The art of politics, observed Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker, “is not the art of the possible, but rather the art of making possible in the future what seems impossible at present”.
The thing about the impossible-made-possible is that we easily forget how unreasonable it once seemed according to the accepted wisdom of the time. From marriage equality to the right of women to vote, from work health and safety to paid sick leave, we easily forget who it was that made the impossible possible, who it was that collectively engaged in the painstaking work of building alliances, building political capacity and building unity – or, as the the union movement puts it, the work of agitating, educating and organising. I cannot think of a single example of progressive social change that, while legislated and implemented by government, was not first collectively fought for by the people, under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.
And this history continues. From the union movement’s current struggle for secure jobs to the struggle, led especially by young people, to treat the climate emergency as an emergency, everything depends on knowing what gives us the courage to never give up. As Greta Thunberg explained late last year: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”
If we want government to be the means by which inequality, inhumanity and insecurity are reduced, if we want Parliament to be the space in which our collective yearnings are legislatively addressed – in other words, if we want the state to have soul – then government must reflect and reinforce not the demands of the already very wealthy few, but the vision, the verve and the voice of ordinary people.
How a government faces up to its responsibilities to the people can mean the difference between life and death. We have seen this in recent years with the current government’s refusal to practically address the pandemic, the climate emergency, the crisis of gendered violence, the housing crisis, the aged care crisis, the continuing violence of colonisation and the ravages of the neoliberal disease, with its twin engines of hyper-exploitation and the withering away of essential social infrastructure. The Morrison government has not just abrogated its responsibilities; it has actively engaged in boosting the profits of the few by making life harder for the many.
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote of the “right hand of the state” as the expression of the values and desires of the market, as opposed to what he called the left hand of the state, being “the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past”.
To have soul means standing up to, instead of standing still for, the bullies who wield the sticks: those who want to make profits higher by keeping wages lower, who want to make all jobs insecure, who put profits before people and planet.
There are some who claim it is precisely when the state listens almost exclusively to those who wield the control over capital that we all benefit in the long run – the thoroughly discredited trickle-down theory. We know from history, however, that we have had to fight hard for every progressive social gain. We would have no public health systems if it were not for the struggles of ordinary working people. Nor would we have public education, public housing, social security, or any protections for workers. In each of these examples, however, it is just as clear that the gains we have won are easily whittled away by the same historic forces that opposed them in the first place, namely those who were disproportionately benefiting from a rapacious status quo.
Which is why we need to defend what we’ve gained. Just as we needed governments to fulfil our collective aspirations in the past, we need governments to join us now, not only in defending and strengthening the public goods and protections we’ve won but also in engaging in the gravest struggles we face right now and into the future.
This is the history of social change. The state, even with the most progressive government imaginable, can only be audacious when we, the people, are audacious. If we are yearning for leadership, we need to look collectively to ourselves. In the much-quoted words of poet June Jordan: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
If we want a government with soul, it is we who must never cease clamouring for all that makes us human and allows us to live and to care for each other and our planet. How we vote on May 21 is deeply important.