Democracy under threat from cruelty and apathy

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Scott Morrison and Donald Trump have little time for compassion in their politics (image via Twitter @GodLovesAustralia).

It's a common refrain to say democracy is at a critical point. Why does it seem so insecure? Mike Dowson has a few suggestions.


Despite our science, technology and vast natural resources, in Australia these blights are getting worse. How can it be that after seventy years of productivity gains, almost continuous economic growth, and what may be irreparable damage to the natural world, we don’t have homes and livelihoods for everyone?

Economists scratch their heads. It’s as if some as yet undiscovered malign force interferes withcruer the theoretically perfect workings of market capitalism. Is it government meddling? Union thuggery? Getup?

Governments are much less perplexed. They long ago applied the superior insight which comes with hubris and came up with "incentives". Cutting taxes and red tape, reducing social services, privatising welfare programs. But still it failed to remove the stain of human suffering.

Despite relief from demoralising assistance, people stubbornly persist in being disadvantaged. There’s obviously something wrong with them.

They must be lazy, or stupid, or damned by God.

Privilege, as Professor Michael Kimmel observed, is invisible to those who have it. The more one has, the harder it is to understand the plight of those who don’t. No one likes to believe his advantages came courtesy of others, perhaps even at their expense, or thanks to sheer luck. It may not be obvious to the privileged person that he isn’t solely responsible for his good fortune. If others missed out, it must be their own fault.

It’s not that responsibility for one’s circumstances isn’t important. When there are real opportunities for people they mostly look after themselves. Sometimes they just need a leg up. But it doesn’t seem to take much advantage to harden the heart against those who are struggling.

It’s as if, exposed to privilege, we mutate into a different species.

The late Professor Lynn Stout showed what happens when our identity shifts from citizen to shareholder. Our selfish Mr Hyde overwhelms our prosocial Dr Jekyll. We forget the advantages we share with the many and covet those of the fortunate few. We may still feel sympathy for climate refugees and homeless mothers escaping domestic violence, yet accept such tragedies as collateral damage in the process of self-enrichment.

The Financial Services Royal Commission revealed the consequences of leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. But did we need a public inquiry to tell us this? Malpractice was so blatant and widespread it’s hard to believe anyone apart from our willfully ignorant Federal Government didn’t know about it.

But the big banks are where most property buyers source their mortgages. And their shares are so popular with investors they account for a third of the ASX. Many observers think we’ll be repeating the handwringing in another decade as if the current list of victims never existed. Our loyalties remain divided.

In Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland revealed what extremely wealthy people think. Seclusion behind high walls of privilege instils a deep contempt for the rest of humanity. While many Australians give generously to charity, our rich, some of whom pay little to no tax, are among the more miserly in the developed world.

What does this tell us? Are people selfish? Or altruistic?

Biology says we’re both.

Research has established links between behaviours and brain chemicals. Acts of self-care trigger the release of dopamine, which gives us a quick high. Altruism builds serotonin, which is associated with long-term wellbeing. Oxytocin, the "cuddle chemical", rewards close bonding.

A feeling of deep wellness is like an internal dashboard where all the "gauges" are green. For a social animal, looking after ourselves isn’t enough. Wellness signals we’re looking after everyone on whom our survival depends.

All these behaviours are essential to thriving communities. But the instinct for them extends mostly to our tribe, village or congregation. A nation of millions requires a commitment to inclusivity on an institutional scale.

Even in a busy city, if we don’t trust those around us, serotonin will decline. Without physical care, we will lose oxytocin. Then we won’t feel well. With added stress from insecurity, cortisol will rise, and unless we make remedial changes, danger lies ahead. In Lost ConnectionsJohann Hari showed how a broken social fabric is behind the spread of damaging anxiety and depression.

Australians’ high consumption of antidepressants is a national alarm bell ringing.

Do you recall the safety presentation on board an aircraft? If oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, you’re supposed to put one on yourself. And then what? To hell with everybody else? No. If other passengers can’t take care of themselves that’s your job. But you won’t be much good if you don’t remain breathing yourself, so you fit your own mask first.

The Federal Government believes most Australians no longer care to help refugees, the unemployed, homeless people and the less able. The last Election seemed to prove them right. And the Opposition has conceded. If it’s true it’s because once flourishing communities are now struggling. People without oxygen masks can’t help others. And that’s just the way some powerful people like it.

It’s why, despite the furrowed brows and nodding heads of politicians and bureaucrats, there is always less affordable housing, more unemployed people for every disappointing job, and the queues for services are only getting longer.

A lack of social cohesion makes us vulnerable to a quick fix of dopamine. And several industries offer just that. We’re no use to them in thriving communities. But starved of intimacy and security we’ll drink more, gamble more, fill up on junk food and go into debt for trinkets and cheap entertainment. We’ll need expensive medication. And we’ll become hypnotised by the most powerful dopamine dispensers yet devised, the intracranial drip-feeders we carry in our pockets, where we can be endlessly propagandised.

Contemporary Australia demonstrates that when enough malign forces line up even a rich country with a history of expanding inclusivity can be reinvented as a playground for profiteers.

For decades, a convenient, informal alliance of oligarchs, business leaders, governments, media and investors has been supplanting the economy built on productivity and equity supported by public investment with a private machine of rent extraction. Recognising our objections, they propose to suppress unions, activists and journalists. "Keeping us safe" while they "have a go". It’s like swapping those extravagant oxygen masks in economy class for a bigger wine list in first and business.

There’s probably nothing wrong with their brain chemistry, provided they get the support they need from their privileged friends, families and faith communities. It’s conscience, kindness and responsibility they lack, the qualities that might persuade them to extend some largess to the rest of the country who aren’t on the gravy train.

Of course, you know this. But us knowing it doesn’t change anything. Never mind. Have a drink, or a punt, and check your social media. You’ll feel much better.

Mike Dowson is a private management consultant. 

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