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Jim Cairns: Labor Left legend, Whitlam Minister and philosopher

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Jim Cairns protesting against the Vietnam War (use of image permitted by Rhonda Senbergs Collection/State Library of Victoria).

Jim Cairns was a towering political figure and a serious rival to Whitlam. After politics, he formed a new idea of society, sharing concerns with today’s climate and gender activists.

If Jim Cairns is remembered these days, it is for his leadership role opposing the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. It is largely forgotten that Cairns actually fought a courageous lifelong battle against injustice. His journey started in Sunbury when his family’s dairy farm went under during the Great Depression — politicising the young Cairns.

He rose to the heights of Federal Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam Government in 1974. After leaving  Parliament three years later, inspired by feminists, environmentalists and psychologists, he formed a new understanding of society. This view, he believed, explained the root of social and economic injustice, and pointed to a path beyond mindless consumerism to a society that prioritises "human growth" over "economic growth".  

Cairns’ biographer Paul Strangio made an amusing observation about the retired Cairns and a more famous retired politician who beat Cairns by a narrow margin in the ballot for Labor leader in 1968: Gough Whitlam. Strangio said that, as an old man, Whitlam wanted to talk about himself; Cairns, by contrast, was more interested in talking about love and its deep political implications.

Understanding the crucial social and political role that things like attachment, bonding and emotional intimacy play were in fact the central theme of Cairns’ final philosophy.

There was nothing that Cairns loved more than discussing ideas for a better world with the public. Pilloried as "the king of the kids" by some in the media, as "men of the people" go, Cairns was the real deal. So much so that, after his retirement from Parliament, he became something of a fixture at markets around Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s, selling his books and chatting with all and sundry. He claimed to have spoken to thousands.

So what was he writing and talking about all those years? I have recently been studying Cairns’ books in an attempt to find out. Although disjointed in structure’ and making for somewhat ‘laborious reading, Cairns’ books manage to articulate a relatively coherent philosophy. Their pages display the thoughts of a mind wrestling seriously with the problem of where we have come from and where we are going — as a society and as a species.

Cairns rejects ever-expanding material production as a necessary condition for the "good society". It has become strikingly clear, he argues, that capitalist consumer society erodes not only core social values that we hold dear but the very biological basis of our existence — our ecosystem.

Cairns throws down the gauntlet, arguing that seemingly interminable conflict over resources and territory are bound up with what he, inspired by feminists, calls our "patriarchal" culture. Trying to grasp the bigger picture, he argues that, in the context of a globalised humanity facing an environmental crisis, traditional masculine cultural patterns of power, aggression and conflict have reached the limit of whatever "evolutionary" usefulness they may have previously had. Our survival is, therefore, bound up with substantial social change because the biosphere is threatened by the ‘destructive power of the modern war and production machines’.

However, survival is clearly not enough. As human beings, we want more than mere survival; we seek to live the "good life", to flourish, to thrive.

The positive news, he urges, is that we now have the knowledge to make thriving a reality. He basically argues that the advances in the social sciences, in particular developmental psychology, have opened up powerful new possibilities. We can now achieve far higher quality interpersonal relationships than previous generations — with the potential to radically transform society. For Cairns, the key to the "good society: is to focus not simply on economic production but, as he puts it, to focus on the developmental and socialisation processes of "people production".

Cairns repeatedly draws attention to the role and benefits of ‘co-operation’, ‘bonding’ and ‘reciprocal affection’ in the evolutionary history of human development. This, he argues, forms the basis of what modern psychology has recently come to understand about healthy individual development: its essential dependence on a nurturing and caring social environment.

Our problem is that, although we profess a commitment to core social values, like sharing, cooperation, kindness and unselfishness, neoliberal capitalism steers us firmly in the direction of ‘acquisitive self-interest’ and ‘materialism’.

However, this gap – between the values we profess and the ones we actually practice ­– is now in large measure closable. Through education and socialisation guided by our recently acquired psychological insights, we can now raise individuals capable of fully embodying and living these values in their everyday lives.

Again drawing on feminist thought, he argues that our attempts to realise the "good society" are hamstrung by the fact that we are socialised into deep patterns that reproduce inequality and domination. Not just in the Parliament, boardroom or factory, but also in the intimate life of marriage, the household and childrearing.

A core psychological driver underpinning this, he insists, is a rejection of the organic dimension of our existence. Originating from religious views about the bodily and organic being inferior to the mental or spiritual, this rejection disconnects us from our bodies; our basic tactile and emotional needs. Needs, he emphasises, that we have now come to view as crucial in the developmental process of ‘linking the individual with others and with [their] own body’.

We now know that the deprivation of these psychological needs distorts our capacity to form relationships with others. And that the bonding process in early childhood forms the basis for the development of important social and moral capacities — for co-operation, caring, trust, confidence and reciprocity.

If this bodily and emotional basis of the personality is not properly developed, he argues, then individuals will grow up to seek substitutes for this human connection in things like ‘obsessive consumption’, ‘drugs’ or neurotic power and status-seeking.

Cairns’ view involves something similar to what is today referred to as "body positive" and "sex positive" approaches, in contrast to traditionally negative attitudes towards the body, emotion and sexuality. In this connection, Cairns advocates socialising children in a way that develops the bodily and emotional basis of the personality, via a constructive exploration and development of their own "organic" form.

Again, standing in contrast to the shame and embarrassment traditionally associated with our bodily nature (millennials ask your parents and grandparents). This, he argues, has the important effect, not only of being empowering for the individual, but also cultivating their natural inclination to be connected to, and therefore value, the "organic", the natural world.

Developing our social and moral capacities, via a focus on interpersonal connections from childhood, also plays an important political role. It lays the groundwork for an anti-authoritarian and democratic approach to both our own inner selves and to our dealings with others. For Cairns, these capacities underpin any genuine and lasting democratic political and economic institutions.

People have tended to become passive consumers – "spectators" in their own lives ­– facilitating a weakening of democracy. However, he optimistically believed that, if raised in psychologically empowering ways, people could handle ‘real power in the places where they work and live’. This "real" democratic power of people over their own lives and work is the engine that drives Cairns’ vision — a central tenet of socialism from Karl Marx through Cairns to Jeremy Corbyn.

So this is why in his old age he was so keen to talk about love and its socially transformative power. There was much to be done to address our social, political and environmental problems. And, the way we were headed, we didn’t have much time to waste. If we understood and applied some of our best recent insights on psychology, ecology and gender, he argued, we might not only survive, we might truly thrive.

Politics, as they say, is "the art of the possible. Cairns always had his sights on what is not yet possible, arguing ‘what is impossible today becomes an achievement of tomorrow’.

The issue of translating these insights from the realm of the impossible to that of the achieved is clearly no small task. Judging by the recent school climate strikes, extinction rebellion and the remarkable Greta Thunberg, with her "radical" demand that governments "listen to the scientists" and make evidence-based policy, its hard to deny that Jim and the kids are on to something.

Dr Christopher Pollard teaches sociology and philosophy in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Deakin University.

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Jim Cairns: Labor Left legend, Whitlam Minister and philosopher

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