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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Will Labor Stand Up against Small Government and Austerity? And Reflections on Greece, Anti-Semitism and more


 
above:  Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh has been unfortunately equivocal on the issue of tax reform needed to ward off austerity under a future Shorten Labor Government.
 
In the following reflections the blog publisher, Tristan Ewins considers the dilemma faced by Labor on tax reform; as well as the Greek economic crisis, rising anti-Semitism and other issues.  He also calls for readers to register their support for a genuinely progressive Labor Platform at this year's National Conference.  Without such a Platform Labor will lack the flexibility on fiscal reform it needs in order to hold off against austerity - and instead improve the social wage and welfare

Tristan Ewins
Reflecting on this week’s QandA episode raises crucial questions as to whether or not Labor will seriously resist pressures towards austerity and small government amidst a manufactured ‘debt crisis’.  Tony Jones repeatedly pressured Assistant Shadow Treasurer Andrew Leigh to respond on that very question.  And sadly Leigh was largely evasive in response. (probably under pressure from his Shadow Cabinet colleagues)  Statements regarding a crackdown on corporate tax evasion were somewhat encouraging, yes.  But Sydney Morning Herald columnist Michael West is correct to proclaim approximately $2 billion of savings over three years as ‘pocket fluff’.   That tax policy is not going to ‘turn the tide’ on small government, punitive welfare and austerity.  In the context of an economy valued at approximately $1.6 Trillion the effect will be relatively marginal if there is not additional progressive tax reform elsewhere.  Empty rhetoric and tokenistic policies will make little difference for those who need our help.   I believe Leigh is better than this - and am hoping for a less equivocal stand into the future.

Of course Liberal proclamations to the effect that it is ‘cleaning up Labor’s mess’ also need to be met with healthy scepticism.  Current fiscal strains can be traced to repeated tax cuts and ‘middle class welfare’ during the Howard/Costello years.   Rather than capitalising on the China mining boom, investing the proceeds for the future, Costello and Howard implemented a series of tax breaks – largely for the relatively well off – resulting in today’s structural deficit.   Because from the outset it was clear the boom would not last forever, the short-term focus adopted by Howard and Costello condemned Australia to its current fiscal crisis.   (nb: the fiscal crisis is not the same as the ‘manufactured public debt crisis’; debt is serviceable; but there is a need to reform tax to maintain the social wage, welfare, public infrastructure) The situation was further worsened as a consequence of Liberal opportunism over the Mining Super Profits Tax -  which saw a responsible policy destroyed – further locking Australia into a fiscally unsustainable footing.

Labor’s next National Conference will take place mid-year 2015; and it is critical for Labor to reflect on what it stands for; and how it can defend services and social welfare against the Ideological Liberal drive towards austerity.  There is also a need to address an infrastructure crisis – with fiscal pressures locking the country into polices of infrastructure privatisation which pass on inefficient cost structures onto the broader economy. (the consequence of profit margins and inferior costs to finance via the private sector)   

What is most important is for Labor’s 2015 National Conference to endorse a Platform which keeps Labor’s options open!  Locking into a small government, low tax policy will provide Labor with no room to move in response to fiscal pressures; and consequently pressures towards brutal austerity. Without a reformed Platform this year, Labor will lack the mandate to pursue the necessary change after the next Federal election. At the blogs ‘Left Focus’ and “ALP Socialist Left Forum’ last year we initiated a campaign in favour of progressive tax reform, reform of superannuation concessions and more; including an expansion of progressive taxation in a first Labor term by about $40 billion.  (or by 2.5 per cent of GDP in the context of a $1.6 trillion economy)  

Such a policy would see Australia only ‘edging towards’ average OECD levels of government social expenditure – and should not be viewed as being ‘too radical’.   But failure to embrace a reform footing would inevitably mean sustained austerity even under a Labor government.   And a lack of meaningful opposition to the fiscal policies that underscore Liberal austerity would only strengthen the Conservatives’ hand, with policy convergence on austerity, punitive welfare and the like. 

Finally – the fiscal reform we have suggested here would provide scope for other progressive policies.  This could include (but not be limited to)

·         a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme,

·         comprehensive Medicare Dental

·         alleviating poverty for the welfare dependent and for low-wage workers

·         properly implementing Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme without resorting to punitive policies against other vulnerable groups

·         developing a policy with the aim of ‘closing the gap’ on life expectancy for those with mental illness

But without progressive fiscal reform  Labor could only provide the same drift towards austerity; even albeit more reluctantly.  Certainly Labor could not pose as the party of social progress; and would stand to cede further electoral ground to the Greens; while also damaging its attempts to renew and inspire its membership base.

Other issues also arose from the most recent QandA.  For instance the argument was forwarded that childcare subsidies only worsened cost pressures as private providers pocketed the money without passing on the savings.   The obvious response is that greater emphasis on public and not-for-profit childcare would help do away with those pressures. 

Similarly, it was no surprise that while the question of housing affordability was raised – and even the question of negative gearing – there was no consideration of the potential role of a big investment in public housing to promote urban consolidation (helping to address social problems like increasing transit times to work that damage families and communities); and also increase housing supply and drive down prices.

Greek Depression and the Eurozone

All these questions around austerity are also relevant for Europe, and especially for Greece. Unfortunately Germany had tried to tie an EU financial bailout package to austerity and privatisation – to the point of severely impairing the ability of Greece to repay its debts sustainably.  The Social Democrats in Coalition with the Christian Democrats in Germany need to question this; and promote a new policy. With Greek unemployment at over 25 per cent, the consequence is economic Depression, loss of tax revenues, and unnecessary and extraordinary human suffering.  For Greece and other similarly affected economies (eg: Spain), the answer is one of sustainable economic restructuring, and sustainable repayment of debts on the basis of full employment.  The wealthy must also be made to shoulder a fair part of the burden.  This must mean active industry policies around creating new export industries – that improve these nations’ balance of trade.  Hence employment could be kept high, and the improved balance of trade could aid in the repayment of debts without a downwards deflationary and recessionary spiral; or forced privatisations and the like.   By comparison austerity is a ‘double whammy’: hurting the Greek and Spanish people while also destroying their ability to repay debts.

Importantly there remain broader questions of disproportionalities in capitalist economies: the consequence of competitive pressures which drive constant renewal of the means of production.  The Euro-zone economic crisis also provides an opportunity to question neo-liberal Ideology; and indeed to question capitalism as we know it.

Anti-Semitism Resurgent

Finally, this week’s QandA also saw a question in reference to growing anti-Semitism not only in Europe but also in Australia.  Anti-Semites appear to have been emboldened by the military policies of the State of Israel in its conflicts with Hamas particularly.  In Europe Jews increasingly feel unsafe – and are targeted violently ‘simply for being Jews’.  But this turnaround has not resulted in the same degree of public consternation on the Left as has  Islamophobia.   And indeed while there is a great deal of damaging ignorance and fear with regard Islam in Australia, the Left nonetheless needs to be careful and vigilant with regard this emboldening of anti-Semitism.  A new generation is being desensitised to the past sufferings and persecution of the Jewish people; and hence some may be open to historical revisionism on the Holocaust into the future.

The targeting of Orthodox Jewish communities appears to be especially fruitful for the anti-Semites – because significant numbers have always been fearful of what is clearly at variance with the ‘mainstream’ and is ‘different’.   On the Left there are periodic qualifications to the effect that while we condemn the military and other repressive policies of the State of Israel, we do not accept hate crimes and violent attacks against Jews.  But we need to be much more consistent and forthright.  We need to confront where the current tenor of debate on the State of Israel and its policies is leading.  For genuine Leftists certainly it is not in any way our intention to legitimise anti-Semitism.  But we have a responsibility to confront the emerging Anti-Semitic trends just as forthrightly and consistently as we confront bigotry against Islamic communities.  And just as consistently as we criticise human rights abuses by the State of Israel under its current right-wing leadership.

Closing Appeal:

Our Campaign in favour of progressive reform of Labor’s platform is approaching the goal of 500 supporters on Facebook.  See HERE for our ‘model Platform’.  And See HERE to register your support. 

To help us ‘get over the line’ and maybe even go further depends on your support!  Please ‘Like’ our page at Facebook; and let all your friends and networks know about our campaign.  It is crucial to achieve a Labor Platform this year which at the very least keeps our options open on tax reform, progressive welfare reform, and extensions of the social wage.



nb:  independent socialist blogger John Passant has also written a piece on the insufficient nature of Shorten's proposed tax changes.   Readers may be interested in taking a look:

"Labor's tax avoidance crack down statement was the old pea and thimble trick. It wants to give the impression of doing something about big business tax avoidance (always a popular issue among ordinary workers) without really frightening the big business horses"
See:  http://enpassant.com.au/2015/03/03/labors-crackdown-on-tax-avoidance-shorten-fiddles-and-revenue-burns/

Monday, February 23, 2015

Crumbling Pillars of Global Capitalist Political Economy - Reflections from Eric Aarons


 
In the following reflections, former Australian communist leader Eric Aarons considers the moral and practical shortcomings of capitalist political economy and its attendant Ideology; including the Ideology underpinning 'Austrian Economics' and the thought of Friedrich Hayek.
                                             
by Eric Aarons
The pillars of a building, a narrative, a culture or theoretical edifice are those parts of the whole  that keep the other parts  in their designated places. The many books Friedrich Hayek wrote outlining his economic, social and philosophic  views , of and for humanity, eventually prevailed over other theories and became dominant.  I therefore  re-examine  its  major beliefs and assertions –  the pillars – that sustain the capitalist system he championed, and which are daily crumbling before our eyes.

The first pillar is money

Hayek asserts that: ‘Most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, [and] that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on [it]’. (LLL,2, 112)’

Money is of course essential in a commodity-based society; but are its possession and use uniformly  equitable and honest?  Why could Oxfam, unchallenged, reveal that: ‘Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population [and] the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world?’ (Jan. 2014).

Moreover, compared with earlier stages of the capitalist system, honesty today is very much wanting. For examples of top-organised fraud, recall the laundering of billions of dollars of Mexican drug money by HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), and the Libor scandal.

Libor referred to the internationally used and trusted benchmark, the ‘ London Inter-bank Offered Rate’ set daily by experts.  On a  day when  the person in charge was an employee of Barclays Bank which was suffering survival difficulties  in the developing  Great Financial Crisis, he skewed the benchmark  rate to favour his bank over others.  Though big fines were imposed, the practice spread worldwide, and even years later new instances of benchmark  corruption keep cropping up, while  new scams are continually invented.

To believe that ‘cash’ in these circumstances can unify rather than divide humanity is among the greatest of follies, especially considering the next pillar which is rotten from the start. 

In essence this means creating more and bigger capitalist organisations which, with globalisation, today embody the worldwide domination of possessors of ever larger slabs of capital,  and general wealth.

What else can this lead to but the conditions reported by Oxfam, that signify the increased concentration of wealth in the form of capital , which has reached a stage where capital is such a large proportion of the total wealth created, that governments cannot now provide, as they formerly did,  services, such as health and higher education, let alone the sums needed to ease the burdens of the disabled, or the facilities for learning, and character development,  now socially essential.

 It is called austerity.

Giving to those who already have

This is a second pillar of the existing capitalist system, stated by Hayek in these words: ‘… ‘such a system gives to those who already have. But this is its merit rather than its defect, because it is this feature which makes it worth-while for everybody to direct his efforts not only towards immediate results but also to the future increase of his capacity of rendering services to others. It is the possibility of acquisition for the purpose of improving the capacity for future acquisition which engenders a continual overall process in which we do not at every moment have to start from scratch, but can begin with equipment which is the result of past efforts in order to make as large as possible the earnings from the means we control.’ (LLL vol. 2, pp.123-4)

Who is it that does the giving?  Consumers of course and waged employees. But here we are talking about economic theory which purports to show that economic processes involving markets are objective because individuals, as such, and by and large, cannot alter what the larger forces of the markets have proclaimed. This is not fully true due to monopolies and cartels – especially in these days of globalisation, where the stated aims of many multinational corporations are to make these forms of economic plunder almost routine, as illustrated in the oil and gas areas today.

Even in Hayek’s much smaller scale he had put the case just as pertinently: ‘We (capitalists) can decide whether the material reward others are prepared to pay for our services makes it worthwhile to render them.’ (The Moral element in Free Enterprise, pages 229 – 236 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, 1966)

Who is it that does the giving? The consumer and the waged employee of course. But here we are talking about economic theory which contends and purports to show that economic processes involving markets are objective because individuals, or groups of them, cannot alter what the larger forces of the markets  have proclaimed. This is not fully true because of monopolies and cartels – especially in these days of globalisation, where the stated aims of many multinational corporations are to make these forms of economic plunder almost routine.

Even on a smaller scale Hayek, addressing capitalist organisations in 1961, put their moral case just as pertinently: ‘We (capitalists) can decide whether the material reward others are prepared to pay for our services makes it worthwhile to render them.’ (The Moral element in Free Enterprise, pages 229 – 236 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, 1966)

Compare this with his contention that market processes are impersonal  (The Constitution of Liberty, page 45).

Neo-Liberalism claims that human beings are (basically) rule-following animals

This is a claim without substance, and differs from every serious account of human nature that I have read. For instance, I recently reviewed a very useful and interesting book  (The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert) which had a brief description of the human race:

‘The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; further inland they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably heavier, who have been living on the continent longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off.
The current system is beyond human control
In Hayek’s theory this is because capitalism is not a system formed by humans, but an entity that spontaneously formed itself. This is so singular (so idiosyncratic) a view that, unless grasped, it renders much of his early writing in The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty almost illogical. At least I found it so.

Conclusion: The pillars of the present system are crumbling; It is rickety (liable to break or fail) as Thomas Piketty so  thoroughly exposed.
 It requires major restructuring .

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Debate on Tax and Small Government Flares Yet Again



Recent Claims by Joe Hockey that Australians pay about half their income to the Government through the tax system has once more spurred a broader debate about tax reform - and the falsehoods spread by the Conservatives and Economic Liberals to rationalise their Ideology.



Tristan Ewins

January 25th 2015



Recently debate has arisen once more about rates of tax in this country. Again Joe Hockey has come out with totally unfounded claims that individuals on average pay half of their income in tax.

 In response ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie has argued that in fact middle income earners pay only 11 per cent of their income in personal tax, and higher income groups only about 20 per cent.  

Peter Martin of ‘The Age’ further explains how: “ACOSS [arrived] at the figures by including all household income in its total, including untaxed or lightly taxed…Income washed through superannuation, family trusts and negatively geared properties.”

Martin also explains how:

“The bottom one-fifth of households pay 3 per cent of their income in personal tax, the next group pays 7 per cent, middle group 11 per cent, the second-top group 15 per cent and the top group 20 per cent…

But [this] progressivity vanishes when other forms of tax are included. Including the goods and services tax and other consumption taxes such as petrol and tobacco excise, the lowest earning household pays 24 per cent of its income in tax and the highest earning household only a little more at 28 per cent.”

So the existing system is also barely progressive when taken as a whole; and the Conservatives want to dilute or reverse this even more!

 And today Gareth Hutchens of ‘The Age’ has also questioned the facts surrounding Joe Hockey’s claim that increased taxation through bracket creep is ‘the only alternative’ if Labor does not support the Conservative government’s austerity agenda. 

Crucially: improper reliance on bracket creep and increases in the GST and other regressive taxes and charges – including user pays mechanisms - are not the only alternative.

 The Liberals’ offensive against and all forms of redistribution rests upon their commitment to a classical liberal economic philosophy which naturalises the inequalities in wealth, income and power that arise under capitalism. Employers rather than workers are seen as ‘the real wealth creators’. Workers are seen as freely entering into contracts with employers. Their bargaining power as relates to skills in the marketplace are recognised; but the influence of trade unions in improving that bargaining position of workers is not. Differences in recompense based on demand and supply in the labour market are also ‘naturalised’. Because of this ‘naturalisation’ government intervention in the economy is rejected outright – except for instance in cases where this paradigm is enforced – for instance through impositions against the industrial liberties of organised labour. Hence the Conservatives and economic libertarians press for ‘simpler’ tax and lower tax because that means less redistribution.

 There is also the question of peoples’ own liberties in their capacities as consumers. This issue is raised by the Conservatives and economic liberals and deserves a considered response. There is the question of whether or not we are better off to determine our own ‘needs structures’ freely through consumption.

 Very few socialists today would aspire to abolishing ‘the market’ in its entirety. Most socialists today would recognise the place of ‘the market’ as a medium by which workers and citizens in their capacities as consumers hold corporations accountable through the play of market signals. Importantly, though, this entails the organisation of people in their capacity as consumers – both to improve the quality of information they can access as consumers – but also improving their market power through collective bargaining as consumers.

 But there are problems with this ‘market utopia’. Information is not perfect. Consumers are not sufficiently organised. There are monopolies and oligopolies which minimise the effective role of competitive market forces and signals. And there is the possibility of consumers prevailing to the expense of the more poorly organised workers. That is: the prospect of more – not less –exploitation. 

ALSO where there is intense competition there is the problem of investment in ‘the means of production’ growing so disproportionate compared with recompense through wages that the market is no longer able to absorb these costs – or provide sufficient consumption power to absorb what is produced.

 But if all this is true what are the alternatives?

 Firstly Labor should support a progressive restructuring of the tax system as a whole. That must mean winding back superannuation concessions for the well-off – a good proportion out of about $50 billion in total by 2016-17. In total superannuation concessions cost about as much the entire aged pension budget. It could also mean partially withdrawing dividend imputation (tax breaks ostensibly to negate ‘double taxation’) - justified on distributive grounds – and with exemptions for ‘small investors’. 

Further – it could entail an active restructuring of the income tax system – as opposed to ‘passively’ waiting for bracket creep to ‘do its work’. ‘Passive’ reliance on bracket creep for lower and middle income tax thresholds would have a regressive distributive effect. (which is why Hockey is willing to consider it despite his preference for ‘ever smaller government’) But restructuring and altering income tax scales and rates could allow bracket creep to work for higher income earners, delivering billions while actually reducing income tax for those on low incomes. A new top income tax rate could also be established for the millionaires. And restoration of a robust ‘resource rent’ tax for mining could deliver billions; as could ‘super profits’ taxes in crucial areas such as banking. Finally: with modest increases in corporate tax we could signal our desire to end the ‘race to the bottom’ that results in effective ‘corporate welfare’.

If an incoming Labor Government succeeded in raising at least $45 billion in new Commonwealth revenue (in today’s terms) through these and other measures in its first term upon retaking government it would be in a strong position to deliver on Australian taxpayers needs in education, health, transport, communications, welfare and more. Specifically it could fund big initiatives such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme progressively; And could also provide for another area of critical need – for a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme. Without austerity.

 In response the Conservatives and economic libertarians would insist that public provision ‘rejects the market’ which is the proper arbiter of all goods and services.

 But Labor must reject such claims for several very practical reasons; as well as for the sake of economic justice.

 Firstly ‘collective consumption’ as taxpayers can often secures for us ‘a better deal’ than in our capacities as isolated private consumers. Private infrastructure means user pays – which hits low and middle income citizens hardest. It also involves higher rates of borrowing – with the cost structures passed on to consumers. Finally it means private profit margins and dividends – which demand that as much income be extracted from consumers as is possible. And in the case of private toll roads, for instance, can mean the exclusion of public transport investment to artificially support the particular private investors.

 Competition in place of ‘strategic and natural public monopoly’ also passes on increased underlying cost-structures to consumers. A ‘hybrid’ economic system which delivered those efficient cost structures on would mean more consumption power – not less. Business actually gains from this. Both through cheaper infrastructure and services – but also through the increased consumption power of workers and citizens.

 Hence there is ‘the bottom line’ that tax-payers would have more to spend in the areas where choice is most important as a consequence of strategic ‘collective consumption’; including ‘social insurance’ for instance. And frankly ‘market forces’ do not necessarily make enough of a difference when it comes to roads and rail; or in the provision of water and energy; or in areas that are properly the reserve of ‘natural public monopoly’. (eg: energy, water, communications, and transport infrastructure) Often it all comes down to a contest as to which provider can most efficiently fleece consumers with unintelligible deals and plans foisted upon people who would much rather take ‘the basics’ for granted. And in areas like Education – ‘market choice’ just sorts us out on the basis of our capacity to pay. That is, on the basis of class. And that is unfair.

 But if ordinary people secure a ‘better deal’ through collective consumption in these areas that frees up more money for determining our needs structures in the areas where that really counts. For instance, including but not limited to the consumption and other participation in culture, sport, fitness, social activity and art. 

The time has come to question neo-liberal shibboleths around ‘small government’ and ‘the market’. An alternative is possible which delivers a better deal for the general public in our capacities as workers, citizens and consumers. But which has also learned from the mistakes of the old socialism which thought it could supersede ‘the market’ entirely.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Andrew Bolt on ‘Charlie Hedbo’ and Free Speech: A Response

 
The arguments about free speech are often complex.  But freedoms and liberties must be defended
 
Tristan Ewins, Jan 11th, 2014

Andrew Bolt has fired another salvo against the Australian Left (Heald-Sun, Jan 10th 2015); this time accusing the Left – and what he ironically calls ‘the ruling classes’ of this country – of ‘giving in’ in the face of Terror.  He argues that the French satirical publication ‘Charlie Hedbo’ was “almost alone” and that this emboldened the killers.   He argues that ‘the Left’ is hypocritical in the sense of constantly satirising, attacking and mocking Christianity – while claiming Islamophobia in response to critiques of Islam.  For Bolt censorship and self-censorship mean ‘the Terrorists have won’.   Bolt also condemns the racial vilification laws which he claims led to the ‘banning’ of two of his articles.  Bolt complains of ‘mainstream’ journalists ‘celebrating’ this decision; though surely this is a bit ingenuous given his claim to be ‘Australia’s most read columnist’.      He also attacks Australia’s migration program in so far as it welcomes “mass immigration from the Third World”.  Finally he claims Islam’s claim to be ‘a religion of peace’ is false in light of Koranic scripture urging the deaths of those who mock the Prophet Muhammed.   

Where do we start in responding to Bolt?  

On the matter of Left hypocrisy I personally sometimes cut a lone figure in requesting respect and sensitivity towards the Christian faith in the face of sometimes-hateful attacks.   The Christian emphasis on ‘turning the other cheek’ perhaps suggests a certain acceptance even in the face of criticism.  Rational (not hateful) criticism, indeed, is welcome – and has informed a shift in Christian thinking over recent decades to made an accommodation with liberalism.  Though in earlier centuries some church leaders were complicit in repression and Terror.  

There are liberal Muslims just as there are liberal Christians.  Though in the West liberal Christianity is more prevalent. There are relatively rare Christians who still advocate an unreformed interpretation of Scripture. But most today have turned from ‘Biblical literalism’ in areas such as Creationism for instance.  (instead Genesis is held by some  to be a parable containing a mystery which few understand; Though this should not mean we close our minds to the prospect of mysteries as yet not understood – for instance free will and consciousness itself)

The shift towards liberalism; of ‘turning the other cheek’; and the rejection of literalism has moderated what social conflicts may have arisen between liberalism, secularism and Christianity.  These tendencies in Christianity reveal  the falsehoods in many hostile caricatures of the faith.  We have had ‘Piss Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and yet many Christians accept that even while this may be hurtful, it is part of the liberal pluralist order we live in.

But where does Islam stand?   Just like there is liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism, also there are liberal movements within Islam.  There have been attempts to moderate the message of Islam.  Greater gender equality is promoted as well as pluralistic and individual interpretations of the Koran.  There is respect for democracy and human rights; slavery is rejected.   Yet arguably if one looks around the world today, both Shia and Sunni regimes – from the Saudis to the Iranians – these regimes have been reticent in adopting a liberal/reform orientation.   There are barbaric instances of corporal and capital punishment; women are often second class citizens; sexuality is stigmatised. Yet in a throwback to an earlier time self-proclaimed Christians in Uganda have sought to criminalise homosexuality as well – with potential life sentences for those practicing their sexuality.   

In response to Bolt it is fair enough for a democracy to hesitate before welcoming any who do not share basic precepts when it comes to liberal and human rights.  To welcome refugees is an exception – as there is the global responsibility to provide refuge for the persecuted.  And often the wars which refugees flee are proxy conflicts – the consequence of ‘Great Power’ interventions. 

It ought be noted that in the past similar arguments have been deployed to prevent communists and other left radicals from being accepted into our society. But while in the past many were deluded about the reality in ‘really-existing’ communist regimes, their orientation was nonetheless progressive when it came to defending liberal rights at home; as well as the rights of women, indigenous peoples, those of queer sexuality, the industrial liberties of workers and so on.  But anti-modernist radicals – whether they are Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, Shia from Iran, or Christians from Uganda – pose a potential threat to liberalism if ever their challenge to Modernity reached the critical point.  That is for example in Australia: if ever they comprised so formidable a bloc as to hold decisive political and cultural leverage

Against this – Despite some peoples’ over-blown fears, those of Islamic faith comprise only two per cent of the Australian population.  And well-intentioned engagement between liberals and Muslims could result in many more Muslims shifting into the liberal camp. Much as occurred with Christianity.  An uncontrolled influx could change this; but that is not the situation.

Yet that engagement is threatened by the ‘culture war warriors’ who would preach a message of civil conflict on religion rather than engagement.  Bolt is sceptical of Muslims claiming that theirs is ‘a religion of peace’.  But we would do well to remember it was not all that long ago that religion was cited as a rationale and a justification for centuries of colonialism and Imperialism of various European Great Powers.  Today strategic interventions and proxy wars are also justified on the basis of liberal and democratic Ideology.  But beneath the surface a more complex picture emerges.  Great Power bases in Syria and Qatar; fears over an Iranian bomb; attempts to isolate Iran through destabilising its Syrian ally (with over 200,000 dead!); the Syrian intervention backfiring with the rise of Islamic State – and yet even Islamic State could be could be seen by some as a counterbalance to Iran in the region. It is often very cynical. (the previous balance of power was wrecked through George Bush’s Second Gulf War, which ironically for the time was supported by Israel).

Finally we come to Bolt’s cries of censorship.

Censorship is a difficult question, and interestingly today it is self-proclaimed right-libertarians who advocate unmitigated and unmoderated free speech in the face of suggestions from others on the Left that speech be regulated – whether through state interference in the monopoly mass media, or through enforcing stronger racial discrimination laws.  

There is a lot to be reviled in the American settlement when it comes to their threadbare social security and welfare safety net; the neglect and rescission of workers’ liberties; oppressively low minimum wages; tolerance of homelessness on a mass scale…  But despite the hypocrisies of McCarthyism in times past for instance, ‘free speech’ is enshrined in the American Constitution and as part of American identity.  This notion of ‘absolute’ and ‘inalienable’ rights gives the far right conditions under which they can organise.  But it also provides a vital protection for the Left which could be utterly crucial, perhaps, in the future.  Without the argument of ‘free speech’ Doc Evatt would most certainly have failed in his defence of the liberal rights of Australian Communists.

In Australia we face similar dilemmas.  Andrew Bolt’s comments about indigenous Australians were hurtful, offensive and I believe they were cynical. Indigenous identity is about more that the colour of ones’ skin.  And preferentional assistance through Abstudy, for instance, is intended to ‘close the gap’ when it comes to educational opportunity. Arguably ‘Closing the Gap’ needs to be a core aspect in a future Treaty.

Though Justice Bromburg, who decided on the Bolt case, insisted that he was not banning Bolt from sincerely debating the issue of indigenous identity.  And Bolt-critic Chelsea Bond argued that Bolt was not actually a racist.  Yet Bond argues that Bolt’s approach: “reveals his own anxiety toward the dilution of the 'coloniser's' identity, power and privilege.”   Bolt was exploiting these anxieties for cultural and political gain; and to this author therefore his endeavours were cynical in nature. 

There are important arguments here – for instance the need for a cultural settlement which reconciles the plurality of Australian identities – including that of pre-multi-cultural and Anglo identity and culture – as a means of ‘heading-off’ grievances, far-right organisation and irrational conflicts into the future.  (Although there never was a ‘mono-cultural’ Australia; and a past-world of Anglo/Irish tension is forgotten now by many)  Rejection of an ‘older’ Australian identity could drive many into the arms of the Reaction.

But should Bolt’s cynical comments have literally been BANNED? Certainly Bolt himself appears intolerant of any place for radical progressive speech in this country. His depiction of the ABC as a mouthpiece of the Left plays up to a now familiar Right-discourse around supposed Left-cultural-elites’ versus ‘the ordinary people’ – ‘the masses’.  This perspective was developed by Constitutional Monarchist and Conservative David Flint.  It is intended to remove any and almost all space available for the ‘genuine Left’ to be heard.   The ABC appears to feel it needs to prove ‘it is not radical’.  And at the same time the ABC increasingly leans towards ‘Centrist’ and ‘Centre-Right’ commentary.

This discourse on ‘Elites’ is deployed in order to play to cultural anxieties; while at the same time downplaying the class interests of the great majority of working people, as well as the marginal and the working poor.  American author Joe Bageant has compellingly written in his “Deer Hunting with Jesus” book how in the United States how ‘the white working poor’ are increasingly propagandised by right-wing Ideology; and how this process is inflamed by ‘class based putdowns’.  (indeed: we could also raise such language such as ‘white trash’ – which at once vilify on the basis of class AND race)  American liberalism’s de-prioritisation of social class as a unifying issue inflames the problem further; and the Labor Party in Australia might be seen as falling into a similar trap. 

The answer is not to ban conservative speech. Though perhaps there are exceptions such as Holocaust Denial – which could lead to ‘a culture of forgetting’ – and in the long term even a rehabilitation of fascism. (or even fascism’s worst historical manifestation, Nazism)  But every time we make an exception to free speech and weaken its absolute nature we potentially provide our enemies the very weapons that could be turned against us into the future.   Also – while perhaps an impossible ideal, Jurgen Habermas’s ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ is such an ideal as to be worth questing after in many respects.  Along with pluralism and acceptance of mediated conflict engagement is also a potentially core-foundation for liberal democracy. 

The problem is that on the Left we simply do not have the resources to be heard and considered alongside the cacophony of right-wing viewpoints.  So we are far from a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’.  Censorship is not the answer;  but the articulation of a broad new historic bloc is.  What is needed is a united front against domination and injustice.  That is to mobilise the necessary resources to bring about what Austrian Social Democrats once called ‘growth from within’ – but on a broader basis -  amidst disciplined solidarity.  There is scope for ‘asymmetrical cultural struggle’ with the rise of the internet.  But also a need to promote REAL pluralism via public and community media; involving an inclusive exchange across the entire spectrum – save for the far right.  The same inclusive pluralism must guide reform of school curricula also.

But none of this demands the silencing of Andrew Bolt.  Rights might not be absolute – especially in the midst of extreme circumstances.  But we all have a duty to avoid the escalation of civil conflict to the point where brute repression and Terror become reality. We can challenge Andrew Bolt without banning his speech.  And we can show solidarity with Charlie Hedbo by confronting the associated issues openly and open-mindedly – but avoid an escalation of rhetoric which would only polarise our society along religious and ethnic grounds.  And we must learn the lessons of past interventions – for instance in Iraq – which created the conditions for the war in Syria, and also the rise of the Islamic State movement.

Finally – without supressing speech – a discourse on ‘responsible’ speech should aim to avoid language of extreme escalation and polarisation on the grounds of religion or race. 

We must be uncompromising in defending rights of speech, assembly, association, conscience, as well as other liberties. (eg: industrial liberties)  The mass rallies in France and Australia demonstrate that Charlie Hedbo is now far from alone: Hundreds of thousands have mobilised to support free speech; and to reject intimidation through Terror.

But ideally freedom should be balanced with honest self-criticism. This may seem to go ‘against the spirit’ of Charlie Hedbo.   But it might be a precondition for the engagement which could promote long-term harmony between religion and liberal rights in this country.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Andrews Labor Win in Victoria means Challenges and Opportunities for Change


 
 
above:   Daniel Andrews' convincing win for Victorian State Labor provides a window for change: hopefully a opportunity that he will make the most of
 
Tristan Ewins

Daniel Andrews is set to take office for Labor in Victoria with a resounding electoral endorsement.

But one crucial issue was neglected by everyone during the campaign. 

Arguably no state government in the country has secured the revenue necessary to sustain government provision of public infrastructure in everything from transport to public housing and education over the long term.

Interestingly, former Conservative Victorian Premier Denis Napthine himself had argued at one point for a higher GST.   This could deliver the necessary funds to the states generally. Though the measure would have hit low income groups hardest, and hence would have been unfair. 

Meanwhile so-called ‘Public Private Partnerships’ (and ‘full-blown’ privatisation as well) also inevitably involve regressive user-pays mechanisms; and arguably are less efficient means of finance.  ‘The Age’-columnist Ken Davidson has long made this argument to the chagrin of Labor and Liberal state governments alike.    This makes the cause of progressive tax reform all the more pressing.

Progressive tax reform is necessary to provide for working families who increasingly cannot afford a roof over their heads; or who endure insufficient transport infrastructure; or who may be the targets of future unfair  ‘user-pays’ mechanisms via toll-roads and the like.  We need to sustain more public spending, not less – to provide the roads, public transport, schools and public housing necessary to ensure no-one ‘gets left behind’; to gently deflate the housing bubble; and so services and infrastructure are funded sustainably and fairly.  Again: That MUST mean increasing progressively sourced revenue Federally and ‘locking in’ the provision of necessary funds on to the States.  The states desperately need certainty on this point.

During the Victorian State election campaign both sides committed to ‘no new taxes’.  Immediately, therefore, apparently Andrews ‘hands appear to be tied’ on the revenue front.  Although perhaps  the way may still be open to increase existing taxes.   The dilemma is achieving this progressively.  

But none of this is to say Andrews Labor cannot agitate loudly and clearly – along with the Weatherill South Australian State Labor Government – on a  ‘new front’: refuting Abbott’s Ideological commitment to a ‘small government’.

Incidentally the ‘small government mentality’ – with all its consequences – appears to be prevalent at a Federal Labor level as well.  A long-time member of the Victorian Socialist Left, it would be well for Andrews to publicly adopt the cause of proportionately increased, fairly structured and progressive social expenditure.

In the meantime Andrews Labor is committed to suite of policies including support for social and public housing – with regulations aimed at ensuring affordability for the aged and the disabled.  As well there is Andrews Labor’s commitment to removing dangerous level crossings;  and delivering enhanced fire services and reduced ambulance waiting times.  There is also Labor’s popular commitment to restoring funding for TAFE campuses; and establishing jobs, education and training as a ‘top priority’.  Finally the public voted for Labor on a platform of cancelling the expensive Public Private Partnership on ‘East-West Link’.

But limited Victorian State revenues remains the bugbear that may come back to haunt the new government.   Over the short-term Labor can afford to spend; and indeed needs to spend in order to deliver the Victorian jobs recovery it has promised.  But for this to be sustained over the long term something has to change federally.   And arguably failure to build crucial infrastructure would mean ‘bottlenecks’ which over the long term do much more damage to the economy than increased public debt.  Abbott must take responsibility, here, rather than follow through his political blackmail of withdrawing federal funds.

These arguments need to be addressed by Federal Labor also if Shorten is to deliver the full NDIS, as well as Gonski, and other potentially popular initiatives.  That should include a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme;  as well as Medicare dental, physio and optical; and for much more public and social housing to ‘gently deflate’ the housing bubble.  Also crucial are funds and programs ‘close the gap’ on life-expectancy,  and provide life opportunities for the mentally ill.  And finally we have to reiterate that federal tax reform is crucial if efficient public investment in state infrastructure (roads, public transport, schools, energy, public housing) is to be sustained over the long term.

It is also regrettable that Andrews Labor  has provided for its promise on level-crossings through privatisation of the Port of Melbourne.  Definitely it was smart politics; and the role of ‘smart politics’ in the Andrews Labor victory should not be understated.  But arguably inferior cost structures (including profit margins) will now flow on to the broader economy over the long term.  This is a ‘once-off’ shot to public revenue that once implemented cannot be reversed.  There is a comparison, here, with Abbott’s privatisation of Medibank Private.  Although that policy will have specific ramifications: creating a near-private monopoly in private health insurance, with the market-dominance of the newly-private player working against the interests of consumers.  Also
hundreds of millions will be lost to the public in revenue every year.  

Finally, Andrews Labor has the opportunity to pursue other progressive reforms; not least of all developing a progressive agenda on secondary curriculum that takes on the Conservative education orthodoxy championed by the likes of Liberal stalwart Kevin Donnelly.   As against Donnelly’s professed narrow emphasis on numeracy and basic literacy there is a place in secondary curricula for the imparting of critical thinking and textual deconstruction.  That applies the English, the Social Science  and Humanities as well.  Education should not merely apply to ‘labour market requirements’, but also must promote the demands of active and critical citizenship, as well as political literacy, and cultural literacy, participation and inclusion.  Curricula should  aim to develop ‘well-rounded human beings’.  

There is no need for bias in such a curriculum, however.  The Liberal Party itself is struggling to survive organisationally as the young increasingly abandon political activism. Rather a ‘critical/active’ curriculum could promote an appreciation of interests and ideologies which was inclusive and balanced.  As against Donnelly’s fears, it need not preach moral and cultural relativism.   Such reform could be ‘streamlined’ through English, History, a new ‘Political Economy’ subject, and should attract support from all who are serious about of robust democracy. 

Under Joan Kirner curriculum reform was a top priority.  So too should it be under the Andrews Victorian Labor Government.

 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Compelling yet Neglected Book – The Sixth Extinction




The publisher of this blog (Tristan Ewins) is busy right now completing his PhD; But Eric Aarons has been kind enough to provide us with another book review - this time on the book 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert.   Eric Aarons engages with Probert' book - explaining the causes of extinction in the past - and the threat for further extinctions and damage to the natural environment. In essence -  capitalism is viewed as a system which takes growth and consumerism to extremes - in a way which is not sustainable.


 
Reviewed  by  Eric Aarons

The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a practiced journalist and a widely read science commentator. She has written a book that is not about what may be coming, but what we are already in – a massive extinction of species. We know through scientific research of five of these that occurred before human beings even existed; but the sixth is our very own creation.  We have fittingly described the era we are now living in by the word ‘Anthropocene’, which proclaims that we are now the species that dominates all the rest, not only the animal, vegetable and insect, but also the  mineral coating of rock, water, and soil that enfolds the molten rock that forms most of the plane.

We do not own it, but are its custodians – a concept that includes caring for and looking after, a task with which we have yet to adequately cope.

Kolbert writes a prologue recognising the fragility of the newly evolved (about 200 million years ago) human ape, now self-described as Homo-sapiens (man the wise); but she also specifies the survival talents we possess. We are not especially swift or strong, but are singularly resourceful. We multiply readily, and are equipped to push into regions with different climates, predators and prey. We can cope with difficult terrain and spread worldwide, including to Australia where we had to cope with building some kind of vessel and cross a wide stretch of water without being able to first see the far shore. We encounter very large animals but cope with the dangers they pose, inventing new weapons. Not least, we find the way to make, and up to a point, control fire.          

We leave behind in our their travels collections of our species, which become permanent bodies of people with distinctive physical characteristics and patterns of behaviour (culture), influenced by different surroundings, and patterns of behaviour established, perhaps through influential individuals.

The so-called ‘races’ are not variations on the Homo sapiens species genetic identity, as Noel Pearson correctly pointed out in his recently published Quarterly Essay: ‘A rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth’. They are rather significant modifications of physical appearance and cultural behaviour, often relating to climatic and occupational sources.

Extinctions

The French naturalist Georges Cuvier began the close examination of animal extinctions. Employed as a teacher at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, he had time to spare. He used it to examine the extensive collections it held of animal bones and skeletons which were widely collected at the time as curiosities. He noticed, in particular, the value of teeth in identifying various specific species of elephant, noticing, for instance, that ‘the elephant from Ceylon differs more from that of Africa than the horse from the ass or the goat from the sheep.’ (pp. 28-29).

He had discovered extinction – a world previous to ours 

He then posed the question about two large and different skeletons which did not correspond to any known living animal, concluding they must have come from ‘lost’ (that is, now extinct) species. But this posed another question: What could kill off huge animals, far bigger than elephants? The answer he gave was: catastrophes, cataclysms!

This view prevailed for some years, but was questioned by geologist Charles Lyell, who saw all round him mainly examples of peaceful and very slow change. Typically, ‘both’ turned out to be the case.

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This illustrates the human tendency to go to extremes. Indeed, there have been many catastrophes in Earth’s history (though, thankfully, they are infrequent). Past ones, caused by collision with extra- territorial bodies have been located through measuring the amount of the element Iridium, in earth samples. This element exists in small amounts on earth, but is more plentiful in meteors and other larger objects which the earth encounters from time to time.

The last one (135 million years ago) struck a glancing blow on the Yucatan peninsula near the southern end of present Mexico.  It created a ‘nuclear winter’ by the worldwide dust blocking out the sun for a long time. This  killed off the dinosaurs, creating conditions in which mammals could flourish, eventually giving rise to apes, from which we humans emerged, appearing as ‘lords of creation’, but now also the source of massive extinctions,  as we shall see.   

Our first and very own extinction?

It was probably the Great Auk. We ate it.

It was a large flightless bird about 80 cms tall, laying nutritious eggs about 12 cms long, and was  eaten on and offshore. It was a source of soft feathers cruelly pulled out to stuff mattresses, and their oily flesh was used for fuel. When Europeans first found them there were up to one hundred thousand pairs on their favoured island off the coast of Canada, while the last individual was killed in 1844. (page 62) 

From there I pass to Chapter 5 where the author introduces us to the era in which we now are, and act as ‘Monarchs of all we Survey’, designating it as the ‘Anthropocene‘. We skip over some species that are produced by oceans to the oceans themselves (Chapter 6), to the  small island of Castello Aragonese, which has been produced by the very large forces of the northward drift of the African continent. Oceans occupy 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, and there is constant exchange of gases between atmosphere which varies as, through combustion of fossil fuels, we put, increasing quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, forming a weak but nevertheless powerful shell and coral dissolving  acid. 

But it is the rapid rate of increase that is the biggest problem:

If we were adding CO2 to the air more slowly, geophysical properties like the weathering of rock would come into play to counteract acidification. As it is, things are moving too fast for such slow- acting to keep up . . . time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time. (Page 123)

The way corals change the world – with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations – might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them. (page 130) 

The Fate of the Megafauna 

As boney skeletons attest, large animals and birds existed on most continents, and in the oceans, including the mighty whales. On Australia’s eastern seaboard many human ‘whale- watchers’ appear to see them in their north-migration season. But there are now no living members of, for instance, the Diprotodon, a giant wombat with a weight approaching that of a smallish elephant.

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The writer of this review is also a sculptor, and to honour this animal made a sculpture of a female of the species out of a 9 tonne block of golden granite. This now stands in the sculpture park of the Campbelltown Arts Centre near Sydney, where children like to ride upon its back.

Discussion was keen about the cause of the extinctions, but now the major cause today, in the author’s view, is that it lies with us ourselves - that is, with the things we do, and the rate at which we do them.

Causes of The SixthExtinction – the one we humans have caused, not nature   

Biological processes, which involve chemical reactions, take time, more time than they do in test tubes, because they have to collect, pass through membranes, then react with others. The changes needed to set in motion the ‘origin of new species’, as postulated by Darwin and Wallace and is now almost universally accepted, likewise take time, far more time since a great number of entities, both living and inanimate are also involved.  

Elizabeth Kolbert is telling us that in our very own age – the Anthropocene – we humans are now changing the world so rapidly that a growing number of species do not have enough time to replicate, because we are changing the outside conditions too fast for them to viably adapt. She points out that ‘caring more’ is welcome, [but] what is important is ‘that people change the world’ [too much, too quickly]. (page 266)                                                                                                      

The Neanderthals

I now return to the text, in particular to the penultimate chapter that deals with the discovery of a new but now extinct species – the humanoid Homo neanderthalensis.  It was named after the Neander valley near Cologne, where it was first discovered in 1856. Later, its bones turned up all over Europe and the Middle East, then as far north as Wales, as far south as Israel , and east to the Caucasus.

They lived in teepees, made clothes of a kind from animal skins (it was  very cold in Europe at the time) and made and used stone tools by flaking. Perhaps most significantly they ‘made love’ as the saying goes, with humans, sometimes producing progeny that lived. We don’t know whether they had a language in our sense, but the most striking fact was how like human beings they could have looked when dressed in human garb. There are a number of pictures in the book of them so garbed in our clothing, and the resemblance is uncanny, perhaps unsettling. 

Elizabeth Kolbert has deliberately labelled the chapter ‘The Madness Gene’, dealing with the human characteristic of ‘going to extremes’. Personally, this reviewer does not consider this trait to be genetically based, though it could be culturally determined by the fact that, for capitalism, there is no limit to the amount of profit that can be made in given circumstances.

The capitalist system is presently in an economic state that has not yet been solved with its current tools, and is faced with a culturally strong group of nearly 2 billion Muslim peoples that it needlessly aroused into a state of enmity - and  that it is finding increasingly difficult to deal with.  

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Each different social system makes a different bed to lie on, or to spring from, and the current one – capitalism – repeatedly demonstrates the power of ‘more’, bigger, deeper, higher, further, faster. But this can’t go on for ever, as it now threatens to do, 

Moderation

This is not a dirty word, but it is often treated with scorn or anger as if it were.

It is, and I think actually has been in the past, a sign of civilisation in our cultural activities of speaking, writing, music making, eating, drinking and personal relations. We actually look for it in the top level of sports, but also savour, and nominate as ‘sporting’, empathetic treatment of one contestant to another who is suffering from some form of difficulty.

I believe, especially after reading the warning alarms sounded by the author in this book, that we should moderate our own behaviour, as a species, in regard to the needs of other species, and of our own, and of future human generations. 

I think her heading of the penultimate chapter about Neanderthals, ‘The Madness Gene’, goes a bit far, even as an exaggeration, to make a good point, and could tend to weaken the necessity to act now! But I offer her my heartfelt congratulations on researching and writing it.

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