David Ritter is a left-leaning expatriate Australian legal academic who holds similar views about “neoliberalism” to David McKnight (namely that it’s the font of all evil). Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of his hypothesis is the straw man rhetorical tactic of setting up the fifties and sixties as an “almost golden age” when “the individual and the collective good were in some degree of balance”, since which era we’ve all gone to neoliberal hell in a handbasket.
Ritter’s essay excerpted below is something of a caricature in my view, but it behoves all sensible centrists to develop a reasonable understanding of the world views of ideologues of both extremes. Moreover you might even agree with me that there are a few shafts of insight in there.
Choice, choice, choice. Counting how often a key term is used in a speech can be a crude tool, but not so here. In Gillard’s rendering of Labor’s values, the word ‘society’ is not mentioned once, while the word ‘choice’ appears more than twenty times. In her interpretation of Labor values, the Prime Minister left out any sense of how community – which is essential to an enduring sense of the secure self – is meant to cohere or function in the face of the hurry and instability of liquid modernity. You cannot mend the existential insecurity of too much choice with more choice. In the Prime Minister’s vision of the good society, there is no real sense of the communal as having a value beyond the fulfilment of self, or of any abiding purpose beyond realising gain on the part of individuals. It is a near complete inversion of John F Kennedy’s soaring exhortation: ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you. The life paths referred to by Gillard are also revealing. She reifies the ‘aspiration’ for a ‘decent job’ and the ‘dream’ of running a ‘decent small business’, but mentions nothing else: vocations, professions, public service, farming and full-time care, for example, are hidden behind more narrowly economic possibilities.
The Australians imagined in Gillard’s speech are also uncannily invulnerable. Care is impliedly conceptualised as resulting from poor fortune, to be provided for as a ‘service’ rather than something essential to realising our humanity. Incapacity is spoken of as a ‘risk’, as if it were somehow possible to never be a baby, or to avoid the mortal need for tender succour that precedes our dying. The implications of Gillard’s choice of words are momentous. So invisible have the assumptions become that the current Labor Prime Minister defends a neoliberal conception of human relations as an expression of imperishable Labor values. The heart and soul of the country have changed.
Inside the walls, the condition of twenty-first century life for the majority of Australians is material abundance, accompanied by tiredness, time-poverty, jadedness and anxiety. Qualities of personal character like trust, loyalty and mutual commitment are eaten away by work that is short-‐‑term and ‘flexible’. Institutions have been transformed for the worse by the application of the profit motive.