Autumn 2018

Walls and bridges

Societies build walls, not because they are strong but because they are weak. They build walls to keep out people seeking refuge. They build walls to lock up disproportionate numbers of First Nations people. Economic structures build walls to lock out vast numbers of people from paid work or from secure work that includes sick leave, annual leave and dependable, regular hours.

The idea of democracy is that the people, all of the people, determine how we will live together, how we will allocate resources, how we will build a future. One would think that the democratic vision would naturally lean towards a reduction of inequality—after all, it is predicated on the idea that everyone, not just a powerful elite, participates in determining our collective future. One would think that. But, as wonderful as our democracy is, it still excludes massive sections of the population. I’m not talking about the right to vote. I’m talking about the right to be listened to and respected.

Pope Francis, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in October last year, sounded a prophetic note of warning to those societies that allow democracy to be effectively denuded by the power of wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, as opposed to the power of people, shared equally and collectively:

Inequality and exploitation are neither inevitable nor a historical constant. They are not inevitable because, apart from the conduct of individuals, they also depend on the economic rules that a society chooses to adopt. We can think of energy production, the labour market, the banking system, welfare, the tax system, and the area of education. Depending on how these sectors are designed, there are different consequences for how income and wealth are distributed among those who helped to produce them. If profit becomes the chief aim, democracy tends to become a plutocracy in which inequalities and the exploitation of the planet increase. 

This is a radical message if ever there was one. It is telling us that if we want to reduce inequality then we have to change the rules that give it effect.

It is warning us that, no matter how much we cherish our democracy, it is being transformed into a plutocracy. What looks like the rule of the people is, more and more, the rule of the rich.

Of course, the gospel golden rule is: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12). Many feel this has been displaced by another golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules!

As French historian Pierre Rosanvallon has put it, ‘Inequality is felt most acutely when citizens believe that the rules apply differently to different people.’

On one level, like all authentic prophecy, this message is deeply worrying for humanity and for the planet which is our increasingly ravaged home.

Francis, however, does not stop there. This prophetic utterance is deeply hopeful because it tells us that the only power for progressive social change lies with us; that if the rules are deepening inequality and exploitation then it is up to us, the many, to change them!

To use the Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire’s beautiful formulation, we must prophetically denounce the bad news in order to prophetically announce the good news.

The good news is that inequality and exploitation are not inevitable.

Some of those who benefit from inequality and exploitation, the individuals Francis refers to, will continue to tell us that we are living with an economic inevitability; that things will eventually get better for the many. I do not need to remind you of Pope Francis’ devastating critique of the trickle-down theory they espouse as a pathetic attempt to reassure us that highly concentrated wealth is bound to be enjoyed by all as long as we stick with the current rules (the ones that effectively take from those who have least and give to those who have most).

They will also attempt to silence dissent. And to do so they will build more walls; walls that not only keep people out but even try to keep their stories out, silencing their voices and denying the worth of their truth.

But as that other prophetic voice, Dr Martin Luther King, reminds us, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about the things that matter.’

There have been recent reports and suggestions that civil society organisations should refrain from advocacy; that this is ‘political campaigning’. A robust democracy has nothing to fear from a strong civil society. Building legislative or regulatory walls to restrict or restrain advocacy is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of weakness. If democracy does not create and protect a space for voices to be heard from the people who know the meaning of inequality and exploitation in their daily lives, it is indeed, as Pope Francis warns, a sure sign that we are drifting towards plutocracy. This is particularly exemplified in the access to power by those favoured by ‘the economic rules that a society chooses to adopt’.

There are those who would much prefer us to be silent. There are those who believe that we should act charitably but not speak truthfully or seek justice. There are those who argue that poverty is a personal choice rather than a structural effect, as Francis describes it. These ardent but deeply misguided arguments would suggest that we are wasting our time. A softer version of this argument would have civil society only speaking when it has something to say that the government of the day wants to hear, perhaps even asking it to do what it already planned to do and then claiming it as a win. This might make a civil society organisation look good in the eyes of some, but is not advocacy.

We never tire of remembering and reminding ourselves of Ozanam’s beautiful injunction: ‘Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.’ We have an obligation not only to assist the people who bear the brunt of inequality, poverty and homelessness in prosperous Australia, but also to analyse the structural causes of this situation and to advocate for appropriate legislative change to prevent it. To achieve this we must faithfully and fearlessly speak the truth to power. Otherwise we would be perpetuating the injustice by our silence.

The walls that lock people out or lock them up can be overwhelming in their magnitude and ferocity. But our historic task, as the Honduran poet Roberto Sosa reminds us, is the source of a powerful and tender collective hope:

Together we can construct
with all our songs
a bridge to dignity
so that one by one
the humiliated of the earth may pass.

Dr John Falzon is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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