Depression and anxiety; The new racism

It’s been a hell of a few weeks. Clearly I am suffering from stress. It could lead to depression, or perhaps anxiety.

Or perhaps I’m just busy and under pressure. Perhaps I’ll just harden the fuck up for a bit and see if that helps.

First; a warning. This is just some out-loud thinking. Sorry if it doesn’t make any sense. I’m stressed etc.,.

Yesterday I heard Frank Furedi speaking about freedom of speech on Radio National. I’ve not heard of Furedi since I was an undergrad student, about 20 years ago. I liked his work then, but have shifted in other directions since.

Yesterday, I listened to him argue that Western universities are increasingly self-censorious. This is because, under a neo-liberal consumerist model, they’re competing for students. There are prizes for the least confronting course content.

Education has become commodified, of course, but it’s happened in weird ways. University is no longer an adult stage, it is a continuation of a cosseted larval form, where endlessly fretting parents shuffle continuously build a fuzzy little ‘happy bubble’ around their children.

Every year the numbers of university students applying for special consideration on the basis of ‘stress’ or ‘depression and anxiety’ increases, as students pathologise the normal pressures of life in the adult world into an ever-expanding rubric of ‘wellness’.

Furedi often writes about this cultural turn but for me it was refreshing to hear someone validate what I myself have said so many times. In fact, I usually go one step further. I think we are encouraged to focus our attention on ourselves so as to avoid looking at the structural inequities and problems that may affect our ‘wellbeing’. This is one of the key ways that neo-liberalism works – it is the cult of the individual; If you can’t make life work, it’s because you’ve got something wrong with you. You have an illness. I’ve moaned about how this insidious cult of wellness operates before.

Here’s the thing; All capitalist systems require a certain degree of labour market elasticity. This is what the NAIRU (Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) refers to. It is simply the rate of unemployment that can be sustained before inflation rises.

In the old days, the easiest way to secure churn at the bottom of the labour market was simply racism – you brought people in to your country and then stigmatised them so they would remain at the bottom. The decline in Empires (something that really only happened with the recession in the second half of the 1970s) has made flat-out racism more unpalatable and immigration much harder to manage. But the market still needs a bunch of people who will buy things but can’t work all the time.

Depression and anxiety is the new racism.

There’s another dimension to Furedi’s comments about education and feeble-mindedness, however. The commodification of a university education under a neo-liberal model has seen a dramatic increase in university enrolments. I’ve written about this in the Australian context before. My point is, universities are now accepting students who are completely unprepared for a university education.

One of the one hand, it’s predatory lending – inviting students to buy a mediocre education where they barely scrape through a general degree, with the help of multiple concessions to ‘stress’ or ‘depression’, is a bad thing.

But I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I myself left school before School C(ertificate*), and hit university in my early 20s. I was hopelessly outgunned. But, after a year I worked it out and did rather well thankyouverymuch.

So I’m cautious about suggesting that university entry requirements should be tightened as it may exclude those who might genuinely benefit.

I’ll leave that there. Apologies for lack of coherent thought.



*School Certificate and Bursary were the two main qualifications one could earn at school. Bursary (silly name, as it didn’t come with money) was roughly the same as HSC, undertaken at the end of Year 12. Only those planning to go to uni sat Bursary.

School C was the main qualification and you sat it at the end of Year 10. Can you imagine today’s year 10s sitting a series of exams at the end of the year? The stress! You’d be weeping into your chai latte.



When the ABC does it too….

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 8.55.39 AM.pngEvery year or so Life Matters *discusses* preschool education for Australians. Yesterday we were treated to the wisdom of two experts, one of whom runs a preschool in Newcastle, and the other, an early childhood education researcher at Victoria University.

Australia sits near the bottom of relevant countries when it comes to GDP spending on pre-primary school aged children.

Industry experts say the number of years spent in early childhood education and care is a strong predictor of the level of performance reached at later stages, both in and out of school.

Naturally we were treated to frightening statistics. Well, one anyway. Did you know that children who attended preschool did twice as well in high school science? And did you also know that there’s almost no point in sending kids to preschool for just one day a week, they need to attend much more than that!

Let’s start with the claim that kids who go do preschool turn out better human beings. Here’s the thing, preschool costs money. Poor kids are less likely to go to preschool. Poor kids also do worse in high school generally. This obvious confounder was not even mentioned. Same goes for women in the workforce. Kids with working Mums tend to grow up and work themselves. Mum-key see, mum-key do.

Certainly, some studies show that children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds who attend preschool do better at school than their peers who don’t, but this is probably because they’re getting access to an enriching environment instead of sitting front of the TV. Spending the day in jail in an underground Nepalese coal mine would most likely improve their performance, compared to staying at home.

No matter, though, that’s just research. BORING! We all know that preschool education is awesome for all kids! In fact, some countries have now decided to do away with parenting altogether and turn the whole thing into a profession that the state pays for. It worked with dentistry!

The message from Life Matters was unashamedly biased – Australia should provide access to preschool for all three and four year olds. It helps them with their literacy and numeracy when they reach school, and teaches them how to cope in a large group.

I could go on about the multiple ways this is bullshit, but I won’t. It is, after all, a shameless puff piece engaging in the worst kind of cherry-picking to appeal to its demographic – working, predominantly middle class women who want free, full time childcare. It’s telling that for all the talk of ‘preschool as education’, the head of the Newcastle centre still referred to it as ‘childcare’.

So here’s the other side of the story; children with an enriching home environment can and do thrive when they hit school. Moreover, many children find the noise, chaos and violence of a preschool setting troubling and exhausting. Have you ever been to a preschool? It’s like someone airdropped a shipping container of methamphetamine into the meercat enclosure. However, as with daycare, stressing the shit out of small children isn’t destined to get a whole lot of government sympathy and attention.

And this is because it’s the economy, stupid. There is no longer an option for anyone to stay at home with the kids, unless you’re part of the minuscule elite. Mum or Dad must now work. Grandparents who are well enough to look after children are actually in Tuscany/Rome/Portugal at the moment. And who can afford to rent a place in the same neighbourhood as a baby boomer anyway? What everyone could do with is a spot of free childcare. And so this is the line Life Matters is pushing.

I’m not anti-preschool. My kid went to preschool, for two years, before (public) school. In the first year (at age three) my kid attended one day a week. This was all we could afford. The following year we were a little better off financially, and started going two days a week. The kid did not cope at all and was a complete wreck. We quickly pulled it back to one day a week. Of course, I’m not suggesting our experience is generalisable – unlike the radio program that entreated listeners to call in with ‘their experiences’. Did you go to preschool? How has it worked out for you? Very scientific.

But seeing as you ask….I went to preschool – it was a community run playgroup thing. We didn’t have ‘early childhood educators’ – we had a bunch of Mums in track-pants not contributing to the tax base while we tried hard to set one another on fire. It was excellent. My later high school performance can be best summed up as abominable.

Perhaps I wasn’t ‘ready’ for the classroom – didn’t have my literacy and numeracy nailed, compared to my peers. Well, this is just a comparative measure – pretty meaningless. Who cares if you can’t read when you’re six? Steiner kids don’t even start to read until someone really needs to know what’s in a packet of Cheezels. Doesn’t seem to do them much harm. Or those home-school weirdos. They seem to do rather well, actually. In fact, there are heaps of kids who do rather well outside the mainstream, homogenising school system.

Again, we’re in the mainstream school system, and it’s bloody great – our experience with the public school education system is that it’s creative, engaging and bloody good fun. It does not need to start any earlier than five though.


500 words Post prison world?

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Should prisons be a thing of the past? Couldn’t we just have prisoners in the community? Monitored by technology?

That’s what Mirko Bagaric from Swinburne argues, in this talk recorded as part of ABC’s Big Ideas program.

Bagaric made many, many sweeping statements. He’s Professor of Law and Director of the Evidence-based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project at Swinburne University*.

Mostly his talk was characterised by post hoc ergo propter hoc statements. Apparently the income of prisoners many years after they leave prison is much lower than the average. Imagine how much more they’d earn if they hadn’t had their working lives interrupted by a stint in jail!

Having had a bit to do with prison, I can pretty confidently say that the idiosyncracies landed you in prison in the first place probably aren’t conducive to lifelong wealth. Clever criminals don’t generally go to jail.

Then there’s the argument that it costs heaps to keep these chappies in jail, which is does. But once you run the counterfactual – deduct cost of keeping them on the outside – Centrelink payments, accommodation supplements, healthcare etc.,. it’s starting to look rather a lot less pricey. For reference, it costs about $250 per day to keep someone in jail. Assuming Newstart plus a moderate amount of accommodation, plus the overheads of all those punitive ‘work for the dole’ and ‘work ready’ education schemes you’re probably looking at about $500 per week. It’s still cheaper on the outside, but we should be realistic about the difference.

Bagaric was justifying keeping people out of prison. Most of his arguments seemed to be oriented around the idea that most prisoners would be fully employed, healthy, well adjusted adults and parents if they were allowed to stay on the outside.. Think of the benefits to the family! Think of all those men who could be in their kids’ lives! Helping them with their maths homework and ferrying them to soccer!

Bagaric talked about drug users – as we all know, many prisoners are in prison for drug use. He positioned locking them up as self-evidently ridiculous. Cos everyone knows they’d be heaps better at home. Having a stepdad addicted to ice is a fucking fantastic addition to the family unit.

Bagaric made the terrifying claim that we should only ‘lock up’ people we’re really scared of – like murderers and rapists. I’m wondering how much exposure this chap has really had to violent offenders? Most murderers aren’t planning on actually murdering someone, they’re just administering a really stern telling off. My point is this – violent offenders are a fucking worry. Imagine if violent non murderers were ‘at home’. How many more opportunities would there be for them to beat someone to death?

Apparently, if we only lock up people we’re scared of that naturally excludes women. People aren’t scared of women because they’re not physically capable to being violent enough to cause real harm. Tell that to their kids. Women can and do kill their children, and they allow others to do so as well.

Bagaric also said women shouldn’t be locked up because of the impact on their family – they’re the primary carers of children and older people. Well, that’s not a prison problem, that’s an inadequate care problem. There simply isn’t sufficient state support for children who need alternative care. He argues that sending one woman to prison often means the family home dissolves – which is something I strongly agree with. Prison is the road to homelessness, not just for women. As is well known, many people reoffend to get back into prison. At least it’s a roof.

Keeping women out of jail is a tantalising idea, but Bagaric doesn’t seem to play this out. When I was at high school we learned one of life’s important maxims; have a baby and they won’t send you to jail. If women with children can’t be sent to jail that’s a hell of a motivation to have a baby, pronto.

He also stated that many women end up in jail for not paying fines – especially indigenous women. I can’t help but think of Ms Dhu who died of neglect in a WA jail after being locked up for not paying a relatively small but completely unmanageable fine. This was one instance where I agreed with him.

Bagaric also stated that the prison population was rising quickly, due to successive governments’ populist ‘tough on crime’ approaches. There’s no mention of how much growth is attributed to population growth, and how much is attributed this ‘toughness’.

Bagaric made some other pretty broad statements about the philosophy of imprisonment. For instance, he argues that prisoners are exposed to physical and sexual violence in prison – words like; ‘they lose their bodily autonomy and this can have serious consequences for their sense of self worth’. This was positioned as an unintended consequence of imprisonment. However, I think most Australians probably see ‘loss of bodily autonomy’ as the bloody point. We are a brutal, ex penal colony.

‘Governments want to be seen to be tough on crime’. Well, there’s a reason this works – people perceive that they’re not tough enough on crime. Frankly, Bagaric needs to be cogniscient of the reality – he lives in a country that elected Pauline Hanson. Many, many people do not think being ‘tough on crime’ is just a populist trick. There’s a reason it’s called ‘populism’.


*It may well be that he didn’t have the scope to adequately justify some of his arguments, but in my view some of the statements were too polemic not to be. 


500 words – Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 50s

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Rothko. Modernism. I like it.

Who’s up for some intellectual whiplash this morning?

Right. Today’s 500 words is about sociology. Or maybe it’s cultural studies, I’m not really sure. Let’s call it a yard sale of consciousness.

I have a friend with a PhD in English literature. She and I both read a lot of what might be called Cultural Studies. I come at it from Anthropology/Sociology, she comes at it from English Lit. We meet at the French woodchipper. That is, many of the ‘cultural studies’ theorists come from the French existential tradition.

For me cultural studies is about the social imagination of space and place. I’m thinking of theorists LeFebvre and John Law in particular. Yes, they are quite different but they best sum up my previous approaches to thinking about how the humans imagine themselves as constituted. They dovetail nicely with ideas about late capitalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense – c.f Baudrilliard) and are backgrounded by the semiotics of the usual suspects, Lacanian/Saussurian deconstruction of linguistic modernism from dudes like Levi-Strauss. If you didn’t get anything in this paragraph ignore it. It’s an approach as legitimate as any other.

Essentially, this process follows the same process as classical mechanics versus quantum physics – imagine if everything you thought you knew was wrong, because your brain can only think about it in one way. You’d keep trying to understand the new observations through the old brain. But what if, by studying the old brain, we came to develop the imagination to interpret new ideas, or even old ideas, in new ways.

In physics it works – we move from reductionism to probability. In cultural studies, it’s fashionable bullshit. And it’s people like me who’re to blame.

I made a very nice life for myself, for quite some time, by being good at this stuff. It inherently made sense to me and, as I entered post grad, I found myself within an ever diminishing group of people who were conversant in these ideas. You’ll note I used the word ‘conversant’ rather than ‘cogniscient’. I’m not sure we all understood these theorists in the same way, but their ambiguity is precisely their strength – it serves as a springboard for extending the imagination; (The lazy tutor’s refrain) Well, what do you think it means? Out of this questions might emerge our own revelations that enable us to think about social and cultural life in new ways. It did for me.

That’s the good.

The bad, of course, is that you now have a small group of people who’re flailing about in an increasingly abstruse, self-referential miasma of ‘ideas’. There is a danger that this miasma becomes an idiom sui generis – the medium becomes the message, as it were. Everyone’s talking in the right way, but no-one’s listening to the content. And if they are, they’re not understanding it, because often the speakers aren’t articulating their ideas well enough. A hierarchy emerges, premised purely on clarity or explanatory force – what mathematicians might call beauty.

Like some forms of ‘speculative’ maths, there is no longer a clear connection with an intuitive sense of logic, you begin judging the explanations on how well they cohere with the form of previous explanations. Are they internally consistent?

And boom, we’re back at the Round Window with Levi-Strauss. We are interpreting things through the most comfortable, familiar intellectual rubric we have, and layering our own ambitions over the top. Rock stars emerge and wall-eyed academics flock to them like bespectacled tweenies on a slushie high. I was one of them.

We do this all the time, with everything from art to science. In some fields it’s laughably transparent – modern literature comes to mind. Writers produce ‘speculative’ or ‘experimental’ works that are little more than minuscule, strategic moves intended exclusively for their peers and no-one else. Incidentally, you can always tell when this is happening because groupies emerge – they’re the litmus test for fashionable obscurity (or what Bourdieu would call cultural capital). Oh my God, I love Experimental Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 1950s! It really speaks to me (like a washing machine tumbling down a cliff). Unlike the ‘theorists’ described above who are actively engaged in thinking, even if it’s futile, the groupies don’t think anything at all. What they do recognise, however, is naked hierarchy and its association with class. They’re happy to participate on these grounds alone.

I’m not suggesting there is no value in engaging with these ideas, I just think it’s good to realise where their value ends. Recently I’ve been revisiting more ‘trad’ social theorists – Foucault and some of the newer incarnations of governmentality. As society and public discourse becomes ever more exotically farcical, it is to these ideas I find power and resistance.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.