Class Act: Wallowing in neoliberalism

Shift in values: The more people engage in social media the more likely they are to care about fame, image, money and status in comparison to social connections and family.
Shift in values: The more people engage in social media the more likely they are to care about fame, image, money and status in comparison to social connections and family.

In my columns, I have been talking about how the ideology of neoliberalism impacts not only on education, but also all elements of our lives, private and public.

This way of thinking impacts on how we think, the kinds of choices we make and our very self image.

All of us, children and adults, are simply seen as human capital in competition with each other. Those who work hard and succeed deserve to do so, and deserve to keep the fruits of their labour.

From this success there may be a trickle-down of benefits to the poor who provide their labour to continue to make money for the rich. Those who are poor are, by definition, undeserving and learn to internalise this image of themselves to self-identify as failures. Under neoliberalism, inequality is desirable.

The goal of government

The goal of government is to create the conditions where inequality can flourish.

We see this in the international slowing of economic growth visible since the beginning of the neoliberal era. The difference in wage growth between the very rich and the poor has increased dramatically in that period. An Oxfam report released in January this year shows that the top 1 per cent of Australians in 2017 had 23 per cent of Australia’s wealth. This is more than the wealth held by the bottom 70 per cent of Australians.

This reflects an increase in wealth differential compared to 2016; we now have a greater differential than existed at the time of the Global Financial Crisis.

The difference between the rich and the poor in Australia is so large that Australia is 22nd in wage equality out of the 35 OECD countries.

Under neoliberalism, the rich must be able to maintain their wealth: tax cuts and minimal regulation enable those who are wealthy to continue to prosper.

A view of liberty

Trade Agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement hand power to corporations in ways that trump the state. This is because neoliberalism positions true liberty as achieved when those who are advantaged have power and control; they are the leaders of our society, the ones who deserve to make the decisions.

It is assumed chaos is the inevitable result of enabling the voices of all citizens to be heard. Thus under neoliberalism there are ongoing attacks on unionism; unions must not be allowed the space to forge resistance to the control of the elite.

Of course, reducing the power of unions means there is freedom to supress wages and workers’ rights and we see that increasingly in Australia where Enterprise Agreements are terminated and workers’ wages and conditions reverted to the state minima.

One consequence of this way of thinking and governing is a growing mistrust in governments and business.

Research demonstrates this across all levels of society. This is associated with a rejection of knowledge and expertise – the many and vocal dismissals of the climate change evidence is a good example of this position.

Growing alienation

Substituting for a sense of community, togetherness and trust in each other is a growing alienation that is reinforced by the hegemony of social media.

Monbiot says: “We spend every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sport, even cooking.”

This kind of celebrity culture is developed intentionally to construct desire: desire for products and lifestyles. Research shows us that those who follow celebrity gossip are less likely to be engaged with community groups and 50 per cent less likely to engage in volunteer work.

The more people engage in social media, the more likely they are to care about fame, image, money and status in comparison to the more traditional values of social connections and family.

Consumerism increases our loneliness and makes us easier to control (if you disagree with the boss and you get sacked then you won’t be able to afford the new smartphone the moment it is released!).

The more we consume, the more likely we are to be competitive and the less likely we are to co-operate.

The new normal

Sadly, such experiences have become normalised; people don’t see any other way to live their lives and there is no coherent alternative to neoliberalism available.

Rather, we see increasing claims that democracy is in crisis.

However as Sor-hoon Tan, of the National University of Singapore, in a recent article in The Conversation reminds us: “...democracy cannot be forced on another, nor can it be handed over as a free gift. Unless people want and are willing to put in the effort to govern themselves, democracy has no hope.”

It is up to us, each and every one of us to speak up, to be engaged with each other and demand the space to participate in decision-making.