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Saturday, October 21, 2017

What does 'Revolutionary' mean to Socialist Democrats today?




Above: Austro-Marxist leader and Theoretician, Otto Bauer



Does (and should) 'Revolutionary' mean anything anymore to the Democratic Socialist Left?




Should it mean anything anymore within the ALP Socialist Left?




Dr Tristan Ewins


A comrade in the ALP Socialist Left recently rebuked me for discussing "revolutionary" politics ; and said that "thankfully" the vast majority in the ALP SL are NOT revolutionaries and that that's "the beginning and the end of the discussion thankfully".



This was my response:



"When we speak of 'revolutionary' aims not everyone is talking of the same thing. Personally I'm NOT talking about an insurrection ; armed or otherwise. What I am talking about is qualitative change ; preferably through democratic channels ; though being prepared for whatever resistance may arise against said qualitative change through democratic channels when push comes to shove. So I'm talking about what various Leftists have described as 'slow revolution' or 'revolutionary reforms'.

What would be a 'revolutionary reform'? Well the Meidner Plan held that promise for a start. (ie: an economic plan which would have rewarded workers with collective capital share in return for wage restraint ; with the consequence workers collectively would over time become the dominant force in the Swedish economy) Going back further: free, universal and equal suffrage comprised a kind of 'democratic and political revolution' which only became possible in many countries following the end of World War I - and the fear of Bolshevism.


Were we around in the 19th Century - or in the 1917-19 period , would we have fought for the suffrage ; or would we have rejected 'revolutionary' changes of all sorts as a matter of policy so as not to rock the boat?


When I talk about a democratic economic revolution I'm talking about democratic collective capital formation ; restoring a robust mixed economy ; supporting co-operatives (producers' and consumers') with state aid. I'm also talking about decisive state support for the voluntary and domestic sectors. I'm talking about going down that road to the point where 'the democratic sector' becomes dominant. And hence a pivotal shift in the balance of class forces.


I'm also talking about a 'democratic cultural and political revolution' : driven by an exponential increase in political participation and consciousness. Where there is a qualitative change (a revolution) in our democracy which takes the form of said consciousness and participation.


For Marxists the final aim is to replace wage labour with economic democracy ; and then to transition to stateless communism. I'm not a full blown communist because I tend to believe human nature is not perfectible ; and therefore I think some kind of state power (albeit democratised) will be necessary for a long time to come.


I think the suppression of wage labour (ie: typified by the exploitation of labour by capital) can be taken so far ; But at a point you run into very serious resistance from the transnational corporations and often by their state-facilitators. Look what happened to Gough ; and look what happened under Rudd re: the Mining Tax. Also there’s the problem of ‘workers exploiting themselves’. Collective capital formation (workers - and hopefully citizens - holding what collectively is a significant share in capital) is a potentially democratising force. (I specify 'citizens' as well so as not to exclude non-capitalist citizens who for whatever reason are outside of the workforce ; eg: pensioners) Hence my support for democratic collective capital formation as policy. At this point it’s a good outcome. But it also creates complexities which would be hard to resolve. So importantly I'm talking about a process - in this country and globally - which spans decades - and maybe more. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a kind of revolution - which took maybe a couple of centuries. Why not be a revolutionary over the long run?


Indeed the Guaranteed Minimum Income that some of my critics support (and I support as well) itself has revolutionary potential - by getting rid of workers' dependence on selling their labour power to capital in order to survive. Perhaps critics are just worried some Liberal will take the word "revolutionary" out of context ; and depict us all as terrorists or the like? But where do you draw the line then? Do we stop talking about socialism as well? Do we stop talking about 'capitalism' as anything less than 'an eternal absolute'? A truly 'closed system' ; which cannot be relativised or criticised ; and with no way out?



I'm a 'revolutionary' in the sense I support not only political citizenship ; but also social citizenship and economic citizenship. That's how some Swedish radicals viewed the question interestingly enough. 'Economic citizenship' would be a revolution to democratise the economy. 'Social Citizenship' involves the extension of social rights ; including those delivered via the welfare state, regulated labour market and social wage. 'Political citizenship' WAS the political and liberal revolution. And it's not necessarily finished yet either. So what's really so objectionable about all this at the end of the day?"


Finally and interestingly: the ‘Austro-Marxists’ (arguably one of the theoretically-most-significant tendencies in 20th Century European Marxism) talked about "slow revolution" ; especially during the interwar period ; Which they meant in a very similar way in which I use the word. They were also amongst the first to theorise 'multi-culturalism' - in the context of the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire. (ie: 'what would replace the Empire?')



The idea of 'revolution via democracy' is not new or unprecedented. And Yes - if Bill Shorten started talking about it at this point then it would confuse people. I doubt it reflects his world-view in any case. But here on the relative margins we can discuss it ; and maybe we should discuss it within the ALP Socialist Left (internally) as well ; as part of a process of working out what the ALP Socialist Left really stands for these days. It’s a long struggle to rehabilitate the language and substance of democratic revolution from shallow understandings. (ie: that 'revolution' means 'violence'.) But I think it's worth it in the long run. And it is crucial that people see we're NOT suggesting a 'revolution against democracy' ; but rather "a gradual, democratic (and hopefully peaceful) revolution FROM WITHIN democracy - to EXTEND democracy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

150th Anniversary of Capital : Marx still Highly-Relevant Despite the Critics



Debating Marx's ‘Labour Theory of Value’ and 'Marx on the Environment' on the 150th Anniversary of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ (Vol I) ; Responding to the Critics.


Dr Tristan Ewins  ; September 2017

At the ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’ Facebook group we’ve been discussing Marx’s ‘Labour Theory of Value’.  This is notable because this year is the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ (Volume One).

In the relatively-near future I intend restructuring, editing and partially-re-writing a speech I made on that subject.

But for now I would like to discuss Marx's famous 'Labour Theory of Value' specifically.  (and also whether or not Marx 'valued' the natural environment)  Another contributor basically argued that ‘labour theory of value’ (as argued in Capital Volume One) was defunct ; and that it led a lot of people to reject Marx.   This is a pretty common response ; and certainly ‘bourgeois’ responses to Marx have often fixated on discrediting his ‘labour theory of value’.  This has arguably been partly for reasons of interest – and hence a wish to discredit the argument that labour is responsible for all ‘values’ in terms of goods and services. (with the exceptions of land and the natural environment)   But there have been philosophical arguments about the nature of ‘value’ as well.  And there has been much confusion because for Marx ‘value’ is an analytical category with a specific (non-mundane) meaning.

Typically respondents have argued that ‘value is subjective’.   And indeed in my PhD Thesis I approved of (Marxist Revisionist) Eduard Bernstein’s merging of ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ elements in his critique of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.  Therein I argued that Marx did not account sufficiently for the relative privilege of what may be called the ‘labour aristocracy’.


Anyway: Having studied Capital more closely now, though, I feel in a better position to respond with greater confidence.  Here’s my understanding, now, of ‘Labour Theory of Value’.

My understanding is that Marx's labour theory of value is in some ways a self-referential system ; and it makes sense on its own terms. To begin you have to distinguish between the price of labour power sold to employers as a commodity and 'labour theory of value' where ‘value’ is ‘the amount of labour congealed in commodities’.  Though truly the idea of "average socially necessary labour time" does not distinguish between different *kinds* of labour.  That said: Marx does not deny a subjective element to items' values - or to the use values AND exchange values of different kinds of labour power ; He even recognises differences in the relative value of different kinds of labour power at some points in Capital ; but it's true that he doesn't explore that in enough detail. It’s a complication with regard his system and perhaps hence he neglects it. We are unclear how different qualities of labour should be recompensed under socialism for instance.  So yes, there are deficiencies in some of Marx’s notions even though they are internally consistent.

To elaborate: There is a problem not only with the *mechanism* or ‘process’ of Surplus Value Extraction (in the context where all value is ultimately created by labour ; so Surplus Value can be argued for as ‘unpaid labour time’)  ; there is also a problem that while some workers experience extreme alienation (ruinous working conditions, lack of creative control or fulfilment) in return for bare-subsistence, other workers (while technically exploited) experience superior conditions (including pay, creative control, prestige, career paths) ; and historically this is played upon to disrupt solidarity within and across the working class.

But also: While Marx DOES recognise the role of Demand and Supply on the price of labour power ; he does not consider as such ‘the relative worth’ of different kinds of labour once skill, difficulty etc are accounted for.  So under democratic socialism what kind of differences of recompense are possible – or even desirable?  How for instance do we promote solidarity and mutual respect ; but also some reward for skill, difficulty, effort and so on?

Nonetheless *Surplus Value* makes perfect sense. That is: workers *broadly* are paid the means of (relative) subsistence (a privileged minority (labour aristocracy) receive considerably more than the average) ; but there is not "an exchange of equivalents" ; the employer extracts surplus value from workers' labour.  The worker is only recompensed proportionate to a fraction of what he or she creates. That much makes sense. Also 'Labour theory of value' makes sense in that values (as defined by Marx) are created by labour ; and Capital is 'value in motion' ; a process for the cyclical creation of values ; and the production of surplus value ; and hence the reproduction of the capital relationship ; and capitalism generally.  Wages maintain workers at the relative level necessary for subsistence. The surplus is extracted both to pay for the maintenance and expansion of production ; and also for the maintenance of bourgeois lifestyles. All that makes sense. And no wonder capitalists and their apologists have strived to discredit Marx ; because the analytical category of surplus value implies a devastating moral critique of capitalism.

Theoretically some return on (small) investments of capital may be warranted ; because of the real sacrifices the small (working class) investors and some petty bourgeois make. But once you start talking about the bourgeoisie proper it's a different story. Only the bourgeoisie proper has access to such credit or reserves so as to overcome the barriers to entry into certain markets. And whatever risks and initiatives the bourgeoisie take ; the fact remains that Surplus Value is extracted. And what is more that the working class is separated from the means of production ; does not control the means of production ; must labour under the capitalists’ terms and labour discipline ; does not usually have creative control over its labour ; is often employed in monotonous, partial tasks which are profoundly alienating.

So there are big problems with capitalism that Marx is still very useful in analysing. Though he also observes capitalism's inbuilt tendency to drive innovations ; in search of what he calls Relative Surplus Value.  (think of it as a 'temporary advantage' in terms of quality or productivity - often driven by technological advances) That - in tandem with what Marx calls 'the Coercive Laws of Competition' - means that capitalism still drives an enormous amount of innovation and technological development. But capitalism proceeds at a terrible cost to some workers. Especially if you're at the wrong end of the Imiseration process ; ie: if you're a textiles labourer in Bangladesh.

‘Imiseration’ refers to class bifurcation ; as well as absolute impoverishment and ruination – which Marx anticipated.  Relative Western prosperity – largely delivered by technological innovation, qualitative developments, as well as improvements in technology-driven productivity ; has been argued as a refutation of this. But arguably absolute ‘Imiseration’ has also been ‘displaced to the Third World’ ; with an ‘outer dialectic’ where Colonial/Imperialistic exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies provides ‘relief’ in Western (core) economies.  (eg: cheap consumer goods for Western workers) Nonetheless we do see ‘relative imiseration’ WITHIN Western (core) economies as well ; as with the exploitation of the working poor within the United States. (hence perhaps an ‘external’ aspect to the ‘inner’ dialectic  of class struggle within the US ; ie: middle income (working class) living standards are supported by the exploitation of the working poor) And the global capitalist economy (having integrated economies the world over ; and having integrated the labour-power of women) is again pressing its limits ; leaving the question “what next for growth (and hence capitalism) – if not greater intensity of labour?  (and hence further attacks of the rights of labour)

In summary, David Harvey argues that Marx's Capital (Vol I) makes the most sense when applied to 'economically Liberal' or 'neo-liberal' capitalism especially.  This makes Capital (Vol I) highly useful for understanding Anglosphere economies which have largely gone down that path.  But admittedly Marx did not anticipate the rise of modern mixed economies, advanced welfare states, Keynesian demand management and so on.  Arguably these could comprise ‘stepping stones’ towards a socialist economy and society – while at the same time ‘stabilizing capitalism’.  (reducing cost structures and the like)   Marx is still highly RELEVANT ; but perhaps he is not on his own SUFFICIENT in responding to modern economic and social problems.

As for arguments that Marx did not recognise the  ‘value’ of Nature (one person at our Facebook Forum argued this) ; that is demonstrably untrue if you understand Marx in context.  Marx defines between use values and exchange values. Hence 'a beautiful rainforest' may have no 'value' in the sense of exchange value ; or Marx's schema of 'value' according to his specific (non-mundane) definition as ‘the labour congealed in commodities’.  But remember this is just a technicality based on Marx's definitions... It does not mean (literally) that Marx thinks 'nature has no value'.  Again; In Marx's scheme 'value' refers to the labour congealed in a commodity. But 'USE VALUES' are something else entirely. Marx recognises that things can have USE VALUE without comprising 'values' according to Marx's particular (contextual) definition. So 'a beautiful rainforest' can have a 'use value' in the sense that human beings can appreciate its beauty. And 'nature' may have the 'use value' of being necessary for the reproduction, health and happiness of the human species. Though it’s true Marx doesn't consider what some might call the 'intrinsic value' of nature.  Deep Ecologists may not find as much of interest to them in Marx.

Similarly “work/life balance” has value ; as do domestic and voluntary labour ; as does education, philosophical and scientific enquiry , and art ‘in their own right and for their own sake’.  But capitalism does not ‘see’ or ‘encourage’ the identification of these – EXCEPT insofar as they can be manipulated to somehow magnify exchange value ; ‘creation of ‘values’ in the capitalist context ; production of surplus value ; the self-expansion and reproduction of the capital relationship on which bourgeois power, privilege (and arguably purpose) rest.

On the 150th Anniversary of Capital (Volume I) it is worth revisiting Marx ; and questioning some common assumptions.  In-so-doing we encounter a thinker still highly relevant for the current day. 
Even though some (eg: the ‘Post Marxists’ Mouffe, Laclau and others) have suggested revisions and alterations which are also highly useful, and sometimes inspiring.  The 150th Anniversary is as good a time as any to ‘return to Marx’ and to work out what he’s really saying ; and not just depend on the second-hand accounts of bourgeois-Liberal economists.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Das Kapital by Karl Marx - 150th Anniversary Event -- NIB Melbourne September 7th, 7pm





150th Anniversary Of Marx's Das Kapital ; Questions and Answers Event ; New International Bookshop Melbourne, September 7th. Please come along and show your interest and support. I will be there as an ALP Left activist who draws deeply from Marx and Marxism. PLS SHARE THIS WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND NETWORKS.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why and how the Fair Work Commission’s cuts to Sunday penalty rates can be Defeated.



above: Former Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union organiser, Don Sutherland


   
In this article guest writer Don Sutherland argues the case for a strategy to reverse the decision of the Fair Work Commission - promoted by Employers - to slash Penalty Rates for Hospitality and other workers.  He foresees it will have to be a long struggle led by workers - and workers cannot just sit back and depend on the Parliamentary Labor Party.  It is a strategy which - amongst other things - will involve targeting specific employers so they do not take advantage of the FWC's decision and exploit their workers.

by Don Sutherland, 25/2/17


Last week Australia’s industrial “umpire”, the Fair Work Commission, legalized a big cut to penalty rates for Sunday work for Australia’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in precarious work. (Click here and click here for the official summary of the decision.) Implementing the cuts is not compulsory. Anyone who thinks neoliberalism is dying needs to take a deep breath and step into the real world.

Like many others across the union movement and beyond I am very angry on several counts with this decision. Above all it does great harm to the lives of thousands of workers (click here for example), even though it will increase the take home profit of their employers.

There is a lot of material being posted in both mainstream media and in many sources across social media about why this decision is bad, some of it before the decision was handed down and of course a lot since. This article does not add to that.

Rather I focus on ideas about how the workers and union movement can respond.

How should the workers’ movement respond?

In my view not just with anger, but with a widely, deeply discussed and developed strategy to win the reversal of the decision or to prevent its actual implementation.

I am against a “strategy” based on immediate anger that sets our movement up for an urgent, satisfying day out and another “glorious defeat”. And I am also against a defeatist walk into the arms of the ALP as the heroic solution.

Rationale for a strategy

This Full Bench decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) comes out of an Award review that is required by the Fair Work Act (FWA). The Award review is very much an industrial relations club exercise. The FWA review involves either union peak bodies or employer peak bodies putting to the FWC ways in which Awards should be changed, with the capacity for others, especially governments and political parties, to join in. The parties present their claims and counter claims, then provide evidence in an increasingly judicial process that involves “expert” research and / or witnesses. There is not much industrial organising that goes on in support of union claims or counter claims these days.

In this current review all Awards are under the microscope. The focus in these particular Awards for workers in hospitality, pharmacy, fast foods has been on their penalty rates, especially the penalty rate paid for working on Sunday.

Employers in the industry and beyond have over several years invested big money and resources to convince the FWC to agree to cut penalty rates for Sunday work. They have been supported by the Murdoch press, a big posse of commentators from right wing think tanks, and all major employer organisations. The union movement has been the major source of opposition. Originally, employers wanted cuts to all penalty rates but decided for a strategic reason to focus on Sundays. Do not doubt that their “victory” last week to get Sunday rates cut is a foundation for a renewed assault at some time in the future for further cuts into both Sunday and Saturday rates and public holiday rates.

While the employers were investing big in their own way to achieve their victory, the workers’ effort – mainly through their unions – was valiant and well-intentioned but puny in comparison. It was entirely defensive, and accepted the rules of the Commission and the Fair Work Act.

The employer strategy successfully used prominent Labor politicians, some of them willingly, and ex politicians (most notably perhaps Martin Ferguson, formerly a President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions).

The employer strategy relied very much on today’s working class  historic memory loss  about what an Award actually is. Nothing significant has been done by unions to counter this with worker education. Australian unions, generally, have opted to devote most resources to enterprise agreements as the vehicle to protect and improve wages and conditions.

Remember, the employers originated and escalated this war on living standards, not the Fair Work Commission.

This very bad outcome is a reflection of the current balance of power between Australia’s 21st century capitalist class relative to that of the working class.
That is the situation that our strategy must change.

A working class based approach to our strategy

Can we build a strategy, loaded with mindful militancy, that can reverse this decision and also the whole current momentum against working people? (Facilitated in the bosses’ favour by the Fair Work Act, e.g. lockouts, agreement cancellations, and the new Building Industry Code to be enforced by the construction industry’s own industrial police force against construction workers and their unions.)

Of course we can. Here are some ideas.

The first big strategic decision
for all union leaders no matter what level of the union movement we are active in: should we leave the reversing or whatever of the decision to heroic leaders, those at the “top” of the union movement and especially those in the ALP and the Greens in the parliament? Will calls to the government for the government to change the statute re-build our numbers and our power?

Or, should we return en masse to a conviction that the workers in these industries, and their brothers and sisters in others, can grow together as a socio-political force to reverse the decision themselves through their own industrial and political action?

The union movement at all levels must, absolutely MUST, embrace this second approach. Why? Because we must see workers of the twenty first century as capable of learning to struggle for their objectives not as objects whose conditions of existence are decided for them by elites, well-meaning or otherwise?)

That still means lots of education work and lots of communication that is educational (not cheap slogans or cute and clever memes,) leading to days of action on carefully selected dates. Days of action can be seen as the building blocks to more serious forms of action, including a national strike that can decide the struggle in favour of the workers.

Industrial strategy leading the way

The Commission is now waiting for submissions from the parties about the timing and process for phasing in the new reduced rates. Depending on each award, the critical dates seem to be in late March and early May.

After that the Commission will set dates for the start of the new reduced rates, probably later this year.

So, for example, this year these union / workers days of action might be 2-3 days before or on the day of the “submissions” hearing and then again 3 days before the start date.
Remember, employers can chose not to reduce rates. Embedded in these days of action there must be a workplace, public, social and political demand that each individual employer NOT implement the decision, but infused also with basic education and learning about “what is an Award”, “who are the employers”, “what is their strategy”, and “what is the Commission”. (Of course, many employers will try to “stay sweet” with their workers by telling them that it’s not their fault and they have no choice but to implement it.)

To the extent that it is necessary, a secondary level of campaigning in these 2 periods might help reinforce worker pressure on MP’s to come out at a local level to urge local employers not to implement the decision.

How long will it take to win – the trajectory for winning?

The second big strategic decision is a notional time frame that this campaign will take 2 to 5 years to win. It would be nice to win sooner but expectation that we can – in my view – misjudges the power of those who want this decision against the current power of those of us who oppose it.
We need time for education work and union growth organising to build the power to win. We do not have it right now, just the same as the employers did not have enough power to win their objective in 2007. The employers have understood strategy much better than us and have been ruthless enough against working people and their unions to stick to their strategy and be flexible in applying it.
We have to be every bit as cold and calculating as they have been and more.

Therefore, these days of action MUST be educational and  must be seen as building blocks to very big and powerful actions in the future that will be more decisive.

Our strategy will have to escalate over that 2-5 year period in the spread and depth of awareness among the workers immediately affected and those who will experience the flow on effects of it.
A strategy of this type must culminate with the consequence of economic pain for the employers who wanted this decision and who decide to implement it.

The next award review will be in 4 years or so, possibly less. That is the moment for the first “really big culmination” of our strategy in which employers can face the prospect of real economic consequences for their actions.

Within it there is the opportunity for the union movement to actively regrow from within the 21 st century working class, basing that on education-driven organising of both union members and potential members.

This decision to cut penalty rates is one element of ruling class momentum against all workers … the whole of the working class.

We can add to that the employers threat to re-locate operations to off shore low wage havens, use of lock outs during bargaining, demand for major concessions in enterprise agreements, and refusing to bargain for any improvements about job security or wages or safety, employer applications to cancel agreements and drive their workers back to the minimum wages and conditions in Awards, penal powers against any workers who take industrial action that is not approved by the FWC, and the government’s new Building Industry Code policed by the building industry commission. This is a considerable array of power for employers that is facilitated by the Fair Work Act.

Penalty Rates Plus

Genuine working class power can be built to demand at the next Award review and even before not just the restoration of current penalty rates but also a significant increase in the minimum Award rate, and automatic casual conversion after 3 months for those who want it.

These issues are relevant to all other Awards as well. We are talking about common, multi industry actions to take on common big employment problems.

This will be a campaign for all workers because the huge gap between award rates and union negotiated agreement rates is contrary to the fundamental rationale for unionism, and should not be acceptable to any unionist.

The focus of the whole movement must turn steadily (although not absolutely) to AWARDS and away from enterprise agreements.

Finally, this “ordinarily people” rooted strategy will require that the Fair Work Act (including its penal powers against workers) be defied, and probably broken, and ultimately genuinely re-written for workers’ benefit.

That’s not a reason not to do it but it is a reason for a lot of educational work in preparation.



This article was also published at Don's blog - which can be found here: 

https://donsutherland.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/why-and-how-the-fair-work-commissions-cuts-to-sunday-penalty-rates-can-be-defeated/

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Unpublished Letters from a Left Activst


What follows are another series of letters I have written to the ‘Herald-Sun’ and ‘The Age’during the December 2016 to January 2017 period.
   None were published.  But I hope it sparks some thought and some debate amongst readers here at Left Focus.

Topics include 'Cultural Marxism' , Labor Policy, Pensions,  Green Energy and who pays?,  Islam and Education, Female Genital Mutilation,  What to do about Poverty?, and 'Bolt and Panahi need to Work Out Which Side they are On on Civil Liberties.....


Dr Tristan Ewins


Hysteria on ‘Cultural Marxism’

"P.Jones (Letters, 29/12/16) again raises the spectre of ‘cultural Marxism’ ; evoking the remnants of Cold War era fear of those movements bearing the name of Karl Marx.  But ‘Critical Theory’ and the ‘Frankfurt School’ (the proper names of the traditions referred to as ‘cultural Marxism’) are radical intellectual traditions which have very little to do with the Totalitarianism and Stalinism which once prevailed in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.  Critical theorists promoted personal freedom, dignity and fulfilment ; and they rejected attempts by Stalin and his successors to crush the independence of radical thought.  Some critical theorists have also promoted the peaceful transition to a democratic socialist order through mutual engagement based on the powers of human reason.  They also subjected past Marxism to criticism on the basis that radicals needed to be open-minded about confronting past errors.  Considered in context, ‘cultural Marxism’ does not deserve ‘the bogey status’ imposed on it by Conservative intellectuals and others who either do not really understand its content ; or otherwise want to distort perceptions in order to create fear and prevent change."



Labor needs a Stronger Agenda ; and not only Defensiveness on Company Tax

Responding to ‘The Age Letters 7/1/17’: While Labor’s opposition to Company Tax cuts is welcome, Australia needs a more robust reform agenda: improving our social wage and welfare state, and providing for vital infrastructure.  Hence a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme to roll back regressive user pays;  and improve quality of life for our most vulnerable. Superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy and the upper middle class could be cut, bringing in tens of billions.  In addition to Capital Gains Tax and Negative Gearing reforms, Australia could also look to phased withdrawal of Dividend Imputation. Reversion to a 75% credit alone could save over $5 billion/year.  Because of their progressive potential, reform of income and other progressive taxes (eg: Medicare-style Levies) should not be ‘taboo’.  Presumed ‘pull factors’ regarding Corporate Taxation can neglect the impact of education and infrastructure in attracting investment.  Infrastructure privatisation increases cost-structures.  And there are economic and moral dilemmas associated with ‘corporate welfare’. Citizens and taxpayers effectively subsidize corporations benefitting from services and infrastructure ; because of a more regressive tax mix (flatter, and/or focusing on consumption) and also indirectly through austerity. Poverty and inequality also affect consumption power, damaging the broader economy.  


The Problems with Tightening Pension Eligibility

Frank Stubbs (Herald-Sun Letters, 7/1/17) argues “the pension is not a right” ; that it should only go to the most needy.  But there are problems with this argument.  In the 1980s Labor introduced superannuation while means-testing pensions.  This enabled a focus on ‘targeted welfare’ ; where we could have both a regime of low taxation – and necessary supports for the genuinely vulnerable.  Superannuation made all this possible.  But before this the Aged Pension was considered a right.  Primarily because people had paid their taxes their entire working lives – and had earned that security.  But “rights” must also be a matter of human decency ; such that we must not allow the vulnerable to struggle in poverty – even if they cannot work.  The problem with superannuation is that it might increasingly see the marginalisation of the Aged Pension, and those dependent upon it.  The consumption power of low income Australians is also affected, harming the economy. In the future conservatives may demand further tightening of pension eligibility; and that would marginalise pensioners, giving rise to further self-interested cries from business, the middle classes, the wealthy -  for pension cuts.   There’s a potential future social cost to cutting pension eligibility.



AN Important Question on Green Energy:  Who Pays?


In response to Matt Johnston (13/1): It is necessary to take action on renewable energy to respond to global warming.  But an additional concern is “who pays?”  Currently, renewable energy is more expensive.  And while many households are taking up ‘micro-renewable energy’, a great many others are ‘locked out’ because they simply cannot afford the investment. But as middle class families opt for micro-renewable energy, this damages the ‘economies of scale’ of the legacy centralised energy industry.  The cost of ‘poles and wires’ and other infrastructure is divided amongst a smaller consumer base.  So consumers on low incomes are forced to pay more.  This is worsened by privatisation: which means providers will pursue profits and avoid cross subsidies for the financially disadvantaged. “Micro-renewables’ are probably the way of the future: but in the meantime governments need to take stronger action to ensure financially disadvantaged customers don’t bear the cost.  Subsidies of various kinds need to negate the entire effect on affordability for low income customers during this transitional period.  (Until technology improves and prices fall)  The timeframe depends on the priorities of government and the progress of research and development.


Responding to Kevin Donnelly on Islam and Education


Kevin Donnelly (Herald Sun, 2/1/17) criticises Islam as ‘inherently violent’ while defending ‘the Western tradition’ against its apparent detractors on ‘the Left’.  Some things need to be stated in response to this.  Firstly, it is partly a matter of convenience.  The ‘West’ supported the Mujahedeen (Islamic fundamentalists) against the Soviets during the Cold War, despite what this meant for women in Afghanistan. Further, Islam is diverse – and potentially open to reform – perhaps like Christianity and Judaism have been.  (partly because of the historic intersection of Christianity with liberalism) In some places ‘a (liberal) Islamic reformation’ may actually be a good thing. (further reform of the Roman Catholic Church would also be good) But in the meantime we should not promote notions of ‘cultural superiority’ to justify interventions which are really geo-political in nature. Also when we defend ‘the Western tradition’ and ‘the Enlightenment’ we should be clear what that means.   It means supporting free and critical enquiry.  The consequence of this also must be that education is not only for ‘fundamentals’ of numeracy and literacy.  There is a crucial place for the Humanities and Social Sciences – in combination with a progressive civics agenda – which promotes political literacy and active citizenship.  Authoritarian responses to protest and civil disobedience are counter to the freedoms we celebrate which originated with the Enlightenment – and the liberal and democratic revolutions that followed.



Responding to FGM:  How Prevalent is it in Australia?

Rita Panahi (16/1) makes some points about the most reactionary practices  Islam, mentioning child brides, ‘honour killings’, and female genital mutilation. Despite allusions to a so-called ‘regressive Left’ any Leftist worth their salt could not help but oppose those practices.   Of course we must support women and girls who oppose and fight against these practices. But there are other complications. Firstly it is unclear how widespread  FGM is in Australia.  In 2010 the ABC reported that 700 cases were presented to the Melbourne Royal Women’s Hospital.   But in 2011 the total Australian Islamic population (all creeds considered) was nearing half a million.  So its important to keep perspective: to support the rights of women and girls ; but also to be aware of possible ulterior motives. Strong cultural differences can be exploited to justify geo-political and strategic objectives.  We need to keep cultural difference and strategic/geo-political issues separate so as to avoid confusion and remain clear about the real motivations and interests behind our foreign policy.

References:





What Must we actually Do in Response to Poverty?

In the Herald-Sun letters section recently there has been some good discussion of poverty. But the problem is on such a scale that it will never be overcome through charity ; and we need action - not only talk. Only government can provide the resources for a definitive solution. That calls for a stronger, fairer welfare system for disadvantaged groups, the elderly and the unemployed ; a fairer, progressive tax mix ; and labour market re-regulation at the lower end.  It also calls for a stronger social wage ;  including more funding for public health and education ; as well as for public housing and emergency accommodation, and energy and water subsidies.  It might also include better-subsidised public transport and internet access. (these are now essentials - for instance it is virtually impossible to search effectively for work now without them)  It could include an active industry policy which offers ‘flexible’ work favourable to employees’ needs ; preventing those such as retrenched auto workers being relegated permanently to unemployment.  And it could involve greater flexibility for pensioners to take on casual or part-time work without foregoing their pensions ; hence avoiding poverty traps.





Bolt and Panahi Need to work out where they Stand on Civil Rights

Andrew Bolt claims “Leftists hate our freedoms” while Rita Panahi gives thanks for liberal freedoms she enjoys in Australia compared with theocratic Iran.  But at the same time Rita Panahi has dismissed civil libertarians as ‘do-gooders’.  And for all his talk, Andrew Bolt has never had anything to say against anti-protest laws introduced by past Liberal governments in New South Wales and Victoria. That includes ‘move on’ laws that criminalised freedom of assembly ; and laws in NSW which could see protestors jailed for several years for civil disobedience.  As well as Federal laws criminalising ‘whistle-blowers’ who reveal details on the treatment of refugees.  Journalists like Panahi and Bolt need to decide what side they are on when it comes to liberal and democratic rights.  It is true that parts of the Left qualify freedom of speech where they believe that speech could be socially harmful.   Other Leftists are nonetheless concerned at possible precedents which could help result in a far more general retreat of liberties.  And the ‘pressure cooker’ effect of suppressed (and sometimes manufactured) grievances which can explode with the rise of populist, far-right-wing movements.  Reality is more complex than you would think reading Panahi and Bolt.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Letters from a Labor Activist ; November/December 2016


above:  Humanity does not Live by Bread Alone ; What about Democracy and Political Literacy in our Educational Curricula?

Progressive Letters to 'The Age' and 'The Herald-Sun' ; (November/December 2016) ; Everything from ‘Public Debt Shibboleths’ to Privatisation, Defending Democracy,  The Right Protest, Education for Politically Literate and Active Citizenship, and more ; Please feel welcome to read and comment on the articles, share via Facebook and so on.




Dr Tristan Ewins

Is there a public debt crisis?
  Or is the Crisis one of Private Debt?


(Debt letter One)  (Unpublished)  Regularly we are warned of the ‘immense threat’ of government debt.  But its best, here, to use the measure of ‘net debt’ which also includes revenue from government assets.  (instead of ‘gross debt’ - which does not)  For example, with the privatisation of assets like the Commonwealth Bank gross debt fell, but net debt worsened significantly.  Australian Government  net debt was recently measured around 18 per cent of GDP : approximately $285 billion in an economy around AUS $1.6 billion.  But HOUSEHOLD debt – ie: the debt owed by Australian individuals and families – is over 100% of GDP -  over $2 TRILLION.  Private debt is clearly the bigger threat. The Liberals try and offset private debt with public austerity – in health, education, welfare, infrastructure. But these areas are often more crucial to our well-being than private consumption.  So arguably we need a BIGGER social investment in these areas as opposed to cuts. We need a more balanced approach ; containing debt long term – without gutting public services and infrastructure, or destroying  jobs and growth.  And now is a good time to invest in potential income bearing (and other) government assets – on account of low interest rates.  A big investment in public housing could also make housing more affordable –  making significant inroads into private household debt.  We also need an industry policy to achieve full employment –and full time jobs for those who want them.  That could offset an ageing population without resort to measures like raising the age of retirement.




(Debt letter Two) (Published) Bruce Hambour (Herald-Sun Letters, November 2016)  writes that debt is getting so out of control that welfare must be cut to rein it in. But why start by cutting the payments for some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians when there are other options?  Why not drop massive corporate tax cuts, and other tax cuts for the well off?    Why not cut back Superannuation Tax Concessions – mainly beneficial to the well-off – whom taxpayers are effectively subsidising by tens of billions every year?   Also public sector debt is actually negligible compared with private debt.  (approx. 30% of GDP compared with 200% of GDP)  The housing bubble hasn’t helped ; and what’s needed are big investments in public and social housing (to increase supply), and in infrastructure and services (to ensure quality of life).  Also Conservatives attempt to play the working poor of against the vulnerable welfare-dependent.  (divide and conquer) That’s better fixed by raising the minimum wage, and improving the social wage for the working poor.

Herald-Sun Op-Ed Describes Labor Left Opposition to Privatisation as “Extremist”.


(Published)  James Campbell (Herald-Sun, 24/11) depicts Labor Left opposition to privatization as ‘extremist’.  But what grounds are there for this opinion?   Most Australians did (and still do) oppose privatization of important government assets.  And the longest-serving Australian Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, presided over a relatively larger public sector (and more steeply progressive income taxes) than Labor governments of the 80s and 90s.  The ‘extreme’ tag is a flippant way of dismissing an argument without having to engage or justify your position.  ‘Natural public monopolies’ (eg: in water, communications, energy) would reduce costs for the broader economy.  And Medibank Private’s recent privatization saw private health insurance costs rise as the newly-privatizated corporation arguably began abusing its market power.   The Commonwealth Bank can also make profits close to $10 billion now.  That means our net government debt position is much worse now because of its privatization.  Since its privatization there have also been problems with fees, and the quality of services for regions and financially disadvantaged customers.

Herald-Sun letter calls for ‘Technocracy’ in place of Democracy


(Unpublished)   Simon Hammond (Herald-Sun, 26/11) claims democracy is to blame for weak and indecisive government .  Instead he suggests a kind of ‘government of experts’. (a technocracy) But the problem is not democracy ; it is particular practices such as poll and focus-group driven politics ; and ‘gotcha’ politics’ which neglect the substance of policy choices.   Another problem is the major parties all aiming for ‘the centre ground’ ; not standing up for their beliefs. (‘Convergence politics’)   That means weaker pluralism. That is, less choice.  In fact we need a stronger democracy.  A free multi-party system is meant to ensure scrutiny of public policy and social issues ; but often media neglect the substance ; and politicians respond by playing to shallow agendas.  We need to transform our society ; which could be achieved partly through educational curricula for active and politically literate citizenship ; which is ideologically inclusive and  encourages students to think about – and stand up for - their rights and interests. 

Responding to Andrew Bolt on the causes of the Trump Victory


(Unpublished)  Andrew Bolt calls the Trump election victory “a revolt against the Left’s arrogance” (Herald-Sun, 10/11). But reality is more complex than this.  A neo-liberal consensus  - a particular INTERPRETATION of ‘globalisation’ - has prevailed around much of the world, facilitated by BOTH the parties of the Right and of the ostensible Centre-Left. Working class people who had lost their identity, as well as their economic and social security with the destruction of their jobs – gravitated towards a promise to restore America’s industrial base.   Trump’s old school protectionism might not be the answer, but Nordic-style, targeted industry policy might serve better.   Policies which promote high value-added manufacturing alongside Research and Development, and promotion of information and communications technology industrial development.   The US Left needs to actively court the working class – including white males – with policies that offer the respect and security which could be key to building a broad electoral bloc, and rolling back Trump’s support base.



Why Scott Morrisson and the Liberals are Wrong on Company Tax Cuts

(to both the Herald-Sun and The Age ; Unpublished)  Today (28/11)  it was distressing to see Treasurer Scott Morrison in Question Time defending massive cuts to Company Tax.   He referred to Trump’s objective of a 15% corporate rate, and suggested Australia needs to be ‘competitive’.  But the United States had enjoyed a maximum corporate rate of 35% for many years under both Republican and Democrat Administrations.  Elsewhere, the reality is that high quality social services, education, infrastructure are ‘pull factors’ for investment as well.   And this needs to be paid for somehow.  The Conservative approach is ‘corporate welfare’.  That is: the corporate rate is cut - but workers, pensioners, families ‘pay the price’ one way another.  Through unfair ‘replacement taxes’ like the GST , or through a neglect of services and infrastructure which is arguably bad for investment anyway. We need international agreement to stop ‘the race to the bottom’ in corporate taxation.  Without this the economy will suffer anyway – as ‘corporate welfare’ takes income away from the very workers  whose consumption supports the domestic economy. 


Feminist Revolution must take account of class ; must be based on Mutual Respect and Empathy

(Unpublished)  Trish Thompson (‘The Age’, letters;  30/11) reminds us of “the privileges of being a white heterosexual male”.  But she makes no mention of social class .  That determines our quality of life ; where our kids go to school ; often the quality of our diet and health care; whether we can pay the bills and put a roof over our heads ; what else we can enjoy outside of work.  Other factors include whether or not our work is fulfilling ; and what economic (and hence political) power we have.  Why is class usually forgotten today ; or otherwise relegated to a subordinate position?  Age, body image and disability are also relatively neglected. We are in the midst of what might be called a feminist revolution.  What’s at stake is whether or not that revolution is broadened in pursuit of genuine mutual solidarity and liberation.  Or whether there is a kind of ‘turning of the tables’.  Many men are reacting against discourse they see as inferring ‘masculinity’ and male sexuality are ‘essentially bad’.   Without mutual respect and empathy there will be a reaction and the feminist revolution might fail.



Working Class Men don’t have ‘a lot to gain’ from Deindustrialisation and the Consequence is Unemployment and Poverty


(Unpublished)  Jacqueline Maley  (‘The Age’, 3/12/16)  writes as if men have more to gain than lose through deindustrialisation. The reality, though, is that older skilled manufacturing workers will not find replacement work making use of their skill sets.  And service industry jobs are unlikely to make up for the 50,000 jobs lost in the car industry and supporting industries .  The notion that when men take up service industry jobs that these will rise in stature is questionable.   The balance of trade is another associated concern.  It is a function of capitalism more so than patriarchy that ‘unprofitable’ service jobs are devalued. For example, a better deal for both aged care workers AND residents might ‘eat into corporate profits’ – directly (eg: through higher corporate tax) or indirectly (with a reduction in private consumption power with higher income or consumption  taxes). That said we do need to ‘valorise’ caring (often ‘feminised’) professions.   We need a re-regulation of the most-highly-exploited end of the labour market.  To reform the tax mix and extend the social wage.  Resistance to the extension and improvement of social services is most likely to come from capitalists and their advocates in the so-called ‘political class’ rather than from working class men.

We Must be unambiguous on the Right to Protest ; and stand against even more regressive User-Pays in Tertiary Education



(Part-Published)  David Penberthy  (Herald-Sun 4/12/16) condemns the protestors who disrupted parliament the other day as ‘ratbags’. He goes on to support user-pays in Higher Education, arguing ‘Why should blue collar workers pay for someone’s Law degree?”   In response ; democracies must defend liberal and democratic rights, including speech, association and assembly.  But arguably a mature democracy – which feels secure in itself - accepts there will be occasions where differences of principle become so steep that accommodation must be made for civil disobedience as well.  Such flexibility helps define us as a genuinely *liberal* democracy.   Furthermore: Penberthy’s defence of user pays in Higher Education ignores the fact that were a greater portion of education costs shouldered through income and corporate taxes – then roughly people and interests would pay in proportion to the financial benefit gained.  And if we wanted to reform the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS)  to make it fairer, then we might raise repayment thresholds.  There are many former students on less than the average wage who are forced to repay loans that bear no relation to their actual incomes.  Repayment thresholds have fallen relative to the average wage: and that is unfair.

 

Why Political Literacy, and encouraging Active Citizenship must Have Their Place in Educational Curricula ‘in a strong democracy’

(Unpublished)  There is a developing view (Herald-Sun Editorial, ‘Teach don’t Preach’ , 7/12/16) that ‘politics should be kept out of the classroom’; and that means not only that teachers ‘should not be advocating causes’ – but also that there should be a ‘back to basics’ movement emphasising science and maths.  The problem with this is that education needs to be for life – and while maths and science have their place,  education for politically literate and active citizenship can strengthen our democracy and empower our citizenry to work for their beliefs, rights and interests. To achieve bipartisanship – there needs to be a reformed National Curriculum – which exposes students to the ideas of BOTH the Democratic Left and the Democratic Right, while also imparting an understanding of other ideologies.  As the saying goes ‘man does not live by bread alone’.   An active and informed democracy should have bipartisan support across the Democratic Right and the Democratic Left.

(Unpublished)
   Greg Byrne (Herald-Sun, 10/12/16) refers to  education about “gender, ethnicity and class” as “nonsense” that has nothing to do with finding jobs.   But the Humanities and Social Sciences involve research and writing skills ; the construction of detailed arguments , and evaluating complex information.  Also humanity ‘does not live by bread alone’.  (ie:  the labour market and work)  A stronger democracy (based on understanding and participation) rests on citizens’ political literacy (understanding political ideologies, values, movements, processes) and on their powers of expression.   The Humanities and Social Sciences drive us to ask fundamental questions about the human condition ; about ethics ; and thinking critically about democracy, economy and society.   In a strong democracy we must be empowered to make informed choices as citizens – regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as being of  “the Right” or “The Left”.  That means imagining alternatives to current social and economic arrangements in pursuit of ‘The Good Society’. Here,  assessing the balance of wealth, power  and opportunity in society is a legitimate question.

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