Thursday, September 3, 2015

QandA's Virtues and Vices - and the self-censoring of the Left

Above:  Tony Jones  is the most talented candidate for hosting QandA ; But he has appeared obviously uncomfortable in the wake of Conservative pressures to exclude Left-wing and other critical opinions
Despite the continual carping on by the Conservatives in this country – to the effect that the ABC harbours ‘an ‘obvious’ left-wing bias’ – I have come to fear that rather the opposite is becoming true.  Programs like ‘The Drum’ seem increasingly slanted towards having Conservative or right-libertarian viewpoints at the core of their programs.  Pluralism is certainly no bad thing. But the impression I get is that radical-Left viewpoints are often excluded.  (though I am relieved when I see figures like Australia Institute spokesperson Richard Denniss included on the ABC) 
The most recent example of the QandA broadcast from the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” was perhaps an exception to the trend of silencing radical perspectives – and one that had host Tony Jones appearing very nervous and uncomfortable. Naomi Klein’s confident and powerful presentation of genuinely radical viewpoints – including opposition to the detention of refugees, and her arguments for Western responsibility in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis – certainly would not have pleased Abbott.  Nor would have her fluent, articulate and effective critique of capitalism.  Jones’ absence from recent QandA programs perhaps hammers home the point that ‘the show might go on without him’.  Though he is arguably still be most talented and competent candidate for the job.

‘QandA’ especially has been ‘under siege’ for years now; with the assault picking up substantially over recent months.  QandA has a long history of supporting pluralism in the sense of including left-of-centre viewpoints neglected in much of the monopoly mass media.  This is what Abbott cannot stand.  We have a Government which doesn’t really believe in democracy and pluralism at all.  It wants to shut-down and silence opposition where-ever possible.  Not just the media, but for instance charities who dare to engage in political criticism as well.   And of course the age-old aim of ‘smashing’ the trade union movement and leaving all working people vulnerable to the whims and agendas of employers.  A country without an effective labour movement probably would not have identified the threat of ‘WorkChoices’ until it was too late.  WorkChoices is not 'buried and cremated'.  It has been locked away to be redeployed some day when peoples' memories have faded; and the labour movement has become too organisationally weak to mobilise public opinion effectively.

At the same time decidedly Left-wing participants such as Van Badham and Billy Bragg have appeared quite uncomfortable.  (well, that is my strong impression)  And I would suggest that this is because such participants have been under pressure ‘not to come across as being overtly radical’ lest they ‘play into Abbott’s hands’.  
(Van Badham responds that she only felt under pressure because she was 'the token Lefty’, and that the only censorship was a ban on swearing ; though there remains the question why with Billy Bragg’s appearance there was very little in the way of discussing socialist politics) Yet if we consistently self-censor for fear of a Conservative fear-campaign we largely concede the field to our enemies. 

Yes QandA should be ‘balanced’.  In the sense that it should include Left, Centre-Left, Centrist, Conservative, liberal, and even libertarian viewpoints.  Even if the ideal of a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ (Habermas) is impossible to realise perfectly – that’s not to say we shouldn’t quest after that ideal.  But once we understand that Abbott’s agenda is not about ‘balance’ – but rather about SILENCING opposition – we should appreciate how futile it is to adopt a policy of appeasing him.

Furthermore on this theme: The ‘Zaky Mallah’ incident was blown grossly out of proportion.  It was run with as a weapon with which to bludgeon the program into compliance.  While his (Mallah’s) sympathies may not be ours, nonetheless the observation that anti-Islamic rhetoric was contributing to ‘radicalisation’ was not far off the mark.  The fear campaign  - a ‘moral panic’ that was whipped up in the aftermath of his comments - was ridiculous. 

We have a government who are basically pursuing the aim of transforming the ABC into a State propaganda mouthpiece.  No longer about facilitating a diverse and participatory public sphere, the government wants an ABC which proclaims the position of ‘Team Australia’ – so-called. 

Here dissidents are considered traitors – and considered guilty of some ‘treason’.  Pluralism is to be ‘stamped out’.  In reality the dissidents who defend rights and liberties against the reactionary push to stigmatise and delegitimise them  could be seen as the real ‘patriots’.  We see it in the mass media all the time now: consistently unfavourable coverage of protests, strikes etc.  And I don’t mean that the dissidents are ‘patriots in some jingoistic sense.’   But in the sense of defending that which perhaps is most worth celebrating and defending in this country.

Finally, the recent Tweet on QandA that subjected Abbott to vile innuendo did nothing for the cause of defending free and inclusive speech, as well as genuine pluralism – through the platform of the ABC.  We cannot ‘vacate  the field’ when it comes to values, legitimate interests and policy.   But we must not allow blatant ‘provocations’ that will probably just ‘blow up in our collective faces’.

Perhaps the Left would be stronger, here, were we less ambiguous when it comes to free speech.  The Conservatives talk about liberty when it comes to Andrew Bolt’s speech.   But they want to delegitimise industrial liberties as well as free assembly and civil disobedience -  with an eye to crushing the social forces they oppose themselves to.   Yet when George Brandis talks about ‘peoples’ right to be bigots’ – as anti-intuitive as this may be ; and as dangerous it is to ‘let that Genie out of the bottle’ – there are real questions about the boundaries of free speech.  The tighter we limit free speech the more likely it is that our enemies will apply those standards to us as well one day.  The Americans turned free speech into an absolute by making it a foundational element in their very Constitution ; and the associated ‘foundational myths’.  This can create a free-for all for bigots on the one hand.  But it can provide a shield for civil liberties and expression as well. 

Perhaps we need to be more reserved when it comes to limiting speech.  True hate speech and morally vile examples such as Holocaust denial – which one day could result in history repeating itself – are exceptions.  Let Andrew Bolt have his rights.  But remind him that we do not all have the platforms that he enjoys.  Remind him that genuine pluralism demands a more diverse array of viewpoints in the mass media.  Including the Murdoch Press.  Remind him that progressive viewpoints are systematically excluded in so much of the monopoly mass media – and especially the Murdoch Press which dominates the highly-influential tabloid market.  

For freedom of speech to be more meaningful it needs to be accompanied by OPPORTUNITY for speech.  That must mean a participatory public sphere.  But also it should mean reform of our educational curriculum with the aim of developing peoples critical faculties – including political literacy.  That is:  Not some one-sided indoctrination process; but rather encouraging people to be active and informed citizens ; empowered to make informed choices in keeping with the interests – but also their values.

Let’s defend a pluralist and critical agenda for QandA – serving as a platform for an inclusive participatory democracy.  But let’s not get in the habit of self-censoring ourselves in instances when there are important opinions of substance which deserve to be tested in the public sphere.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Responding to Kim Carr on the ALP's ‘Socialisation Objective’


Above: ALP Socialist Left Senator Kim Carr is right to take NSW Labor leader, Luke Foley to task for rejecting the ALP's 'socialisation objective'; But he is wrong in his apparent rejection on an 'extensive' public sector.

The socialisation objective is about more than nationalisation ; but extensive and strategic social ownership needs to factor into our plans and principles.

Tristan Ewins

In ‘The Age’ on August 9th 2015, Socialist Left Labor Senator Kim Carr provided a statement in defence of the ALP’s standing Socialist Objective.   That includes the ‘socialisation objective’ specifically which (originally in 1921) committed Labor to the following:

‘‘The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other antisocial features in these fields.’’

He also relates how in 1981

“23 explanatory subparagraphs were added to it. These set out goals such as full employment, the abolition of poverty, a more equal distribution of wealth and the elimination of exploitation in the home.”

Carr places himself at odds with NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley – for whom the socialisation objective was ‘confusing’.   Foley was beginning from the assumption that socialisation means nationalisation – and that those defending it were simply engaging in obfuscation.  For Foley Labor ought ‘say what it means and mean what it says’.   If we are about ending exploitation, then in the Marxist sense this infers the abolition of wage labour.  This is important – as is the question of socialisation interpreted as nationalisation.  And we will come back to this later- to consider why the positions of both Foley and Carr are problematic.

For Kim Carr it is the more-recent explanatory paragraphs which communicate the true essence of the Party’s Socialist Objective.  Further elaboration or reformulation are thus considered not necessary.

Some commentators have argued to the effect that these ‘explanatory paragraphs’ rendered the Objective meaningless anyway.  But before proceeding it is useful to consider specifics.  Hence the following selection from that section of the ALP Platform in question:

"c) Redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the shaping and control of the institutions and relationships which determine their lives.

"d) Maintenance of and support for a competitive non-monopolistic private sector, including small business and farming, controlled and owned by Australians, operating within clear social guidelines and objectives.

"l) Equal access and rights to employment, education, information, technology, housing, health and welfare services, cultural and leisure activities and the law.

"j) The abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity.

"n) Recognition and protection of fundamental political and civil rights, including freedom of expression, the press, assembly, association, conscience and religion; the right to privacy; the protection of the individual from oppression by the state; and democratic reform of the Australian legal system.

"p) Elimination of discrimination and exploitation on the grounds of class, race, sex, sexuality, religion, political affiliation, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, regional location, economic or household status.

"t) Recognition of the need to work towards achieving ecologically sustainable development.

"u) Maintenance of world peace; an independent Australian position in world affairs; the recognition of the right of all nations to self determination and independence; regional and international agreement for arms control and disarmament; the provision of economic and social aid to developing nations; a commitment to resolve international conflicts through the UN; and a recognition of the inalienable right of all people to liberty, equality, democracy and social justice."

Hence the Objective is really quite extensive and substantial, and it does not restrict itself solely to socialisation interpreted as nationalisation. Indeed it could be considered both politically liberal and democratic socialist as well in the sense of advocating universal social rights of citizenship.  The promise of moving towards equality of political and economic power suggests a radically redistributive project, but at the same time there is the important (and realistic) concession in support for a non-monopolistic, competitive private sector. 

This Objective – reformulated in 1981 to be inclusive of both the Party’s Left and Right could be interpreted after the way of Nordic social democracy, with the probable implication of supporting a comprehensive welfare state and social wage; a progressive taxation system; as well as appropriate industrial rights. But there is room for improvement.  Some of these could be spelled out more clearly and overtly. And the significance of socialisation interpreted either as occurring through the public sector – or through a more diverse ‘democratic sector’ including State Aid for co-operative and mutualist enterprise – is not elaborated upon sufficiently.

Kim Carr gives the impression that he believes Foley’s proposed Objective is “tepid” and weak – and could just as easily find a place in the Platform of the Liberal Party.  After all, who today disagrees with the principle of ‘equal opportunity’ – at least openly or ‘in theory’?  Carr gestures towards the true inequality of opportunities that persist under capitalism ; for instance the meaninglessness of any ‘freedom’ of individuals to negotiate terms in the labour market – where the only real strength of workers under these circumstances – their collective solidarity – is progressively undermined and even criminalised.  He argues that this:

“is like saying that a millionaire and a homeless person have the same freedom of choice to sleep under bridges”

And for socialists ‘equal opportunity’ must mean more than ‘meritocracy in the labour market’. As the Objective insists, it must include: “Equal access and rights to employment, education, information, technology, housing, health and welfare services, cultural and leisure activities and the law.”   Socialism implies progress towards the principle of ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Sure, the Liberals make a mockery of ‘equal opportunity’ in practice – supporting privilege in Education, and proposing deregulation where quality of education would depend upon user pays mechanisms which excluded the poor and much of the working class.  Chris Bowen has also gone a bit further, arguing for equality of outcomes in Health.  Bowen’s proposal of a ‘toothless’ National Conference; his apparent opposition to a robust mixed economy; his support for a simpler (ie: in reality less progressive) tax system –  are all disappointing. But support for real equality of opportunity in education, and crucially equality of outcomes in health - comprise a beach-head for something more progressive – and so this common ground should be capitalised upon.

Hence we desperately need to commit to a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme,  Medicare Dental, and ‘closing the gap’ on life expectancy of the mentally ill – ahead of the next Federal election.

Notably: because the Conservatives are progressively abandoning meaningful commitments to political liberty and civil rights, as well as genuine and comprehensive meritocracy through a more accessible and equitable regime of Education – that should not be taken as a signal to simply opportunistically occupy the vacated political space. Aspects of Greens policy have been depicted as ‘extreme’; whereas in reality they are closer to the legacy of Whitlam, say, than we are ourselves often in the ALP today.  We cannot accept these terms of debate ; and we cannot simply move to the Right and allow to Greens alone to occupy that political terrain. The Politics of ‘Convergence on the Centre’ are really self-defeating where it occurs on the terms of our Conservative rivals, and on the terms of an Ideological monopoly mass media.

If we are truly a democratic socialist party we must not only exist for winning elections as an end in itself.  We must be about contesting the very substance of ‘the mainstream’, progressively reshaping the discourse to shift the relative centre to the Left in keeping with our values.  Antonio Gramsci would refer to the formation of a  ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’ – an alliance of forces through which society’s ‘common sense’ is reconstructed as the substance of democratic socialism. Again after Gramsci this could be interpreted as a ‘war of position’ – taken in our own specific circumstances as a process of laying political siege to, and contesting the institutions of civil society and the state. Culminating in the democratisation of the State itself – so that the way is unambiguously open for ‘a democratic path’ to socialism.

Kim Carr concludes his commentary by elaborating on what socialisation means to him.  To establish this we will reproduce some of his closing comments on socialisation:

“It is not about the straw man of extensive public ownership and a centrally planned economy. But it is about public entrepreneurialism, and public investment in the forms of human endeavour that are necessary to build and sustain a democratic, just and technologically advanced society.

Socialisation is about defending a just minimum wage and fair working conditions. It is about the creation and defence of Medicare, the enhancement of a great public education system, and the construction of national infrastructure such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the National Broadband Network.”

While Carr’s support for public education, nation-building infrastructure and ‘public entrepreneurialism’ are encouraging, he himself appears to be conceding substantially to the neo-liberal Ideology.  That is: In the sense of implying support for ‘small government’ through rejection of an “extensive” public sector.   While Foley wants to get rid of the socialisation objective because he rejects any radical connotations, Carr seems to be implying that we sidestep or reject content associated with public ownership – content which could potentially and progressively challenge the current distribution of power and wealth under capitalism. (and hence not acceptable to capitalists)  Though perhaps Carr is open to tax reform, as well as social wage, social insurance and welfare extension – all of which are central components of a democratic socialist agenda of ‘socialisation’.  Here we could do with specifics – and policy ambition.

Few today support a Soviet model of centralised state planning.  But we should not close our eyes to the possibilities of strategically extending the public sector, and engaging in strategic instances of planning.  Neo-liberal Ideology rules out public and democratic sector expansion as well as socialisation interpreted as regulation where ‘the absolutism and prerogatives of capital’ are progressively curtailed.  (see the work of the Swedish social democratic thinker, Nils Karleby) But the old socialist Ideology aspired towards progressive nationalisation – potentially over decades.  In the 1970s socialists like Stuart Holland hoped that the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy would ultimately revert into public hands.  Today, though, we could well embrace the project of a ‘democratic mixed economy’.  

The ‘way forward’ to something along the lines of ‘socialising the commanding heights’ appears to be blocked on account of the dominant Ideology, and also because of the power of Capital to obstruct reform through destabilisation, capital strike, disinformation etc.  Indeed, this can be a corrupting influence upon democracies.  Here, while the sheer political and economic clout of the biggest transnationals is a genuine threat to democracy, working people and citizens nonetheless stand to benefit from job-creating-investment, and as consumers from various innovations in areas ranging from automotive industries to information technology.  While the scale of the transnationals is in some ways threatening – and we need to frankly recognise this - the economies of scale and competition involved can have benefits in these fields. Though there are also other problems (eg: built-in-obsolescence) which might be remediable through some form of regulation.  And global solidarity of labour is necessary to prevent the transnationals from simply exploiting the poorest and least organised workers.

And yet much of the old socialism remains instructive. Capitalism can be inefficient, unstable and wasteful. It can create conditions of exploitation and human alienation.  The expropriation of a portion of the proceeds from labour by capitalists remains morally problematic even though few on today’s Labor Left will openly discuss this. For genuinely small investors (eg: other workers) dividends may comprise a fair return in the context of making a sacrifice through deferring consumption. But in the bigger picture a portion of the value created by workers is expropriated by capitalists. Workers generally do not enjoy the full proceeds of their labours. These arguments are commonly ignored simply because the consequences are potentially radical for a Left ‘on the back foot’ in a steady (decades-long) process of liquidating its own traditions in order to ‘Converge at the Centre’. Here it was really Hawke and Keating who ‘led the way’ providing the ‘inspiration’ for Blair.   We need to retain a frank critique of capitalism even if the movement towards something better has currently stalled.

But the extension of the ‘democratic sector’ - including the important ‘subset’ of the public sector -remains important despite being at odds with the prevailing Ideology.  By ‘the democratic sector’ we refer not only to the traditional public sector, but also to a multiplicity of co-operative and mutualist forms, as well as democratic collective capital formation and other like-projects, as well as self-employment and co-determination.  These democratic economic forms and strategies can mitigate or indeed end instances of alienation and exploitation.  They can result in a more equitable distribution of wealth and the power that corresponds to this; and also give working people creative control over their labours.  

Efficiencies and reduction of cost-structures through natural public monopolies can also be capitalised upon – flowing on to the private sector and making better wages and conditions, and more progressive corporate taxation sustainable.  For instance: did we really ever need two sets of mobile telephony infrastructure?  And what price are we still paying for that duplication?  Indeed, ‘competition’ in areas such as energy, transport and communications infrastructure, water – are still deeply ‘anti-intuitive’, wasteful and unnecessary.  Hence it is possible to add to the current capitalism’s survivability while laying foundation stones for something better ‘long term’. 

An extended public sector specifically can lead to many other desirable outcomes.  Socialisation of profits via public enterprises in areas like mining, general insurance, private health insurance and banking could (in the Australian context) deliver tens of billions into welfare, infrastructure and social wage programs.  And a ‘not-for-profit’ footing could enable better pay and conditions for child care and other professionals who currently face extreme exploitation. Without getting into a long debate over the labour theory of value – public sector workers could be compensated fairly – but profits would be redistributed through the social wage, investment in infrastructure and services, and in welfare.  There would be no expropriation of surplus value, here, in the traditional capitalist sense. Though the redistribution of profits could appear to some to be diluting the return to labour. (that would not be a problem for some forms of co-operative enterprise for instance)  Government Business Enterprises and public infrastructure could also be administered in such a way as to cross-subsidise in favour of the disadvantaged ; but also to enhance competition where oligopolistic collusion would otherwise be a threat.

So indeed there are many arguments in favour of an extended public sector as part of a broader project of a ‘democratic mixed economy’.   Contra-Luke Foley - Let’s defend the Socialist Objective.  But let’s not dilute it to the point where it becomes merely token or symbolic.  Indeed let’s try and improve the Objective to make clear our aspirations for a democratic mixed economy; an expanded welfare state; a reformed tax mix and an expanded social wage.  Yet as against Kim Carr’s aversion to an ‘extensive’ public sector, strategic expansion of the public sector remains important and valid, as does the spread of other democratic forms – such as co-operative enterprise – with assistance via State Aid.  Indeed, these together could comprise a ‘multi-pronged strategy’: a long-awaited Left counter-offensive against the dominant neo-liberalism.

Both neo-liberalism and the old ‘Communism’ have demonstrably failed.  We need to reject the prevailing intellectual fetish for ‘undistorted’ markets, privatisation and small government and return to the question of a democratic mixed economy with an open mind.

Nb: Several other essays on the theme of a ‘democratic mixed economy’ can be found here:


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Final Arguments for the Socialist Objective

A final passionate argument for the ALP's 'Socialist Objective' ahead  of Conference

Tristan Ewins

As ALP National Conference approaches for the end of this month, Right-wing and ‘Centrist’ forces are busy proclaiming the obituary for socialism. The argument is forwarded (after Lenin ironically) that ‘in the ALP we were never socialists’; ‘that socialism is an outdated and disproven philosophy’ and that socialism ‘has an unbearable connotation’ thanks  to a number of totalitarian regimes from the 20th Century.  This will probably be my last personal effort to influence debate via this blog ahead of Conference.

To begin – despite ‘obituaries’ democratic socialism still has plenty of resonance in the Nordics and much of Western and Central Europe – successful economies and societies where there are strong left/democratic socialist movements. The socialist Left is also very strong in parts of Central and South America. So the movement as such is not ‘dead’ yet.

The reason socialism does not have the same ‘resonance’ in this country for now, however, is partly our own fault. (ie: the Labor Left) We are the main democratic socialist presence in this country. But because we don’t think it’s the work of a faction to engage in counter-culture – we abrogate our responsibility to pursue a cultural struggle to keep our traditions alive. So we leave it to the Trotskyist groups – and some tendencies in the Greens. And the Trotskyists at least promote it in a very narrow sense – sometimes as if nothing had changed since 1917.

This is a debate we have to have within the ALP Left. And arguably it needs to be supported by publications such as this; but also through forums and conferences, and perhaps even informal schools. In short learn the lessons re: the early success of radical social democratic parties.

That said there are many reasons why socialist consciousness has declined. Indeed, in a recent debate with a NSW Left member the argument was put that socialism is ‘outdated’ because “the vicissitudes of industrialisation no longer tell”.

Well, yes and no.

The industrial working class has shrunk and the broader working class has changed its composition. However many modern clerical jobs are just as mundane, repetitive and alienating as the old industrial working class jobs. Some such vocations even draw people together in factory-like environments. (though some workforces are also ‘atomised’ where workers labour from home without contact with other workers)  

Class consciousness is also in decline partly because of a ‘mistaken identity’ when it comes to the working class. Many white collar workers still tend to see themselves as ‘middle class’. This contributes to the demobilisation of the labour movement and chips away at class-based solidarity. Also the anti-union Ideology is reinforced regularly in the monopoly mass media. And the view that unions are to be treated primarily as political power bases – even if this means acting against the interests of the membership – can only weaken organised labour in this country over the long-run. By comparison Swedish trade unions still enjoy union density rates of over 70 per cent. (compared with 18 per cent in Australia) Sweden shows drastic decline is not unavoidable.

The broader labour movement has been stigmatised in popular culture and as a consequence of our own emphasis on the ‘virtues’ of industrial peace from the 1980s. (Industrial peace is fine where there is industrial justice; But if struggle is stigmatised that is more likely to mean defeat)

Finally socialism was stigmatised as a consequence of the Cold War – a cultural war waged over several decades – culminating in Thatcher and Reagan and the embrace of privatisation, ‘small government’, assaults on organised labour, support for dictatorial and murderous regimes, ‘class war’ against the poor and on welfare.

SO all that considered: why might socialism resonate today if only we found the courage to argue for it?

To start people still remember the chaos of the Global Financial Crisis. They remember that governments had to ‘bail out’ the big banks and finance houses. And then for the public sector to withdraw as if nothing had happened… Except for many countries (eg: Britain) the cost was in the tens of billions. (and much more in the United States)  And there is no guarantee the same thing won’t happen again.

So capitalism remains unstable. It is also wasteful and unfair. There are duplications in cost structures, and markets go places they never really should have. (including energy and water, where ideas of ‘competition’ and product differentiation are ludicrous)  Forms of market failure persist everywhere. There are Public Private Partnerships which are basically licenses for private corporations to fleece the general public. The rights of labour are under attack – not only wages and conditions – but industrial rights and liberties. The vested interests in the energy sector obstruct attempts to introduce reform for the sake of the environment. Inequality is getting worse and worse – with more and more wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 1% and the top 10% ; with relatively negligible wealth for everyone else – and an entrenched underclass which owns practically nothing.

Also, the fact capitalism is reaching its limits in terms of the expansion of the world market means desperate measures such as increasing the retirement age and increasing working hours. Yet there’s also a parallel tendency towards underwork. Amidst this, in fact ‘socialist’ policies such as promoting natural public monopolies are one option to promote efficiencies that flow on to the private sector and increase capitalism’s survivability – while at the same time beginning a shift (perhaps) to something better.

Welfare rights are also under attack; The vulnerable are stigmatised on the effective understanding that money saved as a consequence can go towards corporate welfare (primarily tax cuts, so corporations do not contribute fairly to the infrastructure and services they benefit from – which means the rest of us pick up the tab). And also to reduce the bargaining power of workers - because vulnerable job-seekers ‘are not allowed to say no’. And we have punitive labour conscription policies that look like the sort of thing that would come out of Nazi Germany.

Amidst this democratic socialism starts to look pretty good. Again: look to the parties of the Left and Centre Left in the Nordics for instance. Look to Norway’s socialisation of its oil profits. Look at Denmark’s labour market policies. Look at past successes in Sweden – full employment – much of it high wage – AND low inflation. And look at Sweden’s ‘near run thing’ on wage earner funds – Perhaps with a bit more tactical compromise earlier on it would have been a significant leap forward to Swedish Social Democracy.  (See: Andrew Scott’s ‘Northern Lights’A review can be found here:  )

But we should be clearer what we really mean when we speak of socialism. This is necessary to establish how and why democratic socialism is a better alternative to ‘laissez faire’.

For me it is simply this.

a) It is the movement which sought to extend all manner of rights on the basis of the goal of ‘equal association’ as the fair and just response to ‘the social question’. At its highest  level of development this means ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – partly achieved via the social wage and welfare.

b) It is the movement which campaigned for free, universal and equal suffrage – and largely won. This was against the stands taken by Conservatives – but often even by self-avowed Liberals. (eg: in Germany; Though Swedish liberals were notable in that they did support the suffrage)

c) It is the movement that fought for social rights of citizenship – welfare, industrial rights, a mixed economy and social wage – and consolidated many gains for several decades in the post-war world.

d) It is the movement which seeks to reconsolidate those gains – but also extend them to include “economic citizenship” – That is a diverse ‘democratic mixed economy’ – not just based on ‘central planning’ – but on a mix of markets and planning; as well as natural public monopolies, government business enterprises, cooperative enterprise of many types, collective capital formation, co-determination and so on. And with no delusions as to the reality of global capitalism we’re living in – and the constraints that puts upon us for the time being. Until we are much stronger internationally.

e) It is a movement which has a critique of laissez faire/neo-liberal capitalism based on the associated waste, unfairness and instability.

f)  Finally, it is the movement which seeks to empower all human beings to reach their full potential. Through cultural participation and education. Through active citizenship in a robust democracy. By breaking down inflexibilities in capitalism – and modernity more generally -  when it comes to alienation and the division of labour.  Because that is the stuff which impoverishes peoples’ lives – condemning them to nothing but ‘a hard slog’ just to survive.

We cannot allow ourselves to be frightened into avoiding a genuine debate because the IPA or CIS might take us out of context. If ideologically “we are constantly on the run” because of fear of misrepresentation by right-wing forces and by the monopoly mass media – then ultimately we will abandon social democracy and liberalism as well. Because there are anti-democratic forces in this country who will not let up until our regime of social, civil, political and industrial rights have been driven back as far as possible. Until the ABC, for instance, is turned into the mouthpiece for a virtual one-party state. Because today’s big ‘C’ Conservatives are not really convinced democrats, liberals or pluralists. They have precisely the ‘whatever it takes’ approach which we have to deny if we are to hold on to our ‘ideological and ethical souls’….

The point is that you don’t abandon a core foundation for your values, identity and analysis because of the fear you will be misrepresented in the media and by right-wing organisations. Sure you might make tactical compromises – but you don’t abandon your very foundations.


Apparently there are some in the NSW Left who are also arguing for us to drop reference to democratic socialism in the Platform.  But there are plenty of others – including down here in Victoria – who feel differently.  Importantly, though: Personally I have made conciliatory suggestions – that is, that we should recognise the plural nature of the modern party. But that democratic socialism must be recognised as a core and enduring tradition. (alongside others such as the traditional ‘Keynesian-inspired social democracy with a mixed economy’, and also our indigenous labourism)  What is wrong with that? ON top of that we could embrace the goal of achieving a ‘democratic mixed economy’ which could be the basis of a compromise in both the Objective AND the Economic Platform. ( For example See: ; ALSO see: )

To conclude, democratic socialism itself has always been a plural tradition – but generally associated with political, social and economic equality, and the extension of democracy. Liberalism remains a vital ideology – especially as promoted by radicals such as Rawls. So does democracy itself. So why would democratic socialism be different? Or is it just a tactical question of divorcing ourselves from associations with Stalinism or even Leninism? Or for the sake of appearing to be a ‘moderate’ ‘Centrist’ Party?

Sure you could say Social Democracy is also about political, social and economic citizenship… Democratic socialism and social democracy mean different things to different people. But when I speak of social democracy and democratic socialism I think of the tradition beginning with the world’s great Social Democratic parties – for whom democratic socialism and social democracy were ‘the same movement’. I also think of the theoretical and practical-political innovations of the Swedes especially. If we’re to be an inclusive Party we need to recognise those traditions as part of our heritage and as part of our modern practice.

For the LEFT especially there shouldn’t be any questioning of our supporting this. If you believe in a moderate/Centrist social liberalism – then people who feel that way might be better off in Centre Unity. (except parts of the Right have drifted SO FAR into neo-liberalism that the Left itself might be drawn right-ward to fill the vacated ideological space) That’s the path to ideological liquidation and the end of our movement.


Mind you – while the debate over the Objective has serious long term ramifications the most crucial policy debates for the immediate future will be around tax reform (increasing and reforming the mix of progressive tax), unfair superannuation concessions, social wage and welfare extension, infrastructure including roads, schools, hospitals, public space, public housing etc… Specifically we need to implement NDIS, NBN and Gonski; as well as Medicare Dental, National Aged Care Insurance, improve welfare payments by $35/week or thereabouts, and implement policies to ‘close the gap’ on life expectancy for indigenous Australians and those with a mental illness.

( I have developed a comprehensive ‘model Platform’ which I still hope will influence debate on the Platform ahead of Conference.   The document has well over 600 supporters and can be found here:   )

Without providing enough flexibility – as against an on-paper commitment to ‘small government’ – we won’t have the scope to deliver genuine economic and social reform if we retake-government. We will ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ as usual with little overall progress. ( For example, Medicare Dental may be accompanied by another attack on welfare-  eg: Sole Parents again) That is a truly crucial question for all of us – self-identifying social democrats and democratic socialists alike….

Friday, July 3, 2015

Responding to Chris Bowen on Labor's 'Socialist Objective'

above: Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen

The following article is a critique of a recent contribution on debate surrounding the  ALP’s ‘Socialist Objective’ by ALP Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen in a Fabian Pamphlet. Bowen’s ‘Crosland-ite’ agenda has more depth than is to be found in other corners of the Right-faction.  But Bowen fails to come to grips with the potential benefits of a democratic mixed economy.  Meanwhile in the Left itself we do not engage with the implications of the ‘Socialist Objective’ – socialist culture is fading amidst day-to-day practical opportunism.

 (the first of two essays; the essay following this will respond to Jenny McAllister)

by Tristan Ewins

In a recent Fabian Pamphlet (‘What is Labor’s Objective?)  Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen makes his case against the existing Socialist Objective.

He observes its current form:

 “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

And he contends in response that:

 “the socialist objective [does not reflect] our ambition for a modern, fair, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, outward looking, multicultural country.”

Thereafter Bowen rejects those parts of the Objective which propose “the establishment and development of public enterprises” as well as “democratic control of Australia’s natural resources”.  Specifically he suggests the privatisation of Qantas was justified; and that the alternative was a waste of public funds.

Continuing, he rejects what some have come to call ‘State Socialism’; but nonetheless argues the case for an effectively Crosland-ite agenda involving equal opportunity in education and life chances; but equality of outcomes in health.  (Anthony Crosland was an important reformist democratic socialist thinker within British Labour who – beginning around the 1950s - proposed an emphasis on public services and social infrastructure as opposed to socialisation of industry)    Bowen reinterprets this agenda as a more robust social liberalism – which cares about the individual in all their dimensions - when considered in contrast to “classical liberalism”

BOWEN also argues for “a decent community environment” with government ensuring the provision of “hard” as well as “soft” infrastructure; which means not only “transport and roads”  but “a liveable community with attractive public art, open spaces and a good environment.”

He concludes the Objective is out of date because it says nothing about multiculturalism, indigenous rights, engagement in the Asia-Pacific, preservation of the natural environment and action on climate change, and also equality of opportunity in education and equality of outcome in health.

He states: “We should mean what we say in the socialist objective. Currently we don’t. It clearly does reflect the modern Labor challenge, and with some updating it could very easily do so."


Firstly, Bowen would be wrong to suggest that a Socialist Objective in the Labor Party would have to exclude indigenous rights, the environment, the nurturing of a multi-cultural Australia, or engagement in our region for the extension of beneficial trade and the preservation of peace.  It is true that the Objective was originally penned in the 1920s and probably needs to be updated.  But Australian socialists – and indeed Australian Communists as well  – were amongst the first to promote these causes; as well as the cause of free, universal and equal suffrage.  It is not a stark choice:  of ‘these important modern causes on one hand, OR of socialism on the other’.

In the context of alluding to Labor’s historic support for extensive privatisation, Bowen appears specifically to reject passages which commit Labor to:  “the establishment and development of public enterprises” as well as “democratic control of Australia’s natural resources”.  Following this he suggests his opposition to the “state socialism” – a common ‘political-bogeyman’.

To start the meaning of ‘state socialism’ as argued by Bowen is not properly laid out.  In the past the term has been used to describe a centralised command economy after the way of the former Soviet Union.  But disturbingly it has also been deployed with the apparent aim of stigmatising any kind of extensive mixed economy.  Any form of democratic socialism or social democracy which supposes a significant role for the state as an economic participant is commonly ruled out as ‘state socialism’. 

In response to these kind of arguments: while there are solid reasons for socialists to support a ‘democratic mixed economy’, you don't have to be a socialist to support these kind of policies. A mixed economy with a substantial role for natural public monopolies, government business enterprise, public authorities and public infrastructure -  was supported by Conservatives – even including Menzies - for decades.  But the point - ironically - is that while we may aspire to a more democratic economy, natural public monopolies are also good for capitalists. (and indeed for consumers as well) This is because natural public monopolies can reduce economic cost structures in such a way as flows on to the private sector.  Hence a ‘hybrid-democratic-mixed-economy’.

Continuing: strategic government business enterprises are good for competition - and hence also good for consumers.   Specifically, they can frustrate any collusive economic behaviour between corporations - and prevent the rise of private monopolies.

These kind of policies – which can include strategic extension of the public sector – should not be ruled out as a consequence of some confused shibboleth of ‘state socialism’.

Further – while the creation of a ‘democratic mixed economy’ can be desirable for socialists/social democrats and social liberals alike – a ‘modern socialist objective’ need not restrict itself  alone to the extension of the public sector.  (though that should certainly be part of the agenda)  Consumer associations can also empower consumers; and mutualist and co-operative enterprise of various kinds can overcome exploitation and sometimes also alienation - while nonetheless preserving market relations and avoiding the problems associated with a ‘traditional command economy’.   

These issues are indeed more complex than assumed both by orthodox Marxists and also by capitalist ideologues.  Regarding exploitation: while there are problems with the Marxist ‘labour theory of labour’ which assumed all labour to be equal; nonetheless the structural relationship of exploitation – of the expropriation of a surplus – remains problematic.  And while deferral of consumption by small investors may deserve a return, the economic resources and returns for the wealthy cannot be justified in such a way.  Finally: alienation remains a reality on account of the repetitive and stressful nature of much work.   But democratic structures and processes can ameliorate the lack of control working people have over their labours; and promote a sense of ownership over those labours and the products of those labours.  Government can also intervene to provide wage-justice for the working poor – on the basis of respect for all labour.  Also government has a role to deliver the welfare dependent from poverty; and to provide opportunities for personal growth – through reduced working hours and a fair age of retirement; but also ensuring access to cultural participation and education.  Education must also be about personal growth, and not exclusively about the demands of the labour market.

In conclusion, Bowen’s ‘Crosland-inspired social liberalism’ has more to recommend it than the typical neo-liberalism we endure in the public sphere every day.  At least he sees a role for government in ensuring ‘hard and soft infrastructure’.  Ideas of ‘soft infrastructure’ could also be extended to provision of public (physical and virtual) space for civic activism – as opposed ‘the privatisation of public space’ we have become used to – where public life is reduced to consumerism.  Meanwhile his stated goal of ‘equal outcomes in health’ suggests a very robust public investment; including specific programs to ‘close the gap’ for indigenous Australians, the poor, the mentally ill and so on.  

However Bowen's rejection of public exploitation of Australian natural resources, and the strategic creation of public enterprises, simply adheres to the Ideology of the day - without concern for the tens of billions in forsaken revenue from natural resources on the one hand, and the ability to progressively cross-subsidise, enhance competition, provide efficiencies through natural public monopolies, and socialise profits - on the other.


“We should mean what we say in the socialist objective. Currently we don’t. It clearly doesn’t reflect the modern Labor challenge, and with some updating it could very easily do so.”

In conclusion, there are some points worth observing here. 

Firstly it is legitimate to argue for Labor to mean what we say and say what we mean.  A problem with the Socialist Objective as we have known it has been the confusion as to what comprises exploitation.  For Marxists exploitation means more than just poor wages and conditions.  It refers to the expropriation of surplus value from wage labourers by capitalists. It suggests a structural injustice where capitalists expropriate part of the value that in fact they do not create themselves. They expropriate a portion of the value created by workers.  Hence a devastating moral critique.

The problem here is the idea that socialisation of “industry, production, distribution and exchange” to the extent necessary to end exploitation actually infers blanket socialisation if one is proceeding form a Marxist definition.  Because all wage labour involves the expropriation of surplus value.  By contrast some non-Marxist definitions might simply infer the elimination of poverty and the promotion of social inclusion in a ‘Third Way’ kind of sense.  Obviously the difference, here, is great – and we need to be clear what we really mean.  Hence the famous ‘Blackburn Amendment’ (made to the 1921 Objective; and proposing socialisation where necessary to end exploitation)  is confusing in the sense it leaves open the question of how we interpret that exploitation.   

(nb: my own opinion is that economic exploitation by large capitalists - including surplus extraction - cannot be morally justified 'on principle' - but that we have a problem transitioning to a fundamentally different society - because we must adapt to the real balance of forces in the international economy, and the need to remain engaged with transnationals who bring with them innovations and investment; but we should take democratisation as far as we practically can; The balance of forces may shift in the future; And in the meantime both definitions of exploitation have their uses so long as we are clear what we mean)

But within the Left itself we are already losing touch with our socialist roots.  We might well fight to preserve the Socialist Objective doggedly and persistently: but many of us would have no idea as to its meaning and origins.  Marxism itself has become ‘decidedly unfashionable’.

Marx once wrote something to the effect that socialists cannot change the world ‘behind peoples’ backs’.  Hence it is a mistake to suppose holding on to the Socialist Objective will have the kind of consequences democratic socialists want – unless it finds reflection on our day to day discourse; in the consciousness of our activists; and in our actual policies.

A smart move would be to include material which makes gestures towards the plural nature of today’s Labor Party – which is simply an observation of fact.  But while at the same time establishing democratic socialism and radical social democracy as core traditions in the ALP – which inform our values, our policies, and the Platform itself.

If we are to retain the Objective – perhaps in an updated and modernised form – then in the Left itself we must commit to having democratic socialist values and ideas inform our policies and our activism.  This means a counter-culture involving forums, publications, democratic socialist schools and conferences – which preserve and cultivate Left culture – and prevent the dissolution of our traditions into an opportunistic, uncritical and ‘mainstream’ liberalism which forsakes the critique of capitalism; or which abandons the projects of economic democracy; of social wage and welfare extension; of popular struggle ‘from below’ including class struggle; and the strategic extension of the public sector.

IN short: On the ALP Left itself we need to get our own house in order as well as fighting for reform of the National ALP Platform. If we fail ‘to get our own house in order’ any number of temporary symbolic victories will in the end come to nothing.

Nb:  Debate on this essay is very welcome here!

An analysis of where Labor should head on its Economic Platform specifically can also be found via the URL below – and debate is welcome there as well.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Eric Aarons on The Middle Class Today

Above: Eric Aarons some years ago now, pursuing his passion for sculpture

In the following notes and reflections former Communist Party of Australia Secretary Eric Aarons considers the historical and current social and economic importance of the Middle Class to the causes of liberal rights and social change. After Bernstein, he considers that the Middle Class has not disappeared - despite prior Marxist predictions that it would.  Hence the place of the middle class remains important for Australian Leftists today.

by Eric Aarons

I write this essay, not to expound or urge any particular political line or policy, but to stress the importance for those doing so not to neglect today’s middle class. 

In my view, Karl Marx’s most abiding contribution to understanding human history and forms of social organisation was the primacy he gave to the development of the ‘productive forces’ available to any  population  of human beings. He was not the first to do so; Adam Smith, and the group of ‘Scottish Historians’ around him, held to that view also (see Classics edition of The Wealth of Nations: Books 1-111, 1986).

In his introduction to that edition, scholar Andrew S. Skinner quotes William Robertson, a member of the Historians group, that ‘In every inquiry covering the operations of men when united together in society, the first object of attention should be their mode of existence. Accordingly as that varies, their laws and policy must be different,’ (p. 28)

The ‘Industrial revolution’ of the 18th century was characterised as ‘a rapid and ceaseless development of the productive forces’. Most of these were new inventions, featuring machines driven by the power of steam, then electricity, then nuclear power, and in sizes from miniscule to massive. Lawrence James writes: ‘The middle classes refused to abandon the rest of society to the physical and moral consequences of industrialisation. Middle class men and women put pressure on the state and local  government and offered their time and money to create what they regarded as a humane, contented and civilised society.’ (p.249 Lawrence James: The Middle Class  A History, 2006). They still do.

It may be needless to point out that this proliferation of new productive forces, their operation,  maintenance and improvement, required more skilled and educated people, and in turn more educators to achieve that purpose. So education rapidly extended, spreading far beyond its previous limits of educating and forming ‘gentlemen’ who were distinguished by not having to work for a living with their hands, or even their brains, but to be recognised socially as such, and to keep up with the escalating written cultural advances.

Their daughters also had to be educated ‘to  make a good marriage’ – that is, one to a man with money, or expecting an inheritance.  There were also growing demands of generally not fully occupied middle class wives for suitable enjoyable reading, while an increasing number of women wrote such books and are still famous for doing so.

On a wider scale, the industrial revolution required a growing proportion of the population to be educated so that they could extend and deepen that approach to the industrialisation revolution.  I suggest that these requirements marked the origins of the modern middle class, and the building  of its present cultural, political and economic larger role, with women becoming increasingly prominent, despite remaining discriminations.  

Karl Marx wrote a lot about the growing proletariat, created by the ascending capitalism, that he thought would end the rule of capital. And, using his withering polemics, Marx defended his predictions, warning that radical members of the middle class might be ‘unreliable revolutionaries’, because of what he saw as their impending ruin by capital and decent into the ranks of the proletariat. Marx thought that ‘class origins’ were generally a useful guide to future political behaviour, and this still existed in my young days. But 90 years later, in today’s ‘topsy-turvy’ world,                it doesn’t count for very much.

 The Middle Class today

The modern middle class in the economically developed countries, though not officially organised,  has become the largest stable social group in their countries, since the working class, unwillingly, relinquished that position. It comprises about 40 percent of the population, and holds 35 per cent of the wealth of the countries they inhabit, according to figures presented by Thomas Piketty in his book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This analyst also points to their growing patrimonial (inheritance) role, particularly in regard to housing, which is becoming increasingly expensive, and important for their offspring.

The middle class is neither disappearing now, nor destined to do so, as Marx and not a few later economic theorists have suggested, though they struggle along with others to cope with the continuing Global Financial Crisis. It is time that left/progressives acquainted themselves with the social characteristics of the middle class, and the role they could play (indeed are presently playing) in ongoing struggles, such as climate change, conservation, and exerting a degree of moderation in human dealings with our planet and other living species.

An attempt to sketch this class’s  modern ‘profile’.

I present, partly from my own memories, elements of such a profile. Both sets of grandparents were middle class; one Jewish (from England). He was there employed as a cigar-maker, but he established himself in business as a shoe-repairer in Melbourne, then a seller of manufactured boots and shoes. Successful, he bought a house in the developing suburb of Glen Huntly, then one beside it for his eldest daughter, Miriam.

He had a club foot and walked with the aid of a stick. He had quite a good voice, and knew a wide selection of Cockney songs, a large number of which denigrated women. This was widespread in those days, but remains very active, and still widely violent along with economic discrimination.

 Clearly, the middle class likes new things and processes, notably with women, along with men taking to bicycles in large numbers when they became available. They also took to the early radios driven by a metal ‘cat’s whisker’ on a sliver of metal ore, then large decorative consoles with valves.

My maternal grandparents had a large modern house in the northern (upper) part of the suburb of Caulfield, and they had built in the large grounds a sheltered garden in which the grew plants, mostly  for sale.                                               

My paternal grandmother drove (rather roughly) the big Buick they owned, as did her daughter Rae. TV when it came was a must – indeed any new device that responded to the desire to extend and exercise their inherent human capacities, which were stifled or looked upon with disapproval by conservatives who want to keep to accustomed ways.

The middle class does not respond to theoretical speculation about general social advance,but  persistently pursue it pragmatically, devising practical measures to actually achieve some aspect of it. ‘Schools of Art’, for instance, if I remember rightly, were widely established, mainly by middle class women in Melbourne, around the turn of the twentieth century.


Using his deciles mathematical system on income, Piketty says that if the average pay in a country is 2000 euros per month then this distribution implies that the top 10 percent can earn on average, 4000 per month, the bottom 50 percent 1400 euros a month, and the middle 40 percent 2,250 a month. “This intermediate group may be regarded as a vast ‘middle class’ whose standard of living is determined by the average wage of the society in question.”

But it helps to keep in mind that ten ‘deciles’ consist of 10 parts that he then often divides into 3 parts, which correspond roughly to the classes. The first decile, comprised of the top dogs, is basically made up of those who hold the most wealth and have the most say on the key issues, and is often called the establishment. The next usage goes 2 to 4 (the middle), and the lower five make up 10. Piketty adds: ‘. . . if the average pay in a country is 2,000 euros per month then this distribution implies that the top 10 percent earn 4,000 euros a month on average, the  bottom 50 percent 1,400 and the middle 40 percent 2,250 . This intermediate group may be regarded as a vast ‘middle class’ whose standard of living is determined by the average wage of the society in question’. (p. 250)             

‘The middle class allegiance is to free trade (and of course cheap food and the rights of property). For the previous seventy years the middle class had enjoyed unparalleled power over the lives of others, mostly those beneath it. Whether as employers, shapers of public opinion, voters, elected officials or public servants, its members had been able to compel a significant part of society to accept its assumptions and ambitions. Pragmatists tended to outnumber idealists.’ (p. 248, James Lawrence book)

The prevailing religious and moral codes of the Victorian middle class made social indifference impossible. They refused to abandon the rest of society to the accompanying physical and moral consequences of industrialisation, to create what they saw as a humane, contented and civilised society, of which they would constitute a major if not leading part.

They endorsed the view that the possession of the faculty of reason was humanity’s major weapon in winning a material life from nature, and urged that it should  also be the centre of political life, thereby under-estimating the role of other factors, such as emotions, values, self-promotion, enrichment and plain deception.

Anyone who wants to win their support for a cause or a particular approach to an issue, needs to ‘make a good case’, including a fair one, which the Abbott/Hockey government has failed miserably to do; Their bluster does not suffice.

An earlier example of the role that the middle class can play was the defeat of Menzies, who declared in the post-war election of 1949 his intention to declare the Communist Party illegal and dissolve it. Winning that vote, he introduced a law to do so, but it was declared invalid by the High Court.  He then resorted to a referendum (of the whole of ‘white’ Australia that he was confident of winning).  It was defeated on September 21, 1951, and there can be little doubt that a large section of the middle class, both high officials and ‘ordinary’ members, voted in this direction.

Similarly, the middle class joining the struggle against the Vietnam war was crucial to the struggle against it, so the lesson is an abiding one.                                                         

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