Article: The circus in late capitalist Australian politics. – by Max lane

In 1975, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, urged people to vote for an Australia that would be ‘relaxed and comfortable” and where “sport would be back on the front page” of the newspapers.  The long post-war economic boom and pretty much zero unemployment (noting that participation still did not really count women) had underpinned an ideological atmosphere based on an optimistic sense of the future. What sense of threat that did was more external and ultimately connected to the Cold War. Some of that sense of threat was cultivated by the ruling class and agitated by them – the  yellow peril and the red menace.  Another sense of threat – of nuclear war – was a quite sensible sense of threat, and was one of the factors that actually helped bring politics and activism to many societies, including Australia, in the 1960s and early 70s.

However, up until 1973 or 1974, the sense of economic future was optimistic. Jobs were relatively easy to get; union membership was high and the organised working class had a strong bargaining position. In the 50s and 60s the big cities had not yet sprawled and land and homes were still within the reach of many workers, if not as many as the atmosphere seemed to bespeak. This comforting economic atmosphere in this earlier period had left a legacy of myth-making of holidays and picnics and sport. When Fraser made these comments he was probably seeking to revive or use those myths of an idyllic boom period. Actually, if there was a period of lower class struggle in may have been in the 50s (perhaps) but the whole decade before Fraser – 65 to 75 – had been very political, witnessing the movement against the Vietnam War, a wave of women’s liberation activism, activities in support of aboriginal rights and anti-nuclear protests. Politics had been on the front page for a decade by 1975.

In 2013, neither Rudd nor Abbot call for sport to come back on the front page, relegating politics to some lesser space in the inner pages. Neither do the media – especially that owned by the most political of the capitalist class, such as the Murdoch press – try to hide or low-profile politics. At a hollow, superficial level – very superficial, very hollow –  Australia has never been more ‘politicised’. The Australian citizen has ‘politics’ shoved down their throats on like the bitter pills a sadistic doctor might prescribe, knowing full well that they will actually only make us sicker.

Actually, what most comes to mind when I reflect on the state of (mainstream) politics, and the media coverage of it, is the saying attributed (according to wikipeadia) the Roman poet Juvenal: “Give them bread and circuses and they will be easy to rule.” Of course, the context is different, and, for that matter, in some ways the circuses, if not as directly vicious and sadistic, just as manipulative and humiliating. The circuses, including exhibitions of violence, were provided to the masses of unemployed Italian townspeople of Rome – unemployed as most of the work was done by non-Italian slaves. They were entertainments to keep people pre-occupied.

Today, the ruling classes politicians and media face a different problem, but where they also turn to the circus, probably without recognising it, or perhaps they do.

Contemporary capitalist society in the rich, industrialised world (the imperialist countries) faces a new kind of political problem. These societies have now more-or-less decently educated working classes, who have easy access via the internet  to whatever information they might need to participate in a serious discussion of the state of society. And the societies have face issues that demand serious discussion. One is the bizarre contradiction that at the height of the achievement of abundance in those national economies, it is becoming necessary for the ruling class to impose a brutal austerity to keep the system going: how come? Environmental destruction escalates at a steady pace and calamity is threatened  by mismanagement of industrial pollution into the atmosphere: what should be done? Outside the economies of abundance in the imperialist countries, poverty, including death by malnutrition, keeps on growing. According to the UN World Food programme almost 900 million people do not have enough to eat. Hunger kills more people than AIDs, malaria and tuberulocis combined. Why?

And there is perhaps an even bigger question: why do the world’s rulers do nothing, or – rather – keep doing things that make it worse?

Amidst clear material abundance, especially in a society like Australia, and among a schooled, literate population, how does one make sure that no serious society-wide discussion develops in any of these questions? The ruling class cannot just ignore the politics of this situation, pushing it onto the back page. Implementing austerity in the midst of abundance, imposing gross poverty on the Third World in a world where even the working classes of the rich world can holiday in the Third World (Bali, Phuket etc.) and pushing on towards environmental disaster all require policies that can ensure the acquiescence of the public (i.e. the mass of the working class) even while they are aware of what is happening.

It can’t be just ignored.

These issues cannot explained away with argumentation. In fact, if they were opened up to serious argumentation and debate, it is almost inevitable that reason and humanity would gain the upper hand and unacceptable solutions would be demanded; redistribute wealth and replace 19th century industrial technology  that spew poison into the air with 21st century clean technology.


It is clear what solution is being tried: turn the affairs of society into a circus or one of the circus-like sports matches. Make it all an entertainment. Politicians become ring-masters. Government ministers becoming performing animals or, at best, professional ‘sports players’, probably on performance enhancing ‘drugs’ of some kind, watched to see if the kick a goal, and ‘own goal’, drop the ball or told to sit out the match. Political “leaders” are assessed on how they do as ring-masters or sports captains. Meanwhile journalism and “current affairs” coverage runs their own little side rings. Programs like Q&A make a ‘profession’ out of turning the peoples affairs into cheap entertainment, not seeking to inform or facilitate social discussion but presenting “entertaining” clashes of personality (to the extent any of the performers still have one), skipping from one issue to another after just a few minutes showbiz repartee. The capitalist owned media, as well as the ABC, have ours of talk shows drumming on in five or ten minutes modules of banality all presented as best they can to entertain.

It is all very clear. The only confusion is whether Rudd and Abbott are best seen as ring-masters or clowns or doped-up team captains under the thumb of corrupt club owners. In any case, they will be dangerous in power. They rule for interests of the 1% who don’t want the mass of ordinary people to actually start having a serious discussion of issues and determining their own solutions.

Perhaps another factor in this whole process is capitalism’s need to turn everything into a commodity, produced solely for the purpose of sale, whether or not it is actually useful. But I think, the more powerful drive is the inability of late capitalist society, or rather its ruling class, to allow ANY serious discussion of its policies, i.e. austerity and environmental neglect, among a well-schooled,  literate working class living in the midst of visible abundance.

Distraction is the name of the game.

Turning the affairs – the serious affairs – of the people into a circus is no joke.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s