Interview: The New Democrat
Bad Boss: The Ugly Australian
Unions: Free Spirits and Slaves
Industrial: National Focus
History: A Class Act
International: Across the Ditch
Economics: Home Truths
Review: No Time Like Tomorrow
Poetry: Silent Note
The Locker Room
Last Year’s Model
The Pursuit of Happiness Part I
Until recently, there has never been a time in human history when each of us could hope to live a truly fulfilling life. From the earliest days, the hopes of ordinary men and women were severely constrained by their cultural and material circumstances. For ordinary people the binding constraint was economic and the most they could reasonably hope for was to achieve a modest but secure existence in the company of their families. For almost all, cultural and social limits imposed at birth were also binding; one's life course was conditioned by one's class, gender and race.
There were two dreams of liberation. Religious ecstasy in another life seemed attainable for everyone. Political authority was comfortable with the opium of the masses. The second dream, a society of equals, was much more threatening. Socialism promised prosperity in a classless society; by means of revolution it would abolish both the material and the social constraints on the full realisation of ordinary men and women.
In the end, it was not socialism that broke down the barriers of poverty and class, it was capitalism itself. In recent decades, in the rich countries of the world, the forces that held in check the hopes of the masses have for the most part fallen away. Despite pervasive money-hunger, most people in rich countries live lives of abundance in conditions that their grandparents would have regarded as luxurious. In the post-War decades, not only did incomes treble but mass education saw class barriers crumble.
And the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies tore down the oppressive structures that confined the aspirations of women and minorities. The sexual revolution freed us from our Victorian inhibitions; the women's movement freed women from role stereotyping; gay liberation allowed free expression of sexual preference; and the civil rights movement eliminated institutionalized racism.
The rejection of traditional standards, expectations and stereotypes was a manifestation of the deeper human longing for self-determination. Democracy, combined with the arrival of widespread material abundance in the West, for the first time provided the opportunity for the mass of ordinary people to pursue self-realisation. The political demand for democracy of earlier generations became a personal demand for freedom to find one's own path, to 'write one's own biography'. The constraints of socially imposed roles have
weakened, oppression based on gender and race became untenable, and the daily struggle for survival has for most people disappeared.
The democratic impulse - which until the seventies took the form of collective struggles to be free of political and social oppression - has segued into something else, a search for authentic identity, for self-actualization, for the achievement of true individuality. At last, here was the opportunity for people to aspire to something beyond material security and freedom from political oppression.
But it was not to be. Before we had an opportunity to reflect on our new-found freedom, and to answer the question 'How should I live?', the marketers arrived with their own answer to the quest for true identity. Over the last two or three decades, the agents of the
marketing society have seized on the primal search for authentic identity to sell more gym shoes, cars, mobile phones and home furnishings. And what happened at the level of the individual translated into society's preoccupation with economic growth, an autistic behavioural pattern reinforced daily by the platitudes of the commentators and the politicians.
Today, most people in rich countries seek proxy identities in the form of commodity consumption, consumer capitalism's answer to the search for meaning. The hope for a meaningful life has been diverted into the desire for higher incomes and more consumption. Why do we succumb? We continue to pursue more wealth and consume at ever-higher levels because we are afraid of the alternative. The yearning that we feel for an authentic sense of self is pursued by way of substitute gratifications, external rewards and especially money and material consumption. That attaining these goals can never satisfy our yearning leads us only to set higher goals - more money, a bigger house, another promotion. As Marilyn Manson declared: 'Keep them afraid and they will consume. Fear and consumption.'
As the values and conventions of the past were undermined by the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies, the values of the marketplace spread in their stead. The counter-culture tore down the social structures of conservatism that, for all their stultifying oppressiveness, held the market in check. Now many of the cultural leaders of the protest generation work for advertising agencies and major corporations for the benefit of capital. There is even a name for them - bobos, or bourgeois bohemians. The women's movement sought liberation but settled for equality. Gender equality has meant, above all, unfettered opportunity for women to create themselves in the images invented for them by the marketers. Whether a woman is a dutiful housewife or a kick-arse a careerist is a matter of indifference to the marketers, as long as she continues to spend.
The demands of the baby boomers for freedom in private life, for freedom from the fetters of social convention, and for freedom of sexual expression were noble in themselves, but it is now evident that demolition of the social customs and moral rules did not create a society of free individuals. Instead, it created an opportunity for the marketers to substitute material consumption and manufactured lifestyles for the ties of social tradition. In the face of revolutionary changes in social attitudes in the West, consumer capitalism has remained unruffled. Indeed, each new social revolution has provided an opportunity for it to rejuvenate itself.
The economics profession has a lot to answer for. It has provided the intellectual cover for the penetration of market values into areas of social and personal life where they do not belong. When market values rule calculation drives out trust, self-centeredness displaces mutuality, superficiality prevails over depth and our relationships with others are conditioned by external reward and, above all, by money. In a world of ruthless competition where market values prevail, playing fair seems naïve. When a cricketer walks or a mountaineer sacrifices the summit to help another, our admiration betrays our despair at the usual state we have descended to. Let's consider some examples of how market values and the spread of economic thinking has corrupted much that is decent in us.
One of the earliest and most aggressive exponents of this economic imperialism was Gary Becker, the Chicago economist par excellence, who in an article published in one of the profession's most prestigious journals applied the principles of microeconomics and consumer behaviour to what he called the market for marriage. Becker defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments. In other words, people marry in order more efficiently to produce 'household commodities', including 'the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status'. The rational person will base any marriage decision on quantifiable costs and benefits. The gain from marriage has to be balanced against the losses - including legal fees and the costs of searching for a mate - to determine whether marriage is worthwhile.
Becker went on to analyse the effect of 'love and caring' on the nature of the 'equilibrium in the marriage market'. To do so he defined love as 'a non-marketable household commodity', noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of 'policing' the marriage. Policing, of course, is needed 'in any partnership or corporation' because it 'reduces the probability that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium in the marriage market'. There's no need to put a padlock on the fridge if your partner loves you. After pages of differential calculus, Becker reaches a triumphant conclusion: since love produces more efficient marriages, 'love and caring between two persons
increase their chances of being married to each other'.
What Becker's wife thought about this analysis is not recorded, but in 1992 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was sufficiently impressed to award him the Nobel Prize for Economics for this and related
We gasp, but are not pre- nuptial agreements a reflection of the economic approach to marriage? Has not the decision to become a parent for many young men and women become a 'lifestyle' choice': what's it o be, a baby or a beamer? Have not the economists and the accountants managed to insinuate their ideas into the way we form and conduct our relationships? If Gary Becker's barmy ideas infected only the thinking of
academic economists then we would not have too much to worry about. But, driven by growth fetishism, over the last twenty years the economic way of thinking has, like a virus, invaded public and private spheres where previously it was alien.
Let me give another illustration almost as disturbing as Becker's analysis of marriage. In the early 1990s the chief economist at the World Bank was a man named Lawrence Summers. He was later appointed by President Clinton to be the Secretary of the Treasury. At the time the World Bank was taking an intense interest in global environmental problems and was proffering advice to developing countries. In a leaked internal memo, Summers argued that rich countries should ship their toxic wastes to poor countries, writing that 'the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable' and that 'under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted '.
How do we know this? Because in poor countries, Dr Summers wrote, the forgone wages from illness and early death are so much less than in rich countries. In other words, the life of an African is worth much less than the life of an American. It must be conceded that, economically speaking, Summers' logic is impeccable; it's just that we should not think about these things economically.
We marvel at Lawrence Summers' chutzpah, but what's the moral difference between dumping our toxic wastes in Africa and refusing, as the Howard Government has, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and reduce our greenhouse gases unless poor countries do likewise? In the lead-up to the Kyoto conference in 1997, small island states in the Pacific expressed their alarm at scientific projections indicating that several of them would be flooded by rising seas. The Australian Government's chief adviser on climate change told a conference in London that it might be more efficient to evacuate small island states subject to inundation rather than require industrialised countries like Australia to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The values of the market have colonized our universities too. In the 1850s Cardinal Newman affirmed that knowledge is capable of being its own reward, and wrote of the attributes of mind that arise from a liberal education as 'freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom'. Few would challenge this view in principle, yet all around us we see the idea undermined by the commercialisation of universities, the commodification of knowledge and the transformation of academics into industrial drones. The intrinsic rewards of knowledge are today belittled and ocked.
I received a letter from a student who, after gaining a TER or ENTER score of 98.9, decided to study Classical Greek at the University of Sydney. She wrote that through her studies she is exploring what it is to be human. But she has been told by friends and family that she is wasting her time, that while 'it's all very well to indulge in the humanities while [you are] young' sooner or later she will have to do something 'practical'. In other words, the purpose of a university education is to obtain the highest paid job one can. As more students than ever crowd onto our campuses, the reorientation of our universities to vocational and commercial demands promises to produce a nation of highly educated fools.
In a survey by the Australia Institute of academics in the social sciences, we were told repeatedly that university teachers feel compelled to make the ir courses more vocational, that is, more market-oriented. The changes have generally diluted their intellectual content. Nearly ninety per cent said their universities place greater value on courses that attract full fee-paying students than on other courses. The preference for money-spinning courses is at the expense of courses of a critical or speculative nature, that is, those that contribute more to social and cultural values. Many said that, increasingly, the ability to pay is more important than the ability to pass. Wrote one:
... the universities are no longer communities of scholars but institutions which are aiming to satisfy rather undefined and unexplored market needs. This will inevitably constrain freedom of inquiry often in non-transparent and non-coercive ways.
The spread of cheating and plagiarism is entirely consistent with the instrumentalist approach to education of the new enterprise university promoted by the economic rationalists. Perhaps the universities should be honest about it and discard noble mottos such as 'First, to learn the nature of things' (ANU), 'Although the constellations change the mind is constant' (University of Sydney) and, 'Seek wisdom' (UWA), and replace them with Shakespeare's observation in Timon of Athens: 'The learned pate ducks to the golden fool'.
Some academics have resisted and for their troubles have been accused by Alan Gilbert, the campaigning former Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, of being Luddites. If, in the face of rapid change, academics are behaving like 18th century handloom weavers, it is because the managers of the enterprise universities are behaving like Lancashire mill owners.
The values of the market are transforming not just our minds but our physical bodies too. Huge industries are devoted to changing our shapes, our visages and our life-spans, all in pursuit of the notion of happiness that the market has given us. In the USA, in what is described as 'the latest vanity craze sweeping the nation', Botox parties provide a congenial environment at which the guests drink champagne and take it in turns to have Botox injections to paralyze facial muscles. Botox is described as 'the wrinkle-free fountain of youth'.
But this is child's play compared to the plot of a new US television program called Extreme Makeovers, which has now made the inevitable journey across the Pacific
Seven thousand people applied to win the chance to have their physiognomy remade. While millions watch, the renovation is carried out by an 'extreme team' of plastic surgeons, dentists, personal trainers, and hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists. One of the 8 winners, Melissa, had a nose job, breast implants, brow lift, tummy tuck, ears pinned and Lasik surgery. She had her teeth whitened and straightened too. The other winner, David, a 38-year-old member of the National Guard who believed his appearance has barred him from promotion, had a nose job, chin augmentation, neck lift, brow lift, upper and lower-eye lifts, teeth whitening and porcelain veneers.
The millions who watched thought 'Wow, why not?' The tragic answer, of course, is that these extreme measures don't work. An Australian study has found that women who have had cosmetic surgery are also more likely to have chronic illnesses and use medication for anxiety and sleep disorders. A Swedish study found that women with cosmetic breast implants are three times more likely than the general population to commit suicide. It's not clear whether the psychological disorders lead people to cosmetic surgery or whether cosmetic surgery brings on psychological disorders, although the Swedish researchers refer to 'the well-documented link between psychiatric disorders and a desire for cosmetic surgery'. Cosmetic surgeons are sometimes described as psychiatrists with knives.
The chances are that those who seek radical transformation of their bodies developed the basic yearning as children. Childhood, of course, has become a marketing free- fire zone, and the lounge room is the kindergarten of consumerism. We all know of the extraordinary pressures placed on children to consume; what is less understood is how the thick fog of commercial messages in which children now grow up conditions their understanding of the world and themselves.
While teenagers with pocket money were once the target, marketers are increasingly targeting tweens, children aged 8-14, not because they buy many of the goods marketed to them but because they hope to build life-long brand loyalty that will pay off for decades. According to the recently published and definitive marketing manual titled BrandChild :
...car companies, airlines, hotels and financial services are competing with traditional kid marketers to establish a relationship with young consumers. Intially targeted at teens, research and marketing programs are now seeking to understand and develop a relationship with younger consumers in the hope that their predisposition towards their brand will sway their purchasing decisions in the years to come. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of advertising messages targeted at tweens ...
Brands have become an inseparable part of children's maturing consciousness. Nearly half of the world's urban tweens state that the clothes and brands they wear describe who they are and define their social status. The manual notes that tweens are exposed to more than 8,000 brands a day and that tweens influence close to 60 per cent of all brand decisions taken by their parents.
What has become clear is that more and more tweens define their worth, their role in the social hierarchy, their popularity, and their success by the brands they wear, eat and live with. ... functionality takes a back seat to the belief that along with ownership of a brand comes success and admiration. ... [T]ween tribes ... have become active advocates for the brand.
The dramatic change in the role of brands has been part of the advertising agencies' long-term goals. It was initially the advertisers who envisioned turning brand into a form of religion, to increase their sales. And it has worked.
Most children want to transcend the limitations of lifestyles manufactured by brands and available to everyone. They want to achieve the new pinnacle of social success - celebrity. Children do not see fame as the reward for achievement but simply as a state in itself. And with the proliferation of celebrities whose fame owes nothing to any talent or achievement, this is an accurate judgement. The worldwide survey of tweens for BRANDChild found that more than half say they want to be famous, with Indian children (90%) and American (61%) children topping the list (and with Japanese kids at the bottom (28%)). In Australia, when a talent hunt for Popstars was launched more than 120,000 young people put their names forward.
Celebrity is a magic potion to be taken as an antidote to the affliction most feared by tweens, rejection and social isolation. To attain acceptance they will go to extreme lengths. A 1999 survey of tween and teenage girls found that 46 per cent say they are unhappy with their bodies and 35 per cent say they would consider plastic surgery.
Being sexy is being cool and that's why even pre-pubescent girls are being sexualised. A year or so ago the Olsen twins visited Australia promoting their brands of lingerie, including padded bras, to their 6-12 year old fans. If adults sexually attracted to children are called pedophiles, what do we call adults who set ou to make children sexually attractive? Advertising executives.
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