There's an old joke about a man who is on his hands and knees scouring the footpath under a street light. What are you looking for? a solicitous passerby asks him, joining him in his search. My key. I've lost my key, he replies. And you think you might've dropped it here? asks the passerby. No, no. I most likely dropped it a bit down the road, he confesses. So why are you looking here? he is asked. Because this is where the light is!
I began working in the community sector, with people who bear the brunt of inequality, in 1994, around the time when the unemployment payment saw its last increase in real terms. Since then it has been as if successive governments behaved like the hapless fool in the joke when it came to looking for a solution to unemployment. Instead of looking where the problem has been caused they have gone in another direction and confined themselves to looking assiduously where the light is. With a very few policy exceptions they have skipped past the structural causes of unemployment and focused on new and exciting ways of tormenting the people who are locked out of paid work. In some ways they have been even more disingenuous than the fool in the story. Not only have they confined their search to where the light is, they have constructed the street light themselves. Of course, in engaging in this dismal practice of making an art form out of cruelty to people who are unemployed, these governments have obediently sung from the neo-liberal hymn book, which sets out in singularly dogmatic fashion how glorious it is to discipline the working class whilst punishing, and holding up as a warning, those of its members who are forced to live in poverty.
The current government, zealously committed as it is to neo-liberal dogma, continues to gleefully prescribe the medicine of targeted austerity to people experiencing unemployment along with the other categories of people who purportedly refuse to submit to the discipline of (low) paid work such as sole parents, people with a disability and students. This therapeutic regime, which constructs the unwaged as unwilling, assaulting the popular imagination with a narrative that alternates between pathologisation and criminalisation, includes such acts of paternalism and punishment as Robodebt, the cashless welfare card, work for the dole, PaTH, mandatory drug testing, longer waiting periods for payments, wrongful classification and denial of benefits. At the same time Centrelink staffing has been systematically gutted and outsourced, employment services are in a woeful privatised mess and unqualified private agencies are handed the authority to make decisions about people's eligibility for, and access to, the means of survival. Everything is focused on the individual, except the actual support that the individual needs but is usually denied.
Perhaps the habit of taking from those who have nothing and giving to those who have much is too deeply ingrained.
It's all a matter, like the joke about the lost key, of shining a light on what is not there, namely individual blame for a structural problem. Like the key in the story, the key to unemployment is just down the road. It lies in the bleeding obvious: a government-led jobs plan rather than the false promise that if you keep social security payments unconscionably lean, while cutting corporate taxes and penalty rates, the jobs will trickle down because 'the economy' (which is the preferred neo-liberal euphemism for 'the interests of the wealthy') will be magically strong.
Cutting penalty rates does not create jobs. Undermining the minimum wage does not create jobs. Forcing people to live below the poverty line does not create jobs. Nor does subjecting them to drug testing or the infantilising cashless welfare card, the latter condemned even by former supporter Professor Marcia Langton who recently said: "It's pointless, and it's brutal.' And as for trying to crush unionised workers, this does not create jobs, unless you count the jobs at the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission. The Ensuring Integrity Bill, should it pass, will only ensure that even more working people are forced to endure a life of permanent recession, as their democratic rights are stripped and their right to unionise suffers a de facto suppression.
The neo-liberal model of capitalism is eating itself to death. That's what happens when working people, including those that the labour market residualises and then reprimands, cannot even afford the essentials of life, let alone engage in discretionary spending. Meanwhile, in the parallel universe of CEO remuneration, we are seeing the utterly perverse situation where a CEO is paid 500 times the wages of ordinary workers.
Commenting on the recent mea culpa from the US Business Round table on corporate America's exclusive focus on share price rather than social value, Martin Wolff in the Financial Times noted: "Pay linked to the share price gave management a huge incentive to raise that price, by manipulating earnings or borrowing money to buy the shares. Neither adds value to the company. But they can add a great deal of wealth to management."
Perhaps the habit of taking from those who have nothing and giving to those who have much is too deeply ingrained. Neo-liberal capitalism really came into its own late last century as a heady brew of unrestrained arrogance and a hellish drive to crush ordinary people through stripping away social infrastructure whilst stamping out the collective organisation of labour. But long before this, in 1952, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, bewailing the rise of poverty in his country, wrote: "...capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."
Can it all be fixed by a little more corporate responsibility? Some argue that it can and that we should trust in their good will and noblesse oblige. Perhaps not though. Not when we are talking about a deliberate trajectory rather than an unfortunate glitch. Not when government continues to crawl around on its hands and knees looking for a solution to the problems it has helped create, and looking not where the causes lie but where the artificial light is.
- Dr John Falzon is senior fellow, Inequality and Social Justice, at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2012 to 2018.