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Beyond right and left: a review

By Ian MacDougall
Created 10/10/2005 - 05:18

Last Sunday Webdiary published an extract from David McKnight's new book Beyond Right and Left; New politics and the culture wars in a thread titled The death of the Old Right: when conservatives become radicals [1]. Today, Webdiarist Ian MacDougall reviews the book and describes his own conceptual framework which 'gelled' after reading McKnight's work.

Ian MacDougall became interested in politics while a student at Sydney University. In 1958 he attended the International Union of Students Congress in the city then called Peking where he shook hands with Mao up on the balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square on the night of the October 1 celebrations during Mao's Great Leap Forward. Then, following Wilfred Burchett, Ian was only the second Australian to visit North Korea after the Korean War earlier that decade. 

With considerable academic qualifications under his belt, Ian retired from the ACT education system in 1995 and now spends time fattening cattle and cropping in northwest NSW, songwriting and music composition (3 albums and 3 musical shows to date), working on various inventions (one provisional patent application, no. 2004901510 for a hydraulic transmission for the good old Aussie windmill), with family, skiing, Aikido and pursues his current scientific interests in the ecology of Australian forests and the origins of bipedalism in primates.

Beyond right and left: a review

by Ian MacDougall


As suggested by the title he has chosen for his book, David McKnight has abandoned the belief that people can be allocated positions according to their politics on a simple line from right to left: from those who want things to remain as they are to those who want radical change.

What follows is in two parts: first a review of McKnight’s book, and second a discussion of issues it raises. My own conceptual framework, (which finally gelled only after reading McKnight on the subject) I set out in the second part.


McKnight says at the outset:

…I believe that we must recognize that the Right-Left spectrum of ideas has collapsed and that many old ways of thinking are finished. This is the first and most important step to advancing new ideas on the environment, the family, economic inequality, cultural diversity, and even deeper issues concerning purpose and meaning in our lives. All the ‘isms’ are now ‘wasms’. Many people instinctively feel – as I do – that the established spectrum of Right and Left is inadequate; this book will explore where such feelings might take us… (p. 3)

Eight chapters after that opening statement, McKnight argues for ‘a new humanism’:

The Right has already undergone its own transformation, and the result has been the combination of militant economic liberalism with a new kind of cultural politics based on values. This has given its political agenda an ascendancy over the disparate movements and ideas of the Left. In response, the Left must undergo its own renewal. As I have outlined… this involves reconfiguring some ideas of the Left and discarding others. Until this occurs it is hard to see how the decline in progressive politics can be stopped. (p 237)

“The decline in progressive politics” McKnight speaks of coincides with the rise of the values admired and protected by the Howard government, which McKnight opposes, and also the fruit of its policies: the growing inequalities of wealth and power, the decline of public health and public education at all levels, the commodification of everything and the counterattack on the Left’s perceived cultural dominance in Australia.

The ideas he thinks need reconfiguring are those relating to the family (‘rethinking family values’), and the problems of multiculturalism and immigration brought into prominence by Pauline Hanson and the asylum seeker issue following the MV Tampa incident.  He sees Hanson’s stereotypic thinking on race and immigration as being the other side of the ‘group thinking’ that motivates ethnic minorities to seek increased political clout through such bonding activities as the stacking of ALP branches. “Preserving the authenticity and integrity of a culture is not far removed from notions of racial purity.” (p 216)

Of the baggage he believes should be discarded, the main part is the idea of socialism; not only  as envisaged by Marx and Engels but also as found in the world’s communist regimes to date.

In the middle chapters of his book, McKnight does a very good job of covering the history and concerns of neo-liberalism: emphasis on markets (which give consumers considerable choice and producers vital information), deregulation, privatisation of state-owned enterprises, minimal taxes and the user-pays principle for remaining government services, free international trade, and application of the market principle to all public goods such as education, health and the environment.

He says:

There is more to this than meets the eye, including certain deeper assumptions about human nature. But 25 years ago, the small group of economists and philosophers who held these views were regarded as rather eccentric – even by the mainstream Right. They met in small discussion groups and debated each other in obscure magazines and economic journals. They dreamt of a world reshaped by these ideas. We now live in this world.” (p 51)

As McKnight points out, there is now no socialist movement to offer an alternative pole of attraction. The 150 year old socialist tradition has largely gone, unremarked and unmourned. The New Left, which rose in the 1960s and matured in the 1970s, has also joined socialism, at least as the world knew it, in the dustbin of history. “It’s now clear,” he says, ” that the socialist component of the New Left was the last gasp of an older Left, not the promise of a renewed one.” In its place, he sees the modern ‘broad’ Left (which to him includes members and supporters of the ALP, Democrats and Greens across to some current supporters of the Liberal and National parties.) But as far as he is concerned, all those people are standing on an eroding philosophical sandbank. “Tinkering with policies, presentation and leadership is not enough,” he says. His aim is the development of a ‘new vision’ for the Left, but he makes no claim to have one. Rather he wants to prepare the ground from which one may emerge. He is not the first to attempt this.

I would add here that the present policy crisis of the ALP, as reflected in the dismal polling of Kim Beazley, is reason enough to look forward to something new in that direction. The ongoing bunfights in the nation’s parliaments are more about the spoils of office than diverging ideologies. The Greens, with around 10 percent of the national vote, have replaced the ALP as today’s party of the Left. Yet as McKnight points out, conservationists are conservative in the truest sense of the word. It is their opponents who want change. That is, of forests and other natural features into dollars. The Greens by contrast want things left alone, (or at least, put onto a sustainable basis), not ‘fair shares’ of the spoils.

However far fragmentation of established politics extends into the traditional Right, it is probably not as far as McKnight would have us believe. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of our modern Australian economy is the fact that over the course of a year (1984) we went from high levels of protectionism and regulation to nearly zero, except for carefully selected exceptions like the professions, and with both major parties driving the change in tandem. Moreover, they met no significant opposition from business. (I would add the following observation: much of the clothing sold in Australia today under well-established Australian brand names is made in Australian owned factories in countries like Fiji. One can only conclude that the managements all did their sums and saw increased profits in moving operations offshore to take advantage of lower wages and conditions, then bringing the product back home to sell. Some workers lost much as producers, but many more appear to have gained in a strict material way as consumers. This applies across other industries as well.)

The triumph of ‘free-market’ capitalism, says McKnight, has coincided with a rise of job insecurity, stress on individuals and families, gambling, drug abuse and mental illness. “It once seemed commonsense that public goods such as water, telephone services, electricity, road-building and so on would be organised with the public good uppermost in mind. But now privatisation, marketisation, competition and deregulation … bring with them a new set of values. Universities were once institutions whose rationale was in the knowledge they produced and passed on. Today, universities jealously guard their ‘brand’ in the competitive market for fee-paying overseas and local students.”

In such passages, McKnight appears to be hankering after the good old days of his youth, when the society ran along more traditional lines, and at least we all knew where we stood. Now, he argues, communal human instincts at least as old as our species continually run up against self-interest and aspiration; in short, to the quest for purchasing power in the market. It was the commodification of everything which eroded and destroyed the “strongly cohesive” feudal system. Following the lead of the conservative historian of the market Karl Polyani, McKnight sees the benefits conferred by the rise of market capitalism as doubtful compensation for the relationships of mutual support that were destroyed in the process.

The idea of Right and Left originated in the seating arrangements of the French National Assembly after the revolution of 1789, with the radicals on the left of the chamber and the conservatives on the right.

In nineteenth-century Europe, the Left became more clearly defined as a socialist force, wanting to redistribute the wealth of the newly industrializing nations to the working class, while the Right became the description for those who thought the existing order worked well…

In the twentieth century, the Left and Right came to be defined more by those supporting a greater role for government – in either its social democratic or its Marxist form – and those who opposed such a role. During the Cold War, the Right and Left were defined by their attitudes to communism and anti-communism.” (pp 3-4) )

However, in the last 15 years, as McKnight has outlined on the Forum website, [1] not only have we seen worldwide the triumph of neo-liberal policies, but also an accompanying series of collapses: of the USSR; of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe; of anti-communism; of the social democratic ideals embodied in the ALP; and apparently, of any adequacy Marxism had as an explanation of the world and society.

It has not been all one-sided. There is a section of the Right strongly critical of John Howard’s government, which includes ‘social liberals’ like Robert Manne (former editor of the right-wing journal Quadrant), former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, and the Liberal MP Petro Georgiou. (For me, this change was best expressed by the decline and fall of the DLP during the Whitlam years of 1972-75, and the eventide tirades of that eminence grise of the Right, BA Santamaria. The latter had spent his political youth as a cheerleader for Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, while also leading the Catholic Social Movement (fighting communism in the unions), and simultaneously the ‘six acres and a cow’ agrarian fundamentalist National Catholic Rural Movement (which planned to build a new order once communism was finally defeated, and to turn Australia into a sort of Catholic Afghanistan – read Tom Truman’s Catholic Action and Politics (1959) on the subject.). But he spent much time in his last years attacking the ‘economic rationalism’ ascendant in both major parties.)

Moreover, many people who were on either the right or the left a generation ago have now moved more towards the centre, to become swinging voters. (This includes both my wife and me.) It is thus easy to agree with McKnight’s conclusion: “The consequences of all these changes in the world of politics has been profound. In shorthand, the whole framework of politics and philosophy, which was based on a linear left - right spectrum, has become almost irrelevant.”

David McKnight’s book is worth buying just for three of its chapters. These are: 3 The triumph of an idea – which is the story of the rise of neo-liberalism; 4 Neo-cons, ex-cons and the death of the old Right; and  6 The culture war and moral politics. Those last two chapters discuss in considerable historical detail what their titles suggest.

Recall that McKnight began by stating that “many people instinctively feel… that the established spectrum of Right and Left is inadequate; this book will explore where such feelings might take us…” He finishes up arguing for ‘a new humanism’, with a critique of neo-liberal capitalism for what it does to the environment and to the family – issues dear to conservationists and conservatives alike. My only critical comment on this is that while setting out a basis for values-based politics ‘beyond Right and Left’, he remains confined in the linear spectrum he denounces so effectively. Nowhere does he foreshadow or recognise any non-linear alternative.


In a nutshell, a major problem is encountered when we assign the wide variety of modern and historic political outlooks to positions on a single ‘left-right’ line or continuum, and we engage in the thought that this engenders. The interests of human beings are a bit more complex than is allowed by any such scheme.

David McKnight devotes the first three chapters of Beyond Right and Left; New politics and the culture wars. (Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2005. 298 pp; $24.95 pb) to the current ‘Age of the Market”. On page 48 we read:

The point of this chapter is not that markets are inherently evil. In later chapters I will argue that non-market societies are inevitably tyrannical and repressive. Rather, my point is that when a society relies excessively on market mechanisms this has consequences for the values and culture of that society. Markets encourage the values of self-interest at the expense of common interests; they promote commercial and utilitarian values in place of human and traditional values.

…The relentless march of markets is slowly but inexorably corroding these human values in ways that even their enthusiasts fail to comprehend.

But here I think we must ask: just what exactly is a ‘market’? The very word is annoyingly ambiguous, having ten different meanings according to the Macquarie Dictionary. Most importantly for our purposes here, a market is a population engaged in buying and selling a particular commodity. A market is people. Nearly all of us are in various markets as buyers for a good deal of the time, and most of are in a range of other markets as sellers. Any given market is thus an ant heap, with individuals entering and leaving. I have for example been at various times in the car market and the real estate market as both buyer and seller; in the labour market (mainly as a seller but also from time to time as a buyer); the clothing market (only as buyer) and at present am in the grain market as a seller. From my own personal and limited human perspective, there is nothing wrong with free trade in goods and services.

As “economic rationalists” have been eager to point out, there is a major similarity and overlap between free trade on the one hand, and free exchange of ideas on the other. The Protestant Reformation in Europe was a big factor in the rise of modern capitalism, modern science and philosophy, and the values associated with the Enlightenment. What was destroyed by the spread of trade and ideas included not only many traditional village and home-based crafts such as handloom weaving and smithing of various metals, in which sons and daughters would work alongside their fathers and mothers for generation after generation, but also the economic security and social dominance of the clergy, and with that the ideological foundations of feudalism. Any argument in favour of restricting free trade in goods can be easily modified for the restriction of critique – in the interest of those threatened in some way by it.

Nor does it say much for Australian democracy that the last time the people had a vote on free trade as against protectionism was in the Federal election of 1907, when the protectionists won, and set the agenda on the matter for the following 76 years. In their campaigns before the 1983 election, both Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition and Bob Hawke’s ALP were protectionist and interventionist in approach to the economy. By the subsequent 1984 election, both had switched to neo-liberalism. The ‘wets’ had been defeated in the Coalition, and the parliamentary leadership of the ALP had ignored official ALP policy and the party’s internal democracy and adopted policies identical in all but name to those of the Liberals. The 1984 ALP campaign director [2] complained that the Party lacked knowledge of 'the Government's intentions with regard to major policy areas ... the content and tone of the policy speeches'. This development was called ‘The Hawke-Keating Hijack’ by the sociologist Dean Jaensch in his book of the same title. In my view, it was a major setback for Australian democracy. Future historians may well date the decline to extinction of the ALP from this point.

(Of course, those in the ALP leadership at the time will argue that the policy turn was absolutely right and justified if economic woe was to be avoided. But while the jury is still out on that, it is completely beside the point. The ALP’s constitution and established internal democratic processes were flouted by its own parliamentary ‘representatives’.  If that is of no significance, then so is the membership of the ALP. The current crisis over the impact of Mark Latham’s personality on the organisation’s public standing probably would not have occurred except for this victory of the ALP politicians in the long historic fight with the ALP rank and file over policy and preselection. It was a case of (to paraphrase Louis XVIII), “Le Parti – c’est moi!” I am the party.)

We are all in markets both as buyers and as sellers. And here is the simple economic reality governing our behaviour: when we go in as buyers, we want sellers falling over themselves to offer us cut prices and special deals. We want in short, total free trade. But when we go in as sellers, we want a closed shop. We want rivals who might undercut us locked right out of it. This is the fundamental reason for the rise not just of craft guilds and trade unions, but of empires as well. Buy cheap and sell dear has been the principle underlying human trade going right back into prehistory. Sellers best connected politically want special privileges, and want them denied to their rivals. Much of politics reduces to these sorts of questions of political economy.

The traditional Left has supported the trade unionists’ attempts to close their shops to competition from other workers and thus hold the bosses to ransom. It is a jungle out there. Exorbitant executive payouts testify to that. Capitalists have traditionally wanted to want to buy (labour) cheap and sell (product in a protected market) dear. But ironically, in a closed system it is in the interest of every capitalist that every other capitalist pay his or her workers the highest possible wages. Otherwise there will be no market for the first capitalist’s product.

It is interesting that while stressing the inadequacy of thinking of parties and individuals as being in a linear arrangement from left to right, like washing hung out to dry on a clothesline, David McKnight does not consider the alternatives around today. There are a number of relating websites, including The Political Compass [3] and the Wikipedia summary of it [4], both of which advocate looking at politics on a two dimensional scale, as on a map, where a person’s position can be specified using north-south and east-west coordinates: the x and y coordinates familiar to mathematicians.

Most advocates of such arrangements place the radicals at the left end of the x axis (west on the compass cross) and the conservatives appropriately at its right end (east). Using such a scheme, we can choose a position for all individuals and parties somewhere along that east-west line. As Lenin, Hitler and Mao all gained power on a program of significant change, they would all be classed as ‘radical’. Reformers like Luther and Henry VIII, and revolutionaries like Cromwell, Robespierre, Jefferson, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg, Gandhi and Peter Lalor (of Eureka Stockade fame) would all get lumped in together on the left, as would Ghengis Khan, as would Stalin. This I suggest is clearly unsatisfactory, because of other important differences between them.

To name Gandhi here is to raise another significant issue. It is not easy to put a fence between politics and religion. Our categories have to be able to accommodate religious leaders in cases where they finish up acting at the head of what also amount to political movements. This is not easy if we confine ourselves to two political categories.

But if we start using the y axis as well, we can spread these leaders and their positions out in two dimensions. If the north-south line (y axis) is used as a scale of regard for the personal freedom of others (liberalism vs authoritarianism, with again following convention, authoritarians to the north and liberals to the south), then for starters Luther, Jefferson, Garibaldi, Luxembourg and Gandhi move to latitudes significantly to the south of those occupied by Hitler, Mao and Ghengis Khan. Henry VIII was an authoritarian, and arguably to the right of Ghengis Khan, because he sought and caused less in the way of ruthless change, at least in his own lifetime. At the same time he was probably the more liberal of the two, so should lie southwest of Ghengis Khan on the political map.

What we are doing here is sorting political positions into four major categories, as against the two of the old left/right scheme. Using ‘radica’l in place of ‘left’ and ‘conservative’ in place of ‘right’, the four categories are: radical authoritarians; radical libertarians; conservative authoritarians; conservative libertarians.

The desire to bring about change vs the desire to prevent it are two important motivations of the characters who strut both present and historical stages, hence radical vs conservative. Likewise the desire of some to impose their will on all those within their reach (authoritarians) vs that of the latter to resist them (libertarians). Power corrupts. The scheme has relevance.

However it still lacks discriminatory power, for it is unsubtle enough to lump say, Hitler and Fidel Castro together as ‘radical authoritarians’. Arguably, we need a third axis, and again, one with present relevance and historical validity. And given that the other two are north-south and east-west, this third will have to be the up-down z axis in terms of mathematical coordinates; the path followed by an object dropped from rest above the floor. So let us now place our two dimensional political map on a table in an otherwise empty room of, say, cubic shape. We can now start to arrange history’s players, including ourselves, in three dimensions.

I now suggest that the human variable to be placed on this z axis is attitude to privilege. Up near the ceiling we find those who favour not just raw privilege, but privilege in an institutionalised form, which means privilege by inheritance or other permanent connection that makes it self-perpetuating and independent of any pretensions of merit. In Europe they are the aristocracy, somewhat battered in France and Germany, but still very much alive in Britain. In India, they enjoy the rewards of what is left of the caste system, and elsewhere can still be found trying to transform social classes into castes – a somewhat natural progression. Where officer cadets in the Russian army are sons of serving officers, we also have the principle at work. Kim Jong Il, dictator of North Korea and son of Kim Il Sung, founding dictator of North Korea, illustrate it well. In the colonial world, it was the privilege of one ‘race’ in its domination of another. It still is in Rwanda and elsewhere. Finally we have perhaps the most pervasive institutionalised privilege of all: that of males over females.

(Arguably the most important product of the Enlightenment before the French Revolution of 1789 was its withering critique of institutionalised privilege. Once targeted, it proved indefensible. (Read Tom Paine.) No rational argument, for example, can justify the modern existence of the British House of Lords, even in its present quiescent state. Mass political inertia is all that now preserves it. The same is true in nearly every other case, save of course, for the elites protected by military dictatorships in various countries. The local elites here generated and protected behind the cyclorama of “economic rationalism” would of course be well aware of this.)

Down at floor level, below the table, we find such people as the Diggers and Levellers of the English Revolution, the Sans-Culottes of the French, the Anarchists of the Spanish republican period (1936-39) and other extreme opponents of such privilege. We can call these the Includers as against the Excluders favouring privilege and found up near the ceiling.

Thomas Jefferson, the liberal author of the American Declaration of Independence and aristocratic owner of 187 slaves, can be found floating somewhere above the table, but not nearly as close to the ceiling nor as far west (to the radical side) as Adolf Hitler. Jefferson was a revolutionary. He also reconciled himself to black slavery, while at times working to have it abolished. So he would have viewed as totally outrageous and abhorrent any scheme to ‘purify’ America racially through a program of mass extermination, though such a campaign was actually in progress on the frontier. On the other hand, Hitler’s program of radical change was based (totally) on the idea of the superiority of a disciplined and strongly led ‘Aryan race’, and he worked to create a Europe in which his ‘race’ could live the lives of natural aristocrats, lording it over slavs and other such ‘inferiors’. That is, those not so ‘inferior’ as to merit outright extermination. He wanted his ‘Aryan race’ to be none the less totally subject to his own will, and to that of his eventual designated successor. This scheme, of course, met with much approval from many of those who stood to benefit from it.

But it is paradoxical, because Hitler is normally regarded as being on the Right of the German politics of his day. He was after all a bitter opponent of the Communists, and his whole program saw the future of Germany in terms of colonial expansion to the East, into the lands of the Slavic and other ‘non-Aryan’ peoples. He was also supported (with less than total enthusiasm) by the aristocratic landowning Junker class and the big industrialists. But given that politics in Germany for a greater part of the period 1918-33 was dominated by rivalry between Nazis and Communists, this was hardly surprising. Where the upper classes justifiably feared the Communists’ program to strip them of all their property and power, Hitler gave the appearance of far greater amenability. He was a risky option, but far better in their view than the most likely alternative.

The three axis system would place Hitler far closer to the ceiling than either Stalin or Mao, based on attitudes to institutionalised and hereditary privilege. Neither Stalin nor Mao encouraged it, at least, not to the extent that Hitler did.

So we need a small amendment to the conventional ‘political compass’ arrangement. There are very few human beings around on this planet who want no change at all, not even the Taliban. Some religious fundamentalists of various persuasions are suspicious of scientific and industrial progress, but most favour it. Of course what (say) the Greens would regard as progress, differs somewhat from that envisaged by (say) a timber company like Gunns Ltd. The real and established political divide on ‘change’ is between redistributive change (dispersing wealth) and non-redistributive or concentrative change (concentrating it). It is the former that is usually associated with the traditional Left, and the latter with the traditional Right and its trickle-down economics. Seen in this light, Hitler remains on the centre-right of the chart. The only wealth he redistributed was that of the millions of people he murdered.

The left-right division gave us two boxes to sort political figures and their positions into. The political compass gives us four. The political cube gives us eight. (We could of course keep going until we had as many political categories as there are people in the world. I choose to settle for categories based on separable attitudes to change, power and privilege. They are all we need.)

We have gone from a line to a map to a stack of eight boxes. We can now just consider the categories we have and the people who might be assigned to them, and then decide if the system is useful and gets us anywhere worth the going. Here are the eight categories, with my first suggestions of (provisional) examples. Explanations provided on application for those who need them.

  1. Exclusive authoritarian radicals:  Henry VIII, Stalin, Hitler. (Margaret Thatcher as a borderline case.)

  2. Exclusive authoritarian conservatives:  Ayatollah Khomeini. (Margaret Thatcher again as a borderline case, along with John Howard.)

  3. Exclusive libertarian radicals: Thomas Jefferson

  4. Exclusive libertarian conservatives: Bertrand Russell

  5. Inclusive authoritarian radicals: Christ, Luther, Garibaldi, Trotsky

  6. Inclusive authoritarian conservatives: St Paul, St Augustine (?), St Dominic (?)

  7. Inclusive libertarian radicals: Gandhi, Karl Marx, Woody Guthrie (a folksinger of considerable  political influence); Kropotkin (?) Bakunin (?)

  8. Inclusive libertarian conservatives: Buddha

Some boxes are made to order for those in them. Others fit less well, but are still the most appropriate of the range available. The important thing is that everyone can find a place in one of these categories, and that politics is a conflict between alliances formed among them.

I would call myself an exclusive libertarian radical. Mildly exclusive, in that I always lock my car and my house against thieves (I am not as redistributive as Christ might have liked); neither would I welcome invasion by squatters (I am exclusive to that extent). We all have our limitations. But this illustrates an important point. Private property as such is probably the most important form of economic regulation there is. Behind every dry, deregulatory ‘economic rationalist’ mask, one can find an exponent of some kind of institutionalised privilege. Note well the masks worn by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, John Howard and Peter Costello.

In connection also with the exclusivity principle, I draw your attention here to Robert Manne’s Sending Them Home: Refugees and the New Politics of Indifference, (published as Quarterly Essay 13, 2004). From a ‘Left-liberal’ perspective, Manne covers the issue of refugees and asylum seekers very well. And he says this:

The Department [of Immigration] has now, to its great satisfaction, regained control over the twelve thousand places of the humanitarian element of Australia’s migration program. Australia is, accordingly, more or less an asylum seeker-free zone. In the eyes of Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone and John Howard, we are now the envy of the Western world, for, in the instantly famous words of the Prime Minister during the 2001 election campaign, almost alone among Western nations, “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.” (p 89)

That statement of Howard’s is one which Manne finds particularly abhorrent. In common with other commentators, he has quoted it adversely elsewhere in the media. So let us amend it, and recast it into a form of which Manne and the rest of Howard’s critics on the matter would presumably approve: “We will not be deciding who comes here, nor the circumstances in which they come.”

Would that have been better? I for one have enormous sympathy for the refugees and asylum seekers, and even for the economic migrants who are trying to pass themselves off as such. Who but the totally heartless can blame them for wanting a better life? If I were in their situation, I would be doing exactly the same. But I am against open borders, as implied in the above recast of Howard’s policy. And nowhere in any of Manne’s or anyone else’s commentary pieces that I have read to date have I found a statement boldly in favour of open borders. Manne himself, asking what should be done “about the increasingly punitive anti-asylum seeker system introduced progressively from the early 1990s, whose most important features are mandatory detention, temporary protection, stiff penalties for people smugglers, naval repulsion at the border and Pacific island processing centres” says the question “will take considerable time to resolve; the arguments are complex; there are genuinely great difficulties to resolve.” (p 89). He does not say anywhere “We should open the borders, because we have no business trying to decide who comes here, or the manner in which they come.” Instead, having attacked the position taken on the matter by Howard, he chooses himself to consign it to the too-hard basket; understandably, because it is very hard indeed.

While immigration remains restricted, all Australian citizens live in a situation of privilege vis a vis a large part of the rest of the world. And because this privilege is passed by inheritance from generation to generation of citizens, and conferred on outsiders only at the discretion of governments those citizens have the power to sack, it is institutionalised just a surely as the British peerage.

Most Australians are in favour of border controls: the 2004 election proved that. So we perhaps should ask the obvious next question: Why? Come to think of it, why does any country have border control?

A history of passports can be found on the Canadian Government website [5]. It is interesting to note that, although travel documents are an ancient invention mentioned in the Bible, between 1861 and 1914 one could travel freely around Europe without any travel documentation at all:

The rising popularity of rail travel in the mid-19th century led to an explosion of tourism throughout Europe, and caused a complete breakdown in the European passport and visa system. In answer to the crisis, France abolished passports and visas in 1861; other European countries followed suit, and by 1914, passport requirements had been eliminated practically everywhere in Europe. However, World War I brought renewed concerns for international security, and passports and visas were again required, as a "temporary" measure.

Imagine then a John Lennon world in which all human beings could travel as they pleased, where passports and border controls were unknown. What would be wrong with that?

The 20 million refugees presently registered with the UN’s agency (UNHCR) would probably say “nothing at all”, and who could blame them? A far greater number of people would choose economically motivated migration, as all Australia’s non-indigenous free immigrants have done since the 1790s, and as no doubt many of the forebears of the aborigines did millennia earlier. Again, who could blame them? Does not a dog in the manger attitude to Australia’s land and resources fly in the face not just of the internationalism traditional on the Left, but the Christianity and liberalism that underpins the philosophy of much of the Right?

The hard fact is that the consequences of opening the borders could be as disastrous for present Australian civilisation as lack of immigration control was for the country’s first inhabitants. (The extreme case: It only took from 1802 until about 1825 for unrestricted European immigration into Tasmania to destroy not only the culture and economy of the original Tasmanians, but most of their whole race as well.) In the 10 years following the discovery of gold in 1851, the non-aboriginal population of Australia trebled. Immigrants came pouring in; most understandably, given the circumstances they left behind in Europe and Asia. Again, who could blame them? And in 1942 the country was threatened with a fourth wave of uncontrolled immigration, this time from northeast Asia. Consciousness of these undeniable historic facts is widespread in Australia, and arguably underlies the popular support for conservative policies on immigration control. Who could reasonably expect otherwise?

With uncontrolled immigration, I would have grave misgivings for the health and welfare of Australia’s whole present population, and the future of its culture and liberal institutions. Because I too want to conserve them, that makes me in this dimension a conservative. Quota settings under immigration control are of course, another matter entirely.

Again, the total deregulation of trade, allowing a capitalist like me to make a private deal with any customer or supplier I wish worldwide, is only to be welcomed. But it is important to remember that before federation, there were severe controls on the movement of goods between the Australian colonies. Hence the various railway gauges, and the customs payments that had to be made at Albury by those travelling from Sydney to Melbourne. Hence on federation, Section 92 of the Constitution, which makes trade between the states absolutely free, and Section 117, which prevents any state from blocking free travel across its borders.

A federation of the nations of the world might one day solve the opposing problems and do the same, but not any time soon as far as I can see, though the EU is a welcome start in that direction. This restriction on the free travel of labour has been overcome by capital, in that as we have seen, capital is free to migrate out of Australia to places where the labour laws suit it better. Such are the open borders you have when you are not having open borders. For capital to use its influence to open the borders to cheap labour could well be to invite communal riots and disorder such as wracked the goldfields in the 1850s, and the Sydney furniture trade around the time of Federation. Understandably, all countries have border controls of some type. Exclusiveness is very common.

I will conclude on this note: Charles Darwin once said in another context: “Looking back, I think it was more difficult to see what the questions were than to solve them.” That applies in every sphere of life, political economy included. David McKnight has made a very important contribution towards framing the problem presently experienced by all those who cherish the Left’s old values of liberty, equality and fraternity. His book should do much to help revitalise Australian democracy. We certainly need it.



Beyond Right and Left; New politics and the culture wars [6]

David McKnight
Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2005.
298 pp; $24.95 paperback.

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