Two men walk into a bar. You would think the first man would warn the second. This old, bad joke is appropriate to what many feel is rapidly becoming the old, bad joke of Australian political life. One of the advantages of being in a country and a culture which is in many respects more backward than it was twenty-five years ago is that we should be able to more effectively anticipate what we are in for by looking at the state of play in the US. More has been made recently of the distinctive nature of American society in relation to other western societies than of the commonality, and perhaps that differentiation has now become excessive. After all, Australian and American society are both characterised by being substantially (in our case wholly) in a post-traditional culture, in which claims to legitimacy by rationality, and individuality are at the forefront of social life. For such societies, social integration, cohesion and meaning are not problems that must be continually be addressed — they are problems at the heart of social life.
With the coming of the information era, and the comprehensive development of an information-industrial economy, these problems have become increasingly urgent. Where once it was class, religious or ethnic division that was most prominent, today the fault-line runs along access to education and training (thus, the old bourgeoisie fight more tenaciously on issues such as private school funding than on matters such as industrial relations — they are a class in the process of transformation), but also within persons. Achieving stable selfhood and constituting a network and a social world has now become the pre-eminent problem occupying many people’s lives, whether as marked by campaigns around the problem of depression, sub-cultural tribalism in schools, gangs — and, increasingly, fundamentalist forms of religion. Fundamentalist Islam has achieved the most press, but it is fundamentalist Christianity that has now asserted itself politically, with the rise of the Family First party, and its successful preference deals with the Democrats and the ALP. Pentecostal Christianity has spread through the outer suburbs of every major Australian city, and it has now become an independent political force. Whatever the virtues of its ecstatic form of worship, or the undoubted integrity of many of its participants, it is a narrow and compensatory social phenomenon. It is addressed to the lost tribes of postmodernity, reeling through a blasted wilderness — inner and outer — where the light has been lost. The lonely, the poor, those deemed surplus to requirements in a globalised economy are its flock. Since our economy is at its most efficient in producing a scarcity of recognition and connection, supply meets demand. Offering love and acceptance, it turns these to its opposite — to intolerance, to other religions, to gay men and lesbians, to the secular world and human freedom. Its power will build as societies become more attenuated and people search for the simplest story which will ground them within the undecidable chaos. In the long run, it will only be mitigated by addressing the real needs it answers, those of re-integration and regrounding in a new cultural form. In the short run of the next few years we can learn from the failure of American progressives to accurately gauge the burgeoning power of fundamentalism in the 1970s, and recognise that understanding and contesting the influence of the fundamentalist Right will be of paramount importance — not only in the interests of a fair and pluralist society, but in genuinely addressing the real problems that such groups so unreally use.