Throughout Monday night and well into yesterday morning, my Facebook feed was filled with reactions to the rise of Malcolm Turnbull. Mostly positive, from most of the political spectrum; some from the left worried that he would be more difficult to beat. But there were also a few angry responses from what could fairly be called the hard right.
“Treachery” was a common theme there. Turnbull was described as unprincipled, or as offering just a pale imitation of the ALP. These were intelligible points, if unfair ones. But the one striking word that kept coming up was “socialist”.
Now, I must confess that I am one who adheres to the traditional meaning of “socialism”, where it refers to central economic planning and collective ownership of the means of production. But even if your usage is a lot broader – if it just refers to some vague movement in the direction of greater state involvement in the economy – the question remains puzzling: in what sort of worldview does Malcolm Turnbull count as a socialist?
Turnbull’s signature differences with the man he overthrew on Monday are on climate change, same-sex marriage and the republic: none of them economic issues. To the extent that they involve government influence on the economy (eg carbon pricing vs direct action), Abbott’s view inclines more to the command-and-control model than Turnbull’s.
As a backbencher in the Howard government, Turnbull was associated particularly with the drive for tax cuts, hardly a very socialist position. Later, in the communications portfolio, he responded to Labor’s National Broadband Network with an alternative model which, whatever its merits as policy, surely represented a step back from extensive government control.
Many years ago, David Friedman remarked that “socialism” had “become a word with positive connotations and no content.” On the right of the Liberal Party, however, it now seems to be a word with negative connotations and no content.
Here’s what I think has happened. Those on the right feel a deep need to present themselves as the advocates of freedom. The one issue on the left-right spectrum where that seems to work is that of socialism; that’s where the left, who on other issues may have the more consistent record of supporting freedom, seem to be clearly on the wrong side. So it’s become very important for the right to maintain the equivalence of left = socialist = anti-freedom.
So listening to their rhetoric – whether it’s the Tea Partiers in the United States or the Turnbull-haters here – you’d think that economic issues were their top priority. But it’s a con. Time and again, looking at their likes and dislikes shows that their actual priorities are quite different, and that even economic issues are seen through a cultural prism.
I noted this last month when looking at libertarians in America:
The problem that Cato-style libertarians face is that the agreement with conservatives on economic issues is to some extent illusory. … [F]or conservatives the economic issues are primarily not “economic” at all; they’re part of a package deal that is fundamentally cultural, based on hostility to the “other” – to blacks, gays, immigrants, women, Muslims, and that wonderfully amorphous category of “the left”.
As a result, the special targets of hostility from the hard right are, paradoxically, precisely those figures on the left who are clearly not, in any ordinary sense, socialists: because they threaten the paradigm on which the conservative self-image has been built. Once it’s understood that you can believe in tolerance, multiculturalism, feminism and so on without wanting to extend government control of the economy, the con collapses and the right stand revealed as bigots and obscurantists, not friends of freedom at all.
So over the last couple of decades you find on the right a sort of relaxed tolerance towards actual socialists and vitriolic hatred directed instead towards people like Bill Clinton, Paul Keating, Barack Obama and even Ted Baillieu: people who have left traditional socialism behind but still stand on the “wrong” side of the right’s prized cultural issues. Socialism absolutely has to be kept alive, because it’s the thing that undergirds, deceptively, their self-identity.
That means that when someone like Turnbull embraces free-market policies, it not only fails to mollify the hard right; it actually enrages them more. They see it as stealing their clothes, and cannot admit (even to themselves) that their real uniform is quite different. Hence the hatred, a hatred born of insecurity. As Mark Kenny put it in yesterday’s Age, “They hate good and they hate no-one more than those whom they see as the dissemblers and soft liberals within their own ranks.”