Imagine if we focused on a different kind of surplus

February 26, 2022

As capitalism was entering its neoliberal stage in the early ’80s, poet Audre Lorde warned us about “that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless”.

Our efforts are never useless. Not when we’re yearning together for the kind of society where everyone gets a fair crack at happiness, where we can look out for each other and feel a collective sense of power over our lives.

Our efforts to get vaccinated have not been useless. Even though we often feel like we are so far away from any kind of victory, our efforts are never useless as we fight for the planet, for secure jobs, for an end to gendered violence, for a First Nations Voice to Parliament, for a social security system that delivers social security instead of punishment and precarity, and for housing as a right rather than a speculative sport.

But, having lived with the chronic disease of neoliberalism for over 40 years now, we have seen that thin persistent voice of self-doubt and despair grow stronger. For all the cheap optimism (and cynicism) of its champions, neoliberalism is designed to manufacture despair.

Perhaps, as per the inimitable teachings of Darryl Kerrigan, it’s time someone told ’em they’re dreamin’.

The collective movement that resists the imposition of despair has become justifiably emboldened. Not by an abstract hope, but by a concrete sense of the primacy of the social.

A good example is the Prime Minister’s fanatical resistance to the notion that a much-needed good or service, such as a rapid antigen test, might be usefully decommodified in order to put social need above market orthodoxy.

But the Prime Minister’s message is clear: never mind the price-gouging. Never mind the spectacular failure of the market as an allocation mechanism. Never mind the fact that public health is systematically and avoidably endangered by the government’s refusal to provide rapid antigen tests freely to all who need them. Never mind any of this. The main thing is that the market remains free of any government intervention. Anything else is socialism!

If only we could trust the federal government to care about the health of the people as much as it cares about the freedom and supremacy of the market.

Capitalism is not simply an economic system in which capital is privately owned and private enterprise is encouraged and presumed to be the chief mode of production and distribution of goods and services. It is also an ideological worldview. More than anything, it is an architecture for the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few, the chief owners of capital across the globe.

Faithful to this worldview, the Prime Minister sees government as something we should see less of and the market as something we should see more of.

This might work well for some things, but it’s catastrophic when it comes to such essentials as health, education, housing and social security (noting that over 30 per cent of Services Australia positions are now outsourced or insecure).

The pandemic has shown us how central to our survival these public institutions have been, from the public health system to the social security system, from public education to public housing. And it has also brought to the fore how vital the union movement has been in protecting workers in the workplace, in the economy, and in society.

The current punitive phase of neoliberalism means that precarity and punishment are normalised. Our acceptance is not requested; it is assumed. We are at a critical point. Our choices are stark: arrest the trajectory or be arrested by it; shape the next stage or be shaped by it; stake our claim as an autonomous political force or be destroyed by the politics of cruelty to people and planet.

Shamefully, we have, as a society, demonstrated a political tolerance for the obscenely disproportionate incarceration of First Nations People, with 500 First Nations deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission. We also appear to accept the criminalisation and incarceration of people seeking refuge.

I still remember the first time a refugee advocate took me to an immigration detention centre in Gandangara Country to meet some of the people there, people whose stories she knew by heart from having spent so many hours with them. I can still see the children playing football behind the razor wire. And the other advocate, who told me how she used to read stories to the children there every week, and how they would look at her confusedly when the story had a dog or a cat or some other animal in it. These kids had spent all they could remember of their lives in detention. Many had never seen an animal. Neither will I forget meeting the man – a young engineering student, many years later in Larrakia Country – who rolled up his shirt and showed me his scars from torture received in the country he had fled. He had been left for dead on the roadside by the police there, and managed to escape across the border. He had no desire to come to Australia. He only desired to live. When they told him he was going to Australia, he thought they said Austria.

The Productivity Commission has noted that the past 40 years (a period coterminous with neoliberalism) “has seen a steady rise in the level of imprisonment in Australia”, with the number of prisoners per 100,000 adults more than doubling since the mid-1980s and increasing by 40 per cent from 2000 to 2018.

We have normalised the carceral “solution” to poverty, homelessness, disability, illness, and addiction.

As philosopher Angela Davis observes: “Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages … But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.”

We have accepted, as if it were merely a wicked problem, the criminalisation of women, with the number of women imprisoned in Australia growing by 64 per cent between 2009 and 2019.

Systematic incarceration, exclusion and differential exposure to death are the increasingly acceptable means of dealing with people who are deemed surplus to a society. Alongside these instruments of punishment, the late neoliberal trajectory is characterised by the punitive and paternalistic treatment of people through systems of social (in)security, coupled with the enforcement of the discipline of manufactured precarity in the labour market.

The opposite of precarity is not prosperity. It is democracy. It is the equitable distribution of power over the economy. It is the inversion of the current state of play, where society is forced to serve the needs of capital. It is instead the carving out of a future wherein capital is harnessed to serve the needs of society.

Imagine a future where we felt safe, knowing that society ensured none of us missed out on a place to live, a place to work, a place to learn, and a place to heal.

Imagine if we fought for, and won, a social guarantee – secure jobs, full employment, secure housing, well-resourced universal services – not a return to the old welfare state, but a new framework in which there were no surplus people, no one made to feel as if they were of no value.

As the great bell hooks wrote in Outlaw Culture: “True liberation leads us … beyond resistance to transformation … The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination … The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom.”

“Love” is a word we do not hear often in political discourse. And it is a word that is all but absent in economic discourse. Which is no surprise, since all our efforts seem to be focused on building surplus value for the few. But imagine a future in which we decided instead to build, for all of us, a surplus of education, a surplus of culture, a surplus of caring – a surplus of love.

John Falzon
The Canberra Times and AMC network