Friends with Benefits: Producing policy is not a problem

In response to the reposting on my below blog post over at the Drum there has been a number of interesting comments made. I am grateful as many of my friends who write for the Drum (or the Punch, New Matilda or in the papers) rarely get such quality comments. One comment in particular, by timothyh, hits the nail on the head. timothyh writes:

“Complex” and “challenging” is what many of the problems we face *are*. You are saying, however, that the media and various other interests groups seek to make such problems seem less complex and challenging by filtering them though a gauze of ideology?

So how is it possible to generate authentic public policy that is genuinely ‘post-political’, and that acknowledges and deals with the undeniable complexity and challenges of, say, global warming?

Or is it a lost cause already, and we should lay down and wait passively for the inevitable?

The question of authenticity when it comes to public policy is itself problematic. In previous eras of political thought it would’ve been possible to formulate an ideologically sound piece of policy entirely congruent with whatever ideals were held sacred by the ideology. Policy was authentic determined by whether or not it conformed to these ideals. Intellectuals battled over ideality and politicians were celebrated or denounced depending on whether the sufficiently embodied these ideals through their deeds and words. I don’t think politics functions like this anymore (if it ever did).

I agree with you that some of the problems that we currently face are undeniably complex and pose great challenges. Ideology is a solution to reducing the complexity of problems, not to actually solving the problems. Why I turned to a somewhat archaic concept such as enthusiasm is that I wanted to grasp the political problem of how otherwise ethical people seem to will problems away. Besides all the problems with capitalism, the environment, health and so on that face countries like Australia, most Australians have the best quality of life ever. The problems caused by a radically unfair global market economy, degrading quality of the global eco-system and increasing rates of illness brought upon by living in a post-scarcity society exist in the periphery for most people. They are both too big and too small at the same time. Too big because they demand to be imagined on a global scale and too small because the global scale quickly enters into (perceived) disruptions of the quality of everyday life.

People don’t believe in ideology and then live their lives according to its ideas; if they do we call these people ‘fanatics’ or ‘fundamentalists’. Ideology is posed as the gauze that gives everyday life meaning, a life that is already being lead and meanings that already being made. Ideology at best is like sports commentary. When you watch sport on television you know exactly what is happening, the commentator isn’t necessarily telling you anything new (except for talented arithmophiliac sports fans, of course), all the action plays out with or without the commentary. Ideology is the grid of meaning that renders the action meaningful in a particular way. The commentary doesn’t explain the spectators’ enjoyment or satisfaction of watching the game or even the feeling like they are somehow invested in the game even though there is zero feedback in any direct way from the television audience to the sports field.

Political enthusiasm is a way to think about how people feel like they belong and do not belong to a political process that largely excludes them. Polling and even to a lesser extent voting is largely meaningless. All it does it produce the illusion that most people are somehow connected to the political process. Most people are certainly not connected to the political process. What they are connected to however, is the collective sense of belonging experienced by others who enjoy a high quality of everyday life.

In a positive sense this is experienced as an enthusiasm for a particular quality of life. Having a family, owning a home, being dependable on the job and so on, these are the coordinates of our high quality everyday life. No where here does it register that the environment is gradually getting more and more out of balance. Nor does it register that all the technologies of convenience we enjoy are built by poorly paid workers in a foreign land. Nor does it register that we are destroying our own bodies with the feeling of satisfaction from having high suger or high fat foods. Ideology is a solution for not having to think outside of this everyday life.

The utter horror of contemplating the world in three or four generations time without a serious and concerted effort to change the way we live is practically unimaginable. The problem with current policy and the current crop of politicians is that policy is designed to keep these people happy, to keep them in their high quality everyday lives. Current policy is designed to appear as if it is solving the larger scale problems, while actually only solving one problem and that is cultivating enthusiasm amongst a post-political citizenry. It is itself a complex system whereby ‘benefits’ (exactly like governmental ‘family tax benefits’ but with a far more common frequency) are distributed to enable this high quality of life throughout the population. Some segments get more than others, but, on the whole, it is relatively fairly distributed. The problem is that these ‘benefits’ are actually negatives in the sense they produce the momentum that makes wholesale change almost an impossibility. In the face of these great challenges, the stupidity of the media in their hegemonic articulations and being both ideological-commentators and cheersquad for the distribution and ‘protection’ of these benefits is obvious.

Another reason for a focus on political enthusiasm is that it will be required — we need enthusiasm — for the entire citizenry to mobilise to effect wholesale changes. A post-political program now should not be based around attempting to perfect policy, because whther or not the policy is authentic is irrelevant. Politics should be about mobilising the enthusiasm in a citizenry. The great frustrations experienced by populations in times of upheaval (i.e. Greece and other European countries right now) is not a failure of politics, politics continues with all the leaders meeting to figure out how to resurect the ‘benefits’ system, it is a failure of enthusiasm for the system of benefits. In other words, an opportunity.

Enthusiasm already exists for addressing the complex problems we face. I’d be working on ways to connect this enthusiasm, cultivate and work on it with a large scale multi-year initiative. Sure political-types (political fans, see my colleague Jason Wilson’s paper on this and twitter trolling) love getting into arguments about ‘policy’ but as a tool of governance and building change, rather than maintaining a politically-bankrupt consensus, it is a poor tool. ‘Policy’ is an insufficient way to mobilise a population.

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