We are better than this

With inequality at a 70 year high and living standards stagnating, millions of Australians cannot afford another Coalition Government and nor can our planet. We urgently need a new direction.

We need to change the rules because they are are broken and rigged against working Australians.

We need an economic system that delivers for all Australians and reduces inequality, not one that just concentrates more wealth in the hands of the lucky few.

We need to reinvest in the essential public services that Australians rely on and halt the privatisation of our social security system that so many rely on.

We need to deliver a just transition to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers are not thrown on the scrap heap.

We need a Government that does not use the State to go after its opponents and take from those without power while showering as much public largesse as they can to their mates with little scrutiny.

What we have now at both a state and federal level are Governments run for the interests of the super rich, big banks and corporate Australia. They are Governments by organised capital, for organised capital.

The Coalition Government in New South Wales, shorn of some of the socially conservative extremism of its federal counterpart, shows what the Turnbull Government fundamentally is at its heart.

It is a Government that is addicted to privatising everything it can. A Government happy for the rivers of gold from a once in a generation real estate bubble to be wasted on vanity projects rather than schools and hospitals. A Government that has destroyed TAFE and disability services.

But Labor cannot take any election whether state or federal for granted.

It would be an arrogant betrayal of those who rely on Labor Governments. We should not, however, shy away from the fact that dissatisfaction with the Coalition has not translated into excitement for Labor. People are angry because the future does not look better. There is a yearning for positive ideas and policy proposals that address the everyday challenges they face.

Those on the progressive side of politics need to expand what is possible and show that only political involvement can deliver. That means fighting not for what is convenient but what is right and to fight to the end even if we might lose. It requires a party that is democratic and open to debates. Transactional politics and backroom deals that fuel cynicism will only be to our detriment in the long-run. Only the Left can do this and it is our responsibility to lead by challenging the status quo and making the case for change.

The next NSW state and federal election are choices about what kind of country and what kind of state we want to live in. Labor’s message has to be that Australia is better than this, that New South Wales is better than this. And only Labor Governments can deliver this.

Originally appeared in the 2018 NSW Conference edition of Challenge

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Robots are not the real threat to work

The more I read about the future of work, the more apparent it becomes that much of the discussion relies on extrapolated models of job losses and technological determinism to justify a course of action rather than critically examining broader trends.

There is no doubt that technological change will shape the future of work, but the extent and nature of that change is still debatable. The oft cited claim that 47 per cent of Americans will lose their jobs due to automation has been challenged by an OECD study concluding the actual figure is more likely nine per cent.

A similar claim by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia citing a figure of 40 per cent was found to be closer to nine per cent after being examined by Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Michael Coelli. The attention given to these initial claims means it is of little surprise that most Australians think the net effect of automation will be less jobs, with a substantial minority thinking it could happen as soon as five years, though the fear may be skewed with a recent Australian study finding young men fear automation far more than women.

While the threat from automation is often overstated, there are big technological shifts occurring which are undermining job security and hollowing out permanent, skilled work. But the experience is that work is created as well as displaced by new technology. Change in social relationships, not technology, explains what is happening in labour markets today.

Rather than a future without paid work, the future is more likely to be a growing polarised labour market with a continuing decline in middle-skilled jobs and growth in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians), some of which might be considered ‘bullshit jobs’, and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook shows that there has been a 9.5 per cent decline in middle-skill as a share of total employment with most growth in high-skilled employment.

Many of these high-paying roles have taken advantage of global markets and technology to have a huge capacity for growth and for trade. Those in lower paid occupations that have not been off-shored are reliant on face-to-face human interaction but also find it difficult to significantly increase their productivity.

This narrative of inevitability suits corporations that will benefit from the current situation. The implication is that actions cannot stop it, so there should be no attempt to regulate.

Trajectories are, however, never inevitable. The moves by state governments towards licencing labour hire firms and the Change the Rules campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions show there is no inevitability about the future of work. It may change, but it does not occur in a policy vacuum.

We need policies and laws that ensure people are prepared and supported for both the opportunities and threats of a changing world of work. Australians are supportive of having laws that suit the changing nature of work. A 2017 Digital Rights in Australia report found that over 60 per cent believe that these new forms of gig work need new government regulations.

Part of the conversation about the future of work must also be about the quality of work and how technology can be used to improve the nature of work, such as through better redistributing work, reducing working hours and enabling more decision-making by frontline workers.

And despite the appeal of ‘post-work’, work still has a future in our society. Even if many paid jobs disappeared, work would still exist. Our society depends on the unpaid caring work that is predominantly done by women.

Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value.

Published at Eureka Street on 24 May 2018

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)

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.

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.

It’s time the Australian Left got serious about transformational change

One of my big gripes of late has been that there is lots of focus by progressives on capacity building, campaigning tactics and strategies but far less on what changes need to be embedded to change society. When progressives are in power, the focus is often redistribution and providing more funding to services but often what is lacking is deeper thinking about statecraft.

What prompted my thinking was this piece in the New Socialist, written about constructing a new left political economy. In this moment of economic, democratic and ecological crisis, we should not accept tinkering at the edges and a repeat of the past. We need to think about institutional frameworks. Neoliberalism did not come fully formed, its seeds were planted to weaken the existing institutional structures and transform the country. Competition policy, restricting right of entry, new public management, contestability, separating policy and service delivery and allowing free-riding in collective bargaining are all examples of these neoliberal seeds that weakened collective institutions and gradually brought about privatisation. These rules, structures, policies and mindsets were embedded into our institutions and continue regardless of who is in power at the top. They are far more insidious than the overt use of state power by conservative governments.

Many on the Left tend to focus on redistribution and provision of service, the immediate need, rather than the political economy and institutional structures that exist as foundations. The rules and regulations that exist, the way state power can be used and the culture it enforces has massive implications. We need to think about what institutional frameworks are needed to drive the outcomes we want so we do not have to rely on those explicitly on the Left of politics being in elected office, particularly at state and local government levels.

Taxing and spending alone will not be enough to achieve outcomes like eroding away the commodification of housing and other public goods, inserting in new democratic norms into both the public and private sectors, industrial policies that provide training, genuine career pathways and economic development, helping to break up the oligarchies that control our economies, ensuring individual not corporate control over our own information, reducing precarity, changing how we approach care so we acknowledge it is work and decarbonising the economy. Raising additional revenue and more social spending is essential for a fairer society but it cannot be the limits of our imagination. We need to think about the seeds of transformational change at all levels. All the workshops and conferences about messaging and campaigning techniques cannot be a substitute for this. Calls to vague sentiments about a more caring, peaceful, sustainable society are insufficient.

Some more modest ideas are floating out there such as more creative approaches to central banking, employee representation on company boards, full employment underpinned by a jobs guarantee, large scale public renewable generation, campaign finance reform,  changing our industrial relations laws to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and taxing externalities like carbon and congestion but much more is needed.

Without this deeper, harder thinking and a transformative agenda, we will be like Sisyphus. We may make some gains uphill but are condemned to watch it go backwards once conservatives get into power and slash spending.

It’s time to revisit free education

In an era of stagnant wages, intergenerational divides and increasingly concentrated wealth and opportunities, the current policy consensus is neither fair nor is it working for a growing segment of the world’s population.

A recent Pew Global Poll found 52 per cent are not satisfied with the way their democracy is working. For many, the status quo means a future that is not better, with a majority believing that quality of life for young people will be lower than that of their parents.

Australia is no exception. That same poll found that 41 per cent of Australians are not satisfied with how democracy is working here and that less than half of the country has a lot of trust or somewhat trusts that the national government will do what is right for the country. Over two thirds of Australians believe children today will be financially worse off than their parents.

The dissatisfaction and concern about falling living standards for future generations is leading to longstanding policy assumptions being rethought, and nothing symbolises this more than tertiary education. Across the world over recent decades there was a shift towards user-pays in tertiary education. That is now being reversed.

The platforms that British and New Zealand Labour took to elections this year show this understanding emerging, with both having policies to make education free once more. Even Hillary Clinton took a tuition-free college plan to the last US presidential election. It is time for Australia to follow suit.

In Australia, the argument for income contingent loans for higher education was that it financed the expansion of higher education, and that public funding is otherwise mainly subsidisation of those who are better off, who would go to university anyway and become better off still. The mantra was that a tertiary education would lead to substantially better life financially.

However, with degree inflation in combination with stagnant wages and rising house prices, students are racking up debt without it necessarily leading to a life that is materially better than that of their parents. Many fear that this will result in the first generation that will be worse off than their parents since the Second World War.

Though under the present regime payment only occurs when a certain salary threshold is met, the psychological impact of that debt cannot be underestimated, particularly in light of soaring house prices. It fundamentally damages the compact that private payment for tertiary education means future opportunities that result in a person being substantially better off materially.

It can seem like a future of endless debt without a career path or security. Between 1991 and 2016, the average cost of an undergraduate degree more than doubled. Full-time entry level jobs are increasingly hard to find — even for those with a degree, give that there are an estimated 20 graduates per available job. Some cannot even afford to rent on the wage that entry-level jobs pay in their respective areas.

Housing is increasingly out of reach, with housing in Sydney costing ten times the average annual income in 2015, up from four times the average annual income in 1985. No wonder that almost 40 per cent of Australians who do not own a home cannot currently afford to buy and another 20 per cent do not think they will ever be able to afford to buy.

Falling real wages, increased income precarity and collapsing home ownership rates all strengthen the case for free education. Higher education is no longer the ticket to a much better life because of the precariatisation of formerly middle-class ‘white collar’ professions.

While free higher education is not the only stance worth revisiting in Australia, it is symbolic of many policy areas that require a massive rethink: how we treat housing, the role of government in providing employment opportunities, the operation of social security and the taxation of wealth.

This current era of inequality and insecurity demands a break from the policies of the present. Bold ideas like free higher education for a better future are needed because without hope, there is only distrust and resentment left.

Published in Eureka Street on 9 November 2017