ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate
Posted Monday, 25 October 2004
From the earliest days of human existence when erect hominoids started to spread out from Kenya’s Rift Valley about 2 million years ago, communal activity has been an important component of human societies. Many animal species are successful because of the supportive communities they create. The concept of civilisation is reliant, at least in part, upon the idea that relationships beyond those of individuals and families are possible and are a viable option. The notions of country and sovereignty would be meaningless without the idea of community.
At moments of danger, people have come together to defend the collective since time immemorial. Both war and group defence would be impossible without a sense of belonging to some association larger than the family. In Europe, first the church and later the state, came to assist those members of the community who were in need of assistance. Following WW II, Western countries expanded and improved their social welfare programmes. In Australia, a concerted effort was made to ensure a coherent and comprehensive welfare assistance programme. The driving notion of the time was that you built decent communities by providing decent community services.
Despite concerted efforts in many countries to construct a social welfare state to support people in times of need, income support provided by government has come under sustained attack from neo-liberal politicians and economic fundamentalist writers for over half a century. The Austrian-born writer Friedrich Hayek was one of the early cabs off the rank with his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Many credit Hayek with reinvigorating modern liberal thought, but there have been many fellow travellers, including Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Charles Murray all of whom glorify the individual and denigrate the communal. Neo-liberals are opposed to the communal liberal utilitarian tradition of Jeremy Bentham with his belief in the greatest good for the greatest number. They exhibit no interest in how non-affluent minorities view their treatment. Instead of turning to Bentham’s or John Stuart Mills’ 19th century versions of liberalism, they retrace the paths of early liberals.
The current incarnation of liberalism is far more reminiscent of Hobbes’ mid-17th century version of the natural state of man, where life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” where the struggle of each is against all. Hobbes considered such a natural state was in need of control by means of a social contract.
In the 1950s, the main adherents of neo-liberal philosophies were found lurking in economic departments of universities. Gradually, politicians started to embrace some of the economic fundamentalist and other ideas of the neo-liberals. Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of the British Conservative Party, did more than any other politicians to popularise neo-liberal economic fundamentalism. Their ideas have percolated through the entire English-speaking Western world. In 1991, Professor Michael Pusey noted the ascendency of economic fundamentalism in the ranks of senior bureaucrats in Canberra. Across the Tasman, Professor Jane Kelsey recorded a similar phenomenon in 1995.
By the mid-1980s, neo-liberals had succeeded in persuading politicians to prune income support programmes in Britain, the US, New Zealand and Australia. The catchcry used to justify such cutbacks was that “welfare dependency” was sapping the lifeblood of the nation. This appeal to sort out the moral problem of welfare assistance was not accompanied with any evidence of the presence of “welfare dependency”. Its existence was simply asserted and accepted by politicians wanting to make cuts in budget outlays. In 1999, Professor Robert Goodin and others showed the assertion that welfare assistance automatically leads to “dependency” is false. However such is the strength of moral panic about “welfare dependency” in the English-speaking Western world that the myths have prevailed over the facts.
It was the British Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who, in October 1987, said:
I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. “I have a problem, I’ll get a grant”. “I’m homeless, the government must house me”. They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.
Similar sentiments can be identified in the policy pronouncements of Bill Clinton’s welfare cutbacks and “workfare” policies, the Keating Labor Government’s increased targeting of social security, John Howard’s “Mutual Obligation”, Tony Blair’s “Participation Income/Social Inclusion” and Mark Latham’s “Learning or Earning” Third Way Tax and Family Policies. Noel Pearson’s unctuous pronouncements, about refusing social security to indigenous people on Cape York unless they first meet their responsibilities, are drawn from this same well.
An amazing feature of recent Australian life is that although we are richer on average than ever before in our history, we are no happier: the richer we get, the greater utility we demand from those less well off than ourselves. Howard has employed the mechanism of downward envy to insulate the affluent from their own humanity. Canberra economist, Lindy Edwards, notes that:
The Coalition captured the “What About Me? sentiment”. It cunningly devised the campaign slogan: “For all of us”. In its first term in office it made theatre of cracking down on the unemployed, aborigines, immigration and minority groups. Unable to demonstrate any understanding of people’s aspirations, it settled for showing an understanding of their vices (p. 17).
In 1999, John Howard set out to describe the neo-liberal economic and socially conservative mixture of ideologies that drives his prime ministership. In relation to welfare assistance he said:
Another defining aspect of our modern conservatism in social policy lies in our strong support for the principle of “Mutual Obligation”. Just as it is an ongoing responsibility of government to support those in genuine need, so also is it the case that – to the extent that it is within their capacity to do so – those in receipt of such assistance should give something back to society in return, and in the process improve their own prospects for self-reliance. This is the principle that underpins the “Work for the Dole Scheme” which we have successfully introduced and expanded over recent years.
Here Howard is suggesting that those who are given a poverty-line income must “give something back to the community”. Howard would like to return to Australian family life of the 1950s, FJ Holdens and white picket fences. Latham would wish to revisit Green Valley with its working class desperate to get on and get out but this time with more “ladders of opportunity”. Whilst Pearson wants to revisit the reciprocity of the “real economy” of the mission days of the 1960s and 70s before there was social security. The conservative agenda of each of these figures amounts to an unrequited call for the return of their lost youth. Even they don’t want to replicate the past as it existed. Rather, they wish to insert particular economics or social aspects of which they greatly approve.
The community has become transmogrified. Community used to be envisioned as collective support to which people would turn for assistance in times of trouble. Howard has redefined community to mean an agency that extracts a contribution from recipients of social security at the very time when they are in considerable need. Somehow we have lost the idea that people who have been helped by the community, will, once back on their feet, be likely to contribute to the wellbeing of their fellow citizens and to the community’s activities. The poor are expected to demonstrate their utility via a compulsory contribution and to do it NOW!
The Corporate Board of Howard and Co. has taken the concept of community, previously understood as a communal hearth where the poor might seek succour, and metamorphosed it into a debt-collecting agency.
Copyright © 2023 John Tomlinson