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Issue #1806      December 13, 2017

Against neo-liberalism

CPA Politics in the Pub in Perth WA

On October 25 the Communist Party of Australia (WA Branch) held a Politics in the Pub on the issue of “Neoliberalism and Mental Health” at 43 Below in Perth. The meeting’s chair Dr Fayeza Khan, introducing the controversial topic said, “In recent times there has been a weakening of workers’ rights which have undermined people’s happiness and well-being.” Neo-liberalism – which is the ideology of capitalism – forms the basis for the organisation of our economy and society and “produces a fertile ground for many of the mental health problems being experienced in Western Australia and indeed around the world.”

Dr Fayeza Khan, Andrew Douglas, Melissa Warner and Dr Christoper Crouch.

The first speaker was Dr Christopher Crouch, Marxian artist and academic who stressed that a solution to the problem lay in the development of good theory and a progressive praxis of ideas. He noted that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels raised three issues in The Communist Manifesto, fundamental to which is that social relations between people are being displaced by economic ones. The consequence of which is that “all which is solid melts into the air” as traditional values of human interactions are seized by capitalism and smashed asunder.

Under a neo-liberal organisation of society, people are made to see others as means to an end rather than ends in themselves. We see others only in terms of what they can do for us or get for us and we see ourselves only as functions of the economic system where our worth is determined by what we can buy and sell or what we can earn in order to consume and thereby validate the capitalist system and our place within it.

The third fundamental issue which Marx raised in Manifesto was that capitalism destroys the environment in order to make a profit and and will continue to exploit the environment until there is nothing left to exploit and the balance of nature begins to crumble – as has begun to occur with anthropomorphic climate change.

Crouch said of social and cultural relations, that we as people are embedded in material and emotional relations within society. However, under neo-liberalism art and culture have often become an extension of the economic system and people have “begun to feel dislocated from the world they are supposed to engage with – they become dispirited, lose interest and become depressed.”

Under the capitalist system there was never a pretence to have full employment as capital needs to have a “reserve army of the unemployed” to help keep wages down. Today with the discourse of austerity, neo-liberalist governments have abandoned any pretence to community building. An example in WA is that country people are having to travel many kilometres into the cities for health services instead of keeping the rural health centres open.

Melissa Warner, an organiser from the Health Services Union, spoke of the impact neo-liberalism was having on the provision of mental health services from the perspective of the union whose members work in the sector. Warner began by describing cuts to funding and services which led to long waiting lists for access to mental health services and accommodation.

This had manifested itself in increased rates of suicide and of workplace violence being experienced by her members. In WA there was three times the demand for existing services than what could be provided. WA’s suicide rate was twice as high as the national level and in the Kimberley region, with its high Aboriginal population, the suicide rate was three times national levels. The State Coroner had earlier this year conducted an inquest into the high rates of suicide amongst Aboriginal youth in the region.

For people able to access mental health accommodation, they could expect an average stay of four months and there was a 6-8 week wait till someone could access a mental health service. The manner in which the system is funded is also problematic and works on a three-year funding cycle whereby each mental health service provider has to apply for funding through the National Partnership Agreement. This produces insecurity, not only for those who need the services, but also those workers employed to provide the services.

A new system is being developed called Social Impact Bonds which is seen as privatisation by stealth as it seeks to establish a bidding war among providers over who can be the least costly and possibly deliver a profit into the future. In regard to crisis care hotlines currently manned by clinicians, these are being replaced by, “Warm Support Lines” of peer workers who are seen as being cheaper than using qualified clinicians.

The third speaker was recently retired social worker Andrew Douglas who said that part of the problem with the crisis in mental health is that a lot of people don’t understand what constitutes mental or psychiatric illness. What is often not realised is that people are more likely to harm themselves than to harm others when they have mental health issues. Douglas said that the mental health crisis had been aggravated by the closure of mental health institutions and the reduction of staff and especially full-time clinicians at these institutions.

A lively Q and A followed and raised further issues such as to improve mental health we needed to look for meaning and value rather than be led by money or economic issues. Bullying comes from the way we organise our society and even our education system. We needed to stress cooperation rather than competition to solve the problems and eradicate the violence which we often feel in our lives or see affect others.

Next article – Rally to save jobs

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