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All that is solid melts into air


‘All that is solid melts into air.’ These words from The Communist Manifesto, first published in London in 1848, were written as a poetic depiction of the destructive and creative dynamism of capitalism. Reading them today makes you feel as if they were written with the last couple of years in mind. Much looked as if it were solid, but melted into air.

Social security payments, for example, were once actually seen as a means of preventing poverty, not prescribing it. A job was once seen, at least for some, as being not only the best guarantee against poverty but the path to economic security. Now it seems, however, multiple jobs are required to stave off poverty.

According to a recent ACTU report, there are now ‘867,900 Australians working multiple jobs, the highest number since the ABS began tracking secondary jobs in 1994.’ And there are now a record number of Australians working three or more jobs, 209,100, a 10.8 per cent increase from June 2020.

We’re living in a society where, according to the report, workers who do multiple jobs still earn 17.5 per cent less than the national average. And women working multiple jobs are significantly worse off than men, earning almost $10,000 less per year than their male counterparts. Of those holding multiple jobs, 53.7 per cent are women and 55 per cent are under 35.

This surge in people working multiple jobs is being driven by employers offering insecure work. Where employers, encouraged by neoliberal governments, assiduously press for ever greater levels of insecurity and precarity as a means of increasing short-term profits by lowering wages, as well as aggressively fragmenting the working class, they do so for one reason only: because they can.

The very word precarity, Eloisa Betti reminds us, comes from the Latin root precor (pray) or precarius (obtained by praying). When our jobs, or anything else for that matter, are insecure, we are expected to feel like those who hold the power over us are best approached with an attitude akin to prayer.


"At its best, politics is the collective means of achieving our shared hopes."


And this precarity is not an accident of history. It is designed to place people in a position of assumed powerlessness. It functions most effectively for its instigators when people are isolated from each other, atomised, fragmented, convinced that their malady is theirs alone. It is important that we tell ourselves the story of what is happening.

But if ‘storytelling,’ as Ursula Le Guin argues, ‘is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,’ we have a long way to go before we can claim we have collectively crafted a shared story, one that truthfully and respectfully acknowledges the deliberate disempowerment of First Nations Peoples, women, workers, and all who are systematically relegated and residualised. Our story must also acknowledge, and help provoke, our resistance to this disempowerment, our stubborn commitment to solidarity and love.

In the midst of the fragmentation of the last two years, we have come together in extraordinary ways. We have developed a heightened sense of the centrality of the social, the primacy of the public sphere. Whether it’s our public health system, our startling (albeit unconscionably temporary) ability to prevent poverty by increasing unemployment payments and initiating job subsidies, our remarkable speed at finding accommodation (temporary again, for the most part) for people sleeping rough, or our spontaneous outbursts of personal and communal kindness, we have learned, as per the insight of political theorist, Jodi Dean, that solidarity is our ‘response to fragmentation.’  

As we brace ourselves for the 2022 election, I want to call to mind three stories that have resonated deeply with many of us and have left a mark on the political arena. First, there has been the story that has been so beautifully crystallised in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a story of liberation told by ‘the most incarcerated people on the planet.’ Secondly, there is the story of patriarchal violence, told by women, a story not of acceptance of the way things are but of collective resistance against the way things are. Third, there is the story of working people, organised around the principle of dignity, fighting for secure jobs. The fight to save the planet is integral to each of these, and other, stories of love and liberation.

Our social brokenness can turn us in on ourselves and against each other, but solidarity, even when it is tentative, even when we do not recognise it as such, is the most powerful antidote to fragmentation. As Nicaraguan poet, Gioconda Belli, put it, echoing the revolutionary slogan of those who had nothing but hope in their pockets, ‘Solidarity is the tenderness of the People.’

Our job is to turn this fragmentation into a resonant narrative. More than developing policies that speak to our sense of being overwhelmed, it is about capturing that painful sense of dislodgement and transforming it into a nugget of credible hope. We are usually more afraid of losing what we have than failing to gain what is not yet real for us. Politics, at its worst, is a vehicle for lies that play on these fears and offer us a false protection against them. At its best, however, politics is the collective means of achieving our shared hopes.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is the author of The language of the unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists like us (2017). He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union. 

Topic tags: John Falzon, employment security, precarity, neoliberalism, auspol, election campaign



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Existing comments

Thanks John: you have put together alarming trends that we are becoming too used to and about which we seem ever more complacent.

Gerard Moore | 20 January 2022  

Dr. Falzon, I wish Laura Tingle could collect and speak the numbers provided by the ACTU. Tonight, Laura, went over the same ground while Josh Fredenberg was at his glib best, speaking the language of the RBA and the major banks, that "all indicators show that.....the economy is recovering well, and more jobs have been created.....". Nothing was said about the hours and number of jobs a person has to work now to survive in this Australia where wages rates are so low and there is no job security. In other words, the wrong ammunition was being used on a thick hide- the 'bullets' just bounced off- again. Unfortunately, unless this government is held to account, 'the bullets' will keep being deflected; and the words are lost in the wind.

JOHN WILLIS | 20 January 2022  

Millions of people around the world including the work force have long gotten over the values of Marxist communism as a meaningful tool in the battle for social justice just as they have abandoned the trade unions in droves. Extreme lefty socialism is not the answer any more so than is extreme right wing economic privilege with its trickle down philosophy. The time is long overdue to abandon both, Dr Falzon, and rebuild the middle ground. It will take a revolution of course but we are just about due for one if the cycle of the last couple of centuries with the French and Russian revolutions is any indicator. Who knows what will follow in the wake of this deadly epidemic. In Australia, it seems that it has currently shifted support for the cult of Liberal/National economic management. It is a great pity that there is not a good alternative to replace it - we couldn't survive another a-la-Whitlam style revolution which is all the left has to offer. Oh for a party that has the interests of humanity rather than the party philosophy at heart.

john frawley | 21 January 2022  
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When assessing competing economic theories, the Christian economist should remember a couple of things from the New Testament which may or may not be connected, but which very likely are: the goats who were, unlike the sons of Sceva, so genuinely a part of some elements of Christianity that they had true authority from God to perform miracles in Christ’s name, and Christ’s repudiation of the misuse of korban to deprive the poor of resources ostensibly reserved for greater purposes.

It’s probably prudent to assume that those who have enough knowledge of what is truly Catholic to perform miracles are more likely to have deprived the poor of their just entitlements not from bald selfishness but from exquisite rationales for why the poor in those circumstances could or should not be helped, in effect using something like a korban argument.

At the end of the day, if an empirical outcome of a policy is to hurt or disadvantage somebody, the makers and supporters of that policy should be careful that they are not using a korban argument that could turn them into goats.

roy chen yee | 24 January 2022  

With respect, John Frawley, wouldn't one expect a medical doctor and retired hospital administrator, accustomed to justifying wage differentials and, arguably, not easily at home with the notion of a basic wage, to express such a view?

Failing which, what alternative mechanism for fairness would you suggest in the absence of a trade union, especially as one who commendably espouses the cause of a social justice that you don't yet define, to achieve a more felicitous and fair-minded outcome?

Who would champion such interests on both sides? And where would such an arrangement be without the arbitration of a neutral and fair-minded government, especially when you are recorded in these columns as excoriating all politicians?

How would your political system work without parties representing interests on various sides? And, acknowledging the imperfect aspects of our democracy, would you rather turn the policy clock back to pre-revolutionary serfdom?

What about the 'cause and effect' reasoning that must play a part in both medical diagnostic consideration as well as in the employment of complex factors when administering something as challenging as a hospital budget?

Or are such challenges met by invoking Divine intervention by a select few and their abandonment of reason?

Michael Furtado | 24 January 2022  

Beautiful article, John, and what it describes and proposes is accurate and necessary.

But it's swimming against a powerful tide of institutionalised individualism and selfishness. Capitalism has preached individualism and self-interest ever since its beginnings in the eighteenth century. While a market economy has undoubtedly been very effective at lifting people in the rich West (and increasingly in China) out of poverty, we need to recognise and contain the very real harm capitalism does to the environment and social cohesion.

Unfortunately, we have gone in the opposite direction over the last 40 years of neoliberalism. Margaret Thatcher did tell us that neoliberalism means 'There is no such thing as society'.

And that's what we're now witnessing - the death of any sense of communalism. It's the dog-eat-dog wet-dream of the capitalist, with even Christians marching in the streets against public health measures for the sake of individual licence, of governments handing out JobKeeper to companies that didn't need it while pursuing little people below the poverty line for small overpayments, etc. Just this week a Baby Boomer was writing in The (Adelaide) Advertiser exhorting fellow Baby Boomers to rise up to stop governments from stealing their pensions, superannuation and franking credits, oblivious to those poor souls really doing it tough because the rich are not paying their fair share of tax - suicidal kids, people with disabilities, people in pain on elective surgery waiting lists, poor people with rotten teeth, homeless people, people trying to get off drugs and alcohol addictions. The pandemic does not seem to have stopped us from heading downhill in the wrong directionof individualism and lack of concern for others.

I wish I knew what the answer was, for the sake of my grandkids, but talking about the problem is at least a start. Thankyou.

Peter Schulz | 21 January 2022  

Thanks, John. Your clear message and direct propositions are more than helpful. It seems to me that Neoliberals are cherry-picking Catholic Social Justice principles: human dignity and subsidiarity. Socialists do much the same focusing in on common good and solidarity. We need to argue the merits of a less restrictive and broader view to that seen though the binoculars used by Neoliberals and Socialists. You never know the conversation might even run
to a preferential option for the poor!

Kimball Byron Chen | 27 January 2022  

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