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The 1995 Boyer Lectures


By Eva Cox

Lecture 6:
(Broadcast: Tuesday, 13th December 1995, 8.30am (Rpt. 8.00pm) on Radio National.)


Diana Gribble:

Welcome to the 1995 Boyer Lectures. I'm Diana Gribble.

As Deputy Chair of the ABC Board, it's my pleasure to introduce the final and sixth lecture in the Boyers series entitled A TRULY CIVIL SOCIETY presented by well known social activist and commentator, Eva Cox.

As founder of WET, the Women's Economic Thinktank, Eva Cox has played an important role in keeping women's concerns on the agenda of economic and social policy debate in Australia.

She has a wealth of experience in public policy with perspectives from both inside and outside our institutions.

In the past five lectures Eva Cox has presented a passionate plea for a more civil society. She has warned that the signs of damage to the social fabric such as an escalating fear of crime and the gap between rich and poor, compel us to rethink our notions of citizenship.

She has argued for a broadening of public debate agendas to include the social glue that binds us, our social capital.

Today she presents the sixth and last lecture, titled 'Towards a Utopian Road Movie'.

Towards a Utopian Road Movie

Eva Cox:

On the sixth day, in Genesis, God created human beings, giving primacy to men's views. How can we re-create the world to correct this astigmatic beginning of Judeo Christian history?

The exclusion of women is not the only problem with the way the world is being run, but it is my area and a metaphor for what is missing from civil society.

So let us start with defining a truly civil society. Civil is a rather old fashioned word meaning polite, lawful, non military. It relates to the notion of a well-governed social system.

My vision of a very civil society involves social connections with political life. Politics must combine the valuing of difference, intertwined rights and responsibilities, and collective and democratic involvement in decisions which affect us.

Civil society also resonates with the term civic and the sense of the body politic, the public sphere which we entrust with power over us. The concept of manners seems to me in the broadest sense to be civil behaviour - a respect for others and for difference, a set of social mores which makes interactions both pleasant and productive.

The term 'civil' offers alternate paradigms to counter the current public policy assumptions about competition and privatisation which are unravelling the social fabric.

Is a truly civil society possible? Yes, if we define the elements and work out what we need to change. The utopian road movie metaphor comes from my belief that there is no ultimate destination, no magical city of Oz.

But I want to offer a guide and some mapping skills for the way we might travel - a sort of stairway to heaven on $5 per day.

I believe a truly civil society is premised on some core assumptions about human beings:

First, we are primarily social beings, defined by our relationships, linked to a broader society. The links between us are important because they define who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to others. We are born with a capability for good and evil, and we continue to learn trust, sociability, distrust and aggression.

Second, we can unlearn as well as learn new ways. We are very much products of our environments but, because we are human and thinking beings, we can choose how we respond to our experiences.

Third, we define ourselves through how others see us. We want to belong, we want to be accepted by the group. We can enjoy the status that comes from either giving or receiving, depending on which is the more valued.

Therefore, it is our social relationships which constitute society, not our individuality. Putting the social back into political decisions seems almost self evident, but somehow we have had an excess of market forces and competition which divides us.

We must design social processes which encourage us to stay connected and build stores of trust for the bad times. We need a perception of fairness and justice that is built on our respect for diversity and recognition of our common humanity. We should review and rewrite policies and programs which create a sense of exclusion, which fail to promote justice, which destroy the sense of common wealth and common good which is so necessary for social cohesion.

We need to undermine the political policy focus on the lone greedy figure of economically rational man. Humans evolved in communities, sharing tasks and responsibilities. This sharing is too often forgotten when the more affluent buy more privacy. Those who rule us are a case in point; they are well insulated from recognising human needs and casual human interaction.

For the rest of us, households shrink in size and more people live alone. For the first time in our history many of us have to make deliberate efforts to connect in person, even though we use phones and newer communication technologies to connect across space.

Relationships, social life, family life, creativity, emotions, personal care and nurture, are rarely seen as having the importance of say, interest rates. The social fabric of communities and neighbourhood, the many daily encounters which weave the threads that bind us, remain a shadow, a mere safety net with holes.

We need to plan and organise the contact with other human beings which may once have been incidental parts of daily life and are now diluted or missing. Social contacts outside the immediate family develop positive relationships with wider communities. As we increasingly work from home, shop from home, and amuse ourselves at home, we face the danger of becoming a nation of agoraphobes.

The agora was the meeting place of Athenian democracy, barred to slaves and women, but it's still symbolic of the processes of participation and debate which underpin a truly civil society. Maybe the links of different kinds which now take place on the Internet may resemble 'town meetings'. However, they ignore the bonding of the face to face contact in the coffee shop beforehand, or the serendipitous but often productive encounters at the bus stop.

The accumulation of social capital depends on informal as well as formal structures. Both are important and possibly synergistic in creating the climate of trust and mutuality .

I've used the term 'social capital' deliberately throughout these lectures because this is masculine language, and I want to emphasise the relationship between the social and other forms of capital. Financial capital, physical capital and human capital cannot exist without a social base, ergo the need for high social capital.

How do we increase our social capital? There have been no programs specifically designed to encourage community action over the past decades. In the 60s and 70s there were debates on community development ,but these lost out to advancing economic frameworks. There are vestiges in community arts movements, in some areas of adult education and in local government.

There are still many individual and group attempts to establish alternative community life styles. There are some communes and co-operatives in rural areas. There's been a big expansion of locally based barter schemes. These efforts, however tend to be restricted to those who can afford to live alternate life styles or those dependent on social security.

This personal type of social capital production has relatively little impact on the broader society. Some participants proselytise and are members of change movements; some see lifestyle as a personal choice issue; some hope that small communities will somehow spread. Still others want to use their community to exclude those who do not fit.

I am interested in changing the mainstream institutions so we all have access to opportunities for social capital production. As most of us live in cities, we need to change urban life. If we don't change the way we are governed and the use of public resources, those without choices are left with the problems that the affluent can escape.

We must question some of the directions of public policy currently in place particularly those which create suspicion and isolation rather than a sense of belonging.

The first category of public policy we must question is the various privatisations, the loss of public capital goods that makes us feel poorer. We used to own banks, an airline, post office buildings, water, electricity and many other assets. Now we have to buy these services back from the private sector or government business enterprises. This may reduce the debt momentarily but it also leaves us with a sense of loss. We still own a phone company, but only just, and we already face the problem of Telstra being driven by profit motives rather than the daily communication needs of communities.

Another problematic policy direction is the targetting of social security payments - what was once universal now leaves out some people. We have lost the old child endowment and universal aged and family payments and replaced them with selective cash transfers. This policy direction saves money, but it creates considerable ire among taxpayers who feel entitled to support and receive little or no assistance . It may allow government to reduce taxes on the rich but it is divisive, providing a model of public support for the worthy poor only. Most people are not supposed to need help and shouldn't expect it!

The third public policy direction is the move towards competition in the provision of public sector services. Cutbacks in public sector employment and cost cutting contribute to widespread anxieties about quality of life. People worry about the cleanliness of water, and some buy purifiers; some buy private health insurance and private schools because the public sector seems under resourced and stressed. Others save voluntarily for retirement because they believe there will be no pension. But those who can't afford to buy substitutes are stuck with a poor public sector.

It is hard to find policies that encourage the practice of social capital formation in the public sphere. The constant attacks on the role and efficiency of the public sector have reduced our sense of common good and obscured the original reasons for removing certain services from the vagaries and cruelties of market forces.

The introduction of user pays reduces the legitimacy of government and the reasons for paying tax. Even though we agree to these user pay systems, we are left wondering why we pay taxes in the first place. Is the government double dipping?

Government becomes invisible when the services it used to offer directly are privatised or contracted out to another deliverer. Disappearing state functions such as post offices and even banks raise serious issues of loss of social capital to create financial gains.

Let me offer three examples of the effects of changing government directions which highlight the problems clearly. The first is in the Arts, the second is in universities and the third is a mea culpa in the community sector.

Arts and cultural policy is one of the high profile areas under the Keating government. It focuses on an inclusive but unaggressive national identity and performs useful social capital functions. However, the arts industry - note the word - feels compelled to justify its funding by pointing to its capacity to employ people, its export potential, and even its capacity as a marketing tool to promote a national identity.

These justifications neutralise any opposition from Treasury and Finance. They make the bean counters feel secure . However, the emphasis on industry undermines our capacity to see the arts as an area where we explore creativity for its own sake; where we enjoy participating in activities even if they are not professionally saleable. Creative outputs are more than their resale value.

Creating is part of our everyday social life and participating is a major generator of social capital. Indeed David Putnam's work on democracy in Italy found that choirs were a major contributor to civic culture.

The second example of changing government direction is the universities. I am now back at a university after a twenty year break and I like not what I see. There are more students, which is terrific. However there have been substantial losses and these relate to both social capital and efficiency.

Universities are no longer funded as repositories of knowledge and debate. Even though they are still teaching and research institutes, they are now almost entirely defined by quantitative outputs and their relevance to employment and industry. As academics depend more and more on research funds from industry, independent advice from academics becomes harder to find.

For instance, it would be exceedingly hard to find a university that can deliver independent advice on food and nutrition without jeopardising existing and future research funding. This 'partnership' between industry and academia affects the potential operation of our food regulators and the safety of our food supplies. There is no corruption or deliberate fraud but what are the consequences of joining the tertiary sector to the industry?

Government funding policies are turning academic disciplines into production lines where the joy of learning is lost. It is ironic that students are losing the freedom to explore and debate ideas at the undergraduate level just at the time when we let more people with disdvantaged backgrounds into the tertiary education sector. Soon, it will be only the post graduates and the elite students who will have the time to talk and think and explore ideas with their academic leaders.

The joint pursuit of knowledge is an important source of social capital.

My final illustration of flawed policy is child care. As a long term activist in the community sector, I carry some responsibility for changing the terms of debate because I taught others Econospeak. We learned that translating what we did into bean counting terms meant we could talk to the animals and make some progress.

We translated child care into an economic problem and over the past two decades have been most successful in the expansion of child care places. This has been a real achievement. Places have quadrupled in the last decade, though there are still some shortages.

However, there is a downside to this success. Almost all of these places are set up for parents with work related child care needs. Home-bound parents are allowed a sliver of time in occasional care so their needs can be met, but no one really considers the needs of the children.

We lost sight of the social functions of child care services; the need for children to have out-of-home care for its own sake. Now we have to work out a new strategy of child focused services which create sociability.

I could go on to other policies such as retirement income where present superannuation strategies will undermine social capital and create a very contested safety net by the year 2042.

It may be possible now to label these types of policies as 'Wrong Way, Go Back', but I would be satisfied with at least a 'Go Slow' sign, and time to repair the potholes.

Let me finish with some immodest road rules for creating a truly civil society. My proposals are some ways to go, some ways of doing what we want to do; means and not ends.

First, some damage control! Demand a social capital impact statement before selling any public assets, or converting them into business enterprises and then calculate whether the financial gains exceed the social capital losses.

What are the social capital costs of selling off the family silver? Would we do better if we were less economically pure and more socially aware? Are we losing too much if we have to pay for services that were once free?

Should we offer to pay more in taxes so we can keep our public assets? This is heresy indeed. It will take time to unwind the incessant anti tax messages of media barons who basically want to reduce their tax burden, not ours.

Communities must share resources, the haves with the have-nots, so no one is left out in the badlands.

Second, some enhancement of social capital. We must protect and extend services such as free libraries, galleries, museums, sporting grounds, and historic sites. We must retain sports as communal and not commercial activities. We need active public spaces, not just circuses as in Ancient Rome, but places where we can participate and join with others to help produce. Jane Jacobs, a social commentator in 1961 stated

'Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow'.

We need to ensure streets and public spaces are safe and welcoming so people feel at home when they are outside as well as inside.

Third, let's bring back the eight hour day. Make this a maximum and penalise those who work longer. Can anyone really claim to be productive or effective after an eight hour stint, paid or unpaid? We would create more jobs, and even the high flyers could not avoid everyday life by hiding in their boardrooms.

We need time to take part in social and communal activities. The human condition requires that we have the time for public life as well as family and paid jobs.

Fourth, save our common wealth! We must keep governments and make them visible as providers of social and communal resources. The state must protect the less powerful and redistribute limited resources preferably to the poor and not to the rich.

Only government can make sure we have communication policies which reduce the powers of big conglomerates and give voice to those who are silenced. Do not sell Telstra, fund public broadcasting to stay free to air and encourage debate and dissent.

Fifth, we must increase our political engagement. Interest in elections is positive, protests and demonstrations can be optimistic and cheerful when they are not opposed by the police. People can gain a sense of optimism through their involvement in social equity lobby groups. Participation in public life and in collective and egalitarian groups gives us a taste of the Vita Activa that Hannah Arendt identifies a the most civil part of the human condition.

Each of these five propositions runs counter to the directions of public policy over the past fifteen years. Yet few voices have been heard in protest or challenge.

The wimping of the welfare lobbies, the drying of socialisms and the populist right attacks on the residues of the state need a forthright response. The markets must be controlled. We need to return to a level of social capital which can counter the distrust generated by competititive individualism.

We must develop social trust, mutuality, reciprocity and a recognition that we work best co-operatively. The collective 'we' benefits us all rather than the singular self.

We should develop a social capital monitor to assess the strength of our connections. In this way we can road test our policies and programs and see if they generate trust or distrust.

Social capital banks goodwill. There are already some credits we can enter so the task is not overwhelming. But committing ourselves is hard when our environment constantly reinforces anti-social messages.

We are good citizens, at least some of the time. We make personal, and even organisational commitments to increasing social capital in many settings. We give to each other, to those we know and work with, to customers, to friends, and sometimes to strangers. We pause to let a car join a line of traffic, we walk a little further across a park to put our rubbish in a bin, and enjoy giving at fund raising functions.

There are even some signs of social trust at the Federal level with the more inclusive Keating model of government. This gave us the Redfern Speech, legislation on Mabo, Creative Nation and other manifestations of a sense of belonging. But these initiatives have been quarantined from the economic debates or sometimes somewhat incongruously, they have been hung on the economist's coat tails.

Australia has the potential to be a very inclusive society. We have learned about diversity and, despite continuing problems with racism and sexism, we are much more tolerant than we once were. We are open to new ideas, good and bad, so we need be more critical of overseas fads and fancies.

We must tell those who seek to turn back the clock that they need a trust injection because no retreat to the past will solve present problems. We live in times of massive change so we cannot stand still.

We must learn to travel hopefully in a discomfort of contradictions, a concordance of contraries and a conjunction of opposites.

The absence of certainty puts the onus on us, as citizens, to debate collectively so we make the best decisions, and take responsibility for the society we want to live in.

There are no simple nostrums. There is no magic nation of OZ. We create the ways of acting which become the truly civil society!

Let us recognise what we have achieved - celebrate, debate, re-create and move on.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995