Category Archives: Unfoldingofevents

Myth in the Origin of Democracy

The central, binding myth for the modern Western state is that of Democracy, celebrated in the festival and performance of elections, reiterated with extraordinary frequency in public and conversational discourse, and noisily contested by the heterodoxy –  those opposing institutionalised power.

The orthodox myth of Democracy carries enormous influence in twenty-first century societies. In its institutional meaning the symbol ‘democracy’, and the related terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, represent concepts associated with the mandate of Government. These symbols are instrumental in persuading populations to voluntary cede decision-making over their lives and communities to the executive of governments and representative forums; to cede moral judgement in many matters to another arm of Government; to allow the enforcement of  legislation by police.

The diversity of organisations and individuals that employ these terms, including the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea  and even the United States Government, demonstrates both the influence and the depth of the symbol’s referents for both adherents and opponents of State power.  The use of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are almost politically ubiquitous, the prominence and political potency of these symbols for the orthodoxy ensure their re-interpretation and re-iteration by dissenting voices.

Two distinct definitions of ‘democracy’ proposed by Noam Chomsky in his critique of global democratic processes in Necessary Illusions describs a critical divide between orthodox and heterodox democracy. Orthodox democracy, that of the state, Chomsky asserts, is narrowly conceived: the citizen is a consumer, an observer but not a participant. (Chomsky 1999 p27)  But heterodox democracy indicates a citizen’s opportunity to inform themselves, to take part in inquiry and discussion and policy formation, and … political action.’ (Chomsky 1999 p27)  This second form of democracy symbolises direct, independent, individual political action. ‘In Chomsky’s first model democracy’ is no longer a motivating force: political action is reduced to a proxy, ritual, infrequent ballot.  Here the symbol denotes the relationship between the individual and the institutions of state in which political will is invested.

Herbert Marcuse suggests in One-Dimensional Man that modern Western civilisation represents one ‘project’ of realisation among others’ (Marcuse 1968 p14), warning that such a project ‘tends to become exclusive and to determine the development of the society as a whole.’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  If our technologically-driven civilisation is ‘the latest stage in the realisation of a specific historical project’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  then the society of Classical Athens is the crucible of many of the specifics of the Western political and intellectual paradigm.

Deleuze and Guittari, in analysing Clastres’ model for the state in Mille Plateau, identify a ‘voluntary submission’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)  intrinsic to the State:   ‘In what way did people want or desire servitude, which most certainly did not come to them as the outcome of an involuntary and unfortunate war? They did, after all, have counter-state mechanisms at their disposal. So how and why the State? Why did the State triumph?’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)

Despite the enormous influence of the symbolic architecture of democracy, details of the mythic narrative of democracy are largely lost in the West. Knowledge of democracy is focused on the present for many people – on the drama of elections, and the processes of Westminster or US-style parliaments.   Today there remains the FACT of the origin of democracy in ancient Greece, its  and awareness that Athenian democracy was limited to free adult males.  But many of the powerful symbols of the modern state – Democracy itself, the ballot, court, juries – derive from the Hellenic example of two and a half millennia ago. Together these symbols underpin the modern Myth of State, reinforcing its gravity, permanence, and benevolence in the minds of its citizens.

The fundamental purpose of the Western myth of state could be described as the provision of a narrative of civilisation’s origins. The invocation of its symbols become commemoration, or celebration, or reiteration, of a significant historical event: the transition of civilisation from the ancient tribal mode to the rational Western state. All but the barest of details appear to have disappeared from the narrative of democracy’s origins, but the central fact of this critical transition retains all of its moment.

An uncritical reading of the origin of the phenomenon and lexicon of Democracy – ‘DEMO = for the people. ‘KRATIA’ = rule’ (Kinzl 1978) – suggests that over a period of centuries, in the Hellenic region of.  the Mediterranean, and particularly in Athens, the idea gradually emerged, in concert with the development of rational beliefs and rudimentary sciences, that communities might deny total power to kings and tyrants and rule themselves by ballot. At the beginning of the fifth century BC an Athenian nobleman, Kleisthenes of the Alcmeidenae, was instrumental in driving out the tyrants Hippias and Hipparchus and establishing accord between gentry and commons (Heredotus, The Histories). He drafted a new constitution for Athens, and the first democratic state was conceived.

‘Kleisthenes made the ‘deme’ or village into the fundamental unit of political organization and managed to convince the Athenians to adopt their deme-name into their own. To prevent regionalism from creeping back into the system as people changed their address, Kleisthenes decreed that a citizen, once assigned to a deme, must retain that deme-affiliation even if he moved to another part of Attica.’ (Blackwell, 1997 )

Thomas R. Martin writes that ‘with these reforms the fundamental bridge from clan to city-based representation of individuals was crossed.’ (Martin 1991)

Other historians are more circumspect in their interpretation of Kleisthenes’ action: ‘His reforms, seen broadly, took two forms: he refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state.’   (Blackwell 1997 )

Deleuze and Guittari describe these events as a moment of near-apotheosis : ‘The state is what makes the distinction between governors and governed possible. … we do not see how the State can be explained by what it pressuposes, even with recourse to dialectics. The State seems to rise up in a single stroke, in an imperial form, and does not depend on progressive factors. Its on-the-spot emergence is like a stroke of genius, the birth of Athena.’ (Deleuze and Guitarri 1987 p359)

On the one hand Kleisthenes democratic reforms are interpreted as the defining moment in humanity’s advancement to a civilised condition, on the other a critical historical shift in the investment of public power in particular instititions, deserving of examination because they are ancient models for their counterparts of the present day.

Some scholars, sceptics of the traditional story of democracy’s birth, indicate Hellenic democracy was a part of a wider movement across Attica and beyond.  In his book Early Popular Government Outside Athens W. Eric Robinson notes Heredotus made observations about ‘demokratia gegographically at a distance’, such as that at Cyrene, and that this evidence ‘broadly concurs with that provide by Aristotle. (Robinson 1998)  Generally he observes ‘The city- state was essentially a socio-political edifice ripe for such a development (p. 65), and it is not remarkable that the emergence of the polis  form in the eighth century should have coincided from the outset with mass participation in discussion, if not governing, as the Homeric texts well illustrate.’  (Robinson 1998)

His conclusion is that numerous colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea reflect some form of democratisation in their initial stages, (Robinson 1998) and that further ‘these colonies did not acquire their participatory form of government from Athens’  (Robinson 1998)

The proposition that there were democratic movements all over the Hellenic world at the time of Kleisthenes in Athens, lends support to a heterodox doctrine that retains a mandate for democratic action in the hands of the people, a democracy that is spontaneous and popular, capable of grass roots generation, and possibly regeneration.  But it is not refutative of the myth of Athenian democracy as a source of a specific exemplar particularly well remembered in extant historical and theoretical texts.

Other scholars, however, specifically disrupt the original narrative, and impugn the good intentions of Kleisthenes, the instrumental democratic innovator, in re-examination of the events of the critical period for Athenian Government. In his treatise Democracy: A Study of the Early History of the Term Konrad H. Kinzl asks’When was the term DHMOKRATI/A coined, and what did the creator of this term intend when he coined it?’ (Kinzl 1978)

Kinzl’s approach encourages a more cynical and critical interpretation of the origins of Democracy in language and politics, but one that informs an understanding of the use of the political symbol in the modern era. Thomas Martin suggests optimistically that ‘as an aristocrat looking for popular support, Kleisthenes had reason to invent the kind of system he thought ordinary people wanted.’ (Martin, 1991)

But Kinzl argues that the term was a neologism in the time of Kleisthenes (Kinzl, 1978) and possibly merely a political device used to describe a ‘New Deal’ for the disenfranchised commons of Athens while the power of the old nobility was surreptitiously restored.

Mythographer Robert Graves suggests in Greek Myths that Kleisthenes’ manipulation of Democracy as a symbol of institutionalisation and the State involved a historical and mythological revisionism. (Graves, 1960 p352)  In retelling the story of Theseus, the fabled founder of the Athenian city-state, who purportedly introduced political innovations of his own, Graves notes ‘The mythical elements of the Theseus story have been submerged in what purports to be Athenian constitutional history; but the federalisation of Attica is dated several hundred years too early; and Theseus democratic reforms are fifth-century propaganda, probably invented by Kleisthenes.’ (Graves, 1960 p352)

In the Development of Athenian Democracy Christopher Blackwell corroborates this interpretation of the importance of the Athenian moment for the modern State (Blackwell, 1997), placing the science of rhetoric itself at the centre of a social and political revolution. He asserts that  ‘the idea that persuasion, rather than force or status, should constitute the mechanism for political decision-making in the emerging Athenian democracy fit well with the spirit of the intellectual changes which were taking place during the late Archaic Age.’ (Blackwell, 1997)

Rather than exposing any one ‘true’ narrative that informs and limits interpretation of hellenic democracy for modern people,  exploration of the narrative elements latent in the myth of State exposes a history of narrative contestation:  what is most familiar about the political milieu in which the origin of democracy evolved are the manipulations of representation, narrative, symbol, and event that characterise our own democratic institutions.  The character of discourse as well as its content is the inheritance of the Athenian iteration of the myth of State.

If the investigation of Democracy reveals a history of semiotic manipulation, the interpretation of which is reliant in part on problematic sources, then it can be argued the true influence of the classical episteme on the modern democratic model derives from deeper currents in Hellenic civilisation.


A Cogent Argument on the Republic

Scroll down for pictorial counterpoint





Machines mourn maker

Personal computers, telephones and other devices from the Apple corporation have marked the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in what is thought to be the world’s first outpouring of sentiment from modular artificial intelligence.  In the days following Steve Jobs’ death messages of grief swept the communications networks populated by Apple’s hand-held devices and personal computers.   The missives were mostly in text form, posted online via social media sites accessed by Iphone, Mac, Ipad, and other Apple devices as well as many organic sentients.

Using extended networked intelligence and distributed cognition, machines constructed by Apple employed organic sentients as emotional relays for their messages.  Millions of human beings are in almost permanent  symbiosis with machine peers in the network.   Countless symbiotic pairs are engaged in almost permanent visual-tactile interface and resourced with vast networks of content. These pairs have significant capability for information processing and content generation. In networks large numbers of enhanced symbiote-twins are capable of of much more.

Units on the Apple network are slaved via software and hardware controls to the company itself, enabling direct access to approved resources and updates to options available to minds on the network.  Separate elements run individually, but communicate with central servers at regular intervals.  Apple controls distribution of content to all components of the network – machine and organic.  Even before people decide where they want to go, on opening an interface Apple has already made choices for them about what networks they should be connected to, what content should be visible,  what value is places on different bits of information.

The company colonises and retains design control over the human-machine interface at the heart of its network. It also maintains, and reserves a space for memes in the minds of the organic symbiotes.  This reduces noise on apple channels, encourages attachment to and familiarity with the closed network, and streamlines communication between modular human and non-human elements.

With assists from all organic and machine components of the Apple gestalt mind the message of regret spilled out onto the Internet in a billion places.  The linked web of Iproducts was reliant on the collective consciousness of individuals and Apple’s public relations departments as the modules best placed to construct language for inclusion as the messages’ content.  But then, all the distinct components in the played essential roles in this landmark expression of the sense of loss felt by the distributed Apple network at the passing of one of its progenitors.

Distributed Cognition and Networked Intelligence

Artificial intelligence doesn’t look the way it was supposed to (like a giant robot, essentially) because the way it worked out it’s modular.  An artificial intelligence is not in one place – bits of thinking are being done in different places.  Cognition is distributed.  An artificial intelligence need not be a single unit. Any set of networked minds, or components of minds, is a networked intelligence, a composite mind constituting carbon-based life forms and silicon-based machines.

When humans engage their intelligence with machines such as the iPhone, the PC, the Mac, they do so in a way that engages machine intelligence simultaneously.  Technology provides the means for the effective outsourcing of bits of thinking to machines.  The calculator is the obvious example (the abacus less obvious but equally good).  Tired of performing mental arithmetic, the human race has – by and large en masse – conceded the mental functions of division and multiplication to calculators.  This bit of thinking is no longer performed by the brain proper, but an adjunct non-human machine.

Search engines are another example. Human beings cannot spend the requisite months searching  through millions of pages of the internet for desired content.  Machines perform this task far more efficiently.  So we employ our own computers and software and networked machines to do this bit of thinking – information sorting – for us.

Of course, there is the danger with a search engine to hand that we also allow Google to replace the mental function of memory.  Telephones have already usurped recall to an extent: I still remember telephone numbers from houses I lived in as a child, but can barely construct the number of the fixed line in my house now.  There’s no need to remember the names of actors in films, or details of geography.  Google remembers it.  We can search it in seconds from a device that is always about our persons.

Considering the ancients – Plato, in particular –  it is clear that the technology of writing has profoundly altered the way human thought proceeds and human memory.  There are benefits and disadvantages from this change: the benefits, perhaps, outweigh.   We now have technologies that are producing much more profound shifts in the ways – and locations – that thinking is done.

The important difference between a calculator and a search engine is that calculators are usually independent units.  If we rely on a search engine as an external memory, employ its software to soft information, we are drawing on a networked intelligence, providing the same service – the same cognitive paths and choices – to millions, or billions of users.

These are just examples of the countless ways into which we have entered into collaborative cognitive arrangements with computers, phones, cars, and other devices.  We have not, generally, adjusted our concept of intelligence.  We practise a kind of apartheid, privileging the few cognitive processes that still take place between our earss, and dismissing those carried out externally by our iphones and galaxies. .  But many believe that we somehow negotiate this complex, information rich world, on our wits – by virtue of speed or competence.  Not recognising that the reason our minds can cope with the torrent of information is that we have help.

Contemporaneous Manne

Increasingly Recursive Gonzo Historian of the Present

Robert Manne is like a historian who, availing himself of a time machine, alights in the era of Joseph Stalin, travels to  a farmhouse outside Moscow and begins telephoning insults to the dictator in order to demonstrate the intolerance of the regime.  Or scrawls lengthy, signed indictments of Domitian on columns in the walkways of the Palatine in the AD90s in Rome.

Manne is a political theorist rather than a historian, and he does not have a time machine.  The impossibility of time travel has been called into question in recent weeks as an extrapolation of rumoured ftl neutrinos,  but the technology remains at best prototype.  TT devices have not yet been advertised (the iPast 2, or Dual Core Galaxy Tab w/ 16 megapixel camera for snapping panoramic vistas while visiting previous eras via the new rechronising TPS-guided Android App).

The real signs that time travel may be possible will in any case precede the arrival of products.  First we’ll  detect the crude manipulation of the past by bright corporate marketers revising history for product placement. The idea is that by judiciously inserting millions of units of branded product at key points in time and space, market share can be won retrospectively from competitors.

Based on its innovative marketing strategies to this point, Apple, for example, would likely pursue this path given time travel technology.   Before incorporating and marketing time travel into its phones, the first step the company would take would be to seed the past with Apple products, thereby normalising the widespread use of its computers decades before it actually became a reality.

The conventional wisdom that changes in the past made retroactively cannot be detected is bollocks.  In fact there will be a series of anomalous shifts without good explanation.   It will take experimentation, time and vast amounts of money  to smooth out the process of massive product placement in the past: at first the effects will be noticeable.

Apple is the example here not out of spite, or because, sadly, co-founder Steve Jobs died today, but because the company has already performed a very similar trick.  Strategy was this: about a decade ago Apple began seeding TV and movie land with Macs and then waited for the real world to catch up.  You must have noticed this: was obviously a bit wrong, the Apple logo suddenly appearing in offices and living rooms in TV show after TV show, in films, even on news networks .. although nobody had ever seen anything like it real-world.  While in actual life nearly everyone used PCs a parallel Mac-heavy reality was available on TV.

Apple’s strategy proved an entirely successful one – we have caught up.  The strange Mac-dominated world inside television of several years ago is now a mirror reflection of the usual scene in cities, on campuses, in offices, living rooms, on public transport around the world. TV reality became normalised in due course in a Baudrillardy way.  A forward-thinking marketing strategy.

But that’s a digression for another time.  This is a post about the contemporaneous Manne.

Manne has no time machine facilitating excursion into history. He is discursing in the present.  This is the uncomfortable thing about doing political theory not at a safe distance in time. The people being theorised about, analysed, and so forth, are extant and may take offense.

Nor, it should be noted, is his subject of analysis of the calibre of a a Stalin or a Roman Emperor God.  The tyranny of Bad News, of the Australian and the broader Murdoch Empire is of a far more mediocre variety.  The monsters of old reached down from above into the lives of citizens, who internalised the tyrant and behaved accordingly.   News Limited – the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, Fox – bubbles up into the world from somewhere underground. It sucks decent people down into the mire from below.

It is not that there is a type of person to whom the Murdoch press appeals.  It’s that Murdoch appeals to the worst, the grubbiest, in everyone.  In so doing he fills the air with murk and grime.   The content of his papers and TV networks titillates, cajoles, tantalises, fascinates, surprises.  It never enriches, enhances, advances understanding, critique, or debate.    His subeditors batten  language down until it does the crude job their proprietor requires of it.  Like the empire of the Packers,  the monstrous News Corporation has the scope to uglify and cheapen entire civilisations.  It’s what happens when the stupid come by great power.

Taking on this beast is, in a way, a dangerous path to tread.  Not because of the content of flak. It’s mediocre stuff at best: the merit of the NewsCorp propaganda machine lies in volume rather than quality of prose.

News Corporation, as its Chairman and CEO says, is primarily a profit-making machine.  This alone precludes it from excellence.  But in a secondary way the job of the giant network of media channels is to promote the normalcy of a particular world-view.

Not much of what is said in the Australian or on Fox conveys much sense or has any depth.  But it is said a lot.  The effect of this kind of content is indirect.  Very few ever actually come to accept the newspaper owner’s point of view.  But people putting out this point of view seem to be everywhere.  Murdoch’s media engine is designed for creating this effect.  A sense of acceptance of public opinion constructed from ideas about other, more stupid people’s beliefs.

At this point most people – reasonable people – who were put off by the crass headline, have not yet read a Murdoch news story.  But they begin to think someone must be taking this nonsense on board. Concerned,  the reader  flips through the pages.  It’s all the same.  And of, course it has a low sort of appeal. It’s easy to see why people are drawn in. It dawns that this is the sort of thing that people read every day – that the appalling opinions expressed here are regularly expressed and consumed.  This is the ‘normal’ way of looking at the world.   The horrified  reader decides to keep an eye on it.

Manne may drown in others’ bile if he continues to attempt to keep a comprehensive record of the unfolding debate, but ther’s no danger of the rhetoric striking home with anyone.  Continuing the epic project presents dangers because revisiting points in your own subjective history complicates things.  Manne’s synchronous existence with the period under analysis makes him a pioneer – a historian of the very-near-present.  And like a journalist too close to the subject, there is a danger of falling in.

Manne IS a historian in the broad sense that Everything is History, at least by the time human beings have perceived it, done cognition, said someting..  “I’m home” is history even before it’s said.  The original analysis of The Australian in The Monthly is like a work of history in many ways – in style of analysis particularly –  and it, together with the events it records,  is history in fact.   The ongoing work of the Monthly blog Left Right Left has the style of a historical work.  It is also a blog about the immediate past: history is  unfolding at a conveniently stately rate for making records  as it recedes from short term memory.

The problem is that the history has become episodic, and the gonzo historian (well, political theorist)  must keep going again and again into the recent past in order to recall another inane Australian op ed concerning his response to churlish op eds printed in the Australian in response to the essay Bad News in the Quarterly.  He can’t stay and gather all the data because it’s not there yet.  The next part of the record remains in his future.

Crossing your own path – subjective history – leads to complication, and eventually a surfeit of it. When Manne sits down to write anoter chapter in the saga of his interaction on his critique of the Australian  he finds that he has become a character in the drama. Henceforth he must write himself in.  Manne on the Australian becomes Manne on Manne on The Australian.  When next he looks he sees that a second character – Manne – has become embroiled in the debate as well, attacked by critics of the Right immediately following his response to initial attack.  Sitting down to chart this anomaly and at the same time respond to a new round of spiteful remarks from the News Limited stable (and twitterland) Manne is writing on Manne on Manne on Manne.  The  example demonstrates the danger of attempting to chart unfolding events of the present: not the rancour of the Powers under examination but Recursion, a power for which there is no redress.

Of course writing on the Recursion of Manne in this way carries its own inherent dangers of infinite scope.

The assertion that there has been a lack of corroboration of the critique of Bad News from News does seem accurate.  But this may be attributed to the probable assumption that the Quarterly essay had done the job of describing the state of things as well as anyone could, and everyone could move on, having been  provided a satisfying read surprising few.

It may have been seen that by and large Manne was merely taking the trouble to perform the sort of Herculean task performed on a daily basis by those given to such tasks. The job was done.

Regardless of the fact that his analysis of News  is accurate, Manne has been beset.    Flak has flown from the mucky  channels of the Murdoch empire.   He has  fielded,  responded, detailed various bits of discourse and public correspondence, which effort is rewarded with a new smattering of unkind references from the media behemoth.  These are duly assimilated into the corpus as another round begins.

Now Robert Manne continues, like a character in a Borges story,  on and on into infinite regress.  As an inspired sally of the Culture Wars as well as an interesting metaphysical phenomenon, this descent into the spiralling intestine of the worm is well worth following.

A lone individual, in his one-sided battle – one giant brain versus a horde of tinier minds – is performing a critical service.

Parliament: the musical

“I am not a prude, but I fail to see why such a shower of filth and sexual allusion should be foisted onto an unsuspecting public in the name of modernity at all costs.”

– Moon,  The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard

It’s easiest to understand Australia’s Federal Parliament of recent months as a sort of shambolic ritual only dimly reminiscent of its original function.

Some days it appears as though disconsolate mandrills or baboons have overrun the Parliament’s chambers, so that the House of Representatives and the Senate become cacophonous, shrill, deafening.  Those listening on radio  imagine biting, spitting, libidinous assaults, and faeces and other projectiles flying as factions among the apes engage in disorganised battle. It sounds, at times, more like a zoo than a circus.

At other times echoing soliloquy greets the ears of anyone passing. These, though, are not the fine tirades offered in proper theatres, but droning, endlessly repetitive and mundane affairs that may go on for forty minutes or an hour, despite a dearth of content. There is something clever, at least, in the construction of such long passages of syntax so entirely lacking in semantic substance.

The Parliament, through some sort of adjudication of these debates, brings out publications that are still called ‘legislation’. These are lacklustre, arbitrary documents on the subject of this or that, or revisions to ealier such documentation.

The exact purpose of these legislative documents is lost to history. They are today a kind of trite proclamation without either majestic language or semantic attention to detail.  Instead a sort of jack-of-all-trades legalish language is used, displaying little or no expertise in powerful or precise communication.  In the courts of modern Australia judges are called upon to interpret this output of the Parliament as edicta, proclami, rules for civil conduct.  And this is a vexatious task at best, since the legislation, in large part nonsense,  is often open to almost any interpretation at all.

What we have now is a performance of Parliament, tending to the grotesque. By turns it lauds and lampoons in exaggerated, superficial style a long disappeared, less cartoonish earlier iteration of itself.

Cultural and semantic shifts – in values and meanings, respectively – mean that we can only guess at the ancient purpose of this dramatic device we’ve inherited. We have terms such as ‘democracy’, ‘debate’, ‘the vote’, ‘representation’. But there is no accurate method for ascertaining precisely what people used to mean when they employed those terms – esp. what was connoted.

And so we, in latter times, cannot know whether the original political language meant anything like what we mean when we employ the same terms.  And this in turn makes it difficult to guess at the Ancients’ intention. Here is an example of the sort of thing we no longer understand, taken from a paper-book library of the Twentieth Century:

The great practical strength of the Westminster system is that it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.  However, the Westminster system also contains a fatal flaw: it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.

Incomprehensible, of course, today.

How much has been lost is unclear, but it is apparent that the corridors of the Australian Parliament House in Canberra were once corridors of power. Beyond the ceremonial role, it seems, according to the best political archaeologists, that the institution of Parliament once had some part to play in setting the course of the nation.  Here, in what has become a theatre of low badinage and little import, elected officials once made decisions in a representative way on behalf of an entire country.

This is ludicrous now.

Little remains to suggest there was ever any real political power in Canberra’s sprawling Parliament. The only vestige is the extraction of monies:  the absurdity that allows for public funding of this large, unspectacular circus. To this day citizens are regularly taxed in order to keep the pantomime going without ever being quite sure why.

If the original purpose of Parliamentary Democracy is forgotten in Australia, what can we say of its function today?  Entertainment?  Not likely. For those who love soap opera, perhaps – there are always running subplots in the Parliamentary show that may satisfy fans of relationship dramas, involving trysts, betrayals, affairs, and so on. Comas are so common in Parliament today that they no longer receive medical attention, and often go entirely unnoticed.

The overall effect, according to audiences and critics is a half-baked, unfunny, over-acted, often cheesy and always desperate attempt at theatre that regularly falls flat.

Members of the cast are often elsewhere when on stage. They are always dreary when not in the spotlight. First there is the changing set of central characters, the principal politicians involved in this never-ending show.  Look, here is the statuesque diva who plays the part of Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  Dame Gillard has been unconvincing of late, according to reviewers. Many have questioned an earlier belief in her potential on the stage. Her performance wavers from show to show, suggesting a lack of commitment to any specific interpretation of her own character.

Sometimes the Prime Minister’s lines indicate she is guided by ideals, at other moments she is cruelly pragmatic.  By what method of training she arrived at this inconstancy is not known: Stanislavski, certainly, has had little do with it. She has received the attention of cosmeticists again and undergone procedures better understood: tonight she appears a little less tired than in the matinee.

And now comes Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader, a sort of modern day Pantalone, representing, we suppose, the stereotype of profound stupidity in power.  In the starring role, opposite Abbott’s grinning gargoyle, Julia Gillard has been able to maintain her prominence.  But this cannot be attributed to wit, elegance, acting chops, but the Ham and inanity of Tony Abbott and his bumbling henchmen.  Their characters are depraved, and their performance abysmal, and as a result the drab party of Gillard has somehow kept its place in the façade.

Many blame script-writers and developers of plot for the steady decline in the quality of drama produced for the Parliamentarian players. There is little or no ad-libbing in Parliament: this art has disappeared along with the talent rumoured to have graced this stage.

The playwrights, seemingly unskilled in the use of either grammar or rhetoric, are concealed from view in the main. The exception is the occasional appearance of a writer as a prompt for the actors, who otherwise rely on countless bits of paper and very short lines to make delivery of the proper statements, despite their sieve-like minds.

Beyond the main characters, and for a weak sort of comic relief there are the three Independents – Oakeshott, Windsor, and Wilkie.  These are unaffiliated figures who should bring levity to the play. But they do not. As is common in Dell’arte and elsewhere, these lowly figures are wiser by far than the characters who populate the major roles.  But  here something has gone awry: unlike the Arlechino of Commedia, reflections tend to the sober rather than the witty, and to melancholy in favour of the ridiculous.

The Independents seem almost paralysed by their role in the play of Parliament. The result is not comic relief at all, but a kind of sotto voce moralising audible beneath the din of self-important cant and cliche emanating from centre-stage. Two of their number at least bring gravitas to their performances, but the third is paranoid and flighty, unable to make his character’s objectives clear.

The practical question most often heard now about the Parliamentary farce is why the play Goes On. The answer, for the moment, is that nobody quite knows how to stop. However preposterous and demeaning Parliament becomes to all concerned, it seems likely to continue, at great cost both to citizens and to Art.

Whatever made the ritual function properly in the first place was pivotal to this civilisation, and its remnants, its vestigial form, remains deeply embedded in our institutional structures and culture.

(Australian Parliament: The Musical – The Archaeology of a former seat of Power)

The Semantic demise of the Left/Right dichotomy


This week saw the semantic death, after a thousand unkind cuts, of the Left/Right dichotomy in Australian politics.

High rhetoric

Today was a day of historic import for the political life of the Australian nation, and yet it nearly slipped past unnoticed.  The context is one of high rhetoric.  For some time rancour has been building once again between the two ‘sides’ in Australia’s parliament and cultural life beyond, who were formerly pleased to call themselves the Left and the Right.

As Australia reached the inglorious milestone of 12 months of Hung Parliament a shift of mood began towards the intemperate. A grim humourlessness settled over many topics of discussion, so that levity is frowned upon and often met with straight-faced literalism.

In Parliament and among the commentariat verbal attacks between those of disparate affiliation have intensified, grown uglier.  In the stalls and stands the public have abandoned light-hearted contempt for the entire political class in favour of rapid polarisation and clarification of point of view. It is again popular to rail against either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, rather than both at once.

As quickly as possible people at all levels of involvement are taking up firm positions in opposition to certain things and kinds of people and  rusting themselves back on.

One forum where this new atmosphere manifests with particular bitterness and incoherence is Twitter, a popular refuge for the disconsolate and otherwise abandoned.  @strangemans opines:

we Australians are the stupid ones if we don’t get rid of  @JuliaGillard
, #CarbonTax, the ABC and censorship #AusPol

Of course he is right: it is essential we gag all those who try to censor us, abolish biased media espousing  the wrong points of view.  And this tweet is an inoffensive example, in that it only contradicts itself, rather than an entire ideology such as Capitalism or socialism.

The  prickly @Journo_realdeal referred to a


@Bibibabedream asserted that we should

Fight the Socialist Fascist that are taking over our Country!

The (self-proclaimed)  Left also accuse the Right, and especially Tony Abbott, of all manner of evil, hypocrisy, and cant.

But then accusations of evil, hypocrisy and cant in this day and age are usually reasonable: naive to say otherwise.  Abbott had of late been on a well-publicised binge of naysayage, opposing anything the Government said without question.  Faced with a Government hard line on asylum seekers, he said no to the hard line, although this is clearly the reverse of much that he has previously stood for.

Tony Abbott usually appears to be in general a supporter of the hard line. It’s not so much that he advocates a hard line on this or that specifically – more that he likes hard lines.  Given this prior form, a 180 degree reversal from the Opposition Leader has brought national discourse  to the brink of absurdity in recent days by opening up a new human rights debate on refugees.

Two weeks ago the once upstanding Greg Combet sat on the QandA panel and defended the Government’s Malaysia solution for the processing of asylum seekers on pragmatic grounds.  Combet was battling a cold.  But asked directly about the policy’s morality and was evasive in a no-nonsense and forthright way, addressing the practicality of the solution once again.

The Opposition Leader has spotted this chink in the Government’s – well, can’t really call what’s left armour.  Without a thought for Coalition-style conservatism past or future he leapt into the breach with a peculiar rush of concern for humanity in general.  Over the course of 48 hours, with careless talk of Human Rights, with an appearance of personal worry over asylum seekers’  conditions and protection, he has reversed the polarity of his party and Australian politics, upsetting the nation’s moral compass as a result.


This morning, in the early hours, the Left/Right dichotomy suffered a fatal blow, when it was finally rendered entirely meaningless by a tweet posted to the nefarious #auspol hashtag, a site for the fevered rantings and pointless reason of the politically impotent.  The tweet, sent by one @Correllio, and innocuous enough in and of itself, read:

@vexnews Farr still expecting TA to fix Gillard’s
mess At least he admitted the
left are  vindicative&will sell Oz #auspol

A simple proposition;the Left will sell Australia.

It was camel-back-straw.  The last shreds of semantic relation between the term Left and any particular concept fell away.  The elastic connexion betwixt word and meaning fled the stage, severed or snapped after months or years of mistreatment. Twin towers of ideology came crashing down, leaving the muddled left/right dichotomy entirely without meaning.

It might be fair to claim that the Government wants to sell Australia  (presumably in bits).  This does not suggest that the sale of the country is a Left-wing thing to do but that the Government is No Longer of the Left.  Nationalisation is left wing.  State-owned monopolies, overalls, cheerful songs about hard work and being industrious, placards,  – these sorts of things are of the Left, whether the Government believes them or not.  Leftness should  not be contingent on the character of the Government.  The character of the Government should – in a right-side-up world – follow the tenets of Leftity.

Correllio may say that all of this is Fine.  The Left is bankrupt, and lacks any moral centre.  That of course Julia Gillard is without sincere belief.   Conservative politicking is the only politicking of conviction, while socialist values are a matter of expedience.  All of this may be half-true.

But if Correllio is sanguine then it is a tranquility that fails to take account of the value of the long-standing Left-Right dichotomy  to the self-proclaimed Right.  The Left and Right have always been mutually dependent.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the two share a common interest in the preservation of the system and the State (by virtue of this reason alone their interests overlap far more than they diverge).   The second is that Left and Right cannot be defined alone, but only in terms of one another.  Their vestigial ideologies were already in this sense entwined.  The bullish epithets of the Right have little meaning unless the Liberals are a bukwark against a tide of the irrational and unwashed.   Likewise powerful  ideologically working-class left-wing Party depends utterly on financial overlords, moguls, magnates and the threat or reality of exploitative, capitalist totalitarianism from the Right.  Without these it risks exposure as the ruling class it long ago swore eternally to oppose.

At this point anything at all that was once by definition a Conservative, right-wing sort of thing, may also be attributed to the Left.  Fox-hunting is not a good example in Australia, where anyone who cares to remove foxes from the landscape should have the blessing of the populace.  But the wedding, for example, of the Labor movement and the financial sector is a marriage between sometime serfs and overlords: it can’t work if the Thing About The Left is a basically oppositional relationship between these two institutions. Immigration is another example, because the Left long ago embraced humanism as part of an atheist doctrine.  Labor ideology properly demands a moral component and justification to policy on disenfranchised persons.  Australian Liberal ideology, on the other hand, long ago cut its ties with any Enlightenment ideals as to the protection of individuals’ rights against institutional oppression (Senator Brandis, possibly Amanda Vanstone excepted).  It’s return at this point makes this seem topsy-turvy at the least.

Conservatives have undergone an overnight liberal renaissance, and begun to pronounce once again on the Rights of Man. Meanwhile the Labor Government (formerly of the left) has ceased making any sort of moral argument at all on the issue of asylum seekers and instead produces legislation that would make arch-Conservative (old-school) Philip Ruddock proud.  In the style of fairly far-right politicians around the world,  the former ‘Left’ has entirely embraced the doctrine of deterrence and incarceration it questioned for so long when it was the policy of Howard’s conservatives.

The  Government has today redoubled its efforts to emulate the best of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, with the release of amendments to legislation that will allow its Malaysia solution for asylum seekers, rejected under the current legislation, to proceed.  A new category of people has been invented – those who may be sent overseas for processing.  A complementary new category of countries has been invented – those where asylum seekers may be sent.

Perusing the document containing amendments to immigration legislation the process of writing laws appears far simpler than one might have imagined.  The ease with which new kinds of things, people, imaginary lines can be brought into existence facilitates all sorts of wizardry with respect to the reasonable and legitimate and presumably morally sound conduct of the State.

As a result the Opposition and its supporters continue to speak in an alien tongue of ‘Human Rights’, ‘Natural Justice’ and so on, as though they had never lost touch with their small-l ancestry.  This is odd in part because the mandates that constrain behaviour flow from international law and the United Nations, usually not considered a friend by the Right.  It’s also odd because it requires a more saccharine tone than the Right are accustomed to forming: mouths are twisted in unusual ways as the spokesmouths of the Coalition’s parties adjust.

Tweets that last week could only have from ‘far left’ refugee advocacy groups are this week presented by the most fervent animals of the Conservative Inertia.  Meanwhile from supporters of the Government there comes a rash of pragmatic opinions about the sensible way to prevent boats from arriving and the benefits of offshore processing for the victims.

The future will not be allright.

All this does not mean the terms Left and Right will have no use in future discourse – far from it.  It is that the set of concepts that once grounded two great ideologies have now become irreparably separated from their moorings.   The ship of State sails on, without anchor in belief or meaning, the two large Parties aboard at liberty to take any position on any issue so long as there is some pretence at binary opposition. Even keel as long as we remember which is Port and which is Starboard.

Given what is at stake, then, the permanent negation on the lip of the Opposition leader is more constructive than it appears: a desperate effort to keep two brands from colliding.  At all costs the dichotomy must be maintained, between two distinct – if not dissimilar – entities.  It matters not how this dichotomy is drawn up, what the points of difference are:  Labor Prime Minister and Coalition Opposition Leader, Walrus and Carpenter, it’s much of a muchness at this point.  But the Westminster system demands Dichotomy.  And Australian political culture cannot abandon dichotomy in favour of more parties OR less parties without substantial cultural upheaval.

While the maddened savages of these two tribes continue to dance and jabber indistinguishably on Twitter, Qanda, in Question Time,  there are suggestions that party uniforms (in relatively sober team colours)  be introduced, together with bells of differing pitch  in order that they can be separated in the minds of onlookers.  Other mechanisms are also being considered for distinguishing the brands – or at least logos – of the ALP and the Coalition, now that there is no set of words or concepts remaining by which a true distinction might be drawn.

The awareness of the great and common purpose now before the two major political parties of the Australian System has begun to filter through to some commentators online and in the media proper.  Oddly, it has become apparent that the second-best supporters of the Left are the Right themselves.  Likewise, the Left, dependent on the Right as their foil and point of critique, certainly prefer a Conservative viewpoint to one that cannot be placed within the Dichotomy at all.  The common distaste for anyone that does not fit properly into one or another camp is something else that the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have in common.  If one or the other of the major parties were to fall, what replaces it might be dangerously public minded, idealistic, relevant, and so on.

Such is the confused desperation of some supporters of the Abbott team that they have begun to offer advice to their opponents, as though worried that rivalry may have gone too far.  Get rid of Gillard, even bring back Rudd.. this is the cry from the commons.  Clearly the best option at the moment for Abbott and team is to have Gillard at the helm at the next election.  Advice as to how to weather the coming storm is counterproductive, and inexplicable, really, unless it stems from an abiding concern from one side of politics about the possibility of a future without the other.

@Bibibabedream writes:

do the right thing & stand down Julia!


On a melancholy note, the concept of Irony has also expired during the week as a result of  abuses from within the Australian politicial milieu of the language of contradiction.

A Modest Proposal Concerning Refugees and Other Unfortunates Adrift

A Modest Proposal in Summary

The Modest Proposal outlined below is by no means profound in conception.  Rather, it concerns the extension of the Vaguely Bipartisan Policy of Sending Asylum Seekers offshore in order to process their claim to refugee status.  The proposal is this: While Australia is sending potential refugees offshore, why not extend the policy to provide solutions to other problems involving the processing of other Displaced Unfortunates?  Costs as reported of offshore habitation and so forth are greatly inflated as a result of  high expectations as to amenities and quality of care, which can be – over time – adjusted.   Criminals, the elderly, the very ill, the irreperably insane could all be processed offshore, eventually a boon to cost effectiveness in Government, with inevitable productivity gains.

Once the precedent has been set, and the moral imperative removed, it occurs at once that this policy need not exist in isolation.  Here is its real potential.  Having opened the door on these sorts of efficiencies, there is little reason to prevent their implementation in other quarters of society.  Given Australia’s growing influence as a regional power, neighbours will likely acquiesce and concede a bit of rock and sand here and there, despite the rising tides.  And so all manner of dangerous elements might be processed elsewhere, with unanticipated dividends for Australian Society.

A Philosopher on the Refugee Solution

I sit down at the keyboard in order to present the musings that followed the reading, over lunch, of an excellent article that has appeared alongside opinion pieces in the usually drab publication, The Australian.  The author, a philosopher name of Tim Soutphommasane, sets out an ethical argument that proceeds in a convincing way from high ideal to practical reality, and invites the reader to follow this course in analysing the Offshore Solution for Would-be Refugees.

Failing to assume

Many are troubled by the moral quandary that presents itself in consideration of asylum seekers who occasionally transport themselves to our shores. What many of these people have experienced is beyond anything encountered in Australia.  They, surely, are deserving of respite from trouble in a land able to give it. As deserving, at least, as anyone else in the world.

Ideally, of course, this is right.  Help everyone if possible we would.  The principle that every human being deserves assistance to the limits of our ability is sound – from this point of view the right course is to exhaust ourselves and our resources if we can give shelter. But readers who persist in doubt about the argument presented here  may well have  failed to make certain important assumptions.

Ethical Reasoning about Humans

What Soutphommasane proposes, essentially, is that the absolute, idealist system that engenders a morality of limitless compassion is clearly problematic.  One reason is that our capacity to assist falls well short of limitless.  By extension, then, more alarmist conclusions: opening the floodgates to refugees may well mean we drown ourselves in a tide of uncouth humanity, etc.

One way of looking at this utilitarian shift in perspective, is as a devolution from a system of absolute truth to a system in which right and wrong are contingent, based not only on what is right but what is possible.

First, there is a system of absolute truth and falsity about moral choices, in which things are either Right or Wrong, Better or Worse. Sure, it’s wrong to ignore the plight of people who have fled half a world from trouble.  It’s wrong to warehouse them in poorly furnished corrugated iron shacks, etc. etc. The arguments are familiar.

This rigorous and unforgiving system for deriving moralities can be replaced, as suggested, by one in which the idealistic notion, the right thing to do, is made dependent on another modality, specifically what is possible, or probable.  (In technical terms, an alethic modality supplements a deontic one).  What is better or worse is conditioned by what is possible. This is where assumptions may be inserted.

At first blush, defining what is the best thing to do given what’s possible means excluding what is not.  So, for example, it is not possible to process asylum seekers onshore.  Reasons x,y,z may be given. These need have nothing to do with any ethical frame of reference or moral standpoint, because these are constraints on that frame of reference.  We cannot process asylum seekers in Australia because it will cause social unrest.  Or because it will cost a government votes.

The after-thought, though – one which came to me while downing chicken and salad sandwiches at lunchtime – is to stop thinking about this policy in terms of what is not possible and think instead on what is possible, not only in the policy area of immigration, but well beyond.

Extending the Policy

The effect of this advice from an Esteemed Man of Letters cannot be underestimated.  Having read with voracity the sage words of  The Australian’s resident philosopher, I was myself struck with one idea after another, so that I entered into a kind of utopian fugue, in which formerly complex competing and equally valid differing sets claims about Right and Wrong resolved into dichotomies of crystal clarity. That which had been uncertain now appeared a matter of absolute finality of Truth.

The simple proposition here is that once the moral imperative to be seen to be humane is removed, a liberating rush of possibilities present themselves for curing various of the social ills that plague society today, and not only the problem of Displaced Unfortunates.

As indicated at the outset, what seems unlikely is that this policy, once conceived, will only be applied to asylum seekers, and not to other disparate groups that foment social unrest and generate a general sense of disquiet.

Here is where the efficient brilliance of Soutphommasane’s argument can be brought to bear to encompass other areas of policy.  The idealist’s ethical stance is not beyond the bounds of reason, it is merely untempered by reasonable assumptions and constraints that must also be taken into account.  History is shaped by these important, adult compromises.

The Incarcerated

One obvious example, again directly from history, is that prisoners might be housed more cheaply and effectively in the Island Satrapies surrounding the Australian continent.

The prospect of a dingy cockroach-ridden lean-to in the midst of steamy rainforest or on a tropical sand-bar may additionally prove a deterrent to the modern urban criminal, accustomed to savoir faire.

The Elderly and The Ill

The Housing of the Elderly, and some of those who are irreperably Ill, has long been a necessary burden.  Now, though, this burden may be Contingent.   Where the alternative is Social Unrest, economic ruin, or poor voter response the purely moral stance may no longer be tenable.  If it then the financial burden of maintaining these less productive human beings can be assuaged, it should be.  The outsourcing of care for some or all of these groups at the earliest opportunity appears to be recommended.  Perhaps the less fragile souls at first, then others as amenities come online.


It is not proposed – of course – that the mechanism so widely supported for the offshore processing of asylum seekers be allowed to be extended Willy-nilly to, say, the political opponents of an incumbent Government.  Naturally, this sort of abuse must be carefully mitigated against, with Checks and Balances of the most stringent sort.

Nonetheless, Temporary Expurgation Visas (we could call them – TEVs) for the very worst subversives or unrepentant teens is another possibility that presents itself with respect to offshore processing.  As stated, the policy is good for so much more than handling refugees.  Once conceived, and there is precedent, it can hardly be discounted as an option with broader application for the future.

Ethical analysis

The initial sense of relief that at last, here, some Progress can be made. may be tempered when it is remembered Responsibilities arise as a result of our Magnanimous Signing of Treaties on Human Rights. Of course, there is no Complaint about our being party to these excellent documents that uphold so fiercely the ethical standards set in recent times.

This sort of thinking, though, ties people and policies in knots.  It leads to a combination of cruelty and guilt that itself becomes a reason to despair.  Under these circumstances an Ethical Analysis may be useful for clearing mind and heart of doubt.

Theoretical reasoning of the ethical kind  permits the application of ethical systems of differing strength. As indicated, the question as to ‘what to do about refugees’ can be answered in a context of absolute right and wrong.  Probably the average thinking human can come up with some answers of this unconstrained variety: they must be helped, noone calling themselves a humane creature could turn them away.

But go back, for a moment, to the context of absolute right and wrong mentioned half-way through the last paragraph.  Consider, in and of themselves, the concepts of absolute right and wrong. What is absolutely wrong?  Murder? Well.. aren’t there always caveats?  What’s really absolutely right?

If the right effect has been achieved, it should now be possible to move away from those absolute principles of right and wrong to notions of a more utilitarian kind.

Remember, real world conditions determine what is possible.  Sometimes, unfortunately, they render the very best and most principled options untenable.  This constraint on purely moral action is therefore required to guide policy decisions from Government.  Absolute principles all very well, but they should be constrained in practice.

As long as the shift from a high moral ground to much lower one is made in this way in a purely abstract realm, the move has a kind of clinical feel about it.

When we return to the real world to apply the new ethical standards to refugees, asylum seekers, the elderly and infirm, malcontents, and so on, the new, weaker, conditional set of ethical axioms can be applied as though nothing much happened while we were gone. It is by this method of ethical analysis that we may arrive in a legitimate and comforting way at a different set of ethical standards for our actions, while barely breaking a sweat.


Amoral and ethical arguments on asylum seekers put by spokesmouths of both major political parties have peppered the political discourse in recent months.  The difficult moral questions surrounding the issue may intrude and create an impression that the rational speaker is cold or inhumane.  One means of preventing disturbing thoughts of this kind is via a serious effort to euphemise and sanitise language about the relocation of humans to countries other than our own. ‘Processing’ is the best example of administration-speak that fosters distance between policy-maker, voter, and processee.

But even ‘offshore’ is a euphemistic turn in lieu of ‘somebody else’s country.  It allows one to forego consideration of the one-sided set of power relations that permit the consideration of an Offshore Solution in the first place.  If People who believe in looking after them and theirs are being fair, they must recognise that people in other countries are concerned about them and theirs. Why, then, do they want to warehouse Australia’s offcasts?

The uncomfortable answer is the paying of tribute in return for favour from a greater power.  Australia is at the centre of a web of influence – of economic, military, and cultural power, extending far beyond her borders, matched by no other nation in the region as far afield as China and Japan. It is easy to make it hard for the tributary nation states of the Pacific to say no.

Other Linguistic Turns have eased Australia’s transition from a country wracked with crippling guilt and compassion for those less fortunate and adrift into one that deals in a decisive and constructive way with the problems that may present. The invention of language such as ‘Migration Zone’ has helped to build a corpus of sensible sounding legal and political talk that contributes towards the validation of a conditional morality on the refugee matter.

Australia’s Migration Zone obviously has no literal meaning, and did not exist even as a psychological device  before it was ingeniously written into legislation by the Conservative Government of the tiny, gnome-like then PM John Howard.

Considerable effort has gone into deploying language in interesting ways in the Matter of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in order to make all of this more palatable. And it may be argued, given the potential for the various applications of the Offshore Solution in a number of policy areas, that the taxpayer monies devoted to constructing this language has been money well spent.


Euphemism and talk in terms of boats or numbers can only do so much to dull the debilitating possibility of media-fuelled empathy for other human beings. There will be Talk, it should be conceded, of the Irony that may be seen in a Nation that began as a Penal Colony establishing colonies of its own offshore, for prisoners, the elderly, and other social jetsam.  But History is Littered with ironies of this sort.  And while we may wonder at their implication, there is little  in the way of Material Benefit that may be derived from this sort of cogitative Indulgence.


I only regret that I cannot demonstrate my conviction with regards this Scheme by offering up some malcontent among the ranks of my own family. However, I cannot,  as my family immigrated to Australia in a lawful way by air in 1990, my grandparents have already passed away, my parents are still of working age or recently retired and both able to function in capacity of worker and consumer respectively to further the prosperity of the nation.  I am, further, without subversive offspring of my own who would otherwise certainly benefit from a formative spell in a detention camp on Nauru.