ALLAN PATIENCE. Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing

Jan 8, 2019

When Scott Morrison announced that the Sydney Opera House was the “biggest bill board in the country” he displayed a crass mindset straight from the commercialized anti-culture of the neoliberal era. Plastering a racing industry advertisement across the sails of the Opera House meant nothing more to him other than a great marketing opportunity. It didn’t occur to him that it amounted to the vandalising of a culturally sacred place.   

Few non-Indigenous Australians are interested in respecting sacred places for what they are – sacred. Indeed, the very idea of the sanctity of places, institutions, or events is mostly beyond their comprehension. If something is in the way of “development” then it can be bulldozed (if necessary, for example, as in Bjelke-Peterson’s time, in the dead of the night). But this crassness and insensitivity is now rampant across many places and events. “User pays” is the favoured slogan of the bogans who now run the show. In Sydney, for New Year’s Eve, some local councils began requiring payment for privileged access to what is normally open public parks and recreation areas. The frenetic commercialisation of Christmas by big department stores is the apogee of this kind of vulgarity.

Private companies are increasingly being invited (or they are inviting themselves) to “sponsor” events as diverse as Australia Day, Easter, school sports days and concerts, hospital fetes, the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open, soccer and football premierships, even Anzac Day. Soon it will be churches, temples and mosques! If their PR departments can’t wrangle the desired invitations, they will turn to loud-mouthed shock jocks to get their place in the sun, or they will try bullying timid politicians in order to get their way. Or both.

This is a very devious form of privatisation and must be resisted. It is having a disturbingly negative impact on some of our most time-honoured and much-loved social and cultural institutions and celebrations. The idea that particular places, institutions and events have been set aside for the public good is entirely overlooked by the neoliberal bogans. Instead those places and events are being turned into a medium for the “sponsors’” messages. As a result, they’re losing their cultural meanings. Their most important function of nurturing community, mutual understanding, and social and personal wellbeing is being ignored, swept aside.

Companies can – and often do – use their fake sponsorship impositions on public causes and events to advertise their goods and services alongside the causes and events they are “sponsoring.” Baseball caps, flags, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and toys will be sold as “souvenirs” (rarely are they free) with the companies’ logos emblazoned on them – an advertiser’s dream-run that pays for itself.

This all amounts to the creeping appropriation of public spaces, properties and celebrations that should remain in the hands of the communities who established them in the first place, and for whose entertainment, conviviality, and recreation they were originally created. Along the way the commercial enterprises muscling in to “sponsor” the show are trying to cloak themselves in a semblance of respectability and legitimacy (think: betting agencies). They’re claiming to be promoters of civic virtue which in their crassness they are simply mocking.

Moreover, the powers that be of those “sponsoring” agencies (and their hangers on) are routinely awarded special privileges – access to the best viewing places, rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful, being photographed with all the beautiful people. Rich women and children first, the locals last (or they’re shut out altogether).

 This all points to the savaging of cultural and community values that the neoliberal era has imposed across the country. It’s perhaps better understood as economism – a poisonous ideology that can only think one-dimensionally: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Everything is reduced to its cost. Its value – a concept that extends way beyond the cost parameters that would strangle it – is never taken into account. The idea that there are deep social needs and cultural traditions that can never be measured by an accountant’s spread sheet is utterly foreign to this kind of economism.

Economism blinds its true believers to the world beyond “the market.” Ethics and aesthetics are completely beyond them. The structuring of their belief systems is very similar to those of religious fundamentalists.

These negative characteristics were shockingly evident in the Abbott-Hockey policy to destroy the car manufacturing industry in Australia. The then prime minister and then treasurer were ideologically opposed to industry subsidies. They were blind to the social dividends that government subsidies to car manufacturing generated – skilled workers actually working, work skills training opportunities (including apprenticeships), manufacturing spin-offs for small specialist companies, a committed work force, a happier and healthier society. Instead of imagining a joint government and industry partnership that could have placed Australia at the forefront of new car technologies (for example, electric cars) Abbott and Hockey vandalised a major industry: very small economistic minds absolutely incapable of being social visionaries!

The anti-cultural, anti-social economistic rent-seeking that is undermining contemporary Australia has to be confronted. Next time Scott Morrison and Alan Jones demand access to something like the noble sails of the Opera House for their vulgar advertising, let’s show them what they are up against. The public response last time was wonderful – and should have been humiliating for the prime minister and the shock jock (not to mention a timid premier). But, then again, the neoliberal or economistic mindset is incapable of humility.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic. 

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