“They” will never let you stop working
In late March 2020, as COVID was making inroads into Australia, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, declared that the new “National Cabinet” would replace the old Council of Australian Governments (COAG). This rather dry story, of interest to only the most dire wonks, was accompanied by a rationale for this sudden and sweeping reform: “This is a congestion-busting process that will get things done with a single focus on creating jobs.” Morrison’s job-creation agenda seemed unconnected from the pandemic that had caused it; he even identified employment as the entire motivating force behind the maintenance of Federation: “It will have a job-making agenda. And the National Cabinet will drive the reform process between state and federal cooperation to drive jobs.”
There is a note of anxiety in his laborious repetition of the word “jobs”. This anxiety is hardly uniquely Australian, even if it is perhaps most visible in a country where employment has always been a particularly keen political battleground. At first blush, Morrison was clearly assuaging the anxieties of an electorate worried about the security of their own jobs in the face of a pandemic-led recession. He was also clearly speaking to an imagined taxpayer who doesn’t want “their” money going to some “dole bludger”. Coalition governments have made this clear throughout the 21st century, from the ex-Treasurer’s “lifters and leaners” to the titles of bills like the “Treasury Laws Amendment (Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More Of Their Money) Bill 2019”. Behind this lurks the commonly-held neoliberal belief that welfare should be aimed at keeping the market flowing, not at keeping the unemployed alive.
The consequence of these interlocking appeals is that the Unemployed are characterised as abject; they are to be excluded from the body of the nation, which is now imagined as made up of wage earners rather than citizens.
But why is everyone so obsessed with making sure everyone works?
According to archaic forms of classical economics, employers want a lot of cheap workers to fill their factories. David Spencer notes that prior to the Industrial Revolution economists believed that