When the Facts Change

This review of Robert Manne’s On Borrowed Time was first published in Arena.


‘When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ Robert Manne was speaking with Geraldine Doogue, on Radio National’s Saturday Extra. Responding to a question about his political journey (and under no illusion that he was quoting Keynes, to whom the line is often misattributed) he was talking in a painful whisper, having recently undergone a laryngectomy. The voice was still recognisably his: to Manne’s relief, a silicone prosthesis has obviated the need for an electrolarynx. And the sentiment was familiar, too. Manne, after all, has always been open about his changes of political allegiance – an openness caught (or trumpeted) in the title of his 2005 collection of essays and articles, Left, Right, Left.

The coincidence of Manne’s throat cancer and the publication of On Borrowed Time, which begins with an account of his diagnosis and treatment, and contains essays on, inter alia, the Murdoch press, Australian history and asylum-seeker policy, encouraged some early reviewers of the book to take a ‘voice-as-strong-as-ever’ line. This is hokey, but to be expected, especially given the way the title brings together political issues (climate change in particular) with intimations of mortality. Indeed it is in one sense appropriate to Manne, whose political positions, and changes of position, are bound up in a rather obvious way with his construction as a model of intellectual integrity. Having moved from youthful progressivism to conservatism to left-liberalism, and from the editorship of Quadrant to the editorial board of The Monthly, La Trobe’s Emeritus Professor of Politics is a public intellectual of liberal views who conforms to a deeply liberal idea of what a public intellectual should be: a man who looks squarely at the available facts and makes up his mind accordingly. In his writing, and in much writing about his writing, the theme of intellectual honesty is never far from the surface, and the implicit suggestion is that his own position is one to which the facts have led him, and will lead him to change his mind when necessary.

There’s no doubt that Manne has travelled a long way, or that his changes of heart and opinion are significant and honestly come by. But while intentness on the facts is a precondition of honest intellectual discourse, those facts do not interpret themselves, or magically light up a course of action, and that Manne can sometimes write as if they do is revealing of a certain solipsism in his work – an identification of his own development with objective political reality. In a quiet way he sometimes reads like a version of the anticommunists amongst whom he cut his polemical teeth – former communists themselves, often, who were assumed by their defenders to have regained their reason by dint of having lost their faith. Manne is starting from a different place, and moving in a different direction, but the role he has carved out for himself at the centre of our intellectual culture is in some ways just as problematic.

Take the topic of climate change, which gets top billing in the new collection. In ‘Explaining Our Failure’ Manne carefully itemises the various impediments to action on climate change – ‘the post-war international “system” of nations’, China’s determination to forge ahead after centuries of humiliation, the persistence of US exceptionalism, the reluctance of newly wealthy nations (Brazil etc.) to carry the can for problems largely not of their making, the short-termism attendant on democratic politics, climate-change denialism – before concluding that what is needed now is a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements between the major economic powers, acts of national selflessness in the name of good global citizenship, and (‘as a prod’) economic divestment of the Bill Mckibben variety. But as clear and well-reasoned as the essay is, it misses something fundamental. Manne comes closest to identifying that something when he notes, as he must, that much climate-change denialism is driven by the big end of town and the priorities of ‘neoliberalism’. But the fact of a system based on property and profit and endless economic growth remains buried beneath the detail. Manne writes: ‘A rapid, global, consciously engineered transition from a fossil-fuel to a clean-energy civilisation would involve one of the largest transformations in the history of mankind.’ Well, then, what would those international agreements and acts of ‘national altruism’ consist of? Would massive state intervention be required? Or a thoroughgoing curtailment of property rights? Taking the symptomatology for the disease, Manne not only doesn’t speculate, he also berates the ‘anti-capitalist left’ for its failure to think in generational terms. Apparently the comrades are far too obsessed with notions of social and economic justice to understand the bigger picture.

But of course the bigger picture is capitalism, and Manne’s reluctance to identify it as such, together with his Great Moral Challenge rhetoric (much in vogue, these days, in Davos), is left-liberalism at its most idealistic. Reviewing Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Manne notes approvingly the author’s comparison between the fight against anthropogenic climate change and the nineteenth-century antislavery movement – both ‘moral’ causes based in the demand that the elite forgo economic self-interest. But what he doesn’t note (and Klein does) is that slave owners were massively compensated for their ‘losses’ and slaves themselves compensated barely at all. (Klein: ‘In sharp contrast, a real end to the fossil fuel age offers no equivalent consolation prizes to the major players in the oil, gas, and coal industries.’) The point is that the moral register, important though it is, only takes us so far, and that at some point one has to lift one’s gaze from ‘market fundamentalism’ to the economic system more generally. Not for no reason is Klein’s book subtitled ‘Capitalism vs. the Climate’.

Manne’s tendency to confuse ‘the facts’ with the facts as they appear between certain parameters, or under certain ideological pressures, is evident elsewhere in On Borrowed Time, and never so disappointingly as when he writes about asylum-seeker policy. In ‘On Refugees, Both the Left and the Right Are Wrong’ he recommends a ‘compromise’ approach that enjoins both sides of politics to face up to some unpleasant facts, about the issue and about themselves. But his call for a policy combining compassion with a pragmatic recognition that mandatory detention has a deterrent effect on boat arrivals, and the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tones in which he affects to lecture ‘the left’ on its failure to ‘complicate’ its thinking, disguises the extent to which he has bought in to the logic of mandatory offshore detention, and the foul utilitarian calculus at its core. For while it may be true that opponents of mandatory detention are prone to emotion (here, Manne invokes Jim McClelland’s reference to the politics of the ‘warm inner glow’), that emotion stems to a great extent from an implicit recognition of the principle that underpins the various conventions of which Australia is now in violation: the principle that human beings should be treated, not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. That Manne continues to miss this point, and to do so in the name of ‘intellectual honesty, humility and the capacity for political compromise’, is depressing in the extreme.

When Manne arrived at his current position on asylum seekers and offshore detention, he did so in the form of a mea culpa. ‘Nobody, including me,’ he wrote, in the wake of the drowning of 200 asylum seekers off the coast of Java in December 2011, ‘had the guts or good sense to give Labor the right advice.’ (This beneath the epigraph, ‘When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’) Nor is this the only occasion on which Manne has made a show of his culpability. In Making Trouble (2011) he declared himself ‘impossibly naive’ in point of his hopes for Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, while in On Borrowed Time it is Malcolm Turnbull who has made him feel ‘a fool’ for believing that he might follow through on climate-change policy. Such ostentatious course-correction functions paradoxically: at one level, it is an admission of fallibility; but at another, more fundamental level, it is a claim to intellectual seriousness – a sign to his readers that he’s reconsidered the question in light of the facts and changed his mind. But how he came to be misled by two centrist politicians in the first place, and why the fact of people drowning should lead one to adopt a position on offshore detention indistinguishable in principle from that of the current Minister for Home Affairs – those are only questions of fact in the sense that a risotto is a bowl of rice. Could it be that Rudd and Turnbull’s inconstancy is related to the way in which neoliberalism has systematically shrunk the space in which politicians can operate? What facts would I need to answer such a question?

There are some fine things in On Borrowed Time: the demolition job on Chris Mitchell’s Australian (‘Bad News’ – first published as a Quarterly Essay) is a brilliant piece of journalism, and the defence of Wikileaks and Julian Assange from some of the more myopic criticisms of liberal commentators is a joy to read. But elsewhere the limits of Manne’s social liberalism, and of social liberalism generally, are all too apparent. In the introduction to Left, Right, Left, Manne expressed a hope that his essays would form a coherent humanist whole outside the traditional camps of left and right. I think it would be more accurate to say that, as a whole, they fall between them.