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What’s right?

18 Aug

Eric Aarons is about 85 years old and is in fact an ex-student of The Mine, a fact not usually mentioned as in the first fifty years or so of his life, or at least from 1938, Eric was one of Australia’s leading Communists. Today he is no longer a believer in the Marxist grand narrative, having discovered the relevance of the limitations of human nature and the importance of emotion. He has also come to the conclusion, rightly I think, that the critical element in our thinking about politics and society is values, a term he prefers to morality, though that is encompassed in the concept of values.

Aside from a chapter or two where the old Marxist terminology (which has always sent me to sleep very rapidly) is trotted out, he says in his recent book What’s Right (Rosenberg Publishing, Dural, 2003) quite a few things of relevance. He certainly can think, and for an octogenarian he is very sharp and very up-to-date. I will never be like that should I ever reach his age, I suspect. So on the grounds that the dominant paradigm in the West at the moment — the neoconservative market-worship we know so well — is possibly as vicious and erroneous as Marxism ever was, it is worth attending to what Aarons says.

Aarons’s critique of neo-liberalism is as penetrating as it is withering, questioning the shibboleth that distribution arising from markets is essentially just, because stemming from ‘voluntary’, ‘bilateral’ relations. As Aarons insists, such an ideology ‘masks’ “great differences in power”. Most damningly of all, the author condemns the hostility of this extreme individualist ideology to “human solidarity”, “empathy” and “altruism”. In this sense Aarons perceives a potential tension between traditional or ‘classic’ liberalism, which retained a sense of the ‘public good’, and its ‘neo-liberal cousin’. The alternative posed by Aarons appears, effectively, to be a reinvigoration and renewal of that social-democratic tradition which has historically ‘staked out’ a position somewhere between communist collectivism and liberal individualism. Such an approach, by Aarons’s account, recognizes the ‘dual nature’ of human beings: at once co-operative AND competitive. Sustainable development, progressive taxation reform, economic democracy, strategic social ownership, the reinvigoration of social expenditure and ‘social power’: these are amongst the prescriptions offered by Aarons in response to the neo-liberal hegemony…

Regardless of readers’ personal political perspectives, this book will prove to be refreshing, challenging and engaging.

It will be worthwhile keeping an eye on India in the near future, as it is beginning to buck current orthodoxy: India scraps privatisation plan.

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