Saturday, 28 July 2018

Book review: The Mess We’re In, Bernard Keane (2018)

This book is written in basically three parts (with two smaller bits added on to ensure completeness and in the interests of transparency). The first part is a brief catalogue of the contemporary malaise that Donald Trump exemplifies. The second part is a longer, more detailed expression of the main reasons why we’re in the mess we’re in. Then there’s a short sidetrack taking us to some of the historical precedents for the anti-intellectualism that characterises much of the debate in the contemporary public sphere, especially on the right. Then there’s a list of what we need to do to fix the problem. The finale is a short summary of the author’s own position. I read the first part of this book impatiently but it wasn’t until about 25 percent of the way through that the word “inequality” first appeared (or so it seemed to me).

The next quarter of the book is the best part, in that it deals with the crisis in neoliberalism, and the way that this particular right-wing ideology tends toward instability and requires government intervention to repair it. Much of the book is written in a way that makes it often specific to Australia but this part is of global relevance. People in other countries are therefore able to take away a lot of good insights from this fascinating book. (It might surprise Americans, furthermore, that the right-wing populism that they see now engulfing their own country as well as Europe, has roots in Australia in the 1996 election to federal Parliament of Pauline Hanson on the Liberal Party ticket. Populism is very well-entrenched in Australia and journalist Royce Kurmelovs has written a book about it.)

We can only hope that the ALP, when it finally wins power in 2019, will take Keane’s book and use it as a legislative template, especially in terms of establishing a federal ICAC and implementing a Bill of Rights. I thought that the bits in the last section about recognition of Aboriginal Australians in the Constitution was a bit off-point, as was the bit about a UBI, which Keane does not support.

But the bits about the way that government has been hollowed out and taken over by professionals who produce policy, rather than relying on a strong grass-roots membership, is good to remember. Also salutary to read is the part about the decline in support for business and in the administration of government itself. More government transparency, more power to unions, and the establishment of more independent statutory authorities (and better funding of the ones we already have), are all good points to make.

On the historical bits, I thought that Keane made a good point about the anti-intellectualism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but this particular writer of the 18th century was not the only proponent of the cult of feeling that led to the emergence, in the final decade of the century, of Romanticism (with its irrational bias). Furthermore, most of the first- and second-generation Romantic poets were big readers of books of philosophy, science and current affairs, unlike Rousseau, who hated thinkers and politicians.

Coleridge and Cowper were arguably just as influential in Britain, as Rousseau. The Victorians who succeeded the Romantics in the period following this, which saw the emergence of Modernism and the writing of the works of Karl Marx (both in the 1850s), were also big on learning. The terms “Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” that we use today with such wild abandon were invented in his period. A new emphasis on history had arrived with the antiquarian fad that people at the time pursued energetically (going back to the future), and in fact this led to the founding of the world’s first art movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Very serious young men and women joined it. The big changes however that you see in this period are the major political reforms that expanded the franchise and removed restrictions on the lives of religious minorities, both of which were good for freedom.

Rousseau was probably not representative of his type. But he was such an oddball so it’s not saying much that is particularly original to deny Keane full points in this regard. I think Keane’s drawing a bit of a long bow on this particular point but he deserves credit for having a go.

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