by Kim Kelly
THE ECONOMICS OF UNQUESTIONING
When did it become unfashionable for bookish and thinkery types to rattle their chains against the ever-creeping greed of capitalism? Or am I dreaming that we ever did?
I’ve just begun tinkering at the edges of a new story set in the 1980s during my university days, where the most subversive thing I ever said was, ‘I think Paul Keating might be an economic conservative and a traitor to his class.’ In the clatter of loud, proud New Age feminism, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the tail end of Cold War threats of Nuclear Holocaust, no-one cared much about what teenage me thought of our federal treasurer and soon-to-be PM.
But his policy bent would begin the dismantling of the socially secure Australia we once knew: he privatised the Commonwealth Bank, instigated offshore processing of refugees, reintroduced university fees and even dreamt up a GST. Yes, he did a bunch of good stuff, too, but he opened the gate to a savage neo-conservatism that’s seen institutions like Centrelink become enemies of the poor, a system where hard-won, sensible checks and balances on industrial exploitation have been steadily eroded, and no-one’s had the guts to shut the gate since.
Socialism itself has just as steadily become a dirty word, or now denotes a radicalism we once took for granted in Australia. I grew up in those quaint ye olde days when a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work was as standard an expectation as meat and three veg and a cold can of VB. Yes, the Builders Labourers Federation was a fat sack of rats – but hey, Commonwealth Bank anyone? What’s the difference between a punch in the face and having your shirt stolen off your back? A hair-split, really.
But when did the bulk of our brains trust stop demanding better – and demanding it with a firm fist to the table?
The digital communications revolution has seen a fracturing of massed intellectual power. I’ve seen this up close in writers’ groups where thousands of words are expended over stoushes on cultural appropriation or over some perceived anti-feminist slight. Usually, if you scrape the surface of these bunfights, you’ll see most of those involved actually agree with each other, and are generally kind and concerned people – just people distracted by the vast amount of opinionating social media forums allow in a world that seems to be making us feel increasingly small and voiceless.
Hm. Capitalism likes things like that. Turning us all into hyper-distracted and needy peas means we’ll buy any and every gadget or diet or lie to try to feel better as we scream ever closer to living hell.
But there’s a worse and far plainer hip-pocket consequence of this revolution: individual economic insecurity. Yep, there’s a flavour tailored just for you.
I remember, in the early 90s, during Keating’s fantastic Recession We Had To Have, I was so scared of losing my job, I accepted whole plates of unsavoury and unethical shit – from sexual harassment to being illegally threatened with the sack if I didn’t return early from maternity leave. Nasty – but it worked. I was young and vulnerable.
You don’t have to be young or particularly vulnerable to be held hostage like this today. It’s become the norm.
Saddest of all, I’ve seen these hooks get into the industry that once upon a time gave me shelter from the storm: publishing. Everything about making books, making thoughts on pages, has been screwed down to within an inch of its life to feed corporate monsters, be they the publishing behemoths themselves, or soulless supermarkets addicted to discounts so low those who make the products that fill their stores have become nameless and utterly expendable. It’s resulted in inhumanely overworked in-house staff, disgustingly underpaid freelancers, and a wholesale exploitation of writers that increasingly leaves me so gobsmacked it’s just about dislocated my jaw.
And there’s not much resistance; when there is little will within the ranks, the tiger has no teeth.
It’s alright for me. I’ve grown into my own ratbaggery as I was probably always going to. My mother told me, at the age of thirteen, in her succinctly hard-arse way: ‘Don’t strive for popularity. Prostitutes are popular.’ Thanks Mum. Now, at fifty, on the cusp of reaching my full lady powers, I have the personal security and means to hurl whatever truth bombs I like. Once an odd bod too shy to let her freak flag fly, I don’t care who sees it anymore.
There’s not a whole lot of honesty going on outside my front gate, though – at least not among the mainstream fishies. One well-respected Australian journalist recently justified her failure to call out misogynistic attacks on our first female PM, Julia Gilliard, with an argument that basically said, ‘Mea culpa, I was bamboozled by the sweeping inrush of the 24hour news cycle.’
That’s only half the story. We can’t blame our tools. This journalist was surely thinking of how in the name of Holy Pay Packet she was going to keep her job in an industry under siege. A world under siege from greed raging out of control. From a social contract of fairness and care now so pathetically broken we shrug at every new revelation of the corruptions nibbling away at our democracy and our freedom.
How can we question those who oppress and manipulate us all if we can’t pay the rent? How do we turn back this tide?
I hope today’s kids have some bright ideas. And will one day forgive us for the way we’ve let it all slide.