Values & principles: Where do we go from here?


The glaring omission in John Menadue's overview of themes and values for this discussion is any reference to civil society, that sphere of interactions and relationships in society that takes place outside the realm of the state and the public sector, and outside the transactions of the private sector.

The failure of both Left and Right to grasp the concept of civil society is arguably the central failing of both these traditions, and the reason for their circular ponderings on the 'where do we go from here?' theme. Neither tradition really knows what to say about families, neighbourhoods, voluntary interactions and associations, and social capital, and how the world of government and public policy sits in relation to these. After all, their working ideologies were framed in the century and a half contest between market and state – the Right worked to increase the role of the market, the Left worked to increase the role of the state. Together, Left and Right supervised the uninterrupted expansion of both market and state for four generations.

And as market and state grew, the space available for civil society contracted and the value of its activity plummeted. Its output of community, self-help, mutual aid and social trust fell away. With the output of trust spiralling downwards, cynicism and detachment have spiralled upwards.

For all its talk of collective spirit and social responsibility, the Left remains blind to the interactions and relationships that create genuine community. Its faith in government intervention and state provision in fields like indigenous affairs and community services has led to a profound inability to comprehend phenomena of passive welfare, communal powerlessness, and the loss of personal and mutual responsibility even when these symptoms lie all around them in disadvantaged communities. It continues to think that government-sponsored community building schemes can actually build communities, in defiance of all the available evidence which shows that no community has ever been built by bureaucratic scheming.

For its part, the Right remains blind to the phenomenon of private action in the cause of the public good, in defiance of its own instincts. Having colluded with professional and business interests to kill off mutual initiatives in civil society over the last century, it is now casting around for a social language with which to reconnect with the non-business world. And it is floundering in the process.

Two examples from the field of health care might serve to illustrate the predicament we've inherited from the exhaustion of both these traditions.

In the 1920s, coal mining communities in the Latrobe Valley pooled their resources and initiative and established the Yallourn Hospital and Medical Society, a health mutual based on a business strategy of membership subscriptions and contracted capitation-based arrangements with medical and pharmacy practitioners. Last December 2004, this practical expression of mutuality and self-help was disbanded by the Commonwealth (its five profitable pharmacies were sold off, its financially sound health fund transferred to another insurer, and its clinics invited to disband.)

This death of mutuality in the Valley passed unremarked by both Left and Right. For the Left this kind of practical community-based, localised enterprise doesn't rate as significant (an initiative has to be undertaken in the public sector for it to be recognised as 'significant'). For the Right, this kind of enterprise is also insignificant (a business has to be undertaken in an investor-owned, for-profit format to be recognized by the Right).

In Altona, on the other side of Port Phillip Bay, the community also established its own hospital in the 1920s through mutual effort by health consumers and private not-for-profit financing. In 1960, this community hospital was absorbed into the public health department, part of the big-is-beautiful, bureaucracy-is-good-for-you spirit of the times. In 1996, the Kennett Government closed down the hospital with its eye on real estate development profits from the site, even as some lowly health department official in Altona was surveying locals about their future health care needs. This particular act of vandalism was, however, stopped in its track by a community buy-out of the site in 1999 when the Hobsons Bay Co-operative purchased the site and building for health and community use.

The point about both these historical processes in real, actually-existing communities, is that neither Left nor Right had any conceptual tools with which to understand the dynamics at work or to link these dynamics with their preferred frameworks for envisaging a good society or how to work for it. More specifically, as both Left and Right flounder in the face of the critical need for health reform, neither could recognize in these processes elements of a solution to the present health reform conundrum: consumers and citizens can actually create mutual forms of social care and service provision without bureaucracy; they have before, and can again do it by employing self-help and participatory processes; they can devise financing mechanisms that are egalitarian and yet enable complex business activity which harness market mechanisms without being defined by them; and they have, and can again, do this in places like the Latrobe Valley and Altona, places which are far removed from the great and the good, the elites, the sophisticated, and the self-important.

Where do we go from here? We go back to where we have come from, and re-examine the dynamics that came to shape us historically, so that we can rework our assumptions about state and society, enterprise and business, personal and social responsibility, and reconfigure some of these elements with the benefit of historical insight.

This is a major challenge to the Right's pre-occupation with market relationships and the Left's pre-occupation with citizen-state relationships. Even for thoughtful social democrats like John Menadue, this will remain a sharp challenge since the centrality of citizen-state relationships (as distinct from civil society relationships) is very deeply entrenched in the social imagination of the social democrat. It must, nevertheless, be challenged if we are to rediscover civil society and renovate politics to make room for it.

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