I may have given readers the impression that I think Clive Hamilton is as big a goose as Alexander Downer. In fact I think many of Hamilton’s insights are very valuable, especially in focusing Australians on the deficiencies of global capitalist consumer culture and the relentless drive for economic growth and material wealth almost to the exclusion of all other values or aspirations.
The problem for me is not so much with Clive’s diagnosis of society’s ills (because I reckon that’s mostly right), but with his prescribed remedies. They mostly involve a reheated version of “nanny state” socialism. Moreover, Clive’s messianic enthusiasm for the anti-materialist cause tends to lead him into some awfully woolly thinking for an academic. A recent paper by him titled Carpe Diem? The Deferred Happiness Syndrome provides a potted example of both Clive’s strengths and weaknesses. Here are some extracts:
In the course of a recent Australia Institute study of the downshifting phenomenon, the authors became aware of an apparently widespread propensity of Australians to persist with life situations that are difficult, stressful and exhausting in the belief that the sacrifice will pay off in the longer term (Breakspear and Hamilton 2004). The tendency to endure long hours in unsatisfying jobs was dubbed the ‘Deferred Happiness Syndrome’. The sacrifices that many identified were focused especially on their relationships with family and friends, but also on their own sense of what would make their lives fulfilling, the thing that they ‘had always wanted to do’. Some endure many years of stress, sometimes resulting in ill health, in order to pursue the longterm dream of a ‘happy’ retirement. …
The Deferred Happiness Syndrome appears to contradict the life approach reflected in the huge growth in consumer credit and mortgage debt, which is motivated by the desire for instant gratification (Hamilton 2002). But the underlying desire of both deferrers and gratifiers is the same. Gratifiers want the money and what it buys now, and accumulate financia l debts as a result. Deferrers want the money and the life it buys later and accumulate relationship debts as a result. Both risk ending in bankruptcy, the difference being that in the one case the bailiffs come in the door, while in the other one’s partner leaves by it.
Downshifters, by contrast, break the link between money and happiness. While deferrers ‘postpone the day’ while they accumulate the resources they believe they will need to live happily, downshifters have decided to ‘seize the day’ to pursue a more fulfilling life. The deferrers tend to be driven above all by financial security while the downshifters place much less emphasis on money and much more on their relationships, their health and a sense of personal fulfilment. Simplifying, downshifters sacrifice money for time, deferrers sacrifice time for money, and gratifiers sacrifice money later for money now. …
Those who make individual choices to reject the dominance of money in their own lives are often characterised as ‘crazy’ or irresponsible. This attitude is also held by many who recognise the more intense pressures people are under today, yet there is a view that people should be stoical and put up with the stresses for the sake of others. This difference between downshifters’ motives and some of the reactions of those around them reflects the most fundamental feature of the downshifting phenomenon, a change in personal values in which financial and material success is no lo nger the dominant motive.
Australia is a materially rich country, but there is considerable doubt about whether we are any richer in our relationships (Tanner 2003; Eckersley 2004). It has been known for centuries that money does not buy happiness. It has also been known that a fulfilled life depends on feeling that we have contributed to society and to family, and that paid work is an important way of doing so. The issue is not whether money is necessary or not; clearly adequate incomes are essential. The question posed by the Deferred Happiness Syndrome is how much we are willing to sacrifice to have more money. For downshifters the answer is ‘not very much’ while for deferrers the answer is ‘quite a lot’ and, in cases where families break up due to overwork, ‘almost everything’.
These observations are well worth reflecting about, I think. But Clive’s enthusiasm for his chosen true path to happiness leads him into some pretty dodgy intellectual thickets. His attempt to test this “deferred happiness syndrome” hypothesis involved commissioning Newspoll to conduct an opinion poll of 518 full-time workers aged 18 years and over, and asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:
Your work means you currently neglect your relationships with family and friends, but you plan to make up for it in later years.
I suppose it’s not quite as silly as asking people whether they agree with the statement “You deserve a pay rise” or “You pay too much tax“, but it isn’t far short. This is propaganda disguised as academic research. I only hope that Clive wasn’t wasting taxpayers’ money with this nonsense.
BTW In browsing for this post, I discovered that the first three chapters of Clive Hamilton’s recent book Growth Fetish are actually available to be read online here. They’re well worth reading, because they deal with his diagnosis of society’s ills (with which, as I said, I mostly agree), whereas his “nanny state” remedies mostly aren’t discussed until later chapters.
Nevertheless, there are precursors of Hamilton’s biases in the early chapters. This passage, for example, contains some excellent points but also some worrying assumptions:
For neoliberals, the enemy of freedom is collectivism and the power of the state. They argue that free markets and competition quite properly give power to individuals because only individuals can make choices about what is in their interests. The individual is not the citizen but the consumer, and for the consumer to be powerful everything must be brought into the realm of the market. Of course, ’empowering the consumer’ means entrenching inequality because the power of consumers is directly proportional to their incomes. Empowering the consumer provides the rationale for the commodification of everything, including education, the natural environment and government services. But in societies restructured on neoliberal principles, it is not really the consumers who are served by the shift in power. The shift in power serves those who acquire more power as the influence of government is pared back – the corporations and the financial markets. In fact, neoliberalism takes power from individuals because, whereas previously individuals had power in the market as well as power as citizens acting in the political process, now they have power only in the market. But the power of choice in the marketplace is no power at all. Indeed, as is shown in subsequent chapters, the individual becomes a victim of the forces of the market.
But I’m just as worried about surrendering autonomy to faceless bureaucrats as to mega-corporations, and only marginally less worried about trusting authoritarian-minded “communitarians”. I reckon the only safe guide to a Good Society is ad hoc, sceptical scientific centrism.
Sceptical scientific centrism doesn’t mean “sitting on the fence”. It does involve carefully evaluating how the fence is constructed and what crops are growing in the fields on either side of it, before deciding which one you want to be in and how to get there. It involves being deeply suspicious of all doctrinaire ideologies and those who espouse them; realising that threats to liberty, equality and fraternity can come from any direction; and accepting that liberty, equality and fraternity are themselves potentially conflicting values that can only result in a Good Society through a continual balancing exercise for which there is no magic formula. All you can do is doubt, analyse and discuss everything civilly, constructively and with mutual good will. Hence this blog. There might be times when urgency and/or lack of information compel us to take intuitive leaps of faith, but not often.