Below is the (edited) text of the paper I presented at Historical Materialism Australasia. This year’s conference happened in the context of a serious disagreement around sexual violence prompted in part by the SWP crisis. You can find some material on this here and here.
The below paper is fairly limited and suffers from conceptual and structural problems. However in the spirit of With Sober Senses I am happy to make it available as it functions both as a marker of the progress of my research and also as a fairly functional summary of my work so far.
In the discussion three major issues came out for me, and I thank those who contributed.
1. So far I still conceive of the public service/ state provision of reproduction as being too separate from capital accumulation proper. They are deeply and complexly intermeshed on the molecular and molar level.
2. More work is needed to further investigated how capital ‘thinks’ on the level of society
3. This kind of research needs to be careful that it doesn’t collapse into being a Marxian plan for a better capitalism – there is a tendency to do just that.
For capital there is no problem: restructuring of the system is the condition for the stabilization of the regime, and vice-versa…The interests of the proletariat, are quite the opposite. The proletariat aims at a critical seizure of the nexus between stabilization and restructuring, in order then to attack it.(Negri, 2005, p. 232)
So what I want to do here is fairly simple: I want to trace out what I think are some of the major barriers of capital accumulation in Australia in our present conjuncture and I will do so with a pretty broad brush – apologies to the details and the devils they may contain. I do so because I think these barriers are some of the deep fault-lines of class antagonism in Australia. This will be a summary of the research I have been doing over the first half of this year for the blog With Sober Senses.
Firstly I would like to apologise to those of you who read my blog for the long time it has been since my last post. It is a difficulty finding time to even read systematically at the moment let alone write. I don’t mean this as just a simple whinge –because I think that it is symptomatic of one of the problems afflicting the possibility of class organising right now – we need the time in our lives to think about what is happening to time in our lives. More broadly, unlike perhaps workers in much of Europe who face the impact of rising unemployment, workers in Australia labour under a condition of too much labour – at least at the moment (though of course any amount of wage-labour is really too much wage-labour). It is too early to tell if the proposed closure of the Ford plant and the entry into voluntary administration of Swann Services are anomalies and growth will continue or signs that winter is coming (since I have written this lines the first time it was become far more clear that with the decline of the rate of growth of industrial production in China that the mining boom, which has underscored growth in Australia for 20 years, is ending). Marx quotes the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association ‘ We declare that the limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive…’(Marx 1990, 415). Now I don’t know if the IWMA was thinking about having the time to write and discuss but perhaps they were. I must admit that I am not sure how an effort like this blog actually fits into the process of class recomposition because I am not sure what the role of ‘ideas’ really has in the messy processes of struggle. I am sure that it has some role but what that is I am confused about (and welcome comments and debate.) But if the attempts to theorise the world we live do play some part in the self-emancipation of the class then it is clear that the lack of time we have to engage in this activity (snatched between moments of work, time with those we love, socialising and resting, acts of political militancy) is contributing to just how outgunned we are in relation to capital. Reading The Poorer Nations (Prashad 2012) I am struck by the huge size and financial capacity of the intellectual apparatus capital has to think, theorise and popularise its understand of the world. Even in Australia it is a struggle to find the time to read the reports that come out of the Productivity Commission, the various business groups and economic think tanks let along attempt to think them through and write about them. (Thus my outrage that the Qld government wasn’t going to release the 1000 page Queensland Commission of Audit quickly turns to dread when they decide to – ‘oh my god I have to read a 1000 page report!’)
In a previous post I drew on the work of the Midnight Notes Collective (MNC) to describe social democracy as a class deal. I have also suggested that today capital offers (some? most?) workers in Australia a ‘high credit, high work, high consumption’ deal to, in some ways, compensate for the termination of social democracy, to reproduce the conditions of accumulation and to facilitate capital accumulation itself. I want to spend a few thousand words or so fleshing out the concept of the class deal as it seems crucial to grasp how capital rules in a specific moment and thus help those who want to subvert it. Also there is another political aim here, to better understand what social democracy was and what it means to exist in its wake. A confusion about this question is one of the many rocks on which the Australian Left-as-it-is is shipwrecked.[i] Most often the history of the last 40 years is reduced to a history of ideas: there once was a thing called ‘social democracy’ as a set of ideas, there is now a thing call ‘neo-liberalism’ and it has captured the organisations of the traditional labour movement (the unions and the ALP, especially the left of the party). A general response to the latest capitalist offensive is often an argument for a return to a romanticised idea of social democracy. This fails to account for the ways that this is both undesirable and impossible – the ground has shifted. To investigate the question of a class deal means accounting for class composition today – both subjective and objective.
In mid-December 2012 I spoke as part of a panel entitled ‘Australia: The Lucky Country? Capitalism and its Discontents’ along with Kristen Lyons as part of the Brisbane Free University. A podcast can be found here. It was a great night and BFU is a wonderful initiative.
The core hypothesis that I have proposed, and seek to test, is that Australia is in a condition of ‘precarious prosperity’: that the solid level of economic growth driven by the mining boom faces increasingly unsure conditions due the various impacts of the continuing global crisis of capitalism. In this situation two national barriers to capital accumulation have become especially important: the shortage of labour-power and the difficulties the state faces in funding social reproduction. (This must be grasped within an understanding of both the ecological crisis we inhabit and the possibility of a radically different and better society that arises from the everyday struggles of everyday people.) I have argued that much of the action of the state in recent years has been attempts to address these conditions, and that the ‘front-lines’ of struggle match these ‘fault-lines’ of capital accumulation. In short the response of capital to these barriers is to intensify work – paid and unpaid.
This hypothesis has a temporal dimension: the future of the boom, and thus the dynamics of capital accumulation in Australia, is uncertain, and due to the speed capital moves at it could change any time – and thus we would have to rethink our condition. Perhaps I fall in the trap of making predictions. I am about trying to grasp the ‘tendency’ of the unfolding logics of capital(Negri, 1991). These predictions, like all predictions, are probably wrong. But they are also necessary attempts to map, think and strategize. They need to be constantly revised.
It is with that in mind, that I want to think through two seemingly contradictory pieces of information which have appeared in the popular presses about capital accumulation in Australia: that there has been a rise in unemployment and that there is a skills shortage. The first refers to how different capitalist firms are structuring their businesses to navigate the current economic conditions, the second to the problems on the level of society in ensuring the reproduction of labour-power with the competencies and willingness capital desires (which can then also be understood as the product of a diffuse resistance by workers to be reduced to nothing but labour-power for capital.)
They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, ‘The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’ve got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Roughly,’ said Kollberg. ‘My turn to start? Then I say X – X as in Marx.’
(Sjöwall and Wahlöö, 2007: 323-324)
Principles and Particulars
There’s allus two sides to every question
and recognisin’ the principles be easy
whilst understandin’ particular particulars
and takin’ appropriate steps
calls for much collective wisdom.
(Sharp, 2010: 75)
Welfare in Australia has been going through substantial and profound changes. These changes have produced little if any public debate – until very recently when the changes to the provision of the single parent payment generated more than a ripple in the press and a flurry of noise from the commentariat. In this context John Passant, a prolific socialist blogger at En Passant and a member of Socialist Alternative, which is if not the largest socialist group in Australia then probably the one with the largest public profile, had a column published in The Age entitled How the poor are shunted into deeper poverty just for political capital. The publication of explicitly far-left views in a major newspaper is a rare thing indeed and unsurprisingly it circulated widely on Facebook. I am very critical of Socialist Alternative for both its formal politics and its mode of operation. However Passant writes in a fairly friendly manner and seems to be seriously attempting to express a critique of capitalism in a way that is accessible and connects with as many people as possible. Now this seems sensible enough – as a real movement to transform society must be popular and thus those who hope to aide in its construction would require the ability to communicate the radical critique of that society as coherently and clearly as possible (and equally important, and most often forgotten, also require the ability to listen and to learn). But often such an approach becomes an excuse for poor politics and fairly shallow assumptions about the intellectual capacity of the audience and the processes of radical education: i.e. the assumption that the masses are just too dumb for the real thing and aren’t interested in anything challenging or difficult. The terrible state of activist Marxism in Australia is in part due to this idea that Marx’s work is just too hard for people so we better give them something light and we can read Marx later….and this later never happens. Strangely this not reading of Marx leads to his deification. Rather than Capital and the Grundrisse being working books they become theological texts. Now let’s be clear, Marx is only important to the emancipatory project as his work pioneered the critique of capitalism, and it is this critique (whoever it comes from and under what ever name ) which can help us understand and change our society. The problem with Passant’s piece is that rather than understanding these changes as being in relation to the structural dynamics of capital accumulation he argues that they are due to bad ideas – something call ‘neoliberalism’. And behind this there seems to be a great confusion about what capitalism actually is and how it works and more importantly what the struggle to overcome it consists of.