Back in 2012, Joe Hockey, later to become Australia’s Treasurer, delivered a controversial speech to the conservative think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, in London. The speech, titled ‘the End of the Age of Entitlement’, was delivered as the world was still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis caused by the bail-out of rogue, aka deregulated, financial enterprises such as Lehman Brothers, Citibank and Bear Sterns, whose sub-prime mortgage lending practices had become exposed. The bail-out cost the US government hundreds of billions of dollars and affected financial markets worldwide.
The GFC led the Rudd Labor government in Australia to institute a Keynesian stimulus package which averted a recession, and was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as one of the best-designed of any country (and was attacked relentlessly by the conservative opposition). Other countries chose to, or felt obliged to, follow a similar path, and so many government surpluses became deficits, and those in deficit saw those deficits balloon disturbingly.
Hockey’s speech mentioned the GFC in passing, without commenting on the dodgy banking practices, for which none of the major players were ever held to account. One would think that the term ‘entitlement’ might be applied to these wealthy rogue operators, but Hockey’s target was in fact the welfare system, though the term ‘welfare’ was nowhere mentioned in his speech. It was substituted everywhere by the term ‘entitlements’, a term we would usually associate, naturally enough, with the titled.
Hockey’s argument was that developed economies could no longer afford the generous welfare payments provided by governmental taxes, and that this was proven by increasing deficits in spite of what he would have described as punitive taxation systems in some countries. Unfortunately, Hockey’s speech was short on solutions, at a time of increasing automation and the closing of factories, the casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy, beyond referring to Hong Kong and its apparently supportive and self-sacrificing extended families, as if the developed nations are ever likely to revert to that spread-the-poverty-around model, if it ever really existed (I would recommend reading Rebecca Skloot’s excellent documentary work The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as an account of the benefits and limitations of extended families in the context of African-American poverty and disadvantage). And of course, Hockey advocates good old hard work which, as well as being its own reward, will inevitably result in a climb up the greasy pole to monetary success. This would have been news to the slaves of the Greeks, Romans and Conquistadors of earlier times, the coal miners and chimney sweeps of Britain and the asbestos factory workers of Australia. Arbeit macht frei indeed.
I could go on about the problems inherent in Hockey’s speech, but I noticed that, in referring to the inevitable right-left swings that democratic elections have devolved into (though these political swings formed the backbone of Livy’s History of Rome, written nearly 2000 years ago), Hockey prefers the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘conservative’, thus, it seems, deliberately emphasising and revelling in the divide. As a person intent on finding solutions, I find this sowing of division unhelpful. The aim here is to recognise problems – of poverty, of energy, of well-being, of health, of the environment we inhabit, and so forth. And I’m not sure if endlessly ‘working’ is the solution, at least in the narrow sense of ‘work’ that Hockey was using.
In fact, considering all these problems we need to solve – and more problems will inevitably arise (life would be pretty boring without problems to solve) – work is not simply a solution, it’s another problem. What constitutes work? Cultivating your garden? Looking after your children? Beautifying your neighbourhood? Attending conferences? Encouraging your students? Having sex with your partner?
All these activities provide value to human social life – and we are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet – in a way that can’t be easily monetised. And it would be silly to do so.
Anyway, all of this is preliminary to looking at solutions to a human world in which so much work is providing entertainment and diversion to our fellow human beings – for what are dining out, attending arts festivals and soccer matches, watching netflix, shopping, searching for extra-terrestrial life, decorating the house, and so forth, but forms of adult play? To which whole industries and technologies are devoted. And I’m not denigrating play – far from it – it marks the difference between life and mere existence. Just ask our dog.
Finally, as a person brought up in a working-class environment (the town of Elizabeth in South Australia, created as a hub around the General Motors Holden factory and ancillary businesses in the late fifties), I experienced life there during the economic downturn of the mid-seventies, when unemployment became a major problem, leading to a palpable sense of demoralisation. Kids like myself, living in the chasm between school and work (of which there was precious little) hung out at shopping centres, smoking and selling dope and trying to act tough. Most of our parents were separated or about to be. The number of dilapidated and derelict homes multiplied almost before our eyes. I got and lost three or four factory jobs, making washing machines, mobile homes and iron tubing. I remember weeping quietly on the six o’clock bus on my way to one of these workplaces. How could I, with a mind the size of a planet, be reduced to this?
At other times, I got dole money, which I recall jumped from $7.50 to $21.50 per week when Whitlam’s labor government came in. Maybe I could use this windfall of filthy lucre to educate myself out of the bind I found myself in? The main point I’m making here is that, as part of a migrant family separated from the extended family 12,000 miles away, with no role models in business, academia or any of the more lucrative professions, and being generally introverted but profoundly anti-authoritarian, I hated ‘working for the man’ but felt I had boundless energy and capacity that I had little idea what to do with. What I lacked was a community of like-minded types. A community of two or three would do.
And that brings me to some of the ideas and practices described in Jess Scully’s Glimpses of utopia. More of that next time.
Brian Donaghy, Cents and Sensibility, 2014 (see appendix for Joe Hockey’s speech notes)