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Future shock: the ideology of Mark Latham

Webdiarist Chris Saliba wrote John Howard's love and disappointment for Webdiary. His blog is at chrissaliba. On the same subject, see also Webdiarist David Green's Vote Latham for a Liberal Government!

Future Shock: the ideology of Mark Latham

by Chris Saliba

Shakespeare taught us that the past is prologue. Both John Howard and Mark Latham are currently exhorting voters to look to the future and ignore the so-called irrelevancies of the past. Howard’s past gave us many clues as to what the future could hold. There were his remarks about Asian immigration being slowed down. That was in 1988. Thirteen years later in 2001 he gave us the Tampa crisis, replete with strident anti-asylum seeker language. He said he was through with a GST, then staked his political career on it.

Most have concentrated on Mark Latham’s past with the Liverpool council. Did he manage it responsibly? Did he leave in wallowing in debt? The issue failed to get much media traction. Trudging through arcane council finances, no one seemed to be able to decide the truth of the matter one way or another.

What seems to have been largely ignored of Latham’s past is his literary output. Celebrated as the new generation ideas man of the Labor party, the media over the year has not had much to say about the half dozen books he has written or contributed to between 1990-2003. There have been a few murmurings here and there, an occasional quote, but nothing sustained. This is surprising, because his literary output provides a sustained ideological view and program. Over that thirteen-year period, Latham’s thinking has not changed much, if at all. I dare say it will not change much in the future. This could have consequences for all of us.

It seems fair to say that a study of his numerous writings may give a clue as to how Latham will try to mould a future Australia. While John Howard fought with gusto his own culture war, Latham has enough in his intellectual armory to keep him on the warpath for some time to come. Fasten your seatbelts Australia, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

When I first read Latham’s oeuvre, the one item that genuinely surprised me was his concern for the community’s lack of what he terms ‘social capital’. Previous to Latham’s becoming opposition leader in December 2003, he had prided himself on his bellicosity. ‘I’m a hater,’ he brazenly told The Bulletin’s Maxine McCue. It became headline news upon publication.

In the media he styled himself a rough-hewn street fighter, in print he mused on social problems like the Dalai Lama. Many have tried to crack this particular Latham enigma. Who is the real Latham? pundits often ask.

The entire Latham program can perhaps be best described in this manner: shrinking the welfare state and expanding globalisation. Where will this leave the people caught in between? The secret lies in a key Latham theme: social capital. What is social capital according to Latham? It’s the space in between markets and government, where people come together and help each other. In essence, it’s a recipe for self-reliance, eschewing government ‘hand-outs’ – a Latham anathema.

Indeed, Latham has much to say about the welfare state. He calls all government programs for welfare ‘vertical social capital’, while the homegrown, do-it-yourself type he terms ‘horizontal social capital’, the latter of course being the preferred Latham model. Government delivered services show the weakness of social capital.

In Social Capital (1997) he wrote:

High levels of mutual trust not only make society and its economy more efficient, they are also an important means by which a consensus can be constructed for the handling of collective interests. By this I do not mean a consensus expressed in the form of coercive enforcement or authoritarian government – which, once deployed, frequently involve high public transaction costs and generally signify the inherent weakness of social capital. 

Latham frequently throughout his writings paints the state in the most negative terms. Any sort of programs aimed at redistribution of wealth or attempts to address inequality are described as ‘coercive enforcement’ or ‘authoritarian government’.

In Social Capital, he even goes so far as to see the distribution of wealth by government as ‘...the classic Hobbesian answer to the dilemma of collective action: obedience to the judgement of some greater source of decision and sanction making’. This is a grim view of our current democratic system.

Latham’s vision of a society based on social capital is essentially utopian. While tooth-and-claw capitalism will devour all around us, and government services and welfare will be ‘devolved’, he sees us naturally progressing towards a society based on trust and ‘connectedness’. This despite his frequently admitting that globalisation has a tendency to treat the weakest in society poorly.

Latham explains further in Social Capital the benefits of ‘horizontal social capital’:

A distinguishing feature between vertical and horizontal social capital is the question of ownership. Vertical relationships, by virtue of their essential inequality, are open to exclusive ownership. The patron – in most systems of modern governance this signifies the state – own and controls the source of coercion. By contrast, under horizontal structures, social capital cannot be appropriated as the exclusive property of any of its participants. It belongs to all and relies on the actions of all to sustain it.

I thought our current democracy performed this very function. Of course it’s all a very airy-fairy idea. How would Latham’s social capital model be an improvement on our current democracy? How would it really work? Are we really just clients and the government our patron?

This theme of social capital is so pervasive in Latham’s writings that he even brings it into his one book not concerned with government and economics. What Did You Learn Today? (2001), his book on education, is mostly a rave about the so-called Information Age and all that it will bring us. In some parts it reads like an Oprah-eque hot gospel, with plenty of state of the art buzzwords. We are told enthusiastically about networks, collaborative learning, learning communities, education action zones and radical knowledge creation.

The first page declares, ‘Society has always relied on education to teach people the virtues of reason and tolerance. But today, in the new economy, learning is much more than a pathway to social enrichment’.

Here he means education is about upward mobility, or his ladder of opportunity. Education for self-improvement, or to merely learn more about the world around you, has been superceded by the demands of globalisation. Its function is primary for wealth generation, and not much else.

He even goes so far as to suggest that traditional universities and schools have passed their use-by date. ‘We have reached the limit of what schools, colleges and universities can achieve, even at best-practice performance. The public sector needs to lever additional networks and synergies of educational effort.’ He also declares, ‘universities have lost their 900-year-old monopoly on learning’.

Latham sees education in purely vocational terms and as an engine room for the national economy, hence his impatience with traditional education and ‘social enrichment’. Education for anything outside of preparation for the workforce meets with a blank stare, hence his grim prescription of ‘earning or learning’.

Education creates more jobs, higher employment rates, and a booming economy, all leading to more social capital and shrinking the need for the welfare state. I don’t disagree with any of this. Full employment and a reduced welfare state (depending on what you mean by welfare) should be our goal. That goes without saying. What I am saying is that the only value he sees in education is wealth creation, which seems a narrow vision for someone who claims to be so passionate about the subject.

Some who have studied Latham’s writing have found him optimistic about human nature. I don’t see this. Rather, I think he is optimistic about his own philosophy. In Social Capital Latham is rather pessimistic about Australians ability to fulfill the demands of social capital. He writes, ‘The point to be confirmed, especially by the standard of social capital studies internationally, is that Australia cannot be regarded as a high trust, densely civic society.’

Latham’s ideas on social capital, globalisation and the welfare state find their fullest expression in his 1998 tome Civilising Global Capital. The ideas in this book can be found in embryo in his 1990 pamphlet, Reviving Labor’s Agenda. Reading the first half of Reviving Labor’s Agenda, you marvel at how little his thinking has changed.

For example, anticipating his later writings on social capital he wrote in 1990, ‘There are real cost savings for all levels of government in encouraging voluntary organisations to reach their full potential for community service.’

Reviving Labor’s Agenda also begins a frequent Latham refrain: the pernicious effect government has on people’s lives. In it he says, ‘Local people had just about given up on the capacity of the State and Federal Governments to significantly improve their quality of life.’

And, ‘The ALP is increasingly seen as an entrenched part of the political establishment – that amalgam of institutions which tells people what to do.’

Civilising Global Capital argues that globalisation has eroded national economic sovereignty. Globalisation, we are told, brings many good things. Latham also admits its down side: instability and social upheaval.

The old arguments of Left versus Right, labour versus capital, applied to the problem of globalisation will no longer do. The new way forward is the Third Way, which Latham calls the ‘new radical centre’, a political program which declares ‘the era of large-scale, centralised, paternalistic government to be at an end’.

In Civilising Global Capital he writes, ‘The new radical centre is formed by moving to the centre of the old Left/Right spectrum and, most critically, lifting above this plane of politics through the expression of new and radical social values (conceptualised as the apex of a triangle, with the Left/Right divide forming its base.’

While Latham concedes that globalisation does much damage - ‘The chase for capital across the globe does not treat weak neighbourhoods well’, especially to the most vulnerable in the community - he does not make any negative moral judgements about it, but remains strangely aloof, calling citizens to greater effort in coping with tooth-and-claw capitalism.

Again, from Civilising Global Capital:

‘The capacity of the nation state and its governance to halt the spread of globalisation and the pace of social change is not strong (even if, indeed, this were desirable). The most effective form of collective action in an open economy and society now lies in ensuring that each of a nation’s citizens can respond adeptly to the contingencies of change.’

One of the big surprises of Latham’s writings is his criticism of liberal democracy. Publicly he has spent a lot of time talking up his idea of grass roots democracy, with town hall meetings and the like. On the page it’s a different matter. For example, in Civilising Global Capital, when describing the pressures that globalisation is placing on governments, he describes liberal democracy as a ‘hegemony’.

‘These tensions have placed new pressures on the hegemony of liberal democracy,’ he writes with regards to globalisation. It’s as though under performing liberal democracy is at last getting its comeuppance. I found this a peculiar word to use. My Penguin dictionary describes hegemony thus: domination or leadership of one name, group etc. over others. Then there is this in Civilising Global Capital:

‘Liberal democracy, it is said, does little more than register the self serving interests of competing groups.’

As a way out of these liberal democracy blues, he makes this startling suggestion:

‘In the Asian values paradigm, a solution to the tension between global capital and local politics involves the downgrading of liberal democracy.’

This is worth contrasting with what he wrote in 1990’s Reviving Labor’s Agenda, demonstrating the consistency of his thought on these matters. He again calls for markets and globalisation to dominate politics.

‘While Australians have focused debate on the distribution of wealth, our competitors in East Asia have developed policies which create both wealth and overwhelm the interests of political factions.’

On the welfare state, Latham’s Civilising Global Capital sounds like Margaret Thatcher:

‘The days of social democracy’s embrace of a centralised, over-administered, nanny state need to end.’


‘The welfare state has not been able to overcome new, entrenched forms of economic and social exclusion. The path to social equity no longer lies in the dogma of state planning and control, whether economic or social.’

While Latham has spent a lot of time spruiking his Ladder of Opportunity, his writings are strongly critical of positive discrimination policies. Much of what he says on this topic appears like an intellectual version of Pauline Hanson’s hostility to so-called ‘special interest groups’. In Civilising Global Capital he describes John Rawls’ theory of social justice.

Rawls argues that principles of justice are those that would be agreed to by rational citizens calculating their own interests from a position of relative ignorance. That is, they do not know enough about themselves, their background, personal capability or position in society to know how the principles decided on would affect them in practice. This is the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ from which an abstract theory of social justice can be constructed. In the development of the principles of justice, no citizen is necessarily advantaged or disadvantaged by the outcome of natural chance or social circumstances.

This so-called ‘veil of ignorance’ – meaning we are all equal as long as we don’t think about our position in society – leads Latham to argue that policies designed to help disadvantaged groups in society are essentially unjust. You could argue that, behind this ‘veil of ignorance’, Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, could plead a victim of social injustice because he’s not eligible to pick up a dole payment.

Latham writes in Civilising Global Capital:

Sound social democratic practice needs to avoid zero sum choices in the construction of the social contract. Programs of positive discrimination – a prominent part of the recent tier of state activism – make this point clearly. By definition, these measures establish a new set of rights for certain categories of citizens at the expense of others.

And again:

In the execution of positive discrimination policies there are clearly defined winners and losers. Behind a veil of ignorance there is no rational reason why an unsituated citizen would regard these policies as socially just; citizens could just as easily benefit from them in the future as they might suffer.

Nor does he just stop there. Latham also lists the negative aspects of humanitarian migration, going so far as to list under performing cultures and their unemployment rates (check out page 250 of Civilising Global Capital). He almost seems to be arguing for a migration policy based on race, but of course doesn’t go that far, merely leaving the argument hanging in the air. Here is Latham on humanitarian migration:

Migration policies such as these – which, perversely enough in the public arena, are often cast in the name of social justice – simply add to the extent of underclass neighbourhoods in Australia’s major cities. In the new labour market there are virtually no jobs available to unskilled migrants.

Latham’s more recent books, The Enabling State (2001), a collection of essays to which Latham contributes five pieces, and From the Suburbs (2003), bang on with all the same themes.

In The Enabling State Latham talks of a contradiction in his thought, but doesn’t explore it fully. He acknowledges globalisation wreaks havoc on the weak, but frets that this isn’t pulling people together to develop the skills of social capital. On the contrary, people are more distrustful. While discussing globalisation, he will not brook any real criticism or in-depth discussion of its negative aspects:

A terrible irony now confounds our polity. At a time when people need to be closer to each other, so as to cope with the challenges of globalisation and the Information Age, social trust and morality appear to be in retreat. The demands of modern citizenship require an upsizing of society.

From the Suburbs continues the themes Latham was writing about back in 1990’s in Reviving Labor’s Agenda:

Ultimately, the belief that we have to choose between government bureaucracies and market forces is incorrect. It neglects the space in the middle where people come together in voluntary action.

Contrast this with what he wrote in Reviving Labor’s Agenda:

If public policy allows, people can respond to market incentives while sharing a concern for the community in which they live.

Latham’s dream for Australia is a utopian dream, replete with numerous contradictions. The Leader of the Opposition sees us perfected as honest toilers, shouldering the burdens of globalisation, getting ‘stuck-in’, throwing off the oppression of the welfare state, and thus living in social harmony.

Would he really try to steer Australia in this direction? Most likely. As a moral improver, he may feel compelled to. As he wrote in Social Capital:

Governments have a role to play in smoothing the path to social trust. Through their influence over issues of institutional design, they can create an environment which maximises the potential for horizontal social capital.


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