Do not mention the war or young people

Paper given at the Young People and Poverty Seminar, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, 23 May, 2002.

Australian society is structured in terms of age, gender, race, locality, class and by the way we treat people with a disability. Each of these structural features is underpinned by an ideology: ageism, sexism, racism, urbanism, classism and disableism respectively . Together these ideological forces constitute the prevailing world view of the politically powerful in this nation. They constitute the hegemonic ideological paradigm through which the powerful in this country interpret the world and provide the conceptual lens which informs the construction of social policy which the powerful then inflict on the rest of us.

Today I want to argue that the reason young people and young people’s issues can be so effectively marginalised is that there is an intimate connection between the ideological construction which the powerful in this country constantly impose on the relations of production and the outcomes which flow from the relations of distribution. Put simply, the powerful in this country have used the mumbo jumbo of economic fundamentalism to deceive Australians into believing that our country is now a more efficient society.

It may well be true that individual firms are able to produce product more cheaply – but at what cost?  In March 2002, 6.6 % of our workforce was officially recognised as unemployed. The real figure, if discouraged unemployed and underemployed people are taken into account, is, according to Professor Bob Gregory, in the order of 20%. Yet about half the full-time work force is working 10 hours a week unpaid overtime. More and more workers are employed at such low rates that even when in full time work they only receive a poverty line income. The current industrial system is exploitation not efficiency. If Australia is not utilising one fifth of its available labour force and over working half of its full-time work force, this does not amount to an efficient use of available labour.

The hegemonic forces have succeeded in imposing other socially undesirable outcomes on Australian society of which the following are but a few:

  • a preparedness to incarcerate asylum seekers – currently 600 of whom are under 18 (Lock, Quenault and Tomlinson 2002),
  • an excessive willingness to follow Uncle Sam round the world, meeting lots of nice people then killing them,
  • the continued stealing of young Indigenous children via the criminal injustice system (Cunneen 2001),
  • the ongoing denigration of young people, and
  • the constant enforcement of the loser pays principle in relation to nursing homes , education and community services.

I would like to briefly outline some of the methods which the powerful use to impose their world view. The prime focus is to divide and conquer.

Divide and conquer

Sometimes it is clearly in the short term interests of one relatively powerless group to attack another powerless group. Australian workers attacking migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may believe they are protecting their jobs. Such Australian workers are ignoring the fact that their long term interests may well be undermined by the division between the two groups. They may not realise that migrants tend to increase overall employment whilst at the same time taking some jobs from the little Aussie battler. Any division between workers and the reserve army of labour eventually undermines wage levels.

There are three major components in the divide and conquer process:

  • identification with the oppressor,
  • ambition, and
  • the closed circle of violence.

Identification with the oppressor

Several writers recognise Sigmund Freud as the modern originator of the concept of victims identifying with their oppressor. In more recent times, researchers studying domestic violence have found the concept a useful tool in their investigation of intra-family aggression. A lot of the early work on the mechanisms of identifying with the oppressor arose out of the experience of psychologists who had survived Nazi concentration camps. Paulo Freire (1972) explored the concept in considerable length, see also David Parker (1998).

At one level ‘identification with the oppressor’ is a self-explanatory concept – the people who are oppressed wish to escape that oppression and at least try to ‘be like’ their oppressor. But more is involved than simple imitation. Beyond the notion of identification is the idea of disassociation from the previous self. This often takes the form of denigrating one’s previous incarnation. In extreme forms, as the oppressed metamorphose into the oppressor they behave violently towards those who represent their past incarnation. In colonial situations many ‘natives’ might attempt to pass into the invader/settler society – some might become police or soldiers fighting against members of their own ethnic group.

Today I am using the concept of identification with the oppressor to mean any form of identification with the powerful which incorporates aspects of disassociation from those who are subjected to the direction or control by the powerful.


Appropriate ambition tends to be defined by the powerful because they have the opportunity and desire to reinforce their message. They define what is success and what is failure. Individuals and less powerful groups might disagree with that definition but they find it very hard to disseminate their ideas.

A good current example of how economic fundamentalism has influenced community work is the number of conservatives (and even confused leftists) who are rushing to describe themselves as social entrepreneurs. Noel Pearson and the current priest heading the Brotherhood of St Lawrence are but two who wish to emulate the entrepreneurs Christopher Scase and Bondie.

Closed circle of violence

Franz Fanon (1967, pp. 243-250) in his famous book The Wretched of the Earth described why it is that much of the violence in poor communities occurs as a result of poor people attacking other poor people- he explained that much of the violence is a result of the psychological mechanism of displacement. Poor people feel unable to attack the real source of their oppression and repression because the real oppressor is seen as extremely powerful and is often distant. So powerless people displace their aggression onto those who are also powerless, who live close by and who annoy them.

For Howard to succeed he does not need to convince powerless people to physically or even verbally attack other powerless people. Howard succeeds when he gets one group of people to compete at the expense of the other. He does not even need to get people to compete. He succeeds the moment he can get one group of people to feel indifferent about the suffering of another individual or group of people. This is how the closed circle of violence enters most of our lives. That’s why Lenin suggested that if we are to escape such social division we need to realise: “The struggle for one is the struggle for all”.

If we don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with others the powerful pick us off one by one. We may not be a severely impaired 16 year old young person, who is unlikely to ever work, who won’t benefit from further schooling, and who would have received an adult rate disability pension until the early 1990s but who, if they live at home, now has to rely on 60% of the adult rate.

We may not be one of the approximately 200,000 young people who are breached annually by Centrelink for failing to meet some arbitrarily imposed obligation; some of whom find that, once breached, they are unable to afford to live in their existing accommodation and start on the slippery slope towards homelessness.

One by one they pick us off. One by one we become the victims only to find we are then blamed for the victim status they have assigned us. The union movement a long time ago realised that if we don’t hang together then we hang separately. But this is not a new idea. Aesop’s Fables include the story about a sheaf of sticks being harder to break than each stick individually.

Economic fundamentalism, class indifference, sexism, racial superiority, ageism, discrimination against people on the basis of their disability and the failure to ensure that country people have access to necessary goods and services on anything like the terms available in cities—all of these ideologies provide a point of divide, a point of departure and a point of separation. Each of these ideological manifestations separate the self from the other.

For example, in 1999 the young unemployed were divided between those who were literate and those who couldn’t read, between those who could count and those who were innumerate. Howard held those who had difficulty reading writing and adding up responsible for their own predicament. In the talk-back babble which followed there was little recognition that illiteracy and innumeracy derive in large part because the educational system has failed the student. In 2UE’s Laws and Parrot Land there was no recognition that compelling people to become literate or to achieve any other educational outcome is counterproductive. Any educator could have told Howard that compelling young people to become literate creates problems both for the learner and the teacher. Of course, such an analysis assumes the Liberal Coalition Government’s real intent was to help young people gain literacy skills. The real intent may have just been to cut budget outlays by forcing young people off welfare and/or if they stayed to further denigrate and intimidate them. His minister of social welfare at the time Jocelyn Newman (1999) has said “Good economic policy is welfare policy.” Her statement might alert us to one thrust of the powerful in this country.

How does it happen

 The powerful win when we:

  • fail to question what is success and what is failure,
  • confuse frozen anger with apathy,
  • don’t distinguish between feelings of impotence and indifference,
  • accept our indifference towards others,
  • tolerate greed, or
  • ignore mal-distribution.

The moment we avert our eyes from the malnutrition and starvation of 1,000 million of our fellow world citizens or ignore the incarceration of asylum seekers in concentration camps in Australia’s outback or elsewhere it becomes easier for us to turn our backs on Australia’s young people who are homeless. The moment we avert our eyes from the 25 million people in South Africa who can’t afford AIDS treatment it becomes easier for us to ignore the young person with a severe disability who’s trying to get a job. The moment we look away from the young woman who’s just been dismissed from her job we know that we can’t turn to her when we get the pink slip in our pay packet, when we get told to finish up on Friday or when we’re made redundant.

We refuse to listen to John Pilger’s statement that 6 thousand Iraqi children die each month as a result of the blockade of that country which Australia in early 2002 is proudly leading. Some people say that Pilger exaggerates. It may be that only 5,804 Iraqi children will die this month. It may only be 3203 kids who’ll die this month (about the same number of lives lost in the bombing of the World Towers in New York). So when you go home tonight sleep easily knowing that Pilger may have exaggerated – I’m sure that you will feel much more comfortable knowing that your country is only responsible for the deaths of  3203 Iraqi children this month. You might like to tell yourself that it’s not happening and that it’s only Pilger saying that. Unfortunately that is not true. The United Nations children’s organisation has been coming up with similar figures for years. But then again who wants to listen to the United Nations when they are critical of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians.

We can always find a place to hide behind the flag of patriotism. On that flag is inscribed ageism, racism, disableism, urbanism and sexism – so raise the patriotism banner high and salute.

I was going to sing “Advance Australia Fair” but we aren’t really being fair to many of the people who are desperately fleeing persecution, rape, war and poverty.

Yeh, Australia’s the land of the fair go
ah, were it so –
we give refugees a fair go
provided they go somewhere else.

If cowering close to “the last refuge of a scoundrel” does not appeal to you, you might fall back on argument that:

  • “The problem is too big I can’t look after all the young people.”
  • “The problem is too big I can’t look after all the old people.”
  • “The problem is too big I can’t look after all the starving people.”

The reality is that you individually are not being asked to look after everybody in the world. You are just being asked to care and to do what you can. As American community worker Si Kahn wrote:

It’s not what you were born with
it’s what you choose to bear
it’s not how large your share is
but how much you can share.
It’s not the prize you dream of
but the ones who really fought
it’s not just what you’re given
it’s what you do with what you’ve got.

What’s the use of two good legs
if you only run away?
And what good is the finest voice
if you’ve nothing good to say?
What good is strength and muscle
if you only push and shove?
And what’s the use of good two ears
if you can’t hear those you love?

Between those who use their neighbours
and those who use the cane,
between those in constant power
and those in constant pain,
between those who run to meet us
and those who cannot run,
tell me which ones are the cripples
and which ones touch the sun.

The short term aim

The social support systems in our country have for too long done things to and for people. Often this has meant the real beneficiaries of such ‘helping’ have been the ‘helpers’ themselves. We need to change our focus and start doing things with people, on their terms. Above all, none of us can do it alone – we need to do it together.

We can’t at this stage hope to overthrow the hegemonic forces of economic fundamentalism, capitalist globalism, war, famine and misdistribution.

The best that we can hope for in the short term is to help build a counter-hegemony which might usher in a new world in which:

  • country people get a fair crack of the whip,
  • old people are worried about what happens to young people,
  • every person is concerned about what happens to people with disabilities whether they are old or young,
  • gender becomes a point of identification rather than a point of division,
  • Indigenous people worry about what is going to happen to those who have come here by one means or another in the last two centuries, and
  • those of us who have arrived more recently are determined to see that Indigenous people are respected, that their rights are not transgressed, that their land is not stolen, that their children are not separated from them.

In this new world, Australians will act with determination to ensure that a fair percentage of the world’s refugees and displaced people are welcomed here however they arrive on this shore.

Let’s hope that today is the first day in the struggle to build that new world – for you and for me. It will involve building mutuality – not sameness. We don’t want to build a world that’s drab or censorious – we want to build a world that’s vibrant. A world that celebrates diversity – that knows and acknowledges the other.


Aesop’s Fables “The Bundle of Sticks.”
Cunneen, C. (2001) Conflict, Politics and Crime: Aboriginal Communities and the Police. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Lock, J., Quenault, M. & Tomlinson, J. ( 2002) “Some Reasons Why Australia Should Abolish the Detention of Asylum Seekers.” CPACS Occasional Paper No. 02/1, March, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. Sydney.
Newman, J. (1999) The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st. Century. Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra.
Parker, D. (1998) Anthropology in a Revolutionary Moment: Miskitu Resistance, Anglo Affinity, and the Limits of Gramscian Theory.
Pilger, J. (2002) “ Breaking the silence: war, propaganda and the new empire.” Speech 1st March at Sydney Town Hall, Sydney.

Suggested further reading for those who want to discover an alternative to Australia’s petty-fogging targeted income support system:
Income Insecurity: The Basic Income Alternative is an E-Book and can be found on the New Zealand Universal Basic Income web site the direct link is