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Preparing for SA's post-industrial future

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South Australia’s big end of town is shutting up shop or packing up and heading east. Can the last “top-hat capitalist” switch off the light on the way out and leave the door ajar for the post-industrial future, asks Richard Blandy.

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South Australians, like Australians generally, are great realists. As with most of our good qualities, this good quality is a mixed blessing. Realism in South Australia has come to mean maintenance of the status quo.

A realistic reform in South Australia is typically one aimed at maintaining the essentials of what exists in the face of forces that imply that we should adapt, roll with the punch and change how we are going about things.

Realism takes on a different perspective when people believe that change can be for the better. For example, graffiti in the Paris Metro during the student unrest of 1968 advised: “Be Realistic – Join the Revolution!” This is realism in the face of unacceptable existing outcomes.

Until we South Australians come to believe that our economic outcomes will be better if we change our present, government-dominated, plan for a plan giving small businesses a much better go, we will continue our slow decline.

A realism for tough times has to be built on idealism, on conceptions of the possible, as well as on the “facts” of the here and now. Idealism is about better states of the world and ways of getting there from whatever hole one happens to be in. Without idealism we will stay in the hole – unless Mr Micawber was right, after all, and something will always turn up to get us out.

In tough times, what realism demands of us is belief in a positive image of a future that we can strive for. Otherwise, we risk being defuturised, drifting aimlessly, at the mercy of the winds and currents, as we try to hold onto a past that is slipping inexorably from our grasp.

The Dutch sociologist, Fred Polak, described this condition in his famous 1961 work, The Image of the Future, in the following terms:

We mean by the term ‘defuturising’ a retreat from constructive thinking about the future in order to dig oneself into the trenches of the present. It is a ruthless elimination of future-centred idealism by today-centred realism. We have lost the ability to see any further than the end of our collective nose…

The daily paper summarises not only the day but our times…

Life’s basic challenge, the breach between the is and the ought, has received the most ignominious treatment of all: it has been annulled.

But which future do we want out of the two broad futures on offer? The Big State, or the post-industrial society and small-is-beautiful? Do we want a dinosaur or a rabbit world?

The top-hat capitalist era has gone for keeps in South Australia. The last remnant here of the Big End of Town, Santos, is hanging on by its fingernails in a low-priced oil world that nobody predicted.

All the rest of the big battalions that remain depend on decisions taken elsewhere, including in Canberra. Mitsubishi has gone, Holden is going, SA Power Networks is run from Hong Kong, Olympic Dam is run from Chile, the destroyers and submarines depend on Canberra. Nearly all that we have left that is truly ours is small to medium sized firms (other than the real giant – the South Australian Government).

The only viable future left for South Australia is, obviously, the rabbit world option. Carrying on with a Big State outlook and posture is patently silly. It is also blocking the fast development of the only positive future that we can really aspire to – a post-industrial future.

The post-industrial future is a truly revolutionary future that we can not only aspire-to, but be eminently successful in. It is perplexing that the Australian Left has been so hesitant in putting its own versions forward.

This is not so in other countries. For example, Alec Nove, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Glasgow, put together a Marxist version in 1983 called The Economics of Feasible Socialism in which he said:

So it is not only logical but in the spirit of Marxist analysis to see in the diminution of the vertically exercised economic functions of the political-economic hierarchy a necessary precondition of political and social democratisation… There are many reasons why the authorities have not accepted this…; but one reason, as already stressed, is the very one for which socialists should advocate it: it loosens the grip on society of those in power at the centre.”

Top stuff, Alec: Milton Friedman would have been proud of you.

Then again, there is the famous organisation theorist (whom I have mentioned in a previous article) – Eric Trist, one-time head of the Tavistock Institute in London, and subsequently a Professor at the University of California Los Angeles and at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The late Fred Emery was a notable Australian collaborator with Trist.

Trist, writing in the Journal Futures in 1979, foresaw a coming rejection of technocratic planning. The technocratic bureaucracy would be replaced by an organic, “holographic” system of organisation in which the parts are self-regulating but interdependent. Organisations would become decentralised (though each unit would share common goals) and power would be dispersed rather than concentrated.

The periphery would be freed from control by the centre. A new principle of order would emerge – “socio-ecological” as contrasted with hierarchical.

Self-reliance would become more important in economic affairs.

Political power would shift to the regional and community levels, because of a breakdown in the capacity of overcentralised governments to deal with increasingly pluralistic societies.

The individual would become the leading edge of change and we would enter the age of the person.

Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor of Economics in the Business School at the University of South Australia

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