Monday, September 14, 2009

Kevin Rudd and the philosophers' stones

David Burchell

IN the sodden northern winter of 1766 the Scottish essayist David Hume - surely one of the most sweet-tempered and agreeable of men - sallied across to Calais to transport the notorious Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the safety of the British Isles. Like many scholars since, Hume had a weakness for the glamorous authors of audacious theories. If shallow thinkers undershot the mark of truth, he reckoned, and abstruse theorists overshot it, the abstruse ones had at least the merit of "providing something that is new".

Poor Hume had occasion to repent his intellectual enthusiasm at his leisure. Pretty soon he discovered his guest to be the very archetype of that distinctive philosophical figure, the radical misanthrope. It was Rousseau, after all, who first combined that burning and sincere love of the people in general with a thoroughgoing detestation of all human beings in the particular; and whose vaulting hopes for some distant imagined future were matched only by his dissatisfaction with every single detail of the present. As Hume put it, Rousseau's extreme sensibility led him to experience pain far more keenly than pleasure: "He is like a man stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin." And all this grand miserableness of temper transferred itself - as in philosophers it so often does - into a perfectly formulated world philosophy of grand miserableness.

Rousseau was happy only under persecution and he was endlessly ingenious in creating it. Hume's discreet attempts at financial generosity were read by Rousseau, inevitably, as humiliations; his efforts at securing Rousseau an income were read as treachery. When Hume rescued Rousseau's letters, Rousseau accused him of steaming them open.

Soon Rousseau's grand paranoia had woven together these imaginary petty betrayals into the cloth of his own grand theory of the world, in which the torrent of modern life rushes inexorably down the course of atomisation, fragmentation, selfishness and deceit.

If, as Hume suggested, a good deal of philosophy is merely the personality of the author laid over the landscape of the world, we have more than our share of miniature Rousseaus fluttering about us today.

It's to them that we owe the fashionable philosophy - recently given a kind of royal appointment by the Prime Minister - that the entire course of contemporary economic life runs, Rousseau-like, down the path of inexorable privatisation, marketisation, individualism and selfishness.

According to this view the only possible deliverer from this melancholy fate is that great contemporary equivalent of the 18th century's enlightened monarch, our very own Frederick the Great, the nation-building state.

Of course contemporary philosophers and political theorists are no less paradoxical than their 18th-century forebears. And in the otherwise polite and civilised corridors of academe you may sometimes discover - a real shock, this - that those who most zealously put their faith into the hands of grand impersonal entities, in their theories, may happen in life to be the most fissiparous, idiosyncratic and solitary of individuals. Indeed, in some cases it's hard to resist the intuition that the two impulses may be connected: sometimes we seek to cure the wounds in our own heart by diagnosing and resolving the ills of society.

This - or at least so I like to fantasise - is perhaps how Kevin Rudd came to play Hume to our gaggle of miniature Rousseaus. It's not that the Prime Minister really, seriously, views the past three decades of our public life as a moral desert, a wilderness from which the market's invisible hand has plucked all the fruit. Perhaps it's just that beneath that precise, calculating exterior there lurks a heart that hungers for abstruse philosophy and for the mind that overreaches. (In which case, what bitter irony that Rudd's article for the journal Foreign Affairs, which offers so much serious thought, should have been summarily rejected while his half-hearted wanderings through radical political philosophy were published with such fanfare.)

And yet almost immediately, Rudd has been confronted by the paradoxes that assail this position from every side. How can it be that the leitmotif of the past 30 years of public life is a soulless economic conservatism if the main progenitors of this state of affairs just happen to be the most respected Labor prime ministers of the past half-century? How can you treat economic policy as reform when it suits you, only to redescribe it as neo-liberalism when it doesn't? How can you be the apostle of a productivity revolution and at the same time a defender of the life-world against the deadening influence of economics? How can you present the nation-building state as the new social democratic tool when the future promises fiscal austerity?

Fortunately for Rudd, rescue is perhaps nearer to hand than it was for the unfortunate Hume. Julia Gillard nowadays presents herself as the Ms Fixit of public life, but in her political youth she was regarded by her mentors as an intellectual prodigy. In the legacy wars that have arisen over Paul Kelly's The March of Patriots, it may be that his loyal deputy has provided the Prime Minister with a ready-dug escape route from his Rousseauian paradoxes.

Gillard has brought the argument back down from philosophy's celestial spheres to the dust and dirt of political ethics. The central problem of the Howard years, in her view, wasn't a surfeit of ideology but rather a dearth of intellectual honesty. In a period of rapid and wearying economic change, "old certainties are swept away, old securities reduced". Frank acceptance of this by citizens required that government offer its citizens a social contract, lessening the birth pains of the new economy. Yet all the Howard government offered citizens "was an illusion that old certainties could be retained". Labor's role, on this logic, is not to battle against the global tide but rather to reshape state services in line with the greater risks and opportunities of the new world.

There is a straight line between 1983 and the future, in other words, and it passes through us. This is not exactly visionary, but it does make sense.

Hume wasn't a romantic acolyte of market economics. (But then which serious political thinker ever was?) He did, however, accurately anticipate the moral liberation that modern economic relations might bring.

He also understood how little these relations relied on the stock of innate human goodness, the same stock in which, paradoxically, the misanthrope Rousseau purported to place so much faith. Once his scarifying encounter with the great friend of mankind was over, Hume recovered his native equanimity and returned to worldlier speculations. Who knows, perhaps our would-be philosophers might now do the same.,25197,26067804-7583,00.html