Janet Burstall spoke about the LIFE campaign on the “May Day! May Day!”– voices below the line panel, at the inaugural Addison Road Writers’ Festival on 1 May

Addison Road Writers festival logo
Addison Road Writers Festival logo

It’s great to back in gatherings of people, after having spent so much time stuck on screens. Getting together is important to what I’ll be talking about.

I’m going to talk about story-telling and the Living Incomes For Everyone – LIFE campaign, which I helped to found around a year ago in peak lockdown. I want to look at why it is so hard to get stories of hardship, especially of the unwaged, and low-paid, recognised by authority. People are living May Day in a state of emergency, facing immediate threats of insolvency, homelessness, hunger and exclusion.  Their needs and stories are denied by government (except for a brief period of the coronavirus relief package.) LIFE has been bringing together groups of people whose stories are all personal, individual and urgently demanding solutions.

There are many other stories, and genres of story-telling about poverty and hardship.

ACOSS, and charities such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Smith Family and Mission Australia incorporate individual stories of hardship in their submissions and fund-raising. There is a genre of writing by well-known authors who set out to experience poverty and insecurity, such as Dirt Cheap by Elizabeth Wynhausen, and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. The 2021 Academy award winning film Nomadland is a dramatization of hardship in the USA.

Telling our stories in the hope that it will melt the hearts of the government and its poverty machine, doesn’t work, because they are heartless.

The LIFE campaign is doing something different with these stories. LIFE’s supporters have stories about different aspects of the welfare system. We identify the common issues.  Together several groups representing people on income support, drafted, discussed and agreed on the demands of the LIFE Campaign. We are not expecting to persuade the government, soften its heart, with our stories. We want to become strong enough to force the government to concede our demands.

Demands express will, intention, they are about making the future.  They change and develop, are open to re-writing as we become more aware of new experiences, and more stories.

On this May Day, International Workers’ Day, I want to offer a brief (and necessarily over-simplified) take on Marxist political economy in answer to the question of why government prefers to ignore these stories, and the demands that they generate. I want to go further than pointing at Scott Morrison, or other recent Prime Ministers. I want to go deeper than blaming neo-liberal ideology or trickle down economics, because it’s more than that. In whose interests are these stories ignored and needs denied?

It is an advantage to employers if there are people in desperate straits, and short of work. That both pulls down the lowest rates of pay, and makes people more submissive at work, for fear of losing their jobs. Competition between households for homes to rent or buy, increases the wealth of landlords and banks, and means many people cannot afford housing. Return on investment as the underlying principle of the economy and our society is counter-posed to meeting people’s needs as an alternative principle. They are not reconcilable. Return on investment, profit, as the organising principle of the economy pervades our entire society.

Governments step in to minimally fill the gaps in meeting needs, in order to avoid people becoming unruly, and economic instability and so that people are available as a labour force. Governments fill the gap to a minimum, not only because of budget priorities. Liberal National parties are based on employer interests, and have no reason to go against those interests, unless they fear a rebellious populace. The Labor Party is based on union interests, but understands them within the limits of keeping employers and investors onside.

Widespread recognition that people’s needs are deliberately ignored and denied, that people in need are punished by government policies, would be disruptive to the core principle of return on investment. This potential of stories of hardship is that they are a foundation for collective consciousness, and for working class struggle for the principle of need, against the principle of profit.

So, how can we get these stories of immediate hardship beyond our social media silos, past the Murdoch media, and blasted up to the top of political and budget priorities? We need these stories to help to make a movement for meeting everyone’s needs. Through involving a wide range of groups, and identifying and discussing everyone’s unmet needs, our continually evolving demands have the potential to unite working class people, whether they are unwaged, low-paid, insecure and overcommitted. For many people their experience of being working class is refracted through other identities, especially for indigenous Australians who have been dispossessed of their land. LIFE looks for the commonalities as well as supporting specific demands.

The power of our stories is in telling them to each other, so that we understand, and support each other. The stories of LIFE supporters, plus our demands are our starting point for organising amongst working class people, unions, and other organisations. Organising is what we need to do to make ourselves heard.

A closing thought. I’m reminded of the radical women’s liberation movement, by the #MeToo movement, by the women’s March4Justice and by the documentary Brazen Hussies streaming on ABC.  Consciousness raising was a form of story-telling in the early women’s liberation movement, before the distancing effects of social media.  It was story-telling together, telling, listening, sharing common experiences, from which women concluded that what they had previously thought was personal, individual pain and frustration, was social, collective and open to challenge via social, collective action. Women organised. Organising is what we need to do now.

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