Saturday, October 22, 2011

After the Melbourne ‘crackdown’; Rebuilding the ‘We are the 99 per cent’ movement

above:  Victoria Police's idea of 'Minimum Force'

In this article Tristan Ewins refutes criticisms of the "We are the 99 per cent" movement and considers tactical questions facing that movement.  He also considers the implications of violent tactics on the part of police for the liberal rights of all Australians.

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Tristan Ewins

At the time the author began writing this article (21/10/11) police in full riot gear had smashed a peaceful protest in Melbourne that was organised in solidarity with the  'We are the 99 per cent’ and 'Occupy Wall St' movements in the United States and around the world.  Peaceful protestors have been left bruised and bleeding, many suffering the effects of capsicum spray, choke-holds and pressure-point tactics.  The protestors were engaging in peaceful ‘sit-in’ tactics of the kind popularised by the anti-segregation movement in the United States in the 1960s.  And yet the Melbourne Herald-Sun (22/10/11) labelled them a “defiant mob”,  and a “threat to [the] Queen’s visit”, while also claiming the brutal  crackdown comprised “[the] police [taking] back OUR city”. But citizens would be better advised to consider what this precedent means for all of us – for our right of free assembly.  At the time of writing apparently at least 50 protestors have also been arrested by police; but perhaps the figure is much higher.  
In Australia we are supposed to be a liberal democracy. Again: this should mean we enjoy certain rights - freedom of speech, of association and of assembly. If citizens do not have the right to freedom of assembly in a dedicated public square - then is this a violation of those same liberal rights? What would we have said 25 years ago if a similar kind of occupation was forcibly and violently dispersed in East Berlin?   If people will not stand up for their rights - or are contemptuous of those who do - then they have to be prepared to lose those rights - not because this would be right, but because that is the logic of their attitude. 

Right-wing critics attempt to portray the “We are the 99 per cent” movement as being hypocritical. Apparently partaking of any of the benefits of modernity makes one unqualified to criticise the excesses of capitalism – which have almost brought the United States and Europe to ruin.  If I own an I-Pod apparently I am unqualified to complain if after losing my job and my home I am thrown onto the street.  Apparently I am a ‘hypocrite’ if a own a mobile phone, but being unable to afford private schooling for my children instead watch them flounder in a state system starved of funds, resources, staff and infrastructure.  In reality poverty is relative. In today’s information age internet access is crucial for the most basic social inclusion; and even for job-seekers to have the opportunity to find employment in the first place. The fallacies of the political Right, here, need to be refuted clearly and logically.

It's important to recognise the core message of the protests also.  In Australia and worldwide extreme inequality is rife.

In the US the top 1% own about 43% of all wealth and the bottom 80% have only about 7% total wealth between them.  See: 

In Australia, meanwhile, the top 20% have on average *40 times* the wealth of the bottom 20%.   See:

Elaborating further: according to the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) in Australiathe ‘top’ 20 percent own 61 percent of the wealth while the ‘bottom’ 20 percent own just one percent of the wealth.”  (See:  )

 This translates into lopsided power relations - culturally, economically, politically. It is anathema to democracy. Meanwhile there is a massive shortfall in disability services, aged care and public education. There are cost of living pressures for ordinary people with energy, water, and housing stress stemming from privatisation and the Howard era housing bubble. Taxes are gradually ‘flattened’ over the decades, becoming less and less fair, and providing the context for increasing ‘corporate welfare’. The needy go without to pay for the privileges and excesses of the few.

The consequence of such extreme disparities in wealth is also to be found in increasing rates of poverty.

Peak welfare-body ‘ACOSS’ (the Australian Council of Social Service) claims that “ 2.2 million people, or 11.1% of Australians were living in poverty in 2006” “compared with 9.9% in 2004, and 7.6% in 1994.”  The trend has been towards higher and higher levels of poverty, so updated figures would likely reveal an even more disturbing reality. 

Inadequate pensions have also been identified as one of the main causes of poverty in  Australia.   Dr Cassandra Goldie of ACOSS has stated that Australia spends 3.2% of GDP on income support compared with the OECD average of 6.5%. And yet for “73% of households with the lowest incomes, these government pensions and allowances are their main source of income.”

But all our varied movements around the world - against inequality, for social justice and for peace - each needs a minimum program: a clear set of demands to rally around.  Indeed, we could also do with an international minimum program – for the global movement – as well as national positions.  A process needs to be initiated to determine what form this will take.

 Here in Australia the first step must be progressive reform of tax so the wealthy pay their fair share; so the vulnerable get the services they desperately need; and so ordinary working people get a fair go.  This author intends to go into greater detail in the future as to what may comprise a viable ‘minimum program’ for the Australian movement.

 We will not achieve all the demands we make in the near future; but we must set out to build the kind of mass movement that will influence a generation, and begin to ‘turn the tide’ against neo-liberalism.  This necessitates careful planning to ‘appeal to the mainstream’ and build a broad base of popular support.  

Conservative ‘Herald-Sun’ columnist Miranda Devine fears an “opportunistic” Left will “co-opt” the movement and enforce ‘its own agenda’.  (20/10/11) Yet while the movement needs to be broad, the organised Left (broadly defined) brings crucial insights to the movement, and is the only force capable of organising and sustaining this kind of mobilisation over the long-term. 

We can’t allow ourselves to be divided either – or our base narrowed - on the basis of caricatures of the Left.  

We know that capitalism involves tendencies towards class bifurcation and monopolisation.  We know that the rate of exploitation has intensified in recent decades; that the wage share of the economy has been shrinking; that there is greater inequality in the labour market; and that there is a social services shortfall to pay for effective corporate welfare.  We know that we are experiencing a ‘two speed economy’: with mining prosperity driving up the dollar and making other industries (eg: manufacturing, tourism) uncompetitive.  And yet tens of billions of mining profits – from our resources that can only be extracted ONCE  – are heading overseas.   (see: )   

Meanwhile the rise of new competitors (China, India) increases the future risk of war as Great Powers strive to dominate a finite world market.  

In short: we know there is a problem with capitalism.

At the same time, though, the Left needs discipline in leading the movement: to maintain and appeal to that ‘broad base’ and avoid unnecessary confrontations that could see the movement isolated.  ‘Ultra-leftism’ – an indulgence in confrontation that serves no strategic purpose – needs to be rejected.  If the Queen’s visit comprises a flashpoint from which we have nothing to gain, perhaps the movement would be better advised to re-establish a presence after she has left Australia.  Thereafter: rather than a large ongoing occupation, perhaps a vigil and information table could be maintained in the city with rolling rallies and a ‘carnival-esque’ atmosphere in which participants from all walks of life feel welcome.  Here a balance must be maintained between keeping momentum on the one hand, and avoiding exhaustion of new and casual participants such that they ‘drop away’ from the movement.  The aim must be massive mobilisation and retention at a variety of levels over the long term.

We also need to be prepared for defensive struggles in the event that a world-wide economic downturn leads to further attacks upon our social wage, our welfare state, and our liberal rights. (including industrial rights)   This would necessitate co-operation with the broad labour movement.  In the face of austerity there could be need for industrial actions that serve a very real and clear strategic purpose.

We must have resolve that the recent excess on the part of police in Melbourne is not the end of our campaign, but only the beginning.  And we must resolve to broaden the appeal and the base of our movement to maximise our impact.

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, blogger, qualified teacher and long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party.

above: Protest image from the Vietnam War

nb:  Readers may also be interested that John Passant has also written a compelling article on some of these issues over at ‘En Passant’.  See:


  1. Thanks Tristan. I think the way forward is to link up with the union movement where the real power to change or overthrow capitalism exists. Certainly one Qantas union official talked to the Occupy Melbourne demo today (Saturday). Or maybe it was Sydney. Not sure. But there lies the strength to stop inequality and corporate greed in its tracks.

  2. The problem though John, is that the Unions themselves have become co-opted. Maybe before we occupy melbourne(perth/sydney/etc) we need to occupy the unions and let the labor-hack careerists know that their shit needs to get militant pronto or they will be bypassed and made irrelevant

  3. Thanks Tristan. The protesters were not hurting anyone, they were simply occupying a PUBLIC space which is 100% legal. The Victorian Police's slogan is "protecting the community". Well actions speak louder than words. I am absolutely disgusted that my taxes pay police to carry out this sort of violent and anti-social behaviour.

  4. Thank Tristan

    Good article. I think the events in the US could be the start of a re-awakening of the left. While Australia's economic fortune at the moment is relatively better than the US there is a feeling that the debt situation in Europe might lead to a financial meltdown, although this time much worse if it cannot be contained. People are right to wonder why ordinary taxpayers should bail out the big banks. The protest movement will be hard to sustain but will hopefully play its part in highlighting the problem of social inequality in this country.

  5. The gripe I have with iPhone users protesting poverty is that there was a time when people understood the benefits of wealth accumulation through saving. These days they think iPhones are a birthright too.
    Those wealth distribution stats are tainted and misleading, whether purposefully or not.
    I think income tax should be eliminated and people should keep what they work for. Wealth distribution should be a reflection of applied intelligence and hard work. From there we promote a multi-class of public services that redirects funds back to the government according to wealth. 'Rich' becomes a very temporary status

  6. One of the notions which came up at yesterday's Assembly was about whether the Perthian 99% should bring forward a list of demands. I argued against laundry list of reforms as I think this would stifle the organisation of worker-citizens in motion (which is what is happening on a global scale) i.e. dividing those who supported such and such a reform from others in the general movement of the 99% against the power of the 1%. But of course, demands for reform of the capitalist system will continue to be argued for. It's inevitable, IMO. So, the way I see it, the best way to deal with lists of demands is to try to get the Wobbly notion of 'it's the wage system' to take hold amongst the assembled citizenry. To this end, I will argue that the 1% have power because they own the wealth we produce in exchange for wages. Actually, I think it's more like 10% versus the 90% of wage workers. But not to quibble. The movement is going along very well with the
    vague outlines of class consciousness embedded in the 99% vs the 1%. The question to be posed is how the 1% ended up with the power to screw up our lives with climate change, lack of democratic rights, austerity for the 99% and so on....and the Wobbly answer is, "It's the wage system, mate. We get the wages, they get the wealth and that's why they have the power to control. IOW..Wealth IS power and we give to them in exchange for wages".

    Once that principle is grasped, we can move on to demands and my proposal is that we argue for demanding MORE of what we have won from the past class struggles. This should resonate, as most people already understand that we have Medicare, Homes West etc. People outside the Occupy Perth will ask, what are you here for and we can answer MORE. More what? More public housing (eliminate the 89,000 on the waiting list, already). More Medicare e.g. bulk billing for all citizens, not just the poor. More workers rights, not just Fair Work Australia but eliminating all laws which tie labour's hands behind its back. More Aboriginal rights up to and including the rights of Aboriginal people to control the wealth extracted from their lands. Two sources of wealth, right? Labour power producing goods and services and natural resources lying in the land. As for the labour end of the wealth equation, we deserve more of what we produce and we'd get that by having
    the right of union solidarity (eliminate the ABCC for example), shorter work time/more free-time (e.g. the four hour day with no cut in pay) and additions/more to the social wage e.g. dental care being added to Medicare bulk billing.

    In other words, what do we want? MORE! The 1% are hogging the wealth we produce and treating us like their wage-slaves. That should be the principle, IMO. More of what? More of the wealth we create and are entitled to, including most especially our time. We want more free-time: more free-time will shrink the labour market and boost demand for labour power i.e. wages. We want MORE freedom and more democracy. The 1% want to leave things as they are or cut back on the freedom and democracy we have.

  7. Aaron; if the wealth statistics are "tainted and misleading" then how do you know this? In what way are they thus? Where is other research to refute the figures I'm using?

    Mike: I think there's a place for the kind of critique you're making; But I think to begin with we need to appeal to a broad base. Saying we 'want to end capitalism' and end the wage labour system right from the word go won't appeal to that broad cross-section. Then there's the question of how that might be achieved anyway - in the context of global economic interdependence...

    On the other hand, we could start simply by arguing for much fairer wealth distribution; a better social wage; a fairer tax system; pitch it in terms of a language people are open to and can understand... This could lead to deeper critiques later on. And right from the word go of course we need to make the links between wealth and power and what this means for democracy at a very basic level...

    The context of a mass movement then becomes an opportunity to mobilise and educate over the long term... But remember the movement should be pluralist - and intentionally so... There should be a 'free and good-natured contest of ideas' between those groups honestly and authentically engaged in the movement. The challenge is to maintain good will and a feeling of inclusiveness so that we don't lose people... Again we need to hang on to the new activists, the casual activists, and also those supporting at the fringes...

    There could be conferences and workshops - and socialists, social-demcorats, anarchists, left-liberals, Greens and other genuine interests could all have their say.

    But then we have to work out a way to maintain appeal to those who don't think in terms of a coherent ideology yet - we have to be very careful not to scare these elements away, and to speak in a language that they will understand...

    BTW four hour day no cut in pay sounds fine, but you'd find inflation would kick in and those gains would be neutralised; Whatever amount of money we have in theory there's still only a limited amount of goods and services to go around... But what we could have would be to encourage unions to pursue four day weeks to begin where members are interested... The ETU was attempting something like that here in Victoria... And then a much stronger social wage and fairer welfare system to achieve a fairer effective distribution of wealth...


  8. Tristan...higher wages don't create inflation, although they do lower the rate of profit. You're making many of the same 'realistic' arguments which capitalist pundits/economists in the past made against establishing the 8 hour day. I go along with Marx's argument against Citizen Weston in "Value, Price and Profit" on this question.

    Questioning the divide in wealth and power between the 1% and the 99% is to question the wage system itself. Why is there this class/wealth divide? Is it 'natural' and the best of all possible worlds? Can all we expect of the system is the hope we will become house slaves as opposed to field slaves?

  9. Mike; But if we work less then there is less social product to go around, right? We can redistribute some from the wealthy to everyone else - that's good. As much as we can get away with! (but how much we can get away with is a very interesting question; and is also a question of the power invested in global capital; a legitimate issue in exploring the limits of our democracy) But a MUCH shorter working week would involve sacrifice on the part of workers as well. Even if we got rid of dividend imputation, put Company Tax up to 35%, restructured income tax, introduced wealth and inheritance taxes - that would remain the case. Probably workers would have to be taxed more proportionately to make up the shortfall and maintain social expenditures... That's the point I'm trying to make.

    But I am all for redressing the imbalance in wealth distribution. As much as we can get away with at any time. In Sweden in the 70s and 80s the trade unions and social democrats wanted to socialise excess profits through wage earner funds. I would support something similar: although maybe in the form of 'citizens funds'. What is more I'd agree we have to address the falling wage share of the economy. We need strong unions demanding collective capital share in return for past wage restraint.

    Over time collective capital share could increase radically; But if the capitalists thought we were going to 'take it all the way' I dare say they would fight tooth and nail. Remember what happened in Sweden - and they had unionisation rates of about 80 per cent I think... Maybe if we set a goal of 25% of the stock exchange controlled by democratic funds...

    Also remember there's the reality that in an interdependent global economy consumers/workers want access to the innovations of the multinationals... The threat of retaliation and autarky limits our options...

    BTW - all the tax measures I mentioned before I was support also!!

  10. Just been reading the Melbourne Herald-Sun's treatment of the protest movement here in Melbourne...

    I think the Herald Sun's treatment of the issue is appalling; to begin they call a peaceful assembly a "mob" and a "Selfish rabble"; and then both Doyle and the HS journalist try and rationalise the extreme police violence as 'taking back the streets' for 'us'. Doyle talks about "knives, hammers, bricks, bottles and flammable liquids" - all which could well have had (and did have) an innocuous practical application. If the protestors had intended to use these as weapons - well, then why didn't they? And now they want to break up the regroupment at Treasury Gardens. Doyle, Ballieu, the right-populist media - justify the crackdown on the basis of the 'inconvenience' to business and the public. But then they won't allow free assembly in the Treasury Gardens which is way out of everyone's way. They are liars; or they are engaged in 'double-think'. The kind of rhetoric we're hearing is the kind of talk that could imaginably be a precursor to fascism. The Liberal Party really needs to reconsider their name in light of their strident dismissal of basic liberal rights. They aren't even conservative in a real liberal democratic sense. One last thing, though: We're not heading to fascism because these people aren't corporatists. They're more in the mold of Pinochet: authoritarianism and repression mixed with 'free markets'.

  11. "They are Ferals"... indeed many of the occupy mob are! In fact the hard core are in fact hard core communists who DO wish to violently overthrow the capitalist system. They were not peaceful. "some" were peaceful i.e...those who complied with lawfully given police instructions to move on. Those who remained were lawbreakers and ferals, and violent. Speaking as one who was indeed standing peacefully at the ADL rally on May 15th at Fed Square, I can testify that this same feral group attacked us..and myself in particular.. Had I been more switched on, I could have had the name of my attacker, had him charged and the book thrown at him.
    Now.. as for this equality rubbish.. consider this. The total QANTAS executive remuneration is 9.8 million dollars. QANTAS has 37000 employees. Divide 9.8 Million by 37000 and you get approx $265 extra per worker per YEAR! Now.. how the hell is taking their (obscene) pay packets off them and sharing it around going to do squat for 'equality' ??? The "workers" can indeed 'own' the company by buying shares in it like every other shareholder. WithOUT that financial input the company could do nothing.... so stop whining irrationally you morons and get a life! (learn some arithmetic too)

  12. This topic is very educational and it took my interest. Hope it will always be alive! And provide productive information to many others.


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