Guy Rundle on 23 Aug 2000 07:20:02 -0000

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Reply to Ken Wark from Guy Rundle

Ken Wark has made a number of points, the gist of which is that I was 
arguing for a conservative communitarian position at the recent unchain your 
mind conference.

You couldn't read my position - or Arena's position - as communitarian in 
the US sense. The communitarian movement - and this is a gross 
oversimplification - tends to talk about shifting the cultural balance back 
from rights towards responsibilities and from freedoms back to obligations. 
But they do this in a social theoretical vacuum - not analysing the macro- 
and micro- changes that have taken place which mean that any sort of 
community has become inaccessible to many people who have a deep desire for 
it - the destruction of local markets/societies and the wearing away of 
social and psychological structures that provide the ground for community.

Community - living with others - is a precondition of the self, language and 
meaning. Until recently the weight was clearly on the obligational/role 
aspect of community to the exclusion of any form of self-development, 
cultivation or liberty. Since the 60s the underlying cultural drift has been 
towards the autonomous self-fashioning individual. Capital has been the 
precondition of this but it has also piggybacked on it to present itself as 
'freedom'. The base level of community is taken as a given - something that 
will always be there.

Our argument has been that such a given cannot be assumed. The destruction 
of local markets and societies cuts off access to community for those who 
wish to choose it. Autonomous social existence then becomes compulsory, and 
freedom becomes constraint (Wark himself gave a pretty good account of this 
in a column in the Australian two weeks ago, recounting a meeting with an 
old friend who had become a corporate lawyer - and the mutual bemoaning of 
the pseudo-freedoms that the pomo world offered them). Autonomy - if it 
reaches deeply enough into a culture - destroys the ground that you're 
working from. Everyone knows this at the base of their own life - that in 
order to have a meaningful existence there must be areas of their life in 
which they voluntarily give up their autonomy and take on obligations 
open-ended to the future. The key obligation people take on is to their 
children, then to their family and partner, a circle of friends and so on. 
In other words, the connections that generate the most meaning in our lives 
are those in which we choose to surrender choice, either to a degree or 
(with children) all but totally.

But what if you get a society in which increasing numbers of people find 
those bonds desirable but also intolerable? Or what if the majority of them 
want the more bounded forms of community - that Wark quite legitimately 
decides are not for him - but can't get them. Then you've got a major 
cultural problem - my particular line of inquiry has been to see whether the 
rise in certain socio-psychological conditions is indicative that this 
contradiction is becoming a material historical force. I'd suggest that the 
fact that clinical depression is our major public health cost is evidence 
that this is beginning to occur, although it's presented as a hypothesis, 
not a certainty

The goal then is a social form which has an area of autonomy, but in which 
the necessary role of voluntarily committed obligation is understood, and 
where the role of community as meaning-creating rather than freedom-limiting 
becomes visible. Wark talks about creating institutions - the very act of 
instituting is an implicit commitment that one won't unchoose to be part of 
the institution lightly. It's a form of community.

What I suspect Wark and many others want is to be a postmodern aristocrat - 
to enjoy autonomy while others do the community bit, which undergirds the 
meaning of the autonomous lives that the aristocrats then live. But you 
couldn't get away with saying this so you plump for an autonomous society  - 
in the knowledge that a genuinely autonomous society - one in which every 
human connection had to be ceaselessly renegotiated - isn't on the cards. 
The logical endpoint of such autonomy is psychosis - where the social 
otherness has vanished even from language. Prior to that most pomo 
aristocrats become the sort of person that Terry Eagleton described - the 
intellectual who spends a life writing post-humanist treatises on the end of 
society and voting Liberal Democrat.

As to the labelling nonsense…. 'conservative' ceased to have any 
prescriptive danger for leftists a long time ago. If conservative is 
resisting change then anyone who wants to keep their local shopping centre, 
football team, rainforest, community radio station, humanities department or 
auditor-general is conservative, which I suspect would extend to 98% of the 
population. It's a termw hich ceased to have real meaning when the old 
authoritarian institutions - church, censorship etc - lost their key 
political authority in the 1960s. If progressive means not resisting change, 
then the Taliban are about as progressive as you get - fundamentalist Muslim 
Kennetts revolutionising every aspect of society. And if you suggest that 
the Taliban aren't in that sense progressive then you've acknowledged that 
you're arguing for particular forms of change, not change in general. Either 
way the terms have no analytical use. A truly free society is one in which 
people have a chance to actively choose the bits of it they want to keep.

Economic racism doesn't characterise arguing for protection of local markets 
- an argument which actually unites workers across the world, (and much as 
one might regret the Rightist elements who carpetbag on it. Other equally 
odious rightists carpetbag on the libertarian trip as well - you can't 
choose who tags along with you).  It's a pretty neat description of the 
systematic underdevelopment of the South promoted by the WTO/IMF. Anyone who 
buys the 'development' line, evn on its own narrow terms, has to be pretty 
naïve, wilfully or otherwise. I'd suggest that someone whose progress took 
them from being a 'teenage communist' to implicitly defending Nike 
sweatshops might want to retrace their steps and see if they didn't miss the 
turnoff somewhere

Guy Rundle
Co-editor Arena Magazine

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