In a less than a week, Australians will register their feelings at the polling booth. What will most influence our voting choices? Mike Dowson thinks it’s the stories we believe. Bad decisions, like our persistent failure to act on the big challenges of our time, are a product of bad stories. But that may be about to change.
One summer, Helen and I were driving home from the country. We stopped in a small town, filled the tank, then fled the heat to a leafy park with a flask of tea and a sandwich.
A man approached. His clothes were scruffy, and walking appeared difficult. He asked if he could borrow ten dollars. His car was in the service station with ten dollars’ worth of their fuel in it. Apparently, his ten dollars was at home.
I gave him the money and he left, trailing thanks. A minute later his dilapidated car pulled up. From the driver’s seat he assured us of his return. I smiled and nodded. He drove off.
We drank our tea. A muscle car pulled up. A young man wearing the uniform of the service station got out. He asked if the scruffy man had obtained money from us. I said yes. He shook his head and held ten dollars out to me, apologising for our inconvenience.
I refused to take the money. After some protestation, the young man praised my kindness, wished us well, then reluctantly returned to the car with his ten dollars and drove off.
We drank our tea. The scruffy man pulled up again. He returned the ten dollars. He thanked us so profusely I felt embarrassed. He wished us a safe journey and a wonderful life. Then he drove off again.
Helen laughed. “You could’ve made a hundred percent profit,” she said. “No wonder we’re not rich.”
What happened? A man bought fuel. We sat in a pleasant park and drank tea. And from these trivial circumstances a series of benign human exchanges was formed.
Not one but two people praised me, thanked me and wished us well. All obligations were met. Trust was affirmed. It cost me absolutely nothing.
Not one of us behaved according to the principle of rational self-interest. Yet that principle, from which all good things are supposed to flow, is the assumption which underpins our present global economic system.
Perhaps such incidents are rare. Or are they?
Whenever there is a disaster, Australians give generously. Emergency relief centres are deluged with blankets and clothes. People who struggle to make ends meet still make donations to charities.
Recent surveys suggest Australians think our overseas aid is too generous, but that’s because they greatly overestimate it. On average, Australians think we give about 20 times what we do. When asked what the right amount should be, most pick a figure that would still be a colossal increase.
If people are naturally this generous, why isn’t our federal government doing more for the disadvantaged? Why, instead, is it cutting foreign aid, monstering the unemployed, and letting pensioners, low wage workers and their children slip into poverty and homelessness? Why isn’t our kindness reflected in our parliament?
The cost of not giving
Short attention spans, gut reactions and habitual allegiances seem to account for much of what happens in surveys, even more so in elections. Until circumstances become dire, people can afford not to care. A small but highly motivated group can overpower a less committed majority, so action on marriage equality or climate change lags popular sentiment. And then there’s ideology.
Governments have been deferring to the private sector to shape the nation’s future, and it responds to human need only through markets, for those with money to spend. Power in markets is purchasing power, not majority opinion. We’re hanging on to public health and education. And we still expect the government to ‘manage’ the economy. But what does that mean?
Apart from pork barrelling in marginal seats, all we seem to have talked about in recent years are jobs (more), taxes (less) and house prices (more or less depending on whether you’re a home owner or first-time buyer) as if somewhere in that diminutive list of ingredients is a sure-fire recipe for a prosperous nation.
When public figures mention climate change or poverty, they typically use the language of finance. They fret over the effect on economic growth, or the ‘cost to the taxpayer’, as if it’s only worth rescuing our food bowls and homeless children if it doesn’t cost too much. Although it’s economic fallacy, the accepted measure of government rectitude is now the size of the budget surplus, as if parsimony is our new national virtue, and the goal of government is therefore to do less.
And yet we’re willing to invest in punishing disadvantaged people. We build more prisons and lock up more of our Indigenous citizens. In a time when people of all ages are struggling to find decent jobs, we refuse to raise Newstart, and instead spend half a billion dollars to recover roughly the same amount in questionable overpayments. Then we create fake jobs for them, as ‘work for the dole’, with lucrative contracts for the private sector to police them.
Our society has a split personality. Our system is variously heartless, reckless and exploitative in ways most Australians are not. And we’ve come to believe this is normal. The evening news anxiously observes ‘the markets’ like a doctor taking a patient’s pulse, while the youth suicide, partner violence and degenerative illness that end real lives every day go mostly unremarked.
If this system was a person, what kind of person would it be?
Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
Many of us think of evolution as ‘survival of the fittest’. Charles Darwin didn’t coin the phrase. The man who did – the philosopher Herbert Spencer – hadn’t fully grasped Darwin’s ideas. Nor have many of us.
Darwin didn’t assume advantage for the strongest or the most aggressive. Under the right circumstances, any variation could be favourable, and luck might also play a role. Small and furtive could be ‘the fittest’ traits in some conditions. Darwin thought altruism may be humankind’s greatest adaptation.
But that understanding probably isn’t typical. Popular ideas about evolution are likely to be more Ayn Rand than Charles Darwin.
In the modern economy, what doesn’t kill us may also deprive us of an income, a home, our safety, health, self-esteem and hope. If you have trauma, what makes you stronger is the right kind of assistance. Worse, to the wrong audience, this saying may imply that any selfish bastardry which causes people hardship, short of killing them, is a form of charity: don’t let conscience deter you; wanton plunder helps the victim.
The Incorrigible Hand
Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand’ was intended to show how healthy self-interest may contribute to the common good. Problems arise when we extrapolate from the pre-industrial village to the overpopulated planet.
Smith’s butcher, baker and brewer aren’t multinational corporations. They’re people living together in a community. They know each other’s children. Nor do they exist in a condition of anarchy. Smith saw important roles for the state in providing infrastructure, and warranting the freedom and openness of the system, but these tenets didn’t make it into the market fundamentalist’s bible.
The Triumph of The Wilful
These heavyweight thinkers are among the many who were dragooned for a cause they never conceived of.
After the wars, revolutions and economic upheavals of the early 20th Century, as capitalism and communism faced off across the Berlin Wall, Western powers wanted a tonic for private enterprise, especially of the large, military kind, and an antidote for collectivism of every other kind. They found them with the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics and the enigmatic Nobel laureate James Buchanan.
They proposed that human beings are perfectly selfish and never satisfied, the ideal instruments of a market economy. Removing the misguided interventions of the overweening state would therefore restore us to the condition of pure competitive zeal which nature had intended, as supposedly revealed by illustrious forebears like those above. The best people would rise, and the rest would survive on the crumbs from their table. They designed an economic system on that basis. And we have inherited it.
On the one hand, we’re lucky they were wrong, or we might have lost everything in a Mad Max dystopia. Instead, most of us carried on cooperating.
On the other hand, this misanthropic portrait of humankind has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It did indeed encourage the rise of a certain kind of person. And in many places those people are now in charge. Through an expanding network of think tanks, favourable judicial appointments, influence in academia and mass media soapboxes, billionaires like the Koch Brothers and the acolytes who peddled these ideas gradually turned the world upside down.
This is how ‘socialism’ and ‘welfare’, which had improved many measures of wellbeing when judiciously applied in the west, became dirty words. It’s how ‘trickledown economics’, which began as a joke, became an acceptable theory. It’s how climate change was derided as a ‘conspiracy of scientists’, cynical opportunists transformed into hero entrepreneurs, and Ronald Reagan could pronounce that “…government is the problem”. Not the plutocrats who had seized America’s productive surplus, but those whom, like Reagan himself, Americans elect to represent their interests. And this ideology was exported around the world, in the luggage of organisations like the IMF and the WTO.
While the Wall stayed up, there was some incentive for this unchained capitalism to gild its image in the West with fair wages and taxes. Once the Wall fell, with the ideological competition out of the way, and automation and offshoring weakening the power of workers at home, it could exploit the unprotected resources and cheap labour of the developing world using the accumulated savings and rising debt of western consumers.
Species went extinct, poor countries became dependent on global markets and western wages stagnated while corporate profits and carbon emissions soared.
Sermons emanating from the pulpits of the financial system and the self-help industry insisted greed wasn’t immoral; pampering people with wealth redistribution and social security was. Public support only robbed people of ‘incentives’. There was no society anymore, only individuals, and corporations answered only to their shareholders.
If our lives weren’t improving, freeloaders were to blame. Refugees, the unemployed, people claiming to be disabled or young people who thought they were ‘entitled’ were spoiling our opportunities. We needed to stop mollycoddling the ‘leaners’. Then we might join the ‘lifters’ and ‘wealth creators’.
Little by little, decade after decade, this inverted morality infiltrated our ideas about progress. Where our forebears had struggled together for universal suffrage, a fair share of productivity, and equality before the law, our job was to look after ourselves and let ‘the markets’ do the rest.
Some observant people noticed this creed wasn’t being universally applied. As corporations were relieved of regulation and oversight, ordinary citizens were increasingly surveilled and constrained for ‘national security’. As poor people lost government support for wages, benefits and social services, the big end of town gained tax breaks, subsidies and generous public contracts.
Some noticed this arrangement wasn’t entirely new. A majority beholden to a minority is an old idea. But it seemed absurd to liken ours to the slave economies of the ancient and ‘new’ worlds, or the feudal societies of the middle ages. Look at the advantages we enjoy.
But what had afforded those advantages to ordinary people? Was it market forces? The benevolence of the rich? In fact, from sanitation and medicine to the technologies which make our smart phones work, improvements in living conditions for ordinary people had almost always depended on legislation and public investment.
Progress isn’t set in stone. Generations who simply inherited their civil liberties may lack the instinct to protect them. And who decided that’s enough progress anyway?
Are you economically captive in an abusive relationship? Are you homeless? Are your children not getting enough to eat? Are you sick from mortgage stress? Have you lost your job security? Are you working more and earning less? Do you depend on alcohol or drugs to get you through the day? Are you wasting away in an understaffed age care facility? Are you a young person who fears never finding a good job, owning a home or raising a family?
Then you are among what is now the disaffected majority. And if this seems incongruous in one of the world’s richest countries, as our once enviable economy staggers toward recession and our bioregions collapse from climate change and commercial overexploitation, perhaps Advance Australia Fair doesn’t roll so trippingly off the tongue.
This isn’t how a nation succeeds. It’s how “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s the ancient liability of wealth and power which liberal, democratic institutions were designed to thwart, the very institutions the rich and powerful have spent decades co-opting, circumventing and dismantling, peddling a rotten story via think tanks and magnate-owned media to justify themselves.
Competitive individualism is a terrible doctrine with which to face catastrophic risk. If too many brilliant young lives are preoccupied with basic needs like housing and employment in a system rigged for big business, property owners and wealthy retirees, how much energy do you suppose they’ll have for developing the new economy, caring for children and the aged and protecting us from ecological disaster?
Do you think more cuts to services are what they need? Are lower taxes for the wealthy our top priority? If you believe the old story, there’s no bigger question to answer than: “What’s in it for me?” After that it only matters how big a voting bloc you can muster.
This is the model of the failing state; one where success depends on inheritance, patronage and luck, ‘hard work’ means unquestioning compliance, and systemic dysfunction is held in place by “hegemonic common sense”, to use Gramsci’s term. Without a unifying vision more profound than private wealth, such places confront declining fortunes with what the writer Umair Haque calls “the rationing of personhood”. They aren’t ‘lucky’ countries. They’re good places to avoid when times get tough.
But a new story is emerging. It’s about how we take collective responsibility for the more difficult world that we have ordered, and how we take care of each other and our valuable institutions so it’s a world worth living in. And this story will be written largely by our young people.
For now, we are entering the Twilight Zone. This week, the Murdoch press will probably be rife with Shorten-as-Satan memes. We wait to see if Labor comes up with another “Mediscare” campaign. Christine Milne reckons the Greens typically spend a third of their total budget in the last week fending off malicious rumours designed simply to confuse the public.
Whoever wins, this may not yet be a contest between the old and new stories. But that can’t be long away.
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