Guest post by Dr John Falzon.
“From ancient Greece, we have a name for the intrusion of the Excluded into the socio-political space: democracy.” – Slavoj Zizek
She wasn’t asking for somewhere to live. She was just asking for enough money to buy some breakfast. But everyone just kept walking past and the angrier she got the wider the berth they gave her and the faster they moved past her.
“I’ve been here since five this morning,” she said. “I just want some coffee and something to eat.
“I didn’t choose this life, you know.”
I didn’t choose this life.
With these words words she unmasked the dismal ideology of neoliberalism, that destroyer of lives and crusher of souls.
She did not choose to be sitting on a corner opposite Melbourne Town Hall asking passers-by for a few coins so that she could buy coffee and a muffin. She did not choose to experience homelessness, insecurity, unemployment, exclusion.
The neoliberal myth rubs salt in her wounds as she is effectively told that she is where she deserves to be in the order of things. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ is the deeply offensive doxa that rings in everybody’s ears. It’s convincing. It takes on the appearance of common sense even. It seeps deeply into our consciousness, assuring everyone, from the very rich to the very poor, that things are as they should be.
Audre Lorde, the great poet and theorist, reminds us: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we need to escape but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”
And so we give our passive consent to an unjust status quo that relegates and residualises human beings. Except when we are confronted with the concrete realities as opposed to the ideological fictions they are obscured by. Then we begin to think. And question.
As Viviane Forrester put it so powerfully in her book, The Economic Horror: “There is no more subversive activity than thinking, none more feared, more slandered, and this is not due to chance, nor it is innocuous. Thinking is political. And not only political thinking is, far from it. The mere act of thinking is political.”
It is not poverty that causes homelessness. It is wealth, especially speculative wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, constraining the choices of the many. The twin engines of the neoliberal agenda are the marketisation of the public sphere and the atomisation of the working class through residualisation (unemployment, underemployment, precarity, exclusion) and dis-organisation (attacks on the union movement and workers’ rights).
By consenting to a neoliberal framework, which privileges the notion of choice, we are actually severely constraining the choices of people who are residualised and relegated. What neoliberalism does is accelerate and accentuate the breadth of choices available to a tiny elite, whilst eroding the choices of the many and completely stripping away the choices of some.
The neoliberal fantasy has seen an unprecedented building of walls, to keep people out while providing the highest level of private protection for the privileged. The notion of the social, of the common, of shared fate and shared responsibility, has been displaced by an ideological rupture that has seen the demonisation of democratic socialism alongside the deification of neoliberalism. Which is why it is only through an intrusion of the excluded that true democracy will be achieved.
As the beautiful Irish proverb reminds us: ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live’. If any of us is without shelter, it is because the rest of us, through our political choices as a society, have failed them. Thinking critically about the causes of homelessness and inequality is crucial. But acting collectively to build the kind of society where we really are a shelter to each other; this is the key to making a concrete difference. This is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice.
The role of government is to achieve the collective dreams of the many, rather than pandering to the demands of the wealthy few. Homelessness is not an indicator of bad personal choices leading to the personal tragedy of poverty. Homelessness is an indicator of bad political choices leading to the manufacture of inequality. Poverty is not a tragedy; it is a political choice.
Politics is the struggle between power being concentrated in the hands of the few or taken into the hands of the many. What happens in our formal political processes is important in this struggle, but it is only one battlefield. The broader political struggle is an expression of the economic struggle between these two tendencies.
We see it in the inequalities between incomes, between housing being treated as a human right as opposed to a speculative sport. We see it in the vast inequalities of health and life expectancy, in the inequalities in the allocation of education funding, access to transport, energy, culture, sport, recreation, all of the things that make life liveable.
We need – learning from the people who bear the brunt of inequality and exclusion – to tell a new story where the right to a place to call home is connected to the right to education, to health, to decent work for those who can work and income security for those who cannot, to all that makes us human, including culture and connection, dignity and respect; not just survival but joy, not just breakfast but a fair crack at happiness.
It is the edges of a socio-economic formation that teach us most about its structural make-up, its foundations. The woman who is forced to ask for money for breakfast tells us what these edges are like. And teaches us why we must fight for an alternative kind of society that disavows the power of concentrated wealth and puts at its centre the collective needs of the people, including those who have been pushed to the limits of despair. As Dante puts it as he travels through hell: “A hard edge bears us on.”
Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita, a progressive think tank. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is the author of The language of the unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists like us (2017). He is a member of the Australian Services Union. Follow him on Twtter @JohnFalzon.