I cannot think of anyone I've spoken with in the past three months who hasn't expressed some sense of disjointedness. Not everyone is sad, but everyone feels out of whack. As Shakespeare's Hamlet put it: "The time is out of joint." Yes, a thousand times. The time is out of joint.
It's easy to say it's all down to the coronavirus. But there are some things the coronavirus is not. It is not the coronavirus that leaves you without a job. Or that gives a JobKeeper payment to some and not to others, or gives it to early childhood educators and then takes it away. It is not the coronavirus that caps the wages of some and cuts the wages of others. It is not the coronavirus that doles out money for expensive renovations but has no vision or political will to build public housing. It is not the coronavirus that doubled the unemployment payment in recognition that people could not live on it, but immediately promised to undo this good and push them back below the poverty line come October.
No, some will answer. It might not be the coronavirus per se that does these things - but it is the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, on markets, on consumer confidence, on share prices. You can't blame the government for everything. It can only do so much to cushion the economic pain of the great disrupture, the hulking disjointedness. We all need to do our bit. Remember, we're all in this together, right!
Friend, we are not. We are not all in this together. The impact of the pandemic is not felt evenly. But even before COVID-19 we were never all in this together. For many people, the time is even more out of joint now than it was before. It is hard, for example, to be a gig worker - but even harder when you're a gig worker with no gigs. There are others, however, for whom the disjointedness of the time before the pandemic was just grist for the mega-money mill. We were assured that is because they were geniuses. How else would they have made a motza out of the "everlasting uncertainty" that distinguishes the era?
It's good to see that the Treasurer wants the next federal election to be a contest over the role of government. Here's the thing: times don't just get out of joint. They are put out of joint by historical decisions.
Maybe some of them are. But then again, if there is such a thing as genius, then there are many, many more geniuses outside the tiny ranks of the hyper-powerful elite than inside it. Was it perhaps an act of genius to confect the ideological illusion that it was not the time that was out of joint, it was we who were out of joint with the time? I'd rather just call it a tawdry lie. Even so, for some of us the answer to the Prime Minister's question "How good is Australia?" was "pretty bloody wonderful".
But if you were a worker who was unemployed or underemployed (now among the more than 2 million), things were not pretty bloody wonderful. Even before the pandemic, the time was out of joint. The same if you were one of the more than 32 per cent of workers in insecure work. Or if you were one of the more than 120,000 people experiencing homelessness, or one of the people living in more than 1 million households experiencing housing stress. The time was out of joint if you were seeking asylum in Australia and imprisoned by the politics of cruelty. If you were a member of that half of the nation's population facing systematic gendered inequality, one in three of whom experience gendered violence, the time was always going to be out of joint.
And if you were a member of the First Nations, a member of the oldest continuing culture and the most incarcerated people on the planet, the time before the pandemic, like the time during it, has been catastrophically out of joint, crying out for justice. As Professor Larissa Behrendt noted, following the recent protests across Australia: "So, now can we implement all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody?"
A synonym for feeling out of joint is "unsettled". What many of us were taught was the "settlement" of Australia was actually the violent unsettling. It was, and is, an unsettling that can only be described as totalitarian, carrying within its ideological armoury the weapons to pathologise and criminalise First Nations people, perpetuating the myth that it is the people who are colonised who must be out of joint with the time rather than the time being out of joint with the people.
There are many contradictions built into the way our economy, and hence our society, are organised. The violence of colonisation and dispossession, however, is what everything else has been built on. We cannot achieve even the semblance of social justice while this primary injustice is not only veiled but boosted and buttressed by neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy, while First Nations voices are, to use Arundhati Roy's words, "deliberately silenced or preferably unheard".
The time feels out of joint for more of us than before. Rather than accepting it, let us get used to sharing a sense and understanding of the pre-pandemic disjointedness that some of us perhaps did not relate to, perhaps did not even want to know about. And let's think critically the next time we're sold the lie that people are to blame for supposedly being out of joint with the time, rather than the time being out of joint with the people.
It's good to see that the Treasurer wants the next federal election to be a contest over the role of government. Here's the thing: times don't just get out of joint. They are put out of joint by historical decisions. Shit might happen, but the role of good government is to build the kind of society that looks after everyone's needs instead of uncritically protecting the interests of the elite; the kind of society that democratises the distribution of resources, power, and hope. You don't wait for the storm before mending your roof. And you don't build a caring society by waiting for the shit to happen.
This is not just a matter of better policy. It's a matter of how we arrive at our decisions as a society. It's a matter of doing democracy differently, of not defining democracy "by extracting the fate of the excluded", to quote Italian political theorist Domenico Losurdo. It means joining the movement for social justice and social change rather than bewailing the time's disjointedness alone. For none of us alone can "set it right". It means joining your union. It means joining with people whose struggle you thought was not your own. It means joining forces, instead of succumbing to the spirit-numbing myth that, by virtue of belonging to "Team Australia", we are all in this together. When governments say there's nothing they can do about something, it usually means there's nothing they want to do. Social and economic transformation does not happen without political power. And political power is something we must build from the people up if we want to tear the causes of our disjointedness down.
- Dr John Falzon is 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.