November 30th 2019


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Can we put the 'care' back into aged care?

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

ENVIRONMENTALISM Activists and courts give sharks the last laugh

CANBERRA OBSERVED ALP's self-examination will entice no one back

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Geopolitics, oligarchs and the Moldova miracle

ENVIRONMENT Into the unknown: Should we prepare for climate change or climate variability?

LAW AND SOCIETY Crime and punishment: Are we de-civilising?

WATER POLICY Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

ASIAN AFFAIRS Destination Oz: Flood of Hong Kong emigres may restart

HUMOUR MacStuttles, me ol' China

MUSIC Subliminal workhorse: An art takes the backseat

CINEMA Dr Sleep: Kubrick 'shined' from his rest

BOOK REVIEW Science and religion, with mutual respect

BOOK REVIEW A borrowed term for a socialist recipe

POETRY

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

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BOOK REVIEW
A borrowed term for a socialist recipe




News Weekly, November 30, 2019

THE POLITICS OF THE COMMON GOOD: Dispossession in Australia

by Jane R. Goodall

NewSouth, Sydney
Paperback: 304 pages
Price: AUD$32.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

Most schemes of political improvement,” said Dr Johnson, “are very laughable things.”

To which one might reply that they are laughable only so long as they remain theoretical. If they happen to be put in to action, they are usually tragic.

Witness communism in the former USSR and Maoist China. Nothing to laugh about there when you consider the tens of millions that perished in the “improvement”.

But Johnson had a point. To suppose that merely by re-arranging the nature of a political system one can permanently change the nature of our lot, is the stuff of fantasy. Even those who do not believe in the concept of original sin will at least concede that humanity is made of “crooked timber” – a description by Immanuel Kant, later taken up by Isaiah Berlin.

Of course, Plato first made the point nearly 2,500 years ago, but we are slow learners. We consistently suppose that we can, out of our own resources, create some sort of heaven on earth – a case of trying to “immanentise the eschaton”, in the memorable phrase of Eric Voegelin.

But, I suspect that Jane Goodall, the author of this new book on the political scene in Australia, is just such an ardent believer in the old socialist dream. And so, the title of her book – so enticing when I first read it – turns out to be something of a Trojan Horse. The term “Common Good” is most commonly found in Christian social teaching, and especially in Catholic social teaching, where it carries a metaphysical as well as a purely practical meaning.

For Goodall, though, it is simply another way of stating the familiar socialist dream. Traditionally, the “Idea of the Good” – to use Plato’s phrase – necessarily implied an objective reality standing outside and above the mere subjectivity of the human mind. You will find none of this in Goodall’s book.

Instead, she gives us her own exemplars of the common good, assuming that these examples will prove her thesis that, left to their own devices (that is, free from the malicious operation of right-wing capitalists), human communities will opt for cooperative actions engendering “the common good”.

Those exemplars include such disparate entities as pre-European Aboriginal societies (no mention of endemic tribal warfare), the Diggers of 17th-century England, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Goodall might have given us the example of the only long-term “socialist” system that has stood the test of time – that of the monastic orders in Christianity. But, of course, we must not condone the “opium of the masses”. There is no “Benedict Option” for Goodall.

To be sure, much of Goodall’s criticism of the present economic and social order in Australia is well placed. There is a widening gap between rich and poor and much of the problem can be laid squarely at the feet of the modern liberal-capital ethos. It turns out that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – the notion that freewheeling capitalism will benefit everyone and that individual greed is a good thing – is a pipe dream. But Goodall wants to blame every evil on capitalism.

Here is a small sample: “The market in its unbounded wisdom has brought us the obesity epidemic, the smoking epidemic, the vast masses of waste plastic on our oceans, coal-fired power and global warming, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, slave labour in the garment industry and the live export trade.”

Based on the evidence to hand, the socialist experiment in both the Soviet Union and Communist China produced more environmental damage than that seen in the free world. I seem to recall also, that smoking levels are higher in Communist China than just about anywhere else.

Live exports, too, were a speciality of the former USSR, but they were human carcases, rounded up in Black Marias and “exported” to the gulags. But that, of course, would spoil a good story for Goodall.

In fact, the central problem with Goodall’s thesis is her refusal to consider the basis for an individual responsibility concerning the “common good”. Her underlying assumption is that ordinary folk like you and I will always opt for the “common good”, given the opportunity. But this is Disneyland Socialism.

Here, I can do no better than to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica in its discussion of the term “common good”: “In the modern era the emphasis has been placed on the maximisation of the freedom of the individual, as consumer and property owner discovering that freedom in the private domain of liberalised markets rather than as citizen achieving the common good in the public domain.”

This, I believe, is an entirely accurate analysis of the root cause of the problems that Goodall correctly identifies but incorrectly attributes entirely to capitalism. However, the problem, in short, is not with political or economic theory, but with human nature itself.

Some time ago in News Weekly (August 25, 2018), I reviewed a book entitled, Freedom from Reality, by D.C. Schindler. It is Schindler’s contention that the modern notion of human freedom is radically at odds with the traditional notion of the “common good”, because the former promotes a destructive individualism whereas the latter concentrates on an Aristotelian notion of freedom – a freedom to attain the higher good. And this higher good can only be properly realised within a communal setting. True freedom is attained by rising above our mere animal natures.

In fact, the unpalatable truth is that, without some notion of the “good” as an objective reality, standing above and beyond the individual human mind, there can be no shared goal towards which all of us aspire. That reality, for most of the history of the West, was the Christian God.

Today, we revert, instead, to various forms of emotivism masquerading as objective moral and ethical truths. And, eventually, as we are now seeing realised in tendencies all around us, we will arrive at Hobbes’ “state of nature” where there is “Warre of every man against every man”.

So, in conclusion, Goodall’s book provides no useful or measured critique of our current social, political and economic pathologies, even though I might agree with her identification of those particular pathologies.

I am more inclined, on the whole, though, to agree with Dorothy Parker’s recommendation concerning a novel she had just read: “This is not … to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”




























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