October 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Jung at heart

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A seldom-noted characteristic of the Australian political class is that almost all its members - participants, commentators and spectators - are fervent disciples of Carl Gustav Jung. Jung, along with Sigmund Freud, was one of the founders of modern psychology, and his ideas have recently made something of a comeback among New Age mystics, precisely the kind of people the hard-nosed men and women who concern themselves with politics most abhor. Yet, without realising it, they themselves have adopted much of Jung's theory, if not his jargon.

You may not hear Kevin Rudd or Paul Kelly talk a lot about the collective unconscious or, as Jung's American follower Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, the over-soul. But their comments make it clear that they believe in the concept - or in some even weirder form of telepathy. Thus, after the electoral upheavals of 6 September, with the big swing against Labor in the Western Australian poll and the even bigger ones against the Nationals in the Lyne by-election and the Liberals in the seat of Mayo, everyone started talking about a profound change in the national mood. In the Sydney Morning Herald, the normally level-headed Peter Hartcher informed us that "the Contented Country" had become "the Cranky Country". In the Australian, Kelly wrote of "a visceral national dislike of the coast-to-coast dominance of the Labor Party".

In other words, it wasn't just that a relatively minor number of voters had changed their views: this was a switch in the entire Australian psyche. The electorate had single-mindedly risen up to deliver a verdict on which every single voter agreed. From Kelly's perspective, the swing in Western Australia, which followed the near-defeat of the Labor government in the Northern Territory, was undeniable evidence for this conclusion. The state's Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, concurred: the sandgropers were clearly pleading for a change of government.

That Labor was still in power in the Top End, and that in the west almost as many voters had opted for Labor as for Barnett's Opposition, was considered irrelevant. The transformation of the kollektives Unbewusstes, as Jung might have put it, is irrevocable. Not since the days of Alfred Deakin, our second prime minister - who believed that he was taught the art of politics by the spirits of the departed, such greats as Edmund Burke sending their ghosts to provide regular tutelage - has Australian politics shown such reliance on the occult.

The idea of an underlying collective mind - what the Hindus call the Paramatman - is not entirely new. Politicians have always talked about the will of the people as a monomorphic entity that gives them a mandate for what they (not necessarily the voters) want to do. Gough Whitlam used to appeal to the intelligence and good sense of the Australian people, as if he believed that if he could only win over the group mind, he would be successful. Bob Hawke went further, claiming to have a love affair with the Australian people; while it was the emperor Caligula who wished the Roman people had only one neck, so that he could sever it at a single stroke, Hawke was obviously thinking about another body part altogether.

Politicians frequently tell us that in the end, the Australian people always get it right. Our collective omniscience is no doubt a great comfort, but also occasionally a little hard to interpret. In 1998, for instance, we got it right - by definition. But a majority of us voted Labor, while the marginal seats delivered a Coalition government. It must have required a mighty effort for the pan-Australian psyche to achieve this seeming contradiction.

Or perhaps there is a more scientific explanation. Rather than relying on Jung's immaterial Weltanshauung, we might postulate a telepathic net linking all eligible voters. Upon registering for enrolment, they are secretly microchipped and a giant computer operated by the Electoral Commission switches the chips on when a poll is called. This, incidentally, explains the Howard government's apparently undemocratic decision to close the rolls as soon as an election is officially proclaimed; the commission simply does not have the time or resources to operate on latecomers, who if left unchipped might produce an aberrant result.

Once connected, the voters arrive at an agreement about the result, and then are allocated their individual roles: to vote Labor, Liberal, National, Green or even informal, as the consentience demands. This achieves the ultimate in guided democracy. The majority still achieves the correct result, even if the majority does not actually vote for it.

And the electorate, of course, can still send the government a warning, or confirm it in office, giving commentators plenty to write about the way the voice (singular) of 13.6 million individual voters has been heard. The electorate, they pontificate, has delivered its verdict. The analogy is with the jury, and an old-fashioned sort of jury at that: Is this the verdict of you all? The verdict must be unanimous; there are assumed to be no dissenters. The electorate is a single, indivisible entity.

Furthermore, it exists outside time: the electorate is assumed to be continuous and unchanging. The clearest evidence for this is the Senate. The Senate is composed of two distinct groups: those elected at the last election and those at the one before. To anyone brought up to think in a conventional Newtonian time frame, this would suggest that half its members are out of date - even, in the words of that ardent Newtonian Paul Keating, unrepresentative swill. After all, the circumstances in November 2007 were very different from those of October 2004. Indeed, even the participants were different: some had died, some were voting for the first time, some had left the country and others had returned.

It would be tempting to suggest that the Senate is seriously out of kilter with the public mood. But no. The Senate represents not a single moment in time, but what was once described by a serious observer as "the continuing will of the people" or, as Jung preferred to put it, our psychic inheritance. It is so independent of the calendar that the senators elected in 2007 did not even take their seats for more than six months; during that period, the government had to deal with a Senate whose members stretched back to the election of 2001. Our democracy does not rely on a merely temporal framework.

And nor does out national spirit, our Zeitgeist. If it did, politicians, sociologists and pub bores would be unable to compile their endless lists of unchanging Australian values, the ones now enshrined in the oath of allegiance. As Jung pointed out, these things have an independent existence: they are neither the artefacts of humans, nor the by-products of civilisation. In 1937, he pronounced that Hitler "is a medium. German policy is not made; it is revealed through Hitler." Similarly, mateship was revealed to the Australian people through John Howard, and Simpson's donkey through Brendan Nelson.

So we are all Jungians now, if you take the correct perspective. After all, it was the man himself who said, "It all depends on how we look at things, not how they are in themselves." This is positively postmodern, in a 1920s sort of way. But that's the whole point: one size fits the great all. What further proof do we need of the eternal union of all political thought and theory? Deep down, Brendan Nelson, Kevin Rudd, Phillip Adams and Janet Albrechtsen are one.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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