Well, what a week it’s been – riots in London, the USA losing its AAA rating, financial crisis in the Eurozone and our own share market taking another plunge and then recovering. What has gone wrong with our modern democratic capitalist societies?
To begin with, I suppose, one of the downsides of democracies is that it is almost impossible to make difficult decisions before considerable pain is being suffered. (In that respect they are little different from business enterprises!) So many of the at risk economies would seem to have benefitted by spending less and taxing more in order to keep their debt situations under control. Spending less and taxing more is hardly a strategy for being reelected. One only has to reflect on the resentment the Greek population has displayed as its government has embarked on essential austerity measures. (Similar displays have been reported from the UK, France and Italy of course.)
Some commentators have also pointed to the large welfare sectors in these economically and socially troubled nations. Not only does this impose a huge economic burden but it seems to be contributing to the social malaise as well. Noel Pearson has cogently argued that welfare is destroying our indigenous people leaving them without hope and aspiration having become dependant on welfare. I am sure there are parallel impacts on any body of people who have come to depend on welfare and don’t aspire to make any meaningful contribution to the economy and then often end up being disruptive to the social order.
Any civil society must provide for the basic needs of its disadvantaged and indeed there are many areas where I believe we could be more. And I am reluctant to criticise those on welfare coming from my privileged position. But it is an anathema that rather than being the safety net, welfare has become the goal for so many.
I spent quite a number of years working with the Beacon Foundation helping to solve the issues of youth unemployment and was surprised at how many young people, even here in Australia, came from families with two or more generations of unemployment. This has long-lasting impacts that affect their lives in many ways. For example I was also surprised how many couldn’t use basic cutlery because they’d never sat at a table to have a meal.
But people lose more than an income by not having work. For many of us work meets some of our important needs. Work is often an important contributor to the self-concept. When you are introduced to someone new at a party or whatever, inevitably the question is asked, “What do you do?”
But more than that, as the good Dr Phil and I pointed out in our little book “The Myth of Nine to Five” humans have three general sets of needs.
The first set of needs is the physical needs, the needs we have in common with all living things. If we don’t supply our physical needs we die – physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive.
The second set of needs is the social needs, the needs we have in common with animals because, like animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to that world through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we don’t find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die- emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.
The third set of needs is the spiritual needs – needs for meaning and purpose, the uniquely human needs. We have these needs because, not only do we think and have an awareness of our social and physical world (just as animals do) but we also have a faculty that the eastern traditions call “The Witness” that gives us the capacity to ‘watch’ our own thinking and decision making processes at work.
Hence, we are self-aware and experience an inner psychological world as well as an outer material world. Because we can access and ‘look over’ our memory banks we are consciously aware of the passing of time and look for some continuity of purpose
in what we do day by day. In other words, we have a need to understand the ‘meaning’ of our lives. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and thereby fail to find meaning in our lives we can languish and die – spiritually (and sometimes socially and physically).
Fulfilment of our spiritual needs is necessary to a sense of personal worth. We must find meaning and purpose in our lives if we are to experience our full humanity. The meeting of these needs provides a sense of well-being that transcends the conditions of our immediate social and physical circumstances and thereby allows us to be better adjusted in our attitude towards such circumstances.
And here is the message to our societies. Many of the institutions to which we once turned to gain a sense of meaning and purpose, e.g. the Church or the family are declining in their influence. Therefore many people are seeking to have their spiritual needs met at work. A lot of people also have their social and intellectual needs met by going to work.
Unfortunately many have been indoctrinated with the belief that work is something you suffer whilst creating wealth for other people to gain the monetary wherewithal to meet your material needs.
Making a positive contribution to society by paid employment is self-affirming. It helps us meet our need for meaning and purpose. The attitude mentioned above operating in a social environment where welfare is easily accessed, has deprived many of a sense of meaning.
(I am not proposing that employment is the only way people gain a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Obviously many people lead rich lives outside of work and make major contributions to their communities through their involvement in schools, churches, service clubs, volunteer work etc. Others have hobbies and pastimes that are stimulating and engaging. But I would contend that paid employment is a major contributor to the sense of meaning for many, many people.)
Before the development of the modern economy it must have been obvious to any society, no matter how large or small, that that society could only consume what it produces. Now we have many states whose consumption is augmented by borrowing. In the end that is, of course, unsustainable. In subsistence economies it was only some of the very young and the very old who made no contribution to the family or the tribe.
Now we are faced in the developed countries with two extra burdens. We have many on welfare who could be making meaningful contributions and we have an aging population resulting in a diminishing proportion of the population being required to support these dependents.
Traditionally it has been the role of parents to instil a sense of appropriate values in our children. In an article I read the other day, Stuart Watton, a Scottish lecturer in sociology and criminology had this to say:
“Excessive state intervention and ‘support’ of communities has undermined local adults, who now assume the job of dealing with children is the responsibility of police and ‘experts’ who understand the correct procedures of dealing with children the correct procedures and behaviours when ‘mediating’ relationships with young people.” In this way they have abrogated many of their responsibilities in bringing up their children.
Consider also this quote from Toby O’Connor, CEO of St Laurence Community Services in a letter to the Weekend Australian just having returned from London:
“Our experience at St Laurence of addressing disadvantage makes one thing crystal clear: interventions that rely on doing things for communities fail to achieve independent and sustainable socially and inclusive behaviour.”
When you look at the behaviour of the London looters two things become obvious.
Firstly if your main economic sustenance comes from welfare where you do nothing to gain your sustenance, then looting can be seen as similar mechanism. (And of course there are many genuine recipients of welfare who would never stoop to this but for those socially disengaged there would seem little to differentiate those mechanisms to acquire material benefits.)
Secondly the perpetrators have no sense of community. They loot the stores and destroy the livelihoods of those in their own neighbourhood. There is obviously no empathy or commitment to those around them.
On top of this, or perhaps underpinning this, we are seeing here a major transition from a world where once Europe was dominant to a world where its influence is fading and that of the East is increasing. I suppose such major adjustment in the world order will always create some trauma.
Whilst Australia is not as badly touched by this social malaise as many of the European countries, with our more robust financial situation and lower unemployment rates we would be foolish to think that we should not be vigilant. (I recently saw an interesting statistic which purported that since the sixties spending by all tiers of government in Australia, as a proportion of GDP, had halved on capital works and doubled on welfare!)
And I wonder in this uncertain environment if the Australian government should be continuing to progress the National Broadband Network. If we are going to commit to large capital expenditures we would get better outcomes from investment in infrastructure like rail and ports to facilitate our mineral exports. And even more contentious, would it not be prudent at this time to delay the carbon tax which seems certain to be an impost on our economy for a miniscule impact on global warming? It seems to be time to hunker down and not add to the uncertainties our economy has to contend with.
Whilst like many of you about my age, I suppose I should be concerned about the financial situation, seeing as my wife and I are going to have to live off our superannuation and a few modest investments we have made; but I must confess I am far more concerned about the social disorder we are witnessing. To see such anarchy on the streets of Britain is quite alarming. This is the country from which we have inherited so many of our institutions including our systems of government and law. It would seem to me to be easier to recover our wealth than our loss of social and cultural capital. And personally I would be prepared to trade off a little wealth to live in an orderly, tolerant and humane society.
We should, I think, also be very concerned about the prospect that through misguided but well-intentioned government policies we could also face the destructive impacts of those who (probably through no fault of their own) have withdrawn from a meaningful role in our economy and who are estranged from their communities.