The Story of my Life Part 7: The art of the possible.

When I left New Zealand, early in 1971, I’d had very little exposure to radical politics.  My first brush with anything remotely ‘left-of-centre’ was at high school, where I’d participated in an abortive protest by sixth form students demanding the relaxation of hair length regulations, which resulted in the mass caning by the headmaster of everyone involved. 

Minor though this incident was, looking back I can see that this was a seminal moment in the development of my political thinking, for it taught me that opposition to institutional power entails costs and repercussions.  [The irony of this event was that, rather than ensuring conformity, it had the opposite effect, uniting parents in a formal complaint that forced the principal to relax the relevant regulations.  Another lesson learned.]

University in the late ‘60’s provided a crucible for unconventional thinking.  The focus of student politics at the time was the Vietnam war which – with the tide of public opinion turning against New Zealand’s continued involvement – provided a rationale for widespread opposition within the student body.

I was ‘on side’ with the anti-war movement for a number of reasons, not least of which was a close call with the draft.  Upon turning eighteen, I’d had to register for military service, and while I missed the next call-up by one day, several of my friends hadn’t been so lucky. 

Coupled with my mounting personal misgivings about the conflict, that was enough to nudge me into a stronger anti-war stance, although my opposition to the war was, for the most part, expressed in a passive kind of way.  I went to a couple of student demonstrations and moratorium marches, but mostly retreated to the sidelines when these threatened to turn nasty.

I went (once) to a meeting of the Socialist Alliance, whose members were vocal in their resistance to the conflict, but I didn’t stay long; there were too many people with cameras at the back of the room, and in the era of Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon, the line between paranoia and reasonable suspicion was pretty blurred.

When I decided to come to Australia, ostensibly for a holiday before commencing post-graduate study, things were markedly different to the subdued politics of my home country.  There was a palpable excitement in the air, a groundswell of interest in social progress; a kind of dynamism that felt almost revolutionary.  Whitlam was in the ascendancy and rising fast.

There was change coming, and (from the viewpoint of a ‘social progressive’), a change for the better.  The Australian anti-war movement was strong and broad-based, and despite the rhetoric from the incumbent federal leadership, there was a widespread public perception that “All the way with LBJ” was a recipe for disaster.  The moratorium marches in Sydney choked the city.  I decided to stay a bit longer.

The appalling images and revelations of the war that pervaded the media kept flooding in, and the longer this deluge went on, the more convinced I became that something was seriously wrong – not only with this particular conflict, but with the whole geo-political set-up that had taken us there.  I began asking myself – and sometimes others as well – some awkward questions: why were we, the so-called ‘Western powers’, involved in these remote conflicts – in Vietnam or Korea or anywhere else, for that matter, when our own economic and territorial interests were not threatened?  Whatever the political and economic forces at play, I reasoned they must be monumental to justify such massive and costly interventions.

I began looking into fundamental causes.  Who was really running the show?  What dynamic was driving all developing societies and cultures on a common, insatiable quest for more – more power, more resources, more money?  It was this last that led me to a dramatic re-evaluation of how things worked.

My academic background is certainly relevant to the story here; I’d started at Uni with a bent towards Veterinary Science, with a view to becoming a vet, but long evening sessions in the dissecting lab trying to decipher Latin taxonomies and dissecting the carcases of small animals caused me to rethink my options.  An interest in social and behavioural science, sparked by a couple of electives, led me to major in Sociology and Psychology.

My immediate inclination, therefore, was to examine the questions I was now asking from these perspectives.  And the more I did so, the more intrigued I became.  I came to the conclusion that there must be a common, megalithic force at work behind the scenes, driving not only the military actions I was evaluating but all sorts of other interventions in the affairs of nations as well, and that that force was capitalism.

But the more I examined this theory, the more I realised it didn’t hold up, because it was easy to see that other so-called ‘non-capitalist’ nations were proceeding down the same path; that it wasn’t so much the Capitalist creed that was at work as the acquisitive urge behind it.  This raised another question: was the apparently insatiable desire for more material goods, greater personal wealth and power innate, or was it the result of other, perhaps learned, responses to historical conditions? 

I received a hint of the answer from an unexpected source.  At that time jobs were plentiful, and I’d gained employment as a gardener’s labourer with the then-Department of Public Works.  The work involved maintaining the lawns and gardens of Ministerial residencies in the capital, and one day, while emptying the external rubbish bins at the Prime Minister’s residence, I came across a folder of papers discarded by one of the Minister’s staff.  This included an itinerary for the PM’s pending visit to Europe.  I was surprised to discover that this included unadvertised visits to numerous international banks.

My quest for answers now crossed into new and unfamiliar territory.  It didn’t take me long, with the help of a few contacts in the finance sector, to confirm that virtually all nations had large national debts owed to these institutions, and I began to wonder how much influence these banks might therefore be able to exert on the politics and economies of debtor countries.

Once I started digging, the answers proved fairly straightforward: the reach of the banks had, over the past century and a half, become almost absolute.  Their loans financed virtually all national economies (including those of Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States).

As to where the twin processes of acquisition and competition have their ultimate roots, I was able to track these back to a couple of primary influences: the transition from nomadic to sedentary societies and the development of adaptive technologies, which enabled the geometric increase in the size of human populations and the social structures that supported them.  The larger these sedentary populations grew, the greater their demand for resources, and the greater the competition for those resources became.   It also became clear to me that the acceptance and promotion of acquisitive ideology was universal; state-based socialism and capitalism were simply variations on the same theme.

At a personal level, other events played into this developing narrative.  One experience in particular serves to highlight the case.  In a belated attempt to repay some of the debt I felt I owed for my free education, in the mid-seventies – after I’d been out in the workforce for a number of years – I enrolled in a post-graduate high school teacher training program and got caught up, somewhat inadvertently, in a student boycott of classes, with the objective of bringing a more ‘real world’ orientation to the education curriculum.

Unfortunately, what had been envisaged as a minor disruption of classes at the college was somehow picked up by the national media circuit and blown out of all proportion, with the result that, when it came to selecting a school to complete my probationary teaching, I was ‘sent to purgatory’, in the form of a small, largely-Indigenous rural high school overseen by a stumpy ex-Sergeant Major, who took an immediate and intense dislike to me.  I suspect the idea was that I’d find the placement intolerable and drop out.  But I stuck it out for the requisite couple of years, got my formal accreditation and then quit, resolving that I’d never return to a custodial high school environment.  Still, I learned something valuable about social bullying, small-town politics (a theme I returned to in later writing) and the richness of indigenous culture.

A lot of water’s passed under the bridge since then.  I’ve travelled a lot, held a wide variety of jobs from labouring to senior management, raised a family and seen that family promulgate its own offspring.  I’ve actively supported several left-of-centre political campaigns, successfully and otherwise, to bring about social change and challenge the hypocrisies of governments.  I’ve carried the standard of social justice and human rights in indigenous and migrant communities and among a variety of disadvantaged and marginalised groups, worked to improve the lot of people in East Timor, and played an active part in the urgent task of raising environmental awareness.

Nothing I’ve learned or experienced since those earlier times has changed my fundamental view; that all forms of corporatized government are antithetical to human happiness.  I’ve found in the writings of some sociological writers a well-constructed alternative social theory that challenges the prevalent assumption that structured governance by a minority of some kind is an essential element of social life.

There’s a common saying among social theorists that politics is the art of the possible; that is, the practice of compromise and negotiation is essential to achieve desired political outcomes.  This trite saying begs the question: where is the boundary between the ideal and possibility?  I still don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s a bit of a movable feast, and it’s only by testing those boundaries that we arrive at a solution.  We’re still, as a nation and a species, a long way from there.

Another common premise is that social change (and political change) comes about from necessity; not so much a choice but an imperative for survival.  On that score, I believe we’re closer to a critical choice-point than most of us realise, the necessity brought upon us by factors such as unmitigated greed, environmental catastrophe and global pandemic.  To make the right choice will take a revolution, not just of politics but of mindset as well.

Do we have the collective will to bring such a radical change about?  We shall see.

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