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Best of 2013: Australian democracy needs an intrusion of the excluded

  • 16 January 2014

We're well into the election campaign and everybody is talking about the economy. The word 'economy' has a Greek etymology. It comes from oikos (household) and nomos (law, order, management). In the contemporary context it is generally understood to refer to a set of figures, such as GDP, rate of growth, inflation, employment, balance of trade, the deficit. But maybe the number of people experiencing homelessness in Australia is also a measure of the economy? After all, it provides us with a picture of how many people are actually without an oikos!

The truth is that we could look at ourselves as enjoying a thumping record of economic growth while viewing the number of people experiencing homelessness as somehow incidental to this rosy picture. Likewise for the 2.3 million people living in poverty, including 600,000 kids!

In a poem entitled 'Economic Report', poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote prophetically about the kind of internal revolution that is demanded by the Gospel; a Beatitudes-like inversion of our values and practices to the degree that we might be able to say that 'economics now is love'.

In truth the popular mainstream notion of 'economics' is ideologically loaded. It is a reference point not for love or for the 'public good' but rather a paean to private gain, private profit, and the accumulation of wealth — regardless of the concomitant accumulation of misery, both here and in those parts of the world where people are savagely exploited and plundered of their natural wealth so that our standard of living might be augmented. 

It is predicated on the assumption that wealth generated for the rich will eventually trickle down to everyone else. Poverty, then, is seen as a symptom of personal failure. People are pathologised and many are eventually criminalised; for the criminal 'justice' system is the logical end-point for those who find themselves outside the household, neither producing nor consuming according to the rules of the household. 

John Berger, in A Seventh Man, his moving study of migrant workers in Europe, wrote: 'According to the capitalist ethic, poverty is a state from which an individual or a society is delivered by enterprise.' Poverty and homelessness therefore are constructed as a lack of enterprise, a moral failing. Berger goes further with this analysis of how exclusion is