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We are all in this together

  • 12 March 2020
Toilet paper, huh? It might make no sense, but it does say so much about where we are as a society right now. We are fearful, reactive and encouraged to behave in crazily selfish ways.

But this behaviour did not come out of nowhere. It has been carefully cultivated through over 40 years of neoliberal economic policies that have made it blatantly clear to people that they are on their own and will absolutely be left to fall if they don’t scramble their way to the top of the heap — supported, if necessary, by their own accumulated rolls of toilet paper.

We have all witnessed the shrinking role of the State, as the government has stepped back from providing a whole raft of social services through funding cuts, privatisation and the imposition of punitive disciplinary policies on those unfortunate enough to remain dependant (think Robo-debt, Job Network or Work for the Dole). And we have all witnessed some of the most obvious consequences, with more and more people falling into long-term poverty, social isolation and poor health.

Another related consequence is the way these policies (and the ideology behind them) has shaped everyone’s behaviour. When society is organised around the idea that everyone must look after themselves or suffer the consequences, then the logical outcome is for people to focus on their own self-interest. Driven by fear and a system that not only rewards selfishness but, most importantly, actively punishes the opposite, people behave accordingly — by stockpiling, for example, or going to work while waiting for medical test results.

The problem, obviously, is that this is a disaster for society as a whole, especially in times of crisis when we most need people to be community minded. If everyone acts only in their own self-interest (out of fear, necessity or otherwise), we end up with unnecessary scarcities in essential goods and increased infection rates as people fail to self-isolate. In other words, we all lose. It’s a classic outcome of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

While the threat of a global pandemic has brought this issue into stark relief, we should also pay attention to the ongoing risks posed by our individualistic culture during any crisis — and we are guaranteed to be facing quite a few of these in a changing climate.


'Hoarding toilet paper might be odd, but it’s nothing compared to the hoarding of money and property in a world where