Pride and privilege: why Australia needs grand designs for containing corporate greed

The ACTU recently identified Harvey Norman as the face of corporate greed after its refusal to pay back $22m of jobkeeper despite doubling profits to $462m during the pandemic while resisting calls for a 3.5% increase in the minimum wage. The company has not been alone in deciding not to return the government subsidy, a choice also taken by Solomon Lew’s retail group, Premier Investments, which enjoyed a 90% profit increase in the six months when it received $15m in wage subsidies. A total of 25 ASX companies that received the payment have been found to have paid executive bonuses totalling $24m in the 2020 financial year.

It is tempting to imagine that allegations of greed have been an unchanging feature of the rhetoric of the left throughout Australia’s history. But the real story is more complex, and more interesting.

The idea of the capitalist class as “greedy” was a mainstay of 19th-century Australian socialist iconography. As Nick Dyrenfurth and Marian Quartly have explained, the “Fat Man” was a ubiquitous symbol in the radical press, a corpulent and decadent figure who was invariably counterposed with the lean, muscular and attractive image of the working class man, who stood as symbol for the Australian people. These images of “Fat” and “Lean” were not unique to Australia, but adaptations of older satirical representations of “John Bull” in the UK and the US “robber barons”.

They were also more than mere slurs on the characters of the rich. The asymmetry of their bodies conjured an entire theory of society, where the “true” underlying source of economic value was labour and the source of social suffering was the avarice of the ruling class. By symbolising the Australian working class as heroic, energetic, handsome and white, these satirists grotesquely simplified the actual sources of wealth creation (not least the traditional owners of the lands and waters where it took place). Nevertheless, their populist imagery offered a compelling narrative that served to unite and reinforce the political imagination of what was, in reality, a multiply divided colonial polity.

Images of ‘Fat’ and ‘Lean’ were adaptations of older satirical representations such as ‘John Bull’, pictured, in the UK.
Images of ‘Fat’ and ‘Lean’ were adaptations of older satirical representations such as ‘John Bull’, pictured, in the UK. Photograph: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The desire to transcend greed and other human vices was a crucial, if inchoate, dimension of early 20th-century Australian nation-building. The architects of Federation sought to create a “new province of law and order”, where industrial strife, greed and disorder were displaced by peaceable relations of civility between citizens. Achieving that end required active state intervention to place a floor (in the form of wage minimums), walls (in the form of tariff protections only accessible to employers who paid workers “fair and reasonably”) and bridges (in the form of compulsory arbitration) around the animal spirits of capitalism. Greed was not a vice that could be permanently vanquished, but it could be contained through careful institutional design. Industrial tribunals, for HB Higgins, were not mere economic institutions, but entities in service to “human life, the only wealth. It is the noblest objective. We work and learn.”

Despite the social and economic successes of this system, it did not, unsurprisingly, banish “greed” from the Australian political lexicon. The Great War brought rancorous accusations of profiteering levelled at firms suspected of hoarding, speculating and benefitting from high demand that pushed prices above levels that were understood to be fair in peacetime. British ship-owners, likened to “vultures preying on the people in their distress” were a particular source of resentment for Australian nationalists, both for their profit-making and associations with pro-war sentiment.

Greed talk changed its shape and significance in the middle years of the century. At the height of Keynesianism, for many sections of the media and political right it was workers and unions that were portrayed as the greedy ones. On the left, as multinationals assumed new significance in the Australian economy and novel justice claims abounded on the part of women, migrants, environmental groups and queer communities in the 1960s, greed became a more marginal theme.

When the Gurindji stockmen went on strike at Wave Hill Station in 1966 to protest against the exceedingly low and discriminatory wages paid to them by the Vestey Brothers (whose estimated net worth of £1.2bn pounds ranked them as the 7th wealthiest family in the UK on the Sunday Times inaugural rich list in 1989) the language brought to articulate the injustice was that of human rights and the enduring power of the “White Establishment” rather than of class greed. Tim Rowse has observed the Gurindji were simultaneously depicted as “citizen workers” and “communities aspiring to autonomy”.

In place of emotive depictions of class relations, the 1960s also saw commentators bring more technical and abstract approaches to dissecting concentrated power to bear. There were no fat bellies to be seen in the article published in 1961 entitled Who Controls Australia?, but rather an anatomy of the interlocking directorates, investment arrangements and intermarriages of “sixty millionaire families”.

In the 80s, as many of the industrial relations mechanisms that had been built to contain greed were being incrementally unwound, a new cast of villains roared back into the centre of the media stage, displaying what appeared to be unparalleled avarice and hubris. The Bold Riders, with their pin-stripe suits, button suspenders, panama hats, Rolex watches and oxygen masks donned in Majorca replaced the straining vests, top hats and spats of the 19th-century “Fat Men”. A handful of neo-Friedmanites viewed them as heroes, but for most, they were a dazzling spectacle of greed and hubris.

More significant than the fact that they were as likely to be thin as fat was that very little attention was paid to their class counterparts. Christopher Skase ($65m in 1988), Alan Bond ($25m in 1983) and Laurie Connell ($35m in 1988) were household names, but the identities of working class wealth creators – increasingly feminised, service-based, non-white and precariously employed – were largely diffuse and unclear. Greed in the 1980s thus became a concept that was readily associated with an era, rather than a class.

The age of Twitter has given us unparalleled access to the way concentrated economic and political power plays out on an every day basis. We can listen in first hand on how the rich talk to each other (albeit in highly self-conscious and carefully curated ways), the nuanced justifications they give for their privilege and power, and the new, and often highly sophisticated ways they think about, and interact with, their workforce. We can also witness how that workforce answers back. Whether and how narratives of “greed” might cut through that immense noise of human communication is not self-evident.

Can the concept of greed galvanise the project of more fairly distributing power today, in a country where 11 Australian billionaires received millions from pandemic-fed dividends while workers struggled? The history of “greed talk” in Australia does not yield any easy answers. While our counterparts a century ago undoubtedly talked and thought more about class than we do today, their concept of “greed” was part of a political sensibility that was, above all, populist, locating it as a vice of outsiders (a category that included the ruling class, but also went beyond it to racial and ethnic categories).

Consciously using (or avoiding) greed as a term today may be less important than recalling the audacity of the Federation-era nation-builders who put guardrails around its exercise. The institutions they built reflected their times, to be certain. But the fact that the minimum wage was recently increased by 2.5% in spite of the wishes of Harvey Norman is a sign that at least one plank of that grand design is still with us – and holding up well. It is very far from being enough though. We aren’t short on ideas for how to contain greed in 21st century conditions. Whether political will can be found to implement them is another matter.

Frances Flanagan is Sydney fellow in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney

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