Living in dystopia: ten tips for reconnecting the personal and the political

Heading into town, by the fire sign, up ahead one mile Mum and naked child by the highway

Flash four-wheel drive, I only want a ride to the other side. Don’t try and hide behind your window

I bet your weekly wage could pay my ransom and free me from this sand fly infested castle

Johnny Walkers Shoes- Pigram Brothers

 I am blessed in many ways. I have a well-paid job where I get a chance to make a difference. I live in a comfortable house, eat well, and share my good fortune with family and friends.

And yet I often feel tired and overwhelmed. There is such a yawning gap between my personal circumstances and the world around me. We are daily reminded that we are on the edge of apocalypse. Everything is relentlessly marketised and monetized. Mindfully watching or reading the news is deeply distressing.

And meanwhile we all carry on. Did dystopia arrive while we weren’t looking?

Consider these facts.

  • The planet is warming rapidly. No matter what personal ethical choices we make to reduce energy use, and live in harmony with our environment the difference will not be enough. Only mass action to quickly move to zero carbon economies by all industrialized nations will avert a global catastrophe that could kill a billion people, and make life miserable for those who survive. The response of our government? Fight the next election on electricity prices.
  • There are almost 20 million refugees worldwide. Worse still -more nations are imitating Australia, closing their borders. For over 400 years the first world has exploited less industrialized countries, and continues to do so. We reap what we sow, and then blame the victim. The government response in our name? Incarcerate men, women and children in conditions that any reasonable person would describe as torture.
  • Many of our first nation peoples live in abject poverty in third world conditions- and we think we are not racist.
  • We are amongst the richest nations in the world, and yet individually we are hocked to the hilt. Our mortgage debt as a proportion of property values has almost tripled over the past 25 years, rising from 10 to 28 per cent since 1990. Australians owe $51 billion on credit cards. $33 billion of that is accruing interest, costing card holders more than $540 million a month. And of course pay day lenders exploit the most vulnerable with high interest schemes that skim repayments directly from Centrelink benefits.
  • Research commissioned by the Australia Institute found that on average full-time workers are working six hours unpaid overtime each week and part-timers are working three hours. This works out to be $9,471each in unpaid overtime to their employers each year – a total value of $110 billion per annum. If the unpaid hours were allocated to and paid to Australians looking for work the unemployment rate could be zero rather than 6.2%.
  • Meanwhile the dole sinks lower and lower below the poverty line.
  • Self employed workers face the constant stress of rising prices, pressures to keep costs down and an uncertain economic climate threatening their livelihood.
  • There is a rising trend of people not getting enough sleep. Unsurprisingly the most at risk of this phenomenon are full time workers, and the poor consequences for health and well-being are numerous. This statistic would be even worse for women because of their larger share of domestic labor.
  • The poor get easy access to junk food, and the “time poor” google 15 minute gourmet meals.
  • We are all spending more time connecting to screens and devices. We have less time for each other, and more of our elderly are going to end up living on their own. The fastest growing household type is the lone person household, projected to grow by an average of 2.2% per year, from 1.9 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2031.

Amid the daily chatter of opinion, hand wringing, finger pointing and culture war, we are distracted from the root causes of our dismal dystopia. Our politicians and corporate warriors have unleashed the most radical and destructive elements of free market fundamentalism across the planet.

Although championed by conservative politicians- there is nothing conservative about it. The profit imperative reigns supreme. Global corporations have become adept at squeezing every ounce of profit from every region and every workforce and then moving on and leaving unemployment and misery in their wake. Where is the end point in this relentless pursuit for the last drop of productivity? Not only is it the chief driver of unemployment, lower real wages and longer working hours: mining corporations needing to make every last dollar out of coal are also endangering the well being of billions of people.

If the purpose of humanity is simply to serve the economic system, rather than the system serving human society, the logical endpoint is to turn all workers into zombies. Former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis put this succinctly in a recent Guardian essay,

“economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value. For a start, a society of dehumanised automata would resemble a mechanical watch full of cogs and springs, each with its own unique function, together producing a “good”: timekeeping. Yet if that society contained nothing but other automata, timekeeping would not be a “good”. It would certainly be an “output” but why a “good”? Without real humans to experience the clock’s function, there can be no such thing as “good” or “bad”.”

Freud once said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. In that sense the endpoint of unchecked capitalism is the destruction of love.

Any student of debt will tell you that the battle around debt is also a battle between rich and poor. Kings and lords used to impose debts on their subjects as a kind of protection racket. Pay me tribute and I will give you a currency with my image stamped on it, backed by my power and authority. The alternative was death or imprisonment. Now the state has become a middleman, and the inducement is subtler but just as powerful. Make credit (actually debt) freely available. Lenders don’t need to worry if people can’t pay it back, (because the state will find a way a recouping the money for them).

Economists have a cute phrase for this – “moral hazard”. Economist Paul Krugman described moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly”.

This is the root cause of the GFC and the ongoing woes of the people of Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal and the third world. It is also the model for pay day lending across the globe.

And yet deep within our psyches is the notion that we must always repay debt. Why? Paradoxically, according to the World Bank, of the nearly 100 banking crises that have occurred internationally during the last 20 years, all were resolved by bailouts at taxpayer expense.

From big banks to pay day lenders, corporations that make credit too freely available all have the same get out clause to excuse their behavior: customers have the choice to borrow or not. They just provide a needed service. It is a slick way of blaming the victim. Banks in fact know that a certain portion of their credit card customers will not go into debt, but their entire business model fundamentally relies on a known proportion of their customers being unable to resist the temptation to go into debt. The same “free choice” argument applies to the purveyors of junk food and the clubs that stack their premises with poker machines.

And the people who have maxed out their credit cards for so called “discretionary spending”? They gave it to their children and shared it with friends. David Graeber, writing on the history of debt talks, about the poor responding with “ a stubborn insistence on continuing to love one another. They continue to acquire houses for their families, liquor and sound systems for parties, gifts for friends; they even insist on continuing to hold weddings and funerals….”

Meanwhile, the privileged among us read about “sleep hygiene” and grapple with a problem that many people on the planet would find very odd: work/life balance- or as Freud might conceive it – how to keep love from being leached from one’s life.

How did this come to be? Imagine this conversation between a group of hunter gatherers?

“You know what guys….we should spend more time hunting and gathering and less time feasting and having a good time. But [objects someone] Hang on.. the whole point of hunting and gathering is so that we can spend as much time as possible feasting and having a good time”.

There has of late been an entire industry develop around the concept of happiness and how to achieve it. Its chief discovery is something that would strike most of us as entirely obvious- but in the current climate, oddly subversive: genuine happiness lies in being generous, connected and helping others.

Given all of the above, I am happy to share my personal list of tips to help reconnect the personal to the political, ranked from the global to the individual. Consider this a small contribution to the burgeoning industry of advice on self-improvement. Feel free to add your own.

  1. Insist that whatever savings you have are ethically invested. This also applies to the savings of any organisations you belong to. This means for example, hassling your bank, trade union and professional society to divest from fossil fuels. Check out
  2. Vote for the Greens. It is the only party with realistic policies to tackle our dystopian nightmare. Skeptical? Have a look at their policy platform.
  3. Listen! Be mindful, and assume that people who disagree with you may also have good intentions.
  4. Stop doing unpaid overtime.
  5. Give some of that time to your community in whatever activity you find enjoyable
  6. Offer to mentor someone who will benefit from your skill and experience.
  7. Be more generous.
  8. Have more parties!
  9. Spend a little more time being where you are (turn off that device!)
  10. Go to bed earlier…..

Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds

The Buddha

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8 Responses to Living in dystopia: ten tips for reconnecting the personal and the political

  1. thanks dear Vittorio… such an important message you’ve shared…! and I can only hope that it is heeded by social workers wide and far! Especially also SW academics and students… I included the website for people to register in the ‘local futures’ conference (formerly know as ‘Economics of Happiness’ conferences – see also the DVD) we’re organising in Castlemaine from the 16th till the 18th of October.. and we will be discussing many of the issues you mention in your message… it would be great if this could be distributed as well through the AASW and other networks you’re part of!
    Thanks both for your message and for helping out spreading the news!

  2. 1. Choose your future. Focus on what is good in the world. Look for it and appreciate it.
    2. Choose your future. Take responsibility to comment on decisions government is making. Point out that they are not representing you if you know these decisions lead to destruction etc.

  3. Lorraine Harrison says:

    A great article and I wholeheartedly agree with you Vittorio.
    My wee tip I use when I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of our capitalist system and its over played economic rationalist mantra – I try to say to myself ‘drip feed for change’ as this may only be the process I can engage in some of the time, but at least I and other are engaging. I know we are at a cataclysmic point in our and our planets very survival, but drip feed helps me feel less flattened by the enormity of the tasks at hand.

  4. Audrey Morrison-Greet says:

    Excellent piece Vittorio and thank-you for it – my take on this is called -‘New World Order’ a deliberate breaking down and destruction of what we hold dear and value intrinsically as human beings! So we become overwhelmed complacent and placated by junk TV and the obsceneness of celebrity culture. A ready made compliant human work force ripe for distorted policy makers parading as government.

  5. Jane Thomson says:

    Vittorio, You are a cogent and forceful commentator and your blog is incredibly useful. I have sent it to all my social work students here at University of the Sunshine Coast. Thank you for the thoughtful critique.

    I concur wholeheartedly with your perspective. We will look back at this time in Australian history with utter shame- it will be up there with our initial colonising invasion (which so many people still don’t “get” in terms of its radiation half life effects for all these generations later), the White Australia Policy…

    Keep going Vittorio. This country needs you.
    warm regards

  6. Nita says:

    Certainly an interesting article which is realistic and nails the current issues of the society. Thanks vittorio

  7. Thanks Vittorio,
    a good article and reiterating so much that we need to hear. There are many concerned professionals not just Social Workers who so dearly want change and want to be pro-active in that change process. Yes it can feel powerless so often but ”just take one step, then another and so on”
    Our best gifts to others are: Our Time, Attention, love and Concern

  8. Caroline Smith says:

    A philosophical and ethical tour de force. The refugee crisis is horrific. I really do not know what to do as one person, other than donate to UNHCR and Medicine sans Frontiers and Oxfam, my preferred groups. Ensure that others in our circle are aware /educated is another route I think. My youngest a graduate in Environmental science is not convinced that global warming is any new event – as there have been many warmings and ice ages. So I worry more about loss of species and of natural pristine environments, worries me a lot. I seem lately to donate to so many environmental groups, due to this worry. (esp during Newman and Seeneys (awful environmental destroyer he was) time (QLD) and now challenges to the Australian EPBC laws. Like you Vittorio and most SW, I live a good life. There are also positive things/events in the world. Mum died at 93 two years ago and she always said that she would much rather live now than at any other time. Though she did live in Brisbane so was fortunate in that. She lived on a DVA War widows pension, but said she had too much money, so she wasn’t ‘rich’. On the other side many of our clients have real problems – we as SW also have real problems at times. Though we can say that the problems of many in the rest of the world are far worse, we do not want to discount that there are problems in Australia also and in our lives, which are real and disturbing for us. I am sure you are not saying there aren’t. I work with people with severe mental illness / severe mental health problems. Their trials and problems are very difficult. Some of them have very little – people I have worked with who have chronic schizophrenia.

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