‘I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for.’
Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1881)
Sleepers, Wake!: technology and the future of work, first published in 1982, was an attempt to describe the impact of technological change, especially the information revolution, on employment, industry, education, and training. I aspired to make a grand synthesis, linking politics, history, economics, science, technology, education, the concept of time-use value, psychology, and information theory.
What Is to Be Done is not an update or a revision—too much has changed since 1982—but a sequel, addressing the massive global changes that have occurred since.
A post-industrial work force, the digital revolution, universal access to higher education, and the emergence of a ‘third age’ after retirement were all novel concepts in 1982, and even after the last revision of the book in 1995. Now we take them for granted, but they did not develop as I had hoped.
There are nearly 5 billion users of the Internet, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population. Our handheld devices have more capacity than the mainframe computers used in the 1969 moon landing, giving us instant access to the world’s intellectual resources.
As well, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have by far the largest cohort of tertiary-qualified citizens in their history. This ought to provide us with an unparalleled capacity to understand the world’s greatest problems—climate change, the refugee crisis, degradation of the environment, poverty, pandemics, the exploitation of women and children, terrorism—with an informed population and inspirational leadership.
However, in the digital age, far from exploring the universal and the long term, both mainstream and social media emphasise the personal, or the tribal, in the short term. Opinion is preferenced over evidence, and feeling over rationality, while science and free enquiry are rejected or discounted. Empathy, the common good, and preserving the planet have low priority.
The planet, notoriously, has no vote.
Homo sapiens has morphed into Homo economicus, because all our politics revolves around production and consumption.
What is sometimes called ‘the Enlightenment project’ has come under sustained attack in the United States, much of Europe, and, to some extent, Australia. Instead, we see a retreat from reason; the rejection of facts and expertise; the rise of populism, snarling nationalisms, tribalism, and conspiracy theories; a fundamentalist revival and hostility to science; a failure of ethical leadership; deepening corruption of democratic processes; profound neglect of the climate-change imperative; and the triumph of vested interests. All are existential threats to civilisation’s advancement and the welfare of humanity here and elsewhere.
The greatest threat to liberal democracy and Enlightenment values has not been external—from ISIS/the Taliban/al-Qaeda, China, Russia, or even pandemics—but internal and self-inflicted.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse that threaten humanity are:
All four are inextricably linked. The pressure on resources, compounded by the threat of climate change, has been a major factor in tribal and racial conflicts over access to water and arable land. Meanwhile, millions of refugees are blamed for seeking security for their families, inequality grows exponentially, pandemics have devastating impacts not only for the aged, but on racial minorities who are stressed by insecurity, leading in turn to violent over-reactions by the custodians of law and order.
Only racism and state violence can be tackled at a national level.
Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in 2016 was a turning point in modern history. There are far more references to him in this book than to any other person. He has transformed politics beyond recognition—and he has imitators, all over the world.
In the US, the UK, Australia, France, and other European countries, there has been a striking shift in political allegiances, centred on the ‘culture wars’. The cleavage is not on economic issues, but on race, gender, religion, and attitudes to modernity and globalism. People in the higher socioeconomic levels are becoming more progressive, eager to embrace change and take risks; those in the lower levels are more conservative, anxious about change, and risk-averse, seeing themselves as potential victims.
When I began writing What Is to Be Done, the book was to be structured around climate change/global warming and the world’s failure to act. Back in 1982, I was well aware of this threat, and can claim to have been the first Australian politician to have grasped its significance. However, I did not discuss it in Sleepers, Wake!
But as I worked on this manuscript in 2020, new issues kept forcing me to rethink and recalibrate, and they were all inter-related: the coronavirus pandemic, growing inequality, misogyny, the appeal of fundamentalism, the breakdown of constitutional guarantees, state violence, state secrecy, the environmental stress caused by urbanisation and population growth, and gross increases in xenophobia, racism, and intolerance, culminating in the worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations. And the economic and social impact of climate change would exacerbate all these problems.
Australia can be outstanding in confronting crises, such as HIV/AIDS, the Global Financial Crisis, COVID-19, and most natural disasters. But its performance was patchy during the long, horrific bushfire season of 2019–20, and it has been woeful in failing to address climate change and transitioning to a post-carbon economy. COVID-19 demonstrated how well the federation could work, and it remains to be seen if this can be maintained in the post-pandemic era.
The better angels of our nature have been well hidden in our politics, with our part-time parliaments, the absence of serious debate, revolving-door prime ministerships, venality, vindictiveness, mediocrity, secrecy, and the influence of vested interests.
Science (medical science excepted) is on the retreat, and the universities are under attack.
I have often used Australian examples to illustrate my arguments, because it is the country I know best, and the evidence is at hand. Nevertheless, my analysis is generally applicable to all technologically dependent societies, especially the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand.
Citizens everywhere must engage in the great issues, and work together to master evidence and develop our capacity to define, debate, and decide. Without it, our fellow humans will be staring into an abyss.
Despite all this, we have to be optimistic that we will have the wisdom, courage, and skill to save the planet—and ourselves. It’s the only way to go.