Comrades among the ruins of neoliberalism



Feeling wretched is one thing. But is there anything worse than feeling both wretched and alone?

Nidia Diaz I Was Never AloneI remember in the early 90s going along to the Fairfield School of Arts in the outer south west of Sydney to hear Nidia Diaz, a leader within the left in El Salvador who had been imprisoned for 190 days by the right-wing regime and had written a powerful prison diary called I Was Never Alone. I had learned a very modest smattering of Spanish from my friends in the local community but couldn't really understand this beautiful language and had mistakenly thought that there was going to be an English interpreter present.

It was a strange and enchanting experience. A bit like opera, which my old man had given me a love for, I couldn't understand the words but I could feel the passion, not only from the speaker but from her audience, who were not so much an audience as a collective conversation partner. After the speech, some of the local members of the Latin American community took me over to Nidia to introduce me to her, and later I read her book and was struck by how the overpowering sense of being alone amplifies the pain you are going through.

I have read many accounts similar to Nidia's. In each of them there is the rhythm of sadness and hope, often unthinkable suffering, torture, loneliness, isolation. But the remarkable thing is the difference it makes when you know you are not alone.

I have also spoken with many people who are utterly alone; people for whom every day feels like a losing battle for survival from below the poverty line; people who have been made to feel that they deserve whatever wretchedness they are forced to endure; people who feel guilty because they are poor or because they are convinced, not without reason, that in the eyes of the world they are failures.

While the Prime Minister likes to remind us that his government is on the side of those who 'have a go', and who therefore deserve 'a fair go', these are the people who are wrongly framed as not having had a go, as just not trying. Why else would they be not getting a fair go in the land of the great fair go?

It is no surprise that in many cases the people who feel the sharpest pain from inequality also believe the worst about themselves. There is nothing like the wretchedness you are likely to feel when there is no one to tell you otherwise, when there is no one to tell you: you are not alone! I have also, however, met people in the same situations whose pain is eased a little because they have been lucky enough to find comrades among the ruins of neoliberalism, on the streets where some are forced to sleep, or in overcrowded or abandoned flats, in community centres, in TAFE courses, in unions, in solidarity.


"Social justice is not a thing you have. It is a struggle you are in."


I remember one young man camped in a carpark with his mate, a beautiful dog with a powerful imagination. One night he told me how he'd let this other guy keep his dog with him for a while, to keep him from falling into the deep black hole he saw him hovering over. 'My dog,' he said, 'does magic. She takes the edge off loneliness. She'll keep him warm with hope.'

Oppression is like a rock that crushes you. The oppressor, who put the rock there and keeps it there, would have you believe that you decided to crawl under it. This is the worst that you are asked to believe about yourself. But no one's story is theirs alone. The rock is borne not by the few but by the many. And when the many share their experience of oppression with each other it is the beginning of anger at the way things are and courage to collectively change them. And so the worst that was believed is displaced by the best that will be fought for. And so begins and so continues the struggle.

Social justice is not a thing you have. It is a struggle you are in. A struggle against all that strips people of their humanity by humiliating them, harassing them, inflicting harm on them. It is a way of being in the world that does not accept that the world must be so deeply unequal, unjust and unkind.

'Social justice', in the words of former Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson, 'is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.'

One of the greatest philosophical challenges for the movement for social justice is to articulate a 21st century vision of the role of government. Government is the chief means by which people achieve collectively what they cannot achieve alone.

We have no right to indulge in the luxury of despair, not any time, but especially not when more and more people are being forced to bear the brunt of inequality. The people who are subjected to generous helpings of fear must be listened to. And must be given the space to speak. As British sociologist Ralph Miliband pointed out many years ago, 'Those who do not speak for themselves are not likely to be effectively spoken for by others.'

This prioritisation of agency is the genius of the union movement and other progressive social movements where people claim the right to speak for themselves. It is the only way that we can truly change the story, creating a new, overarching story that speaks to the people whose lives are crushed and souls destroyed by neoliberalism. The art of politics is to create forces to do in the future what we cannot do today, as Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker has often pointed out, especially with regard to the development of a grass-roots social movement.

Now is the time for the creation and consolidation of those collective forces. Without this effort, without this crystallisation of that which tugs at our guts, even the smartest suite of policies will always miss the electoral mark. Unless we succeed in collectively re-framing what it is to be a member of society, what society is, how the sense of the social can triumph over the primacy of private profit and private gain, we will not cut through, we will not scratch the neoliberal itch, we will not speak to the broken soul of the nation.

This is a struggle that is not limited to what happens in parliament. It is, above all, a struggle that needs to be waged in workplaces and in the community, in suburbs and in regions. It is, at heart and at its hardest, a struggle not just against the ravages of systematic inequality, it is a struggle against being alone.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice, at public policy think tank, Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2012 to 2018.

Topic tags: John Falzon, social justice



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Australia is not South America. It actually does have a fair and equitable public/government supported, socially just welfare system paid for by all Australian tax payers. The "haves ' in capitalist Australia are remote from those of South America and most other countries. Be thankful.
john frawley | 04 July 2019

Comrades of the Left have always used lofty rhetoric to promote their ideological fantasies. Unfortunately their solutions have always make things much worse. Dr Falzon quotes Marxists-communists, Nidia Diaz, Martha Harnecker and Ralph Milibrand, but these ideas have been responsible for the 20th century being the bloodiest in all history. The latest disaster is in Venezuela where 3 million people have now fled that country’s disastrous socialist policies in order to avoid starvation. To find those “feeling both wretched and alone”, one needs look no further than Victoria where a recent study found that pensioners are suffering from hypothermia because they can’t afford heating due to delusional green-left policies imposed by the Andrews government. And this, notwithstanding that Australia’s Chief Scientist said that if you shut down Australia completely it would have virtually no impact on the world’s climate. I’m more inspired by the radical Hong Kong protestors who value their inherited British justice system far more than the corrupt communist one next door.
Ross Howard | 04 July 2019

Sorry John, but I disagree. If the "haves" in Australia are remote from those in South America, it's only by degree. For that, I am truly thankful, but there is a long way to go yet to achieve social justice. Ross, you are always ready to blame 'Marxist-communists' and their 'socialist policies' for whatever the current social disaster is. Who was responsible for the famine disaster in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland? And for the land war that followed? Where were the Marxists in those debacles?
Ginger Meggs | 04 July 2019

True, Ginger. I suspect, however, that the potato blight may have been a major contributor to that disaster even though the British landed gentry did behave appallingly towards their tenant farmers, enslaved on their own centuries old farm lands. But then again, Ginger, Queen Victoria, God love her, and her government in the true spirit of social justice did donate 5 pounds sterling for "the relief of starvation in the Irish people" which no doubt limited the deaths to the 3 million odd and minimised the emigration of emaciated refugees to a mere 11 million or so. So not everything about the "haves" is bad! Nothing, however, as recent history affirms without a shadow of doubt, produces more deaths, refugees or "have-nots" than the privileged comrades of Marxism when they gain control of populations. To them social justice is an oxymoron.
john frawley | 05 July 2019

"Government is the chief means by which people achieve collectively what they cannot achieve alone." Plainly not true. The market dwarfs government in collective production. Consider the humble ham sandwich. If Barack Obama were around, he'd say "You didn't create that ham sandwich. Someone else did!" And for once he'd be right. No individual person in the world can create a ham sandwich from scratch. No one person alone can or knows how to: breed the pigs, raise the pigs, build the fences and barns that house the pigs, punch out the steel roofing of those barns and fences, smelt the steel, mine the iron ore, and the coal other raw materials that go into the steel, build the steel smelter, and the mining equipment, and the machines that make the mining equipment, and the railroads and trucks that transport the steel, and the equipment, and the pigs to their destinations etc, etc, slaughter the pigs, build the abattoirs, with their fridges, and sterilizing equipment ... almost ad infinitum. Hundreds of thousands of hands and minds went into making that ham, and the vast majority of the individual owners of those hands and minds did not have a ham sandwich - let alone that ham sandwich - as their goal. One can follow up analogous causal chains for the bread, the butter, the mustard for the sandwich, and so on. And then by another order, consider every other seemingly trivial moment to moment task one does in an hour, from sitting on a chair to flushing the toilet. All these achievements are rendered possible by the incredibly sophisticated co-ordination known as the market, with its price system. So to correct Dr Falzon: "The *market* is the chief means by which people achieve collectively what they cannot achieve alone." On the other hand, government is really good for things like the NBN, pink batts, & Chernobyl, Solyndra, Venzuelan oil refining, the Ukraine famine and the Irish Potato Famine (pace GM, above), stopping aborigines owning their own homes in remote communities, the "Great Leap Forward", and all those "Five Year Plans" that "over-achieved" their targets I read about in the glossy "China Today" mags with all those smiling peasants on the cover of every edition as a kid in my Catholic school library. That's just scratching the surface. Dr Falzon would be much closer to the mark if he had said that "Government is the chief means by which people ruin collectively what they cannot ruin alone."
HH | 10 July 2019

John, thank you for a reflection which reaches into moments of stark desolation while challenging community appreciations of our responsibility for the vulnerable and wounded.
carey burke | 12 July 2019

Thanks John for calling for action, we need more than protests, we need ideas and solutions. Unfortunately my efforts to find those optimistic enough to explore ideas, has been derailed by those movement builders who have no visions, just protests, adding to pessimism.
eva cox | 15 July 2019

Thank u, John, for such a penetrating insight into the two scourges of Australian society: the enormous struggle of the underprivileged and the loneliness that usually accompanies it. It seems though that anyone with a heart large enough to see the situation and the wisdom to analyse the contributing causes, are now automatically branded as Marxist. Shame. By deduction Christ would have been branded the same way.
Helga Jones | 15 July 2019

I sense we are dealing with the onward drive of entropy, the loss of useable energy, physical and psychic, as we 7 billion plus on the planet are immersed in the multiple downward currents of history. But then, with Teilhard de Chardin's image of the [successfully] rising eddy on the descending current, there is hope that there is a future. Each of the respondents makes a contribution as a would-be rising eddy in the flow of history. To me there is thus reinforced the wisdom of "where two or three gather ...' - not just to respond, but to do something on the ground that is our space for the moment.
Noel McMaster | 15 July 2019

Be not disheartened, John Falzon, by at least three of your respondents who pour scorn on your peroration, which makes sense to me. After all, individualism is the hallmark of the unrestrained market and the dank attitudinising and alienation it accords the well-off is typically referred to as possessive individualism (CB Macpherson, 'The Real Face of Democracy'). At least one of your respondents is or has been a general practitioner and, without judging him too harshly, as well as taking into account the postcode in which he worshipped and its likely proximity to where he lived(itself an indelible marker of wealth and poverty in Australia) would command the kind of income that would baulk against the logic that you employ. Another, proudly acknowledging his Catholic schooling, appears to have not even the most elemental knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching, which, in respect of your powerful and eloquent reference to the purposes of government, is CST's centrepiece and, in a day and age of neoliberal excess, the only means we have of restoring justice to the conditions that those drawn down by the worship of the free market have available to them. Great Thanks, John Falzon, for pricking our individual consciences!
Michael FURTADO | 16 July 2019

Thanks for your timely observation on the failure of politics and thereby party politics in Australia, John. Social justice and the common good are at best of peripheral interest to the major parties. Each is preoccupied catering to their factional groups, while millions of Australians are forgotten or an afterthought. We need a new politics, one of social democracy, of social justice, of environmental harmony and responsibility. How can this be done?
Adrian Foley | 17 July 2019

Many thanks for your thought provoking article John - it would be great for it to be sent to all our political masters, for all the good it would likely do. I wholeheartedly agree with you that one of the most corrosive aspects of poverty is the diminshment at best, or extinction at worst, of hope and faith in a better future. An opportunity to live dignified and flourishing lives. You're right John Frawley, we are fortunate to have a welfare system, and those fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of Government largesse via franking credit dividends and huge tax cuts would undoubtedly concur with you. As would the big end of town no doubt. I'm guessing that you and I do not have the good fortune to eke out an existence that is totally reliant upon a government benefit, and to have negligible access to affordable and secure housing, as well as ready access to affordable preventative dental care and medical procedures that greatly enhance quality of life. But I guess they should be grateful for what they have, and join the ranks of the quiet Australians. Maybe we can place our blind faith in Ross's unshakeable conviction that the invisible hand of the marketplace will perform miracles, or at least the trickle down variety. Failing that, maybe the good Lord will provide, or we can content ourselves with the thought that the poor will always be with us. Advance Australia fair indeed.
THOMAS RYAN | 20 July 2019

Well written, John! I've been reading your articles in the Canberra Times for many years and you are such a relief when I see how Aussies voted for the Coalition, instead of Labor. Keep it up please! it is good to know someone cares for the poor!
Nathalie Shepherd | 20 July 2019

I want to add my gratitude, John, to those who have already thanked you for your powerful insights. You're absolutely right to highlight the fact that, "'Social justice', in the words of former Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson, 'is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.'" Many of our fellow Australians simply don't have enough of what they need to adequately live in our society - whether it be food, healthcare, education, housing, employment, a livable income and a strong sense of belonging and self worth. Helga, I think you're right too in what you say about Jesus. He prayed, "Give us this day our daily bread." I believe Jesus would want every person to have everything they need in order to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, materially, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
Robert Van Zetten | 20 July 2019

As always brilliant, the pity is that you didn’t win preselection because you are exactly what Australian politics needs at the moment.
Penny Lockwood | 20 July 2019

The term "Social justice warrior" is used as an insult by the Right towards those who want social justice. Funny thing about that. John frawley, ever heard of Newstart? Being "sup[ported" below the poverty line is not part of "a fair and equitable public/government supported, socially just welfare system".
Bruce Stafford | 21 July 2019

There is no benefit in the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor getting poorer because there becomes a social turning point where the masses revolt and it becomes unsafe for the wealthy to exist in the society they have distorted by their neoliberal actions. The police force is the only buffer between them and their wealth and the starving homeless masses. Revolt is happening in countries where residents are known to have firery temperaments such as France, Greece, Spain however it seems to take so much more pain to get Australians taking action to improve their situation. SKOMO cries "how good is Australia" and yes it is good to those that come from countries where they live on 2$ a day but unacceptable for many that have lived through the good decades. Australia is not a homogenous society. It is socially fragmented with some 40% of the population born overseas. Have a look at who comprises the homeless. I did, and most are white Australians with a sprinkling of First Nation peoples. Its clear there is an agenda to weaken the dominance Anglo/Celtic Australians once held in society, government and business in favour of foreigners.
Matt Van Esterharmer | 21 July 2019

The English writer Jeremy Seabrook pithily sums up the prevailing contemporary mindset surrounding this issues - 'It is a much commented irony of the economistic ideology that the rich must be given more to 'incentivise' them, while the poor must receive less to achieve the same end.The claim there is no alternative has taken on the allure of common sense, the common sense has been elevated into wisdom, and that wisdom into truth.'
Thomas Ryan | 22 July 2019

Your race-based analysis does Eureka Street no credit, Matt van Esterharmer. Nor does it stand up to objective, public scrutiny! The wealthiest state-based postcodes in Australia: Peppermint Grove, North Adelaide, Toorak, Point Piper & Hamilton, are almost exclusive enclaves of White privilege. While migrants do cleave towards codes that demonstrate high employment, their wealth/occupational picture is patchy, with Africans, Latin Americans and NESB Asians/Pacific Islanders overwhelmingly occupying the lowest-paid rungs of the employment ladder, such as hospitality-workers and cleaners (ATO Deputy-Commissioner Louise Clarke: It shouldn't surprise that non Anglo-Celtic Australians experience the least unemployment, considering their entre to this country depends on selection criteria that are strictly weighted in terms of Australia's employment needs. A much-needed sense of outrage about social injustice in our country shouldn't rely on false correlations that, more often than not, tug at society's heart-strings, rather than rely for their authentication on hard unpalatable facts. While you are right to critique the 'no-holds-barred', unrestrained and therefore unjust effects of capitalism's hold on the global economy, the explanation and solution you offer is miles apart from John Falzon's, which is to emphasise Church teaching that state-intervention is recommended to temper the effects of excessive neoliberal inequality.
Michael Furtado | 22 July 2019


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