Andy Blunden March 2003

Lindsay Tanner swims with the tide

Open Australia by Lindsay Tanner. Pluto Press 1999.

Before accepting nomination for the safe ALP seat of Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner built one of the biggest, liveliest and most open and democratic trade union rank-and-file groups in the country. He successfully overthrew an entrenched right-wing cabal from the Victoria branch of the Clerk’s Union and turned it into a modern democratic union. Before that, he was a Student Union leader at the University of Melbourne, where he is fondly remembered to this day. When he decided to follow the well-worn path from union leadership to Parliament, many were sorry to see him go.

Would Lindsay become a voice for the workers within the corridors of power? A few lines from his book make it clear that he has left his past well and truly behind him. In contrast to his own union work, squarely based on member activism, he advises today’s unionists:

“Unions will also have to come to terms with ... the fact that unions are service organisations operating in a market with a core business of industrial representations” [p. 141, my emphasis]

And on the ALP’s anti-union legislation:

“By participating in award restructuring and enterprise bargaining, the trade union movement has effectively accepted this reality.” [p. 140]

This legislation wasn’t the fault of the ALP government:

“As union officials often point out, some of these changes occurred under a Labour government. Yet although this agenda of deregulation and decentralisation has clearly been influenced by right-wing ideological imperatives, it is largely a response to the impact of technological change and the new economy.” [p. 139]

The struggle of labour against capital has given way to a new ruling class:

“This new group of ‘symbolic analysts’ [are] now the new dominant class” [p. 69]

And as for ‘economic rationalism':

“These changes must be seen for what they are: a complete transformation of human economic activity engendered largely by sweeping technological advancement. The facile notion that the Australian economy is a static entity in the process of being subjected to various ‘economic rationalist’ policies should be dispensed with. The policies described as economic rationalism are essentially a response to these changes, not their cause. They are occurring in various forms throughout the world, and in part are unavoidable”. [p. 94]

And this excerpt gives us the gist of the “realist” Lindsay Tanner: technology changes, economic activity changes as a result, politics changes as a result and the political parties, government, unions and so on must fall into line. Nothing in the changing terrain of global capitalism is the result of anything anyone does or decides to do, it just happens. In this scenario, government also becomes a kind of “service organisation”, specifically a “facilitator":

“The new role for government is that of facilitator. Governments must negotiate rather than mandate change. Power must be used more subtly if it is to be sustained. Government is more about intermediating between different interests and less about imposing majority will on an unwilling minority. The mainframe society is giving way to the network society. The industrial age model of government cannot survive this transition without radical change”. [p. 13]

And of course, as standard for the New Labour rhetoric, every point is made by contrast with an opposing “old” view. Either stick to the “old” form of “state-socialism”, or be part of what is “happening”.

Unfortunately, the book is less coherent than it could be, because, as a serving ALP politician, Tanner feels obliged to make his points, not only by contrast to an “old” view (supported by no-one) but also in opposition to positions of factional and party opponents, even when his own policy is indistinguishable.

Thus, Tanner is at pains to throw insults at “The Third Way”, while putting forward a view which differs only in detail. Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair must at least be given credit for being rather bold in the scope of what they argue, innovative and, in Giddens’ case, having put a hell of a lot of serious study into formulating their view (things which Tanner cannot claim).

So, Blair, Giddens and Mark Latham are insulted in terms like.

“To call the process the Third Way is ... mere cocktail politics: pour two nips of market forces, throw in a few platitudes, add a dash of socialism, and stir vigorously.

“This approach is extremely simplistic. It threatens to reduce the search for a new political framework to an empty quest for the swinging voter and the middle ground. The process should not be weighed down with labels which were out of date before they were conceived. We don’t need a new label for vacuous pragmatism.” [p. 52]

But when Tanner brings forward his idea of, for example, equality:

“Governments do not have to ensure that all citizens can achieve, but they do have to ensure that they belong. This transcends notions of equality of opportunity, but does not require equality of outcomes...”. [p. 54]

it sounds suspiciously like Anthony Giddens’ definition of equality:

“What then should equality be taken to mean? The new politics defines equality as inclusion and inequality as exclusion ..” [p. 102, The Third Way, Giddens]

and Tanner contrasts this view of equality with that of Amartya Sen, evidently failing to grasp the difference between Sen’s “functioning” and “capability":

“However, just as Sen asks ‘equality of what?’ we should ask of him ‘capability to achieve what?’ ... Although Sen is right to focus on the importance of individual characteristics in shaping the outcomes produced by social institutions, his central concept is ultimately unduly reflective of the very individualism which such institutions seek to constrain.” [p. 53]

Everyone else knows that it is not the individual tastes of ‘symbolic analysts’ that Sen is concerned with, but rather the unique development problems affecting countries like his own India.

The Latham Way is more or less openly derivative of The Third Way. Altogether, Tanner’s Way looks very much like the Latham Way, distinguished only by a louder but less successful claim to originality.

If there is a uniquely Tanner element to the mixture, it is the brazen appeal to economic determinism to the point of fatalism.

“The mainframe society is giving way to the network society. The industrial age model of government can no more outlive that era than absolute monarchy can outlast feudalism.” [p. 101-2]

And the same theme is repeated over and again ...

“The way in which governments exercise their functions is changing subtly. Command is slowly giving way to persuasion and negotiation. Concepts of mutual obligation, agreements with specific sections of society, and campaigns to influence social behaviour are increasing in prominence.

“The old concept of an elected government with a mandate to implement a comprehensive platform has broken down. The speed and scope of change has made it impossible ...” [p. 202]

“We must embrace the emerging new role for government, the role of facilitator. Government must seek to negotiate change both globally and locally. In the fluid world we are entering, the power to mandate change is fading. If we continue to practise the politics of the old economy we will make Australia ungovernable. As the mainframe society passes, the dominant features of industrial age government, control and command, must fade with it.” [p. 214]

Tanner quotes Jones quoting Marx:

“Jones reproduced a quotation from Karl Marx which highlights the significance of these changes taking place in the production process: ‘Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you the society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.’ We do not know yet what new forms of social organisation will be created by the Internet, but they are likely to be very different from those we have grown up with.” [p. 80]

It escapes why Tanner can’t quote Marx directly, but in any case, in passage of The Poverty of Philosophy cited, Marx is only making the limited point that Reason is not eternal, but like social life, subject to continual change. The steam-mill gave us not only the industrial capitalist but also the industrial proletariat, not only political economy, but also socialism. We know that globalised information-era capital gives us networks of enterprises, transnational markets, etc., etc., — the point is, what opposite to the rampant power of multinational capital has been brought into being by these new productive forces? A critique of the “old ways” is the last thing which is needed; what is needed is a critique of the new relations of globalised capitalism. Lindsay Tanner has chosen instead to be an advocate for globalised capitalism, to persuade us that There Is No Alternative, and that what is good for business is good for government, good for unions and good for everyone.

But unfortunately Tanner gives us not a single word by way of critique of global capitalism.