website has a biography and gives some detail of his experiences in becoming a world-renowned surgeon. His story is also told in the article that discusses Michael Swain — who is due to receive an MBE from the Queen in April 2014 and ‘walk down the aisle’ in June.

Dr Al Muderis is the ‘Number 982’ that heads this piece — that was his number at the Curtin ‘Detention’ Centre and all that he was called by the authorities when incarcerated there for ten months.

Humans have basic needs for shelter, food, security, protection and stability. Maslow’s Theory suggests that once basic needs such as food and shelter are met, humans will seek security, protection and stability. It is questionable that a human’s food and shelter needs are met if they are living under a government that is punishing families, as demonstrated by the narratives of Michael Gawenda, Tony Le Nguyen or Munjed Al Muderis. Those responsible for the decision to become refugees demonstrated their basic desire for food, shelter, protection and stability — as did a majority of those who emigrated to Australia in the past 40,000 years. To suggest that asylum seekers or refugees is solely an Australian problem is ludicrous. The UNHCR reports that Australia received 15,998 refugees in 2012 — 3% of the world total.

Most the people named in this piece are immigrants to Australia, as are the rest of us — regardless of whether we walked off an Airbus A380 last week or our ancestors walked across a land-bridge from Asia 40,000 years ago. We have all in our own way contributed to the vibrant, clever and prosperous country that we call home. Those people detailed above are a small sample of those that made significant contributions to our country — far outweighing any assistance the country gave immigrants to start their lives here. For the majority of the twentieth century Australia actively sought people to immigrate here through refugee programs, the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme and the resettlement of some 200,000 people, mostly from Asia, in the period 1975 to 1982, including 2,059 ‘boat people’. Yet in the twenty-first century we have a prime minister that got to power partly using the mantra of ‘stop the boats’.

Not that the ALP is blameless here. Since Keating introduced ‘detention’ centres, there has been a considerable amount of ‘me-too-ism’ in the policies of both major political parties in this country in regard to assisting refugees from all parts of the world who are seeking asylum in this country. Howard’s Coalition government seems to have managed the Tampa Affair, when a Norwegian ship picked up some refugees and attempted to land them on Australian soil, only to be refused, to maximise his Government’s vote.

Since then there has been a number of efforts to make various Government’s look ‘tough’ on border protection, usually at the expense of refugees. The Australian Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard was no more humanitarian than the LNP under Howard and Abbott. They all saw the potential for votes and have competed in this race to the bottom in abysmal treatment to fellow human beings.

So, instead of demonising these people for domestic political purposes, why wouldn’t a political party that wants to demonstrate fairness and equity to all change the conversation within Australia? Instead of punitive action against fellow humans — that in the majority are doing it far worse that any Australian — why not a conversation about how refugees over the past 60 years have brought a great deal of material benefit to this country? Examples could range from the ubiquitous country town café of the 1950s and 60s up until today when people travel half way across the world to be treated by a refugee from Iraq — as in the case of Michael Swain.

The Liberal Party website tells us that many years ago:

Robert Menzies believed the time was right for a new political force in Australia — one which fought for the freedom of the individual and produced enlightened liberal policies.

Ben Chifley around the same time gave his ‘light on the hill’ speech in which he stated:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective — the light on the hill — which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

It is neither enlightened nor for the betterment of mankind that people, who generally suffer incredible privations in order to better their lives, are treated as prisoners who do not have the same access to services provided to other immigrants and refugees who arrived here in the decades prior to the 1980’s.

How did the two major Australian political parties lose their desire to either ‘[bring] something better to the people … working for the betterment of mankind’ or fight ‘for the freedom of the individual and [produce]… enlightened liberal policies’?

When did the two major political parties become so morally corrupt that they both will use their fellow humans’ pain and suffering to gain political mileage? Isn’t it time that at least one of the two major political parties rediscovered morals and ethics?

What do you think?

In a galaxy far, far away … Australia


At Davos in Switzerland in January this year the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) took place. About 2,600 representatives of government, business, civil society and academia took part, from over a hundred countries. Australian businesses that attended included Leighton Holdings, Fortescue Metals, Westpac, Westfarmers, Coles and Telstra. International corporations included Nestlé, Royal Philips, Microsoft, HSBC, Total and Heineken. Among the political leaders were Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister; David Cameron, British prime minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister; and Hasan Rouhani, Iranian President. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was also there. Quite a gathering.

This year’s programme, which consisted of more than 250 official sessions, was organized under four thematic pillars: Achieving Inclusive Growth; Embracing Disruptive Innovation; Meeting Society’s New Expectations; and Sustaining a World of 9 Billion. Discussions on these issues challenged long-held assumptions about society, politics and business in an effort to generate the powerful ideas and collaborative spirit needed to manage the future course of world affairs.

Our prime minister (cough, spit!) was there and made a speech, one of 254 speakers (one for each official session). I will admit I began watching Tony Abbott’s speech when it was broadcast live on ABC News24 but, with my anger rising and the potential for collateral damage to the television and nearby furniture, was forced to turn it off. From what I later learned, I didn’t miss much. Here was I thinking that in a forum like the WEF Tony Abbott might actually say something meaningful … talk about being delusional!

What it did do, however, was make me look more deeply into what was being discussed at Davos and I was surprised at what I found. The range of issues on the agenda and the number of papers and reports supporting discussion was quite staggering. That led me to the title for this article. I know Abbott’s main reason (perhaps his only reason) for being there was that Australia is hosting the next G20 meeting in November this year and he was to give an outline as to where Australia would lead that meeting. But surely, given the issues being discussed at Davos, one would think he would address at least one of them in detail or dare to ‘challenge long held assumptions’ (as reported as an outcome of the meeting). No, not Abbott, he attacks the Labor party! He did brush on governance and taxation, but not in any profound way, and focused on free trade. He ignored almost all of the risks facing economies and businesses (after all, the WEF is dominated by big, and I mean big business) that are clearly laid out in the agenda for the meeting and, in particular, ignored the social risks.

There were papers on what is called ‘the global agenda’ and the trends for 2014. These forecasts are based on worldwide surveys of business people and samples of the general population prepared by Global Agenda Councils attached to the WEF. The top ten trending issues were:

1. Rising social tensions in the Middle East and North Africa
2. Widening income disparities
3. Persistent structural unemployment
4. Intensifying cyber threats
5. Inaction on climate change
6. Diminishing confidence in economic policies
7. A lack of values in leadership
8. The expanding middle class in Asia
9. The growing importance of megacities
10. The rapid spread of misinformation online.

The second major input was a report on ‘Global Risks’ (its ninth edition). The report for the 2014 meeting included the following top ten risks:

1. Fiscal crises in key economies
2. Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
3. Water crises
4. Severe income disparity
5. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
6. Greater incidence of extreme weather events (eg floods, storms, fires)
7. Global governance failure
8. Food crises
9. Failure of major financial mechanism/institution
10. Profound political and social instability.

Fifty risks, including those ten, were plotted on a risk chart with the traditional axes of ‘Likelihood’ and ‘Impact’ (again based on survey responses). The events listed in the top right quarter (ie more likely with high impact) included:

  • Income disparity (most likely, seventh-highest impact)
  • Extreme weather events (second most likely, fifth-highest impact)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (third most likely, fourth-highest impact)
  • Climate change (fourth most likely, second-highest impact)
  • Cyber attacks (fifth most likely, eighth-highest impact)
  • Water crises (sixth most likely, third-highest impact)
  • Fiscal crises (seventh most likely, highest impact)
  • Ecosystem collapse (only rated fourteenth most likely, but sixth in terms of impact).
Obviously businesses are concerned about these risks, not for any altruistic reasons but for the impact on their capacity to ‘do business’ and their ‘bottom line’. In other words, for business these are seen as pressures on the market or issues that may distort the market. Also the social unrest that may result is not good for business — or government.

Putting the two lists together, it could be said that the key threats are:

  • Climate change and environmental issues (failure to address climate change, water crises, food crises, greater incidence of extreme weather events, ecosystem collapse)
  • Increasing inequality (widening/severe income disparity)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (structurally high unemployment, with particular emphasis on youth unemployment and its longer term implications for economies and social stability).
The reports indicate that while there is action on climate change it is not moving fast enough which, it is suggested, leads to the perception that little is being done. One report suggests $70-100 billion per year to 2050 is required in developed countries to effectively address climate change: another that, although $1 trillion has already been invested in renewable energy, a further $1 trillion per year is required. A complete transformation of economies is necessary: but one report positively suggests that such transformations have occurred before, eg the first industrial revolution and the digital revolution. So what is Australia doing? Eliminating the carbon tax and support for renewable energy industries. Our prime minister also suggests that fires and floods are normal in Australia, are not occurring at a more frequent rate, and that any expert who says otherwise is ‘talking through [their] hat’. To top it off on 6 February he proudly announced he wanted to make Australia the ‘affordable energy capital of the world’. How? By using cheap coal, the same energy source we are trying to reduce because of its impact on climate change. Yes, Australia has lots of cheap coal — just a shame that our grandchildren may not have much of a planet left on which to enjoy this cheap energy!

Yes, on climate change Abbott definitely believes Australia is on another planet. Or, perhaps as I suggested in an earlier post, taking us back to the 1800s: my prognostication in that article that we may need to use more coal and timber is coming true.

Forty-four per cent of Australians think the economic system favours the wealthy (from surveys conducted in 2013). That percentage is low on a global scale (60% in North America; 70% in Europe; 64% in Asia; 70% in the Middle East and North Africa) but still significant. The WEF reports indicate that while inequality is a major problem in developing countries, it is also significant in developed countries and has the capacity to increase social unrest:

The incredible wealth created over the last decade in the US has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and this disparity stems from many of the same roots as in developing nations.

First among them is a lack of access to high quality basic primary and secondary education for all segments of our society. Additionally it has become prohibitively expensive for the average middle-income family to send their child to college in the US; higher education, once seen as the great equaliser and engine for economic mobility, is becoming unaffordable for far too many.

I will address inequality in a future post but here in Australia, following the argument in the quote, dismantling the full impact of the ‘Gonski’ funding reforms for education will only increase inequality; creating more independent ‘public’ schools is likely to lead to increased fees, further fuelling inequality; trying to reduce workers’ wages, such as the government’s recent submission to Fair Work Australia to examine whether penalty rates are still valid in a modern economy, may only lead to the ‘working poor’ and greater inequality as in America.

Unemployment appears not to be a major problem in Australia, although there is still significant youth unemployment and underemployment, which has been an issue for some years. Abbott’s approach, like John Howard’s, is that ‘any job is better than no job’ even if it is at the minimum wage or lower. It seems we will end up with a class of working poor not because of happenstance (read bad economic management) but because Abbott actually wants to create it — at least then some of the big companies supporting him will have the cheap labour they so crave.

The Global Risks report actually made ‘global governance failure’ the pivot of all the risks, arguing that as the risks are global or have global implications (especially for global corporations!), they therefore require global action. Such action is reliant on global governance mechanisms, so that was a major concern. To my mind, this is simply big business shifting the responsibility.

Why did Abbott ignore these issues at Davos? Why are Australian businesses ignoring them when the rest of the world’s businesses are seeing them as major threats? Perhaps our only hope is that the global corporations operating in Australia start making noises to the government that these issues should be addressed or they may take their business elsewhere. Other factors are already tempting big business to leave Australia: cheaper labour costs in Asia; and the emergence of the Asian middle class which prompts companies to take their production closer to such a large and growing market. If we don’t address other issues that global corporations are concerned about, such as those raised at Davos, what will we have left to attract any business — and that situation will be worsened by forcing the closure of our own local businesses with decisions like that regarding SPC-Ardmona.

One other interesting report, and it was a ‘featured’ report, which suggests it was deemed to have some significance, was ‘Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains’. A couple of quotes summarise the gist of the report:

Progressive companies and forward-looking governments are shifting their attention from old style sustainability — a linear concept that goes from take and use to dispose — towards a ‘circular’ approach. This ‘circular’ approach effectively decouples growth from rising resource constraints in a world that will add 3 billion middle-class consumers over the next 15 years …

… Leading global companies are already building the concept of the circular economy into the way they do business. It is helping them to drive innovation across product design, to develop product-to-service approaches and to test new ways of recovering materials from redundant products such as old mobile phones. Heineken, for example, is now pursuing circular practices across its whole value chain.

China is adopting the circular approach in its latest five-year plan.

For business, the approach is deemed profitable. The value of the market in consumer goods in Europe is estimated at €3.2 trillion ‘of which 20% could be recuperated through smart circular practices’. In layman’s terms it is about taking ‘recycling’ to the next level.

Has anyone heard of this being discussed in Australia? I certainly haven’t but I am retired and outside the loop where such things may be raised. But leaving that aside, I have not seen it mentioned in the many articles I read. (After completing my original version of this piece, I did eventually find one article in Casablanca’s excellent Cache) So where is Australia on this? On another planet, or just so far behind we can only see the dust of those ahead of us!

I honestly do not understand which planet Abbott (indeed, much of Australian big business) thinks we are on — it is certainly not the planet Earth in the Milky Way but perhaps another earth in a galaxy far, far away …

What do you think?

Is Australia becoming a guided democracy?


On 8 February 2014, there was a by-election for the federal seat of Griffith due to the resignation from politics of the former member Kevin Rudd. Terri Butler, representing the ALP, won the seat. This comment was posted on the Fairfax Media’s on-line coverage of the event:

I think I'd prefer a highly programmed robot rather than anything that's really been on offer from either right side of politics. They'll have to start making a new suit for the ALPLNP Party, a suit with two right arms with one just a little further right than the other.

It demonstrates the opinion of a considerable number of the population of Australia and can be summed up as ‘there is no or little difference between the ALP and LNP’, that whichever party one votes for the outcome will be the same.

Where countries seem to have free and fair elections but the result really doesn’t matter there is, as you would expect, a name for the concept — Guided Democracy. Wikipedia suggests that there have been a number of countries that have operated in this fashion either in the past or the present. They include Indonesia, Putin’s Russia and possibly even the USA.

Indonesia’s history since the end of World War 2 and independence from the Dutch is interesting. Between 1950 and 1998, there were only two Indonesian presidents — Sukarno and Suharto. The first, Sukarno, actually promoted his leadership as guided democracy or ‘Demokrasi Terpimpin’ from 1957. Rather than the traditional leadership model where the political elite devises and implements the policy of the government, Sukarno’s belief was that the government should be led in a similar way to traditional villages where the ‘elders’ consider and discuss the problem and then agree on a solution.

A central council of 42 people from a cross section of Indonesia was formed and tasked with considering issues and providing advice to Sukarno’s cabinet. While there was no requirement to comply with the advice, it was rarely ignored. The process was introduced in the late 1950’s apparently in an attempt to placate the military, religious groups and communists.

The military, religious groupings and communists then naturally attempted to increase their ‘power bases’. The military nationalised a number of Dutch companies; the religious commenced the ‘Islamic State’ debate; and the PKI (Communist Party) entrenched itself into all state institutions except for the cabinet. By the early 60’s, there was significant corruption and jockeying for position. However the PKI had ensured that it was the only political party with any strength.

Suharto was a ‘trusted’ major-general during Sukarno’s rule and was effectively ‘the last man standing’ after a coup attempt and became president in 1968. Although elections continued, the government also appointed 100 members to parliament. A People’s Consultative Assembly was also created to which the government appointed one-third of members.

The next ‘western’ style democratic election in Indonesia, after the declaration of Demokrasi Terpimpin, was not until 1999 after the fall of Suharto.

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia. On 9 August 1999, then President Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three deputy prime ministers and later that day he was appointed the acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. Later again on the same day, Yeltsin was reported as suggesting that Putin should be his successor — and Putin agreed to run for president. A week later, the State Duma (parliament) confirmed Putin as prime minister.

Yeltsin resigned as president on 31 December 1999 and Putin was appointed acting president. Putin’s first decree was to ensure that corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were not pursued. Putin then comfortably won the subsequent presidential election held in March 2000 (three months ahead of the scheduled date and before the opposition parties could organise).

Putin was re-elected president in 2004 and was legally not able to run in the 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected in his place. The day after the election, Putin was appointed to the position of prime minister of the Russian Federation. Putin was subsequently re-elected as president in 2012, appointed Medvedev as prime minister and commenced action to stifle protest groups by imprisoning the leaders, removing the influence of non-governmental organisations that received foreign assistance, and pursuing a campaign of anti-American rhetoric, including the granting of asylum to Edward Snowdon — who is accused of leaking US diplomatic cables to various news organisations around the world.

A theory promoted by Sheldon Wolin suggests that the USA is heading on a similar path to the examples of guided democracy we have looked at above. Wolin’s theory is that instead of a ‘strong leader’ who is able to influence the country’s direction for an extended period (and the seemingly inevitable corruption that goes with that), corporations through lobbying and donations control government actions; the rise of political apathy is promoted (the only expectation is to vote and low turnouts are thought of as successful); and the election of ‘personalities’ rather than ‘people’ is supported. Wolin also claims there are similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany (as we recently briefly discussed here on The Political Sword) and the USA’s regular claim that they are the only world superpower and the home of democracy, which gives the US the ‘right’ to declare war and participate in actions that are clearly not democratic.

It could be suggested that a couple of state governments in Australia have been close to running a guided democracy — the prime examples being Queensland under the Country/National Party and South Australia under Playford.

The Country/Nationals & Liberal Party Coalition (subsequently the Nationals solely) were in power in Queensland for a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987 because those that lived west of the Great Dividing Range generally had a considerably greater number of MP’s for the level of population. Bjelke-Petersen was premier from 1968 to 1987. While Bjelke-Petersen didn’t implement the gerrymander, he certainly used it to his advantage. The embedded corruption in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era is well documented: there were proven corruption charges against a number of National Party ‘identities’ and Bjelke-Petersen himself was never cleared of corruption charges that were made against him. The then acting premier of Queensland (when Bjelke-Petersen was overseas) initiated the Fitzgerald enquiry, which eventually led to a fairer election system, as well as the reduction in influence that was held by National Party ‘connections’ and the police force.

Playford served as premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965 despite losing each election from 1947 on the popular vote. It took a protest by the public to start the process of fair and equitable boundaries, introduced by Playford’s successor.

So, is Australia in danger of becoming a guided democracy? A guided democracy seems to be reliant on a group of people being in power for decades and power being shared around the same group of people. That certainly isn’t the case in Australia with frequent leadership contests for parliamentary leadership. While corporations attempt to influence politicians, they cannot openly ‘buy a vote in Congress’ as they seem to be able to do in the USA. The military is not an economic force to be reckoned with or sharing power in Australia as seems to be the case in Indonesia. The Australian government allows open dissent to their position on any issue – unlike Putin’s Russia.

Let’s look at Australia’s record.

Are the same small groups of people continually power sharing? Occasionally someone who can demonstrate that they don’t follow the standard political norms in Australia can get up and win, such as Cathy McGowan in Indi at the 2013 federal election, or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott effectively deciding who would be prime minister in the last parliament — they are certainly results that the ‘political establishment’ didn’t see coming. Has the same leader been ‘in power’ for a long period of time? The Coalition holds the federal record for a 23 year term, due in part to the ALP/DLP split of the 1950’s: although Menzies was prime minister for 17 of those years, there were another four leaders in the last six years. On the ALP side, the Hawke/Keating government lasted 13 years with two prime ministers.

Is there institutionalized corruption in Australia? Potentially yes — but not to the same level as Indonesia and Russia (and one could say parts of the USA where the politicians draw up the electoral boundaries and corporations can fund political campaigns).

Are political opponents jailed or killed? No — otherwise Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard would have never become prime ministers!

Are Australians encouraged not to vote? No — voting is compulsory.

While economic policies, and unfortunately refugee policies, are similar, there are also significant differences in policy between the two major political parties in Australia, including in the areas of industrial relations, social policy, education and treatment of those that are less well off. Most importantly, there are genuine free and fair elections in Australia. There is also little doubt that the election results are fair and do not benefit any particular group. This was recently demonstrated by the Australian Electoral Commission requesting the court system to decide what action to take when it was found that almost 1400 votes were missing in the Western Australia senate election.

While there are certainly similarities between the policies and operation of the ALP and LNP, the actions of the current government in abolishing programs of the previous government demonstrates that the parties are not the same. Rather the comment that started this piece demonstrates that, rather than heading towards a guided democracy, both political parties are playing safe options to try and attract the majority of votes. While the tactic seems to be successful to a point, it has allowed smaller parties such as the Greens and Katter/Palmer to win over voters who are disaffected with what could be considered a move to the centre by both major parties in Australia. The rise and success of those smaller parties, and the influence they can wield in the senate, really is the nail in the coffin of any idea that Australia is heading towards a guided democracy.

What do you think?


Whither the Left: Part 3


Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

In Part 2 of these articles I discussed the Left’s approach to the new world in which we now live and suggested that adopting a measure such as Gross National Happiness (GNH) could help create a new approach to economics. I intend discussing that in full in another post but for now will explain why it is important.

In the previous articles I have also talked about the new ‘intellectual working class’. They earn better money than the ‘labouring working class’ and tend to be classified, financially, as middle class. But the new consumerism helps keep them locked into the role of wage slaves. More and more consumer goods are produced and pushed at them, locking them into working longer to fulfil their role as consumers. In fact, it is consumerism that is the key driver of the current economic growth model.

I believe there is a growing gulf between created consumer ‘wants’ (as opposed to ‘needs’) and the capacity to secure them. An economic model that continues to be based on that consumerism will lead to increasing dissatisfaction and discontent among portions of the population. That this may already be happening is reflected in a decline in ‘happiness’ in North America, Australia and New Zealand in the past decade. One danger in a modern consumer society is that some may see ‘happiness’ as merely more consumer goods.

Human dignity is another side of the ‘happiness’ equation.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and associated feelings of economic insecurity may also have contributed to the decline in ‘happiness’ (less so in Australia than the USA), but the GFC highlighted some of the problems of the globalised world. Whereas, in some countries, it is government corruption that attacks human dignity, in the GFC in the West it was the greed of the banks. People were treated merely as tools in achieving higher profits for the banks. The political system’s moral compass is also out of order when the banks are allowed to get away with risky undertakings that threaten the whole of society and are then bailed out because they are ‘too big to fail’. The banks have managed to place themselves above people and when that happens human dignity suffers. Indeed, the political emphasis on economics has the same effect.

In a globalised world where multi-national corporations can wield as much, if not more, influence on a nation’s economy than the government itself, people feel helpless. What is the point of a government if it cannot control what happens? If a government lacks control, people certainly feel more insecure because their livelihood may depend not on a government decision, a government over which they can have some influence, but on a global corporation over which they have no influence.

One of the slogans during the Tunisian, or ‘Jasmine’ revolution in 2011 was ‘Dignity before bread’. Compared to the nations around it, Tunisia was relatively prosperous, although there was an increase in unemployment at the time and risk was being moved from the State to the individual — just as it is in Australia. There was also government corruption. The young unemployed man whose self-immolation helped trigger the revolt had gone to the authorities to complain about his situation but was physically beaten, in total disregard of his human dignity.

In this globalised world, where people are becoming mere cogs in an international economy, where even their own governments are at the mercy of international financiers and corporations, and politicians pay more attention to the economy than to society, human happiness and human dignity are becoming the last refuges of what it means to be human.

‘People power’ is becoming more important in this new world, reinvigorated by the internet and social media.

Adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) and people power as fundamental to a well-functioning and sustainable economy appears to me a key way forward for the Left, and indeed for Labor in Australia, even if as a party seeking government Labor has to adopt the more moderate elements of these approaches.

The concept of Gross National Happiness as a measure of a nation’s economy and progress began in Bhutan with four ‘pillars’ and was expanded into nine ‘domains’.

The four pillars are: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

The domains are: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Gross National Happiness does not ignore economic growth, seeing it as necessary to alleviate poverty, provide health services, schools and so on. The major difference is that GNH measures economic progress not in terms of the dollar value of production and services but by the well-being it achieves for the people and the society.

It offers an approach that is consistent with many of the approaches of the Left in this new world: it is people-centred, including communities not just individuals; it is focused on well-being and equity; it includes key issues such as climate change; it supports human dignity. An important part of the Left and GNH approach is that these elements do not operate in isolation: they intertwine and each is essential for overall happiness and dignity and genuine people-centred economic progress.

People are central to the Left approach. It is their well-being, happiness and dignity that should also be central to any left-of-centre government’s approach.

Our sense of community has diminished. At university I read about miners in the UK, and indeed at Newcastle in Australia, having a strong sense of egalitarianism that was fostered by overlapping work and neighbourhood networks. In our more diversified and mobile world that is unlikely to return: people in the same neighbourhood are now more likely to be in places of employment scattered around the suburbs. (Perhaps that is the reason that governments now spend millions on providing major events, attempting to create a sense of community across many neighbourhoods.) It is, however, possible to create local ‘communities of interest’ by involving people in issues that concern them — and now they can also be virtual ‘communities’ through the power of the internet.

Such involvement is the other key aspect of the Left approach to people. The New Left would be content with various forms of consultation and involvement in policy development but the radical Left would seek more autonomy, or structures in which people can actually make decisions.

Equity has long been at the core of Left beliefs. There are two major aspects of equity: one regarding the rights and freedoms of people; and the other, the economic and social equity of groups in society, including the vulnerable and minorities.

The Right of course believes that equity is achieved by removing government from the picture and allowing individuals to choose what they wish. Unfortunately, in the 250 years since the first industrial revolution, it is obvious to all but the Right that this approach does not work — many are left behind without the resources to make the choices this approach supposedly allows. The Left believe in government intervention to achieve the desired outcomes. That needs to remain central to Labor policies as we are now seeing what happens if governments kow-tow to the rich industrialists, entrepreneurs and financiers of the nation (it was a similar failing that helped undermine New Labour in the UK).

Quality of life was a New Left issue that needs to remain: it can cover everything from climate change to local transport and amenities, culture and general human dignity.

The climate change message can be sold as a quality-of-life issue. The LNP effectively did this in Opposition, in a negative way, by arguing that measures to address climate change would impact people’s livelihoods and standard of living. This needs to be countered with the quality of life downside if nothing is done.

Local amenities are always important in politics, to all sides: where else does ‘pork-barrelling’ come from? But local amenities should be put into a quality-of-life context as part of an overall vision for people across the nation, not just locally, a vision that promises to provide social amenities and enhance equity.

The radical Left would see local amenities as a question for the local people supported by government, not decided by government (the approach to people). There is a strong case for such an approach. I recall from my working years a situation where a community was offered funding to support the health of its older residents. The community, however, said that it wanted lights on the local outdoor basketball court. The public servants, of course, had difficulty with whether that would fit within the guidelines for funding but somehow the community view prevailed and the benefits were surprising. In a community that had no street lights, the lighted basketball court attracted the young people, so that they were less likely to be wandering about the community at night causing disturbances; as it was the only lit area, adults also tended to congregate there, particularly on hot nights, which brought a level of supervision over the young people; older people also came to the area, meaning, rather than being isolated in their homes, they were also being watched over by the community. That provides a classic example of how local people, more often than not, know better what is required.

Economics is not really a key element but one that in current politics needs to be addressed, particularly given the political domination of neo-liberal economics. It is, of course, complicated by the global corporations that restrict the power and influence governments can exercise over their own economy.

While the prevailing view is that a successful economy can be used to achieve social equity and other beneficial outcomes, a more radical Left view would draw on new economic approaches required to meet the challenge of climate change and improve Gross National Happiness.

It is unrealistic to expect a prospective government to abandon the current emphasis on economics but Labor should be able to change the nature of the debate. It can give more emphasis to the social outcomes of economic policies and also the social drivers of economics. It should begin adopting measures leaning towards Gross National Happiness, even if politically it is unable to adopt them in full, and pursue the argument that real economics is about how we use and distribute our resources, including human, social and environmental, not just capital. It can claim support of manufacturing by promoting and supporting environmental and renewable energy industries — something that was done under Julia Gillard but, unfortunately, without sufficient emphasis on the positive impact for manufacturing. There are many avenues available for Labor to change the tenor of the economic debate and it should take these up.

Another aspect of the New Left approach is addressing individual issues. Many of the issues pursued by the New Left remain relevant in Australia today, perhaps more so in the face of Abbott’s attacks on welfare, workers and marginalised groups. Not all voters are interested in all issues and they may not support a full range of Left (or progressive) approaches, but if their interest can be gained for the issues they believe in part of the battle is won. It may even be possible to attract the interest of some groups who normally support the LNP, for example by addressing the issue of fracking, which is a concern to many rural communities.

The differences between the New Left and the working class and its unions were overcome to some extent because there were common issues on which they could join (although significant differences remained). Strength will come by emphasising the commonalities and networking between groups.

Change can also come if Labor links itself to some of the new social movements that may arise, just as it eventually did with the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was the Labor Left that drove that linkage and perhaps it will be again, with future links.

The Fifth Estate is part of the new people power and how we use that power is crucial for success. Progressive blogs generally support Labor and they can continue to attack Abbott and point out his mistakes but that will have only limited influence on those who are not already leaning to Labor or the Left. Some middle-of-the-road or undecided voters will see it as no more than they would expect from ‘the Left’. They may not like Abbott particularly but will react negatively to repeated negative attacks.

The worst mistake Left and progressive blogs can make, as Jeff Sparrow pointed out immediately after the election, is to attack the voters as fools, or dupes of, for example, Murdoch: ‘In any case, blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people’, he wrote.

At the moment progressive blogs tend to be reactive to political events. They rarely come out and say ‘this is what progressives stand for’ or describe what progressives propose should be done to improve the future. The book I reviewed, Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, provides a range of progressive policies for the future. There is scope for more radical prescriptions that may not succeed but, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, add to the depth of the debate. Attacking Abbott’s mistakes is a valid approach but it needs to be interspersed with more positive messages that appeal to the many different groups that are affected by his decisions — even identify groups that have been affected and write pieces about how they can be better supported under a progressive approach.

Sell a positive message and it may also attract readers who are sitting on the political fence. Include in blogs pieces on civil liberties and personal freedoms, the lack of social amenities in communities, the decline in public services, the failings of the health and education systems and the growing inequality in society. State what a progressive vision means for these issues. There are clearly different sites that already achieve aspects of this but perhaps they need to link more closely and share more comprehensively.

There is room for all aspects of the Left agenda, from progressive views to radical views.

Can they be openly debated to create a more unified Left agenda and also a meaningful but more moderate left-of-centre stance for Labor?

Of course, failing all else, we can take to the barricades again as in 1968.

What do you think?


Whither the Left: Part 2


A new world for the Left

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the Velvet and Orange Revolutions and the Arab Spring show that mass movements can still achieve social and political change, with or without violence. But the capacity of the State is a key factor in such circumstances — whether it has the strength or will to respond with, and maintain force until the movement is crushed and, occasionally, whether the State’s organs of force will continue to support it or go over to the protestors.

Despite its apparent failure, there was a lasting legacy from the student protests of 1968. Some of its issues, such as human rights, became mainstream issues. The New Left rose in the 1970s, a phoenix from the ashes of 1968. The New Left addressed issues rather than overt political change, an idea that had arisen among some socialist thinkers in the 1950s such as Anthony Crossland in the UK, quoted by Frank Bongiorno on ‘Inside Story’:

Ownership of capital now mattered less than who managed it. In these circumstances, the old preoccupation with nationalisation made little sense. Even greater equality could be achieved through progressive taxation and the education system, while socialists needed to turn their attention to what he called “deficiencies in social capital … ugly towns, mean streets, slum houses, overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, understaffed mental institutions, too few homes for the aged, indeed a general, and often squalid lack of social amenities.” In an age of abundance, socialists would also necessarily give attention to what would become known as quality of life issues: the environment, culture and civil liberties, “personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour: the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement.”

The Old Left and many in the working class, however, saw that as a betrayal. It led to divisions within the Left. Many of the New Left were seen as middle class and lacking understanding of the political needs of the working class. But as alluded to in Part 1 of these articles many became, in reality, a new working class — the college and university educated required by the new industrial order to keep it functioning. No longer just an elite to join the ruling class, university graduates were, as much as the old labouring working class, a new intellectual working class who were also wage slaves, their employment just as precarious.

In Australia, the radical Left was marginalised in the 1970s, including some of the more radical unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which was effectively closed down in 1976 after its successful ‘Green Bans’. While radical Left groups remained (and still remain) in existence they were small and mostly outside the mainstream political system.

Within politics, the Victorian Left of the ALP had been the most radical but in the lead-up to Whitlam’s election it was emasculated by a Federal ALP intervention. It was believed that Labor was not electable while that Old Left philosophy was still being pursued and still existed within some Labor policies. The issues then became more about the New Left agenda drawing in voters who were financially middle class (even if, as I keep repeating, many were actually the new working class). Whitlam’s withdrawal from Vietnam after he was elected removed the single biggest issue on which the radical Left had been able to garner wide support.

It was, in my opinion, the approach of the New Left that allowed mainstream left-of-centre political parties to accept the neo-liberal economic agenda that arose in the 1980s. I say this (not having read any similar analysis) because the focus on issues basically left the political system unchallenged.

It was the two oil crises of the 1970s and the associated economic downturns that contributed to the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan adopted the new economics eagerly. After the economic problems of the previous decade, many voters were also willing to accept the approach. The New Left had little to say on the systemic issues but remained vocal on specific impacts of the approach. The Old Left were marginalised or, like the miners in the UK, crushed by the State. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some remnants of the Old Left also lost the bastion of their faith.

Hence we come to my conclusion in Part 1: that economics has come to dominate the political debate.

Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in England, and Clinton in America, as left-of-centre governments, operated in this new context — with the view that equity could not be achieved in the absence of a strong economy. The Old Left’s challenges to the whole economic system (capitalism) were but distant cries from the wilderness. The new approach was put this way by Anthony Giddens in a New Statesman article:

… the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left — solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government — remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in the information age, the emergence of a more voluble citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Part of the rationale of New Labour in the UK was that a growing economy would allow extra funding for social issues without the need to raise taxes. As in Australia, UK Labour governments had been accused of being high taxing and high spending.

Globalisation of capital, production and distribution was also reducing the influence governments had on their own economy. Many countries could no longer pressure local corporations as major decisions were being made in Tokyo, New York, Detroit and London (to which we could now add Shanghai and Seoul). International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were additional sources of decision making that could create havoc with the political and economic choices available to governments. As Lauren Langman wrote, international corporations and agencies were increasingly dictating trade policies, tariff rates, investment laws, copy rights, labour conditions, and so on and this is continuing in more recent Free Trade Agreements.

The internet has increased the pace of globalisation. The almost instantaneous movement of capital can impact national economies with governments having little control. Information guiding corporate decisions is also now available almost in ‘real time’. A government going through its normal checks and balances and relying on cabinet decision-making processes can no longer match the speed of corporate and financial decision making. It has become a case of letting the pack run and hoping to influence how or where it runs.

Globalisation, however, has also changed social movements. The internet has created a new public space in which ideas — from the extreme right to the extreme left, and every opinion in between — can be expressed. It can also be used to organise and mobilise groups of similar views, no longer just locally or nationally but on a global scale.

The Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994 was one of the first movements to make full use of the new technology, fighting the Mexican government not just with arms but with information spread around the world, leading to the creation of solidarity groups in many countries as well as throughout Mexico. Perhaps because of the international attention they generated the Zapatistas have continued to this day to maintain autonomous areas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The anti-globalisation movement (Peoples’ Global Action) from late in the 1990s also used the internet to create a global response and mobilised protests at WTO and G8 meetings around the world. At a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 about forty to fifty thousand protestors shut down the city centre and disrupted the first day of the meeting. Police eventually responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. At the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001 the total protest group was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000. The first group of about eight to ten thousand marching towards the barricades around the G8 meeting place faced an unprovoked attack with tear gas by police, which started the battle that followed. The police response was heavy-handed, drawing no distinction between the more violent Black Bloc (anarchists) and non-violent protestors. One person was killed. A school where some protestors were staying overnight was raided and people severely beaten. Like the 1968 student protests, it was met with the force and violence of the State and is now called the ‘Battle of Genoa’.

Governments, aware of these developments, have at different times attempted to create forms of internet censorship which, so far, have been resisted. Recent revelations have shown that, instead of censorship, massive monitoring of the internet has been the response of security agencies. Spying and force remain the State’s main control mechanisms and that hasn’t changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Despite the changes in the world, the vision of the Left retains its emphasis on people and equity. It rejects the purely economic approach and the economic rationalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which mistakenly believes that if the rich get richer everybody benefits.

It could be said that one difference between the New Left and the more radical Left is that the New Left accepts equity as a goal whereas there is still a stronger element of equality in the radical Left.

Similarly, both believe in the involvement of people but perhaps the New Left believes more in terms of social movements to influence politics whereas the more radical Left still believes in control by the people, that is, the people being in a position to make decisions and not merely influence them.

The New Left tends to be more about human rights and the rights of marginalised groups and minorities. The Old Left often had a more communal focus, with its emphasis on collectives, cooperatives and so on. I believe there is still space for both, or at least space for that debate to continue as new economic models are required for the future.

The New Left focuses on issues of equity and quality of life. The more radical Left still yearns for political change but with the collapse of communist governments has been less certain of the approach until the success of the Zapatistas. The democratic socialism of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador, was also influenced by, among other factors, the Zapatistas. It could be said now that ‘people power’ is back on the agenda.

Some of the more radical Left movements arising in the 1980s had focused on ‘autonomy’, rejecting any political system and creating loosely woven local groups. They did not believe in creating political networks and so also tended to operate independently. The main difference with earlier Left groups was that they gave much greater emphasis to individual self-determination: they rejected the New Left’s emphasis on social issues just as the New Left rejected their individualism.

How the Left should now approach economics is an open question. Other than the three South American countries adopting forms of twenty-first century democratic socialism, capitalism now dominates, including in the former Soviet Union and China (even if in China it is a form of State-directed capitalism). It has become more difficult for the Left to point to any functioning alternative economic system. The effort to challenge the economic system, if it exists at all, often aims more at ‘capitalism with a heart’ rather than open attacks on the system.

One avenue that may lead to consideration of alternative economic systems is in the debate about climate change, although at present much of that debate still takes place in the context of a capitalist market system.

There is, however, also a movement considering ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measurement of economic progress, an approach adopted by Bhutan in 1972. This is not a crack-pot movement but includes academics, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and the United Nations. Even the OECD has issued guidelines on measuring well-being. The penny is beginning to drop that our current economic system, which relies on perpetual growth, cannot continue indefinitely into the future. This provides fertile ground for a new approach to economics by the progressive and Left elements in politics.

An agenda for the Left in this new world needs to draw on elements from all of these: some aspects from the radical Left, some from the New Left, and some from the social movements that are arising around climate change, anti-globalisation and the GNH approach.

The Labor Party in Australia should also draw on these, although in the chase for government the more moderate positions are likely to prevail. That does not mean, however, that more radical positions should not be debated, particularly on Left-leaning websites and even among Labor party members. As I have pointed out in these articles, a radical stance may not achieve all that it intends but it can create small shifts along the path. Human rights may not have become a dominant mainstream issue without the student revolt of 1968!

Part 3 to follow: Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 1


A History Lesson: the revolutionary period

My politics was moulded in the late 1960s, a great time in my view for the Left. The ’60s (into the ’70s) was dominated by revolutionary and liberation movements around the world — an era when Africa was completing its decolonisation. For want of a better phrase, I was an ‘armchair revolutionary’, although I was active in sit-ins and demonstrations. I drew my inspiration from the Black and Celtic liberation movements: the ANC in South Africa, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA in Ireland, ETA in the Basque country and the MAC in Wales (as tiny as that last group was). I accepted that violence was a legitimate means to counter the violence of the State. Yes, the ‘terrorism’ of the time but as was said in 1975 (admittedly in a novel) ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. (I would like to point out that the ‘terrorists’ of the time usually tried to avoid or minimise civilian casualties, unlike current terrorists who specifically target civilians.)

From 1960, Africa’s process of decolonisation proceeded rapidly. Seventeen countries gained independence in 1960, a further fifteen in the rest of the decade, and nine in the 1970s, but the process was not easy. Decolonisation proceeded on the basis of boundaries that had been imposed by the colonial powers, often simply lines drawn on maps in European capitals that bore little relationship to the different peoples who made up the ‘nations’ within those borders. In 1967, for example, the Biafran war commenced as the people of eastern Nigeria sought their own independence (I supported Biafran freedom) and in 1976 Western Sahara was granted independence but was immediately seized by neighbouring Morocco (which has led to a continuing conflict).

In South Africa apartheid was in full flow, leading to the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 in which 69 died and 180 were seriously wounded. The following year MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed by Nelson Mandela as the militant arm of the ANC. When passive resistance was met by violence, some in the ANC thought that a violent response was the only answer. Initially the MK’s targets were infrastructure and government installations which led to the charge of sabotage against Mandela at his trial in 1964.

In America, the civil rights movement had been campaigning since the 1950s (the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955). The first Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, but civil rights demonstrations were still being attacked by state troopers in 1965; Malcolm X was also assassinated that year. The Black Panthers formed in 1966. Race riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 each began as a result of police actions in Black areas. As well as police, the National Guard responded in both instances: in Newark after six days of rioting 23 people were dead, 725 injured and almost 1,500 arrested; in Detroit from five days of rioting, 43 died, 1,189 were injured and over 7,000 arrested. These were but a curtain-raiser to the massive rioting across America following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr in April 1968.

In Ireland, the official IRA was in decline and would be effectively replaced by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969; in Wales, MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, ‘Movement for the Defence of Wales’) carried out a number of bombings between 1963 and 1969; and in the Basque country ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ‘Homeland and Liberty’) began its bank robberies and shootings during the 1960s and became more active in the 1970s.

Students had already played a major part in the civil rights movement in America. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 but from 1965 adopted a more radical stance drawing on the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Even in Biafra, it was university lecturers and their students who formed the basis of the Biafran army. While many of these movements had their genesis in the previous years it came to a head in 1968 with student risings around the world.

In Mexico, student unrest began in 1967 and escalated prior to the 1968 Olympic Games: one of their key demands was that more should be spent on domestic needs rather than the Games. The government response, however, led to bigger demonstrations and student strikes culminating in police occupying two tertiary institutions in September 1968. About 14,000 people, mostly students, rallied at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (‘Plaza of the Three Cultures’) in the suburb of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October. The police and the army moved violently on the rally: although the number of deaths has never been confirmed, it has been estimated at anything between 40 and 400. It became known as the ‘Night of Sorrow’.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro students rioted for two weeks in March after a student had been killed by police. Three more students died and schools were closed and Rio occupied by the army. Riots spread throughout the country and continued until 1,240 students were arrested in Sao Paulo in October.

In Argentina, 23 students were shot dead in May 1968, and 400 students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires on June 12 in protest at the government's repression. Exactly three months later, a student strike in the capital erupted into a bloody clash with police.

In Japan in June of 1968 students occupied the medical school of the Todai University in Tokyo — considered the most prestigious in Japan. The occupation was not lifted until January 1969 after a three-day battle with police.

In Italy, during 1968 most universities were taken over by students and run by democratic assemblies. This trend started at Turin in 1967, spread to Rome early in 1968 and then, as the student revolt in France revealed itself, spread with sit-ins and student strikes and increasing contact with workers’ movements, culminating in a strike two million strong in 1969.

In West Germany, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was the dominant radical student organisation. A student was killed by police in a demonstration against a visit by the Shan of Iran in June 1967: 20,000 marched in his funeral procession. At the annual Easter peace march in 1968, 300,000 marched in the midst of upheaval caused by the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke (‘Red Rudi’), one of the principal spokespersons of SDS. Further demonstrations followed the shooting and the Bundestag (parliament) was preparing emergency laws to control the social unrest. That itself led to larger demonstrations and strikes against the laws. On the day the emergency laws were passed, 20 May, demonstrations blocked traffic in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Hanover; in Munich, the tracks at the central train station were blocked by thousands of people; and in Bonn, 100,000 marched in protest. The Left in Germany took a more militant direction in the form of the Red Army Faction and the June 2 Movement but as a mass movement it began to decline after internal disagreements and a fear of ‘Left fascism’.

In France, the disturbances began at Nanterre University in March, initially about university issues. It was the heavy-handed response of closing the university in May that helped trigger the wider revolt. The violent police response to the subsequent student street marches and barricades brought support from workers and a General Strike was called for 13 May. On that day 800,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrators marched in Paris. Having earlier closed the Sorbonne in response to student protests, the Government reopened it after the 13 May strike, but it was then occupied by students and declared an ‘autonomous people’s university’. Workers also began occupying their factories — managers were locked in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. By 20 May 1968, ten million workers were on strike. Eventually De Gaulle responded by calling a new election and threatening a state of emergency — 20,000 troops were being prepared for the occupation of Paris. Workers won improved pay and conditions and drifted back to work. Police retook the Sorbonne on 6 June. Student demonstrations were banned on 12 June. De Gaulle overwhelmingly won the election later in June and a bill reforming higher education was passed soon after.

In addition to the above examples, student unrest occurred in countries as diverse as Uruguay, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

It was also the year of the birth of ‘liberation theology’ within the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

It had been American students who pioneered the ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupation’ (of buildings), starting at Berkeley in 1964. In 1968 student unrest continued in America, such as the ‘occupation’ at Columbia University, protesting the university’s involvement in weapons research and also local racism. Police broke up the sit-in in a five-hour battle in which 150 people were injured and 700 arrested. This, and events such as the Chicago Democratic Convention riot in August, led to the radicalisation of the student movement and some militant groups, for instance ‘The Weathermen’, were formed.

American student unrest, however, actually reached a peak two years later in May 1970.

The 1970 student protests were widespread. They started in April at Yale University with support for the Black Panthers, demanding the release of Bobby Seale, but at the end of the month Nixon announced the invasion (called an ‘incursion’) of Cambodia and the two issues melded. By mid-May more than 500 colleges and universities were directly involved with strikes and protests and by the end of May the number climbed to about 900. George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left, described the response to the May demonstrations like this:

During May, over 100 people were killed or wounded by the guns of the forces of law and order. Besides the four murdered and ten wounded at Kent State on May 4 and the two people murdered and twelve wounded at Jackson State on May 14, six black people were murdered and twenty were wounded in Augusta, Georgia; eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico; twenty people suffered shotgun wounds at Ohio State; and twelve students were wounded by birdshot in Buffalo.

The ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia was an event of a somewhat different kind. Student protests against the leadership of Novotny in October 1967 contributed to his replacement by Dubček in January 1968. In response to Dubček’s reforms the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 20 August. Students were again involved in the passive resistance that followed. They avoided confrontation (even the Government ordered the small Czechoslovakian army to remain in its barracks) so as to give no excuse to the Soviets for military action. Dubček was taken to Moscow on 23–26 August and agreed to water down the reforms in return for remaining in power, but resistance continued until Dubček was replaced in April 1969 and the new government cracked down on protests.

Why were students at the forefront of these protests and demonstrations? In simple terms, they were youthful, without the responsibilities that may have held back their elders and they were partially segregated on campuses which gave them a critical mass for action. And in an important sense they were continuing the struggles of the working class. They were not really a new middle class, as some have claimed, but an emerging new working class. Following WW2, intellect was being commodified and added to the production process.

The role of college training is increasingly important for the functioning of industrialized societies. Large-scale industry needs more technicians within its offices to coordinate space-age production, more managers to administer it, more psychologists to find ways of keeping employees working, advertising specialists to market the goods of the new consumer society and sociologists to maintain the system's overall capacity to function.

The radical students and those who followed are often referred to as the New Left, but what was new about it? It was inspired by the writings of people like Frantz Fanon and the speeches of Malcolm X; it utilised Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare, not to wage war, but to organise in new ways; it rejected not only the capitalist system but the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Communism. And although there were political elements to their demands, many demands questioned basic social assumptions of the time —‘the cultural conformity of consumerism, the oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and the segregation of youth.’ Human rights and the human condition were often central to or underpinned their demands. The students challenged governments for not living up to social ideals.

The movements were not successful, owing primarily to massive repression by the State — the number of deaths throughout the world testify to that. The workers who were involved often returned to normal work as unions reasserted control by negotiating improved wages and conditions.

The integrity of the New Left's vision and the high hopes of movement participants were some of its chief strengths, but with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the near-revolution in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pre-Olympic massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, and the election of Richard Nixon, the hopes of the New Left were dashed against the hard rocks of reality.

Another crucial factor in their failure was internal dissent, as debate centred on the way forward. As the State reaction was violent some leaned towards responding in kind. But many women in the movement turned away from that, seeing it as a ‘macho militaristic’ stance. There were internal inconsistencies within the movements.

The world has changed. Since then there have been successful people’s movements such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine but these occurred in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union when the respective States were less willing to intervene with force.

At a political level, thanks largely to Thatcher and Reagan, economics has come to dominate political discourse. The old idea of an equitable society has been subsumed, even within centre-left political parties, by the idea that equity cannot be achieved without a strong economy. There is some validity to that but the debate has moved too far in that direction. Those espousing social change are drowned out by the economists.

We also suffer from the fact that many revolutionary movements these days are in the Middle East among Islamic societies and they tend to be right-wing, especially with the fervour of the Islamic fundamentalists – that does not provide any sustenance to the Left in the West. (Although I note as a late addition to this piece that the Ukraine is at it again and more power to them!)

So where does that leave us? Part 2 to follow – A New World for the Left.

What do you think?