A guest post by John Darroch
As we experience growing social and economic harm resulting from the coronavirus outbreak it may seem tempting to put political questions aside. After all, this is a human crisis, and one which requires immediate action. But the scale of this crisis, and the harm we are experiencing, is a result of our economic system. The fear and stress that we are feeling about losing our jobs, about not having sick leave, about paying our rent, are not individual crises. They are not crises caused by our individual actions. Nor are they the inevitable result of a global pandemic. This is a crisis of capitalism.
In the 1980s the British Prime Minister repeatedly stated that “There Is No Alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. Across the West, governments set about dismantling the social safety net which had been established following World War Two. Simultaneously, the power of the working class was deliberately smashed. The neoliberal political ideology fueled these attacks on the working class. To quote Thatcher again, the neoliberal ideology rests upon the belief that: “there is no such thing as society”.
Under neoliberal capitalism we are told that the problems we face are of our own making: that the stress, poverty, and oppression that we experience are individual problems for us to overcome – rather than the result of the social and economic system we live with. This ideology is replicated and instilled through our education system, in workplaces, and through the media. The internalisation of these beliefs leads to individual feelings of inadequacy and despair. It leads to an undermining of social solidarity and the collective strength we need in order to get through this crisis.
As workers were stripped of their power governments opened up borders to transnational corporations. This enabled corporations to freely move production of vital products to the countries with the lowest wages and fewest protections for workers and the environment. While borders were opened up for transnational capital they have slammed shut for the poor, and those fleeing war and oppression.
Alongside the criminalisation of those seeking refuge the mainstream political left, and right, have built the carceral state. Seeking legitimacy, Western governments have cast refugees and the criminalised as the causes of social problems. Building prisons and locking people up conveniently moves the victims of colonisation, and capitalism, out of sight. These prisons are now overcrowded and bursting at the seams. These conditions mean that those who are confined in prisons, or stuck in refugee camps, are in danger. People will die because of cynical electoral politics in which calls for tougher sentences are used to obscure the underlying causes of social dysfunction.
The fear that many of us have around housing is a clear example of how neoliberalism has created insecurity. Social housing has been deliberately run into the ground by successive governments in New Zealand. As a result, we have severe shortages of social housing, with large numbers living in overcrowded and inadequate conditions. This has already created a healthcare crisis which pushes our hospitals to the brink every winter. Rather than building public housing, governments have subsidized private landlords through measures such as the accommodation supplement. This has funneled wealth into the hands of those who own houses and allowed rents to spiral out of control.
As a result of these political failings, those who are living in overcrowded housing are vulnerable to communicable illnesses. This poses an immediate and pressing concern for many Māori and Pasifika families. These families have little ability to practice the kind of self-quarantine which those who live in houses with spare bedrooms and bathrooms can. This is a crisis which is not being experienced evenly. Inequality, and oppression, are magnified as the rich can take precautions which are unavailable to the poor.
The risks that coronavirus poses are inextricably linked to colonisation and the structural racism experienced by Māori. In every area where Māori interact with government services, they are subject to individual and structural racism. Recent reports and research have shown in granular detail how Māori are diagnosed with health problems later and that they receive poorer treatment once diagnosed (Waitangi Tribunal, 2019). This systemic racism, and the failure of government to seriously address the harm caused by colonisation, means that Māori are disproportionately harmed by a crisis like the one we are currently facing.
We recently saw an economic crash which could have precipitated a move away from neoliberal capitalism. The economic crash of 2008 showed how fragile capitalism is and laid bare the lie that deregulated markets should control our lives. Instead of recognising this fact it was the working class of the world who were forced to bear the economic brunt of the crisis 2008 crisis. While governments channeled trillions of dollars into the banking system they cut vital spending on health and social care. Programs of austerity were imposed on populations around the world. Hospital beds were cut, social work services were cut, benefits and social programs were cut. All of these cuts have undermined our ability to respond to this crisis. Those who are still working in the health and social sector are paying the cost for the political decisions that were made at that time.
These austerity measures, which were framed as a necessary short-term measure, have become the new normal. Rather than a necessary response, austerity deepened and prolonged the economic crash. This was not accidental, or a result of a poor understanding of economic system; austerity was another plank in the neoliberal agenda. Cuts to public services were designed to hollow out the state so that private corporations could take over essential services like hospitals and prisons.
At the same time, we saw the rise of the so-called “gig economy”. Trumpeted as increasing worker freedom this new economy epitomised precarious employment. Companies such as Uber have a vast pool of desperate workers who are prepared to work long hours for little pay. Workers have no guarantee of ongoing employment, no minimum wage, no sick leave, none of the protections which we once took for granted.
Over the past several decades the working class has been pushed to the brink of survival. Wages and benefits have been screwed down to the point that any unexpected bill presents a crisis for most of us. Our economic security, our sense of social solidarity, our sense of self, and the homes that we live in, have all been compromised by neoliberal capitalism. The economic and social fragility which is so evident in this crisis is not an inevitability.
Margaret Thatcher said that there is no alternative. In the face of the current crisis we must adopt the same call – but to opposite ends. We must rebuild our society. Repair social and economic harm wrought by neoliberal capitalism. We must decolonise and re-distribute the social and material goods which have been taken from us. We must build a society which works for us.
The social work profession must clearly reject neoliberalism and capitalism. As Duarte (2017) has suggested we must develop a political agenda which is rooted in the socialist foundations of our profession.
There Is No Alternative.
This blog post has drawn heavily on the ideas contained in the following two sources:
Thinking Through The Crisis: Coronavirus, Capitalism, and The Future (Revolutionary Left Radio). Retrieved from https://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/thinking-through-the-crisis-coronavirus-capitalism-and-the-future
Cummins, I. Parkinson, K. Pollock, S. (Eds.). (2019). Social Work and Society: Political and Ideological Perspectives. Policy Press.
Duarte, F. (2017). Reshaping political ideology in social work: A critical perspective. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(2), 34-44. Retrieved from: https://anzswjournal.nz/anzsw/article/view/282`
Waitangi Tribunal. (2019). HAUORA report on stage one of the health services and outcomes kaupapa inquiry (Report no. Wai 2575). Retrieved from: https://waitangitribunal.govt.nz/news/report-on-stage-one-of-health-services-and-outcomes-released/