All that is solid melts into air

….so Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto(1848). He was describing the experience of modernity. With the collapse of the old institutions and traditions and the ever-increasing and quickly superseded products of the new age, life itself was shot through with contradictions and uncertainties. What to hold on to in such times of rapid change? Marx’s answer involved seizing the means of production in the new age of mechanisation.

We are still in the throes of modernism. Our age is characterised by fast-paced change at every level: global, national, local, inside the office and inside the home. Contradictions and uncertainties abound; we hardly know where we’ll be next week, much less next year. Mechanisation has given way to automation; work is no longer a certainty, the solid presence of friends and family can no longer be relied upon. The only presence we have, the only object we have is the self, or rather ‘myself’, as current speech would have it. (When did the word ‘me’ become obsolete, to be replaced with the more emphatic ‘myself’?). Our own individual self. It’s solid.

Descartes’ I think therefore I am has become in the contemporary age, simply, I am.

But how solid is it really, this self? With the various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – we are able to tweak the self, promote this bit over that, skim this, shave that, show our best side, our most interesting side, show brains, show beauty, skewthe self several times daily. This self, this individual which is all I can rely on, I am constantly reshaping and remodelling, undermining and usurping, this self that we reach for in our age of flux, this self that could be solid is, in our treatment of it, no more solid than air.


Millions of Australians of voting age and younger looked forward to a change of government on May 18th, 2019. We were not naïve enough to think that all the wrongs would be righted, but we did expect a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers, a more proactive approach regarding climate change, a redistribution of public monies to strengthen health and education services, and a greater independence from the US. When the conservatives won another term, the loss I felt, as did many of my friends, was the loss of a better Australia.

I hardly recognise my country any more, this Australia that imprisons innocent refugees on Manus and Nauru for years, that holds on to coal when the rest of the world is giving it up, whose tricky maths has the nation meeting climate change targets, whose efforts to dampen independent and open surveillance through a free press are counter-balanced by covert surveillance into the private lives of its citizens. I hardly recognise my own country and I certainly do not want to embrace it. Following the election, I talked with like-minded citizens in a sort of collective venting of sadness and disappointment, indeed, I seemed unable to talk about anything else for several days. And then I did what so many people do in times of extremis, I reached for books. Solid and enduring books.

I was tempted by Jane Austen. The complete novels would keep me cocooned for several weeks during which time I would accommodate to the situation (like accommodating to chronic pain). That would have been the easy solution. But I needed to understand what had happened, because without understanding it will happen again and again.

So I reached for the work of progressive public intellectuals, writers with a good serving of humanistic values: Timothy Snyder, Zygmunt Bauman, and through Bauman to the Canadian, Henry Giroux, whom I’d not read before. Tony Judt would have made up the foursome but I’d read his last (Thinking the Twentieth Centurywritten in conjunction with Timothy Snyder) and with his death there were no more.

The titles of the books were a promise of better things to this heavy heart:

The Road to Unfreedom. Timothy Snyder.
Liquid Eviland Retrotopia. Zymunt Bauman. (Retrotopiais Bauman’s last book published in 2017, the year of his death.)
Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalismand The Violence of Organized Forgetting. Henry Giroux. (Several of his lectures are on Youtube.)
All that Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall Berman (from 1982, and still a rich read, particularly for those with a literary bent).

I’m still reading these books, I’m still adding to my understanding of what is going on in Australia and elsewhere. Through these books I feel connected to a mode of being in the world, one in which critical discourse still prevails, the false lures of nostalgia are rebuffed, the destabilising effects of non-stop consumerism are revealed, individualism is shown to be bereft and self-destructive, and the loss of community is deplored.

While there is much more to be found in these books, it is not my intention to provide synopses here, rather I want to emphasize what books have always done. Yes, they provide comfort and confirmation and a community, but as well they illuminate and question and debate, and most particularly, when all seems futile and the forces marshalling against all that you hold dear are simply too great, you can connect with great and generous minds, feel as if you’re not alone AND find answers.

And you can share your emerging understandings with others who will have their own emerging understandings. These are dynamicconversations, productive and often surprising conversations, through which it is possible to shape some changes. And these changes, unlike so many changes that impact on contemporary life in the 21stcentury, are under our control. Our Control. For all the current emphasis on individualism, we are at the whim of fads and fashions, we are caught in a social life that is non-stop busy yet leaves us empty at the end of the day. Through the solitary act of reading one can become, once more, an active participant in one’s own life, a life connected with other people.

Often I find myself recalling the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The words give me strength, the words are a timely refrain in the strains and perplexities of today’s world. The words are solid.



  1. jean porter

    Thank you Andy for a call not to despair when children are locked up and a useless possibly damaging coal mine is dug Forces are gathering and wonderful books are being written.

  2. mranderson53

    Thanks again, Andrea. I too have been struggling to make sense of things post-election. It was a very similar feeling after Trump was voted in. A profound disbelief. I’ve also been reading various texts, books of course, but also a range of online forums, to try to get a sense of how these people think, how they came to their opinions. Thanks to my workplace, I have access to The Australian (I wouldn’t pay for it otherwise!), and I’ve been reading the copious comments beneath the articles, especially on topics that relate to ‘freedom of speech’, ‘politics of envy’, ‘taxes’ or the ‘economy’ more generally. I performed an intellectual exercise whereby I threw away all my beliefs, and genuinely tried to understand what motivated them. The recent Israel Folau debacle was an interesting case study for this. I also tapped into my experiences living in the country/regional areas, as we can become very removed from contrary viewpoints. Obviously, it’s a very complex issue, but a realisation for me was that a lot of the Trump/Morrison voters have a fundamentally different worldview. They really do see the world as dog-eat-dog. Whereas I (and most of my friends) are striving for a world that is inclusive, lifting up others, charitable, as fair as possible/merit-based, community-minded; they would rather a ‘school of hard knocks’ approach. The forming of this worldview is because of a variety of reasons for each individual, naturally, but if you look at some of these issues through that lens, it does give you an appreciation for how they arrive at these opinions that seem so heartless and hostile. I mean, how can they admire Trump and Morrison? How is that even possible? Both are compulsive liars and mean-spirited – the antithesis of the qualities we were raised to admire and aspire to. How can the ‘rust-belt’ population admire a man who inherited his wealth and exploited people like them to retain it? I mean, look at Clive Palmer – not even paying his workers before going on a multi-million dollar marketing spree! But, through their lens, Trump, Morrison, Palmer, are ‘made men’, and from a more ‘traditional’ world (at least, the world of their childhood – gender roles etc.). They see the ‘meritocratic elite’ as playing a game that they cannot hope to win, or even be a contender in, whereas Trump et. al. are like The Mob, it’s a different set of rules and you don’t need a college degree to attain success. And, ignoring or crushing the weak is just necessary on the path to that success – too bad. If they stop to help some refugees or homeless people, they might be in that position next, and in their experience, no-one (in the so-called ‘leftist elite’) will help them win the game from there. They see ‘charity’ as a gross act of patronage. They want to ‘win’, or have the opportunity to. They see life as a game – dog eat dog. That’s why they advocate for ‘free markets’, consumer capitalism, small government etc. So, to my original point, they see the world in a fundamentally different way, based on completely different values. Appealing to compassion or similar is futile for most of them, because they don’t want to be caught on the bottom again. They don’t want to display any kind of weakness. Sorry for long reply, and I’m over-simplifying the issue even so, but I do think that we need to try a completely different communications strategy to reach these voters. Yelling our condemnation in a righteous and sanctimonious way will only make them double down on their beliefs, but that seems to be all the Democrats in the US and Labor/Greens in Australia can do. And it is hard to resist when we see values that are so different to our own.

  3. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    Thank you for this – and don’t apologise over the length. The fact is that simplistic explanations have not served us. We need multiple narratives to illuminate what is happening (the great divide, the sense of grievance, the collapse of the social contract) of which yours is one. I really do appreciate your response. I keep telling myself that I would understand better if I read the Australian, but it’s a hard medicine to swallow. I have added your response to the books I am reading, ‘and at the end of all our exploring’ I can only hope there’ll be some connection. I absolutely agree with you that loud-hailer condemnations is not the way to go. We don’t like it when our own self-evident truths are shouted down, and so too with those who hold a different view.


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