Hockey’s entitlement issues

It is almost a year to the day since Joe Hockey introduced the Australian public to his ‘lifters not leaners’ approach to economic and social affairs, which he did via his ‘Age of Entitlement’ speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs. One of the first defining infamies of the Abbott government, the speech also encapsulated the Abbott government’s ‘subjugate by earworm’ approach to public relations.

Something else evidenced by Hockey’s willingness to conflate compassion for the underprivileged and socially vulnerable with unmerited leniency towards a ‘culture of entitlement’ were the dynamics of blame-shifting in the midst of crisis as a propaganda device for avoiding responsibility for failed policy. This was and remains at least as old as the system of private accumulation itself.

In the last decade global society has narrowly averted large-scale collapse — not permanently, but only for the time being. Following in the wake of the GFC, the propertied classes of the world breathed a sigh of relief as the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis receded, thanks to massive state intervention in the form of the practice of quantitative easing.

A syllable-heavy, deeply jargonistic euphemism employed precisely to make it unclear as possible what was in fact being referred to, quantitative easing meant in practice the easing of fears of the bankers and financiers responsible for the crisis that they might be held accountable for or suffer the consequences of their actions.

In actual fact, the process of easing occurred when national governments supplied these sharks with free money in gargantuan quantity. As well as being off the hook, such institutions were also being further enabled by those responsible for bringing them to justice. For the recipients of this quantitative easing, it must have felt like it was time to party like it was 2006.

In terms everyone can understand then, quantitative easing amounts to socialism for the rich. This phenomenon appeared in addition to and in conjunction with the associated phenomenon of corporate welfare, another variety of massive state intervention to ensure the proper functioning of the glorious free market (by definition free of perilous state intervention, or something).

Here in Australia, pump-priming of the free market through overt state intervention in defence of the principle that the market was best left to its own devices meant that we were singularly fortunate in missing the worst of the crisis — that time. But Rudd and his team of neoliberal technocrats knew as well as everyone else that the worst was not over.

But wait, you say, what has this got to do with Hockey’s speech in April 2014? Besides, the fact remains that the economy needs our help to get through this difficult time. Dwelling on recent history and facts that exist outside of the frame of reference of Hockey’s ideological pronouncements merely give aid to the naysayers and layabouts — precisely the kind of people Hockey was complaining about in his speech.

Lets think about that for a moment. The uniform response on the part of governments around the world to the GFC of 2007 was state intervention in the form of massive bailouts for those who caused the crisis. This was a massive bonus for the shoddiest work carried out by anyone anywhere on the planet. Who was fired or went to jail? No-one. Who was handed a massive cash windfall for almost crashing the global economy? Everyone.

As Hockey commented where the general phenomenon of entitlement was concerned, ‘entitlement is a concept that corrodes the very heart of the process of free enterprise that drives our economies’. To his mind, ‘equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome’ was his preferred model for contemporary society. In other words, the ‘simple and proven formula’ behind the modern capitalist economy would provide, so long as all were free to realise the Thatcherite principle that some could ‘grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so’.

A double standard was apparent here to the extent that the global response to the GFC demonstrated resoundingly that some could grow taller than others – not because of anything they did but because they had the ability to exercise such a grip over the institutions of popular governance that they could be rewarded for almost crashing the global economy.

This ‘simple and proven formula’ in this instance was the equality of opportunity among bankers and financiers to enjoy preferential treatment. From this perspective, the reason why Hockey might not have cared to focus on equality of outcomes is obvious: the outcomes in this case not only did not promote equality, but rather perpetuated and deepened inequality, as well as the power imbalances to which such inequalities give rise.

This was all the more true if economic and social inequality was a root cause of the crisis in the first place, especially to the extent that the capture and domination of the political process by vested interests in the western democracies weakened the regulatory safeguards protecting the public from perpetrators of casino capitalism — ‘leaners’, in Hockey’s preferred parlance.

The same was likewise true of major parties in countries like Australia, all of whom adopted and implements neoliberal ideology despite their supposedly deep and bitterly contested differences.

And in fact, in reality it is the history associated with the rise of neoliberalism that begs the question as to the role a sense of entitlement plays in corroding what Hockey described as ‘the very heart of the process of free enterprise that drives our economies’. As the policies enacted during the financial crisis at the very least demonstrate, the process of free enterprise clearly refers to the policy of socialism for the rich behind quantitative adjustment, and market discipline for the rest of us.

The real question then pertains to the corrosion — or better yet, corruption — at the very heart of the economy.

Such corruption is patent in the pretext for Hockey cites for austerity measures at home, especially since the measures he proposes to further restrict access to welfare for the poor and underprivileged punishes and penalizes the victims of a global economy so chaotic that some can bring it almost to its knees and be rewarded for it. This type of victim blaming is a classic facet of what social psychologists call moral disengagement.

Another facet of moral disengagement is playing the victim. In order to avoid having to be held account to his own subscription to the failed policies of neoliberalism, Hockey twists things around to make it appear as though he and the vested interests he represents are being oppressed. Simply by being held to account for the consequences of their actions (or inaction) by a public that insists on distinguishing between criticism and attack.

This goes a long way towards explaining why, in seeking to establish a rationale for austerity, Hockey conflates compassion for the underprivileged and vulnerable with unmerited leniency towards cultures of permissiveness. It’s a device that masks and enables the culture of permissiveness that underwrites the extremist neoliberal economic and social policies he embraces.

According to Hockey’s morally disengaged logic, then, to desire or advocate any kind of social protections for the unwaged, the sick, the aged, Indigenous people, refugees, full-time and casualised workers and many other groups who need help in getting by in the face of the fallout from the unprosecuted and rewarded criminal misdeeds of various Wall Street bankers and global financiers is tantamount to taking a permissive attitude towards the Veruca Salt character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This is not merely deeply offensive to the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, it is patently insane.

Adding further insult to injury in this bizarre conflation of compassion and permissiveness, Hockey added in his original speech that, ‘as a democratically elected legislator I want to give my constituents everything they wish for,’ though lamenting at the same time that this position meant that ‘the hardest task in life is to say NO to someone you care about’.

Truer words have never been spoken where Hockey’s wealthy constituents are concerned. His paternalistic attitude towards his less privileged ones – talking down to them as if in demanding the right to not go hungry or homeless was no different to the narcissistic and entitled tantrums of Veruca Salt – did not suggest that he cared very much about them at all.

One could well be forgiven for feeling that such a haughty and bellicose display of militant ignorance and contempt for the rights and welfare of others was strongly indicative of a sense of entitlement all of Hockey’s very own.

With alarm bells again starting to sound about the corporeal integrity of the global economy, such a sense of entitlement is characteristic of the stubborn refusal of those who dominate the economy and politics to reflect on their own part in the emergence of catastrophes. The same is also true of their attitude towards the social change needed to deal with the systemic causes of social and economic crisis.

Hockey can play the victim and blame the unrestrained and unregulated global casino capitalism all he wants. He will still be basing his response to the very real problems associated with the global economy on a strategy that encourages economic and social responsibility for the average Australian who has no power over the economy, while letting those who are more than happy to take responsibility when there are quantitative adjustments to be doled out utterly off the hook.

Victimising the socially vulnerable and even average workers struggling under the daunting conditions of the present undermines the culture of concern for others – that is, the compassion and solidarity that binds society together. It perpetuates in a singularly entitled and permissive manner an ideological program that actively embraces, encourages and enables an age of entitlement.

Ben Debney

Ben Debney is a doctoral candidate in history at Western Sydney University and author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan 2020). His current research examines the role of Othering in the ideological history of the climate emergency.

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