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Social change based on the ‘view from below’

December 22, 2010

in Poverty & Inequality

By John Falzon

God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change the world.
To know the need for it.
To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without
understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.
Amen.
–Michael Leunig

Let’s call a spade a spade. People who are doing it tough are considered fair game. Why else would we find it politically insignificant that since 1996 the unemployment benefit has fallen from around 54 per cent to 45 per cent of the after-tax minimum wage. As Peter Whiteford, from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre writes:

… the latest OECD Economic Survey of Australia had declared that Australia’s unemployment benefits are too low. I can’t recall the OECD ever before saying that a country’s unemployment benefits weren’t generous enough — and I worked there for eight years … In fact, for a single person at the average wage losing their job, Australian benefits are about the lowest in the OECD.

Instead of addressing the fundamentals of income adequacy, successive federal governments have focused on the construct of individual inadequacy.

The implication is that people on the fringes of the economy are morally wayward and/or wanting in capacity. The answer is said to lie in fixing the problems in people’s lives from above. Hence paternalistic policies such as compulsory income management rather than income adequacy or equitable access to essentials such as housing or education and training.

The source of personal disadvantage and exclusion, however, is the growth of inequality.

Many of us working for social change are challenging the myths of ‘welfare dependency’ as part of the ‘view from above’ that completely misses the guts of the problem. It is time to build a new political vision based on the view from below.

The personal is political. These words went from being the title of Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay to being one of the most important insights not only for feminism but for all who are committed to progressive social justice and social change.

Changing the world is as deeply personal as it is broadly collective. I have had the joy of knowing many women and men who engage in the daily practice of learning the ‘art of gentle revolution’, to use Leunig’s beautiful coinage. I love listening to their stories and watching them at work on the project of building a new society.

What distinguishes these people from those who seek to impose solutions from above? They see themselves as perpetual students. Many read voraciously. All make it their habit to listen to, and learn from, the people in our midst who are crushed by the structures of inequality. They listen, and reflect together on how the political emerges in the heart of the personal.

It is a two-way movement though. The political is at the base of the concrete conditions in which a person lives. Their lives are bound by economic, social and legislative structures. But the analysis of these conditions gives rise to a personal commitment to change them.

This all sounds very simple. It is! It is simpler to tackle the social problems than to try to manage them in an attempt to salvage a crumbling status quo.

This is a radical agenda.

As radical as the Incarnation! In the language of the Gospel of John, God has pitched a tent among us. This incredible reality, reflected in the image of the vulnerable Christ-child born on the edges of Bethlehem, is a whisper from the edge that another kind of world is possible.

Not far from Bethlehem is the city of Ramallah (pictured). Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti wrote a memoir, I Saw Ramallah, about his return visit there from exile. It is described by the late Edward Said as ‘one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement we now have’.

What I loved about this tender recollection is the poet’s view from below, his unmistakable love for, and desire to be educated by, the oppressed people on the ground.

He is given the rock-star treatment accorded poets in Palestine when they are able to crystallise the collective experience in their poetry. But his eyes are on the people. At one stage he is asked: ‘What is the most beautiful thing you saw since you returned to the homeland?’ He replies: ‘Your faces.’

Similarly, Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel prize-winner, describes in his memoir the period in the 1940s when he was writing his monumental Canto General and reading his poems to mass meetings of workers throughout his country:

My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of the Lora coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight on the fiery nitrate field, as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his terrible work, his eyes inflamed by the dust, and stretching his rough hand out to me, a hand whose calluses and lines trace the map of the pampas, he said to me, his eyes shining: ‘I have known you for a long time, my brother.’ That is the laurel crown for my poetry.

I have known you for a long time, my brother. These words, spoken by the unnamed miner, turn the dominant logic on its head. Instead of focusing on what the powerful see from above, it tells, with grace and simplicity, what is seen from below.

In both stories we see echoes of the Incarnation. We hear the whispers from the edge that another kind of world is possible. More than this, we get a feel for how this whole thing works. As Dylan Thomas wrote: ‘A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe.’

In a sense, our ‘good poem’ is precisely the listening to, and learning from, the people on the margins. They are the Christ-child we go before in humility.

But it will only be a ‘good poem’ if these whispers from the edge are translated into collective action for social justice and social change. Then the personal does indeed become political and the political becomes intensely personal. Our relentless critique of existing reality is not an academic exercise but an activity of love, an audacious building of a new society.

We are called to hope against all hope in joining in this mission. We know what we’re up against but we also know we are utterly compelled to do something. We’re up to our elbows, up to our principles, in sadness and love.

It is time to stop managing social problems instead of genuinely solving them. As Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s comrade-in-arms, put it: ’The future will be different if we make the present different.’

Let’s return to the example of income inadequacy; an example that clearly cries out for justice. Peter Whiteford argues:

This problem is not going to go away, and it is not going to resolve itself on its own. Current policies are simply going to make the problem more difficult to deal with if decisions are postponed. It is worthwhile remembering that following its election in March 1983, one of the first initiatives of the Hawke Government was to increase the rate of unemployment benefits, recognising that lack of consistent indexation had made these payments inadequate. It’s time the current government recognised that unemployment payments need to be increased.

Members of my organisation, the St Vincent de Paul Society, tell me they are coming face to face with the reality of this unaddressed problem every day. Everyone knows that we, and many other NGOs, will always be around to help ameliorate the effects of bad public policy. The truth of the matter, however, is that, as Whiteford says, this problem is not going to go away.

Radical change is required if we are to address the causes of structural inequality and disadvantage. A new politics from below is the only vehicle for this. And the story of the Christ-child born on the edges of Bethlehem reminds us how we can build a new political vision based on the view from below.

God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change the world.
To know the need for it.
To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.
Amen!

Dr John Falzon will sleep out on June 21 to raise awareness for homelessness in Australia. Click here to find out more how you can support the 2012 Ceo Sleepout.

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