Thinking differently about sovereignty and economy

Feb 24, 2023
The national flag of Australia fly against blue sky.

While Governments often promote consensus views that disguise racism, domination of the less fortunate and an ages old acceptance that violence can sustain dominant interests, recent articles in P&I have begun to challenge this conformity.

A history of social theory records distinct ways of encouraging citizens to think, either by endorsing consensus views of how a society operates, or by conflict perspectives which challenge conformity.

Significant analyses in P&I, concerning Australian sovereignty being ceded to the US in time of war (John Menadue & Mike Gilligan Feb 18) and regarding the consequences of taking capitalism for granted (Ted Trainer Feb 16), identify the dangers of consensus type thinking and the urgent need for conflict perspectives.

These authors may not have named a consensus-conflict distinction, but the theoretical baggage carried by any commentator affects what they see and do not see, what they take for granted and what they are moved to challenge.

In crafting domestic and foreign policies, a consensus perspective, as in the claimed merits of Australia’s alliance with the US, encourages satisfaction with age old practice, and can’t imagine that citizens should think differently.

Conventional views about Australian sovereignty have a long history. The country had been officially perceived as empty until the High Court ruled otherwise. Beholden to Britain, Australian troops were automatically sent to fight and die in the First World War. In post Second World War Australia, no questions asked, Prime Minister Menzies told the British government, of course you can explode your atomic bombs in Australia. In ‘Dangerous Allies’, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser identified the irony that Australia needed the US for its defence but it only needed defending because of the US.

In current speculation about Australia being dragged into a US war with China, security and intelligence orthodoxy insists, of course Australia would be a willing US ally. Who could possibly think otherwise?

With a sense of urgency, Menadue and Gilligan think otherwise. In their judgement, unless Australia withdraws from the August 2014 Force Posture Agreement (FPA) which gives America the right to wage war from Australian territory, the country loses any sense of sovereignty, or in Clinton Fernandes’ terms, Australia remains a ‘Sub-Imperial Power’, unwilling to imagine ‘a democratic, equitable international order.’

In his commentary on the consequences if capitalist values dominate the running of an economy, Ted Trainer questions the benefits of values to promote growth, profit, and competition in unrestricted markets. Such values, he says, are reflected in obsessions with wealth and affluent living standards, have caused massive resource depletion and environmental destruction, and have fostered arms production as the financially wise means of preparing for war.

Via conflict theory perspectives, Trainer crafts ideals for transition to a more socially just, non-violent, peace-oriented society, though he’s aware that consensus advocacy promoted by powerful interests will want to stifle these views. As Trainer predicted, controversy occurred in reaction to Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ essay in which the Minister argued the modest view that social justice concerns be added to support for corporate enterprise.

In crediting Chalmers for trying to question consensus views about capitalism, Trainer shows that a conflict way of thinking cannot grow if the essence of consensus is retained, if economic policies are designed to avoid irritating the business sector, or on the sovereignty issue, if an aim of Australian defence policy is not to quarrel with the United States.

In The Saturday Paper of February 18/19, John Hewson records powerful status quo interests, such as Murdoch media outlets, directing their anger at Jim Chalmers for daring to suggest a different perspective on capitalism. Nothing radical but he started. Hewson calls out the outrageous argument from a bible of economic conservatism, The Australian Financial Review, in which Chalmer’s imaginative questions were dismissed as ‘a warning sign of interference.’

Governments of many persuasions promote consensus views as totally reasonable. The marketing is crucial but disguises racism, domination of the less fortunate and an ages old acceptance that violence can sustain dominant interests, irrespective of financial and human costs.

Witness Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews spewing spite to oppose a decision to abolish temporary protection visas for some refugees. She and her leader Peter Dutton can’t entertain the proposition that these human beings might become Australian citizens. How dare we think that way.

Witness governments’ fears to seek freedom for Julian Assange because to do so would challenge the US desire for revenge and would question whether any due process in law still exists in the deliberations of the English judiciary. How dare we criticise such august, inaccessible people?

Witness opposition to the proposal for a referendum to recognise First Nations Australians by giving them a Voice in the constitution. The ‘No’ campaigners seem to think that cruelty and exclusion have worked for centuries, so why change a comfortable consensus? Why encourage alternative ways of thinking?

The distinction between consensus and conflict perspectives is simple but instructive. Adoption of a conflict perspective can be seen in two significant writers’ demands that an agreement which undermines Australian sovereignty and enhances the prospect of war with China be abandoned, and in an influential environmentalist’s depiction of alternatives to the destruction caused by capitalist driven economies.

In every context and country, consensus arguments, historically bolstered by powerful men, have promoted conformity with past practice, for which perhaps no thinking may have been necessary.

In every context and country, conflict theory identifies the connection between accumulation of wealth and preparation for war, between a just distribution of resources, community coherence and life satisfaction.

Thinking which rejects the comfort of consensus views spells non-violent, life enhancing interpretations of sovereignty, and of economies crafted for the benefits of a common humanity.

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