by Kim Kelly
People do crazy things when they’re hurt – like voting to install a flagrantly manipulative narcissist as leader of the free world, or leaving the European Union, or imprisoning refugees indefinitely in concentration camps on remote equatorial islands.
When hope and opportunity are ripped away piece by piece over time, it wears down resilience, and blows away empathy with it.
The woman who serves me at the supermarket checkout or the young man who wipes my windscreen at the carwash don’t care about me or how shocked and disapproving I might be at recent radical political shifts which threaten the peace of my pleasant, middle-class life. Nor should they care.
Because we – the privileged – have let them down.
Regardless of which way we vote, or whatever hackneyed, hypocritical rubbish we spout about equality, every time we indulge in such perks as tax minimisation and negative gearing and the moral superiority that makes it all possible, we hurt the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash. We shrink their world to keep ours comfortable.
When the darling of Australia’s left, Paul Keating, began the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and brought in superannuation tied to the stock market, I thought this wouldn’t end well. When I expressed this worry, I was scoffed at by my uni mates who knew so much better.
They didn’t, but I didn’t know better than to doubt myself. I’d dropped out of uni for a spell and was working at the Commonwealth Bank at the time, in the late 80s; before that, I worked at Coles variety store in Redfern. I watched workplace agreements and their attendant secrecy divide colleagues, destroying not only solidarity but camaraderie.
Later, I watched Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ result in mass sackings and pave the way for more and more corporate gobbling – the mergers and takeovers that would result in more and more economic rationalisation, aka more sackings and lower wages.
We walk the same streets today as those who never recovered their dreams, their promised lives, from those strokes of bad luck that had nothing to do with them.
And yet we blame them – the unlucky. Or perhaps choose not to see them. We smile perfunctorily at the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash, unseeing smiles that judge them for their losses and their lackings to stave off our guilt at having all that we have at their expense.
Because this is the way it works – and we know it. We know the economic pie is finite. We know the disparities inherent in the way we value labour are a disgrace – because we all learnt that at university.
A note to those traumatised today at Trump’s ascendancy: stop the bullshit right now.
More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle dreamed us – the middle class – into existence. He called us the ‘mean between extremes’ – those who would be so fearful of falling into servitude but so constantly, graspingly aspirational that we’d be the tiller, the steadying force of democracy, keeping revolution at bay, keeping all bastards honest.
We have failed. We are a waste of our education – which most of my vintage largely got for free, before we started chipping away at that, too, to pay for our chardonnay, our turmeric shakes and quinoa salads.
We sigh at the enormity of the problem. Globalisation and mechanisation have smashed the unlucky further down in recent times but how can we possibly help? All our investments are tied up in the corporations that are keeping them in relentless poverty. It’s becoming positively Dickensian.
But really, what can we do?
Deny all responsibility. Shrug our shoulders as history repeats and repeats. Be horrified at what checkout woman and carwash boy have done.
Pretend sometime in the far away future that we were the good Germans because we bought free-range eggs.