Political funerals are naturally light on candour and heavy on encomium, a polite sponge applied to the deceased’s public record.
Such prettification, in an Australian Labor setting, typically does without much elevated language — the latter being beyond whichever dim leading lights of today, and fossilized contemporaries of yesteryear, have been selected from among the assembled personages.
Bureaucratic droning is the standard official tribute.
Honest political testament, and quivering oratory, is best sought elsewhere.
In October 1975, Clyde Cameron, a senior member of the Whitlam Cabinet and back-room powerbroker for the ALP Left, delivered a remarkably frank, unvarnished speech in the House of Representatives.
With explicitness born of desperation, he described the role of the Australian Labor Party and trade unions in preserving the existing institutional order from those who would menace it.
Cameron beseeched the conservative Opposition (and the propertied classes) to see reason, explaining that removal of the Labor government threatened ‘total collapse of the parliamentary system of government’ and victory for the unruly, repugnant ‘mob’:
The people are many; the moguls are few. Yet it is the representation of those privileged few who have brought us to this very brink of mob rule. A frightening abyss is certainly before us now…
Without parliamentary democracy what is there? Why should the masses tolerate this mockery of democracy? What will prevent the masses from becoming a mob and what will then stand between the classes of privilege and the mob once the institution of parliament is destroyed? Who will then man the powerhouses, the oil refineries and the transport systems? Who then will man the ships, mine the coal and man the wharves? The Opposition cannot do that with guns and bayonets. It cannot do that with its wealthy racketeer friends. Revolution does not ever happen until some spark ignites the dynamite. The steps which the Opposition has now taken could be the spark that will bring down all the institutions in this country.
Parliament does not derive its strength, its authority, its respect and power from the shell of masonry that carries the name of Parliament House. Nor does it derive its power and respect from the people who sit in its chambers; it derives its power, respect and authority from the fact that people identify Parliament with a whole wide range of ancient traditions, conventions and principles without which it can no longer act as the barrier between our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it. And yet, it is they, the privileged sections of the community and the Press barons, who have most to lose from the destruction of the present system. They, the Press barons, the mining magnates, the foreign-owned multinational corporations, the ruling classes generally, the barons of business and the privileged classes are now urging the Opposition to embark upon the course of action which will destroy the only bastion which stands between them and the mob.
Once working people see that their chosen governments are not to be allowed to govern, what is it that will stop them from responding to those memorable lines of Percy Shelley who, in conditions very much like those which will apply when the collapse of the parliamentary system occurs, made this clarion call to the men of England:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many they are few.
This Parliament stands between the rule of the mob, the law of the streets and society as we know it and have enjoyed it throughout our country.
Thereafter, dumped from power despite its importuning, the Australian Labor Party would play its perennial role, as sturdy protector of ‘the institution of parliament’ and ‘society as we know it.’
Very late in life, Cameron joined Socialist Alliance.
His trembling evocation of the mob, given rare expression in Canberra (an urban environment designed to exclude the popular citizenry), was common in nineteenth-century literature. The riot scenes of Dickens and Zola record the physical terror inspired by dense populations of workers and artisans unleashed from authority.
Today, however, the imagery of stormed palaces has become somewhat tattered and remote — and the toppled statue is now a kitsch trademark of US-engineered regime change. Nonetheless, fear and contempt for the ‘masses’ endures, finding an outlet in supercilious journalistic sneering about moral panics and ‘populism.’
Yet isn’t such demophobia pointless, after three decades of relative domestic social peace, if not outright quiescence, in the advanced economies?
Why has the governing elite of this country recently invested so heavily in the machinery of repression (administrative detention, ‘control orders’, military call-out powers, engorgement of police and intelligence agencies)? Why erect such bastions and barriers between ‘our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it’, when the latter are so disorganized, discredited and demoralized, and in any case no longer possess in any great numbers a coherent vision of an alternative society?
Some clue to this development is found here, where I describe Steven Pinker’s fondness for state violence, the latter approved as a queller of rowdy passions from below:
Mounting a consistent and effective defence of property rights nowadays compels the honest ideologue to adopt such a position [pragmatic authoritarianism].
For if ‘gentle commerce’ transforms ‘zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit’, this same growth of productivity and cooperative non-rivalry (i.e. the necessity for team production by co-workers in factories and offices) also raises the costs of excluding non-owners from access to resources and enforcing private claims to wealth.
In today’s Garrison USA, it takes more than one-quarter of the labour force (up from 6% in 1890 and 7% in 1929) to maintain order and to enforce the existing allocation of ownership claims over economic resources. A colossal number of citizen-soldiers now work as supervisors with the authority to discipline, sanction and fire, or as prison guards, private security personnel, employees of the military, lawyers, etc.
This is what mainstream economics calls the ‘technology of conflict’, in which resources are devoted to enforcing, adjudicating, seizing or redistributing private claims to social wealth.
At the heart of US society beats a massive disciplinary apparatus, public and private.