Poisonous seeds

For most Australians, the European Constitution is a boring subject of conversation. A long way from Schapelle Corby, Cornelia Rau, or even the proposed industrial relations legislation. But for those with a feel for European or Australian history, the rejection of the constitution in France and the Netherlands is deeply concerning.

The constitution carries forward a project born out of the great wars of the 20th century. In these many Australians also died. The founders of the project proposed an ideal of cultural and economic union in Europe, hoping this would mute the national rivalries and hostilities which fed catastrophic wars. In the referenda, national antipathies to immigrants, asylum seekers and communities that were ethnically or religiously distinctive, proved stronger than the vision of unity.

Most financial and political leaders in Europe had supported the constitution. They believed that it would extend the reach of economic globalisation. Yet the philosophy that underpins economic globalisation also provokes the kind of popular rejection of cultural accommodation that we have seen in France and the Netherlands.

Economic theory offers us the image of self-reliant individuals who compete in order to advance themselves. The success of the system is measured by increased individual wealth and national economic growth. In this image, groups which offer support to individuals in their economic welfare and advocate policies that minimise competition or criticise government policy have no place. They stand between the government or the corporation and the individual. In an ideal world, national boundaries that protect citizens from foreign competition would also be abolished.

At the core of this image, however, are the seeds that will poison it. Competitive, self-reliant individuals whose overriding goal is financial advancement learn not to trust strangers. When they themselves are not winning in competition, they readily believe that strangers are competing unfairly. They develop a distaste for generous visions of unity and of a shared good. They judge policies by the single criterion of their own self-interest and that of people like themselves.

In the short term, governments feed this suspicion in order to nourish a narrow nationalism and to direct suspicion against groups like asylum seekers, immigrant workers and the economically uncompetitive. But in the longer term, the movement strengthens a narrow and antagonistic identity, and also undercuts the trust that competition itself demands.

Morality is governed by self-interest and a crude calculus of consequences.

The contradiction between economic globalisation and the narrow self-interest it engenders underlies the rejection of the European Constitution. It is also evident in Australia. The government supports the project of economic globalisation by targeting groups like asylum seekers, limiting workers’ protection, encouraging nationalist fervour in sporting contests and historical celebrations, and by limiting the capacity of groups to support their members or to advocate policies based on a principled public morality. These policies corrode the moral sensitivity even of the good. Many argued for the abolition of indefinite detention, for example, on the grounds that Australia no longer faced a flood of unlawful immigrants. As if the goal of border control ever justified the evil means of punishing innocent and needy people. 

The result has been an increasingly sour public rhetoric, a public life without respect for truth, and the targeting of groups that are different. The Schapelle Corby trial has shown how these qualities of Australian public life are mimicked in public opinion. As in Europe, the narrow and antagonistic definition of ‘Australian’ reveals the poverty of economic individualism. It also discloses how economic individualism erodes the more generous moral values on which global economic co-operation finally depends. 

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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