Old School Socialist Teaches New Left A Lesson
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Old School Socialist Teaches New Left A Lesson

Old School Socialist Teaches New Left A Lesson

Dominick Bondar sat down with self-professed communist, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) campaigner and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Sydney, Salvatore Babones.

As Mon Droit found out, Salvatore’s observations of the standard of politics in Australia are quite sensible and plausible for someone who professed: “I personally describe myself as a communist… most of the time…”

The undertone of our discussion with Salvatore was that It has become apparent that the so-called ‘new left’ is deviating from its base. Looking toward Australia, Salvatore expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of the Australian Labor Party. He argued that a true ‘labour’ movement should “engage the trade union movement” not distance itself, as he proposed Labor had.

In a call-to-arms for progressive politics in Australia, he argued that “in countries where unions have gone into terminal decline, left politics have gone into terminal decline. Without unions there is no support for progressive politics … its simply scientifically valid!”

He pointed at the factional infighting that appears on our newsfeeds and national television daily, suggesting that “the unions may be on the right [factional] side of the Labor parties, but make the left stance of Labor possible”

This truism has been manifested in Labor student politics, where in the last couple of years, Labor’s Right and Left have aligned themselves to ensure total victory on campus, mutually assuring each other’s platform.

In what he refers to as an “indispensable alliance”, Babones points out that “the unions provide financial and organisational support that makes mass left politics possible”. He says that when the unions are gone, “the people from the left will still be there, and there will still be voices, but just like in the US, these voices will be mainly academics, not people who are actually engaged in society outside of academic journals and academic conferences”.

Reflecting on his role as an academic he said that “it’s easy for us to forget we are not that important, it’s much more important for the progressive movement that people in the private sector have progressive views”.

Here, Salvatore hits a nerve in the political world. He points out that the Labor Party cannot continue churning out career hacks that lack experience in the private sector.

He argues the common-sense, centrists in the broader left are disappearing and that “if you leave organisational support up to extremist organisations, they often have extremist agendas, which are unlikely to resonate”.
Imagine if the only organised political force on the Left were SAlt.

When we asked him who was to blame for this terminal decline of the unions in Australia, Babones’ answer was clear and uncompromising.

“I blame the left. I blame global labour parties for not supporting their foundations. The reason they don’t do it, because Labor politicians would rather hang out with bankers and millionaires” giving the examples of the Clintons and Tony Blair.

He doesn’t blame the right, and rationally extrapolates that the right will be the first rejoicing at the death of the union movement. He says the left blaming the right for the death of unions is “like blaming the left for higher taxes on companies”.

Blaming your ideological enemies for positions they naturally support is circular. Commenting on what he called the “hallmark” Howard years and the introduction of voluntary unionism, which he said was “ultimately the death of unions” in Australia, he proposed that “in 40 years from now, unions will represent 10% of the workforce – mostly in government”.

Salvatore criticised voluntary unionism, the fact that there remains a “free rider problem”. He reflected on the fact that at the university roughly 15% of the staff are members of the union, suggesting that “if that’s the best you can do at a university with people who are at no risk of losing their job by joining a union” voluntary unionism has achieved its goal. He quipped, “Why join a union when you get the benefits for free?”

Babones points the finger of blame at recent Labor leaders, and their divergence from the union movement as being the point of no return for unionism in Australia.

“Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were in power for 6 years, they didn’t reinstitute compulsory unionism. They didn’t do this I assume because its unpopular, its unpopular to make people pay their union dues, its making people take the medicine that’s good for them. If a ‘Labor’ party doesn’t do that as its first act in office its suicidal in the long term”.

This dilemma is core to the survival of left politics in this day and age. However, the problem doesn’t just appear in Parliament, its starts in the playground. Having taught in the American system, Salvatore observed that there are some stark differences between the Australian and American university systems.

“Like Australia, students are very politically active in the US, the only major difference is that US student politics is less self-centred. What I have never seen is student protests about university fees, [in America] its just never been an issue”.

Salvatore was emphasising a sentiment felt by much of Australian society – a disbelief in the entitled mentality found in Australian university students.

“None of the (USU) candidates came to talk about real-student-issues, they came to talk about national politics”. What we are seeing is hack candidates, who should instead be running on platforms to provide “benches outside Eastern Avenue so you don’t have to sit on the floor”.

Salvatore’s common-sense approach to student politics reveals that there is something unique about the Australian university sector – we have become spoilt with the provisions of a bygone era and have developed this toxic sense of entitlement. But it also reflects the out of touch self-centred nature of this new-left style of politics, both on the student politics level and on the national stage.

Testament to this is the higher education reform debate, where the left are hamstrung by their self-interest and act not for the betterment of society at large. When we asked Salvatore about the rights and privileges debate, he argued that higher education “is neither a right nor an individual’s privilege” but rather “the responsibility of society”, a provision that has to be, but not necessarily forced to utilise.

Salvatore said that “from a progressive standpoint fees aren’t obviously bad” and that the deregulation reforms are “actually a progressive measure”.
He argued that society should be making “those who benefit pay the bill for their education”. He then asked the hypothetical: “why should many people who never went to attend university pay for universities? I disagree with it.”

Refuting the claims that the higher university fees heralded by the fear mongers of the left Salvatore made gave the clear logical argument that “Those who graduate the University of Sydney will occupy relatively high positions in society, they should be spending more for their privilege in society”.

Addressing the looming question of inequality and disadvantage, he said: “Yes there are poor students at the University of Sydney, but those poor students will become richer individuals because of their University of Sydney degree”.

Perhaps inadvertently channelling his inner-conservative, and paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher, Salvatore championed the role of the individual, reiterating that “just because your parents are poor doesn’t mean you will be poor”.

The rhetoric that the system is being ‘Americanised’ and broken is simply wrong according to Babones. “The US system does work for the universities equivalent to that of the University of Sydney”. Combatting the arguments that increased fees are bad, he argued that “people don’t take it [their degree] seriously if its completely free … my problem is not the fees but the dynamics of student behaviour.”

His blueprint for higher education is a large-scale and open sector that in a de-commodified approach encourages education rather than outcomes. “I have no contradiction in a plumber having a philosophy degree. In my ideal world, universities aren’t about upskilling people in the job market. What universities should be about is educating people.”

It seems that in typical fashion protest has become the only way for the new-left to win this debate. We asked the old school socialist whether this was always the case, and whether protest had become the only outlet for the left to be heard in in this higher education debate, bringing to attention the attacks on Julie Bishop, Sophie Mirabella, the hijacking of Q&A and even more appallingly the Senate, Salvatore responded in a very measured approach.

“I do not think that it’s a wrong way to be heard, the right to protest noisily is an important right in democratic society. I don’t condemn these tactics, but I don’t feel its very effective as you know ground level organising of ordinary people”.

It seemed like we opened a Pandora’s Box, as Salvatore lept at the opportunity to discuss the Abbott Government.

Responding first to the 2014 Budget, and such protests he witnessed and continues to witness he said: “The budget was a conservative, Liberal Party budget but not extraordinarily so. It was my surprise when I read the budget I asked myself ‘Is that all’?”

“I spoke with my colleagues and they thought it was an extreme, extreme budget and my thought was that in most of the world, if a party wins an election it goes much more aggressively. It was very mild, and I was surprised that the response to the budget was so vitriolic”.

Elaborating on this point Babones suggested that Washington has exported its style of politics and Australia has increasingly started to reflect it.

He argues that in this “highly professionalised” style of public debate “you’re more likely to make the news with a gaff than a serious policy”.

Essentially, ‘old-school ‘social democrats like Salvatore Babones are hard to find in this political climate – it is even harder to find such a voice of reason from the left side of politics.

It can be said that ‘an old dog can’t learn new tricks’, but in the case of the left, they not only fail to acclimatise to contemporary debate but also ‘forget their old tricks’.

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