Of the four worldviews of grid-group cultural theory, the one cultural theorists themselves most often exclude from the discussion is fatalism. They do this by claiming it is ‘passive’ (Michael Thompson), or ‘isolate’ (Mary Douglas), and by claiming fatalism opts out of policy debates, or is excluded by the others by definition. This betrays a real bias and a failure of imagination on the part of researchers.
Continue reading to find out about fatalist activism and the fatal nation.
There is no reason to think that fatalism is any different from the other three paradigms in its capacity to organise actively and to actively seek to exclude other perspectives. Believing the world to be capricious, fatalists seek to make it more so in a thousand different ways. They seek to enact their worldview, to prove themselves right – just as the other paradigms do.
Two writers have shown how fatalism works at a policy level. Vernon Bogdanor claims fatalism is ‘not typically a strong bias in deliberate policy, but widespread, probably even ubiquitous in practice’ (2005:63,77). He uses the wonderfully evocative phrase, ‘random acts of senseless partnership’ – which anyone who has engaged with government will recognise immediately. Christopher Hood (1998 ) goes further, and shows with great insight how fatalism busily creates ‘contrived randomness’ which can ‘turn public organization into something less like a predictable slot-machine than a gaming machine, making it difficult to predict in detail where the chips will fall at any one time’ (Hood et al 1999:16).
A parallel concept is that of ‘Keno capitalism’ (Dear and Flusty 1998), which deliberately organises urban space on a random basis, so that ‘capital touches down as if by chance’ in one place, ignoring neighbouring locations.
The prime example of a society dominated by a fatalist activism is Australia. I’m hardly the first to notice this. The Fatal Shore (Hughes 1987) and The Lucky Country (Horne 1964) are two epithets that have stuck. Its modern foundation as an archipelago of repressive penal colonies, its history of near genocidal oppression of the indigenous population, together with its genuinely unpredictable climate (dominated by El Nino Southern Oscillation) make this a continent uniquely conditioned by and for fatalism. Australia has 1 gaming machine for every 99 people (contrasting with the UK at one per 236 people or the US at one per 426, according to the 2004 World Count of Gaming Machines). These produce significant revenue for the government, particularly in NSW, strongly impacting on policy. Policing is controlled by fatalism. A widespread Government advert says ‘More police: more chance of getting caught’. Every social event includes a raffle; even the recent Monet exhibition at the Gallery of NSW ends with online competition entry to win a trip to Giverny. These are all examples of contrived randomness hard at work every day.
To sum up: at least one country is in constant danger of suffering a monoculture of fatalism. Meanwhile, cultural theorists themselves conspire to create a limited culture that mistakenly regards fatalism as inactive, and therefore irrelevant.
This is an edited response to Matthew Taylor’s blog at the RSA website.