Inequality is not an aberration that comes with neoliberalism. It is the foundation of neoliberalism, along with its partners in social crime: patriarchy and colonisation. As Sharan Burrow, the Australian General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), puts it so poignantly: ‘We live in a fragmented world.’ The excluded form the majority across the globe.
We must move beyond the false divide between the exploited and the excluded. Whether someone is locked out of paid work or income adequacy, or locked in to insecure, precarious, poorly paid work or some form of modern slavery or servitude; whether someone has lost their job, or is at risk of losing their job, we are all in some degree of danger — some much more than others.
But we are kidding ourselves if we think that the edge is far away, in a different world. Or that any of us can enjoy the privileges that come with being beneficiaries of the sufferings of others, without one day paying the social price.
The neoliberal fantasy has seen an unprecedented building of walls, to keep people out while providing the highest level of private protection for the privileged. The notion of the social, of the common, of shared fate and shared responsibility, has been displaced by an ideological rupture that has seen the demonisation of democratic socialism alongside the deification of neoliberalism.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote: ‘What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.’
Even though these words were written over 50 years ago they ring loudly and truly for us today as we build the road out of the neoliberal era. Even the global institutions that have helped facilitate the neoliberal agenda fear the destructive fire ignited by extreme inequality across the globe. But even though the fire threatens all of us, the very wealthy still seem to feel that they will be safe because they have paid the premium for protection. As for everyone else, you only get what you pay for. It’s in the rules.
But the rules are broken. And not just the ones pertaining to industrial relations. The rules, left as they are, will offer safety to no one. They will only paper over the social crimes committed against the planet and the people.
“Austerity for the many as the price of abundance for the few is no longer a convincing argument.”
The Australian experience of neoliberalism shares much in common with working people across the globe. As I have written elsewhere, in a globalised labour market, a cut to wages and conditions anywhere is a threat to wages and conditions everywhere. We are already seeing this evidenced in the maritime industry, in the off-shoring of large sections of our manufacturing industry, and in the subjection of workers brought here from other countries to slave-like conditions as a means of lowering labour costs. The upshot of this is that the movements of both capital and labour are tied to the deeply unjust trade in jobs and wages.
The neoliberal era is characterised by a reversal of the social democratic compromise that preceded it, constraining the modest dispersal of power that occurred in liberal democracies in the post-WWII period. To win consent from sections of the working class, the beneficiaries of the neoliberal trajectory developed a political discourse centred on the rightness of exclusion as a means of defining and defending the included.
The neoliberal frame was all-encompassing. It presented a well-wrapped package to the people; promising prosperity, containing nothing. The trickle-down mythology it peddled has been completely discredited. Austerity for the many as the price of abundance for the few is no longer a convincing argument for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy on the one hand with cuts to social expenditure, social security and wages in real terms on the other. The reality is that the single unemployment payment has not seen an increase in real terms since 1994 and in the past two and a half years profits have grown in real terms by 41.8 per cent while wages have only grown by 2.8 per cent in real terms for the same period.
Neoliberalism is a massive intervention in the lives of working people, including those who are residualised and corralled into the reserve army of the unemployed. And yet, the neoliberal intervention is successfully framed as a non-intervention, as a simple matter of government getting out of the way so that people can exercise ingenuity and enterprise. But the trumpeting of choice for the few masks the reality that choices for the many have been massively constrained, especially when it comes to the essentials of life. There is a growing tiredness with the utopian promises that were made alongside the marketisation and commodification of almost everything.
The false dividing line between people in paid work and the rest of the working class is being erased by neoliberalism itself. Precarity, casualistion, sham-contracting and insecurity have been normalised in the labour market. A job is no longer a path out of poverty. In any case there are not enough jobs for the people who need them, with combined unemployment and underemployment figures indicating around 1.8 million people looking for work or more work, with an additional million people who are classified by the ABS as marginally attached to the labour market but wanting to work.
Inequality was never an economic inevitability. It is a political decision, not a matter of economic fate or personal choice. Our world has indeed been fragmented by inequality. The state in the neoliberal project has acted as a means of buttressing this inequality. It is time that the state fulfilled the role of being a buffer against it instead. But this will only happen with a deeply democratic intrusion of the excluded into the sociopolitical space.
Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018.