IT'S 3 PM-ISH, mid-February, I'm at the corner of Collins and Swanston streets in Melbourne, my hometown. I walk the heart of city that I've been away from for twenty years. This means wheeling and dodging through a continuous human flow, making for the giant mausoleum of 'government rail', Flinders Street Station. I need to catch a train to the suburban rental I've just moved into, a small post-war veneer at the end of the 'Sandy' (Sandringham) line. Working at a university allows me sometimes to go home at odd hours.
None of this matches my memory. The city streets should be largely empty at this time, the quiet prelude to the sudden flux of rush-hour, when workplaces disgorge their human contents in a brief, intense whirl that empties out through the city rail hubs and carries the flow to the suburban dormitories from whence it came. Think John Brack's monochrome, hatted platoons of the 1950s, in lockstep for Flinders at 5 pm; a quick intervening swill before six and the rackety, lolling journey home.
It was like that still when I started at the Reserve Bank in Collins Street in 1981; a city of clerks, typists and managers that worked to a scripted ritual of movement pivoted on Flinders Street Station; the hulking great portal to the suburbs. The only break from the script was the long and cherished social habit of meeting 'under the clocks'; these defunct Edwardian timepieces on the station's façade presided lifelessly over the time-frozen ritual of appointment and disappointment.
But that was then, and this now seems very different.
Today, Swanston Street and its surrounds are surging, coursing, whorling with a Hogarthian multitude. A polyglot tide: amongst which my quick eye counts beggars, buskers, students, bushies, crazies, tourists, pensioners, ice-junkies, spruikers and kids-not-at-school. The furious striding of the ice-freaks seems to parody the self-important rushing of the suits. There seems something almost carnivalesque about this restless troupe of players, passers and onlookers. To move through its flows and emplacements, towards a destination, is to pinball through, weaving, bouncing, and pushing on. A sense of performing, not just walking: watching, averting, 'no-thanksing' and always watching-where-you-are-going.
Eventually I get where I am going. To find Flinders Street Station a heaving ants' nest of human intensity – no longer the simple concourse of commuter flows, separated by quiet idylls. I fondly recall the little congregations that set forth between the great tidal commuter flows: nuns with leather suitcases, restless hatted diggers on the go, young people made up for job interviews, and, of course, the ageing dollies heading in pairs, sometimes threesomes, for fashionable places; Georges department store, Myer's cafeteria or the tearooms in the Block Arcade. My grandmother amongst them. A settled order, ritualistically disrupted by intrusions of children and mothers on school holidays, hooligans on weekend nights and footy fans on Saturday afternoons. Pictorialised rituals of joy and disruption: kids on hols heading for the pictures, ruffians running wild after the AC/DC concert, scarfed footy supporters streaming to pubs and grounds. It kept the papers – especially the now-deceased Sun News-Pictorial – busy.
Today I can't even sense the ghosts of this recent era, so thoroughly does it seem washed away by the churning human sea around me. The earlier simple play of discrete flows is replaced by what seems a madman's choreography; impressive but unsettling, an effusion of complex, intersecting, overlapping urgencies and claims. Where once was scheduled expectation is a roiling, unpredictable cauldron of urgent assignments, aching antipathies, signed complaints, bristling claims and…most tellingly, glowering anger. What strikes me most in this new urban bazaar are the shimmering stares of fury, the mouldering odours of resentment.
A WEEK LATER I'm on a suburban train, about the same time of day, which in my previous life would have been skeletally inhabited. This day it was fully stocked, almost exclusively by castaways and castoffs busily journeying in their own marginal choreographies of survival, graft and gain. Children, drugs, litter, booze, graffiti and flickering death stares. The testosterone of exclusion and payback ached through the carriage. As a male it was necessary to aver; roll over and refuse the gaze of the angry; a gauntlet to who-knows-what kind of public scene. If you're hurting, scarred and choked, it must feel good – like bawling your lungs out – to stare down a middle class interloper in your world, the train system. In a curious introversion of the times, Melbourne's privatised public transport now styles these outcasts as 'customers'; though it's doubtful that many have paid for the service. Homo Economicus would be lonely here; and probably not safe.
My local papers are full of grotesquery about assaults and robberies on trams and trains. Soaring anxiety about safety on public transport is a major state political issue. Victoria's Police Superintendent points out sternly, 'criminals use trains and stations as key transport hubs'. The coalition government has released legions of new 'protective services officers' into the system to turn back the tide of malfeasance. So far there are 362 of them and more to come. The PSOs swagger about in defensive troops policing an impossible beat; a public realm swarming with the desperate and the choiceless, never mind the customer rhetoric. At certain times of the day it's effectively the U-Bahn of the underclass.
Public unease with the system is deepened by the seemingly ubiquitous presence of people with mental health issues. If you travel the trains, trams and buses enough, even infrequently, you will encounter the broken dream of deinstitutionalisation. Like the scruffy, wild-eyed man on the tram with me and many students en route to uni recently who raved loudly about fighting us all, then suddenly rushed away terrified when confronted by a large confident male passenger. Or the savant, who unsettled us on the train the other day with his roaring, clever gibberish that covered everything from a complex, impossible genealogy to the frontiers of science. It all stopped suddenly when he jumped up and alighted, rushing to god-knows-where; provoking an only slightly less eccentric bag lady to roar, 'Thank god the madman is off the train!' A moment of uneasy, shared levity, before heads were lowered again to phones, papers and the places of silent withdrawal.
In my book, Australian Heartlands (Allen & Unwin, 2006), I argued that we were seeing the collapse of the public realm, of shared spaces, structures, institutions and even outlooks. The drift to a divided social geography and civic mindset was witnessed in the declining quality and confidence of public services, civic spaces, and mirrored in the rise of 'privatopias', gated residential estates, exclusive schools, user-pay services and the like.
I cast the drift as malign neglect; a 'war on terra publica', deliberately engineered by the Howard administration, which was explicit in its enthusiasm for the 'aspirationals' and in its scorn for losers. But of course, this was merely an episode in a much longer malaise, started in the Hawke-Keating reforms which breached the notions of solidarity, redistribution and universalism that had defined progressive thought and purpose in the post-war era. Thatcher and Reagan had set the course with punitive, often heartless force. In Australia, a Labor Government fashioned its own version of what the geographer David Harvey calls, 'neoliberalism with a human face'. The space of government, of collective ownership, was radically pruned, and collective consumption needs increasingly met through a subsidised market. The neoliberal prophets foretold a new era of universal prosperity and propriety founded in market discipline.
Unfortunately, the poor remained biblically with us.
One problem is that ever-lingering need for public subsidy. Markets don't provide for the needs of the poor. It's not in their DNA. So it's up to a harried, electorally driven state to prop up this end of provision. Not surprisingly, the government sector itself joins the public conversation about the burdensome poor. A long spiral of administrative tightening and constant 'entitlement policing' ensues. This tends to residualise, even criminalise, the social left-overs and undermine collective solidarity.
HOW TO DEFINE and count the social residuum of neoliberalism? What British philosopher Zygmunt Bauman terms the 'collateral damage' of the world order that succeeded post-war social democracy. Do we count the army of mostly middle-aged men cashiered to the disability pension? The huge reservoir of underemployed and underhoused? Or should we take a narrower view: the welfare-dependent Aussies with 'high-level needs'? If the latter, we must acknowledge the loss of at least a tenth of our citizens to a miserable half-lit world of penury, insecurity and – too frequently – harm. It is also to admit that many have fallen off, or never even troubled, the welfare radar, and make do on their own somehow, driven away or 'breached' off the punitive support mechanisms with their badgering 'tests' and provisions. Cold charity; it was ever the way. You have to be remarkably strong, or remarkably despairing, to accept it. Who can blame normal people for stepping away?
A maxim of the harried welfare sector is that the poor have not become greater in proportion but certainly much greater in number. Our 'friendly neoliberalism' has prevented the kind of massive misery which Thatcher's death reminded us was common in Britain. But I suspect the welfarists moderate their message for political ears, so long blocked to the idea that injustice is real and structurally manifest in our society. Even if we accept this assessment it puts the claims of the growth fetish lobby in an interesting, not to say lurid, light. The massive growth in population and material consumption that elites and their well-paid heralds have championed over the years does not appear to have made us richer or better. In a perversion of our languishing egalitarian ideal, it has swelled the numbers of rich and poor with mechanical equality. But if we look closer, we can see a qualitative worsening of our social situation. That bottom 10 per cent has some pretty complex shit going on now. They are angry and restless.
Another little mystery for the growth lobby is that public revenue, and with it social prospects, is increasingly falling behind the demographic surge. Melbourne is experiencing rapid population expansion but the State has no money (it says) to meet growing needs adequately, largely because the same lobbies and intellectual cronies that cheer demographic enlargement decry the idea of increased public borrowing. The triple-A rating god has its arms outstretched over Melbourne like Jesus of Rio.
One of the many consequences of fiscal penury urged by the cigar chompers is the rapidly widening gulf between the levels of state support for the poor and the reality of living costs in our increasingly overcooked cities. A recent Anglicare study showed that it is now virtually impossible for welfare-dependent citizens to afford basic urban living costs, especially housing. Homelessness is growing again, and the poor are cramming together, ever more tightly, in whatever miserable housing they can find.
Despite misty-eyed enthusiasm for modish ideas like 'social mixing', the combined effect of unfettered housing markets, malnourished human services and mean labour markets is to herd the poor and the halt into urban congregations, the netherworlds of our cities from whence many of my fellow train travellers emerge each day. These shifting shadowlands include: last resort public housing estates; mouldering walk-up private flats in middle ring areas; ageing, about-to-go caravan parks; and weedy, wind-blown neighbourhoods on the edges of our cities. In a dark parody of the social mixing ideal, drug dealers share public housing towers with devout Muslim refugees; single mums and kids congregate with the angry, the disturbed and the dispossessed in 'calamity gulch' rentals on the metro fringe; disability pensioners mingle with solo dads and 'mental health consumers' in decrepit trailer parks.
FOR THE POOR, neoliberalism is a heartlessly shifting landscape. In its early stages, Australian social geographers noted, as in Britain, a trend of welfare migration to traditional coastal holiday areas on the fringes of the major cities, with their welcoming environs and pools of cheap rental housing. By the late 1990s, the aspirationals were headed for the same places for the same reasons, and priced the scruffies out, necessitating return welfare migration to metro netherworlds, like Sydney's ageing western suburbs. The Long March continues.
The election of Campbell Newman's Queensland Government in 2012 saw a threat of sale and eviction for battlers quartered in ageing urban caravan parks that had been bought by the previous Labor administration. It has to be said that Newman inherited a vast public housing waiting list and many absurd anomalies in public financing.
I was living in Brisbane at the time and recall my local paper reporting the terror (there seemed to be no other word) of the residents in the nearby Monte Carlo Caravan Park – many of them very elderly and long-term stayers. The story told how the park was their 'life'. They were described as 'distraught' and 'angry and scared, some in their eighties and nineties, now fear they will be left homeless'. Allen, an eighty-three-year-old former carpenter, was quoted as saying that the news 'hit him like one of the three strokes he's had – the most recent a month ago following open heart surgery'. He'd just finished building a one-room annexe next to his van. Another, Mr Andrews, said, 'I'll go down fighting sick as I am… We thought we were safe. I'm seventy-five… I've got emphysema. I know I'm on my way out, all I want is to wait it out here. We've got people here in wheelchairs, people here on oxygen. We've got people that are aged that even struggle to pay the rent here. Where are they going to go?' After a period of mortal stress for residents, public outcry, and the intervention of state and federal MPs, the Queensland Government decided a couple of months later to make the humane decision to maintain the park, passing its management to a not-for-profit housing provider.
Although this episode ended well, the stress along the way was enormous. It reminded me of the chronic social and economic insecurity that has been normalised in the era of neoliberalism. Think of Mr Andrews' comment that, after all he and others have been through, and given what he thought the Australian settlement was, he was safe. He learned he was not. We seem to have entered a disciplinary social order where for the poor, 'good behaviour' and constant vigilance and advocacy is the only, if partial, guarantee of security.
The same issue of the local paper that reported the 'Monte Carlo' affair carried a story with impressive pictures of a local private school that trumpeted: 'a new art and industrial design technology precinct, six new multi-purpose classrooms, a new sporting block and new basketball courts…part of [a] $10 million improvement plan.' It brought to mind Australia's great experiment in social engineering through a decades-long consensus on education policy that has favoured and bribed private provision. This began in the Whitlam era. Since then, state aid, at a level not nearly matched by any other developed nation, has created a bloated private school system, mirrored by an increasingly decrepit public system.
Public schooling is now government schooling, which in the language of today equates to public housing; a third tier sector for the less well off (behind elite and 'affordable' private schools). We don't even seem to have a language for what is going on as we traduce and trample the first substrate of our democracy. Only two-thirds of our children are in public schools now, against an OECD average of just under nine in ten. As the economics commentator Kenneth Davidson points out, the best educational performers, like Finland, have public sector participation rates far in excess of the OECD average. As Davidson argues, our socially engineered abandonment of public education undermines social solidarity, leaves government schools, like public housing, to carry the national burden of social injury, and distorts and perverts the most fundamental civic process, the education and socialisation of our young.
I SEE ALL of its consequences and possibilities in my son's local Melbourne school. It's just like the government high school he attended in Brisbane; a paradox of intention and support. Its teachers and programmes are exceptionally good, but its dilapidated facilities are an utter embarrassment and civic disgrace. Meanwhile, this suburb is studded with exquisite private schools, engorged with publicly subsidised facilities. The perversity of this sickens me. I think of the Australian Crawl song that remarks how the 'children of the government school send money for the poor'. That was 1980. It doesn't play anymore.
In the Long March of neoliberal reform we've seen the withering of historically guiding ideas of justice and equity; first rhetorically trivialised as 'programmatic concerns' in the Hawke-Keating era and then proscribed outright as leftist dogma under Howard. The waning of state concern is matched in civil society; the working class is fed Murdoch press self-loathing for losers and spongers; the middle classes seem to have unlearned entirely the crucial historical lesson of enlightened self-interest, that social abandonment will come back to bite them on the arse. The Victorian era elites learned it the hard way as industrial poverty bred epidemics and unrest that threatened rich and poor alike. Reformers pushed for a series of improvements to the basics of urban life – sanitation and housing – that checked the most lethal depredations of the industrial city.
The death urge of laissez-faire ideology was not properly suppressed until the twentieth century when a series of cataclysms, wars and depression brought class self-interest to heel. A welfare state emerged like the cashing of a giant promissory note to the working classes that had carried the struggles against privation and fascism. But nothing lasts forever; welfarism suffered its own contradictions as a freed colonial world yearned for the raw capitalism that had powered industrialism in the previous century. Laissez-faire grew again like bacillus in a newly opened wound. As 'neoliberalism', it wore new drag, but had the same misanthropic swagger. Sclerotic welfarism was cut away, but no new dispensation emerged to preserve human and natural values from market caprice. Like clockwork, unfettered markets relentlessly engineered new social divides and defaults. The only new deal was the height of ecological destruction achieved by globalised turbo capitalism.
In Australia from the 1980s, the idea of reform was turned on its head by the neoliberals, to signal a relentless march backwards towards the laissez-faire ideal and the dystopian world it created. Heaven knows what will renew awareness in our middle classes of the self-defeating consequences of division. Or what can restore this recognition to the political imagination, what is left of it. Perhaps it will be the manifest flaws of private schooling and the impositions of educational 'choice' – the ever-spiralling costs, the neurotic pedagogies, the social conformism and the attempt to impose religiosity on a sceptical populace.
OR PERHAPS IT will be on the trains. What seems compelling now is the informal, unintended social mixing occurring daily on our public transport systems. Against the long trend of segregation they join, however unhappily, the bright worlds and the netherworlds of our cities. A society pulling apart is re-sutured by the massive, creaking networks that splay across our cities. Almost every community – rich, aspirational, poor, immigrant, fatigued and wasted – is a stop on the line. When you enter 'transit world' you quickly learn to expect the unexpected; the surprising encounter is a commonplace. In recent months, Melbourne's trains were stage to a series of bizarre rants by 'ordinary Aussies', mostly women, against foreigners, mostly of colour. The tirades were captured on mobile phones and virally relayed through a global media that exulted in a new urban sensation, 'train rage'. Its surfacing suggested that while cosmopolitanism may indeed be a splendid gift of the global age, it wasn't going down too well with the frazzled punters in Struggletown.
The recent work of urban scholars Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart shows how pivotal the train systems are now to the basic functioning, indeed viability, of our increasingly congested major cities. A great shift to metro style living and moving is happening. But we are doing all this the great Australian way; cheap, market-driven production of high-density housing, with all of its predictable infirmities and contradictions, and an absurd bipartisan commitment to more pointless, eco-cidal road building. After a half-century of malign neglect, our urban public transport systems are catching a few scraps of investment but also suffering the agonies of privatisation with all of its self-defeating and costly absurdities. Tellingly, a major government interest and investment in transport is policing; the quixotic task of turning our divided citizenry into well-behaved customers. As the Americans say, good luck with that.
Back to Collins Steet 3 pm…a riot act waiting to be read. Certainly not the civic conformism of Brack's jaundiced ranks of office workers. Who would want that back again? I'm old enough that I just caught the end of a world tainted by the limitations of homogeneity and denial. I grew up in what the late Age critic Brian Courtis called 'Hector Crawford's police state'. This was when Victoria fed the national imaginary with blokey TV cop shows; craggy faces, hats and lots of biff. Courtis's late colleague Robert Haupt, considering a Victoria enriched by post-war immigration, recalled its predecessor, which he summarised as hatted men wobbling about on bicycles. This seemed a caustic but accurate epitaph for a public world that rejected women, hid the disabled and scorned wogs.
Wending my way down Swanston…I look at the human stream engulfing me, as much encouraged by the new expression of identities and strange bodies, as disconcerted by its transport of hurt and denial. Where did the 'city of clerks' go? One explanation is that it was simply carried away by the massive population growth that has occurred since I was a child. I vaguely recall learning the national population figure of thirteen million, somewhere late in school. Since then we have added 10 million others, in the demographic blink of an eye – almost all of them in the cities. This human tsunami has brought an ever-widening set of cultures to our shores. This certainly explains something, but not everything.
The dictum of neoliberalism is growth. We've followed the rule assiduously. Population has swelled, land has been gobbled, resources dug, cooked and sold, and all the rest of it. One big, never-debated problem, however, is that there simply isn't enough work to go around. As German sociologist Ulrich Beck observes, capitalism's greatest success – productivity – is also its greatest failure. Despite all the blaming, hectoring, work-choicing and so forth, there simply isn't enough to do. The labour market doesn't actually need you, baby. And we have no concept of social value beyond employment. That argument was lost a long time ago.
If you're not in work, you're buggered. In Melbourne, you're on Collins Street…at 3 pm.