Just as he had done when he issued the 'Banana Republic' warning in 1986, in another time of ill figures, Paul Keating spoke again to John Laws on radio, a few weeks ago, his rhetorical skills still sharp:
LAWS: It seems to me the government is absolutely paranoid about deficits.
KEATING: The problem was, I inoculated a whole generation of state treasurers with a surplus needle and none have found the antidote - that's the problem."
Keating continued, offering his own diagnosis and cure for the problems with the economy:
It's like an old car, you've got to keep servicing the motor. . . If the government decides they can just keep running and putting petrol and oil in, but never give the car a service, you know we'll end up with less performance.
Throughout his public life Keating has invoked figures like those of 'inoculation', 'antidote' and the 'family car', to diagnose, economic and social problems and prescribe economic solutions. In the 1993 election campaign he called a vote for John Hewson's GST:' like a vote for influenza . . .a debilitating, parasitic tax.' In his 1988 Budget speech he stated that, 'While the balance of payments deficit is Australia's number one economic problem, inflation remains Australia's number one economic disease' and he also said, 'markets can be an efficient mechanism for all sorts of economic and social purposes.' This aspect of statecraft, or political rhetoric, was employed by Keating to explain, convince and persuade mainly the domestic, polities, publics and markets, and also, the international markets and polities, that something was sick and broken down in the Australian nation, or that his political opponents would infect the social body. The corollary of this was that Keating and the ALP, would make this something that was sick, become healthy by overhauling and re-engineering key economic and social institutions.
The 13 years of ALP Government from 1983 to 1996, was the period when Australians seemed to become vastly more economically literate, understanding how, for example, inflation related to the exchange rate and how to read the economic indicators. It was a time of macro- and micro-economic reform where the post-war Keynesian model of regulation allied to a project of government nation-building and welfare state expansion gave way to deregulation and privatisation of government controls, services and businesses, the accelerated removal of trade protection, the creed of budget surpluses, the floating of the currency and the deregulation of the banking and finance sector. It was also a government that installed Medicare, and had wages and income accord agreements with the trade union movement and the corporate sector. It presented itself as a Labor Government who put forward and implemented a plan to reform the economy along economically rationalist lines, without sacrificing its social justice beliefs. More than anyone else in that 13 years, first as treasurer, then Prime Minister, Paul Keating came to embody that dual project of economic rationalism with a social democratic heart. Meaghan Morris reads Keating's television performances as an attempted fusion of this dual project at the levels of form and content:
Any treasurer can promise the economic discourse has a magic power of "closing the gap that separates language from the experience it encodes", in order to satisfy longing; such closure is the aim of policy. However, the gap between Keating's hypercoded Labor vocality and his managerial language paradoxically also promised that his discourse could narrow the gulf between the social values (egalitarian, solidary, compassionate) mythically upheld as national ideals in white working class popular memory, and the realpolitik of economic rationalism - elitist, divisive, competitive.
(Ecstasy and Economics)
To some extent this attempted fusion in the dual project that Keating embodied can also be read from his linguistic metaphorics; his deployment of analogies within his discourse that appear to congeal around two distinct sets: metaphors of the body and metaphors of the engine. What I'm going to do now is explore each in turn before heading on to explore something similar operating in Praise.
Metaphors of the engine
The idea that an economy is analogous to a machine, an engine, and especially a motor car, seems almost a natural one. Like a motor, an economy has mechanisms, working parts, it can be kick-started, slowed, fine-tuned, overhauled, powerful, efficient, productive, overheated. The engine in the private car can perform, turn, accelerate, crash, stall, grind to a halt, hit a speedbump. Governments can pull its levers, steer it, touch the brakes, add fuel, change the gearing, read the dashboard instrument panel. Cars can be economical. A car leaves somewhere and arrives. It promises mobility and can carry passengers. It can be safe, protective and absorb shocks. Perhaps it can also be sick and healthy: cars after all have bodies too.
In Keating's discourse the engine and car metaphors are analogues of the utopian economy that economically rational reform will achieve: a productive, efficient, powerful, high performance engine. The old, inefficient, spluttering motor that the ALP Government must work on when they come into office, is transformed, in Keating's discourse into something new :
[we'll] get the economy ticking over like it should with the new motor Labor had given it, get the republic, get reconciliation, get everything wrapped up into a really nice little society to go with the economic motor.
Not long after he became Prime Minister in late 1991, Australia still in recessionary conditions, Keating tabled the 'One Nation' statement in parliament: a set of policies designed to continue with the economic reforms of the 1980s, but with some measures for the unemployed, and a big increase in public spending, especially for building infrastructure for transport links throughout the nation. While there are policies and sympathies expressed for the struggling and unemployed, the statement is mainly an acceleration of economic reform expressed in terms of a nation-wide, interconnected transport grid, that will 'speed recovery' with, "Measures big enough to kickstart the economy and get things going."
The statement is peppered with terms like: 'speed', 'energy', 'efficiency', 'big', 'strong', 'spark', 'moving',' closing the gap', making 'links', 'among the fastest growing economies in the world.' One reading of this statement is that the motor that the ALP government has built, can overcome recessions that are necessary - the recession we had to have - if it can be bigger, more interconnected, travel faster, more productive.
Keating's metaphors of the engine portray an unswerving utopian faith in the economically rational model:"Labor believed that markets can be an efficient mechanism for all sorts of economic and social purposes."
It's not that Keating appears to abandon what could be called the policies and values of Labourism or, his social democratic soul. In areas like Medicare, the Accord, the Mabo legislation, his Creative nation funding, family support payments, aspects of Labourism survive. But perhaps that something alluded to in the metaphors of the economic machine, has a logic of its own that Keating's discourse can't quite excise,
it was an unprecedented period of deliberate and often brave reform in which the government and the people strived to make Australia a first rate country - a place with a powerful economic engine and a soul to match.
Metaphors of the body in Keating's discourse.
In 1993, not long before Keating would defeat the Coalition leader John Hewson, the man Bob Ellis dubbed a 'feral abacus', Don Watson recounts in his Keating biography,
Earlier in the day I had tried to persuade him to tell an audience that voting for the GST was like voting for influenza. He liked the idea but he wanted to say cancer - that it would eat the white blood cells of the country. He wanted to say that the GST would be the 'killing fields' of the Australian family.
(Recollections of a Bleeding heart: a Portrait Paul Keating Prime Minister)
In this example, Keating seems to be playing with the metaphorics of cancer, stretching it into connotations with Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, with the implication that Hewson, and his GST, would do what Pol Pot had done. This is quite a rare metaphor of illness from Keating in that it affects a murderous, painful dystopia. Most of his metaphors of the body, however, are of more general, curable illnesses, which sit within his big picture narratives.
One class of Keating's metaphors of the body operate within his ALP Government legacy narratives - not so much the big picture, but the big story - the national story. These stories, told after 1996, share a similar structure: heroic major reform was necessary because the social body was terminally ill prior to 1983. This reform made the nation healthy by opening it up, getting it moving, flexible and getting some air into its lungs. These metaphors of the body are not so much about specific diseases, like cancer or influenza, but rather some unameable condition close to death:
When I look back on those thirteen years of Labor government I think of the period after the summit as the intensive care ward.
I think we can . . say that in opening Australia up, in peeling the tariff wall away and removing exchange rate controls and giving the country some real breath and life inside it, we have turned Australia to our neighbourhood, reoriented it to the world.
Eschewing the closed and closeted approach, with a sclerotic financial market, and a country ring-fenced by tariffs, the Labor Government 1983 to 1996 opted to peel back the layers of introspection and protection.
And so began the ambitious program of opening Australia up. Of internationalising the economy, internationalising the financial and product markets and seeking competitiveness the real and genuine way - by a marked upward shift in productivity.
And productivity could only come from a competitive structure - one in which we had true flexibility within and between sectors; with an open financial market, with competition and innovation coming from the great financial centres; and, in the product area, with the astringent, tonic effects of competition from imports allowed freely into the economy, without needing to jump an arbitrary domestic price hurdle.
We finished with a more healthy and robust country and a Labor Party that would never be the same again.
The key body metaphors here are 'peeling', 'breath', 'opening up' - corresponding to skin, lungs and the cavities or porous openings of the body. I want to return to these metaphors of the body later in regard to Praise and suggest that the ill bodies in Praise can be read back into this process of reform.
In these 'ALP in Government' legacy narratives, Keating's discourse not only invokes the analogy of the body politic, or rather, the social body, he is also aligning its health to economic reform. The health of the social body is an effect of economic health. One reading of this story is utopic - the government finds the social body in a dystopic condition: closed in on itself, underdeveloped, overprotective, lacking energy, almost sullen, hiding from the world, in terminal decline. Over those 13 years, the ALP Government, makes it grow up and develop, lose it fears, gain energy, become flexible and responsive, become confident, face the world and compete in it: let the world in. The promise of economic rationalism is that this new energy and openness is how a settler culture like Australia, which has never industrialised to the degree of most western nations, can finally grow up: by instilling the disciplines of the global marketplace.
In this utopic narrative the recession of the early 1990s is a necessary 'growing pain', but Keating slowly comes around to acknowledging, again through metaphors of illness, that the health of the social body may not entirely be an effect of economically rational health,
When market economies are left alone in a recession, the economy's influenza becomes pneumonia for a proportion of the unemployed. And for some of these there is no quick cure when the winter is over for the rest of us.
There was a lacerating recession which bore down heavily on people who deserved better, many of whom had accommodated the economic changes, seized the new economic opportunities, who had put their faith in us.
Again, Keating is talking in particular about the lungs and the skin - influenza, pneumonia and laceration. Placing these 'recession' illnesses, against the 'peeling', 'breathing', and 'opening up' curatives of economic reform, also featuring the lungs and skin, produces a kind of metaphoric dissonance; a kind of wheezing, or rash. Less like influenza or laceration which are acute events and can usually be healed. But something more of a mixture of the chronic and acute: more like asthma or eczema.
I mean, what was Labor, really in economic terms, before 1983? As a party, it believed in regulation. It believed in regulation of the banking system. It believed in regulation of the exchange rate. It believed in tariffs. We had abysmal rates of productivity, of labour productivity and factor productivity. We had low profits, therefore low investments. We had high unemployment. I mean, what did we abandon? It's like losing an eczema.
The GST would apply to 'even the things that people rely upon to give them that comfort like asthma medication ventolin.
It could be argued that it's the recession of the early 1990s that starts to produce this dissonance in Keating's metaphors - a sort of rupture in the utopic movement of the grand story of economic reform. This story as Don Watson, writes, was not quite seamless in the early 1990s:
Keating said the previous ten years was a story of bravery and collective goodwill that had saved Australia [and the other story, to be told after the election win, was] the 'inclusive' story, the big picture with people in it . . .the emerging story of an Australian Republic in the Asia-Pacific. . . .He said the two stories were really one. They joined somewhere in the middle with the recession, but the recession was not so much a chapter as a diversion, a lengthy footnote or appendix.
In this period of the footnote, the recession of the early 90s, another story was circulating in the social body, although this one was hardly addressed to a mass public like Keatings' was: Andrew McGahan's 1992 novel Praise. Praise is generally considered to be the first example of Australian grunge fiction, and has been variously evaluated as 'typing - not writing', 'young, sexually charged, contemporary, angry, ahistorical, amoral, nihilistic writing', 'all action, no consequences' and a 'novel of the bored, middle-class university dropout'. Told through the first person lens of 23 year old asthmatic, Gordon Buchanan, Praise, reads like a sequence of realist journal entries, which describe, in a quite flat, yet wry and very graphic prose, Gordon's gritty life on the dole in Brisbane, and the torrid, doomed sexual affair he enters into with a recovering heroin addict, Cynthia Lamonde.
Gordon, an asthmatic, aspires to be a writer, but in spite of already writing a novel and short stories, has little ambition for anything but depressing poetry about sex and violence. He is marked by a sense of sexual failure He has moved to Brisbane from his family home in Dalby, a rural town outside of Brisbane, in order to attend university, from which he soon drops out. Along with the old Holden Kingswood that he has inherited from his parents, he also brings to Brisbane a torch for his grand teenage love Rachel, who lived on a property near his family's and also now lives in Brisbane. She is part of his circle of friends that drink and take drugs together, at pubs and parties and nightclubs in Brisbane.
Cynthia, who is also 23, suffers from atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a condition related to asthma, and is from the southern metropole of Sydney . She has come to Brisbane with her parents to escape the sex and drug addictions of her life there and worked at the same pub as Gordon did, the Capital Hotel, before a dispute between staff and management led to a mass walk-out. Cynthia quits, while Gordon, after discovering that he is expected to cover the shortfall by working extra shifts, quits as well. Her father is in the army and about to be transferred to Darwin when she calls up Gordon and invites him over for a drink. They quickly exchange frank personal and sexual histories and proclivities, and details about their diseases, including how they both fail to avoid allergic substances, how Cynthia's cortisone has severe side effects, and how they both exacerbate their conditions by smoking and drinking. They fall asleep that night and Gordon awakens with an asthma attack which he medicates with ventolin, followed by a cigarette, while Cynthia's face and skin is livid red, and bleeding. They rise, eat breakfast then take a drug called Catovits, a prescription drug for Cynthia's depression, which is an amphetamine, and then back to drinking beer. And so their warts, literally, and all affair begins. They move into Gordon's flat in a run-down boarding house, full of older men who drink all day, steal each others belongings and occasionally beat up the weaker amongst them. The communal bathroom in the boarding house is never cleaned, and in an early scene Gordon and Cynthia, after injecting heroin, sit in the filthy bathtub there for hours, and then have sex in one of the dirty cubicles. This is all described in frank, clinical detail as is the violence and other diseases, like cancer, that start to appear. Their relationship progresses then deteriorates.
Praise creates a kind of literary bohemia, but one without the poetic epiphanies and moments of transforming transcendence, normally associated with an artistic underground. Gordon and Cynthia move through the marginal and liminal zones of Brisbane and their bodies, experimenting with desires, sex and drugs. But there is no romantic transportation in Praise. Their derangement of the senses leads to less, rather than more, insight, more danger, more disease. There are momentary glimpses of utopia in Praise, but these are narcotic and hallucinogenic experiences which fail to transcend the dangers to and diseases of their bodies which grow and accelerate.
Gordon eventually pulls out of the relationship by refusing Cynthia sex. He wants to stop the increasingly unregulated derangements and desires within which he oscillates in widening, less balanced and more violent arcs and cycles. He finds that he swings from being a passive masochist to an active sadist, becoming more depressed, more diseased, more prone to asthmatic attacks; more consumed and violent: more out of control.
Freeing himself from Cynthia, he and his utopian teenage love, Rachel, start to move toward each other. But unlike Cynthia, Rachel is too rational, too regulated, too mature for her and Gordon to manage their sexual and romantic exchanges. The economy of their relationship can't find a common currency. She won't invest anything in Gordon, because he has nothing to offer her but his presence. They fail to move forward together.
The penultimate scene is set at a bacchanalian party after which Gordon' s body crashes. His body is choked by a near terminal asthma attack. His luck runs out. Someone had put dishwashing liquid in the cocktails:
There was no air . . .Nothing went in. I was over the edge, I was going. . . .I became deeply annoyed. My body was letting me down. I wasn't going to make it on my own. I was going to have to seek medical help. [p269]
I still couldn't breathe, but I wasn't worried about that now. It was out of my hands. The system was taking over and for once I was glad. [p271]
The sick machine
Gordon's bodily crash has an homology with the figure of his car - an old Holden HZ Kingswood from the 1970s - an old motor from the time before the ALP installed the new one. This car has been handed down to him through his large rural family - it's his family inheritance - a link with the Old Australia: the National car from that different era of protection and tariffs, nation-building and regulations.
The Holden car carries two very different meanings in Australian culture. On the one hand it is symbol of a successful Australian manufacturing industry aligned with Ben Chifley, the ALP Prime Minister who spoke of the Light on the hill and also tried to nationalise the banks. On the other hand it's a symbol of a set of more troubling myths of Australian identity: masculine, aggressive, pragmatic, white.
In Praise, Gordon's Kingswood becomes a metaphor for his body:
I knew nothing about my car. I neglected it. I drove it badly. I let drunken fools do what they wanted with it. And yet it kept on going for me, mile after mile. Year after year.
In one scene, Gordon and Cynthia go on a joy ride while hallucinating on LSD. Cynthia is driving, as they head out of Brisbane:
Cynthia picked up speed. Eighty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty - it was as fast as the old Kingswood could go. We were on a road that rolled up and down the hills. We bounced along. I stuck my head out the window. Sucked in the air.
Cynthia said, 'Watch this.'
We hit the top of the hill. I could see the road stretching down. Then Cynthia flicked off the lights. She floored the accelerator. We roared down in pitch darkness. I screamed. Cynthia screamed. The car bottomed out and started climbing. Cynthia flicked the lights back on. We were on the wrong side of the road, verging on gravel. Cynthia righted the car and we breasted the hill.
She pounded the wheel. 'This car has wings.'
Down we went and out went the lights. This time the road, in the moment I'd seen it, hadn't looked so straight. It curved. It curved ninety degrees.
'Turn the f ing lights on!' I screamed.
Cynthia laughed, a banshee laugh. I looked at the speed. A hundred and fifty.
'TURN THE F-ING THINGS ON!'
She did it. We were off the road, two wheels in the dirt.
'Shit!' said Cynthia. She braked, swung the wheel. The back slid out. We were spinning. I felt the car tilt, knew it would roll. I clutched onto the door. We went round once, twice. We started round again and then it stopped. We were on the road, facing back the way we'd come, clouds of dust billowing past us.
Cynthia was laughing, shrieking. 'Did you see that, did you see that!'
I let go of the door.
'You crazy bitch. You f-ing crazy bitch.'
'Oh shut up, we're all right.
She turned the ignition, hit the accelerator.
On another joyride Gordon's car eventually crashes:
We crawled home. By the time we hit Brisbane it was almost dawn. The engine was overheating and the wine was all gone. We drove to Frank and Maree's house and parked. . . .I looked at the Kingswood. It was depressing. The only thing, perhaps, that I truly loved without question - and there it lay, dying in the cul de sac.
Gordon's Kingswood survives the crash, gets stolen and found again, its body slowly getting more damaged, but still reliable: an old motor still ticking over in spite of the powerful economic engine Keating has installed.
What I want to suggest is that Praise can be read not so much as a dystopian footnote to Keating's utopian stories of the grand adventure in economic reform: the powerful economic engine producing the healthy economic and social body, but more as an atopian one - economic rationalism isn't so much a dystopia - it's more of an atopia - like asthma and eczema.
Atopic conditions, like asthma and eczema, effectively displace and defer the acute events of skin disease and suffocation: diseases of the lungs and the skin. Atopic conditions are quite singular. They are neither terminal nor acute and temporary. They can be mostly, conditions of infancy and childhood, but also, increasingly in the developed world, conditions of adults. There is a mystery surrounding these atopic conditions - sometimes they are genetic hypersensitivities to antigens that others have no trouble accepting into the body; sometimes it's the antigens themselves that trigger the attack . Atopic conditions, are so named because the symptomatic event - the rash and sores, the asthmatic inflammation and suffocating, the choking of lung deflation, is not caused by direct contact with the antigen - the cause is from nowhere/ no place - the cause and the effect is displaced and sometimes deferred. Another interesting factor is that stress, psychological factors, can exacerbate the conditions - as can the conventional treatments - ventolin and cortisone.
Interestingly, asthma and eczema, are more prominent in childhood, hence Keating's allusion to 'losing an eczema'. But, contra- to Keating's eczema metaphor, in which the ALP engineers a developed, mature, grown-up economy, eczema and asthma are singular in that they are diseases on the increase in the developed world - especially America. Reading the two metaphorics against each other, seems to produce another dissonance: losing an eczema is mature deregulation, in Keating's dicourse- but eczema is more a disease of the developed world than the undeveloped. Maybe there is something childish in late-capitalist consumer culture : not so much a maturity in the developed world but a profligacy, a wantonness and wastefulness - a libidinal desiring machine that is addicted to pleasure, stimulants, and easy finance capital. A consumptiveness that defers costs - we'll pay for it in the future - and displaces costs - they'll pay for it now, or in the future, it's not global warming, it's just climate change.
One way of reading these atopic bodies is to thread two aspects of the reforms of the ALP government through them. Cynthia - the peeling of the skin. Cynthia is the subject of the opening up of the economy - the borders are opened to goods and services, the pores are opened up - they are bleeding. Cynthia is affirmation of desire - she consumes and possesses Gordon, she dominates him. She introduces him to injecting heroin - the most powerful narcotic. Cynthia is out of control - diseased. Cynthia is the external accounts - the BOP, the foreign debt, the CAD - she spends her energy, she honours her libidinal flows, she is open to the world, she likes to be penetrated, or rather uses the world to penetrate her - she is addicted and addictive.
Gordon on the other hand, is passive. He has low energy and low motivation - he is not so much closed in on himself, but is very much the pre-1983 Keating model of the terminal,unhealthy economy. He refuses work, lives with relics, the detritus of the those who didn't make the translation to the new economy. He abuses the welfare state. Gordon, doesn't like efficiency, rationality, clarity, reciprocal exchange - he prefers violence, debasement, degradation, entropy. Gordon is un-masculine. Gordon is about passive regulation and occasionally, active negation. To some extent he is a symbol for the major lever of the regulation of finance capital - the Reserve Bank - key symptom: inflation. While in the Keynesian model the Reserve Bank focussed on unemployment, primarily and also inflation, the goals of the Reserve Bank altered in the ALP govt period from exchange rate interventions, to Current Account Deficit to inflation: effectively controlling the lungs of the economy by choking it and releasing it. This movement can be seen as a response to the shaping of the world economy by the needs and demands of finance capital - which displaces and defers its costs, thereby insulating itself from risk - what the economists call a situation of 'moral hazzard'.
Nearly 22 years after the Australian dollar was floated, when Australia plugged and intermeshed its financial markets into those of the global system, and a new cultural logic started to move through society, we still believe in fairytales of utopia, that our luck will hold, that we are healthier now than ever, and that the car won't crash.
As Kate Jennings, writing in 2003, puts it:
We need rules of the road; why not rules for the financial markets? The financial markets are no longer the equivalent of a manageable two-lane highway; we're talking a hundred lanes or more. One person or firm careering down that highway or even just driving distractedly can cause a god-almighty pile up. (from Speech to the Sydney Institute)