Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture
Bathurst Panthers Leagues Club
Saturday 12 August 2000
"Our society and our culture is not a conspiracy. There are no cynics
at the top of the pyramid who use their power to maintain an unnecessarily
unequal society. Stratified society is perpetuated because of the self-interest
that everybody has in not sinking down."
--Noel Pearson, Aboriginal activist
I have gone back the early thinking about history and society of the nineteenth
century international labour movement. A main idea was that social being
determines consciousness, that is, economic relations in society determine
our thinking and our culture, and that our thinking is much less conscious
and free than we think it is.
If we allow ourselves to analyse our society in the way I think early social
democrats would, I think we would come to the following conclusions:
Society is stratified. There is a small group at the top that is influential.
There is a middle stratum that possesses intellectual tools and performs
qualified work. The third and lowest stratum lacks intellectual tools, and
does manual, often repetitive work.
The middle stratum consist of two groups with no sharp boundary between
them. One performs the qualified work in the production of goods and services
(the 'professionals'), the other (the 'intellectuals') has as their function
to uphold the cultural, political and legal superstructure that is erected
over and mirrors the base of our society, the market economy
I believe that a main function of our culture, from fine arts to footy today
is to make people unable to use their intellectual faculties to formulate
effective criticism and analysis while still allowing them to do their work
in the economy. In this talk I use the word "culture" in a wide sense, including
not only art and literature but also our social and political thinking. To
intellectually format people, but still let them acquire the knowledge and
develop the faculties needed for them to be productive is a complicated process.
Therefore our culture is complex and difficult to analyse.
Our society and our culture is not a conspiracy. There are no cynics at
the top of the pyramid who use their power to maintain an unnecessarily unequal
society. Stratified society is perpetuated because of the self-interest that
everybody has in not sinking down. People believe what it is in their interest
to believe. Influential people believe that a stratified society will always
be necessary for economic growth and development. Their subordinates, the
intellectuals of the middle stratum who maintain our culture, sense the cues
from above, then produce ideology for the conservation of the current state
of things, but are not conscious of the reasons for their actions.
So, the objective function of our culture is to stop people from breaking
away from the hierarchy, but at the same time allow them to develop specialised
areas of competence and creativity so that they can participate in production
and even develop the economy. Our culture treats you in two different ways
depending on whether you are born into, or moving towards, the lower stratum
or the middle stratum of society.
* * *
How could we be so bereft of solutions today when these negligent thinkers
and trustees in the academies and the bureaucracies who most benefited from
the welfare state that was created from the sweat and organisation of working
people, have had a century to anticipate our current predicament and to prepare
us for this day - at the least prepared with understanding?
Those of us who wish for social progress must realise that there are important
insights in the materialist interpretation of our history and our culture,
which the labour movement unfortunately left behind in favour of the confusions
that have preoccupied and diverted those academics, bureaucrats and parliamentarians
who became the intellectual trustees of the welfare state and the interests
of working people and their families - a responsibility which they grievously
failed to fulfil.