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Three encounters

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Hi, I'm Peter Gibilisco and I suppose I am something of an agitator for the rights of the severely disabled. I have a severe impediment myself and some years back I conducted some interviews - this was during the jet-setting phase of my student life from my motorised wheelchair - and I was privileged to interview some of Australia's top political economic thinkers.

I found myself thinking about what these fellows aid to me when they graciously accepted my requests for an interview back then when I was fired up with all the energy of a bright young PhD candidate (I was actually just 38 at the time).

Well what I give here are some of my thoughts as to why Frank Stilwell, Michael Pusey, Stuart MacIntyreand Hugh Stretton should be listened to by Australians (and any others) who are seeking to promote a just and equitable economy for all.

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First, Frank Stilwell. He talked openly and honestly with me about his political visions and aspirations for a Just Society. He opened the batting with this straight drive:

having a just society is the ultimate goal in politics. If I can make play on words, we need a just society not just a society. We need a society that is cohesive, that is equitable and involves cooperative activity as well as healthy competition among its members.’

So there are hurdles.(Actually, I know a lot about obstacles. You can't avoid them from a wheelchair. And I have had to overcome some serious physical and psychological ones as well, but not only my own.) Stilwell believes that, in the struggle to achieve a “just society”, there are four major hurdles that must be overcome:

  • the ecology problem, that is, the ability to live in harmony with nature;
  • the problem of peace, that is, if we cannot live in peace with each other, fine tuning the economy is pointless;
  • the need for social cohesion, that is, understanding that it is the political and social processes by which we live together co-operatively and reign over economic inequality. For example, this can be noted in the fight of people with disabilities for social justice that fails to give equal weight to the disability social movement against oppression. The primary benefactors of a socially cohesive society are all since a socially just society has to be inclusive of all (Russell, 2002a);
  • the problem of the need for security and stability, that is, most significantly that the unemployed must have a right to work. There is a need to create the capacity to allow all people from all walks of life to achieve economic security and stability. For example, we must create a context in which people with disabilities are able to work and/or be educated at university. This will help to further promote the social inclusion of people with disabilities.

Stilwell defines himself in the words of Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937), believing he is “a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will”. Despite the prevalence of awful acts in the world today, Stilwell remains optimistic - he inspires me - and he is an ardent believer in the values mentioned above and that they will ultimately become part of our social norms and produce a “just society”, possibly at some stage during the twenty-first century, maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but maybe in forty or fifty years time. Stilwell believes that we will have to come to terms with our common humanity, with our common need for ecological sustainability, along with our need for peace and social cohesion. In creating a new social order, as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), one of history’s greatest political minds, argues, we can learn from our past correct actions and mistakes to create a better future. There is a need to reconcile with our political past, not just dismiss it as a failure.

Then there was also Michael Pusey.

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I recall how he has explained to me what he believed to be the fundamentals of a “just society” - those that can be fostered by a mixed economy. It is one in which all the features of the mixed economic and social approach contribute to the support of families and civil society. For such an approach to work effectively, both public and private sectors must work together to provide a just, peaceful and cohesive society. Pusey believes the key to a “just society” is found in the synergy of the sectors. Thus, strong private and public sectors equate with a vibrant economy, with a strong and active social presence, combined with a cohesive civil society.

My third political economic thinker is the historian, Stuart Macintyre. He argues that one must make use of the social aspects of social justice to facilitate egalitarian means and ends in society. He also argues that there should be more of a material economic acceptance of workers within organisations that provide services to people with disabilities. Since, many of these services cannot be standardised the human touch is always an essential component. That is something continues to spur my reflection.

Then there is Hugh Stretton who is the economist from whom I have learned so much. His work has kept me working away at this project of social justice, particularly in those long days when I had to type at my 2 words a minute to get my thesis into shape.Forgive me if I am a little misty-eyed as I write this.

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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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