We’ve Got Your Back: Building a Framework that Protects us from Precarity

December 3, 2020

Progressive Economics

Excerpt: A Social Guarantee

We must develop a framework that is neither stigmatising nor residual. We need to convince ourselves as a society that we all deserve to be able to live in dignity and that we are best placed to achieve this collectively. Social security systems are perceived through the neoliberal lens as a negative in themselves, a sign of failure. Success is seen as being achieved by the reduction, and eventual elimination, of state- provided income support, housing and other forms of social support. It is seen as a metaphorical crutch being used by a temporarily injured person, a piece of medical equipment that might be useful for a short time and which is gladly abandoned as a sign of being able to independently ‘stand on your own two feet’. It is further imagined to be deleterious to the health of someone if they were to continue using it when they could actually go without it. There are deeply offensive overtones in this metaphor and its accompanying narrative of moving from dependence to self-reliance. As posited earlier, it pathologises people with a disability, unemployed workers, students, and carers. And in some cases, it criminalises them as allegedly using public support unnecessarily when they could be ‘looking after themselves’.

We need a new starting point. The neoliberal starting point is neither honest nor realistic. It is dishonest because it veils the larger trajectory of wage suppression and disciplining of the working class being aided by the weakening of the social safety net. Precarity in the labour market is constructed as being preferable to precarity in the social (in)security system. It is unrealistic because, among other things, people cannot magically find jobs that do not exist, including jobs that are accessible to people with a disability. Neither is it realistic to erase the fact that caring, whether it is paid or not, is work.

The precariousness/precarity frame that Judith Butler has developed is enormously helpful because it both unites all of us in our shared experience of the precariousness of life while highlighting the fact that precarity is manufactured. The idea of a social guarantee deliberately acknowledges that we all need help and support in our lives, “the fact that one’s life is always in some ways in the hands of the other.” We have all experienced, not only in infancy and childhood, but also as adults, the need for support from others at key moments in our lives, be it professional health support, emotional support, financial support, or some other form of help. All of this is central to our humanity. We are social beings, and we should never be ashamed of needing help from each other. Neither should we be treated in an infantilising and paternalistic manner because, as adults, we need support. Rather than being a stigmatising or alienating experience, the help we give and receive as human beings is something that binds us together. At best it can even produce a powerful sense of solidarity and hope.

The social guarantee is a means of acknowledging and addressing the reality of manufactured precarity, “a politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death.” We have a responsibility, if we aspire to be a good society, to protect each other from this condition where it exists and prevent, eradicate or, at the minimum, ameliorate, this condition as it is currently experienced differentially and unequally. We know that both precarity and our very human feeling of precariousness have been brought into sharp relief by the current pandemic. More of us than usual have needed to rely directly on public systems of support such as health and social services. On an informal level too, many of us have had moving experiences of kindness and support from family, friends, members of unions and other civil society organisations, as well as from complete strangers, particularly when we have felt isolated and unable to do some of the things we would normally be able to do for ourselves.

Our sense of the primacy of the social is arguably at an all-time high. It is a good time to reflect on how we can strengthen our institutional means of protection from precarity. This involves biting the bullet on the desperately needed funding increases in key areas such as the rates of income support, the staffing levels of Services Australia, our health and education systems and, of course, the provision of public housing (all of which would also boost economic activity and employment). Creating a strong institutional framework to protect us from precarity also means reconfiguring the current way we do things in these areas.

It means, for example, reassessing whether the allocation of public funds is equitable or whether unjustifiable structural support through direct subsidy, tax concessions or other mechanisms, is being given to private, for-profit service-providers and systems at the expense of public and community systems. This includes areas such as aged care, the private health industry (including private health insurance with its built-in tax incentive remaining as a relic of the Howard government), Vocational Education And Training (VET), private school funding, the jobactive Network, and government subsidies and tax breaks that benefit sections of the housing market unrelated to public, community or even affordable, housing. The development of a social guarantee, by whatever name, also requires a new story; one that breaks with the stigmatising and residualising frameworks of the past.