We are all in this together

24 Comments

 

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.

Toilet rolls on a pink background (Getty images)

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 people are homeless and living below the poverty line.'

 

So, what should we do? To start with, can I suggest that we stop blaming and shaming individuals for their entirely understandable reactions to the system we are living in? Yes, stockpiling toilet paper is both unhelpful and a little bizarre, but, as many have pointed out, it has been driven by the trust deficit created for so many who felt abandoned by the government during the bushfire crisis (and over the decades that preceded it).

Hoarding toilet paper might be odd, but it’s nothing compared to the hoarding of money and property in a world where people are homeless and living below the poverty line. And yet, this is precisely the behaviour that our culture and economic system currently rewards and celebrates. Why is it that Joe Bloggs with his trolley stacked high with toilet paper is currently mocked and reviled, while Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forest are celebrated?

Clearly this is a systemic issue and it will ultimately need a systematic response. As we prepare to face an increasing number of crises, we need our government to build communal resilience by fundamentally changing the rules that current erode our sense of community security and trust. And to do this, we will need a new economic system that prioritises equality over accumulation at the top.

Unfortunately, there are few signs that such changes are on this government’s agenda. Instead, we have our Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, refusing to make provision for low-paid casual workers who are forced to self-isolate on the basis that many 'would have already made provisions for that because of course the purpose of casual employment is that you’re paid extra in-lieu of the types of entitlements'.

In the face of this current political reality, while we work towards a more humane economic system under a more compassionate government, we might also need to engage in radical acts of community solidarity and to build social safety nets at the local level. We can do this by getting involved in local government and community associations, by reaching out and getting to know our neighbours, by lending out or sharing our stuff, helping each other out, creating community gardens and food forests, or coming together to care for our parks and reserves.

Or we can get even more radical and give away our toilet paper.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Toilet rolls on a pink background (Getty images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, toilet paper, COVID-19, neoliberalism

 

 

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Existing comments

This is where we go when we get even more radical and give away our toilet paper. From "A Walk to the End of the Earth" by Colm Toibin. Colm is visiting the coast of Galicia, Finisterre to be exact. "In the years before 1492 you could have stood here contemplating the deep blue sea and the flat earth and the hot sun in the brilliant sky, knowing that you had come to the end of things, speculating what was beyond: great wealth and unimagined possibilities or nothing, the abyss that these same waves had touched or come close to. And then the turning back: the walk homewards, away from the setting sun, in the direction of the dull east, and all the places to revisit, and all the time in the world."
Pam | 12 March 2020


The social viruses who inconvenience their neighbours by hoarding toilet-paper: are they a pandemic or a mere outbreak?
roy chen yee | 12 March 2020


So now we know! Toilet paper hoarders are really victims. Their selfish actions are “entirely understandable reactions” to “40 years of neoliberal economic policies.” For modernists and postmodernists, society is always to blame. Virtues were once admired because they were within the reach of every person. But the counterculture of the 60s promised liberation from the “stultifying influence” of “bourgeois values.” In 1969, Kate Millett and eleven feminists set out to make a Cultural Revolution by destroying the American family and patriarchy—“By destroying monogamy” and “By promoting promiscuity, eroticism, prostitution, abortion, and homosexuality.” The result? In 1960, 22 percent of black children were raised in single-parent families. It’s now 70 percent. “Children from fatherless homes are likelier to drop out of high school, die by suicide, have behavioural disorders, join gangs, commit crimes and end up in prison. They are also likelier to live in poverty-stricken households” said black economist Walter Williams. However, one Catholic priest transformed a whole generation of immigrants, mired in poverty, drunkenness, violence, and prostitution, into the nation’s finest citizens, in one generation, and with no welfare system. John Joseph Hughes did the opposite of what Kate Millett did. He inculcated his people with virtues.
Ross Howard | 12 March 2020


This is a brilliant analysis Cristy, and l agree, this behaviour is so symbolic of our deeper, subconscious nature. I feel you've articulated it beautifully. Thank you. Please, consider entering politics.....though, perhaps you have too much integrity!!
Julie | 13 March 2020


Nice one.
A.Benjamin | 13 March 2020


An excellent comment. Yes, we have had decades of education in how to be competitive, selfish and nasty to one another. Government policies and rhetoric have contributed, as have reality tv shows have made their contribution and "team-building" games that require people to attack one another. Where I live a community of neighbours has dissolved and newcomers remain anonymous, driving by in cars with tinted windows, so we no longer even smile and wave. In such an environment, every act of friendliness and kindness is crucial, and revolutionary.
Janet | 13 March 2020


One side of politics seems dedicated to ‘back to the jungle’ and the other to ‘back to the nursery’. Dr Clark is right. Community is the answer, though not just while we wait for a more humane government. (Life’s too short)! Recently I was interested to read an article complaining bitterly about the failure of the NSW government to fully fund state schools. Parents are forced to fundraise for the educational basics as well as the extras. While I strongly sympathise with the school communities in this, let’s not forget the community strength that people build while working together, and the support the members of P&Cs give each other in time of stress. (The article didn’t mention this). Yes, neo-liberal governments are anathema to those of us who put human values first. But progressives can be in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Community 4 Ever!
Joan Seymour | 13 March 2020


Thank for the insights shared. I couldn’t help but notice that in the bush fires crisis we glimpsed something of the best of the human community yet in this time of the corona virus we are seeing aspects of the worst - people grabbing and struggling for security and control in the strangest and most unlikely ways. Perhaps it is how we have been conditioned by our “ me first” political system or is it a deeper insecurity that always exists just below the surface of our fractured human identity?
Patty Andrew | 13 March 2020


Clear and entirely to the point Cristy. Well done and I hope it hits home. Unfortunately I get the impression you might be like the little boy who pointed out the emperor has no clothes. The emperor doesn't, but making people see that, when they desperately do not want to see that, is the real challenge.
Bill Venables | 13 March 2020


A compelling analysis of this latest 2020 scourge, delivered with clarity and conviction. I look forward to reading more of your insightful articles, Cristy.
Lorella D'Cruz | 13 March 2020


What a wonderful piece of writing and so timely - coinciding with Paul Kelly's song just out Sleep Australia Sleep- it is a critique of the attitude of so many who feel entitled and think that the human is more important than anything else. Wake Up Australia! Thanks Cristy!
Margie Abbott | 13 March 2020


Cristy, thank you for your very accurate, well-timed and relevant analysis. The fighting over toilet paper in supermarkets certainly does tell us something about the extremely selfish way some ave reacted to the COVID-19 virus specifically and to social justice and fairness in our society more generally. I agree that there was a change about 40 years ago when the traditional Australia concept of a "fair go" came under challenger. In those days, capitalism was in its economic rationalism phase. This was the time that Margaret Thatcher became the British PM When conducting training courses for union and health and safety representatives, I used to jokingly refer to Si Margaret Thatcher as the Patron Saint for the Missionary Propagation of Economic Rationalism! She will be remembered for many inhumane beliefs and actions The Guardian's comment after she died in 2013 said: "Her legacy is public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed that together shackle the human spirit". Thatcher fervently promoted the idea that selfishness was a good thing, that there was no such thing as society and she adopted bullying as a management strategy. She attacked social services and those who supported social justice and human rights. In addition Thatcher was a great admirer of Ronald Reagan and the Chilean mass-murdering dictator General Augusto Pinochet. As humanity confronts the big challenges such as massive pollution, climate change and the current COVID-19 virus, we need to be encouraging the values of compassion, cooperation, social justice human rights and, of course, care for the environment.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 14 March 2020


In 1977, I had the swine flu and it became full blown GBS. I ended up in a hospital ICU for a month and 4 months on a ward. It took 5 years to get 80% of my strength back. I was lucky to survive. I'm now retired and am just going to stay home for a month. I'm trying to get at least 8 hours sleep to build up my immune system. Good Luck To Everyone, Rick
Rick | 14 March 2020


Whose human rights do you advocate?
Guess Who | 14 March 2020


It seems Cristy would like to replace capitalism with socialism ... forgetting that the latter has a very unenviable track record. There are hundreds of thousands, from government to local community, working together to help people during this crisis. Exploiting the current situation to accuse those with a different political ideology of lacking compassion is unwarranted and unhelpful.
ken john | 14 March 2020


Excellent article, Cristy, and so obvious to those of us brought up in the 1950's with Christian values like putting yourself out to act with love and compassion for others. We are witnessing the slow death of civil society and the Judaeo-Christian values it was built on, and their replacement by a dog-eat-dog neoliberalism based on individualism, selfishness and greed. It should be no surprise - Margaret Thatcher, the midwife of neoliberalism, described what she had in mind when she said, 'There is no such thing as society.' So we have the whingeing rich constantly filling the airwaves with outrage if any of their tax perks are threatened, oblivious to the needs of the under-privileged. We have an airline executive who earns $24 million a year playing hardball if any of his low-paid workers ask for a small pay rise. We have a government extorting fake debts from vulnerable Centrelink recipients. We have a CEO walking away with a $2.7 million golden handshake after the bank he was running was accused of breaking money-laundering laws 23 million times. And we have right wing 'Christian' groups like the Australian Christian Lobby who are so obsessed with peripheral issues that they completely miss this systemic destruction of our Christian values.
Peter Schulz | 14 March 2020


Cristy, A wonderful analysis which goes a long way to answering our question why the panic buying ? The Saga in the Supermarket Isle really highlighted scenarios akin to to what Golding illustrated in his novel; "Lord of the Flies". On another tack what are our Christian Church leadership doing to counteract this scourge of Neoliberalism which flies in the face of Social Justice? ? Ironically it is our Jesuit educated leaders who are leading the charge.How on earth did their excellent education lead to this farce?
Gavin O'Brien | 14 March 2020


Christy has elicited a warm embrace of approving reactions for her analysis. These thoughts, then, will be as welcome as Dick Deadeye's intervention in Act 2 of HMS Pinafore. What we are witnessing is a People Panic - where citizens behave irrationally, erratically, and insensitively. The more communal the source of the anxiety the more individual reactions are subsumed into a herd mentality: assaulting toilet paper, pasta and tinned tomato supplies are just some of the symptoms. It is only a short walk from Pandemic to Pandemonium: now is not the time for lectures, but hands on support for the vulnerable and the distressed - because more is to come. Meetings assessing Anzac day activities are taking place now for an event five weeks away gives some indication of the hazards ahead.
carey burke | 15 March 2020


The reason and idea behind the money the government is giving to those on Centrelink benifits, is disgraceful. So, the whole idea is: Because they are so desperately in need of bare necessities, such as food. They will spend the whole amount, save the economy and wealthy Australians who have lost shares in the stock market from the blow. Putting a tiny sardine on a hook of a fishing rod as an appetizer for a disgruntled shark, comes to mind. The sardine = the centrelink recipient. The hook = $750. The shark = The disgruntled wealthy. Newstart recipients should be given an extra $50 a week. Very uncool government, untill they do! Nobility, is not in the blood nor in having wealth. It initially on how respectfully one wishes to preserve the human dignity of another. There are people earning more than $25.000 a day in this country. I for one would like to see true Nobility from all in goverment. Maybe, this Nobility is the true antidote to the virus...Worth a try.
AO | 15 March 2020


Most Australians in the worker cohort are gainfully employed and most Australians who buy groceries did not hoard. In other words, Australian society is working normally (although, yes, it could work better). For an example of a society that doesn’t work normally, go to Venezuela. Cristy Clark’s two articles and the majority of the responses they provoked, this and the previous apocalyptic one on bushfires (speaking of which, where are those fires now?) strike me as the fearful leading the accomplice or co-dependent fearful. At least, not being blind, you won’t end up in a ditch --- but you will be going around in paranoid circles. Nothing is wrong, the world is fine, COVID-19 isn’t all that nasty an ailment (unless you’re elderly or rather sickly otherwise) and the toilet paper buying spree is merely one of those weird episodes of lunacy that occur from time to time. How do we know nothing fundamentally is wrong? Why isn’t there a bank run at the moment? Is it because the toilet-paper tunnel visionaries are incapable of lateral thinking?
roy chen yee | 16 March 2020


With Ross Howard, I consider the axioms of virtue ethics and their foundation in Christian faith more relevant as antidotes to the incidence of greed manifest in hoarding of household goods than a generic condemnation of systemic capitalism arising from a romanticised belief in socialist ideology. The situation Australia and our world now faces calls for the personal and social virtues of consideration, generosity and collaboration, as the title of this piece suggests - and the lived vision of faith that supplies perspective and sustains hope in adversity.
John RD | 16 March 2020


''COVID-19 isn’t all that nasty an ailment (unless you’re elderly or rather sickly otherwise).'' You are very clearly not a doctor of any kind. Please do not spread fake news, roy chen yee.
Rick | 17 March 2020


Rick: "fake news." Graham Readfearn writes in https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/coronavirus-what-happens-to-peoples-lungs-when-they-get-covid-19: “Now declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the majority of people who contract Covid-19 suffer only mild, cold-like symptoms. WHO says about 80% of people with Covid-19 recover without needing any specialist treatment. Only about one person in six becomes seriously ill “and develops difficulty breathing”.” Also: “The WHO says the elderly and people with underlying problems like high blood pressure, heart and lung problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness.” The shepherd in the parable leaves the majority of his flock secured to care about the one which, by reason of some circumstance, has become vulnerable. The actions that are the state's responses to COVID-19 are analogous, barricading the majority of the population not at risk of serious depredation behind all sorts of rules in order better to protect the few who are.
roy chen yee | 20 March 2020


Lots of things may seem "odd" when they conflict with our experiences but they're not necessarily wrong... and in fact these recent times of shortages and uncertainties are driving most comments towards what is deemed acceptable behavior across the community. Interestingly, Mormon practice includes the storage of supplies for just such an event as is happening now; please bear in mind the human right to practice religious beliefs. After suffering years of scorn or some derision for what seemed to be unnecessary hoarding this is their moment in the sun for a few well-deserved "ha ha, told ya so..." But before you get your pitchfork and head off to distribute their wealth more equitably, be comforted to know that somewhat as Kirsty suggests the Mormon ethos is to share the stores... not just the excess bum fodder. We shall see how the next few months pan out but those who just saved up cash for a rainy day might consider kudos to those with a cellar full of something to eat. Who's laughing now?
ray | 23 March 2020


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