Archive | Soapbox

✱ It’s complicated

An interesting piece in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson on Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria:

A frequent complaint about President Obama’s Syria policy is that he keeps making matters more complicated.

Stripped of context, this simple statement nevertheless makes for a nice microcosm of the way many of us approach the obstacles in front of us. Things should be simple, not complicated!

Simplicity is often described in aesthetic terms, as elegant, or wondrous. Designers who seek simplicity of form are fond of saying that their work is finished not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. There is profound truth to this. Simplicity is beautiful. A poem, a song, a novel, a film — the best of these bring order to a chaotic world for a fleeting moment through the artful illusion of simplicity. But simplicity is, nonetheless, illusion.

This isn’t going to be an argument for complexity, mind you. Especially not the kind of complexity beloved of m’learned colleagues in the academic profession who seem to delight in making simple things difficult just because they can, or, when pressed for a stance on the true nature of the problem at hand, say ‘yes, but whose truth?’ and stand back triumphantly, as if they had just won at something.

‘Complicated’ isn’t in any meaningful way better than ‘simple’, or vice versa. That way madness lies, of different sorts — the brutality of mass extermination, or first year cultural studies class, for instance.

Rather, we should aim above all for clarity about the things that matter in any given situation. This means asking questions like what is happening here? Where are we going? What is the good thing to do? What is at stake and who wins and loses by our choices?

This is an orientation towards the world as we find it, not necessarily as we would like it to be. It demands that we acknowledge complexity where it exists, and achieve clarity through asking simple questions like the ones above.

Davidson continues:

The President has brought some of the criticism of his handling of the affair on himself. He has seemed puzzled when people asked how military action would help, and has never successfully explained what’s supposed to happen after American cruise missiles hit the ground. In his address on Tuesday, he spoke with feeling about the unacceptability of a world in which dictators aren’t punished for atrocities. But he deflected questions about the scope and the effect of an attack, with empty phrases like “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Obama’s worst moments, in other words, have come when he ignores complexity, not when he embraces it. Last year, he narrowed his options by talking about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” His performance since has had a fly-by-night quality that has not inspired confidence. But, by belatedly turning to Congress and, now, to diplomacy, he has given the process more time and increased the number of possible outcomes. In a situation in which there are no good choices, that’s not a bad thing.

Lack of clarity often leads to loss of confidence. By clarity I mean only the ability of someone, when asked, to give a good account of what they are doing and why. It is a virtue in short supply in our time, partly because of the suffocation of clear language brought about by risk-averse managerialism that insists on avoiding particulars wherever possible. When was the last time anyone explained to you clearly what they are doing and why? I am guessing that if you can recall an example, it is memorable precisely for its rarity value.

In the last sentence of the above quote, Davidson makes reference to a situation in which there are no good choices. Such a proposition is difficult for many of us to swallow, steeped as we are in hundreds of years of the enlightened assumption that knowledge can be perfected, rational progress can be made and therefore all problems can eventually be solved.

I wish to submit that this stance, rather than a sound and pragmatic outlook on the world, amounts instead to a refusal to admit reality — an amiable delusion with dire consequences. Not all problems can be solved. Not all ‘problems’ can even be defined. Making decisions is often not a matter of right or wrong, or even of good and bad, but only of better or worse.

Recently, in one of the university classes I teach, we were discussing the debt crisis in Greece and what is at stake in that situation. After an energetic and substantial discussion, one of my students offered the following half-statement, half-question: ‘But doesn’t that mean there might be no solution?’ There was a kind of plaintiveness in that question — a hope that the answer was about to be revealed, and a fear that it might not be.

The comment surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Many of my students come in looking for the ‘right’ answers, and most when they leave are still on that quest, despite my many attempts to disabuse them of the notion that they will find the prize they seek. I’m not sure if that’s the way they have been taught previously, or the self-absorbed incuriosity often ascribed to their generation, or a psychic defence mechanism against the state of the world they are inheriting. I try not to read such things into their character. But it is a puzzlement.

There are common themes though. When things go wrong, our impulse is usually to find the right ‘procedure’ to follow to ‘fix’ it, and/or to demand to know when ‘they’ are going to do something about it. We seem to believe that there is a right process for everything. If we don’t know it, someone will. If no-one knows, we need only devise it. There might be problems now, but we just need to find the right solutions. Leaving aside the difficulty that many problems are brought about precisely by those who think they have the right solutions, this is nonetheless not a good recipe for success. Neither is ‘success’ simply a matter of recipes.

The insistent belief in progress by solutions resembles nothing so much as a deep-seated terror of living with uncertainty. The quest for right answers (or the faith that someone somewhere has them) is itself a way of avoiding being in the world, and quite an effective one at that. There are those of course, Obama included, who have renounced ‘right’ answers and ideology in favour of ‘what works’. But this self-styled ‘realism’ is perhaps the most delusional of all. Anything works. If we bomb Syria, that will work. If we don’t, that will work too. So will sitting around and talking about whether we should bomb Syria or whether we shouldn’t. Without attempting seriously to address the questions of what we are doing and why, what goods we intend to bring about and who for, ‘what works’ is just an empty way of keeping ourselves busy to avoid facing the void — it is nothing more than nihilism with KPIs.

If all this seems disempowering and defeatist, perhaps you have missed my point. Life is uncertain. The world is complicated. We can decide not to know these things, but that is the real disempowerment and defeat. The void is there whether we choose to stare into it or not. If however we choose to see what is really there, we are free to realise that while things may never be perfect, we can make them as good as we can, which in many cases is a lot better than they are now. Neither need we wait on ‘them’ to ‘fix’ it. It’s up to us, and only us, to govern ourselves. We can do that by asking each other simple questions like what are you doing and why? Where are we going and who is it good for? We can discuss the answers and decide which are better and worse. It’s not a new idea but an old one, and it’s called democracy. But democracy, and the human flourishing it seeks to bring about, is not something you have, but something you do. Doing democracy, I hardly need to point, bears very little resemblance to the unedifying national self-flagellation a few weeks ago where we all had to go put numbers in the boxes. That was rather an example of what I mean by fixating on process as a way of not having to engage with reality. No, doing democracy is different. Don’t ask me for a recipe. Or a solution. My solution is simply a way of being in the world that offers more empowerment and hope than others I’ve seen. It may not be much when all is said and done, but it’s all there is. Unless you have a better idea…? ◾

✱ The exception that proves the rule

I don’t often take an explicit position on this blog, but let me be absolutely clear on this point — Australia’s asylum seeker policy is shameful, illegal and offensive and I condemn Kevin Rudd’s latest update to it in the strongest terms.

Rudd announced on Friday that any asylum seeker who arrives by boat will have ‘no chance’ of being settled in Australia and will instead be resettled in Papua New Guinea as part of a new arrangement with that country.

This puts the capstone on a policy story that has been building since the Howard years. The story is that people coming by boat are a threat to Australia’s borders and so we need to stop them coming. All subsequent policy has been understood through this frame — Rudd has simply taken it one step further and simplified it. No chance. Get lost.

I’m not going to discuss the policies here — plenty of other people have done a better job of that already. I’m not going to rail against the politics of it or the politicians themselves either. They are of course disgusting, but this situation is Australia’s fault, not just that of our leaders.

How does a story like this get traction at all? It’s easily provable by fact that asylum seekers arriving by boat pose no threat whatsoever to Australia, but this is about the story rather than the facts. Nevertheless, even the facts of the story are easily disproved. There is no queue to be jumped. The arrivals are not illegal. It doesn’t matter how they arrive. Categories like ‘economic migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are themselves constructions of language so that we can avoid calling such people ‘refugees’, because that classification carries legal responsibilities which we would prefer to shirk and foist onto our poorer neighbours instead. More than 9 out of 10 of the people we detain end up being classified as refugees eventually anyway.

But the facts don’t matter. Neither does the cost, which is astronomical. At a time when the rest of what passes for political debate is focussed on budget deficits and we are prepared to cut funding to public services to return the budget to surplus, the cost of asylum seeker policy is somehow exempt. It is apparently so imperative that we lock up people fleeing for their lives, so great is the imagined threat to our borders, that we say hang the cost. The human cost certainly does not matter. The people who have the misfortune to become caught up in this story will be crushed, no matter what the personal cost, to maintain its fidelity.

The story speaks to a deep and ugly paranoia and entitlement that has been part of Australia’s national culture since it became a nation. We have always been concerned about equality and a fair-go, but equality for who and of what? Originally it was about equality for white men, as these were the only ‘Australians’ who mattered. In practice this meant ‘protecting’ Australian life from threats to this equality. Accordingly, the first Act passed by the Australian parliament in 1901 was the White Australia Policy. The Bulletin magazine told this story in very simple terms on its masthead every week until 1961:

Australia for the White Man

After World War II, the focus shifted to ‘protecting’ ourselves through population. We have always seen ourselves as a vulnerable outpost, and now the imperative became to ‘populate or perish’. In practice this meant stuffing ourselves with immigrants, in line with the still-existing White Australia Policy, whose very existence would deter the forces of communism. We simultaneously extended our pragmatic idea of the fair-go by helping good Australians attain a lifestyle represented by affordable suburban housing and access to motor cars. In the spirit of ‘equality’, everyone’s house, everyone’s values and everyone’s lives looked the same.

The bland conformity, unreflective pride and dulled sensitivity to the situation of the rest of the world has continued in one form or another through to today. We don’t know anything much about what happens outside our borders but we don’t much care because we love our country thank you very much and if you don’t then you can leave. The language of our national pride still masks a deep and abiding fear of inadequacy — we doth protest too much. This is particularly sad given that Australia does have much to be proud of, we’re just not aware enough of the world or our place in it to comprehend our real achievements or why we should be proud of them.

Given that we are unprepared to engage seriously with the rest of the world, and in particular the geographical facts about our place in it, it should not be surprising that we resent deeply the intrusion of the realities of the world onto our shores. We should be the ones who decide what we have to bother ourselves with and in what manner we choose to be bothered. The naive entitlement and petulant unreality of this attitude towards the outside world are all evident in John Howard’s phrasing of this sentiment, which resonated so strongly with many Australians.

The people on the boats themselves are not even really part of the story. They simply represent an inconvenient reality that we don’t want to know about. These people don’t have faces, or lives, or families, or any humanity, and the more we keep it that way the easier it will be for us to do nasty and inhuman things to them without having their humanity intrude upon our consciousness in any manner at all.

The humanity of people seeking asylum, and the unwelcome reality they represent, have both of course become increasingly difficult to ignore in recent years, which is why we have had to resort to more and more inventive (read: morally degrading) ways to hold our hands over our ears and shout LALALALALALALA!

The politics of this are ugly indeed, and frightening. They are the politics of exception.

States of exception are a well-known but rarely talked-about phenomenon in legal and political theory. They happen when a ruling authority declares a suspension of the rule of law. That sounds like a simple explanation, but what authority is there but the law, or an authority who is above it? States of exception are ways of getting around laws we don’t wish to be accountable to, and they are available only to those who have the most power to be dangerous when unconstrained by law. They should make us very uncomfortable.

After the burning down of the Reichstag in 1933, Hitler famously declared a state of national emergency, invoking special powers under the constitution which gave him power to take any action deemed necessary for public safety without first consulting the legislature. Civil liberties were suspended immediately, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free association and habeas corpus. The national government assumed the powers of the states, privacy was abolished and death penalties were introduced for acts such as setting fire to public buildings. Much of what followed in Hitler’s dictatorship was possible only in this ‘exceptional’, legal climate of emergency.

Though Nazi Germany remains the paradigm example of this phenomenon, we need look no further than our own times for troubling instances of states of exception. Indeed, one of the characteristic features of the post-9/11 world is the politics of exception as normal practice.

The US detains people without trial in Guantanamo Bay in a legal state of exception that would not be possible on its own soil (or so we hope). The Bush Administration suspended the prohibition against torture because, well, it found it wanted to torture certain people. The language of euphemism — ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, ‘enemy combatants’ — was deployed to make the unpleasantries of what was actually happening go away. The Bush Administration also made extensive use of ‘executive orders’ that grant the executive branch of government discretionary powers — that is, the power to do what it wants. Bush signed more of these executive orders in his term as President than all Presidents before him combined. Obama looks set to beat that record. Indeed, his Administration has taken things further by engaging in a program of regular remote assassinations of people it considers a threat, another little exception to the way things are supposed to be done.

This is all made possible because of the ‘war on terror’, a story that has allowed an unspecified emergency to become an ongoing everyday occurrence. The little rooms that exist in airports all over the world are states of exception where the rule of law does not apply. We need those rooms, we are told (if we are told at all), to fight the good fight. We may accept that, but gods help you if you ever find yourself in one of those rooms.

There are countless tiny examples too of how exceptions and exemptions are used to legally do things that the very law to which the exception is granted was designed to prevent. Exemptions to the Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria allow the legal discrimination by religious groups against people they don’t want to employ for reasons of character. Exemptions to Victoria’s Human Rights charter allow police to legally violate young people’s right to freedom of movement and the presumption of innocence. Let’s of course not forget the little exception we made to ‘suspend’ the Racial Discrimination Act so we could ‘intervene’ in the Northern Territory.

Eyebrows were raised last year when Australia made the creative decision to exclude the entire mainland from its migration zone. Normally, if you are a non-citizen, you must have a valid entry visa to enter the migration zone. Several Australian territories have been exceptions to this, meaning that ‘unathorised’ arrivals to these places can be lawfully detained. By making the entire continent an exception, we gained the ability to detain anyone who arrived ‘unauthorised’. This was apparently done to send a message that there would be ‘no advantage’ in sailing boats directly to the mainland rather than the various island territories. In other words, we’ll lock you away no matter where you wash up. It was progress.

This all made perfect sense, provided nobody thought about it for more than a few seconds or pointed out the fact we were breaking international law. But what Rudd has now done is simply make a further exception, this time to international law.

Australia signed the Refugee Convention back in 1951. World War II was an intrusion of world reality that even Australia couldn’t ignore, and in its aftermath it became possible to imagine that we too might become refugees one day, through no fault of our own. In such a situation, it would be nice to think that good people elsewhere might give us a guarantee of survival and a chance at a new life. Perhaps even a welcome. Such values seemed self-evidently worthwhile. So we signed the Convention.

But after a few decades it turns out it’s not us, and most of us today live safe in the unthinking confidence that it never will be. So fuck ‘em.

That we are prepared at last to tear up the symbol and guarantee of goodwill of a world shaken by a conflict that killed some 60 million people, and that we are prepared to turn our backs on such hard-won wisdom for the sake of what amounts to nothing more than an imagined inconvenience, is a breathtaking display of our character as a nation. Our reputation may never recover, but this is of course precisely what we will celebrate. We have finally sent the message we’ve always wanted. Don’t come.

Of course, it’s only temporary, we’ll be told. Until the emergency is over and things go back to normal. But all we’ve done is show that we live in a world where it’s normal to simply make exceptions to the rules we don’t want to follow and to the moral commitments we find too bothersome to uphold.

It is an utter disgrace. The story may have a happy ending for the Australians, but who are they exactly? Whatever Australia we imagine we’re ‘protecting’ by doing this, I want no part of. ◾

✱ An Open Book

The influence of globalisation can be felt in countless obscure policy areas, in situations where it not obviously apparent what is the best thing to do. One such example is the arcane matter of parallel importing as it pertains to Australian publishing.

Most products manufactured overseas have authorised distributors in Australia. Parallel importing refers to a process by which someone other than the authorised distributor legally imports such products (genuine products, not knock-offs) and sells them on the market, often at significantly cheaper price points.

The Copyright Act 1968 includes protections for Australian publishers from the parallel imports of books. Upon the publication of any overseas title, Australian publishers have 30 days to publish an Australian edition, which local booksellers are then obliged to buy. Economics of scale being what they are, the local version often costs $10-$15 more than the equivalent overseas edition, even taking into account shipping. In 2008, the federal government asked the Productivity Commission to investigate whether these protections should be removed for the benefit of consumers.

Australian authors soon launched a concerted (though poorly articulated — much irony to be had there) campaign against removing the protections. This is where it gets complicated. Parallel importing does not directly affect the majority of local writers. Rather, by ensuring the existence of a local publishing industry that can pick and choose which overseas titles are bankable, it supports an ecosystem of local authors and their more uncertain commercial success. It is this ecosystem that the local campaign argued was under threat if the rules were changed.

For the bestselling Australian authors, parallel importing also raises the threat of remainder sales. In the odd supply chain system of the book industry, once a publisher decides a title is no longer commercially viable, it pulls it from shelves, and booksellers are able to send back all their unsold copies for full credit. The publisher then sells this invariably large stock of ‘remainders’ cheaply and directly to wholesalers, where they end up in bargain bins for a few dollars. Importantly, authors receive no royalties on these remainder sales. It is therefore entirely possible to imagine a situation (for a few authors, anyway) where the overseas run of an Australian title ends and Australian bargain bins are full of copies of it, selling for prices that hugely undercut the local edition and on which the author makes no money.

In a perfect market, presumably, authoring would be done where authors enjoyed the greatest market advantage and local authors would simply move there. This means we probably wouldn’t have another Storm Boy, but it may also spare us from Gretel Killeen’s My Life is a Toilet. Qualitative judgments are never straightforward.

The interesting question for our purposes is what role does policy have in all this? The Productivity Commission recommended the removal of parallel import protections after three years, to give enough time for another appropriate means of support for the local industry to be developed and implemented, though what that might look like, the Commission gave no indication. The Government apparently decided this was too hard or too unwelcome a conversation to have and announced it would be leaving the legislation as it was. Tellingly, it said ‘if books cannot be made available in a timely fashion and at a competitive price, customers will opt for online sales and ebooks.’6

This decision appears to benefit both consumers and the local publishing industry, but it leaves the actual local booksellers in perhaps the most unworkable position. They are obliged to buy the higher-priced local editions, while exposed to the market and distribution power of Amazon and the Book Depository (free overseas shipping!). This is a large factor — as well as poor management — in the recent collapse of REDGroup and its Borders and Angus & Robertson brands. It’s also why you now see many independent booksellers with in-store signage demanding/pleading that customers not simply use their store to conduct research for a later online purchase. Then there’s the ebook, which threatens to disrupt the entire print publishing industry altogether.

It seems to me that this is not so much a problem of free trade/protectionism as it is of ensuring a flourishing capacity for imagination, knowledge and cultural life (or cultural capital, if we must insist on that language). Policy should be directed at ensuring this capacity, rather than maintaining a particular institutional set of affairs or attempting to pick and choose winners, as neoliberals sometimes call it. In other words, it matters less how we ensure we have a capacity for unique cultural life than that we do it. This will first require that we begin to think of people, wherever they are, as producers and readers of books and ideas rather than simply vendors and consumers of them. ◾

✱ Being economical with the truth

When Malcolm Turnbull asked Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong, during the famous Spycatcher trial, the difference between a misleading impression and a lie, Armstrong replied that a lie was a straight untruth whereas a misleading impression might be regarded as being ‘economical with the truth’. The phrase promptly lodged itself firmly in the language.

If the phrase is pithy and/or apt, it’s because we have some idea that economics is concerned with making choices about distribution, and doing so as efficiently — that is with as little ‘waste’ — as possible, where in this case waste refers to sharing information that did not need to be shared.

The choices that economics is concerned with are those that involve some sort of goal-directed action, which is to say they are practical choices. Economics is, after all, a practical science. It is therefore inseparable in some sense from other practical sciences, if we are to take seriously, as Aristotle did, the idea that the goal such actions are directed at is a good, or flourishing, life. For Aristotle, the practical sciences were economics, politics and ethics, though economics then meant something closer to ‘household management’ than perhaps what we mean by it today.

Incidentally, the ‘economy of truth’ line comes originally from Edmund Burke, where he relates it to the exercise of virtue in the proper amount (an Aristotelian idea), which shows how much things change even as they remain the same.

Policymaking, also a decidedly practical activity, can be regarded as a combination of all three of the practical sciences — what ought we do, who for and how much? This is probably not how many would frame it today, though it comes close to the view of Adam Smith, who also argued that questions of morality, politics and economics were inseparable.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion today as to whether to regard economics as a branch of knowledge — a technical means for providing information to help make choices — or as a framework by which such choices can be made. Some people argue for a conflation of both. It seems trivial and a little churlish to point out that it might be helpful to decide on this in some fashion before we engage in policymaking, but all evidence suggests this is advice that frequently goes unheeded.

A major source of this confusion is that money has for some time now been supposed to act as a stand-in for utility, which is to say, happiness. The rather loopy train of thought leading to this proposition is far too convoluted to relate today, but it’s hard to talk seriously about contemporary economics or policy without making reference to it, as it informs much of what we think we know.

In hugely oversimplified terms, the thinking goes like this. What’s good is what produces happiness. We’re unable to say precisely what happiness is (utility might be a more useful term) but it would be helpful if we could quantify it somehow. If we can somehow measure happiness (or utility), we can do things that will increase the amount of it that we gain over the amount we lose — we can maximise our marginal utility. Despite a number of variously amusing and/or embarrassing attempts to measure happiness (including the hedonometer), economics as a discipline has largely settled on using money as a proxy — close enough!

In this sense, economics is connected with ethics — utilitarian ethics — so much so that the manner of the connection has become very nearly invisible. Economists often proceed as if what they are doing is value-free, but the very methods they employ are profoundly value-laden. This would be perfectly fine were it not for the fact that the ethical system being employed is mostly incoherent, in no small part because of those methods.

All this is simply by way of saying that when we want to analyse how economics informs or shapes a policy we must remember that economics is hardly the neutral, value-free approach it is often assumed to be. Rather it comes fully laden with its own values (many of which derive from utilitarianism) — it just usually doesn’t declare them as such. This is not to devalue or discredit economics as a valid way of thinking about things, it is merely to insist on the inseparability of economics from ethics and politics. Good policymaking begins when we proceed from this observation and think through the implications carefully. Anything less is simply being economical with the truth. ◾

✱ Flexing organisational muscle

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a debate recently when she announced telecommuting would no longer be an option for company employees — a move that seemed to fly in the face of trends towards telecommuting since the 1970s that had largely been pioneered by tech companies. To be blunt, Yahoo! as a company is so moribund that it is probably doomed at this point whatever it does, but the telecommuting debate is interesting nonetheless!

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi says it’s about flexibility vs serendipity:

Davis, a business professor, says what you miss in telecommuting is the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you … ” conversations that turn into something more.

“It’s more efficient, but you lose that serendipity,” he says.

This is a common sentiment heard especially from those companies with modern office facilities that contrive to be a home away from home. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the Pixar headquarters have a large atrium and centralised bathrooms so people from all around the building would keep running into each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean there aren’t necessarily real benefits to be had to employees and to the company by practising telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. The question doesn’t have to be answered one way or the other, or decided for all time. Of course, that the debate is happening about Yahoo! is interesting in itself, as Noguchi points out:

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says tech companies were early adopters of telecommuting, and they’re now finding that the practice sometimes goes too far. But he says it’s interesting that this edict is coming from an Internet company that offers email and instant messaging.

“There’s so much irony here,” Challenger says. “Not only is this high-tech company that’s been at the forefront of the technology that’s changed how we work now asking workers to come back in, but also it’s a 37-year-old mother who is seeing the advantages of being able to balance her work life and her personal life by telecommuting and yet saying, ‘For the good of the company, we can’t do this. We have to change.’ “

I recently worked on a research project with the Singapore government which is investigating telecommuting and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a way of solving transport congestion problems. In fact, transport planners around the world love FWAs and can be found constantly recommending them to public policymakers.

What I discovered is that while there is an abundance of research on which kinds of organisations tend to adopt FWAs, for what reasons they do so and what measures can be taken to help persuade them, there is a surprising lack of research evidence on how effective FWAs actually are in practice. Continue Reading →

✱ Politics as sport

When politics is a sport, people love nothing more than to dress up in their team’s colours and hurl abuse at the other side. While it’s all very tiresome for those for whom politics is something serious and dignified, political sport is deeply satisfying and team psychology is no small part of democracy as it’s practiced. Besides, who really wants to trust something as serious and dignified as politics to people who don’t know how to have a little fun.

So political sport is ok, but people keep getting the teams mixed up! For starters, ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t refer to anything useful and haven’t for a long time, as far as I can see. I’ll spare you the stuff about the French Revolution and the arbitrariness of the names — that’s besides the point. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t much refer to anything useful either.

For just one example, let’s consider one of the great conservative insights (yes, there are some! Goal kick.) For traditional conservatives, the world isn’t full of individual human beings, but rather people who practise particular cultures. That is to say, people aren’t detached or generic entities but come preloaded with certain inheritances of history, language, geography and other shared particularities that they did not choose to have but which nonetheless form a significant part of their identity. How not? For instance, I can’t help but experience the world through the eyes of my upbringing in suburban Australia to middle-class parents of British working-class origins. And though I hesitate to identify with ‘gay’ culture, I nevertheless share with many other gay people a certain experience of being somehow different and outside, and a gradual discovery of what this means. My curiosity about the world has led me to discover and reflect upon the meaning of all this so that it is now possible for me to write the paragraph you are now reading, and who’s to say that my upbringing and other unchosen particularities of my existence have not greatly contributed to this curiosity. This is simply to say I am who I am for many reasons, and not entirely by choice.

In any case, if a great conservative insight is that people are part of common cultures and communities, and thus a large part of the conservative political project is precisely to conserve these communities, what are we to think when Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the British Conservative party, says there is no such thing as society?

Well, it turns out Thatcher is speaking as a liberal! For her, and for lots of others from the late 1970s onwards, people are detached, generic individuals who make rational decisions in their own self-interest, and somehow the combined total of everyone doing this makes the whole of ‘society’ better off. This ghastly melange of classical Enlightenment liberalism, welfare economics and cherry-picked bits of Adam Smith, often goes (unhelpfully) by the name neoliberalism. The political project of neoliberalism therefore consists mostly in removing the barriers between the way things are and a universal state of affairs in which people (or to use the fashionable metonym — consumers) are able to exercise the power of their choice in free markets. Hence all the deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing (and flat wages, job insecurity and lack of corporate responsibility) you might have noticed in the last couple of decades.

So… is it the Right or the Left responsible for this? What does such a question even mean? If we want to, we can start splintering into ‘social’ and ‘economic’ liberals (as if these can be easily or sensibly separated), but such semantic contortions simply mask a flaw in the starting categories. Visual posters like this one that attempt to map out the entirety of the left-right political spectrum are admittedly a broadly helpful aid to understanding, but only serve to make the point that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are too diffuse to be of any use in the first place, even if people’s actual views fall neatly into the little boxes as illustrated.

Besides, as far as I can tell, neoliberalism is still the tacit default of both the ALP and the Liberal party in Australia, the Democrats and Republicans in the US and the British Labour and Conservative parties. Whether we’re going Forward with Fairness into a Big Society, with Change We Can Believe In or with Country First, everyone is starting from roughly the same place, with various vestigial bits of ideology tacked on or tucked away. In fact it is the bland sameness of these starting places and the utter incompatibility of the neoliberal idea with the world that real people actually live in that produces such confused and increasingly deranged policies as we have been seeing lately throughout the West.

We need a new political vocabulary. The Enlightenment has been and gone and changed things forever, just as the Renaissance and the Reformation did before it. But we’re still stuck talking about left and right and markets and socialism and liberals and conservatives even though the times have since moved on. Pitiful but sincere attempts to acknowledge this can be seen in stillborn slogans like compassionate conservatism, triple bottom line economics and the Third Way, but upon close examination these are simply the old ideas half-formed and passed off as fashionably new, like a political open sandwich.

The crisis of politics in the West runs deep. While we swear at the players limping, confused, around the pitch as we shout for the rules to be changed, somewhere there is taking shape a game that is altogether new.

✱ Another election: what’s it all for?

Shortly before the last Australian federal election, I wrote an article for the ABC about how disgusting the state of politics in Australia had become. This time I can’t even muster the enthusiasm to be disgusted. I’m far from alone in this of course, which is heartening – since last time we’ve had Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow‘, Laura Tingle’s ‘Great Expectations‘ and a wealth of books, articles and speeches about how pitiful all of it is and why.

Before we embark trepidatiously upon another election year voyage of insipid campaigning, recriminations and broken promises, point scoring and the usual media sideshow, and before they start perpetrating Q&A again every week, I’d just like to get my thoughts on the matter on the record and out of the way.

If, as the polls suggest, voters have already made up their minds long ago, no-one will be listening during the campaign anyway. But we’ll all go through the motions in some sort of ghastly national ritual nonetheless, because what else is there?

No-one will be talking about what any of it is for. That we’re all stuck here together for a while so we’d better talk about how to get along.

Richard Livingstone once said (and it is still true) that if you want a characterisation of our age, it is that of the civilisation of means without ends. Australia is materially one of the richest countries in the world, but we don’t appear to have any idea what to do with it or how to make it last. It’s not that we disagree over questions of freedom, fairness and flourishing, it’s that no-one is asking these questions in the first place.

To take just one example that will occupy much of the campaign but which will have almost no effect on how people eventually vote, consider asylum seekers. We will talk endlessly about the process of what should be done with them and to them, but no-one will ask the question ‘what, if anything, is our obligation to strangers?’ That’s the conversation we should be having.

No-one will ask what education is for. We’ll talk instead about HELP fees and job placements and MySchool rankings and private school funding, if we talk about it at all. No-one will ask what people are actually able to do and to be in their lives. We’ll talk instead about housing prices, interest rates, the level of Newstart, hospital waiting times and parental leave entitlements.

In short, Australian politics is a perpetual proxy for a larger conversation that never happens and that we have forgotten how to have.

But we’ll still be fed up and noisy and looking for someone to blame. And our ‘leaders’ will indulge us, because they never fail to do so. No matter who emerges as the winner of this election, Australia itself will lose.

That is, unless we remember that the purpose of government is to act to secure the opportunity for the flourishing lives of its citizens. Maybe that resonates with you, or maybe you disagree entirely. Either way, let’s have that conversation.

✱ Moving forward

Anyone following Australian politics over the last two years will be wearily familiar with this phrase. Anyone working in an Australian corporate will have noticed it seeping into email chains, like a wet sandwich through a paper bag. I was thinking about what exactly it was supposed to mean: my best guess is, in that carefully image-managed corporate style, that it is designed to do a few things. It should acknowledge, yet dismiss, the past without criticising or critiquing it. The phrase should direct the reader to the attached PowerPoint presentation, which outlines our strategy and core values for the next five years in the form of a bulleted list. It should encourage positive feelings about the future, leaning upon that idea of progress and a ‘brighter tomorrow’. It is a kind of stage direction, quickly black-bagging yesterday whilst trotting out tomorrow, all while inducing a thorough-going ennui in the reader. I suppose there’s a kind of intricate, diabolical mastery of language inside it. I hope my rising nausea is coming across clearly.

Let’s reflect on some of those intricacies. The phrase ‘moving forward’ relies on a particular metaphor of time. Specifically, that time is a straight line where the past cannot be revisited and a gleaming future is always just one second away. We haven’t always thought about time this way, and it really is a metaphor. The physics of time are incredibly complicated and, as far as I understand them, don’t include this directional notion. The metaphor isn’t based on some immutable scientific fact, it’s how, as a culture, we grasp time. We could debate whether we should take that as given so quietly, but I’d like to leave that to one side. What’s more important for our current purposes is how we choose to know time given how we grasp time.

The past is out of sight, and that means it can easily be out of mind. However, our mind is a greasetrap in the stream of our experience. In order to forget, we must once have known. That has two implications – firstly, one must have been attentive and noticed something as it occurred. You might think that would encourage paying attention and a watchful eye. Secondly, one must make a decision about what they have noticed and relate to it. Does something matter? Do I have any strong feelings about this? Do I understand its importance, if any? There is a massive scope for individual ignorance to make decisions here over any thoughtful consideration. That’s simply because of a lack of exposure, experience or recognition. You might think that would encourage one to own their ignorance and do what they can to reduce it. If something passes these twin hurdles, it might make it into memory. Most things don’t.

The past is of great importance to us. We live in its shadow and by its consequences daily. The overwhelming pressure it exerts on the present is actually quite impossible to overstate. Consequently, it matters a great deal what we recognise in the present and how we remember it as time turns it into the past. As a proof, I would point to the incredible shock, even hysteria, which rises out of small changes in politics, business or international affairs. A continuity of conditions is assumed to be the same as stability, and so, change provokes a visceral reaction. Therefore, in many ways, we live according to the past. When we relate to a past which is dear to us we do not enjoy seeing it trampled in the present or the future. That is where something like our sense of justice comes from – just because an unjust event is out of sight will never be good reason to put it out of mind. Some crimes are indelible.

There are many ways of relating to the past, not all of them will be as ‘high stakes’ as justice. Having said that, one’s ignorance about the importance of an event doesn’t constitute a good reason to have no relation to it at all. Some things are worth caring about and when you don’t, you are remiss. Therefore, I would encourage you to think carefully about what one is being asked to move forward from. The phrase itself is encouraging you to forget what, if you thought carefully, you might actually care very much about. In a way it cannot possibly conceal, to be told to ‘move forward’ is to be told to believe something. It can be an insult to you, and a tragedy of varying proportions, to be lead forward unthinkingly by the hand – so don’t be.