above: Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen
The following article is a critique of a recent contribution on debate surrounding the ALP’s ‘Socialist Objective’ by ALP Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen in a Fabian Pamphlet. Bowen’s ‘Crosland-ite’ agenda has more depth than is to be found in other corners of the Right-faction. But Bowen fails to come to grips with the potential benefits of a democratic mixed economy. Meanwhile in the Left itself we do not engage with the implications of the ‘Socialist Objective’ – socialist culture is fading amidst day-to-day practical opportunism.
(the first of two essays; the essay following this will respond to Jenny McAllister)
He observes its current form:
In the context of alluding to Labor’s historic support for extensive privatisation, Bowen appears specifically to reject passages which commit Labor to: “the establishment and development of public enterprises” as well as “democratic control of Australia’s natural resources”. Following this he suggests his opposition to the “state socialism” – a common ‘political-bogeyman’.
To start the meaning of ‘state socialism’ as argued by Bowen is not properly laid out. In the past the term has been used to describe a centralised command economy after the way of the former Soviet Union. But disturbingly it has also been deployed with the apparent aim of stigmatising any kind of extensive mixed economy. Any form of democratic socialism or social democracy which supposes a significant role for the state as an economic participant is commonly ruled out as ‘state socialism’.
Continuing: strategic government business enterprises are good for competition - and hence also good for consumers. Specifically, they can frustrate any collusive economic behaviour between corporations - and prevent the rise of private monopolies.
These kind of policies – which can include strategic extension of the public sector – should not be ruled out as a consequence of some confused shibboleth of ‘state socialism’.
These issues are indeed more complex than assumed both by orthodox Marxists and also by capitalist ideologues. Regarding exploitation: while there are problems with the Marxist ‘labour theory of labour’ which assumed all labour to be equal; nonetheless the structural relationship of exploitation – of the expropriation of a surplus – remains problematic. And while deferral of consumption by small investors may deserve a return, the economic resources and returns for the wealthy cannot be justified in such a way. Finally: alienation remains a reality on account of the repetitive and stressful nature of much work. But democratic structures and processes can ameliorate the lack of control working people have over their labours; and promote a sense of ownership over those labours and the products of those labours. Government can also intervene to provide wage-justice for the working poor – on the basis of respect for all labour. Also government has a role to deliver the welfare dependent from poverty; and to provide opportunities for personal growth – through reduced working hours and a fair age of retirement; but also ensuring access to cultural participation and education. Education must also be about personal growth, and not exclusively about the demands of the labour market.
However Bowen's rejection of public exploitation of Australian natural resources, and the strategic creation of public enterprises, simply adheres to the Ideology of the day - without concern for the tens of billions in forsaken revenue from natural resources on the one hand, and the ability to progressively cross-subsidise, enhance competition, provide efficiencies through natural public monopolies, and socialise profits - on the other.
“We should mean what we say in the socialist objective. Currently we don’t. It clearly doesn’t reflect the modern Labor challenge, and with some updating it could very easily do so.”
In conclusion, there are some points worth observing here.
Firstly it is legitimate to argue for Labor to mean what we say and say what we mean. A problem with the Socialist Objective as we have known it has been the confusion as to what comprises exploitation. For Marxists exploitation means more than just poor wages and conditions. It refers to the expropriation of surplus value from wage labourers by capitalists. It suggests a structural injustice where capitalists expropriate part of the value that in fact they do not create themselves. They expropriate a portion of the value created by workers. Hence a devastating moral critique.
The problem here is the idea that socialisation of “industry, production, distribution and exchange” to the extent necessary to end exploitation actually infers blanket socialisation if one is proceeding form a Marxist definition. Because all wage labour involves the expropriation of surplus value. By contrast some non-Marxist definitions might simply infer the elimination of poverty and the promotion of social inclusion in a ‘Third Way’ kind of sense. Obviously the difference, here, is great – and we need to be clear what we really mean. Hence the famous ‘Blackburn Amendment’ (made to the 1921 Objective; and proposing socialisation where necessary to end exploitation) is confusing in the sense it leaves open the question of how we interpret that exploitation.
(nb: my own opinion is that economic exploitation by large capitalists - including surplus extraction - cannot be morally justified 'on principle' - but that we have a problem transitioning to a fundamentally different society - because we must adapt to the real balance of forces in the international economy, and the need to remain engaged with transnationals who bring with them innovations and investment; but we should take democratisation as far as we practically can; The balance of forces may shift in the future; And in the meantime both definitions of exploitation have their uses so long as we are clear what we mean)
Marx once wrote something to the effect that socialists cannot change the world ‘behind peoples’ backs’. Hence it is a mistake to suppose holding on to the Socialist Objective will have the kind of consequences democratic socialists want – unless it finds reflection on our day to day discourse; in the consciousness of our activists; and in our actual policies.
A smart move would be to include material which makes gestures towards the plural nature of today’s Labor Party – which is simply an observation of fact. But while at the same time establishing democratic socialism and radical social democracy as core traditions in the ALP – which inform our values, our policies, and the Platform itself.
If we are to retain the Objective – perhaps in an updated and modernised form – then in the Left itself we must commit to having democratic socialist values and ideas inform our policies and our activism. This means a counter-culture involving forums, publications, democratic socialist schools and conferences – which preserve and cultivate Left culture – and prevent the dissolution of our traditions into an opportunistic, uncritical and ‘mainstream’ liberalism which forsakes the critique of capitalism; or which abandons the projects of economic democracy; of social wage and welfare extension; of popular struggle ‘from below’ including class struggle; and the strategic extension of the public sector.
IN short: On the ALP Left itself we need to get our own house in order as well as fighting for reform of the National ALP Platform. If we fail ‘to get our own house in order’ any number of temporary symbolic victories will in the end come to nothing.
An analysis of where Labor should head on its Economic Platform specifically can also be found via the URL below – and debate is welcome there as well.