Following on from my earlier post on social democracy as the natural partner of the free market, I read with interest Guy Rundle’s recent piece in the Arena magazine (also found here). Interesting argument: Kevin Rudd had an emancipatory vision of Australia that owed much to his experience in Sweden and China (as if the two are similar) that was simply to big for the Australian Labor Party, if not the country. While in government, the party might have enacted pieces of that vision, but they couldn’t communicate the vision that lay behind it. These include the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, and the education reform. The catch is that Tony Abbott basically agreed to all these main points in order to become prime minister, thereby being dragged leftward and betraying everything that had inspired him to enter politics.

As usual, Rundle makes you think. But the argument begins to become unstuck when he suggests Rudd was more like Lenin and Mao than any traditional Labor leader. This makes the basic mistake of assuming that communism and social democracy in our day are of the same ilk. As a colleague from Nanjing asked me recently, ‘why do western commentators make the mistake of equating social democracy and communism?’ But Rundle’s argument really falls to pieces when he closes by adopting the old line that Labor had betrayed its vision by yoking its reforms to ‘unargued economic growth’. That is, the supposed vision of emancipation and a better society was tied in with an alienating and impersonal vision.

Gonski [the education reform] was oriented to human flourishing, but also to integrating education into productivity. The NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] was designed to alleviate the horror of many disabled people’s lives, but also to provide passages back to work. The NBN [National Broadband Network], it was hoped, would open huge new possibilities for difference and new ideas, but would also yoke Australia more tightly into an online world dominated by capital, and, as we now know, monitored by the NSA. Thus, at its heart, there was much that was contradictory with the ALP’s originating social vision (p. 19).

This simply misses the point that social democracy has always geared its reforms to the flourishing of capitalism. Under their guidance, education reforms ensure greater job participation; welfare like the disability scheme is designed make people producers and consumers for longer; technological advance provides yet another angle for market expansion and integration. These are not anomalies but very much part of the social democratic vision.