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Party games in darkening Canberra


Dark clouds over Parliament House in CanberraFrom his vantage point in Canberra, the renowned Belgian/Australian Sinologist and literary critic Simon Leys (real name Pierre Ryckmans) has recently translated Simone Weil's essay 'On the Abolition of All Political Parties'.

Ryckmans has obviously a mean sense of humour as well as a serious purpose. His stated aspiration is to 'provide the starting point for a healthy debate' about the role of our political parties — a debate to be illuminated by the insight, and the 'hopeless utopianism', of Simone Weil.

It's tempting to ponder just how much Canberra has contributed to Ryckmans' project. Our political leaders are suffering from the disenchantment of the electorate. Canberra and its political hackery has even less appeal now than it has had for a long time and the Canberra jokes are getting darker — it's gone from being 'Pyongyang without the dystopia' to 'Kabul without the hope'.

And in a recent speech former prime minister Bob Hawke admitted that parliament was held in 'contempt', that it was a 'charade', 'not a real chamber where the issues are discussed on merits'. Instead, 'it's a formality where the decision has already been taken' in party rooms and MPs are expected to toe the line.

In light of this, it may be worth responding to Ryckmans' offer. In an election year it's a call to another kind of discussion — not about policy particulars but about the role of our political parties and whether they are acting as vehicles for effective, creative politics, or not.

When I mention this Weil essay to people — most often those who work for a political party — they tend to smile slowly, narrow their eyes and lean back in their seats. I wonder if that's what Trotsky did in 1933 after he met Weil in Paris (though I'm sure the young political staffers of Brussels and Canberra would resist the comparison).

To a man such as Trotsky for whom the Party — and the political identity it lent him — was everything, Weil must have been maddening: a woman from a Jewish background who studied philosophy and worked in a factory (and who later developed a religious — Catholic — orientation). She might have had left-wing Communist sympathies, but she really didn't 'fit'. (Charles De Gaulle, a party figure of a very different kind, thought Weil was a fool.)

And yet, in a conversation that no doubt upset the hard-nosed Trotsky, Weil scolded him: 'you are the idealist'. What she meant was that Trotsky was blind to the way his party politics obstructed 'real' politics — a politics undertaken by individuals in discerning dialogue with each other.

An important concept for Weil was 'attention' — she thought of prayer, for example, as 'absolute unmixed attention', a contemplation of the face of God. Her vision of politics might be understood similarly, as requiring 'unmixed attention' to and contemplation of the common good. For Weil, political parties, being 'machines that generate collective passions', exclude this kind of attentiveness: 'instead of thinking, one merely takes sides'.

It's possible to see this process at work as people communicate their personal political orientations, whether in parliament, youth political organisations or the media. When people identify with a certain 'political identity' they feel the need to embrace an accompanying platform of positions generally on a number of 'signifying' issues.

So, for example, the young conservative party member (who of course also identifies with the US Republican Party) feels automatically compelled to be vocally pro-Israel, anti-abortion, pro-free markets, anti-taxation.

It's hard to see how any one political philosophy can coherently incorporate such diverse positions across such separate issues. Believing in 'the sanctity of life' doesn't obviously underwrite support for Israeli settlement expansion at the cost of Palestinian livelihoods.

And of course you could describe a similarly diverse 'package' elsewhere along the political spectrum. Positions that might be totally unrelated come to be associated with each other — they become linked as part of the same hand of signifying issues, which act as markers of an individual's political identity.

But what if you're someone who holds a mixture of positions? You may be concerned about the number of abortions, opposed to gay marriage, but believe markets should be properly regulated by government and that serious government-led climate action is important. What do you call yourself then?

These are deliberately obvious examples but they reveal how the tags of 'conservative' and 'progressive', and the stack of views associated with them, don't readily admit complex political identities. In this way the logic attributed by Weil to the political party, the undifferentiating logic of the uniform collective, seeps into public political discourse. And of course it is institutionalised in parliament, as Hawke bluntly pointed out.

In calling for a more fluid discussion in parliament, for MPs to be allowed to debate legislation without prior agreement in party meetings, Hawke unwittingly echoed Weil: she too looked for a more fluid form of politics, in which elected politicians 'would associate and disassociate following the natural and changing flow of affinities'.

Weil and Ryckmans demonstrate that it's possible to have this kind of discussion. Weil wrote that 'if one were to entrust the organisation of public life to the devil ... one could not invent a more clever device' than party discipline. Not wanting to leave public life in the hands of the devil, now might be a good time to respond to Hawke's and Ryckmans' promptings: to have a conversation about the role of our political parties, 'in the light of Simone Weil'. 

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a policy researcher with Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels. 


Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Simone Weil, Trotsky, Bob Hawke, Simon Leys



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Existing comments

Thank you Ben for stating in a straightforward fashion what everyone else, for some strange reason, won’t say: that despite living lives of unprecedented affluence, Australians are utterly disillusioned with the political process and the leaders. We have a Westminster two-party system that seems able to accommodate a third party. Traditional allegiances to these parties are always being tested when the parties themselves develop platforms that contradict or barely echo the beliefs of their followers. This has been the case for some time in Australia. But can it be changed? Often the third party starts out by representing the real concerns of Australians, only itself to become fixated with its power, doing things in power it would never have imagined doing before the party was formed. The electorate is quite alienated from the parties and their processes, but feel they can do nothing to change politicians who are basically interested in power first and people second. Simone Weil lived in a different time. Europe in the Thirties was socially riven by two huge ideological forces, communism and fascism, and your allegiance to one of these two forces was required if you followed politics. There was no middle ground. This is what Weil was addressing, an impossible situation in which the sides were not talking, at all. Sorry, she was not a “hopeless utopian” (it was the communists and fascists who promoted utopias); her life was coming face to face with the truth of the Powers. She expresses it in an awesome manner in her essay on the Iliad, where all sides are trapped in by forces that are going to be their undoing, whoever and whatever and wherever they happen to stand. The essay was an analogy for the state of Europe at the time. Christianity was not an escape from this vision, it was the thing that explained it, and how to live with it. When we talk about the Prince of this World, we are talking about the lies and illusions that people with the power use in order to maintain power. There is some irony in your parting remarks about trying to avoid leaving this in the hands of the devil.

PHILIP HARVEY | 21 March 2013  

I have long thought that our members of Parliament no matter what party should once elected realise that they represent in the Parliament , not just the party but the people of all Australia and though they need to take into consideration the party policy the good of the whole country should be their first priority. Maybe we need a Persons of Integrity Party where the members are committed to listen carefully to arguments on all sides , share their views and make up their own minds on each proposal. Hard to see it working though I am afraid!

Patricia Ryan | 22 March 2013  

My Catholic values lead me to support much of the ALP's policies. However that party's identification with Emily's List and its equivocal attitude to parents' right to choose their children's education are serious qualifications that make my voting decision difficult to make.

grebo | 22 March 2013  

I really, really like this article - I have just been reading Simone Weil's collected essays, and your comments on political identity have articulated perfectly many of my own thoughts. On the basis of one policy position, observers often infer a plethora of other policy positions and ideologies - but I also hold a variety of positions, and voting is not a simple decision. I think this complexity partly explains why I am one of a very few so-called 'swinging' voters.

Moira Byrne | 22 March 2013  

In a recent telephone survey, I was asked whether I voted for Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard. Puzzled,I hesitated and explained that I voted for neither. "Oh you voted for the Greens then." "No, in Australia, I explained, we do not vote directly for the leaders of political parties; We vote for local candidates." The interviewer was getting impatient. "Alright, was the candidate you voted for Liberal or Labor?" I could have added that I vote, first of all for a person of integrity and then for the candidate whose political philosophy best matches mine. I think that this incident shows the extent that politics has been trivialised, the presumption that voters are ignorance and the extent to which party hacks patronise them. The survey appeared to have been conducted by a supposedly reputable company and commissioned, given local circumstances at the time, by a particular political party.

Sheelah Egan | 22 March 2013  

Please do not identify our fine city of Canberra with the foolishness of the politicians that congregate here sometimes. Not "Canberra and its political hackery", but "political hacks meeting in Canberra". We Canberra citizens cringe as much as everyone else at the present stupidity of the parties and their factions.

Brian | 22 March 2013  

In a word 'Beautiful'.Though maybe I was seduced by Simone's ancestry ,myself a catholic with direct lineage to the house of Levi .

john kersh | 23 March 2013  

I think you, Ryckmans and Weil may, collectively, have made a few people sit up and think, Benedict. Interesting that the two you write of are Continental Western Europeans, where political discourse tends to be deeper and range wider than it does across the Channel or in other parts of the Anglophone world (with the possible exception of the USA). It saddens me that, as Philip Harvey comments, we Australians, in the grip of affluence, seem to be disenchanted with both the political system ("process") and those who work it ("leaders"). I would slate this home to the dreadful current "leaders" we have in both Labor and the Coalition (Devil and Deep Blue Sea to me) with the Greens getting more lunar each day. They say a nation gets the leaders it deserves. I think that's all too true of contemporary Australia. Both Gillard and Abbott seem to pitch their spiel to people's basest motives. Whether one is, ideologically, a "Socialist" and the other a "Catholic", cannot disguise their naked thrust for power above all else. I am sure Robespierre and Stalin also decked themselves up in ideological costume. Fortunately, our much derided political system protects us from tyranny. It has been misused and derided, but, it took hundreds of years and at least one (if not two) revolutions (Parliament under Cromwell and "The Glorious Revolution") to give us the freedoms we have today. I think we need to rediscover and value the British political experience and the work of those great men who framed our Constitution to enshrine these freedoms before Federation. I think you are right, Benedict, we have gone too far with enforcing a narrow "party line": a person can, nay should, have a range of opinions on a variety of subjects, always allowing for the fact that, in a democracy, their preferred position may not be the one enshrined in legislation. It is, I think, thus possible to be simultaneously anti-abortion but allow the pro-choice legal position to stand. Compromise is the way things normally work. Ultimate idealists can end up being spiritual and political totalitarians. Not the way to go. Perhaps we also need to rediscover those great British political philosophers John Locke and Edmund Burke. There is a lot to our tradition we sadly appear to have forgotten. I find Burke as exciting and challenging as Weil.

Edward F | 23 March 2013  

Being basically a traddy Catholic, (ergo) pro-life, free-market paleo-con, I agree with the basic insight of Benedict's essay. All the same, let's take a reality check. If a constant polling of around 55 to 44 2-Party Preferred represents societal "disenchantment" with the Coalition, I think Tony Abbott might be quite happy with a bit more of the same.

HH | 25 March 2013  

Tony Abbott can't take a trick can he? The "disenchantment" with him escalates: Newspoll today has 58 Coalition to 42 Labor, 2PP.

HH | 26 March 2013