Book Review: Populism Now! by David McKnight

Since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit referendum, ‘populism’ has dominated discussions about the state of global politics, even being revealed as word of the year in 2017 by the Cambridge Dictionary.

The connotations of ‘populism’ are negative and often associated with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and others with an illiberal, nationalistic agenda. But as academic Cas Mudde points out, populism has been conflated with the radical right and nativism has been ‘whitewashed’ as populism. There are leading figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who are seen as populists but from a progressive tradition.

In Populism Now! David McKnight makes the case for a progressive populism in Australia. He argues that neoliberalism has generated the conditions for populism and that unless progressives put forward their version, it will be right-wing populism that will take advantage.

McKnight lays out the failures of neoliberalism for working people in detail which make up most of the book. He lays out the extent of inequality in Australia, the power of the super wealthy and the fossil fuel and mining industries. The failures of privatisation such as the scandalous deregulation of Vocational Education and Training he mentions are all too well documented and we should all be concerned about its expansion into human services. For those following the Change the Rules campaign, the deregulated industrial relation system that has resulted in rampage wage theft and use of the migration system to undercut pay and conditions will not be new. Nor will the extent of tax avoidance by corporations and the oligopolistic and predatory nature of our banks be a surprise.

McKnight argues that challenging neoliberalism will require a broad-based movement to overcome the power of elites and corporations and a populist approach is how that broad-based coalition can be formed. In advocating a progressive populism, McKnight is clear that he views populism not as an ideology or detailed program but rather, as he describes, “a way of seeing the world and a style of arguing for ideas”. He does, however, outline that certain values should underpin a progressive populist approach.

While he does cite the academic Chantal Mouffe in explaining populism, it is odd that her late partner Ernesto Laclau is not mentioned. McKnight draws on a conceptualisation from both Mouffe and Laclau who saw populism as a form of political logic and discourse to set up a conflict between an “underdog” and a “power”. According to Laclau, what holds a heterogeneous underdog coalition together is a set of specific demands. Laclau believed that what “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture.” It is clear from neoliberalism’s failures that the conditions exist for such a rupture in Australia.

While strong on contemporary situation, the broader local context feels missing. Progressive populism is treated as an American tradition and there are a few fleeting references to left-populist parties overseas. Other than a reference to a debate over whether the Labor Party should have been called the People’s Party, the progressive populist tradition is Australian history is glossed over. The Labor Party’s origins as a labour-populist party and the parallels with the 1890s does raise the question about whether a historic homegrown tradition of progressive populism could inform today’s approach.

McKnight also mentions both right-wing and progressive populism but there is nothing on the populism of “the centre”. The populism of the liberal centre was the logic and discourse used by Emmanuel Macron, presenting himself as an anti-establishment outsider against “vested interests” that need to be fought, including trade unions. In Australia, it is characterised by Nick Xenophon and previously the Australian Democrats. It is a logic and discourse that can be and is used against the Left.

McKnight’s idea with real potential that is worth exploring further is a progressive populist response on climate change. It has the potential for that heterogeneous formation with specific demands that can tackle the interlinked crises of climate, inequality and democracy locally. It has the potential to bring groups together not necessarily seen as traditional allies. Less clear is how such a populist response can be developed at a global level, a challenge given the global nature of the crisis.

Nevertheless, Populism Now! is a handy synthesis of the failures of neoliberalism and does encourage an overdue rethink of populism as a strategy that Australian progressives should be using rather than as a pejorative used against opponents.

 

Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism
David McKnight
NewSouth, $29.99

Originally appeared on the Challenge Magazine website on 14 May 2018

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Sanders, Corbyn and the Next Left – Jacobin Editor speaks at SEARCH Forum

With a paid subscriber base of 40,000 and millions more online views, Jacobin is arguably the most influential non-party socialist institution in the world right now.

From its origins as a small DIY magazine launched around the time of Occupy Wall Street, it now has a wider audience than more mainstream left-wing publications such as the New Statesman and Dissent.

The SEARCH Foundation was lucky enough to host Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in Sydney Trades Hall in April. To a crowd of over 180 attendees, one of the largest events held by SEARCH, Bhaskar spoke about the situation in the United States with Bernie Sanders, in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn and the lessons for the wider Left globally.

Bhaskar spoke about the hollowed-out nature of politics in the United States with many self-described moderates and independents rejecting both parties but more supportive of Sanders. He argued that Sanders showed how oppositional politics can work by combining anti-establishment rhetoric with concerted demands.

Though Sanders won over the country, he did not win over the Democratic Party. He noted that since the election, Sanders has been forced to front for the Democrats to avoid being politically isolated, and there might be a danger that his anti-establishment appeal may dissipate by 2020.

At the same time, young people are moving leftwards. He explained that those politicised who once would have gone to green politics or into NGOs are now moving towards socialist politics. There is now broad support for key parts of the socialist agenda like Medicare for all.

Bhaskar also stated that while Trump has emboldened the Right, the real danger is a populist Right, not a far Right. The challenge, however, won’t be defeating Trump, but rather building something better that will lead to more radical change.

He argued that the role of the Left is to present a different sort of politics by changing conditions, not just implementing better policies by renovating parties like the Democrats. The existential question is not whether the Left can win government.

While fighting for left-wing governments, he urged that we think about what the Left can do in power, as it is hard to imagine what a new working-class oriented political economy would look like.

He pointed out that Sanders and Corbyn are not pushing something more radical than social democratcy. The challenge is to figure out how to use the state to strengthen working-class power and open rather than foreclose more radical transformations.

While occupying government, he suggested the Left can prevent conservative rollbacks and can use the platform to help rebuild the extra parliamentary Left as Corbyn has, and advocate for a broader social democratic agenda.

Finally, to build the working-class power needed to make those radical changes possible, he stressed the need for radical unions and to imagine new and different forms of working-class organisation.

The strong interest in the forum shows there is a hunger for an alternative, a transformative program. The explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America, the rise of Corbyn and Momentum show across the globe there is an ongoing resonance of our values and analysis but without the shadow of the Cold War hanging over. There does, however, need to be hard thinking about what the Left can realistically achieve in power and to figure out how to achieve the radical changes required. We need to have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Rather than sticking to old orthodoxies for the sake of it, the success of Jacobin shows the importance of a forward and outward looking pluralism and accessibility. Being open and approachable, engaging with key issues of the day rather than just abstract theory, avoiding jargon, and sectarianism are all necessary for the Left to succeed. All are lessons that we here in Australia should learn from and embrace.

Published in SEARCH News, Volume 5, Number 1 (May 2018)

We need different faces in Parliament

Australia likes to think of itself as a diverse, multicultural, egalitarian country. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has even described Australia as the “most successful multicultural nation in the world”. The reality, however, is that we are still far from it.

The revisited Leading for Change report issued by the Human Rights Commission this year shows there continues to be a lack of cultural diversity within senior positions in Australian businesses, politics, the public sector and universities.

As an Asian Australian and a long-time political party member, the data on under-representation in politics was not a surprise but still a depressing read.

While we have some federal MPs with non-European heritage such as Penny Wong, Anne Aly and Lucy Gichuhi, they are the exception rather than the rule. Currently, no federal ministers are from a non-European background and only 4.1 per cent of members of the federal Parliament are from a non-European background. This compared to an estimated 21 per cent of the Australian population which has a non-European background.

Merit does not explain the extent of the under-representation of Australians with a non-European background. Australia does far worse than comparable Westminster democracies such as Britain, New Zealand and Canada when it comes to parliamentary representation.

In the United Kingdom, 7.8 per cent of MPs are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. In Canada, 13.6 per cent of federal MPs are from a “visible minority”. In New Zealand, a third of MPs have non-European heritage, with 6 per cent of MPs having Asian heritage.

More Australians have non-European heritage as a proportion of the population than the Westminster democracies we compare ourselves to but that is not reflected in our federal Parliament. The diversity of electoral systems across these countries shows it is a lack of action by our political parties, not our parliamentary or electoral systems, that is holding back a Parliament that is truly representative of the community.

Fixing this under-representation requires two things: better data and a genuine commitment to improve representation.

Sadly it is only what gets measured that gets improved and Australia does not have definitive data on cultural diversity. There are no official statistics on the ethnic or cultural composition of the Australian population and Australia’s cultural diversity is often underestimated. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should review existing measures of cultural diversity and develop a similar demographic category to “visible minority” used by Statistics Canada.

Parties also must take improving cultural diversity in parliaments as seriously as improving women’s representation. All political parties should look at adopting targets. The fact is targets work. The experience of affirmative action for women in the Labor party shows that the introduction of targets will lead to a more representative Parliament.

In 1994, when affirmative action was adopted, 14.5 per cent of federal ALP parliamentarians were women. Today, women make up 47 per cent of federal ALP MPs. At the time, the Liberals had a similar number of female federal MPs (13.9 per cent) but it has lagged behind and now its female representation stands at only 22.6 per cent.

In all political parties there needs to be serious discussion about lifting the representation of Australians with non-European heritage in our Parliament. Unless action is taken now, Australia’s Parliament will become even less representative. Data from the 2016 Census suggests that already one in four Australians between the ages of 20 and 34 have Asian ancestry. The proportion of Australians with non-European heritage will grow.

If we truly want Australia to be the egalitarian, most successful multicultural nation in the world, then it is essential the faces we see in Question Time reflect our wider society.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 April 2018

The 2018 ALP National Conference might be a watershed moment

The upcoming ALP National Conference this July may herald significant changes to the Labor Party with suggestions that the Left might have the majority at National Conference for the first time since the 1970s, the first since the emergence of the modern factional system in the 1980s.

While it has the potential to be a watershed moment on party reform and a range of other issues, how the numbers ultimately fall and what is achieved will depend on a variety of factors. As I wrote prior to the last National Conference, no Labor Right majority does not guarantee the Left winning.

How the CFMEU-MUA delegates vote will be important and may determine whether the Left has a majority on many votes. In Western Australia, the CFMEU-MUA has split off the Broad Left and joined the Right in a new Progressive Labor faction. In Victoria, they and other unions have split off the Socialist Left to form the Industrial Left to deal with the right-wing Centre Unity faction. There has been an indication that all the CFMEU-MUA aligned delegates plan to caucus with the National Left but what it means in practice is still unclear.

Fragmentation is not only happening on the Left. In October last year, the QLD Labor Unity (old guard) faction withdrew from the National Right and will act independently on a case by case basis. Estimates had their delegates numbers at 6-8 and their votes could be pivotal when it comes to topics like party reform.

Finally, the biggest structural change since the last ALP National Conference is the direct election of delegates. In all, 150 of the 400 Conference delegates will be directly elected by members for the first time. All bar NSW will be elected through a proportional ballot. The direct election of these delegates has commenced with social media feeds clogged with candidates jostling for positions. It is currently unclear what the final result will be but there is the view that the Left will do better out of this process.

There is likely to be a push for further party reform at National Conference and if party Presidents do get a vote on the National Executive, it will make the upcoming National President election even more important. There is also likely to be a pushback from elements of the Labor Right with alternative watered down reforms or potentially attempts to reduce the size of delegations from the Left-dominated Tasmanian branch. Which duelling proposals get up are again unclear as all sides are yet to fully develop their proposals.

Predictions of outcomes would be unwise at this stage. The experience of the last National Conference of deals on a case-by-case basis, most notably when sections of some unions supported Shorten on boat turnbacks, is likely to be repeated. My suggestion is that anyone interested in the future direction of Labor should keep a close eye on what happens over the coming months, particularly at the NSW and Victorian State Conferences where proposals might be debated.

Jeremy Corbyn can inspire us but he was an accident, we can’t duplicate what happened in Labor

Last week the debate about Labor Party reform in the lead-up to ALP National Conference really kicked off after ALP National President (and Shadow Minister) Mark Butler gave a speech to the Victorian Fabians on party democracy. Butler highlighted the lack of Labor Party democracy compared to sister parties and also pointed to the British example of Labour growing significantly after party reform, urging those with power within Labor not to fear it.

Unsurprisingly it resulted in a number of responses. One of the better responses was in the Guardian Australia which published an op-ed by academic Liam Byrne commenting on Butler’s speech. Byrne argued that it is not party reform that will encourage people to join Labor but rather ideas that make people think it is worth participating within Labor.

I agree with him that ideas and a reason to be involved is essential. Many joined Labour because of Corbyn and I have written extensively about the Labor Left’s need to reform its ideas. However, there is a wider problem when trying to compare and contrast British Labour and Australian Labor.

It was the interaction of party reform, Corbyn as a candidate and ideas he represented that underpinned the growth of British Labour. None of it was planned though and it cannot be easily replicated or transplanted. Even the intellectual contours of Corbynism, “the ideas”, right now are quite sketchy and without strong institutional infrastructure. I have previously written about why a Corbyn is unlikely in Australia due to our electoral system and political culture but the extent to which Corbyn’s election was an accident and organic is not grasped by many people. There is a reliance on the benefit of hindsight, especially after the 2017 British election result.

To really understand how British Labour got to where it is, we need to go back to the 2010 Labour leadership election when Ed Miliband was elected leader over his brother by a tiny margin because of his massive victory in the union section of the Electoral College. The left-leaning unions had endorsed and actively supported Ed over David. There was animosity towards the unions from the Blairite wing of the Labour Right over the result.

The following year, the Blairite pressure group Progress started a campaign urging Labour adopt primaries. The seeming success of the Parti Socialiste Presidential primary in 2012 added weight to this belief that it should be adopted. It also followed a number of MPs (including Ed Miliband) suggesting primaries in the lead-up to Labour’s defeat in 2009.

Everything came to a head in 2013 in the parliamentary constituency of Falkirk where the Unite union was accused of “rigging the vote” to get its preferred candidate preselected. In response to this manufactured political crisis, Miliband committed to a range of party reforms including opt-in affiliation and the adoption of a leadership primary and he commissioned the Collins Review to examine how to implement it. The move towards primaries was about distancing Labour from the unions under the guise of “reforming the Labour-union link”. It is worth remembering that Tony Blair was a big supporter of this move.

In 2015, Labour unexpectedly lost the election with the Conservatives winning a majority. Ed Miliband quit as leader and in the leadership election that soon followed, Corbyn barely got enough MPs to nominate him, some “loaned” from the Labour Right to allow a broad church debate. He ran but he did not expect to win. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were the frontrunners.

In the beginning, his campaign struggled though it started to gain support from unions. The surge in support was unexpected. It was organic and it happened around June around when the debate about the benefit cap happened. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against it.

Corbyn was the beneficiary who tapped into a mood that already existed both within Labour and outside in the extra-parliamentary movements. From that, he built momentum because he seemed genuine, took advantage of the new electoral system and his opponents campaigned badly. One classic example of how bad the opposing campaigns were was that Corbyn was the only candidate to include join and registered supporter links on his website.

Corbyn won in the first round and his campaign list was turned into the organisation Momentum to bring together all the parts of the Left that backed him in a formalised institution. He had difficulties with chaotic Cabinet reshuffles, poor polling and local council losses.

After the shock victory of Brexiteers in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, Labour figures blamed Corbyn for the result and planned to get rid of him. After he sacked Hillary Benn, they attempted to blast him out by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet en mass. When that failed, there was an attempt to hold a new leadership election with Corbyn not automatically included. Again that failed.

The problem is they assumed they should pressure Corbyn out of the leadeership so had not determined which candidate they would fall behind: Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Smith ended up as candidate but not after an aborted leadership launch by Eagle. Smith ran a Corbyn-lite candidate, focusing less on his agenda but that he would be a better messenger who could work with the rest of the party. Despite new restrictions on participation in the election, Jeremy Corbyn again won.

While there was talk of a split, his critics concluded that they would wait out until the next election, hoping a large defeat would discredit Corbyn and his agenda amongst the party. With Labour infighting and the Conservatives polling well, newly elected Prime Minister Theresa May sought to hold an early election, believing it would result in a landslide victory.

The subsequent campaign was the worst run by an incumbent government in living memory. Labour’s manifesto, which was leaked in an attempt to damage the party, was received positively and Labour surged in the polls as Corbyn embraced a populist rebrand with the now well known slogan “For the many, not the few”. National security was not the electoral liabilities many predicted and there was polarisation with those aged under 45 shifting to Labour. Labour recovered in northern seats where immigration was an issue until the Brexit vote, UKIP’s vote collapsing, and won educated socially liberal constituencies.

The Conservatives lost their majority in a shock result that few expected, leaving Corbyn in a strengthened position and May as well as Corbyn’s internal critics in a weak position. His critics acknowledged he would remain leader with potential challengers like Yvette Cooper, who planned to run for leader, not challenging. He was also able to make ground on the threshold for nominations being lowered, something his opponents previously opposed. Along with the subsequent collapse of Carillion and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it all seemed to symbolise a shifting landscape. What everyone had assumed would occur had been turned upside down with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly now Prime Minister in waiting.

There are a few things that we can conclude from all this.

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn was accidentally elected off an already existing mood within Labour combined with a surge of radicalised support from outside the party, shaped by years of austerity.  The party which grew under Miliband had already shifted to the left on a range of issues, to the anger of the Blairites. In fact, much of Corbyn’s manifesto could be said to be Milibandism with a different tone.

The broader context is that since 2007, Britain has experienced the second worst real wage growth in the OECD (only Greece was worse), there is endemic low pay and university degree debt is the highest in the English-speaking world. The economic situation in Australia is getting worse but it is not comparable.

Secondly, the Labour Right, the Blairite wing, in particular, made a huge mistake. The Blairites mistakenly thought open primaries would benefit them but instead were wiped out. They continue to misread the mood. Furthermore, what remains of the Labour Right (both old Right and Blairite), bereft of big allied unions, do not know how to recruit and organise. They have no distinctive agenda. Instead they rely on campaigning in the media against the leadership.

It is clear that all of Corbyn’s victories have been because opponents underestimated him and his team. This is not to say that they always had a well oiled machine or fantastic strategy. His opponents were arrogant and failed to understand why people might support him. They all thought he was unelectable or he was not a nice shiny suave politician.

But what happened in Britain cannot be replicated here. It is not a single event or factor but multiple unplanned things that led Britain to its current situation. The path to where we are is full of arrogance and missteps by Corbyn’s opponents. Even if a primary was to be adopted in Australia, the result would not be the same.

That all said, ideas on their own are not enough. It is not an either or proposition. A party structure that is open and flexible is necessary. While it would not cause an upsurge alone, it makes it possible. Party reform is important in this regard but it is not an end in itself.

South Australia might herald the breakdown of Australia’s two party system

The South Australian election in March this year has the potential to break the traditional two party system that has existed in some form in Australia since the 1910s. While much of the focus had been One Nation on winning the balance of power in last year’s Queensland election, the Labor majority victory has meant public concern about One Nation’s “breakthrough” has dissipated. South Australia, on the other hand, is far less predictable and it is unclear what will occur.

With Nick Xenophon resigning from the Senate and running for the House of Assembly seat of Hartley, the campaign will be focused on him. Nick Xenophon has skilfully avoided being associated with any major party despite his deal making at a federal level, portraying himself as the anti-establishment choice, and he seems likely to benefit from public dissatisfaction. It is of little surprise that Labor is trying to paint Xenophon as a ‘Liberal in disguise’.

According to some polls Xenophon is preferred Premier and his ‘SA Best’ party is ahead of Labor and the Liberals on primary votes. It seems very possible that Nick Xenophon endorsed candidates will win a swag of House of Assembly seats. His party has already recruit a number of high profile candidates including a former TV journalist and the mayor of Port Augusta. Xenophon candidates have already shown their capacity to win Lower House seats, winning Mayo federally and coming close in Grey at the 2016 federal election.

South Australian Labor has been in power since 2002 and has lots of political baggage but the public does not seem sold on the Liberal Opposition who have a range of their own problems such as former sitting Liberal MPs running as independents and concerns that former party leader, now independent MP and Government Minister, Martin Hamilton Smith, will keep his seat. There is a distinct possibility the South Australian election may result in a genuine three party system where the largest party is allowed to govern in minority but it will not have a majority and there will also be a considerably sized cross-bench.

For the most part, the success of anti-political parties has been mostly confined to Upper Houses but South Australia may be the first site of Australia’s existing political order buckling under public dissatisfaction with the political class. Rather than in Queensland, South Australia may be where the populist revolt truly breaks through and upturns Australia’s two party system.

This period may be the beginning of the regionalisation of Australian party systems. The success of Katter, the Shooters and Fisher, the Greens and Xenophon may herald distinctive state party systems over the next few years as minor parties start to win multiple lower house seats in certain geographic localities.

There can be no fairness without decent work

No matter where you turn these days there seems to be a discussion about the future of work. From parties sloganeering about “jobs of the future”, to talk about the “disruption” of the “sharing economy”, to predictions about automated cars replacing taxis and therefore thousands of transport workers, you hear and read about the changing nature of work almost daily.

The future of work has, however, not been synonymous with discussions about making work fairer. The dominant theme has been that the changing of nature of work, mostly via advances in technology, is something that we will just have to grin and bear, even if we know that future jobs will be less fair. What is concerning is the seeming acceptance of this as an inevitability. The idea that jobs should remain fair to support a fair society as the economy changes is almost absent outside trade union and academic circles. In many ways, it reflects the fact that many progressive, especially younger Australians, seem to have ceded the primacy of politics in shaping our future. Young Australians today are facing an uncertain future, underpinned by growing intergenerational inequality and uncertainty at work.

Last year, I sat in a workshop in Parramatta about full employment. Full employment is not a term you hear that often these days. The concept of full employment felt a bit alien and almost quaint, associated with the supposed post-war golden age that ended 1970s. The fact that a mere mention of the term ‘full employment’ by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten earlier that year caused a flurry of excitement shows how out foreign the concept is in our modern society.

The workshop, organised by the Whitlam Institute, brought together trade unionists from both sides of the Tasman to talk about reviving an agenda of full employment. Part of the background reading for the workshop was a 1942 report by British social reformer William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society.

Reflecting on it today, what struck me as I read the report was how radical it seemed and also how bizarre that the views of a leading British establishment liberal from the 1940s felt more radical than what we hear today in our discussions about work. Beveridge explained that full employment “means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed men can reasonably be expected to take them.” He went on to state that “Employment is not wanted for the sake of employment, irrespective of what it produces…It must be productive and progressive.”

The legacy of the Great Depression hung over the country and Britain was still at war with the Axis, yet they were planning for a future without war, without want, squalor and ignorance. The goal of full employment had moral and ethical underpinnings and there was a societal responsibility to provide it. It’s a far cry from the rhetoric about any job being a good job that is used to berate job seekers.

Not only was the immense optimism of Beveridge stark but also his certainty that a fairer society would be constructed. Rather than shaping our own future, the overwhelming mood today is reacting to a future pre-determined for us where automation will take our jobs. There is elevation of buzzwords from management consultants like ‘resilience’, ‘agility’ and ‘fit for purpose’, to hide the fact that responsibility is shifted solely onto the individual. We are told we must constantly adapt to the changing world, accumulating more and more debt to update skills that were only just attained. If you fail to succeed, it is your own fault. Challenging this is seen as being defensive or attempting to “future-proof”.  Work has in effect become a duty that we do for the economy rather than employment providing both meaning and security. It reduces us to cogs in the engine room of the economy.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have the security of full-time job, earn an above the average wage, have access to leave, have autonomy and enjoy my work. I know this is not the norm. Many people struggle to get enough work, let alone have a job with decent pay and conditions that can support their future aspirations.

You have to be a part-time worker to be underemployed and Australia has the third highest level of part-time work in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The high proportion of part-time workers has driven underemployment and it is growing. Official unemployment may be just over 700,000 but when you include the underemployed it is more like 2 million.

Even those who have full time employment face challenges. Analysis by the Centre for Future Work identified that less than half of the labour force are full time workers with access to leave.

Young people in particular have felt the brunt of the current labour market. Full-time employment for young Australians has declined steadily since the Global Financial Crisis. Research commissioned by the ACTU found that 49% of 18 to 24 year olds said they cannot rely on getting regular work and 64% have no form of career progression. For those who are not tertiary graduates, it is even harder to get work. Over the past few decades, the dominant trend has been a rise in high skill employment as a share of employment. While there has not been a massive increase in low skilled jobs as a share like in the United States, middle skilled jobs have declined.

The absence of work that is secure, well-paid and full-time makes it difficult to plan for the future. You cannot get a mortgage if you live contract to contract, nor does it provide the stability that many seek if they want to have a family, or the luxury of flexible working arrangements for raising that family if you can afford to have one. It only serves to compound structural inequality between genders and generations.

On the other extreme, while many Australians cannot get enough work, many are working excessive hours. According to the Australia Institute, Australians are donating $128 billion in unpaid overtime each year to employers and it is growing. Rather than working the fifteen hours a week that Keynes predicted, two thirds of full-time employees are working more than 40 hours a week. Australia ranked 29th in the OECD in employees working very long hours with 13% of employees working 50 hours or more a week, more than the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Unsurprisingly Australia was also ranked 32nd out of 38 countries in time dedicated to personal care and leisure. We all know friends and family members who constantly work even when at home. The lines between work and home are blurred as technology has advanced, giving many people access to their work 24/7, and many people struggle to balance work and life.

Part of the driver of excessive working hours has been our work culture. The Australia Institute found that on average workers are performing five hours a week of unpaid overtime by working through breaks, taking work home and answering email out of hours.

While all this is happening, it is not as if ideas to address these problems are wanting. There has been a longstanding agenda of decent work, echoing Beveridge. Decent work is employment that “respects the fundamental rights of the human person as well as the rights of workers in terms of conditions of work safety and remuneration. … respect for the physical and mental integrity of the worker in the exercise of his/her employment.” The agenda seeks to provide opportunities for productive work and delivering a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality.

There are rafts of books, reports, inquiries and essays outlining practical ways to improve the world of work and ensure decent work. They offer routes to reverse the erosion of pay, conditions and job security that has occurred over the past few years.

We could tighten legislation around sham contracting and independent contracting and provide portable leave schemes so entitlements to paid leave are not lost when workers change jobs, substantially improving pay and conditions for many. It would remove the loopholes and financial incentives that exist to undercut decent work.

There could be the elimination of the distinctions between work so that all jobs have access to rights and conditions regardless of whether you are full-time, part-time, permanent or temporary to stop employers from gaming the system.

Everyone could be guaranteed genuinely flexible conditions to allow them to combine care and work and be provided with affordable universal care for children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

We could address underemployment and the excessively long hours that are worked by redistributing work through shorter working weeks, guaranteeing more paid leave and job sharing. More radically we could democratise workplace relationships through employee representation and institute a job guarantee to combat unemployment.

We could even go back to older ideas such as making the state as an exemplar of employment as Whitlam once did instead of the current situation where now poor conditions in the private sector are used to stoke envy and take away conditions in the public sector.

None of these ideas are particularly new and imaginative or truly out of left field and yet most of have not captured the imagination of most progressively minded young people when work is discussed. You don’t see many young people writing on these topics or even discussion in social media by anyone but the usual suspects of trade unionists and industrial relations academics. It almost feels unfashionable. Debates about the future of work are less about people and more about robots. The image that gets invoked by full employment and decent work is a cookie cutter 1950s house with a white picket fence, nine to five job, male breadwinner with a wife at home and two children in the suburbs. Talking about full employment and portable leave isn’t as exciting as “fully automated luxury communism”. When you discuss work it is a post-work agenda whether it isf the inevitability of a basic income as a result of job killing robots or the mentality of ‘Do What You Love’ that dominates.

The idea of the universal basic income has gained traction because of fears about automation. Part of the appeal of the basic income seems to be because it is utopian and for some time much of the Left has been without a utopian vision. It is a vision that is not steeped in nostalgia but rather modernity and in the minds of many it credible associates itself with the future. I also suspect part of the appeal is the individualism associated with it and scepticism and mistrust of the state. There is no associated duty or requirement of contribution or reciprocity, it is a right.

Universal basic income may restore universality and reshape welfare into social security but alone it is no solution. On its own it won’t address growing inequality as a result of the polarising labour market or the increasing concentration of wealth and power. There is a reason why supporters range from democratic socialists to free market advocates.

A basic income is not without its problems. It seems unlikely that any payment would be liveable on its own and it is likely to degenerate into a form of wage subsidy or a new Poor Law. Just as easily it can become a Trojan horse by the free market advocates to dismantle the welfare state where individuals are given a fixed amount and told to look after themselves.

The assumption of technological determinism that often underpins support for a basic income robs us of agency and there is no guarantee it will actually occur. The oft cited claim is that 47% of Americans will lose their jobs when an OECD study concluded the actual figure is more likely 9%. The claims that technology will destroy jobs and create significant unemployment are not new, nor has it borne out in the past. Rather than determining what should happen, we are told we should just accept it and be ready to adapt.

At the same time, there is a prevalence of the Do What You Love (DWYL) mantra where passion is what motivates work. It takes the form of working unpaid internships, terrible hours and bad pay because of the supposed pleasure you get from your job. Your job is not work, you do not do it for compensation but because you love the job. Having decent work is an afterthought to chasing your dreams.

Trawling through the website Ethical Jobs, you can see it in full flight. Charities and non-government organisations list voluntary roles and unpaid internships that are actually unpaid jobs. The roles are in graphic design, marketing and fundraising, communications, research and campaign work. They want passion but have fixed hours you will need to work and sometimes even require experience. The worst example I came across was a 6-8 hour per week voluntary assistant role to someone who received a $100,000 fellowship from a private charitable foundation for climate change campaigning. It is justified in the name of providing experience to people to get a job but what it does is erode the decency of work for all and strengthens socioeconomic privilege.

Only the privileged are able to work for free, subsidised by their family wealth. In many industries, the reliance on experience from unpaid work to get a job means that only the economically privileged can seek a career primarily for personal reward. If you are one of the lucky ones who can stay afloat, it is a sign of your class. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in her Jacobin essay ‘In the Name of Love’:

“By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

What really has been lost is the belief that all jobs should be decent. There is now the belief that the “shit jobs” will disappear due to technology or if you hate a job, go find another one in your search for “the job”. Rather than improving work, you move on.

In a way both the appeals of DWYL and the post-work accelerationism behind a basic income are similar. They are both individualistic and focused on exercising personal choice to do what you want. Neither draw on a common belief or on contribution or reciprocity and both weaken a push for decent work for all. But why do both have such appeal amongst younger crowds?

That question cannot be answered without acknowledging the context of the last forty years that emphasised the individual and promoted a culture of consumer choice.

In 2016, Sydney University academic Ariadne Vromen, in conjunction with academics Michael Xenos and Brian Loader released some comparative research on the issues young people care about and their views on inequality. The research found that many young people individualised everyday social problems, away from traditional notions of collectivism and state responsibility.

The scope young people imagine for taking political action has been shaped by dominant political discourses that emphasise opportunity, choice, responsibility and rights. The dominance of this discourse reflected the broader neoliberal political context. Individuals and their agency are emphasised while downplaying structural factors and taking collective action to address material grievances and transform society. It is little surprise that trade union membership is much lower amongst younger Australians.

The research found that most young people seemed to conceive of equality in post-materialist rather than materialist terms. They suggested equality was created by everyday equal treatment in society, regardless of background and identity. Young people did not spontaneously suggest that it was up to governments to address their grievances and redress the experience of identity based inequality.

The research also found was very little critical engagement with inherited class privilege and a limited acknowledgement of structural disadvantage as most responses focused on how young people can choose to move out of disadvantage.

These views pose a big challenge for an agenda of decent work. An agenda of decent work does not mesh that easily with individualistic notions of opportunity, choice, responsibility or rights. It is fundamentally collective. It requires shifting unequal relationships of power.

To ensure the future of work is fair, what will need to be overcome is my generation’s internalising of neoliberal norms. The challenge is how to unpick the dominance of individualism and transform that into an understanding that collective action is needed that seeks structural change that goes beyond moments and can scale up into change. It requires rebuilding a solidarity that goes beyond traditional identity politics, a willingness to organise to take power not just reject it. It’s no easy task after forty years of neoliberalism.

Achieving decent work for all cannot be seen as a throwback to the 1950s. It must be clear that it does not mean a return to the past because that it not possible. The future of work cannot not only be full employment that provides fair income and certainty, it has to also mean a fuller democracy where individuals can reach their potential, a good life for all. It means rejecting the determinism of automation where we must adapt to a future we cannot control. It requires rejecting the co-option of individualisation into the absence of rather than transformation of authority. The single minded focus on basic income and ethic of Do What You Love will only lead us astray. Work matters to our lives. Without the stability, income and certainty that decent work provides, there can be no real choice or freedom in life. Ultimately, without it we cannot have a fair society.