There is nothing new about the left’s “long march through the institutions”, which presents today as the cancel culture. It was around at least the 1960s when political conservatives found it difficult to state their views on university campuses and elsewhere. It’s just that, in six decades, the march has travelled a long way.
The term “long march through the institutions” is thought to have been coined by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who founded the Italian Communist Party in 1921. The term was taken up by the German communist student activist Rudi Dutschke in the mid-1960s to describe how left-wing individuals could take over institutions without a civil war or even an insurrection.
The first decades of the 21st century demonstrate the ideological insight of the likes of Gramsci and Dutschke, in Western democracies at least. The left has increasingly begun to prevail in tertiary institutions and government-run schools along with large sections of the media and more besides. Needless to say, the advance of the left has led to a withdrawal by conservatives — due to political censorship or a reluctance to stand against prevailing intellectual fashions.
One thing is for certain. There will be scant push-back against prevailing left-of-centre intellectual fashions at the 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Once again, the SWF is essentially a leftist stack. Which does not mean that every speaker or performer is on the left. But which entails that barely a conservative voice will be heard.
This year’s SWF artistic director is Michael Williams, formerly of Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre of Books, Writing and Ideas. Williams has ideological form for his new position. He’s hosted Blueprint For Living and Talkfest on ABC Radio National, appeared regularly on ABC TV’s The Book Club, has written for the left-wing Guardian along with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and currently hosts The Guardian Australia’s monthly book club. A man of the left intelligentsia, to be sure.
It’s not surprising, then, that Williams has assembled left-of-centre types for the 2021 SWF, which will consist of actual and virtual events as befits the current state of the pandemic in Australia. What is surprising, however, is that he does not seem to understand what he has done.
Here’s a brief list of some of the Australian talent who will appear in the SWF segments broadly discussing political and cultural issues. Emma Alberici, Julian Burnside, Peter Carey, Barrie Cassidy, Osman Faruqi, Tim Flannery, Bridie Jabour, Erik Jensen, Benjamin Law, David Marr, Kate McClymont, Louise Milligan, Kerry O’Brien, Bruce Pascoe, Tim Soutphommasane, Laura Tingle, Clare Wright and more besides.
Then there is the list of present and former politicians who will appear at the festival. The Labor Party’s Linda Burney, Tanya Plibersek and Wayne Swan have gigs. As do the Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi and Scott Ludlam. What about Liberal Party and Nationals’ current or former parliamentarians? Not one made the cut.
In this sense, the SWF resembles the ABC — a conservative-free zone which does not have a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.
The ABC pretends that this is not the case, but cannot name even one conservative who fits the bill. Nevertheless, the taxpayer funded public broadcaster claims to be diverse.
It’s much the same with the SWF. Williams has written “A message from the Artistic Director” to accompany the 2021 program — that this year’s festival will “uncover a wealth of conversations both urgent and contemplative”. And he reckons he has “refused to relegate conversations to the too-hard basket”.
According to Williams, “solutions to the problems we’re currently facing — the climate emergency, the global refugee crisis, racism, the failure of public discourse, the death of political accountability — sometimes feel out of reach, so we’ve gathered thinkers, writers and experts we trust to show us the way”.
This is delusional. The subjects discussed above are not “out of reach”. Not to anyone who watches/listens to the ABC, or reads The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age or who follows social media. Such outlets discuss little else.
Williams says that “for all its in-built optimism, our theme is not without healthy scepticism”. Yet, from viewing the SWF’s program, it is difficult to work out who would disagree with anyone else on any of the big issues up for discussion. In this sense, there is not a sceptic among the Australian participants.
Take the segment termed “Festival Highlight” for example. It’s “SWF Great Debate: How Good is Australia?” According to the blurb, the debate contains “some of the country’s finest thinkers … featuring Elaine Crombie, Don Watson and Benjamin Law in the affirmative, and David Marr, Annabel Crabb and Nakkiah Lui in the negative”.
Since some of Australia’s “finest thinkers” are not debating a proposition, but rather a question, it’s impossible to work out what line the negative and affirmative cases are to take. Looking at this half dozen, they would essentially agree with each other on most matters. It seems like a three-a-side football match with all competitors kicking to the same net.
The SWF is but one manifestation of the left’s long march through the institutions. So much so that Williams believes that putting a lot of people together who essentially agree with each other is a manifestation of scepticism. He does not seem to be aware of conservative voices. That’s the mild interpretation. The alternative is that he’s into cancel culture — meaning political censorship.
The SWF is essentially financed by taxpayers and ratepayers. The core funders of this year’s event are the NSW government, the City of Sydney and the Australian government (via the Australia Council for the Arts). It was much the same when Williams ran what became the Wheeler Centre, which received seed funding of around $25m from the Victorian government.
And so it has come to pass that the left’s long march through the institutions is being funded by the institutions themselves. Gramsci would have found this a real hoot.