Dr John Falzon is our Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2012 to 2018.
Those who breed insecurity are quick to prey on the insecure. We saw this writ large in the Australian federal election of 2019. As political economist William Davies explains:
“Neoliberalism treats competition as the crucial and most valuable feature of capitalism… Through the process of competition, it becomes possible to discern who and what is valuable. Competition separates the winner from the loser, the striver from the skiver.”
We are afraid of losing value, afraid of losing jobs, or hours of work, or pay, afraid of losing pride, afraid of being losers.
The neoliberal message, which Prime Minister Morrison communicated ably, was that things are actually pretty good. It’s just a matter of joining in to get a taste of the good times. Rather than placing yourself outside the pale, it is far more comforting to place yourself within the generally good feeling called Australia. If you’re not ok with that, you have only yourself to blame. You are choosing to be a loser. Unless we are up for a fight, unless all we have left is the tiniest nugget of hope, a nugget so small it could be mistaken for despair, or unless we feel the tangible sense of solidarity that comes from belonging to a collective movement for social justice and progressive social change, our fear of losing what we’ve got is stronger than our hope of getting what we haven’t. And our scepticism as to whether there is in fact an alternative is more powerful than our desire to believe that another kind of society is possible.
Morrison carefully pitched this message:
“Now is not the time for a weaker economy, now is not the time for policies and an experiment that puts our economy under unnecessary pressure when we are facing the challenges that we are facing. Now is not the time, with trade tensions between China and the United States, now is not the time when there is uncertainty in the security environment, now is certainly not the time to do things that will weaken our economy.”
It was not about policy content (which Labor had in spades). It was about making people feel a little bit safer. The border protection and national security trope is also emblematic of this drive to make people feel both fear and the promise of safety as long as they stay close to those who remind us of that fear. For some of us, this loomed so large that anything else just smelled like snake-oil.
You can get used to anything if you have to. You can even end up wanting the thing you initially had no choice but to accept. Especially if you are convinced that there is no alternative or that there is only one alternative and it would be worse. In the nutshell, this is what happened, at least for enough of the electorate to secure a win for a government that has increased social and economic insecurity whilst presenting itself as the greatest keeper and defender of that security. Enough working people were convinced that they would be voting in their own interests, that the things that worried them were best addressed by sticking with the current government. “Now is not the time to change.” Exactly.
It is all a matter of working with fear. The Labor campaign was focussed on trying to build a sense of hope that things might be different. The fear of what might be, or for others, the scepticism that it would actually be any different, trumped any sense of hope for just enough of the electorate to prevent Labor from forming government. Labor did not convince these people that it would make their lives better. One of the key lessons here is that when you try to take on the purveyors of insecurity, don’t bother doing it in the frame they have created. Social democratic parties everywhere appear to be unable to scratch the neoliberal itch. As the party in opposition, Labor had to both convince people that this itch was a symptom of the neoliberal disease and that there was indeed a cure. For those who remained unconvinced, or even blatantly angry with the prospect of a Labor government, not only did these two tasks remain unachieved, there was even a suspicion that Labor did not understand what their needs were.
The right wing populist response does convince some that it is best placed to scratch that itch but what it masks is the proposition that the symptoms of inequality and insecurity are best addressed by the very forces that drive their growth, such as a weakening of progressive taxation, a redirection of social spending, a dismantling of what remains of the safety net at the same time as a dis-integration of organised labour, through wage stagnation and orchestrated precarity combined with the stripping of union rights, all with the aim of lowering of labour costs. What this throws up as a question for Labor is whether there is space for an authentic grass-roots populism of the Left and what this would look like.
The Coalition’s policies, along with their populist minor party proxies, have, and will, deliver the greatest benefit to the already wealthy. If you were feeling the heat from neoliberalism, from the inequality and insecurity, the precarity and poverty, that it spreads, you will have gained nothing from the Coalition’s electoral victory. The distance from being underemployed to being unemployed to being homeless is not long. So why does it appear that so many of us have been convinced to support a government that will give more to the few?
The one thing that the labour movement must completely eschew is any tendency to blame the people who voted against their own class interests. Or to dismiss them as being ignorant. What some might be inclined to call ignorance is at its core our failure, an historical failure, to reach, to recruit, to connect with, to speak “to the immediate wound”, to use Berger’s beautiful formulation, of the people who should logically belong with us but who have felt that whatever consolation was available would only be forthcoming from the other side. This is not necessarily a failure of strategy. It is chiefly a product of the structural atomisation of the working class. The union movement’s Change the Rules campaign in the lead-up to the election was electrifying for many who were already attached to the movement as well as being a vehicle for attracting new members or transforming existing members into activists. Certainly we need to learn from this campaign and assess what worked best. But we do not need less of this grass-roots activism. We need more. And we need to ensure that we maintain the momentum and keep people engaged.
I spent election day handing out for the Change the Rules campaign in the electorate of Gilmore which actually bucked the national trend and went to Labor. At one of the booths a few of us had some interesting conversations with the two young people handing out for Palmer’s United Australia Party. They were both unemployed, they had been given an indication that they would be paid at the end of the day for handing out, they were expected to be there from 8am till 6pm, there was no mention of a break, and they did not know how much they were going to be paid.
When their handler visited briefly to check up on them one of our group approached him and asked whether they were going to be paid the minimum wages for their work. He replied that this had nothing to do with awards or minimum wages, that it did not apply because they were volunteers. One of the young people had told me that they were unlikely to be voting for the United Australia Party, that they weren’t sure who they were going to vote for, that their immediate concerns were around getting into a TAFE course and getting a job. The other young person indicated that their mum had organised for them to be handing out today. They both said they were OK with the arrangement and that this was better than nothing and that they had no wish to dispute things with the United Australia Party because that might mean not getting paid at all.
There was a sense that they were being told to be grateful for whatever they got, a bit like the neoliberal formula for the ideal labour market. They knew that they had no formal contract and that they were operating on trust…and a dose of hope tempered with another dose of fear. A bit like the majority of the voting population. They were working class kids, likely to benefit from Labor policies such as, in their case, a strong investment in TAFE and a review of the rate of Newstart, even though it was not clear what this would translate to. I do not know how they voted. I did feel that were sceptical about the major parties and that this was likely to mean that they did not have faith in the differences that Labor might have had in their lives. I do know that they were quite possibly being exploited by a very wealthy man who is notorious for not paying his employees. But, as the UAP handler said, they weren’t employees, they were volunteers, an assertion that might bear testing in due course!
Inequality is something we can get used to. In fact the perpetration of inequality, the electoral acceptance of the settings it thrives on, depends on our getting used to it and even accepting it as the natural order of things.
But we need to change this story if we want to change the unfair rules.
Inequality is the problem. The market is not the answer. But it should be no surprise that a market society is the corollary of a market economy. The idolatry of the market and the primacy of competition has infected everything. Hence the doubt that a moderately progressive alternative party of government can seriously break through this. As I wrote in an essay in the week before the election, the fact that we as a nation have tolerated these settings for so long makes it look like neoliberalism has crept into our souls, that we accept the institutionalisation of fear and shame for the people deemed to be losers. It is salutary to recall poet and theorist Audre Lorde’s warning that we need to focus not only on “the oppressive situations we need to escape but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”
It is neither helpful nor fair to blame people for voting, or working, as in the case of the two young unemployed people above, against their own interests. If we want to change the government and actually change the nation, if we want to say “goodbye neoliberalism“, instead of “why don’t you stay just a little bit longer”, we need to speak to the fear that drives so many of our number. The people who seemed to be most comfortable voting for change were those who felt secure enough to want it. For some, this security was an individual experience, for many it came from belonging to a collective movement that strengthened them to fight instead of living in fear. When we are driven by fear we are more likely to succumb to the xenophobia, the Islamophobia, the intra-class divisiveness, the climate science denialism, the sheer meanness to people experiencing unemployment, the misogyny, the homophobia, the union bashing. As poet Ellen Van Neerven writes: “…when you’re scared / you’re not very generous”.
One of the greatest philosophical challenges for the labour movement is to articulate a twenty-first century vision of the role of government. Government is the chief means by which people achieve collectively what they cannot achieve alone. The attainment of government by a political party should translate into the fulfilment of the dreams of the many instead of the pandering to the demands of the already wealthy few. But when the neoliberal disease lodges in our souls we accept that warped ethic that preaches, in John Berger’s words, “that poverty is a state from which an individual or society is delivered by enterprise”. In other words, the wealthy should be rewarded and everyone else should simply try and emulate them.
The struggle to bring about legislative change is clearly not the only struggle, but we would be foolish to distance ourselves from it when it such an important arena. We should be suspicious of attempts to divide the parliamentary struggle from the broader struggle for social justice. Just as it is false to imagine that the parliamentary path to social change is the only one, it is also self-defeating to ignore this important trench in the struggle. We gain nothing by simply writing off the formal political processes just because they are so deeply fraught. Neoliberalism encourages us to be divided among ourselves, to even be divided within ourselves and to condemn each other. Once you condemn or ridicule people you leave no room for the possibility of reaching out to them and searching out the common ground that forms the basis of solidarity. The perpetrators of inequality are the real beneficiaries of the fissures between us. The more time we spend fighting the members of our own class the less time we spend fighting inequality, our common enemy. The challenge lies in building the bridges to connect with those who often feel the pain of some of the worst ill-effects of neoliberalism but who have been drafted to its side. Sally McManus, in her book, On Fairness, defines union power as “this simple act of solidarity – of people realising what we have in common.” To get to this stage of solidarity you have to start somewhere. There are no clean slates. Clean slates are a managerial fiction. You don’t get anywhere by looking for a different starting place. You work with what you’ve got.
We have no right to indulge in the luxury of despair, not any time, but especially not when more and more people are being forced to bear the sharpest brunt of inequality. The Labor Party is at its strongest when it listens to, and articulates the message of, the labour movement. And the labour movement is at its strongest when it is most inclusive, when it recognises that all struggles for liberation are its own. But this must mean that the people who are subjected to generous helpings of fear must be listened to. And must be given the space to speak! As British sociologist Ralph Miliband pointed out many years ago, “Those who do not speak for themselves are not likely to be effectively spoken for by others.”
This prioritisation of agency is the genius of the union movement. It is the only way that we can truly change the story, creating a new, overarching story that speaks to the people whose lives are crushed and souls destroyed by neoliberalism. “The art of politics is to create forces to do in the future what we cannot do today”, wrote Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker. Now is the time for the creation and consolidation of those collective forces. Without this effort, even the smartest suite of policies will miss the electoral mark. Unless we succeed in collectively re-framing what it is to be a member of society, what society is, how the sense of the social can triumph over the primacy of private profit and private gain, our policies will not cut through, they will not scratch the neoliberal itch, they will not speak to the broken soul of the nation. This is a struggle that is not limited to what happens in parliament. It is, above all, a struggle that needs to be waged in workplaces and in the community, in suburbs and in regions.
At another booth on election day I was treated to a very different experience by an angry Liberal Party volunteer. When ACTU Secretary Sally McManus visited the booth and the television cameras appeared, this volunteer planted herself firmly in front of the camera and next to Sally and proceeded to interview her. First the volunteer asked where Sally was from. To which she explained that she’d come from everywhere. Some of us chimed in: “It’s called solidarity”. The Liberal Party volunteer then proffered: “See, this is what you get with Labor, rule by the mob”. I then responded with: “Better than rule by the elite!” Which is, of course, precisely the formalisation of social exclusion, economic disempowerment and the erosion of democracy.
In the days since the election we have seen a real outpouring of grief not only from Labor Party or labour movement members but from people who are outside the movement, people who feel gutted, people who did feel some, even modest, sense of hope that things could be different, people who hoped that their wages would improve, that their penalty rates would not be cut, that their jobs would be more secure, that the Newstart rate would be increased, that the urgent need for social housing would begin to be addressed, that public schools would receive fair funding, that the Uluru Statement from the Heart would be treated with respect, that a more humane policy on asylum seekers would be developed, that the climate emergency would begin to be taken seriously. There is a real opportunity for the labour movement to connect with these people and invite them to be part of the struggle for the future instead of waiting and watching from the sidelines. If, however, we want them to join us, we must be willing to join and stand with them.
The union movement, along with other progressive sections of civil society, are central to this development of a vision for a concrete alternative to neoliberalism. We are already seeing calls from employers to ramp up the attack the rights of working people. Political leadership is important and it is crucial that the election loss does not translate into a warmer embrace of the neoliberal frame, but we do not need our hopes to rest on the individual virtues of a future leader. What we need to work with is a strong, diverse and inclusive collective movement. And we have one!