Very often my goal in writing is to try to make normal things feel weird, and weird things feel normal. I try to do that because our sense of normality isn’t to be trusted: every now and then something opens ours eyes and shows us that our ‘normal’ is, well, kind of messed up. When these things happen—some social shift, a personal tragedy, an encounter with a stranger, a lesson from a teacher—we get snapped out of it, as if we’ve been asleep, and feel an urge to change things. That’s where the word ‘woke’ comes from.
It’s also, while we’re at it, where teenagers get their sense of righteous outrage. Teenagers are the closest thing we have to beneficent aliens visiting earth. They’re in the odd position of coming to understand the world around them for the first time. They have our sense of justice, but haven’t yet become accustomed to injustice. The result is anger, outrage, and sometimes, action. Seeing the world with moral attention, I think, means becoming something of a teenager again.
Now-cancelled comedian Louis C.K used to have an incredible bit, later performed on his show Louie, where a young woman visits from out of town. She’s spent her entire life in rural New Hampshire, and when Louis picks her up at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, she’s completely overwhelmed. They step out of the terminal and walk past a homeless man lying on the pavement.
The young girl, who has never seen an un-housed person before, is horrified. She immediately bends down to help. She takes a knee, asking the homeless man what happened, if he’s okay, if he needs anything, if she can call anyone. Louie, distressed by how much she has strayed from local norms, quickly intervenes. ‘Oh hunny, no, no,’ he says. ‘We don’t do that here.’
Australia is a very rich country. Also, many Australians live in poverty.
It’s not even a small number. Over three million Australians, or about 13% of us, live in relative poverty, which is to say they receive less than 50% of the median Australian income. That’s the level at which you can no longer participate meaningfully in a society—you basically get priced out of the social fabric. And according to ACOSS’s Poverty in Australia 2020 report, the average impoverished Australian lives a further 42% below the poverty line.
This is true across the Anglophone rich countries. Canada and the UK have poverty rates basically comparable with Australia, and poverty rates in the US are significantly (and famously) higher. At Matt Yglesias put it in a recent piece,
The United States of America is a very rich country with a very high median income, but we also have relatively high levels of poverty and squalor. Tens of millions of Americans experience food insecurity, homelessness, or other severe problems because, despite our affluence, our welfare state is relatively stingy.
It hardly needs saying, but on every measure of health and wellbeing, from life expectancy to mental health to school drop-out rates, the poor languish behind the rich. Their opportunities (the crucial buzzword of liberal capitalism) are few and far between. They are handed lives of undue stress, suffering, and misery. You would have thought that, as some of the richest countries in the world, we might do something about this.
And yet ACOSS’s 2016 and 2020 reports show that poverty in Australia is rising. To the extent we have anti-poverty policies, they are woefully inadequate. As it stands, the Australian government shows no interest in ending poverty in Australia. In fact, it’s not even trying to get the poverty rate below 10%. Instead, over the last ten years, the Australian government’s chosen policy framework has actively increased the number of people in poverty.
Until about a week ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in Australia cared about this problem. The Liberal National Party installed the policies that are driving poverty up, and the Labor Party hasn’t led with an anti-poverty platform since the ‘80s. The median voter is thought to be too right wing for this type of initiative to succeed in our Parliament. But about a fortnight ago the Australian Greens launched a policy designed to meaningfully reduce poverty in Australia. They called it a Liveable Income Guarantee, promising to raise Australia’s various income support payments to $88 per day—the poverty line.
The Greens’ policy is an exception that proves the rule: ending poverty is not a priority for the Australian public. In Australia’s popular discourse the policy received the type of attention all anti-poverty campaigns seem to receive: a brief splash, some curiosity, and little popular momentum. I’m not in Australia, but as far as I can tell the policy is already receding in our collective memory. The major papers sometimes run stories about the lives on impoverished people, but something always stops this issue from being treated with urgency by the Australian public. It is as though the existence of impoverished Australians is just considered normal.
Why? Why do you think Australians do not seem to care about their fellow Australians? I’m not asking this rhetorically. Why do you, the reader, think we, the Australian people, know that fellow Australians live in poverty and do nothing about it?
In his 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert O. Hirschman sets out to articulate the standard moves in conservative thought. Faced with the possibility of change, he says, conservatives tend to fall back on three arguments. Together, these arguments form a narrative that compels and justifies inaction in the face of injustice.
Those arguments are the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. I’m just going to rip their definitions from Wikipedia:
- According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
- The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent’.
- Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.
Basically, if you want to improve the world, a conservative will tell you either a) your actions will have negative unintended consequences; b) you won’t be able to change anything, anyway; or c) you’ll put at risk all the good things we have. This is the mindset of the average Australian.
But there’s something else going on, too, something that probably underpins Hirschman’s three theses. I believe it’s the foundational premise of Australia’s political common sense. I call it the normality thesis: the assumption that the way things are is the way things must be. This is the view, the feeling, the attitude, that there is a natural order to the world, and that natural order is the one that we currently live in.
Believing the normality thesis is very often the necessary condition for adopting Hirschman’s three arguments of reaction, and I know this from personal experience. Because the society I grew up in was all I had ever known, it felt normal, and because it felt normal, I took it that it had to be natural. Because it felt natural, I took it to be necessary.
It followed that attempts to interfere would risk perversity, futility, or jeopardy exactly because those attempts would be against nature. Australia wasn’t perfect, but it was the best we could hope for. It wasn’t just the way things are—it was the way things must be.
It turns out that there is nothing normal, natural, or necessary about Australia’s economy—or any other. That’s something you realise as soon as you live overseas. The Australian visitor to San Francisco drives around mouth agape, unable to come to terms with the hundreds, thousands, of homeless human beings living in their cars, under bridges, in tents that have become so permanent that these men and women establish self-created infrastructure around them. The rich locals walk by utterly unfazed by the literal masses of human suffering on their doorstep. They go to work, to the gym, to the club in full view of the moral atrocity occurring in front of them. To them, it’s normal.
To the outsider, it’s anything but. Walking around big American cities can make any foreigner feel genuinely insane. These places are not normal—they are manifestly weird. It is weird to be so rich and to leave so many people un-housed. It is weird to wilfully facilitate mass poverty. It is weird, weird, weird. An Australian seeing SF or NYC for the first time inevitably thinks: these Americans are sickos.
But the next thought, if this Australian has any integrity at all, is about our own country. That the US is worse than Australia is no comfort—Denmark’s poverty rate is as far from Australia’s as ours is from America’s. A Dane walking through the streets of Sydney is right to think: these people are weird. They are sickos.
Not only is Australia’s particular variant of liberal capitalism contingent on the choices of Australians, but the very system of capitalism has no right to be called ‘natural’, either. And yet naturalism is an implicit claim of capitalism. The very notion of ‘laissez faire’ implies that there is such a thing as not intervening; that you can take your hands off the wheel and the economic machine will drive itself naturally.
But the truth is, that rather than occurring organically, liberal capitalism only occurs under conditions of immense human intervention. The very existence of this thing we call ‘the market’ depends upon having an extremely active, violent militia to police those who stray from the rules of the system. The commodification of labour and land—that is, the literal creation of ‘jobs’ and ‘home ownership’—only occurred a couple of centuries ago at the barrel of the government’s gun. There was no market for these things before that happened. And the actual economic machinery of the whole thing—the creation of money—is manifestly the government’s job. Without the state, as David Graeber shows in his 2011 book Debt, money would not exist as we know it. When it comes to capitalism, the first thing we should say is that the whole thing is manifestly unnatural.
Now, the sheer contingency of late capitalism is not an argument against it—all human communities are born out of human choices. But once you see that modern capitalism is a contingent accident of history, like everything else humans do, the three arguments of reaction quickly lose their force. The perversity thesis’s warning about unintended consequences gives way to the possibility of unintended benefits. The futility thesis suddenly seems ridiculous: humans made this world; they can make a different one. And the jeopardy thesis just seems like a gentle warning to tread carefully. It doesn’t provide us with any concrete reason to think our progress is at risk. Instead, we realise, as Graeber writes, ‘The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.’
The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently. I have the view that fewer Australians should live in poverty. This turns out to be a controversial view. I know this because lifting our fellow Australians out of poverty is not very difficult, and yet we don’t do it. It doesn’t require revolution. It wouldn’t be futile, perverse, or jeopardise what we have. In fact, other rich countries do it all the time. Denmark’s poverty rate is fully half of ours.
So, here’s that question again. Why do you, the reader, think we, the Australian people, know that fellow Australians live in poverty and do nothing about it?
Perhaps we are sickos.
This piece was originally published at Alistair’s Newsletter.