Our journalism usually sits behind a paywall, but we believe this is the time to make more of our content freely available to as many readers as possible. For more free coverage, sign up to COVID-19 Watch.
Anthony Albanese Labor
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The Morrison government’s announcement of free childcare has prompted another round, amidst miserable circumstances, of deep gloating about the direction that politics and economics has taken.

The mild proposals by Labor that were described as “communism” have been swamped by a range of measures that have abolished the political claim of scarcity altogether. Many of these have been designed specifically to hold things in place at all cost. It’s only when there is no real alternative — such as a six-month ban on evictions (at the state level) — that radical measures emerge.

The free childcare measure is one of those. People who see it as some bold policy leap should consider that there was really no alternative.

But as these unavoidable moves pile up, it does seem that it will steadily become more difficult to wind back such measures once this is all over.

One suspects that’s especially so with childcare, because our childcare system is one of the worst in the world — expensive, patchy, poorly organised; an avoidable disaster the product of its privatisation and then an “industry”-wide crash with ABC Childcare, the corporation/cult heavily enmeshed with the Liberal Party.

Childcare costs are part of the distinctly Australian squeeze, in which millions are told they’re earning high wages in a uniquely booming and robust economy, yet only see that money flow out in the other direction on non-discretionary costs — overpriced housing, power, comms, and childcare.

The system is a racket, and everyone knows its a racket, but it’s just that bit short of dysfunctional to avert actual political damage. Indeed, it can be played for advantage. Because no systemic alternative is offered, the Coalition reaps political benefit from the neoliberal squeeze it imposes by offering tax cuts, and ekes out narrow victories in swing seats. The advantage of such quickly evaporates because prices are raised to adjust, and round it goes.

Labor never offered a real alternative to this squeeze, which is why it has spent a quarter century mostly out of power, and not even setting the agenda from opposition.

Even though the 2008 global crash made it clear that the system would be perpetually prone to ever greater crises, and even though the subsequent “recovery” was largely composed of quantitative easing money and waves of automation, embedding structural underemployment, Labor failed to commit to a process of reinventing social democracy, and developing a centre-left approach to transforming how we live and work.

Instead, both right and left committed to a conventional growth-and-work capitalist economic base, still based around the useless measure of GDP, and no reduction in the working week.

Right-left stability pacts then dictated a series of bolted-on policy initiatives demanded by the left as the price of their acquiescence to right control. But these had no linking narrative, so they looked like a series of isolated big-ticket spends and tax grabs, with no underlying logic.

When that disastrous state helped Labor lose the last election, the right of the party took its chance to repudiate these initiatives and move to become a Liberal clone, in the hope that it could crawl back into power due to Scomo’s incompetence.

Well now look, now look. The virus itself has repudiated the type of capitalism Labor has been spending its political capital to sell, and Scott Morrison has reaped the reward. Morrison looks like a leader, because he has become a leader. That’s undeniable.

The early hesitations and the fumbles a la Ruby Princess have been bad, but hardly unusual the world over.

The lack of personal protective equipment and essential supplies is bad, but won’t play as catastrophic. The essence of leadership is audacity of action, followed by fidelity to the course of action you’ve taken.

If very forceful lockdowns by state governments have flattened the curve, and the sequence of JobKeeper initiatives and beyond have saved hundreds of thousands of households from fear and penury, then Morrison has become the sort of leader people put pictures of up over the fireplace.

Labor is… uh, I dunno. Quite aside from doing the right thing in an emergency, what’s the plan? You won’t find it in Jim Chalmers’s op-ed in The Guardian, which is two-thirds boilerplate “time of testing” guff, and one-third PowerPoint blather.

Having suggested we need radical new thinking, Chalmers then gives us “six pillars” of recovery (“prosperity”, “opportunity”, “sustainability”, etc), which offer nothing by way of analysis of the predicament we’re in.

Having been the loudest voice after the 2019 defeat for having no new ideas at all, Chalmers is now desperate to get himself ahead of the parade that’s started. Usual desperate pollie-trick. Danger is, if you’re out of step, you’ll get trampled on.

The crucial and telling misstep is the “prosperity” point. Should this process continue for months — until end of June as announced by the NSW Police (and why the hell are the NSW Police announcing these things?) — then what exactly “prosperity” is will come into question.

For decades, Western publics have been conscripted into a no-choice lifestyle of long working hours, steadily rising costs and the impoverishment of public services, all leavened with a series of overpriced consumer pseudo-choices, to give the appearance of freedom, and deepen indebtedness.

No major party has offered an alternative, and the union movement has been too dozy to do so since Laurie Carmichael last tried in the 1980s.

Now? Now that’s all happened for millions of people in a rush. For those working from home, the very shape of work has changed. All those hours you were deprived of in the time poverty of “prosperity”? Here they are, all at once. The regimented pseudo-factory discipline of office life — three hours work spread over nine hours’ office presence — are exposed as bogus.

Despite the many irritations of lockdowns, people are slowly rediscovering what the day looks like when it’s a mix of work, free time, non-commodified necessary activity (i.e. childcare), and free life-activity. People are cooking more, doing gardening, DIY, and much more.

You can see why the powers-that-be hate it. Because this is communism. Communism is collective free time and free life-activity, and nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. A communist dimension has entered daily life, and it will only continue to develop and transform our thinking about how we should live beyond the crisis.

That would involve some working out of how “regimented” and “non-regimented” jobs are worked out, and how we start to distinguish ongoing essential work from non-essential. But since the alternative is being marched back into bullshit overproduction for less money, it seems worth a try.

Jim Chalmers, with his prosperity gospel, is trying on John Curtin’s clothes, quoting Stuart MacIntyre’s great study of Labor’s post-war reconstruction. But that was a democratic socialist industrial growth strategy for an underdeveloped country.

Simply aping that doesn’t make Labor now the new Curtins and Chifleys; it makes them the backward right of the party (mostly from Queensland) who wanted business-as-usual, and fought the Marxist-influenced Curtin, and the native radical Chifley, every step of the way.

Morrison’s political strategy is obvious. Having led audacious moves in a “special period”, he will now make the “snap-back” to normality part of the leadership deal. Labor’s only chance is to have a real alternative, which talks about what life is, what we can have, and how things can be done differently.

The Greens too, need to push this hard. Where’s the books and manifestos, Greens? The leadership is now composed of people, when I knew them, whose idea of fun was to read a 600-page commentary on Althusser’s interpretation of Spinoza.

There’s no excuse now for not getting a book out, and other materials, about where we should go from here. If the Greens can’t do that now, we’ll know they got lost in the long march through the institutions.

Something has happened, and political acts like freeing up childcare are a response to it. Those who want a more radical result from this crisis need to build on the great interruption. This may be a distinct event. Or COVID-20 may be here in two years time, followed by climate change.

Change is either a great opportunity for a better life, or a necessity for any sort of future life at all.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

What will be left? What do you want to be left?

I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

Demand for what we do is running high. Thank you. You can help us even more by encouraging others to subscribe — or by subscribing yourself if you haven’t already done so.

If you like what we do, please subscribe.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

Support us today