The Failure of Pragmatism and Social Democracy's Weakness

I discuss the ALP's central doctrine of pragmatism and the limits it inevitably runs into as a political project.

Date published: 13/7/2023

The Australian Media

A few months ago, the ALP passed legislation increasing tax for people with over $3 million in their super. THREE MILLION. Undoubtedly – a great thing to do, and something that is seemingly uncontroversial. Who the fuck needs more than $3 million in retirement savings? Yet here comes the backlash. How it’s a “tax on normal Australians” you hear on The Australian. The supposed “gambles” taken you hear from the Australian Financial Review. This absolute dogshit article from UNSW affiliated outlet “BusinessThink”, demonstrating that yes – studying business at university leads only to interminable brainrot.

Earlier in the year just before the budget, the current Australian treasurer Jim Chalmers published an article in The Monthly. As expected, most major media outlets came out the woodwork scaremongering about the supposed “abandoning” of the Hawke-Keating legacy, when it was blindingly obvious to any reading not in incredibly bad faith that this was nothing but a re-affirmation of the ideas of Hawke-Keating. The media, as in the previous examples, finds itself predominantly criticising the ALP from the right (with a shift away from Hawke-Keating implying a turn to the left).

Around the start of the Albanese government’s term, probably about late into 2022, the government introduced legislation to reform industrial relations (IR) processes. Now this naturally was met with huge backlash from the business groups, as it introduced a way for small business to be forced to come to the table under the new “multi-employer bargaining” system. Capitalist media being nothing but a front for the interests of business, we begin to see it everywhere. Wall to wall criticism of the IR reforms from the press, from Murdoch to Nine-Fairfax, all interviewing the same heads of industry for the entire period where the bill was making its way through parliament. Lost in all of this was just how much of a dead give-away the bill was to business. The bill substantially undermined the Better Off Overall Test, which had been used by the small amount of unions that give a shit about workers to strike down enterprise bargaining agreements (document that decide the wages for people working where there is an agreement through the enterprise bargaining system with the business) that was worse than the Award (minimum) wage. The bill had FARRR more egregious changes, and you can see the RAFFWU’s list of ways it fucked over workers here. But of course, you can’t ever satisfy business when it comes to exploitation of their employees, because it is never in their interest to give workers a fair say in their pay. And let it be known that absolutely ZERO major media outlets reported on the damage that this bill would and will do for workers. Not a single one. Not the ABC, not even the so-called “loonie lefties” at The Guardian. The only way I found out was through my union writing in opposition to these changes. If there was any single news story that hardened my views about capitalist media, then here it is.

Dominance of Pragmatism

So how do these stories of varying ridiculousness of media bias relate to the ALP? Well lets now turn to what is in my opinion the central ideology of the ALP – that of ‘pragmatism’. This is the only refutation that ALP members give whenever someone criticises their party from a left-wing perspective. And I can guarantee this, it’s honestly quite amazing how they all just have the exact same line for every single criticism. You could make a good case that 90% of the people espousing support for the Labor party are robots sent straight from Anthony Albanese. On all issues, they don’t try and defend their actual policies, they just say that they’re being ‘pragmatic’.

But what does this mean in a capitalist society? With capitalist ideological hegemony so strongly embedded into Australian society, as seen through the disgusting amount of media backlash upon any policy Labor attempts to achieve, and simultaneously with the success of the ALP in striking down any major left-wing resistance to their programme via the Accords, this can only mean a further and further rightward shift. A simple contrast between the 2019 and the 2022 Labour federal election campaigns illuminates this. In 2019, Labor ran on policies, and as minimal as they were, there was still actually something that could be described as a policy platform. What they experienced from these policies was huge pushback from the press. Most infamously, and most ridiculously, came the completely false talking points of a “death tax”, which still rings in the ALP’s mind, traumatising them into doing nothing. They learned their lesson and adapted this for the 2022 election via a rightward shift, where they ran solely on an anti-LNP platform, with absolutely no policies to speak of. And this is a process repeated throughout the modern history of the Labor party, whether the rightward shift be from economic conditions or from pressure from the capitalist media, or both.

And moreover, what does this mean for Australia’s foreign policy in a US-dominated (for now) world? It can only mean a continuation of the same old policy – that is of complete subordination to the US. One of the most egregious examples of the ALP defender’s mind virus of ‘pragmatism’ comes from the Youtuber friendjordies and his video ‘America SCAMS Australia’. In this video, we see even the most devout Labor shill fail to be able to defend the absolutely foul AUKUS nuclear submarine agreements. But a disagreement with the Labor party is no reason to distract from a good Labor propaganda piece, and throughout the rest of the video friendlyjordies does incredible mental gymnastics to argue that Australia needs to agree to AUKUS otherwise they would get coup’d by the CIA, and in doing so implies that this opinion is shared by the ALP itself. Now this argument obviously fails completely upon consideration of the fact that Australia is spending billions on further re-organisation of the military outside of the AUKUS deal, but why let ridiculous things like ‘fact’ get in the way of a good dick-sucking of the ALP? And of course, he cannot conceptualise the ways in which the AUKUS deal further antagonises China, and thus jeopardises our ability to further our ties with countries that are actually nearby to Australia (such as Indonesia). Instead, he can only conceptualise it in terms of a “waste to the Australian taxpayer”. In sum, in this video friendlyjordies adapts the framework of pragmatism to justify even a policy he disagrees, arguing that Labor MUST do this as it is the only ‘realistic’ way to present Australia on the world stage.


Putting aside the effect that notions of “pragmatism” has on the political leanings of the ALP, I’d now like to turn to something definitively more abstract – that is the concept of “anti-politics” and its relation to the ideology of pragmatism. In contemporary Australian politics, something that cannot be avoided is how much people just don’t give a shit. A large amount of people often have what could be described as superficial reasons for voting, and in the most extreme example, many people vote based on how nice the volunteers outside of the polling stations are.

Of course, to suppose that this is an individual issue and screaming that people need to “educate themselves” is absurd. In my opinion, the main reason why the general population have found themselves disaffected from politics in spite of forever increasing house prices and permanently decreasing real wages, is because of something I would describe as the de-politicisation of politics, i.e. the death of ideology. What I mean by this is the slow and gradual removal of certain subjects or perspectives from the political discourse, and the main area where this strikes me in Australian politics is how people judge the parties regarding “the economy”. Often it’s remarked that the Liberals are better than Labor with the job of ‘managing the economy’. But what does this even mean? To characterise the economy in this way, to quantify all measures of economic strength into a scale between “good” or “bad” is stupid, because the economy is not something which serves a singular interest. For example, while a rising real wage is good for the vast majority of people in the economy – the workers, it’s absolutely awful for capital – for both the obvious reason of having to pay their employees more and secondarily because of the big scary inflation monster.

So what does this actually mean? Turning back to the concept of pragmatism, we see in very nature of advocating for “pragmatism” the supposition of a post-ideological party. Instead of turning to real economic politics, the Labor party finds itself focusing on “corruption” and other uncontroversial issues that don’t require any political willpower. Thinking about the Labor party has a whole, what does it actually stand for? They’re nebulously defined as centre-left, but have a think – what does the Labor party actually stand for? Especially this new Albanese federal government, what do they actually ideologically bring? I don’t know, and I doubt there exists anything.

Overall, the ideological shifting of Labor to the right via the concept of “pragmatism”, while providing results in the short term, only leads to further and further disenchantment of the general population from the political process in the long-term. Only through ideology can they reverse this trend, but this is not a possibility for the Labor party as will be talked about in the next section.

Corporate Capture

It feels almost too well-known to mention, but the ALP and LNP receive huge donations by the same groups of businesses. As identified by Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather, the biggest of these donors, and consequently the largest sectors of the bourgeoisie in Australia, are the mining industry and housing finance industry. And as further discussed by Max Chandler-Mather, all the top brass of the Labor party are constantly in talks with business and industry, to the point where Labor, instead of a political party, represents industry itself.

And ultimately, this is where the idea of pragmatism leads you. To a complete capitulation to the housing investors, to the mining CEOs, the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers of the world. And this is why the shift towards the concept of “pragmatism” is irreversible, once you’ve offered yourself up to the highest bidder, its incredibly difficult to jettison these same interests away from your party. Labor no longer has any interest in sticking up to the social democratic values of long-forgotten past, and we are left with nothing but a soulless husk of what once was. While the adoption of policies slightly to the left of the ALP can be achieved – it is not to be found working within the ALP, but rather from the threat of parties to the left, such as The Greens or the Victorian Socialists (where left-wing pressure was so strong in the 2022 Victorian election that they got an (albeit limited) revival of state-owned energy).

The Limit of Social Democracy

When I was reading Elizabeth Humphry’s book How Labour Built Neoliberalism, there was one quote which stuck out to me. In 1975, Jim Cairns, a significant figure in the left wing of the ALP, spoke at the ALP Federal Conference:

“At present, the economy is a system that is determined by what happens in the private sector. … I know the capitalist system is exploitative and leaves many genuine desires of many people unfulfilled. I also know that the jobs of most of our people depend on private industry. I know, therefore, that we must follow policies generally in the interests of the private sector.”

This conference is largely seen as the beginning of the strong ideological shift of the Labor party, where it turned away from the social democratic values that it had upheld for its existence up until that point and embraced neoliberalism. What we see in the argument presented by Cairns is in my opinion the origins of the ideology of “pragmatism”, which guides the Labor party to this day.

Here we see Cairns, instead of advocating for a truly socialist society free of exploitation and alienation, he instead accepts the sole rule of the market. While it would be unwise to take the current day Labor party in good faith, as I aimed to demonstrate in this post, I don’t see a reason to take this argument from Cairns in bad faith, as it poses a strong question for people who espouse those social democratic beliefs once held by Labor. To adapt his point into more Marxist terms: How are you going to sustain social democratic programs under a capitalist system where the rate of profit is forever falling? And here we come to the final point of this post. Pragmatism is a rational response for a social democratic party under capitalism, and any attempts to reconcile the state of capitalism and the old social democratic ideas will only find themselves failing. As both political theory and history proves time and again, reformism can and never will be the path towards worker’s power.

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