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By Brendan Gleeson
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2010 Brendan Gleeson
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A NEW AUSTRALIA HERE
A CENTURY OR MORE AGO, in the wake of a grinding drought and prolonged recession, a group of Australian dreamers left to found a 'New Australia' in the jungles of Paraguay. The early promise of Australia Felix had failed them: it was time to move to a different New World, where the ideal of egalitarianism could be forged again. The experiment failed in very Australian ways: squabbles about grog and work created searing tensions. The dream of something different faded very quickly.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, pragmatic reformers were pushing the claims of fairness in less spectacular, but quietly effective ways. A political party representing the working class was formed, and, over time, the bosses were forced to guarantee the conditions of a decent, if basic, life for ordinary Australians. This new dispensation – the Australian Settlement – fell short of the egalitarian utopia that the dreamers sought in Paraguay. It describes a long, roughhouse period of conflict and compromise between capital and labour, during which many gains for working people were won. A state sector emerged to support the needy and the infirm. Its institutional forms were in some instances monstrously callous. Slowly and surely, however, social support was improved and extended in ways that would have seemed unimaginably generous to the poor of the 19th century.
The Settlement was far from perfect, but it was a good deal better than the brutish laissez-faire society of the 19th century. This was a time when economic liberalism and class prejudice defined politics and power in England and its colonies. The model failed miserably and was rejected, only to return a century later with the rise of 'neoliberalism' from the 1970s. By then, the mass consciousness had largely forgotten how vicious a society founded on extreme liberalism could be.
The Australian Settlement was a deliberate attempt to steer us away from the depression and conflict generated by the laissez-faire model of the second half of the 19th century. It set the conditions for a long period of peace, prosperity and (relative) fairness in the century we have just left. Spectacular interruptions – two world wars and a global depression – were followed by new bursts of zeal to re-establish the Australian Settlement and improve its basic features.
There were two great omissions from the project: an unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone appreciate, the original inhabitants of 'terra nullius' and a failure to comprehend the land that they had carefully nurtured for millennia. It was a failure to understand our own nature. And it cost us dearly. We proved poor stewards of the land. We were insensitive, sometimes aggressively, to cultures we regarded as different or whose claims were inconvenient to us.
The reformism rejected by the Paraguayan exiles left us vulnerable to the return of failed ideas, namely laissez-faire. When the developed world's economy ran out of steam in the early 1970s, the sacred keepers of this abortive 19th-century ideology sought its reinstatement under the banner of 'neoliberalism'. By this I mean the pro-market mindset that began to grip public and political culture in Australia, but for which, paradoxically, there has never been popular enthusiasm. Markets came to be seen as good ends in themselves rather than one means by which society could reach the goal of collective welfare. This conviction carried the political projects of Thatcher and Reagan through the 1980s, and also animated the reform agendas of Hawke, Keating and Howard in Australia. Neoliberalism was largely confined to Britain, the United States, New Zealand and Australia (Australian sociologist Michael Pusey has termed it the 'English-speaking disease'). It took different forms in each of these nations and had quite different impacts on their political cultures and institutional arrangements.
In Australia, we did not, thankfully, dismantle the welfare state in the way that Britain's Thatcher did. And Reagan's callousness towards the poor was not deemed acceptable here. What united these various political reform projects was their rather similar impact on the political imagination, which closed progressively to the point where in 1992 one US neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama, declared the 'end of ideology'.
Australia bore many of the material consequences of the neoliberal agenda, through privatisation, deregulation and corporatisation. And yet I think it was this closing of political and institutional minds to the possibilities of collective effort that most damaged our prospects. We have now have generations of policymakers and public officials who simply have no idea how to design and implement collective solutions to the increasing array of problems thrown up by deregulated markets. The many struggles and setbacks that have attended the Rudd government's nation-building programs are partly attributable to this dimming of bureaucratic skills and mindsets.
Many will condemn me for these observations. They'll point to the superficial affluence of the aspirational economy that thrived in the late 1990s and into the new millennium before hitting the wall of the global economic crisis in 2008. They will ignore the relentless depletion and despoliation of our landscape and national institutions and the growing cleavages between the winners and losers in the great game of reform. They will perhaps not even be aware of the withering of ambition and capacity in our political and institutional cultures.
Neoliberalism is no longer the issue, though its legacies will continue to haunt us. It's what must follow this increasingly dysfunctional project that must now concern us. The right-wing ideologues in the universities and think-tanks who carried the flags for neoliberalism have been marginalised to some extent. Witness the big-spending, big-taxing pragmatism of the Howard years. It must have driven them mad. Two dangerous tendencies seem to be marking our way forward now: political pragmatism (survival whatever the cost) and scepticism (an aggressive distaste for new thinking, especially anything that challenges the market status quo). These maladies thrive because public culture has been weakened by two linked processes, both encouraged and abetted by a succession of reform-minded governments since the early 1980s: a narrowing of civic discussion and a relentless concentration of media power (the latter driven more perhaps by favours than by ideology). Civic debate and possibility have been narrowed by many so-called reforms, especially the corporatisation of the universities and the public service. These trends have reinforced a view among elites that market power, not civic politics, is the true arbiter of democracy. Michael Pusey writes:
The market was meant to bury deliberative politics, to reduce popular expectations of government, to redefine politics as economic management tout court and to neutralise normative culture. To use Francis Fukuyama's phrase, it was meant to bring us to the end of history and even to kill the shaping influences of memory and history in national politics.
Our straitened political culture quickly dismisses any thinking that strays outside the wilting ambitions of liberal democracy. Its concept of civic freedom and human realisation is remarkably unquestioned in popular or political culture. It will be questioned in this book.
We slaves to consumerism, to corporate power, to heartless technologies, have been encouraged to accept a rather miserable sense of liberty. Worse, we've neglected the extent to which neoliberalism has been a self-serving project effecting massive wealth transfers that have impoverished the vulnerable and robbed much of the life and purpose from our civic institutions and culture. Neoliberalism's attack on the civic realm is what I have elsewhere termed The War on Terra Publica. Public atrophy has been mirrored by social division. Decades of grinding reform have piled increasing riches on an ever-narrowing social base in Western countries. And the neoliberal project has not restricted itself to Western countries; it has fostered elitism and polarisation in other parts of the world as well.
There have been repeated attempts during the Long March years of the 1980s and 1990s to generate alternative thinking and to expand our understanding of freedom. In a climate of resource-starved and diminished public discussion, most of these attempts withered away quickly, but some ideas and their proponents were not smothered by the sandrifts of cultural indifference. Australian thinkers such as Frank Stilwell, Eva Cox, Boris Frankel, Leonie Sandercock and Patrick Troy have repeatedly called conventional wisdom to account. The efforts of the stout kept the flame of alternative aspiration burning.
The mantle of indifference is at last falling away – indeed, being torn aside – by growing recognition of the structural failures of neoliberalism, and of its pet project, globalisation. From 2007, the whole project began to implode rapidly, and for many shockingly. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) knee-capped the West and helped to effect the previously unimaginable in America: the election of a black President. There wasn't much time for celebration of this turning point, as he and the other guardians of the global economy were immersed in an economic and social emergency. By late 2009, many wanted to believe that the worst had passed; certainly in Australia, which has navigated the storm much better than most. And yet the terrible social cost of the meltdown cannot be discounted and continues to accumulate, especially in the United States and in the most vulnerable parts of the developing world.
The future is hardly certain, but neoliberalism has certainly been discredited, at least for now. At the same time, the world 'community' (such as it is) is struggling to comprehend and acknowledge an epic shift in the global climate that potentially threatens the viability of our species, and many others besides. We remain mired in the work of comprehension and recognition, still a long way from any agreed response to our greatest act of folly, global warming. Confounding the crises, and making them more volatile and unknowable, is our rapid descent into resource shortages, especially of food, water and that blessed pestilence, oil.
This great unravelling echoes the multiple defaulting of laissez-faire in the late 19th century. In Australia, and Europe, this generated a ferment of new thinking. Some sought a New Australia elsewhere, others strived to reform and make safe the land on which they stood. Today we find ourselves again exhausted and depleted by natural and economic disruption. Worse, we face these familiar threats at greater, even more frightening scales. The spectres of climate change, resource insecurity and global economic recession loom over Australia.
This may be all very well, at least for those who seek a radical departure from the stultifying, unjust rule of neoliberalism. But what worries me most is the possibility that the long blanketing of our political culture has suffocated and extinguished its life-force. I cast this long night under the blanket rule of neoliberalism as a collective dream. It was a time when our species' aspirations, and, frighteningly, our survival instincts, were anaesthetised by an ideology that asked us to refuse nature. We were denaturalised in two ways: first, by refusing our own nature – that is, human interdependency; and second, by repudiating our place within nature – that is, our natural dependency. This was always going to end in tears. The progressive breakdown of human solidarity in the past few decades has produced widening wealth disparities, rising cultural tensions, and a seemingly endless war between the West and its discontented rivals. The great natural ruptures that have occurred need no further underlining.
If we awake without life-force, entirely denuded of political and cultural imagination, in a kind of suspended animation, we risk falling prey to some new project of power. Our great species' potential for collective fulfilment that stirred into life with modernity will remain stalled, or redirected to nefarious ends. We will follow the leaders again, and won't achieve the new forms of freedom and fulfilment that flourish when our species acts collectively, with humility and in concert with sustainability.
My worry is that the political dream of neoliberalism will be replaced by another dream, a new form of human braggadocio that will march us finally over the cliff. What is this new arrogance that might emerge at a time when circumspection and humility are called for? I think it's 'scepticism' of the sort that has aggressively asserted itself in Western public cultures in the last couple of years, especially in climate debates. Its proponents invoke 'science' as a cloak for their corrosive doubt. Their mischief protects the status quo and the forces that are driving us towards the failing of nature. In doing so, they twist and misrepresent the notion of scientific scepticism. Doubt is a moment, a point of tension in scientific thinking, counterposed to Reason. Doubt and Reason are the mutually restraining twins bequeathed to our thought by the Enlightenment. Modern science is not to be reduced to either. The contemporary sceptics are reductionists, not scientists, and have a mindset more like the one that prevailed in the half-light of the pre-modern world than the Enlightenment way. You wouldn't want to fly in an aeroplane designed by one of these sceptics. We should not let them get their hands on our scientific or political institutions. They are, put simply, beyond reason.
I'm not entirely down on collective dreams. Only the ones that imagine us liberated from, or in simple command of, nature – and therefore history. When in power, these dreams tend to produce the kind of collective narcolepsy from which we are waking now. The original inhabitants of our continent recorded their journey through nature in the mythic landscape of the Dreamtime. Whitefella dreaming can also walk with nature and keep open the pathways of human alternatives ('lights on hills', etc). Some seek repair, a restoration of nature, as with Martin Luther King's vision of man as a species freed from the absurdity of racism. Dreams only become dangerous when we refuse to analyse and interrogate them, and when they generate not inspiration but an intellectual slumber.
At a time of shocking revelations, it is a rich coincidence that a great Australian film, Wake in Fright (1971), should be rediscovered and re-released in 2009. The film brings it all together: hubris, waste, despair and natural loathing; a society that some time back took a very bad turn towards the worst possible landscape. The film retells in gothic fashion the story of a people 'still settling Australia', to echo the Australian scholar Stephen Dovers. The heartlessness and pointlessness that make Wake in Fright so dreadfully compelling are drawn from our wider struggle to find a heart, to find our nature, in a continent that came late to modernity. Historian Graeme Davison:
At the threshold of the 21st century Australia has suddenly come down to earth. For two centuries our national imagination was dominated by dreams of conquering and subduing a land we always perceived as somehow alien and hostile. We wanted to explore, clear, tame, cultivate and exploit it. We wanted to mould it to the purposes we had brought with us, rather than respond to those it suggested to us itself.
It may be no bad thing to wake now in anxiety if it means emerging from a dreamtime that didn't acknowledge the Australian earth and refused the hard-won wisdom of its guardians.
An underlying proposition in this book is that supernatural dreams may exercise great power to shape, even control, collective consciousness and purpose for a time, but inevitably are swept aside by nature itself. Since the Industrial Revolution we have behaved like Prometheus, the titan from Greek mythology who scorned the natural order and imagined himself greater than the gods. Neoliberalism is one such Promethean dream, casting aside nature and rapidly expanding, through globalisation, the space of resource extraction and the terrain of waste. We are living with the fearful consequences of that mad project now. Our future has been reduced by it.
The imaginings that stand the test of time are, logically, those that do not refuse history or nature – ideas like human solidarity, our dependence on nature, the possibility of failure and the frailty of human endeavour. Both left and right marched away from nature in the 20th century, succumbing equally to Prometheanism and a hubris that claimed the power to stop history. I believe it's why both imaginations now are shattering in the face of a nature that will no longer be scorned.
Excerpted from Lifeboat Cities by Brendan Gleeson. Copyright © 2010 Brendan Gleeson. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 A new Australia here,
Coming through slaughter,
2 'Fire in the heavens',
3 Cities on the edge,
4 A crisis of underconsumption,
5 A crisis of overproduction,
6 Children of the self-absorbed,
Learning to see the Earth,
7 A crumbling empire,
8 The urban vortex,
9 The guardian state,
10 Lifeboat cities,
11 Lining up for change,
To the next world,
12 To love freedom,
13 Freedom to love,
14 The good city,