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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Final Arguments for the Socialist Objective





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

Tristan Ewins


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 The argument is forwarded (after Lenin ironically) that ‘in the ALP we were never socialists’; ‘that socialism is an outdated and disproven philosophy’ and that socialism ‘has an unbearable connotation’ thanks  to a number of totalitarian regimes from the 20th Century.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


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


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

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


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 Indeed, in a recent debate with a NSW Left member the argument was put that socialism is ‘outdated’ because “the vicissitudes of industrialisation no longer tell”.


Well, yes and no.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

For me it is simply this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Concluding


Apparently there are some in the NSW Left who are also arguing for us to drop reference to democratic socialism in the Platform.  But there are plenty of others – including down here in Victoria – who feel differently.  Importantly, though: Personally I have made conciliatory suggestions – that is, that we should recognise the plural nature of the modern party. But that democratic socialism must be recognised as a core and enduring tradition. (alongside others such as the traditional ‘Keynesian-inspired social democracy with a mixed economy’, and also our indigenous labourism)  What is wrong with that? ON top of that we could embrace the goal of achieving a ‘democratic mixed economy’ which could be the basis of a compromise in both the Objective AND the Economic Platform. ( For example See: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=17468 ; ALSO see: http://democraticmixedeconomy.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/what-is-democratic-mixed-economy.html )


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

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

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


Postscript


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


( I have developed a comprehensive ‘model Platform’ which I still hope will influence debate on the Platform ahead of Conference.   The document has well over 600 supporters and can be found here: http://alpsocialistleft.blogspot.com.au/2014/08/for-equal-and-democratic-australia.html   )


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

Friday, July 3, 2015

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




above: Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen

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

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

by Tristan Ewins

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

He observes its current form:

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

And he contends in response that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESPODNING TO BOWEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOWEN CONCLUDES by stating:

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


In conclusion, there are some points worth observing here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Nb:  Debate on this essay is very welcome here!

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

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