Let's not snap back but spring forward



‘This is not about entitlement. It’s about need,’ explained the Prime Minister in his press conference on 2nd April, announcing that early childhood education would, for many parents, now be free. Later though, he hastened to add that all of these COVID-19 measures (the government’s ‘New Economic Policy’) were temporary and on the other side of the crisis we would need to ‘snap back’ to how things were before as if society were this amazing collective rubber band.

Scott Morrison at press conference (Getty images)

Many of us could not help hearing an echo, in the first statement by the Prime Minister, of the formulation which had its origins in the Acts of the Apostles (which, no doubt, he has read) but which was made famous, via Louis Blanc and others, by Karl Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, written in 1875: From each according to their ability and to each according to their need.

It’s funny how this proposition is routinely pilloried in ‘normal’ time. It should not be surprising, I suppose, since it stands for everything that neoliberalism does not: the primacy of the social good over the profit motive, the public provision of social goods, making sure no one is locked out or left out, allocating the resources of a society on the basis of need rather than individual wealth.

It is, after all, the principle upon which Medicare was built. Unlike the Prime Minister’s ‘normal time’ intonation of the neoliberal principle of ‘if you put in, you get to take out’, it is predicated not on a user-pays model but precisely on the idea that you put in what you can (through the taxation system) and take out what you need.

It is a principle that might be pilloried as a matter of ideological duty by the champions of neoliberalism in ‘normal time’ but it is rolled out, albeit temporarily and with significant conditionalities, as if it were simply common sense, in a time of crisis. It’s common sense because it is not only fair, it’s the most rational framework for the allocation of resources and for the contribution from each of us to the society we live in.

If we had embraced this framework prior to the pandemic it goes without saying that we would have been better prepared. The emergency measures we would have needed would have been fewer because we would have had in place a robust social security system, a better-resourced public health system, housing justice and strong protections for workers, in short, public institutions that were well funded, well-trusted and politically embedded.


'This is why we must resist the idea of a snap back. There can be no snapping back. The old normal was too bloody horrible for too many people'.


If neoliberalism is even partially dismantled, let’s make sure though that it is not being kept safe, in ‘hibernation’, to use the Prime Minister’s favourite analogy, ready to be put back together, just as it was assembled in the first place, piece by dreadful piece.

What would the future look like if we were to succeed in keeping up the momentum towards a more collective, more social (and socialist!) organisation of the economy? It would be the kind of future in which public ownership was seen as more logical than public bail-outs (did someone say Qantas?), the kind of future where no one was left behind, no one subjected to the ongoing colonisation experienced by First Nations Peoples; no one crushed on the basis of class, or gender, or ethnicity, or disability, or age, or sexuality.

It would be the kind of future where the people who, pre-pandemic, lived in a permanent state of recession because they were locked out of paid work and forced to survive from below the poverty line, would be able to access a job with good conditions under a Full-Employment Policy; where the heavily gendered work of caring was socially, culturally, economically and politically valued; where social security meant just that, instead of social insecurity; and where working people were treated with respect and appreciation, subjected not to exploitation for the sake of profits for the few but to a sense of contribution to the social good for the benefit of all; the kind of society where power was actually shared instead of being hoarded.

This is why we must resist the idea of a snap back. There can be no snapping back. The old normal was too bloody horrible for too many people: unemployed and underemployed workers, casual and insecure workers, low-paid and poorly treated workers, unpaid workers, mostly women, people experiencing homelessness, women experiencing gendered violence and inequality, asylum seekers.

During the last election, in response to Labor’s early childhood education funding package, Dan Tehan said: 'I mean this is a fast track to a socialist, if not communist economy. It is unheard of. ... When they say it is going to be free, taxpayers are paying for this.' I’ve always wondered why the idea of socialism is so anathema. I mean, Shorten at the time was talking about early childhood education centres, not gulags. And if Labor’s plan was socialist so is the current Morrison/Tehan plan.

So let’s clear the air in the spirit of new openness and cooperation, the one where the Liberal government thanks the ACTU instead of demonising it. I would like to suggest that if you want an idea of what socialism means, go visit your local public library (when, glory be, it has reopened!).

When I was growing up, Blacktown Library was my temple of learning. I owe everything to the public library. It was where I was introduced to beautiful writing, to wild thinking, to music, to art. I borrowed books, poetry journals, prints and music from the library. I gobbled everything up hungrily, voraciously, from manuals on mineralogy to Kafka’s exquisite but excruciating tales.

The public library is a beacon of socialism. It is a powerful exemplar of the principle of: From each according to their ability and to each according to their need. A constraint on liberty? I don’t think so. Nobody forces you to join, although, as a community we expect you to contribute according to your ability. Democratic socialism is like that library, to which I personally owe so much. It is surely a no-brainer that what we do with books we can and should do with education, health, housing, social services, and jobs. Nobody is stopping you buying a book, but the library will be there to provide them to all who need them.

Already the ideological die-hards of neoliberalism are working out how the pandemic might be manipulated to lower wages and to snap back to the old economic normal. So now is when collectively we need to take over the framing and the forming of the future. Not to snap back but to spring forward. To the building of a society where, for example, multinational corporations actually do contribute according to their ability. And where no one is denied what they need.



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 in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Main image credit: Scott Morrison at press conference (Getty images)

Topic tags: John Falzon, socialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, auspol



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Existing comments

It seems to me all Australian politicians must have a dramatic wage cut. There is no plausible, rational, logic justification for their very high wages at this time (nor at any time, for that matter) while thousands of Australians are wageless. I keep hearing, ''We are all in this together'', from politicians. It's not good enough to talk the talk, politicians need to walk the walk, too.
AO | 10 April 2020

Absolutely correct, John. I'm amazed that politicians like our prime minister can be so outspoken about their religious faith while totally ignoring those teachings in the way they govern the country.
Brian Finlayson | 10 April 2020

Why does it take a global resulting in a national disaster to get the two major parties and the State and Federal Governments to work together? . If they did what they are doing now! Australia would advance in every way. "Snapping Back" refers to a cessation by Gov of covid 19 stimulus packages once the virus has gone but what is necessary now is an articulated strategy for the development of a new economy that is much more self sufficient.
Cam Russell | 10 April 2020

Socialism or neoliberalism is an either/or fallacy. “The public library is a beacon of socialism.” The Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire, founded in 1833 when Karl Marx was 15, claims to be “the oldest tax-supported free library in the world”. Farmers in Mesopotamia were donating crops to public granaries out of which artisans would claim ‘wages’. Marx (1875): “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the…antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased…and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can…society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!“ The intent of socialism is to bring about conditions in which work will become a joy so that productivity will increase to make the ability/need mantra achievable. As is the Magisterium’s. What pump-priming (ie. free education/libraries/vaccinations, etc.) is needed both to create an incentive and to ensure that the hope raised by the incentive is achievable and not a mirage is also a rational calculation within conservatism and liberalism.
roy chen yee | 10 April 2020

Thank you John for your clear vision of a better way forward. It is hard to beat the powers with money but we can only try to spring forward.
Marita Egan | 10 April 2020

Thank you, sir, for giving a little hope back to this old lady. The first thing I learned in Public High School Commerce class was: "Man's wants are never satisfied." If only our Govt could begin at that start of understanding Economics and read your article maybe "Socialism" would no longer be a dirty word but a caring way forward to a bright egalitarian future.
Sophie | 10 April 2020

When I was at university, I became a communist of sorts, then as a teacher I modified to socialism. I am still a socialist. The problem is more complicated than John suggests. Human behaviour encompasses avarice, opportunism, free-loading and self-centredness. Yes, altruism exists but not in everyone. It has to do with one's basic values and motivation. Human beings need goals and incentives. Most jobs are tedious or repetitious. How to strike the balance of sharing and contributing with incentives and work satisfaction.
Henri Licht | 10 April 2020

Thank you John for another insightful article. Yes the COVID-19 virus pandemic has shown that human beings need to work together to care for each other and the environment in which we live. We cannot afford to snap back to the neo-liberal way of life that the super wealthy and the powerful want to revert to after the corona virus pandemic is over. That system has presided over the exploitation of ordinary people and the environment at great detriment to human rights and the health of the planet. This cannot continue or the environment will not be able to sustain those generations who follow us. I agree that the Louis Blanc/August Becker saying - which is based on Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35 - "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" is a vital principle on which to build a fairer and a safer world for all. However, we also know that those who have prospered greatly under neo-liberal capitalism (and the politicians like our PM who support their greed) will try to force a spring back rather than a spring forward. We also need to remind people of two other sayings that are important for a new political future: "the world has enough for everybody's needs but not everybody's greeds" and "live simply so that everybody might simply live". These were coined by the Hindu guru Mahatma Gandhi whose political movement led to Indian independence and was thought by some to be the best Christian of the 20th century.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 10 April 2020

great article mate spot on .Francis would be proud of ya.However there are 2 million not getting full or no payment. e.g. musos ,visa holders.asylum seekers etc.No hibernation for N/Lsm.Full tax 4 multi Nats.great points.
jack callaghan | 10 April 2020

how to take over the framing and form the future when the govt monopolises the media and parliament is shut down and we are in lockdown. Seriously, what's wrong with the good old fashioned touring the streets with a ute, megaphone and a kelpie. The poor long suffering slaves in lockdown would love it! A welcome discourse.
Catherine O'Brien | 10 April 2020

I couldn’t agree with you more, John. Enough of this nastiness. We must love one another.
Moira | 10 April 2020

Rather than "Snap Back" this term sounds more to me like "Claw Back". As John so eloquently reminds us there wouldn't be the need for a lot of this current expenditure if we had kept up the egalitarian ideals of looking after those in need. There will be strong resistance when Government starts to claw back some of these changes as many will see it as unjust. Try putting the toothpaste back into the tube !
Allan Kauter | 10 April 2020

The fact that our country can function with a wartime like crisis cabinet form of government just goes to show how much of our politicians' role is just fluff. It would good to know in normal time how much of politicians' effort goes to help us survive, thrive ...... or merely (what I suspect) to helping themselves thrive at our expense while we merely survive.
Aurelius | 10 April 2020

Thanks John, spot on as usual. It is complex. Rather than Scotty from Marketing's 'Snap' this is more like 1945 where there will be a huge, capable and eager work force. Work needs to commence on managing that huge resource, new industries, more environmentally responsible projects, more learning and health, fairness , equity and prevention into the future. Not my ideas but part of an Australia Institute webinar this week. Excellent stuff from The AustrtaliaInstitute Thursday April 9. Wayne Swan and Richard Dennis as their bests. Thanks again John.
Michael D. Breen | 10 April 2020

As a former librarian I agree with your perspective on public libraries, a resource of the mind for all
Karna ODea | 11 April 2020

A marvellous essay John. I agree there is no way we can go back to the pre- Virus times, they are gone, "dead, buried and cremated", as a former PM so famously said. We must fight the forces of Neo Liberalism with all our moral strength and fortitude !
Gavin O'Brien | 11 April 2020

John Falzon for PM! So refreshing as always to read your work born out of real knowledge and experience. In the meantime let us hope and do more than hope the present PM and State and Territory leaders can do far more during the corona virus crisis to support the First Nations peoples - Aboriginal communities than proclaim the necessary lockdown. Such serious overcrowding in poor, for years neglected housing is a disaster waiting to happen
Michele Madigan | 11 April 2020

Spot on, Aurelius. Happy Easter 2020 to all, and especially to those doing it tough. To those whose voices can be heard, journalists and such. Please remember to let 'them' know, "No one in this (lucky) country, should be made to feel they're competing in the Hunger Games. Peace.
AO | 11 April 2020

Thanks for the article... I'm not sure either proposed option of "snap back" or "spring forward" are necessarily the only considerations. The angst we are feeling now about loss of liberties, finances and livelihoods will be reminded to us in future as something to be avoided...but while most will be keen for change to the current austerity we should use caution in choosing a path. The pandemic fallout has revealed structural weaknesses in many aspects of pre-COVID19 constructs and demonstrated how thin some protections were; risks were overlooked and unless we slowly emerge with the benefit of knowing what went wrong (and what worked well) the similar risks will remain. We now know the Nation can be effectively shut for potentially 12 months and that will reveal some further annual cycles on which we previously relied won't work as normal. Case in example: the prescribed fire hazard reduction burns that were all the buzz 3 months ago can't proceed while we're all employing a "stay home" enforced quarantine. It's possible we'll be emerging from one crisis into another in October; I hope our "leaders" won't be using COVID19 as a perennial excuse for failed planning. Hasten slowly.
ray | 12 April 2020

who do we blame when things go wrong? the other person or even God .who do we give credit when things go right? our hands are not big enough to pat ourselves on our back not realising that within a breath all could be gone ,because it is mankind created !!! know who created you and ask for His wisdom and your future will be built on rock.!! love others as you love yourselves .thanks to john falzon .keep it up!!
Peter van Helmond | 14 April 2020

"go visit your local public library (when, glory be, it has reopened!)." No, don't wait. Go to the website of your local, or state, or national library - you can join up for free online and have access to fantastic music databases, language learning resources, electronic books and magazines, databases, newspapers .... "I’ve always wondered why the idea of socialism is so anathema" isn't it simply because some people can't stand the thought of paying for things that other people will get to use?
Russell | 14 April 2020

Re. Peterborough Library, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: 'The ancient manners were giving way. There grew a certain tenderness on the people, not before remarked.' The 1830s were times of social ferment. Anglo-Scottish Puritanism was under challenge from the starving Irish. It was a time of optimism, of the belief that 'society must direct mankind towards moral perfection.' There was the temperance movement, educational reform, the beginnings of anti-slavery, the commencement of the labor movement, prison reform and humane treatment of the mentally ill, as well as a period of sincere belief in humanity’s innate goodness, the belief that moral perfection could be influenced by one’s environment, by exposure to good thoughts, music, and books. It was a time when Dr. Abbot, the library's founder, and his innovative thoughts on books and education got a receptive hearing. He gave practical expression to an idea: the tax-supported public library, hardly second in importance to the public school itself. We live in times when the young are home-schooled, but are yet to applaud school libraries or resource centres as the fount of knowledge, rather than teacher-prattle. When I came to Queensland, libraries were thin on the ground. Room for improvement, Roy Chen Yee!
Michael Furtado | 15 April 2020

Whatever a post-COVID-19 world might look like politically and economically, I think it will take more than a socialist playbook and John Lennon's "Imagine" to build, and will need to include a component that recognises - unlike Lennon's dream-world and all exclusively secular utopias - the basis of human dignity in each person's relationship with God. The re-think that response to our global predicament is necessitating at the moment also extends to our understanding of life itself, God, and suffering, brought into sharp focus in the reality and mystery of innocent suffering integral to the Christian celebration of Easter.
John RD | 16 April 2020

Some great points there John. No where in this government reaction to the crisis has anything positive been done to house Australia's 120,000 homeless. Other than the centrelink increase. The bureacracy surrounding centrelink and My Gov is as difficult as ever. The National Redress scheme for victims has ground to a halt. Further from home but pertinent to the discussion we have a well meaning Pope who supports the Conclave and the Bishops, pays lip service to some rights for women, refrains from action within the clergy's ranks unless he is forced to. And the Bishops jostle for power. The time is past when we blindly accept that the Bishops act in the laitys interests. If there is abuse, the Bishops tell the victims to go to the police. They have, in the past, covered up, invoked the confessional seal, invoked the pontifical secret. They steadfastly refuse to sanction the offenders. From the dust of the earth God created man. The Vietnamese term b?i d?i ("dust of life") refers to vagrants in the city or, tr? b?i d?i to street children or juvenile gangs. Such are our homeless. Perhaps since our churches are empty, Australia's bui doi should take refuge in our churches and cathedrals and see what scraps may fall from the Bishops tables.
Francis Armstrong | 16 April 2020

Again, Jacinda Ardern is showing the rest of the world what empathy and solidarity is all about. "It’s about leadership’: Arden takes 20% pay cut over coronavirus. Ardern and ministers take pay cut in solidarity with those hit by Covid-19. New Zealand PM says: "If there was ever a time to close the gap between groups of people across New Zealand in different positions, it is now" The Guardian. Good on her!
AO | 17 April 2020


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