The past few years have been full of lessons. Ever since the spread of what might broadly be termed right-populism (Trump, Brexit, Hanson: all those familiar symbols), what was initially horror-struck confusion in progressive circles has coalesced into general agreement around the terms of the problem: the left has burrowed too snugly into its comfort zone of urban cosmopolitanism, and has abandoned the material concerns of those disenfranchised by late-stage capitalism. The resulting vacuum has proved fruitful for the right wing of politics, which has eagerly vocalised – and, in many cases, racialised – these concerns.
The lesson for the left, then, is to reclaim some of this turf. Start listening to the so-called deplorables, and offer solutions that speak to their grievances. We have all read this opinion piece, over and over again. And yet for all the talk, there has been little discussion of what this mode of organising actually looks like on the ground. What are the nuances and challenges of left-wing organising in poor communities, and what are the lessons we can take from it in future?
It’s a bright January Saturday morning and the Anti-Poverty Network Queensland is hosting its first official event, the Logan Community Day. Inside a small, low-ceilinged community centre, about a dozen stalls are set up. The event is intended to provide a kind of one-stop shop for accessing housing, legal, employment, training and advocacy services. People mill around the stalls, stopping to talk with the service providers. They fill canvas tote bags at the food bank. A large group of parents and grandparents, most of whom don’t speak English, wait patiently while their kids go for free dental checks. At midday, the organisers set up a BBQ around the side of the building and serve sausages for lunch.
The event is unremarkable in many ways: prosaic, even. There are no speeches or forums shot through with the glamour of jargon. There are no charismatic academics or candidates. But that’s sort of the point. The APN is a welfare justice organisation – they provide advice and representation to people struggling with Centrelink, and campaign for a raise to the Newstart allowance and against the cashless welfare card. ‘It’s about creating this network of organisations that are actually capable of challenging the power of the state,’ organiser Feargal McGovern tells me. ‘And making people’s lives better. Talking the good politics, but walking it as well.’ Essentially, the APN wants to be ‘a union for the unemployed; an organisation of people in poverty helping other people in poverty.’
What does poverty look like in the world’s ninth wealthiest country in 2018? Helen,* attending the Logan Community Day for legal advice, spent fifteen years in a state orphanage. Since the finalisation of her claim for recognition as a Forgotten Australian, she’s had problems with Medicare. She waited two years for a healthcare concession card. Her disability claim has been stuck in limbo for a year and a half. ‘Every time I’m on the phone I get angry, because I feel like I’m retraumatised all the time,’ she tells me, tears sliding down her cheeks. ‘I just feel like I’m still that little girl in the orphanage, and I’m a number.’
Victoria, who volunteers with APN, is about to move suburbs to avoid the roll-out of the cashless welfare card in her area. Once she’s on the card, it will follow her wherever she moves. ‘I sort of worry about the future,’ she tells me. ‘Me being stuck on the card, and what impacts it will have on my future. I want a job, and I also want to do more study…’ As a man filling a bag at the food bank says, ‘We’re wise enough to spend money. It’s freedom-restricting, that’s not part of democracy, is it?’
‘We know what it’s like to struggle,’ another woman tells me. ‘It’s no good turning around and saying: all these people are a burden on society. Well, if that’s the case I’ve been a burden most of my life. Because I got married, and I had a family, and I’ve just been a stay-at-home mum. And I’m a grandmother now. That’s still work! That’s unpaid work. So how about the government start paying and backdating all these stay-at-home mums? All politicians should take a cut on what they earn, on what they give themselves.’
A few weeks after the Logan Community Day, I accompany APN organisers to one of their weekly stalls outside the Woodridge Centrelink. We hand out flyers to people walking past: ‘Stop the cashless welfare card!’ A man with tattoos snaking up his arms and neck, accompanied by his pregnant partner and a small daughter in a pram, scans the flyer. ‘Oh shit yeah,’ he says. He and his partner stop to sign the petition against the card. Three kids, riding scooters down the footpath, ask us what we’re doing and we explain. ‘Oh,’ says one. ‘Yeah, we’ve got welfare on our backs.’ A few minutes later they reappear and ask if they can help us hand out. We give them stacks of flyers and they’re off down the street. One boy, who tells us he’s been suspended from school for fighting, marches up to passersby and says in a clear, ringing voice, ‘Stop the war on the poor!’
Those of us involved with political organising often harbour the belief that we are more politically aware than others; that the ‘ordinary people’ who exist outside our theoretical and organisational worlds are apathetic, or apolitical, or unenlightened. I have never found this to be particularly true. Like many people, those I met in Logan had lost faith in politics, but they were highly politicised. They had a keen awareness of their subjectivity in relation to the various institutions that structure their lives: Centrelink, the police, the state in all its variously indifferent and punitive manifestations. They were unashamed of being poor, because they understood poverty as the production of a brutal and unjust system.
When you know the system is stacked against you, any articulation against it sounds appealing. One Nation received thirty per cent of the primary vote in Logan at the 2017 Queensland State Election. APN organisers often meet people who profess their support for Hanson. ‘But,’ says Feargal, ‘if you really listen to the reasons why they’re going for Pauline Hanson, you see that they’ve come to the same realisation we did. It’s just that they didn’t have the same solution in front of them. We had Marx, they had Pauline. They’ll tell you, I don’t agree with everything she says. But she’s real.’
Here it is, then: the challenge of all those opinion pieces. How do you win over the person who never had Marx, but does have Pauline? A shop owner in Woodridge called Feargal up after seeing an APN flyer about the cashless welfare card. She asked him to bring a petition to her shop, so she could collect signatures. ‘I don’t want this cashless card,’ she told him, ‘because it’ll mean that all the Aboriginals are going to steal from my shop!’
It’s the kind of racist statement that awakens, for many of us, the instinct to scold. But while ‘calling out’ someone’s racism feels good (or at least righteous) in the moment, it’s highly unlikely to change their mind. ‘You need to create something people want to buy into,’ says Feargal, ‘and people don’t want to buy into being made to feel like dirt. They’re already made to feel like dirt because they’re poor.’ Instead, the APN emphasises common interests: ‘You focus on the fact that it’s about welfare, and in the end, we’re all connected. What hurts one, hurts all.’ Starting from this position of commonality, they find, is a far more effective avenue for challenging people’s views on race. When people complain to APN organisers about ‘the Muslims’, their tactic is to articulate a common enemy: ‘Are the Muslims cutting your Centrelink payments? Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott and all that lot – are they Muslims? No, and that’s who’s cutting your payments off!’
This is a strategy open to heavy criticism from a Left preoccupied with prejudice and privilege. The Woodridge shop owner, for instance, was not made to confront her own racism. She didn’t consider the colonisation and dispossession that Aboriginal people have undergone for centuries, and still undergo today. But she was, crucially I think, prompted to recognise an instance in which her interests were aligned with theirs. In doing so, she took the first step toward what we might call solidarity with Aboriginal people, with migrants and asylum seekers, with all those dismissed as burdens on society. Everything else grows from there.
Contemporary left politics, it sometimes seems, is capable of interrogating every kind of disadvantage except that of class. We are afraid of fetishising, or of saying or doing something that would deem us ‘problematic’ (the word itself a death-knell in left-wing circles). The SBS documentary Struggle Street, one of the only mainstream media efforts to showcase the realities of poverty in Australia, was widely vilified as ‘poverty porn’. As Mark Fisher wrote, ‘the petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic [of class] even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it.’
This disproportionate squeamishness does, I think, conceal fear, although not of stigmatisation. Perhaps it’s the fear of confronting our own weakness: how helpless the left has become in the face of poverty, and how far we have drifted from the people who confront it as their reality every day. Somewhere along the line, they found Pauline instead. Meanwhile (and perhaps not coincidentally) we became woke, and the spectre of decidedly un-woke attitudes, especially on race, now looms large. But political organising doesn’t have to be (in fact, arguably shouldn’t be) based on attitudes. It’s in the material conditions of people’s lives – the things they’re already experts on, things they don’t need to be persuaded to care about – where there is common ground for an ideological left turn. The challenge, in executing this turn, is to build an organising model based on mutual interests, on building solidarity, and on politicising poverty without fear.
*Names have been changed.
Image: Eloise Fuss / ABC RN