Richard Hil and Kristen Lyons


Enter the economist

It is unusual for economists to talk about 


and even more unusual for them to talk about economic theory in the context of democratic socialism. But this is precisely what occurred recently at an event in regional northern New South Wales. 

A well-known and widely respected Australian economist offered up his thoughts and ideas on what a socialist future might look like—always a risky venture. It was a wide-ranging, though not exhaustive, exploration of what can reasonably be expected in a society claiming to be socialist. Many of those in attendance agreed that it was a fascinating tour de force, brought to life by the creation of a fictional couple with whom we could readily identify. 


Details, details

This sort of deliberative thinking about future scenarios is desperately needed if our ideas for a better future are to have any chance of succeeding. We need to know, for example, whether in a socialist future we will have an organised state, and how this might interface with regional and local assemblies, as well as autonomous civic associations and agencies. We also need some idea of the taxation, trade and security systems envisaged in the new order, and ditto in the policy domains of work, health, housing, education, welfare, criminal justice and the environment. We should also consider how we might transition rapidly to a just economy based on renewable energy, and how to enable energy democracy more generally. 

With global carbon-dioxide emissions reaching emergency levels, and the world’s hottest years on record taking place between 2015 and 2018, answers to these questions have never been more pressing.

In this context, we can and should think creatively and expansively about the nature of democratic governance; what localised regenerative communities and engaged neighbourhoods might really look like (there are too many crass assumptions about ‘resilient’ enclaves); how Indigenous wisdoms can be woven into the fabric of everyday life; and how more caring, compassionate and collaborative social relationships can be forged. We might also reflect on the role of organised labour, the place of large and small business enterprises in a ‘new economy’, the values that should guide business, and how we might deal with the challenges of new and emerging technologies. And we might even want to think about what constitutes acceptable and sustainable levels of consumption and whether we can hang on to our smart TVs and iPhones!

This kind of (re)imagining work is what Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,describes as giving attention to stories of possibility that are not always apparent, and often overlooked. While these stories, and the prefigurative politics they engender, are frequently cast into the shadows by the juggernaut of neoliberal hegemony, they are vital to the advancement of more ethical, just and regenerative possibilities. Similarly, in her response to ‘dark times’, Hannah Arendt once asserted that, ‘even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances’. 

It is this uncertain, flickering light that requires our urgent critical attention. But more than simply gazing into the future, it also requires us to build activist conversations through the prism of mutually respectful relationships, grounded in the reality of people’s everyday lives. This means acknowledging and responding to the pains of precarious employment, debt, wage stagnation, rampant inequality, housing stress and the existential threat of climate change.

By his own admission, our visionary economist only scratched the surface of such complex issues. And he wasn’t about to offer a rigid plan, program or formula—even if that were possible. There was plenty of scope in his address for deliberation—for engagement and open-ended thinking. This was analysis guided, above all, by a desire to think beyond the abstract fuzziness of a better future. 


Enter the hit man

Following the presentation, audience members were invited to discuss what they had gleaned from it. Questions and comments came thick and fast; some the speaker handled with great aplomb, others he responded to with a forthright declaration that this or that was not his area of expertise. 

Things were going pretty well until an individual (who will remain nameless) announced to all and sundry that the economist’s talk was exactly what we didn’t need in a world yearning for a radical ‘change of consciousness’. The speaker’s analysis, he intoned, was the usual hogwash one gets from academic economists who fail to grasp the urgency of our current situation. The malcontent then proceeded to tell the assembled throng how the talk had sent him to sleep. 

At first some in the audience were angered by this person’s disrespect for one of the world’s most cited economists, and an all-round good human being. The fact that the malcontent actuallyfell asleep during the talk also raised the question of how he could possibly know what was being said. But, leaving that aside, many were perplexed by the apparent rudeness and calculated aggression of the comments, which were designed, it seemed, to elicit support from the audience. It achieved the opposite: deafening silence. People were annoyed at the attempted public humiliation of the speaker, who deftly deflected the assault by saying, ‘I’ll take that as a comment’. 


Spear throwing

Such incidents should encourage us to reflect on how activists on the progressive Left of politics—let’s call them that—engage with each other. It’s no great surprise that evangelism, territoriality, egoism, tribalism, siloism, grandstanding, bloody-mindedness and sheer arrogance are part and parcel of the kaleidoscope of practices elicited by those committed to radical progressive change. Kindness, consideration, respect and preparedness to engage across difference are also part of the mix, but more than occasionally they are nullified by the opposite. 

Vigorous debate is one thing. Seeking to dominate others by insisting on an unshakable right line, or attempting to silence others to control or sideline different views, is altogether another.

The latter is not geared to relationship-building and finding common ground but, rather, constitutes unhelpful opposition that leads, more often than not, to hyper-defensiveness and self-cannibalisation. It tends to build walls and entrench borders that may not actually exist, solidifying differences, or apparent ones, rather than enabling us to soften our edges or to reach out rather than simply dig in. Sticking to a ‘position’ may feel righteous, but it can also lead to political impotence. 

Such positioning (posturing?) draws people in so long as they conform to the prevailing orthodoxy; otherwise they are cast aside as heretics or naive fools. Marginalisation and exclusion are the result. In other words, rather than embracing mutuality and common interest—let alone diversity and complexity—there is bitter contestation.


Finding common ground can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. It worked in Canada when organisers managed to get well over a hundred organisations and countless individuals to agree to the Leap Manifesto, a blueprint of progressive policies and principles launched in September 2015. 

This came about through carefully thought out participatory practices, good faith and goodwill. When invited to concede ground, to be flexible and respectful of other positions, participants responded, even when they disagreed with each other—often vehemently. It happened when participants were asked whether they could ‘live with’ a certain proposal or idea, and it occurred because people could see the bigger picture rather than their own immediate interests. This is exactly the kind of process that Arendt described, whereby we are able to considerand even embrace the interests and ideas of others while at the same time holding our own. 

The same sort of enabling process occurred recently in Australia when a group of individuals founded Australia Remade, an organisation dedicated to rethinking our future. Over 200 people from various backgrounds were invited to consider the sort of Australia they would like  to see. They shared their thoughts and reflected upon the views and opinions of others in an effort to find common ground. As a result, nine ‘pillars’ were identified—broad-based principles around which a compelling story of a different future could be articulated: one based on shared values and common purpose.


Strategic questioning

Evidence of the benefits of this sort of commonality is found in a variety of other arenas, from assemblies-based, participatory-democracy and sociocratic principles through to citizens’ juries and collective storytelling. Pivotal to such sceanarios is a respectful engagement between participants—including the political act of listening (the primer for dialogue, understanding and empathy)—and the privileging of common interest, or what French sociologist Michel Callon refers to as ‘interessement’: that is, a communicative practice vital to building collaborative networks through what Annie Kia, a leading anti–coal seam gas activist in Australia, describes as ‘consensual space’. 

This space is achieved through a process of ‘communicative rationality’, as Jürgen Habermas named it: a project born of necessity, given that every utterance or stated position rests on a validity claim that can only be resolved through discussion. 

Several steps precede such a resolution. Common ground can only be realised through particular forms of mutuality and dialogical engagement. Agreement doesn’t come out of the blue, or from an abstract process of so-called rational discussion. It’s an approach that draws heavily on specific relational skills and an awareness of what Michel Foucault called the micro-politics of power. Knowing how power circulates at this level, in the context of encouraging dialogue we see the importance of choices and implications in micro-processes—attention to turn-taking, intonation, the use of certain rhetorical devices, the privileging of some and the silencing of other voices. A conscious awareness of such things, and actually givingwhole-hearted attention to others, holds the possibility of traversing entrenched emotions and belief systems. 

Social philosopher and activist Fran Peavey takes this a step further in arguing for ‘strategic questioning’: the dialogistic gateway to shared domains of consciousness and understanding.  It’s an approach also reflected powerfully in the process of ‘conscientisation’ that Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire advocates, in which relationships are formed to enable participants to share their stories within the context of everyday-life experiences. 


Really listening

For Peavey, respectful listening is crucial to empowering all parties in dialogical circles—a practice that, as Hugh Mackay points out in Why Don’t People Listen?, appears to be on the wane. According to Peavey, the idea is not to impose your view but to participate in a reciprocal process of understanding that can achieve common ground and a shared purpose. 

This accords with principles of empowerment and strength-based practice found in social-work literature. As Peavey notes, ‘…the greatest service that I can be is simply to dynamically listen, ask good questions, rephrase and reflect what…[people] are saying back to them, and generally help them see their own pathway through the problems’.

Image credit: Amnesty International - Australia

Image credit: Amnesty International - Australia

Amanda Sinclair has similarly described this as listening in stillness, including for example the technique of Indigenous Australian cultures that practise a form of quiet, still awareness, or dadirri(from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages).In her book Trauma Trails, Indigenous scholar Judy Atkinson describes the positive outcomes for healing and positive change in communities that come from respecting the diversity of contributions as part of dialogue—through ‘hearing with more than the ears’, alongside reflective non-judgemental consideration of what is seen and heard.

Deep listening does not mean simply uncritically absorbing what is said. There comes a point when an alternative view has to be put, when an idea is gently questioned, or when the lived experience of someone being othered is humanised through storytelling and other narrational techniques. Yet the act of listening in itself reflects an attitude of respect rather than disdain, which in turn lays the foundation for purposeful dialogue.

Peavey maintains that such an encounter thus rests on the assumption that:

‘Even if we differ in our opinions, I respect you and will work with you to find the best way to deal with our common situation’. 

In other words, ‘you carry your opinions in a way that does not interfere with dialogue, the respect and the exploration of alternatives that you are trying to achieve’. 


Beyond neoliberal individualism

The approach outlined here offers the prospect of a healthy, empowering counter to neoliberal engagement that inter aliacelebrates the assertion that ‘What I say counts’. As noted by Katherine Ormerod and others, new technologies, especially social media, have served to promote self-oriented rather than mutual concerns, contributing to a culture of narcissism. Conversations become increasingly about elevating our own views and opinions over those of others, and promoting our preferred sense of self to the outside world. We become micro-marketing experts, employing all the technologies available to us in the hope of foregrounding our own views and opinions. No one should underestimate the capacity of high-tech neoliberalism to restructure social relations—to offer the appearance of hyper-connectivity while at the same time splitting us off from each other and driving a toxic culture of competition. 

In many ways, therefore, building respectful relationships in good faith around the pursuit of common purpose is a powerful counter to what Anne Manne refers to as the ‘new narcissism’. But it is even more vital in these times of political polarisation, the ‘democracy recession’ and nationalist populism. It begins, as Citizens UK activist Mathew Bolotin observes, by building relationships with people around their common concerns and aspirations, and listening to them with respectful intent. This might not always work, and the messenger may become the issue rather than the message, but it’s worth trying. 

While entrenched values and beliefs are hard to shift, self-interest and species survival may offer the cracks through which the light comes in. This is certainly the case when it comes to anthropogenic climate change, inequality and job insecurity. People are ready to have purposeful conversations about the worlds in which they live, and how they might become agents for change.

As US commentator Thomas Frank notes inRendezvous with Oblivion, the forgotten constituencies that rallied behind Trump are testament to what happens when we forget the things that matter to people. Trump’s rallying cry of ‘Let’s make America great again’ resonated with millions of people who felt ignored and marginalised by the urban elites and liberal classes. In effect, Trump was recasting the mythical story of the ‘American dream’ to people whose lives had been turned upside down by economic globalisation and corporate greed.

Naomi Klein and George Monbiot have observed that the task facing the progressive Left across the globe is to offer a compelling story of peace, justice and regeneration that embraces everyone; that has meaning in the context of people’s everyday lives; that offers a story that sparks the imagination and offers hope rather than despair. To do that we need a relational politics that aims at achieving common ground. 

It is often said that the progressive Left is made up of wildly disparate elements and that division is inevitable and normal. Of course disagreements and disputes can be productive. Still, we should ask ourselves how helpful these conflicts are to achieving the goal of common purpose, and whether we can craft conversations

when we do disagree

that enable us to agree more than we disagree. Importantly,

we might ask how we can do so in ways that are respectful, and with a commitment to the collective good

This is most likely to succeed when we realise how we are connected through common experience—that doing for ourselves may not be the best way forward. And we must remember how power works, in the making of inequalities and marginalisation, and in the processes we use to enter into dialogues. Minimally, this would avoid the factionalism and confrontations that so often attend discussions among Left progressives. 

It’s at least worth talking about this, isn’t it? 

*Richard Hil, Adjunct Professor, Southern Cross University, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Convener, Ngara Institute, and Kristen Lyons, Professor, School of Social Science, University of Queensland