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Politics of shame



One of the hallmarks of inequality is the imposition of shame. To be marked by the ravages of inequality, whether on the basis of class, gender, race, disability, sexuality or anything else, is constructed as both a source and an indicator of shame. Of course, this is a lie. But it is hard not to feel ashamed when you are constantly blamed for your own exclusion.

Homeless person under motorway in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Nigel Killeen / Getty Creative)When a recent prime minister, for example, suggested to a low paid aged care worker that if she wanted to fix her low wages she should simply go and get a better paying job, it is easy to see how people on low pay or no pay are framed as being the ones who should be ashamed for not fixing a situation that is structurally caused but behaviourally defined.

When the unemployment benefit is so low that it is impossible to live on it, the fear of unemployment can create a powerful imperative for workers to accept low wages and precarious conditions. A low Newstart helps to lock in a low minimum wage and a low minimum wage helps to justify a low Newstart.

If you are plunged into the precarity this creates you could be forgiven for wondering why society seems to accept that some of its members deserve to be on an income — whether through paid work or the social security system — that is so low, and so unpredictable, that insecurity invades every corner of your life; that you have no way of knowing if you'll be able to pay the rent or keep the power on.

I do not believe that most people do accept these violations of dignity, these instigations of shame. But the fact that we as a nation have tolerated these settings for so long makes it look like neoliberalism has crept into our souls, that we accept the institutionalisation of fear and shame. It is salutary to recall poet and theorist Audre Lorde's warning that we need to focus not only on 'the oppressive situations we need to escape but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us'.

When social spending is reduced in key areas and replaced by rising household debt, when the favoured neoliberal business model means job cuts, precarity and wage stagnation while quarantining (and even increasing) profits and CEO salaries, what we get is a status quo in which inequality is not merely tolerated but embraced.

There are few of us who are immune to the threat of precarity. Insecure work is no longer a fringe experience. Less than half the workforce hold a permanent full time job with leave entitlements and only 60 per cent of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment. Low and stagnating wages and precarious work have become as normal as the fear and shame our economy is built on.


"When we reject the lie and replace it with the shared consciousness of what we have in common, we begin to question and fight inequality."


We accept inequality when we believe the lie that presents history as if it were nature. According to the history-as-nature lie, colonised First Nations peoples, women oppressed by the patriarchy, and working class people subjected to the crushing effects of neoliberalism, should simply accept what nature ordains. Inequality is presented as the natural order of things. When we reject the lie and replace it with the shared consciousness of what we have in common, we begin to question and fight inequality.

It is time we stopped accepting social and economic settings that are built on fear and shame. A living wage would be an important step forward in reducing poverty and inequality in Australia. As would an increase to Newstart and other payments that force people to wage a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line.

Working people have produced bumper profits for the big end of town. At the same time, a lid has been placed on wages and the incomes of unemployed workers and other people needing income support. As the OECD points out you don't build a strong economy by boosting inequality.

And the IMF has shown the correlation between lower union density and higher income inequality. It is no accident that unions continue to be demonised by those who wish to defend inequality. Unions, along with other progressive sections of civil society, are central to the battle against structural inequality. Individually, people are subjected to fear and deliberate shame.

It is time to change the kind of political consciousness that accepts the purported naturalness of inequality. And it is time to collectively proclaim that the shame of inequality belongs not to those who bear it but to those who boost it.



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.

Main image by Nigel Killeen / Getty Creative

Topic tags: John Falzon, inequality, Newstart



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Existing comments

When you've always had good employment and things have generally never really gone wrong for you, it is easy to gain a mindset that views people who lose their jobs or who suffer other misfortunes as somehow lacking in either resilience or character, perhaps even deserving of their fate. And while most of us have some kind of “fatal flaw” that sometimes steps in to rock our boat, sheer bad luck or other extenuating circumstances or simply lack of equity or opportunity too often are factors that have a critical effect on our fortunes (and I don’t just mean monetary). But the fortunate and well-off often never even realise this, depending on their level of social and self-awareness. And we have become a terribly self-centred society, the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ representing our modern focus of attention. Whereas once upon a time we used to photograph the things and places of interest we experienced, and things we could learn from – making a record of them – now the selfie puts us into the position of prominence – relegating the experience or lesson to a peripheral issue. Is it any surprise we have become so shallow and callous and uncaring and unaware?

PaulM | 17 May 2019  

As usual John you write very clearly and with good insight into our modern world. And yet, from what I read, you are standing for Labor which is not ruling out the Adani Mine and fracking in the Northern Territory.

Tom Kingston | 17 May 2019  

Incisive article John. However I dont think the LNP are interested in social inequality. Waste: Dutton spending over $1 bn a year to Ferrovial to provide security for Manus and Nauru. Scomo transferring the medevac to Christmas Island. Demonizing refugees as potential terrorists. That's social inequality. More waste: Cubbie station ( owned by Chinese/ Japanese investors, and Lempriere Group paying $3700 a year for 460,000 megalitres of water - half the annual Darling flow to irrigate 107 sq km of cotton). Waste. Cubbie should be charged "user pay" as normal households pay almost that for 150 kl p.a. Misuse of $80m of public funds to buy back water overseen by Joyce. More waste. No wonder the Darling river and Menindee lakes are dying. It would cost (estimate) $9 bn to cut a 2134 km channel from the Burdekin/Ross/rivers to link the Darling and all that recent flood water would also not be wasted by washing out to sea over the dam walls. Letting CCP build 6 bases in Australian Antarctic territory. Why? Isnt that a security risk? Selling CCP our ports/electricity/farms/airports ? Long term waste. We should run adventures/cruise ships to the Antarctic. Utilize that untapped widerness. NZ does.

Francis Armstrong | 17 May 2019  

When weighing Australia’s inequality and poverty, it is important we ground our perspectives in the facts. Credit Suisse Oct 2018 Global Wealth Databook undertaken by a set of global academics expert in these statistics, tells Australia's wealth per adult in 2018 is USD 411,060, the second-highest in the world after Switzerland. In terms of median wealth, it has edged above Switzerland into first place. High average wealth is combined with low wealth inequality in Australia. The Gini coefficient is just 66% and only 6% of Australians have net worth below USD 10,000. The latter figure compares with 18% in the United Kingdom and 28% in the United States. The 2018 annual University of Melbourne Hilda Survey of 17,000 households tells poverty in Australia has declined for 15 years. Australia’s GDP has increased for 28 years in a row without a recession, a world record. Our credit rating is AAA, one of only 11 countries so rated. Our welfare net is generous and well regarded by world comparisons. 2019 Dept of Social Welfare statistics show there are around 2.3 million Australians between ages 16 and 64 , whose primary source of income is a welfare payment: 720,000 on Newstart, 685,000 on Disability Support Pension, 280,000 on Youth Allowance and 325,000 on Parenting Payment. The amount spent on these items is $44 billion a year. Add in the age pension, child-care subsidy and other major payments sees the total amount spent on social security and welfare this year at $175 billion or one-third of the Federal Budget. So Australians in work see a not ungenerous $175 billion of their taxes go to Australians who cannot financially support themselves.

Barry | 17 May 2019  

Francis Armstrong and Barry have missed the point of John Falzon's lucid argument about structured inequality and the neoliberal take. Perchance an illustration of how this operates to disenfranchise some would change their minds. One of my children has struggled all her life to work in the arts sector. In early career she was put under constant pressure by her teachers and career advisors to abandon her calling and shift to a more 'productive' occupation. That she continues to work in the sector is due in no small part to her stick-at-it-ness and sense of self worth. I happen to sit on an advisory board of a university music school. The university funding allocated to its invariably highly talented students compares miserably alongside that budgeted for those studying dentistry. When questioned about this, the Vice-Chancellor has stated on the public record that dentistry is a far more socially important and necessary skill than arts performance, even though the counter-argument has been put to him that dentists are well-paid and there is as yet no Medicare-ubiquitously funded dental care in Australia. These are searing examples of the triumph of neoliberalism in public policy speak over the 'equal treatment of all' argument.

Michael Furtado | 18 May 2019  

Some occupations may be of greater value to the community at large than others, Michael Furtado. I don't presume to offer a list in order of importance but as an example of the value of occupations could I suggest that the generally uneducated and poorly paid sanitary man who worked under appalling conditions to separate man from his disease-laden droppings contributed far more to humanity's advancement, health and well being than many educated in the comparatively perfumed environs of a university. It is also certainly true that many in this world suffer far more from missing out on dental care than from missing a musical recital or drama piece.

john frawley | 19 May 2019  

Thank you John for more great insight on the politics of shame. The planning of budgets that give more to the super wealthy and take from the poorest is nothing short of cynical exploitation. And when those struggling to adequately provide for their families go on strike or take industrial action to improve their conditions, the people who exploit them blame them for their dilemma. It is a case of victim blaming and is not acceptable. Several times during our recent election campaign, I have heard conservative politicians accuse candidates who speak out for those being exploited as starting class warfare! It is time that this shallow argument is countered. The fact is that people who have helped build a system where there is inadequate pay and poor and dangerous working conditions are the ones who have started class warfare because of their lack of humanity. John you are correct when you point out that we should not accept that the vast disparity between the very wealthy and the poor and the unfairness that it represents as the natural order. Sadly, sometimes this has been reinforced by those who should know better. I remember as a boy singing the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at Sunday School. There is a verse of that hymn which I am sure has helped reinforce the acceptance of this notion: "The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate." This is surely incompatible with the compassion that was taught by the founder of Christianity. Now that we against have a very conservative government returned in this country, we must work even harder to prevent the exploitation of people and our environment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 20 May 2019  

Except, John Frawley, that dentists get paid handsomely and dental care is a commodity that is primarily purchased on the free market, rather than lavishly subsidised by the state, unlike most other developed polities, and - I hope you agree - accordingly and embarrassingly out of reach to the poor. Other than that, I unreservedly agree that carers and sewage workers, who dispose of those lumps of your's and mine, should be much more handsomely remunerated than they are! And, finally - in defence of musicians - was it not William Congreve who famously remarked that "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak”, (attributed to Almeria in Act I, Scene I of 'The Mourning Bride' (1697), and taught to my class by Fr Pierre-Yves Gilson SJ of St Xavier's College, Calcutta in 1965)?

Michael Furtado | 21 May 2019  

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