Boxing day blues

The Boxing Day sales story is a mainstay for journalists. Each year we see the same footage and read the same words as last year about the same event: shoppers lining up outside department stores the day after Christmas to take advantage of special deals. Usually these pieces revolve around a heaving mass of people pushing at the doors, or victorious punters who scored a $50 flatscreen TV. But aggrieved shoppers also makes for a good yarn.

Confusion reigned at Myer’s flagship store early Friday morning, as poor handwriting on gift cards handed out for the Boxing Day sales left shoppers feeling short-changed.

A dash that resembled a “1” was accidentally placed beside numbers on several “gold ticket” gift cards, causing some shoppers to think they had received $201 vouchers before discovering at the till they were entitled to only $20.

This piece from the post-Christmas weekend’s News Ltd tabloids is not quite the grievance industry I was referring to the other day, but it’s a nice little example of how grievance is leveraged by news organisations to generate content, in the process allowing the aggrieved party to at least partially relieve themselves of the burden.

Among those feeling cheated by the gift card mix-up was Croydon resident Josh Jordan, who lined up outside Myer with his mate David from 10.30pm on Christmas Day.

“I thought I had $201. I was gonna buy an iPad,” he told the Herald Sun.

“I’m not impressed at all.”

While Josh Jordan’s upset at being short-changed is undoubtedly real, the journalist’s leveraging of that grievance is more about being able to put a unique (albeit rather contrived) spin of controversy and injustice on a paint-by-numbers story, than anything to do with the public interest. But it’s a win-win scenario in which the journalist gets a click-worthy story and headline, and Mr Jordan is offered an outlet for his displeasure and a chance to lighten his burden.

What is grievance?

The trigger for this project was our observation of a phenomenon whereby grievance is both generated and harnessed in the pursuit of commercial profit or other gain. For instance, newspapers that whip up a sense of grievance in their readers and use it to write yarns and sell papers back to them. We’re calling this the “grievance industry” and we’ll be analysing examples of this as part of the Project.

But as Stephen and I fleshed out this and other related ideas, we quickly realised we needed to define exactly what we meant by “grievance”.

We started by listing specific examples of what seemed self-evidently to be grievances. Some are quite tangible: you are aggrieved because someone punched you in the face, someone cut you off in traffic, or someone broke into your house and stole your stuff. In these cases an identifiable second party’s actions directly cause your sense of grievance. There are also examples where the perpetrator and the action are less specific: your power bills keep going up, or you are fundamentally disadvantaged by societal power structures.

Then we looked into the origin of the word. Grievance is a Middle English word, out of the Old French grever which means “to burden”; aggrieved is from the Old French aggrever which means “to make heavier”, which is itself out of the Latin aggravare meaning “heavy”.

Knowing this etymology helped us to shape our conceptualisation of grievance for this project. And so we speak of grievance as a weight or burden carried by an individual, caused by the real or perceived wrongdoing by another person, group of people, or entity of non-specific people (such as a company, the state, “the system” or “society”). It then follows that an aggrieved person, carrying the weight of grievance, will seek to unburden themselves of that weight. As such, we see grievance as a two-part process of injury and attempted redress.

The Grievance Project is about unpacking what causes us to feel aggrieved, how we deal with those grievances, what influences these processes, and how they are changing.

Reflections on ‘The Fourth Revolution’

I’ve just finished reading The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race To Reinvent The State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both from the classical liberal magazine The Economist. It’s a cavalcade of the usual arguments typical of the new right about how important liberty is, and when they are tired of pursuing the case for more liberty it becomes a case for more freedom. Freedom and liberty! Of course, it is a classical liberal view of freedom, the kind of negative liberty championed by Isaiah Berlin, in which freedom is defined as being left alone by the state (even if this becomes a freedom to starve). Theirs is a reading of a number of historical revolutions in politics that have given rise to state sovereignty, a concern to limit state sovereignty via liberalism, the (horror!) ascendence of the welfare state, and a ‘half-revolution’ carried out in the final quarter of the 20th century, the reforms of Thatcher and Reagan. Added to this are a few looks into Asian models of governance found in Singapore and China, and the various Scandiwegian post-socialist models of government.

All well and good.

What is of concern to our interests here at the Grievance Project are the ways in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge advocate for a decrease in the level of demands placed upon democracy and the state. Various special interest groups are in for a bit of finger-pointing, but more concerning for us is their conclusion that it is citizens—voters—who are most to blame for overloading the state with their concerns. The problem with democracy, they conclude, is that there is simply too much of it.

Indeed, the state as they see it is over-burdened with democratic demands. In their estimation the state attempts to respond to these concerns by trying to please everybody but, due to the public sector’s inefficiency in providing services (a natural feature of the state, apparently… better to privatise them), the state is unable to please anyone and as a result citizens lose faith in democracy. For the Western democratic state to survive the 21st century citizens must be encouraged to simply expect less from it.

Absent from the book is any mention of the fact that these concerns revisit arguments that are decades old, and most forcefully given voice in the Trilateral Commission’s reports from the 1970s in which they warned that democracy was in “crisis”—a crisis that was caused by an “excess” of democratic demands. The efficient running of the state, as ultimately conceived by all of the thinkers above, should serve as a conduit for global capitalism and little more. Welfare, whether in the form of pensions, unemployment benefits, or health care, should all be outsourced, and, wherever possible, to voluntary organisations at that. Citizens should expect very little from the state at all, and it would be better if citizens privatised their grievances accordingly. These arguments are typical of the logics of individualisation that permeate neoliberal Western democracies in which individuals are behooved to become entrepreneurs of the self, without any recourse to the state to solve their problems. Grievances must be solved, by this logic, by those burdened by them.