Sometimes when things break, it’s a mystery. But even when we can’t figure out what went wrong, we understand that something did fail. A critical component or an essential process wore out, or overloaded or somehow reached the limits of its design.
If a dishwasher has a drainage problem it’s probably a blocked outlet. If a printer just stops printing, either the ink ran out, or the small time bomb the manufacturer placed deep inside the machine finally counted down to zero and exploded, forcing you to buy another crappy, unreliable unit.
But how did our politics break? Was it a simple failure or a complex mystery?
Looking for answers, it’s tempting to fetishise the grotesque and voyeuristic pleasures of hate-watching Barnaby Joyce’s implosion, or obsessively checking your preferred news app for the latest developments in the slow motion Trumpocalypse that may yet just kill us all. But it’s possible to ponder the question a long way away from the centres of power.
Any shopping mall will do.
I can’t help feeling that the truth of what’s happened, of what we’ve done to ourselves or allowed to be done to us, lies in the nearest Westfield. We long thought of our politics as a struggle between the owners of capital and the masses who provided labour to those owners. A gross over-simplification, but not untruthful or inaccurate.
If you think about what’s been happening in thousands of small franchised businesses, however, something else starts to emerge. It seems pretty clear by now that a lot of people who bought into name brand franchises, hoping to secure their future by running a business with a proven model, got played for suckers. Many have lost their homes and life savings, years of brutal hard work, and even their families as financial pressure ground them to pink pulp.
It also seems pretty clear that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of their employees were also played for suckers, ripped off by business owners who were themselves being ruthlessly exploited by their franchise overlords. Sometimes the ill-treatment of workers was a simple matter of underpayment. Sometimes it was much worse. Increasingly, it can be seen as systemic.
Workers rights advocates will say, quite reasonably, that if you can’t afford to pay your workers, you can’t afford to run a business. Boosters for the corporate point of view will argue that governments and unions raise the cost of business to unsustainable levels.
But somebody’s making money, aren’t they?
It’s not the poor, casualised worker. And in the case of a lot of small businesses, it’s not the bosses, who might be even poorer, massively indebted, and effectively working for free.
In this one instance, the travails of franchisees and their employees, we can start to see the truth of what’s broken. A vanishingly small number of people are gouging immense profits from both the labour and the invested capital of smaller, effectively powerless players. It’s a laydown certainty they’re not paying anything like a reasonable amount of tax on those super-profits either. To be honest, they’re probably not paying anything. They’ll be hiding that wealth in some post office box in the Caymans, or Singapore or Ireland.
This one example doesn’t explain everything that ails us at the moment. But it feels like it does clarify a hell of a lot.
The old division between capital and labour isn’t as descriptive and explanatory as it once was. Instead we are being sorted into a vast herd of impotent human feedstock, and a much smaller, insanely wealthy and powerful elite of the apex predators who live off them.
John Birmingham is a columnist and blogger for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.
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