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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/

Labor’s First Budget pitched as “Modest and Responsible’ – But more Ambition needed

Labor’s first Budget has been pitched as ‘modest and responsible’, with limited new spending; and the intent of not fuelling inflationary pressures. That said, there are some welcome measures. $20 billion will be invested towards upgrading the electricity grid; preparing for a low-emissions future. Promises on Aged Care will be fulfilled, with tougher regulation and an improvement in the wages and working conditions of Aged Care workers. Over $2 billion will go into Education; with free TAFE, 20,000 university places for the disadvantaged, and money for more qualified teachers and better-resourced schools. Money will be provided for ‘urgent care clinics’, and reducing the maximum co-payment for medicines from $42.50 to $30. Finally, there will be more support for parental leave and subsidised childcare; with a plan to promote an increase in housing supply (and hence affordability), as well as an increase in Defence expenditure to over 2 per cent of GDP (Herald-Sun 26/10/22). Though this housing plan appears over-dependent on private investment.

All that said, there are numerous problems as well. Jim Chalmers has flagged possible intervention into the energy market, with power prices set to rise by 40 to 50 per cent. This will crush struggling individuals and families. Also, Labor is flagging its intention to go ahead with the Stage Three Tax Cuts which will deliver a $9000 windfall for those earning $200,000 at a cost to the Budget of around $250 billion over 10 years. Nothing has been projected in the way of energy subsidies, and the price for reining in inflation seems to be falling upon those least able to pay. Wages are also flatlining, regardless of pre-election commitments to get wages moving.

So – what should Labor do? Some would oppose improvements for those on low wages and welfare as fuelling inflation. But those people should not be shouldering the burden. Already the bulk of their income is going towards non-negotiable necessities; and increases in power costs will challenge their capacity to make ends meet in the most basic sense. There will be homelessness, skipped meals, and Winters and Summers without heating or cooling. A temporary increase in tax for those on middle and higher incomes could also have an anti-inflationary effect without impacting on the most disadvantaged. Specifically, temporary tax increases for those on middle incomes could tighten demand significantly. Without such tax increases, individuals and families will be left to shoulder the burden with higher interest rates, and hence higher home loan repayments. Some of this will be passed on to renters as well. The question is: What is the most efficient way of containing inflation?; and how can this be achieved while lessening the burden on those least able to pay? Also, what other measures need to be taken to sustain an improvement in the social wage longer term? Including the preservation of a truly needs-based National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This may mean some other taxes need to increase progressively and permanently.

Over the longer term Labor needs a rethink on tax reform. Ideally the Stage Three tax cuts should be withdrawn completely. There are so many priorities which demand funding. But a compromise strategy could be to deliver the same amount of tax relief; but skewed towards those on lower and middle incomes. Median taxable income is just under $50,000/year. If tax credits are provided for those on low and middle incomes; relief could be delivered without delivering an expensive windfall for those on higher incomes. By the time the tax cuts are projected to be phased in we will likely be struggling to recover from an inflation-induced slowdown; or maybe even a recession. At this point, it makes sense to support the vulnerable and low-paid – as they spend the highest proportion of their income on ‘getting by’ compared with others. That is, they can be depended upon to spend their incomes.

Unemployment is also set to rise to 4.5% over 2023 to 2025. This begs the question of whether Labor accepts arguments around a supposed Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU). Again, recession and ‘spare capacity’ are not the only means of containing inflation. Taxes can achieve this without depending on social misery and wasted human resources.

Also, record profits in the gas industry should be subjected to taxation; as has occurred in Norway for instance. Those resources properly belong to all Australians, and any windfall should be shared substantially with the Australian people. This could be redirected to energy consumers with subsidies – especially those on low incomes – while a legislated gas reserve could ensure Australian consumers don’t miss out because of exports and global demand.

Into the future Labor should be seeking to reduce poverty and inequality by boosting the social wage and driving reform of the labour market; especially for the working poor. An important improvement in the social wage would be implementation of Medicare Dental. Earlier in its first term Labor delivered an increase in the minimum wage. But others on low wages also need urgent assistance. This is especially the case in feminised industries like early childhood education. Again, any inflationary impact could be countered with strategic and temporary increases in tax. While impacting ‘the economic middle’ would be regrettable; the plight of those on low incomes is more urgent, and Labor needs to prioritise.

While Labor needs to deliver on promises to improve the Cost of Living, including energy affordability, it also needs to be looking to boost the wage share of the economy. To some extent this should be delivered as a matter of distributive justice; and not only in return for improved productivity. In 2018, Jim Stanford explained how the wage share of the economy had fallen from 58.4 per cent in 1975 to 47.1 per cent in 2018. That translated to over $16,000 a year on average per worker, and $210 billion per year in total. Not only does Labor need to agitate for improved Awards at the lower end. It also needs to improve workers’ bargaining power more broadly, and this must include support for pattern bargaining. Even Secondary Boycott should be legalised in circumstances where the ‘industrially strong’ support the ‘industrially weak’ ‘in good faith’.

Importantly, though, the wage share is lagging in areas like mining; where regardless of this wages are significantly higher than average. Profits are that high. In this case the social wage needs to be factored in, and again a windfall profits tax and a longer-term super-profits tax – could help. Welfare also needs to be reformed to respond comprehensively to the Cost-of-Living crisis; including all pensions and unemployment benefits.

Finally, the required strategic expansion of social and affordable housing demands a greater public investment. While Labor is correct to promote an increase in housing supply in geographic areas of job growth, it also needs to ‘put its money where its mouth is’.

Labor has come to government at an especially difficult time. But there is a need to deliver on its mandate, especially for those most in need. Inflation can be contained without hitting the most vulnerable overall; and this needs to be Labor’s priority during its first term.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Social Justice doesn’t need to be ‘put on hold’ to fight inflation

In Australia the Labor Government is being warned not to spend too much for fear of exacerbating inflation. At the same time workers are urged to moderate wage demands to avoid a ‘wage/price spiral’. This is the ‘common sense’ of the day. But at the same time the labour share of the economy has fallen by over 10 per cent of GDP since the 1970s.

Furthermore, income inequality is marked. ACOSS observes that:

“People in the highest 20% income group receive 42% of all national income, which is more than the share of the lowest 60% combined. People in the lowest 20% receive only 6% of all household income, while the second lowest 20% receive 12%.”

Here, those in the lowest 20% bracket earn on average $753 a week. While those in the highest 10% bracket take $5230.

Meanwhile, in terms of wealth the bottom 20% average $36,000, while the top 10% average $4,754,000.

Amidst this the Federal Labor Government’s support for an increase of the minimum wage in line with inflation is welcome. But ‘the bigger picture’ is one of increasing inequality, and an increasingly lower share of the economy going towards the needs of working Australians. At some point Labor needs to confront inequality; and rectify these imbalances. But rather than suppressing wages or implementing austerity, the ‘heat’ could be taken out of the economy by raising tax. Temporary tax increases could target those on middle incomes, while permanent tax increases could target those on high incomes with the goal on funding social wage measures – like Medicare Dental.

Because of the need to moderate demand at this time, the ‘middle’ will be affected either by interest rates, or wage suppression, or tax. Choosing ‘the tax lever’ achieves this while providing the means to fund infrastructure, welfare and social wage initiatives. At the same time wages – especially at the lower end – could rise – with the aim of furthering distributive justice. Overall wages should also rise where the wage share is lower; and where rectification is necessary. Labor should make representations to Fair Work Australia to achieve this; and to increase the share going to lower income earners overall. But in the immediate term demand would be moderated through higher tax. Over the longer term such taxes on ‘the middle’ could be removed to promote an economic recovery.

The question Labor needs to ask is: ‘can social and distributive justice be furthered while tackling inflation at the same time?’ In this context, pursuing the Stage Three tax cuts makes no sense economically, and from a social and distributive justice perspective. They will see a flat 30 per cent tax rate for all incomes from $40,000 to $200,000. This will see an increase in overall demand rather than have a dampening effect (though by then the inflation genie may be ‘back in the bottle’ so to speak). It will also minimise progressive redistribution and entrench inequality.

It means proportionately those on lower incomes will pay more for the services and infrastructure functions of government. The Stage Three Tax Cats will also cost the Budget billions: almost $250 billion over nine years. This money could fund high speed rail, and Medicare Dental, while improving pensions, and winding back user pays in Higher Education. It could also fund a massive investment in public housing, while improving the wages of Aged Care workers significantly. And probably much more besides. Some would say such investment would act as a stimulus; but again it depends on what temporary and permanent tax increases accompany said measures. Importantly, if such spending kicked in a bit later down the track, the inflation crisis might be over; and stimulus may in fact be appropriate once more.

The bottom line is that managing inflation does not have to mean social and distributive justice are put on hold. There is scope to improve welfare and social wage while dampening demand overall in the immediate term; but also rectifying the imbalance between capital’s share of the economy and labour’s share of the economy. When we have Labor Governments we need to make the most of such opportunities. We need an Albanese Government that makes the most of the possibilities of government; and makes long term structural reforms which further the goals of social and distributive justice.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev and his Legacy

Mikhail Gorbachev has passed away at the age of 91. In the West Gorbachev is still held in high esteem for ‘ending the Cold War’. His policies of Glasnost (‘openness’) and Perestroika (‘Restructuring’) opened the way for reform, but also perhaps sadly the disintegration that then followed, with the effective theft of peoples’ assets and industry that was later to occur under Boris Yeltsin. The world of (capitalist) ‘oligarchs’ that has followed the collapse cannot seriously be considered as in any way better than the former state of affairs; and liberties did not last long in the former USSR following Gorbachev’s fall from power. Though it’s interesting that we do not call our own billionaires ‘oligarchs’ in the West; and especially in the United States where corporate lobbyists have unmatched power.

Gorbachev understood that the USSR could not compete militarily with the West while it failed to compete economically. In the 80s military competition had accelerated and there was a widespread fear of nuclear war which we have now forgotten. Gorbachev agitated for peace at the same time as Reagan pursued his ‘Star Wars’ plan, which aimed to make a nuclear war ‘winnable’. At the same time there was repression, terror and mass murder closer to home, in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. And yet the United States outpaced the East largely because of a ruthless exploitation of its economic periphery (eg: including Central and South America). In many ways Gorbachev heralded the kind of reform democratic socialists had long been hoping for, legitimising the USSR for many, but also helping to precipitate a collapse. In retrospect it would have been better if the USSR had not collapsed. But decades of Stalinism meant there was little in the way of a mobilised and independent civil society. The consequence was that when the collapse occurred there was little resistance. In light of all this it would have been better if Gorbachev had mobilised civil society in defence of democratic socialism from the outset.

Gorbachev’s passing reminds us of missed opportunities, and begs the question of whether there was a better way forward. Today there is war in Ukraine; and the Russian Government entertains ideas of an Imperial restoration. Russia may find a place as an important trading partner of China, but cannot really hope to restore ‘former glory’ when opposed by almost the entirety of Europe; and the US. Also the rupturing of Russia’s trade ties with Europe is harming both sides immensely. Though Russia’s still-massive nuclear arsenal deters uncontrolled escalation.

In later years Gorbachev commonly referred to himself as a Social Democrat ; and tried to establish a social-democratic party in Russia. On the other hand, arguably the USSR was still ahead of Western Social Democracy on many fronts prior to its collapse. Mainly in regard to the spread of socialised industry. Maybe Gorbachev was trying to move with the times, and promote the best possible outcome available at the time. Though his efforts to promote social democracy in the Russian Federation largely met with failure. In some ways China demonstrates how in certain respects compromise with capitalism can help an ostensibly socialist state to economically compete with the West. Though this could also lead to a crisis of legitimacy and identity.

Perhaps attempts to consolidate a democratic USSR might have failed given the influence of various nationalisms, but now we will never know. In the mid to late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev represented the best hope for peace, détente and avoiding nuclear war. With his passing we should also consider the world that ‘might have been’; and mourn the ultimate failure of Gorbachev’s reforms; with capitalist restoration and the rise of an Imperial Russian State.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Labor in government provides opportunities that should not be wasted

In the run-up to the Federal Election, many progressives tried to justify Labor’s small target strategy by arguing that Labor would get things done once in government. But that too much detail beforehand would confuse and overwhelm people. Now the day has come. Labor has enjoyed a strong victory. And it’s time to deliver.

The Greens have argued for Medicare Dental; but Labor could make the policy its own while winning broad and ongoing Greens support for the remainder of the term. The squeeze on the cost of gas also demands subsidies in favour of those on low incomes and welfare. While an increase in the supply of public housing could improve housing affordability. Pressure on the NDIS should be lifted with additional funding; as should pressure on our hospitals. Waiting lists have exploded with Covid; and action is urgently required. Accessibility and affordability in Higher Education should also be addressed with lower fees and an increase in repayment schedules clearly above the average wage. Tied grants should be provided to the states to fund an increase in teacher numbers; while a National Curriculum should be designed which promotes active, informed and critical citizenship. This includes an understanding of political processes and opportunities for public sphere participation; as well as sophisticated ideological literacy. Finally, promises on Aged Care should be implemented. Albanese has promised an increase in care personal attention hours for residents; but to implement this we need Aged Care Worker Ratios. Winning Government is not the end of the journey; it is only the beginning.

We also need a sense of scale when talking about funding for reform. There is often a sense of panic and alarm when talking about policies which go into the billions. How often do we hear that ‘we cannot throw money at problems’ or that funding policies are dismissed as a ‘cash splash’ (and hence ‘irresponsible’). But let’s be clear; the economy is valued at some $1.7 trillion a year. That’s ONE THOUSAND AND SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION. Fear to pursue truly ambitious policy leads to stagnation. And failure to commit money translates as a failure to commit resources. Viewed thus, any public policy agenda will fail without sufficient resourcing. Labor needs to be thinking about what is reasonable in terms of short to long term plans to expand the social wage and welfare state, as well as other programs to provide infrastructure and skill development, and to improve public broadcasting. We need to develop popular understanding of concepts such as ‘collective consumption’; and how the social wage can provide better value for money for workers, consumers, taxpayers. $17 billion is one per cent of GDP. And over several terms of Government, it is a reasonable objective to aim to broaden the social wage and welfare state by 5 per cent of GDP.

This is not an arbitrary figure, but an estimate of what is necessary for ambitious reform. Again, this could fund public housing, education and health, aged care, welfare and unemployment insurance reform, infrastructure (including renewable energy, rail transport and fibre to the home National Broadband Network (NBN), and programs to secure guaranteed job placement and experience for the disabled. Disability Pensions should be reformed also, to increase the scope to supplement income with part-time or casual work, and to take away perverse incentives to avoid intimate relationships (eg: measures which radically reduce pension payments to individuals in relationships and marriages). Further, local government should be supported so that suburbs that suffer from undeveloped social infrastructure like parks and gardens, sporting and fitness infrastructure, libraries and so on – are able to deliver better quality of life to working-class families.

Meanwhile, over the long term there should be plans to re-socialise energy and water. And to reintroduce public-owned competitors in markets like financial services and insurance: to counter collusion and support consumers by providing competition from government business enterprises on a not-for-profit footing.

Finally, the labour market demands structural reform to prevent the entrenchment of a class of working poor Australians. This may have a once-off inflationary effect; but redistribution one way or another is necessary to deliver wage justice. We need to address the distribution of the economic pie between capital and labour, but also between labourers themselves as well. Other innovative policies could include financial support and financial counselling for people planning on developing co-operative enterprise (on either a large or small scale). If increases in minimum wages will not eventuate without direct intervention, then there should be direct intervention. This should be undertaken where the current framework of Fair Work Australia fails to deliver. Allowing secondary boycotts ‘in good faith’ could also enable to industrially strong to assist the ‘industrially weak’ in achieving better outcomes for historically low-paid workers.

It’s not good enough to put ambitious reforms off until a second term. Policies like Medicare took years to become entrenched; to the point where any effective frontal assault against basic socialised medicine became impossible. Here, also, once-introduced and accepted as part of the ‘socialised medicine landscape’, Medicare Dental would be very difficult to dismantle. The establishment of a Labor Government provides the opportunity to introduce life-changing reforms. It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Wage Justice can be delivered while also containing inflation

Anthony Albanese stands besieged for suggesting a minimum wage increase which keeps pace with inflation. Specifically, that is 5.1%. This would raise full time wages by just $39.40 a week – less than a dollar an hour. Businesses are claiming such a move would drive them to the wall and fuel inflation. But since the 1970s labour’s share of the economy has fallen by over 10 per cent, from 58.4 per cent to 47.1 per cent: or $16,800 a year for the average worker. Especially; why is it that the Conservatives believe it is the job of the country’s lowest paid to pay the price for inflation when many businesses are experiencing spiralling profits? If wages cannot even keep pace with inflation, at what point can the structural inequities in the country’s labour market be addressed?

It is true that higher wages may have some impact on inflation. There are areas where increased costs will at least in part be passed on to consumers. But this is a false economy based on the exploitation of the poorest workers. It suggests a policy of drifting towards a US style labour market where there is a large class of working poor who can barely keep their heads above water. Fear of falling into the working poor disciplines the so-called ‘middle class’. And threat of homelessness and destitution disciplines the working poor themselves. This is the trajectory the Conservatives would take us down.

But arguably in the name of fairness there must be a ‘structural correction’ for low-paid workers at some time or another. This may have a small, temporary impact on inflation; but it is necessary if the most exploited are to survive in dignity and make ends meet. The prosperity of high and middle income earners cannot be based upon the exploitation of a class of working poor.

Also there are other ways of dealing with inflation. Raising taxation (for those who can afford it) could take the heat out of the economy without depending on the working poor to pay the price. This is a better, fairer way of dealing with inflation. But some inflation is inevitable on account of international factors; and we should share the burden of dealing with this across society and economy.

At the end of the day an even larger correction is justified. That is: to restore labour’s share of the economy, and the grow the social wage and welfare state to support all Australians. This is necessary as some problems are best faced collectively; and also the labour market will never deliver full distributive justice to all workers. All workers deserve support; including those who find it hard to organise; or who face structural constraints to wage increases. Because of the way the Australian economy is now structured all this is no easy task. The process could begin with claims for collective capital share in lieu of greatly increased wage levels. This is a process that could be led by unions; who could target areas that are not overly susceptible to capital flight. Also low-paid workers could be assisted by a rescission of secondary boycott bans where secondary boycotts are taken by well-organised workers in support of workers with little bargaining power; and where such action can be shown to be being taken in good faith.

Albanese has promised action on wages. But even committing to matching inflation does not compensate for falling wages over the course of the last decade and more. Though Labor’s housing policy – which involves the government taking up to 40 per cent equity in families’ houses – will put home ownership within reach for many who may otherwise have felt the situation hopeless. As interest rates increase the price of properties will probably fall – a ‘double edged sword’ that – while perhaps necessary – will leave many Australians looking poorer on paper.

One area where Albanese has been unequivocal has been his support for a 25 per cent rise in the wages of Aged Care workers. This is one of many areas requiring a ‘structural correction’; both to deliver wage justice; and also to improve care, and retain workers in the industry. Given the taxing and skilled nature of the work there should be a minimum wage of at least $30/hour here. This is more than the existing claim.

In the final analysis the economy makes so much wealth; and the question is one of distribution, as well as higher productivity; and industry policy encouraging high wage industries. Increasing the size of the cake is good – but does not solve all problems. At some point we need to confront the question of who gets what share of the cake; and this will require redistribution. Sometimes it’s possible to have ‘win-win’ – but not always. We cannot become a US style economy where workers are disciplined by fear of destitution; and where the living standards of a so-called ‘middle-class’ depend on the exploitation of the working poor.

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Short-term relief in Budget; but no long-term plan

If Labor delivered a Budget like we’re seeing portrayed from the Coalition Government in Australia the media would proclaim they were ‘irresponsibly’ ‘spending like drunken sailors’. But when the Conservatives are trying to revive their electoral fortunes the Melbourne Herald-Sun proclaimed “Hip Pocket Rocket” and “Millions Win”. In fact this is a Budget that effectively increases tax over the medium and long-term, however. And much of the much-mooted ‘generosity’ is illusory. More on that later.

Fuel excise will be cut with an anticipated 22c per litre drop in petrol prices. Also, interestingly the Government points to low unemployment; which is largely because of stimulus created by JobKeeper – albeit badly targeted stimulus. Does this mean they’ll admit they’re wrong on contractionary Budgets more broadly? Probably not. Wage subsidies, tax offsets and cash payments figure significantly (for instance a once-off $250 payment for pensioners); but over the longer term this will not properly compensate stagnating wages and depressed pension and JobSeeker payments. Indexation of pensions will continue, but this is merely ‘treading water’. By default pensions increase as a proportion of average wages; which means if inflation continues to grow it may continue to outstrip pension indexation.

Frydenberg believes low unemployment will drive wages. This is possible because there is reduced supply relative to demand. But there are no guarantees: Without strong labour organisation and leadership form Fair Work Australia stagnation could well continue. And wage growth will probably not keep pace with inflation. In any case the Coalition are lukewarm on wages; and are just trying to weaken Labor’s narrative. There will also be a $10 billion investment in the Australian Signals Directorate over 10 years, but there is little in the way of new initiatives in aged care, education or child care for instance (except for some subsidies for initial study in aged care). Previously announced improvements to aged care funding will continue, but this is but a fraction of what was demanded by the Royal Commission.

The Conservatives have had their chance to respond to the Aged Care Royal Commission and are doing not nearly enough. We need to know that Labor will commit the necessary resources to implement quotas – which means more time on washing and dressing, more individual attention with feeding, and more time to interact and get to know residents. Also, Labor needs to put a registered nurse in every home 24/7; improve wages and conditions for all workers (min $30/hour); and implement quality of life and happiness benchmarks that go beyond the basics to deliver happiness and quality of life as much as possible. All residents also need access to pleasant surrounds such as gardens, and more to do than be sat in front of a television in a common room all day. Also prompt at home care for all who have the need and meet requirements with minimal waiting time. And phase out the user pays model by providing for high quality public, and subsidised not-for-profit and community based care. This will require several billion in new funding.

In the Budget there will be over $350 million in subsidies for apprentices and employers will be rewarded with $120 for every $100 spent training their workforce and other incentives for investment in technology.

Encouragingly, pensioners will gain on the medicine front; with the number of scripts necessary before the ‘safety net’ kicks in reduced by twelve. While a relatively small measure this is perhaps the most progressive announcement made by the government here.

Over $800 million will address ‘telecommunications blackspots’; while there will be a $480 public investment in NBN speed and reliability. This is necessary because the NBN was never done properly by the Conservatives in the first place. $600 million will support growth in agriculture, while $3.7 billion will fund faster regional rail. Subsidies will also support regional manufacturing; including the development of export markets.

Schemes will continue which enable 50,000 first home buyers to enter the market with a 5 per cent deposit. But there is little for public, social or affordable housing – which could be crucial in any attempt to make housing more affordable by increasing affordable supply. The government’s policies do not address the fact that increasing interest rates could provide a massive shock to personal and household budgets, sending mortgage repayments skyrocketing. This could lead to another financial crisis and a recession.

Importantly many of the cash payments benefiting low and middle income Australians will be a short-term splurge; designed to win an election. Improvements for low income earners and pensions will not be sustained over the long term. Indeed, while it will be increased for its final year, the low- and middle-income earner tax offset will be phased out in the following year and onwards; hitting low and middle income earners hard over the longer term. Long after the short-term handouts fade into memory this could cost low income earners $700 a year. Somehow most of the mainstream media didn’t see fit to mention this. So in fact this is a ‘smoke and mirrors’ Budget that tries to convince us of its generosity while hitting us hard into the future. It is no accident that low and middle income earners will be hit, while tax cuts for the wealthy will be pushed through.

Overall, this budget provides a boost over the short term, but does little to address cost of living over the longer term; and leaves wages ‘to the market’. Structural improvements are necessary for JobSeeker and pensions. And the tax system needs to be adjusted to benefit low- and middle-income earners relative to high income earners and the wealthy more generally. Means tests could be eased, also, to make it more attractive for disability pensioners to enter the workforce; and more could be done to help those people gain experience to ameliorate gaps in resumés.

Again, the Budget delivers some relief over the short-term but does little long-term about poverty, wages stagnation, and cost of living pressures. Labor needs to do much better on aged care, public and social housing, progressive tax system restructure, structural increases to pensions, and initiatives to get disabled Australians into fulfilling work – with an easing of means tests for fairness. Medicare dental could also feature, and Labor could begin the process of winding back user pays in education by reducing student debts and significantly increasing debt repayment thresholds. Victoria is also significantly short-changed on infrastructure; and the government will have to find money from elsewhere to pay for transport infrastructure, especially roads. Some problems never seem to go away; such as state school class sizes and over-worked teachers. But this seems to have ‘slipped off the radar’ in recent years.

Labor needs a long-term plan, with immediate reforms that are ‘locked in’ and hard to reverse. This Budget will convince some; but over the longer term so many questions remain unanswered.

 

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Albanese needs to ‘Step up to the Plate’ and not avoid debate on Aged Care, Health and Welfare Reform

Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has come under fire from the Conservative Coalition Government for suggesting on the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ program that extra funding may be made available for Aged Care, Health, and perhaps welfare reform. This in a context where billions of subsidies have been provided to businesses due to Covid, and yet many businesses who managed to remain profitable regardless of Covid have simply kept these subsidies provided for them in the form of pure profit. While the Federal Government ruthlessly pursues welfare recipients over any debts incurred (and even some that have turned out to be unreal), corporations enjoy public money without accountability.

The simple fact is that public spending commitments in social services and infrastructure are not necessarily ‘irresponsible’ or ‘wasteful’. Often Government needs to invest in the health and happiness of the people to ensure the best outcomes. What needs to be understood is that social spending is a form of ‘collective consumption’ where we gain a better deal in areas like health by purchasing crucial services more efficiently and collectively as taxpayers, rather than being isolated and fleeced as private consumers. Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme are important examples of collective consumption.

Albanese has spoken of the “habitual buck passing” of the Morrison Government on Aged Care. Failure to attract new workers into the field with fair wages and conditions, and respect for workers; and failure to ensure necessary staffing levels including the presence of Registered Nurses – remain sore points even after the Conservatives’ response to the Aged Care Royal Commission. The training, wages and conditions of Personal Care workers who help many elderly remain in the community are also in need of further funding; and packages must be available to all with the need upon demand; and without cruel waiting queues.

The reality also is that Aged Care reform needs to go beyond the bare essentials to address broader quality of life issues; so that in the future Aged Australians with have access to social engagement; and where those in residential care will enjoy privacy, access to information technology, access to gardens and pleasant surrounds. They must not just be locked in their rooms or sat down in front of TVs in common rooms all day. Our vulnerable elderly need social engagement. Everything from discussing their lives to enjoying games, listening to music, or discussing the issues of the day. Dementia training is also essential to ensure the best quality of life to those affected; and those around them. Quality of food also needs to be monitored closely; and without meeting staff quota targets, Aged Care workers will remain rushed in the business of helping to dress and shower residents daily; or may not be able to respond in a timely manner to situations such as where sheets are soiled. The consequences of under-resourcing have been trauma and suffering for vulnerable aged Australians.

Yes, this will cost billions on top of those limited initiatives already announced. But most of us will grow elderly and frail one day; and even if ourselves we do not experience this, surely we will have family who are affected by a neglected Aged Care sector. Rather than backing down, Albanese needs to ‘step up to the plate’ and confidently put the case for progressive collective consumption of Aged Care; and a much better deal for both ‘consumers’ and for workers in the broader Health sector.

There will also be a significant backlog in waiting lists for supposedly ‘elective’ hospital procedures thanks to the pressure Covid has placed the health system under. This was already a crisis; but has been significantly magnified with Covid. Medicare needs to be extended into dental, optical and prosthetics; but the broader health system needs to be expanded to ensure timely care, breadth of coverage and quality of care.

Australian of the Year, tennis star Dylan Alcott has also highlighted the high unemployment levels (over 50 per cent) for disabled Australians. The focus here was mainly on those with physical disability ; but exclusion from the labour market also applies to those with psycho-social disabilities. Exclusion is a vicious circle which needs to be broken. Sometimes it goes on for years. Often it is permanent. Government needs to intervene directly to provide opportunity for all; and employment needs to be made more viable by lessening means tests for Pensioners in the workforce. Also there need to be viable career paths, and not merely ‘dead end jobs’.

Importantly, Labor needs to pitch to ‘average’ workers as well. Labor needs to pitch to the majority to enjoy electoral success; and provision for equity groups alone will not win government. Delivering wage gains and improving the bargaining position of average workers in the labour market is important here. As is a restructuring of the broader tax system: delivering distributive justice outcomes not only for the most vulnerable, but also the majority of workers. Further; improvement of the Aged Pension could act as a ‘bridge’ which enhances the case for reform of other pensions. Labor needs to build a ‘bloc’ based on solidarity and mutual recognition rather than allowing the Coalition to ‘Divide and Rule’ – which so often has been the case.

So come on, Albo, ‘step up to the plate’. A ‘small target’ can take us so far; but as the campaign progresses voters will want a clearer sense of what Labor is going to do. Labor will need to have answers. And it must not ‘back itself into a corner’ where it cannot deliver significantly to its constituents. Early signs suggest some hope.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Rejecting the Cashless Welfare Card a Good Start for Labor; but further cultural change necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

 

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Labor Retreats on the Principle of Progressive Taxation

Last month Anthony Albanese announced that not only was Labor backing away from contentious reform of Negative Gearing and Capital Gains tax; it was also prepared to back income tax cuts for the wealthy; such that Australia will drift towards a flat and regressive tax regime with Labor’s implicit consent. As Greg Jericho writes for The Guardian, Labor is supporting the entrenchment of a tax regime which will see those on below-median and below average wages effectively paying the same rates of tax as income earners between $120,000 and $200,000.

Rob Harris – writing for the Sydney Morning Herald – explains that these tax ‘reforms’ will cost the Budget “an estimated $137 billion” over their first six years. Specifically, the 37 per cent tax rate will be abolished and a 30 per cent rate will apply to all income between $45,000 and $200,000. This will occur at a time where ordinary Australian workers will need to service the massive debt induced because of Covid wage subsidies and other subsidies for business. Those subsidies were (and at the time of writing still are) necessary; but the debt should not be serviced in a regressive fashion which affects those least able to pay. And because those on lower incomes spend a greater proportion of their incomes, policies which impact negatively upon them will be ‘bad for the economy’ as well.

Yes, there is a very small minority of wage labourers and others earning over $100,000 a year. Maybe ten per cent. But because of their relative privilege parts of this ‘labour aristocracy’ can be inclined to support economically-Liberal distributive taxation policies which minimise redistribution. The vast majority of wage labourers and vulnerable Australians will not benefit from this policy. In fact, the scope will be also reduced for improvement of social security and the social wage. Labor will be restricted in its capacity to deliver reform of Social Security, Medicare, the NDIS, public and social housing, Aged Care. In the field of social security, easing means testing of recipients with partners could also remove a perverse incentive for disabled Australians to shun relationships because ‘they cannot afford not to be alone.’ Reform of the Jobseeker Allowance (previously ‘Newstart’) is also long overdue and widely accepted.

With Aged Care, Labor is committed to staff ratios; but to provide this without regressive user pays mechanisms the funding needs to come from somewhere else. Either reform will be funded progressively or regressively; or otherwise (even after the Aged Care Royal Commission) it will not happen at all. After the Royal Commission findings; which identified gross structural neglect of Aged Australians receiving care; this would be a damning indictment of the major political parties in Australia who failed to mobilise public opinion around reform even after the shortcomings of the system were laid bare for all to see. It is not too late to embrace a progressively structured ‘National Aged Care Insurance Levy’ to fund reform of Aged Care in this country.

True, Labor is also intending to reform labour market regulation; but that in itself will not make up for the distributive consequences of this policy. It will be a case of ‘one step forwards, two steps back’ for Labor where nothing can make up for capitulation on the principles of progressive taxation and redistribution in the most basic sense. Nonetheless if reform of labour market regulation is strong enough it could still make a difference. Specifically minimum wage rates need to increase significantly; as well as Award rates for struggling workers – many of whom work in feminised professions such as Aged Care. Teachers – many of whom also already work unacceptable levels of unpaid overtime – could also do with improved wages and conditions; and this is essential to attract and maintain the most capable practitioners in the system.

Talk of ‘aspiration’ clouds the fact that Labor’s new tax policy will favour the top ten per cent at the expense of everyone else. There was a time when radicals would have seen talk of ‘aspiration’ as a kind of ‘false consciousness.’ But today Labor is so afraid of the ‘class warfare’ label that it shuns policies that impact even modestly on the top 10 per cent and in favour of everyone else. Yet ‘flat taxation’ itself is in fact a kind of ‘class warfare’ against the vast majority of working people.

The fact is that in the last election Labor had strong but reasonable tax policies; but failed to sell and explain those measures at crucial conjunctures. Chris Bowen said those who didn’t like Labor’s tax policies shouldn’t vote Labor. And when many voters failed to grasp Labor’s policies that is exactly what they did. Furthermore, in the final days of the election campaign – with Bob Hawke’s death – Bill Shorten came across as flat, unconvincing and unemotional. Despite his commendable work on the NDIS; and the credit for embracing progressive tax policies in the first place – this fact remains.

Conclusions to the effect ‘it is impossible to sell tax reform’ neglect the fact that Labor failed tactically in mobilising public opinion. Some Labor figures are reacting defensively to criticisms from the Greens to the effect that Labor is supporting a drift towards flat taxation. But while the Greens can afford to be more radical because they depend on a narrower electoral base, that does not change the fact that Labor is capitulating on the most basic social democratic principles. It does not change the fact that we are failing to sell policies that are objectively in the interests of the majority of Australians.

Again: where a bipartisan consensus on radically-regressive tax restructure is conceded, even where Labor does win with such a Platform it is probably a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back.’ Progressives have to actually deliver progress if they are to be seen as credible. At the moment the best hope now is a National Aged Care Insurance Levy, and strong labour market reform. Here’s hoping Labor ‘finds its way’ between now and the election.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Disability Pensions in Australia: Where entering into a Relationship can be a Poverty Sentence

It is generally quite difficult to obtain a Disability Support Pension (DSP) in Australia. There are job capacity and impairment tests; and many who are significantly impaired miss out. But there is another problem that has been neglected in most debates: Pensioners generally are assessed differently if they have a partner. The consequence of this is that there is a perverse incentive for pensioners not to enter into a relationship or marry. With the DSP there can be a loss of income of around $200 a fortnight as a consequence of entering a relationship or getting married. If the partner has a high income that is one thing, but many such couples could both be on low incomes or welfare. Also, even if a person’s partner has a higher income, there is a problem with reinforcing dependence: with inhibiting the independence of Disability and other Pensioners. When combined with other government measures: such as running a trial of the Indue Cashless Debit Card, or attempting to claw back money from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it is clear we have a government which is trying to implement austerity aimed at the most vulnerable.

The bottom line is that these arrangements condemn hundreds of thousands of disabled Australians to probable isolation and loneliness; where they must fear the financial consequences of having relationships.

At the same time, Medicare is under attack. Labor MP in Bendigo, Victoria, Lisa Chesters has observed how recent cuts to Medicare will “radically alter the cost of hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgery items.” As Chesters explained: “Patients now face the prospect of life-changing surgeries being cancelled at the last minute or being landed with huge bills they didn’t expect.” And yet these matters have received very little attention in the mainstream media.

We need a Labor Opposition which defends Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). But we also need a Labor opposition which goes beyond the strictly defensive; and comes up with innovative and ground-breaking measures to extend the social wage and welfare state; along with legislated wage increases for those on low incomes.

This would inevitably involve tax reform. Ideally Labor should be aiming to reform progressive tax to the tune of 5% of GDP over 10 years, or at least three terms of Federal Government. This would bring us closer to OECD average levels of tax and social expenditure. Rolling back unfair means testing of pensions – including Disability Pensions – would empower hundreds of thousands of women and men with greater independence; and if we are concerned about equity we need to reform tax in other areas for people with higher incomes. It would also empower those people to enter into relationships without fear of destitution. Eligibility tests should also be relaxed so those incapable of full time work are not threatened with exclusion.

The ‘LIFE’ (Living Incomes for Everyone) campaign is demanding a minimum $550 a week for all. This would mean a great deal for job-seekers living in poverty, especially if combined with other measures like investment in public housing. Effectively it would mean a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). Disability pensions specifically should increase further – by at least $150/fortnight in any case – rising to about $1100/fortnight.

No-one should be in the position of having to say they ‘cannot afford to enter into a relationship’. The NDIS, despite its faults, was a big step forward for disabled Australians. Instead of panicking over the cost we need to accept that providing services for these people meets what is perhaps the most defensible socialist principle: that each should contribute what they can, and receive what they need. This principle needs to become a society-wide ‘common sense’ so that they are accepted even by many Conservatives; as for instance occurred with the issue of Marriage Equality for those in the LGBTIQA communities. But ironically there is no real ‘marriage equality’ for all if some need fear being thrown into poverty should they enter a relationship.

Progressives need to agitate to make this a real issue in the upcoming Federal Election. The advocacy of Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten was crucial for the initial implementation of the NDIS. The NDIS is not perfect, but is a vast improvement on the vacuum that existed beforehand. Now we need additional policy champions within the ALP agitating to take the reform process further. The Labor Aged-Care and Welfare Movement (LAWM) has adopted this as one of its objectives. But we need more avowed Labor members to join our ALP Socialist Left Forum Facebook group; and to advocate for change. Much as has happened with Rainbow Labor, Emily’s List, Labor for Refugees, and LEAN (Labor Environmental Action Network). Currently LAWM exists at the level of Facebook; but over the long term we want to achieve much more. If you’re a Labor member and haven’t joined LAWM yet, please do so. And for Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard and others: Please take up this cause and make it an issue for the upcoming Federal Election.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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Government does not go far enough on Aged Care reform, while Labor is too-light on the details

The recent Budget announcements are a mixed bag for Aged Care. They represent a step in the right direction; but much is still left to be done. Specifically, the Budget outlines an extra $17.7 billion over five years in new funding; but with an upwards trajectory. This is intended to provide an additional 80,000 home care packages over two years, while increasing the Basic Daily Fee by $10 a day. This will provide for things such as better food. And average staffing levels will increase, with 200 minutes of personal attention allowed for, and with 40 minutes of this with a registered nurse. By comparison, the Royal Commission concluded that residents require at least 215 minutes of personalised care a day (including 44 minutes with a registered nurse). And while the Budget initiatives will see an increase in the numbers of Aged Care workers attaining a Certificate III qualification, they have stopped short of mandating this as a minimum standard.

The Conversation concludes that while the changes, including a new Aged Care act in 2023, are significant, they stop short of the ‘needs based’ model demanded by the Royal Commission. We still need minimum staffing ratios. Mandated personal time with staff needs to go further. To attract and keep the best workers we need significantly better wages and conditions for all staff. A landmark improvement in wages of at least 20 per cent, and end casualisation for those who prefer part-time or full-time work. This is also a matter of fairness in relation to the demanding nature of the work. We require more workers with a Certificate IV minimum. We need as many workers as possible with a Certificate IV, and none with less than a Certificate III. What’s more we want better standards without falling back on user pays to provide for this. In Paul Keating’s words, we don’t want people to have to ‘eat their house’ and die broke. This also requires an improvement in the Aged Pension, with an easing of means tests. And we need to provide for a waiting list of around 100,000 for at home care. We also need stringent regulation to ensure new funding goes entirely towards staff, infrastructure and services, and not profit margins.

There’s also the problem of Aged Care homes being ‘warehouses for old people’. People are just sat down in a common room in front of a television all day. Tied funding needs to be provided for facilitated interaction; outings for those interested and capable; visits, gardens and access to a variety of books and information technology; as well as interesting and engaging activities. Once everything is accounted for, we’re looking at something more like a minimum of $10 billion new funding every year indexed to account for rising costs and inflation. This is necessary just to make up for the money withdrawn from the system in the form of ‘efficiency dividends’ over the past 20 years. The public sector also needs to take more responsibility, with more public investment in aged care facilities. For profit aged care does not have the interests of residents at heart, and even not-for-profits can be prone to diverting funds for expansion.

But by comparison Labor has made little in the way of monetary commitments in its Budget Reply. Nonetheless it’s true, Albanese has hinted at ratios. He argued that; “a Labor Government will deliver that care by ensuring that every dollar spent in aged care goes to employing a guaranteed minimum level of nurses, assistants and carers and to daily needs like decent food – rather than into the pockets of the more unscrupulous providers.” This includes a registered nurse on site 24/7. And a commitment to levels of personalised care recommended by the Royal Commission. He backs the Royal Commission findings; though he does not commit in areas where there was disagreement, such as funding. Albanese also mentions issues like the wages and conditions of staff, which the Liberals did not even touch upon. The bottom line is that while Labor is saying some good things, it needs to commit on funding. And that funding mechanism should be as progressive as possible. For a start, tax cuts for the well-off need to be stopped or reversed. It needs to provide at least twice the monetary commitment made by the Conservative Government in Aged Care; or at least an additional $10 billion a year. And that funding needs to kick in as a matter of urgency, as soon as possible.

Albanese is also highlighting Labor’s ambitious childcare policy, as well as its high-tech industry policy, an emphasis on wages, and a big commitment to social housing – with 20,000 new social housing dwellings, including 4,000 places for women and families escaping domestic violence. There is no explanation how wages will be driven upwards however, or why social housing is thought preferable to public housing. After all, public housing would ultimately be more affordable for recipients. If the Fair Work Commission will not lift Aged Care workers’ wages significantly enough Labor needs to intervene more directly. And the NDIS needs support so recipients are not adversely affected by cost-cutting.

As the Federal election approaches, the issue of revenue and funding will become unavoidable. A ‘small target’ will not suffice when people are demanding details. An Aged Care Levy could be progressively structured and would probably be relatively popular if linked directly with Aged Care funding. The Coalition has been driven by the findings of the Aged Care Royal Commission to go further than it is probably comfortable with. But Labor needs to go further still if it is to address the findings of that Commission, and clearly distinguish a superior policy from that of the Coalition.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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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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