I will say this upfront: in my undergraduate, I did three political science classes and one economics unit. I am not a ‘punter’ or an expert in stratification. My sociological interests in political economy lean towards the ‘commodity as congealed labour’ principles laid out so elegantly in ‘Das Kapital’ and as a means to explain how globalization emerged. This is a personal post, driven by current events and my own position to them.
Through the political economic undergrad units, I gained a solid grounding in my Marxist concerns about social inequality and labour exploitation. The neoclassically orientated Microeconomics class showed me how removed from reality neoliberal theory is. At first, I struggled with this unit and then, thorough grit and hard work, I gained Distinctions on the two exams, resulting in an overall high Pass. The other three units were much easier as they were sociological, rather than ‘dismal’ social sciences (a Microeconomics text book seriously called Economics ‘the dismal science’; something I laugh about to this day).
International Relations provided me global contexts and histories but attempted to explain why global inequality was, in fact, good policy. I sided with Wallerstein and other unorthodox political economists, agreeing that the rising tide of ‘global wealth’ clearly only lifted yachts. The other unit was concerned with Australia’s political economic history as both a social laboratory and a protected industrial entity that served British agricultural needs. It also gave a detailed examination of Australian poverty, poor houses and how bourgeois norms have always resulted in ‘invisible’ inequality. In this environment, Horne’s vitriolic ‘The Lucky Country’, which critiqued the vapid blue-eyed middle class urban Australian, only gave politicians a new warm fuzzy soundbite to silence the disgruntled community worker or chardonnay socialist in their academic ivory tower.
Since the budget, I have been actively avoiding news media. My usual routine of reading local then global news has been derailed by my fury over what is clearly the harshest and most inhumane political regime in Australian history. Abbott’s predecessors, Fraser and Howard, also fattened the rich and starved the poor. However, Abbott’s LNP and their foray into economic management is the worst by far. Now, I am forced to wonder: what of the regular Australian citizen?
In the nineties, the Howard era, my middle class family were punished by neoliberalism due to my younger brother battling five years of cancer. My nuclear family had been comfortable in the ‘breadwinner’ model previous to this, but as our ‘assets’ disappeared, so did our one income due to my father’s nervous breakdown as he attempted to juggle full-time work with caring for a seriously ill child. We watched in horror as cars and heirlooms were sold and the family home went under mortgage. I was 11 at the time, too young to contribute financially, but old enough to worry.
I now recognize that the neoliberal rule of social welfare only available to those who had liquidated all their sell-able assets is what caused my normal middle class family to sink into dire poverty. And now, with Abbott’s reign of horror, what will we now endure as a nation?
Right now, as a full-time PhD student on a scholarship, I am feeling the familiar sharp pain of worrying about making ends meet. A recent exacerbation of my chronic pain disease has necessitated visits to full-price specialists and new expensive medication. I have leaned hard on the first credit card I have ever had. My account is as bare as my fridge and cupboards:
I am paid next Thursday and trying to work out how to live off what I have. Bitterly, I am wondering why I spent so much on coffee and lunches last week, why couldn’t I see the future? Note to Abbott et al: ordinary people do not have telepathic powers.
My medications and medical bills cost me a quarter of my fortnightly income. My specialist charges me $170 so he can put me on a surgery waiting list, ‘monitor my condition’ and prescribe painkillers. He drives a beautiful new Bentley with vanity plates and it sneers at me as I slink out of his practice, making a mad dash to Medicare to reclaim my measly, yet precious, $50. I spend $250 a fortnight on housing and try to squirrel away as much as I can to address utility bills and other costs. I am budgeted to the cent and I am only now realizing the utter absurdity of trying to live like this. Hopefully, an employment opportunity will ease the pressure but I am also aware of how paid work might affect my PhD…oh, what a double-bind!
In the media, the ruling elites tell me to ‘stop complaining’ and to compare myself to the world’s poorest people. The same individuals also inform me that student protests are undemocratic and notions like equality in childhood education are “pie in the sky”. Abbott’s dystopic vision of competitive federalism, winner-take-all individualism and no social safety net is the stuff of biting science fiction. I have always loved Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Huxley’s scathing ‘Brave New World’. But, on this grey rainy Melbourne morning, these works chill me to the bone…and it is not just the temperature in my frugally heated drafty old house. It is because their harsh stories seem to be rapidly materialising before my eyes.
Huxley’s naive Miranda ironically cries “Oh Brave New World!” as the Savage (John) shows her what exists away from her sheltered island. Huxley’s world where the majority live is ugly, unrefined – yet real, gritty, true. Even the sympathetic Bernard Marx, who anthropologically examines this space, embodies the bourgeois narcissism that permeates Huxley’s ‘utopia’ island. As with most critical science fiction, ‘Brave New World’ ends in an unsettling and Camusean existential peace for the protagonist yet little change in the grand order. Ultimately, the change the Savage sought became caricatured and in the final pages, the elite zealously participate in a vulgar drug-fueled sexual orgy around the Savage’s fall from grace. Suicide, thus, allows the Savage to reclaim his integrity and sense of self.
To be clear, I intend to liken Abbott’s vision of what Australia could be with an Orwellian order of some animals being more equal than others. The current elite live within blissful confines, blind to the struggle of the regular Australian, who has more claim to citizenry than the rulers, because the new rich physically reside off-shore in sheltered hedonism. The playgrounds of the rich are both geographically and ideologically alien to the masses, almost on another plane of reality. Piketty’s wonderful magnum opus seeks to challenge this order, yet the right-wing battleship of corporate media seeks to question his painstaking statistics and empirical arguments. Students and others protest the furthering of neoliberal brutality, yet are greeted with crude slurs in mainstream press.
My main question, however, is whether we can continue such a totalitarian regime under the title of ‘democracy’. Further to this, if money and politics are value-free, as we are repeatedly told, why is there an outpouring of hate and anger whenever the rich or politically powerful are critiqued by the public? Is this truly the ‘liberalism’ in which democratic ideals were built upon?
Thanks for reading my ramblings (and hopefully not laughing too hard at the material outcomes of my student poverty!). I would love to hear your thoughts about my post in the comments 🙂