It is a commonly held truism that sports and politics should never mix. Sport is an oasis, untouched by the mundanities of life. But to watch a game of football is to break apart this illusion. Representatives of two nations clash in a contest of strength and skill. A referee enforces strict conformance with arbitrary rules. The crowd’s passions are subsumed in the game. How could this be apolitical?
Surveillance is a powerful tool to discipline a subject’s actions. Jeremy Bentham recognised this when he proposed a new type of prison in the 18th century. The panopticon design would provide complete visibility of all inmates at all times to a centrally located warden. Now the panopticon is no longer applied to prisoners under the watch of the state, but workers under the constant scrutiny of their employers. What is the modern open plan office but a mechanism for the surveillance and discipline of workers?
We spend our days endlessly repeating simple tasks, and even outside of work we refuse to grapple with higher order ideas and concepts. Politics has been reduced to squabbling over petty resentments, a kind of spectator sport. Even our art has given up on the profound, simply packaging up nostalgia and spectacle to be sold back to us. We cannot call ourselves grown men if we act like infants.
At the core of the liberal philosophy which guides our modern societies are two principles – free people and free markets. It has generally been assumed that these are in harmony. But as the populist consequences of the GFC continue to reverberate through our world, establishment liberals are being forced to choose between the two. Time after time, unelected officials have chosen to protect the markets against the consequences of democracy in a way that lays bare their true priorities.
The top university in Australia recently announced a new scheme for assessing undergraduate applicants. The ANU’s new policy will substantially loosen the requirements for academic results and add a new requirement for extra-curricular activities. This acts to screen out those from working class backgrounds and ensure those from the upper class take their ordained place, regardless of talent.
In the classic form of capitalism, companies competed to sell their products to customers with the aim of producing profits to fuel further expansion. Today, companies no longer need to make profits in order to command massive valuations. Making money is no longer a prerequisite for business success. Instead, these companies serve as stock market vehicles, catering to the whims of investors rather than customers. This serves to remove any measure of control ordinary people might have been able to impose upon corporations through their choices in the market.
Back in the bad old days of slavery and serfdom, there was a class of people who weren’t quite slaves, but weren’t free either. These indentured servants were tied by contract to serve a particular master as slaves, but only for a specified period (typically 3-7 years). Folks who were desperate for passage to the Americas or who had accumulated debts beyond their ability to pay would sell themselves into virtual slavery with the hope of a better life after their period of bondage ended. South Sea Islanders were coerced into similar contracts to labour in Queensland in the late 1800s, long after such arrangements were outlawed for white folks. But were they actually outlawed, or just transferred into another form?
Four years ago, the Liberal government assured us that hard budgetary cuts were required to tame a “debt and deficit disaster”. Since then, that same government has increased our net debt by more than 55%, or $129 billion. When tonight’s budget is released, Treasurer Scott Morrison is expected to find money for tax cuts, both for personal incomes and to fund the corporate tax cuts for the big businesses which have yet to pass through the Senate, while the budget remains in deficit. The Medicare levy increase which was to fund the NDIS has been scrapped. If our national debt is such a crisis, then how can we afford such cuts to revenue?
In our market society, every thing is transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. Buyers and sellers meet to trade not only petrol, but also fine art and literature. We also sell ourselves on the market, renting out our lives to employers. In our current epoch these commodities are not just sold, but actively moulded to better suit the demands of the market. Not only do brewers adjust their formulations based on sales, but we shape ourselves to better fit our perceptions of what the market demands.
How do we solve the coming decimation of jobs through automation? The solution of a Universal Basic Income has united both Silicon Valley libertarians and social democrats, offering a guaranteed income to every citizen. But the practical and political issues with the UBI mean it will only serve as a temporary salve for the underlying problems. Instead, progressives must argue for Universal Basic Services, drawing on the history of publicly provided health and education services to build a state fit for the 21st century.