Optimism in a world of degradation

April 22, 2018 at 2:24 am | Posted in cooperatives, Inequality - Australia, optimism | 5 Comments
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Quality control

I’ve been writing some brief biographies for an organisation and before I interviewed some of these high achievers, I wanted to note down some basic facts about them. So I nipped up to my local library, chained my bike and went inside to the Reference Section for Who’s Who. They’ve rearranged the library and now there’s a vast empty space in the centre. I walked all around the book shelves on the perimeter and couldn’t find where they’d moved the Reference books.

When I asked a library assistant, a willowy girl with wispy chestnut hair, she said, ‘We’re trying to get people to look up stuff online. We’re phasing out Reference books.’

After I picked up my jaw from the floor I managed to voice my horrified amazement at this retrograde step.

‘You’re welcome to express your opinion in writing,’ she said.

*          *          *

It’s one of the basic functions of libraries, the raison d’etre of them, to provide the authoritative accurate information in a Reference Collection. Occasionally I have tried to look up a dictionary or other reference book online and all I get is sales people trying to sell me a copy. When I’m in the middle of work it’s annoying to have to put up with marketers advertising at me. Invariably, I give up the struggle of sifting through and scrolling down online and get up and refer to my own beloved and battered copies of a dictionary or thesaurus.

When I first heard of the World Wide Web at a Chifley Library lecture in the 1990s I thought immediately: But how will they get quality control? The answer, as we all know only too well now, is: they don’t. They can’t.

I went to the National Library – see https://www.nla.gov.au – which did not let me down. In spite of unrelenting, severe funding cuts with every Budget for years on end, no matter what political party is in power, they have managed to sustain a better sense of priorities than Canberra’s local library system.

The ‘efficiency dividends’

The funding cuts through which both the National and local library systems struggle have the Orwellian title of ‘efficiency dividends’. As Judith White points out in her eye-watering account of the current degradations of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Culture Heisthttp://www.brandl.com.au/culture-heist/ – they are in fact inefficiency dividends. They reduce the capacity of the institutions to operate effectively.

There is to be another federal inquiry into funding cuts at Canberra’s cultural institutions. There was one ten years ago and they don’t need to waste God knows how much more taxpayers’ money on repeating this exercise when anyone can tell them for free that the continual cuts have made them unable to perform their job properly.

It’s the law that the National Library does its job. An Act of Parliament legislates that the National Library must collect everything published in this country and make it available to us.

Chronic understaffing means long queues for the public and reduced hours of opening. Our National Library is virtually closed on weekends now, with only the café and bookshop open on Sundays, as well as the cramped, basement area, noisy with constant electronic bleeps from the lockers installed to save money after the lovely bag-checking-in people lost their jobs, and crowded with students trying to finish assignments with no access to the Library’s books or journals.

Neo-liberal economics (sometimes called economic rationalism in Australia) with its unrelenting practice of transferring money meant for the public good into the hands of a few individuals has been government policy for about thirty years.

I’ve mentioned two specific examples resulting from neo-liberal economic policy: what’s become of the Australian National Library and the Art Gallery of NSW. A third example of this ideology can be found in Sarah Sentilles’ Draw Your Weapons mentioned in my last blog post. Sentilles writes that one of the laws that the US imposed on Iraq in 2004 was that genetically modified organisms could be introduced and plants could be patented, even though Iraq’s constitution had previously prohibited private ownership of biological resources. Farmers were no longer allowed to save or reuse their seeds. They had to destroy them each year and buy seeds from licensed US distributors of companies like Monsanto.

Iraq is in the Fertile Crescent, once known as Mesopotamia, where agriculture began, where people have been farming since at least 8000 B.C.E.

A regressive influence

Another result of neo-liberal economic policy is that five men now own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Judith White points out that the economic policy adhered to by most political parties in Australia, as in the US, the UK and many other places, has had a regressive influence on every area of public discourse and government policy and has led to a devastation of the arts and science, as well as an epidemic of mental illness.

Toxic workplaces are common, as is bullying in schools and universities. This economic system and its culture rewards the psychopathic traits in personality.

Avarice rules and psychopaths thrive. Is this the sort of society we want?

Then why do we have it? An old journalism piece of advice says: Follow the money. Believers in the neo-liberal ideology try to fob off criticism with the long-disproven ‘trickle-down’ theory. The truth in practice is the exact opposite: the mega-wealth at the top is created by an awful lot of subsidising by the rest of us.

The number of Australians with more than $50 million has grown by 30 per cent in the past year. (The Saturday Paper of 2-8 December 2017) They go on to state that there is virtually no affordable housing in Australia’s capital cities now for people on low incomes. Exacerbating factors include investors, especially foreign ones who buy up properties and leave them empty, lack of government public housing and low wage growth. In 2017 rents across Australia rose 40 per cent higher than wages.

The Smith Family tells us that one million children in Australia are living in dire poverty. Many people in this country can’t afford to go to the dentist. Michael Brand, Director of the Art Gallery of NSW (whose salary is more than twice as much as the final year salary of his predecessor, Edmund Capon) changed the free and open access of the Gallery for schoolchildren. Now they charge schools for programs, with the result that private schools can afford them but not public schools. For primary schools only a truncated version of twenty minutes of tours previously provided by the volunteers is available for free.

The neoliberal agenda takes away from the ethos of serving the people and gives primacy to corporate requirements and private interests. Judith White writes:

Economic rationalism and marketing mumbo-jumbo are part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda. They have … delivered the dumbing down of public discourse, the brutalisation of the workplace and the destabilisation of public institutions. (p. 216)

Undoing the damage

How is it that we’ve arrived in this state and what can we do? George Monbiot has a clear account of how we arrived here in his book, How Did We Get into This Mess? (Verso, 2017) ‘There is nothing random about the pattern of silence that surrounds our lives. Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure. They protect those interests from democratic scrutiny.’ (p. 154)

The Murdoch press helped to create and perpetuate all this here, in the UK and the US, using psychological techniques to manipulate its readership that it’s all a level playing field, that being poor or unemployed is the fault of the poor and the unemployed, and it persuades most of its readership to vote against their own best interests. Read the riveting account of how Murdoch did this in Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News (2008) and Hack Attack (2014); and in Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (2012).

Neo-liberals constantly proclaim that their actions are in the spirit of democracy and freedom. As Monbiot points out: ‘[f]reedom of the kind championed by neoliberals means freedom from competing interests. It means freedom from the demands of social justice, from environmental constraints, from collective bargaining and from the taxation that funds public service. It means, in sum, freedom from democracy.’ (p. 4)

It has caused a massive shift of wealth not just to the top one per cent, but to the top tenth of that one per cent. It’s enough to make us sink into despair – but don’t do that! And remember, there are far more of us than there are of them.

Monbiot’s book has ideas for solutions. And Judith White’s book is not just an exposé of the destruction of a once beloved institution but also lists concrete suggestions to undo the damage, e.g., ending ‘efficiency dividends’ to cultural institutions; reversing the cuts to the Australia Council budget and changing staff ratios to ‘[e]nsure that curators and arts professionals outnumber marketing and finance personnel on the management bodies of public institutions’. (p. 216, 217)

Margaret Heffernan’s A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn’t everything and how we do better (Simon & Schuster, 2014) presents an uplifting counterpoint to neo-liberal ideology, claiming that its toxic workplaces simply cannot work, many leaders and bosses realise this, and all over the world, people and organisations are finding creative, cooperative ways to work together. They are demonstrably better off, even financially.

In the dominant business model, along with our education, only a tiny minority can win. The cost of rewarding the top one per cent is the steady demotivation of the other 99 per cent. Alternative practices, which enable employees to thrive, are more common than we realise.

In the US half of all employees are involved in some kind of employee ownership. In Britain many companies have this system too, e.g., John Lewis. These companies are more productive, more creative and more responsive to a changing business environment than traditional corporations. In these companies, two things constantly came up when Heffernan talked with employees: freedom and trust.

Cooperatives are some of the world’s most successful businesses. They employ over a billion people. The author states that the world’s largest cooperative, Mondragon, runs banks, schools and universities. It also manufactures computer chips, sheet metal, bicycles and washing machines, as well as operating business consulting services and retail outlets. It remained resilient in the 2012 financial upheaval in Spain. Heffernan’s TED talks can be seen on https://www.ted.com/speakers/margaret_heffernan

I was surprised at how many successful businesses do not adhere to the usual cut-throat competitive practices of winning at all costs and rewarding only the few. Heffernan writes that people giving each other time and respect is what makes organisations like Morning Star, Gore, Eileen Fisher, Ocean Spray, Interface, Boston Scientific so creative. She mentions many others that one rarely hears about (p. 375).

Adam Grant is another writer who has researched this phenomenon. In his Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013) he argues that givers dominate the top of the success ladder and that givers’ success creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of the people around them. You can hear him talk about this on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-egUK2zaZlo

Authors like Heffernan and Grant, and people like Barry Schwartz (see his TED Talk ‘Our loss of wisdom’ https://www.ted.com/speakers/barry_schwartz ) shatter our assumptions about how the world works. Grant writes that takers suck the energy from those around them and that givers are the suns – they shed light on the organisation and create opportunities for their colleagues to contribute. There are free online tools to further this idea available from www.giveandtake.com

When I read and listen to people like these I’m reminded that life is bristling with smart, energetic, creative people making the world a better place. With our media focused on – one might say: saturated with – depressing news it’s good to remember this.





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  1. we need a new campaign – “Be subversive – read a book” fancy running it?

  2. Hi Penny, enjoyed your blog as always. The reference book situation is fairly alarming. I read about Joseph Stieglitz on the weeekend. Something tells me I don’t need to tell you who he is. PS I like the pic of you in the clam shell. Sally

    • Thank you. Yes, Stieglitz – brilliant! – love his book on how all the inequality is detrimental to both the poor AND the rich!

  3. Not just Australian libraries. ours too in Devon

    On Sun, Apr 22, 2018 at 3:24 AM, Pen Hanley’s Blog wrote:

    > penhanley posted: “Quality control I’ve been writing some brief > biographies for an organisation and before I interviewed some of these high > achievers, I wanted to note down some basic facts about them. So I nipped > up to my local library, chained my bike and went inside ” >

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