No Joke: Capitalism, Australian Identity and The Threat to Unity


Each year, Australia Day ushers in the political calendar. And each year, the polity is more divided. A lot of people seem to feel left out of the party. And it isn’t only Indigenous Australians, writes Mike Dowson.

A Barkindji man, from Darling River country in western New South Wales, once told me a joke.

In this joke, a truckie is driving a road train through outback Australia. Squinting through the heat haze, he notices a shape beside the road ahead. As the truck approaches, the shape becomes a man, and the driver recognises a priest. The giant rig groans to a halt, the passenger door swings open and the priest climbs aboard.

The two drive on in silence through the baked expanse, mechanically cocooned, retreating into private worlds.

After a time, the truckie notices another shape beside the road ahead. As the truck approaches, he makes out an Aboriginal man.

His hands tighten on the wheel as he prepares to steer onto the road verge and collide with the Aboriginal man. At the last minute, he remembers the reverend sitting beside him in the cab. With a violent thrust, through a cloud of red dust, he swings the rig back onto the tarmac.

Turning to the reverend, he says: “Struth, that was close.”

“Too right,” says the priest. “If I ‘adn’t opened me door, we would’ve missed ‘im altogether.”

Having delivered this punchline, Mick tipped his head back and roared with laughter. My face was frozen in a weird grimace. Why had my friend told me this joke? Why was he laughing so hard? And what was the right response?

Indigenous Australians seem to be quite clear-eyed about the world they live in. Bruce Pascoe’s scholarly work, Dark Emu, shows this was true before European settlement, evinced by sophisticated custodianship of variable natural resources. And I think it’s evident in Aboriginal peoples’ circumspection of the dominant settler culture today.

Renowned Aboriginal author, Bruce Pascoe.

The same cannot be said of that settler culture. Through its organs in politics and the media, the mostly white establishment operates a factory of self-delusion.

It’s in the toothpaste smiles of talk show panellists, the confected outrage of the shock jocks, the glib assertions of politicians and bank economists, and the cunning legalese of corporate privateers.

It blinds settler society to the damage its alien practises have wrought on a fragile land. It sweeps its casualties under the rug with victim-blaming and guilt money. And it binds the nation to foreign powers that seem familial, but in fact view us opportunistically, more independent in their own outlook.

It becomes most noticeable around the annual day of self-congratulation. And this year, it’s historicising of denial reached a kind of apotheosis in another attention-grabbing utterance from Tony Abbot, when he suggested that European settlement had been a good thing for Indigenous Australians.

Imagine that Imperial Japan had occupied Australia during World War II, killing off most people of European descent and herding the rest like animals. Do you suppose the survivors’ descendants would be happy celebrating that anniversary?

Would it be appropriate for a Japanese-Australian PM to refuse to change the date, accusing proponents of dividing the nation? Would Japanese settlers be right to tell European descendants, many living in squalor on the margins of society, to “get over it” and “move on”?

Compare this with the words of New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern on Waitangi Day, as she submitted her tenure to the judgement of Maori elders, in their own language. If you feel generous toward white Australia, you may reflect on the difference a treaty makes. But is that all it takes?

Author Steven Pinker claims that evidence vindicates the idea of progress. Around the world, literacy and life expectancy are increasing proportionally, while infectious disease, starvation and homicide are decreasing. And Pinker attributes this largely to products of the so-called Enlightenment, in which he includes reason, science, democracy and the rule of law.

There’s plenty to debate in his interpretation, but the statistics themselves demand caution. Big data can hide a lot of devil in its detail. The average of obscene wealth and dire poverty can look like modest affluence. Aboriginal Australians live in a different, forgotten country. They die on average 10 years younger, and are 14 times more likely to be in jail.

It’s encouraging to hear that globally a billion have been “lifted out of poverty”. You might imagine them raising happy families in leafy suburbs. But in fact, this simply means they earn at least $1.90 a day. Many live in slums, working 12-hour shifts in crowded factories, exposed to injury and abuse, for which they may have sacrificed homelands, communities and traditions.

Bagong Silang, a Manila slum in the Philippines which is home to more than one million people. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

You may also ask what it was that “lifted” them. This makes it sound like some benevolent agency – such as capitalism, or western aid – swooped in and rescued them. But they’re the ones doing the work. It just makes us feel better to see the profits of the rich as reward for altruism.

By implication, this is the version of Dickensian England other peoples must pass through on their journey to western-style middle-class prosperity. But is that really where they’re going?

The Anglosphere shows a trend in the opposite direction. Living standards are falling for many and inequality is rising. As jobs have moved offshore from the developed world, enriching investors while suppressing wage growth at home, the distribution of wealth has shifted too, partly geographically, but mostly upward.

Few foreign workers will ever emulate their western forerunners. In a world of automation, and limited democracy, wages will only rise so far, and mainly in the professions that oil the machinery of oligarchy – technology, media, finance, surveillance. In any case, there simply isn’t enough Earth for billions of Asians and Africans to live like Bostonians.

Rather than ‘lifting’, capitalism has been ‘sifting’. Conditions for ordinary people everywhere are tending toward subsistence based on low-paid work, while the surplus of their productivity floods into the coffers of the already rich and the well-connected and fertilises a new global bourgeois class of “knowledge workers”. Trump-voting rust belt towns are as much a product as Mumbai tech millionaires.

The way Indigenous leader Dr Anne Poelina expresses it, colonisation isn’t a blackfella problem anymore. Global capitalism has extended the franchise to whitefellas too.

For all the proud, public posturing, there is little glory in our prevailing myths of national identity. That other great commemoration – Anzac Day – acquired its date from a failed invasion, with horrific loss of life, in a far away country with whom we had no sensible quarrel.

Neither of these anniversaries, steeped in misery, signals Australian nationhood. Both were cold, calculated acts of aristocratic self-interest by another power, deploying expendables to do the dirty work. What are we celebrating? The memory of the British Empire?

Europeans didn’t come here to build a just society. They came to set up a prison camp. If a more just society eventually emerged, there are other people to thank for that. It’s a terrible irony, but the founding spirit of the embryonic nation was the principle of offshore detention.

An image from the early 1900s, in Western Australia. Aboriginal ‘chain gangs’ were common in the remoter parts of Australia, and used to transport prisoners between towns.

Every Australian learns the basic facts. But why did the British have so many prisoners to ostracise? Who were these people?

They were the equivalent of our own disadvantaged citizens – destitute, unemployed, sometimes unemployable from abuse, neglect or illness. The unwanted poor, citizens made surplus to the needs of the ruling classes by the Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution, during the gradual dismantling of feudal society that followed the British Civil Wars. Most of them were arrested for petty crimes, usually theft, which was how they survived outside the workhouse, and before the welfare state. Judges, jurors and polite society had wearied of killing them. So they sent them away.

Is this what we celebrate on our national day? Not acts in which high aspirations were revealed to the world. Not federation. Not universal suffrage. A brutal, pragmatic accord between virulent capitalism and inherited privilege.

These are not stories of a free people standing proud. They are unlike the genuinely heroic struggle of those who challenged entrenched power – in Britain and the colonies – to gain the rights and freedoms we enjoy. The people who won the vote, the eight-hour day, and public healthcare. Mostly humble people, of Aboriginal, European and Asian descent. People who eventually secured Aboriginal citizenship, and challenged the presumption of terra nullius.

If there was real progress, surely this was it. And now it’s under threat. We have a new landed gentry, thanks to globalisation, and the rigging of tax and financial systems to transfer wealth from the poor and the young to property owners and investors. The fact they’re not wearing frock coats and wigs doesn’t mean their aristocratic urges disappeared with Madame Guillotine.

Homeowners and self-managed super funds are not the real beneficiaries. Much of that accumulation is going to end up in commercial aged care anyway. That’s the bulwark that entrenched wealth and power has created for itself in the modern era.

You can see the provenance of this strategy in the very invention of “whiteness”. This way of categorising people didn’t even appear as an idea until a few centuries ago. And it had no usefulness until it was applied, as a set of modest privileges under law, to bind the European-American indentured poor to their wealthy rulers, and separate them from the negro slaves and displaced Indigenous people who were their natural allies against oppression.

There is evidence that the purpose of the right to bear arms, which continues to spread death and trauma through American society, was to militarise this group in defence of the ruling class. No-one thought of himself as ‘white’ until it was a special dispensation. Before that, people were Scots, or Irish, or Palatines.

A sign in Boston, US: “We sell Guns! “Gun shows. No id required. No background checks. Criminals & terrorsts welcome!” (IMAGE: Sunny Ripert, Flickr)

The challenge for progressives in contemporary Australia, as Guy Rundle has articulated, is to go beyond concern with language and identity, and the struggle of one after another oppressed minority for a seat at the game, and unite to change the game itself. Divide and rule is working beautifully for entrenched power, now it has enlisted the largest voting block as protectors of wealth inequality through property ownership.

There are two rich countries where life expectancy is falling. Those are the US and the UK. One country has reversed recent progress on combatting climate change. That’s Australia. All three have falling real wages and rapidly rising inequality.

Surely it’s no coincidence that these are the countries that persist with neoliberal economic policy. If you strip this emperor of his new clothes, you can see the logic of dominance and exploitation which emanated from Britain in centuries past and took root in the colonies.

It’s the creed behind the slave plantations of the American South, and the squattocracy of early colonial Australia. It’s also why the votes of older, privileged Australians – and so-called “aspirationals” – give preference to profit, property, inheritance, tax minimisation and private school connections. They see life as a contest, which they’re determined to win. But the result is what J. K Galbraith described as “private opulence and public squalor”. The society that produced the convicts knew it well.

It’s not an economic system at all. It’s not capitalism, in the way that Andrew Carnegie understood it. Adam Smith railed against it.

It’s a parasite, the ancient pathogen of rent-seeking. No need for invention or contribution. Just identify something lots of people depend on. Housing, utilities, jobs, transportation, health, education, credit. Then give your support to politicians who will help you extract a premium for nothing.

We carry this sickness in our body politic. When it flares up, it turns back the clock on the lives of ordinary people, as it is doing today. And it invites us, through spurious mythologies of origin and identity, to forget about the “fair go” and compete in a race that’s stacked against us.

Yes, Australia is still a benign place to live compared to much of the world. But the point is that’s changing. We’re slipping fast, down in the economic expectations of the IMF, down the OECD rankings for health, education and social security, and down the international indices of wellbeing.

Banjo Morton, an Ampilatwatja elder bordering the Utopia homelands. (IMAGE: Chris Graham)

No-one should be complacent about this. But if you’re young, you should be especially concerned, because it’s your future these trends are pointing to. When older people – even the experts among them – insist things are getting better, and that every generation faces its own challenges, you are right to feel aggrieved. They didn’t have to deal with climate change, diminishing opportunity and failing democracy. They never meant to, but they made those problems worse, with the votes they cast. And while they keep voting for the minions of the oligarchs, you’re screwed.

You can have any kind of country you’re willing to fight for, provided you can find enough others with a common cause. The oligarchs only had to buy the system and con the baby boomers. You need strength in numbers, and you need to vote for someone else. Neither of the major parties is going to help you, until your voices rise above the big money currently doing the talking.

You don’t have to fight tooth and claw to be a winner who steps over homeless people on the way to the penthouse. You can win back the justice and access to opportunity that supports real national unity, rather than the artificial kind.

Then perhaps we’ll have something we can all celebrate. And Mick’s joke won’t be funny anymore, even as bitter irony, even for a blackfella who knows where he stands.

Mike Dowson writes regularly on politics, public policy and the economy. He works with local organisations and leaders of the global cooperative movement to nurture emergent systems for a liveable future.