Some think we heading for a post-COVID-19 utopia, but based on current projections, a pessimistic Dr Martin Hirst doesn’t think so.
DO YOU REMEMBER when this all started just a couple of months ago and there was a sense of utopian optimism in the air? It was almost an article of faith that we would never go back to “normal”. People were sure that post-COVID-19, somehow the world would greet a new and glorious dawn.
Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you today that such utopian musings are about to be crushed.
In fact, from where I am today, the future could turn out to be a lot worse than a return to “normal”.
There is certainly truth in the general sentiment that the impacts of the coronavirus will be felt for a long time and that, as the ABC put it, in the past pandemics have transformed human history. The lesson is that these transformations have not always been great for the society being changed.
There is no doubt that this is a ‘sliding doors moment’. It is an opportunity to reset the carbon-dependent economy (for example). The problem is the powerful businesspeople pulling the levers of change want us to consume more carbon-based energy, not less.
From utopian optimism to dystopian pessimism
The simple reason for pessimism is that we are being outgunned by neoliberalism.
What’s happening to the hospitality sector is a microcosm of this problem, but it is an example of a widespread push, an offensive full-frontal attack on wage earners and small business.
A report by Deloitte suggests that it will take five to six years for the hospitality industry to recover from a 20 per cent drop in employment since the virus shut down bars, restaurants and cafes. The response to this crisis from multinational fast food employers has been interesting. In partnership with the Shop and Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), McDonald's has imposed a wage cut on staff with the help of the Fair Work Commission. To its credit, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) opposed the award variation because it actually makes conditions for young casuals even more precarious.
A roll back of award conditions and pay cuts have been implemented across the federal public service and the ABC is also being pressured to accept a similar set of restrictions. Calls are growing for this to be implemented economy-wide.
The national tertiary education sector is also imploding under the weight of the COVID-19 crisis and the stubborn refusal of the nation’s vice-chancellors to dip into their billions of dollars of cash reserves. The VCs and university management want to push the cost of the crisis onto academics and support staff. This has also exposed the complicity of some union leaders in rushing into rotten deals at the expense of their members. The crisis will come to a head in the next week or so following a crucial vote of NTEU members, but the fight to save jobs in universities will be long and bitter.
Workers are under attack
Make no mistake, there is a concerted attack on unions, on wages and conditions and on the smouldering ruins of the welfare state. The neoliberals are on the offensive and they are winning so far.
Why? One important reason is that over the last 20 years, governments of both parties have been effectively dismantling civil society and citizenship. This is in line with the global dominance of neoliberal ideology among the political and business class.
Neoliberalism is the official ideology of the ruling class and unfortunately, what used to be a Keynesian social democrat Labor Party has collapsed into the “liberal” wing of authoritarian market politics. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's gang is already winding back all recent concessions.
All increased social security measures – increased JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments –will be wound back sooner rather than later and Labor leader Anthony Albanese has signalled that Labor will go along with it. Union bureaucrats have flagged their compliance with this agenda and have “negotiated” changes to awards that claw back even modest gains.
The Coalition is now totally Trumpian in its approach to politics. Lying has become the default setting. The political media is also hopelessly compromised by years of insider spoon-feeding. Now the media and politicians have a mutual interest in gaslighting the public.
Our democratic institutions are also dysfunctional; Morrison has abandoned parliament in favour of secret committees and government by decree. Major decisions on how Australia will come out of the pandemic are being made behind closed doors by a small clique of mining industry CEOs.
You won’t be surprised to know that their favoured strategy is to extract more gas and coal from the ground and promote a carbon-led recovery for the economy.
The vast bulk of the working population is going to be left to rot as this pandemic abates. The real unemployment rate is already well into double digits and there is no magic pudding of jobs at the conclusion of this crisis. There is only the next phase of the ongoing crisis.
Cutting wages adds to the stagnation of the economy because it cuts demand for manufactured goods and services. It provides a short-term boost to profits at the expense of long-term economic growth. A retreat into protectionism and trade wars is also counterproductive for capital
There is no national solution, despite the media’s sycophantic praise for Morrison's rhetoric about economic sovereignty and picking a fight with China. Without China, the Australian economy will only sink faster. The pipedream of rebooting Australian manufacturing is a sick joke that Morrison doesn't believe.
Neoliberalism cannot fix the crisis, it is endemic to the system of late capitalism. The actions of the neoliberal state will actually only deepen the crisis.
Journalism is broken and possibly dying
The ruling class is getting away with implementing its brutal agenda because the market-based business model of journalism is fundamentally broken. It has been for at least a decade, but the News Establishment clings to its Fourth Estate myths and self-indulgent boosterism. They pat each other on the back as they meekly walk out onto the dole queues. Hundreds of Australian journalists have lost their jobs over the last 24 months and, apart from one or two small wildcat actions at the former Fairfax newspapers, they have gone quietly.
Journalists will not fight for their jobs because they are ideologically blind to their own class interests and so they don't know how to class politics. They retreat into self-congratulatory tweeting about how good they all were and how they'll be sorely missed. They don't and can't acknowledge their own roles in the collapse of trust.
This is a pessimistic assessment, I know. But we have to be realistic. Nowhere in the world is there a politically conscious working class capable of sparking a revolutionary tide. Everywhere we look, the landscape is littered with authoritarian semi-fascist parties and leaders.
Having said that, we cannot just capitulate. It is difficult to maintain any optimism under current circumstances, but we have to look for the pinpoints of light that show us a way forward. There has been an unprecedented strike wave in the United States among newly unionised groups.
The strikes have been important in areas of precarious work in the gig economy and distribution centres of global trade. We haven't seen this repeated or spreading to more traditional areas of working-class militancy, but that does not mean it can't or won't happen.
My short take is that despite the difficulties, we cannot surrender. We have to rebuild the trade unions and recognise the importance of a solid grounding in the politics of socialism from below — the real Marxist tradition.
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