The following series of articles, prompted by reflections around the Christmas-holiday season, will contain a mixture of the personal and political. So if you wish to skip this article, that is perfectly okay. I do not wish to bore anybody with details of my own memories and life story. However, I do believe that our personal and individual lives are deeply interconnected with, and influenced by, the political, social and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Christmas holidays in Australia are usually a time for reflecting over the year gone by, recollecting precious memories and learning the lessons of our life experiences.
This will be the first in a series of upcoming articles. Stay tuned.
For those who celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday – more power and joy to you. Those from non-Christian faith groups, and those who choose to celebrate in a non-denominational or secular way – more power and joy to you. The title of this essay includes reference to The Grinch, a fictional character from a children’s story written by Dr Seuss. The Grinch is a misanthropic, green, furry recluse, that attempts to steal the joy and happiness from the Christmas occasion. Yes, it is a cartoon character – but we can learn from it. There is a grinch that is stealing Christmas, but it is not a small, grumpy animal, but an ideology. We will get to this ideology later, the doctrine that is at the heart of our problems.
For now, all I ask is that you consider not only my own biases, but that you also consider your own as I compile a series of recollections. These subjects are not necessarily the most important, or the most topical – there are many issues that we could cover from 2016 – Trump, Brexit, the ongoing conflict in Syria, ultra-right populism, Venezuela – the list could go on. However, I wish to summarise the issues that are important to my sense of identity and well-being. As I stated earlier, if you wish to skip this article, then please do so – no worries on my part.
Reporting on spending – reporting on poverty
In November this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australians will be spending huge amounts of money on Christmas shopping. The article by Lucy Cormack is entitled “Australia to spend $8.8 billion on Christmas presents, more than half on credit”. The writer examines the spending habits of different groups of Australian shoppers, and how most of the 8.8 billion dollars will be spent on credit. For instance, you may read in the article that:
The Christmas spending survey found that the biggest spenders this festive season will be in NSW, where shoppers will part with $2.9 billion.
In a close second, Victorians are expected to spend $2.3 billion this Christmas, followed by Queensland ($1.7 billion), Western Australia ($1 billion) and South Australia ($615 million).
The survey referred to in the above quote is one conducted by the peer-to-peer lending company SocietyOne.
It is useful to report on Christmas spending and the retail behaviour of customers, just as it is important to report on the daily gyrations and fluctuations of the stock market. Millions of Australians are shareholder-investors, even if only through their managed superannuation funds. But this leaves us with a huge question – why do we not report on poverty, unemployment, and inequality in the same way we do on the stock market?
That question is not my own; it comes from an article in Talking Point Memo online magazine entitled “What If We Reported On Poverty The Way We Report On The Stock Market?” The author, Sean McElwee, is elaborating on the American situation with regard to inequality and poverty, but his observations have equal relevance for the Australian context as well. Millions upon millions of Americans face a life of destitution, or near-penury, struggling with meeting day-to-day living costs, all the while wages stagnate and corporate profits increase.
While it is important to report the progress of the stock market, the media can shape and distort our perceptions of economic reality, and present us with a picture of upward social mobility. In fact, the majority of Americans, since the 2008 capitalist economic meltdown, are facing more perilous circumstances and greater financial insecurity. McElwee observes that the economic divide is widening, and it finds greater expression in the growing racial divide:
While the stock market has been humming along and corporate profits rebounded quickly, unemployment remains stubbornly high and wages low. At the same time, the recovery has been divided across racial lines, with the racial wealth gap in 2013 even larger than before the Great Recession. But news reports tend to downplay race gaps in unemployment, what Reniqua Allen calls the “permanent recession,” focusing on the broad indicator. Newspapers and television anchors treat stock prices as though they are a symbol of broad prosperity, rather than a symbol that the rich are getting richer.
In Australia, the picture of inequality and poverty is no less troubling. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) has been consistently documenting the growth of inequality in Australia, even though as a country our collective wealth has increased over the last several decades. Back in 2015, in their report on “Inequality in Australia: A Nation Divided”, ACOSS found that while Australia’s economy and GDP has grown since the 1970s, a person in the top 20 percent income group has around five times as much income as someone in the bottom 20 percent. The growth in employment in the 1970s and 1980s has offset income inequality somewhat, but the stagnation in wages has meant that income inequality has steadily increased. As the ACOSS report notes; “Over the 25 years to 2010, real wages increased by 50% on average, but by 14% for those in the bottom 10% compared with 72% for those in the top 10%.’
The situation regarding wealth inequality is no better; “The top 10% of households own 45% of all wealth, most of the remainder of wealth is owned by the next 50% of households, while the bottom 40% of households own just 5% of all wealth.” Back in 2014, Will Morrow wrote an article for the WSWS web site that Forbes magazine published a list of Australia’s 50 wealthiest people, celebrating their riches and intending for the billionaire bounty to continue. Their combined wealth, back in 2014, was worth $US101.9 billion. Why shouldn’t we celebrate their wealth? Morrow elaborates the relevant background:
Put into context, the wealth of these 50 individuals is $US5 billion more than the federal government’s entire budgetary spending on healthcare, education, public transport and housing in 2013, and more than three times the combined annual gross domestic product of eight countries in the South Pacific region—East Timor, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati—inhabited by more than ten million people.
For all the talk about Australia being an egalitarian land of the ‘fair go’, we are rapidly becoming a vastly unequal nation:
Before this is dismissed as Bolshevik Soviet propaganda from the Kremlin, let’s listen to the words of The Conversation online magazine:
As you would expect, Australia as a whole has become much wealthier since 1970: the total stock of capital has grown twice as fast as national income during the decades since then.
But what is more striking is the marked increase in wealth inequality over the same time. We have become collectively richer but much more unequal.
A reasonable estimate is that, currently, the poorest 40% of Australian households effectively have no wealth at all: about half of them actually have negative net wealth because of their personal debts. At the opposite pole, the wealthiest 10% have more than half the nation’s total household wealth. The top 1% alone have at least 15% of the total wealth.
Red Diaper Baby
I have fond memories of Christmas, and we spent happy times growing up as a red diaper baby. What does that mean? I took that expression from a book, published back in 2004, called “Red Diapers: Growing up in the Communist Left”. The book is a collection of writings about the experiences of those children whose parents were members of the Communist Party, or who were affiliated with leftist and socialist organisations. The book obviously covers the American experience; I have adopted that term for myself in the Australian context. I am a red diaper baby, the only-child of socialist-minded parents. My late father was an active socialist, and never wavered in his convictions. He was a humanitarian socialist and loving parent.
Before anybody becomes concerned about my childhood, let me clarify. No, my late father never forced me to memorise Das Kapital. No, he never neglected me, and I was never left wanting for anything. Yes, he scolded me when I misbehaved. Yes, he helped me with my school homework. Yes, he took me on family outings, visits and social activities. Every year, the primary school I attended (Catholic school) held an Easter hat parade, where each student would bring a creation of their arts-minded parents. The ultimate prize? A large chocolate egg. My father designed a pharaonic-style hat, mimicking the headdress of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. I won a huge chocolate egg – for the most original hat in the parade.
As I grew into adolescence, I wanted my own independent life, and adopted the “oh dad, go away” attitude – the teenager that wants to avoid the social embarrassment of being seen with the ‘uncool’ dad. Yes, he told me silly dad jokes, and had a lively and engaging personality. Yes, he bought me toys for Christmas. Yes, there were times when we clashed; we had our sad moments, conflicts and resentments. Hey, until today, when I think of my father and the bad times, I catch myself curling my hands into fists and getting ready to hit. But he also taught me about the way the world works, that we need to be active citizens, not just passive consumers. I remember his compassion, sincerity and generosity.
He displayed an unceasing passion for, and interest in, the Arab and Islamic worlds, having kept the Islamic statement of faith on the dining buffet table. It was a small picture, with gold writing on a black background. He kept a copy of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist philosopher. He kept a portrait of the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, on prominent display in the lounge room. The portrait, showing Nasser holding his hand to his cheek, was flanked by the Islamic declaration, the Shahada. Unlike the vast majority of the Egyptian-Armenian gusano-types, he respected the Arab and Muslim as an equal, while choosing not to necessarily worship in the Islamic way. He strongly identified with, and supported, the Palestinian cause – not only for the purpose of self-determination, but also as a struggle against the influence of imperialism in the Middle East.
He had the portraits of Marx and Lenin hanging in his study – and a smaller one of Joseph Stalin. He kept a close watch on developments in global politics, the role of Australian capitalism as a deputy sheriff of the United States, and rejected the rampant consumerism and mind-numbing celebrity-worship culture that pervades Australian society. He saw the deleterious effects of the ideology that underpins our current socioeconomic system – neoliberalism. The Grinch that is ruining Christmas for everyone is the destructive philosophy of ultra-competitive individualism. As George Monbiot explained in his article, referred to earlier in this piece:
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Yes, I know that the Soviet Union was disbanded by the Gorbachev leadership in 1991, and that Russia has been a capitalist country since then. Yes, I know that Vladimir Putin – the Charles de Gaulle equivalent of the Russian federation – is a fiercely nationalist right wing politician. No, he is not going to restore the USSR. No, he is not a secret communist, hellbent on covertly resurrecting the Communist apparatus. It is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time – Putin, like de Gaulle, is anti-American imperialism, but not anti-imperialist.
It is possible to oppose the capitalist regime in the Kremlin, and reject the anti-Russia hysteria that is gripping large sections of the American capitalist class. We will get to that subject in another article – it is on the To Do list. There are many reasons why I have remain a loyal red diaper baby – too many to elaborate here. As a short answer, I will recycle the words of the late Eugene V Debs, an American socialist, whose words have striking relevance for today:
Every Christmas, I remember how my late father clashed with the Egyptian-Armenian gusanos during our visits, and how he never backed down. The gusanos are victims of their own bigotry, as they celebrate the cruise missiles that imperialism fires at the Arab and Islamic countries. But that is okay, because they taught me valuable lessons – in how to cravenly capitulate to the seemingly seductive allure of imperial might. After this lesson, I can safely file away the opinions and ideas of the gusano-types in the appropriate storage facility.
Every Christmas, I remember my late father – and am proud to have grown up a red diaper baby.
I would not change that for anything in the world.