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Last gleaming of the liberal democratic age?


Australia’s media and politicians have eschewed the serious debates of the past to engage in an endless and senseless culture war, writes Malcolm King.

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The great liberal democratic experiment born from the American and French Revolutions is dying.

Reason is in retreat as political chaos marches on Britain, Western Europe, America and Australia.

Trust in politicians, financial institutions, the media and the church, has crumbled.

We lost our vision for Australia and forgot our history – or were never taught it. We no longer fight for the underdog. We’re too busy fighting among ourselves.

Only 40 years ago there were heated discussions about Indigenous self-determination, the rising role of women in the workforce and whether to add value to our mineral wealth by processing it before exportation.

There were strident debates about what sort of nation we should become in the new millennium. Is mateship still alive? Does Menzies’s liberalism still have a place in the Liberal Party? What role will young people play in Australian society?

All of that and more has been jettisoned. Goodbye Manning Clark, Geoffrey Blainey and Hugh Stretton. Goodbye to the pantheon of post-war historians and policy thinkers, who dug deep into the national psyche. How quickly we’ve forgotten you.

Collective ideals such as equality and fraternity, which have been the bedrock of western societies and parliamentary democracy for more than 200 years, buckle beneath our feet.

In Australia, a number of important economic events took place in the 1980s, which drove down wages and helped to create this socio-political Tower of Babel. The journalist, Paul Kelly, wrote in The End of Certainty (1992):

The old order is finished. There is no returning to past certitudes. By 1991 it was beyond question that the five ideas of the Australian Settlement were in reversible stages of collapse or exhaustion – White Australia, Trade Protection, Wage Arbitration, State Paternalism and Imperial Benevolence.

With the exception of wage arbitration, I was glad to see these go. But I could see two major problems.

First, the federal ALP had abandoned the working class. After Keating, the ALP turned from a party of combative and mouthy characters, into a quiet, cautious and introverted party.

The second and more serious problem was that economic change destroyed social capital. This intangible asset built up over generations, and which holds societies together, has been erased.

This is not a clash of ideologies. The fascists or communists aren’t coming. The problem is us.

Neoliberalism, post-modernist relativism and the media’s trivialisation of public discourse, created a culture of radical individualism and narcissism.

As Leonard Cohen sang in ‘Democracy’:

From the homicidal bitchin

that goes down in every kitchen

to determine who will serve and who will eat…

Economic change also creates organisational change. KPIs have replaced collegiality. Bullying is rife. There’s a raft of middle managers who make Richard III look like Kimba the White Lion, as workers toil in institutional psychic prisons.

But neoliberalism can’t take all the blame. The funeral pyre of the liberal democratic tradition has taken on a life of its own.

We rage against our local politicians and their Punch and Judy antics but they are glove puppets. In South Australia, we can see the dismal future of democracy. Elections are held, governments are formed but the system fails to deliver. Democracy has become impotent and decrepit.

As Tom Richardson wrote in InDaily last year, “The level of discourse has literally sunk to a level of innate tribalism … there is a palpable sense that politics increasingly resembles something more akin to football fandom than rational debate.”

Today much political action doesn’t rise above ‘liking’ a Facebook page, although there are exceptions. True power, real power, now lies in global corporations and they don’t care which way you vote.

The federal Liberal Party and the ALP have shown that, like Roman generals, they will use insurrection and revolt to grasp power. Yet as the nation flounders, our mainstream media is engaged in the sideshow of identity politics.

The salvos fly back and forth between advocates and opponents of political correctness or social justice (depending on your stance), in a never-ending barrage.

They score no kills, take no prisoners, occupy no territory and make no converts. Each side is forced to dig deeper entrenched positions. I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than that.

While I dismiss much of the acid commentary of hard-line right-wingers, I have little time for the cultural left. If I thought the ‘Red Legs Akimbo Dance Troupe’s’ performance of Bertolt Brecht’s plays was going to add $20 a week to the pay packets of the battlers, I’d be hoofing it with them.

We allowed aged care homes to be run like Soviet gulags. We stood back as private providers ripped billions of dollars from the battler’s VET FEE-HELP accounts. We watched as the major banks and some insurance companies, sunk their fangs into our bank and superannuation accounts.

Millions of young people will end up working in insecure service jobs or dodgy labour-hire firms. Many will rent for the rest of their lives. Deals and dividends have trumped kith and kin.

These are only symptoms of a disease that is shaking nations. This is not a clash of ideologies. The fascists or communists aren’t coming. The problem is us.

Almost every credo in western life is in dispute: how we should raise and educate our kids, the endless revamping of school curriculums, the balance between rights and responsibilities, the rise of algorithms and the fall of fulltime work, the decline of unionism, the rise of independent members in parliament and of racism and nationalism and the fall of tolerance.

This is not a culture war nor is it a passing phase. This is the end of liberal democracy. As the shadow of the eclipse of reason falls over Britain, Western Europe and America, we must hold fast and rediscover self-reliance and respect.

If we don’t teach people to hold what they have as precious, they won’t defend it.

Now pull those history books out again. They speak of the great narrative of Australia. They say, ‘we have been here and we are going there…’ That pronoun ‘we’ is important. That means everyone.

Malcolm King is a professional writer who splits his time between Canberra and Adelaide. He is a regular InDaily columnist.

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