About polciv.org

 

In the article below Peter Baldwin, a former Australian politician affiliated with the left-wing of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) throughout his political career, outlines the rationale for this website and what he hopes it can achieve. The article is open to comment.

 

A common cliché in politics is the claim that we live in particularly important times, and that the political choices we make now will have an exceptionally significant impact on the future—you know: “this election is the most important in many decades, if not in the history of the country, and will decide the kind of future we bequeath to our grandchildren”. How many times have you heard that?

But what if it were true? What if we are currently in just such a historical moment? What if it were true in a much more profound sense than even the most dishonest politicians might have claimed?

A group of philosophers at Oxford University have recently begun debating this proposition, and its implications. How would it affect the relative weight we should accord to the near-term and more temporally distant consequences of our actions and decisions? What implications would it have for our ethical obligations?

What would it mean if, as some of these philosophers contend, we are at a “hinge point” in the future of our species?

 

How should it reshape our political thinking? Are the current ways of conceptualizing the lines of political and ideological division, the significance we attach to different issues, our understandings of “left” and “right”, our weighing of the long and the short term, and the way we carry on political discourse, fit for purpose? These are the matters we plan to explore on this website.

So, are we at a historical hinge point? Here are three reasons for thinking that we are. I apologize for focussing on the negatives in what follows; maybe we are on the cusp of a new technology-empowered Golden Age. But for the positive potentials to be realized we need a realistic appreciation of the risks we face.

Firstly, there seems little doubt that we are in the midst of the most important shift in the geopolitical balance of power in centuries, with the emergence of China under the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as an economic, technological and military superpower, currently on track to displace the dominance of the United States and other Western democracies.

Such transitions have happened in the past, most recently the displacement of the British Empire by the United States during the previous century. But that was an essentially benign transition, the two powers both democracies with a great deal in common in terms of values, political philosophies and intellectual and religious traditions—they were allies in virtually all the major international conflicts of the past two centuries.

The rise of China, in de facto alliance with Russia, Iran and others, means we are entering an age of renascent autocratic great powers, and a diminution in global influence of the liberal democracies, with some of the latter—especially and most importantly the United States—marked by extreme polarization in their domestic politics.

As argued in several articles on this site, we face the prospect of having to contend with a totalitarian global hegemon, able to manipulate the international rule-based order to suit its purposes, and even to dominate and constrain the internal politics of the democracies. What would this mean, and how can this be avoided, or at least its negative effects mitigated?

The situation is further complicated by the revival of militant political Islam as a global force, one which is inherently hostile to the universalist liberal values of the West since the Enlightenment. As shown by developments in Afghanistan since the Taliban victory, Islamist regimes have no compunction about entering de facto alliances with other autocratic regimes, setting aide their philosophical differences to oppose their common enemies.

Secondly, we live a time when considerable attention is being given to the matter of “existential risk”, with the creation of a number of specialist centres devoted to the topic. In public debate this is often equated to the threat posed by human generated climate change, especially the claim that we could be approaching some key “tipping points” that could cause damaging and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate system.

However figures who have looked carefully at the broader question of existential risk, such as the British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, have pointed out that climate change is just one of a number of such risks we could have to deal with this century.

Some of these risks are of natural origin, for example the danger of the earth colliding with a large “near earth object”, a comet or asteroid. In any given year this is a very low probability event, but one that really could exterminate us. Stephen Hawking thought this posed the greatest threat to life on earth. Thankfully we may possibly, for the first time in human history, have the wherewithal to deal with this threat, given sufficient advance notice.

 

However what makes our era unique is the emergence of powerful new technologies with great potential to do good or harm, either by accident or design. Among those are biotechnology (we are the first species with the ability to manipulate our own genetic code), nanotechnology, or the risks inherent in physics experiments some of which aim to replicate conditions not found in nature since the Big Bang. We could be be getting an early taste of dangerous biotech experiments with the increasingly probable hypothesis that the Covid-19 pandemic originated from a Wuhan lab leak.

There is another type of risk that, while it may not threaten our survival as a species, could profoundly alter the nature of the civilization we inhabit. In the early days of the information technology revolution, especially the internet, there was a general optimism that this would enable a new birth of freedom, making speech restrictions unenforceable, and autocratic governance untenable in the long term.

We now know better. As well as its liberatory potential, information technology has provided dictatorships with new tools to comprehensively monitor and control their populations, making possible the creation of surveillance states beyond even Orwell’s fictional dystopia. We see this possibility being realized now by the CCP dictatorship in China as it harnesses all the technological tools at its disposal to ensure universal compliance with its dictates, detecting and suffocating dissent at the nascent stage.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) solves a fundamental problem with Orwell’s 1984 scenario—how to analyse and make actionable the mass of data collected by all parts of the surveillance system. Not surprisingly, the CCP regime plans to dominate AI and related technologies like quantum computing and to leverage them to exploit the huge databases, including facial images, it can collect without effective legal constraint.

Worse, as is becoming increasingly apparent with each passing day, the new technologies coupled with the CCP’s growing industrial and military capacity, makes possible the exercise of regime power well beyond China’s borders, including in the liberal democracies, as meticulously document by Clive Hamilton and others.

 

In the longer term, most AI specialists expect the achievement within the present century of artificial general intelligence (AGI)—human like intelligence, with the ability to recursively improve itself, leading to an “intelligence explosion”.

Who will control these technologies? And how can safeguards be established to ensure an emergent super-intelligence will behave ethically and not act against human interests? There is general agreement that safeguards, to have any chance of success, need to be put in place well before AGI is achieved.

What would be the implications of CCP dominance of this space, especially given the regime's doctrine of civil/military fusion that requires all research results be made available to the military? It is hard to overstate the importance of these questions.

I think there is a very serious danger that some of us, and future generations especially, could end up in a world dominated by a global totalitarian hegemon. Not an extinction risk, admittedly—but then neither is climate change—but a development that would fundamentally change, for the worse, the conditions of life for anyone who values liberty, democracy and accountable government.

Thirdly, at the very time that the above developments are taking place, the democratic West is obsessed with navel-gazing, preoccupied with its own version of a cultural revolution, one that systemically demeans and devalues the singular achievements of the West, which it treats as little more than an unbroken litany of colonial exploitation, racism, slavery and oppression.

The rise to dominance of the identity politics ideology has led to a political discourse that balkanizes societies along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, juxtaposing “oppressor” and “oppressed” identities, highlighting what divides us rather than focussing on our common humanity, and perpetuating rather than resolving grievances.

Rather than being seen as individuals, with agency, people are expected to speak as members of their respective identities, with members of "oppressed" categories insisting on their victim status irrespective of objective circumstances (check out the sickening Meghan Markle interview by Oprah Winfrey interview for a particularly sickening example).

Those in "oppressor" categories are expected to be grovelingly apologetic for their inherited guilt and “privilege”. And woe betide members of the oppressed who speak out of turn, contradicting their prescribed scripts. They are treated as deviants, sometimes labelled as Uncle Toms or Native Informants—a sinister new term we see cropping up in academic discourse. Traitors to their identity.

This ideology has achieved extraordinary sway, dominating education at all levels and having great influence in the media, corporate and political spheres. It has been a major factor in the intense polarization of political discourse in recent times, with those challenging the ever-changing identarian orthodoxies denounced as not just wrong, but morally deficient, their words actually constituting, rather than just inciting, violence, undeserving of a hearing, liable to punishment by the online mobs of the “cancel culture”.

This would be bad enough in its own right, vitiating real gains for the very people it claims to champion, such as the black people in America who face spiralling crime rates due to the disempowering and in some cases defunding of the police forces that are the only protection these populations have against unrestrained gang violence.

 

Worse, however, it is happening at the very time as emerging external challenges to liberal civilization are becoming all too apparent, leading democratic societies to become distracted from addressing these challenges and fostering a culture of civilizational self-loathing, as described by the French writer Pascal Bruckner in his book The Tyranny of Guilt.

We need a new politics, one that transcends the old left/right division, always a crude and unsatisfactory way of characterizing political differences, but now well and truly past its use-by date as the understanding of what these labels mean evolves in increasingly paradoxical directions.

There needs to be a recognition of the magnitude and significance of the civilizational challenges that we now face, and a willingness to debate the dilemmas these pose openly and honestly. We must make a serious effort to find common ground to defend and strengthen core features of the civilization we inherited grounded in the Enlightenment and the West’s religious and philosophical traditions, key aspects of which have now been adopted by nations outside the West.

We need something like the coalition across ideological lines that emerged during the Cold War as liberals, conservatives and social-democrats joined forces to counter the threat of communist totalitarianism. Today, such a coalition must mount a concerted effort to counter the pernicious and pervasive influence in all parts of our societies of the identarian ideology, which has eaten away at our civilizational self-confidence in the face of the great challenges that we now face.

 

And what about the Left? Having spent all of my active political career affiliated with the ALP Left I should say something about that specifically. As I mention above, and have argued at length elsewhere, I regard the Left's embrace of identity politics, and especially its current "wokeist" extremity, as a tragic misdirection.

Given which, if we reject identity politics, especially its current “wokeist” extremity, then what is left of the Left? Can there be a political home for those who, like me, detest identity politics but nonetheless have always, and continue to be, drawn to an egalitarian politics? Here are a few suggestions, that I intend to elaborate in detail on this site. Firstly, there needs to be a change in the nomenclature we use for talking about politics. Certain terms, especially “left” itself, “progressive”, and I would add “equity” and “social justice” have been so skewed in their meaning, as to be pretty much useless.

I have argued elsewhere that the identarian ideology is, on any reasonable interpretation, reactionary, atavistic, indeed racist—in key respects the “left” has turned into the opposite of what it claims to be. We have seen a ghastly mutation of what were originally entirely noble movements to end racism, achieve women’s equality, and eliminate legal persecution of homosexuals. So I have no qualms whatsoever about calling for its repudiation.

In saying this, I do not suggest we revert to some left-wing Golden Age. The Left has always had to contend with a “totalitarian temptation”, which for earlier generations took a different form: Marxism.

The late political philosopher G.A. Cohen spent most of his adult life as a humanities academic defending Marxism, becoming one of its most competent apologists. According to Jane O'Grady writing in The Guardian he "was arguably the leading political philosopher of the Left. He was the most important interpreter of Marx in the analytic tradition".

After finally breaking with it fairly late in life, he wrote a short book (ignore the strange title) that provides one of the best short accounts of why Marxism seems so compelling to many people, and what is fundamentally wrong with it.

He also, atypically of Marxist theorists, actually had a sense of humour.

 

Cohen places considerable emphasis on what he terms the “obstetric” motif in Marxism, by which he meant the insistence that the transition to socialism would be an organic process as historical forces unfold, akin to childbirth. According to classical (as distinct from its modern "Cultural Marxism" mutation) the task of a revolutionary party was to “ease the birth pangs” of that transition.

It was emphatically not the job of socialists to get into the details of how the new society would work—for example to ask, if the market mechanism is done away with, what resource allocation method would replace it? How would a socialist society work in practice?

According to Cohen, this mentality:

… appears to justify a criminal inattention to what one is trying to achieve, to the problem of socialist design ... seeing the creation of socialism as the application of a recipe conceived in advance.

You might ask, how influential was Marxist ideology on a social-democratic party like the ALP? The answer, when I first got involved in Labor politics in the early1970s, was that it was considerable, especially at the Left leadership level, key figures in which collaborated surreptitiously with the Communist Party (some allegedly even holding “double tickets” in both the ALP and the Communist Party). In his book The Family File, the son of the former General-Secretary CPA refers to ASIO records obtained under Freedom of Information Act that document the extent of this collaboration.

It partly accounts for the tenacity of the ALP Left’s resistance to dispensing with the party’s “socialization objective”, an absurd anachronism that persists to the present day. In more practical terms, it explains the hopelessly incoherent approach of the Left in party debates about privatization of publicly owned enterprises, with public ownership seen as an inherent good rather than being justified by practical benefits.

Then there was the Marxist attitude to morality, that disdained making any sort of moral case for socialism, or even for equality, dismissing it as utopian rather than scientific thinking. The communist utopia was a historical inevitability, not something that needed to be justified. Cohen again:

Yet Marxists were not preoccupied with, and therefore never examined, principles of equality, or indeed any other values or principles. Instead, they devoted their intellectual energy to the hard factual carapace surrounding their values, to bold explanatory theses about history in general and capitalism in particular.

So no need to make a moral case for socialism, let alone grapple with the practicalities of how it could work. The attitude toward morality set the stage for acquiescence or silence about the atrocities committed by communist states so typical of the old Left. I see no value in eschewing modern identity politics and going back to the “good old days” when the Left was Marxist with the illusion of a worldview buttressed by "theory".

A far better starting point than either identarianism or Marxism is modernized version of the old social-democratic program, a focus on practical measures to achieve greater equality, but one that is cognizant of past errors, and prepared to learn from them.

So what could a revitalized egalitarian politics look like?

First, it needs to incorporate a rock-solid commitment to the values of liberal civilization, things like freedom of speech, the rule of law, elective democracy. These are the foundation on which an egalitarian politics should seek to build , not deprecate and tear down, as it faces unprecedented threats in the coming decades.

Then there is a need to do what Marxists disdain to do: Clarify what we understand by equality—there is a lot to this, since as the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has pointed out, all plausible political positions favour equality of something, but differ in how they answer the question: equality of what? Conservatives typically focus on formal legal rights; liberals on equality of opportunity; followers of Rawls on "primary social goods" whereas others want equality of outcomes. Sen favours equality of "capabilities", the ability of people in various circumstances to realize their life goals.

 

This is a pivotal issue that, for the identarian Left, has receded into the background as they focus on group rights and group identities, and the politics of recognition. In a future article I intend to lay out a point of view about this that draws heavily on the work of the English political scientist David Miller in his book Principles of Social Justice, a most enlightening work that draws extensively on empirical research indicating that people have surprisingly nuanced views about equality that an egalitarian should draw on in devising an appealing political program.

A worthwhile egalitarian politics should take what the philosophers term a consequentialist approach in devising and evaluating policies. Does this or that policy actually achieve the goals it is supposed to further—such as improving the lives of the disadvantaged? This is so obvious it seems hardly necessary to spell it out, were it not for the long and sorry record of disastrous policies defended by the old Left, and the modern identarians and ideologues of all shades.

Has Black Lives Matter activism actually improved the lives of disadvantaged black people? On the contrary, it has turned the urban areas they inhabit into violent, dysfunctional urban wastelands—but to say that out loud borders on the sacrilegious. Has the policy switch in aboriginal affairs since the Whitlam years that stresses valorising traditional indigenous cultures improved the lot of those communities? The evidence is strongly to the contrary, not least impeding efforts to address endemic violence in some communities (for a devastating account of this check out The Politics of Suffering by Peter Sutton).

To sum up, a decent egalitarian politics should take as foundational the values of liberal civilization, and make common cause with conservatives and classical liberals in its defence and consolidation. It should aim to layer on that foundation effective policies to reduce inequality, flatten steep social hierarchies and improve the lot of the least well off.

And it should be prepared to honestly assess, and constantly re-evaluate, whether policies to pursue these values actually work, and to ditch those that do not. It should eschew ideological shibboleths, the fatal pathology of both the old and new Lefts.

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