Now that the election is out of the way, isn’t it time we had a discussion about our future? About who should and who should not be in charge, and about what needs to change?
It’s appalling that Tony Abbott is now PM, no arguments there. He’s all they say and more besides – a man lost in time, the deep geological reaches of which he doesn’t even totally believe in. And if the embarrassment so many people feel at the thought of Abbott representing them, particularly overseas, is overdoing it, that’s only because power-mad, misogynistic philistines are no rare act on the world stage. The ALP had it right when it ran ads against him claiming, ‘If he wins, you lose.’
The message could have been more comprehensive, however, had it read: ‘Whoever wins, you lose.’
When, after his appearance on Q&A earlier this month, a bunch of approving noises were made about Kevin Rudd’s ‘spirited’ defence of gay marriage – a move almost completely risk-free in political terms and therefore, one might be forgiven for thinking, a little cynical – the most interesting moment of the night was largely overlooked: the part when Sophie Meixner, a self-described former Labor supporter, identified both Labor and Liberal as being ‘centre-right parties’, and their leaders ‘almost the same person’.
What interested me was the crowd’s reaction. Nervous laughter rose against a backdrop of incredulous oohh!-ing, as if shit just got real on an episode of Jerry Springer. A handful of people applauded – hoping, one almost felt, for a fight. Tony Jones, amused with himself as usual, quickly dismissed the comment: there were quite a few people who would beg to differ, he said, ‘including Tony Abbott’. Rudd, whatever was going through his mind, could but smile haplessly and nod.
The refusal to treat Meixner’s observation seriously means the repression of a range of questions that we could and should be asking. There is a connection between the fact that this election was one of the most absurdly self-referential yet – with news covering the news covering the news covering the news – and the profound sense of futility many of those voting in it felt. This sense of futility, it seemed plain, went beyond the usual grumbling about having to select the lesser evil. Our endless preoccupation today with rhetoric, with the minutiae of personal style, with the complex machinery of political stage management is not – or at least not only – a matter of sophisticated postmodern audiences grown wise to all the tricks; if we’re noticing smaller and smaller differences between candidates, it’s at least in part because those are the differences there are. If your vote felt like it didn’t matter, it might be because it didn’t. There weren’t even two evils to choose from.
I’m not saying, of course, that our avoidance of a variety of social, economic and environmental disasters wasn’t at stake. But with equal certainty, the fitness of our current political and economic model to deal with these problems was never really up for discussion – let alone the possibility that this way of doing things has in many cases created, aggravated or prolonged those very problems.
It is a sad irony, then, that one common reaction to our sense of democratic impotence, and to the negativity with which we were megaphoned during the candidates’ attempts to distinguish themselves, has been to observe that rumours of the demise of the Australian economy are exaggerations. Australia, we’re reminded, is doing unbelievably well: AAA credit! 22 years of consecutive economic growth! Look around you!
It is quite true that Australia’s had a remarkable run. True too that compared to most places on the planet our standard of living is, as they say, pretty bloody good. But this is no reason to ‘quit complaining’. Setting aside the fact – a fact we’re all too used to setting aside – that this economic growth has taken place at the cost of unspeakable misery in many of the very places to which we so flatteringly compare ourselves, should we not ask why – given the stunning growth of our nation’s wealth – social and income inequality here are on the rise?
The myth of egalitarianism in Australia is the legacy of a relationship between Labor and capital that has long since gone into reverse. We have bought (or, if you’re in Gen Y, been sold) into a political and economic system that views the generation of wealth as a nation’s top priority, and considers the claim on that wealth by society an inconvenience to its small group of rightful owners. You can see the effects of this belief in graphs depicting the history of real wages: since the turn of the millennium, when productivity and wages ‘decoupled’, the bulk of the wealth represented by the growing wedge between lines on the chart has ended in the hands of very few people. Granted, the situation is not yet as ugly as that in the US, where real wages stopped growing altogether in the 1970s (right around the time, not coincidentally, when banks made credit cards widely available), but the underlying trend is the same.
That is perhaps one reason why the political scene and social conditions here increasingly resemble those in the US and other dysfunctional neoliberal states. In his 2010 book Ill Fares the Land, the late historian Tony Judt reminds us not only of the effects of rising inequality under neoliberalism in the US and Europe – demonstrating damning correlations between inequality and mental illness, inequality and poor health, inequality and crime, inequality and trust – but also that neoliberal economic theory originally grew out of a desire to prevent totalitarianism. More specifically, it began as a response to the collapse of socialism in Austria, which gave Nazism the opportunity to take hold. Early neoliberal thinkers contended that the only way to safeguard freedom was to prevent state intervention in economics. For this reason, the repudiation of the idea of a ‘socialist utopia’ has always been one of its key features. Acceptance of the danger of this ideal, buttressed by the experience of the Cold War and by the economic and moral failures of twentieth-century communist states, goes a long way to explaining the similarity of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ today.
The world that has emerged from the application of his theory might underwhelm the author of The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek. For the past few decades, as geographer David Harvey has argued, Hayek’s thought has been applied not to a utopian economic project but to a political one: the restoration of power to economic elites. In political terms, it has meant the subordination of government to business and an endless, obsequious celebration of ‘job creators’. It has meant the privatisation of social goods and the socialisation of private failures. It has meant less freedom, not more, for the mass of people. What we have now is a situation in which there are, for a growing number of people, no real possibilities – and it’s getting worse. What is possible each day is – just barely – the recreation of the day before; a situation in which, for all but a few, everything is determined in advance; in which increasingly, as the philosopher Theodor Adorno put it, life doesn’t live.
Undoubtedly this system’s greatest success is the speed with which its proponents have established it as a natural fact: within a few decades it has become, as Harvey writes, ‘incorporated into the common sense way many of us interpret, live in and understand the world’. Its virtue generally goes unquestioned – even as, in social endeavours, we rob Peter to pay a pittance to Paul, and certain private citizens sit on billions of dollars in private wealth.
Such private wealth is enough to fund spectacular public education; to heal us when we’re sick (or to prevent us from getting sick so often); to employ us in activities that are gainful (not only to an already wealthy minority); perhaps even to rescue our fevered, anemic ecosystem. In the midst of an ongoing global crisis of capitalism that has destroyed lives wherever it has landed, and destroyed the lives of those not yet born, it remains almost impossible to discuss seriously the fact that the current political-economic paradigm not only doesn’t advance the values it purports to, but is steadily undermining them. One of its masters’ chief tools? The promise of a bloody good lifestyle. (It’s interesting, in this connection, to consider recent research showing that 83 per cent of Australians think their income places them in the middle 40 per cent.)
In a blog post for the journal Southerly, published on the eve of the election, writer Rebecca Giggs condemned the sense of popular despair she had observed in the pre-election weeks. ‘Despair,’ she wrote, ‘being personal and self-regarding, atomizes us, turning individuals inwards, turning our shamed faces away from one another.’ It’s okay to feel sad, she told us, but despair, as a political emotion, is not only self-indulgent, it’s conservative. Worse still, it’s ‘the least creative response to the situation we find ourselves in’. This all rang true. I found it strange, though, that Giggs seemed to count it the nadir of such despair when people ‘abandon voting altogether’. Cast your vote in earnest, she advised us finally, and then get on with the quiet busyness of hoping.
Common sense says you’re mad not to vote. But for that very reason, it seems to me, deciding not to vote might have been a more powerful political gesture – or perhaps just more of a political gesture – than Giggs was willing to grant. The denial of an outside – of a choice besides choosing – is a frightening thing. Could the refusal to vote not be understood as the refusal to recognise a false order? As the refusal to say, as the subjects of every totalitarian regime in history have had to, that something is real when it isn’t? Perhaps if we stopped voting we could finally answer ‘yes’ to the questions with which I began. As for hope, the right feeling isn’t always the right feeling; hope per se may not be our best hope. I’m inclined to agree with the philosopher Simon Critchley when he suggests that ‘anger is the first political emotion’. For Critchley (a thinker for whom the idea of a creative response is also important), anger emerges from the experience of disappointment and the recognition of injustice. It is ‘the emotion that produces motion’.
I’m not saying that anger’s without risks: the Right is a honeytrap for rage. But therein could lie important lessons. Anger, appropriately directed, may be a way not only out of despair, but out of that which produces it. We shouldn’t give it up. Our lives are being taken from us, one minute at a time. Perhaps you need to be mad to go on when you can’t.