Common sense is such a bogus concept. Shock jock Alan Jones recently telling the prime minister the only guide he needs to govern well is ‘a report on common sense’ underlines just how bogus.1 What you and I consider common sense is unlikely to be the common sense of Alan Jones or Tony Abbott. Yet common sense is resorted to all the time as though it is singular truth, as a way of closing down alternatives. If Abbott likes something it is ‘a gale of common sense’.2 Joe Hockey says that ‘Ultimately people expect common sense judgement to be used …’3 Various common senses underpin what people believe constitute reasonable and unreasonable positions and behaviours, but these can differ widely.
When someone dishes common sense at you, it typically camouflages an emotionally charged, partisan position on something important that the common sense propagator wants to define as beyond debate, since how can anyone dispute common sense? The insidious influence of bogus common sense has made two urgent, intertwined issues—state reasonableness over debt issues, and emotional reasonableness in politics—hard to address. In Europe it has frozen Germany into a fixed position in relation to fiscally stricken countries such as Greece over what is reasonable behaviour in relation to debt. In much of the Anglosphere the concept of persuadable political adversaries risks being supplanted by that of implacable enemies engaged in brutal winner-takes-all politics. After all, the common sense goes, politics is just war by other means, isn’t it? And debt here, too, is a prime site for political battle, without the deep emotions attending it visible to those fighting it out.
Anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber had a telling ‘common sense’ encounter at a Westminster Abbey garden party. Graeber met a lawyer employed by a foundation providing legal support to anti-poverty groups in London. The conversation turned to ‘Third World debt’ and whether the ‘global justice movement’ had really achieved anything on it so far.
‘Well, for example, we managed to almost completely destroy the IMF,’ Graeber told her with rosy overstatement. He described the International Monetary Fund to her as ‘the world’s debt enforcers … the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs if you don’t pay up’.
‘But what was your position?’ the lawyer asked.
‘About the IMF? We wanted to abolish it.’
‘No, I mean, about the Third World debt.’
‘Oh, we wanted to abolish that too …’
‘But,’ she objected, as if this were self-evident, ‘they’d borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one’s debts.’
Her last comment, so powerful because it is ‘a moral statement’ rather than an economic one says Graeber, lingered on in his mind. After all, isn’t paying one’s debts what morality is supposed to be all about? Giving people what is due them. Accepting one’s responsibilities. Fulfilling one’s obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfil their obligations to you. What could be a more obvious example of shirking one’s responsibilities than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt? Indeed the headline debt crisis of our time, whose current flashpoint is Greece, is characterised by some as the ‘euro’s morality lesson’.5
Graeber’s anarchist credentials—he’s a leading light in the Occupy movement—may make some discount his analysis. Harder to dismiss is ‘Super Mario’, the centrist economist and former EU official who as prime minister of Italy in 2011–13 steered his country away from the debt cliff on which Greece is now poised. For Germany, Mario Monti famously said, ‘economics is a branch of moral philosophy’.6 This is treated as a ‘quip’ in Anglophone reportage but Monti meant it literally.
Some link the Germans’ fiscal stiffness to the Reformation. ‘Growth is the reward for good behavior,’ Roger Cohen says of Germany’s economics-as-moral-philosophy mindset. Frugality and avoidance of debt are seen as inherently virtuous and fiscal deficits intrinsically immoral. In the Mediter-ranean economics is more ‘a branch of personal ingenuity’, says Cohen. He dates the culture clash back to Martin Luther, whose objections to papal corruption, the sale of indulgences and the papal authority to absolve sin incited the Reformation in Germany. ‘A big case of northern probity against southern laxity, frosty rigor against sun-soaked elasticity: the clash of an attempt to hold humanity to a high moral standard with a system taking human fallibility as a starting point,’ he writes. ‘A few centuries later along comes a shared currency that tries to unite the Protestant north with the Catholic … south, a Europe that went through the Reformation with one that did not.’7 Trouble, says Cohen, was inevitable.
As both Germany and Australia show, however, it is not a Protestant–Catholic polarity but rather one concerning culture and history. Cohen mistakenly sees Catholicism as synonymous with the ‘sun-soaked elasticity’ of the Mediterranean, when there are plenty of German Catholics, too, taking an equally hard line on drastically indebted EU members. After all, Catholicism is as much the religion of the hair shirt, the thigh spike and other mortifications as it is of la dolce vita. Here in the Antipodes the ‘frosty rigor’ on fiscal policy comes from the Catholic-dominated federal Liberal Party leadership. Nearly half the Abbott government’s cabinet are Catholic, including Abbott, once a priest in training. Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, forever synonymous with toting fat cigars in one hand while slashing spending on the poor with the other, are both Catholic. The other members of Abbott’s kitchen cabinet, Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Attorney-General George Brandis, are Catholic. Down here in the sun-soaked Antipodes, the Liberals suggested Australia risked net debt around Mediterranean levels but for the Abbott government’s election. Abbott declares his budget inheritance as one where ‘debt and deficit stretches out as far as the eye can see’ in a ‘Ponzi scheme of unsustainable spending’.8 It is an exaggeration all the more grotesque for the fact of genuinely dire indebtedness and consequential human trauma in European countries such as Greece literally being crushed under their debts.
Europe’s negative interest rates tell the story. Economist Ross Garnaut points out, based on recent research by Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane, that one can look as far back as ‘when Elizabeth I was raising funds to defend the realm against the Spanish Armada’ and not find short-term sovereign bond rates at zero and below as they are in Europe today.9 They reflect investors’ belief that growth will be non-existent in the short term and negligible in the long term. Demand is weak, protracted deflation is a serious prospect, high unemployment is entrenched. For the average young European, the future looks as bleak as it did for young Australians in the early 1930s. Perhaps the most powerful tool that could help them adjust and overcome their financial plight—floating exchange rates—is denied them as members of the eurozone currency union.
And the biggest beneficiary of the euro? Germany. German exports are buoyed by being priced in a currency whose exchange rate is held down by the heavy indebtedness of other EU member countries. In the black amid a sea of fellow EU countries heavily in the red, Germany can enjoy low and negative interest rate loans while others struggle to get credit at all, compounding its advantage. ‘No one can deny that Germany, simply because it is big, so productive and so efficient, is the greatest beneficiary of the common market,’ Monti said at the height of his campaign to stop Italy collapsing under the weight of its debt.10 He warned then, nearly three years ago, of increasing resentment in Europe ‘against the EU, against the euro, against the Germans’ and of the possible ‘psychological dissolution of Europe’ under the strain. If the single currency ideal became a factor promoting Europe drifting apart, Monti said, ‘then the foundation of the European project is destroyed’.
Italy did stabilise; it did not turn out to be the piece of the jigsaw that went missing and spoiled Germany’s eurozone ideal. Greece is the pressure point in 2015; after it there will be another European basket case, and another, stressing the system. Monti’s deeper message remains unheeded. Germany’s unyielding determination to have a European Union that is a currency union too is rending the fabric of the European project. The example of Britain, an EU member that chose not to be part of the eurozone currency union, maintains its own currency (sterling) and can adjust smoothly through its floating exchange rate mechanism, is proof you can have an EU without a common currency. The EU existed before 1999 without a currency union and it could exist in the future without a currency union. Has Germany not heard the old saying about not making the perfect the enemy of the good?
Tension in Europe, especially hatred of Germany, is escalating—much of it attached to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is the eurozone’s ‘one constant’: since she won office in 2005 there have been fifty-four different leaders of other eurozone member countries, an average of three per country.11 So trenchant has ‘Germanophobia’ and abuse of Merkel become, much of it deploying Nazi imagery and evocations, that French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy felt compelled in April to defend both the country and its leader. The cover of Der Spiegel showing Merkel in front of the Acropolis surrounded by Nazi officers was for Lévy the last straw. Tiny but telling ripples have even reached Australia. At lunch in Sydney recently a friend told this joke. Angela Merkel flies into Athens and is going through customs. ‘Name?’ the customs official asks. ‘Merkel.’ ‘Nationality?’ he asks. ‘German.’ ‘Occupation?’ he asks. ‘Not on this occasion.’
The anti-German, anti-Merkel campaign masks and distracts attention from the real threat of ‘fascistic parties’ now gaining strength across the continent, Lévy says: Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, SNS in Slovakia, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Ataka in Bulgaria. ‘That is why, today, it is critically important, in the face of a dark force that is rising, swelling, and unfurling in Europe, to defend Angela Merkel’.12
Geopolitical analyst George Friedman directly attributes the rise of the far right from Hungary to France to ‘loss of trust in existing political parties and the Europeanist ideology’ as an inevitable consequence of financial crisis. ‘These parties have a common hostility to the European Union and a violently anti-immigrant sentiment,’ Friedman says. ‘They also support the national interests of their own countries, as opposed to the transnational interests of the European elite. These parties have not risen to the point where they have the numbers to govern, but some have had to be included in the government in order to create a coalition, and others are growing rapidly.’ Such parties are the ‘tip of the iceberg’, according to Friedman, while ‘beneath the surface, the generalized unease with the consequences of transfer of sovereignty in economic matters is intensifying’. Little wonder when some EU countries are suffering unemployment rates worse than the United States did during the Depression.13
Friedman’s analysis is undoubtedly correct and Lévy’s stand admirable. Merkel and the Germans could do themselves—and everyone else—a favour and back off a little. Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century calculates that on the basis of the current approach ‘it may take several decades to get out from under a burden of public debt as large as that which currently exists in Europe’.14 That is untenable. Voluntarily or involuntarily, sooner or later, Germany will be bitten by that truth, hard.
It is not as though Europe is a stranger to turning hard and savagely against itself. Friedman points out in his latest book, Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, that in the three decades between 1914 and 1945 Europe ‘tore itself apart’ with roughly 100 million Europeans dead from ‘war, genocide, purges, planned starvation, and all the rest’. Other civilisations have experienced their own slaughters and savagery. ‘But the unexpectedness, the intensity, the rapidity, and the consequences for the entire world were distinctive’ in Europe’s case, Friedman writes. ‘And most distinctive was that this particular civilization should be capable of self-immolation.’ Europe is fragmented, he points out, only a little bigger in area than Australia but with fifty independent states in it; and it is crowded. Asia has 86 people per square kilometre in it; Europe has 72.5 people per square kilometre; and the EU has 112 people per square kilometre. ‘The European Union was founded for “peace and prosperity”,’ Friedman notes. ‘If prosperity disappears, or disappears in some nations, what happens to peace?’15
Is it pure economic self-interest that keeps Germany’s arms like a steel hoop around the eurozone despite its inherent flaws, unbearable tensions and dangerous political dividends? Or is it fealty to an ideal model of Europe over a practically executable one? ‘In politics, idealism is frequently no more than an excuse for not recognizing unpleasant realities,’ Hannah Arendt once observed. ‘Idealism can be a form of evading reality altogether …’16
Or is it, could it possibly be, driven by a fusion of history and emotion dating back to Germany’s experience of the 1930s? Against German opposition, the European Central Bank (ECB) recently embarked on quantitative easing (QE) to pump €1 trillion into the European economy by buying €60 billion worth of public and private sector bonds a month through to September 2016—easy money designed to avert deflation, build confidence and cut debt-burdened European countries some slack.17 In London for government talks in January, Angela Merkel and David Cameron viewed together the ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ exhibition at the British Museum. When they reached the exhibits on the Weimar Republic and hyperinflation Merkel turned to Cameron and said, QE is a ‘very, very bad idea’.18 Her point: easy money is the slippery slope to hyperinflation, and we all know where that led.
We are smug in our tendency to look back at the history of the 1930s and shake our heads at what now seem obvious missteps and bloody-minded wrongheadedness by our forebears that made the Depression longer and deeper than necessary, and which heralded the Second World War. Are we any wiser than we were back then though, any less bound up in wooden economic dogma and blindness to extremism burgeoning in societies under extreme pressure? While fascist politics is on the rise again across Europe, Germany focuses with minatory attention on the ‘moral’ dimension of the discharge of debt obligations so big in some countries as to be unlikely to be solvable in time frames consistent with the maintenance of liberal democracy. This myopia may well be emotionally bound up in memories of wheelbarrows piled with marks in the 1920s, as Merkel’s comment to Cameron at the British Museum suggests.
Yet a number of European debtor nations are in a debt trap. As Lars Hoelgaard, a former deputy director general of the EU Commission points out using the Greek crisis as an example, Germany’s ‘moral philosophy’ approach has obscured from it the fact that its mathematical analysis of the situation does not add up. ‘By imposing austerity on the periphery while at the same time running huge current account surpluses and refusing to stimulate public investments, Germany has exacerbated the recession, making it impossible for Greece to dig itself out of the debt burden,’ Hoelgaard says. ‘The burden of adjustment to address imbalances has to be symmetrical between surplus and deficit countries in a common currency zone. If Germany continues to refuse this logic, the euro will not be able to survive with or without Greece.’19
Which brings us back to our anarchist anthropologist Graeber, stricken with the ‘common sense’ argument of the lawyer at that Westminister Abbey garden party. ‘“But,” she objected, as if this were self-evident, “they’d borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one’s debts.”’20
There are other reasonable arguments that contend with this. It is reasonable to expect that some loans are never repaid and that fact is built into interest rates, which incorporate both a reward to the money’s owner for lending it as well as a risk premium reflecting the chance they might never see the money again. It is reasonable if you lend to a poor or bad risk—someone (or some country) already loaded to the gills with debt and unlikely to be able to service the additional debt—that you are likely to do your dough.
It is reasonable that Greeks, to take one example, are unlikely ever to behave like Germans, no matter how much Germans might want them to. It is reasonable that a concept whose success rests on Greeks behaving like Germans—for example, a European Union that is also a currency union—has a high risk of failure.
It is reasonable that you can have a European Union that is not also a currency union. The proof is that the EU existed for a long time and functioned well before the eurozone was created; and that Britain, which chose not to be part of the eurozone and rather maintained its own sovereign currency, remains an EU member. It is reasonable that this is preferable to attempting both where the attempt gives rise to sustained human misery in heavily indebted EU member countries and the rise of political extremism posing a threat generally to the common good.
It is reasonable that it would be better for Europe to produce an effective, compassionate, strategically smart solution to the problem of its debt-trapped members than, for example, for Russia to bail out Greece and establish a beach head in Europe’s Balkan peninsula. A ‘memorandum of cooperation’ concluded during Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ April visit to Moscow will allow Russia’s Gazprom gas pipelines to connect to Europe via Greece, in a sign of closer relations—at some discomfort to Europe, which is enforcing sanctions on Russia over its position on Ukraine. That could be just the beginning.
It is reasonable, in short, that the perfect not be the enemy of the good. As a prophylactic against common sense it is always worth immediately asking: Whose common sense, and in whose interest?
The economic common sense peddled in contemporary Australia is that we are a high-taxing, high-spending, heavily indebted country burdened with terrible cost of living pressures and a welfare system that is too generous, and that something has to be done about it. Does this stack up? Perhaps the best comparison for Australia is other developed nations grouped in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
High taxing? Thirty of the OECD’s thirty-four member countries have a higher total tax take as a proportion of their economy (GDP) than Australia. And twenty-six OECD member countries have higher taxes on the average worker as a proportion of their labour cost than Australia. High spending? Twenty-nine OECD member countries have higher general government expenditure as a proportion of GDP than Australia. Heavily indebted? Twenty-one OECD member countries have higher general government debt as a proportion of their GDP than Australia. Burdened with terrible cost of living pressures? Twenty-four OECD member countries have higher inflation rates than Australia’s modest 1.7 per cent annual growth in consumer prices. Saddled with a welfare system that is too generous? Twenty-three OECD member countries have higher public ‘social expenditures’ as a proportion of GDP than Australia.21
Yet who acknowledges—or even knows—that Australia is a lightly taxed, moderately indebted, low-inflation nation compared to most other developed countries? The false view pounded into us by conservative politicians and their fellow traveller pundits could lead to very bad policy decisions in a global economy that faces being led by Europe and Japan into a long, slow deflation, which is what today’s extraordinary and historic negative interest rates in Europe portend. Computer scientists call it GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Poor inputs, poor outputs. How stupid would we be to make important decisions on the basis of poor data?
Debt is the central issue of international politics, Graeber argues—and as we know, of Australian domestic politics too, in its latest guise as a scare attached to the ageing population—yet ‘nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it’. This is surprising since conflict historically has frequently taken the form of struggle between debtors and creditors: ‘arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery’. For five thousand years, Graeber says, popular insurrections have begun with the ritual destruction of debt records on tablets, papyri and ledgers, as well as of landholding records and tax assessments. He cites classicist Moses Finley, who argued that revolutionary insurgencies in the ancient world had one goal: ‘Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.’
The lack of insight into debt as a cultural phenomenon is even more surprising, Graeber continues, when one considers the deep entwinement of the languages of religion and debt that emerged from these repeated conflicts. ‘Terms like “reckoning” or “redemption” are only the most obvious, since they’re taken directly from the language of ancient finance,’ he says. ‘In a larger sense, the same can be said of “guilt,” “freedom,” “forgiveness,” and even “sin.” Arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong.’22 Graeber is not alone in this analysis. The German word for debt is Schuld, synonymous in German with ‘guilt’. As former EU Commission deputy director general Lars Hoelgaard points out, in Germany this translates directly into ‘moral obligation’. That ‘debt is sinful’ is a ‘moral dogma’ for the Germans, Hoelgaard argues: ‘“Live within your (current) means; don’t spend more than you earn”, as if societies were like a private household.’23 Knowing that helps explain the disjuncture in Europe between Germany and, say, the Mediterranean EU countries.
What about in Australia? Here debt is less a moral instrument than a cudgel wielded crudely and brutally by conservative governments to discredit their predecessors and maintain a hold on power. There is a ritual. First the incoming conservative government gasps, ‘My god, the cupboard is not only bare but that rotten lot you’ve just tossed out left the nation in hock up to the neck!’ The term ‘budget black hole’ is incanted menacingly in relation to fiscal policy settings (econospeak for the state of the budget) and public sector debt. The new government vaunts itself as the morally and technically superior team to fix it. Second, the incoming government has a savage first budget to set up a pattern of public spending that reflects its own ideological and policy priorities. Third, it backloads new and higher spending into its third budget, the pre-election budget, which it studs with sweeteners to help get itself returned to office. Fourth, large, expensive publicly paid ad campaigns around key government policy initiatives are rolled out to gild the government’s policy bona fides before, as the campaign proper begins, the cry goes out in highly emotive paid party-political advertising: ‘Don’t risk a return to our economically illiterate predecessors—those wreckers will send you, your children and the rest of the nation to the poor house!’
We can feel like fiscal fools, debt dunces, investment ignoramuses when it comes to economics, lacking the expert knowledge, except in extremis, to know with confidence when we are being had. Financial year 2014–15 turns out to be one of those extraordinary moments where citizens did not respond to the siren alarm of debt and imminent disaster alleged by the government. The ritualistic government script that there was an urgent debt and deficit problem was rejected; unfair budget cuts meant to fix the bogus budget crisis were condemned. In a reassuring example of our political system working exactly as it should, those unfair measures failed to pass the Senate where the government does not have the numbers.
It is worth pausing and reflecting on this amazing moment where the people via their parliamentary representatives called a government’s bluff on its economic rhetoric. A cynic might say it was just self-interested citizenry at work. However, even John Howard declared, in implied criticism of the budget spinning its wheels in parliament, that people will ‘respond to an argument for change and reform … (if they are) satisfied it’s fundamentally fair’.24 It was not. Which is not to say there are no challenges that need to be dealt with, including sensibly reducing the deficit over time; just not in a swingeing attack conducted in a hysterical manner on the bit of the public sector Australia has left after decades of economic policy too laissez and not fair.
The failure of the conservatives’ ritual debt and deficit scare to work for the Abbott government momentarily negated debt’s utility as a political cudgel. The fiscal anorexia the government attempted to foist on us did not take: we looked into the budget mirror and saw ourselves as we are, ‘prosperous’ looking but not loaded up with grotesque layers of debt they wanted us to imagine.
This creates space for configuring problems—and solutions—differently, and better. Just as in the 1930s, attention is turning to the role of major public infrastructure investment as the solution to what is a crisis of private underinvestment that threatens to deflate the world into misery. And it is the errors of the 1930s we should be thinking of as we try to have a reasonable conversation about where the best future path lies. Then, measures creating further economic contraction were prescribed as the remedy for economic contraction itself, something Keynes pointed out the perversity of at the time but was only recognised as being right about later. Australia’s Depression-era treasurer E.G. ‘Ted’ Theodore was, as Gough Whitlam once described him, the world’s ‘first Keynesian with power’, having arrived at similar policy conclusions to Keynes but prevented from implementing them by a hostile Senate, conservative banking establishment, continuing constraints imposed by the imperial relationship with Britain and, ultimately, a conservative political assault that took him out of politics altogether.25 The knowledge and insights existed to prevent the Depression from becoming as deep as it did. However, the same thinking and forces of economic ultra-orthodoxy, surrendered to under pressure in the 1930s, are as active today as they were in the Depression, ready to take the timid in politics hostage once again when the pressure really comes on.
In Australia the conversation on national investment has been poisoned by conservatives painting public sector debt as a bad thing in itself. The truth is that there can be constructive public borrowing for projects supporting a better national future, just as there can be wasteful public borrowing to pay for political boondoggles (the proverbial highways to nowhere). The point is to know there is a difference, and to distinguish between good investment and boondoggles. We have the chance to lock in historically low interest rates on loans supporting once in a century style infrastructure investments—outlays we cannot keep putting off forever.
Effective urban public transport net-works capable of keeping the forecast populations of Australia’s major cities over the next century moving; mass hospital and nursing home infrastructure to care for and house the ageing population; a very fast train network joining the national and eastern seaboard capitals into a Brisbane–Melbourne line; a revivification of Australia’s research institutions and infrastructure—these are all examples of national investments worth making, by the public sector, for and on behalf of the public. Perhaps the saddest ‘achievement’ of the Abbott government is the filleting of the National Broadband Network (NBN), cut down to a slower, technologically inferior, cheapjack version of its world-beating original concept, in the name of saving a few dollars and scoring cheap political points against Labor. It shows how good Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s political skills are, being able to sell this travesty as a plus to the voting public, but reflects poorly on his national interest impulse.
Government can do things. But consider the life of a government leader. Hannah Arendt talks of the ‘statesman … encircled by an army of experts’, the field of action lying in between them.26 It is both an idealised and bleak picture of a leader’s situation, ‘encircled’, constrained. Compassion for how hard such a job is in practice must arise in any reasonable human heart.
Oppositions can really only discuss and suggest. If a government leader’s job is difficult in the way described above, then an opposition leader’s job is so much harder: similarly ‘encircled’ by experts constraining a field of ‘action’ but one that is only theoretical. The opposition leader has all the problems of a government leader plus impotence—a miserable place.
For a searing personal account of life as an opposition leader in contemporary Western politics, former Canadian Opposi-tion leader Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes is unsurpassed. The size of the task and the magnitude of the problems doing it so vividly conveyed in Ignatieff’s account of his brutal and ultimately disastrous experience as a small ‘l’ liberal in Canadian politics, contrasted with what is so routinely demanded of opposition leaders by commentators, colleagues and voters, is sobering. We expect a lot from the government leader—but after all, we elect them to actually do the job. In a way we expect so much more from the opposition leader, someone with structurally far less capacity to do anything. Perhaps we should recalibrate these expectations and take more upon ourselves in terms of the hard work of generating ideas, developing debate and shaping practical options for the future.
Australians reading Ignatieff’s book experience a shock of recognition concern-ing the vicious partisanship with which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper conducts government: Harper and Abbott are political twins. Ignatieff’s account of what the Canadian polity’s sustained exposure to this has meant for public life and the possibility of constructive, inclusive politics there is a signal warning for us all:
Partisanship divides an already divided society and turns adversaries into enemies. An adversary has to be defeated, while an enemy must be destroyed. You cannot compromise with enemies. With adversaries compromise is possible. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow … They treated us not as adversaries, but as enemies. Democracy depends on persuasion, on the idea that you might be able to win over an adversary today and turn him or her into an ally tomorrow.
In politics as conducted today in the Western democracies, persuasion is dying, Ignatieff says. Since votes are decided in advance, ‘nothing turns on persuasion, on attempts to reach out across the aisle’. The incentive to be civil has been eliminated:
When persuasion doesn’t come into democratic debate, exchanges become pointless displays of venom. Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other in an otherwise empty chamber, but this is now a common sight in legislatures around the world. As power ebbs away from legislatures and accrues steadily to the executive and the bureaucracy, debate in democratic chambers becomes both unpleasant and meaningless. Democratic peoples have reason to fear this double phenomenon—waning legislative democracy and heightened partisanship—because taken together they weaken one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.
The cure, Ignatieff argues, is civility, with the caveat that civility is more than politeness. It is the recognition that your opponent’s loyalty and good faith are equal to your own. ‘This recognition does not preclude adversarial competition,’ he says, ‘even a tough punch or two, but it proceeds from a shared understanding that democracy, properly speaking, is the politics of adversaries’, not the politics of enemies.27 In day-to-day politics, and day-to-day political reporting, we lose sight of these distinctions. The cost is high and, if left unattended, the animosity can result in deep dysfunction.
Over debt and deficit though, extraordinarily, wonderfully, Australians’ reaction to the government rhetoric on debt shows its capacity as an emotional manipulant has for the time being expired. Your ‘common sense’ is not ours, the government has been told, and is in any case not the only one. Speaking is also a form of action, according to Arendt. Australians spoke. ‘We start something,’ says Arendt. ‘We weave our strand into a network of relations … That is what is meant by a venture. And now I would say that this venture is only possible when there is trust in people. A trust—which is difficult to formulate but fundamental—in what is human in all people. Otherwise such a venture could not be made.’28
Part of civility in politics must surely be that any ‘venture’—any conversation, any attempt at genuine debate on difficult issues between adversaries, not enemies—must be conducted on the basis of at least minimal respect for the truth about our level of public indebtedness (modest), about the relative generosity of our welfare system (also modest), about how high spending and tax are as a proportion of GDP (both relatively low), and about the rate of increase in the cost of living (at sustained, historic postwar lows). Irrational exuberance is an emotional phenomenon widely accepted by economists as real; so should irrational despair. Today Europe is a place where despair is rational—not here. The irrational despair imposed on Australia by the common sense merchants has been identified by much of the citizenry as a con. The emotional debt owed us after their sustained, damaging, self-interested campaign is outstanding. It is time to collect.
We are owed public discourse that is respectful, calm and without the personal traducing of those in it—within as well as between the political parties through which so much of it flows. We are owed an explicit acknowledgement that the ‘private’ is not intrinsically, automatically, unthinkingly and, somehow, morally superior to the ‘public’ when it comes to public policy and initiatives—a fallacy so pervasive it has become an unthinking reflex across government.
We need to restore the sense of a balanced centre to replace the air of perpetual crisis so self-interestedly inculcated by some—one where reasoned debate about reasonable propositions can occur with their emotional underpinnings explicit and understood. We are owed words and deeds designed to keep us joined as a society, not torn in two and turned against each other by greed, fear and retribution for political gain. It is time now for these debts to be paid.
- Matthew Knott, ‘Abbott issued with a lengthy “to-do list” by Alan Jones,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 2015.
- AAP, ‘South Australia’s nuclear inquiry is “a gale of common sense”, Tony Abbott says,’ Guardian, 15 February 2015, accessed 10 April 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/feb/15/south-australias-nuclear-inquiry-is-a-gale-of-commonsense-tony-abbott-says>.
- Joe Hockey, interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National, 10 October 2013, accessed 10 April 2015, <http://www.joehockey.com/media/transcripts/details
- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, New York, updated edition (2014), pp. 1–2.
- Roger Cohen, ‘The euro’s morality lesson’, New York Times, 5 August 2013, accessed 3 April 2015, <http://www
- Charlemagne, ‘The other moral hazard’, Economist, 29 September 2012, accessed 3 April 2015, <http://www
- Cohen, ‘The euro’s morality lesson’.
- Tony Abbott, address to the Sydney Institute, 29 April 2014, accessed 9 April 2015, <http://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-04-29/address-sydney-institute>.
- Ross Garnaut, ‘Global Development in the Twenty First Century’, Sir Frank Holmes Memorial Lecture in Policy Studies, 25 February 2015, Victoria University, Wellington; Andy Haldane, ‘Growing Fast and Slow’, speech at the University of East Anglia, 17 February 2015, Chart 12, accessed 11 April 2015, <http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2015/
- Fiona Ehlers & Hans Hoyng, ‘A front line between North and South’, Spiegel Online, 6 August 2012, accessed 3 April 2015, <http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-on-the-euro-crisis-with-italian-prime-minister-mario-monti-a-848511.html>.
- Alberto Nardelli, ‘Angela Merkel: the Eurozone’s one constant’, Guardian, 17 October 2014, accessed 3 April 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/oct/17/angela-merkel-the-eurozones-one-constant>.
- Bernard-Henri Lévy, ‘In Defense of Angela Merkel’, Project Syndicate, 2 April 2015, accessed 3 April 2015, <http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/angela-merkel-defense-by-bernard-henri-levy-2015-04>.
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