There’s a fear which underwrites big business’s boastful claim to be society’s golden goose.
YOU know the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs: Goose lays golden eggs, goose-keeper gets greedy, reckons it might be quicker to kill the goose and slash it open to retrieve all the golden eggs at once.
Nothing doing. Nothing there! If you listen to big business, they should be treated with kid gloves because they are the faithful guardians of big capital, from which comes the golden eggs of jobs, incomes, goods, services, and stability. Any challenge to the neoliberal business model by working people is met with a frantic defence of the status quo, no matter how dangerous it is to the community.
For it is a danger to the community when taxes are flattened or avoided; when public infrastructure, including adequate social security, public education funding, public housing and public health, is lacking; when prices put essentials out of the reach of working people; and when precarious work becomes so normalised that it regularly results in the preventable deaths of delivery riders.
The biggest concern to the defenders of neoliberalism is not the lives and livelihoods of working people but the growth and protection of their capital. Hurt the goose, lose the eggs, they warn us.
But what if we, and our planet, are collectively the goose that lays the golden eggs?
And what if we, and our planet, are none too subtly being torn apart so as to accelerate the wealth accumulation of those who already have more than is humanly possible to use?
The past 40 years of neoliberalism have been a period of incremental, in some cases fatal, injury to people across the globe, the social infrastructure that enables us to care for each other and ourselves, and the planet, without which nothing means anything.
But the damage did not begin there. The popular myth that things have only gotten better thanks to colonising capitalism’s brutal history of dispossession, displacement and exploitation, has, like the trickle-down theory of recent times, been roundly refuted. Recent analysis by Sullivan and Hickel, in World Development, shows that rather than ameliorating extreme poverty, which currently affects up to 17 per cent of the world’s population, capitalism is “associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality,” arising “primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism,” and only ameliorated in the 20th century, coinciding with workers organising themselves into unions and political movements, along with anti-colonial, women’s and other progressive social movements. When ordinary people, under the guiding stars of struggle and hope, stand together, we can create the kind of social change that protects us in the face of a rapacious ideology that is designed to protect the wealth, power and privilege of the very, very few.
An ACTU survey of workers found that: 24 per cent were skipping meals, 51 per cent have used their savings to pay for their daily expenses, 68 per cent reduced or stopped spending on non-essential items, and 24 per cent have been unable to pay bills or had fallen behind on bills. Which is why its recently announced inquiry into price gouging, chaired by Professor Allan Fels, comes at a crucial time as we reflect on how we can shape a more democratic future beyond neoliberalism.
When we read of the Commonwealth Bank’s record profit of $10.2 billion, it is hard to see why the right of banks to take with one hand and punch with the other should be protected, especially when accompanied by a cut of 88 jobs. Not only is there no law against such anti-social business activity, it is actually encouraged by a framework that elevates profits to a god-like status.
Similarly we have Qantas, with its $2.5 billion profit, gleefully setting out on a mission to maximise precarity, prices, and corporate welfare while minimising wages, working conditions, job security, standards of service, and tax. These two companies were once in public hands, arguably intended to serve the public. Now they are flagships for neoliberal nastiness, decidedly structured to serve themselves.
Then you’ve got AIG’s Innes Willox warning against any move to close down loopholes that encourage employers to park workers on highly precarious, and lower-paid, casual contract arrangements.
“Spending time talking about … a misguided workplace agenda … driven by outdated union fixations … threatens to make achieving the vital productivity growth we need even harder,” intoned Mr Willox. “We fear that much of what is on the table is actually anti-productivity.”
Speaking of fear, if you want to get a good idea of those “outdated union fixations” that drive this “misguided workplace agenda” then we could simply work through the list of fears that working people have been forced to shoulder as the quid pro quo for big capital’s obscene wealth accumulation: the fear of income loss, of having to rely on a sub-poverty-line unemployment payment, of homelessness, and of being denied “outdated” conditions that unions have fought for and, unsurprisingly, are “fixated” on, such as paid sick leave, annual leave, and worker safety, the absence of which force workers to choose between their health and their immediate income or between being able to stay home with a sick child and being able to pay the rent.
All of these fears are underwritten by deliberate disempowerment of working people, which is the certain corollary of systematic hyper-empowerment of big capital. Which brings us back to what the dogged defenders of a dying neoliberalism are really most afraid of in the longer term, namely the collective self-empowerment of working people. Which is why the neoliberal diehards are terrified of workers exercising their right to organise themselves into unions and to speak as one voice, not only for their own good but for the good of society. After seeing neoliberal capitalism ripping the guts out of what remains of our egalitarian impulses, it’s time we moved beyond the private accumulation of golden eggs and realised that societies work better when they are built on solidarity rather than fear.
■ Dr John Falzon is a senior fellow of inequality and social justice at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.
This article was originally published in the Canberra Times, 27th of August 2023.