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Community development.

Three test umpires were having a beer after a test series had ended. The first one, born before the Second World War, said: `There are run-outs and stumpings and I call them as they are'. The second umpire, born in 1955, raised an eyebrow and said: `There are runouts and stumpings and I call them as I see them'. The third test umpire, in his first test series, was just twenty-eight years old. He smiled knowingly and said, `There are run-outs and stumpings but there ain't nothing, till I call them'. These three approaches typify styles and even epochs within community development.

The first umpire is of the old school that believes there is objective reality that can be accurately described and responded to. Hence the local government's simple task is to reconstruct and intensify community. The notion of reconstruction is an older one shared by those generations of Australians who came through the Depression and the Second World War and created the massive post-war reconstruction departments that built a Welfare State to protect Australians from want, hunger and war. They remembered the dark days of 1941 when the United States finally entered the war. The United States and Great Britain, along with Australia, were essentially the only capitalist countries left on the face of the earth and Britain was on the edge of a military defeat. Most of the rest of the world were fascist, communist or Third World feudal colonies. The financial crises of the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by war, had brought capitalism to the edge of extinction. They were a generation who believed strongly in rebuilding democratic capitalism and saw government as a buffer to markets. They believed that democratic institutions created good citizens. They saw the partnership between democracy and citizens as a moral one well before it was an economic contract. Citizens had obligations to one another. Democratic institutions provided a means of instilling and fulfilling such obligations simultaneously. Reconstructing government, citizenship and community to protect people from the vagaries of crash and boom markets was their great contribution. Curiously, when questioned as to what they think of their times, they will remark `we are the luckiest generation alive'. The reason is that this generation learnt in hardship and deprivation the values that really matter. In poverty they learnt to put off gratification and sup port their neighbours and families. Commitment, sacrifice and loyalty were necessary to survive in depression and war.

The second umpire represented a new generation born after 1945, know as `baby boomers'. They realised the blind spots of their parents' reconstructed world that had built an affluent, peaceful existence in Australia but had not included Koories, women, gays and lesbians, environmentalists and a number of other people or interest groups in their reconstructed world. They discovered the naivety of simply describing `what is there' and acknowledged their own subjectivism, and hence blindness, in all community building. They said, more realistically: `We can only call it as we see it'. Hence they pushed the boundaries of this reconstructed Welfare State by calling for affirmative action in employment for women. They argued for more diversity in politics, law and journalism by including others' experiences: migrants', women's or working-class perspectives. New, inclusive boundaries were pushed out strongly but still within the secure framework of a protected and regulated Australian economy. A paternalistic role for government in caring for its citizens and guarding the social fabric from an ever widening gulf between rich and poor was still their ideal. This generation eventually enjoyed free university education, free health and boundless opportunities because of low employment and low inflation through their student and working years, up until the 1970s. This baby boomer generation heard their parents speak of sacrifice and commitment, but the real lesson they learnt was that with the expansion of credit and hire purchase they could have everything--now. To postpone consumption was quite unnecessary. They were also the first generation to live under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. The prospect of nuclear war taught them that not only could they have everything now, but they had better have it all now. The arbitrary, volatile prospect of nuclear conflagration was one factor that led to this generation becoming the biggest consumers and worst savers history has known. To make them save, the government introduced compulsory superannuation. Sadly their ideals of peace and love were transmuted into `greed is good'.

The third test umpire represents the next generation of government, who philosophically believe `there ain't nothing out there' until they call it. This is the deconstructionist generation. They have lived with constant change in work patterns, family structures and even notions of the self. Their world has been deconstructing the Welfare State, industry protection, free university education, financial regulation and now the labour market. That there might be a given social or cultural reality or even some direct correspondence between the local government and a given reality seems almost inconceivable. They have watched the nation-state in capitalist democracies lose its power through the forces of globalisation that render governments powerless.

Similarly, an ideal of common-good where the rich cross-subsidised the poor has been deconstructed and replaced by user-pays. The Paxtons are a case in point. They suffered the most horrific abuse for turning down part-time intermittent jobs two thousands kilometres from home. In fact, the tourist employer who offered them these jobs has now gone broke. Indeed, anyone with the name Paxton in St Albans copped it from an irate public and had to change their phone numbers. However, there was no comparable outpouring of anger towards the political and business leaders who had taken the decision to collapse a manufacturing base in the western suburbs where the Paxtons lived, in the interest of globalising the economy. This left unemployment levels of 25 per cent amongst young people, and represented one of the most significant social failures in public policy in this nation. Where was the anger directed towards the political and business planners who took those decisions? The media largely ignored all these connections and revelled in sensational headlines. If you cannot pay your way, do not appeal to your rights as a citizen. Citizenship has been replaced by customership or consumers. Co-operation has been deconstructed and yielded to competition. Community is an illusion as we are now simply individuals competing with one another. Society has been deconstructed and we coexist and compete for resources in an economy. They have also witnessed citizens in capitalist democracies becoming increasingly unclear about the moral codes by which they ought to live. The moral code was once understood as a set of rules that define people's obligations to one another. Now, as Alan Wolfe says in his book Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation, the only moral code is `my obligation to you is to do whatever is best for me'. The privatisation of government functions has been extended to the privatisation of morality.

The idea of `there ain't nothing until I call it or name it' accords totally with a consumer culture. Here we feast or pick, as the case may be, at the smorgasbord of world-views pluralistically spread before us. As a society of consumers we define choice, not as the freedom to choose one course of action over another, but as the freedom to choose everything at once. This is the `I want it all' mentality. Freedom of choice therefore means keeping your options open. However, in real life any choice inevitably rules out a whole series of other options. It is literally impossible to keep your options open and live a life of any ethical significance. This postmodern approach to choice in a pluralistic universe results in moral paralysis. In the end, no choices can be made, or at least no choices that really matter. Freedom is therefore trivialised into no more than market preference, and Premier Kennett's oft repeated defence of the casino and gambling industry--that they just offer people choice--is accepted without question. The fact that millions of dollars are spent by the gambling industry in its advertising arm to manufacture choice and manipulate freedom, seducing many to play at Crown Casino `the biggest game in town', is never acknowledged. Advertisers don't spend millions of dollars because it doesn't work, and the premier, as an ex-advertising man, knows that very well. In fact, gambling continues to constitute a massive transfer of money from the poorest in our community to government coffers and to the richest. This generation has as its keyword `options'. In a fast-changing world of work, family and information, to be committed is to be trapped and caught. Hence, keeping one's options open is a survival strategy. Flexibility and constant responsiveness--to move where the jobs are--makes marriage and family problematic.

But the desiring and acquiring self of postmodern cultural theory bears more than a casual resemblance to the unit of consumption at the centre of market economies and democratic societies. Choice becomes not the owning of responsibility but an escape from allowing oneself to be held accountable. It is often tellingly heard in the sullen voice that says, `It's my choice'. What sounds like the assumption of ultimate responsibility is usually the flourish of moral retreat. It is the refusal to discuss, explain and justify a decision. It is the retirement to self-indulgence. Neither community nor citizenship can be fashioned out of such an ethical framework.

This approach affirms that there is nothing until we call it, name it or choose it. It is ultimately naive because it has little historical or cultural understanding of the importance to the market of the oppositional forces of community and citizenship. It leads to an impoverished ethic of individualism expressed in an atomised existence.

It is in this climate that local government and community developers today must think about their trade. They should analyse Premier Kennett's `postmodernist' appropriation of such terms as `freedom' and `choice', and note how it fails to be intellectually consistent. In Beat Magazine, three days before the last State election, he offered young people the promise that he would legalise dope. To their parents he offered a law-and-order `agenda' represented by stiffer court sentencing surveys run through the Melbourne Herald Sun. Different generations are offered contradictory choices to the end of spectacular electoral success and popularity.

The community sector must reflect on its task within the global context of a changed political and social framework. We are certainly aware that the second way, communism, and what Europeans have called the third way, the social welfare state, have ceased to be viable alternatives. While the Welfare State did not collapse as communism did, it has essentially gone broke. Even in countries such as Sweden, where it has had its greatest support, it is in retreat. Survival-of-the-fittest capitalism stands alone. There is no alternative to market capitalism. In office, political parties on the Left (the French, the Spanish Socialists or the Australian ALP) adopt exactly the same policies as the parties on the Right (the British or German Conservatives). These are realities and givens. The poor are floundering in a social fabric that has lost notions of democracy and citizenship and obligations to one another. Local government has a duty to plant its feet and take a stand in a manner similar to the second umpire, aware of its subjective perceptions but owning its public responsibility to analyse and explain what is out there in reality.

Tim Costello is Minister at the Collins Street Baptist Church, Melbourne.
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Author:Costello, Tim
Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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