The 4-Day Work Week

One of the discombobulating factors in public discourse in recent years is the seeming absence of any reason, logic or even self-interest behind the surface cacophony. Politics as practiced until recently was based on self-serving lies. We knew politicians lied. The important thing was why they lied. The main question to ask was what outcome was the lie in service of. I used to know why politicians were lying. But not anymore. Some people believe they can discern a cunning masterplan behind the politics of the last few years. It looks to me more like chaos (which manifests as unconscious archetypal machinations).

So, when a story comes along that features some good old-fashioned naked self-interest masquerading as moral rectitude, it’s almost a relief. One such story caught my eye as it’s been doing the rounds in Australian media recently. The story is that we’re about to introduce a 4-day work week. This will be, according to a recent media article penned by a professor at UTS Sydney, a “great leap forward”. I can’t figure out if this is an ironic or a deliberate reference to Chairman Mao’s disastrous reform program.

Fear not, though, the 4-day work week has the full backing of “science”. A team of “experts” at several universities has been working through the details over the last several years. The headline of the article notes that the trials have been labelled “a resounding success”. Of course, the exact same headline was written about the corona vaccines. But I’m sure the experts will get this one right. Right?

The experts in question produced a “global” report that backs the plan. Great. So, they must have tried it out in numerous countries around the world, right?

Actually, no. Only 6 countries were trialled.

But the 6 countries were a representative sample of all nations, weren’t they?

Actually, no. The 6 countries who took part were all the Anglo countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ok. But they must have taken a representative sample of occupations to prove the idea is capable of being rolled out to all jobs?

Nah. Only professional office jobs were included in the study.

If this sounds like less than rigorous research, consider that the basic premise of the idea is that productivity can remain the same when employees work 20% less. This is an idea which stands common sense, logic and history on its head. Anybody defending it should be expected to go out of their way to prove its veracity and yet here we have a study with holes big enough to drive a truck through.

We see here a repeat of the corona vaccine pattern. Massive claims were made for the vaccine that had no basis in science, logic or history. In a functioning society, the emphasis should be on people making extraordinary claims to provide extraordinary evidence to back them. Clearly we don’t live in that kind of society.

Suffice to say that this research is, pardon my French, complete bullshit. But at least we can see whose interest the bullshit serves. The salaried professional class here in Australia will get to trial the new scheme. These brave innovators, who have only recently had to go through the trauma of returning to the office after working from their couches for the last three years, will lead the way into the new golden epoch.

Of course, it’s only in office jobs that it’s possible to pretend that taking a day off a week can lead to productivity improvements. Tell the foreman in a factory or the manager in a supermarket that you can increase productivity by having everybody take Fridays off and you’ll be laughed out of the building. Common sense is not a strong point of our modern “elites”.

The professor’s article attempts to link the 4-day work week concept with the historical industrial relations disputes which led to the original 40-hour work week. This is yet another obvious error of reasoning. But the difference between the two examples is revealing of a larger pattern that differentiates society now from society back then.

The 40-hour work week was born out of a grassroots movement which saw workers joining together into unions and using strikes and other industrial action to force employers and governments to grant not just a 40-hour work week but other things we now take for granted such as holiday and sick pay. All of this was achieved over a period of decades which allowed society to slowly adapt and correct course as necessary. It was iterative and based in the “real world”.

Since the comparison with the corona vaccines is relevant here, we should also note that the history of vaccines was also iterative and based in the real world. Most people know the story of Edward Jenner and the smallpox inoculation which arose out of real world observation, no high-tech laboratories required. Similarly, Pasteur’s discovery of the attenuated vaccine took many years and ultimately resulted from a laboratory error. Iteration. Observation. Trial and Error. These are the primary factors involved both in early industrial action and vaccine development.

By contrast, the 4-day work week and the corona vaccines were cooked up by academics in ivory towers. The ways things work these days is that such ideas are fed into the propaganda channels of the media. To compete in those channels, the ideas must be accompanied by grand announcements about the wonderful changes they will bring about. You’ve got to sex it up if you want to play in the world of public relations. Completely absent from this dynamic are the aforementioned concepts of iteration, observation, trial and error and that pesky thing called “the real world”.

All these new ideas sound nice as long as you don’t think about them for more than 5 seconds. For example, it may very well be that respiratory viruses, and viruses in general, perform a necessary function that we don’t know about. In the unlikely event that we can come up with a 100% “safe and effective” vaccine that eliminates respiratory viruses, this may cause a set of unforeseeable side effects. The treatment may turn out to be worse than the disease as so often happens in modern medicine.

What about the 4-day work week? Sounds nice. Except that we know that unemployment is linked with all kinds of negative outcomes including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse etc. What if what people really need is meaning. For better or worse, paid employment is one of the main ways we find meaning in our culture. Cutting work hours is not going to help people find meaning, at least, not any meaning that has a larger societal aspect. The whole point of work is that it is communal and exoteric. It is your way of contributing to society. To the extent that humans are social animals that need to feel they contribute to society, reducing work will reduce the meaning people find in their lives.

And this brings us to the crux of the problem that I think really underlies the 4-day work week concept: the lack of meaning in modern work. The 4-day work week denotes a crisis of confidence that is taking place among exactly the demographic that the study focused on: the professionals in Western, and especially Anglo, countries.  

This is not a new development. In fact we saw it appear early on in corona with the use of the deeply weird phrase “the new normal”. Corona might have been the first pandemic in history where, instead of fearing for their lives or grieving over lost loved ones, people actually saw an opportunity for a brighter future. But, of course, the people who were talking of the new normal were the very same elites who are now hoping to get a 4-day work week.  

Just as calling for a new normal during a “pandemic” is delusional and self-centred, so is wishing for a 4-day work week in the current socio-economic conditions. Right now in Australia we have historically low unemployment and historically high inflation. The rental vacancy rate is the lowest on record while Australia is currently importing the highest number of immigrants on record. Where are all these people going to live? Not in new homes if the recent announcement of the bankruptcy of a new home builder is any indication. This comes on the back of several state bailouts of builders last year. The bankruptcy was apparently caused by labour shortages, inflation and supply chain problems.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Premier jetted off on a trip to China that apparently had something to do with higher education. The Chinese government recently dropped a ban on students travelling overseas to study which means Australia could see tens of thousands of them showing up soon. Presumably, the Premier is trying to get them to come back to Melbourne.

So, we are trying import workers and students to make up for the employment problem, except we don’t have anywhere to house them. Meanwhile, the money they bring will only add to inflation. Cool plan, bro.

This is all the attempted continuation of what I call the immigration-education-real estate axis of evil that has been the cornerstone of Australian economic policy for a good two decades. This policy was already causing problems before corona and those problems are only becoming more acute. The one thing the plan has been good for is to prop up real estate values for investors. And which class is doing the investing? You guessed it – the salary class.

In the middle of all these issues, the same salary class wants to work four days a week. That’s what’s called in the vernacular taking the piss. If the studies are in fact correct and salaried professionals can be more productive by working less, maybe those same professionals could do society a favour and take a 4-day work week in exchange for 4 days of wages. The productivity boost would sure help inflation. They could then go one step further and use that extra free day to work in one of the industries that is crying out for employees at the moment. Maybe they could help build new houses to ease the shortage.

Of course, the productivity gains of the 4-day work week are illusory because in order to increase productivity you must create something of value in the first place. I talked in the last post about the ex-Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, who led the neoliberal economic reforms back in the 80s and 90s. Keating admitted that those reforms hollowed out the manufacturing sector in Australia but, he claimed, those manufacturing jobs were replaced by “service jobs” which paid more and which were more “skilled” because they apparently required university degrees to perform. (The same universities that produce garbage research about 4-day work weeks?)

If we rename Keating’s “service job” to David Graeber’s “bullshit job”, we start to see the problem. I went into detail about bullshit jobs in one of my coronapocalypse posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. The key point to understand is that this wasn’t just some pejorative term that Graeber invented because he didn’t like service jobs. He gave it that title because the people who do those jobs believe that the jobs have no meaning. And if your job has no meaning to you, it follows quite naturally that you will want to do less of it. Doing less of it won’t solve the problem but it will temporarily relieve some of the emotional issues that come from the feeling of meaninglessness.

Much of what is going on with dumb ideas like the 4-day work week and the new normal and the other madness we see in modern society stems from the fact that our “elites” are in an existential crisis and, rather than face the crisis head on, they have sublimated it. This crisis of meaning began with the collapse of the USSR. Our elites were suddenly without a viable external enemy that could keep their worst excesses in check. Maanwhile, the neoliberal reforms shipped all the real jobs overseas leaving western elites with mostly meaningless jobs. This has led to a subsequent breakdown of logic, reason and common sense because we created a society where those things are not required.

All that is about to change, of course. The corona event has precipitated a rapid change in the geopolitical situation. The rest of the world isn’t buying our bullshit anymore. We’re going have to figure out how to start producing things that matter again.

On Keating and AUKUS

Australian politics is normally a total snoozefest, but every now and then something interesting happens. Last week was one such occasion and it was ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating who, to use a metaphor he was fond of, pulled out the bazooka. Who did it he fire it at? Well, pretty much the whole of the political establishment. Australia has lost its way, he said. He wasn’t referring to the corona insanity or the other madness we see around us on a daily basis but the bigger strategic direction of the country as revealed by the recent AUKUS deal.

Kabuki theatre, according to Keating

Keating was always about the big picture. So much so that he often came across to the average Australian as an elitist. He liked to wear expensive Italian suits and shoes and to buy beautiful antiques and listen to classical music. In those respects he was the opposite of the Prime Minister he displaced, Bob Hawke. And yet it was Hawke who went to university (Oxford, to be precise, on a Rhodes Scholarship) while Keating was a high school dropout raised in a fibro home in the working class western suburbs of Sydney who worked his way up through the Labor Party from the bottom.

Whatever his sophisticated tastes in clothing and works of art, Keating was a junkyard dog kind of politician. His supporters would hate the comparison, but he has a lot in common with Trump. Both of them are political brawlers and the differences between their style of brawling are partly the differences between Australian and American culture.

To take just one point of comparison, Trump became adept at pinning his chosen epithets on his opponents: Crooked Hilary, Sleepy Joe. Keating had previously anointed John Howard as “the desiccated coconut” and John Hewson as “the feral abacus”. His best line, however, was the description of ex-Treasurer Peter Costello as “all tip and no iceberg”. Much like Trump’s epithets, these work not just because they are clever but because they are true. (The interested reader can find a collection of Keating’s best insults here.)

Keating has not been in the public eye much since his retirement from politics in the mid-90s. His post-politics career followed the usual pattern of sitting on boards of companies, banks or various institutions. What drew him back to the public limelight was his criticism of the recent AUKUS deal whereby Australia agreed to pay enormous sums of money to buy nuclear submarines from the United States.

Keating had criticised this deal when it was originally rolled out by the then Morrison government but, perhaps more surprisingly, reserved his “bazooka” for the newly-minted Albanese government’s formal acceptance of the deal. Surprising because Keating has always been a rabid Labor Party man. For Keating to criticise the party in such a public way is a sure sign he really thinks this deal is bad for the country.  

Keating has been speaking on Australia’s geopolitical interests for many years with a specific focus on China. We can summarise the core elements of his outlook as follows:

  • China already has a bigger economy than the US and it’s only going to get bigger. He expects it to end up at least twice as big as the US in aggregate terms
  • The US has never had a coherent “pacific strategy” and when Obama announced the “pivot to Asia” this was a containment strategy for China which made little sense since China aims to expand inland by building up Eurasia
  • The US strategy should be to allow China its sphere of influence where it’s going to get it anyway (Eurasia)
  • The US should then shore up its sphere of influence around the Atlantic which would include Russia’s integration into Europe (note: Keating had been saying this long before the Ukraine War)
  • The US would then be able to play the role of arbiter in the Pacific to balance China’s growing power in the region

This overall vision for the world hasn’t changed much since Keating was Prime Minister back in the early 1990s. Australia has done a pretty good job of balancing its relationships with both China and the US all the way up until the Morrison government where it seems a decision was made, or maybe an ultimatum given, that we were going to have to pick a side. We chose the United States. The AUKUS agreement reflects that development and, not coincidentally, comes on the back of corona where Australia played the role of propagandistic attack dog against China on the US’s behalf. China duly punished us with various trade restrictions.

Given Keating’s pre-existing analysis of the geopolitical chessboard, his criticism of the AUKUS deal makes perfect sense. The deal is not in Australia’s strategic interests because it amounts to tying our military to the US. This is not a new development, of course. In the Vietnam War, the then Prime Minister, Harold Holt, promulgated the phrase “all the way with LBJ” (referring to the then US president Johnson) to signal Australia’s commitment to our major ally. The Pentagon Papers subsequently showed that one of the main drivers for the Vietnam War was to contain China.

It seems history is repeating and Australia is lining up to play its usual role as lapdog to empire. But the world is very different now and the empire in question is no longer in the ascendant as the US still was in the 60s. The situation now is far more like that of the world wars with the US in the role of Britain and China in the role of Germany. The difference from Australia’s point of view is that Britain was both our main ally and our main trading partner back then just as the US was in the 60s. This time, our main ally is the US and our main trading partner is China. It’s this key strategic problem which Keating felt the need to remind the country of last week.

Keating’s dream of an Asia-Pacific where China is the main player while the US exerts a balancing influence where necessary is, therefore, the ideal scenario for Australia. His problem with the AUKUS deal is that we did not even bother to stand up for our own interests. We apparently did not even try to tell a story that would help our cause. Rather, we rolled over and gave the Americans whatever they wanted.

Whether Australia could do anything to change American minds is highly doubtful. But speaking out would at least have the benefit of defining a genuinely Australian position on international affairs. We would have defined to ourselves what our own interests are. Our unwillingness to do so points to a lack of confidence. This is a subject that Keating has been talking about for decades: our lack of confidence in our own identity and specifically one that can stand apart from Britain and the US.

One of Keating’s best moments in parliament was his cultural cringe speech. It’s a fantastic piece of oratory that also reveals much of his underlying philosophy which might be summed up as “economics and progress”. He spends most of the speech talking about how various economic metrics have improved over the decades. That was the kind of dry, technocrat talk that used to bore the public but at the end he shows some fire in the belly and ties the growth in the economy explicitly to the desire to become an independent nation.

For Keating, Australia becomes more independent, and therefore creates a unique identity, to the extent that we remove ourselves from our British past. Our trade links with Asia were a core element in making that happen. Keating’s economic reforms were designed to turn Australia’s economy more to Asia which was the fastest growing region at the time and still is. The Liberal Party might have desired to retain the old links to Britain but their economic policy was practically identical to Keating’s. In fact, it was more Keating than Keating.

The rhetorical turn to the more “cultural” issues in the lead up to the 1993 election was motivated more by political necessity than anything else. He might have been up against the feral abacus, Hewson, but the reality was there was little difference between Keating and Hewson in outlook. Both were true believers in neoliberal economic policy. To the extent that those policies were going to turn Australia even more towards Asia, they were a large driver of our supposed new identity and the only question was whether you cheered it on like Keating or felt uneasy about it like the Liberals. Nothing much has changed since then. Keating is still cheering it on. The Liberals still feel uneasy.

During the 1993 election cycle, the public was also not sure about the matter given that Australia’s economy was in the worst shape it had been in since the Great Depression. Keating was very unpopular and would certainly have been turfed out except that the Liberal Party, in its infinite wisdom, decided to run a candidate that was even more of a neoliberal religious zealot and who managed to make himself even more unpopular than Keating.

Fast forward to today and China has grown to become by far and away our main trading partner (Japan held that title back in the 90s). Keating would no doubt point to the last two decades of growth in the Australian economy as proof that he was right. And if he was right about that, maybe he’s also right about China now.

Was he right? Yes, we’ve had decades of low inflation growth, although at the rate things are going it looks like we’re going to get all the inflation back in the next few years. In the meantime, we’ve also had massive asset bubbles most notably in real estate. Back when Keating was PM, a family on an average wage could afford a quarter acre block in outer suburbia. Now, the rising generation looks like they might never own real estate at all.

As if to highlight where the problem lay, here in Melbourne over the last decade or so many real estate signs in the inner city started to be printed in two languages: English and Chinese. People watched as Chinese buyers showed up to auctions and outbid everybody. Meanwhile, our government even gave the green light for Chinese companies to fly in their workers to do specific jobs on Australian soil.

It turns out there is a relationship between economics and identity. Owning a home used to be a core part of what it meant to be Australian. Now that’s going away. Was this inevitable? Was it just the iron laws of economics? Or was it, in fact, caused by neoliberalism. There were plenty of dissenters back in the 90s who predicted this would happen. The economy should work for the country, not the other way around, they said.

Then there’s the subject of leadership and confidence. The neoliberal agenda was explicitly about removing government from the equation. The market should be left to work its magic. Keating and his neoliberal technocrat advisers spent the whole time in the leadup to the 1993 election resisting the demands of the public that the government do something, anything, to get the economy going again. The public wanted the government to show leadership. The government told the public that the market would take care of the problem in due course. That’s what the neoliberals believed. The government should not lead. It should get out of the way. Any “leadership” was a suboptimal allocation of scarce resources.

I have mentioned in past posts that capitalism was always at odds with the nation state because the former requires inter-dependence and the latter presupposes independence. The neoliberal agenda was in large part a victory of capitalism over the nation state. It was the removal of the nation state in favour of the market. Who managed the market? The technocrats; the new economic priesthood.

The recession we had to have

The politician’s job then became to translate between the technocrats and the public. John Hewson’s problem was that he was a technocrat himself. Keating was not much better. When he said that the 1991 economic troubles were “the recession we had to have”, he sounded quasi-religious. The statement had the tone of the priest about it. God (the market) was punishing us for our sins. But if we abide by his commandments, he’ll reward us with low inflation growth.

Neoliberalism gave Australia a fundamental economic attachment to China. The system was supposed to work by nation states agreeing not to intervene in the market, thereby taking politics out of the equation. China never agreed to that deal but the theory was that, as China grew, its new middle class would demand political freedom. They would assert themselves against the centralised Chinese government.

The exact opposite has happened. The Chinese government has become even more authoritarian. China has devolved more and more into a techno-dystopian authoritarian state with its social credit scores and mass surveillance and the like. It apparently has no intention of providing more freedom for its citizens. I’ve been fortunate to travel to China several times and I’ve worked with some of those members of its middle class. The level of animosity towards the government is palpable. And that was before corona.

For Keating to pop up and say that the Chinese government has been the best in the world over the last three decades simply ignores all these troubles. He sounds a lot like Mr Emergency Act himself, Justin Trudeau, who praised the “basic dictatorship” of China because it could get things done. I’m sure politicians look to China with a measure of jealousy. If you don’t have to give a damn what your citizens want and treat them like disposable pawns, then you can get a lot of stuff done. China has proven that.

Not only do our politicians speak highly of China, they are starting to copy it. That’s exactly what happened in the last 3 years. Our wonderful leaders and their “experts” decided to abandon the established pandemic response procedures and copy the Chinese government. We all got to experience a little taste of what it’s like to live in China.

And this reveals something about Keating which transcends political party allegiance. Keating might not have gone to university but as a politician he surrounded himself with those who had. It was the generation where even union leaders had PhDs in economics. These were “the experts”. The economics experts were the high priests of neoliberalism. The market was their God. Technocracy and authoritarianism fit together nicely. What China has built in the last few decades is a giant testament to technocracy and it could only have been done with an authoritarian government.

So, maybe all this isn’t coincidental. Maybe economics and identity are not separate things after all. We let China into the world economic system telling ourselves that China would become more like us and instead we have become more like China. Whether we want to continue to become more like China should be a serious question for debate.

None of this makes the AUKUS deal a good one, necessarily. Do we really think we’re going to get into a military confrontation with our major trading partner? If that ever happens, we’d be in a world of pain. On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to show we’re not going to be steamrolled over. It would be nice if we could do that in the way that Keating suggests, by actually having a separate voice that can tell our own story. But maybe that’s too much to ask and who would listen anyway? As Keating says, we’re entering a time of big power politics and Australia is not a big power.

The Eurasian bloc with newly integrated Russia is likely to become the leading power in the world in the years and decades ahead. The US should never have allowed that to happen. But now that it has, we can’t ignore it. Australia’s problem is that we don’t belong to it culturally but we are tied to it economically. Keating believed the latter would solve for the former. That was almost certainly wrong. The tension between our identity and the geopolitical realities won’t get resolved any time soon.

Accidental Ornithology

In Decline of the West, Spengler stated that a great statesman should be like a gardener tending to his country with a view to ensuring its “plants” grew up healthy and strong. Sounds quaint and harmless, doesn’t it? But by the time he wrote The Hour of Decision, Spengler was referring to his fellow citizens as “human vermin” and “human insects”.  What does a statesman-gardener do with the pests spoiling his garden? The 20th century gave us a detailed answer to this question.

One of those statesman-gardeners was Chairman Mao who apparently took the matter literally in 1958 by declaring “The Four Pests” that were to be completely exterminated under his command: sparrows, rats, mosquitos and flies. The sparrows, apparently, were eating too much wheat and reducing the crop which was making the Great Leap Forward less great than it should have been. Mao ordered the birds to be killed on mass. It’s estimated that the Chinese, who often went around in groups, killed tens of millions of sparrows.

Chinese children were encouraged to go out and kill sparrows

Unbeknownst to Mao, sparrows eat grasshoppers. So, when you get rid of the sparrows you increase the population of grasshoppers. It’s theorised that the main cause of a locust swarm is overpopulation. Whether that’s true or not, it happened in China in the years following 1958. Locust plagues immediately followed the sparrow cull and led to a subsequent famine that killed tens of millions of people. Realising his mistake, Mao took the sparrows off the list of the Four Pests and replaced them with bed bugs. Apparently the list needed to be four items long. The sparrows had probably never really been a problem at all except in the mind of a mad dictator who believed his own propaganda.

But it wasn’t just Mao who believed the propaganda. The only reason so many sparrows could be killed was because many other people believed it too. Nowadays we are familiar with ideas “going viral”. The concept of contagion also reappeared just this week in the context of the financial markets. Apparently, the failure of the Silicon Valley Bank posed a “contagion risk” for the whole banking sector. Just like grasshoppers can state change into locusts and destroy crops, financial institutions and individual account holders can state change into panic-mode and destroy a bank. Perhaps our finance technocrats have not been tending their garden properly.

It’s not just among humans that “information” can go viral. I have a story about “information contagion” that’s based on real-life gardening. Since I like to tell a good gardening yarn, let me share it with you.

If I made my own Mao-inspired “Four Pest” list, rainbow lorikeets would be at the top

The scene of the battle was about three metres from the place where I am currently typing this post. You can see a photo of the view from my computer desk to the left. The desk overlooks a pear tree and, although the contrast in the photo is not great, you should be able to see the enemy in the middle there munching on some pears.

The tree is a Josephine de Malines cultivar, apparently named after the wife of the guy who first cultivated it. I picked it up as a seedling almost ten years ago. I was browsing through a nursery a few days before Christmas and noticed that it was half price. The reason for the discount was probably because planting a tree at that time of year is not ideal as the plant doesn’t have time to root properly which limits its ability to take up water. A few days in a row above 40 degrees, rare but not out of the question in the Melbourne high summer, can kill off a newly planted tree. I took the gamble and it paid off. The tree has grown strongly and now produces hundreds of pears in a good season.

The Josephine had its first really big fruiting season in the autumn of 2020. We all know what else happened that autumn. From mid-March, I began working from home prior to the official corona lockdown. As a result, I spent my day overlooking the pear tree. It was from this position that I was about to do some accidental ornithological research.

Neither the Josephine nor any of the other fruit trees I had planted around the same time had attracted attention from pests before March 2020. In hindsight, I got very lucky. I think of this as the Garden of Eden phase where I had no work to do except pick the fruit and eat it. That was about to change. But the “original sin” was not triggered by a snake and an apple tree but by the Josephine pear and the humble suburban blackbird.

Blackbirds would be at the bottom of my “Four Pest” list

We tend to think of animals as acting entirely by instinct. But even birds have to learn what they can and can’t eat through trial and error. The first time I tried to give tomatoes to my backyard chickens, they turned up their beaks and walked away. But now that they’ve learned how tasty tomatoes are, they will squabble over who gets first bite.  

The same goes for blackbirds which, like chickens, are opportunistic eaters. Blackbirds form monogamous pair bonds and the male will usually defend an area of territory. For that reason, in a suburban setting you normally only see a few blackbirds around: the male, the female and any children they are still taking care of. At about one year of age, the younger blackbirds will fly off to start their own family somewhere else. Because of these behavioural patterns and because they have a short lifespan of about 2 years on average, anything a blackbird learns about what is and is not edible is not going to get transmitted to other blackbirds. Information doesn’t “go viral” in the blackbird world.

I suspect it’s for these reasons that, prior to 2020, the couple of blackbirds that were hanging around my yard had shown no interest in the pear tree. Then two things changed. Firstly, the pear tree had a bumper crop in 2020. Secondly, I started free-ranging chickens in the backyard. All fruit trees will normally drop some fruit on the ground before it is ripe. Prior to 2020, I would have picked up any dropped pears and put them in the compost. But now the chickens were around, so I let them eat the fallen pears.

Normally a friend in the garden because they eat a lot of insects, even honeyeaters can turn to the dark side and become pear-eating enemies

What I didn’t count on was that the blackbirds would see what the chickens were doing and join in the fun. Here we have an example of cross species information contagion; also known as learning. The blackbirds had learned from the chickens that the pears on the ground could be eaten. Later on, I would see the same thing happen as the New Holland Honeyeaters joined the party and began eating the pears for the first time too.

Initially, I wasn’t too bothered about the blackbirds eating the fruit on the ground. But, unlike chickens, blackbirds can fly and that means they can fly up into the tree and eat the fruit that was still ripening. I wondered how long it would take the blackbirds to look above their heads and realise that the fruit in the tree was the same as the fruit on the ground.

Surprisingly, it took them a full 3 weeks to figure it out. By now we were into the first week of April which is exactly when the Josephine pears start to be ripe for picking. Because I hadn’t had any trouble with pests prior to this, I didn’t own any bird netting. And because it was lockdown, getting a hold of some netting was not going to be easy. What to do?

Fortunately, blackbirds are easily scared. In fact, they’re more chicken than chickens. I realised that by giving just a single loud clap of my hands I could scare them away from the pear tree. This is not a pest deterrent method I would recommend but I had nothing better to do at the time given we were in lockdown. I decided to turn the whole thing into an experiment. Could I “teach” the blackbirds to stop trying to get pears? After all, if a blackbird keeps flying into the tree but gets scared away before it can eat anything, you would think that after a while it would just give up.

The answer to this particular ornithological experiment was that, no, the blackbirds did not give up. I was unable to “teach” them and so I spent the whole month of April and early May shooing them away from the tree. Fortunately, this was not such a big effort because there were only three blackbirds and the whole thing was a welcome diversion from the madness of the world at that time. Plus, it meant I got to eat most of the pears on the tree. Yum!

Ironically, the blackbirds had become almost as singled-minded as we humans. They had become obsessed with the pears. Such behaviour is not uncommon in birds. Even chickens, who are normally very passive and easy going, can pursue a goal with determination and vigour once they set their mind on it. We humans are no different, of course. How do you know when is the right time to give up on a goal? Normally, it’s when the pain has been greater than the pleasure for a long enough time period. But there was no pain for the blackbird in my experiment, only frustrated ambition. Meanwhile, those juicy pears were just sitting there on the tree unprotected. So, the blackbird kept trying.

Obviously, it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in a blackbird’s head. But I suspect blackbirds operate almost entirely on instinct. They hear a loud clap and they fly away. What they don’t seem to do is form an idea about the intent of the human who is doing the clapping. In this respect, they are not as smart as chickens. Chickens can learn to read whether you’re in a good mood and likely to give them some tasty kitchen scraps or whether the fact that they’ve just dug up half your veggie garden looking for worms might have put you in a bad mood. They have an understanding of human intent.

“Hey, bro, I found this awesome pear tree”

The same goes for the second “pest” which first showed up in my garden in 2021; the aforementioned rainbow lorikeets. Like chickens, they have an understanding of human intent and they take appropriate measures like hiding from said human on the other side the tree and trying to keep quiet so the human doesn’t know they’re there. But it’s their sociability that’s the real problem and which qualitatively differentiates lorikeets from blackbirds as a pest.

As I mentioned above, there’s only ever a few blackbirds in a given area because the male blackbird will chase away others who happen to stray onto his turf. Information cannot “go viral” among blackbirds for this reason. What’s more, even if I had let the three blackbirds in my backyard eat as many pears off the tree as they wanted, I still would have got some pears for myself because fruit is just one food source for a blackbird and, from my subsequent observations, they only eat about one pear per day if given free rein to do so. Thus, I never had to fear “contagion” on the part of the blackbirds.

The same is not true of rainbow lorikeets. Lorikeets are not territorial or competitive when it comes to food. On the contrary, once a couple of lorikeets have found a food source, other lorikeets will show up to join in the fun. Lorikeets travel in packs over large distances (up to 50 kilometres from their roosting site). This means you can come home one day and find a hundred lorikeets in a tree. Also, lorikeets spend most of the day eating and, unlike blackbirds, they are specially adapted for eating fruit and can get to hard-to-reach fruit by hanging upside down.

Eating upside down? No problem.

What all this means is that information can “go viral” among the lorikeet population. A backyard pear tree becomes the hit of the week and even a tree that produces hundreds of fruit can be totally stripped in a day by a pack of lorikeets that have flown from many kilometres away to have a giant pear party. What’s more, lorikeets live up to 20 years on average and they remember where food is which means that, once they’ve found a fruit tree, they will return the following year and the year after that. By contrast, because of its short life span, the blackbird is likely to have died by the next fruiting season and taken its knowledge about how to eat pears with it.

Are humans more like blackbirds or more like lorikeets? It seems that we can be either. The Chinese and Japanese behaved more like blackbirds when they closed off their borders to foreigners in the 17th century. The ancient Greeks had a similar insular mentality. But these days we live in a lorikeet world where information can travel over long distances and is readily shared. The result is that we behave more like lorikeets. So, it’s not a surprise that our politician-gardeners are terrified of contagion.


In the last post of my recent series of Spengler, I noted how the historian used the phrases “human insects” and “human vermin” in his book The Hour of Decision. Spengler was not alone in the use of dehumanising language to refer to his fellow countrymen. The Nazis were fond of referring to others as vermin but then so were the communists of the time. Meanwhile, the propaganda of the world wars often portrayed the enemy as an animal of some kind. Not much has improved since then, either. Social media these days is rife with the same dehumanising tone.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is related to another which is implied in Spengler and that is the rise of the individual-ego. Spengler gives the leaders and the experts of a country the right to use citizens as mere “objects”. This is an express violation of Kant’s moral imperative which stated that humans should always be treated as subjects and never objects. But nobody cared about such ethical niceties in the early 20th century. And they still don’t, as the last three years has shown.

This trend to egotism can be seen in the developments in storytelling from ancient times til now and which I also looked at recently in the comparison between ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespearian tragedy. For our purposes here, there are three categories that are relevant in such stories and the wider culture they represent: the individual, the family and the collective (society).

Ancient Greek tragedy, and Greek society in general, is generally seen as giving birth to the idea of the individual and therefore also the ego. The birth of the hero as a distinct character from the chorus seems to have come out of the Dionysian rites that gave rise to Greek tragedy. But those rites were a collective phenomenon and thus the original appearance of the individual in Greek theatre was still counterbalanced by the strong presence of both the family and the collective.

The collective was represented directly on stage in Greek tragedy by the chorus. The individual is distinguished from the chorus but not severed from it.

The Chorus

The tension in Greek tragedy is not between the individual and their family or the collective but of all of them against fate or the gods. Thus, the chorus would often console or advise the main character since they were on the same team. The collective was there as a moral support to the hero. This is very different from the stories we see today.

We can trace the development from ancient times to ours by looking at Shakespeare’s tragedies. In Shakespeare, the collective is all but absent. Although Shakespeare sometimes used a “chorus”, it was nothing like the Greek chorus. It was usually a single person who functioned as a narrator and certainly not as a counterweight to the hero.

The family is often represented in Shakespeare. But, almost universally in the tragedies, the individual and the family are at loggerheads. Romeo and Juliet’s love is ruined by their families’ quarrel. Desdemona marries Othello against her father’s wishes and dies later as a result. The Hamlet family is destroyed by its lust for power. A similar lust for power causes Macbeth to kill Duncan who, as king, is the “father” of his people. The subsequent carnage destroys any potential for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to have a family of their own.

We see a similar breakup of the family due to the wilful behaviour of the hero in Faust, Don Juan, Don Giovanni, even Don Quixote, and numerous other works of this time. It’s possible to read such works as moral warnings about excessive individualism but, as Spengler pointed out, the opposite was mostly true and the daring behaviour of the hero was seen as exciting and stimulating. This was the celebration of the individual-ego at the expense of both the collective and the family.

By the time we get to modern Hollywood movies, it’s fair to say that the individual-ego now exists independently of the collective and the family. If Macbeth or Don Juan could still be viewed as a warning about excessive individualism, the warning no longer exists in modern storytelling where the collective and the family become Spenglerian “objects” to be used as the ego sees fit.

Consider The Matrix. At the beginning of the movie, Neo is alone. Any connection with his own family is unknown and he is neither married nor has a family of his own. The collective in the movie, the others who live in The Matrix, consists of people who are completely de-humanised. They are nothing more than human batteries. Moreover, as Morpheus points out, most of them cannot be “saved” because their minds couldn’t handle it.

What this amounts to is a green light to do whatever you want with them including blowing them away in orgies of violence. After all, such people are literally providing energy to The Matrix and The Matrix is the enemy. This mindset is almost identical to that taken in the ideological battles of the 20th century and we can hear the same implied idea today any time “the system” is blamed for some injustice.

Scenes of extravagant violence are so common in Hollywood that James Cameron was able to satirise them in Terminator 2. That movie presents an interesting twist on the theme of the family breakdown since it amounts to a recreation of the nuclear family with the T-800 in the role of father who has to learn how to be human including being taught by John Connor that it’s, errr, not appropriate to just murder people in cold blood. Who knew?

Learning not to treat people like objects

The Terminators have been programmed (ideologically?) to treat humans as just things to be used, ignored or removed at will. They might be “on different sides” of the ideological fence, but their methods are identical. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth went mad for having treated Duncan as an object instead of a subject. But for the robot-humans in Terminator or The Matrix, such moral issues are of no real concern.

The individual-ego has come a long way from its birth in the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece where it was still safely enmeshed in the family and the collective. The modern West now represents the other extreme and it’s fair to say that we are taking it about as far as it can possibly go. The individual now reserves the right to make the collective bow to its will and to create its identity in complete independence of the collective and even the family. If that means standing all nature, all history and all morality on its head, then so be it.

Something Different

I was looking for a file on an old computer recently when I stumbled across some musical projects I’d been working on some years ago. This one in particular caught my ear. It’s based on a chord progression I discovered while mucking around on an organ one day and combines synth and orchestral strings.

It’s just a first draft, but I think it’s pretty cool. Could turn it into a string quartet or even an oratorio with a little elaboration.

If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, see what you think.