When Joe Hockey declared the “age of entitlement” at an end, he almost certainly exempted himself from this historical turn. The Treasurer, after all, feels “entitled” to days spent in court with Fairfax Media — time, perhaps, that might be better disbursed dousing the deficit, ending the Swan spending spree, soothing the surplus boner blahblahblah.
Of course, Hockey can dance with a defamation suit, his wife or an entire chorus line of winking, high-kicking Tony Abbotts as much as he likes. It won’t change a thing. As mentioned last week in Crikey, charges of moral hypocrisy against politicians tend only to be effective when they derive from conservative values. “Juliar” works better than “Joliar” because neoliberals lob their insults from a foundation of absolute moral faith. The Left fails in its communications because its own moral foundation is buried in decades of uncertainty that has it arguing half the time from reason — which rarely plays to voters — and the other half from a feeble platform of ad hominem. Tony winked. Tony’s daughter got into a good school. Joe danced. Julie Bishop looks like a Meanie, and Pyne talks posh.
None of this demonisation works for progressives. This is not only because it’s half-arsed. It is because the Left never really enjoyed the “age of entitlement” in which Joe is still culturally present. The Treasurer may publicly decry a time of rampant self-interest which must be ended by fatherly austerity. But it is his rampant self-interest that makes his message so successful.
This week on ABC1’s Q&A, Hockey offered, for the nth time, the narrative of his childhood as a lesson for the polity. His father, he told the audience, was so busy building wealth on a Saturday that he had no time to watch his son play soccer. Engaged with the business of cleaning the shop floor with just a toothpick and some pluck, Hockey Sr. acted just as his son, the future Treasurer, must. “The hardest task in life is to say no to someone you care about,” said Joe in his age of entitlement speech in London. Spare the rod and spoil the economy. And this is why a generation of young job-seekers will find life impossible. Their dole payment is Joe’s quality time with dad. It must be withheld for their own good. Their reward will be as Joe’s was: wealth. Well, “moral” wealth. This should make up for the material poverty.
In seeking to end the “age of entitlement”, Hockey the fabulist is actually extending it by example. Like so many successful conservative politicians before him, he employs his story as one that will function as a moral instruction for everyone. There is, perhaps, nothing more “entitled” than to permit one’s own experience to stand in for everyone’s experience. It is, in fact, messianic.
Or, to be a bit more technical, it is narcissistic. The kind of untethered self-esteem that allows an individual to see themselves as the model for all others begins to look a lot like the narcissistic personality inventory. Hockey’s rationale for his policy — my dad withheld affection and it was good for me and it is therefore good for the economy — is a sense of personal entitlement so inflated as to be diagnosable.
In fact, there’s a book that does diagnose it. The Narcissism Epidemic is subtitled “Living in the Age of Entitlement”, and it describes the way in which narcissism has grown exponentially. Hockey fits well not only within a conservative tradition of making “family values” national values — such as that idiocy that compares a central banking economy to a household budget. He is also a product of the age of the selfie. When the narcissist holds himself up as an example of “tough love”, he fits well into an era of naifs holding up signs about Boko Haram.
“Lived experience” now stands in for evidence and reason on all sides. But it works so much better coming from a legitimate selfie-taking narcissist like Hockey. After all, the Right has been expert in this kind of personal moralising for centuries. They do it better and they do it with a clearer, more entitled view of their own moral foundation.
What Hockey does when he talks with extreme entitlement about his family and his absent hard-working father and his personal views about the possibility of upward mobility is selfie clicktivism. Except it’s on a grander scale with a much grander history.
The age of entitlement is not over. It has just clicked over into a higher gear.
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.