In 1967 Martin Luther King warned that “we must rapidly begin the transition from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society.”
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
As Donald Trump’s election sends shock-waves around the world, Martin Luther King’s words seem more prescient than ever.
The Trump election is so shocking because it challenges everything we thought we knew about global values and the evolution of human rights. Trump represents a racism, sexism and misogyny that many of us had assumed (and hoped!) was receding. Instead, Trump’s candidacy unleashed a tidal wave of anger and bigotry that swept away the Democratic Party and with it the immediate prospect of America’s first woman President.
One of the most striking things about the Trump victory is the concentration of his support among those areas experiencing rising economic inequality. The so-called ‘rust-belt’ and ‘wheat-belt’ states that have been gripped by unemployment. Communities left behind in the ‘new economy.’ World history tells us that this economic inequality creates the pre-conditions for ugly right wing populism and the scapegoating of difference.
Rather than becoming a “people oriented society” as Dr King implored, society today has become more oriented towards “things.” Making a profit is the order of the day. And the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.
Indeed, there has always been a conflict between the modern discourse around self-actualisation and freedom of the individual and the inequalities caused by neo-liberal economics. The Trump phenomenon has blown that wide open with devastating results.
In our own state of South Australia, we face challenges not dissimilar to America’s rust-belt. Unemployment is stubbornly high. Steel workers in Whyalla face an uncertain future. Elizabeth has been hit by unemployment through the decline of the automative industry. The residents of Port Augusta remain in anxiety following the closure of Alinta. Despite these pressures, we continue to see attacks on those struggling to find work and cuts to essential social services.
Thankfully in South Australia we have not seen the emergence of ugly right wing populism of the scale that has gripped the United States, but we are seeing a growing backlash against establishment politics. The resurgence of One Nation at the recent federal election is cause for serious alarm.
The rise of Trumpism reminds progressives that as well as standing up to racism, misogyny and homophobia, we must fight for a new economic future: one that genuinely serves the interests of people and our planet.
As noted by Naomi Klein, the challenge of climate change requires such an approach. With our strong credentials in climate change adaptation, South Australia is well positioned to champion this kind of direction. Instead of flogging the dead carcass of the failed nuclear industry, we should be looking to the future with new ideas.
South Australia has considerable skills and expertise in manufacturing. We should be harnessing these skills in a way that will create long term jobs that are good for our planet and the health of our communities.
Public transport infrastructure provides one such opportunity. Rather than importing trams and other transport infrastructure from overseas, we could be building it here in our state. Instead of pushing the expansion of our tram network off into the never-never, why don’t we start doing it now? As well as creating new jobs an expanded public transport network could also bring communities together reducing social isolation. The mandated use of South Australian steel for such projects could help sustain jobs in the regions.
Our manufacturing industry doesn’t have to be confined to public transport infrastructure however and electric cars is a growing global industry. South Australia can have a seat at the table. We should also be investing in the manufacturing of solar panels and other renewable energy technology, right here on SA soil.
South Australia has a proud reputation for clean, green quality produce and local food production is good for communities and the environment. We should be supporting this by protecting agricultural land from threats like coal-seam gas exploration. Encouraging these kinds of local industries also means bringing communities together and bridging the gap between the regions and the cities. Rather than increasing the centralisation of key services like health and education, we should be resourcing public services so they support all South Australians, not just those living in their proximity.
Further investment in the arts and our state’s creative industries could also help bring communities together and encourage greater inclusion in our civic and political life.
These are just some of the opportunities for our state’s transition. Of course there are many others.
As South Australia struggles with rising economic inequality, we cannot afford business as usual. It is incumbent on progressives to develop persuasive alternatives. The catastrophe unfolding in the United States is a terrifying reminder of what can happen if we fail to do so.
This article was first published on The Adelaide Review, 17 November 2016.