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Monday, February 23, 2015

Crumbling Pillars of Global Capitalist Political Economy - Reflections from Eric Aarons


 
In the following reflections, former Australian communist leader Eric Aarons considers the moral and practical shortcomings of capitalist political economy and its attendant Ideology; including the Ideology underpinning 'Austrian Economics' and the thought of Friedrich Hayek.
                                             
by Eric Aarons
The pillars of a building, a narrative, a culture or theoretical edifice are those parts of the whole  that keep the other parts  in their designated places. The many books Friedrich Hayek wrote outlining his economic, social and philosophic  views , of and for humanity, eventually prevailed over other theories and became dominant.  I therefore  re-examine  its  major beliefs and assertions –  the pillars – that sustain the capitalist system he championed, and which are daily crumbling before our eyes.

The first pillar is money

Hayek asserts that: ‘Most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, [and] that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on [it]’. (LLL,2, 112)’

Money is of course essential in a commodity-based society; but are its possession and use uniformly  equitable and honest?  Why could Oxfam, unchallenged, reveal that: ‘Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population [and] the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world?’ (Jan. 2014).

Moreover, compared with earlier stages of the capitalist system, honesty today is very much wanting. For examples of top-organised fraud, recall the laundering of billions of dollars of Mexican drug money by HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), and the Libor scandal.

Libor referred to the internationally used and trusted benchmark, the ‘ London Inter-bank Offered Rate’ set daily by experts.  On a  day when  the person in charge was an employee of Barclays Bank which was suffering survival difficulties  in the developing  Great Financial Crisis, he skewed the benchmark  rate to favour his bank over others.  Though big fines were imposed, the practice spread worldwide, and even years later new instances of benchmark  corruption keep cropping up, while  new scams are continually invented.

To believe that ‘cash’ in these circumstances can unify rather than divide humanity is among the greatest of follies, especially considering the next pillar which is rotten from the start. 

In essence this means creating more and bigger capitalist organisations which, with globalisation, today embody the worldwide domination of possessors of ever larger slabs of capital,  and general wealth.

What else can this lead to but the conditions reported by Oxfam, that signify the increased concentration of wealth in the form of capital , which has reached a stage where capital is such a large proportion of the total wealth created, that governments cannot now provide, as they formerly did,  services, such as health and higher education, let alone the sums needed to ease the burdens of the disabled, or the facilities for learning, and character development,  now socially essential.

 It is called austerity.

Giving to those who already have

This is a second pillar of the existing capitalist system, stated by Hayek in these words: ‘… ‘such a system gives to those who already have. But this is its merit rather than its defect, because it is this feature which makes it worth-while for everybody to direct his efforts not only towards immediate results but also to the future increase of his capacity of rendering services to others. It is the possibility of acquisition for the purpose of improving the capacity for future acquisition which engenders a continual overall process in which we do not at every moment have to start from scratch, but can begin with equipment which is the result of past efforts in order to make as large as possible the earnings from the means we control.’ (LLL vol. 2, pp.123-4)

Who is it that does the giving?  Consumers of course and waged employees. But here we are talking about economic theory which purports to show that economic processes involving markets are objective because individuals, as such, and by and large, cannot alter what the larger forces of the markets have proclaimed. This is not fully true due to monopolies and cartels – especially in these days of globalisation, where the stated aims of many multinational corporations are to make these forms of economic plunder almost routine, as illustrated in the oil and gas areas today.

Even in Hayek’s much smaller scale he had put the case just as pertinently: ‘We (capitalists) can decide whether the material reward others are prepared to pay for our services makes it worthwhile to render them.’ (The Moral element in Free Enterprise, pages 229 – 236 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, 1966)

Who is it that does the giving? The consumer and the waged employee of course. But here we are talking about economic theory which contends and purports to show that economic processes involving markets are objective because individuals, or groups of them, cannot alter what the larger forces of the markets  have proclaimed. This is not fully true because of monopolies and cartels – especially in these days of globalisation, where the stated aims of many multinational corporations are to make these forms of economic plunder almost routine.

Even on a smaller scale Hayek, addressing capitalist organisations in 1961, put their moral case just as pertinently: ‘We (capitalists) can decide whether the material reward others are prepared to pay for our services makes it worthwhile to render them.’ (The Moral element in Free Enterprise, pages 229 – 236 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, 1966)

Compare this with his contention that market processes are impersonal  (The Constitution of Liberty, page 45).

Neo-Liberalism claims that human beings are (basically) rule-following animals

This is a claim without substance, and differs from every serious account of human nature that I have read. For instance, I recently reviewed a very useful and interesting book  (The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert) which had a brief description of the human race:

‘The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; further inland they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably heavier, who have been living on the continent longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off.
The current system is beyond human control
In Hayek’s theory this is because capitalism is not a system formed by humans, but an entity that spontaneously formed itself. This is so singular (so idiosyncratic) a view that, unless grasped, it renders much of his early writing in The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty almost illogical. At least I found it so.

Conclusion: The pillars of the present system are crumbling; It is rickety (liable to break or fail) as Thomas Piketty so  thoroughly exposed.
 It requires major restructuring .

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Debate on Tax and Small Government Flares Yet Again



Recent Claims by Joe Hockey that Australians pay about half their income to the Government through the tax system has once more spurred a broader debate about tax reform - and the falsehoods spread by the Conservatives and Economic Liberals to rationalise their Ideology.



Tristan Ewins

January 25th 2015



Recently debate has arisen once more about rates of tax in this country. Again Joe Hockey has come out with totally unfounded claims that individuals on average pay half of their income in tax.

 In response ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie has argued that in fact middle income earners pay only 11 per cent of their income in personal tax, and higher income groups only about 20 per cent.  

Peter Martin of ‘The Age’ further explains how: “ACOSS [arrived] at the figures by including all household income in its total, including untaxed or lightly taxed…Income washed through superannuation, family trusts and negatively geared properties.”

Martin also explains how:

“The bottom one-fifth of households pay 3 per cent of their income in personal tax, the next group pays 7 per cent, middle group 11 per cent, the second-top group 15 per cent and the top group 20 per cent…

But [this] progressivity vanishes when other forms of tax are included. Including the goods and services tax and other consumption taxes such as petrol and tobacco excise, the lowest earning household pays 24 per cent of its income in tax and the highest earning household only a little more at 28 per cent.”

So the existing system is also barely progressive when taken as a whole; and the Conservatives want to dilute or reverse this even more!

 And today Gareth Hutchens of ‘The Age’ has also questioned the facts surrounding Joe Hockey’s claim that increased taxation through bracket creep is ‘the only alternative’ if Labor does not support the Conservative government’s austerity agenda. 

Crucially: improper reliance on bracket creep and increases in the GST and other regressive taxes and charges – including user pays mechanisms - are not the only alternative.

 The Liberals’ offensive against and all forms of redistribution rests upon their commitment to a classical liberal economic philosophy which naturalises the inequalities in wealth, income and power that arise under capitalism. Employers rather than workers are seen as ‘the real wealth creators’. Workers are seen as freely entering into contracts with employers. Their bargaining power as relates to skills in the marketplace are recognised; but the influence of trade unions in improving that bargaining position of workers is not. Differences in recompense based on demand and supply in the labour market are also ‘naturalised’. Because of this ‘naturalisation’ government intervention in the economy is rejected outright – except for instance in cases where this paradigm is enforced – for instance through impositions against the industrial liberties of organised labour. Hence the Conservatives and economic libertarians press for ‘simpler’ tax and lower tax because that means less redistribution.

 There is also the question of peoples’ own liberties in their capacities as consumers. This issue is raised by the Conservatives and economic liberals and deserves a considered response. There is the question of whether or not we are better off to determine our own ‘needs structures’ freely through consumption.

 Very few socialists today would aspire to abolishing ‘the market’ in its entirety. Most socialists today would recognise the place of ‘the market’ as a medium by which workers and citizens in their capacities as consumers hold corporations accountable through the play of market signals. Importantly, though, this entails the organisation of people in their capacity as consumers – both to improve the quality of information they can access as consumers – but also improving their market power through collective bargaining as consumers.

 But there are problems with this ‘market utopia’. Information is not perfect. Consumers are not sufficiently organised. There are monopolies and oligopolies which minimise the effective role of competitive market forces and signals. And there is the possibility of consumers prevailing to the expense of the more poorly organised workers. That is: the prospect of more – not less –exploitation. 

ALSO where there is intense competition there is the problem of investment in ‘the means of production’ growing so disproportionate compared with recompense through wages that the market is no longer able to absorb these costs – or provide sufficient consumption power to absorb what is produced.

 But if all this is true what are the alternatives?

 Firstly Labor should support a progressive restructuring of the tax system as a whole. That must mean winding back superannuation concessions for the well-off – a good proportion out of about $50 billion in total by 2016-17. In total superannuation concessions cost about as much the entire aged pension budget. It could also mean partially withdrawing dividend imputation (tax breaks ostensibly to negate ‘double taxation’) - justified on distributive grounds – and with exemptions for ‘small investors’. 

Further – it could entail an active restructuring of the income tax system – as opposed to ‘passively’ waiting for bracket creep to ‘do its work’. ‘Passive’ reliance on bracket creep for lower and middle income tax thresholds would have a regressive distributive effect. (which is why Hockey is willing to consider it despite his preference for ‘ever smaller government’) But restructuring and altering income tax scales and rates could allow bracket creep to work for higher income earners, delivering billions while actually reducing income tax for those on low incomes. A new top income tax rate could also be established for the millionaires. And restoration of a robust ‘resource rent’ tax for mining could deliver billions; as could ‘super profits’ taxes in crucial areas such as banking. Finally: with modest increases in corporate tax we could signal our desire to end the ‘race to the bottom’ that results in effective ‘corporate welfare’.

If an incoming Labor Government succeeded in raising at least $45 billion in new Commonwealth revenue (in today’s terms) through these and other measures in its first term upon retaking government it would be in a strong position to deliver on Australian taxpayers needs in education, health, transport, communications, welfare and more. Specifically it could fund big initiatives such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme progressively; And could also provide for another area of critical need – for a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme. Without austerity.

 In response the Conservatives and economic libertarians would insist that public provision ‘rejects the market’ which is the proper arbiter of all goods and services.

 But Labor must reject such claims for several very practical reasons; as well as for the sake of economic justice.

 Firstly ‘collective consumption’ as taxpayers can often secures for us ‘a better deal’ than in our capacities as isolated private consumers. Private infrastructure means user pays – which hits low and middle income citizens hardest. It also involves higher rates of borrowing – with the cost structures passed on to consumers. Finally it means private profit margins and dividends – which demand that as much income be extracted from consumers as is possible. And in the case of private toll roads, for instance, can mean the exclusion of public transport investment to artificially support the particular private investors.

 Competition in place of ‘strategic and natural public monopoly’ also passes on increased underlying cost-structures to consumers. A ‘hybrid’ economic system which delivered those efficient cost structures on would mean more consumption power – not less. Business actually gains from this. Both through cheaper infrastructure and services – but also through the increased consumption power of workers and citizens.

 Hence there is ‘the bottom line’ that tax-payers would have more to spend in the areas where choice is most important as a consequence of strategic ‘collective consumption’; including ‘social insurance’ for instance. And frankly ‘market forces’ do not necessarily make enough of a difference when it comes to roads and rail; or in the provision of water and energy; or in areas that are properly the reserve of ‘natural public monopoly’. (eg: energy, water, communications, and transport infrastructure) Often it all comes down to a contest as to which provider can most efficiently fleece consumers with unintelligible deals and plans foisted upon people who would much rather take ‘the basics’ for granted. And in areas like Education – ‘market choice’ just sorts us out on the basis of our capacity to pay. That is, on the basis of class. And that is unfair.

 But if ordinary people secure a ‘better deal’ through collective consumption in these areas that frees up more money for determining our needs structures in the areas where that really counts. For instance, including but not limited to the consumption and other participation in culture, sport, fitness, social activity and art. 

The time has come to question neo-liberal shibboleths around ‘small government’ and ‘the market’. An alternative is possible which delivers a better deal for the general public in our capacities as workers, citizens and consumers. But which has also learned from the mistakes of the old socialism which thought it could supersede ‘the market’ entirely.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Andrew Bolt on ‘Charlie Hedbo’ and Free Speech: A Response

 
The arguments about free speech are often complex.  But freedoms and liberties must be defended
 
Tristan Ewins, Jan 11th, 2014

Andrew Bolt has fired another salvo against the Australian Left (Heald-Sun, Jan 10th 2015); this time accusing the Left – and what he ironically calls ‘the ruling classes’ of this country – of ‘giving in’ in the face of Terror.  He argues that the French satirical publication ‘Charlie Hedbo’ was “almost alone” and that this emboldened the killers.   He argues that ‘the Left’ is hypocritical in the sense of constantly satirising, attacking and mocking Christianity – while claiming Islamophobia in response to critiques of Islam.  For Bolt censorship and self-censorship mean ‘the Terrorists have won’.   Bolt also condemns the racial vilification laws which he claims led to the ‘banning’ of two of his articles.  Bolt complains of ‘mainstream’ journalists ‘celebrating’ this decision; though surely this is a bit ingenuous given his claim to be ‘Australia’s most read columnist’.      He also attacks Australia’s migration program in so far as it welcomes “mass immigration from the Third World”.  Finally he claims Islam’s claim to be ‘a religion of peace’ is false in light of Koranic scripture urging the deaths of those who mock the Prophet Muhammed.   

Where do we start in responding to Bolt?  

On the matter of Left hypocrisy I personally sometimes cut a lone figure in requesting respect and sensitivity towards the Christian faith in the face of sometimes-hateful attacks.   The Christian emphasis on ‘turning the other cheek’ perhaps suggests a certain acceptance even in the face of criticism.  Rational (not hateful) criticism, indeed, is welcome – and has informed a shift in Christian thinking over recent decades to made an accommodation with liberalism.  Though in earlier centuries some church leaders were complicit in repression and Terror.  

There are liberal Muslims just as there are liberal Christians.  Though in the West liberal Christianity is more prevalent. There are relatively rare Christians who still advocate an unreformed interpretation of Scripture. But most today have turned from ‘Biblical literalism’ in areas such as Creationism for instance.  (instead Genesis is held by some  to be a parable containing a mystery which few understand; Though this should not mean we close our minds to the prospect of mysteries as yet not understood – for instance free will and consciousness itself)

The shift towards liberalism; of ‘turning the other cheek’; and the rejection of literalism has moderated what social conflicts may have arisen between liberalism, secularism and Christianity.  These tendencies in Christianity reveal  the falsehoods in many hostile caricatures of the faith.  We have had ‘Piss Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and yet many Christians accept that even while this may be hurtful, it is part of the liberal pluralist order we live in.

But where does Islam stand?   Just like there is liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism, also there are liberal movements within Islam.  There have been attempts to moderate the message of Islam.  Greater gender equality is promoted as well as pluralistic and individual interpretations of the Koran.  There is respect for democracy and human rights; slavery is rejected.   Yet arguably if one looks around the world today, both Shia and Sunni regimes – from the Saudis to the Iranians – these regimes have been reticent in adopting a liberal/reform orientation.   There are barbaric instances of corporal and capital punishment; women are often second class citizens; sexuality is stigmatised. Yet in a throwback to an earlier time self-proclaimed Christians in Uganda have sought to criminalise homosexuality as well – with potential life sentences for those practicing their sexuality.   

In response to Bolt it is fair enough for a democracy to hesitate before welcoming any who do not share basic precepts when it comes to liberal and human rights.  To welcome refugees is an exception – as there is the global responsibility to provide refuge for the persecuted.  And often the wars which refugees flee are proxy conflicts – the consequence of ‘Great Power’ interventions. 

It ought be noted that in the past similar arguments have been deployed to prevent communists and other left radicals from being accepted into our society. But while in the past many were deluded about the reality in ‘really-existing’ communist regimes, their orientation was nonetheless progressive when it came to defending liberal rights at home; as well as the rights of women, indigenous peoples, those of queer sexuality, the industrial liberties of workers and so on.  But anti-modernist radicals – whether they are Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, Shia from Iran, or Christians from Uganda – pose a potential threat to liberalism if ever their challenge to Modernity reached the critical point.  That is for example in Australia: if ever they comprised so formidable a bloc as to hold decisive political and cultural leverage

Against this – Despite some peoples’ over-blown fears, those of Islamic faith comprise only two per cent of the Australian population.  And well-intentioned engagement between liberals and Muslims could result in many more Muslims shifting into the liberal camp. Much as occurred with Christianity.  An uncontrolled influx could change this; but that is not the situation.

Yet that engagement is threatened by the ‘culture war warriors’ who would preach a message of civil conflict on religion rather than engagement.  Bolt is sceptical of Muslims claiming that theirs is ‘a religion of peace’.  But we would do well to remember it was not all that long ago that religion was cited as a rationale and a justification for centuries of colonialism and Imperialism of various European Great Powers.  Today strategic interventions and proxy wars are also justified on the basis of liberal and democratic Ideology.  But beneath the surface a more complex picture emerges.  Great Power bases in Syria and Qatar; fears over an Iranian bomb; attempts to isolate Iran through destabilising its Syrian ally (with over 200,000 dead!); the Syrian intervention backfiring with the rise of Islamic State – and yet even Islamic State could be could be seen by some as a counterbalance to Iran in the region. It is often very cynical. (the previous balance of power was wrecked through George Bush’s Second Gulf War, which ironically for the time was supported by Israel).

Finally we come to Bolt’s cries of censorship.

Censorship is a difficult question, and interestingly today it is self-proclaimed right-libertarians who advocate unmitigated and unmoderated free speech in the face of suggestions from others on the Left that speech be regulated – whether through state interference in the monopoly mass media, or through enforcing stronger racial discrimination laws.  

There is a lot to be reviled in the American settlement when it comes to their threadbare social security and welfare safety net; the neglect and rescission of workers’ liberties; oppressively low minimum wages; tolerance of homelessness on a mass scale…  But despite the hypocrisies of McCarthyism in times past for instance, ‘free speech’ is enshrined in the American Constitution and as part of American identity.  This notion of ‘absolute’ and ‘inalienable’ rights gives the far right conditions under which they can organise.  But it also provides a vital protection for the Left which could be utterly crucial, perhaps, in the future.  Without the argument of ‘free speech’ Doc Evatt would most certainly have failed in his defence of the liberal rights of Australian Communists.

In Australia we face similar dilemmas.  Andrew Bolt’s comments about indigenous Australians were hurtful, offensive and I believe they were cynical. Indigenous identity is about more that the colour of ones’ skin.  And preferentional assistance through Abstudy, for instance, is intended to ‘close the gap’ when it comes to educational opportunity. Arguably ‘Closing the Gap’ needs to be a core aspect in a future Treaty.

Though Justice Bromburg, who decided on the Bolt case, insisted that he was not banning Bolt from sincerely debating the issue of indigenous identity.  And Bolt-critic Chelsea Bond argued that Bolt was not actually a racist.  Yet Bond argues that Bolt’s approach: “reveals his own anxiety toward the dilution of the 'coloniser's' identity, power and privilege.”   Bolt was exploiting these anxieties for cultural and political gain; and to this author therefore his endeavours were cynical in nature. 

There are important arguments here – for instance the need for a cultural settlement which reconciles the plurality of Australian identities – including that of pre-multi-cultural and Anglo identity and culture – as a means of ‘heading-off’ grievances, far-right organisation and irrational conflicts into the future.  (Although there never was a ‘mono-cultural’ Australia; and a past-world of Anglo/Irish tension is forgotten now by many)  Rejection of an ‘older’ Australian identity could drive many into the arms of the Reaction.

But should Bolt’s cynical comments have literally been BANNED? Certainly Bolt himself appears intolerant of any place for radical progressive speech in this country. His depiction of the ABC as a mouthpiece of the Left plays up to a now familiar Right-discourse around supposed Left-cultural-elites’ versus ‘the ordinary people’ – ‘the masses’.  This perspective was developed by Constitutional Monarchist and Conservative David Flint.  It is intended to remove any and almost all space available for the ‘genuine Left’ to be heard.   The ABC appears to feel it needs to prove ‘it is not radical’.  And at the same time the ABC increasingly leans towards ‘Centrist’ and ‘Centre-Right’ commentary.

This discourse on ‘Elites’ is deployed in order to play to cultural anxieties; while at the same time downplaying the class interests of the great majority of working people, as well as the marginal and the working poor.  American author Joe Bageant has compellingly written in his “Deer Hunting with Jesus” book how in the United States how ‘the white working poor’ are increasingly propagandised by right-wing Ideology; and how this process is inflamed by ‘class based putdowns’.  (indeed: we could also raise such language such as ‘white trash’ – which at once vilify on the basis of class AND race)  American liberalism’s de-prioritisation of social class as a unifying issue inflames the problem further; and the Labor Party in Australia might be seen as falling into a similar trap. 

The answer is not to ban conservative speech. Though perhaps there are exceptions such as Holocaust Denial – which could lead to ‘a culture of forgetting’ – and in the long term even a rehabilitation of fascism. (or even fascism’s worst historical manifestation, Nazism)  But every time we make an exception to free speech and weaken its absolute nature we potentially provide our enemies the very weapons that could be turned against us into the future.   Also – while perhaps an impossible ideal, Jurgen Habermas’s ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ is such an ideal as to be worth questing after in many respects.  Along with pluralism and acceptance of mediated conflict engagement is also a potentially core-foundation for liberal democracy. 

The problem is that on the Left we simply do not have the resources to be heard and considered alongside the cacophony of right-wing viewpoints.  So we are far from a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’.  Censorship is not the answer;  but the articulation of a broad new historic bloc is.  What is needed is a united front against domination and injustice.  That is to mobilise the necessary resources to bring about what Austrian Social Democrats once called ‘growth from within’ – but on a broader basis -  amidst disciplined solidarity.  There is scope for ‘asymmetrical cultural struggle’ with the rise of the internet.  But also a need to promote REAL pluralism via public and community media; involving an inclusive exchange across the entire spectrum – save for the far right.  The same inclusive pluralism must guide reform of school curricula also.

But none of this demands the silencing of Andrew Bolt.  Rights might not be absolute – especially in the midst of extreme circumstances.  But we all have a duty to avoid the escalation of civil conflict to the point where brute repression and Terror become reality. We can challenge Andrew Bolt without banning his speech.  And we can show solidarity with Charlie Hedbo by confronting the associated issues openly and open-mindedly – but avoid an escalation of rhetoric which would only polarise our society along religious and ethnic grounds.  And we must learn the lessons of past interventions – for instance in Iraq – which created the conditions for the war in Syria, and also the rise of the Islamic State movement.

Finally – without supressing speech – a discourse on ‘responsible’ speech should aim to avoid language of extreme escalation and polarisation on the grounds of religion or race. 

We must be uncompromising in defending rights of speech, assembly, association, conscience, as well as other liberties. (eg: industrial liberties)  The mass rallies in France and Australia demonstrate that Charlie Hedbo is now far from alone: Hundreds of thousands have mobilised to support free speech; and to reject intimidation through Terror.

But ideally freedom should be balanced with honest self-criticism. This may seem to go ‘against the spirit’ of Charlie Hedbo.   But it might be a precondition for the engagement which could promote long-term harmony between religion and liberal rights in this country.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Andrews Labor Win in Victoria means Challenges and Opportunities for Change


 
 
above:   Daniel Andrews' convincing win for Victorian State Labor provides a window for change: hopefully a opportunity that he will make the most of
 
Tristan Ewins

Daniel Andrews is set to take office for Labor in Victoria with a resounding electoral endorsement.

But one crucial issue was neglected by everyone during the campaign. 

Arguably no state government in the country has secured the revenue necessary to sustain government provision of public infrastructure in everything from transport to public housing and education over the long term.

Interestingly, former Conservative Victorian Premier Denis Napthine himself had argued at one point for a higher GST.   This could deliver the necessary funds to the states generally. Though the measure would have hit low income groups hardest, and hence would have been unfair. 

Meanwhile so-called ‘Public Private Partnerships’ (and ‘full-blown’ privatisation as well) also inevitably involve regressive user-pays mechanisms; and arguably are less efficient means of finance.  ‘The Age’-columnist Ken Davidson has long made this argument to the chagrin of Labor and Liberal state governments alike.    This makes the cause of progressive tax reform all the more pressing.

Progressive tax reform is necessary to provide for working families who increasingly cannot afford a roof over their heads; or who endure insufficient transport infrastructure; or who may be the targets of future unfair  ‘user-pays’ mechanisms via toll-roads and the like.  We need to sustain more public spending, not less – to provide the roads, public transport, schools and public housing necessary to ensure no-one ‘gets left behind’; to gently deflate the housing bubble; and so services and infrastructure are funded sustainably and fairly.  Again: That MUST mean increasing progressively sourced revenue Federally and ‘locking in’ the provision of necessary funds on to the States.  The states desperately need certainty on this point.

During the Victorian State election campaign both sides committed to ‘no new taxes’.  Immediately, therefore, apparently Andrews ‘hands appear to be tied’ on the revenue front.  Although perhaps  the way may still be open to increase existing taxes.   The dilemma is achieving this progressively.  

But none of this is to say Andrews Labor cannot agitate loudly and clearly – along with the Weatherill South Australian State Labor Government – on a  ‘new front’: refuting Abbott’s Ideological commitment to a ‘small government’.

Incidentally the ‘small government mentality’ – with all its consequences – appears to be prevalent at a Federal Labor level as well.  A long-time member of the Victorian Socialist Left, it would be well for Andrews to publicly adopt the cause of proportionately increased, fairly structured and progressive social expenditure.

In the meantime Andrews Labor is committed to suite of policies including support for social and public housing – with regulations aimed at ensuring affordability for the aged and the disabled.  As well there is Andrews Labor’s commitment to removing dangerous level crossings;  and delivering enhanced fire services and reduced ambulance waiting times.  There is also Labor’s popular commitment to restoring funding for TAFE campuses; and establishing jobs, education and training as a ‘top priority’.  Finally the public voted for Labor on a platform of cancelling the expensive Public Private Partnership on ‘East-West Link’.

But limited Victorian State revenues remains the bugbear that may come back to haunt the new government.   Over the short-term Labor can afford to spend; and indeed needs to spend in order to deliver the Victorian jobs recovery it has promised.  But for this to be sustained over the long term something has to change federally.   And arguably failure to build crucial infrastructure would mean ‘bottlenecks’ which over the long term do much more damage to the economy than increased public debt.  Abbott must take responsibility, here, rather than follow through his political blackmail of withdrawing federal funds.

These arguments need to be addressed by Federal Labor also if Shorten is to deliver the full NDIS, as well as Gonski, and other potentially popular initiatives.  That should include a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme;  as well as Medicare dental, physio and optical; and for much more public and social housing to ‘gently deflate’ the housing bubble.  Also crucial are funds and programs ‘close the gap’ on life-expectancy,  and provide life opportunities for the mentally ill.  And finally we have to reiterate that federal tax reform is crucial if efficient public investment in state infrastructure (roads, public transport, schools, energy, public housing) is to be sustained over the long term.

It is also regrettable that Andrews Labor  has provided for its promise on level-crossings through privatisation of the Port of Melbourne.  Definitely it was smart politics; and the role of ‘smart politics’ in the Andrews Labor victory should not be understated.  But arguably inferior cost structures (including profit margins) will now flow on to the broader economy over the long term.  This is a ‘once-off’ shot to public revenue that once implemented cannot be reversed.  There is a comparison, here, with Abbott’s privatisation of Medibank Private.  Although that policy will have specific ramifications: creating a near-private monopoly in private health insurance, with the market-dominance of the newly-private player working against the interests of consumers.  Also
hundreds of millions will be lost to the public in revenue every year.  

Finally, Andrews Labor has the opportunity to pursue other progressive reforms; not least of all developing a progressive agenda on secondary curriculum that takes on the Conservative education orthodoxy championed by the likes of Liberal stalwart Kevin Donnelly.   As against Donnelly’s professed narrow emphasis on numeracy and basic literacy there is a place in secondary curricula for the imparting of critical thinking and textual deconstruction.  That applies the English, the Social Science  and Humanities as well.  Education should not merely apply to ‘labour market requirements’, but also must promote the demands of active and critical citizenship, as well as political literacy, and cultural literacy, participation and inclusion.  Curricula should  aim to develop ‘well-rounded human beings’.  

There is no need for bias in such a curriculum, however.  The Liberal Party itself is struggling to survive organisationally as the young increasingly abandon political activism. Rather a ‘critical/active’ curriculum could promote an appreciation of interests and ideologies which was inclusive and balanced.  As against Donnelly’s fears, it need not preach moral and cultural relativism.   Such reform could be ‘streamlined’ through English, History, a new ‘Political Economy’ subject, and should attract support from all who are serious about of robust democracy. 

Under Joan Kirner curriculum reform was a top priority.  So too should it be under the Andrews Victorian Labor Government.

 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Compelling yet Neglected Book – The Sixth Extinction




The publisher of this blog (Tristan Ewins) is busy right now completing his PhD; But Eric Aarons has been kind enough to provide us with another book review - this time on the book 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert.   Eric Aarons engages with Probert' book - explaining the causes of extinction in the past - and the threat for further extinctions and damage to the natural environment. In essence -  capitalism is viewed as a system which takes growth and consumerism to extremes - in a way which is not sustainable.


 
Reviewed  by  Eric Aarons

The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a practiced journalist and a widely read science commentator. She has written a book that is not about what may be coming, but what we are already in – a massive extinction of species. We know through scientific research of five of these that occurred before human beings even existed; but the sixth is our very own creation.  We have fittingly described the era we are now living in by the word ‘Anthropocene’, which proclaims that we are now the species that dominates all the rest, not only the animal, vegetable and insect, but also the  mineral coating of rock, water, and soil that enfolds the molten rock that forms most of the plane.

We do not own it, but are its custodians – a concept that includes caring for and looking after, a task with which we have yet to adequately cope.

Kolbert writes a prologue recognising the fragility of the newly evolved (about 200 million years ago) human ape, now self-described as Homo-sapiens (man the wise); but she also specifies the survival talents we possess. We are not especially swift or strong, but are singularly resourceful. We multiply readily, and are equipped to push into regions with different climates, predators and prey. We can cope with difficult terrain and spread worldwide, including to Australia where we had to cope with building some kind of vessel and cross a wide stretch of water without being able to first see the far shore. We encounter very large animals but cope with the dangers they pose, inventing new weapons. Not least, we find the way to make, and up to a point, control fire.          

We leave behind in our their travels collections of our species, which become permanent bodies of people with distinctive physical characteristics and patterns of behaviour (culture), influenced by different surroundings, and patterns of behaviour established, perhaps through influential individuals.

The so-called ‘races’ are not variations on the Homo sapiens species genetic identity, as Noel Pearson correctly pointed out in his recently published Quarterly Essay: ‘A rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth’. They are rather significant modifications of physical appearance and cultural behaviour, often relating to climatic and occupational sources.

Extinctions

The French naturalist Georges Cuvier began the close examination of animal extinctions. Employed as a teacher at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, he had time to spare. He used it to examine the extensive collections it held of animal bones and skeletons which were widely collected at the time as curiosities. He noticed, in particular, the value of teeth in identifying various specific species of elephant, noticing, for instance, that ‘the elephant from Ceylon differs more from that of Africa than the horse from the ass or the goat from the sheep.’ (pp. 28-29).

He had discovered extinction – a world previous to ours 

He then posed the question about two large and different skeletons which did not correspond to any known living animal, concluding they must have come from ‘lost’ (that is, now extinct) species. But this posed another question: What could kill off huge animals, far bigger than elephants? The answer he gave was: catastrophes, cataclysms!

This view prevailed for some years, but was questioned by geologist Charles Lyell, who saw all round him mainly examples of peaceful and very slow change. Typically, ‘both’ turned out to be the case.

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This illustrates the human tendency to go to extremes. Indeed, there have been many catastrophes in Earth’s history (though, thankfully, they are infrequent). Past ones, caused by collision with extra- territorial bodies have been located through measuring the amount of the element Iridium, in earth samples. This element exists in small amounts on earth, but is more plentiful in meteors and other larger objects which the earth encounters from time to time.

The last one (135 million years ago) struck a glancing blow on the Yucatan peninsula near the southern end of present Mexico.  It created a ‘nuclear winter’ by the worldwide dust blocking out the sun for a long time. This  killed off the dinosaurs, creating conditions in which mammals could flourish, eventually giving rise to apes, from which we humans emerged, appearing as ‘lords of creation’, but now also the source of massive extinctions,  as we shall see.   

Our first and very own extinction?

It was probably the Great Auk. We ate it.

It was a large flightless bird about 80 cms tall, laying nutritious eggs about 12 cms long, and was  eaten on and offshore. It was a source of soft feathers cruelly pulled out to stuff mattresses, and their oily flesh was used for fuel. When Europeans first found them there were up to one hundred thousand pairs on their favoured island off the coast of Canada, while the last individual was killed in 1844. (page 62) 

From there I pass to Chapter 5 where the author introduces us to the era in which we now are, and act as ‘Monarchs of all we Survey’, designating it as the ‘Anthropocene‘. We skip over some species that are produced by oceans to the oceans themselves (Chapter 6), to the  small island of Castello Aragonese, which has been produced by the very large forces of the northward drift of the African continent. Oceans occupy 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, and there is constant exchange of gases between atmosphere which varies as, through combustion of fossil fuels, we put, increasing quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, forming a weak but nevertheless powerful shell and coral dissolving  acid. 

But it is the rapid rate of increase that is the biggest problem:

If we were adding CO2 to the air more slowly, geophysical properties like the weathering of rock would come into play to counteract acidification. As it is, things are moving too fast for such slow- acting to keep up . . . time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time. (Page 123)

The way corals change the world – with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations – might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them. (page 130) 

The Fate of the Megafauna 

As boney skeletons attest, large animals and birds existed on most continents, and in the oceans, including the mighty whales. On Australia’s eastern seaboard many human ‘whale- watchers’ appear to see them in their north-migration season. But there are now no living members of, for instance, the Diprotodon, a giant wombat with a weight approaching that of a smallish elephant.

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The writer of this review is also a sculptor, and to honour this animal made a sculpture of a female of the species out of a 9 tonne block of golden granite. This now stands in the sculpture park of the Campbelltown Arts Centre near Sydney, where children like to ride upon its back.

Discussion was keen about the cause of the extinctions, but now the major cause today, in the author’s view, is that it lies with us ourselves - that is, with the things we do, and the rate at which we do them.

Causes of The SixthExtinction – the one we humans have caused, not nature   

Biological processes, which involve chemical reactions, take time, more time than they do in test tubes, because they have to collect, pass through membranes, then react with others. The changes needed to set in motion the ‘origin of new species’, as postulated by Darwin and Wallace and is now almost universally accepted, likewise take time, far more time since a great number of entities, both living and inanimate are also involved.  

Elizabeth Kolbert is telling us that in our very own age – the Anthropocene – we humans are now changing the world so rapidly that a growing number of species do not have enough time to replicate, because we are changing the outside conditions too fast for them to viably adapt. She points out that ‘caring more’ is welcome, [but] what is important is ‘that people change the world’ [too much, too quickly]. (page 266)                                                                                                      

The Neanderthals

I now return to the text, in particular to the penultimate chapter that deals with the discovery of a new but now extinct species – the humanoid Homo neanderthalensis.  It was named after the Neander valley near Cologne, where it was first discovered in 1856. Later, its bones turned up all over Europe and the Middle East, then as far north as Wales, as far south as Israel , and east to the Caucasus.

They lived in teepees, made clothes of a kind from animal skins (it was  very cold in Europe at the time) and made and used stone tools by flaking. Perhaps most significantly they ‘made love’ as the saying goes, with humans, sometimes producing progeny that lived. We don’t know whether they had a language in our sense, but the most striking fact was how like human beings they could have looked when dressed in human garb. There are a number of pictures in the book of them so garbed in our clothing, and the resemblance is uncanny, perhaps unsettling. 

Elizabeth Kolbert has deliberately labelled the chapter ‘The Madness Gene’, dealing with the human characteristic of ‘going to extremes’. Personally, this reviewer does not consider this trait to be genetically based, though it could be culturally determined by the fact that, for capitalism, there is no limit to the amount of profit that can be made in given circumstances.

The capitalist system is presently in an economic state that has not yet been solved with its current tools, and is faced with a culturally strong group of nearly 2 billion Muslim peoples that it needlessly aroused into a state of enmity - and  that it is finding increasingly difficult to deal with.  

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Each different social system makes a different bed to lie on, or to spring from, and the current one – capitalism – repeatedly demonstrates the power of ‘more’, bigger, deeper, higher, further, faster. But this can’t go on for ever, as it now threatens to do, 

Moderation

This is not a dirty word, but it is often treated with scorn or anger as if it were.

It is, and I think actually has been in the past, a sign of civilisation in our cultural activities of speaking, writing, music making, eating, drinking and personal relations. We actually look for it in the top level of sports, but also savour, and nominate as ‘sporting’, empathetic treatment of one contestant to another who is suffering from some form of difficulty.

I believe, especially after reading the warning alarms sounded by the author in this book, that we should moderate our own behaviour, as a species, in regard to the needs of other species, and of our own, and of future human generations. 

I think her heading of the penultimate chapter about Neanderthals, ‘The Madness Gene’, goes a bit far, even as an exaggeration, to make a good point, and could tend to weaken the necessity to act now! But I offer her my heartfelt congratulations on researching and writing it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kissinger’s ‘WORLD ORDER’



above: Henry Kissinger's new book is titled 'World Order'

In this his latest article former Australian communist leader Eric Aarons dissects former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger's latest book, 'World Order'.  Relating to his own experiences of the consequences of Kissinger's 'real-politick', Aarons criticises Kissinger in no uncertain terms.


By Eric Aarons

Henry Kissinger wastes no time in getting to the point of this important book from the first page. His aim is to restore the ‘World Order’ or ‘American Consensus’ that had been firmly established in the last decade of the 20th Century. Doing that, to which he himself had been closely attached, he might have thought  of questions of his own reputation that would not go away.

Kissinger wants  to  feature as the trusted and fearless adviser who,  given the opportunity    and means (sometimes as Secretary of State), would seek out the realities and truths of difficult international situations, even if the President did not like what he advised.  Readers  can make up their own minds whether or not Kissinger acted on this principle.

As capitalism developed worldwide, so did the impulse for the formation of ‘states’ – that is,  sovereign bodies of people  holding a defined territory,  politically ordered in a known way, and with a set of unofficial but powerful  ‘rules of behaviour’ – a culture – that might also distinguish them from neighbours. States had therefore to make agreements at least individually with each other,  hopefully with all .

This was no simple matter because tradition had already become fixed on many relevant aspects of these matters in medieval and feudal times. The most important of these were the virtually endless wars within and between countries that had prevailed in feudal and medieval times, mainly centred on religion, but with land also in the picture.

Capitalism featured competition, but also needed forms of cooperation to facilitate and promote business enterprise, while the new ‘states’ had only the traditional ones attached to the family, and thus to marriage relationships and rules of inheritance. These, though still featuring in relations between states, were inadequate for the task of setting  general rules for relations between them.

Henry Kissinger defines ‘world order’ as a state of affairs in which a majority of states reach some (peaceful) agreement on the conduct of the relations between them. – that is, what each of them prohibits or permits – what each of them may do or must not do. He places the origin of this concept in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). which, concluding the ‘30 years religious war, providing  an opportunity to begin a new era in which agreements instead of wars could establish some form of ‘World Order’ embracing at least most of Europe and the United States of America. 

This seems plausible,  in that, following the universal war throughout  Europe waged by Napoleon in the wake of the 30 years (religious) war, the treaty ending this period of history, had the opportunity to  establish the principles that could guide, as  justly as deemed possible, the principles that all nations might  accept.

Looked at soberly, and with due deference to the achievements of Westphalia, the sort of ‘World Order’ Kissinger holds up today as his preferred model is not worth the paper it is written on, and in any case has zero chance of coming into effect. It depends on the existence of one nation that stands above all the rest in military might, backed by a population that is ready to  make the necessary sacrifice of lives, material treasure, and ethical probity (torture doesn’t fit here) to deal with wrong-doing  by its citizens and those of other states.

Chile

Chile was a major test for Henry Kissinger, in which he performed worse than miserably. By happenstance, I had a connection in the build up to this, having been elevated to a leading position in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) after I had returned after studying three years in China. For internationalist  educational purposes I was chosen, along with a journalist, Pete Thomas, to attend as observers of the Congress of the Chilean Communist Party in 1965. This was shortly after the Socialist Party leader, Salvador Allende had run a close second for President of Chile, and it was thought he would likely be elected next time. We had a  number of assignments and instructions, including proceeding later to Moscow and discussing our worries about the growing split with China,  Soviet treatment of writers and artists, the existence of anti-Semitism,  and the unpersoning of Nikita Khruschev after he had let out the truth about Stalin’s dictatorship.                                        

There were difficulties in getting a flight from Mexico to Chile, so we did not actually attend the Congress, but had significant discussions with a number of the leading cadres, including about the likely behaviour of the Army. They told us that it had never intervened in Chilean politics before, and believed it would not do even if Allende did win the next election, but we urged them not to be too sure.

Allende did win, and had begun making significant economic and political changes when  General Augusto Pinochet led an army coup, surrounding the Presidency, and shooting dead Allende who had armed himself with a rifle and was shooting back on September 11, 1973. Thousands were immediately arrested and taken to a sports arena where they were immediately killed and/or tortured. Shortly after that, Pinochet invented the practice of taking captives up in a plane and dumping them directly into the Atlantic Ocean, and to this day there are ‘disappeared people’ being sought by relatives and loved ones.

Kissinger assured Pinochet of his support, and to this day it is not clear whether it was President Nixon who had directly ordered Kissinger to arrange the coup, or had it suggested to him by the latter. Public Radio International (PRI) has a program (‘The World’) which conducted a long interview with Kissinger on the day marking  the  41st anniversary of the coup, but said ‘when we raised the subject of Chile today, Kissinger cut us off.’ What other unsavoury secrets is he hiding?

The invasion of Iraq.

Kissinger declares now (September 11, 2014, PRI) that ‘he would not have supported the Iraq war if he had known then what he knows now’. He obviously asked only those favouring the war though there were plenty of  prominent  people thinking  otherwise. He can only blame himself, but doesn’t.

Indonesia

On December 6, 1975, Kissinger accompanied President Gerald Ford to Jakarta on a ‘friendly visit’. Next day, as their plane departed, the Indonesian President, Suharto, launched  his army on East Timor, which had just been given its independence by Portugal. 200,000 East Timorese were killed, and many atrocities committed. The aim was to use East Timor as a launching pad to then annex the western half of New Guinea which was mineral-rich  (In These Times April, 2000). Kissinger was also on the Board of the New Orleans based Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine in West Papua, which was also notorious for its poor environmental record.

The full story of the struggle for East Timor’s independence is too long to relate here, but the CPA had a proud record, and even John Howard eventually also played a part in it.

The Future?

The inadequacy of Henry Kissinger’s ideas of what a new World Order should aim for stands out. But the loss of the United States of America as the keystone of its arch of power is crystal clear, and is self-inflicted. Since Vietnam (1975), it has waged several major wars, and has not won a single one. Humanity must seek a new path, and the ‘battle  for  civilisation’ that Tony Abbott speaks about (The Australian, October 5, 2014) is far too limited to effect major change.

The one example there is room for here, is outlined in a book The Sixth Extinction, well written by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury). The title comes from the knowledge that there have been five major extinctions of life on earth caused naturally, but the sixth, now  occurring, is self-inflicted. It is caused, says the author, by the fact that humans are changing conditions on earth more rapidly than most species can cope with, including  many  of us. The term ‘Great Moderation’ was used recently by economists just as the GFC (Great Financial Crisis) was about to erupt. Many humans, especially the top 1 percent who get as much as the rest of us put together (Oxfam), now need sufficiency rather than more; bigger is not always better, softer is often preferable to louder. . . 

I trust you will get my drift.

Kissinger’s notion of a ‘New World Order’ included non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.  Including choice of religion, political system, economic conduct and other similar arrangements, and general self-determination. This worked reasonably well for about a century , until it was violated by none other than Kissinger himself. It is not clear that was his decision, backed by various political leaders (particularly those of the United States,) that he had influenced.

Again: this was to interfere in Chile’s internal affairs by prompting, then urging on an officer of the Chilean armed forces, General Augusto Pinochet, to stage a coup, overthrow and kill the newly  elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende.

Conclusions

By his silence on this issue of the Chilean coup, Kissinger re-endorses the views he expressed to Pinochet in 1976: ‘ We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende ‘ (Wikipedia).

The organisation Public Radio International (PRI) has a program called The World. Forty one years to the day after the coup  – September 11, 1973 – they organised a long interview  with Kissinger, but towards the end they asked him about Chile. They report That he cut them off without saying a word. Is he hiding or protecting a dead President?, hmself? Or both?

Thankfully, Kissinger is no longer in the position of chief adviser and organiser of action for  an American President . Even more important, times have changed, and humanity  has more options, and especially no  need of a new super-state, strong enough in weaponry, economic ascendancy, financial solidity and a fragile rectitude  towards other states. With the rectitude, and a psychological disposition, to keep all the rest of the world’s  nations in line.

Public Radio International (PRI)  also asked Kissinger about The Iraq war . He replied: “If I had known everything then that I know now, I probably would not have supported it.” An evasive reply if there was one. In fact, many people, some with actual knowledge, questioned the assertion  that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Who did Kissinger talk to at the time?

In any case, Kissinger’s interpretation  of Muslim capacities, as he writes even now, reveals  the dismissive, even contemptuous  attitudes held by ‘leading’  American and many other westerners. They had better learn fast if they seek to construct a new ‘World Order’.

Kissinger, to his credit for once, gives what I take to be a fairly accurate account of the long term thinking and vision of a number of Eastern and Middle Eastern states. Taking Persia (now Iran) he says:

So (in 1979) when an accepted state in the Westphalian system, turned itself into an advocate of radical Islam after thje Ayatollah Khomeini revolution, the Middle East regional order was turned upside down. (Page 149).

I doubt that he saw this at the time  (when he was directly attached to the White House). But, particularly now we have a situation deriving from that invasion in 2001, which has mushroomed into a major world-wide problem  that has to be tackled on more than one front. The Australian government has decided on a half-baked war with the muslim world based on the atrocious practice of decapitating  those they regard as enemies on full-view TV.

‘The  book is well worth reading, and those doing so will learn a lot about how experts in international relations operate. Unfortunately, there is no promise of a turn for the better in the rest of this decade.’

 

                

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