In The Politics of the Common Good, Jane R Goodall has tackled a large subject in an accessible way

Author Jane R Goodall. Picture: Supplied

Author Jane R Goodall. Picture: Supplied

'The old is dying and the new cannot be born", Gramsci writes from a fascist prison in 1930, penning a classic statement of what has become known as the 'interregnum'. Jane R. Goodall begins her polemic on the common good with this haunting notion, that we are "frozen on the threshold between past and future", an idea circulating today in discussions of our human future. Ideas are important in this book - this idea of the interregnum, the possibility of the commons, the history of enclosures of all kinds, and the interplay between economics and community wellbeing.

A politics of the interregnum needs to be found somewhere in a time characterised by its loss of faith. Goodall's solutions lie in the direction of strong collectivity, where we would each assume power and responsibility over events. Of course, this immediately presents us with the anguish we experience in the face of the incessant news stream, showing us events around the world that we cannot control. But collectivity, she argues, can be found on the plane of the local while pursued in the knowledge of global histories and forecasts.

This is a large rhetorical project requiring equal doses of utopia and polemic. The book is earnest in tone sometimes, relentless sometimes, overwhelming the reader with insistent argument from wide historical resources and displaying an impressive range of scholarship.

Goodall has a way of picturing relations between theoretical moments as itself a kind of commons - knowledge is not arranged according to hierarchies of importance or influence. Local events and figures, like the building of Canberra's parliament and recent statements by our politicians feature alongside towering historical or theoretical events such as the English and American revolutions, and theories of society from Adam Smith and Marx to Hayek.

Goodall has a way of picturing relations between theoretical moments as itself a kind of commons - knowledge is not arranged according to hierarchies of importance or influence.

"As 'we the people' wake up to the realities of the neo-liberal end game, it is easy to become confused and overwhelmed. The market in its unbounded wisdom has brought us the obesity epidemic, the smoking epidemic, the vast masses of waste plastic cruising on our oceans, coal-fired power and global warming, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, slave labour in the garment industry and the live export trade. What can Hayek's much vaunted 'individual' do in the face of all this? It is time to work collectively again, but if we are to avoid repeating the destructive cycle, we need to do so with a strong balance of foresight and hindsight."

The discussion of neo-liberalism is especially good - drawing a line from traditional liberal philosophies embodied in the individual, to the advent of neo-liberalism and its attendant chaos as played out in the global financial crisis. And although the collective as an idea has its own problems which Goodall notes, she points up the forces ranged against collectivism at this time of global economic dominance, allowing the market to dictate our politics. Goodall has a way of linking the particular to the general, for example in contrasting the statement of Roosevelt penned in 1944 with the manifesto from Hayek (the father of neo- liberalism) the same year. In Roosevelt, the basic social and economic rights of the 20th century citizen are laid out including provision for sickness, unemployment and old age benefits, free and fair competition in commerce, and wages sufficient to cover food, clothing and shelter for working people.

In Hayek, the fear of government taking on these functions is linked to the prevailing fear of Stalinism and other collective socialist dictatorships of the period, favouring an alternative future which presents economic growth, not government welfare, as the vehicle for prosperity.

"Although there is no question that neo-liberalism, with its fundamental hostility to the commons, is predominantly associated with right-wing politics, there is a strong historical relationship between political conservatism and commitment to the public good."

Following an itinerary of special cases and particular historical instances, the book traverses its broad subject in a largely readable form. Occasionally eloquent, often employing narrative, the chapters explore land, work, history and politics especially referencing Australian experiences of these. There is sometimes in the polemic a kind of haranguing that becomes uncomfortable for the reader. As perhaps it should? These are critically important questions, the solution for which is far from developed.

Any observer of contemporary global politics would surely bring as much despair as hope to the conditions of our future about which Goodall writes so well and so thoroughly. Goodall argues convincingly that only a refinement on the notion of the commons and the 'common wealth' could possibly produce wellbeing on a global scale for global citizens. And yet her hopes, pinned on local groups like NENA (New economy Network Australia) and Co-Canberra, seem dwarfed by the scale of her investigation.

Not a book that reassures, but definitely a grand resource of food for thought.

  • The Politics of the Common Good: Dispossession in Australia, by Jane R. Goodall. NewSouth Press. $34.99.
  • Robyn Ferrell is a Canberra writer and academic
This story Food for thought in we the people first appeared on The Canberra Times.