Our mutual obligations in a mutually dependent society

Oct 18, 2023
Diversity equity inclusion symbol. Concept words 'Diversity equity inclusion' on wooden blocks on beautiful grey background. Diversity, business, inclusion and equity concept. Image: iStock/Dzmitry Dzemidovich

I am glad the article of Professor Trevor Parmenter “Rights are necessary but insufficient for the achievement of the full inclusion of people with disabilities” (P&I Sep 22, 2023) has been published. I am writing to say so, but as I send this off, I realize that I am involved in the very inter-dependent reciprocity that he has identified so well for us.

It is not just my right to have read his article – in fact my eye-sight prevents me from doing so – but I respond now because his article has been read to me. I have heard what he has to say, and so I respond in this way because Aran Martin of P&I has reached out to invite me to do so. He sensed that I am on the “same page” as Professor Parmenter. And he’s so right!

I especially appreciate the following sentences from the Professor’s essay:

The challenge, then, is how do we create environments where the interdependence of individuals is a central feature and where individuals perceive their identity and conceptualisation of self in the context of a mutually dependent society? It is suggested that reciprocal relationships with people in your community goes to the very heart of the definition of true and effective inclusion.

This phrase “mutually dependent society” reminds me of my time as a PhD student at the University of Melbourne when the political mantra of “mutual obligation” could regularly be heard. This is what I then wrote about the political context of my studies, and affirmative action, when I later reflected upon my specially-assisted educational experiences:

… I would suggest that affirmative action needs to be taken to a new level. And perhaps this new level cannot be reached without recognising the ongoing obligation that a degree-granting institution has to its graduates.

Understanding mutual obligation from the institution to its highly qualified graduates is downplayed—if not lost entirely. In my own case, a university that takes a qualified postgraduate student with Friedrich’s ataxia into its PhD programs should not view itself as giving a sympathetic expression according to the biomedical model’s agenda, which has the unfortunate ability of institutionalising stereotypes via disability policy. That is, I am sorry to say, the predominant way in which Australian higher education under third-way and neoliberal policies tends to view such achievements.

That’s the itch I have wanted to scratch. We need universities that will recognise their institutional mutual obligation is not transacted merely by granting degrees, and then every year thereafter sending out brochures inviting its highly qualified alumni to give generously to the university’s noble cause.

In my case, I am forced to ask: how is it that the university has not required me to give back by doing post-doctoral research and to be part of its ongoing research effort? How is it that it can take on a candidate without expecting to maintain its responsibility to provide ongoing support after graduation?

Note my point is not to ask that my work be judged before I do it. I am referring here to the lack of effort or empathy that seems to come from the side of those administrating higher education institutions in Australia.

(This excerpt is from an autobiographical section of my 2014 book The Politics of Disability: a Need for a Just Society Inclusive of People with Disabilities pp.153-164 at pp.159-161)

Professor Parmenter’s essay has many references which I would love to follow up but because of my blindness I cannot easily do so. However, his essay prompts me to recall the truly satisfying time when I was a happy Doctoral candidate supervised by Professor Tim Majoribanks. And with all the references and reports that have stimulated Professor Parmenter to keep the pressure on for a sensitive assessment of human rights and social interdependence in the ongoing evolution of social policy and human rights law, I want to mention four economists who I met in my research-travels because they have indeed been important academic contributors to ensuring “a just society for people with disabilities.” Here’s another quote from that same book.

I suppose I am something of an agitator for the rights of the severely disabled. Despite my severe impediment, some years back I conducted some interviews—this during the jet-setting phase of my student life from my motorised wheelchair—and I was privileged to interview some of Australia’s top political economic thinkers.

I found myself thinking about what these fellows said to me back then when they graciously accepted my requests for an interview, when I was fired up with all the energy of a bright young PhD candidate (I was actually just 38 at the time). What I give here are some of my thoughts as to why they should be listened to by Australians (and any others) who are seeking to promote a just and equitable economy for all.

Mutual interdependence and a just society

The second part of my response to Professor Parmenter’s comments is to reflect on three prominent Australian economists whose work has not only inspired me but who have understood “mutual interdependence”.

First, Frank Stilwell, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Stilwell is a well-known critic of conventional economics and an advocate of alternative economic strategies that prioritise social justice and economic sustainability (Department of Political Economy, 2012). He talked openly and honestly with me about his political visions and aspirations for a just society. He opened the batting with this straight drive:

[H]aving a just society is the ultimate goal in politics. If I can make play on words, we need a just society not just a society. We need a society that is cohesive, that is equitable and involves cooperative activity as well as healthy competition among its members (Department of Political Economy, 2012).

Of course, there are hurdles inhibiting the achievement of this goal. (Actually, I know a lot about obstacles. You can’t avoid them from a wheelchair. And I have had to overcome some serious physical and psychological ones as well, but not only my own.) Stilwell believes that, in the struggle to achieve a just society, there are four major hurdles to be overcome:

  1. the ecology problem—the ability to live in harmony with nature
  2. the problem of peace—if we cannot live in peace with each other, fine tuning the economy is pointless
  3. the need for social cohesion—understanding that it is the political and social processes by which we live together cooperatively and reign over economic inequality
  4. the problem of the need for security and stability—most significantly that the unemployed must have a right to work. There is a need to create the capacity to allow all people from all walks of life to achieve economic security and stability. For example, we must create a context in which people with disabilities are able to work and/or be educated at university.

This will help to further promote the social inclusion of people with disabilities.

Stilwell defines himself in the words of Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), believing he is ‘a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will’. Despite the prevalence of awful acts in the world today, Stilwell remains optimistic—he inspires me—and he is an ardent believer in the values mentioned above, and that they will ultimately become part of our social norms and produce a just society, possibly at some stage during the 21st century, maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but maybe in 40 or 50 years’ time. Stilwell believes that we will have to come to terms with our common humanity, with our common need for ecological sustainability, along with our need for peace and social cohesion. In creating a new social order, as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), one of history’s greatest political minds, argues, we can learn from our past actions and mistakes to create a better future. There is a need to reconcile with our political past, not just dismiss it as a failure.

I also interviewed Professor Michael Pusey, Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales. I recall how he has explained to me what he believed to be the fundamentals of a just society—those that can be fostered by a mixed economy. It is one in which all the features of the mixed economic and social approach contribute to the support of families and civil society. For such an approach to work effectively, both public and private sectors must work together to provide a just, peaceful and cohesive society. Pusey believes the key to a just society is found in the synergy of the sectors. Thus, strong private and public sectors equate with a vibrant economy, with a strong and active social presence, combined with a cohesive civil society.

My third political economic thinker of note is the historian Professor Stuart Macintyre. He argues that one must make use of the social aspects of social justice to facilitate egalitarian means and ends in society. He also argues that there should be more of a material economic acceptance of workers within organisations that provide services to people with disabilities. Since, many of these services cannot be standardised, the human touch is always an essential component. That is something on which I continue to reflect.

Then there is Professor Hugh Stretton, a political analyst and economist from whom I have learnt so much. His work has kept me persuing this project of social justice, particularly in those long days when I had to type at just two words a minute to get my thesis into shape. Forgive me if I am a little misty eyed as I write this.

Stretton states:

[E]verything from good parenting and child care through elaborate education and public and private research and development to an energetic and friendly culture help to contribute to [society]. Thus parents, teachers, researchers, writers and artists, and business and public managers all contribute to [society]. But so do the energies, skills and friendly and cooperative capacities of the whole population (Gibilisco, 2000).

This is the argument that is obvious to me—that there is a need to recognise any contribution to the work of society by any of its members, irrespective of the financial–reward dimensions of such work. For example, providing services to people with disabilities may not contribute much to economic growth, but it is fundamental to a just society. It provides a foundation for recognising and valuing our common humanity.

(This excerpt is from a section entitled “A just society for people with disabilities” in my 2014 book The Politics of Disability: a Need for a Just Society Inclusive of People with Disabilities pp.31-36.)

In my book I left it there, wanting these reminiscences to speak for themselves, and thereby fulfill my mutual obligation to Frank, Michael, Stuart and Hugh. They had given to me every indication that they saw their interaction with me as part of their mutual obligation. So I continue to hope that in some way what I have contributed as an “agitator for disability rights”, has given support to their views for a just political economy challenging the ongoing misunderstandings of the neo-liberal and managerialist ideology. As Professor Parmenter says, Australia (and the rest of the world too) needs a deepened understanding of the social context if the rights of the disabled are to be truly advanced.

A special thank you to my ghost writer Bruce Wearne and also thank you to Amanda, Dani, Sarah, Lina and Princess.

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