Dennis Glover’s ‘An economy is not a society’

Glover’s An Economy is not a Society has an appealing title. So much so that I almost picked it up a few months ago, but then was dissuaded by a critical review.

But still, it was such a tempting title that I came back to it today. I shouldn’t have.

Glover sets out to ask an important and an interesting question. Did Hawke-Keating era of economic reform really benefit Australia as a nation? Who were the losers?

There are a few problems with his starting point. One is that it mythologises a by-gone era in Australian history completely uncritically, treating his childhood home of Doverton as a standard of a well-functioning society. Whether that is in any way accurate (think of the progress that’s been made in civil rights since the 70’s, and it’s apparent that this book could only be written by a white man). This portion of the book, the first two chapters in fact, is a somewhat tedious set of reminiscences that I think could be titled ‘an old man thinks things were better when he was younger’. Frustratingly, Glover never really makes his case, but just asks him to trust him on his memory, and that thing a friend of his sister’s said once at an event twenty years later.

There are mildly interesting moments later in the book, but they would have done better as a short article. Ultimately, I think Glovers’ failing is that he isn’t willing to look deep enough – to ask what it is that made Doverton work well, if that is the case.

Here, for example, is the closest that I think he comes to really thinking critically about what made Doverton work so well (if it ever did):

I guess it comes down to the fact that the old factory world provided an organising principle for a society that worked, if not perfectly, at least reasonably well. It provided jobs, skills, a sense of purpose, generalised affluence and even a democratic political logic – with parties for labour and parties for business that, over time, balanced each other out to a tolerable degree. Looked at this way, there’s something inherently democratic, even social-democratic, about an economy based on mass-employment manufacturing, because in an economy in which their labour is in demand, the little people are in charge – or at least not easy to ignore. This is what democracy is supposed to be about: people power. But what sort of society is a robotic economy going to produce? One with even more places like Doveton. 

It’s not that I disagree with everything he’s saying. I agree, increased mechanisation will almost certainly mean radical change. But it’s just that this is as close as he gets to thinking about the problem, which strikes me as a very political and economic one. Instead he’s happy to rhapsodise for pages about how the inside of his old school makes him feel. Get to the point, Glover, I would say – except that he doesn’t.

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