Fear and Loathing: The Death of the Australian Dream

First, the national treasure that is social researcher and commentator, Hugh Mackay. On the ABC’s Compass in 2004:

Hugh Mackay:
Well I think we, particularly intelligent people are extremely impatient with unintelligent people. And assume that they’re doing silly things because they’ve deliberately done silly things, yes. We just have to acknowledge that by definition half the population has average or below average intelligence. I mean these are very rubbery terms, but in broad terms I think we have to acknowledge that there is a distribution of intelligence through the community which is not equal. And a lot of people do silly things because they’re not very bright. A lot of people do silly things on the road or make irresponsible purchase decisions, or can’t manage their finances, or don’t really know much about how to raise their children, just because they’re not very bright. Now I think we’re very uncompassionate about that. And we ought to be much more generous, much more supportive, much more communitarian in our approach to that form of disadvantage.

No one talks about this, do they?

Hugh Mackay:
No, no. I think people are embarrassed to talk about this. And of course in some ways some of us should be embarrassed to talk about it because there is a real aspect of our society which values high intelligence as if it’s a sort of earned quality. As though it’s something to be admired, it’s an achievement. It’s not an achievement at all. What you do with it might be an achievement, but we do I think talk as though intelligent people are superior, and that’s a dreadful blight I think on contemporary society.

Geraldine Doogue:
Well let me put it this way. What’s your verdict now on us as a community? Are we more or less snobbish than say when you began your work?

Hugh Mackay:
Infinitely more snobbish, infinitely more stratified, with a much stronger sense of there being a wealth class who think of themselves as a sort of upper class. And now, one of the things I’ve noticed just in the last few years in research is the sense of entitlement among people who have acquired wealth. As though that has actually positioned them in a superior way. That has not been the case for very long in Australia. I mean we’ve thought of ourselves as a broadly middle-class society, living out the egalitarian dream, and I think that’s already over for us. I mean we still talk about the dream But I think on this one, this is one of the things that saddens me. On this one I think there are many people now in the top half of the economic heap who think they’re there, they’ve made it, we deserve to be here, we’ve got to look after our children, and those people well that’s just how it is. You know there are the poor, they’re always with us, but nothing to do with us. And sadly there are people in the bottom half of the economic heap who now see the gulf as unbridgeable.

Today, the coalition came out with a policy aimed at making the “workforce” more “mobile” by encouraging young people to move to find work. TheWest.com.au was the only online source to run the story, since it’s a repeat of the same policy first proposed in April, summarising the policy by saying “Young jobless Australians will be pushed to move to mining towns”. I heard about this most vexing policy through TripleJ news.

I may be reacting particularly strongly (and badly) to the policy because of my own situation, having moved out of home for the first time only a bit over a week ago. However I think it gives me a solid grounding from which to criticise this policy. Put simply, it’s my view that this (admittedly unexplained and hand-wavingly vague) policy would be horrendously destructive, primarily on a social level but also in the long term economically. This is because it would incentivise young people to move away from their existing friends and family (and therefore penalise or disadvantage to those who don’t want to move). And yet friends and family are the very things that conservatives (like the coalition) most often point to as the alternative to the socialised welfare state; people helping each other out individually. I live a mere 15 minutes drive from my parents and I shudder to think how isolating and emotionally unsettling it would be to be cast adrift a continent away from from everyone you know just to work. And then what happens when the economy takes another dip, or the mining bubble bursts? They inevitably lose their jobs and equally as inevitable end up on the dole.

Or do they?

Lastly, and perhaps the thing that leaves me the most disillusioned about the state of the Australian Dream, is the damning “You Think: Your Say report, which surveyed 1,200 young people across the country on their attitudes to government services”. Crickey.com.au take the words from one youth respondent, titling the story “They don’t give a sh-t about young people“. It’s a reasonably apt summary. Here’s something that American author, lefty liberal type, and scholar Richard Rorty said in 1998 in the US:

How do you think today’s kids compare with earlier cohorts? I would guess, based on your book, that you think that today’s students are less politically engaged than they were in the sixties.

Yeah, but in the sixties the kids I taught never dreamed they could possibly fall out of the middle class. And these kids think they could do it very easily. So they’re just much more insecure.

And this makes them more politically engaged, or less?

I think it makes them less. It’s as if they don’t have time to think about politics. They’ve got to think about their careers.

Elsewhere in the interview Rorty makes the excellent suggestion that the Left shouldn’t just throw it’s hands up in despair when faced with the kind of problems and policies I’ve been ranting about above, but should suggest and have ready alternatives. The Left shouldn’t be just about having ‘hope’ for a better future society but should have answers too.

The Australian Dream of an egalitarian society, of all people equal, is one of them. It’s one that I want to see preserved, to see the slide into selfabsorbtion and an inward focus, that Mackay notes above, reversed. We need to come up with better answers. Hugh Mackay seems like a dude who’s probably got a good idea about where to find some good ones.