JOHN FALZON. Politics is concentrated economics

Stark displays of inequality, such as the concentration of homeless people in Martin Place, challenge us to unite in solidarity with those who are oppressed by injustice – an injustice that is a deliberate aspect of our neoliberal economic system.

When you see someone who is experiencing homelessness or when you are made sick and giddy by the spectre of First Nations children and children seeking refuge being incarcerated, do not think to yourself that these are signs the system is not working.

Homelessness, incarceration, systematic humiliation and dispossession are all signs that the system is actually working desperately but methodically to coerce and control the many so as to cement the liberty of the few.

The gathering of people experiencing homelessness in Martin Place in Sydney, for example, should be seen as revealing but not remarkable. This phenomenon, which was unsurprisingly extinguished rather than actually addressed, revealed a number of powerful truths:

  1. That this was a highly concentrated expression of inequality in a highly visible point in the city.
  2. That it was precisely this highly visible concentration that caused a sense of discomfort for those who generally are quite happy with the status quo.
  3. That this discomfort is less about the injustice of homelessness and the deprivation of access to appropriate housing and more about the heart of the prosperous city being the site of purported failure and dysfunctionality.

The story, in fact became all about the Premier’s and some others’ sense of discomfort, morphing into a tough-on-crime discourse about moving people on.

Whether you pathologise or criminalise the people experiencing homelessness as an extreme symptom of rising inequality, at the end of the day you are only entrenching the very causes of inequality that you are deliberately or unwittingly masking.

When we pathologise people who are bear the brunt of inequality we tend to focus on their constructed capacity deficits, their “typically” poor choices or their “tragic” bad luck. In this vein of thinking you are able to prosecute the argument that “throwing more money at the problem” will never solve it because the problem lies with the individual, not with social or economic structures or histories. This leads very nicely into the patronising and paternalistic arguments favoured by proponents of disempowering and costly distractions such as the cashless welfare card, compulsory income management and discriminatory drug testing on the stigmatising basis of class and postcode. In a fascinating, but deeply damaging, sleight of hand, income inadequacy and structural unemployment and underemployment are displaced by the alleged individual incapacity to manage an income or to manage their lives. This is the bread and butter of colonisation and it was no accident or surprise that these practices were, in the main, trialled first on First Nations Peoples before being extended, by the same logic of internal colonisation, to non-Indigenous populations on the basis of gender, class, disability and postcode.

In short, the practice of pathologisation leads us to believe that poverty, in that personal and moralising sense, is to blame for homelessness.

The criminalisation of those we pathologise is simply the next extreme step. Incarceration is sadly, but predictably, a mass means of punishing people for the systematically moralised crime of being poor.

But if you take a structural view, it is not poverty that is to blame for homelessness. It is wealth. Specifically, it is wealth in its highly concentrated and, especially, speculative, form, as opposed to shared wealth, wealth that is productively used for the good of society as a whole, common wealth. This is clear in the area of housing, which has become a speculative sport instead of a human right. But it is also clear when we look at broader distribution and resource allocation questions relating to taxation, wages, employment, economic development, infrastructure and social expenditure.

Which brings us to neoliberalism which, contrary to its own arguments against big government, does not mean government getting out of the way so as to allow the bullies to rule the yard.  Neoliberalism means arming the bullies with sticks and telling their victims to stand still for their tormentors.

In the meantime the dominant narrative chants its devastating doxa that the excluded are to blame for their own exclusion, which is why they should be treated even more harshly, demeaned with drug-testing and demerit systems and cashless welfare cards designed by those who mean explicitly to disempower and demonise and do so shamelessly.

If the political is concentrated economics and the personal is concentrated politics, then the obvious question that is begged by mass outbreaks of inequality, such as we saw in Martin Place, is how we should change the way we make economic decisions as a society so that people are not excluded from the essentials of life such as a place to live, a place to learn, a place to heal, a place to work.

But, as the poet and theorist Audre Lorde reminds us:

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we need to escape but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

We need to challenge our own hearts as to how we internalise these structures of inequality, naturalising the historical and blessing the unconscionable, justifying everything from the offshore brutalisation of people seeking refuge to the onshore torture of First Nations children. There is nothing quite as radical as reality. What we are prophetically called to do by the reality of rising inequality is to take a side. The social space can be shaped by the dominant discourse into the diffusion of the political, the personal and the economic. But it can also be the space for uniting in solidarity with the people who are oppressed by injustice. It can be the space for the collective movement for social justice and social change; the place in which we move to change society rather than the place from which the rejected are told to move on.

 

Dr John Falzon is the CEO of the St. Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

print

This entry was posted in Economy. Bookmark the permalink.
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Thanks for coming in on this Paul. I am aware of all the above points in a general sort of way, especially the eighth. One of my favourite stories at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union came from one of the former Iron Curtain countries. Might have been Poland or Hungary. The Senior lecturer in Marxist Leninist studies at the Polytechnic became the under-secretary in charge of privatisations. We will know the neoliberal order is dead when Rupert Murdoch’s papers back Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Stalin governed with insane brutality but he knew he had to… Read more »

Despite his youthful, blunt, Dutch arrogance and the condescension we have come to expect from economists, Paul Fritjers is one of the more interesting thinkers around the place and I enjoy reading his comments but he has gone over the top in his reply to John Falzon (and to me, since I am the only bloke on this blog mentioning Hayek and Mont Pelerin). Paul is telling John to go back to his church, light a few candles, swing some incense, mount the pulpit and harangue our wicked politicians for worshiping the golden calf. Leave the hard stuff to experts… Read more »

paul frijters

Hi Jerry, thanks, I guess. The end of a long blog is not the place to have an in-depth discussion about economics (we should do that somewhere more in the limelight. A public discussion at a conference some time?). So let me summarise my position quickly: 1. Economics is a very broad church in which there are many competing and internally inconsistent viewpoints, even within ‘the mainstream’. 2. Economics is changing fast, with behavioural and wellbeing economists (like myself) trying to change the course of the ship. 3. Economics is winning as the statemanship story of choice in the up… Read more »

Jennifer Meyer-Smith

Hi again Paul,

with reference to #5,

how can we turn around our socio-economic system from the growing dominance of the alleged NFP’s?

NFP’s operate on the backs of slave labour ie unpaid labour provided by a broken Newstart system which purports to deliver social security while enslaving vulnerable people on below poverty line income AND draconian mutual job obligations.

Why do self-righteous people wonder why many vulnerable succumb to suicide and/or crude substance abuse?

Alternative economic arguments MUST always provide a humane socio-economic take on how those principles can operate in real world with equitable standards automatically built in.

michael lacey

Good article!
“Which brings us to neoliberalism which, contrary to its own arguments against big government, does not mean government getting out of the way so as to allow the bullies to rule the yard.”
There is only one economic debate in this country that is neoliberalism. , this means there is no debate at all. The country lives under the Thatcher quote TINA ( There is no alternative). There is a choice and the debate needs to be heard, it is long over due!

Florence Howarth

Those who follow neoliberal ideology seem to see it a divine right, established by their god.

Paul Frijters

John, I mostly agree with you, but it really is a big marketing mistake to buy into the whole ‘neoliberalism’ ideology stuff. It puts you in a corner which will always lose. The Hayek/Pelerin stuff is the stuff of grand conspiracies and arch villains. There are economists, like myself, who are keenly aware of how all this works and are trying to oppose the inequality and the corruption of our politicians that has lead to it. If you look, you will find many economists on your side. Just stick to simple labels: corruption, inhumanity, dehumanizing, class, moral crisis, etc. And… Read more »

Jennifer Meyer-Smith

Paul Frijters, my take was that Dr Falzon was not buying into the neoliberalism stuff. He was arguing against it and why it should never have been allowed to set root in Australia nor the world, if everything was played on a level playing field, which it obviously is not. Now that we know the harmful, regressive affects of neoliberalism, it is important to promote every advice, solution, provision to move us all away from the neoliberalist stranglehold. Your simple labels are the aims to support and/or destroy, as the case may be, for example, I don’t want the label… Read more »

Paul Frijters

Hi Jenifer,

we are on the same side. I should have been more clear and say that John should not declare himself anti-neoliberalism, but anti-corruption. To pick a fight with a vague ideology that sounds like ‘pro freedom’ and ‘pro the economy’ is a fight he is not going to win.

Best,
Paul

John Falzon in this heroic post draws attention to a fundamental question in political analysis. Which or who is more important, the ideology of an era or the passing parade of individuals on whom the spotlight briefly shines — Turnbull, Shorten, Howard, Hawke and co? It is evident from his attack on neo-liberalism that John casts his vote in favour of ideology. So do I. There was only one important individual in the politics of the last 30 years and that was the Austrian philosopher, Friedrich Hayek. When the government of Margaret Thatcher in Britain introduced radical privatisation policies there… Read more »

Jennifer Meyer-Smith

A beautifully explained article of how the institionalisation of neoliberalism has allowed the bullies to persecute everyday people, so that many have had their best years depleted by ever shrinking circles into boxes. By understanding that insidious pathological process of blaming the vulnerable for their disadvantage and recognising the harmful logical affects of that convenient and dishonest blame shifting, Dr Falzon has beautifully identified how this neoliberalist system treats us as though we should be confined or constrained: especially those who need us most. I have continuously advocated for pro-active government backed programs designed to provide Micro Finance Grants and… Read more »