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We need to redefine exclusion



Inequality is not an aberration that comes with neoliberalism. It is the foundation of neoliberalism, along with its partners in social crime: patriarchy and colonisation. As Sharan Burrow, the Australian General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), puts it so poignantly: 'We live in a fragmented world.' The excluded form the majority across the globe.

Close up of keyhole and key (Getty Images)We must move beyond the false divide between the exploited and the excluded. Whether someone is locked out of paid work or income adequacy, or locked in to insecure, precarious, poorly paid work or some form of modern slavery or servitude; whether someone has lost their job, or is at risk of losing their job, we are all in some degree of danger — some much more than others.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think that the edge is far away, in a different world. Or that any of us can enjoy the privileges that come with being beneficiaries of the sufferings of others, without one day paying the social price.

The neoliberal fantasy has seen an unprecedented building of walls, to keep people out while providing the highest level of private protection for the privileged. The notion of the social, of the common, of shared fate and shared responsibility, has been displaced by an ideological rupture that has seen the demonisation of democratic socialism alongside the deification of neoliberalism.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote: 'What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.'

Even though these words were written over 50 years ago they ring loudly and truly for us today as we build the road out of the neoliberal era. Even the global institutions that have helped facilitate the neoliberal agenda fear the destructive fire ignited by extreme inequality across the globe. But even though the fire threatens all of us, the very wealthy still seem to feel that they will be safe because they have paid the premium for protection. As for everyone else, you only get what you pay for. It's in the rules.

But the rules are broken. And not just the ones pertaining to industrial relations. The rules, left as they are, will offer safety to no one. They will only paper over the social crimes committed against the planet and the people.


"Austerity for the many as the price of abundance for the few is no longer a convincing argument."


The Australian experience of neoliberalism shares much in common with working people across the globe. As I have written elsewhere, in a globalised labour market, a cut to wages and conditions anywhere is a threat to wages and conditions everywhere. We are already seeing this evidenced in the maritime industry, in the off-shoring of large sections of our manufacturing industry, and in the subjection of workers brought here from other countries to slave-like conditions as a means of lowering labour costs. The upshot of this is that the movements of both capital and labour are tied to the deeply unjust trade in jobs and wages.

The neoliberal era is characterised by a reversal of the social democratic compromise that preceded it, constraining the modest dispersal of power that occurred in liberal democracies in the post-WWII period. To win consent from sections of the working class, the beneficiaries of the neoliberal trajectory developed a political discourse centred on the rightness of exclusion as a means of defining and defending the included.

The neoliberal frame was all-encompassing. It presented a well-wrapped package to the people; promising prosperity, containing nothing. The trickle-down mythology it peddled has been completely discredited. Austerity for the many as the price of abundance for the few is no longer a convincing argument for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy on the one hand with cuts to social expenditure, social security and wages in real terms on the other. The reality is that the single unemployment payment has not seen an increase in real terms since 1994 and in the past two and a half years profits have grown in real terms by 41.8 per cent while wages have only grown by 2.8 per cent in real terms for the same period.

Neoliberalism is a massive intervention in the lives of working people, including those who are residualised and corralled into the reserve army of the unemployed. And yet, the neoliberal intervention is successfully framed as a non-intervention, as a simple matter of government getting out of the way so that people can exercise ingenuity and enterprise. But the trumpeting of choice for the few masks the reality that choices for the many have been massively constrained, especially when it comes to the essentials of life. There is a growing tiredness with the utopian promises that were made alongside the marketisation and commodification of almost everything.

The false dividing line between people in paid work and the rest of the working class is being erased by neoliberalism itself. Precarity, casualistion, sham-contracting and insecurity have been normalised in the labour market. A job is no longer a path out of poverty. In any case there are not enough jobs for the people who need them, with combined unemployment and underemployment figures indicating around 1.8 million people looking for work or more work, with an additional million people who are classified by the ABS as marginally attached to the labour market but wanting to work.

Inequality was never an economic inevitability. It is a political decision, not a matter of economic fate or personal choice. Our world has indeed been fragmented by inequality. The state in the neoliberal project has acted as a means of buttressing this inequality. It is time that the state fulfilled the role of being a buffer against it instead. But this will only happen with a deeply democratic intrusion of the excluded into the sociopolitical space.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018. He has written and spoken widely on neoliberalism and the structural causes of inequality and has long been engaged in the collective movement for social justice and social change. He is the author of The Language of the Unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists Like Us (2017). He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Topic tags: John Falzon, inequality



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Existing comments

Thanks John for an excellent article. We all need to strive to counter exclusion. Growing inequality in Australia is evidenced in: the exclusion of many Australians from owning their own homes, while others have several properties they use as negatively geared tax lurks; the exclusion of a growing number of Australians from the use of electricity because they can't afford to pay their power bills; the exclusion of many indigenous people because the 'closing the gap' in life expectancy etc is far too slow; the exclusion of desperate people who come here seeking asylum only to find themselves indefinitely detained on off-shore hell holes; etc. One think most of could do is donate to charities like St Vinnies, Salvos, Lifeline, etc; Also ,let's vote for 'inclusive' politicians who will reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots at future elections.

Grant Allen | 21 January 2019  

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” But according to numerous studies (e.g. “The Enigma of Reason”), facts don’t change the beliefs of a majority of people. When the communist centrally-planned economy of China proved disastrous, Deng Xiaoping embraced a market economy and lifted tens of millions out of poverty. So too Vietnam with its Doi Moi reforms. But Dr. Falzon rejects our “neoliberal fantasy” as “completely discredited”. He wants “democratic socialism” and he evokes Frantz Fanon, the man who advocated violence as necessary and beneficial. Fanon helped inflame Africa in violence, and Ali Shari’at, the father of the Shiite revolution, translated Fanon. It’s ironic that people wonder if China is now becoming Africa’s new colonial master. The democratic socialism of Hugo Chavez didn’t work either. The Venezuelan economy has collapsed and 3 million people have become refugees to escape starvation. Aristotle knew that without a moral order, no other order—political, social or economic—was possible. A Catholic Archbishop proved that. By causing a revolution in moral values, he turned an underclass mired in poverty, drunkenness and prostitution, into teachers, policeman and judges—in one generation and without one cent of taxpayer’s money: https://www.city-journal.org/html/how-dagger-john-saved-new-york’s-irish-11934.html

Ross Howard | 21 January 2019  

For those on the margins of society and those who are just existing on the wages of a low-paying job life can be a hard grind. And it can feel as if nobody notices. Meanwhile, those who are secure, in the centre of things and whose wages meet their needs can breathe more deeply and rest more peacefully. Except the latter do catch sight of the former (whether they want to or not) and then they have to make a decision. Each individual, at some time or other.

Pam | 21 January 2019  

What were the Labor Party thinking when they rejected John as a candidate? He has so much wisdom that the ordinary person would have been ‘richer’ for having him in the Government

Narelle | 21 January 2019  

While the social justice impetus in me resonates with Dr John Falzon's impassioned critique of neoliberalism, the New Testament Catholic in me says: "Misses the point entirely!" The point being that Jesus Christ teaches us to cultivate God's POWER-UNDER methodology and warns us not to be sucked-into the world's never ending struggle for POWER-OVER. Is it not theologically-fallacious sociology to imagine that human fulfillment follows on fairer politico-economic management? Human fulfillment follows from a deep sense of being unconditionally loved by God and truly cared for by all the members of one's ecclesial community. This can't be legislated for but has to come from hearts that are foundationally born-again in Christ. We often pray and sing about this in our churches but there are few dioceses and parishes where worldliness (or worse) does not reign de facto. Is it surprising: perceiving this hypocrisy, outsiders, as well as our youth, politely decline to join us? Yes, by all means lets vote for honest politicians who still believe in 'a fair go'; while any such exist! BUT, as informed Christians, let's not fail to put most of our energy and love into building enduring, apolitical, caring communities. Future generations will thank us.

Dr Marty Rice | 21 January 2019  

While neoliberalism has its obvious failings (eg, privatisation of government services with subsequent loss of jobs and manufacturing and the outsourcing of costs to maximise profit) these pale into insignificance when compared with the failings of Marxist communism, shades of which permeate this article.

john frawley | 21 January 2019  

My thoughts exactly, Narelle

Sheelah Egan | 21 January 2019  

If it is true that John Falzon was rejected as a possible candidate for the Labor Party, it may be a good thing. He’d make an outstanding Independent. I’d certainly vote for him. Good Independents have the potential to show us a new way of thinking and working that counters exclusion and demonization of all those on the margins of society, finds ways to help everyone fulfil their potential, looks for new perspectives, new ways of doing things. At their best Independents are free from political power games and Big Business agendas. It would be great to have a voice like John Falzon in parliament.

Vineta | 22 January 2019  

You're absolutely right, Vineta. It would be great to have a voice like John Falzon in parliament today. And thank you, John, for continuing to speak up about the horrible inequality and poverty we see everywhere around us today.

robert van zetten | 22 January 2019  

Thank you John for a very thoughtful and well-written article. However, I find it overly pessimistic and imbalanced; presumably as a result of all your excellent work with the most disadvantaged it does not see a much more optimistic big-picture. Australia (and indeed almost the whole world) has never been this well off materially because of global free(ish)-trade and technological advances. Australia is one of the least unequal countries in the world with high but progressive taxes and and an excellent social security net. 60% of Australian pay no net tax, which all comes from the materially better off and companies essentially, which is probably as it should be (as long as we don`t kill off the golden-goose...as Labour and especially the Unions might !). However, we could undoubtedly do even better with cleverer taxes more directed at wealth rather than income, which no longer well reflects ability to pay. We also have far too much public and private debt that makes us ALL very vulnerable to a crash, which will hurt the poorest most. We should also focus more on our most disadvantaged people, who statistically at least are the unemployed and students in fact.

Eugene | 22 January 2019  

I completely agree with your presentation, John. While Communism, which was only a cloak for Dictatorship and not a really effective form of economic management, failed, so has Neo Liberalism failed to provide for the well being of the majority of citizens . The so called 'trickle down effect' is a complete fantasy. Dr Marty, I beg to differ about the message of Jesus. He did not teach that the poor should suffer now as their reward will be eternal bliss, he was a social as well as religious revolutionary who fought for the rights of the common people .He was highly critical of the socio-religious elite that controlled his society and paid the price for what He believed in and fought for. The current situation offends the tenants of Christian Social Justice. We as Catholics and our Church leaders have an ethical and moral obligation to right the inequality in our society. Our political leaders have the responsibility to ensure social cohesion by ensuring the 'fair go' for all citizens. Policies that favour the rich and powerful are offensive to my sense of social justice and should be opposed at every opportunity.

Gavin O'Brien | 22 January 2019  

Hi Gavin O'Brian: thanks for commenting on my comment. Working most of my long life for social justice I'm obviously not again' it! However, with the Jesus Christ of the New Testament, my experience is that the world subtly transforms everything to selfish exploitation and disobedience to God (see, e.g. John 17:1-26; esp. v. 14). Much practical experience, plenty of persecution, extensive international cooperation, plus two PhDs, wakens one to see what our Lord meant. In precis: New Testament-believing Christians (and that includes every true Roman Catholic - since the Catechism of the Catholic Church is built on more than 3,500 citations from the NT) are called to WITNESS TO THE WORLD the reality of Christ's reign: i.e. godly obedience to the 10 commandments and unswerving love, even of our enemies. Again and again we are warned against being yoked to the world; James 4:4 even instructing us that friendship with the world is hatred of God. Ever-increasing fusion of the Church with the world parallels growth of malice, greed, immorality, occultism, and dysfunction (even clerical, criminal predatory activity). The vicious rivalry of Catholic-educated Abbot and Turnbull is instructive. Also, Gavin, your brave-new-world has rather nasty social and ecological accompaniments.

Dr Marty Rice | 22 January 2019  

Gavin, I`m not much a supporter of "neo-liberalism or trickle down" stuff either, but I am a great enthusiast for well-regulated and law-biding markets and free trade without crass exploitation. These have been spectacularly successful for the common good. Australia is the world poster-boy for this success, though it could certainly be tweaked to make it even more so. Our national danger relates most to poor fiscal settings, stalled industrial productivity, too much easy credit for too long, and populists on both wings of politics who want easy, painless but ideological answers to all sorts of complex social and economic problems, plus rent-seekers at every turn. These are the things that hurt our poor ultimately.

Eugene | 23 January 2019  

Hi Eugene. I like much of what you've written and am still meditating on: "Our national danger relates most to poor fiscal settings, stalled industrial productivity, too much easy credit for too long, and populists on both wings of politics who want easy, painless but ideological answers to all sorts of complex social and economic problems, plus rent-seekers at every turn. These are the things that hurt our poor ultimately." That's a more rounded apprehension and a better approach than John's catch-cry of: "It's inequality that fragments our world." Have you ever thought of standing as a political candidate? You're closer to the ancient Christian view that our inequalities are God-given gifts that offer us innumerable opportunities for serving one another. This is something that's in-the-blood of many Australians, both First Peoples and us later arrivals. Isn't the root problem then that most of those who push forward for political position are pretenders who are psychologically-insensitive to the good that could so easily be achieved? From Governor Phillip, all the way through to PM Morrison we seem to have been burdened with unimaginative, cartoon-character incompetents; and I can think of no solution to that.

Dr Marty Rice | 23 January 2019  

many thanks john for a great article ,the greatest exponent of INCLUSION is Pope Francis, lets hope that more people follow his example and change. it is time for change

maryellen flynn | 23 January 2019  

Thank you John Falzon for a very insightful and timely article that raises issues that are crucial for all of humanity. John has highlighted the gross inequality of wealth that exists in the world today and what this means for the poorest in the 99%. According to OXFAM in a BBC report in early 2018 (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-42745853). the world's richest 1% owns 82% of the world's wealth. In addition, according to The New York Times, the richest 1 percent in the US now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. This explains why we see so much suffering in the world at large. And this is made worse by governments that are the obedient servants of the very wealthy and exploitative 1% that give huge tax concessions to the wealthy while cutting essential services to the poorer sections of society - health, education and social services. Under neoliberal capitalism also the super wealthy get to make decision about how societies are managed. And the decisions made usually mean that they lead to the super wealthy becoming even wealthier. This is not just about the exploitation of people, but the exploitation of the environment as well. Too frequently, the executives of the big polluting industries wield a great deal of political power that means they face few constraints on their activities and this has led to massive environmental issues that we need to deal with urgently. The large corporations in the military industrial sector also wield influence about the starting wars to generate further profits. Such wars further worsen the divide between the super rich and the poor because they bring massive death, injury, waves of refugees, destruction of infrastructure and the environment. Voters around the world are demanding that their leaders take urgent action to deal with climate change and pollution. We have to demand that they also take positive steps to ensure that there is more economic fairness - especially for those most in need. People dedicated to social justice, peace, human rights and care for the environment have to pursue politics - the politics of social justice and care for the environment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 23 January 2019  

I'm sorry that Vinnies lost such an ardent advocate for social justice in you, John, but can see why, judging from some anti-socialist positions taken here. Neo-liberalism is to be differentiated from classical liberalism, which, following Adam Smith, and especially in the work of Hobbes & Locke and, later, Mill and Keynes, ensured that the electorate should have some choice about the extent to which the state should interfere with the market in order to ensure that inequality or exclusion - the difference seems a quibble - is minimised. And there is no doubt in my mind that John's position is underpinned by Catholic Social Teaching, which is my area of specialisation. Where I do cross swords with John - though more in jest than joust - is his use of words like 'democratic socialism'. This was the catch-cry of Nehruism, which bankrupted India, only for the BJP to win an election and dramatically improve the material conditions of the people. Would that we were to return to a position in which the instrumentalities of state power were not to be usurped by neoliberals but restored to Keynesians. In their absence, marginalised people have drifted over to demagogues like Trump.

Michael Furtado | 25 January 2019  

I totally disagree, Eugene, that the free market has advanced the common good for all Australians. Thousands upon thousands are missing out and struggling to make ends meet as they live well below the poverty line. I think very few wealthy Australians realise just how little many children, women and men are having to survive on daily. I take serious note of what John writes, "The reality is that the single unemployment payment has not seen an increase in real terms since 1994 and in the past two and a half years profits have grown in real terms by 41.8 per cent while wages have only grown by 2.8 per cent in real terms for the same period." And again, "A job is no longer a path out of poverty. In any case there are not enough jobs for the people who need them, with combined unemployment and underemployment figures indicating around 1.8 million people looking for work or more work, with an additional million people who are classified by the ABS as marginally attached to the labour market but wanting to work." Many Australians are doing it tough and the free market and trade system are failing them badly.

robert van zetten | 25 January 2019  

We should be careful not to discriminate equality of outcome but work to ensure equality of opportunity. The practical outcomes of the Marxist ideal is exampled in Venezuela. No certainty of rights, no incentive to work, no investment in Industry, no freedom of speech and ultimately no money and no food.

Patrick | 26 January 2019  

Patrick, re your comment on Venezuela, having lived in South America and having some understanding of the Latin zeitgeist (and the success of the Lula Brasil and the Chavez Venezuela), it is absolutely clear that the real problem is the frustration of the USA/CIA with democratic processes that advance the needs of the 'poor' as opposed to the oligarchs who 'own the joint'. You really should work to understand the history - the story - of Latin American exploitation by both the oligarchs and the USA. Venezuela just one domino, I'm very sad to say. PS who actually wants the USA version of democracy??? Rule by the fiat of the rich, is increasingly apparent.

Mike Nelson | 28 January 2019  

Mike Nelson writes of, “the success of the Lula Brasil and the Chavez Venezuela.” Lula is in jail for corruption. Venezuela has been bankrupted by Chavez’s socialist policies while Chavez himself was worth $1 billion at the time of his death. I noted above, that according to numerous studies, facts won’t change the beliefs of a majority of people, and definitely not ideologues. The Hungarian Marxist philosopher, Georg Lukacs, declared in 1967, that “even if every empirical predication of Marxism were invalidated, he would still hold Marxism to be true.” When Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge leader pursuing a Marxist utopia in Cambodia, was convicted of genocide, he defended his actions by stating that he only ever wanted “social justice for my country.” Don’t we all? But to continue to pursue an ideology with 100-year record of monstrous failures is akin to recklessly disregarding the consequences of one’s actions. In law, recklessness is regarded as but a small step below actually intending those consequences. George Orwell concluded that his communist and socialist comrades in the Spanish Civil War were motivated not so much by love for the poor, but by envy and hatred of those who were successful.

Ross Howard | 29 January 2019  

I get extremely tired and frustrated by people constantly trying to label as Marxist or communist those of us who simply want all people to have enough food, clean water, education, employment and health care. Capitalism and the free market have failed for years to provide enough food, proper education and employment for all in countries like Australia and USA yet we hardly hear a whisper of criticism. It's still very much like what Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

robert van zetten | 30 January 2019  

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