Sunday, August 18, 2013

Karl Marx - A Nineteenth Century Life - Review by Eric Aarons

above: A photograph of a young Karl Marx

In this article former National Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia Eric Aarons reviews a new book on the life and work of Karl Marx.  Eric explores this new title in light of his vast experience as a socialist activist.  Amongst the themes Aarons explores are: Marxism determinism,  the Hegelian connection, the historical context of Marx's work, and the question of class as the central category for socialism.
by Eric Aarons;  August 2013

The publication of Jonathon Sperber’s new book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is a notable and welcome event.  It is very well written, and uses the new MEGA (Marx and Engels’ Collected Works) which corrects and replaces, on the basis of meticulous research, older translations, and even whole books such as The German Ideology, never published by Marx or Engels.   It is not suggested that such errors were deliberate, but correcting them provides a more reliable basis for scholarship.  

Another feature, which the author himself supplies, is a relatively short and, in my view, correct account of the thoughts and theories of writers who influenced Marx, for instance Georg Hegel.   Hegel is often hard to interpret because his reasoning, especially concerning the journeys of ‘the world spirit’, is difficult for most of us to penetrate or accept.   And, though Marx may have been somewhat influenced by the positivism of his day, he was far from embracing it.  Re Marx’s article On the Jewish Question, often held to contain anti-Semitism, I concur with Sperber’s view that this is erroneous and misses the point.

I don’t think anyone will be able to fault the author on matters of fact; but there will always be issues of judgment, priorities, omissions and the like, some instances of which I will raise.

I had read a number of books about Marx’s early life, but was particularly taken with his essay on the high-school one: ‘Observation of a Young Man on the Choice of Profession’.  Marx wrote: ‘… it did not suffice to follow an occupation for which one had both the inclination and ability. Rather, the chosen occupation should be one that “grants us the highest dignity, that is founded on ideas, about whose truth we are convinced, that offers the greatest field in which to act for humanity, and even to approach the universal goal, completeness and perfection. Every occupation is just a means to that goal”’. Marx suggested that such completeness and perfection occurs at the intersection of the fulfillment                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   of individual inclinations and abilities, and the improvement of the human condition (page 31). Most of the many communists I have known have been motivated by that social value. 

Sperber generously evaluates the Manifesto of the Communist Party as ‘a literary masterpiece: compact, pithy, elegant, powerful and sarcastically amusing all at once, and was a deeply personal expression of Marx’s own experiences and intellectual development.’      (p. 203). But he did not comment on the fact that it included the words: ‘if selling and buying disappears, free selling and buying disappears also’, which was clearly what Marx had in mind for a socialist society, and came to be a major negative factor in the Soviet and later Maoist economies.

Radical Democracy
In chapter 3, Sperber presents an interesting account of Marx’s deepest view of democracy, which is centered on his long-term view of a degree of unity between private and public property. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, (written in France) Marx went further than he had before about a new arrangement of state and society. This he described (after reading Rousseau) as ‘a union of the private interests in which the particular private  concerns with the general would simultaneously articulate the universal common good, since both would be manifestations of the people, the basis of democracy’. Marx emphasized his view that ‘the universal common good would no longer be the exclusive property of the state standing against and opposed to society. Instead there would be a regime in which the particular private concerns of civil society would simultaneously articulate the universal common good since both would be manifestations of the people, the basis of democracy’ (page 115)

It was in France also that Marx entered his first real relationships with the actual working class, when consciousness of its own suffering, aspirations and ideas were just emerging, but nevertheless then saw in it the class force that could carry through his revolutionary hopes.

There, too, Marx wrote his article on liberation of the Jews: ‘having identified Jews with capitalism, he conversely identified capitalism with the Jews. If egoism and practical need were principles of Judaism, they were also principles of civil society. These principles were articulated as money “which is the essence of man’s labour and his being that has been alienated from him. That alienated being dominates him and he worships it.” (p. 131)

Neo-liberal doctrine holds, on the contrary, that ‘most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash-nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on the relations between the parts being governed by the striving for the better satisfaction of their material needs’. * (Law Legislation and LIiberty ,vol, 2, page 112).

Where I come in

My interest in Sperber’s book did not stem from a desire to try to protect Marx from criticism. Though my father and his parents were members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), I personally had little interest in politics, though I had experienced, through observation, some of the human wreckage among those who had survived the Great War, then lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But in 1938, at age 19, when I entered university and a new world war loomed, I joined the CPA, avidly studied Marx, and engaged in university politics. At war’s end, I became a Party Functionary (apparatchik) specializing in party education, then in general party work. In 1951, at Chinese invitation, I lead a group of young members to a school on ‘Marxism and the Thought of Mao Zedong.’ It lasted 3years.

The high expectations of rapid ‘left’ progress following the crucial role of Soviet forces in ‘tearing the guts out of the Germany Army’, as Churchill put it, then the victory of the Chinese Revolution and the demise of colonialism, nevertheless did not materialize. More truths about socialist economic and democratic failures emerged, China and the Soviet Union fell out and Communist Parties split.

To cap it all, Soviet and satellite forces in 1968 invaded a Czechoslovakia that had developed a program to create ‘socialism with a human face’. I did not and do not believe that Marxism, as such, had anything to do with those reprehensible events, but I felt deeply an obligation, to myself and those I had taught, to re-examine the founding beliefs, ideas and theories of the movement that had set out to replace the very flawed capitalist system that is now spawning ever more dangers to the planet itself, and to its dependent inhabitants, human and otherwise.



Though this concept became one of the greatest and oft repeated faults in the theoretical system that Marx built, Professor Sperber does not deal with it. In Marx’s Preface to the first edition of Capital, he wrote: ‘… even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement – and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society – it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its natural. development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs’. (emphasis added)          t

He made another, even stronger, appeal to the ‘inevitability’ of human advance to socialism, and to the dialectical method, in his enthusiastic welcome to the review of Capital in the St.Petersburg European Messenger (May, 1872). This said:

The one thing which is of moment to Marx is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of motion of moment to him, which governs these phenomena … Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connections into a different one … and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. (emphasis added)

Marx comments: ‘Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectical method?’

How to study human society?

Long ago, as the humans originating in Africa migrated around the world, establishing along the way some settlements that became permanently different types of society, the issue arose of how to study those differences in a systematic way. There may be others, including some of the Greek and Roman thinkers, but one set of outstanding precursors of Marx in this area were the Scottish Historians, the most famous of whom is Adam Smith.  Another member of that group was William Robertson, who summed up their orientation: ‘In every inquiry covering the operations of men when united in society, the first object of attention should be their mode of subsistence. Accordingly as that varies, their laws and policy must be different.’ (Collected Works, 1812, vol. 5, p.111; quoted by Andrew Skinner in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Wealth of Nations Books 1- 3).

{Smith devised a four-stage set of social developments, using what became (perhaps from the above source) Marx’s ‘mode of production’ concept  to establish guiding lines between them, together with a corresponding degree of development of property relations. The first featured hunting and gathering, as with the native tribes of North America, where private property was negligible.

The next stage, pasture, featured a nomadic existence and a distinctive form of private property – cattle – along with the beginnings of class divisions between rich and poor, and the origins of civil government to ‘establish peace’ between them.

The third stage, in Smith’s scheme, is the agrarian one, following the decline of Rome, where ownership of great landed estates was for the rich, and tillage activities for the poor – that is, the feudal system. This existed also in South America and the Meso-American area that connected it with the North.

The last stage was the commercial one, in which private property in the rapidly developing means of production was the primary feature, and capitalists made commodities to sell them at a profit.  Concerning this, another of the Scottish Historians, David Hume, wrote that: ‘Unlike other passions, which are quite inconstant, material interests are constant and difficult to restrain: this avidity alone, of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal and directly destructive of society.’ (Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume, 1991 page 294)

A little History

It is difficult to write about a history book, without writing about history. Yet I have no historical knowledge of the period under review that could add to what Professor Sperber has so thoroughly researched. But I point out for the reader some of the facts he unearthed that particularly impressed me.

For instance: ‘the extent of the newspaper articles written by Marx between 1853 and 1862 was greater than everything else he published during his lifetime put together.’ (page 296)

‘Three major topics dominated his writing: the Crimean War of 1853-56, and its implications for the foreign policies of the great powers and the domestic politics of Great Britain; the conditions and conflicts  of the British Empire in Asia, including the Second Opium War with China in 1856-60, along with the massive Indian uprising against British imperial rule in 1857, and the implications of these conflicts for global capitalism; and the causes and consequences of the worldwide recession of 1857, including what Marx hoped would be a new wave of revolutions in Europe’. (page 302)

A few years ahead, we find Marx active in the affairs of the International Working Men’s Association. Known as The First International, this was ‘a loose federation of affiliated  workers’ societies. Twenty three English trade unions with upward of 25,000 members, were the backbone of the group.’ They were particularly involved in solidarity movements, for instance convincing German artisans not to be recruited as strikebreakers during the London tailors’ strike of 1866 (page 358), and indirectly playing a significant role in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Marx also helped to wind the organization up in 1864.This centred on the fact that the anarchist Russian, Bakunin, and others of like mind favored above all the setting up of ‘secret societies’ which Marx rightly opposed, because politics,  even then, had come to require open public views, as with the Manifesto which proclaimed ‘The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.’ To fail to do so and to rely on ‘secret societies’ and conspiratorial groups is, in effect, to accept defeat in advance, because radical new ideas have to ‘win the battle of democracy’ by winning over a large body of the active citizens.

Is there an alternative to confiscating all private means of production

Marx said in the Manifesto: ‘In all these movements against the existing social and political order of things [the communists] bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’  And, achieving power in 1917 in the midst of the ‘Great’ First World War, the communists built and operated, for seven decades, a society based on state-ownership of all the main means of production, along with suppression of small businesses. But they never succeeded in creating, on that basis, a permanently viable economy or a democratic polity.

There were three main reasons for this failure: First, that the concentration of ownership (actually ‘control’, because the means of production couldn’t be sold) of all the means of production by the government gave the leaders virtually uncontestable power, which both Stalin and Mao took for themselves.  Others following them, particularly Mikhail Gorbachev, tried hard to radically amend the system, but were unable to curb the power of the overblown government apparatus that had developed, or reverse the resentment, inertia and ‘look after yourself’ attitudes of the workforce. Second, there was no way open in which individuals could better themselves and have an opportunity to wield a modicum of influence on economic and/or political power.  Third, the ideology (as it had now become, see below) buttressing that state of affairs, claiming to be Marxist or ‘Marxist-Leninist’, was rigidly enforced, leaving no opportunity for alternative views and practices to develop, or theoretical advances and corrections to be made.

Human will, consciousness and intelligence

These precious characteristics are indeed inborn (genetic) aspects of the human species, but as we all know, they are modified (increased, diminished, fixated, in particular directions …)  by our associations: family, occupation, experiences in life, education, and media impacting our eyes, ears, tastes and other senses…

Consciousness and self-consciousness, though found in embryonic forms in other species, is particularly significant; it developed in the human species, and is exhibited in sociability, cooperation, empathy, morality, social values, inventiveness, science, the arts and sport …

Reason suggests that in the limitless universe in which we exist, there must be other species with similar characteristics with whom we could connect and learn from.   But, despite many years of search by various means, no such beings have yet been found. It’s early days; but at the same time, increasingly worrying signs appear of possible human self-destruction through global warming and the stress on the resource-providing base of the planet we now impose, is now being escalated by the melting of billions of tons of now frozen methane, which is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

 The Labour Theory of Value

Many economic theories developed quite early as capitalism gained the ascendancy.  Among them was the question of the worth, or value of any particular commodity among a host of others. The first and most extensively held view was that the value of any commodity depended on the quantity of socially necessary labour expended in producing it.  This view had connections with the earlier feudal system where artisan guilds controlled production, then executed with small manual tools. There seemed to be no other common feature invested in commodities other than labour and the time it spent in producing them.  The early economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, held to that view, as did Marx and many others. Capital, Vol.1, Chapter 1, featured it in a big way, often cracking the heads of those reading it.

But the issue became serious as the Industrial Revolution got under way at the beginning of the 19th century, when large quantities of capital had to be laid out on machines, buildings and ancillaries.  This capital produced no extra profit, it was held, though a portion of its own value was passed on in the product (depreciation).  The rub was that the ‘rate of profit’ – profit divided by total capital – must fall.  Many pamphlets at that time lamented that fall while Marx regarded it as another addition to the inevitability of capitalism’s demise.

I won’t go into the details of other views finding fault with this theory, but Marx himself developed a telling one, not noted by our author. It occurs in the Grundrisse:

… to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.   (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.)   … Real wealth manifests itself,  rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as a watchman and regulator to the production process itself… As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure.

Marx then returns to a renewed emphasis on his guiding values and the ultimate aim of his theoretical and political activity:  ‘real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then no longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time’ ((p. 708) in which all humans can develop to a fuller extent their individual capacities.

Today, unemployment in many countries is nearly as high (in some places even higher) than it was in the 1930s, and looks likely to be so for longer. Socialism ‘as it existed’ clearly is no longer conceivable.  The challenge is to find new ways in which to change capitalism in the social direction suggested above by Marx.

The Hegelian Connection

Though Marx always remained respectful of Hegel’s erudition, he fairly early in his career came to reject the idealist philosophy involved, and adopted a materialist outlook. He  rejected the idea that changes in the history of human societies emanated from the journeys of the  world spirit which nevertheless occurred ‘dialectically’, as both Marx and Engel averred. It may be the case that ideas and concepts do develop in that way, with each connected to all others, causes change places with effects, quantitative changes causing qualitative ones, and negations being in turn themselves negated…

I give an example of my doubts from Chapter 32 of Capital 1, titled Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.  Its theme or proposition is that, if the current form of accumulation continues, a (probably revolutionary) change will occur. No substantiation is given, only the following assertion:

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property.  This is the first negation of individual private property as founded on the labour of the proprietor.  But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a Law of Nature, its own negation.  It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era, i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.(emphasis added)

‘Dialectics’ can prove nothing by itself.  There must be a concrete analysis of any particular transition in nature or society; after that, the adjective ‘dialectical’ can be added, if applicable.


Part 3 of Sperber’s book deals with Marx’s legacy, beginning with his theoretical work, and it was rather surprising to learn (through the new MEGA) that the three volumes of Das Kapital had been destined to appear together .  The contents of volume 3 and 2 had been largely completed first, while volume 1 was excerpted from the whole for first publication. We all know that volumes 2 and 3 were not published while Marx was alive, but were later put together and edited by Engels.  This provides more than enough evidence for Sperber’s observation that Marx had difficulty (undoubtedly with reasons) in completing his projects.  It also feeds the prevalent eclecticism, whereby support (or condemnation) for almost any political-theoretical proposition of Marx’s can be drawn.

The property question

Marx always put this in the first place, as in the Manifesto: ‘ in all [mass movements] against the existing order of social and political things, communists bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’ And still to this day public ownership of all the main means of production, distribution and exchange is the core of what socialism means to most people, so far as they consider it at all.

But this ignores another fruitful insight of Marx – the concept of base and superstructure –  articulated at some length in his Preface to ‘A contribution to the Critique of Political Ecconomy.(1859). Here Marx wrote:

At a certain stage of development the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the  existing relations of production, or with the relations of property, (the latter being just a legal expression of the former) … from being forms of development of the forces of production, these relations are transformed into their shackles. An era of social revolution begins … one must always differentiate between the material upheaval in the economic determinants of production, which can be observed exactly by means of the natural sciences, and the juridical, political, religious, artistic or philosophical, in short, ideological forms in which they fight it out. . .  (page 400)

This brings in a welcome variation to the earlier assertions that social change is driven by natural laws* (pp. 3-4 above  ) and that will and consciousness are but expressions of the social facts outside them. It gives us a much more realistic Marx, and a more effective basis for conducting socialist politics, raising again the property question.

Confiscation of all significant private property in means of production became the base from which developed a dictatorial, socially repulsive and economically ineffective superstructure, which few would now accept. Yet it is big, even monstrously large, private property that now has the (money) power to dominate much of political decision on what is to be produced, *(coal is the awful example today, see: BIG COAL: Ausralia’s Dirtiest Habit, by Pearce, McKnight and Burton) Note also the unprecedented gap between the top few per cent and all the rest:  The top I per cent now get 24 per cent of total wealth compared with 9 per in 1970; BHP-Billiton’s top executives now get 200 times the average worker’s wage, compared with 6-7 times 20 years ago.

The top few welcome and seek to build on the already outrageous gaps between themselves  and the declining middle and, (with a few exceptions) take no action to deal with the key issues of climate change and the growing threat to the capacity of the planet to provide indefinitely the quantities and quality of resources required to meet the needs of human and other living species.

A possible alternative to confiscation?

In view of the fact that a system with this economic base failed, and that large numbers of working people now possess some important property, it is difficult to see a way in which majority support for confiscation could now be built. But consider instead the possibilities of custodiandship.  This was an early view in human history, namely that people were not owners, but custodians, of the land they occupied, used and lived from. Owners of big property could retain possession, but with legal responsibilities for the preservation of its riches. (Mining would be a particular problem, but offsets could be found).

Marx’s view of human nature

Marx should be included among the humanitarians, but he had a rather strange view of human nature.  He avowed that ‘nothing human is alien to me’, and his relationships to his own and other children were often quite touching.  But he wrote that ‘the human essence … is the ensemble of the social relations.’ *(6th of his Theses on Feurerbach). He also said, regarding trade, that ‘men making exchanges do not relate to one another as men’  *(Excerpt Notes of1844), though he said also that this connection was better than none at all.) More important still, was the fact that feelings, emotions and the moral sense, which feature in human values, and are a crucial part of life in general, not excluding political life, were neglected, as Antonio Gramsci so emphatically emphasized. Perhaps they were not ‘material’ enough for Marx? Humans are multi-facetted creatures and cannot be simplified to suit classifiers, organizers or manipulators.

People who participate in social movements, and particularly those leading them, need to study (difficult as it may be) what is going on in people’s heads, and avoid assuming that a worker, (a proletarian if you like) is, by that classification, already at least half-way to being a militant rebel.  One of the main things I learned from my time in China is the attention they gave to this aspect of ‘knowledge’ (not always for good purposes, be it said).  But much of the left in the West seems to pay far more attention to the externals than to the internals, as a recent book by Jonathan Haidt has emphasized * (,.).though the efforts of the right-wing media and their successes in this field should be accepted by the left as a constant caution. }


This term is often used by Marx, and Sperber gives a fair definition of how Marx saw and used it: ‘that social conditions shaped individuals’ ideas so as to further the interest of the social group to which they belonged.’ (p. 103)  Existing in most social professions, ideology is particularly prevalent in economics.  Marx was rather more forthright regarding the sequel to the first major capitalist economic crisis ca1830 (after the death of Ricardo) when it ‘was no longer a question of whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.   In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize-fighters … * (Preface to 2nd German edition)

This is not all in the past, and Rose Friedman (an economist and partner of Milton Friedman)      recalls that she had ‘always been impressed by her ability to predict an economist’s  positive views from my knowledge of his political orientation, and have never been able to persuade myself that the political orientation was the consequence of the positive views.’  Later, Mllton moved in her direction . * (Hayek’s Challenge by Bruce Caldwell, page 380)

Sperber’s sub-title: A Nineteenth Century Life

We could cut things short by saying ‘of course Marx was a nineteenth century man’.  I am old enough to remember the now antique tiny ‘cat’s whiskers’ radios early in the 20th century, followed by large valve ones, and the Ford and Buick automobiles. There followed a virtually endless variety of great inventions, ranging from miniturization with transistors, television, the personal computer and the internet, communication satellites circling round the globe, the beginnings of space travel… The slums I saw in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney have disappeared, and bedbugs are now a dying species, while a relative material abundance for the majority of people in the economically developed countries is developing.

There have also been some cultural advances, notably in the ‘gay’ area, but not many others, while the would-be scientific area of economics has again revealed its damning and destructive potential.  Virtually none of the economists who followed the current economic doctrine predicted the crash that was impending, though they had adopted some new doctrines with impressive names, such as DSGE – Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium.  (In plainer English it means ‘Ever-changing Conjectural General Equilibrium’ , a condition  that capitalism has been unable to reliably provide.)

It has brought us to the point where producing energy by burning fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere of the whole planet to a dangerous extent, causing extreme weather events, and, as we saw earlier, now beginning, as predicted, to melt the methane hydrate or clathyrate lyng  at the bottom of cold arctic seas and threatening to melt the frozen soils of the tundra, releasing huge quantities of the now inert greenhouse gas methane, which, science tells us, could cause untold – and expensive (in the trillions) – catastrophes.

Natural laws, as discussed earlier in this piece, are about inevitabilities; and I suggested that we cannot accept the view that any existing set of human relationships, including the current tones, are destined to remain dominant. A new alternative cannot be plucked out of the air, but must be built by sustained human effort.

Not a ‘class’, but a ‘peoples’ movement

It is not the purpose of this piece to discuss at any length what could replace capitalism. But change will only come about through the ideas, thoughts, motivations and actions of large numbers of people who, like the young Marx, wanted to act for the benefit of humanity; and we should think more about custodianship. It cannot succeed as a ‘class’, but can do so as a ‘peoples’ movement’ of the kind shown in the last quarter or one third of the 20th  and the beginnings of this century.

The hardest part of all is to change habits of thought and behavior, which have formerly been achieved only in circumstances where the ‘mode of production’, and thus of thinking and acting, has begun to spread widely in all sections of society. Unfortunately, because the ‘socialist’ alternative failed so badly, and with no other in sight, we have to try to politically defeat or neutralize the worst of the inveterate contributors to the now deadly – both naturally and financially – new, virulent, stage of the global warming saga humanity has been, far too comfortably, living with for well over a quarter of a century.

It has brought us to the point where producing energy by burning fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere of the whole planet to a dangerous extent, causing extreme weather events and beginning to melt the frozen ice cages at the bottom of cold northern oceans and frozen soils of the tundra which contain huge quantities of the presently inert greenhouse gas methane.

Geology Professor, Mike Sandiford, of Melbourne University recently revealed yet another indication of the (too often misplaced) power of human effort:

Rivers and glaciers have moved about 10 billion tons of sediment from mountain to sea each year on average over geological time. Each year humans mine about 7 billion tons of coal and 2.3 billion tons of iron ore. We shift about the same amount again of overburden to access these resources, along with construction aggregate and other excavations. In short we are now one of the main agents shaping the earth’s surface.(Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 2011)

And the sea, with the looming destruction of the world’s largest living entity – The Great Barrier Reef, and general over-fishing.

Natural laws, as discussed at the beginning of this piece, are about inevitablities; and I suggested that we cannot accept the view that any set of human relationships, including the current ones, are destined to remain dominant. A new alternative cannot be plucked out of the air, but can be built by human effort.

It is not the purpose of this piece to discuss at any length what could replace it. But change will only come about through the ideas, thoughts, motivations and actions of large numbers of people who, like the young Marx, wanted to act for the benefit of humanity.




Monday, August 12, 2013

Rudd versus Abbott: Observations on a Lacklustre First Election Debate

above:   Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott in a lacklustre first election debate - But Abbott is still the most frightening prospect by far

Tristan Ewins explores the themes which featured in Sunday night's first election debate.  But both sides are neglecting some of the most crucial issues re: potential austerity, the aged care crisis, and how to pay to rectify the infrastructure deficit.

Last Sunday night’s leader’s debate for the Australian Federal election was disappointing at a whole host of levels.

To begin with – both leaders heralded their party’s commitment to low tax and low expenditure as a proportion of GDP; with Rudd attempting to outdo Abbott on this theme.  Though at least Rudd questioned Abbott’s commitment to cutting Company  Tax at this time and under current conditions.  Still: neither side faced up in a truly substantial way to the challenges of an ageing population, a growing population, and a declining Chinese minerals boom. Though Abbott made the frankly absurd allegation that it was the carbon and mining taxes which were to blame for falling Chinese demand.  Neither leader fully faced up to the massive infrastructure deficit and the fact that any Australian government will be confronted with the dilemma of increasing tax or cutting expenditure on a large scale.   Abbott postured as ‘the infrastructure Prime Minister’ – But there is no sense of HOW he could possibly pay for the host of initiatives he has committed to – which amount to about $20 billion in cost so far.     

Increasingly in his choice of language Abbott turns to the extreme US model of de-valorising tax and social expenditure generally.  This is an approach which holds the prospect of encouraging US-style inequality, social dislocation, homelessness and poverty.   Apparently Abbott has ditched ‘Christian Democratic Social Welfare Centrism’ in favour of a harsher, crueller, punitive and less generous regime when it comes to social services, industrial rights and welfare.   If he wants voters to think otherwise he needs a clear and strong reorientation of his arguments and language.  (and the policies which flow from this)

In response to the contradictions between Abbott’s infrastructure promises, and his failure to propose concrete tax or savings measures, Rudd did (quite rightly) point to the future prospect of Abbott increasing and/or expanding the scope of the GST.   But Rudd did not outline his own comprehensive response to the aforementioned challenges either.  Abbott insisted that the GST will not go up without a mandate.  Perhaps they are thinking of saving that for a second term.  (in which case why would you ‘give them a foot in the door’?; especially when it would be very likely for them to ‘go a second term’) Certainly Liberal State Governments have long argued for an increase in the GST, including its extension to health and food.  Yet if the money is not coming from the GST – then again, where IS  it coming from?

Crucially, Rudd failed to deliver a potential ‘knockout blow’ during the debate – which could have been achieved by more consistently interrogating Abbott on that theme: “where exactly will the cuts come from?”  Voters have a right to know; and indeed MUST know if they are able to make an informed decision.  And if they cannot make an informed decision in voting for Abbott – then they should not vote for him at all.  

Furthermore: leaving announcements too late should not be acceptable for voters either.  If Abbott leaves the release of policies until too late it means he is trying to avoid scrutiny.  On policy it shows “he has something to hide.”

We know the Abbott cuts will be in the tens of billions should he win: especially given his existing commitments. For example, restoring the Private Health Insurance Rebate for the wealthy, as well as Parental Leave on full pay for women on  $150,000/year.  And we know in this context Abbott intends to dump the mining tax and emissions trading, and substantially cut Company Tax as well.  And to add to the fiscal pressures Abbott would- face – he has unambiguously established his desire to radically expand Defence expenditure.

Labor has claimed the Liberals’ ‘budget black hole’ is around $70 billion.   But even if this is slightly off-target, what else do voters have to go on given the Liberals’ failure to provide Treasury-approved costings with only weeks to go before election day?   Abbott is claiming there will no ‘slashing’ of health,  education and jobs under a government he leads.  Yet interestingly he does not mention welfare at  all.   How far do projected cuts have to go before Abbott imagines it warrants the verb ‘slash’?   

Abbott has talked about his support for ‘social solidarity’ – but cuts to welfare, as well as punitive welfare programs based on labour conscription would indicate something entirely different.   (to be fair, though, Labor itself has cut welfare coverage for the disabled and sole parents; and as a consequence may lose some support to the Greens) 

There is a broad claim that Abbott’s tax cuts will stimulate investment.  But this neglects the infrastructure deficit and the consequent ‘bottlenecks’ and their impact on productivity.  Abbott’s chosen path of wide-ranging tax cuts would also neglect the increasing social cost – and the cost to individual tax-payers – from ever-expanding ‘corporate welfare’.  AGAIN there’s the question – ‘where is the money coming from?’   

To elaborate on the ‘corporate welfare’ argument;  We speak here of corporate tax cuts at a time when the GST is being put up for discussion as a means of redressing the infrastructure deficit.  If corporations are not paying their fair share to access infrastructure and services they benefit from, and ordinary taxpayers are ‘picking up the slack’  (either through their taxes; their pay and conditions; or through degraded social services and welfare)  – THAT is ‘corporate welfare’.

Moving on, though:  Neither side had any new announcements when it came to Aged Care.  Abbott talked of ‘cutting red tape’ but gave no concrete impression what this would mean ‘in the real world’.  Could he actually mean a relaxing of standards amidst a widely recognised crisis in high intensity care?   Though at least Rudd was substantial insofar as he was on top of existing policies.   And at least Rudd got behind Aged Care workers – recognising the value of their work.   

But in light of the resonance of this issue in the electorate given families’ concern for their loved ones – and  for their own future – it is puzzling that a ‘National Aged Care Insurance Scheme’ is not on the table.  The Greens – it should be noted – could capitalise in a big way by championing this issue and pressing it to the forefront of public debate.  Improving pay, conditions and career paths for Aged Care workers and nurses is part of the picture; as is established ‘baseline’ staff to patient ratios for high intensity care facilities.  There are a whole host of other issues – which we have not the scope to explore comprehensively.  But meaningful reform would demand many billions in new Budget expenditure.

Both leaders were much of a muchness on asylum seekers – as we’ve come to expect there is a playing to ‘the lowest common denominator’.  The lack of a Greens presence was especially telling, here – as they are the only ‘mainstream’ party questioning the ‘hard line’ of the majors.
Rudd’s response to cost of living pressures was also very disappointing.  (Basically he blamed cost of living pressures on public ownership of utilities in the case of New South Wales)  What Rudd didn’t face up to was the ways in which privatisation itself has intensified those pressures – with duplication of administration and marketing costs, the need to provide for private profit margins and dividends, and an inferior cost of raising finance in the private sector.

But also note the following: If the state governments are currently driven to complement their budget expenditure with utility dividends, what would the consequence be of privatisation?  If state governments cannot afford to pay for infrastructure and services as is, what would the consequence of utility privatisation be?  Even aside from the aforementioned inefficiencies of utility and infrastructure privatisation, for this question we could well ask Kevin Rudd ‘where the money would come from’. 
Importantly: Abbott also failed to address Cost-of-Living Pressures satisfactorily. With the impact of the Carbon Tax only marginal once compensation was taken into account, it's not clear at all which Abbott policies would make a difference for average families.  Abbott is full of rhetoric on Cost-of-Living - but has little substance so far.  Ideologically - he is even less predisposed to consider the effect of privatisation, here, than Labor under Kevin Rudd.

Finally: Abbott refuses to move on the National Broadband Network.  Refusing to concede an inch to Labor, or give the government credit for anything, Abbott is playing a fundamentally destructive role here.  The NBN has the potential to radically renew our economy in areas as diverse as education, health, information, communications and recreation: and to open up possibilities that have not even been conceived of yet.  Think back twenty years and consider the information-based industries that have arisen over that period!  And the broader impact of information and communications technology on all our lives.  But Abbott’s ‘NBN on the cheap’ will require households to pay thousands if they want to access higher-quality fibre-to-the-household technology.  And over the long term his alternative simply will not stand the test of time.

To conclude: Abbott and Rudd are both reading ‘from the same book’ when it comes to small government, low and often regressive taxes, and a failure to respond sufficiently to the pressures of an ageing population, and a growing population.   Though it is the Liberal Party who proposes a Review which will consider an expanded GST specifically.

Meanwhile: Rudd recognises the challenges posed by a declining China resources boom – but in the debate was ‘light on details’.  Interventionist industry policies to nurture high skill, high wage industries ‘don’t appear to be on the agenda’ for anyone.  Also, neither side seems to have a clear and comprehensive proposal for redressing the infrastructure deficit without socially destructive and unfair austerity elsewhere to offset the cost.

Abbott says again and again “who do you trust”?  But how can voters trust a man who waits until the last moment to deliver his policies, his savings, his costings – quite blatantly because he wants to AVOID ACCOUNTABILITY AND SCRUTINY?

Both leaders put on less than ideal performances at the debate last Sunday.  But there are more frightening questions pertaining to Tony Abbott’s Budget agenda than with Kevin Rudd.  Abbott’s expenditure commitments and his commitment to sweeping tax cuts simply do not add up.   It is Abbott who has worked systemically to avoid scrutiny of his costings and related budgetary savings.  And the most vulnerable welfare-dependent would likely be expected to pay the price.

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