Great politicians have long maintained a close relationship with the arts. Think Winston Churchill and Shakespeare, Paul Keating and Mahler, Barry Jones and everything that has ever been written, painted, or composed. And now, with his annual John Button lecture, another politician has spruiked his guiding creative light: Wayne Swan, he is eager to tell us, adores Bruce Springsteen.
Swan explained how his understanding of social policy and economics has been informed by Springsteen’s music. The Boss’ depiction of economic change in America, and especially the pain created by the slow death of its industry, drives him to make sure that the same doesn’t happen to Australia; to make sure the fruits of growth are shared and to make sure that we ‘take care of our own’.
In essence, Swan’s reading of Springsteen is one of economic dignity. The way we work is shifting, he thinks, and that shift can often hurt the most vulnerable.
And, to a certain extent, he is right. As Springsteen himself has said, his career has been largely about mapping the “distance between the American dream and the American reality”. Songs like Born in the USA depict individuals rendered impotent by indifferent economics forces. Springsteen is, and always has been, profoundly concerned with the state of work and the working class.
But Swan’s employment-centric reading of this creed is an undeniably narrow reading of Bruce’s art and, more troublingly, of the very ‘dream’ itself.
Indeed, Swan’s rhetorical construction of ‘work’ as the core of the social democratic project gives us an insight into both the ALP’s current mindset and also, when viewed in its broader context, the worrying state of its literary imagination.
Springsteen rarely sings about work as an inherent goal: it is almost always facilitative. Jobs are placed in the context of deeper human yearning. So when, in The River, he laments that “lately there ain’t been no work on account of the economy”, the real tragedy is the protagonist’s loss of innocence and his inability to “at night on them banks lie awake, and hold her [his wife] close just hear each breath she takes”. Work is part of the story, but it’s only a part.
Again and again, Springsteen places the human and the economic in their proper contexts. He is relevant to progressive politics, not simply because he supports dignified employment, but because he articulates some of the deeper issues that underpin the social-democratic imagination: the human connections facilitated by community (The Ties That Bind); the crippling loss of autonomy created by oppressive social pressures (The Promised Land); and the wild potential of freedom (Born to Run).
In short, he attempts to express the experience of human beings (in their angry, joyous and insecure multitudes) when confronted with a range of social and economic structures. This breadth of focus helps to explain his longevity and ability to profoundly connect.
The fact that Swan chose to emphasise Springsteen’s relationship with employment, and not his broader artistic project, is symptomatic of the Labor Party’s rhetorical narrowing. Too often the party views work as the absolute end, rather than a path to allowing higher personal and national flourishing.
Take Kevin Rudd’s incessant bleating about ‘working families’. According to this rhetorical crutch, Australians are defined, not by their actual actions or values, but by their relationship to the jobs-market. Or Julia Gillard’s attempt to distance the party from the Greens, claiming that the ALP was for ‘setting the alarm early’ and ‘work not welfare’. In both cases, Australia’s rhetorical vision and future has been founded on, rather than facilitated by, the world of paid employment.
Are these words effective? Do they inspire the voters at which they’re aimed? It’s questionable.
Last year Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, wrote a book about the patients she had cared for, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In her career, she learnt about the regrets people harbour when confronting death. Interestingly, the second most frequent was people wishing they hadn’t ‘worked so hard’.
Does the ALP truly believe that constructing their identity around the ‘value of work’, a value on which a large number of Australians regret placing too much emphasis, is going to connect with their constituents’ aspirations? Speak to their souls? I highly doubt it.
The party’s drift towards this rhetorical default-setting is lamentable, but also understandable. Focus groups are good at gauging trends, but they don’t offer a great insight into the human heart. Things, especially people, are rarely as simple or mechanised as polling suggests.
No, the real project of understanding our thoughts and aspirations is through art and self-reflection; the literary, rather than the scientific, imagination. As literature tells us, human truths are almost always more ambiguous, capricious and difficult to grasp than what someone will divulge in a focus group. The keys to the vault aren’t given up that easily.
Wayne Swan titled his speech The Land of Hope and Dreams, after a song on Wrecking Ball. That’s a good start. However, I would ask the Treasurer to expand on the nature of those hopes and dreams. I have a feeling they’re more complicated, and less framed by ‘work’, than he’d likely admit.