With Sober Senses – A New Research Project

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[i]


With Sober Senses is a new project in which I am trying to reorientate my research and writing towards mapping out the territory of capital accumulation with Australia, in a way I hope will reach a larger audience and may be useful for those trying to understand and change the society they live in and make up.

Much of the writing I will put up here will be in draft form and contain ideas and conjectures which I hope will be challenged and tested. Due to the very nature of capitalism, it’s incredible dynamic speed, attempts to understand what is happening are often late to the feast. Apparently Hegel argued that ‘the owl of Minerva’, that is knowledge and understanding, only takes flight at dusk….that is after the events and the changes have happened. Frankly that isn’t much use for those of us caught in the thick of it. It is thus necessary to attempt read in the present the tendencies of the future and paint outlines of where we think things are going so we can intervene and perhaps break open the possibilities for the formation of emancipatory politics.

Core Arguments

Rather than commenting on everything and anything this blog will focus on trying to investigate a set of core theses as part of a relatively clear research program. This research will be on what I think are the main fault lines of capital accumulation in Australia. By this I mean what are the points where the accumulation of value has run into or faces certain barriers, problems or contradictions. Coupled with this I want to trace the lines of class struggle in Australia, how they cause, contribute to, condition, emerge out of and/or intersect with these fault lines. At the moment I suspect most of the attacks of this struggle will be waged by capital, offensives launched against both the previous gains of the working class and the present recalcitrance and rebellious behaviour whereby many of us refuse to be reduced to simple living deposits of labour-power to be put to work at the rate and intensity demanded by capital. But also I want to draw out some of the experiences of struggles, including those struggles that happen as part of unions,  that involve the political Left and those struggles that don’t look like struggles as traditionally understood, and those that don’t happen under the labels of the political Left, trade unions and official organisations.

Core theses:

1)      That the determining dynamic of Australian society is capitalism – the endless processes of accumulating value.

2)      That accumulation in Australia is in a condition of ‘precarious prosperity’, a seemingly healthy economy powered by a resources boom with an uncertain future.

3)      Major fault lines are opening up for capital:

  1. The cost and productivity of skilled blue collar labour in mining, construction and transport.
  2. The ability to afford a level of state services in a global context of a liquidity shortage and a worries about a looming ‘dip’ in the global economy.
  3. A shortage of workers for low paid industries such as retail and services.

4)      In short the problem for Australian capital is workers. Workers in Australia are not working hard enough, in the right jobs and at the right wages for capital’s desires. We are the cause of capital’s problems.

5)      This is manifesting in a number of front-lines of struggle

  1. An increasingly coordinated, both across employers and with the state, offensive on the conditions and accumulated rights of workers – especially those in mining, construction and transport.
  2. A thorough going reconstruction of the provision of state services which includes job losses and downsizing, reductions in funding for community organisations and experiments with social impact bond and other mechanisms of financialisation. The purpose here is to make less state and community workers do more and push other tasks and costs of reproduction back into ‘the home’ i.e the unpaid work of , largely, women, reduce the cost to capital for financing the state, meet the demands of credit rating agencies and free up the state to meet various needs of capital.
  3. Welfare reforms to push those on a variety of benefits intothe bottom tiers of the labour market

6)      Globally ‘capitalist-parliamentarianism’ (to use Badiou’s term and one that is more preferable than ‘liberal democracy) is becoming increasing authoritarian and technocratic to enforce the discipline on the population that capital demands.[ii] This process is also happening in Australia

7)      The most important thesis: social struggles contain the possibilities and kernels of a much better society.


“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”[iii]

How can we make sense of the world we live in, how can we understand it? My intention  is that my approach will be ‘materialist’ that is to understand the world not from the point of its expressed ideals and ahistorical notions but rather to dig into the actual social reality of our lives, to try to grasp how society is organised on both an everyday and society-wide level. But a friend pointed out that terms like materialist are often used to wave an ideological flag, to declare allegiance rather than anything substantial.

And in a way for me that is true. My research draws heavily on the ‘Critique of Political Economy’ pioneered by Marx and the work on numerous other writers and thinkers who we could label ‘Marxist’.

In the Introduction to the Grundrisse Marx gives us some solid advice. It seems to make sense to start with the world as it appears – big chunks of facts and figures about the societies we want to look at. But the categories these facts and figures might refer don’t really tell us much if we don’t grasp the complex social relations that animate them. The example Marx uses is to say that if we want to understand a society ‘politic-economically’ then a category like population doesn’t tell us much unless we understand how the population is cut through by class, and also the basis on which these classes arise and the social relations that constitutes this basis.[iv]

If we just look at the economic data that gets poured out by private and government bodies we can only understand the world from the lop-sided world view of the dominant ideology. Rather we have to go deeper. We have to start from the way that our lives are organised in capitalism and its core organisational logic and use this to make sense of this great stream of information. This is something we can only do in our heads.

But we are also dependent on the information produced by the state, private business and largely pro-capitalist NGOs. Most of us don’t have the time to go out and carry out our own research, nor the financial ability to do so. Much of what I will be doing here will be wading through Treasury documents, submissions from employers association and the like to get the data that we can then attempt to use to understand the world – grasping them by thinking about what life is really like in capitalist society. In practice I’ll have a statement from the Business Council of Australia in one hand talking about productivity and in the other my battered copy of Capital.

There is a strange question of time here; capitalist society is incredible dynamic and fast. Economic crisis can emerging seeming from nowhere with action and understanding lagging far behind. Government policy and activity attempts to produce the best environment for capital accumulation and reproduce the broad circumstance necessary for its survival – but if often does so after the fact. For the rest of us, capital seems to be something that happens to us, its growth and crises both outside of control. The speed of these developments and their apparent randomness is often immobilising and strategy and tactics lag behind. To be useful we must read the wind.

[i] Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 Political Writings vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1993), 70-71.

[ii]Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brasser, Stanford University Press (Standford, California 2003), 7.

[iii] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 104.

[iv] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 100.


5 thoughts on “With Sober Senses – A New Research Project

  1. Ver Lesen

    A fascinating and worthwhile project, although I’d have to suggest that you needn’t suggest Hegel’s Owl of Minerva so easily, since you’re suggesting to do the materialist and intensive investigation of the particular. Without trying to suggest too much, I’d pop a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right on the bookshelf. As good (if not better) than Capital. Honest.

  2. Good on you Dave – wonderful project! Already added to my Google Reader feed.

    I like this from Neil Davidson on the Owl of Minerva and neoliberalism:

    ‘According to the German philosopher Georg Hegel’s most famous aphorism, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk”, by which he meant that we can only truly understand a historical period once it is over. According to the new consensus, the period which opened in 1973 with one great crisis of capitalism is now closing with another. “It is the end of the neoliberal era”, wrote Scottish political journalist Ian MacWhirter in September 2008, as the extent of the economic catastrophe became apparent. And within a month of MacWhirter proclaiming “the twilight of Thatcherism” his verdict appeared to be confirmed. States throughout the developed world–including those like Britain and the USA which had been most committed to neoliberalism–bought massive and in some cases dominant stakes in failing banks, using levels of public spending we had previously been told were no longer available or which could not be used without distorting the market. One can therefore easily understand why the politicians, professors and pundits who assured us that the business cycle had been abolished or that house prices would continue to rise indefinitely or that nationalisation was politically impossible might want to invoke the Owl of Minerva to explain their ignorance, stupidity or deceit. But posterity is unlikely to be as understanding as they might wish, for Hegel was too pessimistic in assuming that comprehension always had to be retrospective. The people who have suffered under neoliberalism, which includes the majority of humanity, did not have to wait until the coming of the dusk to grasp its meaning; they understood it only too well, even if they had never heard the term. But these same people are not only sufferers; they are the only possible source of any alternative to neoliberalism which is not simply another way of reorganising capitalism.’

    Although I have thought that as an activist it was often very difficult to see the ‘real’ state of things until too late. E x

  3. jim sharp

    may this blogg out live all the maydays under boozh-wah rule
    in the meantime it might be a gude idea to bookmark & take a butcher look at
    Christopher Caudwell was the authorial name of Christopher St John Sprigg,
    British Marxist writer who died in the Spanish Civil War.

    Caudwell centenary conference sponsored by Marx Memorial Library
    in London on 20 October 2007
    list of papers presented paper by Helena Sheehan


    The following is an extract from Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History by Helena Sheehan (Humanities Press International 1985 and 1993).

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