In 1996, so he tells us, Robert Manne voted for John Howard. He is now the lead intellectual cheerleader for Brand Rudd. It is worth reflecting upon this as a particularly curious case example of the relationship between the Rudd Government and Australia's intellectuals.
For the most part criticism of Kevin Rudd is frowned upon on Australian campuses and when it does appear it is largely narrow. Rare it is to find fundamental critical analysis of the type engaged in during the Howard era. The contrast requires explanation, especially given that the policy gap separating Rudd and Howard is not nearly so stark as to warrant it.
It is worth considering the case of Manne for it is commonly acknowledged that he was the leading critic of the Howard government within the Australian educated intellectual classes. A move from lead critic of one government to lead cheerleader of another should naturally arouse the curious among us.
Take, say, his latest essay, published in the Murdoch press, where he takes it upon himself to tell the Left what it should do with itself.
He states that, "responsibility for thinking our way through the diabolically difficult current world crises - international financial breakdown, global and domestic inequality, catastrophic climate change - will have to be assumed by the alternative party: the inheritors of the post-war tradition of the social democratic Left".
By "alternative party" Manne means alternative to neoliberalism. He contrasts the "social democratic Left" with the "far Left". He states that the election of Barack Obama promised to usher in a new era. The people of the United States seem to understand the difference between promise and reality much better than our august thinker.
Manne opens by making an important assumption, namely, "the Western far Left took an intolerably long time before it grasped the truth about communism. Its reputation never recovered from this dismal decades-long failure of moral and practical intelligence." He ultimately concludes, "on the central, bafflingly complex economic issues of the day, the voices that are worth listening to are not the far Left but the contemporary social democrats - Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman not Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein".
These two statements from Manne are indelibly linked.
Manne wants us to believe that the "far Left", which we ought to take to be synonymous with the "non-democratic Left", seeks to use the current crisis in order to advance a totalitarian agenda. Notice this is one of the underlying theses of the essay he was "surprised and gratified" to receive for publication in The Monthly from that "intellectual in politics", Kevin Rudd. The "far Left" threatens a return to something akin to communism hence the linkage.
It is curious, however, that he should put Chomsky and Klein within such a context. Let us start with the former of the two: for Manne, like his old pal Keith Windschuttle, has good form when it comes to misrepresenting Chomsky. During his sojourn at Quadrant Manne had written that Chomsky was basically a Pol Pot apologist, that he was thus one of the "western far Left" that had taken too long to grasp "the truth about communism".
In fact, Chomsky had compared the manner in which western intellectuals and the media were treating Pol Pot's atrocities in Cambodia with the coverage being provided of the atrocities committed by Indonesian forces in East Timor. The latter was basically ignored while the former was difficult to miss.
Chomsky, unlike Manne, was more interested in the crimes for which his own state bore some actual responsibility for. Manne, by contrast, has spent most of his career focusing on the crimes of others in the service of polemical games directed at those in Australia who shared the same conception of moral agency as Chomsky.
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