AQ: Australian Quarterly
Follow the desire lines:
We live in an extraordinary moment. In the face of potentially massive environmental and social crisis lies opportunity for reinvention and transformation. Like falling dominoes, segments of our society are admitting that business as usual is no longer the answer.
A new Australian story is waiting to be told but whose story will it be, and what will it look like?
The key to our future will lie in our capacity to envision this shared future. Visionary thinking – the imagination and expression of the possible – provides a vehicle to engage, explore, critique and discover. These visions help us create new stories about who we want to be.
This article canvases some of the barriers that have held back this conversation in Australia but also highlights two new visions coming from within our civic core that seek to rewrite that story.
Desire Lines are variously known as social trails, pathways of desire, renegade passages or pirate paths.
Desire Lines discovered
It's Friday night The crowd tumbles out of Sydney's football stadium Friends and strangers rub shoulders Soft murmurs permeate the night air – goals re-lived, near misses critiqued To the left of the Exit sits a lonely folly – an aesthetically beautiful but empty pedestrian bridge Testament to a planned environment devoid of common sense Instead, to a person, fans turn right – to tread the well-honed desire line stretching across the grass With a shared wry smile as we step onto this communally created path, we join the mini rebellion forged by thousands before us.
Desire Lines are variously known as social trails, pathways of desire, renegade passages or pirate paths. They are the tracks honed into the landscape by people voting with their feet to create an alternate path to their desired destination. A lovely metaphor for the expression of untrammelled public will.
They tell us much about human behaviour, practical living and communal preferences. As Jane Jacobs, a leading campaigner for peoplecentred urban planning, wrote in 1958: “[t]here is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
This was, in its day, a radical notion and if you were to substitute ‘society' for city and ‘markets' for buildings, or transpose First Nations having a Voice over their own lives, it is just as apt today.
Desire Lines mapped
Engaging people in discussions about their concerns and aspirations – a mapping of the desire lines – enables new and old ambitions to emerge. The power and honesty of such stories, rooted as they are in people's lived experience and deepest desires, cannot be underestimated.
In a neoliberal context – where people's humanity is constrained to being market actors, whose life choices require us to ‘maximise our utility' and where the exercise of citizenry is said to be through consumer choice – it seems highly subversive yet liberating to instead solicit, acknowledge and give voice to people's desires.
This is the backdrop to the development of a story that rejects that “competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.” This story instead advocates
2 for an Australia where love, respect and compassion is central – a place where people and planet come first. It has been through mapping the desire lines of a diverse cross section of Australians that the vision, Australia REMADE: Creating the Best Version of Us, has emerged .3
The roots of this project began 3 years ago4 when a loose grouping of civil society leaders and activists came together to start a conversation about
the future. We recognised the truth in Naomi Klein's urging “to do more than draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more'”. We had to move from sitting in
5 resistance to embracing transformation.
We also understood that this needed to be a shared and inclusive endeavour.
In 2017 we embarked upon an engagement project6 to test the ideas and sentiments that kept recurring in our gatherings and to hear what else might be missing. We had conversations with over 200 organisations, communities and individuals, asking them, ‘Imagine you have woken up in the Australia of your dreams. What is it like?'
The invitation to talk was meet with both excitement and some trepidation. This felt like a long overdue invitation – where people had just been waiting… waiting for the opportunity to be part of a conversation about the future. At first people struggled to find the words to describe their desires and concerns, yet in the course of conversation they invariably grew in confidence and excitement. It felt like hope was just sitting below the surface – just waiting to be primed.
What emerged was an amazing convergence of thoughts and feelings across circumstance and geography. This wasn't a conventional political narrative – it was warm and human, resilient and rebellious, grand and everyday. Rooted in lived experiences but lit with possibility.
Imagine you have woken up in the Australia of your dreams. What is it like?
The resulting vision rests upon nine equally important and connected pillars: 1. A First People celebrated at the very heart of what it means to be Australian
2. A natural world for now and the
3. An economy for the people
4. A society where all contributions
count and every job has dignity
5. A diversity of people living
6. A country of flourishing communities 7. A new dawn for women
8. A thriving democracy
9. A proud contributor to a just world
The Uluru Statement from the Heart
Over the course of 2016-17, the Referendum Council7 conducted 13 regional dialogues with First Nations people. This was a truly remarkable exercise. Spanning geographies, languages, cultures and histories this process sought to find common ground.
It represented a critical turning point for First Nations people in developing their own agreed agenda and path forward. This culminated in the first Australian First Nations Constitutional Convention in May 2017 – the 50th anniversary of the 1967 constitutional referendum.
It was time for something very different. It came off years of being spoken for, of undelivered promises, of empty symbolic gestures. As Megan Davis summed it up: “our people are getting old. Too many bark petitions, too many statements.”
The Uluru Statement from the Heart9 emerged from that Convention at Uluru. It is an extraordinary document – full of beauty, pain, grace and conviction. It is an invitation from First Nations people to non-indigenous Australians to listen, hear and walk with them in their quest for Voice, Treaty, Truth.
It calls for a First Nations Voice to the Australia Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution. A Makarrata Commission – a ‘peace making process' for truth telling and agreement making. And ultimately, keeping faith with the theme of the statement, “a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination”.
When Desire Lines converge
“The expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living” 10 is known as utopian thinking. It has a long and honoured tradition, reaching back to Plato's Republic (C.380BC) and Thomas More's Utopia (1516). But regardless of genre or period, utopian thought has variously tried to grapple with the big questions: • What constitutes a good life? • What does a better world look like? • How best do we live in harmony with each other and the planet? Times of rupture, transition or instability tend to elicit, or sharpen, a conversation about the future and about alternatives. These alternatives might be incremental in scope or transformational in the systemic change sought. Much depends on the level of entrenched control exercised by those supporting the status quo and the level of organisation, momentum and ambition of those seeking change. It is about both the power of ideas and the power behind the ideas.
Utopian representations of ‘other worlds and other ways' seemed to reach their zenith in the latter part of the 1800s as major industrial and economic changes in the western world generated significant upheaval, and in turn, major unrest and ideological debate. For example, Looking Backwards 2000-188711, probably the
The Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged from that Convention at Uluru. It is an extraordinary document – full of beauty, pain, grace and conviction.
most prominent socialist utopian novel in the US in the late 1800s, sold 1 million copies in multiple countries and languages and is said to have spawned some 40 alternate ‘utopias' in response.
In Australia in the 1890s, a prominent group of Victorian radicals coalesced around the labour newspaper, Tocsin. They developed a magnificent political agenda that, amongst its 74 points, curiously called for “65. A Free Hansard” in addition to “26. Abolition of Laws which place Women… at a disadvantage as compared with the Man”, “61. To Bring People Nearer to Art and Art Nearer to the People” and “68. Abolition of Class Privilege”.
This paper eventually morphed into the newspaper of the Victorian Labor Party.
Reflecting a significant diminution in the contest of ideas, and the growing climate crisis confronting civilisation, it is notable that the later years of the 20th century saw a dearth of utopian proposals compared with the slew of dystopian futures featured in film, art and literature.
British Sociologist Krishan Kumar writing in 2010 bemoaned this circumstance: “The loss of utopia – if only for the time being – must nevertheless be a cause for regret. For over four hundred years it was one of the main vehicles for the expression of hopes, aspirations and schemes of humanity. It was a principal way of attempting to tame the future.”
Desire Lines unpacked
Anti-utopians argue that utopias, particularly blueprint utopias, invariably lead to totalitarianism whilst others relegate utopias to being ‘wishful thinking' or ‘castles in the clouds'.
Often the opposition to utopian thought comes from more conservative forces and those with most to lose if any change to the status quo were to occur. But the derisory or dismissive stance on big vision thinking can come also from within the ranks of those seeking change. For them, the pressure to focus on the immediate and tangible seems too overwhelming.
Yet as Ernst Bloch in his famous
The Principle of Hope trilogy (1954-9) reminds us, “all freedom movements are guided by utopian aspirations.”
But visions are more than onedimensional documents – they are as much method as they are plan – they are vehicles of, and for, social change. Visions can inspire, educate, critique, motivate and unify.
When Desire Lines are muted
So if visions are so important why has there been such a dearth of them in Australia until now?
A large part of it has to do with the times in which we live. TINA – There Is No Alternative – has been the overarching political narrative for the last forty years. Its dominance has
The derisory or dismissive stance on big vision thinking can come also from within the ranks of those seeking change.
For them, the pressure to focus on the immediate and tangible seems too overwhelming.
been strengthened by the demise of communist states and the discrediting of a socialist alternative; the internalisation of the neoliberal politic by social democratic parties; the pace of global economic restructuring; and the centrality of fear, crisis or loss in many social movement responses.
In addition, there has been a clear agenda prosecuted by the wealthy and ‘big end of town' pursuing economic self-interest to undermine and silence opposition. Political capture has been key to its success.
Consequently, dissent has been characterised variously as thuggery or elitism. Workers and their unions are demonised, attacked and circumscribed while civil society's right to advocate is constantly challenged. Cultural leaders and intellectuals are demonised and marginalised. History is ignored or re-written – à la the culture wars and John Howard's black armband of history. The media has provided the cheer squad, thought police, and at times, firing squad for much of this silencing.
As activist journalist Laurie Penny vividly reminds us: “It is difficult to think clearly about a better world when you're trying to protect your soft parts from heavy boots.”
New Desire Lines forged
However, the whole point of desire lines is that they emerge unexpectedly and often against the dictates of formal
structures and processes around them.
Leonard Cohen reminds us in his seminal work, Anthem:
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That's how the light gets in16
Despite the seeming omnipresence of TINA, the cracks in neoliberalism and attendant conservative politics have begun to show. Indeed, the Great Recession of 2008 wasn't just a crack but rather a rupture in people's faith in market-first economics. But as Milton Friedman, one of the key architects of the neoliberal project, was want to say: “when the time came that you had to change” as it did in the 1970s “there was an alternative [neoliberalism] ready there to be picked up.”
Unfortunately, in 2008 an alternative wasn't honed and ready. But since then some confluence of factors has shifted. Growing inequality in economic security and political power, and the ever-looming impacts of devastating climate change, are biting hard into public consciousness. Community frustration at the failure of political leaders to engage honestly and boldly with them about the future is deepening.
Overseas, Occupy, Sanders, Corby, Podemos, even Brexit and Trump herald a departure. Sacred cows no longer seem so sacred. Orthodoxies are being challenged and alternative views and visions are being promulgated.
Suddenly the future is being contested.
In Australia, a failure of political leadership to indeed listen, learn and lead on the big issues of the day has required people to step up and begin their own conversations and begin to create new shared desire lines rooted in community.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a perfect example of First Nations people giving up on politicians and
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That's how the light gets in The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a perfect example of First Nations people giving up on politicians and forging their own preferred pathway.
forging their own preferred pathway. As Megan David described it, “[c]ontemporary democracies like ours are inept at producing meaningful processes of public will formation beyond the ballot box. When confronted with genuinely deliberative processes, especially those that threaten the status quo, those inured to the system are often baffled and dismissive.”
Unfortunate but true. Despite the fact that in a most historic act our First Nations people stood together and spoke with one voice, their call for Voice Treaty Truth was immediately closed down by conservative political leaders. Yet we also know from polling more than 60% of Australians are supportive of the initiative19 – even with a hostile prime minister.
A historic moment of possibility was missed but given that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is addressed to the Australian people, rather than political leaders, it is now up to a united community to champion this call.
The same dissonance between community desires and political leadership also underpins the Australia REMADE statement. Here, community consensus underlying this statement puts ‘people and planet' before the political orthodoxy of ‘economy first'.
This is entirely consistent with Rebeca Huntley's research findings in her recent book Still Lucky: Why you should feel optimistic about Australia and its people,
which found “[w]e remain a society where the values of egalitarianism, ‘the fair go', still mean something” and
that Australians still see “the economy is a means to an end… and the end is wellbeing.”
What is emerging are desire lines outside the formal political channels.
When Desire Lines become orthodoxy
The question is: can such visions take root and create new orthodoxies?
Twice, major changes have occurred in Australia's settings in the last fifty years.
The first came when Gough Whitlam magisterially declared in 1972: “Men and women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on December 2 is a choice between the past and the
What is emerging are desire lines outside the formal political channels.
future, between the habits and fears of the past and the demands of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It's time.”
Memorable words and an election manifesto spanning 47 pages and
200 promises – from soaring emotional appeal to bringing sewage to the 60% of suburbs without. All with the purpose “to recreate this nation”.
Bizarrely, one of the best testaments to this ambition and legacy comes from the radical right think tank, IPA whose website attests:
The other example is the Neoliberal project itself. Although it didn't begin life as a public facing vision intended to inspire mass movements, it was nonetheless a vision with a purpose – and powerful big-money backing. Rutger
Bregman likens its rise to a relay race “with think tanks passing the baton to journalists, who handed it off to politicians. Running the anchor leg were two of the most powerful leaders in the western World, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.” And changed the
24 world it has.
Both these aspirants waited in the wings for a long time – honing their ideas, building the capacities required to win, keeping unity and focus on their ambition and not losing faith that change was possible.
So the release of these two wonderful visions, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and Australia REMADE, do not mean job done! The challenge is to build ‘the traffic' along those desire lines such that they become embedded in new formal structures and ways of working – a new common sense.
At stake is the future of our country and whether it will be one borne in justice and self-determination for our First Nations and whether people and planet reside at its core. At this point, people are forging these desire lines across the community waiting for formal politics to catch-on and catch-up that a new future is required. A future (as foreseen in Australia REMADE) where “we are unified and uplifted as a nation, we are compassionate, we make sure we all have a place.”
Let's hope they don't take too long.
No prime minister changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam….. he enacted an ambitious cultural agenda that continues to shape Australia to this day.
The challenge is to build ‘the traffic' along those desire lines such that they become embedded in new formal structures and ways of working – a new common sense.