On institutions


It is not a very fashionable thing to admit, I know. In our age of individual freedoms, mobile and flexible work, and myriad commercial opportunities for self-fashioning, institutions seem to invoke a world of constraint and bureaucracy with which many people would like to do away. And worse, from the banking crisis and parliamentary expenses scandals to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, institutions have been shown to have perpetrated crimes and damaged individuals in ways that involve fundamental abuses of trust. Institutions do not get very good press and, in many ways, nor should they.

But institutions hold us in time and they connect us to each other. This is why I love them and this is why they are part of explaining what has gone wrong, and central to working out what we might do to make it right.

The institution I know best is the university. Universities still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. For all their problems, they are still places that recognise the messy, uncertain and often troubling aspects of human life. Universities are founded on an acknowledgement that we are meaning-making creatures, that so much about life is uncertain, and that expertise takes years to develop. Their power lies in their relational character: it is not monetised exchange and short-term benefit that underpins their mission, but rather an encounter with ideas and with each other. With their buildings, books and bequests they draw us into a form of time that stretches out beyond the life of any one of us; and with their bars and playing fields and classrooms they bring us into an engagement with one another. In doing so they equip us with thick forms of connection: knowledge, ethics of participation and relationships that give us ways to live and to f lourish in the fractured and f luid world of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’.


SO MUCH OF our popular discourse celebrates choice and the liberation it seems to entail. From choosing schools for our kids and managing our own superannuation, to making meaning in the ways that best suit us, we respond well to the idea that we have control over our own destinies. But policies of choice eat away at the thick forms of connection that bring us assistance and purpose. They can leave us in a lonely state, marooned by a f lood of information we cannot process, without enough time to do everything, and vulnerable to exploitation. There are agencies that might sell us services, but these come with a hefty price tag, and often they do not offer the kind of help we really need. We know this, because when the big ruptures come upon us – sickness, death, unemployment or desperation – it is to institutions that we still invariably turn, both for practical help and for more existential forms of consolation.

Commonly, when we speak of institutions we think of established organisations that have a particular cause or purpose. We think of bodies or foundations that, like universities, own and manage assets, operate over time and endure beyond the life of any one of us. Some of these are public and managed by the state, such as libraries, state schools, law courts, the armed services and the ABC; while others, such as trade unions, churches, NGOs and charities, are more often seen as part of civil society. Their fortunes in the last few decades have been mixed: some, like the military and private schools, have flourished under deregulation and the geo-politics of post-9/11; others, such as public broadcasters or legal aid, have come under new kinds of pressure; while a third group, including universities and religious groups, have sought to adapt.

However, sociologists tend to regard institutions not only as formal organisations, but in two much broader senses as well: first as informal groupings of people, and second as established and recognisable practices such as durable systems of prevailing social rules or norms, something Geoffrey M Hodgson outlines in his 2006 article for the Journal of Economic Issues. Charlotte Linde has written on these other ways of thinking about institutions in her book Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory (Oxford University Press, 2008). For her, an institution is ‘any social group that has a continued existence over time, whatever its degree of reification or formal status might be’. It is any social form or practice that is thick with cultural significance, around which behaviour becomes sticky: the way we tell stories about who we are, traditions that create shared meaning, our social networks and our common practices such as language, manners, traffic rules and marriage. The boundaries between these different kinds of institution can be blurry, not least because formal institutions (such as universities) create around them a variety of informal groupings, but this sense of the ‘stickiness’ of social relations is central to them all.

The constraining features of institutions come easily to mind, but when we think about the wider definition of institutions their enabling aspects become more apparent. Spoken language serves as a good example. It is the unwritten and socially embedded rules of language systems that make it possible for speakers (many of whom will not have formally learnt grammar) to communicate and understand each other. Similarly, in a more formally organised institution such as the university, it is through limitations on behavior – in the form of disciplinary divisions, the scientific method, professional conduct, the recognition of superior expertise, personal discipline and the utilisation of resources – that individual education and the advance of knowledge take place. These conventions, and their material instantiation in buildings and bequests and classrooms, enable scholars and students to pass on knowledge and develop it. Transmitted across time, institutions structure social interactions – both constraining and enabling our behavior.


THE LAST THREE decades have brought significant changes to the ways institutions work. While our grandparents lived in a world structured by continuing practices of work, family and religion, today these three institutions play very different roles in our lives.

Many of these changes can be traced back to the 1960s and ’70s. This was the generation of the Baby Boomers, born in the aftermath of the Second World War. Raised amid the rapid economic and technological changes of the 1950s, they chafed against the social, cultural and political constraints of the world they inherited. These dissatisfactions came together in a set of actions that included decolonisation, the anti-Vietnam War and student protests, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and the civil, indigenous, women’s and gay rights movements.

These actions shared a desire to free individuals from political and cultural constraint. They took as their targets the authoritarian, unequal and exploitative structures of labour, capital, culture and meaning that were predominantly enshrined in the laws and practices of the state, but were also expressed in the institutions of work, family and religion. What these movements had in their sights was a society in which power was held by white male ruling elites. They wanted women to have a status outside the family, with equal economic and political opportunities and the right to reproductive control, including abortion. African–American students should be able to attend the same schools as white students, homosexuality should be legalised, and sex should be liberated from the restrictions of religion and custom. This generation did not want to work in the ways their parents had: travailleur: tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l’autre siècle (worker: you are 25 years old but your trades union belongs to another century) was one of the graffiti slogans of 1968 Paris. Their rejection of the social norms and authority of the old institutions found expression in the blossoming of alternative cultures and lifestyles, which included the rejection of traditional forms of work, the emergence of folk, electric and rock music, recreational drugs, alternative diets, free love and an embrace of Eastern and non-traditional religion.

We owe so much to these shifts of the 1960s. Although inequalities of race, gender and class remain with us, many of the personal freedoms we enjoy today stem from the reforms of that time. Indigenous land rights, equality legislation, racial tolerance and even what is called ‘the creative industries’ can all be counted as part of its legacy.

Images of the 1960s as a generation of freedom loom large in our public imagination, and we often remember these decades as a time of individual liberation from institutional constraint. But we would do well to remember that if it was a period in which old institutions and forms of authority were robustly contested, it was also one in which new state institutions were created to provide many of the social services that were previously embedded in the old institutions. Health care, unemployment benefits, subsidised tertiary education and childcare were all established as alternative forms of support, liberating the individual from reliance on the institutionalised structures of family, work and religion. These state institutions were thought necessary to mitigate inequality and the pernicious social effects of the unchecked market. This is important, because much of the impact of the social and cultural movements of the 1960s did not take broad effect until the 1980s and 1990s. And just as most people began living according to the ethics of 1960s liberation movements, a new kind of economic policy was beginning to undo the state institutions that made those lives possible.


THE ECONOMIC CRISES of the 1970s, which culminated in high inflation and high unemployment, brought an end to the period of prosperity that had underpinned Western economies in the postwar period. This made governments receptive to the adoption of ‘monetarist’ policies, of which renowned American economist Milton Friedman was a strong proponent. The idea behind monetarism is that control over the money supply (rather than fiscal interventions such as taxation and spending) should be the chief means by which governments moderate economic fluctuations such as inflation. However, as historian Daniel Stedman Jones points out so clearly in his book, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton University Press, 2012), belief in monetarism was not the same as commitment to an unfettered free market (indeed, it could be a way for states to steer the market) and in the 1970s monetarist policies were widely adopted across the world by governments of both the left and the right. But in the 1980s and 1990s, as the recession continued in Australia (with manufacturing hit hard and poor prices for commodity exports contributing to large current-account deficits), economic policies were introduced that favoured the privatisation of state-owned enterprises and utilities and the deregulation of the finance and other industries – many of them by the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating.

Since the 1990s, these shifts have been taken even further by governments of the political right that have believed in the justice and efficiency of unencumbered markets in all spheres of life. This philosophy views the individual as a consumer in a marketplace in which competition – unimpeded by government regulation – allocates not only the distribution of goods and services, but also their value. According to this logic, education, healthcare, water, power, communications, the air we breathe and the earth under our feet can all be priced and traded. Driven by this market philosophy, governments from the 1990s onward have steadily introduced reforms that target the state institutions of the 1960s and ’70s, establishing market mechanisms within them and allowing and incentivising private providers to sell what once were considered essential public services. It is undeniable that many of these services needed change and reform, but it is striking that market mechanisms have been judged the best way to achieve this.

The advent of digital technology has given a particular character to these changes by further disembedding many aspects of our lives and releasing us from dependence on place-based ties. It has enabled employees to work from home or when travelling and at the same time has increased self-employment and outsourcing. It has disrupted old industries, both by bringing service providers more directly to the consumer through hand-held and internet-enabled devices (think airlines, or car services like Uber) and also through the new kinds of data aggregation it enables. Similarly, it has changed old institutions that used to mediate access to information, such as the press, the library and the university, by making it available through a host of online platforms (many of them free). It also has changed the way we relate to each other; by drawing our social networks online, it has made them at once displayed and disembodied. In the process it has allowed for new modes of production as well as consumption.

The catchcry of this new economy is ‘freedom of choice’ – a mantra that seems to echo that of the social movements of the 1960s. In his book The World Beyond Your Head (Viking Press, 2015), philosopher and bike-mechanic Matthew Crawford makes this connection. He argues that the liberation of the individual from various identities, obligations and allegiances in the 1960s has influenced the character of what he calls ‘economic individualism’ in our own age. ‘The economics of the right,’ he writes, ‘became infused with the moral fervour of the youthful left in a grand synthesis of liberation that gave us the figure of the bohemian entrepreneur as the exemplary human type.’ After all, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, came of age in San Francisco in the early 1970s. The new digital economy might seem to offer us freedoms associated with the older ideas of 1960s liberation, but in its celebration of the detached entrepreneur it is much more closely aligned with the market economic politics of the 1990s and 2000s. Crawford wants us to recognise not only that the idea of the sovereign individual has become our norm, but that it is a norm on which the profits of the new digital and consumer industries are premised.

In the same vein, it is useful to think of the trajectory of the writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens. For much of his early career he identified as a socialist and a Marxist. Mobilised by an opposition to racism and nuclear weapons and marching against Vietnam, he was active in the protest and counter-culture movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Civil liberties were at the centre of his thought until his death in 2011. But Hitchens grew angry over what he saw as the failure of the left to defend Salman Rushdie after the publication in 1988 of his book The Satanic Verses (Viking Press). Attracted to American foreign policy that promoted military intervention in support of liberalism, he aligned himself with the neo-conservatives after 9/11. This preparedness to defend liberalism against what Hitchens saw as Islamic terrorism was accompanied by a strident atheism that saw all organised religion as, to quote his book God is Not Great (Twelve, 2007), ‘violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children’. A commitment to personal freedom and a sense of the inhibiting effects of institutions were continuous threads throughout his career, but Hitchens’ shift to the political right shows that this commitment could be harnessed to the politics of the right as well as the left.

Both of these stories point to the ways in which the ethic of individual liberation that animated the social and political movements of the 1960s and ’70s has become a slogan for a set of economic policies that understand the individual as the chief means, and chief end, of human activity.


AND WHAT IS so bad about that? We revel in the flexibility of our digital world. We celebrate our culture’s opportunities for self-curation, re-invention and mobility, and we chafe at the bureaucratic controls and procedural red tape that characterises state institutions.

Yet who among us feels we have enough time?

New technologies, global liberalisation of trade and the marketisation of public services have brought radical changes to the nature of work and social life in ways we do not always find liberating. Digital devices bring work out of the office and into the intimate spaces of our home. We are always on call and we find it hard to detach even when we are not. Flexible hours impede opportunities for collective leisure, with proposed changes to penalty rates further eroding the idea of a shared ‘weekend’.

At the same time, the marketisation of our everyday life means we spend much more of our leisure time shopping for essential services – deciding which financial, educational or health ‘product’ to buy, and ferrying ourselves and family members across town to access them. Without the old institutions that shared in some of these tasks and made them meaningful, our daily labours and the work of caring for children, the sick and the elderly can be exhausting or lonely or both, especially for women who continue to assume much of this responsibility. The market logic has seeped so completely into our lives that even in the intimacy of our relationships we speak its language, ‘spending time’ and ‘allocating emotional resources’.

We find ourselves stuck in a predicament where our society of choice is one that only the strong, highly informed, wealthy, healthy and continually available can navigate. We all need wives, says Annabel Crabb, getting at the same problem of time depletion from a different angle. The new economy gives us many choices, but it can also render us overstretched and alone, exacting an enormous toll on our physical and mental wellbeing, and putting up for sale the moral and civic goods we value most.

Market logic is not – as philosopher Michael Sandel shows in his book, What Money Can’t Buy (Macmillan, 2012) – morally neutral. It changes the things we value and the ways we live together. Sandel gives the example of Israeli daycare centres, which sought to discourage parents who were late to collect their children by introducing fines. But this policy led not to a decrease, but instead to an increase in late collection. The fine had become a fee, which effectively gave parents permission to be late. The daycare centres went back to the old system, but the social norm had been changed and the old idea of collective responsibility no longer governed parents’ behaviour. Sandel is not against markets per se – he believes they can have positive effects in their correct domain – but he thinks there are areas of life in which markets do not and should not belong. When it comes to communal goods, his book methodically shows, markets are unequal and they degrade the things we value. The market economy may be beneficial; the market society is not.

These experiences tell us that freedom of choice is not the same as liberation, and that trying to live in a world governed entirely by choice is a form of entrapment that is alienating and unequal.


THE ALIENATING EFFECTS of life in a marketised society lead us back to institutions, and to think again about the work that the old institutions of family, work and religion did for the generations of people who lived (and still live) within them.

On the one hand, they oriented people in time. Institutions made sense of the routines of daily life, with its acts of labour, care, commerce and prayer, by connecting these menial tasks to something bigger – be it the dignity of work and professional service, the family name, national belonging, or conceptions of salvation and eternity. The sometimes difficult and mundane tasks of the everyday made more sense when they were linked to these larger stories. These institutions also helped to order the passage through life with rituals that were recognisable and repeatable in that they placed life events such as birth and death and marriage within the context of systems of meaning that extended beyond them.

On the other hand, they held people in a much more practical sense. The daily and the enduring were mediated in a human and practical way through professional associations, pubs or trade unions, homes, neighbourhood associations, and parishes or congregations. These were places where people came together not just for reasons of doctrine or shared conviction, but also for a whole host of social and material reasons. Information was exchanged about the weather, the harvest and local council politics. Work was on offer, business was done, and people met their husbands and wives. Education circles formed, the labour of childcare was shared, meals were cooked for the sick and the elderly, and social contact was offered and received. If you didn’t turn up you were missed, and when you did turn up, something was expected of you.

I do not wish to paint a sentimental picture. Our concerns about these institutions are in many ways well placed. Those within them who dissented, who aspired to participate in ways unsanctioned, or who simply did not fit, frequently found precious little room to move. Roles were limited by gender and social background, and the boundaries between inside and outside were highly policed, tending – especially when institutions came into conflict – towards sectarianism, suffocation and segregation.

Yet I do want us to think carefully about what it is that makes our lives meaningful, what it is to be human and what makes our societies liveable. There is something important that these old institutions recognised, which our new world of privatised provision fails to see.

Every time we cheer for our football team, walk in the bush, care for a sick parent, take our child to her first day at school, watch an old film, dig in our gardens, hold the hand of a lover, or sing along at the concert of our favourite band, we are valuing a form of time that is longer and deeper than that of quarterly reports and annual budgets. It is the time of inheritance – of what we receive and what we leave behind; the time of things that cannot be bought and sold. It is continuous time, rather than fractured time.

We need to feel connected and we need a sense of purpose. We need to be able to be vulnerable and a bit uncertain, and we need ways to make sense both of our day-to-day acts, and also of the bigger questions. We need places where the logic of the market does not extend.

That is why we need still need institutions, and why we need them now more than ever.


THE POLITICS OF privatisation and the unchecked market erode institutional power and association for a reason. It is the thick forms of human association, mobilised around bigger ideas of the good such as the environment, fair work or our common humanity, and empowered by practical organisation and resources, that pose the biggest obstacles to them.

It is, therefore, these thick forms of human association – of social connection and meaning – that we need to foster if we are to flourish in the age of liquid modernity. They connect us to each other in time and space. In doing so, they not only recognise the embedded and messy nature of our actual lives, they also give us ways to mitigate the alienating effects of unchecked market logic and to keep it out of domains in which it does not belong.

It is not just disappointment we feel when institutions let us down, it is indignation – as if something fundamental about the way the world works has been dishonoured. But as Hugh Heclo puts it in his book, On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford University Press, 2011), ‘[i]n a backhanded way, our capacity to feel betrayed speaks to a residual trust in institutional values’. Getting angry at the way institutions fail us is not a sign we want to do away with them, it is an indication that we want them to be better.

This suggests that, despite their many flaws, we have a deep awareness that institutions serve critical functions that bind and safeguard us as citizens and consumers. They make our society fairer by performing functions that privatised providers simply cannot. They make information publicly available, ensure fair trade, due process and equitable access, and recognise we are all creatures who have need of material care and assistance. And because they endure through time – sitting above party politics or momentary fashion – they are a crucial part of what makes our democratic society a robust one. They are tools that help our society survive economic hardship and reap long-term benefits from prosperity; they help us work through political tension and resolve disputes because they are not the creations of our moment only. They need continually to be reformed, but always in ways that are measured against a public good that extends beyond the interest of one generation or socio-economic group.

Because the thing about institutions is that they make claims to power, and in making claims to power they offer themselves up for accountability. This is a good and a necessary thing. Institutions out of step with their times were quite rightly the targets of the 1960s protest movements. But it is possible to curb and to change institutions that make claims to power. It is much less easy to hold to account market forces that work in more invisible and insidious ways.

This is why I say I love institutions: while interest-based engagement leads to disconnection when that interest is not met, love only gets stronger and more energetic as the threat to it draws nearer. Love involves an obligation to hold and be held accountable; it entails an undertaking to reform and, yes, it can sometimes mean heartbreak. But above all, love requires participation.

Institutions make calls upon us: by bequeathing to us the resources of the past and by embedding us in place, they ask us to act in the best interests of the future and each other. Institutions draw us into relationships that are about more than making a sale. The generation that currently holds power has failed to act in ways that attend to this social contract between the past and the future. Although they were beneficiaries of the free state institutions of the 1970s, so many of their policies mortgage the future, sending the next generation into debt, ruining our environment and pitching us into an ever more desperate battle for basic resources, in which the already rich are massively advantaged.

Without institutions this might seem like an intractable problem, but the wonderful thing is that, although they ask us to act, institutions do so in ways that are human and achievable. Institutions give us congregations to join, sporting clubs to belong to, democratic practices to engage in, and PT&F associations to serve on. They give us ways of not being alone.

This middle level of institutional operation matters enormously. It is what makes tangible and participatory the link that institutions make between our daily practice and the big questions of justice and purpose. It is also what makes institutions powerful agents in the world. Lobbying government, protecting our common wealth (most notably the environment), creating systems that recognise our shared needs, holding in check the power of big capital, keeping market logic where it belongs – all these things can only happen when people come together with material resources, organisation and strategy that work at the highest as well as the humblest levels.

We can change a system that steals our time and depletes our civic community if we participate in something that will exist after we are gone. So find an institution that links the past and the future together and brings you into social encounter with other people; that has a purpose that is about more than mere profit; and that finds expression in practical organisation. Make sure it is feminist; that it has a commitment to equality, to the universality of human need; and that it understands the work of care. Then join one of its congregations. You will know when you have found its congregations because they meet regularly and people in them miss you when you do not attend, and expect something of you when you do. Often they are just around the corner.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review