Death of the social contract

Society can’t exist without some sort of contractual obligation between citizen and government and worryingly there are warnings that ours is weakening.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s best-known quote from his 1762 thesis On the Social Contract suggests that “Man is born free; but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau was concerned with how governments form uneasy alliances with their citizens; how they wield power; and maintain a cosy relationship with the world of commerce. Despite what many Australian politicians think, ideas do have the power to get people protesting, even storming the Bastille and assembling guillotines. Recently, caught up in a May Day protest on Paris’s Place de République, I retreated to my room after the flares began, and the dogs and their heavily armed minders appeared. Here, I guessed, was a people not used, or willing, to be pushed around.

Rousseau made it clear that “laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing”. Such was the case in France under the reign of Louis the (not so) Beloved. Economic inequality; lack of opportunities for people to realise their potential, sleep in a house, eat anything but cake. As Louis’s grandson found out, a society can’t exist without some sort of contractual obligation between citizen and government. A contract fiercely protected in France, still, curated in other Western countries, especially after national emergencies (England’s National Health Service established in July 1948). And here, the great egalitarian experiment that gave us everything from school milk to Medicare. But now there are signs that our own social contract is weakening. Small clues, accumulating so slowly we barely notice: a proliferation of taxes, from wine equalisation to stamp duty; increased waiting times for elective surgery; the spread of outer suburbs that provide an endless flow of stamp duty; and conversely, a drop of five per cent in national rates of volunteering between 2014 and 2018, the daily news ringing with the same tales of dysfunction.

Australia, 2018, and the New South Wales Corrections Minister, David Elliott, explains that the new Clarence Correctional Centre will have an “open campus-style design” with such joys as tablets that “enable them to complete vocational educational training”. No copies of Rousseau in this new 1700- bed facility, built on the equivalent of 180 football fields. Rehabilitation, of course, is admirable, but the images of pre-fabricated cells, and kilometres of wire, make me wonder if this isn’t some sort of growth industry. Or at least, that our governments are expecting more customers in the coming years. Why? Rousseau, again, explaining that the social contract is a delicate beast. “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.” I ask myself what this means to the extra 500 (generally not-so-well-off) South Australians the state government expects to welcome to the corrections system in the next three years.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Photo: Shutterstock)
Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Photo: Shutterstock)

I know you’re thinking, here we go, Lenin’s on his soapbox. Perhaps socialism is just another form of illegitimacy. Just the same, political power is a slippery eel. Like Barack Obama, in August 2012, explaining how a “red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised”, becoming, a few days later, a watered-down statement about Assad’s obligations and accountability. Nothing, compared to Donald Trump’s decision (according to Jackson Diehl) “to excuse Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman for ordering the murder and dismemberment of one of his own citizens”. Ignoring the CIA, and common sense, Trump makes truth a strangely distant and unimportant concern so that “we shouldn’t be surprised if more exiled dissidents disappear or die”. No mention of oil prices, or the $110 billion in arms Riyadh has promised to purchase.

So what’s going on with the social contract? Is there a connection between leaders like Donald Trump, and the educational outcomes of poor kids? Between the 125 different taxes Australians pay, and the diminishing level of services we receive? What even is the social contact anymore? Do people matter, or are they becoming liabilities to the state?

Let’s start with the South Australian government, turning the best bits of Adelaide Station into a casino in 1985. Here’s the game plan, boys: get the Lotteries Commission to find an operator and allow them to set up gaming tables and poker machines. Then we keep 13.75 per cent of gaming revenue, licence fees and (as a Christmas bonus) unclaimed prizes. This stuff is genius. Repeated, at a national scale, so that in 2015 Australian governments were earning $5.8 billion a year from gambling. Problem gamblers, broken families, suicides, all apparently made legitimate by government warnings to curb your gambling. Like somehow, in our brave new world of endless choice and individual (by name only) freedoms, any fallout is your problem. I mean, you could’ve chosen not to, couldn’t you? What would Rousseau make of the misery that comes from the Australian experiment in gambling? Would he be surprised that $23 billion dollars annually is spent on gambling – not books, shoes, school fees, shopping, medicines? Australia as a giant Monaco, or Macau, slowly giving up any sense of a fair go as handshakes are made, promises whispered.

Adelaide Railway Station (Photo: amophoto_au /
Adelaide Railway Station (Photo: amophoto_au /

The late cultural theorist, Mark Fisher, described a corporate-political lovefest that aims to “keep us in a state of panicked anxiety … and radical competitive individualism so that we can’t act together and gain a collective agency”. Instead, functioning individually, wired into a world where technology will save us, connect us to a community of the like-minded, encourage our creativity and sense of self-worth. But what we’re really left with is a semi-medicated existence where, all of a sudden, and for no reason, we feel like crying. A world that breeds loneliness and isolation, only ever giving the impression of satisfaction. Homes where we need Siri to remind us to shit; where our babies are wired into tablets before their parents. Where students sit in front of laptops for hours on end, edu-managerialists claiming this approach (generally maths-focussed – Western civilisation seems to have less potential for profit) to learning might lead to faster computation, better memory, understanding of high-level scientific concepts. Might make better technocrats, entrepreneurs, to build faster machines to replace more people who can sit around strung out on drugs or anti-depressants, or just make their way straight to the Clarence Correctional Centre.

Politics no longer serves any practical purpose. Nationally, one in 32 Australian children (many among the 730,000 who live in poverty) now require support services, around 400 problem gamblers commit suicide each year while, at the same time, the federal government promises $35 billion for nine Hunter-class frigates, and $50 billion for nine submarines. Partly drawn from the $6 billion annual revenue from excises and taxes on beer, wine and spirits; from the $6.5 billion raised from tobacco; stamp duty; the Medicare levy for those unable to afford private health cover (apparently the contract no longer includes broken bones). Our hospitals groaning under the weight. In South Australia, locals paying $2.3 billion for a new Royal Adelaide Hospital that’s smaller than the old one, fuller, with an Emergency Department that treats patients in waiting ambulances; a tram extension that costs around $100,000 a metre, can’t turn right and travels to the (now deserted) old Royal Adelaide Hospital; a new school (Botanic High School) built in memoriam of Gepps Cross, Gilles Plains, Glencoe, Mannum, Mansfield Park, Meningie, Moculta, Smith Creek, Smithfield Plains, Wharminda, and dozens of others; the same (struggling) system boasting Australia’s worst NAPLAN results. Also, a state budget promising to close three Service SA centres and seven TAFE campuses, as well as the outsourcing of the Adelaide Remand Centre. I’ll stop. I’m getting depressed just writing it.

To break down just one of these, in South Australia closing schools has become an art-form perfected by both sides of politics, planned by technocrats, executed by obedient managerialists. According to a 2015 Advertiser report: “South Australia has lost public schools at a much faster rate than any other state … while the State Government is now encouraging more mergers.” From 2009 to 2013 more than 10 per cent (588 to 527) of schools closed, representing (according to the ABS) 40 per cent of the national drop in public school numbers. What social contract? I experienced this breach-of-contract when Jay Weatherill’s government announced the closure of my old primary school. No great shock; most South Australians have a similar story to tell. The school had a declining enrolment and the best thing to do, according to the education minister, was to amalgamate with the local high school.

Correctional Services Chief David Brown and Minister Corey Wingard (Photo: JM Smith / Shutterstock)

A meeting was called to discuss the idea, I attended and listened to the local MP and school management explain how wonderful this arrangement would be for the kids. I put up my hand to suggest the meeting was about deciding if to move forward with the amalgamation, but there was no if. After, the local MP spent time trying to convince me why (despite an extensive teaching career) I didn’t really understand the situation. Anyway, there would be a parent vote first, although the outcome was certain. I wondered whether there mightn’t be a way to refocus the school, attract more enrolments, or at least wait to see if the area’s changing demographics would affect enrolments. None of that. Apparently big schools were best for little kids.

Another face of the ailing social contract. Propaganda in place of debate; the appearance of democratic process, although, as anyone who’s ever protested a local, state or federal government decision knows, it’s never about the will of the majority. If a roof’s blown off in a storm, a politician is required to appear in front of the house, say something like, “There are no free kicks in this country, you just gotta pick yerself up and get back on the field,” before returning to his or her car and pissing off. Everything is our problem, our fault; for not watching the speedo when we reach the bottom of the hill; not having enough money to send our kids to a private school; not having health insurance; for using too much electricity, water or gas. The wheels turn and our governments, sure we can be pacified that little bit more, build another stadium/hotel combo, print more brochures and employ more media advisors.

Solution? We, Australians, need to start taking our politicians to account; to challenge their media releases, to question their (apparent) logic. We need, sometimes, to stop doing things how and when we’re told to, to protest, actively, like the nothing-to-lose mob on the Place de République. At stake, as it always has been, is the social contract. Rousseau reminded us that “absolute silence … is the image of death”. It seems that in a world of constant noise, opinions, Twitter and Facebook, nothing is actually discussed, planned beyond the next election, or questioned.

And it’s not like we even signed the damn contract.

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