To Fight Racism, We Need To Craft A Better ‘We’ And Ditch The ‘Us’ And ‘Them’

By Tim Hollo September 22, 2016

This was first published at The Guardian

Pauline Hanson didn’t appear out of a vacuum. Like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, she is a reaction to trends in our society, economy and politics. Their type of nasty firebrand always exists, but they receive greater support at times when people who feel disconnected, disenchanted and disenfranchised are looking for a sense of unity, searching for a “we”.

This is the one thing that Hanson, and those who call for us to understand her and her voters, get right. Our current political and economic system is tearing us apart; it is driving disconnection and disenfranchisement; it is, in fact, designed to benefit a tiny elite at the expense of everybody else.

But the “we” that Hanson and her ilk provide is a negative, exclusive one. It is a sense of identity framed against a scary other. Asians or Muslims, gays or greenies, refugees or Indigenous people: the target can vary, but the frame is the same. “Our” way of life is under threat from “them”.

The challenge for those of us who oppose her is not just to respond to her – though we must stand up to and reject her racism. Nor is it even to respond to her voters. Our challenge is to respond to the circumstances which created her by building a more compelling alternative.

Our challenge is to craft a better “we”.

Critically, this is not a communications task. It’s not about working out how to speak better to people, or how to respond to misinformation. It’s actually about changing our society, economy and politics to be truly inclusive and for the benefit of all – humans and the natural world we are one small part of.

When viewed that way, crafting a better “we” is an enormous task. But it is one which is full of opportunity.

At its heart is work. Never in the modern age has work been as precarious as it is today. Automation threatens not just jobs like manufacturing and check outs but also white collar jobs such as legal advice and anaesthetics. The rise of contract and casual work everywhere from cleaning services to academia makes work highly precarious for those who have it and increases the divide between those who are overworked and those who are underemployed.

These forces combine to increase alienation, with people becoming disconnected from their jobs, feeling like governments do nothing to protect them, succumbing to an us-against-them mentality of blaming others in our society rather than the corporations and governments who enable this to happen.

We can and must look at big picture and innovative responses to this challenge. One option often raised is a universal basic income, which would rewrite the relationship between employees and employers, give people confidence and flexibility, and reinvigorate the idea that we are all in this together.

Ideally going hand in hand with this, mandating a shorter working week would see us both share work more fairly and grapple better with work-life balance, which seems to have gone out the window recently.

Another idea in this area is supporting cooperatives, putting workers’ jobs into their own hands.

Then there’s the challenge of reclaiming our politics, our public spaces, our very sense of the “public”, from corporate takeover. This goes far deeper than simply corporate donations to politicians, which one scandal too many has finally put on the agenda. It needs to disentangle the entire web.

One of the most egregious and obvious examples has been the way international trade negotiations have been handed over to private interests. The peak of this trend is investor state dispute resolution, allowing companies to sue governments in a way which individual citizens could never dream of. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the ever increasing handover of public space to private interests through advertising. How about declaring advertising free zones and removing the tax deduction for spending on ads?

Then there’s the way our schools, universities and research institutions are increasingly being run as profit-driven entities, training the next generation of workers and inventing new goods for sale, rather than as public institutions valuing knowledge for its own sake. This needs to be reversed by providing both sufficient funds and the appropriate remit to focus on educating citizens and researching for the public good.

If we want to look really deep, let’s challenge the very concept of corporate personhood, which enables companies’ rights often to trump those of people, and certainly to overrule any rights of nature. If BHP Billiton is a legal person, why shouldn’t the Great Barrier Reef be one, too? Should either of them?

Another central task is learning how to live in – and design – cities which enable people to come together, instead of living next to each other in closed boxes. How can we support communities to thrive within cities and towns? How can we ensure that urban infill is done in a sensitive manner that generates positive community feeling and protects the environment? How can we ensure affordable and accessible housing that benefits communities rather than developers? How can we enable a true sharing economy to develop, where we hold things in common rather than retreat to individual ownership of everything?

There are numerous ideas and models being implemented around the world, from “Buy Nothing” groups to tool libraries, from food gardens to repair cafes, from banning developer donations to supporting cooperative housing developments.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives a flavour of how “we” can beat Senator Hanson by creating a more compelling alternative.

Importantly, it can’t – and won’t – happen through politics as usual. Many of these ideas have to be implemented by communities at the level of communities.

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