What follows are another series of Left-inclined ‘Letters to the Editor’ sent to ‘The Age’, ‘The Australian’ and ‘The Herald-Sun’ between July and November 2017. Subjects include everything from ‘Cultural Marxism’ to ‘Bracket Creep’ and the Australian Welfare System.
PLS feel welcome to discuss.
Only a few of the Letters were Published ; but I’m hoping consideration of the content here will justify the effort put in to writing the material. 🙂
by Dr Tristan Ewins
Capitalism and the Threat of Destitution
David Penberthy writes as if homelessness and destitution have nothing to do with capitalism. (Activists no help to the homeless, 13/8/17) Unfortunately this is not the reality. Under capitalism most people do not own significant stakes in businesses themselves. They have no choice but to sell their labour power to capitalists in order to survive. In this system average workers can be ‘disciplined’ (kept in line) by the threat of sinking into a class of working poor. And the working poor in turn are ‘disciplined’ by the threat of destitution ; sinking into an underclass of destitute and homeless. This is actually functional for capitalists seeking to depress wages and conditions. The situation is further worsened by ‘punitive welfare’. Benefits are low ; often below that sufficient for subsistence. (scraping by) Savings must be exhausted to acquire Newstart. Workers’ bargaining power evaporates under these circumstances. Also emergency housing, welfare and so on cost money. But even Labor governments are continually under pressure to deal harshly with the unemployed ; to cut spending in order to make room for corporate tax cuts and so on. And attempts to ameliorate the condition of those affected is branded “class warfare”.
What are Shorten’s Tax Plans in Reality?
The Herald-Sun is waging a campaign against what it argues will be an increased tax regime under Bill Shorten. But so far Shorten’s proposals are in fact too modest. Reform of Trusts will bring in maybe one sixteenth of one per cent of GDP. (approximately $1 billion a year out of $1.6 trillion) Negative gearing reforms will bring in a similar amount. Contra the Herald-Sun, these reforms will tend to bypass low to middle income earners. Apart from this the Herald-Sun is emphasising Shorten’s resolve not to deliver Turnbull’s $65 billion corporate tax cut over 10 years. The problem is that when you cut taxes this way it has to be made up for somewhere. So corporations get a windfall – but Medicare might be ransacked for cash. To get a sense of proportion – it would take perhaps $400 billion in new taxes to bring in enough money to pay for a Swedish-style welfare state! But if Shorten devoted an additional 2% of the economy ($32 billion) in a first term to reform of Health, Aged Care, Education and Social Security – surely that would be a reasonable measure from which most people would benefit.
Bolt’s Double Standards on Liberties
Andrew Bolt (August 24th) argues against what he says is a ‘totalitarian’ Left. But if Bolt is to adopt the cause of liberal rights let him do so without hypocrisy. Let’s see if Bolt is willing to support rights of speech, association and assembly – without punitive laws, and without the dispersion, vilification and criminalisation of protest movements such as that once associated with the “We are the 99 per cent” cause, occupations against homelessness and so on. Once the consensus on liberal rights breaks down everyone is potentially at risk. Both Left and Right need to avoid double standards on liberal rights ; and that includes “celebrities” such as Andrew Bolt. Meanwhile attempts to shut down councils wanting to change the date of Australia Day celebrations – suggests a Federal Government which is not serious about reconciliation with Indigenous Australia.
Refuting Bolt on Welfare
The Herald-Sun (27/8) editorialises that “Welfare is Not a Right” and advocates a crackdown against the unemployed especially. But at the same time provides scant room for the expression of the contrary view: that Australia already has one of the most punitive and austere unemployment regimes in the developed world. Instead, the Herald-Sun ought argue for the kind of labour market and industry policy regimes that exist in Denmark. This requires many billions to work ; but the returns in terms of the creation of more high-wage jobs – pitched to workers’ skill sets – makes it a price worth paying. Meanwhile Newstart could do to be increased by a minimum $1000/year, indexed. Job-seekers who cannot even afford transport, decent clothes or internet already have little chance of finding work. Newstart provisions (introduced under the Turnbull Liberals) forcing job-seekers to exhaust much if not all of their savings before receiving support also need reconsideration. Where’s the incentive to save when losing your job could cost you everything?
Labor’s Modest Tax Agenda
Chris Bowen is laughing off claims by Scott Morrison that Bill Shorten is promoting a ‘socialist’ agenda. In reality, Bill Shorten is talking about very moderate tax reforms that so-far will struggle to raise $4 billion a year. Or roughly one quarter of one per cent of GDP. But there’s a problem with such suggestions being “laughable” as well. And that Labor has come to depend on such claims being laughable. Certainly Labor are not outwardly democratic socialists. That applies probably to most Labor MPs ‘internally’ as well. But the Libs win by default if Labor is too scared to talk about democratic socialism, redistribution, economic democracy, social wage and welfare reform, industrial rights, public ownership and so on. For instance, Labor should be aiming to match the OECD average on tax (roughly 34% of GDP) and associated social expenditure over several terms. In order to fund reform of education, health, aged care, infrastructure, welfare and so forth. If Labor ‘wins’ on the Liberals’ terms then the Liberals win anyway – through Labor’s internalisation of their economic and social assumptions and values. Even if Labor achieves government, under those circumstances Labor (and the people Labor represent) lose.
The Truth about the ‘Luddites’ has Lessons for us Today
Rosemary Tyler (Letters, 10/9) mentions the ‘Luddites’ and their response to the Industrial Revolution, comparing them to those who resist Clean Energy today. But there are important differences. The Luddites were not just ‘mindless wreckers of Progress’. They were largely skilled crafts-people who were resisting ‘proletarianisation’ and the de-skilling of their industries. They were forced from their homes ; compelled to be wage slaves in dangerous factories ; reduced to bare material subsistence; compelled to suffer 12 hour days and worse. They lost creative control over their labours and their labour’s products. The capitalism of the Industrial Revolution created a foundation for economic and scientific progress ; but it often came at a terrible cost. Today, also, modern capitalism rests upon the brutal exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies such as in Bangladesh ; but also often the exploitation of working poor within the ‘first world’ itself. Privatisation is arguably the main driver of the current energy-affordability crisis ; But if re-socialisation is not considered an option (it should be!), other measures must be taken to ‘immunise’ low income workers and pensioners during the transition to renewables and beyond.
Turnbull ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ on Energy
David Ingliss (Letters, 25/9) writes that the “electricity crisis” is the result of “rabid Green ideology”. Let’s get some things straight, though. The current Conservative Government has had years to prepare for the closure of coal-fired plants such as Hazelwood. It’s Turnbull who has been “asleep at the wheel”. Also global warming is not an “Ideology” ; it’s a scientifically-verified environmental crisis and not necessarily to do with political values. Hence our response SHOULD be bipartisan. Further, if energy had not already been privatised the decision on what to do with the old energy infrastructure (and when) would have been the choice of governments. Instead it’s out of our hands. If we had kept the old SECV which Ingliss refers to in public ownership arguably energy would be cheaper, and battlers would receive cross-subsidies. Instead privatised or corporatized energy production and distribution – combined with shrinking economies of scale (as those who can afford to switch to micro-renewables) – means ‘battlers’ are left with a spiralling cost of living.
Privatisation and Tax Cuts a ‘Two Edged Sword’ at Best
The Herald-Sun (27/9) proclaims the headline “Budget Repair: Nation $4.4 billion better off”. And Scott Morrison has been boasting the Coalition Governments ‘success’ in bringing government spending down to 25% of GDP. But do lower levels of government expenditure on services, infrastructure, and social security really improve our ‘national well-being’? By contrast government spending in Sweden is at approximately 52% of GDP. (A $400 billion difference if translated proportionately to the Australian context) The difference is that in this country we have User Pays in everything from Aged Care to Higher Education – which hits those on lower incomes especially hard. While the Conservatives provide ‘corporate welfare’ with tax cuts valued at about $60 billion over a decade, we treat the unemployed like criminals and allow barely enough (or not enough) for them to subsist and effective search for work. We neglect state education by comparison ; and we are forced to opt for private provision of infrastructure – which ends up costing consumers AND business more in the end.
Coal Seam Gas a Risk
The Herald-Sun (27/9) editorialises “Drop ideology and drill” : directing its attention squarely at Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews. But Coal Seam Gas drilling has extreme risks – such as water contamination and contamination of land. These risks have nothing to do with “ideology” ; and neither does the need to reduce carbon emissions in the face of a virtual scientific consensus on global warming. Also energy plants like Hazelwood have shut down – increasing the risks of an energy shortage – something governments were left with no control over as a consequence of past privatisations. Hazelwood had to close sooner or later : but under public ownership could have continued until the State was ready for the transition. Finally, Australia has ample reserves of gas without resort to coal seam gas (fracking) but the Conservative Government has not properly regulated the industry ; meaning this gas could be exported while at home we experience black-outs. Knowing all this it is Malcolm Turnbull who has been “asleep at the wheel on energy policy” for years ; and now is interested in blame shifting.
The Truth about ‘Cultural Marxism’
In response to Dr Andrew P.Retsas (3/10/17) : while it’s true that Marx has nothing to do with many modern discourses on sexuality, some interpretations (eg: from Engels on ‘The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State) emphasise the potential of communal social solidarity and organisation compared with dependence on the monogamous nuclear family. But the reality is that the vast majority of Marx’s work is to do with the struggles of workers to overcome exploitation and oppressive working conditions ; and enjoy opportunities for personal growth through engagement with philosophy, science, art, music and so on. Critiques of ‘cultural Marxism’ ignore this, and try and use Marx as a ‘bogey’. Marx wants workers’ freed from the oppressive conditions of existence and labour – which in certain ways still prevail today. Some seeing themselves in the Marxist tradition (eg: some from the ‘Frankfurt School’) lost faith in the working class, so instead looked to racial and sexual minorities, students and women. (for instance Herbert Marcuse in ‘One Dimensional Man’ (1964) But the Heart of the original Marxism is still the self-liberation of working people ; and “From each according to ability, to each according to need” as a doctrine of liberation, human solidarity and justice.
Education must Support Democracy
Anthony Gilchrist complains that “the socialist left has…infiltrated the education system” (Herald-Sun, 12/10) . A few points in response. Firstly, education should support democracy. That ought mean political literacy and support for active citizenship. That does not mean ‘indoctrinating’ with one doctrine or another ; but preparing students to make their own free decisions in a democracy in keeping with their interests and their adopted value systems. Socialism has a place here, as do liberalism and conservatism. A strong democracy means pluralism (ie: real choices) and not just ‘convergence politics’. What Gilchrist calls “victim” politics might simply be citizens speaking up for their rights and interests in a democracy. If we never questioned injustices, indigenous Australians and women would never have gained the vote. And workers would never have achieved the 8 hour day.
Stop Vilifying Vulnerable People on Welfare
The Herald-Sun (23/10 ‘Trillion Dollar Handout’) is developing a pattern of effectively vilifying vulnerable people in the context of attacks on Australia’s already threadbare welfare system. In reality the lion’s share of the welfare system is taken by the Aged Pension. (which funnily enough the Herald-Sun rarely talks about) Meanwhile for the vast majority unemployment benefits, disability payments and so on are ‘social insurance’ which ALL of us pay for via our taxes. Instead of vilifying the vulnerable we need an industry policy which actually facilitates the creation of decent jobs. (as opposed to driving the car industry out of the country as the Coalition Government has done) And given activity tests already exist for Newstart there is no excuse not to raise the payment significantly: in part to support people as they search for work ; during which they need access to decent clothes, transport, internet access and so on. Further, if the Herald-Sun wants to break the ‘dependency cycle’ and ‘poverty cycle’ it should agree to greater support for sole parents and low-income families ; and provide greater scope for Disability Pensioners to escape poverty traps by engaging in flexible work without losing a very significant part of their payments via means tests. When those with a serious mental illness are dying on average 25 years younger than other Australians they are not ‘having us on’ or ‘rorting the system’. See: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-09/schizophrenia-lowers-life-expectancy-by-25-years/4680580
All the Usual Complaints from the Right on Socialism
Tom Elliot (27/10) makes all the usual complaints about socialism that you hear from the Right. But what is socialism really meant to be? I wrote my PhD on this topic so I have a clue. The totally-reasonable principle underpinning Marx’s philosophy was ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. What is more Marx believed in achieving abundance and recasting the division of labour so every individual had the opportunity to engage in science, art, philosophy, popular culture and so on. Everyone has the right to personal growth and fulfilment. This – and Marx’s passion for extending democracy across he political and into the economy – is what distinguishes him so clearly from those who abused his name ; using it to justify totalitarian regimes. Countries – such as Sweden and Denmark – who have advanced socialist principles to some extent – have also enjoyed prosperity, equality, full employment and happiness. We need a genuine pluralism in this country where democratic socialism is part of the debate.
More on ‘Cultural Marxism’
Chris Zappone (The Age, 13/11) is right to be critical of the widespread condemnation of ‘cultural Marxism’ by people who don’t really even know what Marxism is. In fact many Marxists were extremely concerned about ‘the cultural turn’ from the 1970s onwards ; with the embrace of ‘identity politics’ and the abandonment of themes of class struggle, economic justice and of the promotion of a democratic socialist economy. On the other hand the intellectual movement began by Adorno, Horkheimer and others was real, and is still real. But it is very diverse ; and attempts to brand it as some ‘homogenous’ entity comprise something of a moral panic. Adorno and Horkheimer especially were despairing of the prospects for socialism in an era of totalitarianism ; but they also critiqued popular culture in the West as a medium of social control. Later critical theorists like Jurgen Habermas were more hopeful ; and Habermas promoted a theory of ‘communicative action’ which supposed a progressive consensus may be possible through dialogue. Contrary to right-wing assumptions about ‘critical theory’ Habermas was decidedly within the Enlightenment tradition.
Kevin Donnelly is Wrong on the English Curriculum
Kevin Donnelly (HS, 16/11) again takes the English curriculum to task, accusing it once more of left-wing bias. But the modern English curriculum is about more than spelling and grammar. It is about communication life skills which empower students, including the critical analysis of texts. This need not involve a bias towards the Left or Right. It is about comprehending and criticising the assumptions beneath texts of both a Left or Right-wing inclination ; and also those which don’t fit within that framework. The modern English curriculum is also about encouraging students to develop and express opinions. Again, this need not involve a prejudice towards the Left or the Right. But it does empower students to make informed commitments on social issues , and to express their associated beliefs effectively. There are some Conservatives (but not all I’d argue) who feel threatened by this.
Tax Cuts, Corporate Welfare and Bracket Creep
The Herald-Sun (20/11) editorialises in favour of tax cuts to compensate for bracket creep. A few points in response. Bracket creep tends to flatten the income tax system over time ; to make it less progressive. But tax cuts emphasising the upper end can also exacerbate this. The most equitable way of dealing with bracket creep is to INDEX the lower thresholds to ensure those on lower and middle incomes don’t end up paying proportionately more. But progressively-sourced increases in tax should not be ruled out. After all, tax is necessary to pay for Medicare, schooling, roads and so on ; and a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme could be funded via progressive tax ; providing for the health, happiness and dignity of older Australians. Certainly sweeping Company Tax cuts amount to ‘corporate welfare’ ; where corporations fail to contribute fairly to the infrastructure and services they benefit from ; and hence everyday taxpayers are made to ‘pick up the tab’.
The ‘Nuances’ of Intersectionality
“Janet Albrechtson (‘The Australian’, 25/11) takes intersectionality theory to task, accusing it of being a cover for a new “racial essentialism”, and probably also suggesting a new sexual essentialism. But as with many schools of theory there are different tendencies. Some are ‘vulgarised’ and some are ‘nuanced’. Some people see categories such as gender and race as “compounding on one another in a simplistic fashion”, where knowledge of which of these categories a person falls in to provides all the information necessary to determine a person’s privilege. And those categories are often prioritised over one another with a kind of ‘arbitrary hierarchy’. Others acknowledge that race, gender (and other factors) can be important contributors to disadvantage and privilege ; but they also acknowledge that many of our experiences and social positioning are individual and unique. Hence we should not rush to pre-judge one another. Also, well into the past, Marxist influence in the social sciences saw a prioritisation of class – sometimes to the exclusion of other oppressions. Yet worryingly, and following the example of the US liberal left, today class is widely de-prioritised compared with gender and race. This helps the likes of Trump co-opt great swathes of the US white working class. (‘Divide and Conquer’) A general movement against subordination must promote solidarity, engagement, mutual recognition and mutual respect. Though it must not ‘paper-over’ oppression in the name of liberal-bourgeois Ideology either.”