In politics, words are designed to obscure. For instance, Kevin Rudd has been telling business groups all week that it is Labor’s job to govern for “society”, not “vested interests”. John Howard, too, argues that his government represents Australian society, not the sectional interests of union thugs portrayed so stereotypically in anti-Labor ads.
Each party claims to represent society against overpaid and overdressed CEOs or overpaid and underdressed union apparatchiks. Whatever “society” is, it must be delighted — no matter who wins the election, it has a friend.
So it’s not surprising that Margaret Thatcher’s declaration in a 1987 interview with the British weekly Women’s Own that “there is no such thing as society” is considered the very epitome of ideological heartlessness.
Of course, her remark is more often than not taken out of context — the Iron Lady was targeting people who routinely place the blame for their misfortunes on others — but at the same time the statement can stand by itself.
Society is so large and so vague a concept that it is meaningless. There are individual men and women, Thatcher went on to argue, and there are families. She could have added friends, and she probably should have added communities — but Thatcher was essentially right. Society is a rhetorical fiction.
No political leader could ever hope to understand, let alone represent, the enormous range of wants and needs of everybody in a country of 21 million people. Individuals are just too diverse to be pressed into a great big lumpen ball of “society”. Furthermore, the boundaries of society are unclear. Does society stop at the water’s edge? Does society stop when we go to work? Is it society, or is it the government that compels us to pay tax? (It sure feels like government.)
The fiction of society also supports some remarkably poor public policy. For example, federal Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has argued that the new citizenship test is designed to ensure Australia has a cohesive society by formally codifying some Australian values.
The word “value” is just as fraught as the word “society” — 100 philosophers locked in a room wouldn’t be able to decide what it means. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is convinced that as long as potential citizens can identify Sir Edmund Barton in a multiple choice list, Australia’s values will be maintained.
When we try to figure out what might be the shared values of our society, we usually end up repeating bad jokes from Crocodile Dundee. Instead, we should recognise that individuals can have values, and communities can have values, but insisting that everybody in the country recognises our Judaeo-Christian heritage won’t do much for anybody.
It would be better to drop the illusion of society and instead view Australia as a collection of varied and overlapping communities, which are voluntarily entered into and held together by genuinely common interests. These communities can pivot around schools, workplaces and football clubs, and economic, social or cultural interests.
And governments don’t have the burden of encouraging community. Indeed, a community imposed from the top down is not a community at all.
Governments do have a role in removing the impediments to community activity, but dressing up public policy with vacuous rhetoric does nothing more than obscure the importance of genuine community.