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:
- That this was a highly concentrated expression of inequality in a highly visible point in the city.
- 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.
- 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.