Following the budget, the first draft of this editorial began ‘So now it is the turn of the disabled to be the new scapegoats’. But we did not reckon with the speed and efficiency of the Howard Government. One week in and junior Minister Mal Brough unveiled a new target — the one in six recipients of unemployment benefits who were said to enjoy life on the dole and were not actively seeking work. It was time, Brough said, to make them ‘less comfortable and relaxed’. The government has consistently boasted of its achievements in growing the economy and in this area at least its success must be conceded — it has expanded the production of objects of loathing for the two-minute hate institutionalised by the shock-jock culture. The best you can say about it is that turning some heat on the welfare poor will take the heat off asylum seekers for a while, just as the sudden transformation of refugees into ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ took some of the heat off indigenous people — especially indigenous men, who were an earlier target.
The breeding of scapegoats on an agribusiness scale does not occur without conditions being favourable of course. The Howard Government launches these initiatives — the commission into the causes of the existence of trade unions within the building industry is another — confident that they will succeed, not only because contemporary society produces rage and frustration in the same proportions as coal mines produce slag, but because changes in social and economic class have made it easier for those with little or no social power to be demonised.
Changes in both social class and people’s understanding of social class make it easier to hive off sections of what was once a more generalised working class and set them against each other. The government’s integrated strategy for doing this was revealed in the budget. Hundreds of millions of dollars are to be spent on ‘border protection’ — protection of empty coast from exhausted, desperate refugees — and the ‘Pacific Solution’, some of which will be counted as overseas development aid and located in the foreign aid budget. To fund this, benefits are cut and work tests imposed on the disabled, causing immense unnecessary suffering in the lives of the vast majority of genuine claimants. Simultaneously social infrastructure is run down, with funding to state education systems frozen at existing levels, while private school grants are set to double to a billion dollars over several years.
It is not a khaki budget, but a camouflage one: the nation is upheld as the carrier of communal meaning; within its borders all forms of collective welfare or interest is relentlessly individualised. The money going to the new private schools — overwhelmingly outer suburban start-ups — is designed to give added assistance to the ‘aspirationals’ in attaining scarce professional training for their children; the further depreciation of state school systems is designed to limit the competition such children will face from the publicly-educated. The strategy is political-social engineering on a grand scale, the creation of politically loyal sub-classes. It opens a gap between social classes into which any number of human sacrifices can be tossed — black people, brown people, sick people, poor people. It is a decisive repudiation of Paul Keating’s statement of the duty owed to the powerless in a society in which inequality has proved to be intractable — ‘we will take them with us’. The Keating Government may well have honoured that more in the breach than the observance; the Coalition’s plan is to leave them for the dingoes.
Yet how would it be possible to restate social democratic and just policies in a context in which increasing division within social classes is a reality brought about by a globalising economy?
The rip-it-up, get-down dream response to a revival of the notion of ‘dole bludgers’ would be to note that any society with permanent unemployment benefits from those willing to live contentedly on the pittance that the dole provides. Such people reduce the pressure on the overworked bureaucracy, and businesses swamped by job applicants. Maybe they should be honoured with a medal or award (the Furphys, perhaps) at ceremonies across the nation.
Such a strategy may not be politically practicable. But using such a return of scapegoating for a restatement of mutual obligation — to each other, not to Centrelink — may be not only possible but opportune.
However it will need to be a statement that acknowledges the degree to which social life has been individualised by global shifts over the last two decades. To acknowledge such is different to pandering to it — it puts the onus on the politically active to enter a dialogue with such shifts in an attempt to clarify a different social vision. It is because people’s lives have become more individualised and set against each other, that universal mutual obligation becomes not impossible but imperative. State funded social infrastructure is an expression of this; but if it becomes the sole expression of such then it is open to charges of being dead and bureaucratic. It is true that social problems such as welfare dependency can occur, and that this is of especial concern for indigenous groups who have a complex relationship to the global market.
But welfare dependence and other reductions of political contexts to behavioural and psychological categories can also be fetishised, and are currently being so. To consent to social debate being framed in such punitive terms is to consent to dominant myths which do little more than provide reactionaries with political capital — that social policy must be based on scarcity and an implicit model of charity.
Yet it is clear that the capital for social reconstruction is not scarce — it is simply locked up in markets out of reach. Moving the debate away from the language of punishment, scarcity, illegality and bludgerdom involves expanding the horizons of what can be talked about. The Right — in government, business and media — has imposed a form of ‘economic correctness’ in which certain questions cannot be asked — the most obvious being this: if the economy is as prosperous as it is alleged to be, why is government policy pushing us towards ever deeper degrees of private affluence and public squalor?
Asking that question leads on to related questions — why is work so poorly distributed that people are either overworked, or deprived of any at all? Why are child care and maternity or paternity leave so grossly inadequate? Why are people not getting the social dividends to which they are entitled?
Turning the debate around in this way would overcome much of the effort that the Right puts into social division — because it would be speaking the language of universal entitlement, rather than welfare targeted to particular ‘disadvantaged’, ‘marginalised’ ‘losers’. (Choose one, go to question two, provide medical certificates and list eight jobs you have applied for. Paraplegics and amputees may have this form filled out by a friend or family member.)
Making it happen would also assist in making space for the main important cultural and existential revolution that must occur outside the domain of politics as it is currently understood — one in which we develop communal and collective forms of life which enhance and complement selfhood and individuality, rather than being falsely set against them.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.