The West’s ‘Working Poor’ Can’t Afford To Accept The Status Quo Much Longer


As wages stagnate and inequality grows, we’re approaching a moment. People can’t put up with this much longer, writes Dr Richard Hil.

Let’s call her Marci – early twenties, a checkout operator – or is it consultant these days?

Marci works and resides in Squamish, a small town (dubbed the “adventure capital of Canada”) about seventy kilometres north of Vancouver. She’s worked for the past fifteen months in one of the town’s three supermarkets. Most times you wouldn’t expect to have a meaningful exchange with someone trying to get you out the door, but Marci was different. She was definitely up for a chat.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this sort of encounter. In fact, while travelling in the US and Canada over recent weeks I’ve found that an inquisitive comment or two can elicit some very interesting responses – especially from supermarket staff. Maybe they’re being polite, or maybe they’re bored or frustrated. I don’t know.

Anyway, while Marci was loading my groceries into a large plastic bag, I remarked, “food is kind of expensive these days isn’t it?” She nodded with a knowingness that only comes from experience. I took the bait. “In fact I don’t know how people survive in this place, with rising food costs, huge rents, mortgages, and all that.” “They don’t survive”, Marci replied abruptly. “They leave.” I handed her $50. “People like me have to leave; we can’t afford to live here. I earn $1,500 a month, my rent is $1,500 and I have a car loan.”

There were others in the queue by this stage, all listening in. “How do you feel about that?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter how I feel”, Marci said, “there’s no choice; life’s too hard.” I could see an elderly woman behind me nodding in agreement.

It must be hard for the working poor – that’s what sociologists like to call people like Marci. I’ve met a lot of them in this neck of the woods. They’re part of a growing army of “precariats” – workers on low wages, temporary or no contracts, little or no sick or holiday pay, and no penalty rates. The precarious nature of their employment means they can’t save, making it difficult to cope with life’s little surprises, like when the car or washing machine pack up. And God forbid you or your kids should get ill, even for a few days. A decent holiday is simply out of the question.

It’s worth noting that one in seven people in Canada live in poverty – around five million people. The number of those deemed to be in “precarious” circumstances has risen nearly 50 per cent over the past two decades. Real wages have declined by over 20 per cent during the same period. It’s a pattern similar to many other western countries.

The CEO of Marci’s company earns millions. He’s youngish too, but he has a wealthy family that put him through university (MBA etc) and eventually handed him a seat on the company board of directors. Does the young CEO care? Probably not.

In low wage economies like the US and Canada, bosses appear oblivious to massive inequality. Why should they worry when they’re making a killing? But workers like Marci do care – they have to – and they like to talk about such things, when they get the chance. “I like it here,” said Marci about Squamish, “but, you know, I can’t carry on living from hand to mouth.” We chatted for more moments (somebody in the queue was tut-tutting) about the fact that her income fell well short of her expenses. We both got a bit emotional. “Why don’t people rebel?”, I blurted. Marci responded with a despondent: “who do I rebel against?”

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Unions NSW’s National Day of Action, 2015. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell).

It’s a good question in an increasingly globalised and de-unionised world where casualised employment is the order of the day, and where the wealthy seem all-powerful and remote. The fact is that companies like the one Marci works for are wary of unions, especially those that actively demand higher wages and better conditions. They’re viewed as a threat to the bottom line; they disturb industrial peace. That’s why union activism is often discouraged. Tellingly, the majority of companies like Marci’s pay little more than the minimum wage – just over $10 in British Columbia. Bosses expect their employees to remain appreciative and silent. Or else.

This is corporate capitalism, circa July 2016, a system of entrenched inequality which, as peace scholar John Galtung argues, is a form of “structural violence”. It’s violent because it engenders worry, anxiety, depression, poor health, poor quality housing, hunger, and even an early death. And its violent because even many of the rich and powerful know about the effects of economic inequality.

Countless economists have pointed out that chronic inequality makes no sense, even in a rapacious capitalist society. Put simply, if you want money to circulate in the economy and to generate “economic growth” – the biblical mantra of the present order – then give it to the poor because at least they’ll spend the stuff rather than squirrel it away in offshore bank accounts.

Yet as the Panama Papers revealed earlier this year, such logic holds little sway among today’s plutocracy. For them, life is all about radical self-interest based on the inane proposition that the world is best constituted as a neoliberal jungle. This ethic underpins a system that has given rise to massive inequities, and has taken the planet to the very brink. Some of the most rapacious advocates of this worldview reside in financial institutions and multinational companies. If you’ve seen Boiler Room, The Big Short, Margin Call and the Wolf of Wall Street, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The profit-obsessed functionaries who inhabit such places are not lone guns. They’re part of what Owen Jones calls “the establishment”: an interconnected clique made up of policy mandarins, business leaders, lobbyists, media toadies, think tank researchers, compromised academics, and others with a shared vision of the global order.

Marci has no place in such circles but the routine actions of the establishment impact her directly. Perhaps that’s why brief encounters of the sort I had with Marci are worth it. They’re a form of proto-rebellious talk that lay the foundations for what the Brazilian educationalist Paola Freire referred to as “conscientisation”: a process that enables people to tell their stories, and to extrapolate on the basis of personal experience. In can be liberating, in more ways than one. Once people have been heard they feel respected, no matter what their views or level of analysis.

But listening isn’t enough. The oppressed need to hear a different, more compelling story, one that runs persuasively counter to the current neoliberal reality. We also need to help decipher what rebellion, resistance and even revolution might look like.

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A Canadian billboard. (IMAGE: jon collier, flickr)

These descriptors of social change are often mouthed with a certain glibness but without much understanding of the suffering that may ensue, or what the post-change scenario might look like. In The End of Protest, US activist Micah White sees revolutionary change as a profoundly spiritual experience, something embedded in our sense of how we’d like the world to be. For some, as we’ve seen in the political polarisations in the UK, the US and across continental Europe, this journey can end in some very dark places. That’s why conversations have to be carefully constructed. It’s too easy to deflect our frustrations onto others – migrants, refugees, welfare recipients etc.

By listening, reflecting and sharing, we can help others to understand how our current realities are shaped, what it means to be fair and just, and how a different world might be fostered. Links can be made between subjective experiences and objective structural conditions. In Marci’s case, this means recognising that she’s not alone, that wage stagnation and growing inequality are the current reality, and that these have tangible effects, which Marci would undoubtedly explain. She might also be encouraged to articulate her values and to reflect on these in light of lived experience.

It might also be useful to raise some reframing ideas, as the authors of a recent book, The Other Kingdom note, like the common good rather than private interest, neighbourliness rather than competition, a public covenant rather than a world of contracts. This is purposeful talk – engaged, shared, based on experience – rather than conversion to a preferred worldview.

What Marci may not want to hear is advice from a self–appointed expert, or someone who has precious little understanding of her circumstances. For her, a sense that things just aren’t right is a good place to start. The rich and powerful fear such sentiment. They always have. They fear that by sharing stories of oppression, the wretched of the earth might collectivise and fight back. Atomisation is what they bank on.

But we can’t simply resort to exhortations. I’m frequently amazed at how even the most erudite critics of the current system pay such scant regard to the perils of revolutionary change. Please don’t misunderstand me; the current system needs to be overhauled, and the sooner the better. Our existence depends on it. But we also need to talk about what the future looks like, even if we have no clear idea at this point. We can’t assume anything.

What most perplexes me these days is how easily progressive activists reproduce the sorts of power relations they’re seeking to replace, often dictating the “right” line or a single vision of the future. Many also fall into the reductivist trap of regarding “the system” as made up of two warring tribes. I often fall into this trap myself, even here.

There are two important considerations in this regard.

First, the current system of global capitalism endures in large part because it has managed to co-opt and negate many of its detractors. It has also cast a vast hegemonic veil over everyday life, trying to convince us that there is no alternative. Some continue to be seduced by this, others not. But few if any of us stand entirely outside the system.

Second, it’s important to acknowledge that profound social change has already swept across the world. It’s called the global environmental justice movement. Therefore, the idea that change is still on the horizon or just around the corner is not exactly accurate or helpful. It might not be as fast, organised or even as effective as we might hope, but it is occurring, here and now.  No-one knows exactly how or what form systemic change will take.

And perhaps that’s a good thing. We don’t need more demagogues and zealots to show us the way. Perhaps we should start talking seriously about leaderless governance, genuine participatory democracy, civic assemblies and other sorts of horizontal practices that avoid the problems of the past. We might also consider new strategies and tactics that pass the test of political effectiveness in terms of actually bringing about systemic change.

Oftentimes, activists merely bang their heads against walls, repeating past defeats. It’s a painful experience that usually allows the status quo to endure.

One thing looks pretty certain though. We are approaching a moment – perhaps we’re there already – when people like Marci will no longer put up with the way things are.

And who can blame her?

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and Honorary Associate at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. Richard’s more recent books include Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University, published in 2013 by New South, and Selling Students Short; Why you won’t get the university education you deserve, published by Allen and Unwin in 2015.