Untying the Knot

It is possible to experience some of Australia’s greatest potential contributions to the world as also being some of its greatest hindrances to further development. How is this possible?

Since colonisation Australia has prided itself on upholding certain basic ideals in a more or less conscious way. Three of these ideals have taken a hold upon the psyche of this country with particular force.

The first is the notion of a ‘fair go’. This has its roots in the second ideal we will touch upon but grows out beyond it. It is the notion that everybody has a fair opportunity to make something of themselves and all that their life touches. It is rooted in fairness but emphasises the ‘go’ aspect – the making of something out of one’s own capacities out of a certain amount of freedom. A fair go means to have the necessary conditions by which one can create out of freedom; it is a space in which all things can grow; it is a space of new impulses, new ideas, new possibilities; it is, essentially, a cultural space.

One can picture British and other ‘settlers’ of this country seeking out such a cultural space in which they might be able to build their lives and their communities – indeed, the country as a whole – in freedom. The physical and cultural ‘crowding’ of Europe was replaced by the perceived spaciousness of Australia (though the country has, in fact, been culturally ‘full’ for more than 40,000 years).

This ‘fair go-ness’ is essentially a cultural space whose guiding light – whose guiding star – is freedom. We can picture it as one strand of a three-strand rope that represents the fundamental social striving and contributions of this country.

The second ideal – the second strand – to this rope is all that makes possible the first ideal. It is the fairness aspect of the fair go brought to full fruition – it is what we can here call ‘egalitarianism’; it is, essentially, equality across the board. Everyone is equal – there are none higher nor lower. This is an ideal, of course, but one that plays itself out in the life of this country in interesting ways, as we shall see.

Egalitarianism is a fundamentally valid ideal that Australia has attempted to embrace from its earliest colonial days, and has since exported around the world in various forms. One can picture ‘settlers’ – convicts even – wishing to leave behind them all the old, ‘stuffy’ class structures of Europe – leave behind all the royalty and nobility and all the designated names given to the many layers of privilege and favouritism that existed in ‘the old country’. A fresh start was sought on equal footing with fellow human beings. This would create the soil necessary for the cultural striving and opportunities mentioned already, but it would also take on its own life as an ideal.

Egalitarianism means, in a way, no bending of the knee to those who should, essentially, have just the same rights as oneself. Class privilege, particularly in the eyes of the law, becomes class equality: one class, especially when it comes to laws and rights. This is the real wellspring that the ideal of egalitarianism springs from – an equality of rights for all human beings; a life of rights that places no-one higher than any other.

This is, again, a conscious-or-otherwise ideal, taken up in all sorts of surprising ways, some of which we shall touch upon in a moment.

Egalitarianism, together with a fair go, make up two of the three-strand rope of the social idealism Australia has adopted over the last couple of centuries.

The third aspect – the third strand – is also one that the rest of the world may recognise in particular ways. It is all that which we can term ‘mateship’ – all that which can be experienced in consciously observing and meeting the needs of our fellow human beings. And what social activity, more than any other, essentially expresses this fundamental meeting of one another’s needs? It is none other than economic activity. It may be surprising to consider mateship in terms of economic life but, none-the-less, this is the social sphere in which mateship (or its shadow) can be truly experienced. This is perhaps the most unconscious relationship of the three strands of Australia’s rope of idealism – the relationship between economic life and mateship – for we tend to uphold mateship in other fields which we shall explore in a moment. Nevertheless, mateship, as it fundamentally relates to social life, can be best seen if we turn our gaze to the essentials of economic activity, even if Australians have yet to take it up in such a way.

Egalitarianism’s relationship to the life of rights is slightly more conscious than that of the relationship of mateship to economy; a fair go’s relationship to freedom even more so. These are the three, let us say, pure strands of Australia’s idealism which, if given true expression, could bring Australia – and the world with it – to a whole new level of social striving. What we see in reality, however, is a kind of tangling of these threads – these strands – resulting in a somewhat knotted condition.

What we observe taking place in reality is nothing other than a mixing up of these three ideals and the social realm which they – in actual fact – essentially relate to; or otherwise we see their shadow aspect play itself out, albeit within the appropriate domain.

In looking at the ideal of egalitarianism, for example, we can observe that, in Australia, rather than restricting itself to its pure social domain – to the realm of rights and polity – we see it manifest in strange ways in both cultural and economic life. In cultural life, egalitarianism expresses itself in a most bizarre and, ultimately, detrimental form; it manifests in all that we designate, in this country, as the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In this picture all ‘poppies’ that grow higher than the rest must be cut down – there is no room for individuals to grow above the crowd. If they do so they are cut down either through scorn, ridicule or a kind of disowning. A number of Australian artists and intellectuals, for example, have experienced such a cutting down as this in various ways and at various times (especially through the media). Many such individuals have had to call themselves home in other countries where such a cultural levelling is not as present, though many have also endured such a situation here in Australia. Essentially and most tragically, however, this situation is something all Australians have to endure (and ultimately transform) in their own social striving, as well as in their own inner life. Those who currently sidestep the issue seem to be those able to keep their ‘heads down’ – to remain humble, somewhat mediocre and ‘equal’ with the rest, even in the midst of their often-global cultural contributions.

Strangely, Australians don’t seem to employ the tall poppy rule to such an extent, if at all, when it comes to economic life. The wealthy of this country apparently need to be somewhat eccentric and above the fray – far enough away from us to not be truly ‘real’, yet at the same time serve as a kind of guiding example when it comes to economic matters. We can think of Alan Bond, signwriter turned billionaire who brought the America’s Cup to Australia, as well as defrauded investors in his company out of billions of dollars; Rupert Murdoch, global media magnate; the late Kerry Packer, Australia’s domestic version of Murdoch; Gina Rinehart, the family-feuding heiress of Lang Hancock’s Iron Ore fortune, now the world’s richest woman; Clive Palmer, now Clive Palmer MP (Member of Parliament), coal magnate and builder of a replica of the ill-fated Titanic; and so on.

In reality, therefore, egalitarianism actually expresses itself in an out-of-place way in cultural life – we can go so far, but only if we stay as low – as equal as – the rest of the poppies; while in economic life egalitarianism gives way to a misplaced fair go – the taller and more outlandish the poppy the better – ‘maybe we’d all get there if we just worked a little harder’. (A remedying of the consequences of such economic competition are then attempted through government-run ‘social’ programs such as welfare, Medicare etc.) While in the life of rights, where egalitarianism seeks its true home, economic (and to a less extent, cultural) privilege and class seems to play just as big a role as ever; we need only witness the great many laws and regulations bent (and broken) towards business in this country.

A fair go, as we have already observed, manifests mostly, therefore, in economic rather than cultural life. Business has relative freedom in this country to do as it sees fit. Businessmen and women are encouraged to grow out beyond the poppy patch. Economic life is a place of relative freedom and absolute competition (rather than mateship or co-operation). We are continually fighting one another to get ahead – we crush other poppies underfoot left and right, as well as the natural environment that supports us. In the life of rights there exists more freedom for those with privilege than for others. While in cultural life, the true home of the fair go, freedom is everywhere curtailed – there is little to no cultural fair go in Australia. Not only does the tall poppy syndrome self-restrict cultural life in the ways mentioned above, cultural subjugation expresses itself also in over-regulation by government when it comes to all aspects rightly belonging to cultural activity – including education, academia, agriculture, food, the sciences, arts and so on (in ways often linked to funding). No aspect is more alarming, however, than education, where teachers – the people who actually experience what is necessary for each class and its individual students – are unable to decide upon their own curriculum and teaching methodology. They are unfree to do so – they do not have a fair go. Rather, the state enforces egalitarianism – equality – beyond its rightful sphere through the setting of curriculum, testing activity, and the tying of unfree funding to certain outcomes and regulations. The tragic result is loss of cultural freedom and space, leading to a lack of new thoughts and ideas which could, in turn, benefit not only cultural life but also economic life and the life of rights.

Finally, mateship, rather than being observed in economic affairs, is primarily upheld in cultural life. It connects also with the tall poppy syndrome here. We are friends with those on the same level, but only those. In political/rights life, however, mateship appears as its own shadow where, rather than including everyone, includes only those who can benefit one’s own position – and perhaps one or two others on the same ‘level’. Mateship, as it currently exists in economic affairs, is generally a disguised selfishness that uses others to achieve one’s own goals – it is everywhere competitive rather than co-operative. Consumers, producers and distributors do not in general consider one another ‘mates’, and have not as yet created sufficiently large-scale forms to co-ordinate such relationships. Rather, a feeling of distrust prevails through the competitive market form, employing a kind of mateship that, again, is only practiced in as much as it advances one’s own position.

This anti-mateship situation flows over from economic life to political life also – political favours are done for business mates – as well as into cultural life, where ideas and thoughts, rather than unfolding in freedom, and therefore originality, are tied to the purse strings of funding ‘mates’.

The combined total of all this confusion about the right relationship of culture, freedom and a fair go; as well as rights/polity, equality and egalitarianism; together with economics, mateship and co-operation results in the tangled mess we currently see unfolding on the macro level of this country today.

We have arbitrarily set up our own social dynamics above a social reality that exists just below the surface, waiting for us to make it; there is an Australia just below the surface waiting for us to bring it into being, to call it up, to – in the world conception of the indigenous people of this country – ‘sing’ it up.

Rather than a tangled knot of misplaced social idealism which we have managed to tie around our own necks (through tangled, tied-up thinking activity), there exists also an Australia that brings to a kind of fruition the drawing out of the three ideal strands of social life, so that they may begin to weave around one another in healthy ways, forming, as they do so, a rope woven from the fabric of ideal lawfulness rather than arbitrariness – a rope which has the ideal or spiritual strength to lift up not only Australia and all who call this place home but, in providing such an example of truly practical idealism, the rest of the world with it. The whole of Australia, in truth, waits for such a rope, for such a lifting up – as does the rest of the world.

Australia’s global contribution lies not in a public, knotted self-hanging but, rather, in a selfless lifting up of all the ideal possibilities of the world as they reveal themselves to the eyes in us open enough to see them.


John Stubley

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