Class Dismissed

Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them. – From Shannon Burns – In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class

OK. Drop the mike. Go home. We’re done here. Progressives need to shut the hell up. And then maybe ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Without interrupting. Or correcting. Telling people how wrong they are.

Just listen.

For a moment.

I’m not being sarcastic – I am not writing this on Twitter.

First, a detour.

(Failed) Experiment In Autobiography 

I am not working class. I qualify for the rank of lower middle class*. In England, the categories are clear. I went to a state comprehensive. My parents did not go to university but had jobs like “primary school teacher” and “probation officer”. I did go to university, where I had no idea what was going on – apart from the fact that I didn’t really belong there.

But I grew up in relative comfort. There was never any worries about where the next meal would come from – just that it would be terrible. Which is a massively unfair statement written just to get a cheap laugh. My mum did her best with her culinary knowledge, the produce from the local supermarkets and the time a working mum had. So I take that back. But I do get frustrated when my own son, who lives in one of the world’s great cities with access to many and varied high quality cuisines and wants to eat none of it. See how he trolls me with demands for cucumber and rice crackers. I find the words “You don’t know you’re born” start to coalesce on my tongue. Bequeathed.

I’m not working class but my dad is. He was born in a slum in Birmingham during World War II. He failed the 11 Plus. When he took it, he was as adrift as I was at uni – “What’s that bit o’ paper, our Stephen?” said his mum when he brought details of the test home. He went into the Navy (as a stoker). After watching one sailor knife another, he left. He passed some A-levels before getting a social work qualification. He shed most of his Brum accent. Although not his awkwardness in social settings with those who have more education than him, who know the right way of doing things.

He’s not part of the macho, punch-you-in-face-for-looking-at-me-funny world of the male working class. I suspect he may always have been a delicate bloom – with his love of the solitary pursuits of bicycling and beer making. If you grow up surround by people wall-to-wall then any personal space is precious. Time to yourself. Not the boss. Not your folks. Not your peers. Yours. Time to think and to dream. He’s also a storyteller. Not a garrulous, snug bar fixture guffawing with his mates but a weaver of absurdist, tall tales – especially for children. The one about the boiled beef and carrots that made a break from the kitchen to wider world still sticks in my mind although I have forgotten nearly all of it. We recorded some on a massive 70s reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tapes are probably unplayable now. He still tells stories.

Time to think and dream.

The house I grew up had had no books. There were my dad’s A-level history text books. The occasional rogue Len Deighton. And a large number of Bibles (New International Version). But not much else. However my father’s distaste for being a sports spectator (probably too… collective) meant I had to do something with my time. I bought books in ever greater quantities – I recall my mother once plaintively asking: “Matthew, don’t you think you have enough books now?”. Haha – NO. My addiction was unquenchable. MOAR BOOKS!!! Science fiction and literature and philosophy and history. I recall a pretentious urge to read Oedipus Rex and not really following the plot. Today, as a staff member at a university, I can get any book I want. Apart from the original Dead Sea Scrolls. The Inter Library Loan team could not swing that request for me. Damn them to hell.

Screw your Lexus, I can read any book I want. Who is the real winner here? Yeah? Whatever.

My childhood was not filled with fear of violence (apart from the regular nerd beatings that my mix of academic achievement and social inadequacy seemed to demand). Instead, the perennial terror was dropping from our precarious perch into the precipice below. Keeping up appearances with the constant threat of appearances falling apart. And the failure of knowing how to do so. You are only here under sufferance. We can send you back down any time we like.

My own parents could not have ideologically sounds debates about gender or race with me. My mother had insisted that they leave the Plymouth Brethren because she was not allowed to talk. My father told stories about the contempt that black prisoners had for the legal system – but it wasn’t like he hung out with the (non-Plymouth) Brothers in downtown Littlehampton. His frame of reference was as bare as the beach of pebbles of my home town. We know what’s around us. It doesn’t pay to know much more.

Working Not Working

I only know a little of working class culture before the 80s. Black and white photos. Accounts told by biased witnesses. There is a sense of something tied to place – where you lived, where you worked, where you drank, where you ate, where you prayed. A world of things. But not just of things. A world of stories. Life was not secure or safe. A public world dominated by men. A world without much in the way of privacy. A world with many threats outside.

Those places are slipping. Factories get moved overseas or staffed with robots. Building sites still require men. Get yourself a trade. Get up at 5 am and have a laugh with the boys. But there are ever more call centres and old people’s homes and child care spots. These don’t require brawny arms but nimble fingers and sharp ears. These are the world of women not men. The union hall is empty. You’ll take that temping contract and like it.

The message from conservatives is that there are two kinds of working class people. The “good” type – hard-working, moral, maybe a bit of a larrikin but fundamentally right-thinking. Not interested in any hi-faultin’ ideas but a good, salt of the earth sort.  That’s you right? Of course it is. We’ll take care of you. Promise.

Then there are the “bad” ones – lazy good-for-nothings who sit on sofa taking drugs, playing Xbox and hitting their spouses and their kids while claiming the dole. Terrible people. That’s those people over there. We’ll sort them out. Promise.

There is obviously zero overlap between these two groups. And there is no way that some one could slide from group to the other. Impossible. And if they did, it would always be their fault. Always.

Talk Radio is always full of people talking. So many, many words expelled with such force. It’s not called Listening Radio for a reason.

Sometimes we drive out to my wife’s great aunt not far from Bass Hill. Her immaculately-kept three bedroom house sits with other immaculately kept houses. Her Italian neighbours keep an eye on her. We share Portuguese chicken and chips with a cold ginger beer. We talk about those living and those dead. We talk about our hopes and fears. Not all of these conversations are ideologically sound.

Just listen for a moment. There are many stories. Many hopes and dreams. Noble. Perverse. Profane. Wrong. All worth a listen.

Time to think and dream.

*Altho according to this totally scientific & atomically precise online test, I am “Traditional Working Class”: Bollocks.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Family Feudal Firm

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account

Why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well…

Nothing annoys me more than when I have an idea and promptly discover that someone has already done it better than me. In this case, Elizabeth Anderson’s two Tanner lectures from 2015 and this more recent article for Vox. A brief summary of the lectures:

  • Lecture 1 discusses the association of the free market with left-wing radicals until the advent of the industrial revolution. Masterless artisans were very keen on the free market and private property because it safeguarded their autonomy from feudal, landed lords and avaricious kings. The industrial revolution changed that dynamic. Production that had previously been the preserve of small proprietors became the domain of huge corporations that could operate at scale. Private property ceased to be a place of financial refuge for individuals and was instead the branding mark of the capitalist.
  • Lecture 2 extends this notion into the present day. Business seek to control not only the behaviour of their staff in the workplace but also their actions off the clock and the ideas that occupy their minds. Anderson – in a deliciously provocative move – equates their actions with those of Communist dictatorships. Corporations act as “private governments” – states within states with their own laws, norms and mechanisms of enforcement.

The lectures are well worth reading so I am not going to rehearse their arguments here. Rather I want to riff off the analogy in the second lecture based on my 20-odd years working in the private and public sectors:

  • Virtually no workplaces follow democratic principles. Perhaps the closest I have encountered to a democratic workplace was PwC – where the CEO was voted in. The catch being that the CEO is voted in by the partners (individuals with an equity stake in the firm) and key decisions (major merger and acquisitions) were put to partnership votes. Partners make up around 10% of the firm (in Australia, about 450 of 5,000). This is reminiscent of ancient Athens where adult male citizens who had completed their military training could vote and they made up only 10% of the population (women, children, foreigners and slaves being in eligible). The division between partners and non-partners was rigidly enforced (communciations had to start with “Dear Partners and Staff”).
  • Some organisations are built around families. These tend to resemble monarchies – with a court forming around the king, sorry, managing director and rival factions led by different family members. The challenge for any monarchy is the death of the king and the smooth transition of power. Needless to say, this transition is seldom smooth.
  • Perhaps the dominant political form for many organisations is feudal. In the feudal system, resources are owned by lords. Lords may all submit to the authority of a king and pay regular tribute but they have power within their own domain. Lords will compete with each other for resources and power. They may come together to fight external threats. Individual lords may also leave the state at any time and ally themselves with enemies and take their retinues with them. Now depending on the organisation, resources may be “bodies” (staff reporting to you), customer relationships, profit & loss responsibility, revenue streams, control of physical or intangible assets, etc. Lords offer protection to those under their rule but demand loyalty and tribute in return.
  • Very few organisations are genuine bureaucracies where processes rule. Many organisations camouflage themselves as such to outsiders but do not assume that this is how insiders see them.
  • Most organisations are some mix of all of the above.

While we talk about our societies being modern and democratic, much time (perhaps the majority of lived experience) is spent in enviroments our medieval ancestors would recognise. Our lives are largely non-democratic.

Incidentally, this is why Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s work still resonates. Pferrer’s work on power has been described as “machiavellian” and this is truer than most of his commentators know. Machiavelli was a humanist operating in a time where feudal power struggles were just starting to be eclipsed by the globalised mercantilism that we know today. Northern Italy has the centre of this transformation – just as the Northern California in which Pfeffer is located is centre of our current transformation of capital. Like Machiavelli, Pfeffer is ultimately a humanist counselling future princes (of both genders) in the dark arts of statecraft. The reason that his work resonates while drawing upon pre-modern sources is that our world is fundamentally pre-modern.

N.B. These non-democratic institutions are not especially free market either. French historian Fernand Braudel theorised that capitalism is actually an anti-market – suppressing and supplanting market exchanges. Coase’s theory of the firm states that firms exist because market pricing includes expensive transaction costs that firms can avoid through control of their value chains. Only suckers buy on the market.

Libertarians spend a lot of time decrying the repressive possibilities of democratically-elected governments. And they are not wholly wrong to do so. But they have no concept of the threat posed by private governments and anti-markets. And those threats are real.

So why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well, after 20 years in the service of lords and ladies, citizens and monarchs, it hold no escapism for me. Even the dragons seem tame compared to the world that surrounds me. Their breath can only scold the skin, not the heart that lies within.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Fear Of Politics – Techno Techno Techno

A spectre is haunting us — the spectre of politics. All the powers of world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…

Many people seem to be afraid of politics – especially its democratic variants. It’s not just a mild skittishness, it’s full on revulsion.

Now let’s be honest. Politics is not elegant. It is a bruising, compromised business conducted by comprised people (i.e. everyone but especially politicians) who bruise readily. Democractic politics are especially messy. No one ever gets exactly what they want all the time. That is the pact you make.

“I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling voters”.

Now these politiphobes can take many forms but there is one variant that we will discuss here.


Software engineers like certain kinds of solutions. They prefer things to be both rational and elegant. Messy v1.0 code is refactored into something tidier. And when you are coding this stuff matters. Irrational code may be difficult for others to maintain and improve. Inelegant code may impact system performance. Or, worse, other developers may make snide comments about your pull request on Github.

However politics is not rational – in a number of senses.

  • At the individual level, human beings are both rational and irrational – driven by naked calculation and furious, unconscious drives. We vote for candidates who will immiserate us financially but confirm our superiority to those with a slightly different skin tone. Our drives conflict and clash. If we get what we want then we don’t get what we want (which is why democracy is such a good fit for us).
  • At the collective level, individuals find themselves in strange coalitions. Religious moralists must do deals with those they see as sexual deviants if both face a common enemy. And of course politics is a social activity, a tribal activity – a matter of belonging as well as believing and behaving (or misbehaving).
  • At the institutional level, bodies such as parliaments, senates , government departments and courts develop over time – created to solve one problem, they morph into something else. They exapt. Sometimes into the solution to further problems, sometimes into the cause of them. However once they are established, they are often hard to dismantle because they form part of our infrastructure.

This lack of elegance and rationality disgusts engineers. Hence their constant desire to replace it with an engineered solution.

Someone must be able to create an app to fix this.

Now as we will see in a later post, there is an app that can fix this but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

So what do our new techno overlords think? Greg Ferenstein has spent time surveying them and has found the following:

  • The tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good.
  • They tend to believe that education can solve all or most problems in society.
  • They reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.

The popularity of these ideas among the tech elite is based on their own biased experiences:

  • Change has been good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich and powerful now.
  • Education has been good for them. Even if they dropped out of college, they were generally raised in environments that not only prized education but viewed it as accessible and made it accessible to them.
  • Silicon Valley is basically an incestuous ecosystem / echo chamber (eco-chamber?) where universities, corporations, start-ups and incubators play a game of musical chairs with money (until the music stops – and the music has been going since 2001).

These core beliefs lead to some… problems:

  • A view of change that neglects negative outcomes means that you don’t bother doing anything about them because, well, hey, everything will work out fine in the end. However in any change there are inevitably winners and losers and big changes tend to mean large numbers of one or both. Those losers are going to be really pissed off.
  • A view of ameliorating change that focuses primarily on education means that even if you do tackle negative outcomes, you will be ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I have 2 degrees and I teach at a university for larfs. But getting trained to do a new job only works if the new jobs are there in the first place. Otherwise you’ll end up a piece of paper (or these days probably just a PDF) that not even your mum wants and a massive pile of debt to One-Eyed Vinny The Student Loan Agency.
  • This rejection of conflict prevents a productive engagement with politics. Chuck Tingle might believe that Love Is Real (as do I) but so is Conflict. People disagree – and not just because they have access to different information sources. They also have different fundamental interests. Politics is the negotiation of those interests and the first step to that negotiation is to admit they exist.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The tech elite appear to be still in denial. With these thoughts in mind, I would suggest the following:

  • Admit that change creates winners and losers. Argue that your proposals will create more winners than losers. And give the losers something.
  • Stop banging on about education – be it college or code camps or being Peter Thiel’s cabana boy. By all means do those things, they are still worthwhile. But accept that education is not all of the solution. What else are you going to do? What structural changes are going to make beyond expecting the losers to skill up? What are you personally going to sacrifice?
  • Accept that political differences cannot be solved solely through increased information dissemination. If I haven’t had a pay raise in a decade then don’t tell me that the iPhone 6 has 8 times as much RAM as the 2007 original and therefore I must be 8 times as wealthy. “Let them eat hedonic pricing” is not a winning strategy.

Most of all, recognize that building a platform is not primarily a technological challenge. A platform is an institution made of human beings, of people. These people may be linked to each other by technology but they remain people with their interests. What can you give them that will work for you and for them? Three obvious things are voice, money, and respect.

I’m not going to ask the tech elite to be unafraid, that’s too much to ask. Instead I am going to ask them to feel the fear and do it anyway.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Falling Into Chaos

Lets get complex. Not complicated. Not chaotic (not yet). Definitely not simple. Complex.

To get a little deeper into why everything is broken, we’re going to need to some kind of framework – here’s one that someone else made earlier. Imagine the world consists of – and also can be thought of as – five different kinds of systems:

  • Simple systems where effect follows very reliably and obviously from cause.
  • Complicated systems also have cause and effect but things are – well – complicated. You need to analyse and investigate – but that analysis and investigation should not effect the system itself.
  • Complex systems consist of lots of interacting actors. Causes and effects are related but not consistent. You need to try something and see if it works. If it does then you need do more of it. If it doesn’t then you need to try something else.
  • Chaos is, well, chaotic. There is no cause and effect. You just have to do something. Tyrants and dictators love chaos because “they alone can fix it”.
  • Disorder? Well, in disorder, you don’t know where you are. So you go with what you know.

Here is a short video by David Snowden (one of the creators of this framework) that explains this better. Pay particular attention to the discussion that occurs at 6:42. And here’s a picture.

The boundary between simple and chaotic is catastrophic. Things are going well, the sun is shining, everything is right with the world. Simple. We stop paying attention to what’s going on (“Oh, look, a puppy, a shiny thing, a nasty tweet”). We neglect to attend. Meanwhile the world is changing. The ground is moving beneath our feet. We look up at the sky unaware of the precipice towards which we inch. And then we fall into chaos.

Another metaphor contains stabilizers and dampeners. The whole point of our social institutions are that they contain, dampen and direct our animal instincts. We are perverted into normality. As these institutions decay, their powers wane and the system starts to tear itself apart. Or to put it another way.

My fear is that we may have already crossed his boundary about 18 months ago. But we may still be on its edge.

What next? Cynefin implies that there are two pathways open to us.

  1. We fall into chaos. True tyrants take control. Large numbers of people start dying. This is not good.
  2. We go complex. We grow new structures or regrow existing ones to enable us to restabilize our societies. Most of these efforts will fail but some will succeed. And we won’t know which ones until we try.

We don’t have much time.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Life On Mars

This lecture… will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways.

Katherine Murphy has written about the life (or lack of it) experienced by our politicians. I’ve been pondering politics a lot recently – especially Max Weber’s* Politics as a Vocation. The material life of politics interests me a great deal – because I think you need to understand how the mechanisms work to appreciate the whole.

One thing about those who focus on politics in a city like Canberra is that they tend to forget about the rest of the world. Another article strayed across my field of view yesterday from the HBR:

In researching the book The Happiness Track, we found that 50% of people — across professions, from the nonprofit sector to the medical field — are burned out.

Now 50% feels a smidge on the high side but not by much. Politicians are not alone in feeling burned out. It is now the default setting for many of us. Yes, federal politicians have to travel a lot – but so do many professionals. Yes, politicians have to work long hours – but so do many professionals. Some of this is technologically driven. In Australian political history, 2007 will be remembered not for the ALP’s election win but for the release of the iPhone. Smartphone have fundamentally changed our relationships and our boundaries to our work. Of course, they only do so if we choose to let them. Which if we mostly do because if we don’t someone else might get there first.

There needs to be a broader conversation about the place of work in our lives – and politicians could well lead this if they stopped being cautionary tales.

This stress has a flow on effect on the “talent pipeline” of new politicians. Di Natale, Washer and Combet all note that getting people to sign for the political life is growing ever harder. Arguably this is also true of institutions such as banks, law firms, consultancies – where a grinding work schedule is seen as increasingly unattractive. These organisations can salve the pain with piles of cash and many grads do join them for a few years to fatten their CVs and trim their debts. However even these organisations are having to dramatically re-think their approaches to both attracting new staff and keeping working parents. Could an MP ever do a job share? Although as Matthew Da Silva’s comment here indicates – political parties have a long way to go to make themselves more attractive.

The impact of social media on politics has been.. mixed. Ten years ago I would have strongly recommended that  politicians should be on social media. Now I would strongly recommend that they don’t. It chews up time like a wood chipper. Don’t end up like Steve Buscemi in Fargo. This issue is unique to politicians – who now have all the visibility of celebrities with few of the perks.

Behind all this remains the growing disconnect between political parties and the electorates that they want to represent. This is deeper than just smartphones or late nights or rude Facebook posts.

It seems that most of my long form writing these days is triggered by Meanjin articles. So I bunged them a subscription. Only fair.

*No, he has nothing to do with BBQs, sorry.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Out Of Our Depth

Well, this is odd.

A while ago, I wrote a response to an article in Meanjin published by a conservative author. Gray Connolly’s article had ended with a nautical metaphor (not unexpected for a naval man). That metaphor led to an extended riff on ships, sailing, and weather. And it begged for a suitable image. A few went through my head – including Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. However, Connolly’s Tory musing demanded something English and Classical. Turner was the obvious choice and I was stuck between Snow Storm and the Fighting Temeraire. I almost went with Snow Storm as its bleak dynamism fitted with the tone of Into The Maelstrom. However it seemed to go too deep too soon. Temeraire better echoed the plaintive sense of loss in Connolly’s writing, the doomed galleon that represents his brand of conservatism.

So today I saw a link on Twitter to a more recent article by Terry Barnes, a centrist conservative, in Meanjin. The article begins with the following sentence:

My favourite painting is J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

Shut. Up. Girlfriend. So once I got over the initial shock that Terry Barnes and I might have some unnatural psychic bond, I read the article. It contains some sound observations. It certainly goes further than Connolly’s in exploring what the future might be and what it means for politics. However it seems unable or unwilling to examine the root causes of our predicament and the consequences that follow. Some discussion of these will be useful.

Firstly, lets get through some housekeeping:

  • Many see themselves as being at the centre. Given how many people claim to there, the centre must be a vast plain.
  • Barnes sees himself as a centrist. He favours an economy that mixes private enterprise with a strong social safety net. I may disagree with him on the relative balance of these things but I also support a diverse political and economic ecology with many different forms of life permitted.
  • He has little truck with libertarism, socialism, or communism. He also has disdain for Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Clementine Ford, and Daisy Cousens. I do not have the space or energy to assess each of these individuals.
  • He sees that the Australian public have little appetite for political engagement at the moment. And I agree with him.
  • Towards the end of the article, he starts to discuss automation as a major cause of social disruption. And he is right to do so and to view it as primarily a political challenge – of power, of equity, of ownership – rather than a technocratic one.

So far, so unremarkable. We do disagree on some details:

  • Barnes sees Australians as fundamentally conservative. While Australia has been a nation of pragmatists through out its post-colonisation existence, the Australian public have waxed and waned in their appetite for change. The 20s and 30s and the 60s and 70s were not conservative times in Australia – as they were not elsewhere. They were times of change.
  • Barnes sees the ALP as populist but the Coalition as Balkanised. He also sees Abbott as more of a centrist than Turnbull. While he knows Abbott personally, that is not how his former boss comes across. Abbott presents as a social conservative and culture warrior whose world-view was formed in the 70s and 80s against a strong Left. If Abbott says he is a centrist, I doubt the Australian people believe that story any more than they believed his budget promises. And being a populist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are popular.
  • While he acknowledges the impact of automation, he waves away anthropogenic global warming as a an equal challenge (spoilers: it is). We also need to map additional contextual currents that swell around us: the shifting of the global order away from the West; the demographic pressures of an aging population; and recurrent economic crises that we seem unwilling to prevent. This storms blow from many directions. That doesn’t really help us navigate but it does give us a sense of their intensity and how difficult navigating might be.

While this is all important, we have not fully explained how we got into this mess. Barnes points to the actions (or inactions) of individual politicians. He talks about the 24/7 news cycle and social media. But these are not the whole story. We are still circling around the hard word like teenagers on a dance floor. And the hard word is “neglect”.

The reason our “sensible centre” is all over the shop is that our political system is unstable. These issues are systemic and structural. And they are not just limited to us. These structural issues have developed across much of the Western world and they are the unintended consequences of our success. We know that we have neglected our physical infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges) as we have been content to coast on the investments of our predecessors. We know this because we can see it daily. What we cannot see is the equal neglect suffered by our political system but we feel its consequences. It would be tempting to blame our politicians for this mess but that will not do. The blame lies equally with us, the electorate.

Like it or not, our political system is dependent on political parties. Parties handle much of the day-to-day machinery of politics – assembling coalitions of members, feeding the hopes, desires and fears of those members into the political process, selecting candidates for elections at the local, state and federal level, campaigning for those candidates, and in turn mobilising their constituents in support of those policies. They are systems of transmission and organisation and transformation.

And they are dying. Some symptoms:

  • The party’s over: which clubs have the most members? – “Political parties’ dwindling membership — and the ambivalence or antipathy with which the public apparently views them — has been in the news lately. Gone are the days when the major parties had well over 100,000 members each (the Liberals once pushed 200,000). Nowadays, no party has more than 50,000 members; anecdotes abound of sparse meetings, attended mainly by older people.”
  • Party Reform: Where are Australia’s Political Parties Headed in the Future? – “Perhaps the greatest concern that overshadows studies of party organisation today is the collapse of formal party membership.”
  • The Labour Movement: My Part in its Downfall“I can remember the exact moment I knew that the Rudd government’s resources super profits tax (RSPT) was dead, and that the labour movement in general and unionism in particular were in very serious trouble.”

It would be tempted to blame this state of affairs purely on those who run political parties. Too keen on big money and stacked branches. Too fearful of engagement with the grubby, complaining, demented populace. However we must also take our fair share of the blame. We don’t show up to party events or local council meetings (unless our favourite tree is to be felled). We assume that someone else will do that. Democracy is largely somebody else’s business. Professionals. Technocrats. Sharp-elbowed graduates. Loud men with gold-buttoned blazers and high BMIs. Perhaps the occasional masochist.

A similar decline has occurred in institutional religious observance. While intellectual reasons have been given for this (e.g. the rise of science as a project, the growth of scepticism), those reasons do not convince me. We believe in a whole bunch of stuff that we chose to believe in. Rather, we don’t need to the shelter of institutions of meaning and protection from the harsh grind of life because for many of us (though by no means all) the grind of life has not been that hard (yes, I will have black pepper, thank you). Compared to pre-World War II, we have an enviable standard of living. While the last 30 years have seen a systemic assault on the concept of the welfare state, the remnants of that state still protect many of us. We feel that we can let organised religion and politics slip away. Now let me be clear. I do not think this is a bad thing. Not worrying about starving to death without the assistance of your church or your union is hardly a fault that needs correcting.

However that neglect has consequences.

The work that has most influenced my thinking on this is by David Runciman. In The Confidence Trap, Runciman write about the paradoxically chaotic nature of democracies – messy and yet resilient:

This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-­ term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them… Democracies are also competitive, which means that politicians will blame each other for their failure to tackle the long-­ term problems. However, they do it in a way that gives the lie to the urgency, because if it were truly urgent, then they would compromise to fix it. Instead they squabble. They are comforted as they squabble by their knowledge that the system is resilient.

In the book, Runciman is largely sanguine about the prospects for democracy. It has survived this far. It will keep on keeping on. However he does sound a note of caution at the end of the book.

But how can we be sure the pattern will keep repeating itself? We can’t. We should not assume that democracies will always be able improvise a solution to whatever challenges they face. There is nothing about democracy that guarantees this will happen; it is simply more likely to happen under democracy than any other system of government. The assumption that it is bound to happen increases the likelihood it will stop happening. It breeds the sort of complacency that allows dangerous crises to build up, invites decisive action to be deferred, and encourages brinkmanship.

It’s only in the last few weeks that Runciman has realised exactly how far that we have gone. Democracy is quietly falling apart in the corner and few are noticing.

The rot wasn’t a problem when times were good. And times were good for a while. Economic inequality in the US, UK and Australian between WWII and the early 70s – along with a period of strong economic growth (les trente glorieuses in France). The period after saw that inequality trend reversed but there was still growth. And then in 2008, the GFC came. We rode through it in Australia through a mixture of luck and good economic judgment. Other parts of the world were not so lucky. Identity politics (specifically the rise of an anti-globalist white nationalism) also played role. Those at the centre have continued to offer what worked in the 1990s and we are not in the 1990s any more (no amount of grunge or britpop will bring that back). They got us here and they do not present a way to get us out except with more of the same.

At this point we need strong political systems – and we do not have them. We have parties that are divorced from their electorates. Hence the focus on opinion polls and focus groups – they no longer have a direct connection to voters so they have to manufacture a semblance of one instead. This also makes it increasingly harder to “sell” policies to that electorate because politicians are no longer “us” but “them”.

The centre has no power to pull people in to it any more. Instead the pull comes from the edges. From the fever dreams and the zombie ideologies of the 20 century. My sense is that we do not have to listen to either the centre or the edges. We must make a fresh set of mistakes. If the centre cannot hold and things fall apart, then it’s time to make some new things.

So what do we do exactly? Right now, I’m buggered if I know. But we need start by recognising the state we are in. We have not yet hit rock bottom. Things will get worse before they get better. But there is a chance that they will get better if we act.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Blind Spots and High Winds

The first question I ask when encountering a piece of writing is: Who is the author trying to reach with this piece of writing? And if the answer is someone other than me, the next question arises: Will I benefit from it in some way?

I am aware of Gray Connolly from Twitter – where I often find myself disagreeing with him. Curious about his beliefs, I tracked down Conservative Futures, published in the Australian literary journal, Meanjin.

The first thing to note is the choice of venue. The article talks at length about steps that need to be taken by the Australian Liberal Party. And yet Meanjin is an imperilled literary journal with a circulation of around 2,000. It is not the house publication of either Liberal party grandees or suburban party branches. I am only as expert on conservative Australian media as circumstances force me to be, but there feels like a disconnect. Is this article an attempt to explain conservatism to a (slightly) broader audience or to influence the conservative movement? It is mostly the former but the latter constantly slips in.

I want to skip through some comments quickly before hitting the big one:

  • I am not a student of the history of the Australian conservative movement so some of the background was informative.
  • I agree with Mr Connolly on freedom of religion and the sharing of prosperity across society (although we would probably disagree on exactly how to do that and by how much).
  • Not sharing his Christian beliefs, I disagree with him on a number of social and moral issues.
  • The style of the piece is heavy going – especially in the middle section. While Meanjin is a literary journal, the author seems at pains (his and mine) to make as many historical and literary references as he can get away with. This is not learning worn lightly. An ermine clock rather than a cashmere scarf. Fortunately, the reference density eases up in the final third as we reach the present day.

So what’s the big issue then? Well, the title of the article is “Conservative Futures”. There is much about the past and present in the article but little about the future.  In a sense, this blind spot is simply a function of the author’s conservatism. Conservatives tend to assume that the future will be much like the past, only not quite as good. They view history much like a Hollywood franchise – the initial movie was fantastic but each subsequent sequel a little more of a let down each time.

However, while human beings will continue to be human beings in all their awful and petty glory, our future will not be like our past. The next 50 years for Australia will not be like the previous 50. The issues we face around technological change, environmental degradation, the restructuring of the global order, and the demographic shifts of an ageing society are not touched upon. The author hints at this in his final sentence: “It is only the eternal values of prudence, duty, loyalty and unity, with sound conservatives at the helm, that will see the good ship Australia safe in the rough seas that most certainly lie ahead.”

He has not attempted to chart those rough seas so he does not know if his vessel is sound enough to withstand them. The calm waters of the Western world since 1945 do not equate to the oncoming storm into which we are drifting.

He also does not fully map out the threats to his conservatism from adjacent entities. Connolly is a One Nation Tory in the English sense, not a One Nation conservative in the Australian one. His immediate competitors (white nationalism, corporate-sponsored libertarianism, religious conservatism) are less thoughtful but more agile corsairs than his stately galleon of conservatism. We will see what lasts the hurricane.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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