History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. One of the more famous Karl Marx quotes. I was reminded of it by an email from a friend; a fellow graduate student and researcher for a major media company. She is currently doing some work, reading up on the old debates around medicare co-payments (requiring people visiting doctors to pay some of the cost). This, and the proposed increase in university fees, reminds me that in politics, like anything, history repeats. These exact debates have occurred before. They will probably occur again. The same statement was made much more poetically at least two thousand years ago by whoever wrote (or re-wrote) Ecclesiastes 1:9. It says, in the New International Version: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In my opinion much about this statement is true. In many cases we keep fighting the same battles. In the case of politics it remains what is the role of the state in society and the economy, what is the correct balance of power and income between labour and capital, how much wealth should we redistribute, how should we redistribute it, and how should we structure our society (issues like migration, gay marriage etc). Some of the details change, but many of the fights remain the same. Does this mean things never get better, or is it just the case that each generation gets to make and remake these decisions anew, fitting society to changing wants and needs.
This, really, is what politics is all about. Deciding how we distribute the resources of society, and structure that very society itself. And this is why politics matters. Too often we (and in particular the media) get bogged down in the trivia, the tawdry, the personal. Why Tony Abbott winked, whether his daughter was given a scholarship she may or may not have deserved, what Julia Gillard’s partner said or whether Kevin Rudd speaks weird at times. The things that really do not matter*. Because it’s easy, because the media have limited time-frames, limited resources, and their audience has limited attention spans. It’s sad, because it means the big picture is often missed. The things that matter are often overlooked. Here we are not talking about a few dollars to visit to the doctor or a little extra to go to university, we are talking about how we structure our society. We are deciding (through our elected officials) whether individuals will be allowed to decide how their money is spent – to pay for their health care or their education – or whether these resources are allocated by society at large, through the state. I’m not coming down for one side or the other, but merely observing this is another chapter in that long debate that has been occurring in one form or another in this country (and the rest of the western democratic world) since perhaps the 19th century.
It matters and we need to write about it like we care. Because we will care about the outcome, one way or another. The important question is, are we up to tragedy or farce?
(And yes, I quoted Marx and the Bible in one blog post. Just call me eclectic).
*This is not to say these things do not matter at all. However, compared to the importance of the substantive issues of politics, they are of relatively minor significance.