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Tristan Ewins – Tristan is a freelance writer, PhD graduate, qualified teacher, blogger, social commentator and ALP Socialist Left activist of over 20 years. He has written for The Canberra Times and several online publications – most prolifically at On Line Opinion. He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

Website: http://alpsocialistleft.blogspot.com.au/

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

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 counterproductive. 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).

Furthermore:

“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).

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

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.

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Funding and Services Crucial for Aged Care

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 200 minutes of personalised care a day (including 40 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-19, 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.

Access to sunlight, fresh air and gardens can improve quality of life in aged care

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 all need to attempt to lead debate and apply pressure as best we can while there is a ‘window of opportunity’ for change.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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A Zionism of Mutual Recognition and Hope: Reconsidering Judah Magnes

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 nationhood. 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, pp 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 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 side-lined.

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 to 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.

 

Bibliography:

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

 

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Democrats need to Galvanise the Working Class to Ensure Future Victories

As a Biden-Harris victory is now 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 a 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, immiserated 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 might have been 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.

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Responding to the Legacy of George Orwell

Just yesterday 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 its 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 consensus. 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.

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‘Supply Side’ Budget Stimulus – Government could have done more for ‘Battlers’ and Women

The 2020 Federal Budget projects a deficit of some $213 billion – a far cry from the previously projected surplus. An already sluggish economy – hit now by Covid-induced economic collapse – left no option but massive stimulus – lest the nation sink into a Depression.

In a way it is encouraging that the government has thrown away the book on neo-liberal orthodoxy to some extent. A contractionary budget would have been disastrous. A notable amount of the stimulus (about $6 billion) comprises wage subsidies aimed at the young – with the aim of supporting some 450,000 jobs. The plight of the older unemployed – thrown onto the Jobseeker scrapheap – is another question. In the largest single measure over $26 billion in tax breaks will be delivered to business to write off the value of new investment by June 2022. There will also be a $4.9 billion “loss carry-back scheme” enabling businesses “to claim refunds or offsets on taxes in previous years.” Importantly, the third round of tax cuts – aimed at high income earners – has not been brought forward – in a win for Labor and the Greens. But the business sweeteners are not consistently tied to job creation and job retention – so for all that money there are no guarantees for workers. According to ACTU President, Michelle O’Neil, the government also projects zero wage growth even if there is economic growth in the coming years.

In Aged Care, $1.6 billion will provide 23,000 home care packages. But this is below demand, and there are no big plans to reform residential care. Perhaps this will come with the final findings of the Aged Care Royal Commission and the next election: but the need is urgent and ought not be put off. In fact it is dubious the Conservatives will find the money for comprehensive Aged Care reform: Home Care and Residential packages to meet demand; with quotas for Aged Care Workers and registered nurses, a winding back of user pays, exercise and GP visits for all residents, and an emphasis on quality of life. It will be up to Labor and the Greens to put up a fight, though disappointingly Labor has known about these problems for over a decade, and is only making the right noises now with the focus provided by the Royal Commission. We are talking many billions of dollars annually to make a difference over the long term.

‘The Age’ reports that “about 11.5 million workers will get up to $2745 more in their pay packets this financial year.” Though the raising of the threshold of 32.5 per cent to $120,000 from $90,000 is arguably badly targeted. And support for pensioners and the unemployed is insufficient, with a total of $500 in payments to Aged Pensioners meant to bring relief and fuel spending. More for those on low incomes and welfare would have a greater stimulatory effect, and would contribute to fairness. On the other hand the low income tax offset will rise from $445 to $700 in a modest but welcome measure.

Importantly, of the new spending measures only $6.7 billion is going to the states for new infrastructure. Including other infrastructure measures the figure is closer to $10 billion extra over ten years. The government’s main emphasis is in providing support and incentives to ‘kickstart’ business as opposed to measures directly supporting consumption at the low and middle ends; although increased business confidence would support jobs. The Budget measures emphasise the ‘supply side’ but neglects the ‘demand side’ when it comes to low income earners, the unemployed and pensioners. The opportunity to permanently raise Jobseeker appears to have been neglected, and many jobs will be lost with the premature withdrawal of JobKeeper.

Of most concern, stimulus is not a ‘black hole’. Getting people spending and back to work is part of a ‘virtuous cycle’ which can restore growth and rejuvenate the government’s balance sheet. With record low interest rates the time has never been better for investment, and the Government could have done more here.

The economy’s pre-existing weaknesses have not helped; but a Labor Government could not have avoided a Covid recession. As Labor has argued it will be putting the case for ‘better bang for our buck’ in the stimulus. This should mean more emphasis on those on low incomes and welfare, and providing support where it will grow spending and investment in jobs most vigorously. Too many businesses will be pocketing these ‘sweeteners’ without necessarily creating jobs.

In response to the Budget, Anthony Albanese has committed to further child care subsidies and half a billion to refurbish public housing. We need wage subsidies for child care and early education workers as well however. And also subsidies for consumers of child care and early childhood education. Both as a matter of fairness (for child care and early education workers – and women workers more generally); to get more women working, and to attract talented educators into the field. Also with housing out of reach for so many people a big investment (into the billions) in public housing now could both stimulate the economy and promote affordability.

Modern Monetary Theory supposes government can issue currency to ensure a ‘full employment guarantee.’ Such stimulus is part of the picture, but can be limited by inflation and currency devaluation. Though inflation seems unlikely in the current environment. Redistribution can’t be done properly and fairly without tax; but MMT has something to contribute to this debate. The government’s projections on unemployment are nowhere near ambitious enough.

If Labor was in government this kind of stimulus would be derided as an ‘irresponsible’ ‘cash splash’. Consensus that stimulus is part of the way forward in times of economic weakness is at least a good thing in itself. It sees Conservative arguments against the Rudd stimulus of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) blown metaphorically out of the water. Labor governments of the future will be able to point to the current effective consensus on SOME form of stimulus to help justify their own efforts when governing in times of downturn or stagnation. Which will inevitably come as part of the capitalist cycle. But this government’s emphasis on the ‘supply side’ of the equation is nowhere near discriminatory enough.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Covid 19 has hit the economy hard; But where is the Recovery going to come from?

COVID-19 has hit the Australian economy hard. By some estimates the Australian economy will shrink by approximately 7 per cent in 2020. Maybe more. That’s a virtually unprecedented recession.

Shutting down workplaces: hospitality and tourism, higher education and some manufacturing: comes at an enormous cost.

We can’t put a price on peoples’ lives and peoples’ health. But many people will need to sacrifice to ‘spread the burden’ of funding recovery.

Some have suggested a ‘HECS-style loan’ for those unemployed as a consequence of this crisis.

Because this discriminates, it is unfair. Richard Denniss – speaking on ABC radio – is correct about this. Though I think he is wrong about HECS more broadly. Income contingent loans to pay for government support of individuals during the crisis would mean a veritable ‘labour market lottery’ as to who was left with debt. Denniss agrees with this much. But also ‘income contingent loans’ have a longer history of losing their progressivity as governments reduce thresholds to help pay for other endeavours – such as ubiquitous corporate welfare.

Also, will the government temporarily increase corporate tax during the recovery period to service debts incurred supporting the private sector during the crisis?

The government’s stimulus has provided a lifeline for many.

But one rational assumption is that the economy won’t simply ‘snap back’ at the end of a six month period; and as a consequence the government cannot afford to ‘step back’ and just let the private sector ‘fill the breach.’ The real economy doesn’t work like this.

Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute thinks the Economy will not simply ‘snap back’ after the COVID-19 Crisis. A long term government role is required (Image from thenewdaily.com.au)

In hospitality and tourism, the structural effects on the economy could last quite some time. We don’t know whether there will be a ‘second wave’ or whether we will ‘break the back’ of the spread in this country. But global travel will take years to ‘get back to normal’, and the US and the UK are still deep in crisis. The ACT and Northern Territory also understandably want to reap the benefits of wiping out the virus, and don’t want it reintroduced from interstate.

On the other hand, the crisis provides an opportunity to broaden and deepen the public sector to create the ‘economic infrastructure’ around which recovery will occur. Make strategic infrastructure investments, as well as structural improvements in public services; unemployment services; in Health, Aged care and disability services; in welfare, transport, communications, arts. The NDIS needs to be more accessible, with ‘consumers’ interests protected more vigorously. The CES (or ‘Centrelink’ these days) should be refunded as a ‘one stop shop’ for job-seekers – but without the usual harassment and humiliation. Homelessness could be addressed ‘head on’ with a big investment in public housing. Fix the NBN with ‘fibre-to-the-home.’ A big public investment in renewables. And coming out of the crisis: Have an active industry policy which strategically supports and invests in high wage manufacturing.

This is also an ideal opportunity to progressively reform welfare across the board; and lift job-seekers out of poverty.

On ABC radio high speed rail was inferred as perhaps a ‘dubious investment.’ But it could drive growth in the regions, with a flow on of jobs and affordable housing. As well as containment of urban sprawl and the transport crises that ensue from that.

The simple truth is that the public sector might have to pick up the slack on the economy for some time to come if there is to be any chance of a recovery. And if we navigate this in the right way it can present an opportunity.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) holds that as the issuer of the currency the government can create money at will to invest and ensure a ‘full employment guarantee.’ Though this is limited by real economic constraints concerning the scale and nature of goods and services actually produced in the economy at the end of the day. In some instances there might also be inflation; and you cannot ‘create money’ to fund an infinite influx of imports.

But full employment is in everyone’s interests: so long as there is an ‘efficiency dividend’ which provides benefits for all; and so long as consultation with unions ensures there is no endless ‘wage-price spiral.’ Higher employment has a ‘multiplier effect’ on the broader economy that also makes debts easier to service. At the same time, the wage share of the economy has been falling for decades; and long term there is a need for a structural correction which could also create extra demand in the economy.

As part of this picture there should be reform of the labour market improving compensation in low-paid jobs – either with regulation, or through the social wage (or both). Modern Monetary Theory has been somewhat skeptical of the role of taxation, claiming it ‘takes money out of the economy.’ But this need not be the case if all that money is spent; if indeed there is a stimulus. Taxation also allows for a much more finely targeted redistribution of wealth: which should be desirable for progressives.

As MMT theorists also recognise, state governments in Australia cannot issue currency.

The current public health crisis is going to cause much more pain before it is overcome. But the right kind of policies on investment, industry policy, welfare and stimulus can minimise that pain, and even help ensure in the end we come out of the crisis stronger.

This article was originally published on the ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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On Socialism Today – Planning a Way Forward

Socialistic sentiment can be traced back to the slave revolt of Spartacus and Peasant uprisings in Europe; for instance that led by Thomas Muntzer in Germany. But ‘modern socialism’ began with those labelled as ‘Utopians’ by Karl Marx. Figures like Robert Owen – who personally wanted to convince the bourgeoisie (and nobility) of an egalitarian, communal society based around the means of production (specifically communes of up to 3,000 people). And all those others who depended on a ‘socialist vision’ to convince people of the desirability of a socialist order; as opposed to Marxists who based their approach on ‘the fact of class struggle’.

Generally, socialists preferred equality; an end to exploitation; extension of democracy to the economy. Marxists wanted to socialise the means of production to end both exploitation and the destructiveness and wastefulness of capitalism and its boom-bust cycle.

But Marx had another criticism of capitalism; and that was the way in which the division of labour and demanding nature of much work traumatised workers. This was his theory of Alienation. Today in Australia for instance we are a world away from the working conditions of the 19th Century. But in call centres, offices and factories the division of labour can still exclude creative control and work fulfilment. Indeed, work conditions can still be traumatising.

In Germany where the class struggle was advanced the Social Democrats arose as a combination of the Marxists (Eisenachers) and the Lassalleans. Lassalleans (led originally by Ferdinand Lasssalle) believed in industry-wide co-operatives with state aid. Eventually Marxism became dominant. But by 1914 in Germany right-wing ‘socialists’ had come to predominate in unions and the parliament, and those people eschewed internationalism and supported the First World War.

Before World War One both the European and British socialists supported the class struggle and the fight for universal suffrage to advance workers’ rights. But Britain was relatively liberal; and this resulted in less emphasis on revolution and more emphasis on incrementalism.

Fabianism arose in the 1880s; and came to represent a movement to influence opinion in liberal and progressive circles. Especially in the Labour Party in Britain. Beatrice and Sidney Webb (prominent British Fabians) expressed sympathy with the achievements of Soviet Communism – but that view did not last. Some Fabians would focus on practical public policy; others on the more radical aim of incrementally replacing capitalism. Again: Generally Fabians were gradualist rather than supporting a ‘sudden rupture’.

Modern Australian Fabianism shared the British Fabian principles and was formed organisationally in 1947. The height of Fabian influence was in the Whitlam Labor Government.

After World War One the broad Left was generally divided into Communist, Social Democratic and Labourist Camps. Although pockets of Social Democracy remained highly radical – as in Austria in the 1917 to 1934 period. (Austro-Marxism). These sought a ‘middle path’ between Bolshevism and ‘mainstream’ international social democracy. And there were anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists – who were significant in the Spanish Republican forces and the fight against the Nazi-backed fascist insurgency of Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

From the 1940s through to the 1980s Swedish Social Democracy enjoyed remarkable success (replicated to various degrees in other Nordic countries) with full employment, active industry policy, strong unions, and a strong welfare state. For the overwhelming majority of this period Social Democrats held government. Basically workers received social security in return for a ‘corporatist settlement’ including wage restraint. The full employment achieved under the ‘Rehn-Meidner model’ also made a stronger welfare state possible. Though Walter Korpi conceived of the Swedish situation differently: as a ‘democratic class struggle’, involving mobilisation of ‘Power Resources’ and compromise depending on the balance of class power. But in the 70s and 80s Sweden also had to respond to the Oil Shocks and devalue the Krona. The ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ plan sought to compensate workers for wage restraint by giving them collective capital share. But this implied a radical redistribution of wealth over time. Also – because it appealed only to workers and not to citizens, it could be argued that the funds could have included a wider base (which is democratically preferable anyway). Capitalists went on the offensive: socialists on the defensive. And there has been a slow retreat since.

Up until and including the 1970s and 1980s there remained strong pockets of radicalism in many Labourist and Social Democratic Parties. But the Oil Shocks of the 70s and the drive to restore profits divided the Left and led to Socialist retreat. Also the Soviet Collapse during 1989-1991 had an enormously demoralising effect on the Western Left; despite the fact the Western Left had long distanced itself from Stalinism. It’s not unreasonable to see the Gorbachev reform movement as a window of opportunity; and a missed opportunity.

From Hawke and Keating onwards Australian Labor has broadly internalised neo-liberal ideology. Small government, privatisation, free trade, limits on the liberties of organised labour, trade agreements which give capital an effective ‘veto’ on regulation and public sector expansion. Marxism used to have a strong base in the Socialist Left. But increasingly the factions have lost ideological cohesion; and have been subsumed in the mainstream political discourse.

Indeed, the experience of Hawke and Keating inspired Tony Blair and Antony Giddens with their ‘Third Way’ or ‘Radical Social Democratic Centre’. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries ‘Centrism’ had been a largely Catholic phenomenon including limited support for trade unions, labour market regulation and welfare. Since Giddens and Blair the ‘Third Way’ has come to represent ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’. Punitive welfare on the one hand, but also the principle there should be an economic and social ‘floor’ below which no-one should be allowed to fall. Blair also marginally increased tax (will Australian Labor still consider tax reform for the next election?) But he would not retreat an inch in opposing any re-socialisation – no matter how badly privatisation had failed (eg: of railways). In Australia more recently ‘Centrism’ as epitomised by the ‘Centre Alliance’ struggles to maintain a credible liberalism – let alone any kind of social democracy. For instance there is conditional support for the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting legislation. Today ‘Centrism’ in Australia can mean a shallow populism cashing in on broad disillusionment with the two party system. Significant parts of the ALP Right consider themselves ‘Centrist’ after the Blairite model. Blairites also generally accept capitalism as a given.

Fast-forward to 2019 and ‘What is to be done?’

Capitalism remains more vulnerable than people think. There is much focus on public debt, but private debt is a ‘ticking time bomb’ that could lead to loss of confidence, panic and collapse. In Australia, the US and much of the world private debt is many times the level of public debt. The Australian economy especially has come to rest on the housing bubble. Millions are locked out of home ownership; but sudden and radical devaluation would cause panic and collapse. The boom-bust cycle remains a fact: but governments focused on public debt are less likely to engage in counter-cyclical measures. This could one day mean recession (or Depression) as the ‘solution’ to indebtedness. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has it that government can ‘create money’ at will ; but this is not without limits. It involves a degree of redistribution which capitalists hate – but also inflation. Progressive tax is still more effective at redistributing wealth in a targeted and progressive way. But certainly the MMT crowd are on to something.

The Labor Party today is probably inclined to want to ‘save capitalism from itself’. The welfare state and higher minimum wages can assist by boosting expenditure and demand. A return to a meaningfully mixed economy can help by reducing cost structures via natural public monopolies. This could flow on to the private sector as well. As well, this could counter oligopolistic collusion – for instance in banking (actually promoting competition). Higher government expenditure can also add money to the economy; increase demand; and ameliorate the explosion of private debt – which is a ticking time-bomb for the economy (here and globally).

An expanded social wage, welfare state, collective consumption and social insurance – can also provide social justice and social security. Think reformed pensions – easing means testing and increasing payments. Public housing. Better-funded schools and hospitals. More money for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. More efficient public provision of infrastructure (because of a better rate of borrowing and a ‘public interest test’ rather than share value and dividend maximisation). Also consider National Aged Care Insurance and a withdrawal of regressive user-pays mechanisms. As well as a retreat of user-pays in Education.

These are ameliorative reforms that can improve peoples’ lives. But Australia is still captive to the global economy and will suffer along the rest of the world in any ‘general downturn’ or ‘collapse’.

Over the long term we still need to think about an alternative to capitalism. Sub-Prime and the Global Financial Crisis did not only reveal instability – It also revealed the gap between Use Value and Exchange Value as Marx would put it. That is: there was an abundance of housing amidst widespread destitution and homelessness. This is a real capitalist failing and vulnerability.

Marx’s weakness was that he did not propose any concrete alternative vision to capitalism. He assumed ‘the class struggle would take care of things’. So maybe in part the ‘Utopian Socialists’ were on to something? The context of class struggle had to be engaged with; but also concrete visions for the future. Today perhaps we need ‘provisional utopias’. We cannot afford to be ‘a force of pure negation’ with no vision for the future. Especially after the real historical experience of Stalinism.

But capitalism is a globally-reinforcing system. You can’t just ‘go it alone’ in revolutionising the entire economy. There are economic and political constraints.

But what can be done is to begin a process of ‘revolutionary reforms’. Say in the spirit of the interwar Austrian Social Democrats. Even today in Austria there is a legacy in Vienna of 60% public housing – and overwhelmingly high quality public housing. A ‘democratic mixed economy’ would stabilise capitalism (through strategic socialisation and redistribution) while at the same time advancing towards an alternative. As in Austria this would also involve a counter culture: a rebuilding and reassertion of the labour movement; but also a coalition with other social movements. What Gramsci would have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’. That also involves establishing online presences; other publications; public meetings; progressive radio and television; social events of various kinds; plays; workers’ sport; radical music etc. Establishing footholds where-ever possible.

Importantly the decline of industrial labour (with ‘deindustrialisation’) has widely meant a decline in class consciousness. Service sector workers can be just as exploited; but are more likely to think themselves ‘middle class’ or lack class consciousness. We can and should fight this. But the industrial working class might not any longer be seen (in the Marxist sense) as a ‘finally redemptive’ ‘universal historic subject’. The labour movement is central: but the modern Left also needs alliances.

And should another Global Financial Crisis occur the big finance houses should not be ‘bailed out at the public’s expense’. Where the public sector steps in (if that occurs) it should retain a share in ownership.

Of course when it comes to advanced socialist transition bourgeois economic and political resistance has to be expected.

The ‘democratic mixed economy’ should be the short to medium term model. That includes a key place for natural public monopolies, strategic government business enterprises, consumers and workers co-operatives of various sorts (including multi-stakeholder co-ops which bring workers, governments and regions together), mutualist associations. As well as ‘collective capital formation’. (The Meidner Funds were such; In Australia superannuation was a very pale imitation which may actually endanger welfare into the future by narrowing its base). ‘Multi-stakeholder co-ops’ are an important idea – as they could enable expansions of economies of scale to retain competitiveness under capitalism. All these are part of a concrete alternative.

There is also a need to restore and consolidate industrial liberties; to increase organised labour’s power; its ability to deliver; and hence its coverage, strength, and ability to contribute to change.

Furthermore: how do we tackle ‘alienation’ today in Marx’s sense? Even with deindustrialisation, workers still find themselves alienated in modern professions – for instance call centre workers. The ‘post-industrial utopia’ has so far failed to emerge. At the least we can improve wages and conditions for the most exploited and alienated workers with low-end labour market regulation (and maybe government subsidies where the market will not bear higher wages). Perhaps enabling a reduction of the working week for many (though others would crave longer hours). ‘Free time’ is perhaps one alternative (for now) to Marx’s vision of a communism where workers regained creative control; and labour becomes ‘life’s prime want’ (a quote from Marx). But ‘alienation’ is a feature of broader Modernity and not only capitalism. The rise of co-operatives could at least facilitate worker control – also ameliorating alienation.

In the final instance we need to think of where improvements in productivity could lead. Either to greater equality, plenty and free time for everyone. Or in the capitalist context only the intensification of growth, profit and exploitation. And possibly greater inequality if we do not socialise much of the gains of productivity. What Marx called the ‘coercive laws of competition’ means that competition forces a focus on productivity for capitalist profit and short term economic advantage. The problem is finding a way out of this ‘circuit’ (as well as the intensification of exploitation; and a ‘lagging behind in wages’ in labour intensive areas where productivity improvements are hard to come by). We need to think where free trade and internationalism fit in to this problem. There are environmental implications as well. Capitalism by its very nature will trend towards the ‘endless growth’ option. Perhaps if the emphasis is on information and service industries it could be more environmentally sustainable.

But Sweden is also a warning. Again: there has been retreat since the Meidner Wage Earner Funds. The ‘corporatist consensus’ delivered for several decades in Sweden. But since the bourgeoisie ‘got cold feet’ and organised more overtly against Swedish social democracy – there has been a retreat. Swedish social democracy now has to work with Swedish Liberalism to keep the right-wing parties out; and the price has been a retreat of the Swedish welfare state and progressive tax. In short: Socialists and social democrats have to be ready for capitalist backlash.

Class struggle creates change. That remains true. But so too do broader coalitions, cultural and electoral strategies. The Fabian Society in Australia is placed to mount cultural interventions; and hence influence the electoral strategies of the Labor Party and the broader Left. We won’t get all that we want all at once. But we need a critique of capitalism. We have to be prepared for future crises. We have to think what a transition would look like: under what circumstances and what time frame? But all the time considering the reality of power – economic and political ; including the power of the State. And all in a global context: where global progress remains limited without global consciousness and organisation. Which is something the Fabians also need to be thinking about. Building ties with Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, could be a fruitful endeavour.

The Fabian Society re-embracing its place as an organisation of democratic socialism means engaging with these problems. For the short to medium term it is to be hoped we have an important strategic place in developing a ‘democratic mixed economy’; critiquing capitalism; and imagining ‘revolutionary reforms’ which could decisively shift economic and political power over the long term.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Labor Must Ask Serious Questions on Policy and Values

Labor has been saying relatively little on policy since its defeat at the hands of the Morrison Government. Many are saying Labor’s ‘move to the Left’ was the problem. In that process other problems are being neglected. The Coalition tax scare campaign (including on a non-existent ‘death tax’) ; Shorten’s wooden performance in the final days ; failure to build a strong enough ‘central narrative’ ; confusion on Dividend Imputation franking credits – and the failure to means test any measures there instead of applying the same rules to everyone. Also Clive Palmer’s $60 million intervention – dwarfing the monetary resources of both parties – changed everything and channeled preferences to the Conservatives. Shorten also failed to sell the progressive tax reform message ; and avoided the issue when given the opportunity to ‘take it up to Morrison’ in a Leader’s Debate. (Here I’m thinking of Shorten’s refusal to engage on Morrison’s example of a very-high-wage workers’ tax rising by 2%(!) under Labor).

Expanding social goods and services necessitates progressive tax ; asking more of high income earners ; and that definitely includes the top 10 per cent. Maybe even the top 20 per cent. Those in lower brackets need to contribute too based on ability to pay, but would receive much more in return. Those in the lowest brackets may even receive indexed tax cuts. (Income Tax needs to be radically restructured overall ; and then the lower brackets indexed – to prevent the erosive effect of bracket creep). Tax indexation can prevent ‘a flat tax by stealth’ via such selective exploitation of bracket creep.

In the big picture, though, Shorten led a united team and developed some very good policy during his years in the leadership. His modestly reformist policies have widely been portrayed as a ‘lurch to the Left’ ; and that illustrates well the relative right-wards shift in Australian politics where anything in the way of meaningful reform faces that kind of accusation.

But the Coalition’s massively irresponsible policy of tax cuts ($160 billion over the first 10 years, and much more proportionately over the longer term as ‘phase three’ kicks in) for the well-off put the onus on Labor to mount a response.

We know we have an ageing population. For the Left at least, we know tougher means tests, a higher age of retirement, failure of benefits to keep up with a rising cost of living and respond to the need to extend pensions more broadly – should be unacceptable. Undermining the tax base is the road to a US-Style and strongly class-divided economy and welfare state. An ageing population will also mean more stress on the health system ; and the correct response is to support citizens on need rather than adhering to some arbitrary ‘tax ceiling’ which can only respond with harmful austerity. Medicare Dental remains an essential policy for Labor to embrace and campaign on vigorously.

To his credit, Albanese has come out against attacks and stigma against the unemployed. But we need more. Raise Newstart by at least $75 a week. Apply active industry policies aimed at creating job opportunities for ‘at risk’ and vulnerable groups. Not only the young unemployed, but especially the older unemployed ; and the disabled – including the mentally ill. Highly educated older job-seekers are being forced to drop their qualifications from their resumes to be ‘more attractive’ for cleaning jobs and the like. Meanwhile, while many look down on the cleaning profession it does involve skills, and it is hard work. There is cause to reform the Award in these and other fields – for example Aged Care and Child Care. But where the market will not bear this, we need government subsidies. Importantly, many of these areas are highly feminised.

Denmark provides an example in a sense. That is with their active industry policies which seek development of ‘sunrise industries’ that make use of the skill sets from ‘sunset industries’, mixed with retraining. The policies are expensive: but the gains from labour market participation more than make up for that.

In that process we need to review the NAIRU – or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment – which supports a ‘buffer or unemployment’ (commonly in the vicinity of 5 per cent) to contain the bargaining power of workers and avoid wage inflation. Hence there are always many more people looking for work than there are jobs – and yet still the unemployed face stigma. Instead we need to look to fiscal policy to contain inflation ; and co-operation with trade unions (eg: accepting higher taxes on high wage workers) in return for expansion of social goods and services and defence of industrial rights. This would be applied after the Swedish model rather than the Accord – which at the end of the day failed to deliver to workers sufficiently in return for wage restraint. Full employment makes a massive difference to the Budget and the broader economy if it can be sustained.

In short, Labor needs to take action to raise the status of some of our most exploited professions – while reforming the tax base and making social wage, social insurance, collective consumption, and welfare state expansion possible.

Let’s explain these one by one to get some sense of what is meant.

‘Social Wage’ refers to the recognition that not everyone receives wage justice. And sometimes it is more effective to receive the proceeds of wages collectively to maximise the collective (and individual) benefit. Think public health and education. Corporate Taxation also factors in here as the corporates benefit from a healthy and skilled workforce.

‘Social Insurance’ refers to public-funded insurance against contingencies like unemployment, ill-health or disability via the tax system – which covers everyone. After all – it could happen to any one of us – or our loved ones.

‘Collective consumption’ refers to when ‘the people’ get a better deal by consuming collectively via tax rather than as isolated consumers. Leaving individuals with more money to spend at their discretion in other areas at the end of the day.

It is appreciated that people need a reasonable degree of discretion in terms of determining personal needs structures. But ‘collective consumption’ delivers massively in the area of pharmaceuticals consumption (think the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or ‘PBS’) ; and could deliver in other areas as well – eg: infrastructure and goods like water and energy – which are becoming more unaffordable following effective privatisation. Also think public infrastructure like ports, roads, public transport. communications : which should flow from the public purse where the state’s superior rate of borrowing and not-for-profit stance can deliver a better deal. (Water, ports, communications, transport infrastructure – should be re-socialised – reducing overall cost-structures ; Though in some areas (eg: energy) some kind of ‘market’ should still exist ; But in the context of a public monopoly provider ; much more affordable, but still an incentive to regulate usage).

The “Welfare State” is often taken in a catch-all sense which covers all of this, but for now think of the tax-transfer system and the need to support vulnerable Australians. Newstart is the area of the most dire need ; but a 15% increase in other pensions can also be justified ; as well as support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the implementation of a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme (in response to the Royal Commission) which provides high quality services both for at-home and residential care on demand, and without onerous user-pays policies which send ‘consumers’ broke. That also includes high quality food, quotas, a registered nurse on-site always, training in the handling of dementia , at-home packages on demand, rehabilitation and exercise on-demand, regular GP visits, private rooms, and meaningful (often facilitated) every-day interaction and outings (where possible) instead of just seating people down in-front of TVs all day. For those ‘at home’ action to combat loneliness is crucial.

More public housing – perhaps interspersed with private housing to avoid stigma – is necessary too in order to tackle homelessness and housing stress. But large-scale public housing projects should also be considered – also providing quality amenities: laundries, pools, common rooms, internet connectivity – which people can respect and appreciate. Austria manages a high level of public housing well – with very positive results. Indeed, over 60% of Vienna’s population live in public or social housing. It is the legacy of the interwar revolutionary Social Democrats (at the time officially of a Marxist – but not Bolshevist – disposition) – who prevailed in Vienna in the 1917-1934 period ; and who took government with a more modest agenda in the post-war period.

Eugene Quinn argues the following ; outlining the difference in culture re: public housing in Vienna which could be promoted in Australia as well:

“People here are used to the communal spaces of the social housing estates and are very comfortable living next to someone from a different background,” Quinn says. “And because people are not crushed by their rents like in other major cities, they have a bit more time to be creative, to study, to get involved in community work.”

Apart from these areas, Labor also needs to take a strong line against the Coalitions ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting laws. Some in the Left dislike John Setka. But more is at stake here than one man. We are talking about the strategic position of the entire movement. Which the Coalition well knows. And Labor must acknowledge that as well.

In short, inevitably there must be a policy review. But let’s be careful about dumping good policy. Sure, let’s hone our message and our central focus. Though we need a tactical campaigning review also: perhaps more so than a ‘root and branch’ policy review overall. If we cannot at least reverse Morrison’s overall tax cuts in a progressive way – focusing on tax cuts for the well-off – then we concede defeat. That would mean conceding an Australia which retreated from anything recognisably social-democratic, and headed towards the divisions and insecurity we see in the US for example.

Importantly we must embrace the message of progressive tax and its implications rather than running away from that debate. Trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ and not increase the tax burden on virtually anyone – means we have no way of funding reform at the end of the day. But an openly progressive agenda would give the vast majority an incentive to vote Labor.

It is nonetheless appreciated that ‘middle income’ is not the same as ‘middle ground’, and some disillusioned voters are embracing a ‘centrism’ which is largely right-wing in practice. Labor’s response must be tactical: appealing not only to interests but also to values. A liberal response on social values, and stronger action on climate change can also detract from any ‘small ‘l’ constituency’ for the Liberals ; and pressure the Liberals to reform their own outlook ; shifting ‘the relative political centre,’ Labor must contest values in the economy as well as the ‘culture wars’ ; and its relative neglect here has marked a defeat for Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in this country.

One thing is certain. Nothing is gained from a ‘culture of policy defeat.’ Labor must find a way to effectively campaign for government without compromising its values and reason-for-being.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Australia’s Liberal Party no longer ‘liberal’

Much is said about the clash between the liberal and Conservative wings of the Liberal Party of Australia. Usually leading figures will speak of a ‘broad church’ which includes a diverse membership. But the truth is that the Liberals continue to drift ever deeper into the hard Right. Liberals will stand up for religious liberties (which there may be some kind of argument for) ; but John Stuart Mill would turn in his grave if he was aware of Liberal policies on trade unions, charities, and attempts to shut down grassroots mass organisations such as GetUp!

The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies various rights as central to Classical Liberalism. Freedom of association, assembly and speech amongst them. Also: “freedom from fear of reprisal”, and of arbitrary arrest and punishment. It also identifies free industrial organisation of workers as a necessary counter-balance in the marketplace.

Interestingly, iconic British liberal John Stuart Mill was even in some ways sympathetic with the socialist social experiments of Robert Owen in the 19th Century. (See: ‘On Socialism’, J.S.Mill, Prometheus Books, New York, 1976).

And while free markets are crucial to classical liberalism, various liberals are divided on the balance between public and private. All liberals would oppose a ‘command economy’, and would demand a central space for ‘personal determination of needs structures via markets’. For some liberals, however, Hayek and Rand are seen as occupying ‘the extreme end of the spectrum’ ; but those theorists’ ideas are exactly those promoted by the Institute of Public Affairs – which has a powerful role influencing Liberal Party policy. Before the 1970s, Hayek and Rand were ‘on the fringes’ in most Liberal and Conservative parties. Fanatical commitment to the progressive and open-ended dismantling the welfare state, social wage, social insurance and public sector would have once have been ‘out of place’ in ‘the Party of Menzies’. Now those ideas are in ‘the mainstream’. And for Conservatives, adherence to economic neo-liberalism has eclipsed ‘compassionate conservative’ tendencies.

By contrast with the original liberals, today’s Liberal Party of Australia is committed to the total dismantling of the power of organised labour. Its ‘Ensuring integrity’ Bill has several aims. Firstly, the bill (if passed) will take non-protected industrial action as being ‘criminal in nature’ ; and union leaders could thus be charged and imprisoned ; and unions themselves deregistered and ‘dismantled’. It will enable government to “sack” union officials convicted of criminal offences: which includes ‘industrial’ offences such as unprotected industrial action, and entering workplaces to organise or inspect working conditions without notice. Also: even ‘protected’ rights to industrial action will be able to be withdrawn if an ‘interested party’ argues it affects their interests. The legislation will establish in many ways arbitrary punitive powers for government against workers and union officials. While freedom to withdraw labour is a liberal right so too is freedom of association.

The Liberal Party is also now endeavouring to have mass-based progressive lobby group ‘GetUp!’ considered a branch of the ALP and the Greens ; and hence to restrict its rights to campaign in the lead up to elections, and on election day. With a membership base of over a million Australians ‘GetUp!’ is obviously much broader than the ALP or Greens, and has organisational independence. But these days the Liberal Party is simply interested in shutting down all opposition in a display of crude power politics. This is the opposite of liberalism ; even if defined narrowly as ‘classical liberalism’. True, the Liberals abrogated liberalism when they attempted to ban the Communist Party under Menzies as well. (‘Doc’ Evatt’s defence of the liberal rights of Communists was an important victory for Labor at the time). But the Communists never had over a million members: mums, dads, students, retirees. People who want a political voice: but many of whom are not ready to join a Party.

Another example of Liberals abrogating liberal principles regards their treatment of charities and other organisations who must fear their tax-deductibility status being withdrawn if they criticise the government. ‘Political’ speech is seen as compromising the work of charities by the Liberal-National Coalition ; but in fact this is just another rejection of real free speech: sacrificed on the altar of brute power politics. Despite a decision by the High Court upholding the right of civic organisations like charities to engage in political advocacy, the Liberals and Nationals are still looking for ways to shut-down resistance. Arguments have been made to ‘withdraw support’ for organisations ‘out of step’ with majority opinion (whatever that is).

The other side of this involves calls on the Left to tax churches ; which may include lay organisations at the grassroots level. While the Liberal Party has largely abandoned liberalism in practice, the Left could do worse than to integrate liberal and socialist principles.

Finally we must consider the treatment of refugees and the unemployed by callous governments of the Australian Right-Wing. Open-ended incarceration with the effect of breaking the spirit and the will to live of those affected has no place in any account of liberal human rights.

Meanwhile, ‘Work for the Dole’ comprises a form of labour conscription, and we must consider the real power relationships underlying these arrangements – as opposed to the fantasies of Hayek and Rand who only see ‘individuals freely entering into voluntary economic relationships’. Sophisticated liberals deal with ‘the world as it is’ and not merely as it is supposed to be in the theories of the economic hard right. In reality, both major parties are supportive of a policy of a “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment”. (ie: unemployment of approximately 5% with the point of containing inflation and wage pressures). The point of this is exactly to restrict workers’ bargaining power at a time when the unemployed are vilified, wages are stagnant, and there is restricted consumer demand in the broader economy (in turn impacting on growth).

In times past liberals would be capable of recognising the real-world imbalances of power in economic relationships: and hence support rights for trade unions, and a decent welfare safety net without punitive, unfair and unrealistic mutual obligation provisions.

While some Conservative figures like Barnaby Joyce are finally recognising the threadbare and punitive nature of ‘Newstart’ unemployment insurance in Australia, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is determined to keep existing policies as a wedge against Labor. While ‘Robodebt’ policies drive innocent people to desperation and suicide, the hope of decent bipartisanship has been cruelly crushed. An ugly sentiment against the welfare-dependent and job seekers has been whipped up in the monopoly mass media in Australia for decades. But the Liberals have all-too-readily seized upon the consequent public sentiment ; and have exploited it.

While progressives should always prefer a Labor Government to a Liberal Government in Australia, it is to be hoped that genuine liberals like John Hewson – who have not been ideologically captured by the Institute of Public Affairs – improve their fortunes in internal debates. While this author is opposed to Blairite ‘Third Ways’ it would nonetheless be a relief to have bipartisanship on issues of basic human liberty and decency. While the Liberals increasingly embrace Hayek and Rand on the economy, on social liberty they are effectively against libertarianism (eg: on the rights of organised labour).

In Australia the nominal party of liberalism is anything but liberal. Even in the narrow sense of classical liberalism they fail to uphold core principles. Labor could reconceive of itself as a liberal Party ; and occupy that space abandoned by the Liberal Party. But for social democrats and democratic socialists that is not the answer if it means abrogating our own historic principles, and the rights and interests we defend. But a more libertarian position on liberal rights on the Australian Left would apply significant pressure to the parties of the Australian Right. To some degree this is already happening. It is a trend that needs to be developed further.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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“Be Wary of Conservative Double Standards on Free Speech” and Other Letters

Mostly Unpublished Letters ; May to August 2019 – PLS Have a Read and Discuss

Herald-Sun Letters (mostly unpublished) May-July 2019

Be Wary of Conservative Double Standards on Free Speech

“Kevin Donnelly (14/5) again makes a case for his version of freedom of speech. Of course there are problems with free speech as an ‘absolute’. We cannot allow Holocaust Denial to lead to a culture of forgetting ; or worse – to prepare the ground for future atrocities. But every time you dilute free speech as an absolute you also contribute to a growing wedge with increasing ramifications. Even as a Christian I recognise that much scripture is at odds with modern thinking , and its expression can be hurtful to various groups. At the same time faith is central to millions of peoples’ lives ; and criminalisation will lead to repression and polarisation. (Labor is not suggesting any such thing). But Donnelly needs to be more consistent. ‘Free speech’ means religious doctrines are open to criticism. ‘Free speech’ also means charities and NGOs are not blackmailed to hold their tongues in criticism of government. (as the Howard Government attempted) It means an organisation with hundreds of thousands of members like GetUp! should not find itself ‘in the crosshairs of government’ – with the intention of silencing it at elections. By all means campaign for freedom of speech – but be consistent.”

Social Insurance and Infrastructure

“A.Jensen (Your Say 30/5) attacks Labor for making social (public) investments ; and condemns NBN and NDIS as ‘unfunded’. To begin with, Labor identified a series of tax loopholes (mainly for the wealthy) which could have been closed ; saving tens of billions. But the Liberals ran a scare campaign, including the threat of some totally non-existent ‘death tax.’ Public investments often make sense ; and without them we run the risk of becoming a US-style society with enormous classes of working poor and destitute. Welfare and social insurance provide a safety net without which the unemployed, the mentally ill, the aged and so on – would find themselves homeless and desperate. Indeed, we need more money for public housing. NDIS has the potential to greatly improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable Australians. The NBN, also, was to be the information infrastructure on which the industries of the future arose. But the Coalition went for the cheaper option. Now we have cost blow-outs and inferior technology. Public investment in infrastructure and services, and collective consumption (eg: the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) is often in all our interests ; providing a ‘better deal’ ; leaving us all better off at the end of the day. “

Women’s Progress Welcome ; But Men are not ‘Essentially Bad’

“There has been welcome progress towards gender equality in recent years ; with emphasis on women’s sport ; equal representation in parliament ; debate about women’s disadvantage in the labour market, and attempts by the ALP to subsidise child care wages to rectify this in part. But as Alan Barron (Your Say 3/6) appears to recognise, there has been another side to this story whereby ‘maleness’ appears to be ascribed a ‘bad essence’. Messages to the effect ‘girls can do anything’ are positive ; but boys must not feel ‘left out’ ; as if less is expected of them. And as if ‘maleness’ is ‘toxic’. Women must be encouraged to assert themselves: to assert that “no means no” ; and men must be educated to respect this. And men and women must take special care to be certain of consent where a couple are under the influence of alcohol. But should we eliminate all spontaneity? Also the cause of gender equality has advanced in leaps and bounds. But what about class-based inequality? The struggle for gender equality needs to be but the first step in a much broader fight for equality.”

The Reality behind ‘Class Warfare’ Rhetoric

“The Herald-Sun (YS 4/6) talks about an end to “retrograde” “class warfare” from the ALP. But why is it not ‘class warfare’ when the Conservatives cut Health, Education, Welfare, public infrastructure and Social Insurance to pay for tax credits and tax cuts for the wealthy? And gradually there is a vicious cycle of bracket creep and tax cuts for the well-off which is leading in the direction of ‘flat tax’. Under which low and middle income earners would suffer. The fact is that under the Conservatives there is a constant state of class war ; which is gradually destroying our egalitarian traditions and leading us along the path of the US model: underclass, and great swathes of utterly destitute. Mixed economies with strong welfare states can be strong economies as the Nordics (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark) have shown. The Herald-Sun may call it ‘class warfare’ ; but if the ALP gives up on distributive justice for workers and the disadvantaged it is giving up its core reason for being. What we need is a responsible media that stops throwing around loaded language to convince people to vote against their interests out of fear , and provides a balanced analysis instead.”

Labor and Workers must reject ‘Aspirational’ Ideology

“Lou Coppola (Your Say 10/6) condemns a ‘non-Aspirational’ Left which “denigrates” Australia. All countries have events in their histories they may now be less than proud of. But a strong democracy is capable of recognising both the good and the bad ; putting things right ; and then moving forward – our heads a bit higher. For Australia’s part seminal moments include the granting of the suffrage for men and women ; granting indigenous people the vote, and then the Keating Government observing Land Rights ; and the establishment of Medicare as a more fair and efficient alternative to a US style private health system. This does not mean there’s not room to improve with a Treaty and further extension of universal health care into areas like dental and prosthetics. Meanwhile: ‘aspirational’ Ideology around personal enrichment is a ploy for working class Australians to turn against their own interests for the sake of a pipe dream. Most working class Australians see through it ; but even if the Conservatives can convince a minority it can be electorally influential. Labor needs to confront this Ideology and maintain that tax cuts for the rich and austerity are not in the interests of workers.”

What’s at stake with the CFMMEU and ‘Ensuring Integrity’

“(14/6) “The John Setka affair is being exploited as a pretext to push through hard-right-wing anti union laws that are undemocratic and overrun citizens’ liberal rights. The proposed laws would not only see the prosecution of leaders ; but the dissolution of unions themselves, leaving workers defenceless. So much for freedom of association (And what happens to workers’ collectively-held assets via their unions?) Without collective organisation in unions, workers have no defence of their rights and interests but government. And government definitely cannot always be relied upon. Without unions and without a right to withdraw labour workers are reduced to a condition somewhat similar to slavery. Whether in defence of wages and working conditions ; or the promotion of safety ; or political industrial action to protest against unjust laws : industrial liberties must be preserved if a society is to honestly call itself liberal and democratic. The areas which are the responsibility of the CFMMEU are also highly sensitive to the power of the broader labour movement to defend workers interests’ ; and if it ever comes to it – to defend democracy itself. The CFMMEU’s strength also provides the opportunity to assist industrially weaker unions. If necessary the broad labour movement must be willing to take action to render the ‘Ensuring Integrity ‘ legislation ‘the dead letter of the law’. The case of Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 is instructive here.

Theophanous should rethink Call for Rightward Shift

“Theo Theophanous (17/6) urges Labor to ‘move to the Centre’. But the ‘Centre’ is relative, and with the Conservatives dictating the terms, it usually means shifting Right. He advocates passing the Coalition’s tax legislation in full ; avoiding ‘tax and spend’ policies. With a Recession probably looming, that would mean redistribution to the wealthy, and massive austerity down the track ; making aged care reform impossible. Without social wage and social insurance expansion ; without progressive tax ; Labor is no longer a Social Democratic Party. Labor’s problems were confusion re: policy complexity; and scare campaigns (eg: the ‘Death Tax’) which cut through ; supported by a $60 million campaign by Clive Palmer which redirected preferences. That, and high unemployment in Queensland, with the misassumption Adani would create many jobs. Labor must be ‘progressively gradualist’, arguing for moderate increased progressive taxes in the vicinity of 1% to 1.5% of GDP. (In addition to rescinding regressive Liberal Tax Cuts). It must be clear these do not hurt lower to middle income earners ; and that voters get ‘value for money’ in health, education, infrastructure, social insurance. If we accept the Coalition’s terms of reference in tax we let the Conservatives impose a ‘policy straight-jacket’ preventing social wage and social insurance expansion indefinitely.”

Need to Reforge Working Class as a “Class for Itself”

“Jeff Kennett argues that with widespread deindustrialisation and the existence of some very high wage jobs that ‘the working class no longer exists’. The working class has always included wage labourers exploited by business ; but has been widely reinterpreted to include public sector workers such as nurses and teachers. The most important aspect of being ‘working class’ is not whether one is ‘blue collar’ or ‘white collar’, but that workers must sell their labour in order to survive. What is true is that consciousness of class is falling ; partly due to a fragmentation of class identity with deindustrialisation. But the reality is that ‘as a class in itself’ the working class still exists. And the challenge for the labour movement is to restore a sense of shared identity and interest amidst diversity. To establish the working class as ‘a class for itself’. As for the prosperity Kennett alludes to ; the median wage is about approximately $53,000. Which means half of all workers earn $53,000/year or less. “
https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/how-much-do-you-need-to-earn-to-be-rich-in-australia/news-story/cd7e6647199773c56ad5a9270c7aab87

Left must not Shrink Back from the True Reality of ‘Class Warfare’

“There’s an old saying on the Left: “they only call it class warfare when we fight back”. To its discredit Labor during the election said little about the massive austerity that would necessarily follow those tax cuts. (The Coalition said nothing about this). Labor proposed a traditional centre-left platform: closing tax loopholes to deliver a modest windfall which would have enabled cancer and dental care, subsidised child care, money for TAFE and more. This is labelled ‘class warfare’. But when the Coalition restructures the tax system so workers on lower and middle incomes pay proportionately much more of the burden (moving towards a ‘flat tax’) this is lauded as ‘reform’. And also when it abolishes Penalty Rates. Labor needs the focus and resolve to emphasise the coming austerity (on hospitals, schools, aged care, infrastructure) all through this term of government. And so (in government) withdraw ‘phase 3’ which delivers $95 billion to the wealthy over only the first five years. Politics is a continual ‘tug of war’ between labour, capital and citizens. If we refuse to fight back for fear of the ‘class warfare’ label we have lost before we even begin. That’s the point of it.”

Unemployed must be Treated with Decency

“A recent Herald-Sun article was Opinion dressed up as reporting. (A.Galloway, Insult to Taxpayers, Payments to Bludgers Withheld ; 31/7). The object of the article was to inspire ‘outrage’ that job-seekers had missed appointments for possible jobs) But as the article itself concedes, mutual obligation is very severe when it comes to Newstart, and the people in question had their payments suspended. Also, Newstart payments are only approximately $40 a day ; imposing harsh conditions of poverty ; and are hardly a ‘lifestyle choice’. Those on Newstart are hard pressed to feed themselves and put a roof over their head, let alone pay for smart clothes, a computer and so on – necessary in the modern world to search for work. For many: disabled, older unemployed, regional unemployed – the search for work is almost hopeless. And yet we persist with promoting this loathing for the unemployed. The real point of this regime is to create a ‘whip of hunger and utter destitution’ so jobseekers are forced to take any job no matter the pay and conditions. This ‘reserve army of labour’ provides employers with ‘the whip hand’ and helps drive down wages and conditions for hundreds of thousands of other jobseekers.”

‘The Age’ Letters May to July 2019 (Mostly unpublished)

Democracy and the ‘Fair Go’ at Stake as Labor considers its Options

“(26/5) If Labor abandons distributive justice it more or less abandons its reason for being. Labor needs to commission research from a multiplicity of sources to minimise the chances for error. Then it needs to actively campaign in order to restore support for a traditional social democratic redistributive agenda; which restores progressivity to the tax system with a focus on corporations and the top 10%. And also full indexation of the bottom few tax brackets. Issues like superannuation tax concessions remain crucial for the Budget and distributive justice ; costing tens of billions annually. Labor also needs to explain how the mix of bracket creep and regressively-structured tax cuts make the income tax system more and more unfair. Labor needs a deep and broad policy agenda. But Morisson’s victory shows how a narrow and negative message can ‘cut through’. As well as the shallow but effective construction of the ‘ScoMo’ ‘everyman’ persona. But is democracy viable any longer when the ‘Power Resources’ of the Right are overwhelming ; where a billionaire can buy an election ; where the Murdoch monopoly mass print media has so little effective competition ; and the Government is canvassing legislation to ban GetUp! From campaigning?”

https://www.news.com.au/national/federal-election/why-australias-superannuation-scheme-is-stacked-against-you/news-story/9ddbc4ffb7c59384dbc6827cc4f74464

Why the Anti-Union Stance at ‘The Drum’?

“The other night watching ‘The Drum’ on the ABC I was appalled to see a virtual consensus that anti-union laws enabling the deregistration of unions who take unprotected industrial action could be justified. The line of argument seemed to be that since corporations should be accountable if breaking the law, so too should unions. But what this all really begs is the question of whether or not workers should have a right to withdraw their labour – full stop. This issue is now much bigger than John Setka and whatever indiscretions he has made. The proposed laws could be a weapon with which to break the labour movement in this country. As Sally McManus argued some time ago now – laws are not necessarily right. Sometimes civil disobedience is justified – including industrial action. If unions cannot take industrial action workers’ options are very limited to defend their interests. We cannot let John Setka be used as a cover for union-busting legislation which will weaken workers conditions, rights, strength and liberties in this country.”

‘The Age’ Shifts Right on Tax Debate

“The Age (22/6) argues that middle and high income earners will pay some of the highest income taxes in the world without the Conservatives’ $160 billion tax cut plan. But ‘The Age’ has been unclear what it means by ‘middle income’ in the past. In fact the Median (ie: middle) income is approximately $53,000/year. $120,000/year is actually a very high income compared with most. Also the gap between Australian and OECD average tax rates is almost 7 percentage points (or approaching $119 billion/year). The Coalition’s tax cuts would mean massive austerity (worse in a recession) ; and maybe some of the gap would be made up by raising the GST (as in many European countries with their VATs) and a negative distributive outcome for genuine low and middle income earners. Raising the top threshold of the 32.5% tax bracket from $120,000 to $200,000 would very significantly ‘flatten’ the overall system. Some other countries may also have inheritance taxes, wealth taxes, strong land taxes ; but Australia has always depended highly on income tax. The trend is towards less equality. But we don’t HAVE to follow the trend. And there was a time I expected better from ‘The Age’.”

https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/how-much-do-you-need-to-earn-to-be-rich-in-australia/news-story/cd7e6647199773c56ad5a9270c7aab87?fbclid=IwAR0PdJydLNCE2-ltF_xHhybr8HGQASEPH4OPQLaG_OkyVMTzyXXRIWIuQ50

https://data.oecd.org/tax/tax-revenue.htm

https://www.budget.gov.au/2019-20/content/tax.htm

Welcome Consideration on Civics Education in Victoria: But Stronger Action Necessary

“It was good to read that the Victorian State Government is set to emphasise Civics education (17/7), partly in response to the voices of students themselves. This must include processes, parties and institutions: but it must be about more than this as well. Education for active and critical citizenship must explore interests, values and pathways to civic activism. That includes “ideological literacy”: an appreciation of the political spectrum from far left to centre, and to the far right. As well as libertarian and authoritarian influences. Importantly: there need to be nuanced understandings. Political categories like ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’, ‘democratic socialism’, ‘conservatism’ have historically meant different things to different people. Opportunities for activism include parties, representative democracy, and social movements. The aim is not to indoctrinate: but rather this calls upon the professionalism of teachers to impart knowledge, wisdom and understanding in an inclusive way. Students should go out into the world ready to participate as active and informed citizens ; always ready to widen their horizons and make informed political decisions and interventions. This is about empowerment ; and that empowerment is good for democracy.”

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Can Labor accommodate an inclusive and open internal debate on Tax and the Social Wage?

I’ve been copping some criticism for my decision to publicly disagree with the Parliamentary Labor Party’s decision to waive through the Conservative Government’s tax cuts package – which includes some benefits for middle-income earners, but nothing for the working poor, and a massive windfall for the rich. ‘Phase 3’ – which focuses mainly on tax breaks for the rich – will cost $95 billion over only its first five years.

Many reasons have been given for the decision, including Labor’s desire not to be seen to be ‘getting in the way’ of a tax cut for middle-income and higher income workers. The rationale is that we pick our fights at a time and context of our own choosing. And don’t give the Coalition a bludgeon to beat us with in the meantime. And some are arguing we could move to rescind the Phase 3 cuts closer to the next election.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Generally, it’s easier to legislate tax cuts than to repeal them. Various ‘pragmatists’ in the Party will point to the need to court ‘aspirationals’ (an ideological construction meant to promote capitulation on distributive justice) and some will ‘get cold feet’ on any rescission as the election approaches. Even some figures on the Left are arguing in favour of the tax cuts, not just as a tactical imperative, but on the basis they do not see the social wage as a priority. Though I’m sure there are many more who understand the place of the social wage in Labor’s mission and identity. Some are opposing ‘Laborism’ to ‘Social Democracy’ ; but when pressed I doubt these would implement reforms on pattern bargaining, labour market regulation, secondary boycott, and so on.

Also, Labor’s strategy is demoralising and disorienting for many members and supporters. Labor ‘didn’t have the numbers’ but ‘taking a stand’ would have been good for morale ; and would have left less ambiguity where we stand. Though that will be ameliorated should Labor commit to rescinding Phase 3 at a later date “if it proves to be fiscally irresponsible” and “a barrier to provision of front line services”. Which we know will be the case.

So can the Party tolerate debate on this issue ; and if so should it be ‘behind closed doors’, or should some of it be public?

Firstly, if most of the Left (and possibly significant parts of the Right) want to see Phase 3 withdrawn at the next election we need a discussion within the Party as to why this is so urgent. There must be grassroots pressure so even ‘pragmatic’ MPs understand it’s what the Party expects and demands. And activists and other members must be educated as to the consequences of the policy if it is not withdrawn. Debate within policy committees and so on is not good enough as it does not engage the majority of members. Public debate also gives cause for supporters to ‘take heart’ that there are significant forces in the Party fighting to rescind the appalling Phase 3 tax cuts later on. We need to be arguing that we will review the policy next election not only because it is fiscally irresponsible ; but also the distributional impacts, and impact on services.

And if Party figures think they cannot risk disunity ‘at the top’ ; surely at the least they can see the good of ongoing and permanent debate ‘at the grassroots’. And when the Coalition uses the old ‘class warfare’ label we need to respond that it is they who are waging class warfare ; imposing a greater proportional tax burden on lower and middle income Australians, cutting services, removing penalty rates, seeking to smash unions, degrade conditions and so on.

There’s also a problem that if the Coalition gets away with this tactic once, they will try it again. That is: combining policy which is of some interest to workers in the short term with policies which will be very harmful to most over the long term with damage to the social wage, social insurance and collective consumption, welfare state, and funds for public infrastructure. And trying to pass them ‘as a package deal’.

The Aged Care and Mental Health Royal Commissions are developing their findings even as this is written. Action on mental health and aged care will require resources that simply won’t be there if the Coalition gets its way. We’re talking action on a similar scale to the NDIS. (National Disability Insurance Scheme). The ageing population makes action there especially urgent.

Labor’s strategy must be to demand action on these fronts, in the full knowledge that this puts fiscal pressure on the Conservatives to pull back on tax cuts. This is not necessarily because of some cynical partisanship or desire to ‘wreck’, but because the Aged and the mentally ill desperately require our support. More hospital beds, better pensions, psychological counselling and community support. Enshrined ratios (nurses and aged care workers) in Aged Care and the funds to make that possible. Better training – including dementia training – and better wages and conditions for Aged Care staff. Resources for ‘quality of life’ ; private rooms, quality food, access to internet, facilitated discussions and games, a life that is worth living – and more than sitting people down in front of televisions all day. Also more money for ‘ageing in place’ programs ; ensuring everyone who needs such a package can receive support quickly ; without onerous waiting lists that currently can go on over a year. And on the way begin winding back regressive user-pays.

In the meantime Labor must resist any austerity ‘brought forward’ to accommodate the Coalition’s tax cuts.

The bottom line is that Labor needs a debate which keeps distributive justice, progressive tax, social wage provision – front and centre of the Party’s agenda. Over the medium term we need to be moving towards the OECD average tax to GDP ratio.

Labor also has to head off the so called ‘ensuring integrity’ anti-unions laws ; and should be engaging the crossbenches on this now. We also need to prioritise the Senate for the next election. If the anti-union legislation passes the industrial wing needs to be prepared for a fight to render the legislation ‘the dead letter of the law’.

Many Labor activists are now ‘falling into line’ because of the idea that ‘disunity is death’. And hence a desire from some to enforce conformity. The fight to oppose Phase Three outright from the outset has been lost. Many are bitter, but we need to plan ahead for the future. The next debate is whether we press for extended services on aged care and mental health we know are incompatible with the Coalition’s vision of ‘ever smaller government’. And following that: whether we are willing to rescind Phase Three after the next election ; and maybe even modestly raise taxes by around 1% to 1.5% of GDP on top of that to fund an expansion of the social wage which ‘takes us forwards’, not just a ‘rear-guard action’.

Negative Gearing reform and Franking Credits may be off the agenda for now, but the reality is we failed to sell our policies. Perhaps we should have imposed means tests in places, so our policies did not disadvantage any genuine ‘battlers’. Alternative policies could include a very big commitment on public housing. As well as a restructuring of income tax, and imposition of indexation at the lower brackets. Also, a progressive increase of the Medicare Levy to fund dental and mental health; and a National Aged Care Insurance Levy to fund Aged Care reform. We need a vision which ‘takes vulnerable and working Australians forwards’. Already-progressive forces need to ‘plan ahead’ for the next National Conference.

The election was close, and we should not succumb to despair. With reform re: ‘big money in politics’, and full preparedness for any future Conservative ‘scare campaigns’ we should be able to go into the next election ‘on the front foot’.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Backing Liberals’ ‘Flat Tax’ Agenda a Bad Move for Labor

Figures in the ALP – even including Senior figures in the Left – are rationalising the decision to back the hugely regressive Morrison income tax cuts in the final instance. The rationale (given by senior Left figure, Kosmos Samaras) is that workers do not begrudge the wealthy a tax cut, even though they do begrudge an increase in Newstart. He concedes it reluctantly, calling it “confronting”. For many adapting to the mindset of these people (including ‘working class Tories’) is more urgent than actually trying to win the argument. Or winning those people over on balance on other issues – despite their prejudices.

So now Labor has gone so far as to pass the controversial ‘Phase Three’: which moves us towards a ‘flat tax’ with those in $45,000 to $200,000 all on the same rate. This is worse than Blairism ; This is capitulating to Thatcherism.

Phase Three alone will come at a cost of $95 billion over the first five years’.

And even before this ‘Phase 2’ will cost almost $4 billion a year.

Now the Median wage (ie: middle income) is only approximately $53,000 a year. Though If you ONLY take FULL TIME wages that equates to $65,577 a year.

But this is NOWHERE NEAR $120,000, say – which is well within the top 10 per cent.

If people on undoubtedly high incomes do not pay their fair share of tax how will the social wage survive – let alone expand? If the ALP does not stand for the social wage what does it stand for? Without the social wage Labor utterly turns its back on the Whitlam legacy. And at least Hawke gave us Medicare.

If we effectively back a flat tax we may as well not exist.

Labor lost the recent election for many reasons. Clive Palmer’s money. A deceitful tax scare campaign on ‘retiree taxes’ and ‘death taxes’ that were nowhere on Labor’s radar. A failure to communicate complex policies. Media bias. The character assassination of Shorten (especially by Palmer) and a ‘flat’ performance by the Labor leader in the final days.

What this shows it that we need to be careful how we frame our next Campaign. Simpler but still progressive tax reform. Rescind phase three and increase progressive tax by somewhere between 1% to 1.5% of GDP. Include a progressively structured Medicare Levy increase. Make the connection between the tax reform and the social insurance/social wage reforms we want to make. Aged Care Insurance, Medicare Dental, Child Care. Keep on emphasising we’re only talking 1% to 1.5% of GDP. Sell the ideas of social wage, collective consumption, social insurance.

Also: Attack the Liberals relentlessly. Push them hard on the need for cuts under their plan and where the cuts will come from. Use relatively simple negative and positive ideas and slogans – that will ‘cut through’.

As for bracket creep ; after adjusting for fairness we need to index the lower brackets. And when the Libs say ‘politics of envy’ – don’t just take it – fight back. $90 billion of cuts over five years is massive. It’s not ‘envy’ ; it’s about justice and it’s about survival. Emphasise that lower and middle income earners are $53,000/year and under taking the median as a guide (or again: approx $65,000 if you’re only considering full time workers).

When we cut taxes for people on $100,000, $200,000 and higher – we are cutting health, education, aged care, and the social safety net. Make sure everyone understands this. And also people on lower thresholds are paying proportionately more of the tax burden. Which is the point. (ie: towards a ‘Flat Tax’)

These days even The Age is beating the Liberal drum relentlessly. But if we become a Party that no longer sets agendas ; but rather REACTS and capitulates to media spin campaigns – we may as well give in. You’re basically saying ‘Blair was Right’. And that the cause of a genuine Centre-Left is hopeless. But even Blair increased tax modestly for his programs. A flat tax is closer to Thatcher than Blair.

If deregistering unions becomes ‘popular’ do we give in to that too?

We can make tactical and strategic changes without full on capitulation.

I made the argument thereafter that if workers support the Morrison tax changes it is because they don’t understand what it will cost them in the long run. And the ALP wasn’t making that case very strongly either.

For Samaras this was being ‘patronising’ to workers ; and he retorted “yes, those poor uneducated workers.” The implication is that he thinks workers backing the cuts know exactly what they’re supporting.

This was my response:

So you’re saying people understand Medicare, welfare, public health, schools, public infrastructure, universities, the ABC – are going to be slashed ; and they think a tax cut of maybe $10,000 a year or more for someone on $150,000/year is the better option?

People are immersed in popular culture. A Current Affair inciting hatred against the unemployed and unions. The Herald-Sun selling the narrative of the ‘everyman ScoMo’. Yes, there are working class Tories out there. But even still: we have to actively contest the argument. The Liberals will govern against most workers’ interests, and we need to communicate that. And somehow begin the work of rebuilding an outlook of solidarity.

I’m no Leninist, but it’s interesting to consider what he had to say here. Before the meaning of ‘social democracy’ shifted Lenin pointed out the need to impart ‘social democratic consciousness’ ; but that this did not arise ‘organically’ from the class struggle, but had to come from the revolutionary party.

Today we have very little left in the way of a class struggle compared with the past. The Accord had something to do with it. So did deindustrialisation. So we don’t have class consciousness among many, let alone ‘social democratic consciousness’.

That said, an old style vanguard party is not the answer. We need a mass party. But a mass party which – like a vanguard party – is capable of leading, mobilising and educating. And is complemented by sympathetic social movements which it builds strong ties with.

Social Media is a ‘leveler’ ; but the Conservatives dominate the old media. Over the long term the decline of traditional media will strengthen our hand. If we don’t completely roll over into a Party of Liberalism in the interim.

Samaras suggested I was being ‘patronising’ ; but remember a lot of workers voted for Hitler too. Would it be ‘patronising’ to say they were wrong? A lot of working people are convinced by the tabloid propaganda. Again, if deregistering the CFMMEU becomes ‘popular’ do we back that? Or do we fight back ; actively strategizing with everything we’ve got?

Yes people got it wrong. No, they didn’t fully understand the implications of voting Tory. They don’t know what over $20 billion in cuts a year will look like. Van Badham of The Guardian supposes that before too long that will escalate to a figure of $40 billion.(there’s a likely recession, and the mindless drive for a surplus ‘no matter what”) It’s partly our fault for not making enough of an issue of it. Our job is to expose that social cost. And when it comes to the next election oppose Phase 3. Which alone will cost well over $200 billion across a decade after inflation. (more if you accept Van Badham’s assumptions)

So for those who think it’s a good idea to back the tax cuts how about you explain where you think they should make the Budget cuts.

Jacquie Lambie has also totally sold out ; backing the shift towards a flat tax in return for just over $150 million in relief for public housing debts.

Samaras again backed Lambie on the basis that public housing was a crucial issue in Tasmania, and the money would assist the homeless. Their circumstances are desperate ; and no-one is saying nothing should be done.

But with the money forgone from the tax cuts (for just one year) we could provide Lambie with that money much more than 100 times over. Whatever relief the vulnerable get from this, other vulnerable people will pay down the track more than 100 times over in the space of just one year by the time Phase 3 kicks in. (in 2024) And after that the vulnerable get nothing.

Many people who think about and understand the consequences of this will end up voting Greens or other Left groups out of desperation unless Labor gets it together and commits unambiguously to rescind Phase 3 upon re-taking government. It’s true in the end that Labor did not have the numbers to stop the legislation ; but ‘taking a stand’ was crucial for morale and for Labor’s credibility. As well as contributing to a debate which may influence public opinion into the future.

For those who agree to let the tax cuts to go through instead of addressing aged care, dental, childcare: how about saying EXACTLY where you want Morrison to make the cuts? More than $20 billion a year is a LOT of money. It’s not enough to say ‘cut red tape’. Frontline services will be damaged critically.

And before anyone attacks me: We are coming within a cat’s whisker of a Flat Tax. And that is the politics of Thatcherism. ‘Politics’ is about ‘political capital’ ; and progressives who are about social and distributive justice – not just identity politics – will see this as a betrayal. It could colour peoples’ idea of Labor for years if not decades.

That’s what we should have thought of before we voted for this package ; even if some people have the intention of trying to revisit the issue come the next election. (The legislation re: Phase Three is not due to take effect until 2024) No doubt ‘pragmatists’ will try and head any such move off in any case when the time comes.

 

References

https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/how-much-do-you-need-to-earn-to-be-rich-in-australia/news-story/cd7e6647199773c56ad5a9270c7aab87

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/coalition-labor-to-talk-tax-cuts-as-scott-morrison-returns-from-holiday

https://www.budget.gov.au/2019-20/content/tax.htm

https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/how-much-do-you-need-to-earn-to-be-rich-in-australia/news-story/cd7e6647199773c56ad5a9270c7aab87

https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/you-need-how-much-to-be-uber-rich-our-top-earners-are-taking-home-more-20150511-ggyzom.html

https://www.theage.com.au/politics/federal/labor-to-vote-against-coalition-s-full-tax-package-20190624-p520ox.html?fbclid=IwAR2Kkf9LvM8IaCCZouoLd0w_MKMUccweNoxzFekSELP8e0ym2wJexI69RxQ

https://www.ato.gov.au/general/new-legislation/in-detail/direct-taxes/income-tax-for-individuals/personal-income-tax-plan/

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/jacqui-lambie-names-the-157m-price-of-her-support-for-income-tax-package-20190703-p523tl.html

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/05/labors-support-for-tax-cuts-is-an-unfathomable-betrayal-of-principle

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Albanese: Take a Stand on Tax for our Supporters’ Sake

A letter to Anthony Albanese:

Albo! Don’t pass phases 2 and 3 of the Tory Tax Plan

Abbott blocked good policy ; Now Labor has a right to block sweeping tax cuts that will indirectly hurt millions of its constituents. And many will be very disillusioned or angry if you let phases 2 and 3 pass.

The Government’s plans include the following for phases two and three (from Treasury):

“For 2022–23 and 2023–24, the top threshold of
the 19% tax bracket will increase from $37,000 to $41,000
the 32.5% bracket will increase from $90,000 to $120,000.

For 2024–25 income year onward, the top threshold of the 32.5% tax bracket will increase from $120,000 to $200,000.”

This represents an effective ‘flattening’ of the tax scales ; with higher income individuals on effectively lower rates of tax.

It will also cost the Budget $160 billion over 10 years. This when we’re likely heading for a recession. It will fuel austerity. Especially if the government prioritises the surplus even in time of economic downturn.

Finally: remember that the median wage in Australia is only approx $53,000/year. The Conservatives talk about people on $120,000/year as if they’re ‘battlers’. If we don’t stand up and fight only the Conservatives will eventually win with their long term agenda of a flat income tax.

They also want to legislate ahead for the next term of government which is totally unreasonable.

The Conservatives claim a mandate. Yet they won through a fear campaign based on lies ; Clive Palmer’s Money ; and preferences from Palmer and One Nation. And in Opposition under Abbott they never respected Labor’s mandate.

Labor needs to restructure income tax for fairness ; and index the lower brackets to avoid a vicious cycle of bracket creep and regressive tax cuts which flatten the scales. This must be a priority for Labor upon re-election.

We don’t need to capitulate on progressive policy. Labor needs a strategy to nullify the fear and disinformation campaigns. Capitulation is not a strategy.

Raise progressive taxes by somewhere in the vicinity of 1% to 1.5% of GDP upon retaking government. Exclude lower and middle income earners from higher taxes. Be thorough in this. Point out the moderate scale of the reform ; and explain where the money is going (eg: Aged Care Social Insurance, Medicare Dental). If Labor must tax a broader base then consider the Medicare Levy as well. It’s the closest thing in this country to “a popular tax” because of the clear connection with medical services, and the universal coverage most Australians value.

The Coalition is fond of arguing about “great big new taxes” – even where there are no new taxes; Labor HAS to fight them on this. Again: Insist on a figure in the vicinity of 1% to 1.5% of GDP in the first term of a new Labor Government. Point to our low tax rates in Australia compared with the OECD average (approx. 27% of GDP compared with approx. 34% of GDP). Australian tax overall is approximately seven percentage points lower in Australia compared with the OECD average. That’s a difference of approximately $119 billion Australian dollars a year.

If we give in we get an Americanisation of the discourse which gradually flattens tax scales, and makes meaningful social democratic reform on social wage, social insurance, public infrastructure and welfare impossible.

Take a stand, Albo. That’s what ordinary Labor members and voters want and expect from you.

Dr Tristan Ewins (Labor member of over 25 years)

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Jordan Peterson gets it wrong again on inequality

Jordan Peterson has made another intervention ; arguing against ‘equity politics’ as opposed to what passes for ‘equality of opportunity’ in Western societies. For his own purposes he defines ‘equality’ as ‘equality under the law’ and ‘meritocracy’ as far as it has progressed in Western society. (We could also add free, universal and equal suffrage ; amongst whose most early ardent advocates were socialists).

By contrast ‘equity’ is argued as inferring ‘equality of outcome’. (For some the goal is even role reversal).

Because the main focus on the Left these days appears to be gender, Peterson focuses on gender also. Along the way he makes some interesting points (and also some shallow, Conservative assertions).

Amongst the “interesting” points:

  • Only a tiny proportion of men actually occupy positions in the ‘ruling class’.
  • Corporate Affirmative Action in Sweden has had almost no impact on the prospects and lives of working class women.
  • ‘Equity’ can be interpreted as ‘sameness’: but men and women may not freely choose to be ‘the same’ if given the choice.
  • Some women accept a ‘trade off’ of free time for lower incomes ; and that is an acceptable choice.
  • Further ; providing OPPORTUNITY doesn’t mean women will take those opportunities ; and old patterns in the labour market may be replicated here and there even after significant efforts to ‘open the way’ (eg: Peterson mentions Mathematicians, Engineers, Physicists).
  • ‘Sameness’ is not the same as ‘equality’ or ‘justice’.

But in response: it is legitimate to break down barriers to women’s (and men’s) participation in non-traditional realms ; without creating new stereotypes, disincentives and barriers for either sex.

Peterson argues that “the Equity Doctrine” “has gone too far”. He seems to assume that ‘Western meritocracy’ is the best system ; with (in fact extreme) inequality as functional to the creation of prosperity.

But many Socialists themselves have assumed ‘perfect equality’ is unachievable and undesirable, even under socialism. Social Democratic Marxists Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein variously made that point that for the foreseeable future there would remain differences of remuneration based on skill, effort, and the undesirable and unpleasant nature of some labour.

Whatever you think of ‘communism in practice’ the ultimate (theoretical) ‘communist goal’ assumes free and non-alienated labour ; where there is abundance ; and labour has become ‘life’s prime want’ ; and diverse and fulfilling in nature. This principle can inform policy today ; but without true abundance it cannot be fully realised.

There are other questions as well. Such as ‘co-ercive laws of competition’ as they apply not only to enterprises, but also to nation-states. (Competition can drive less desirable labour and social conditions). And resultant economic forces mitigate against the retreat of alienating human labour.

Further, the welfare state itself demands an economic base ; and as the Swedes showed, this was best supported by policies ensuring full employment.

In practical terms, though, those socialist principles can be furthered through educational, social and cultural opportunity ; voluntary job rotation ; a reduced working week and opportunities for fulfilling voluntary labour. And the viability of which can be supported by a strong social wage, and regime of social insurance.

Peterson argues “the Left can go too far” ; and he mentions the Soviets ; Maoists ; the Khmer Rouge, Cuba and today’s Venezuela. What this has to do with the feminism he discusses (which seems to be his central focus) is lost on this writer. Also missing in this grandiose dismissal is any consideration of ‘capitalist atrocities’. Wars such as World War One with tens of millions killed; the massacres of over half a million in Indonesia in the 1960s ; and over 300,000 in Guatemala in the 1980s.

To that we could add atrocities and oppression elsewhere in Central and South America. And the War in Vietnam ; which spilled over into the US bombing of Cambodia and Laos ; destabilising Cambodia with the consequent rise of the Khmer Rouge.

And indeed while the current Venezuelan Government is not ideal, its developing inclination to repression is informed by foreign intervention and destabilisation, including sanctions and direct support for an usurper against the elected government. Venezuela’s actual policies (support co-operatives ; support for public education, housing and health ; socialise oil profits) are not at all ‘extreme’ in the ‘wide sweep’ of history. Venezuela’s future must be decided by the Venezuelans (UN involvement in elections may be acceptable) ; and not by US intervention.

But the real problem with Peterson, here, is that any robust democratic socialist program is associated with ‘the Left going too far’ ; and hence rejected out of hand. Peterson assumes an essential link between socialism and totalitarianism which does not stand up in the face of various other examples ; such as the Austro-Marxist experience between 1917 and 1934.

The connection Peterson tries to draw between the ‘equity politics’ he discusses – and Stalinism – is also threadbare.

To conclude ; some ‘equity’ policies – such as quotas applied to representative government – may be workable and desirable ; but too cumbersome to introduce to every sector of society. And it begs the question why we are not considering the place of social class in all of this. Which is the main factor in discrepancies of economic and political power.

Also, the most efficient correctives for inequality may well go beyond quotas. For instance ; Subsidies for ‘feminised’ sectors such as Aged Care and Child Care which typically involve exploitation. Or comprehensive universal and socialised health care. A regulated labour market and industrial liberties. A fully funded and first class public education system, including free Tertiary education. And the opening up of ‘education for active and critical citizenship’ to everyone ; including a balanced consideration of the entire political spectrum, and the promotion of political activism for a healthy democracy.

Again as Sweden demonstrated during its ‘golden age’ : a strong and comprehensive welfare state, social wage, social insurance regime – can provide for real social security and happiness. And that social security also makes it easier for industries to modernise ; with transitions ‘softened’ by re-education and training ; and by active industry policies which seek to maintain full employment ; and create new jobs for displaced workers (where possible making the most of existing skills sets).

Peterson tries to construct some simplistic opposition between “equal opportunity/meritocracy” and “equity/equality of outcome”.

In fact there is a ‘democratic socialist middle ground’ here.

Meritocracy and equal opportunity are often myth-like. Schools are not equally-resourced. Class often dictates educational opportunity. Gross inequality results in a ‘capitalist aristocracy’ dominated by billionaires – who have political access and influence ordinary citizens can barely dream of. The heights of power in the US particularly are influenced by nepotism and private fund-raising (by capitalists).

Meanwhile, in the US especially a ‘middle class’ is constructed as a political support base ; but even these could be rendered destitute through unanticipated health expenses where there is not sufficient health insurance.

The postulated ‘middle class’ (much of which is working class in fact) is ‘disciplined’ through fear of descent into the working poor (Walmart pays $11/hour and that is a big improvement on the past ; the federal minimum wage in the U.S. [is] $7.25 ) ; and the working poor are ‘disciplined’ through fear of descent into utter destitution.

Further ; to provide a more ‘global’ perspective: In early 2019, Oxfam claimed that the World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%.

With appropriate social wage, welfare and social insurance policies ; as well as labour market liberties and regulation ; and a genuinely and strongly progressive tax system it is possible to have much greater equality without resort to ‘extremes’. The establishment of a robust mixed economy, and support for co-operative enterprise ought not be rendered ‘marginal’ either ; and the Mondragon experience in Spain is instructive. It is also arguable that such combined policies can be more effective than cumbersome quotas applied to every aspect and corner of society. Though in certain instances gender quotas have proved very effective ; for instance in promoting women’s representation in Australia’s Parliamentary Labor Party.

In short ; Peterson tries to construct an opposition between ‘equality of opportunity/meritocracy’ and ‘equity/equality of outcome’. He ignores any potential ‘democratic socialist middle ground’; and he virtually ignores the aspect of social class which is fundamental to economic inequality ; and crosses lines of gender, race, ethnicity and so on. His resort to examples of Stalinism and Maoism is shallow and simplistic. It is true that parts of today’s Left deter internal dissent through the threat of ostracism ; and sometimes it is taken too far. But with regard the ‘democratic Left’, Peterson’s references to Stalinism and Maoism would appeal only to the easily convinced and ideologically prejudiced.

Here’s to genuine equality of opportunity ; and to such a degree of economic equality that would put paid to the ‘the capitalist aristocracy’ ; lift working people up from exploitation and poverty ; and empower ordinary citizens in democracy.

Bibliography

fbclid=IwAR1cZHuBxXZvYFSTO17Vy7h3LxSJ_j-H3YI33K3xuzGqnH3XeI8-kYAixhU

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/05/walmart-ceo-federal-minimum-wage-is-lagging-congress-should-act.html

https://medium.com/@jordanbpeterson/equity-when-the-left-goes-too-far-e36c216b3564?

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/21/world-26-richest-people-own-as-much-as-poorest-50-per-cent-oxfam-report

This article was originally published on ALP Social Left Forum.

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