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Politics of shame

  • 16 May 2019


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.

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