It’s fascinating to observe the issues which spark national and global outrage. In Australia recently there have been all-consuming crises over an allegedly racist tabloid cartoon of Serena Williams, needles in strawberries, political interference in the ABC and advertising on the Sydney Opera House, to name a few. Globally, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as US Supreme Court Justice, despite credible sexual assault allegations and dishonest testimony, has been seized on as confirmation of white male privilege, of the sexist and racist nature of society and the polity.
These are all important issues, no doubt, but the rage is being focused on the wrong targets. We are endlessly fighting each other over race, gender, political tribes and sexuality, and this is preventing us from uniting to solve the systemic issues that have become full blown existential crises. Amid persistent efforts by powerful interests to, as former US President Barack Obama says, ‘keep us angry and keep us cynical, because it helps them maintain the status quo, and keep their power’, there has been a continuous stream of reports about the devastating extreme weather and other effects caused by climate change, which threatens the very future of humanity within this century. Our own and our children’s lives could be cut short by the collapse of human and natural systems unless radical action is taken in the next few years to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Humanity has destroyed nearly all wild animals on Earth, as a recent Meanjin essay outlined in harrowing detail, and our addiction to consumption and growth is now threatening our own species. Why are people not rioting in the streets over this?
The political leadership in countries such as Australia and the US, who reap huge windfalls in donations from fossil fuel companies, are further away than they have been in decades from implementing measures which could realistically hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. The events of the last few months have given us a clear indication as to why this is the case. Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as Prime Minister despite strong public support, and reports soon revealed that this may have been done at the whim of powerful business interests. Former Prime Ministers such as Kevin Rudd received similar treatment; Rudd came in promising major reforms around carbon pricing, mining super profits, gambling, telecommunications, financial services and other issues, which cost him his Prime Ministership after a significant donor strike on the ALP and concerted campaigns by vested interests including News Corp and the mining lobby. The policies that would hurt profits of wealthy business interests were quickly axed or watered down.
With striking regularity Australians see a massive disconnect between the public interest and the policies that get endorsed by politicians, with public opinion regularly ignored to appease a wealthy minority of politically connected vested interests. According to the Grattan Institute, powerful groups have triumphed over the national interest in many recent debates from pokies reform to pharmaceutical groups, to toll roads and superannuation reform. But criticism of the system is still largely taboo. Even the relatively minor issue of advertising on the Opera House was focused around besmirching a cultural icon rather than the fact that the issue highlights how much governments are beholden to vested interests.
The Kavanaugh issue similarly is a window into the protected and influential ruling class which spans all races and genders and continues to funnel wealth and prosperity from the bottom to the top of society. This is a natural outcome when you look at the structure of the system, under which the bulk of political donations can be hidden, while politicians and their staffers are free to take lucrative positions within the industries they regulate once they leave Parliament. Lobbyists, who are also allowed to ply their trade in relative secrecy due to lax regulations, have far more access to policymakers than they should and staff move seamlessly between lobbying and senior political roles. Policy formulation is increasingly being outsourced to the big 4 accounting firms who also get to advise big business on how to make the best of the regime; is it any wonder why many of the most successful companies and individuals pay next to no tax? The corruption of the federal political system has been laid bare in the recent Transparency Project series in The Guardian, but its impact has been insignificant even though it shows that our democracy is a mirage. The public is expected to vote every few years and then go back to sleep while decisions are made in the interests of powerful donors.
All this is occurring against a backdrop of immense concentration of corporate power and media ownership, and a decline in the lot of ordinary working people. The Australia Institute senior research fellow David Richardson analysed AFR Rich List data against ABS statistics and concluded that it takes 1.92 million of the poorest households to own as much wealth as the top seven richest people in Australia, and that the share of wealth to the lowest earners had declined over time. While the public discourse centres on cost of living pressures, the real issue of recent years is that real wages have not been rising, as respected economics commentator Ross Gittins pointed out. This aligns with a recent IMF paper which found the deregulation of the job market pushed by proponents of neoclassical economics has meant workers have missed out on wage rises despite record business profits.
A recent Productivity Commission (PC) report on inequality found it has ‘risen slightly’ in nearly three decades, but subsequent analysis of the data which considered housing costs revealed disposable incomes increased by only 30% in the lowest decile, compared with 81% in the highest decile. ANU Professor Peter Whiteford, who was one of the external referees for the PC report, points to ABS statistics showing the number of underemployed workers has grown from 6.3% to 8.9% of the workforce while wage disparities have also increased. He says low and middle income earners are not that much better off than they were in 1989. The lack of wage growth has meant household savings levels in Australia are now at the lowest levels in a decade. Recent speeches by former treasurer Wayne Swan, national president of the Labor Party, and shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh, both Labor MPs, make it clear that growing economic inequality and rampant corporate power is becoming a threat to democracy itself, but they have yet to show policies to fix the problem.
It’s no surprise that many people are starting to sit up and wonder if maybe the system has been rigged against them. It’s becoming clearer that instead of fighting each other over social issues, we need to first fix the economic and political system that is giving rise to the angst. University of Queensland economist John Quiggin believes financialised capitalism has failed and it will take a major crash before the issue will be resolved, while The Economist published views recently arguing the only way to fix the growing global inequality inherent in capitalism was warfare, revolution, state collapse or plague.
Right wing parties have been able to channel the fear and anger of ordinary people into support for ideologies and policies that only seek to reduce their power even further, but this is because the left is busy fighting each other rather than the system. Regressive agendas thrive when there is no progressive framework on offer that will address the real economic issues people are facing. Poor white working class people who are struggling to feed their families are right to feel affronted by rhetoric from the left around white privilege, just as many men who see themselves as supportive of equal rights feel threatened and outraged by feminist rhetoric that portrays all men as inherently evil. There is nothing the wealthy powerful individuals and business interests who dominate society like more than to see us getting mad at each other over these issues instead of uniting against the common enemy, which is unchecked corporate power and economic inequality.
Yet any attempts to discuss other systems is met with reds under the bed type fearmongering, such as the recent piece in Quillette by Dr. Murray Bessette, who like many proponents of the status quo seek to portray the choice as one between free market capitalism and totalitarian communist regimes from last century. The regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere were Marxist in propaganda only, but were actually brutal autocratic regimes that attempted to centralise production at a time of immense technological change. Similarly, what we have now is not a free market democracy, as evidenced by the plutocratic influences on politics described earlier and by the bailouts during the GFC, which resulted in socialised risks but privatised profits for the bankers. Many of the elements that form the bedrock of Australian society which we take for granted today, such as Medicare, public education, progressive taxation and the welfare safety net, came out of the influence of socialism, and is partly the reason why we still see ourselves as a relatively fair society with social mobility, compared to the US which is already resembling a new aristocracy (as outlined recently in The Atlantic). The relatively strong middle class in Australia has masked the fact that our politics, just like the US, is dominated by a wealthy minority. Corporate welfare, rent seeking and business interests reign supreme and public opinion has seemingly little to no influence on the policy that gets adopted.
It’s disingenuous to frame this as a choice between free market ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’—all the systems that make up society and life as we know it were put in place by people no smarter than us, and they can be changed. There is room for nuance, as evidenced by the differences already between so-called western democracies.
While politicians can often dictate which issues are emphasised (if the PM calls a press conference at a strawberry farm, for instance, the media has little choice but to follow), journalists on both the left and right have played a significant role in ensuring the status quo is maintained. The way the Murdoch press has for decades skewed the political debate (even going back to Whitlam) with biased reportage was recently catalogued in a brilliant series by The Guardian, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the clear evidence that our political system has been corrupted by vested interests (multiple former PMs have even claimed as much in recent weeks), you will rarely see Australia’s most influential political commentators featuring this in their analysis. To them politics is a game between personalities but that is because their position within the system depends on them perpetuating and accepting the fictions that rule that world. For every tabloid newspaper or commercial TV broadcast that seeks to distract the disengaged majority with stories about sport, crime, racism, miracle cures and consumerism, there is a serious intellectual publication like the SMH or the AFR which brainwashes the political class with the dominant ideology. In the latter outlets, criticism of the system is at best portrayed as fringe conspiracy stuff and at worst simply ignored altogether. Aside from some jabs against Murdoch’s influence on politics, Fairfax and the ABC help to perpetuate the status quo as much as a biased front page of the Daily Telegraph. But how much can we expect media to campaign for systemic change given that most media companies are large corporations which sell audiences to other major corporations, and are therefore commercially reliant on the status quo?
The dominant thinking among politicians, the media and key commentators is still that the solution to all that ails us is more jobs, consumption and growth, even as the science is telling us that this ideology is destroying the conditions that allow us to survive on this planet. Markets and the private sector are seen as sacrosanct even as the perils of unchecked capitalism and privatisation are being made devastatingly clear, such as in the recent aged care investigation by ABC’s Four Corners.
Corporate profits and technological improvements have surged but the lot of ordinary workers is becoming increasingly perilous. Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, believes technology will soon make people economically irrelevant and politically powerless. Given lives are at stake, and the polity is still committed to racing to the brink on climate change and inequality, is it any wonder that increasingly young people, forced to navigate this broken system, are coming to the realisation that revolution might be the only way out?
Asher Moses is a former SMH / The Age technology editor. He twice won the Walkley Young Australian Online Journalist of the Year award in 2008 and 2011 and was a finalist for Best Digital Journalism in the 2012 Walkley Awards. After over a decade in journalism he joined a consumer telecommunications lobby group before spending 4 years as a top excecutive in the PR industry.