Leftward, ho
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Leftward, ho

LEFT TURN: Political Essays for the New Left. Edited by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow. MUP. 279pp. $27.99. Reviewer: JACK WATERFORD

This is a book of essays by writers who would mostly think themselves to be alienated from, or ostracised by, the Australian Labor Party which has been in power for five years. But the essential complaint of the essayists is that this is not a government motivated by leftish ideas. Some are Greens, some are Trots, one has never exactly recanted the hard-line Stalinism of her first 50 years, some are anarchists, and some would be rudely characterised, particularly by the Labor old guard, as luvvies, inner-city dwellers or moralist members of the chattering classes.

That they are out of power, and feel they exercise little influence is underlined not only by the critical tone of many of the articles, but a general lack of focus on what might once have been thought issues at the centre of any intellectual engine room of left-of-centre politics. There are articles, despairing of course, on Aboriginal affairs, and refugees, and the environment, as well as on sexism, feminism, the media, the decline of unionism, human rights and, of course, economic boycotts in support of a free Palestine. No doubt, these are all riveting topics - important even in their own right - but they are not, as most of the writers would despairingly agree, first-order issues for most Australians, and certainly not for the government of the moment. Some, but not all, of them should be. The essayists' criticism of the Gillard government is not of its moving too little too slowly, a frequent complaint of the left, but of actually moving in the wrong direction.

They do not have much to say about general economic management, education, social welfare, the general state of the world, international relations (apart from Israel), or even the individual, the family, the community and work, or liberty and happiness, other than, incidentally, in the course of demonstrating general disapproval of consumerism, liberalism, neo-liberalism and the need to coerce social change so as to protect the environment. Perhaps that lack of connect does as much to explain why so many of them are usually not engaged in the debates at the top table.

Not that it is all dreary. There's Guy Rundle, for example, in a brilliant essay on shopping malls, the shutting down of consumer choice and sensibility, and the need to think about some liberating of the working week and the city living environment. Like the best Rundleism, it rarely proceeds in straight lines, or short sentences, but the deviations, and casual insults, are often enjoyable in their own right:

''The relentless expansion [of corporates promoting brands, franchises and shopping malls] is contingent upon minimising risk in the haphazard sphere of consumption, and so enormous amounts of money and effort are devoted to standardising and patterning human desire over time, through the application of marketing strategies and spatial design, increasingly informed by the disciplines of psychology and sociology - often coming from university faculties that have budded off practical schools of marketing, as public funds for pure disciplines dry up (and as fat consultancies beckon).'' Go Guy: the book is worth reading for him alone.

Larissa Behrendt also has a thoughtful piece, while the bullets that Chris Graham lets fly, if as always a little scattergun, do not miss targets. But there is neither much in the way of policy prescription for the subjects being addressed, and even less to a more general question of whither the Left? Even who the Left? Or, (sigh), why?

Join Left Turn contributors Antony Loewenstein, Jeff Sparrow and Wendy Bacon at a free Canberra Times/ANU literary event chaired by Emeritus Professor John Warhurst on Wednesday, 6-7pm, Finkel Theatre, ANU. Bookings essential: events@anu.edu.au or 6125 4144.