Recent decades have seen an increase in the wealth, power and influence of the rich in our society. If you want equality of opportunity, you're going to have to wrest it from them.
Speaking at the Sydney Institute on Wednesday Treasurer Joe Hockey attacked budget opponents by arguing they were drifting into ‘1970s class warfare lines’. Hockey took his aim at those who wanted governments to deliver ‘equality of outcomes’, which he said only an ‘old style socialist government’ could achieve. He offered this alternative:
“In our view it is the responsibility of government to provide equality of opportunity with a fair and comprehensive support system for those who are most vulnerable. After that it is up to individuals in the community to accept personal responsibility for their lives and their destiny.”
Let’s ignore whether equality of outcome or opportunity is what our society should be aiming for. Even if we agreed on Mr Hockey’s stated aims of a society with equality of opportunity, then one thing is clear: only a class war will deliver it to us.
Any real class war would not just challenge the authority and power of the wealthiest in the world, but also of our politicians.
Recent decades have seen an increase in the wealth, power and influence of the rich in our society. As ALP MP Andrew Leigh has pointed out for example, “since 1975, real wages for the bottom 10th have risen 15 per cent, while wages for the top 10th have risen 59 per cent.'' This is a global problem. A recent Oxfam report has shown that the wealthiest 80 people in our society now have the same wealth as the poorest other half of the world. The divide between rich and poor is growing every day.
It is this very growing disparity in wealth that is halting the very equality of opportunity Joe Hockey is so keen on. Research has shown for example that greater inequality in a society amplifies a number of social problems - including physical and mental illness, violence, low maths and literacy rates, drug and alcohol abuse, imprisonment rates and much more. As Richard Wilkinson explains:
“Greater income inequality seems to amplify and intensify the effects of social status differentiation - bigger material differences creating bigger social distances.”
As we become more unequal materially, so do we in other social measures. Most worryingly, this spreads into our democracy. As the rich gain in wealth, so are they gaining power within our political system. The wealthy are increasingly using their financial power - which is growing by the day - to increase their political power. This has been highlighted by recent scandals coming out of ICAC in New South Wales, and the privileged access politicians such as Mr Hockey now give to their largest donors.
This is where this comes up directly against Mr Hockey’s ‘equality of opportunity’ agenda. Equality of any form is fundamentally unachievable when so few have so much power. With power concentrated in the hands of so few it has basically become impossible for others to gain any access to it - both materially and politically. This is particularly true when we see the real form of class warfare that is going on - an ongoing war from the wealthy against the poor. This is one designed to ensure the entrenchment of power of those at the top - both for the wealthy and our political class. It is this class war that the budget is part of.
This highlights why Mr Hockey, and even many ALP MPs, are so concerned about class warfare rhetoric. Any real class war would not just challenge the authority and power of the wealthiest in the world, but also of our politicians.
In turn this highlights exactly why a proper class war is exactly what we should be fighting for - whether we’re progressive or conservative. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of so few has not just undermined our ideals of equality, but our democracy as well. And it is only a class war that will restore those values.
To do so we have to take on the wealth and power of the rich in our society. No one in these power positions will ever give them up, meaning that our only option is take that power from them.
This requires a mass working class movement - one that has an economic basis at its heart. We saw this through the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States - a movement whose purpose was about challenging the power of the 1%. The Indignados Movementin Spain took on a similar vain - and with great success. It has been estimated that at least one fifth of the Spanish population has taken part in those protests, and they’ve had recent success in the European Elections. We can only hope that we’re starting see a similar thing happening here in relation to the budget - as we become more painfully aware of how it is a victory for the Australian 1%. Yet we must ensure we frame this around class and don’t fall into the trap of simply fighting for a slightly better version of the current system.
It is an inconvenient fact for all of our politicians, no matter their stripe, that our class system is holding back any form of equality within our society. But that highlights the even more inconvenient truth for the rest of us in the community. The vast majority of our politicians - in particular in our major parties - have little to no interest in challenging this system. Their authority and their power relies upon it just as much as those who are the wealthiest in our community. Challenging this is essential for all of us in our society. It is the only way to achieve equality Mr Hockey is talking about, and more importantly to take back our democracy.