March 27th 2004


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The PM, farmers, the FTA and the election

EDITORIAL: Telstra has lost its way

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Spending signals start of election campaign

ANALYSIS: Australia-US trade deal a monumental folly

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Lilies of the field / Speaking conspicuously

MURRAY RIVER: Science overturns need for big environmental flows

INDONESIAN ELECTIONS: Indonesia taking control of its own destiny

How alcohol leads to harder drugs (letter)

The Passion of the Christ (letter)

DOCUMENTATION: IVF - Playing against a stacked deck

MEDIA : Join the Fairfax Club

ASIA: Behind the India-Pakistan thaw

ECONOMICS: Eight centuries of wavy prices

BOOKS: JAMES BURNHAM, by Samuel Francis

FILM REVIEW: Shattered Glass

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STRAWS IN THE WIND:
Lilies of the field / Speaking conspicuously


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, March 27, 2004
Lilies of the field

All of John Brumby's trepidations, when he was leader of the Victorian Parliamentary Labor Party, of what might befall a future Labor Government if it didn't keep some kind of distance between itself and the unions; wouldn't control the demands in particular of some very powerful ones which seemed to regard themselves as a law unto themselves ... are starting to be realised.

The earlier Cain/Kirner Government - especially during its later stages of prodigal spending and kowtowing to the Labor Left - remains a bitter memory for many Victorians, a memory which the new Labor men said would, and should, deter the Victorian ALP from ever behaving in similar ways again.

But Brumby went further: he said that the party - especially the parliamentary party - must signal the distinction between it and the union movement, and make it clear to the voters that the ALP was not controlled by a small all-powerful group of unions or union bosses. Moreover, it would not allow a Labor Government's orderly plans for the distribution of public monies to be overridden by stand-and-deliver demands.

The people about whom he was talking took umbrage, secured his overthrow and Mr Bracks found himself the party leader. The Praetorian Guard had chosen a new emperor.

Bracks was never so tactless as to repeat John Brumby's admonitions, and he never admitted to a de jure domination of the ALP by the Left, or by key unions. But in practice, he increasingly accepted this situation, and busied himself with other things ... these other things being intended as proofs that he was governing for everyone. He did this by never saying no. Everyone - it seemed - would get a prize. The prize? More and more taxpayers' money, and less and less transparency as to where it was going and what benefits, if any, were actually resulting from such promiscuous prodigality. This prodigality, when practised with enthusiasm, is the "Road to Argentina"; or the last Kirner budgets.

A symptom of a government starting to see such a disaster coming, or as a possible outcome, can be detected by observing, for example, cutbacks in services, essential and inessential alike, and a new resistance to saying yes to fresh and preremptory demands. For example, those from teachers, health workers, public servants (this now settled?) and power workers. Almost certainly, if these groups were to succeed in their demands, in whole or in large part, many other public sector workers would follow suit. And private sector workers would join in with copycat demands. A wages explosion.

Bracks had no alternative here but to say no and Education Minister Kosky is saying the same. She is obviously marked down for political execution, for trying to get education back on the road (as was Brumby). Were Steve Bracks to abandon her, it would be a sad day for Victorian State Education and the ALP.

I won't speak of the 30 per cent claim by teachers or the general condition of state education ... no need. Just gilding the lily. But as the protagonists struggle to save face, some ugly diversionary tactics are appearing.

First, the Federal Government - or should I say Howard Government (for everything is now personalised or demonised) - is to blame. He/They hate Labor, hate Victoria, hate state education. OK so far. Just the usual spin doctors' kitchen waste. But, attacks on the non-government schools also appear to be underway, yet again. They are taking money state school (i.e., teachers) should have. Apparently "their conduct is not transparent" so perhaps they should be investigated. According to the Minister, some dissatisfied parents (unnamed) would support such a course. And this from sources close to the Minister!

A squalid piece of demagogy but also, possibly, a stirring of a campaign of religious sectarianism. By running together private schools, Catholic education, George Pell, Mel Gibson, gay politics, a new ersatz coalition - covertly anti-religious but also sectarian - may be appearing. To cover the gross failures in the existing radical philosophies, I presume, and to block the steady rise of private education. I think the Bracks Government should be standing firm and let the union leaderships destroy themselves, which they certainly would, if they mean half of what they say.

Speaking conspicuously

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing his Democracy in America (1830), foresaw that the new democratic quest for equality would go searching into every nook and cranny of society until there was no place left where equality wasn't demanded, and egalitarianism not the universal formula. This unceasing quest and struggle would demolish the traditional status ladders but the victors, surely, should not, in the light of their egalitarian principles, seek to erect new status ladders in their place.

But men still seek to dominate other men; still seek privileged access to the social product; still want to be admired, deferred to, even, seen as superior to other men. But how will they contrive the latter ... these egalitarians?

De Tocqueville predicted that Money would become the new status symbol and that it would become the new measure of superiority, of distinction. And if, for example, the professions - hitherto revered - such as law, medicine, academe, even the arts, could not show that they were capable of generating big cash flows with their members living in material ways not very different from those out there in business and commerce - then they would find themselves slowly socially relegated.

The same would apply to politicians and public servants. Only "hacks and mercenaries", he said, would still be attracted to the coming democratic politics.

The bright, ambitious young would avoid these lesser well-paid jobs - especially when the status value was disappearing, and would go for the jobs where the money and, with it, the status and power increasingly resided. Mothers would advise daughters not to throw themselves away on a poor man or one who couldn't at least keep up with the Joneses. Who couldn't give her "all she asked for" unless ... the daughter herself could make big bikkies: in which case she might prefer a living handbag or doormat who could play house mother. But that was up to her.

The Frenchman started the ball rolling in 1830 and an American-Scandinavian, Thorstein Veblen, carried the story further with his The Theory of the Leisure Class (1915). These class members were the fruits of the Gilded Age when great fortunes had been made, much wealth generated, and a large class of New Rich brought to the foreground of American society. They could choose to live entirely in a state of leisure - as rentiers of one kind or another - or stay in the field making still more money. But how, as a new rich man, can you shine over others of your ilk? By becoming mega-rich, sure. But by what other ways? By conspicuous consumption, conspicuous display, conspicuous waste. Even your leisure is henceforth conducted in a conspicuous way, for others to see, admire, envy. A new sub-class of PR people, agents, advisers on how to get the best publicity, how to get your picture and story in the paper, came into being.

The Old Rich, in England and the USA , for example, had endowed many universities, museums and charitable causes - and often with discretion, even anonymity - and frequently with few strings attached. But the New Rich practised Conspicuous Charity as well. No anonymity, thank you very much.

The audience of poor, or just non-rich, were supposed to press their noses against the windows of the conspicuous ones, the Camelot dwellers and the rest, and say "Ooh" and "Aah". Magazines reporting on these privileged lovelies and their privileged lifestyle sold like ... meat pies at the footy.

But the demand for equality simply led the lower orders to imitate, in the hope of equalling. So conspicuous consumption and display became the dominant religion. It is often confused with pure materialism; but few things are pure and it requires larger incomes - which means a new world of credit, borrowing, debt for the lower orders. Which is where we are now.

There is constant pressure for higher wages to underpin this rising consumption, so as to keep up or catch up with those above you. Some dream of winning a lottery. But those above you, noticing the gap closing, will move to re-establish their superiority by devising new ways of consuming conspicuously. This, in turn, requiring higher income and profits for them. While this endless contest of the egos and vanities rages - for we do not live in subsistence societies in the West - the under-developed world, watching, now wants what we have and enjoy. No difference. But something may have to give globally.

This is a world far removed from that of Marx and socialist idealism: but de Tocqueville's world and Veblen's human beings exist, whereas Marx's do not. Which is why some of us think the Frenchman was wise and Marx only clever.

But to come back to Melbourne: you would expect, for example, professions hitherto moderately paid, realising they are socially or economically important to try to force wages up in part to assert their importance and, professions which are well-paid but losing status by mal-performance to push for far higher pay, even better conditions, to demonstrate they can't be treated lightly. Thereby repairing, they think, their declining status.




























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