Yes, Michael Daley’s Asian blunder was a bad choice of words —— and more. But when we have finished fulminating about his “racism”, consider this. What he is talking about to people in “the stressed and stalled lower middle” of Australian society touches upon a deep reversal in their, and most Australians’, long-ingrained attitudes, assumptions and expectations.
Expectations arising from our long-held “elevator” or “successionist” ideas about immigration and integration.
The underlying idea, long held and tacitly assumed here, is that you come in, start to move up, and that, as you do, other later arrivals then come in behind you to occupy your former niche and “take their turn”. There is a tenacious idea lurking within these assumptions that there is, if not an orderly immigration entry and social mobility queue, then a rough and ready and well-known one.
That has long been a fundamental “Oz” idea and assumption.
It is one that has been put in question and overturned by current immigration patterns and policies: the giving of priority to middle and upper-middle class profession and enterprise visa immigrants.
And that is what disquiets the “decent middling battlers”.
To understand their social anxieties and ensuing political disaffection these days, you must set that attitudinal and expectational collapse alongside something else.
You have to put it together with the subliminal (and to me ethically distasteful) messaging that comes along with PM Scott Morrison’s “have a go and you’ll get a go” rhetoric.
Scomo’s standard ideological and key gut-level “pitch” here plays artfully upon a nasty, studied ambiguity.
He is forever urging people to get on side with his version of the Australian ethos and way —— and in that way to “get ahead”.
He cunningly, and disquietingly for many among the middling battlers, touches on and plays upon an only half-recognized raw nerve here.
“Get ahead”. He ostensibly appeals here to the widespread desire that most people have to get ahead of where they were and now are —— as the overall tide rises and “all boats are lifted”. The desire for a better tomorrow, a continually improving future. A general improvement “all round”.
This we may call “Get Ahead 1”.
But he is also appealing to and pushing the nasty doctrinaire neo-liberal idea, and is encouraging as “the greatest good”, the less attractive competitive impulse to “get ahead of others”, of everybody else around you. He is invoking and promoting the unpleasant readiness and even eagerness to “get the better” of the other guy, to do the other guy in. Not to emulate but to outdo the other, to your own advantage and glory and the other’s embarrassment and shame. To “have the better” of one’s consociates.
This is “Get Ahead 2”.
It has a certain, and not altogether attractive, pedigree. It is the same complacent and self-serving fix-all remedy that was urged by the grubby nineteenth-century French liberal “statesman” Franҫois Guizot. His panacea to heal all social and political “ills” was his catch-cry “Enrichissez-vous!” —— get, make yourselves, rich!
“Get Ahead 1” and “Get Ahead 2”. It is this ambiguity that Scomo and his like-minded carnivore Liberals are forever playing upon these days
And which is now constantly “in play” —— and which is increasingly becoming a source of anxiety to the “middle battlers”.
“Progressives” need to find a way to talk to their fellow citizens —— clearly and simply, directly and accessibly and without scapegoating anybody —— about this ambiguity and all that goes with it. About the difference between the two kinds of “getting ahead” and the moral chasm, the ethical clash, between these two worldviews.
If they and we do not, we are all for the chop!
Make no mistake. What lies behind and informs Scomo’s “Getting Ahead 2” is nothing other than an asocial “competitive individualism”, acquisitive and possessive(1) —— which subverts the ethos of publicly generous, and at times even altruistic, sociability upon which civic citizenship rests —— and a variety of “amoral familism”,(2) a narrowly focused “me and mine and us against the world” outlook.
“Scomo-ist” ideology is an artfully confected combination or malignant hybrid of those two unpleasant doctrines.
Be clear here. I am not seeking to “excuse” Michael Daley for his “racism” or whatever it is. To rationalise his words or justify the worst sentiments that they embody.
I am excoriating Daley and other would-be “progressive” politicians for their lack of analytically informed social awareness and, ensuing from it, their poor, even disastrous, political judgement.
That is what annoys me most.
That deficiency is what gets them, and all of us, into this kind of mess.
It is not just a matter of “thinking before you speak”. Rather, what is required from those who offer themselves as the people’s champions is a readiness, and the ability, to speak, naturally and with conviction, upon historically well-founded grounds and on an analytically clear intellectual basis.
Is that too much to ask?
Will somebody please try that way next time?
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, School of Social Sciences
The University of New South Wales
- As in C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Clarendon Press, 1962.
- As in E.C. Banfield, The Moral basis of a Backward Society, Free Press, Glencoe Ill., 1958.