Essay

Restoring wholeness

Listening to country

AS A POLITICAL (and social) theorist, my thinking has always been anchored in a passionate attachment to the Australian people – the polity. My thinking has been guided by contemporary questions of how to think about our polity and the challenges that face it. 

I have been the kind of political scientist who addresses contemporary collective challenges. I have worked on the idea of the state and public life; citizenship and personhood; social democracy as a historical ethical project; the democratisation of the administrative state as this relates to the question of the purpose and quality of publicly funded service delivery; the related question of how those who do the work of public policy and administration understand their roles and work. I’ve worked as a political and social theorist as well as in the practical side of public policy. I’ve explored the importance of how we conceive politics and political institutions – the importance especially of political rhetoric – in opening a space for imaginative and creative responses to collective challenges. I have considered the core question of institutional design – how the state serves as a public container for society – as central to whether our different kinds of interdependence function in ways that facilitate or harm our wellbeing. Now, as an emeritus professor, I’ve come to realise that in Australia, one conversation – one invitation and the very language and tradition from which it’s made – offers us an opportunity to re-vision our polity (who we are as the Australian people) in a way that is timely and responsive to the existential collective challenges of this century. If we are to take up this opportunity it will ask of us that we reframe ideas of wealth and wellbeing, which, in the current neoliberal moment, is a useful place to start.

 

IN THE MARKET economy, wealth – a word that originates in the idea of weal or wellbeing – takes the form of private property (not the same as personal property). Wealth can no longer be a common weal. Private property involves the disposition of subjectivism: the belief that I can do what I like with what is lawfully mine. The ideology of private property (‘proprietarianism’ as Thomas Piketty calls it) makes ownership of property in the form of capital a foundational right in two senses. First, it trumps all other rights claims. Second, even though – as Piketty demonstrates – politically unchecked capitalism leads to extremes of inequality of both income and capital, proprietarians argue that the creation of private wealth is the driver of economic growth and that economic growth benefits everyone.

The extension of the capitalist market economy in the twentieth century developed into what we call consumerism, the notion that I can have what I want and that the role of the market is to anticipate wants I do not know I have. Consumerism is stratified to minutely reflect the range of inequalities of wealth and income that come with a regime of private property. Public or common goods such as education are transposed into a hierarchical and status-driven system of consumer products. This provides the motivation to acquire as much income and capital as possible and pass these onto one’s children (the ‘Matthew effect’ of accumulated advantage).

Capitalism brings about the instrumentalisation of all relationships on behalf of the accumulation and consumption of private wealth. Progress is viewed in terms of the supposed adaptive evolutionary success of human society in mastering the natural environment. The question of value is reduced to technologies of problem-solving on behalf of that mastery. Organisations lose such non-instrumental purposes as they may have had and are restructured as managerial bureaucracies with the maximisation of market value as their rationale. All human capacities are commercialised, and the ensouled nature of creative work is discounted and falls away.

The extremity of subjectivism is expressed in the view that there is no such thing as reality to constrain and limit us. The anthropocentric arrogance expressed in the idea that human beings construct their own reality is now ubiquitous.

All these dispositions – capitalism, productivism, consumerism, technologism, managerialism, constructivism – are different expressions of the idea that human beings can do what they like, without limits or consequences. Subjectivism fosters interventionism, the belief that the all-powerful human subject is the one in control and can sort things out. The delusional nature of this belief is obvious and makes it impossible for us to share a capacity to attend to reality.

Subjectivism involves the generalising of what Martin Buber calls an ‘I-it’ relationship to all phenomenal reality – where the integrity of things disappears, and each ‘it’ is present only so far as it serves a subjective will to power that is expressed in increased monetary return to productive activity. The master value of such activity is efficiency in the realisation of increased monetary value. John Dewey’s pragmatism offers a philosophical justification of this world view. For Dewey, there is nothing intrinsically unethical: there are only more or less inefficient practices. Slavery is inefficient when set against less coercive forms of employment. Thus Dewey declares: ‘No ends are accomplished without the use of force,’ and he concludes: ‘The criterion of value lies in the relative efficiency and economy of the expenditure of force as a means to an end.’

Once efficiency becomes the master value, it makes sense to see the competitive market economy as the best way of organising society. Since the 1980s, this view has come to prevail. To be sure, what Philip Mirowski calls ‘the neoliberal thought collective’ has been an influential enabler of this. But neoliberalism would never have taken root if it were not the distillation of the forces of subjectivism. The neoliberal world view is more symptom than cause of the current situation.

Once, social democracy stood for the ideal of the ethical state. For the greater part of the twentieth century, its role was to offer the state as a public container for the capitalist market economy and to ensure that capitalism did not destroy the common good. Social democracy has proved no match for the forces of subjectivism. The historical legatees of the social-democratic project have abandoned their commitment to a ‘mixed’ economy with both public and private forms of ownership. They have succumbed to the proprietarian untruth that welfare services can be funded only by capitalist economic growth.

The loss of the ideal of an ethical state is disastrous for any democratic public and self-governing political community. Democracy is deformed into populist aristocracy, of rule by the great of the small. There is no capacity to speak of the public good that it is not reducible to the activity of private economic interest. This has created a situation where it is both legitimate and legal for powerful private interests to set the policy framework and a good deal of the agenda for government.

In her posthumous book The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt identifies two forms of thinking where the first, ‘understanding’, provides the horizon of meaning for a second, ‘cognition’. Understanding is grounded in earthbound experience. It involves the bringing of imagination and reflection to bear on that experience in the search for meaning. When cognition is unmoored from understanding, knowledge operates without reference to meaning. It turns into forms of logicality that are self-referential and displace experience and the possibility of learning from it.

Awareness of the destructive forces of subjectivism has been with us for some time. Major twentieth-century theologians such as Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Arendt, sought to alert us to its dangers. They were complemented by a host of ‘personal growth’ movements in the twentieth century that continue to develop in this century. These movements offer practices of awareness, inviting the human being to give herself to a journey of maturation and centre this journey on her own flourishing as this intersects with that of others. These movements are oriented to the integration of psyche and soma, to the development of the individual coming to trust and reflect upon her lived experience. They are oriented to the individual assuming responsibility for how she impacts others and how she deals with their impact on her own life.

Such movements offer an ecological conception of the human being in relation to the world where how each of us acts really matters. They invite us to become acquainted with emotional pain and to practise patience, grace, forgiveness and humility. They invite us to become aware that our creativity depends on embracing uncertainty and not knowing, leaving aside our ego-centred needs for control and opening to what Wilfred Bion called ‘thoughts without a thinker’.

Now, as the destructive forces of industrial society reach further into the life systems of our planetary community, such awareness takes on a collective character. It is profoundly painful, given our complicity with the forces of subjectivism. It just feels too much. We are paralysed. But even paralysis can be a good thing if we are open to its meaning. It can take us into the state of fruitful not-knowing, a state of creative waiting and potency. We become available to the emergent processes of transition. As the late Passionist priest Thomas Berry put it, ‘the psychic energy’ of a modern industrial era ‘is no longer available’. So work of transformation is needed. Yet the forces of destruction continue apace. We cannot match them with a different kind of interventionism – that will only produce more of the same.

 

BUBBLING AWAY BENEATH the cracked surfaces of the brittle carapace of our political-corporate elites is a growing awareness that we have to rethink our idea of who we are and revisit the fundamentals of how we organise ourselves. We are now experiencing the breakdown of old ways of thinking and doing; we are in the chaotic throes of transition. This transition is informed by those twentieth-century movements of integration of psyche and soma, for they refused the subjectivist dualism of mind and body; they showed how the complex embodied nature of individual being is formed or deformed in the course of an individual’s interaction with her environment. An ecological understanding of ourselves and our relationships has spread slowly but surely. We have become curious about how collective and individual trauma assumes an intergenerational aspect and we ask: how can we stop a cycle of continuing harm and violence? We glimpse how these patterns enter into the whole of our lives and implicate all our relationships, not just with each other but with those we call animals and plants.

Transformative work is required of us – as Berry puts it: ‘The transformation required is a transformation from an anthropocentric norm of reality and value to a biocentric or geocentric norm.’ This means that we confront ‘a transition greater than any historical transition that has ever taken place in human affairs’.

It is certainly daunting. Operative ideas of ethics, justice, law and politics are still anthropocentric, but there are promising signs of change – for example, in the ‘Oslo Manifesto’ for Ecological Law and Governance that calls for ‘a just, flourishing world where state and global governance systems protect the foundations of life’. No amount of panicked and reactive hurrying can substitute for the inner growth that is needed if future action is to be wise and creative.

I think of the young, highly educated and intelligent Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) activist I talked with for an hour by phone. I donate money to the AYCC, and this activist told me of its ongoing work, soliciting a further donation. I wanted so much to find a way of saying to him, no need, I will still donate, let’s stop this marketing business. Is it possible for AYCC to re-organise as a conversational community out of which action can flow? A structured intergenerational dialogue and mutual education? He did listen. But right now, we do not have a common language to persuade an activist with up-to-the-minute knowledge of corporate greed and destruction that they should hasten slowly. The organisational mode of society means even ‘defenders of the environment’ copy the management, performance and marketing structures of the private corporation.

If we are to come into deep conversation with each other, we have to give up our trained modes of speaking. They can inform our dialogue, but they cannot be permitted to displace it. We need to develop practices of understanding that can reorient professional and academic ways of knowing. For this to happen, all forms of self-referential discourses of control must be surrendered, abandoned. As we make our way into deep conversation with each other, we can discover a shared greatness of spirit, where it becomes evident that we cannot split off how we feel and sense from how we think and interact. A greatness of spirit that is expressed in how we hold the space for each other when one of us has the courage to express the anguish we experience in the face of the destruction wrought by industrial-commercial society. We cannot do this work if we do not rethink our place in relation to the whole. We are not outside the whole. We are within it and as dependent on its integral functioning as any other creaturely being. It makes no sense for us to position ourselves in relation to the whole as ‘subject’ to ‘object’. If we are to rethink the nature of our being, we have to engage in what Buber calls an ‘I-thou’ listening relationship – characterised by being present to each other in our respective integrity – with our fellow human and more-than-human beings.

Personally, I doubt we can do this if we continue to be determinedly secular in our thinking, because a commitment to being determinedly secular lies at the heart of anthropocentrism. When human beings position themselves outside ‘reality’ looking in, they cannot possibly sustain a view of themselves as each instantiating and belonging within a sacred whole. An emphasis on human beings as the chosen few drowns awareness of what Danielle Celermajer and Anne O’Brien call the multi-being community of creation. We cannot give up our anthropocentrism and its subjectivism if we do not develop a cosmological account of ourselves. While some philosophers (such as Hegel) offer accounts of human development as an expression of the evolution of the whole, they do not offer a coherent cosmology because of their attachment to subject-object dualism.

If each of us is to become whole, then we have to see ourselves as within and part of – as belonging to – the whole. We need a coherent creation narrative as our primary narrative.

We have such a story in the new science of the evolution of the universe. This story reveals both the psychic-spiritual and the physical-material levels of the universe and all it comprises. Were we to embrace a creation story for our times, we could bring ourselves into a relationship of continuity with our human inheritance, which, until very recently, was structured in terms of the great wisdom traditions (the world religions, myth and Indigenous cosmologies). Instead of identifying with the strange secular exceptionalism of modern society, which positions itself in a subject-object relationship to the world and cuts itself off from this inheritance, we could learn from these wisdom traditions. Each of them has its own distinctive revelation to offer, and in appreciating it, we bring these traditions into relationship with one another.

Traditions die if they do not live. If a contemporary ecological consciousness is helping to bring them alive again, this becomes transformative when it enters into how we humans understand ourselves. Here women’s increasingly definitive refusal of patriarchy is of immense importance: as Thomas Berry wrote in his 1999 book The Great Work, ‘Without this newly assertive consciousness of women, Western civilization might have continued indefinitely on its destructive path without ever coming to a realization of just what has been happening in the exclusion of women from full participation in the human project.’ Women’s integration of body and mind, heart and soul, intuition and reasoning, feeling consciousness and intellectual analysis, intimacy and detachment, and subjective presence with objective distance calls into question the structures of anthropocentric subjectivism. Of course some men have made extraordinary contributions to the integration of psyche and soma. Think of great post-Freudians such as Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, for example. But they were influenced by the modern feminist movement and by a historically new capacity to value all human beings (women and children as well as men) as individuals in their own right. It is this individualisation of human relationships that has made it possible for us to renounce a patriarchal mode of social organisation threaded through and through with an anthropocentric narcissism.

IF WE ARE to embrace an evolutionary creation narrative of ourselves in community with all earthly beings, this has to enter into our everyday existence. We must learn to listen to country. What does this mean? It is not just learning about planetary life systems but coming to a practical understanding of how this system concretely manifests as the bioregions in which we live and on which we depend. These become ‘country’ in the Australian Indigenous sense: a place for a people to dwell. It is time to revalue the history of Australia as an inherently place-bound entity. Perhaps we will discover that more often than not the nation is expressed in a jurisdictional-territorial identity that heeds the determinacies of the bioregions it comprises.

Such a discovery would mean nothing at all if it did not invite us to affirm the sovereignty of the nation-state as an institutional and lawful set of relationships between a people and its governing institutions. As a politically autonomous form of association, the state should enjoy sovereign power. If the state is to assume responsibility of caring for place, then its political autonomy must be affirmed.

Instead of carelessly abandoning the call of place in ill-conceived adventures in globalism, we need to do the opposite: to reclaim our nation state or polity as custodian of the part of planet Earth in which we dwell. In so doing, Australians can engage with the First Peoples of Australia in mutually creative dialogue and collaboration. This continent’s First Nations offer a powerful idea of country to all of us. As Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly wrote in their 2020 collection Songlines, ‘We do not own the land; the land owns us.’

If we come to understand Australia as country, then we come to the Uluru Statement from the Heart – and know how to receive it. We mistake what the statement asks of us if we think that recognising the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes’ as ‘the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands’ is based simply on the status of being first here. The foundational nature of the claim arises out of a cosmological creation story of Australia that is also the story of how each of these First Nations came into being. Margo Neale puts it succinctly: ‘regardless of people’s views or biases, the Aboriginal story is the foundation story of this continent and thus central to the Australian story.’ Long before the federation of the settler colonies in 1901, Australia’s First Nations articulated a sense of the identity of the Australian nation in the songlines or Dreaming tracks: ‘[a]s a set of complex arterial connections, the songlines comprise an organic network of lines crisscrossing the continent along distributed nodes of concentrated knowledge, often referred to as sites of significance (places) and also known as story places.’

In the Aboriginal creation story the First Nations assume responsibility for their respective parts of the country. They are partners in the ongoing process of creation. When the idea of sovereignty is embedded in a cosmology, it is no longer anthropocentric. Sovereignty is not just legal and political but also spiritual.

The words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, their poetic-spiritual-political revelation and their summoning of us to truly listen, can be easily missed by those of us who have learned to treat words as instruments of transactional exchange. The Uluru Statement re-sacralises Australia as country. Here creation, the common law and science all come together:

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

The Uluru Statement offers us a profound gift at this time. Non-Indigenous Australians cannot appropriate the Aboriginal creation stories. But they can develop a contemporary geocentric cosmology of Australia that explains the place in which we dwell and what is involved in looking after it. Such a national story would both be informed by and congruent with the Aboriginal story. The first recommendation of the Final Report of the Referendum Council is the most vital: ‘That a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament.’ The second recommendation can renew who we think we are as a people: ‘That an extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition be enacted by legislation passed by all Australian Parliaments, ideally on the same day, to articulate a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians.’ The report offers a carefully worded conception of this unity: ‘The Declaration should bring together the three parts of our Australian story: our ancient First Peoples’ heritage and culture, our British institutions, and our multicultural unity.’ The spirit of this recommendation is put simply by Margo Neale: ‘We are all Australians – same but different, as us mob say.’

The Uluru Statement from the Heart indicates the reparative work we need to do in relation to the First Peoples of Australia: a public process of truth-telling about how the establishment of settler colonial Australia impacted on these peoples. This is crucial but not enough. We have to engage also in truth-telling about how settler Australia with its commercial and industrial conception of progress has destructively impacted the ecologies of our country. Such a reckoning must extend to the immigrant Australians who have been profoundly harmed by settler Australia’s attachment to ‘whiteness’. We cannot evolve as a political community if we do not face our past as we prepare to meet the challenges that will shape our future.

 

I AM A retired non-Indigenous academic, now in my early seventies. Some time ago I decided to become an elder. This is an ethical quest and I have cast about for the resources that would help me on it. A central resource has been my training in the practice of the Feldenkrais Method, one of those twentieth-century integrations of psyche and soma. This has helped me be no longer a head on a stick. By the time I did this training (between 2004 and 2007), I was beginning to question the anthropocentric secularism of my training in political and social science. I could discern the decidedly non-secular landscape of the political and social thought that has formed my own. For instance, Arendt is a Judaic thinker as much as she is a modern one. I came to think that we condemn ourselves to a profoundly callow ignorance if we refuse the way in which traditions continue to live on albeit in the shadows and cracks of modern society, something that was true of my mother’s assimilated Jewish family. Perhaps we need these traditions. It makes no sense to seek to become an elder without a tradition to belong to. Each of us can go in the direction of the tradition nearest to us, so I went (via Jewish Renewal) in the direction of Judaism and in the spirit of what I have since discovered is called ‘perennial religion’ (that conversation across religious and spiritual cosmologies). Jewish Renewal shows how a tradition can continue to live and grow, and its embrace of environmentalism and feminism made it possible for me to accept Judaism. I have become increasingly interested in how explicitly spiritual conversation illuminates and contributes to the work of reckoning and reparation I have talked about. This is where it seems to me contemporary politics resides.

The very idea of being an elder no doubt had been planted in me by my increasing awareness of Aboriginal Australian public intellectuals and elders such as Lowitja O’Donoghue and what it is they have to say to those of us who are non-Indigenous. For many reasons, then, when the Uluru Statement from the Heart appeared in May 2017, it had a place to land with me. Above all it moved me with its profound grace, a grace that comes only through suffering and the kind of growth that suffering can induce. Grace, generosity, inclusiveness, creativity and coming together as Australians in one great, sustained public conversation – this will be how we meet the challenges of our time, just as the end of the Uluru Statement suggests:

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

 

REFERENCES

Arendt, A. 1981. The Life of the Mind. New York and London: Harper Brace Jovanovich.

Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work. Our Way into the Future. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Berry, T. 2006. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Buber. M. 2000. I and Thou. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Scribner Classics.

Celermajer, D. and A. O’Brien ‘Transitional justice in multispecies worlds’, Contemporary Political Theory 19 (3): 501-507.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2017. Final Report of the Referendum Council.

Mirowski, P. 2009. ‘Postface: Defining Neoliberalism.’ In P. Mirowski and D. Plehwe eds. The Road from Mont Pelerin: the Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press: 417-457.

Neale, M. and L. Kelly. 2020. Songlines: The Power and the Promise. Victoria: Thames & Hudson Australia.

Piketty, T. 2020. Capital and Ideology. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Reiner, A. 2012. Bion and Being: Passion and the Creative Mind. London: Karnac Books.

Sawer, M. 2003. The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in Australia. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.

Shapiro, R. 2013. Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths.

Shapiro, R. 2017. The World Wisdom Bible: a New Testament for a Global Spirituality. Nashville, Tennessee: Skylight Paths.

Tucker, M., J. Grim, and A. Angyal. 2019. Thomas Berry: a Biography. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright Mills, C. 1966. Sociology and Pragmatism: the Higher Learning in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review