In Australia today, we lack hope. It is the missing ingredient for social change. There is no great love for our institutions of power or the ideas they espouse. The status quo reigns but only for want of a challenger. It reigns in weakness; battered, bruised and beaten. Most people no longer trust the concrete forms the status quo takes nor many of the ideas which inform it.

We are in the midst of an anti-political mood. Cynicism with politicians and traditional representative structures is growing. We can see it writ large on our Australian political discourse – Abbott is already treated as a joke by the general public after barely 9 months as Prime Minister. Only a fool would think this loss of trust is about Abbott and his government. It spreads beyond this government and into parliament, the political parties, business groups, religious bodies and the mass media (aside from the ABC). It is a crisis of trust which seeps into the organised left – trade unions, environmental groups and charities. The political right, left and the elite only have enough legitimacy to damage each other.

The dominant ideas of the dominant institutions are also losing power – for the third year in a row the Lowy Poll confirmed that 58% of 18 – 29 years don’t see our democracy as preferable to any other form of government – the two main reasons given for this statement being that there is no substantive difference between the major parties and that the current system only serves the interest of the few and not the many. The economic attitudes of the Australian population has remained stubbornly more left-wing than the dominant political consensus when it comes to the public ownership of assets, the distribution of wealth and the provision of universal services in areas like health and education.

We have a growing anger in our country – an anger that is founded on a sense of unease concerning rising inequality, rising insecurity and a sense of growing separation of the political class from the rest of the population. The ideas and ideology of the business community and their think tanks no longer have the same hegemonic hold on the Australian people – look at the reaction to Tony Abbott’s budget and his effort to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This, however, has not translated into automatic gains for the broader progressive movement in our country. To the extent that we have been identified with the status quo, we have suffered.

No progress can be made until we recognise exactly where we are. We are in the midst of a society-wide crisis of legitimacy born through a rise in corporate power and a corresponding shift of risk onto the working population and their communities. At the heart of this crisis is the death of the old deal – broadly, if uneven, prosperity would be guaranteed through rising personal debt levels sustained through continuing asset inflation. Our prosperity would continue as long as we shut up at work and in our communities. Now, through the federal budget, we are being told to shut up for their prosperity. The 1% need the State to take a more proactive space in ensuring their profits, and as such we should no longer have the same expectations around what social support and services the State can provide. This shift is the source of our anger as a country. This shift tells us that the previous certainties no longer hold.

The left nonetheless still clings to these old certainties even as we fall with them. To the extent, however, that we recognise this crisis we have a once in a generation opportunity to radically shift power towards the Australian citizenry.

Anger alone is not enough to achieve this shift. And just attempting to target this anger at the current federal government is even less sufficient. This is because anger at an existing state of affairs is really an anger about expectations, and expectations change. The thing about us humans is that we are eminently adaptable and can put up with almost any hardship. Like sediment at the bottom of a still body of water – expectations normally settle into an existing status quo. It’s called shifting baseline syndrome, and as George Monbiot wrote recently it means;

We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional, however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over generations we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.

Anger alone does not produce change. We need hope as well. It needs, however, to be a particular kind of hope. There is a conservative element to hope to the extent that it is synonymous with trust – a trust that everything will turn out fine. This form of hope is grounded in a trust that the present structures of society can resolve our public issues and ensure our welfare. To the extent that hope is a vague feeling that everything will work out for the best , it is a tool of inactivity and reaction. This form of hope does not produce change.

The decay of trust in existing Australian institutions of public life reflects the decay and death of this conservative form of hope. The death of this form of hope, however, is the necessary precursor to the birth of a new form of hope; a belief that things can be different. We need a hope that is centred on an expectation and desire for change.

Without a belief that things can be different, why bother taking action? We need to rebuild a new trust in our fellow citizens and confidence that we can act collectively to make things different. The necessary preconditions for this is a shared vision for alternative change and a strategy for getting there that people can have confidence in. We need a new shared vision and a new strategy. In my next post I will explore this more.

In Australia, we may be living through the long nights between the death of one form of hope and the birth of another but the days are getting longer.

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2 thoughts on “Hope is dead. Long live Hope.

  1. Godfrey, it is not clear how much the decline in trust in political institutions is matched by a wider “regime crisis” of other social institutions in Australia (c.f. somewhere like Spain). You quote a mid-2012 Essential poll on trust in institutions, but there have been two subsequent polls that show recovery of some institutions (see here: http://essentialvision.com.au/trust-in-institutions-3). It would be interesting to get these questions asked again (and I’ve just asked them!).

    This is an important point because anti-politics doesn’t automatically or necessarily lead in the direction of questioning the whole make-up of society or even the state per se. You can see this in the fact that the Monti and Papademos technocrat governments in Italy and Greece were more popular than the “representative” governments that preceded and followed them. Similarly, Belgium was run by public servants for over 500 days after a political deadlock and there were no riots in the streets.

    The difference in Spain is that there has been a powerful social movement reshaping things in a different direction. Interestingly, the movement emerged specifically from the crushing of hope: The betrayal by union leaders in doing a deal with Zapatero’s government over austerity. It was practical activity that created hope, not hope that created practical activity.

    1. Interesting points – just a few things to add:
      1. I thought that the 2011 start of this Essential poll series commenced at a relatively low base in what were still relatively unhappy times. In dropped through the floor in 2012 before a fairly limited bounce in some institutions – but like you Dr Tad, I’m interested to see where this is all rating at the moment.
      2. I agree with the difference being a powerful social movement – without one passivity reigns. That’s part of the point I’m attempting to make.
      3. It’s not like I’m suggesting there is a stage which is just called hope building where no practical activity is allowed. Actions can and should build hope, and where hope is raised more people will be involved in actions. There should be a virtuous cycle between the two. How I think hope can be built and the form of a new social movement will be the topic of my next post.

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