My first political demonstration was in Melbourne, when I was an undergraduate student and didn’t yet have the vote. It was raining, and we marched silently from the University down to Parliament House, following a single bass drum. We were protesting against the Victorian state government’s decision to hang a man, convicted of a brutal murder, who was obviously insane.
That was in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s industrialized murder was being done on a large scale in Vietnam, the Australian government was complicit, and I had become active in several movements. I began writing about political issues for magazines published by students, unions and progressive groups. Over the years since, I’ve tried to expand the terrain, thinking of the politics around culture, gender, education, and privatisation.
The list below is a cross-section of this work. Like most political writing, these pieces address particular moments, issues and audiences. I don’t think intellectuals hold the secret of politics, and I’ve always rejected doctrinal systems, whether religious, marxist or neoliberal. But I think intellectual work does matter, and I think intellectuals have a responsibility to engage with issues that matter.
Politics is hard, action always involves exploring, and we can’t know the answers in advance. We can search for common ground between issues. For me that common ground involves participatory democracy, social equality, shared resources, and peace. That’s the positive side, the hope. The negative side of the same issues is oligarchy, patriarchal power, obscene wealth, greed, environmental destruction, and violence. That’s the reality that progressive politics struggles to change.
TEN PIECES FROM DIFFERENT TIMES
The femicides of Juarez. The Scavenger, 2010, http://www.thescavenger.net/people/the-femicides-of-juarez-48124.html.
Free trade, export-processing factories (maquiladoras), labour migration and the drug trade have transformed Ciudad Juárez, on the northern border of Mexico. A horrifying pattern of murder of hundreds of young women, often with rape and torture, emerged in this city. I am a member of an Australian solidarity group, and wrote this as part of our campaign.
Bread and waratahs: a postcard to the next Left. Overland, 2010, no. 198, 17-24.
In the last decade I have written a number of pieces for the Australian progressive literary magazine Overland. Approaching its 200th issue, the magazine commissioned essays, and I took the occasion to reflect on the past, present and future of the Australian Left.
The new right triumphant: the privatization agenda and public education in Australia. Our Schools/ Ourselves, 2006, vol. 15 no. 3, 143-162.
With the rise of neoliberalism and its sustained attack on common schooling – in Australia an amazing amount of money has been diverted to private schools – the defence of public education became important. I have written a number of times about the issue, and when the wonderful Canadian magazine OS/OS compiled a world-wide survey of the issue, I contributed the Australian chapter.
Social justice in education. Overland, 1999, no. 157, 18-25.
Social justice in education has mainly been understood in distributive terms, essentially about the statistics of access. I argue that justice centrally concerns what is taught, i.e. issues about curriculum and the effects of education; and that we can formulate principles of curricular justice.
Politics of changing men. Socialist Review (USA), 1995, vol. 25 no. 1, 135-159; Arena Journal (Australia), 1996, no. 6, 53-72.
A ‘men’s movement’ in the rich Anglophone countries emerged in the wake of the new feminism, but was very divided politically. Since I had done research on masculinities, I knew the terrain, and wrote a number of pieces about how men could contribute to gender equality. This is the most detailed.
Socialism: Moving on. In D. McKnight, ed., Moving Left: The future of socialism in Australia, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1986, 9-45.
By now the New Right was influential and the Labor Party was abandoning its mild reformism of the 1970s. David McKnight tried to stir a re-thinking of socialist ideas in Australia, and I wrote a lead article that reflected on the movement’s history and the new situation, on good grassroots practice and feasible programmes.
Democratising culture. Meanjin Quarterly, 1983, vol. 42 no. 3, 294-307.
Published in Australia’s leading literary magazine – perhaps not the perfect venue for it – this essay considered culture as an arena for democratic politics, defending popular culture but not commercialization.
Socialism and Labor: an Australian Strategy. Sydney, Labor Praxis Publication, 1978, reprinted 1981.
Published by a group in the Labor Party and union left, this was an ambitious attempt to describe a democratic socialist agenda informed by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – a kind of synthesis between new left and old left.
On the autonomy of universities. Vestes, 1969, vol. 12, 141-149.
I was involved in setting up the Free University in Sydney, and other attempts to democratise higher education and contest the alignment of universities with state and corporate power. This essay appeared in the magazine of the academic union – and I am still a member.
Labor in the age of Whitlam. Outlook, 1968 no. 2, 11-13; no. 3, 5-7.
This was my first attempt to think strategically about politics, at the grand age of 24. It saw the labour movement as the key to mass politics in Australia, but in need of change. Gough Whitlam, the new leader of the Australian Labor Party, was a right-wing modernizer who compromised about the Vietnam war and sought an expansion of central state power and public services.