It is always disarming to hear a heartfelt capitulation, a recognition of a past wrong now owned up to. If the Left has believed anything it has been that people’s behaviours are socially formed, and are therefore open to reconstruction — indeed to the flowering of the fullness of human being: that redemptive story about the possibility of overcoming the distortions of the miserably narrowing grip of life lived under capitalism.
Somehow, that sense of possibility did not rise up in me when John Howard announced his reconstruction: openly admitting fault, seeing a way forward to reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, declaring himself distorted by the historical circumstance of growing up in the fifties.
As this announcement was surely researched and market tested before delivery, the spin doctors must have thought it would strike a chord with someone. You may be worried that he’s conned you in the past, but look, here is real sincerity! An old story. Here’s a man who can face his demons (all those black devils turning their backs on him): he’s human after all. Was that it? He’s flexible and dynamic, not defined by the past! That seems to be the consensus of The Australian’s stable of commentators. Departing from the tactics of dog whistle racism in his dealings in Aboriginal affairs, Howard was now exploiting the very same issue, not for division this time, but for harmony in a more mature Australia.
If only we could believe him. Coming as the final statement before the rigours of the election campaign proper were upon him, before the ‘proper’ concerns of an election — the economy — would take over, this statement was something of a master signifier, standing behind everything that was yet to come. The gesture alone, an apparent change of heart, was important, sowing a strange confusion — a moment when his followers were asked to reconfigure, or perhaps just slightly recalibrate, their thinking, and opponents were once again thrown off by a brilliant tactical stroke. We can now expect a reworked preamble to the Constitution, noting Indigenous Australians’ special place in the Australian nation, a deeply worrying proposition given Howard’s previous attempt to write mateship into the Constitution, forgetting that more than half the population was female, for whom mateship was a gender-inflected and rather dubious category. Liberal voters, on the other hand, may feel pleased that they are more enlightened on the ‘Aboriginal question’ than they thought they were a week or so ago.
Unfortunately for us all, Howard’s change of heart is nothing of the kind. Dynamic he may be, or may have been. But more human? That’s a more difficult proposition, as the fine print to his reconciliation gesture is complicit in a very particular view of what constitutes humanity. The ‘symbolic’ reconciliation he now sees fit to institute could mark the swansong of Aboriginal culture, as Indigenous forms of difference are reconstructed through the neo-liberal market, under which there is only one way to be, only one way for culture: land as commodity, spirit as personal feeling, mutual life made competitive. There is only One Australia, said John Howard explicitly; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be made virtually white, he whispered. Perhaps, after all, this was just a more elaborate version of the dog whistle.
Yes, but if colonialist and racist sentiments filter through Howard’s statement it is not because he is looking to the past. It is important to see that these sentiments take newly convincing forms for the general electorate precisely because they are wedded to a neo-liberal version of the human in general, which promotes a radically open and future-oriented model of the worthwhile person. As we gear up for the inevitable competition for resources that elections bring on, we see that John Howard’s battlers and Labor’s aspirationals have come to project their hopes and understand themselves in precisely these terms. We are all offered neo-liberation, Black and White; it’s just that for some it is compulsory while for others it is disguised as voluntary. Neo-liberation is an assimilation process that all Australians are prone to, though non-Indigenous Australians seem to have less insight than most Indigenous Australians of what might be at stake.
As we go to press, the Liberal Party’s fortunes are on the rise after the announcement of its $34 billion in tax cuts and a week of scare-mongering about Labor’s ‘lack of business know-how’. It is all right on-message. Entrepreneurship and consumption are the conditions not merely of prosperity, but of our self-worth. We deserve the endless abundance that is promised, even if it rides on the back of the incredibly lazy idea (as put explicitly by The Australian) of the ‘bottomless pit’ of the Australian minerals boom. And this is where a certain discomfort sets in for many — this promised abundance must also be jealously guarded: the market will only reward if the rational self-interest in which it is founded remains the guiding principle of electoral choice. (Howard and Costello will inject discreet amounts either as pork-barrelling or in shock and awe tactics to win one Tasmanian town over, rather than adequately fund services.)
An expression of the neo-liberal subject, and the process into which we have all been drawn, is the image of the ‘non-ideological’ voter, now a standard trope of mainstream political reporting and very much on view in the week after the release of the parties’ tax policies. The idea of the ‘hip pocket nerve’ seems incredibly outdated. The contemporary political subject is the image of responsibility, clever intelligence, independence and autonomy. This is no mere reflex action: it is really smart to analyse complex competing data, down to dollars and cents, thus to know how to vote. The neo-liberal type enacts a kind of fortress voting: me, my immediate family and I, perhaps not realising the shrunken notion of freedom, and political rationality, that this represents. And its ethics? A derivative of the market, ethics at best is seen as a contorted form of the preservation of self-interest.
How smart can this kind of voting really be? Labor suggests that what is really clever depends on the calculus you use: the pre-setting of what constitutes value affects the benefits and choices open to you. It may be just plain dumb if the calculus can’t build in the benefits to self and family of a healthy environment, or effective health, child care and education. It might be really dumb if that other mineral in which Australia is rich, uranium, is mined and sold without constraints if it promotes terror and destruction. And the electorate does seem swayed potentially by this general idea in the hands of Kevin Rudd, who, while an avowedly conservative economic manager, injects values into the distributional and ethical side of a Third Way equation. Even climate change may be factored into this reworked version of neo-liberal prosperity. Just a little bit of global warming for sustainable growth?
Perhaps the 51 per cent of voters who have not had an effective voice in parliament for eleven years are still believers in some notion of the social as an independent source of value in politics and culture. Almost certainly Labor continues to have sway with the electorate because many believe it to be the historical repository of a source of such value. But that seems a merely hopeful view at present. Tax cuts are de rigeur across the mainstream parties; the mantra continues! The neo-liberal self, its entrepreneurial spirit, its calculating rationality, its fortress mentality and its need to consume is just as real for Labor as it is for the Liberals, and must be fed. At the least, the residual sense that there are alternative sources of value outside and independent of the market presents a contradiction that has to be worked through. The idea that it is good for us to consume, that we can in fact continue to consume in the way we have, that growth is ‘essential’, while worrying still about others, wanting to value the living planet, finding the richness of humanity in cultural diversity: this contradiction requires a revolution in political thinking that does not merely recalibrate existing prejudices and imperatives, or merely alter some equation.
As John Hinkson indicates in his essay in this issue, the impending collapse of ‘oil culture’, culture dependent on irreplaceable, non-substitutable high-energy sources, may perforce be trigger to such a re-thinking. In spite of much convincing reporting, global warming has not yet achieved that feat. Images of stranded polar bears, reports on the decimation of the species, estimations of human death caused by rising sea levels haven’t yet moved us towards real action. What if we could agree that both parties’ ridiculous tax cuts were irresponsible in the face of impending global calamity? What if that money could be spent on urgent action to radically reduce greenhouse emissions and build extensive renewable power sources?
What if such a decision were a trigger to a discussion of human worth and the sources of value? What if we rediscovered that first and foremost politics was about virtue, or how life should be lived, and that both parties’ ridiculous tax cuts were irresponsible in the face of impending global calamity? What if that money could be spent on urgent action to radically reduce greenhouse emissions and build extensive renewable power sources?
Alison Caddick is co-editor of Arena Magazine.