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The end of politics

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 30 July 2010

In this federal election, more than in any other, it is apparent that politics in our time has dwindled to an end point. The evidence for this is the vain attempt of both parties to distinguish themselves one from the other. Labor and Liberal are now so similar in their aim to claim the centre, that they have to distort and consciously mistake the other’s intention to manufacture a difference that they hope will give them the edge.

Further evidence of the dwindling of politics is the bland aspirations of the parties that have been reduced to “making things better”. The dream of eternal progress has run its course and what we have are motherhood statements that no one in their right mind could object to. But why should we be interested? Minor changes to economic management will not inflame the heart.

It was always predictable that when the state wrested all power for itself and marginalised the church, that liberalism would lead eventually to a nihilism that has nothing to say. The modern attempt to establish human beings as autonomous subjects has reached its final conclusion in a paralysing emptiness. All we have now is meaningless talk about choice and rights and progress. This is why politics has become so uninteresting to the point that it could be said to have ended. There are now no political ideas even though the traditional parties derive from the great and unresolved debate about the role of the state in the individual life.


Modernity has patched together an idea of society from bits and bobs of philosophy that rests on radical doubt and the priority of autonomous reason. The result is that society has no foundation, or rather an imaginary foundation that is now beginning to show its true colours.

We have aspirations to be excellent, efficient, creative, adventurous, brave, etc, but we have no narrative that would tell us how these would produce a society. We comfort ourselves that good intentions will win out, despite a history of good intentions leading to bad outcomes. What is missing is a deep understanding of the human, the traps that lay in wait for us, the fear that lies in our hearts and the behaviour that that fear engenders.

All over the world new leaders begin with promise and all over the world we see disenchantment quickly setting in. The time between the euphoria of an election win and disenchantment is shortening. It is now obvious that government is powerless to change the malaise that eats away at our inner cities. Government cannot address the hopelessness in human hearts, our failure to see a future that is worth living.

Meanwhile, all around the country, groups of people live out an alternative society that has survived, if you include the history of Israel, for over 2,500 years. Certainly it is small, even decimated, and much of what takes the name of faith does so in pale imitation. But it represents an alternative society that is strange to the one that is even now on its last legs. It has its foundations in a complex interaction between human experience, theological proposition and practice as worship. What has been built in it is a view of the real that is far richer than the reduced view of modernity based on proposition alone.

The view of the human in modernity is triumphalist. This means that the greater part of the felt experience of humanity is ignored. It is as if we are not all destined to death, that our greatest hopes may founder, that love may evaporate. Instead, we are all to seek hope and fulfilment in eternal progress. Modern politics are captive to this view; that is why it is so bland.

By contrast, the view of the church encompasses the whole felt experience of the individual. This includes moral ambiguity and the fragility of the human spirit. Listening to our politicians it would seem that being human is simple. As long as they have appropriate services and enough income to become consumers all will be well.


I am not overly concerned about Julia Gillard’s atheism, I am sure we share disbelief in the same god. What does concern me is that her atheism signals that she is closed to the alternative society that the church represents. This is one reason that she does not have an inspiring vision for the country. She, in fact, represents the final stages of modern politics that has nothing interesting to say.

One would expect more from Tony Abbott given his Catholic connections. But the necessity of winning overrides all, even the vision, which he must have glimpsed, of the alternative society represented by the church. It seems that the political animal we have generated by our much lauded democracy claims total obeisance.

What do I suggest? Certainly not a theocracy. It is not the role of the church to govern but to generate people who can govern. What we need are politicians who have been formed in the alternative society of the church to a level rarely seen. We need people in public life who know that modernity is a dead end and who see that the church, after all, knows the truth.

This is not about imposing Christian belief, that is an impossibility disallowed by the gospel of grace, but it is about public leaders acting out of the wisdom that the church engenders and who have the courage and skill to do that in the face of a democratic process that would reduce everything to its own shallow terms. We need politicians who are more than the clones of their advertising gurus.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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