Reframing aspiration as a collective force

13 Comments

 

The idea that you can aspire to have more is a relatively new one. In fact I would suggest that it only really came into its own in Europe with the dawn of capitalism. Under feudalism you accepted the position in society that had been determined by god. It was futile to want to be a lord, for example, if you were born a serf. It was also blasphemous because to question the socio-economic order was to question the wisdom of god. And there was to be none of that, thank you!

Chris Johnston cartoon has capitalists reaching for dollar signs while climbing over the backs of ordinary people who are reaching for things like family and love.With capitalism, a new narrative emerged. You didn't have to have noble blood to get on in the world. You could even, if you had enough nous and an enterprising spirit, get to the very top, even if you started with next to nothing.

We were all taught to love those rags to riches stories, much as we were taught to love the fabulous inversions of fate from the earlier feudal period, where the pauper discovers their hidden nobility and gets, at the end, to enjoy the life they so richly deserved. But while that trope was usually about fate, the emerging bourgeoisie at the dawn of capitalism explained their own rise as the fruit of their hard work, thrift, daring and superior intellects, as well, from time to time, as their luck.

So it is no surprise that the sacredness of aspiration is so entrenched in our political discourse. As the old satirical rendering of the socialist hymn, 'The Red Flag', puts it: 'The working class can kiss my arse. I've got a foreman's job at last.'

Last year there was a telling exchange on the subject between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. Shorten posed a question to Turnbull on whether a hypothetical 60 year old aged care worker should aspire to be an investment banker from Rose Bay to get a better tax cut. Completely unflustered, Turnbull answered: 'The 60 year old aged care worker in Burnie is entitled to aspire to get a better job, is entitled to get a promotion, is entitled to be able to earn more money,' adding, following a few jeers, 'No. Working in aged care is a good job, but you are entitled to seek to earn more. Every worker, every Australian is entitled to aspire to earn a better income.'

While Prime Minister Morrison speaks of aspiration reverentially as the touchstone of all that his government stands for, former Prime Minister Keating famously quipped a few years ago that Labor had 'lost the ability to speak aspirationally to people', a comment that Liberal front-benchers never tire of quoting and that represents a view that Labor needs to connect with working people who are purportedly more interested in the stock market than the labour market.

We're taught to think that aspiration means what you do alone, what sets you apart. As such it is a concept that is both lauded and loaded. Be it peddled by neoliberals or social liberals, its message is clear: the surest sign that you lack aspiration is that you're not already a few rungs up the ladder. In an interview back in 1977, the then 33 year old Paul Keating put it this way: 'It's no good pretending we're working class, down at the club socking it away, out at the footy. I reckon I'm lower middle class; I've made the move up which a lot of Australians have. Isn't that what we're all after?'

 

"We need to reframe aspiration as the oxygen that working people collectively breathe and evaluate the current attacks on unions and people experiencing unemployment, for example, in this light."

 

Aspiration, neoliberal style, is a secular version of the gospel of prosperity so loved by the prime minister. God, or the Market, smiles on those who aspire to greater things. Their prosperity is proof of their virtue. The flip-side is that if you are struggling to make ends meet it's because even though prosperity is there for the taking, you don't want it badly enough, you're not hungry enough for it, you don't really want to 'better yourself,' you lack aspiration.

Deep down, these ideological zealots even believe that our social security system stifles aspiration, with Social Services Minister Anne Ruston talking about people 'denying themselves the best opportunity to take advantage of the jobs we are creating'. The government has recently flagged the roll-out of mandatory drug-testing as well as the extension of the cashless welfare card, both designed not to help but to harass, not to deliver hope to people but to demonise and degrade them. In the meantime, Newstart and Youth Allowance payments are kept so low that they can only be described as a means of deliberate humiliation.

Making an artform out of cruelty to young people and people experiencing unemployment is a precondition for systematically disciplining the people who are in paid work, while whittling away at penalty rates, suppressing the minimum wage and undermining the role of unions as the means of organised advocacy for better pay and conditions. Witness the extremist Ensuring Integrity Bill, surely a centrepiece for the agenda assiduously promoted by the philosophers of aspiration and the theologians of prosperity.

Perhaps unions, and indeed progressive grass-roots social movements in general, are hated by neoliberal governments today precisely because they are a vehicle for collective aspiration, historically showing that the real improvements to the lives of ordinary working people come when they are fought for collectively. Rather than limiting aspiration, which is a common neoliberal claim, unions organise aspiration: the aspiration for better pay and conditions, health and safety regulations in the workplace, paid leave for when you are sick, when you need to care for someone you love, when you are having a child, when you need to deal with gendered violence, or when you need an annual break.

So too with every progressive social reform, not only in the field of industrial rights but also in the struggles for women's rights, tenants' rights, the rights of First Nations peoples, the rights of people experiencing unemployment, disability rights, climate action, marriage equality.

I cannot think of a single instance where, even though the legislation was fought for in parliament, the struggles that informed the legislation was not fought for by grass-roots movements for social justice and social change, movements that, like the union movement, collectively aspired to create a better society. Many of these achievements have been dismantled by successive governments that have prosecuted a neoliberal agenda, while reframing the concept of aspiration, making it appear as something that happens most authentically at the individual level, with collective activism and advocacy allegedly getting in its way.

There's a difference between aspiration and acquisition. We need to reframe aspiration as the oxygen that working people collectively breathe and evaluate the current attacks on unions and people experiencing unemployment, for example, in this light. Neoliberal-style aspiration is an ideological chimera used to veil the reality of marginalisation. For those of us who embrace the politics of hope, however, our collective aspiration and our daily struggle is to shape a society in which no one is left out.

 

 

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.

Topic tags: John Falzon, capitalism

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

Curious logic! The concluding sentence negates the preceding argument in that it aspires to the capitalist ideal for everyone.
john frawley | 26 September 2019


After reading this article I immediately thought it was in lockstep with British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his war on aspiration. Labour’s annual conference has just resolved to abolish independent schools. This decision comes only months after it was revealed that a small independent school for poor and disadvantaged children, Michaela, which tossed out all the educational “wisdom” of the last 50 years, got results that were four times better than all other schools. Labour had opposed Michaela. It wants all schools under the bureaucratic grip of the public sector and the unions. But most ordinary hard-working people want what is best for their families and children, and that includes improved schooling for their kids. The hypocrisy of Labour’s rhetoric about social justice is clear when you realise that several in Corbyn’s circle sent their children to private schools. Aspiration, and seeking something better for your children is a basic human impulse. Capitalistic entrepreneurship is as much about human moral flourishing as it is about material well-being. And the concepts of risk and reward are found in many places other than the Parable of the Talents.
Ross Howard | 26 September 2019


Thanks John. Another thought provoking article. I would like to see more on the relationship of hope, aspiration and the social good. The individualistic notion of aspiration that is prevalent, and its gospel of prosperity endorsement, do little to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that beset too many in our society.
Gerard Moore | 01 October 2019


As soon as you critique capitalism out they come! I enjoyed your article and when I read it I was reminded of the Wolf Blass ad on TV: 'The Chase'. Life has never been about 'The Chase' except in the last 300 years. I detest that ad as it is not what society or community has ever been about. The struggle for social justice must continue and the views of those below must be exposed for the bunkum that they are. Good on you John!
Ken Peak | 01 October 2019


Thank you, John. When the core political aspiration is economic in any society, we can expect no less than what u describe so tellingly. I would settle for two honest admissions by government to begin with. Firstly that there are fewer jobs available than there are job-seekers in these transitional times, and secondly that in life, the playing field is not and never was an even one. Some are disadvantaged from birth - even from generations beforehand. Can we therefore truly afford not to think and act civilly, with regard to expected social aspirations?
Helga Jones | 01 October 2019


In the Index of Roget's Thesaurus "aspiration" has four nouns: motive, objective, aspiration, desire. They're not bad words. Just a bit ambiguous. Now that would be a word to approach carefully: ambiguous.
Pam | 01 October 2019


Thanks John for putting this vexed issue of human aspiration so clearly. It is not an either/ or situation in my mind it is both. There is something innately human that is always drawing us out and forward. However as you rightly ask how do we ensure that everyone is empowered to keep growing beyond who he or she is at present? How do we continue to foster and nurture human emergence? Critical commentary like yours is surely an important part of our growth process as together we build a more just and inclusive society. As Christians we are and can continue to do this by constantly being at the margins - the “Jesus” place.
Patty Andrew | 01 October 2019


Aspiration is only part of it. We should be aware of 'right livelihood' as the Buddhists have it - how you put your aspiration into practice is something the PM won't have much to say on.
Russell | 01 October 2019


Thank you so much John for your thought provoking writing. I appreciate the emphasis you place on all that is for the common good which unions have fought for: ""...better pay and conditions, health and safety regulations in the workplace, paid leave for when you are sick, when you need to care for someone you love, when you are having a child, when you need to deal with gendered violence, or when you need an annual break." Thank you also for continually speaking out for the many disadvantaged in our society who have been very much left out of all the economic gains of the last twenty years. You encourage people like me to not lose hope that things can be different.
Robert Van Zetten | 01 October 2019


And thank you, Helga, for those two very powerful truths you so rightly point out: "Firstly that there are fewer jobs available than there are job-seekers in these transitional times, and secondly that in life, the playing field is not and never was an even one. Some are disadvantaged from birth - even from generations beforehand." I really do wish these truths could be focused on with the seriousness they deserve.
Robert Van Zetten | 01 October 2019


Thank you so much John for your thought provoking writing. I appreciate the emphasis you place on all that is for the common good which unions have fought for: "...better pay and conditions, health and safety regulations in the workplace, paid leave for when you are sick, when you need to care for someone you love, when you are having a child, when you need to deal with gendered violence, or when you need an annual break." Thank you also for continually speaking out for the many disadvantaged in our society who have been very much left out of all the economic gains of the last twenty years. You encourage people like me to not lose hope that things can be different.
Robert Van Zetten | 02 October 2019


I once heard the Canadian political scientist, CB Macpherson, speaking at the Oxford Union, and critiquing the emerging neoclassical/neoliberal theorising of the Chicago School, exploding the myths upon which Western or capitalist notions of democracy are based. An electrifying thinker who undertook a genealogy of the contradictions of liberal democracy at the level of property and the state; and who, moreover, developed the fundamental concept of "possessive individualism" into a highly generalisable political theory of the failing liberal personality; of the crisis of "democratic" capitalism; of the interpellation of law and ideology in the welfare state (shortly to come under the blitzkrieg policies of Regan & Thatcher); of the ethical bankruptcy of the liberal account of contractual justice (constituting an assault on the Catholic Social Teaching of redistributive justice); of the class-ridden character of authoritarian populism (now spreading like a forest fire around the globe); of the irreconcilability of private property and democracy; and, finally, of liberalism and conservatism as reverse mirror-images under the same ideological sign. Better than anyone else of his generation, Macpherson developed a critical, comprehensive and persuasive account of the limits and possibilities of neo-liberalism as the dominant ideological formation of advanced capitalist societies. Congratulations, John!
Michael Furtado | 03 October 2019


Dear John, Thank you for this illuminating and challenging piece. The distinction between ‘aspiration’ couched in collective rather than individual terms is profound and important. I must disagree with John Frawley’s opening comment as, for me, your article and its conclusion do not ‘aspire’ to a materialist, acquisitive, “capitalist ideal” for all. We do live in a world where the neoliberal agenda prevails and where it’s myriad failings are rarely corrected/counteracted. This creates profound losses in both social and economic terms. Your piece challenges us to turn our collective attention to rebuilding a social safety net that is empowering rather than punitive; that enables all people to live a life they value and of value; that is rights based and respectful; and that rejects the idea that poverty and debasing attacks create some kind of positive incentive effect for those struggles and vulnerability are complex and poorly understood.
Sally Cowling | 06 October 2019


x

Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up