A Call To Arms

How pathetic we are. As a people, as a social class and as a species. In order to survive humans must be nurtured from birth until at least four or five years old (this gestation period extends much further for some — around thirty years old for myself). Most species of animal, however, are born ready to fend for themselves and survive independently. And yet we human animals dominate — I think in part because we are a naturally social and dependent species. But in developed nations such as Australia we are perhaps more so. I recall being in parts of India in 2007 and observing children who appeared to be no more than two or three years old getting around in the streets and in their families’ businesses relatively unencumbered by parental supervision and engaging the world with a kind of sophisticated resourcefulness and street savvy. These three year olds seemed more ready for the world than many of their Western counterparts at eighteen years of age. Of course, they did wear their maturity on their faces quite heavily. Perhaps there is a cultural spectrum of dependence that is dictated to by necessity. Still, even the most resilient of cultures requires at least a few years of nurture and dependence.

To be dependent on State welfare in Australia is a high cultural crime in the eyes of the Right. And they do like to whack certain sections of society into their rightful places with that great Aussie pejorative, ‘The Nanny State’, in an attempt to then whack the Left of politics and social policy into submission. But this is a very value laden distinction and one based on ideology and shaped by demagoguery rather than rational evidenced based socioeconomic theory. It is race-to-the-bottom politics, appealing to the basest instincts in people, reaching into the collective wellsprings of fear instead of a sense of community. For we are, every one of us here in Australia, dependent on the State. And more than this, we are all dependent on each other and on the ‘other’ whether we like it or not.

The strugglers, yep, they’re dependent on the State. Workers are dependent on employers and on the State too. Corporations are dependent on consumers and the State. Politicians are dependent on voters and the State. And the status quo political system administering all of this is certainly dependent on the State as well as on a relatively uneducated citizenry — uneducated in so far as media savvy and economic, historic and sociopolitical context is concerned. But that is for another article. Dependence pervades, but some groups are much better at justifying it or cloaking their suckling at the teat of our nation’s (and planet’s) ‘common wealth’. ‘But we are the wealth and job creators, the deserving…’  I hear them cry; ’the Dole Bludgers aren’t contributing to economic production, but are a burden on the economy’ they proclaim.

Of course the richness work can bring to one’s life is undeniable. Work can be rewarding and esteeming and is generally a positive force in people’s lives. It also provides a living wage and usually a disposable income. But it’s not always these things. Work can also be demeaning and soul destroying and an extremely inefficient use of public resources. I can attest to this from my time working at the administrative level of the public sector, or what I refer to as Work for the Dole for Intellectuals. And if one is suffering the sometimes debilitating and often undiagnosed impacts of mental illness, work can be painful and daunting. But the ‘deserving’ maintain that they should just suck it up, work harder and deserve their way into prosperity. Sure, there is some truth hidden deep within this ludicrous statement, but there is an equal truth in the ideal that an individual’s value be in more than just their ability to work, produce and consume.

One’s life ought to be an opportunity to contribute more than just to the economy, but to a society’s social and democratic progress, to our collective prosperity. Regardless of what work one finds themselves in, it ought to be a means to power. And it is for some. The privileges and the social and political power a politician or a CEO or a doctor has access to, for example, needs to be less polarised to that of a truck driver, a cleaner or a human services worker. A solution to this divide would require a redistribution of power, however, and a democratisation and equalising of the workforce — to reduce the extreme division between the categories of production.

Of course individuals are always going to have different levels of ability and skill, yet the faculty to convert one’s attributes into social and political power need not be so disparate. I think a remedy to this divide exists in both the reforming of our education system and our system of democracy and democratic responsibilities. Imagine if everyone had a more adept understanding of our media, political and economic systems. Imagine if everyone had the right to participate in our State or Commonwealth Parliaments in some meaningful way. Perhaps Bills would be required to pass through a House of the People, for example. Maybe we could adopt reform similar to Costa Rica, where elections for their Congress and President only allow candidates to stand who have not served in the current government. This would create a much more fluid political class and a better politically educated citizenry. Perhaps every eligible citizen is automatically reserved one term in government? Something...anything...to allow us to take ownership of as well as collectively shape our society and democracy. But in the absence of such a utopia all of us are dependent on the State to make decisions affecting our individual and collective lives, our economy and most importantly the direction of our nation.

Supply side economics has dominated globally since the nineteen seventies, but to what end? The wealthy have gotten wealthier largely at the expense of those at the lower socioeconomic end, and I would argue our society has suffered as a result. A natural and just state of affairs? No, an orchestrated set of policies implemented by our national and global established power elite. Yes, we do live in a Nanny State, but this is certainly not and never has been some bleeding heart nanny doting on their charge with too much love to give. This is an authoritarian disciplinary controlling a drowsy baby with peekaboo trickery. I prefer to refer to our social welfare system not as The Nanny State but as The Bad Nanny State.

The bad nanny gives the baby just enough milk and attention to keep it quiet and then returns to the television and their own peace and comfort. The good nanny seeks to nurture the baby for its own sake, interacting with the baby, stimulating it, because it’s good and right and because they are interested in the long term interests of the child and our collective wellbeing. Nurture becomes disfigured in the Bad Nanny State and leaves some passive and pacified and others with inordinate power, instead of a collective of active participants in our democracy.

State welfare is not the product of altruistic social policy development, but was born of economic imperatives and has always been largely guided by these principles. When the free market of the twentieth century failed to provide adequate remedies to unemployment and a static economy, the State took charge of job creation and stimulating the economy by injecting public money into it. Welfare has always been aimed at bolstering the economy, not people. Welfarism is a ‘partially utilitarian’ ideology also designed to give just enough to the masses so as to prevent disorder and significant challenge to the status quo. And to keep people procreating and consuming too, to provide fodder for the economy.

But why ‘partially’ utilitarian? Because this policy pragmatism isn’t designed to bring about the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers as the doctrine of Utilitarianism urges, but is aimed at protecting the interests of the ruling class first and foremost — the corporate-political elites that form ‘the Establishment’ — who of course trickle down just enough to their subordinates so as to create the illusion of a just system. Each strata of society generally believes they are receiving a fair portion of the ‘common wealth’, well, fair enough to prevent any serious opposition to the current economic and political system. And many in our society do in fact receive a very fair share of our common wealth. However, this shouldn’t veil the inherent injustices of our system of governance. But it does. And any opposition to this system — particularly when corporate and political improprieties are exposed — extends to nothing more than a grumble, a campaign against some foreign bogeyman and maybe a swing in votes to an Opposition party which is essentially of and for the same inherently flawed system. Consider the recent litany of politician entitlements abuses or the tax evasion of major corporations.

Some of the justification rhetoric for a taxation system that allows major corporations, as well as privately owned businesses, to legally evade a more sustainable rate of taxation is that the consumer will pay more for things and jobs will be lost. This is a mythology created and sold as religion by vested interests: it is the religion of Neoliberal Economics. And so what if corporations were taxed at higher rates (so they actually contributed fairly to the societies they are profiting from)? So they actually paid a fair contribution for the infrastructure paid for by the public purse, the two hundred years of investment in this nation, and to the labour of collective Australia? The fallout might be that iPhones may be more expensive for example; people may buy less Apple products. So be it. Other companies would eventually fill the gap in the market if there was a genuine demand for these products, and furthermore, greater competition would ensue. Or people might renew their phones less frequently. Great, the environment benefits. Jobs might be lost at Apple stores. Well, we will have to get more creative and innovative at job creation. Necessity is the mother of invention.

And what of the outrageous entitlements on offer to our politicians? I’m not even referring to the recent abuses of Susan Ley, Julie Bishop and Mathias Cormann et al., they are the unfortunate scapegoats who got a little too greedy and careless and were outed for their excesses. The politicians are less the problem than the system. I too would claim every allowable claim available to me, and then some, if I were in their position. No, the people aren’t the primary problem, they are a symptom of a dysfunctional system. It’s the everyday entitlements — the work claims allowed within the rules — that are so normalised in our political system and collectively agreed upon by the political establishment that are problematic: the office refurbishments, the travel allowances for themselves and spouses, the wages, the pensions and so on. Both sides of politics, and all political persuasions have access to public money and power inordinate to the rest of society. This needs to be more decentralised and dispersed to all if we are to have a thriving and healthy democracy. Political power ought to be a privilege and an obligation of being a part of a society, not a career objective. When we are all involved, we are all accountable.

If these same political and corporate abuses, that are a part of the everyday functioning of our democracy (for which we are exposed to but a few), were made known to a citizenry living with a little less material comfort in their lives, I don't believe there would be the same apathy and inaction we see now. We might actually witness a serious challenge to the system, to the power held by the few. Humans are generally conservative creatures and risk averse, so while conditions are relatively comfortable to those with economic power there is little incentive to push for change. And the mass media machine — the propaganda arm of the establishment — is incredibly effective at shaping desires, attitudes and beliefs in people. But this economic comfort is a trick, a false economy of what our society and our democracy could be. The impediment to real democratic reform, however, is that just enough is meted out, trickled down, to the many to maintain the status quo.

We live in a Bad Nanny State and all of us are dependent. We are dependent on our State and on Corporate entities. But they are also dependent on us. Almost all of us are financially dependent in some way and we are all dependent on the bad parentage of our corporate-political-media masters. And the power they hold is inordinate and unjust. But most importantly, it is contestable. Some of that political power needs to be taken from the few and shared out amongst us all if a healthy society and democracy is to function. We could all be participating in the political, economic and civic decisions currently being made by a narrow privileged elite. But the established power will not volunteer a power redistribution. It must be fought for. From within? I doubt it. I think it needs to start with us though, the people. But first we must ask ourselves: What sort of democracy do we want to be? And are we happy being passive recipients of our rights?

Taking the analogy of childhood dependence used in the introduction to this article and extending it to civilisation or just to the history of Australia’s democratic development, I think we are now well beyond the age of readiness for democratic maturity. The benchmark of maturity in a neoliberal society is dominated by economic imperatives, with features such as employment and independence at the pinnacle. This is by no means a natural state of affairs, but a manufactured one, albeit one very persistent and well guarded. Still, it is quite changeable.

The idea of greater participatory democracy is one that would require a renegotiation of the social, economic and democratic contract. In fact it would require a restructuring of the economy, our political system and our lives. There is nothing natural and fixed about working five sevenths of our working lives while outsourcing our democracy to an inherently iniquitous system of privilege and exclusive power. I can’t foresee any significant change occurring anytime soon or without some major upheaval. But I believe it is worth imagining. Because if it is imaginable and desirable, it is sure to be achievable. I don't think significant social change can occur without some upheaval and discomfort and even some pain. And I suspect people will not choose to go willingly into the unknown on their own. Substantial change requires leadership and then collective movement. But it first requires the seeds of ideas. And ideas have the power to grow and take on mass. Malcolm Turnbull was inadvertently right, it's an exciting time to be alive. We have the potential for real greatness, not just the rhetorical kind.


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