JOHN MENADUE. We are losing our sense of community

Markets are displacing society and community. Exclusion is winning out over inclusion. 

Hugh Mackay has pointed out that in an international survey conducted by IPSOS, 68% of Australians believe that the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful and 61% believe that ‘traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me’.

This sense of a rigged system shows itself in Australians feeling that they are excluded from effective power and influence. They feel alienated.

Edith Cowan University Research has shown that only one third of Australians say they trust their neighbours. This probably means that two thirds of Australians don’t really know their neighbours enough to trust them.

Many factors have contributed to this sense of exclusion and the breakdown in community solidarity – changes in the pattern of divorce and marriage, greater inequality,the ‘look at me’’ of conspicuous consumption encouraged by advertising and facile ‘celebrity’, the loss of shared space in public parks and gardens, and of course, privatisation of natural monopolies , driven by ideology rather than community interest.

Instead of society containing markets, society and the community is being forced to fit the demands of the market.

In three particular areas, our shared commons, our sense of community and the glue that holds us together is being seriously eroded.

Generous funding of wealthy private schools is not only unfair but it is a denial of the role of schools in building a community with students from diverse backgrounds. The social mix at schools is essential in building community.

The $11b annual taxpayer subsidy to private health insurance is seriously eroding Medicare, our universal healthcare system. The progressive privatisation of Medicare is enabling wealthier people to jump the hospital queue. Community solidarity is being deliberately undermined.

In housing, we are increasingly dividing into tribes with separate housing depending upon income, age and ethnic backgrounds. Many of our neighbourhoods are becoming gated communities with high walls and roller doors. This built environment seems to be saying ‘we aren’t interested in our neighbours and our neighbourhood’. Some streets have become sterile and devoid of human contact.

At a recent People’s Health Movement meeting committed to inclusive health policies, Fran Baum, Professor of Public Health at Flinders University spoke of the political economy and five processes that are producing exclusion and alienation. 

  1. The historical legacy of colonialism, which results in the exclusion of Black Americans and Indigenous peoples from education, employment, and housing; and the deprivation of freedom through slavery in the US, the Stolen Generations in Australia and residential schools in Canada, and high imprisonment rates in many countries for minority populations.
  2. The dominant neo-liberal macro-economic environment which privileges the needs of corporations over those of people and the environment. Under these conditions, trade agreements, tax regimes, and regulations are reshaped and constructed to support business interests.
  3. The inequities that have resulted from the processes under points one and two are rapidly becoming more extreme. For example Oxfam has recently estimated that just eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much. The result of these inequities is that more and more people are excluded from the economic, and so the social, benefits of society. The concentration of personal wealth means there is less funding for public services and facilities that are needed to facilitate the inclusion of people in the benefits of education and health care.
  4. Patriarchal decision making structures are an important means by which women are excluded from their rights. This was clearly illustrated by the much tweeted image of President Trump signing the Executive order (Global Gag Rule) which bans the provision of US funding to international NGOs that provide abortion services, or offer information about abortions. The photograph showed eight older white males with no women present. Such structures exclude women from realising their economic, social sexual and reproductive rights.
  5. Political exploitation of fear of difference operates to exclude and marginalise groups, and so has a markedly adverse effect on their health. This is illustrated most strikingly in the current global environment for refugees and asylum seekers. In Australia the policy of off-shore detention has been shown to have severe mental health impacts, and as we were meeting the Trump administration’s banning of passport holders from seven countries from entering the US (and the suspension of refugee arrivals) was having an immediate impact on people’s well-being in multiple ways. The political exploitation may be terrifying to those directly affected (for example not being able to reunite with family members and fear of further persecution) and also to the wider community who fear that political exclusion may soon be expanded to include new groups, and are distressed by the treatment of those who have sought asylum in their country.
    See link to Fran Baum’s presentation ‘Social Exclusion: vulnerable people or exclusionary processes?

Invariably we now consider government policies and programs in an individualistic and transactional way rather than seeing them as means of promoting community. All policies and programs need as a first consideration to address the values and principles that should be promoted. Building community, solidarity and sharing should be a key principle in areas such as education, health and housing. We build communities by sharing and mixing; by inclusion and not exclusion.

We are principally social beings. Relationships and community are essential for a strong society. Unfortunately there are many centrifugal forces at work that are dividing us into tribes. The Brexit Trump outcome is an example of people feeling excluded from community.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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