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It was good to hear John Ralston Saul speaking for the Evatt Foundation on ABC television recently. Here was an eloquent denunciation of economic rationalism as the guiding policy framework of globalisation. His metaphors were often compelling, and his fears for democracy chilling. Globalisation and its policies of deregulation have removed national sovereignty over matters of vital importance. Quite apart from the deformed ways in which economic development itself might now proceed, globalisation in its economic rationalist mode has assumed a passive citizenship. Government has increasingly become an exercise of technical adjustment.

This is dangerous for democracy -- indeed it is its antithesis. Yet the situation is even worse than this, for according to Ralston Saul, we and even `they', are coming to know that deregulation and the assumptions it makes about markets are a lie. The system is out of control. But what is increasingly an empty ideological structure keeps propelling us forward. In an amusing string of beach metaphors designed for his Sydney audience, this was the empty structure of the momentum of the wave well after it has broken. It's the period when no one, not even the big boys, have any answers anymore.

Ralston Saul saw some tentative moves on the international front towards regulation and the kind of crowd he attracted at this function as a sign that politics may be beginning again. And who can deny that economic rationalism has spawned some opposition in the western world in recent years. Yet there were moments of deja vu for this television viewer. How different is Ralston Saul's message for a post economic rationalist future? Does it really address the key issues for life and work thrown up by -- reconstituted by -- the processes we call globalisation?

Ralston Saul's audience was overwhelmingly middle-aged, middle-class and intellectually trained. Liberals, radicals, welfarists -- many of the old warhorses of the '70s. Their commitment to `the common weal', palpable and no doubt genuine, was confirmed by clapping and cheers when Ralston Saul suggested that we need to pay more tax, not less. Redistribution of the social product, through a reactivated practical democracy, seemed to be Ralston Saul's and his audience's way forward.

Ralston Saul's reference point was what he called `middle-class capitalism', which he described as a diamond-shaped society: a small number of very wealthy people at the top, a vast `middle class', and again, a very small number of very poor at the bottom. This was contrasted with what is coming, the return of the pyramid: a small number of very wealthy at the top, with a rapid expansion of the mass of people into relative poverty, with large numbers of very poor. In keeping with this were Ralston Saul's many references to the ignorance of those who believe markets don't need to be controlled -- as the `history of all the civilisations' make clear -- and to `greed', a common, left understanding of the motivation of capitalists and characterisation of the core problem of capitalism. Restraint, thus, is required for policies of the common weal, but in any case it is a requirement for any adequately functioning society.

If only it were merely greed and arrogance we had, at core, to face in conditions of globalised commodity culture. Ralston Saul said nothing in his speech about the new dimensions of our humanity created in the postmodern world. For example, in hi-tech commodity and media culture, ethical projects of restraint or regulation come up against the deeply embedded real structures (and their powerful unconscious affects) of a new kind of subjectivity. Restraint as attitude and element of self-identity, had a deep cultural resonance in past historical eras, in fusion as it was with certain forms of communal life, work practice and experience of the body. For example, cultures tied more closely to place than is typical of media society were constrained by the practical realities and symbolic potentials of tangible geography and nature. In the case of the reproductive life of women, birth was hardly the radically open-ended set of possibilities we experience today. The body is an open horizon indeed for the bio-tech corporations which are at the cutting edge of postmodern capitalism. Restraint was in certain respects constitutive of earlier forms of life, well into modernity, and in turn was an ethical capacity facilitated by them.

We have to know more about the new deep social structures, and their transformations in identity, before exhortations to give or share, or to democratic negotiation, can be sure to secure a different future from the one presently projected. Neither of the examples given above are ones that suit distributionist or stakeholder notions of democracy at all.

Ralston Saul's contrast of the diamond and pyramid and their juxtaposition with arguments for more and better education, as well as critiques of the demise of the caring state and calls for more tax, were very telling. Perhaps it is imputing too much to the audience, but I would imagine that a return to some kind of welfare state was foremost in the minds of many. But what this would do about the pyramid, I do not know. Like the argument put for a guaranteed minimum income as a new way forward today, fewer people might be absolutely poor, but the pyramid would surely remain. The so-called diamond shape of `middle-class capitalism' had something to do with the availability of work and a particular form of capitalist society. Industrial capitalism bore a basic relationship to the labour of the hand, and worked largely according to the equation: economic development equals increased employment. No doubt work was facilitated by the mediations of the modern welfare state, whether by Keynesian adjustments which flattened the booms and busts of the business cycle, or by the practical and ideological maintenance via social security of a `reserve army of labour'. But these policy measures were undergirded by a system of social relations, and a particular relation to nature, which fixed the varieties of modern work within a certain sphere of necessity.

A solution that focuses on the common weal, with its connotations of the abstract welfare state and redistribution in the form of money payments, will not grasp the more important aspects of unemployment and poverty today: on the one hand, that large numbers of people are permanently denied a crucial form of social participation and meaning, and on the other, that work itself, including the various forms of women's labour, has lost its once dominant quality as a realm of ontological necessity -- and constraint -- for all.

Democracy is increasingly the catch cry of the Left, as is `citizenship'. Both are crucial elements in a practical critique of globalisation and economic rationalism. But neither have the quality of concepts or programs that take seriously, as a starting point for an exploration of the future, the new ways in which humanity and its conditions of existence are being concretely reformed. They do not seek to interpret reality, and tend as concepts to in fact take its dimensions for granted. The worry is that recycled versions of modern statist solutions, to problems defined as primarily distributive, are the limit of the democratic imagination at present, and that its `solutions' are likely to have little structural relevance to a reality whose nature escapes them.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Previous Article:MONEY TALKS.

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