Ill fares the land of screaming budgets
Illustration: John Spooner
It was a happy coincidence that, in budget week with its bloodied axes and bandages, I was reading Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder. Both are historians.
The book, published this year, arose from months of conversations between Snyder and Judt in 2009. Judt had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease), a condition that rapidly brings paralysis and death, as it did to Judt, who died in August, 2010, aged 62.
Judt wrote numerous works on history such as Ill Fares the Land, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century and Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. He also wrote the beautiful memoir The Memory Chalet.
I haven't read every word Judt wrote, (that would be a Herculean task, though a joy) but I would wager it's a very safe bet that he never wrote about federal budgets in Australia. Pity. But then life is short, too short as it happened for Judt. He had larger matters on his mind.
Still, it would have been an intriguing exercise to read his analysis of the relationship in this country between government and the people seen through the long lens of politics, trade and trade-offs.
At first glance, he would have been dismayed at the extent to which life is hitched to the express train of consumerism. This is not a unique trait to Australia, but it is one in which we feel at home. In time it may well enter our DNA, if it hasn't already.
Judt wrote in Ill Fares the Land: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost, but have no idea what they are worth."
We suffer, he believed, in "the delusion of endless growth". It is a delusion that springs from forgetting the past, or even worse, believing that there is no past beyond your own life.
I said happy coincidence at the start because in an abstract way a section of what is discussed in Judt's last work and what has gone on — goes on — in Canberra have parallel paths. It is to do with power: who controls it, how it is used, why it is used, where and when it is used.
If one were an alien looking at this planet from light years away, humankind would be seen, despite all its towering achievements, as a cosmic tragi-farce or a theatre of the absurd. Philosophically, as Judt illustrated via a veteran communist's description, dialectics was "the art and technique of always landing on your feet". Quite so.
As it is in the nation's capital. Every year, the government of the day measures its worth by what it has in its budget. Why it should be so is no mystery. It is of no benefit to the people, but to those with the megaphones. For this is a sideshow from the main event. It is a display of power. Does the nation need "Budget Day" to do what it needs to do? No. It is also a pursuit of material self-interest.
When Wayne Swan or Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey go into battle in the days after "Budget Day" they will be dialectical technicians, embracing the art of "always landing on your feet", despite everything.
It is here that one Vladimir Ilich Lenin comes to Canberra. In Thinking the Twentieth Century, this exchange occurs:
Snyder: I wonder if Lenin's success doesn't also have to do with a certain audacity about the future. ... For Lenin, ethics are retroactively instrumental. Little lies, small deceptions, insignificant betrayals and passing dissimulations will all make sense in the light of later results and will be rendered morally acceptable by them. And what is true for small things ends up applying to big ones, too.
Judt: A further distinction of consequence concerns those making future-dependent calculations on their own behalf or behalf of others, and those making such calculations and feeling at liberty to impose them on others. It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorise the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.
Granted Judt and Snyder are discussing the moral morass that was Soviet communism in which millions of lives were destroyed, but there is a fundamental truth there as well that underpins the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. It is, when it comes to sacrifice, the loser is often the one who has no voice.
In a democracy we have a voice and we trust those in whom we vote to deliver what we believe in. Even the loser has a voice next time round. However, by its nature, democracy is an imperfect system. Obviously, not everyone has the same belief, nor the same willingness for sacrifice. But one hopes, perhaps foolishly, that all believe in common standards of life, such as helping those less fortunate than ourselves whether it be in health or education. This is the measure of the arc of progress. It does not move like an express train.
This week, statistics will rain down upon us. Some people and groups will be materially better off; some will be worse. The true measure of a nation's political players is in their strength of character to speak for all. Each side has, of course, different ideas on how to do this. But in recent times, how could one not sigh and think, what are their words worth? What is being sacrificed to power?