Sunday, April 21, 2024

The ALP - Arguing for a Minimum Program


by Dr Tristan Ewins ; ALP member of over 30 years

The ALP has long been characterised by internal ideological divisions between self-identifying social democrats and self-identifying socialists.  This division has always problematic because there are competing definitions of social democracy and socialism.  Sweden has been described both as socialist and social democratic. Democratic socialists always contested the notion that the former Eastern Bloc represented ‘real socialism’.   Other socialists continued to find inspiration in one or another form of Leninism.  Some self-identifying social democrats simply see their politics as ‘progressive but moderate’.  In a relative sense we think here of a ‘traditional social democracy’. Other social democrats identify as ‘revolutionary social democrats’: basically a continuation in the tradition of early Marxism. (before Leninism, and typified to a degree by the example of Austrian social democrats in the 1917-1934 period)  This paradigm of socialism (the Austrian example specifically) is notable for adherence to revolutionary aims ; even if pitched as ‘revolutionary reforms’ or ‘slow revolution’.  It is not opposed to socialism (or democracy) as such – but rather is a reclamation of an old politics where ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ were not opposed to each other.  The question I intend to explore here is ‘what is a reasonable minimum program for the ALP, which brings together the Party’s diverse ideological elements?’.   What elements of a Party program should all members of the ALP share adherence to?  This is no easy question to answer: as there must be a degree of ‘give and take’, but without compromising on certain basic issues.  There’s also the question of what the modern ALP Left should stand for: and whether or not it is also ‘losing its way’.

The ALP used to adhere – in theory – to its own ‘Socialist Objective’.  This was always complicated by the so-called ‘Blackburn Amendment’ which committed itself to socialisation to the extent of eliminating “exploitation and other anti-social features”.   It was long considered by some as a ‘dead letter’ ; at odds with the practice of actual Labor policy ; and containing a contradiction: at least as far as Marxism is concerned.  For Marxism exploitation is structurally inbuilt in capitalism (expropriation of surplus value) : and socialisation must be absolute to eliminate it entirely.  Arguably the Objective was also at odds with political practice on the ALP Left ; despite the Left fighting tooth and nail for many years to preserve it.  When arguing for the preservation of the Objective Left leaders such as Kim Carr watered down their arguments to the point  where there was a very significant loss of meaning and content – in an attempt to broaden its appeal.  Guy Rundle has described Carr’s project as one of ‘national social democracy’ characterised by greater self-reliance in manufacturing.  But does this meet appropriate minimum requirements as a ‘stream of socialism’?  Meanwhile, Rundle portrays the rest of the party of embracing “distributionism” which aims to broaden economic ownership, including a place for co-operatives, but does not aim to negate capitalism’s core dynamics.  This means more than competition and markets ; it means accumulation of capital and hence political power in the hands of a dominant capitalist class – achieved through economic relations of exploitation. Meanwhile  avowed ‘Third Way’ politics water down social democracy itself – even in the traditions of ‘mixed economy and welfare state’ – to the point of meaninglessness.

For socialists in the Labor Party the reality is we cannot have it all our way.  And there are questions as to what ALP Left politics are really about these days anyway.  Cynics might argue that in practice the ALP Left simply stands for “a slightly bigger welfare state and social wage” ; and “a slightly more progressive tax system”.  Though incremental improvement of welfare, progressive tax and the social wage is desirable if the progress is sustained. The Left itself needs its own statement of beliefs: which involve a more fundamental critique of capitalism.  This might include critiques of monopolism, exploitation, alienation created by physically demanding work, and work involving lack of creative fulfilment and control ; as well as economic cycles and crises, and the distribution of political and economic power.  But these could also include building blocks for the broader Party.

To begin it is worth considering the common ground between different schools of socialism and social democracy in terms of a minimum program.  This would be inclusive of a steadily expanding social wage and welfare state – preferably to Nordic proportions. (in the sense that was realised at the height of Nordic social democracy)  Though Nordic Social Democracy has long been in retreat ; and this means we need to take their example with a grain of salt.   This means more robust pensions ; comprehensive socialised health (including Medicare Dental)  ; and appropriate subsidies for services and amenities  fundamental to modern human existence. This includes power, water, socialised or co-operative housing, communications (including internet access), transport, availability of nutritious food, and so on.  Ongoing Education is also crucial to modern life ; and all people ought be able to pursue personal fulfilment through education as well as skilling up to meet labour market requirements. 

While the reality is that the modern labour market is characterised by exploitation (workers do not keep the full proceeds of their labour power) , we do operate in a global economy where it is necessary to sell labour power in order to participate.   Right now there is ‘no way out’ of capitalism ; but that does not mean we cannot have a critique which informs strategies which address the anti-social, irrational and unfair features of the system. The Left should have a critique – including of the core workings of capitalist political economy ; and it needs a code of principles which provides this ; but a minimum program for a wide range of socialists and social democrats also needs to account for an alliance of forces including elements who are not committed to negating capitalism ; even far into the future.  Something needs to change in discourse more broadly – with an effective counter-hegemony - to achieve anything like a consensus on a Socialist Objective within the ALP.  This means we need a mobilised Left fighting to challenge ‘common sense’ ideas both within and outside of the Party.  Arguably the Communist Party of Australia used to play this role very effectively ; as did other Western Communist Parties - even though they did not usually enjoy significant electoral success.  (The Communist Party of Italy – the PCI - is a very important exception ; having won very strong electoral success for many decades)

That said, a minimum program could include a commitment for the foreseeable future to a democratic mixed economy ; or a hybrid system.  Strategic socialisation should be pursued for reasons of economic efficiency, equity, and sovereignty.  In areas characterised by a lack of competition, or by collusion – government business enterprises can be a game changer.  Think banking, general insurance, health insurance, postal services. In other areas it is appropriate to have natural public monopolies.  Infrastructure in energy, water, communications, transport -are other areas where the logic of natural public monopoly ought apply.  Public monopolies in these fields translate into reduced cost structures ; with the benefits flowing on to the economy more broadly, including consumers.  Governments – including Labor Governments – have systemically undermined the place of natural public monopoly in the economy.  But we need a debate on this within the Party ; about a commitment to strategic public ownership ; and if possible to natural public monopoly in specific fields such as water, energy, transport and communications infrastructure ; as well as a restoration of a public sector job network after the example of the old CES.

Still ;  it is hard enough already getting many self-identifying  ‘moderate’ social democrats to even agree to restoring a public sector role in these fields (in competition with private enterprise) ; let alone restoration of natural public monopolies.  Nonetheless the Left should lead a debate on natural public monopoly and strategic (including competitive) government business enterprise.  Specifically, a minimum program should refer to a democratic mixed economy ; and this should frame an internal debate which the Left tries to lead.  Government could also invest in primary industries ; and in Australia especially there is great scope to benefit from a public role in minerals exploration and mining.  Billions in revenue could be directed towards social programs.

Co-operatives could also play a central role in a democratic mixed economy ; and as far as they reach they attack economic exploitation at its very roots.   It’s important to observe, however, that even in Spain where the successful Mondragon Co-operative operates – that co-operative ownership is not very significant in the context of the broader economy.  But particularly, in Australia government could underwrite co-operative enterprise to enable it to remain competitive on global and local markets ; including by investment in Research and Development and economies of scale.  Government could also provide cheap loans to facilitate the establishment of co-operatives ; including smaller scale co-operatives – eg: co-op cafes – which not only attack exploitation ; but which also allow intimate creative control by workers.  Strong policies could secure a significant (as opposed to marginal or minimal) place for co-operatives in the Australian economy.   But importantly, co-operative enterprise is not a substitute for the public sector: both play a core role in a democratic mixed economy.  Commitment to promoting a greater and greater role for co-operatives in the economy needs to be integrated in a minimum program.

Other areas where an agenda of popular and workers control could be advanced include co-determination and collective capital mobilisation.  In Australia superannuation funds have become powerful players in investment.  Though they operate in the capitalist context ; and tend to adhere therefore to capitalist imperatives.  (eg: share value maximisation) Hence they advance a distributivist agenda ; but not much which is more radical.   Also public pension funds would have been more equitable ; and the superannuation system threatens the eventual marginalisation and undermining of the public Aged Pension over time.

Meanwhile, co-determination can manifest either as consultation, or in the sense of all parties having to agree on major decisions. In Australia the starting point would be workers’ representatives on company boards. Hence workers could have ‘an insiders’ view’ on the decisions affecting their productive lives.  This specific strategy would not be radically transformative in the sense of workers’ control ; but it would be a step forward.  Again we need to set the broad framework in a minimum program ; and then for the Left to lead a debate within that framework.

There is a broad scope to reform welfare. Labor should also be committed to strengthening the Aged Pension, Disability Pension, Job Seeker’s Allowance,  Sole Parents’ Pension , Austudy, and other welfare.   The Disability Pension (and National Disability Insurance Scheme supports) should be for life- in the sense of not being withdrawn depending on age.  Also, there should be more scope to earn additional income through casual or part-time work (or other means) without losing the Disability Support Pension. And entering into a relationship should not see a substantial portion of welfare payments withdrawn.  The NDIS should be strengthened more broadly also  ; not undermined.  University fees should be replaced by progressive tax levies which effectively relate proportionately to the actual financial advantage gained.  A Garaunteed Minimum Income relating to the cost of all fundamental needs could consolidate basic universal economic rights.

In a minimum program reference could be made to all pensions ; and the imperative of providing them on the basis of need.  (again perhaps expanded, and then indexed quarterly to inflation or cost of living – whichever is greater).  The debate on a Garaunteed Minimum Income can be won ; but it may take time to integrate it into a Minimum Program.

Finally there are issues of human rights, labour market and industrial relations rights, and housing – which also need to be addressed in a Minimum Program.  Labor needs to be unequivocal in a Minimum Program in its commitment to freedom of association, assembly and speech ; as well as the right to basic needs such as housing, heating, cooling, nutrition, education, health services, access to transport services, and access to communications and information technology.  This needs to be amended as new relative rights and needs arise with technological and economic progress.  The right to engage in Pattern Bargaining and to withdraw labour in good faith (whether for industrial or political goals) needs to be promoted ; and at the lower end of the labour market especially more robust minimum standards and regulation need to be provided for.  This should have a substantial effect if implemented in the case of heavily exploited ‘feminised’ industries.

Again, shelter is a human right ; and government policy (including provision of public housing) should seek to achieve its universal fulfilment. Government could also help facilitate co-operative housing, and affordable housing – through subsidies and regulations.  The Federal Government and the States have long lagged behind here ; and support from the Federal Government especially is needed – as they do not endure the same fiscal constraints as do the other tiers.  Recently there has been a trend to promote ‘affordable’ housing (as an alternative to public housing) through deals with private developers ; but while this strategy can provide better outcomes for some renters, it does not achieve either efficient financing or equity compared with public housing.  Labor needs a minimum program which significantly expands an ongoing policy of building enough high quality public housing to meet the demand ; while looking to the Austrian example to destigmatise public housing and establish it as an option for all Australians ; including but not limited to the most disadvantaged.  A minimum program needs to aspire to this ; and it should not be controversial for genuine social democrats and socialists.

In conclusion Labor also needs an independent foreign policy outlook and a humane policy with regards to rights of asylum seekers. We should lead the way on defusing conflicts between China and the United States and heading off any potential war. And there is no place for Mandatory Detention in any Party of the broad Left.   We should also promote 'deep democracy' ; supported through civics education 'for active, informed and critical citizenship' ; and government programs which put active citizenship at the centre of policy. This could include government funding to access public space - including, for instance shopping centres - where political and social movement organisations across most of the spectrum could promote their own ideas of 'active citizenship'.

In short – and to summarise in conclusion - a Minimum Program should promote a progressively expanding social wage and welfare state ; as well as a democratic mixed economy – with stronger public and democratic sectors which aim to improve underlying cost structures to the benefit of the broader economy and consumers - through strategic public ownership.  Here, the social wage includes socialised health and education ; and ensuring universal access to shelter (including public housing) , information and communications technology, transport services ; and a minimum income where access to energy and water is also universal.  And with a steadily more progressively-structured tax system – with an open commitment to just economic redistribution.  And we will define the welfare state’s role as comprising social provision of income ; especially the vulnerable ; with cross-over between welfare state and social wage where it comes to social services.  

Also the minimum program should include reference to the progressive expansion of economic democracy on several fronts ; and the provision of fundamental industrial and broader human rights.  This means a regulated labour market and the right to withdraw labour in good faith for industrial or political purposes.  As well as the minimisation of the anti-social complications of capitalism ; including its crisis-prone nature ; its tendency to concentrate wealth and promote monopolism ; as well as problems of inbuilt obsolescence – and of collusion and other anti-competitive or anti-consumer practices.   Also ‘the market’ does not necessarily ‘organically’ provide for human need – though there is a role for it in providing for the flexible satisfaction of individualised needs structures.   The need for choice – and hence competition – means there are limits to socialisation – at least under current conditions. ‘The market’ has a place ; but so too does social provision which goes beyond ‘market logic’.

This article has sought to explore the issues which should inform a minimum program for the ALP.  It should be possible to win broad agreement on most of this article’s broad tenets.  In other areas the article has outlined areas where minimum policies could be applied ; but where the Left should lead the debate in terms of achieving stronger policies. 

Also importantly ; there are limits to purely electoral politics – and there is a need for an organised counter-hegemony.  The counter-hegemony should seek a more radical reframing of debate and issues than the minimum program ; and it is necessary to build an alternative to the old Western Communist Parties who used to contest ‘political and economic common sense’.  But that is beyond the broad scope of this article. 

The point is that it is possible to achieve broad agreement on a minimum program which mobilises the broad Labor Party and frames its policies.  The minimum program, here, attempts to frame the ALP as involving currents ranging from traditional social democratic (mixed economy, labour rights and welfare state) on the relative right, to democratic socialism and revolutionary social democracy on the Left.  And these various currents are considered as being capable of solidarity behind basic programmatic and policy principles and agendas.  The most diluted ‘Third Way’ positions – which stand for little in terms of the traditions of social democracy or socialism – need to be seen as liquidationist – and hence are not accepted within the framework of the minimum program.

It is hoped that this article will promote debate and influence the development of the ALP’s Platform running up to the next National Conference.  And also the development of a program behind which both elements of the ALP Left and the ALP Right might be able to coalesce ; as well as non-aligned elements.  This goes so far is to problematise the very idea of an ‘ALP Right’ which is right-wing on the broader political spectrum. Even the most relative right-wing elements in the ALP should be relatively Left on the broader spectrum.  We all need to see ourselves as part of a ‘broad Left’, and in this sense having common cause.  Once we agree on this perhaps we can truly ‘move forward together’.

Friday, March 8, 2024

State Power and the Left today


Above:  Antonio Gramsci developed ideas of ‘War of Movement’ and ‘War of Position’: arguing there was more than one road to change.
Dr Tristan Ewins 
The other day I saw another post by a Conservative trashing Marxism, and arguing that Marxism had never succeeded in practice.  In response I argued that it depends on how you measure success.  There may never have been a communist government of the sort Marx envisaged.  Some regimes were a macabre parody of Marx’s principles.  But Marx also helped to unleash the social forces which at the same time improved society, while perhaps preventing the kind of extreme polarisation that may have driven revolution.   So in a way perhaps Marx helped mobilise forces which prevented the kind of final confrontation he envisaged.  Perhaps the success of democratic socialists and social democrats in achieving reform actually prevented the polarisation which would lead to revolution. Though from the 70s onward the Left has also declined with the embrace of neo-liberalism, the collapse of the USSR, falling wages, declining unionisation, working class militancy and class identity, and so on.  In response to these set-backs most alleged Leftists chose the strategy of capitulation ; and the embrace of identity politics as an alternative to socialism.  Not to say that identity struggles aren’t important ; but they do not replace the need to have a clear critique of political economy ; and an organised and conscious working class.
In response to those who argue there is nothing of value in reading Marxist texts today, I say this: Marxism is fine so long as you don't take Marx's or Lenin's writings as a closed book. Lots of socialist democrats were also Marxists. Marxism influenced many Social Democratic countries in Europe who have been prosperous. China is prosperous but fails to meet Marx's principles on creative freedom and fulfilment. Lenin worked under perhaps the worst possible circumstances and was driven to make terrible compromises. Then much of the world socialist movement applied his (Lenin’s) ideas ''more or less straight' into situations that demanded more nuanced and situational thinking.
Thinkers such as Gramsci, Habermas, Marcuse - remedied this to an extent.  Meanwhile Chantal Mouffe mixes Marxism with robust liberal pluralism to base a strong theory of social change today that some call 'Post-Marxism'.  (Mouffe refers to her outlook as ‘Agonism’)  But the Marxist tradition is both deep and broad - and we shouldn't shy away from borrowing from it today. But perhaps with more respect for liberalism than Lenin had.  Because the ideology of liberalism is a kind of defence in the sense that the State’s perceived legitimacy rests upon certain liberal rights and freedoms.  When those aspects of liberal ideology recede the Left typically becomes more vulnerable to brute repression.  But at the same time it causes the capitalist state to face a legitimation crisis where it's perceived legitimacy was based on liberalism.  It 'cuts both ways'.  That said, today many workers are increasingly exploited and impoverished in line with a decline of social resistance and class struggle. In part we're to blame for that ourselves on the broad Left for reverting to nebulous 'Third Way' thinking, and abandoning class and the critique of capitalism in the rush to identity politics.
Though Marx himself knew his work wasn't complete, and there's still lots of value in his works we can still draw on today. And as a tradition Marxism is very diverse and broad. But indeed his works don't solve every problem on Earth ; and with the passage of well over a century many things have changed. We do have to account for this.
One of the key factors distinguishing Marxism from mainstream liberal democracy is the Marxist critique of the State.  Marx thought the working class had to seize state power.  Lenin, meanwhile, argued this was only possible if the previous state was ‘smashed’ ; that socialists could not successfully take a hold of the ‘ready made state machinery’ to govern on behalf of working people and those who had been oppressed.  The situation which followed Revolution was referred to by Marx as ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.  Many critics of Marx see this as referring to the literal Stalinist dictatorship which eventuated in the USSR.
Yet as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out dictatorship of the proletariat can be interpreted as the democratic rule of the workers ; as opposed to Lenin for whom it was the rule of the Communist Party. So 'dictatorship of the proletariat' doesn't need to mean the dictatorship of one person or party. But Lenin worked amidst a collapsing society where foreign intervention was everywhere ; and the Entente powers (Britain, the Commonwealth, and France) were determined to destroy the new government as that government had pulled out of the war. (that is, World War One) The United States and Italy had also joined the Entente.  Unfortunately the logic of the crises which followed led to centralisation in the hands of fewer and fewer people ; and the Bolsheviks turned in against themselves ; until Stalin was the only one of the old Bolsheviks who was left. (except for Alexandra Kollontai ; who became a diplomat for the ‘workers’ state’ ; and ended up as ambassador to Sweden) Engels pointed out that some authoritarianism was necessary in the midst of a Revolution – to protect the infant Communist government from its enemies.   But Gramsci pointed out that not all revolutions are the same ; and this means we should not apply the Leninist template universally.  Perhaps the Bolsheviks should have maintained the Red Army ; but allowed the Constituent Assembly to sit ; as well as the Soviets. In other words freedom - but with a backup plan. The problem would be if the Constituent Assembly tried to establish their own State ; and hence threaten sustained working class democracy.  This kind of arrangement is called ‘Dual Power’ ; where all power is not centralised in one place.  (but control of the apparatus of force can still be a decisive factor)   Also importantly: the State involves the apparatus of administration and not merely the apparatus of force.  Seeking to 'smash' the state 'root and branch' - including the apparatus of administration - could prove to be self-destructive in the final  analysis.
Considering the matter historically: Under immense pressure, The French Revolution descended into Terror ; and eventually Bonapartism (dictatorship) ; But this didn't cause liberal democrats to abandon their cause. Eventually they succeeded. Neither should we on the Socialist Left abandon our cause. Most importantly we need to be outspoken about our cause ; because without this we will not mobilise anyone. Without this capitalist ideology and institutions appear beyond question ; and alternatives are seen as practically unthinkable. Also we need to be principled on issues like privatisation – as hypocrisy has a demoralising and demobilising effect  , and upcoming generations of activists are thoroughly detached form the values of their predecessors.
Lenin was a democratic centralist ; which translated to the rule of the Party - which in turn delegated power to decide and govern between Conferences to a Central Committee. He was prepared to share power with like-minded Parties such as the Left Social Revolutionaries ; but after he suffered an attempted assassination by one of their members he abandoned this. Rosa Luxemburg was scathing of over-centralisation ; pointing out that it smothered workers' democracy ; and the self-corrective dynamics of that democracy.  The wisest Central Committee was no substitute for democratic practice. You could argue that over-centralisation was a crisis-management measure - but the problem is that the Crisis never ended. And we ended up with the personal dictatorship of Stalin. The comparison between socialists and liberal democrats stands ; because even if Lenin was an over-centralist - he did not speak for all socialists. The aim should have been to balance crisis management with workers' freedom and democracy.
Some liberals have a problem with forging a State which is sympathetic to the Left ; and hence not likely to resort to extreme violence against the Left.  They presume that the modern state is democratic and impartial ; and hence all the Left has to do to change society is to win a majority in Parliament.  Problem is: apply that to the Austrian instance. At the end of World War I the Austrian Social Democrats controlled the Army. They achieved a liberal democratic revolution. But after the war they gave up State power and allowed a new conventional army to be set up. As an insurance policy they maintained their own militia. In 1934 they achieved a majority in the Constituent Assembly. Immediately the Fascists dissolved the Parliament by force - and in doing so they were supported by the regular Army. For a time the Social Democrats negotiated behind the scenes. While they did this the Army raided their arms caches and arrested their leaders. Finally what was left of the workers' militia (the Schutzbund) took up arms, fortifying the public housing estates in Vienna. But they were crushed after about a week, and many of their remaining leaders were executed. Austria was under the heel of a kind of fascism – years before the Nazis occupied the country.  (The Austrian fascist regime had clerical sympathies ; and did not want German dominance ; like Franco’s regime in Spain they were repressive ; but they did not have the Nazis’ racialized Ideology)
The point is that unless progressive forces control the Armed Forces – or otherwise influence it towards democracy - they have no guarantee they can peacefully achieve a majority and govern for their constituents. They can allow other parties to govern, yes. But they cannot afford to allow their enemies to control the armed apparatus of State if they actually have a choice in the matter.
In Australia the prospect of radically reforming the Armed Forces seems unlikely.  Perhaps the best we can do is school the military in pluralism and democracy ; and try and ensure they never intervene inappropriately.  Unfortunately, constitutionalism is not necessarily enough ; as Reserve Powers can be used to undermine democracy. Such intervention is currently not likely as what passes for the Left in Australia does little to challenge the status-quo. The opportunity to radically reform the armed forces in Austria only occurred after a State collapse with the defeat of Austria-Hungary ; and over a million Austrian and Hungarian deaths in World War One.   But with no opportunity to radically reform the State, radicals always run the risk of falling afoul of it.
Historically, though– in the instance of Revolutionary Russia - what I'm arguing for is basically that there should have been a kind of dual power. Here, again, the Bolsheviks would have controlled the Red Army and hence that would comprise 'the last line of defense' . The Soviets would have had their sphere of influence ; but the Constituent Assembly would be enabled to do its job of representing voters as well. Though without forming a state that was hostile to the Revolution.
In a recent argument I put forward this view and was accused of hypocrisy.  I was accused of endorsing state repression ;  and hence having double standards on liberty.  It was held that radically reforming the State so the apparatus of force upheld democracy – including support for elected left-wing governments - led to actual dictatorship in the common sense of the word.
But that's not what I'm arguing. My argument is "hold on to control of the apparatus of force if you can - AS AN INSURANCE POLICY against the violent or repressive tendencies of your enemies." So THEY cannot use the state against you in an oppressive way. More generally, I'm glad for my rivals to have free speech. I'm not glad for them to have the option of using state power to repress me when things don't go their way.
In the Russian context, however, things were more complex ; as it was in the middle of a Civil War - and with foreign intervention ; there was the spectre of hunger and social collapse and so on.  Once you’ve accepted that the French Revolutionaries had to resort to crisis management under certain circumstances, then the same ought apply to the socialist Left in its struggles. But better still to avoid the kind of crises that warrant such tactics. Hence 'War of Position' is better than 'War of Movement'. (we’ll explain this shortly) It all ended badly for the Bolsheviks anyway.  There was a virtual 'repeat of history' as the rise of Stalin shadowed the previous rise of Napoleon.  So if you could achieve stability on the basis of a progressive and democratic pluralism that would be best. But it’s best if you can have that pluralism while progressives control the apparatus of force as an insurance policy. Importantly, the State is not homogenous.  While I am not a structuralist, the structuralist Marxist Nicos Poulantzas described the State as a ‘contested field’ ; upon which the logic of class struggle was ‘imprinted’.  The idea that the State can be contested without being left as a homogenous ‘instrument’ across its breadth and depth is a very important one.
This is why what Antonio Gramsci called 'war of position' is preferable to what he called 'war of movement'. In a 'war of movement' - eg: the 1917 Russian Revolution - order is collapsing and competing interests and parties rush to fill the void. In the process the struggle can become very violent. In the Russia 1917 context there was foreign intervention and White Armies besieging the Revolution.  And if Communist Parties do 'whatever it takes' there's the potential for it to end disastrously. (though in that context many feel they have no choice ; it’s easy to judge when personally you live in conditions of stability)  By contrast a 'war of position' involves a long term struggle for hegemony ; through institutions, organisations, traditions, practices, movements.  Power is gained by reaching pre-eminence in civil society - potentially through democratic processes.  And again the State can be penetrated by the process of class struggle itself.  But the fate of Salvador Allende – whose democratic socialist government in Chile was overthrown in 1973 by Pinochet with the assistance of the CIA - shows that if the armed forces are hostile it can still end in slaughter. (against the Left)   The massacre of Leftists and labour movement activists in Indonesia in 1965-1966 is an even more horrifying example: where over half a million were slain and the rivers literally ran red with blood.  The apparatus of force is perhaps the hardest part of the State to penetrate and challenge. In Australia, also, the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam was effectively overthrown in 1975 in a ‘constitutional coup’.
Of course bourgeois regimes don't mind wars ; and there is hypocrisy when it comes to the matter of violence. Violence might become inevitable in defence of a picket line for instance. But the modern Left has an interest in not escalating violence too far ; because it does not stand a chance against the violent power of the modern State if that state is hostile.  Or more to the point ; against the State’s apparatus of force.  Perhaps the word ‘apparatus’ suggests an instrumental outlook – which is problematic – but the armed forces can be isolated from any broader class struggle. At the end of World War One, though, the establishment of workers’ armies was possible in a context where millions of workers were mobilised in the armed forces by a horrific war which had discredited the old regimes.  And the class struggle in Australia is also problematic because class consciousness is now at an all time low following the demobilisation of the labour movement in the 1980s and thereafter.  The Left has a substantial task in front of it.
So the modern struggle involves taking every opportunity to reform the State ; while engaging in cultural and social struggles ; as well as civil disobedience.  This means always pushing the boundaries ; but having the wisdom not to press them too far if there is a likely prospect of overwhelming repression.   Again: escalation beyond a certain point is not usually a wise option for the Left.
A strong and mobilised civil society is also a defence against repression ; so achieving this is a high priority for both revolutionaries and reformers.  Perhaps the best way is a mix of reformist and revolutionary outlooks. That is: seek qualitative change ; but be prepared to achieve this incrementally.   While at the same time taking advantage of ‘watershed’ scenarios to achieve radical change more quickly.  All this involves mobilising civil society and reforming the State to contain the threat of repression.

This may also seem distanced from the reality of day to day politics ; but that current reality is one where progressive parties have limited power because of the threat of international capital strike ; and the Left’s marginalisation in Civil Society.  The Left has also largely abandoned struggles or – and ideologies of – radical democratisation, class liberation, and other progressive causes.   In other words, large parts of the modern Left have either lost their reason for being ; became irrelevant ; or limited themselves to identity struggles while only contesting political economy at the margins.  Again: Hypocrisy on issues like privatisation, and timidity on issues like tax reform, Industrial Relations reform, and social wage expansion – leave newer generations on the Left demobilised, disoriented and demoralised. But if the Left ever rediscovers itself, all these issues discussed here will once again burn with immediate relevance.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Rejecting the Cashless Welfare Card A Good Start ; Labor needs deeper change on policy and culture as well


Dr Tristan Ewins


It is now approaching a decade since Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest was approached by then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to advise on the creation of a ‘cashless welfare card’.   While Forrest intended for all income to be ‘quarantined’ for use only in approved areas (like groceries), the Indue card which has emerged in trials set a floor of 80% of income to be with-held, and available for ‘approved purposes’. Aimed largely at indigenous peoples, and the welfare-dependent more broadly, the ‘Indue’ card follows after the failed ‘Basics card’ of 2007 - which attempted something similar as part of a government ‘Intervention’ into indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.  The newer ‘Indue’ cashless welfare card applies to the welfare-dependent more generally in the communities in which it is being trialled.  All those affected find themselves in the position of being restricted in what they can spend their money on, including on food and second hand goods. While a relatively small proportion are affected by gambling addiction or alcoholism, the ‘card’ is a source of humiliation and control over the welfare-dependent more generally.   Indue, which includes Conservative Coalition party luminaries as shareholders, stands to make a packet from the humiliation and micro-management of the every-day life of already-disadvantaged Australians.

Instead of humiliating marginalised Australians government ought instead be seeking to empower them, perhaps including through the mechanism of a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI).  Arguments against a GMI include the suggestion it may displace some existing pensions. (some of which are less threadbare than others)  But if a ‘no disadvantage’ test were applied this need not be a problem.  ‘Mutual obligation’ provisions have always been worrisome; as in practice they became a source of effective labour conscription.  This might also increase competition for jobs at the ‘lower end’ of the labour market ; and in the process reduce the bargaining power of those workers. 

A good alternative could be the establishment of a ‘Social Bill of Rights’ ; which would include rights to nutrition, adequate and dignified shelter, power, comprehensive health care, communications-related empowerment (eg: internet access), transport, education and social inclusion. A ‘Guaranteed Minimum Income’ could then be deployed alongside pensions and other programs intended to make this vision reality.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries the unemployed were driven into ‘Poor Houses’ where they were exploited, humiliated and robbed of their dignity.  There is a long history of ‘blaming the poor’ for their own disadvantage.  Centuries later some of the same assumptions remain in play beneath the surface.  Labor is arguing it will end the long Conservative experiment with the ‘cashless welfare card’.   The Coalition has so far not mustered the political courage (or political capital) to implement the program more broadly.  But as with ‘WorkChoices’ ; the old agendas continue to ‘fester’ behind the scenes.   The debate needs to be brought into the glare of public scrutiny and buried decisively.

Labor’s opposition to the Indue card is welcome.  But Labor needs a broader, stronger vision, including reform of welfare, minimum wages and labour market regulation, industrial rights, and embedded social human rights.  Its retreat on the tax debate has regrettably narrowed its options.   But a program for change could re-emerge through a determined reform of the social wage and welfare state ; which branched in various directions – including a Universal Aged Care Insurance Scheme, as well as improvement of pensions, with rescission of punitive mechanisms.  And a bold commitment to build a million new public housing units – as suggested by the Greens.  Labor really ought to be coming up with these kind of ideas on its own initiative.

There is a minimum standard of living which must apply to all citizens.  This idea of a ‘floor’ beneath which none are allowed to fall is reminiscent of the more progressive variations of the ‘Third Way’ which emerged in the 1990s.  But to mobilise as broad a base as possible, and provide distributive justice for all a more robust Social Democratic or Democratic Socialist agenda than Blairism is necessary.

It seems Social Democratic Parties have been on the defensive and on the back foot for decades. And indeed they have been.  For some the logic of retreat has been internalised.  We need to re-establish a notion of what comprises ‘progress’.  That means fairer distribution, industrial rights,  social rights, and the re-establishment of a robust mixed economy to help make this vision reality.  The Indue ‘cashless welfare card’ is the current ‘Conservative frontier’ ; where it attempts to reshape public ‘common sense’ on the further rescission of the welfare state, and the re-establishment of a ‘Poor House’ mentality ; which ‘gives the whip hand’ to employers through poverty, compulsion and labour conscription. 

Labor needs to go back to ‘first principles’ and work out the consequences of that.  Which is that being a ‘broad church’, Labor needs to be united behind ‘baseline’ social democratic and democratic socialist values and agendas.  Containing inequality and ending poverty ought be non-negotiable ; as should the proposal that this must be pursued through industrial rights, labour market regulation, a mixed economy, progressive taxation system, expanded social wages and welfare state provisions, and intervention into the capitalist system. (ultimately to end exploitation ; but also to ameliorate the impact of its crises upon workers and the vulnerable in the meantime)

The cashless welfare card needs to be defeated and exposed for the punitive mentality it embodies.  But we need a progressive movement which is willing to ‘go onto the front foot as well’.  A movement which has an idea what ‘progress’ entails, and which rejects a logic of endless retreat ; ameliorated only by the ascendance of ‘social liberal’ agendas as applied to gender, sexuality, and so on.  And in the context of the marginalisation of social conservatism, and its replacement by an ideology of neo-liberal cosmopolitanism. 

A ‘change of direction’ involves accepting class struggle as a progressive phenomenon ; an ‘engine of social progress’.  Only when that logic becomes entrenched does progress become undeniable. And while Hawke’s vision of “Reconciliation” appealed to many ; bosses soon became tired of ‘co-determination’ with unions once they had extracted crucial concessions.  And once organised labour lost its bargaining position. 

‘Reformists’ and Revolutionaries were once agreed on the progressive nature of class struggle.  Within Labor factions and others need, also, to combine behind such a shared notion. Bringing together Labor members behind the idea of a progressive class struggle is crucial ; an idea that we are all broadly in the same fight.  Reinforced by daily experience everywhere from Party branches to unions, and from student politics to the social movements.   There is a fight for the heart and soul of the ALP, and the heart and soul of Australia. There is no place for a punitive cashless welfare card in a progressive Australia.  May solidarity in the name of renewed class struggle relegate it to history.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Responding to ‘Cynical Theories’ – A Critique of Postmodern Theory


Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James, ‘Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Swift Press, London, 2020

Dr Tristan Ewins

“Cynical Theories” - by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay – is a thorough critique of postmodernism as exemplified by Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard from the 1960s onward ; as well as the Applied and ‘Reified’ (in the authors’ words)  postmodernist intellectual movements which have followed.  This is a response that book.

The period of ‘high postmodernity’ saw thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard adopt an approach of irony and ‘playfulness’ in response to capitalist domination, the decline of communism as a perceived alternative, and the hopelessness which followed.  The ‘applied’ phase sought to apply postmodernism to concrete issues, and in this sense saw a re-emergence of some kind of hope on the Left after the decline of communism.  Meanwhile what the authors call the ‘reified phase’ saw postmodern Theory increasingly seen as representing ‘The Truth’ about society, which cannot be questioned.  The original postmodernists were sometimes criticised for taking deconstruction too far, or because they could “afford” to be ‘playful” and “ironic”.  (being white, middle class and male)  (p 48) The objective reality of certain oppressed groups was to be accepted ; and not subjected to deconstruction.  ‘Reconstruction’ was seen as being as important as deconstruction.  (not entirely a bad thing!) What has come to be described as “Standpoint Theory’ has seen an abandonment of ‘scientific truth’ and its replacement with group experience.  What some people call ‘Identity Politics’. ‘Standpoint theory’ has it that people are defined by their social location in a landscape of privilege and oppression.

Indeed science, empirical knowledge and notions of ‘progress’  are sometimes seen as part of the “Western Enlightenment’ tradition ; and that is dismissed as an Ideology of Western domination.  As well as being oppressive of ‘other ways of knowing’. (for example mystical spiritual traditions, paganism, witchcraft)   in reality these traditions should also be open to criticism ; but the Enlightenment saw a general scepticism about ‘the spiritual’ ; and an unwillingness to engage.  (though arguably if the Enlightenment should be subjected to criticism, so too should ‘other ways of knowing’)  Science especially is seen as holding great “prestige” ; and that can be a cover for domination.  (as in the past, where racist colonialist discourses were legitimised (falsely) in its name)  Certain racial, sexual, gender and other groups are seen as oppressed by dominant discourses ; and therefore are represented as ‘authentic’.  After Foucault ; ‘Power’ is seen as operating in all discourses and social relationships ; sometimes rendered invisible or obscured by dominant ideologies.  Many also accept Derrida’s critique of ‘binaries’ such as sex (male/female) which are maintained through language ; and believe those binaries need to be ‘blurred’, ‘disrupted’ or ‘turned on their heads’.  Hence there has arisen notions of ‘Intersex’ and ‘Queer’ sexuality which are not ‘heteronormative’.

The authors object to the way in which this ‘postmodern Ideology’ is enforced.  While they identify ‘applied postmodernism’ and ‘reified postmodernism’ as being intolerant of debate ; ostensibly to prevent hostile discourse causing trauma to marginalised groups ; instead they promote liberal notions of free speech.  Here, ideas must be subjected to criticism if they are to develop and evolve. Marxists would argue that the “dialectic” must be enabled to do its work through open class struggle.   And they see dialectical logic at work in other social relationships as well.   

Suppression of debate is counter-productive.  This reminds the reader of the stance taken by communist, Rosa Luxemburg in supporting free speech in Revolutionary Russia ; just as the Bolsheviks were consolidating their control. For the authors the ‘authoritarianism’ of postmodernism runs parallel to that of Communism.  That many communists (Martov, Kautsky, Luxemburg) opposed the suppression of the working class ‘supposedly for its own good’ is not acknowledged ; and it can be assumed that the authors simply haven’t engaged with Marxism in such a way as to be aware of this diversity.   The authors also assume capitalism is ‘self-correcting’ ;  going ‘hand in hand with Liberalism.    But capitalism makes the same old mistakes – overproduction, monopolism, planned obsolescence, gross inequality. There is a self-correcting element in liberalism – interpreted as liberty -but liberty can be applied to socialism as well as capitalism.

In the name of liberalism, the authors also defend universalism, science and secular humanism. They believe “truth” can be arrived at via scientific/empirical method, and that science points towards our common humanity.  Hence ; although a ‘scientific Ideology’ had been distorted in the past to justify colonialist racism ; eventually the rigorous and authentic Scientific Method itself helped break down the very Ideologies of racism which previously tried to use science as a ‘cover’. Here they actually share cause with orthodox Marxism. For many postmodernists, however, oppressed groups have their own “ways of knowing” which only they have access to ; and which need to be empowered for their liberation.  Here the oppressed must speak for themselves ; hence diversity quotas and the like. 

In response it could be argued that highly developed empathy enables some people to identify with and begin to understand the positions of oppressed groups and individuals.  There is the Weberian notion of social-scientific ‘Understanding’. (Verstehen)  Also some arguments deserve to be heard because of the quality of their arguments, and the broader social urgency ; as opposed simply to the Identity of the speaker.  Finally ; ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘straight’ people have the potential to develop discourses of self-understanding which do not simply reinforce or render invisible previous binaries of domination.  For the authors such perspectives should be rigorously criticised ; but not silenced. For instance: Whereas it might be useful for a white male to subject himself to criticism using Feminist methods ; he should be able to arrive at critical self-understandings of his own as well.  He should not be banned from speaking for himself because in some contexts he is seen as enjoying privilege. But he must listen to Others also.  At the end of the day, however, ‘inclusion’ brings us into relation and dialogue with one another, and that itself can lead to ‘progress’.

“Applied” and “Reified” postmodernism attempt to read racism, sexism and prejudice into all manner of discourses.  Often this simply involves rigorous analysis revealing past prejudices ; which can lead to recognition, and ultimately healing.  A ‘critical’ perspective can simply involve SENSITIIVTY to the perspectives of Others.  But on the other hand it can be taken to extremes ; where any ‘slip’ can lead to ostracism, or even the destruction of careers.  As the authors write:

“At best, this has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression…as good people self-censor to avoid saying the ‘wrong’ things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and – when institutionalised – a kind of authoritarianism in our midst.”   (pp 14-15)


“We see radical relativism in the form of double standards, such as assertions that only men can be sexists and only white people can be racist, and in the wholesale rejection of consistent principles of non-discrimination.  In the face of this, it grows increasingly difficult and even dangerous to argue that people should be treated as individuals or to urge recognition of our shared humanity in the face of divisive and constraining identity politics.” (pp 17-18)

It is desirable to include marginalised groups.  And efforts must be made to create a welcoming environment. But representative democracy is also about  electing a person who has the belief systems and policies which accord with one’s own beliefs and interests.  Or at least it should.  (there is a ‘tribal’ element to politics also)  Quotas can potentially prioritise representation of groups over representation on the basis of preferred ideology and policy.  Marginalised groups can be included via various bodies ; such as the ‘Voice to Parliament’ suggested for indigenous Australians.  They can also be included via ‘deliberative democracy’ and ‘co-determination’. And affirmative action for women can proceed in the form of reserved seats in parliament ; so there is still a contest of ideas and values during pre-selections.  But where people no longer have the choice to elect the person who best represents their values and interests – on the basis of the quality of their politics and policies -  representative democracy is circumvented.

All that said, there is a history of racism ; expressed through Colonialism, Imperialism, Capitalism, Slavery.  And there is a history of sexism as expressed through a Patriarchy which employed a binary Ideological logic to render women (falsely, but according to its premises) irrational, fragile, unsuited to public life, and so on.  In the West, much of this Patriarchy has been broken down by Second Wave feminism.  But women are still excluded from many professions ; are disadvantaged in the labour market with the devalorisation of professions which are dominated by women (eg: aged care) ; and in many Western countries women are still restricted in their participation in public life, and the relative levels of  prestige of some women’s sport.

Finally, until relatively recently homophobia was entrenched in law and culture ; but is now being broken down in popular culture, with gay marriage, and the permeation of postmodern scepticism of strict binaries through broader society.   The authors argue, however, that it is liberalism which has seen non-hetero-normative sexualities accepted as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.

Traditionally, postmodern approaches have been critical of ‘metanarratives’. (eg: Western Progress through Liberal Capitalism and Science; or the Marxist critique of Capitalism and of Class Struggle leading to socialism)  The authors acknowledge that metanarratives can be restrictive and exclusive ; but they believe ironically what they call [postmodern] Theory has become a metanarrative of its own.  In reality we need metanarratives to contest economy and society in a globalised world.  If Leftists do not have their own metanarratives, right-wing metanarratives will ‘fill the vacuum’.  But we must be careful not to let metanarratives silence more localised narratives.

As conceived of by Marx, the working class is still the majority class world-wide. Many postmodern approaches tend to downplay the unifying power of class, as opposed to tensions based on race, sexuality, gender and so on.

Class is often problematized as a matter of equalising life-chances through educational equal opportunity and so on.  But class oppression is different. By its very definition it involves exploitation, and is anti-democratic with regards economic life.  Also, by its nature it involves the majority of human beings - who are engaged in capitalist production. Perhaps the working class might no longer be considered the ‘universal historic subject’ as once assumed by Marxists.  The working class needs allies.  And oppressed minorities could do with the solidarity of a conscious, organised working class.  Above everything the working class needs to recover its sense of self.  If that condition is satisfied the working class is still strategically positioned – industrially, culturally, electorally – to exert significant power.   But this involves a metanarrative of socialism.

For Marx Ideology served the interests of the Bourgeois Ruling Class.   It ‘naturalised’ capitalist social relations through nationalism, much of religion, Liberal Ideology ; and it obscured working peoples’ self-interest.  By contrast, the common Theoretical approach is to see discourses of domination which are often ‘invisible’ , but from which white, male, cis-normative people benefit from.  Here, Ideology is seen as benefiting the majority, including working people.  (as opposed to benefiting mainly the ruling class minority)

There is truth in the argument that Power can be subtle, and is not at all limited to class. The Foucauldian approach traditionally neglects class and a broader critique of capitalism.  Certainly it has no sense that capitalism could be ‘negated’, except in localised ‘micronarratives’.  But it has its strengths.  Language is not everything. There is a reality outside of language. But language is still powerful ; it can be a vehicle for Power.  It can be laden with Ideology.  It is a PRACTICE which influences how we see ourselves and the world around us on an everyday basis.  Giddens would have it that we are all interpreters and active participants in the shaping of  language and not just passive recipients. Though Ideological relations of domination and manipulation should not be understated ; even though they are not absolute. Though language and knowledge are not necessarily oppressive in of themselves. In the right hands, and of the right quality, they can be liberating.

But from a Marxist perspective, the working class is still an exploited class ; and a class which widely suffers alienation. (ie: trauma from the menial, physically demanding, meaningless and unfulfilling, repetitive nature of much work)  Inequality has reached alarming levels ; yet somehow the working class is ‘invisible’ in much postmodern discourse.

The authors are at pains to reject Marxism ; and see both Marxism and Postmodern Theory as ‘authoritarian ideologies’.   While they see Marxism as ‘in decline’ from the 1960s, Marxism continued for several decades ; and morphed into the New Left and Eurocommunism for example. Socialism progressed for several decades in Scandinavia ; there were class struggles in Britain and France.  Sometimes Marxism morphed into Postmarxism and the works of radical theorists such as Chantal Mouffe.  Socialism should not be ‘written off’ with liberalism ‘the only contender left standing’.  But neither should liberalism be written off.   Whether we describe it as ‘liberal socialism’ or ‘libertarian socialism’ (a term sometimes applied to Luxemburg) there is a socialism which is possible that is open to criticism, development, and account of new realities.  Though that socialism should nonetheless ground itself in class struggles and other progressive struggles. (P 25)  

According to the authors (effectively by the words of Lyotard) postmodern theory “seeks not to be factually true but to be strategically useful: in order to bring about its own aims, morally virtuous  and politically useful by its own definitions.”  (p 38)  Theory SHOULD be useful.  It shouldn’t exist in a detached sense as if in some kind of ‘ivory tower’.  But just because sometimes “the truth” is hard to ascertain doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it, and apply even our own works to rigorous criticism.  It is potentially dangerous to suggest ‘striving for the truth’ does not matter.

In the Notes section at the back of the book the authors recognise that Critical Theory originated with the Frankfurt School, and included figures such as Jurgen Habermas – who was a defender of ‘the unfinished project of Modernity’ ; and who believed in the power of ‘Communicative Action’ to ‘reach understanding’ even in the context of pluralism.  It’s important to acknowledge this as there are realms of ‘critical theory’ radically at odds with the model put forward by the authors.  Habermas believed a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ could result in a non-oppressive kind of socialism.  That is achieved by bringing various critical traditions – each with its own legitimacy and lines of empirical enquiry - into relation which each other.  This manifests as ‘liberation by consensus’. Which is possible because there is an ‘objective truth’ on human liberation which people can arrive at through communication.  The later Habermas doubted ethical consensus, but insisted there was a truth which could be ‘got at’ by relating to an objective world. This requires rigorous ‘dialectical’ testing of propositions. But that process is obstructed by the ‘colonisation of lifeworld by system’ ; where (non-linguistic) systems of power based on money, state and bureaucracy  get in the way of Communicative Action.  Arguably these are not merely matters of systemic logic ; but of class agency.  The working class must arrive at class consciousness (and socialist consciousness), and must organise in order to change the world.  The bourgeoisie, while sometimes captive to their own Ideology, are also often not beyond deliberately distorting the truth to preserve their position.  But limiting oneself to language ; as opposed to the objective functioning of capitalist economies ; can create a veritable “prison house” (Jameson) which limits clarity, perception and understanding.  For some however (eg: Mouffe and Laclau) the earlier Habermas is too optimistic. Mouffe proposes a counter-hegemony in the context of robust pluralism.   She doesn’t presume humanity to be capable of a rational consensus on values and socio-economic organisation. But she does presume a majority can accept pluralism on the basis of shared freedoms.

‘Intersectionality’ is seen as stemming from the work of postmodern feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw.  ‘Intersectionality’ is a powerful concept which has come to be deployed by Theorists to explain how people experience ‘intersections’ of multiple oppressions, determined by their social location and Identity. That includes race, gender, sexuality, disability, body type, class and so on. Hence  a black lesbian woman is ‘triply oppressed’.  In a sense this is nuanced ; as it accounts for multiple experiences and social locations.  By comparison, the original Marxism focused on the labour-capital dialectic.

Crenshaw wanted to both keep the Theoretical Understanding of race and gender as social constructs and use deconstructive methods to critique them.  She also wanted to assert a “stable truth claim” : that some people were discriminated against on the grounds of their racial and sexual identities, a discrimination she planned to address legally, using identity politics. She claims that identity categories “have meaning and consequences”, that is, they are objectively real.”  (P 57)    For the original postmodernists “endless examination and deconstruction of categories can enable us to liberate those who do not fit neatly into categories.”  (p 55)  By contrast, from a radical modernist perspective Gloria Watkins is a black feminist who criticises the quest for ‘unstable’ identities ; because this prevents oppressed people (such as black women and the working class) from forming an identity from which they can strive for liberation.  (p 55)   Crenshaw’s position can be seen, also, as a kind of response to those such as Watkins ; advocating social constructivism ; but also arguing those constructions have significant weight.

But the weakness of Intersectionality, and of Identity Politics more broadly is that it does not account for the true uniqueness of individuals’ experiences. For instance ; a white working class man who is part of the working poor could be worse off than a black middle class woman ; on account of poverty, class stigma, educational disadvantage, and a dead end alienating job.  Such nuances are not always considered when people are categorised according to ‘intersections’ which simply establish their Identity with regard various marginalised groups. People also have unique belief systems ; and this will affect their life experience as well.

On the other hand, there is the assumption that ANY relation between a “privileged” and “oppressed” person is one of “power imbalance”.  Because marginalised voices MUST be considered “authentic” their interpretations are accepted without question, and are indisputable.  The authors conclude: this “leaves wide open the door to the unscrupulous.”  (Pp 132-133)   However, Crenshaw writes: 

“social power in delineating difference need not be  the power of domination ; It can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.”

Hence a break with foundational postmodernism even while continuing it in other ways.      (P 125)   According to this logic, antagonistic identity groups can reconceive of themselves, and in-so-doing resolve their antagonism constructively.  This is important, as it suggests dominant groups can reconceive of themselves in ways which recognise the Other; and when this is acted upon it can end relations of oppression.  On these assumptions there is nothing ‘essentially bad’ about ‘whiteness’, masculinity etc.  

The oppression of the working class, however, will not end under capitalism as the labour-capital relationship has a mechanism of exploitation which is intrinsic to it. Though relations can be reconceived in ways which lead to historic compromises that advance working class interests compared with neo-liberalism.  (eg: Nordic Social Democracy ; though even here Social Democracy is in retreat)

Applied postmodern theory tends to see ‘system’ (via knowledge/language/power) as being the problem more so than willing, dominating agents.  And again, from a Modernist perspective Habermas also saw [capitalist] system as ‘colonising’ ‘lifeworld’. The reality is an interplay of system and agency. Capitalism itself has systemic imperatives ; and those imperatives have achieved a global scale.  At the same time capitalist Ideology is hegemonic and virtually unchallenged. Even Social Democratic parties have accepted the retreat of the welfare state, not only embracing the consequences of capitalist imperatives ; but sometimes even internally embracing aspects of its neo-liberal variant.  But amidst all this there are political actors.   The bourgeoisie understands its interests and is organised.  Those oppressed under capitalism must also collectively perceive their position, and organise for socialism.

There’s nothing wrong with an applied theory which aims to inform historical agents who will change the world.  The problem is an arbitrary hierarchy of perceived identity-based oppression – which does not strictly accord to the real world.  That is, the categories aren’t sufficient to explain things in their complexity ; and some are often arbitrarily prioritised over others.  Reality is more complex . And along the way the objective reality of class has been abandoned ; or treated like ‘just another identity’. This is important because CLASS is a social relationship and potential identity and source of consciousness which can unite the majority rather than just dividing them against each other.  Sensitivity to the problems of various identity groups could be integral to healing the divisions within the working class. But class is the central social relationship of capitalism. Social Justice activism has been so successful that in some cases it has turned oppression on its head.  But ‘turning oppression on its head’ is not the same as abolishing it. The way forward is to roll back all oppression and alienation ; and work towards the kind of society where all can lead happy, free, meaningful lives – without oppression, alienation, exploitation or prejudice.

Bibliography ;

Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James, ‘Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Swift Press, London, 2020

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Funding and Services Crucial for Aged Care in Australia


   above: access to sunlight, fresh air and gardens can improve quality of life in aged care

Dr Tristan Ewins

The Aged Care Royal Commission had laid down its findings.  These should be the source of great shame for the Government.  But also for Labor – who failed to prioritise the issue over the decades as well.  It now falls to Labor Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to drop the ‘small target, ‘no new taxes’ policy and promise to fund comprehensive, needs-based Aged Care with ongoing and significant progressive tax reform.  Labor could plan for incremental reform over a ten year timeframe, peaking at 5 per cent of GDP in new progressive taxation. But aiming for 1% to 1.5% of GDP in a first term.

After scrutiny from the ABC especially in recent years, It should come as little surprise that the Australian Aged Care system has been found to be subject to appalling neglect.  ‘The Guardian’ reports that after over 20 years of ‘efficiency dividends’ 
almost $10 billion a year had effectively been ripped out of the Aged Care budget.  This funding – and more – needs to be restored.

The Royal Commission has found that since its inception – with the 1997 Aged Care Act – the aim of the system has been to cap costs rather than ensure quality.  Australia spends less than half the amount provided for proportionately in the Netherlands for instance. To improve quality, and wind back inequitable user-pays, funding needs to at least double.   

On the understanding that the system has been under-resourced for decades, now, Aged Care has lacked nurse and aged care worker ratios. Many workers lack skills, are under-paid, and are demoralised.   Casualised labour is common, and makes it difficult for staff to form relationships with residents. Workers often need to move between several workplaces.  Experts informing the Royal Commission have concluded that residents require at least 215 minutes of personalised care a day.  (including 44 minutes with a Registered Nurse) 

It is also notable that 
about 25% of elderly Australians (over 70) suffer chronic social isolation ; and this needs to be addressed as much as purely-physical needs.  

Abuse also affects between 13% and 18% of residents, and much greater oversight is necessary to defend their rights and dignity.

Because of inadequate ratios it is not uncommon for aged care workers to try and dress and shower elderly residents in around 6 minutes: which must surely impact on the quality of care.  And involve significant trauma. Food is often cheap and un-nutritious.  Dental care and other Allied health services are not always adequate.  Often ‘life’ consists of being sat down in front of a TV in a common room all day. 

Sometimes people develop bedsores or lay in their own urine or excrement because there is inadequate supervision. There is a desperate need for more facilitated social interaction, and excursions for those capable.  People need sunlight, privacy, pleasant surrounds, gardens, books, things to do and aspire to. Rather than receiving specialist care, those with dementia are often literally ‘tied down’, or ‘knocked out’ by heavy application of anti-psychotic medications. 

A largely privatised system has faced inadequate government scrutiny. With funding already critically low, pressures to provide profits and dividends have driven a culture of ‘cutting corners’ in the industry, to residents’ detriment.

Many who require Aged Care would prefer to stay at home with assistance packages.  (this is also more efficient in terms of necessary funding)  But waiting lists have hovered at around the 100,000 mark. Many thousands die every year waiting for care that is never delivered. This is also unfair for Carers.

Scott Morrison has injected almost half a billion into the system in response to the Commission’s findings. But this is only a small fraction of what is needed. He claims reform will take ‘years’ ; but in fact the government is still focused on containing costs as opposed to fixing the system.  They hope that – with time – people will ‘forget’ – and pressures for tax reform will recede. Their ‘low tax credentials’ are more important to them than our vulnerable elderly. Over the long term, Labor is partly to blame as well. If Aged Care was prioritised as much as Covid, reform could be implemented more rapidly.

 Aged Care ‘for profit’ is part of the problem ; but not-for-profits have a hard time sustaining the necessary staff, infrastructure and services also.  Profiteers should be driven out of the system. Government and not-for-profits should step in to fill the void.

A robust, dedicated and progressively-structured Aged Care Levy could raise at least $16 billion to be redirected into the system ; enhancing health and social services, improving ratios of aged care workers and nurses , ensuring more personal attention for residents and those requiring care-at-home.  Capital should also pay its share, with Company Tax rising by at least one per cent. 

Overall, progressive tax should rise as soon as possible (over the short term) by over one per cent of GDP – maybe even 1.5% of GDP. (ie: somewhere between about $16 billion and $24 billion a year)  The Morrison Government needs to be pressed to implement these reforms immediately ; but otherwise a new Labor Government needs to implement such change in its first term.

Labor needs to ‘break the bipartisan consensus of neglect’ and run hard on tax reform for Aged Care, as well as mental health and supporting the National Disability Insurance Scheme. (NDIS)  Jobseeker needs to rise by at least $100 a week, and maybe more. Other pensions could also be strengthened.  There is widespread public support for tax reform if tied to crucial areas of public need.

More is needed over the long term to achieve a social wage and welfare state of Nordic proportions.  Provision of care needs to be ‘needs based’ rather than ‘capped’ regardless of what that means for cost.  Government oversight needs to consider ‘basics’ like food and staffing ratios ; but also broader ‘quality of life’ issues. In the future one priority should be keeping the elderly ‘connected’ with internet access.

Labor needs to mobilise its resources to campaign for extensive Aged Care reform now ; as well as reform for mental health, NDIS, Jobseeker, and other pensions.  Aged Care and Mental Health especially are ‘in the public eye’ for now.  We need to maintain and increase the momentum for change while we have the chance.  These need to be key issues for the coming election, and also in the development of Labor’s National Platform.  (a Special Conference is being held near the end of March 2021– this month!)  

Labor activists and parliamentarians are placed to make a difference in unions, social movements, government and the broader Party.  We need to attempt to lead debate and apply pressure as best we can while there is a ‘window of opportunity’ for change.

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