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.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Zionism of Mutual Recognition and Hope: Reconsidering Judah Magnes

Dr Tristan Ewins
In today’s ‘modern Left’ ‘Zionism’ is often taken as a term of abuse.  The oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians is widely seen as negating the very right of the ‘Jewish State’ to exist.  Judah Magnes himself is commonly dismissed in modern Zionism as a ‘destructive and naïve influence’.  (we will discuss these claims at some length)   But Magnes’s legacy ; as well as the legacy of others such as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber ; show “another kind of Zionism is possible”.  On the other hand, modern anti-Zionism is itself at best naïve in believing that the defeat of the Jewish state would lead to a secular, democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Palestine.  There is  a cycle of revenge and Terror going back from  before Israel’s formation, and to the current day.  Modern right-Zionism (including in the Revisionist legacy of Likud ; which follows after the Irgun Zionist faction) presumes that conciliation is impossible ; that only Israel will stand for its own interests ; and that political and military ruthlessness is the only road to survival.
Though his binationalism is often held by dissenters in opposition to modern Zionism, it is forgotten often that Magnes himself was a Zionist.  Raised in the United States, Magnes adopted a pacifist posture during the horrors of World War One.  He also adopted what he saw as American ideals of democracy and pluralism.  But Magnes also came to oppose assimilation in the US amongst Jews most strongly. Though he was later identified as a liberal Reform Rabbi, he was Conservative in the sense of holding strongly to Jewish tradition and a strong Jewish identity.  His compromise position became known as 'cultural Zionism'.  (Kotzin, p 119)  For Magnes a pluralistic US could accommodate Jewish nationalism (Zionism) within a broader national identity.
As Daniel P.Kotzin argues:  “His “progressive” “Zionist ideal” reveals “a larger agenda”. Hence: “Magnes was trying to fashion American Jews as an ethnic group wherein diversity  was possible within a construct of Jewish solidarity.”  He “forged” “an ethical-liberal Zionist ideal” based on “his cultural Zionism, Reform Judaism and American progressive ideals that combined ethical universalism with Jewish particularism within a pluralistic framework.”  Magnes wanted Arab “national autonomy in equilibrium with Jewish national autonomy.”  (Kotzin, pp 5-6)   
But in his eagerness to preserve Jewish identity, Magnes had sympathy for the Orthodox position as well.  Indeed, Magnes openly embraced Zionism at a time when many Jews in America were not willing to make the same leap.  Importantly, Magnes came to support the ‘Jewish Defence Association’ (JDA) which aimed to arm Jewish communities to defend against pogroms and the like.   (Kotzin, p 66)  He tried to embrace Chanukah as a celebration of Jewish nation-hood.  He also embraced the teaching of Yiddish as part of a “cultural Zionist program”  which actually promoted unity instead of fragmentation. (Kotzin, p 73)
Specifically, Magnes supported a Jewish national home in Palestine as opposed to proposals for elsewhere – like Uganda.  But importantly,  he felt it was essential to come to an understanding with Palestine’s Arab residents ; to consult with them and arrive at a kind of co-determination.
Rather than pure majoritarianism, Magnes promoted ‘deliberative democracy’ within the broader Jewish community as the road to unity.  His perspective of ‘equal opportunity’ extended to Arabs in Palestine ; and for him a large Arab community there had to be accepted and worked with.   (Kotzin, pp 135-140)
During World War One Magnes defended civil liberties and free speech in the context of his pacifism.  He also came to oppose the ‘Red Scare’ following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Following World War One, the Balfour declaration – establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine – heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs.   Arabs launched anti-Jewish riots in Palestine.   Some Zionists thought Jewish migration would bring benefits to Arab society and thus would eventually be accepted.   But the Zionist Organisation of America held that “the land, natural resources and public utilities would be owned by Jews, and all schools would be conducted in Hebrew.”  By contrast Magnes interpreted Jewish ethics as “radical pacifism”.  (Kotzin, pp 155-156)   He only reconsidered this uncompromising pacifism in the context of World War Two and the threat posed by Hitler.
Again, Magnes’ position on ‘national self-determination’ translated as co-determination between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.  For Magnes:  “[the] very prestige and reputation of the Jewish nation, which presented itself as liberal and ethical, depended on this.”
Upon migrating to Palestine, Magnes was appointed as Chancellor of the Hebrew University which was being established there.
The Faculty of Humanities opened in 1928.   Magnes also promoted the teaching of Yiddish language and culture ; though conducted in Hebrew. He thought it was important to be inclusive while establishing Hebrew as the national language.   But many protested - finding Yiddish a threat to Hebrew culture.  Magnes wanted the Hebrew University to be inclusive of all Jewish culture – ancient and modern. (Kotzin, p 194-196)
The British tried to appease both Jews and Arabs ; and in the 1920s said they had no intention of creating a Jewish State.  Transjordan was established in an appeal to Arabs. Arab resistance was minimal by 1924.
BUT critical of the other Zionists’ willingness to compromise  with the British, the controversial Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the World Zionist Executive in January 1923. Jabotinsky recognised the existence of Arab nationalism, but he believed Jews had a moral right to Palestine.  Declaring a maximalist Zionist objective, he demanded a Jewish State that included Transjordan. According to him, Arabs must accept the inevitability of Zionism. Once they did they could live peacefully with Jews in a Jewish State.”  Jabotinsky called his new movement "Revisionist Zionism”.  (Kotzin, p 197)
In response, “Arthur Rippon, a member of the World Zionist Executive who was also active in the expansion of Jewish settlement in Palestine, presented a program for a Binational Palestine at the 1925 Zionist Congress. He argued that Jews should work with Arabs to obtain their consent to the Zionist movement rather than engaging in an endless conflict.” (Kotzin, p 197)
Hans Kohn and Robert Weltsch, students of Martin Buber – along with their mentor – believed co-operation with Arabs could be achieved by renouncing any exclusive claim to Palestine.  They believed in a Zionism based on ethics and justice that “transcended mere political aims.” An organisation called “Brit Shalom” (Covenant of Peace) was established.  Magnes built relations with the members of Brit Shalom.  Though he did not join. (Kotzin, p 198)
With the rise of Nazism in Germany Magnes feared  that Jews were threatened with “Systematic extermination”. He wanted the University to be a refuge for Jewish scholars. (Kotzin, p 213-214)
But as a binationalist, Magnes was willing to let go the dream of a Jewish State for a reality of liberal democracy ; where Palestine was ‘the Jewish national home’ ; but where Arabs and Jews lived and governed together as equals.  He believed in the Israeli nation’s “ability to act as a moral and liberal beacon for the world.”  And he believed Arabs and Jews should actually support and assist each other in their national aspirations. Though secretly, Magnes feared Arabs would stop Jewish migration outright if given the chance.   (Kotzin, p 220, pp 226-227)
Magnes enunciated “three conditions” as a framework for Zionism in Palestine: “the right for Jews to immigrate to Palestine based on the country’s economic absorptive capacity, the rights for Jews to buy and sell land in Palestine, and the right for Jews to build their own cultural and religious institutions in Palestine.” (Kotzin, p 224)
But as Kotzin explains:
“such views had little meaning for the Zionist leadership, and in their eyes had no tactical merit.”  “They viewed him as a rogue American Jew, one who could have dangerous influence because of his connections but who acted recklessly, without respect for official bodies like the Jewish Agency and without consideration for the political consequences of his actions.”  (Kotzin, p 221)
In 1928/1929 there was an Arab/Jewish dispute over the Western Wall.  This led to Arab attacks on Jews. Over a week 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed, and many others wounded.  Labor Zionists made comparisons with pogroms in Russia. Most rejected the need for Jewish/Arab co-operation. (this was seen as unrealistic) As Kotzin explains: “Jews who called for peace and understanding, like the members of Brit Shalom, were condemned on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the belief that they demonstrated Jewish weakness, not Jewish strength.”  (Kotzin, p 222)
P 233   “[Chaim] Weizmann, while sympathetic to Magnes’s ideas, found his political tactics problematic. Magnes ignored the fragile political situation” and hence could “damage…the Zionist project.”   He believed “Arab intransigence” made it “impossible  to negotiate with them.”   He accused Manges of “breaking our united front”.  Some Arabs tried to play Magnes off against other Zionists, depicting the others as “extremists”.  (Kotzin, p 233)
Stephen Wise also feared Magnes was turning liberal opinion against Zionism in the US.  Zionists were worried at the prospect of democratic institutions before there was a Jewish majority.  But moderate Opposition Arabs within ‘the Arab Executive’ had long favoured co-operation with Jews and wanted to defeat the Grand Mufti (of Jerusalem) – who was to go so far as to collaborate with Hitler. (Kotzin, pp 234-235)
The rise of Hitler in Germany accelerated Jewish migration into the tens of thousands – over 66,000 in 1935.   By 1936 Jews were more than one fourth of the population in Palestine.   Arabs feared this ; including migration and land purchases ; but turned most of their anger against the British.  Meanwhile Revisionist Zionists promoted a hate campaign against Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists for their willingness to negotiate with the Arabs.   David Ben-Gurion now felt the improved Zionist position would force Arabs to the table.  Revisionism began to retreat at this time as well. (Kotzin, P 247-248)
But Ben-Gurion still had an end objective of a Jewish State as opposed to Magnes’ ‘Binational’ state. 
Magnes was desperate to make a difference.  In negotiations Magnes was interested if Arabs would be willing to compromise on Palestinian Arab national aspirations for the sake of broader Pan Arab aspirations. (pp P 250 -251)
Magnes and the Partition Plain
During 1935-37 the British developed a partition plan ; to partition Palestine and Transjordan between Jews and Arabs.   Some thought the proposed Jewish State was too small ; but for Ben-Gurion the prospect of sovereignty was appealing.  American Zionists led by Stephen Wise opposed the plan as the proposed Jewish State could not absorb all Jewish migrants – it was too small.   For his part Magnes was partly sympathetic – but feared partition could sow the seeds of future war.   Magnes came around to Felix Warburg’s anti-partition perspective. (Kotzin, Pp 259-260)
Instead Magnes proposed “a binational state” to the Jewish Agency – as an alternative to partition.  He “believed that he could make Zionist discussions about democracy and establishing solidarity with the Arabs.” (Kotzin, P 261)
He feared if Zionism neglected the importance of “consent” it would become “oppressive”.   Ha-Kibbutz Haartzi shel Hashomer Hatzair (“The Country-wide Kibbutz of the Young Guard”) accepted the principle of binationalism, but under conditions of a Jewish majority.   They believed worker solidarity could overcome Arab-Jewish conflict.  (Kotzin, P 262)
While Magnes focused on Jewish-Arab relations he was also strongly concerned in the mid to late 30s with the situation of Jews in Europe and especially Germany.  He came to the view that Jews must free themselves from dependence on Britain because Britain was susceptible to Arab influence for strategic purposes at their time of greatest need.
Jews attempted to subvert British immigration restrictions.   Magnes became a mediator between the Haganah (an organisation of Jewish self-defence and illegal immigration) and the British.   Despite his pacifism Magnes supported WWII as ‘a war for humanity’. He said “the incarnation of the Devil sits on the German throne.”   When pressed hard he chose “the preservation of the Jewish people over his pacifist ideals”.
In the midst of World War Two Magnes combined with over a hundred other like-minded individuals to form the ‘Ihud’ (‘unity’  or ‘union’) organisation – which favoured a binational solution as opposed to partition.
Progressive Zionists wanted to find a solution “that would open up Palestine for European Jewry but would not infringe on Arab rights.”   Many who were already sympathetic to “the notion of a binational Palestine” “became more overt supporters” of Ihud ; though others didn’t want to be linked with Ihud “in the public mind”.   By 1942 most American Zionists believed free migration and a Jewish State in Palestine had become necessary.  (Kotzin, p 294)
But after the war Magnes did not endorse the offensive (military and terroristic) strategies against the British.  He opposed “offensive violence”.   Following the Holocaust many Jews demanded control over Jewish migration to Palestine, but Magnes believed a peaceful Palestine was better for Jews in the end.    (Kotzin, pp 274-276)   In short, the Holocaust changed everything ; and linked the creation of a Jewish State with an existential question of Jewish survival.  Magnes’ binational vision was progressively sidelined.
Magnes was in the end proven correct that partition and a ‘Jewish State’ would lead to war.  But the Jewish State managed to survive regardless. However, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 demonstrated that Israel’s security was in some ways still precarious ;  and should Israel lose any broader conflict with Arab nations Jews would probably be treated no better than Arabs were treated with the Palestinian ‘Nakba’.  (the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians)
Leading up to the creation of modern Israel, Kotzin explains how:
“Whereas [Magnes] was previously portrayed as a fool, now he was characterised as an ‘anti-Zionist’, a traitor to the Jewish people and the Zionist cause.”  Hevdah Ben-Israel thought he “was a traitor advocating an insane idea.”  “Zionists increasingly insisted  that the very existence of the Jewish people depended on acting with power and strength, which would be undermined by compromise.” (Kotzin, p 288)
Kotzin explains how both Arab and Jewish leaders failed to back binationalism in practice. “Magnes’s Reform Judaism and Buber’s religious socialism both emphasised that religious morality must influence politics.”  “They hoped Ihud would introduce moral and ethical values into the politics of the Arab-Jewish conflict.”  Magnes suggested a universalism based on a “Strong Jewish identity” ; while Buber claimed the Jewish nation had a “supernational task” of becoming “a true people” by submitting to God’s demands of “truth and righteousness”.   “According to Buber, Jews will be a “humanitarian nation” if they say “we will not do more injustice to others than we are forced to do in order to exist. Only by saying this do we begin to be responsible for life.”   (Kotzin, pp 297-299)
Magnes was convinced there was an Arab constituency for peace – but that they were cowed by ‘internal Terror’.   Together with others like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt he attempted to form a ‘loyal opposition’ to the mainstream Zionist position from within Zionism.  Towards the end of his life, Magnes continued to promote federalism as a solution to the conflict.  He was glad to see a national home for the Jews created with Israel’s declaration of Independence ; but was deeply troubled by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees.  Sadly, while he had spent a great deal of time in the old Palestine, he passed away outside of Israel and never set foot in the newly created state.
In the 1940s Magnes lost support because “he failed to understand…that the Arab-Jewish conflict was no longer [considered the] primary concern.”  (instead the focus shifted to the Holocaust, Nazism, refugees)   Kotzin concludes that “by not focusing on the best means to help Jewish refugees, he failed to sell the binational plan.”
Today, though, a two-state solution seems a long way away. Jerusalem is united ; and Zionist leaders loathe to consider significant compromise. It seems there may be ‘one Jewish state’ ; but without meaningful co-determination or mutual recognition between Jews and Palestinians. But with the Two State Solution retreating, the project of One State based on co-determination deserves serious reconsideration. Today - with the rejection of Zionism on most of the Left – it is easy to forget that those such as Magnes, Arendt and Buber were also Zionists.  Jewish security could be preserved with a monopoly on the apparatus of force ; but with structures of self-governance and identity for both Jews and Palestinians beyond that.  For instance, Arabs have always been at the margins of Israeli democracy.  That needs to change in a binational state which is at the same time a safe haven and Jewish National Home.  ‘Deliberative’ and inclusive democracy as the way forward.
And the Israeli Left needs to become a voice for co-existence and co-determination over the long term.
Magnes stands as an example which demonstrates for the broad Left that not all Zionism ought be ‘tarred with the same brush’.  Hence “Zionism” ought not be a ‘term of abuse’ on the Left. Though the obstacles are great ; with cautious hope the kind of mutual recognition and coexistence imagined by Magnes may still prevail over the long term.
Kotzin, Daniel.P , ‘Judah L.Magnes – An American Jewish Non-Conformist’,  Syracuse, New York, 2010
Loewenstein, Anthony ; ‘My Israel Question’ ; Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006

Warburg, James.P , ‘Crosscurrents in the Middle East’, Gollancz, London, 1969

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Democrats need to Galvanise the Working Class to Ensure Future Victories

      above: Court Appeals aside, a Biden-Harris victory now seems certain 
Dr Tristan Ewins
As a Biden-Harris victory becomes apparent in the United States Presidential race it’s well to consider the various stratum  of voters and how they have determined the result.  The future is still in question. Although Trump has lost, voters came out for both tickets in record numbers.  The Democrats need to sustain their current base, and indeed improve upon it in the future. There’s the question of how the Democrats might in the future do even better and win control of Congress as a whole, including the Senate.  At the moment policy gridlock is a real prospect.
Despite Trump's loss people are now speaking of the white working class as if it is a 'natural' Republican constituency.
In a way the Left in the US let this happen. Not only did the white working class turn away from the Democrats ; the US Left turned away from the white working class as well. Today class is seen as secondary to racial, sexual and gender identity.
In reality all of these things matter and the Left needs to build a united front.  But be careful telling a white working class man on minimum wage how privileged they are. Intersectionality needs to be more complex and nuanced.  We need to do more than just stacking a number of identity categories on top of each other. Rather we need to look at specific individual circumstance. The working poor – whether black, latino, white - are not 'privileged' in the big picture.  We also need to look at the social and economic ‘structure’ (ie: patterned social relations) , and the strategic position of the working class in this.
Another problem is the myth of the US 'middle class' ; standing in the way of solidarity between workers more broadly. The US class structure locks the working poor in place to support the consumption of middle income Americans ; but leaves 'middle income' Americans insecure enough to be vulnerable industrially. (the old reserve army of labour again ; with lack of labour market regulation and industrial rights ; and a lack of a ‘social safety net’ as well) We need solidarity across the whole working class ; against the top 10% - the rich and elements of the self-interested labour aristocracy. 'Middle income' is not the same as 'middle class'.
Again we need to emphasise solidarity across the whole working class ; but I think the privilege of working poor white people can be exaggerated. Race, gender and sexuality are seen as more important in determining privilege than class.  Again: In reality it all matters. That said, black people have problems with the police which white people don't have. Men don't have to worry about reproductive rights. There's still homophobia out there. But it's not helped when some people talk of 'poor white trash' and so on. The Right understands the meaning of 'divide and conquer', and the Left should not fall for it.
I'm not saying ignore sexuality, race and gender. I'm saying what we are doing to a large extent is ignoring class. I'm saying we're hurting ourselves electorally and culturally by not attempting to mobilise the working class as a whole. I'm saying you should not just write someone off because they're a white male. And our language should reflect this. They could be working poor, unemployed, disabled and so on. Or they could just be working class ; which is the layer with a broad enough and strategically placed base to potentially transition from capitalism.
I'm saying we should also look at peoples' individual circumstances when working out privilege. The New Social Movements arising from the 60s onwards are a crucial constituency, and reinvigorated the Left in many ways. But the fact is workers are still alienated, imiserated and exploited under capitalism. And the fact is the American Left needs a strategy to win back white workers - not because they're more important in of themselves ; but because the working class is stronger when united ; and there's an important (and sizeable) constituency which can be the difference between victory and defeat. 
For instance, there is the US Senate where a Republican majority could potentially stymie meaningful change.  A stronger electoral showing could overcome this.  Race, sexuality and gender are important ; but we can't allow them to become all-encompassing fault lines. Again ; it's about divide and conquer. Don't let it happen. So don’t 'write people off' because of identity categories. Take each person as an individual.  The point is many workers are voting Republican and they shouldn't be. What's gone wrong here and how can we fix it?
Some people are trying to pin the blame on ‘academic elites’ ; with ‘Critical theory’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ depicted as alienating the working class. But critical theory is diverse. Habermas is less about 'identity' than Marcuse. While Habermas looks at 'Legitimation Crisis' stemming from attacks on the welfare state, Marcuse looks to New Social Movements to 'fill the vacuum'. The problem is that the working class as seen by Marcuse in the 1960s is not the same as today's working class. Today's working class has not been 'bought off' by prosperity ; but is highly exploited and alienated. In particular there is job insecurity, a weakened labour movement, and a falling wage share of the economy. But a 'popular front' of working class and New Social Movements is the only way to win today. So the Right pays great attention to dividing us against one another with narratives on ‘political correctness’ and the like.  The Left needs a narrative which engages with more socially-conservative workers while not compromising on principle.
In Australia we don't campaign effectively on class either. We need to make peoples' economic self-interest transparent. If we could do that we wouldn't have to worry so much about "aspirationals".
Looking at how many votes Sanders got the liberals still do need the socialists in the Democratic Party.  (and vice-versa)  Biden's victory is largely because the Left base turned out. This needs to be impressed upon Biden so that Biden makes it a top priority to deliver on policy.  An active industry policy creating new manufacturing jobs – especially in ‘rust belt’ states – could be offered in return for health reform (a public option) and a $15 minimum wage. (indexed) If the Republicans refuse to come to the table here they turn their backs on the working class constituency the Democrats must try and win back. So perhaps they will be open to a compromise favouring the Democrat policy agenda. And then the Democrats can take credit for the policy as well.
Antonio Gramsci talked of a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’ ; an articulated alliance of forces – including the organised and conscious working class ; and ‘organic intellectuals’ embedded in that class – as the key to socialist transition. To this today we must add the New Social Movements.  A counter-hegemonic historic bloc must include the broad working class ; and if meaningful progress is to be attained the Left cannot allow large swathes of that class to remain feeling alienated from, and over-looked by the Left.  

In short, this means appealing to the working class as a whole ; and emphasising class at least as much as race, gender and sexuality.  It means not allowing a critique of race and gender to prevent us from identifying class-based disadvantage.  It means not "writing off" white male workers because of race and gender ; but rather applying a nuanced intersectionality which appreciates peoples' unique circumstances.  And building solidarity based on this inclusive approach.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Responding to the Legacy of George Orwell


When Rightists use Orwell to discredit Socialism and Antifa they often neglect that he was a socialist himself.   And his critique of Totalitarianism is broader than a critique of Stalinism.


Dr Tristan Ewins

Just today I was a participant in a debate on George Orwell. One person argued that Orwell was opposed to Left Authoritarianism, and as a consequence would be opposed to ‘Antifa.’  (For those who don’t know, ‘Antifa’ is a broad anti-fascist popular front, often led by anarchists)  Another person responded by saying Orwell was really a social democrat, and spent his life fighting fascism.  Orwell is used to discredit the Antifa cause – in a process that is, well, ‘Orwellian’.

Both people were right in their own way ; but despite the problems with Leninism it is best not to get it entirely mixed up with Stalinism. (though they are historically linked)   Orwell himself was a socialist, and fought in Spain against Franco.  (with the POUM – which translates as ‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification’)   The legacy of George Orwell is too important to reduce it to a critique of ‘socialist totalitarianism’.  Yes, there is an anti-Stalinist aspect to ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’.  But Orwell’s opposition to ‘totalitarianism’ is deeper than this ; and capitalism is increasingly portrayed as an ‘absolute’: ‘total capitalism’.


Tactically and in principle it’s also dangerous to avoid the use of the word ‘socialism’ by arguing for ‘social democracy’ instead.  By using both terms together we get a better sense that ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ once meant the same thing.   (and perhaps could again)  ‘Social Democracy’ is more complex than just ‘the post-war mixed economy, Keynesianism and welfare state’.   And the original social democratic (socialist) tradition deserves to be rescued, despite Rosa Luxemburg’s insistence it had become a “rotting corpse” on account of its response to World War One. 

In truth, most of global social democracy did capitulate on the issue of the War ; and this was the flashpoint which saw the rise of Leninism and its opposition to the rest of the Left.  (importantly, Luxemburg herself was what we may call a ‘libertarian socialist’ and was critical of Leninism’s practice of ‘democratic centralism’ following the revolution as well)  Here we have to distinguish, also, between ‘democratic centralism’ as a mode of organisation prior to 1917 on the one hand, and what it mutated into later under Lenin ; and worse so under Stalin.  But figures like Julius Martov and Karl Kaustsky resonated with their criticisms of Bolshevism, also, and in so doing left a legacy for radical social democracy. (socialism)  The Austro-Marxists and their so-called ‘Two and a Half international’ also stand as a reminder that there were alternatives between Leninism and Right Social Democracy.  For many years ‘Red Vienna’ was considered a model of radical (socialist) social democracy. It also involved a ‘workers army’ (Schutzbund) which was meant to be a ‘final defence’ for ‘the democratic path’)   Ironically,  it succumbed to an indigenous ‘clerical fascism’ itself because it could not decide how to fight ; or when.  But Austria’s levels of high quality public housing are an enduring legacy as well.

When people criticise Leninism they often neglect that Leninism originally still allowed for mass participation in the Vanguard Party. (ie: a party of professional revolutionaries whose job it is to lead the revolutionary working class ; often under conditions of capitalist state repression)   This goes to the question of whether a ‘one party state’ can be truly democratic. The answer depends on freedom of participation and organisation, and the absence of internal Terror) Stalin went one step further than Lenin and imposed Terror WITHIN the Party and the whole of society. Up until after the Revolution Leninism allowed for factions as well.  


Terror is undesirable anyway, and tends to expand as centralism increases beyond a certain point.  Thus far, Rosa Luxemburg is correct in her critique of Leninism. The problem is that war and foreign intervention left limited choices ; and this helped lead to tragedy.


So it depends what you mean by Leninism. There's democratic centralism and the Vanguard Party. Following the Menshevist/Bolshevist split of 1903 (see: 'What is to be Done?' - it is the definitive text on Bolshevist organisation ; written in 1901, published in 1902) And then there's certain policies which followed: Terror (first outside of, then inside of the Party as well – increasingly pervasive and indiscriminate), labour militarisation, banning of factions and of other socialist parties, and so on. The point is that Stalinism took all this to a different level ; and democratic centralism was originally predicated on freedom WITHIN the party (but discipline in between Conferences ; partly as a defence against state repression).

That said, there was a logic to Leninism, which in the context of Entente and other foreign intervention, civil war, the threat of starvation and of people freezing to death – helped lead eventually to Stalinism.  More and more extreme measures were taken (largely defensively) ; and led to permanent repression.

In contrast, though, I don't believe in Leninist centralism. One reason is that in certain contexts it means the suppression of debate between Conferences. I also believe it's inevitable factions will organise ; and suppressing factions just favours the ruling stratum. Finally, I share Rosa Luxemburg’s love of freedom, and recognise that while Leninism and then Stalinism resulted in certain ‘victories’, over the long term these resulted in an object lesson which was used to discredit the Left, and justify policies like McCarthyism. (anti-socialist hysteria and repression)

The problem is: What was the 'way out' in Russia at the time? A purely liberal response may have ended in White victory, a continuation of the slaughter of World War One, and Tsarist Restoration. Also remember that the Bolsheviks were the only Party willing to pull out of World War One pretty much unconditionally.  Maybe the solution was ‘dual power’ – with co-existence of Soviets, the Constituent Assembly and the Red Army.


Leninism - warts and all - has problems ; but remember the context of World War One, threatened starvation and social collapse as well. And the liberal parties wanted to continue that war.  Even the Left Social Revolutionaries took this approach - resulting in an assassination attempt on Lenin.


Remember that the French Revolution was bloody as well ; but the tactics of the Jacobins didn't forever discredit democracy or liberalism. By contrast we are constantly told that Leninism and Stalinism have forever discredited socialism.


Better to avoid the dilemmas the Bolsheviks faced in the first place - because it was bound to end tragically. But appreciate the moral complexity. The Russian Revolution came on the tail end of a War that killed over 20 million people. Some of the same people who are critical on Leninism will try and justify the First World War. And ignore the long list of Western Cold War atrocities. (for example, the brutal mass murder of half a million communists and labour movement activists in 1960s Indonesia)

Importantly: liberal democracy ultimately triumphed. But only because it was able to ‘tame’ and internalise the broad left within a practical capitalist consensus.  And eventually a virtual neo-liberal success.  Still: “liberal democracy” is worth defending as opposed to the alternative of Stalinism or a Corporatist State. (ie: fascism)  Now that it lacks opponents on the Left, we see liberal democracy attracting critics on the Right.   (so much for ‘The End of History – a term coined by the liberal Hegelian, Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of the Soviet Union) Here it is well to defend Liberal Democracy . At least it retains freedoms which make liberation imaginable ; and even its limited freedoms are preferable to the Rightist alternative)


Libertarianism of both the Right and the Left when authentically expressed are not as bad as fascism.  A true libertarian would defend the rights of unions and their workers to withdraw labour. And would treat free speech as a universal.  A fascist would work through a corporatist nationalist state that suppressed opposition violently, and promoted a literally illiberal Ideology.  By ‘corporatism’ we mean the forcible union of capital and labour under authoritarian nationalism.  A true Left libertarian would be sympathetic to the cause of ‘Antifa.’  A right-libertarian would accept their right to participate and exist. Personally, I consider myself a socialist liberal. That said, all organisations can be penetrated by agent provocateurs.  And ‘ultra-leftism’ is often mistaken.


Remember, also, Marx said of the bourgeoisie that it would 'snort' at its republic "Better end with Terror than Terror without End". (written in 1852, largely in response to the context of the 1848 Revolutions)  Trump understands this and seeks a predicate for repression based on 'law and order'. Agent provocateurs understand this also and act accordingly.  (‘End with Terror’ itself can also lead to ‘Terror without End’ under Fascism ; and Hitler came close to winning the Second World War at several points)

The Left needs to respond strategically.  We should not disavow militancy generally ; and practically disarm ourselves.  But neither should we support every act of militancy when this will result in our isolation.  There is a dilemma.  Rosa Luxemburg talked of “spontaneity of the masses” : a ‘dialectic’ between revolutionary working class self-initiative and the leadership of a revolutionary party.  In a way she is right.  On the other hand, unrestrained rebellion can work as a pretext for State Terror. Think of the rise of Mussolini and fascism in the 1920s in Italy following a period of revolutionary upsurge.


Also, under Stalinism Western Communist Parties were often restrained to further Soviet Foreign policy.  Dulling ‘the class struggle’.  But sometimes there is wisdom in restraint.

There is also wisdom in taking the initiative at the right time ; including militant strategies.  The Left needs to be nuanced enough to know the difference.

This article was originally published at ‘The Australian Independent Media Network’

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