Never mind us all being in this together.
It's time, according to the Prime Minister, to get individually resilient.
Hence the Coronavirus Supplement's gradual disappearing act, despite our ensuing descent to the near-bottom of the OECD pack when it comes to unemployment benefits. Hence the cut to the JobKeeper rates. Hence the white noise from government and business on unemployed workers not really wanting to work, signalling a business-as-normal display of gratuitous nastiness towards people who are residualised by the labour market, perhaps with some further refinements in the art of cruelty down the track.
Neoliberal governments are obsessed with making life harder for people. They achieve this, for example, by promoting the idea that the more you give unemployed workers, the more "they'll" expect in wages and so the less likely "they'd" be to accept a job. This is coupled with the deceitful framing that taxpayers' money (creating a tantalising but utterly empty illusion of common ground between the ultra rich and working people) is siphoned from "our" pockets into the pockets of the undeserving and non-taxpaying (both frames, of course, untrue), be they students, carers, people with a disability, or workers who are unemployed.
COVID-19 has proven that the sudden experience of unemployment is not really far from our doors. When we allocate resources to support people who are discarded by the market, we are actually making a sensible choice about collectively safeguarding ourselves, our families, friends, neighbours, and fellow workers. We cannot afford more tax cuts for corporations and the already wealthy. We cannot afford the systemic tax avoidance by multinational corporations. But we can afford to look after people.
It was never just about the money though.
It was also about power.
Our dominant discourse is replete with the message that power comes from having money, and money comes from working hard. There's a supposedly virtuous cycle that makes it seem implausible to criticise the imbalance of power between workers (including the people the market appears to have no use for) and the major owners of capital.
The income inadequacy deliberately imposed on unemployed workers is an exercise in power.
Not only is it tenuous to claim that extremely high wealth simply comes from extremely hard work, it's essential to note that not only does money lead to power, but power leads to even more money. Money comes from having power. Power that is highly concentrated in the hands of the few comes from taking it away from many others.
This is not a new thing. Look up the annals of colonisation here and around the globe. They are always about the exercise of power by means of its excision from First Nations communities.
The exercise of power over people experiencing unemployment, as well as other people rendered residual to the market, makes for a heady brew for corporate elites and their political representatives. When you're allowed to kick one section of the working class, it makes it that little bit easier to kick other sections as well. And with the pandemic, the borders between relatively secure work, insecure work and unemployment just got even weaker.
What is it like, being kicked in the guts after being discarded?
In listening to people's stories, long before our current recession, it's obvious that the experience is greatly varied. Along with class, the factors determining people's experience of precarity include gender, race, disability, age and sexuality.
Prior to COVID-19, a feature common to many people's experience was that after being discarded you're discredited. At worst, you are made to feel that you are no longer an adult, and perhaps not quite even a human being. Hence the constructed need for paternalistic measures and punishments.
MORE JOHN FALZON:
You are deemed responsible for your own exclusion and hence constructed as being unproductive, but you are stripped of self-determination. Your subsequent failures to comply with an impossible system are further evidence of your unworthiness (note, for example, the recent disgraceful spectacle of Liberal senators opining that victims of robodebt had buried their heads in the sand).
All the while you are subjected to a regime that purports to heal you by punishing you, all in order to bring you to the point of "self-reliance" and "self-responsibility". You are subjected to an encroaching withdrawal of self-determination in the name of purportedly achieving your self-determination. This framing was softened a little at the beginning of the pandemic. Now it seems to be back in vogue.
The income inadequacy deliberately imposed on unemployed workers is an exercise in power. As is the demeaning array of mutual obligation requirements (temporarily suspended) and paternalistic measures such as cashless welfare cards. It is about "disciplining" workers, whether they are in paid work or not. Employed workers are being taught to look over their shoulder at the ranks of unemployed workers they are at risk of joining if they don't behave.
Our chances of achieving better wages and conditions are much greater when we act together instead of alone. Working people, organised into unions, fight not only for better incomes and fairer conditions in the face of unprecedented global corporate power (including disproportionate influence over domestic government policy, from climate policy to industrial relations and social spending). Unions also fight for a practical reconfiguration of society so that we can enjoy greater power over our own lives, a greater sense of self-determination (the ability to make decisions and choices without the soul-destroying pressure of insecure employment or insufficient social security).
This reconfiguration applies not only to the shape of our economy but to the health of our society.
We have long cried out for a jobs plan. But instead we've been served up: a putting-the-boot-into-the-unemployed plan, a union-bashing plan, a cutting-penalty-rates plan, a weakening-worker-power plan, a corporate-tax-cuts plan, a rip-the-workers-off-by-not-increasing-superannuation plan, a profiteering-from-the-unemployed plan, a blaming-the-excluded-plan, and a let's-look-after-our-mates plan.
Quite a lot of plans. But none of them a jobs plan.
If you are looking for a jobs plan, check out the plan put together by the ACTU, which includes five innovative ways to get started, the central elements of the plan being:
- permanent improvements and expansions in public services,
- sustained and massive investments in public infrastructure,
- sector development strategies,
- rebuilding and expanding Australia's training and education systems,
- energy and climate transitions,
- investment in social infrastructure,
- rebuilding a more equitable labour market.
The Morrison government must not be allowed to play dice with people's livelihoods and lives. This is precisely what it is doing by cutting JobSeeker and JobKeeper. This is what it is doing by looking after its mates instead of looking after the people.
If it continues to set its ideological heart on the low wage/low income support/low tax/high unemployment path, it will make the recession permanent for an even larger section of the community.
It is socially irresponsible to squander the opportunity to reconstruct the nation.
There was arguably a time when governments got away with putting the boot into unemployed and insecure workers. Consent was manufactured through the falsification of facts and an overarching narrative of the individualisation of blame and, therefore, responsibility.
It's different this time. This time, because unemployment and precarity have spread through the community like a secondary infection, the government will not get away with this so easily.
Everyone is watching.
- Dr John Falzon is senior fellow of inequality and social justice at Per Capita. He was national chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is a member of the Australian Services Union.