'Nasty, brutish and short': Hobbes and the Coalition’s politics of exclusion

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(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Political editor Dr Martin Hirst has been musing on recent political news while re-reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. His outlook is bleak.

I’m doing a course at my local TAFE this year; it’s a mixed group. I’m one of three oldies (I’d describe myself as a late baby boomer). Apart from a couple of students in their mid 20s, the rest of the group are all in their late teens. We had a discussion this week about what constitutes the zeitgeist — the “spirit of the Age”.

Some of the responses from the millennials in the class got me thinking. In part, I reflected on what I was like when I was 18; I also began to think about Thomas Hobbes and those famous lines from Leviathan about war of “all against all” and the bleak lives – “nasty brutish and short” – that some of us are forced to live.

I was reminded of these passages – from Chapter XIII, 'Of the natural condition of mankind' – by some of the fears and concerns expressed by millennial classmates.

For them, the overwhelming zeitgeist is fear. They are scared about the future that is facing them. More importantly, perhaps, they feel powerless to do anything about it.

They talked about how difficult it is for them to find work — even the precarious work of casual shifts in the hospitality or retail industries. They talked about feeling like they’d never be able to afford to buy a house, and their fear of global warming and the damage that we’re doing to the planet.

But most of all, they felt like they could do nothing about the problems confronting them.

I thought about it for a few days afterwards. Something was niggling me. I finally figured it out. For many millennials, it feels like they are being deliberately excluded from society and from decision-making.

Then it hit me: our whole political culture is built on exclusion and fear.

It is actually blindingly obvious.

A nation built on exclusion

The nation of Australia was built on exclusionary principles and these have dictated the political mood ever since.

The Indigenous Australians were deliberately excluded from the beginning of Australia. The ethos of colonial government was that Aboriginal Australians were a pest, to be wiped out, or at best segregated, herded into forced enclosures and left to starve.

This exclusion was codified in so many ways: by the system of religious missions; by the taking of children and incarcerating them in hellish conditions; by systematically ignoring the health, education and employment needs of whole communities, forcing them into enduring poverty.

For decades, Aboriginal people were excluded from most cities and towns by legal restraint, and by designated physical boundaries. Yes, there were actually roads that Aboriginal people could not cross by law.

Of course, things have changed since the “bad old days”. But formal recognition of Aboriginal Australians as citizens with full rights has not really changed the politics of exclusion. The 1967 Referendum officially ended Australia’s unwritten rules of apartheid and segregation, but it did not materially improve the lives of Aboriginal people, particularly outside of the major cities and towns. Today, Indigenous Australians have life expectancy outcomes, health, education and employment opportunities well below those enjoyed by most of us.

It’s now 46 years since the first Tent Embassy was established on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra — but it could not happen today. In 2018, Parliament House is surrounded by a fence, signalling a vast “no go” areas across what used to be publicly accessible lawns.

The Turnbull Government thrives in its exclusionary splendour.

In relation to Indigenous people, the most recent rebuff of attempts to include them in Australian politics lay directly at the feet of the arrogant Turnbull and his ill-equipped government of pale, stale males (with one or two token “good bloke” women and gay camp followers).

In October 2017, Malcolm Turnbull explicitly rejected any notion of Indigenous representation, as suggested in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Critics called Turnbull’s dogging of this issue a “despicable act of mean-spirited bastardy”. It was and remains so. Turnbull’s actions and justification were also called “elaborately dishonest”. They were and are still.

Closed borders — the exclusion of asylum-seekers

Another area of exclusionary politics – with unfortunate bipartisan support – involves our appalling and possibly criminal treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Both Labor and Liberal governments of the recent past have boasted about the rough and punishing treatment of asylum-seekers in offshore detention. Regular readers of IA need no reminding about this harsh and inhumane policy.

The Minister responsible for the closed borders and the detention regime is Peter Dutton — or as I like to call him, Sinister Mutton. Dutton/Mutton is a spiteful, vindictive and hateful person. His soul is a mouldering pile of seething nasty Gollum excrement. Dutton/Mutton appears to take delight in making the lives of asylum seekers even more miserable by the day.

Not only do we continue to callously turn around refugee vessels, with potential disasterous effects and in total secrecy; there are hundreds of legitimate refugees suffering in horrendous conditions of deprivation on Manus and Nauru. Now, thanks to Dutton/Mutton, refugees and asylum seekers who have actually been allowed into Australia are being forced into tremendous poverty and hardship by current government policy. Dutton/Mutton and his grisly henchman (unelected) Senator Jim Molan take delight in turning the screws even harder.

The exclusion of the poor

The third enduring exclusion at the heart of Australian politics is of the poor and working people. Again, we see this is at the root of Australia’s establishing principles.

Alongside the exclusion of First Nations’ people, the first civilian settlers of the continent in 1788 were convicts. By their very definition, they had been excluded from the United Kingdom, transported into exile and servitude under the British Crown. Access to freedom was strictly controlled and was only available after long periods of incarceration.

There is a direct line between the treatment of convicts and the treatment of people with criminal records today.

For instance, any convicted felon is automatically excluded from making a claim for compensation in the national redress scheme for victims of institutional sexual violence. This is an absurd exclusion that will do more harm to already damaged people. Anyone who knows anything about mental health and criminal justice knows that childhood abuse is often a precursor to criminal behaviour and drug addiction.

The Turnbull Government also continues the exclusionary and punitive approach to working people and those on welfare today. The Government has cut the penalty rates upon which many workers, particularly young people and casuals, rely to make ends meet. The Government and employers have been fighting tooth and nail about increasing the minimum wage, which was today raised by a measly 3.5 per cent.

The conditions imposed on job seekers, and people on disability and other welfare payments are harsh and punitive. Single mothers who enjoy the company of a partner – even casually – are at risk of having their payments cut. Miss a Centrelink appointment, or fail to adhere to some other petty rule and you can be cut off support for weeks at a time.

These restrictive and exclusionary rules are getting tougher and tougher. We are reaching a point where being poor means exclusion from any benefits or assistance outside of religious charities and other NGOs.

Young people are also being excluded from education by the rising cost of tuition, and the ways in which the government is reducing the spend on schools, universities and TAFE.

People with chronic illnesses are excluded from health care, because of the cuts imposed across the board by the Turnbull Government. The costs of treatment and of medicines continue to rise, while subsidies are being terminated.

Exclusion from democracy

But it is not only economic exclusion that young people, the elderly, the disabled and the working class are facing.

The Turnbull government is also moving to exclude people from political participation too.

Under this Government, being a militant trade unionist has been criminalised. Community organisations like GetUp! are being targeted. and legislation is being prepared that would exclude unions and community groups from participating in electoral politics.

It is no wonder my young classmates feel disenfranchised, worried and helpless. They are being told every day by this Government to shut up, to consume, to be silent and to obey, while seeing their futures trashed and devalued.

When I was 18, I was angry about the world — but I was also hopeful. I had an innate sense of what Antonio Gramsci called a pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will. I was involved in student politics and it instilled in me a lifelong commitment to political activism. I know that changing the world is difficult, but I also know it is possible.

Young people today don’t think that way.

I am saddened by the realisation that the passivity of my young TAFE classmates has been forced on them by the politics of exclusion. They have been told time after time that despair is their only hope.

Why is this the case? The simple answer is that the Coalition governs for the one per cent, not the rest of us. The big policy announcement in the Budget was a tax cut for the wealthy, disproportionately bigger than that given to workers on the average wage. The policy upon which the Government is pinning its fortunes is massive company tax cuts justified with the now proven lie that employers will pass on the windfall in wage rises and job creation. The lies are now blatant. Turnbull and company don’t even bother with pretence any longer. Their capitulation to the Ayn Randian ideologues of the Institute of Public Affairs is complete, brazen and deadly for the rest of us.

The Coalition is now dominated by the hard right and the politics of exclusion dominates the policy agenda. This is the bleak reality of a neoliberal agenda that reeks of the Hobbesian dystopia outlined in Leviathan: 

There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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