‘When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.’
― William Gibson, Zero History
A crisis has its own way of focusing our minds on what matters and what doesn’t. It still feels like such early days and who knows what’s over the edge of this thing, really, but our relationships, our politics, our infrastructure—everything—is facing a stress test unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.
First published at Meanjin
The outlines of some things become clear immediately; while panic buying captured the headlines, a quieter surge of self-organised kindness has welled up from all quarters. Fast-moving, adaptive, and suddenly everywhere: people are working out how we build community when we’re not even allowed to see or touch each other. Some of it is digital—like the thousandfold mutual aid groups that have come to life on social media, or the people curating trusted sources of information amidst the panicky blizzard. Some of it is analogue—like the trailer with some eskies in it just up our laneway, where neighbours are now leaving surplus fresh produce for each other to take and swap.
Wondering this morning whether this emergent rediscovery of the care economy will be able to scale rapidly enough to hold fast, realising that of course it can, and the proof is all around us. At institutional scale, that’s what a public healthcare system is. That’s what fire and emergency services do. That’s the principle that underlies public education, public transport, public broadcasting, the social safety net: all of it. Pool our collective resources, and those things will be there when we need them, from the zucchinis in the trailer, to the ICU in a major teaching hospital.
There’s an obvious flaw in this beautiful system: how do we defend it from the lazy, the freeloaders, the people who extract from this collective generosity but don’t put anything back? It’s an old and knotty problem, one that this bastard pandemic now forces us to confront.
Here’s how it works in practice. On Wednesday March 18, the Australian government announced a $715 million rescue package for the nation’s stricken aviation sector. Qantas management, grateful for the assistance, immediately sacked 20,000 workers, cushioning the blow for their investors by casting two thirds of its employees into the street. Amazon—a trillion dollar company run by the world’s richest and least interesting man—is doing an online fundraiser to get other people to support its desperate workforce. The dynamic is familiar everywhere: a tax-avoiding queue of investors and oligarchs miraculously redeveloping a taste for the social safety net they’ve been hacking away at for four decades.
Since the mid-1970s, the ethic of public health, public welfare and mutual aid has been under sustained attack by the same people now desperate for a public bailout. The doctrine of neoliberalism views our whole society as a rich site of extraction: healthcare systems to be broken up and run for profit, public transport degraded in favour of private cars, welfare systems converted into poverty traps to ensure a pool of desperate low-wage labour. It goes well outside the boundaries of greed into the realm of the actively parasitic. Run down the public hospitals, set up private ones and then get taxpayers to subsidise them. Do the same thing with schools. It’s an ideology that allowed private interests to mine the childcare and aged care sectors for profit, blew a massive crater in the national broadband network, and even in the wake of the bushfires was seething with hatred for public broadcasters.
They’ve spent four decades trying to convert what should be universal essential services into a for-profit free-for-all, and now we’re staring at the consequences. It’s not just taking from the trailer and not putting anything back; it’s cleaning it out and then selling us back what they took.
With our minds thus focused, it becomes starkly apparent who matters in this economy, and who has had their proboscis stuck in for the free feed. This is when we realise that without healthcare workers, teachers, cleaners and delivery drivers, the amenity we take for granted ceases to exist. People doing night fill in supermarkets and people at the front-end of service delivery, but also the publicly funded researchers working around the clock on a vaccine, and the artists and performers we’re all turning to now in order to stay afloat amidst months of social isolation.
Hedge fund managers? Bank CEOs? Think tank ‘fellows’ who would throw you under a bus if a price signal told them to? Not so much. If you want to know what the lazy extractive freeloaders are whispering into Morrison’s ear, you could do much worse than skim Centre for Independent Studies front-man Tom Switzer’s piece in the Fin: it’s a miserable recital of the same deadening neoliberal wish-list that got us here: ‘…lower taxes, slash excessive regulatory red tape, reduce adversarial workplace regulation…’
All of this is just dismal code for more predator capitalism. Enough.
The way we get through this is by rediscovering the value of community, of the public good, and of collective wellbeing. We get through it by looking out for each other, and by getting organised. We’ll get through it by taxing obscene wealth, nationalising essential services since the private sector seems suddenly unable to provide them, and making sure that everyone—employed or not—is able to weather this thing in safety and dignity. Even in a pandemic, collective organising pays off, as demonstrated by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union and everyone who backed them in getting the Jobseeker Payment doubled.
In a crisis, things that seemed impossible suddenly become imaginable, and then they become achievable. Stay in touch. Wash your hands. Join your union. Look out for each other, with love, and put some fresh food in the trailer if you have any to spare. There’s a whole world to win.