Remember when you were a child and you used to ask your mum for a new toy and she’d say ‘you have plenty of old toys that you hardly ever play with, why don’t play with them?’ Sometimes you would. After going through the old toy box, you’d rediscover an old favourite – a Game Boy that just needed new batteries, or a skateboard you’d forgotten about over winter which just needed a dust off and could entertain you for hours. That’s what we need to do with the progressive narrative. We need to dig it out of the back of the cupboard, brush it off, polish it up for modern day usage and all sing it from the roof tops. We don’t need a new one. We just need to up-cycle the old one.
I have read so many articles recently by fantastic left-wing voices and by impassioned people who care deeply about defeating dangerous ideologues like Donald Trump who will make the already bleeding wound of inequality hopefully not irreparably worse. Owen Jones asked the question: ‘Can the US left craft a populist alternative that convinces the millions of Americans who are angry and despondent about a society rigged against their interests? The future of the American republic is uncertain – and it may depend on the answer to that question’. Rutger Bregman suggests that too often it ‘seems as if leftists actually like losing’ and that the old-school underdog socialists are ‘Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell; nor even the language to convey it in. Having arrived at the conclusion that politics is a mere matter of identity, they have chosen an arena in which they will lose every time’. Even though Bregman has some fantastic policy ideas, as usual, he hasn’t answered his own question: ‘what will this progressive story look like?’. So, once again, we’re all left feeling around in the dark for a unified thread to hold all our well-meaning ideas together.
In Australia, a divided progressive movement is hampering progress. Rather than fighting for and with Labor, the party of the working class, many of the more privileged progressives, who mostly live in inner cities and don’t identify as working-class, nor see any point in joining a union, have leached away to a new toy: The Greens. This leaves progressives fighting amongst ourselves with the battlelines drawn over identity politics versus labour movement priorities, and the old progressive narrative discarded by the side of the road.
I read with a mix of amusement and annoyance that ‘200 of the most exciting young people’ who were invited to attend the ‘Junket’ conference are not just fed up with Labor, but are also fed up with their newer toy, The Greens, and instead showed ‘strong support for some kind of new organisation, potentially even a political party… to channel the frustration felt by young people, and other sections of the population’. Maybe I’m just tetchy that I wasn’t invited, because I’m clearly not young or exciting enough, but the idea that young progressive Australians aren’t content to join the Labor Party and make it their own, or even to join the Greens (because that’s less work than changing the Labor Party), no, they are now wanting something brand new again, to wipe the slate clean, yet don’t seem to be able to actually explain what it is their new party would be except that it would ‘un-fuck politics’ (their words not mine). Well, that just shows how we got into this mess in the first place, doesn’t it?
Anyway, this article is not going to be yet another contribution to the ‘progressives need a new narrative’ debate without giving you my concrete suggestion about what that progressive narrative is, because that would be hypocritical. No, as I said, we already have a narrative which is perfectly useful and relevant to all of us – the inner-city-lefties, the working-class-suburbanites, the rusted-on-Labor voters, the environmentalist-hipster-Greens and the even-more-hipster-too-cool-to-join-someone-else’s-movement progressives. We just need to be better at talking about it. And most importantly, we just need to be better at talking about it AS A UNIFIED MOVEMENT. IN SOLIDARITY! As a shorthand, we could call this narrative the Golden Rule. This is what it looks like:
Your rights are my rights. Your community is my community. Your environment is my environment. When you are better off, I am better off. When you are sick, I am sick. When you are poor, I am poor. We are all in this together. So, we need to work together to uphold each others rights: rights at work, right to be free from harm, free from discrimination, free from poverty, a right to a good education, good healthcare, a right to marry who we love, to live peacefully practicing any or no religion we like. When you have a job, I have a job. When your environment is safe, my environment is safe. When you are prosperous, I am prosperous. When you are happy and well, I am happy and well. We all do our bit and everyone benefits. I care about you and you care about me. The community is better off when the community is better off. That is all that matters.
That’s the story we should be telling. Try it on. It goes with everything you want and everything I want too. And if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re already using it and just didn’t realise it was right there in front of you the whole time. Now, let’s stop wasting time looking for it and get to work using it.
Watch this space for more suggestions of how this narrative works in practice.