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The shrinking society

Ethics and hope in the era of global capitalism

By Ghassan Hage

Introduction The majority of the polls published in the media are clear. At the very least, 50 per cent of all Australians support John Howard's 'tough' stand on the refugee issue. While the Prime Minister's capacity to be 'in touch with the views of ordinary people' is celebrated by some, it is interesting to note that the 'non-ordinary people', the minority opposing this stand see themselves as a moral opposition.

They oppose in the name of things like 'compassion' and 'hospitality' rather than in the name of a left/right political divide. This has become a pattern in the last ten years or so. From Mabo to the Tampa, via the 'apology' for the Stolen Children and the conditions in the refugee detention centres, a small-l liberal, largely but not solely middle-class population, supported by churches and human right organizations increasingly perceives itself as the outraged defender, the last bastion, of a decent and ethical society. Now that the moral majority is in power it has been shown to be clearly less moral than it initially claimed and instead, we have a moral minority in opposition. It argues that, under John Howard, ethics and morality have been thrown out the window.

Interestingly, conservative intellectuals, who in Australia are newspaper commentators who have mastered a slightly comical neo-tough journalistic style of the 'Hey softie, let me tell you about what reality is really all about' variety, seem to agree despite themselves with the liberals. They argue that there is no place for ethics and morality in a world where people can viciously 'exploit our compassion and generosity'. Consequently, the disagreement is not about the lack of ethics and morality in social life but about what to do about it. The small-l liberals see themselves as courageously fighting to maintain a glimmer of ethical life within society. The incredibly pragmatic neo-tough ones condemn the soft liberals for being naïve. Being very ordinary themselves, they are like the Prime Minister they support, incredibly in touch with ordinary people. As such, they are particularly down on the small-l liberals whom they see as of privileged class background, unable to see the relation between their pompous airs of tolerance, compassion and hospitality and their comfortable life style.

But it is not clear why the assertion that a certain ethical point of view is the product of middle-class comfort makes such view less ethical. It is more ethical to be hospitable to needy people than not to be. It is more ethical not to be racist than to be one. It is also more ethical to be a racist and acknowledge it than to be one and deny it. The list is a long one... It is more ethical to acknowledge that we are reaping the benefits of the decimation of indigenous society than not to do so. And it is more ethical not to marginalise and vilify a whole community under the excuse of fighting crime than to do so. No amount of neo-tough huffing and puffing against imaginary threats of political correctness can change this.

Nevertheless, it is also true that small-l liberals often translate the social conditions that allow them to hold certain superior ethical views into a kind of innate moral superiority. They see ethics as a matter of will. And they see Howard (and Hanson)'s people as not wanting rather than not being able to offer marginalised others the kind of hope they ought to be offered as fellow human-beings. For there is no doubt that this is what we are talking about here: the availability, the circulation and the exchange of hope. Compassion, hospitality and the recognition of oppression are all about giving hope to marginalised people. But to be able to give hope one has to have it. This is why the neo-tough ones are right here. Those who are unable to give hope to others, who see in every indigenous or refugee a person aiming to snatch whatever bit of hope for a decent life they've got, are not immoral people as such. They are just people who precisely have very little hope to spare or to share. And so Howard's supporters might feel triumphant that 'more than fifty percent' of Australia's population are unwilling to be hospitable to the boat people. But only idiotic neo-tough ones find reasons to celebrate here. For the statistics, more than anything else, beg a rather sad question: why is it that in Australia today 'more than fifty per cent' of the population are left with so little hope for themselves, let alone for sharing with others.

National capitalism and the distribution of hope within society

In a lecture presented in London, the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, reflected on the inability of the British left to dent Margaret Thatcher's electoral appeal among the working classes with their usual strategy of emphasising the massive inequalities her policies were generating. For Zizek, in its preoccupation with inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the distribution of goods and services, the opposition left out of its sight the very area where Thatcher's strength resided: her capacity to distribute 'fantasy'. 'Fantasy' here is a psychoanalytic term for the set of subliminal beliefs that individuals hold and which makes them feel that their life has a purpose, a meaningful future. Fantasy, that is, is the psychoanalytic version of what has been referred to above as hope.

Thatcher distributed hope primarily through a racist emphasis on the causal power of the British character and through highlighting the possibility of the small shopkeeper's dreams of rising above one's situation and experiencing upward social mobility. Her message was simple and clear: if you 'possessed' the 'British character', you possessed the capacity to experience upward social mobility even if, in the present, you are at the bottom of the heap. The British character did not give you immediate equality and the good life but it enabled you to hope for a future good life. You could look at your Pakistani neighbours living in the same conditions you are living in and say: 'sure we're in the same hole, but, I've got the British character, so I can at least hope to get out of this hole, while these black bastards are hopelessly stuck where they are'.

This capacity to distribute hope (particularly the capitalist-specific dreams of upward social mobility) in the midst of massive social inequality has been the secret of the ability of the nation-state to provide such an enduring framework for capitalist accumulation. Michelet, the eighteenth century observer and historian of the rise of nationalism, relates to us well, in his famous description of the "birth of a Frenchman", how the nation worked as an apparatus for the distribution of hope. No sooner was the person born as a "Frenchman", he informs us, that he was immediately "recognised" and "accounted for" as a person. Through "his" inclusion as part of a national society, the nation-state provided "him" with a recognition of "his" moral worth and "he" could immediately "claim his dignity as a man". At the same time, Michelet stresses, the national subject is made to feel in "control over the national territory". No sooner is "he" born that he is "put at once in possession of his native land". But most importantly the sense of being included, of being accounted for and of being in control all add up to what is in a sense the finality of the process: the national's capacity to receive, as Michelet called it, "his share of hope".

We should remember that in the history of the West access to a share of "dignity and hope" was not always open to the European lower classes. The rising bourgeoisie of Europe inherited from the court aristocracies of earlier times a perception of peasants and poor city people as a lower breed of humanity. The lower classes were 'racialised' as innately inferior beings considered biologically ill-equipped to access human forms of 'civilisation' which included particularly 'human dignity and hope'. 'Human' society within each emerging nation at that time did not coincide with the boundaries of the nation-states. Its borders were the borders of 'civilised' bourgeois culture.

What Michelet's work describes to us is the important historical shift that began occurring in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century: the increasing inclusion of nationally delineated peasants and lower classes into the circle of what each nation defined as its own version of human society. But this de-racialisation of the interior went hand in hand with the intensification of the colonial racialisation of the exterior. Now skin colour in the form of European Whiteness was emphasised, more than ever before, as the most important basis for one's access to 'dignity and hope'. Nevertheless, Michelet captures the birth of the nation-state proper: A state committed to distribute hope, to "foster life" as Foucault has put it, within a society whose borders coincide with the borders of the nation itself.

It is no secret that under capitalism government has always given primacy to the interest of investors. But thanks to the framework provided by the nation-state, the interest of investors did not seem to contradict a commitment to the construction of a viable society within national boundaries. Hope, as Ernest Bloch has theorised it in his Principles of Hope made people determined "by the future". The capacity to dream a better future that is "not too far off" was capable of overriding the determining power of the inequalities of the present. This worked well with capitalism.

Hospitality towards migrants and refugees in this national system was also part of this dual economic/social logic. They represented an extra source of (often cheap) labour, but their reception was also represented as a commitment to an ethic of the good society in general. The fact that they were received reflected something positive about the quality of life within the host society and legitimised it in the eyes of its very nationals as capable of producing a surplus of hope. This was so even when this surplus was itself the product of the colonial plundering of resources, and the destruction of existing social structures which undermined the hopes of millions of people in what became known the Third World. The vacuum of hope left behind is still felt today within the societies of the colonised, whether in terms of the hopelessness found in some colonised indigenous societies or the migration generated by dysfunctional colonially produced nation-states unable to provide a sufficient "share of hope" but to a small minority of their citizens.

Until recently, the capacity of the great majority of migrants to settle in Western Society was dependent on the availability of a Western 'surplus of hope'. This surplus is the pre-condition of all forms of hospitality. But it is clear today, that while the West is producing a surplus of many things, hope is not among them. This has been perhaps the most fundamental change that global capitalism has introduced to Western and non-western Society alike. In the era of global capitalism, the successful growth of the economy, the expansion of firms and rising profit margins no longer go hand in hand with the state's commitment to a distribution of hope within society. In fact what we are witnessing is not just a decrease of the state's commitment to an ethical society but a decrease in its commitment to a national society tout court. We seem to be reverting to the time where the boundaries of society coincided with the boundaries of upper class society. Hope stops where the investment of global capital stops.

Global capitalism and the shrinking configuration of hope It is well acknowledged today that what characterises the global corporation most and sets it apart from its multinational and national predecessors is the absence of a permanent national anchorage point that the corporation sees as its 'true home'. In the era of the dominance of colonial or international capitalist enterprise, partly because industries were in their great majority physically hard to re-locate, capitalism had a specific and stable national base. This was so even when its operations spread anywhere in the world it was capable of exploiting resources and labour. With the rise of the big multinational companies we begin to see a shift. The multinational firm, as its name implied, was no longer associated with a single nation-state. It had core bases in many parts of the world, though wherever it was, it was operated within a nation-state framework. The most important political aspect of global capitalism is the end of this reliance on a nation-state framework of operation.

On one hand, global capitalism is simply the intensification of the tendencies of multinational capitalism towards capital accumulation outside the traditional industrial sector. Now there is a clear dominance of the finance sector and a massive expansion of an economy of services. These are also accompanied with the rise of a relatively new field of capital accumulation: the information sector. Partly because of the above, the global firm is characterised by an almost complete loss of a specific national anchoring. It is not that, like the multinational corporation, it has many, but rather that it hasn't got any. Wherever it locates itself, it is considered a home on a conjunctural non-permanent basis. Capitalism goes transcendental so to speak. It simply hovers over the earth looking for a suitable place to land and invest... until it is time to fly again.

It is here that emerges a significant phenomenon. The global corporation needs the state but does not need the nation. National and sub-national (e.g. state) governments all over the world are transformed from being primarily the managers of a national society to being the managers of the aesthetics of investment space. For among the many questions that guide government policy one becomes increasingly paramount: how are we to make ourselves attractive enough to entice this transcendental capital hovering above us to land in our nation? This involves a socio-economic aesthetic: How do we create a good work environment such as a well-disposed labour force or a suitable infrastructure? But it also involves an architectural and touristic aesthetics: how do we create a pleasing living environment for the culturally diverse, mobile managers and workers associated to these global firms to make them desire to come and live among us for a while?

'Please come here Mr capital, please invest here' every government is begging. 'Even if you can't bind yourself to stay here forever, I can provide your multicultural workers with the tallest buildings which offer unbeatable views, I can provide them with the grooviest coffee shops you can imagine, equipped with the latest Italian coffee making machines, the best baristas and the best macchiatos. All of this is guaranteed if you come and invest here, Mr. Capital'.

The global aestheticised city is thus made beautiful to attract others rather than to make its local occupants feel at home within it. Thus even the government's commitment to city space stops being a commitment to society. This global urban aesthetics comes with an authoritarian spatiality specific to it. More so than any of its predecessors, the global city has no room for marginals. How are we to rid ourselves of the homeless sleeping on the city's benches? How are we to rid ourselves of those under-classes, with their high proportion of indigenous people, Third-World-looking (i.e. yucky-looking) migrants and descendants of migrants, still cramming the non-gentrified parts of the city? Not that long ago, the state was committed, at least minimally, to prop up and distribute hope to such people in order to maintain them as part of society. Now, the ideological and ethical space for perceiving the poor as a social/human problem has shrunk. In the dominant modes of representation the poor become primarily like pimples, an 'aesthetic nuisance.' They are standing between 'us' and the yet-to-land transcendental capital. They ought to be eradicated and removed from such a space. The aesthetics of globalisation is the aesthetics of zero tolerance.

As the state retreats from its commitment to the general welfare of the marginal and the poor, they are increasingly, at best, left to their own devices. At worst, they are actively portrayed as outside society. The criminalisation and labelling of ethnic cultures, is one of the more unethical and lowly forms of such processes of exclusion. This is partly why globalisation has gone so well with the neo-liberal dismantling of the welfare state. The state's retreat from its commitment to see poverty as a socio/ethical problem goes hand in hand with the increased criminalisation of poverty and the deployment of a penal state to fill in the void left by the retreat of the welfare state.

Hope is not related to an income level. It is about the sense of possibility that life can offer. Its enemy is a sense of entrapment not a sense of poverty. As the withdrawal of the state from society and the existing configuration of hope begins shrinking many people, even with middle class incomes, urban dwellers paradoxically stuck in insecure jobs, farmers working day and night without 'getting anywhere', small-business people struggling to keep their businesses going, all of these and more have begun suffering from various forms of hope scarcity. They join the already over-marginalised populations of indigenous communities, homeless people, poor immigrant workers and the chronically unemployed. But unlike them they are not used to their state of marginality, they don't know how to dig for new forms of hope where there is none, and they live in a state of denial, still hoping that their 'national identity' is bound to be a passport of hope for them. They become self-centred, jealous of anyone perceived to be 'advancing' while they are stuck, vindictive and bigoted and always ready to 'defend the nation' in the hope of re-accessing their lost hopes. They are not necessarily like this. Their new life condition brings the worst out of them as it would of any of us. That is the story of many of Howard's 'more than 50 per cent'. They are the no-hopers produced by global capitalism and the policies of neo-liberal government, the 'refugees of the interior'. And it is ironic to see so many of them mobilised in defending 'the nation' against 'the refugees of the exterior'. Global rejects against global rejects. Only the lowly can rejoice at this sight.


Ghassan Hage is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. He is the author of White Nation: Fantasies of White Surpremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney: 1998. This article is based on research conducted as part of an Australian Research Council Large Grant on 'Globalisation, Migration and the Quest for Viability'.


Suggested citation

Hage, Ghassan, 'The shrinking society', Evatt Journal, Vol. 1, Nos 1-2, January- October 2001.<>


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