No wonder everybody is freaking out

"Some moderate form of European Social Democracy gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number but this requires a fundamental re-think of our political priorities." 

Clear Spot Club President Jackie Dent spoke with sociologist and Emeritus Professor Michael Pusey, the man who coined the term "economic rationalism", about his take on anxiety. 

How is anxiety relevant to sociology?

Anxiety has clear social causes that affect the 13% or so of people with this diagnosed mental health disorder.  But anxiety in various degrees of intensity is reaching more widely into the lives of ‘middle Australia’. Sociologists look for the causes of this anxiety pandemic. They are not hard to find: insecure work, family and workplace stress, excessive competition, social isolation and economic precariousness. 


Have people always been anxious in your view?

Some people have always had a higher susceptibility to anxiety than others. However different societies in historical time settle anxiety more or less effectively and in different ways, for example with religion, war, and in our time with therapeutic cultures among other things. We are augmenting anxiety, not settling it. 

How did you come about coining the term 'economic rationalism'?

In 1986, while I was conducting interviews for a large study of top Canberra public servants, I became aware of an emerging conflict between a new breed of narrowly trained economists who were making policy and the majority of public servants who were delivering services in various departments.

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I saw that not a single senior executive officer in the then department of Education Youth and Training had any knowledge of education. They were all economists and accountants of one form or another. 

Everything was treated as an economic function. They assumed that their own kind of economic reasoning was the only effective way to think rationally about what government should do.  I called this ‘economic rationalism’ and defined it as ‘the doctrine that economies, markets and money offer, at least in principle, the only reliable means of setting values on anything’. It assumed that the Society should serve the Economy rather than the other way around. This is pure superstition but it had the nation by the throat. 

We are augmenting anxiety, not settling it. 

If neo-liberalism is stressing people out, why is everybody going along with it?

Because they have been brainwashed to accept it as the only way forward. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s dictum ‘TINA’ — ‘There is no other way’. Economic rationalism is a saturating ideology that is driven down on us with the same songbook by the peak business associations like the Business Council of Australia, the International Peak Business Organizations like the Davos forum, the large accounting houses like Price Waterhouse who are the thought policy for large institutional investment, by the economic journalists and by ideological-driven media like The Australian and by the New Right business funded think-tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs. 

How can people get society to restructure itself again?  What have people done in the past?

In the past social transformations happened in the wake of disasters, depressions, revolution and war. In peaceful times, broad spectrum changes are more often led by social movements such as feminism, the peace movement, and ecological awareness. 

What we are seeing around us with Trump, Brexit and Turnbull’s collapsing vote is what we call a ‘legitimation crisis’. The neo-liberal dispensation is losing its hold on hearts and minds. That is good. But we don’t know what will replace it. Some moderate form of European Social Democracy gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number but this requires a fundamental re-think of our political priorities. We have done it before but it will be hard because vested interests hold all the levers.

You were involved in one of the first happiness studies in the 80s? What were people saying back then? 

It showed what all happiness studies before and since have confirmed. Over the life course, people in developed countries give consistent answers to questions about various sources of happiness. Family, friends, lovers — that whole relationships bundle — always comes at the top of the hierarchy of ‘satisfiers’. Then, there is a contested order among other important factors such as tension-free leisure, interesting work, personal autonomy, trust, social peace and good health. Money and standard of living is always there but it is never primary. As soon as the striving for more material goods becomes a dominating priority, it reduces quality of life. That is what is happening here now.