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:

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