Below is the text of my paper that I presented at Historical Materialism Australasia 2014. I haven’t had much time to generate much new research so this paper serves two roles: it is a summation of the argument made in Roads to Nowhere – Capital’s Plan A and it introduces a new problem. This problem is that despite an existing and clear strategy for stimulating capital accumulation, a plan shared by many of the thinkers and political forces of capital, the state has not been able to effectively realise it. Key legislation hasn’t been passed, opposition to privatisations remains high and it appear that the East West Link is stalled and may possibly fall over.
This might mean that as capital accumulation in Australia continues to slow the main solution to its problems becomes inoperable. What then for our ability to assert our collective autonomy against and beyond capital’s domination? This will probably be the direction I will try to take in my research over the coming months.
What I want to do here is fairly simply – but then comes with a complication. I want to continue to track the trajectory of development of capital accumulation in Australia and illuminate the fault lines of struggle that cut across it: two sides of the same phenomena.
My core points are as follows:
- That the global economic crisis is impacting in Australia most obviously in the slow down of the mining boom, and especially the slow down in mining construction
- This undermines the broad class deal which has developed in Australia over the last twenty years
- The main solution that the loudest voices of capital are proposing is vast infrastructure expenditure – something that is part of the rising postneoliberal consensus expressed by the IMF and G20.
- This investment in infrastructure faces three main hurdles
- Where will the capital come from?
- The cost of wages in what remain highly unionised industries
- And the slow downs caused by environmental legislation/opposition
- I believe we are seeing, to facilitate the overcoming of the these hurdles, an ‘infrastructure state’ aimed at raising capital and dissolving opposition both at work and across society whilst also addressing the refusals, dissonance and dissatisfactions caused by the state’s reorientation within the general context of an ongoing secular crisis of capital, the dismal condition of the Imperial organisation of the globe and ecological disaster.
- I pose that it is this attempt to stimulate the accumulation of capital via infrastructure investment better explains the actions of Federal and State governments than some adherence to ‘neoliberalism’ as ideology.
- The complication is that this is all happening in the context of ‘antipolitics’: thus various governments’ abilities to govern are more limited and troubled than the planner’s of capital’s reorientation assume.
At this point it is probably worth remembering that since in capitalism social relations between people become reified into things, and the point of Marx’s critique of political economy is to expose how the seemingly naturalised categories and objects are the form which social relations take, that discussions about the economy, are always about the contestation of class, and of labour against being labour, and life itself as life, that is expressed in apparently neutral datum.
So to start. Whilst there are various fluctuations in the daily speculations of the fortunes of capital accumulation in Australia we can see some broad general trends. As the International Monetary Fund wrote earlier this year:
The Australian economy has performed well relative to many other advanced economies since the global financial crisis. However, a transition phase has now been reached as the terms of trade driven mining investment boom of the past decade has peaked and the economy is moving to the production and export phase. Mining-related investment which accounted for almost half of GDP growth in the past couple of years is expected to drop sharply in the near term, and a recovery in non-mining investment will be needed to underpin demand and return the economy’s growth rate to trend. (2014)
Such an outlook is shared by the thinkers for capital in the BCA and the Treasury.
The decline of growth levels driven not just by the mining boom, but mining construction, threatens not just the bottom line of capitalists but rather undermines the basis of the specific arrangement of the broader reproduction of capital in Australia. Over the last two decades Australia has experienced a very strange situation. Whilst the share of income to capital has increased, workers’ incomes and participation in the labour force has also increased, though in a starkly unequal manner. In the context of cheaper commodities produced largely in east Asia and increased access to credit, a deal has been made between capital and labour: high work, high credit and high consumption. As the public sphere, and with it politics as understood in the 20th Century was increasing privatized (Hardt and Negri 2000, 188), the option to attempt to realize yourself in personal and private utopias gave this deal its affective and idealistic element.
Thus the end of the mining boom means in part an end of a way of life or better yet a form-of-life and capital is compelled to try to both save accumulation and simultaneously reconstruct subjectivity. This is perhaps why Joe Hockey talks so much about transforming the morality of people. This is perhaps also the real story of the possibility of a collapse of house prices….
The main solution to the problem of capital accumulation, argued forcefully by the BCA and the Federal government is the construction of infrastructure. The aim is to both provide a form of stimulus and also create new opportunities for infrastructure to function as profit generating activities.
As former president of the BCA Tony Shepherd said ‘A lot of businesses need work. And a lot of people need jobs. Those things in themselves would be good reasons to proceed’(2013). Shepherd has since become the chair of the National Commission of Audit.
The attempt to realise investment in infrastructure as the Plan A of capital reveals the crucially of the state in the facilitation of such an endeavour. I have no idea what the relationship between those in the BCA, the Federal government and the broader political class is. But what is clear is the since at least the end of last year Federal and state governments have been working to make this happen. They are attempting to do so however in the context of a very peculiar situation: a global economy that is being kept on life-support via unorthodox monetary policy and in the context of rising level of domestic state expenditure to income.
In short the infrastructure state is a state the refocuses and recalibrates state activity away from many of the parts of social reproduction and to infrastructure investment; and works to silence and disorganise social opposition.
We can see this most clearly in the following.
In late 2013 Joe Hockey approached credit rating agencies to discuss the possibility of going guarantor for private debts spent on infrastructure construction(Crowe 2013).
At the end of 2013 COAG agreed to try to fast track infrastructure construction and increase the role that private industry plays in it. In March they agreed on the National Partnership Agreement on Asset Recycling: the Federal government would give states financial rewards for selling state assets and using these to provide the capital for infrastructure construction.
The Federal budget has attempted to realise this
The Budget delivers an $11.6 billion Infrastructure Growth Package that will contribute to $125 billion of additional infrastructure, including incentives to encourage asset recycling as a catalyst for unlocking significant new infrastructure investment.
When construction projects supported by the Government are completed, they will add around 1 percentage point to annual GDP. (2014, 1-1)
The budget aims to not only increase Federal government expenditure but contribute to the raising of $125 billion for infrastructure through facilitating state government and private money. The bill to do this is currently before parliament.
The state governments have responded in step, putting forward budgets or laying the ground work for the privatization of state assets for this purpose.
In budgets this year Tasmania, ACT, the NT, WA, NSW, Victoria, have committed to infrastructure expenditure.
Victoria and NSW are currently already attempting asset recycling. In Qld the LNP government has embarked on a massive PR campaign citing state debt to do just this.
The continual power of trade unions, such as it is, especially that of blue collar labour in the building industry, is facing a number of maneuvers by the state. The most obvious would be the royal commission in the CFMEU and the return of the ABCC. But also import has been the rise of state and Federal building codes which, seen clearly in the Qld example, work to set tight conditions for the labour relations practices of companies biding for infrastructure tenders. This works to exclude those that allow prominent union presences. In this sense the state is acting to organize capital against organized labour.
Ecological opposition is being disorganized in multiple ways: the rise of the one stop shop for approvals, that is reducing the need for federal environmental oversight, legislation in Tasmania criminalizing various ecological protest, changes in Queensland which exclude many from being considered legitimate claimants before the land and environment court and the current Federal discussion to remove protections for ecological boycotts and consider them unlawful secondary boycotts.
All this runs up against the residual accumulation of generations of struggle.
More broadly the shift to funding infrastructure, in the global conditions of the continuation of a secular crisis of capitalism, and the rise as a general trend of state expenditure vs income, has meant, as seen in the latest budget a retreat of the state from funding social welfare. Indeed Joe Hockey made this very clear in his speech to the Spectator magazine: ‘budget repair’ i.e. reductions on spending on social reproduction was necessary to allow the state the room to engage in activity to spur growth(Hockey 2014).
This means then that more of the costs and the work of social reproduction are being shifted from the state to the wage and the home.
Thus the Medicare copayment, the cuts to welfare for selected demographics, the shift of university fees onto students etc. The labour of reproduction or the funds for its activity, will have to be found within the walls of the home – the prime asset and in a real sense the ‘capital’ of labour.
The cuts to social reproduction arise not from a pro-market ideology but rather from the necessity to provide stimulus for accumulation.
Here then is the plan for the infrastructure state.
The contradiction though is that the Federal and state governments are stumbling in their ability to carry out this reorganization.
The asset-recycling bill for example, like much of the budget, has been refused by the senate. The composition of the senate reflects I think the phenomena that is increasingly being debated in these circles (i.e. Left Flank, Historical Materialism Australasia) as ‘antipolitics’; something I take to mean that during the period we might mark as ‘neoliberal’ a great hollowing out of the political institutions of the 20th century took place. To shift to my language: the end of the class compositions of modernity mean an emptying of the content of the political forms of modernity.
So too state governments face the prospect of electoral collapse due to asset recycling schemes. Thus in Qld the LNP has embarked on a vast public relations campaign, trying to revive notions of civil society through encouraging participation in various online forums and public meetings. Yet the high amount of spin means that this PR campaign has succeed in generating a relatively high level of disgust expressed in the mainstream media and seemingly further entrenched the general cynicism with all things ‘politics’.
This means that the Federal and state governments that have the clear blueprints of an infrastructure state lack the authority, the political capacity, to effectively implement them.
To meander to a conclusion. The end of the mining boom means both a drop in in the accumulation of capital and the unraveling of a two decade long class deal. Whilst capital has a Plan A the general malaise of politics means the state is struggling to implement it. This malaise affects the Left as much as the Right.
But what of class struggle? The struggle of labour, is today, I think a general sullen refusal that doesn’t often speak its name. There is a wide spread contempt. The class deal of the mining boom meant that many of us could attempt various forms of escape into the private sphere, into personal utopias, close relations, hobbies ( from organic gardening to paleo diets to drag racing etc.) and turn away from all that old shit. This deal is dying. Its not yet clear what is being born. We are not yet speaking with our own voice and not yet in our own tongue.
Commonwealth of Australia. 2014. Budget Strategy and Outlook Budget Paper No. 1 2014-15 2014 [cited 3rd September 2014]. Available from http://www.budget.gov.au.
Crowe, David. 2014. Joe Hockey’s Nation Building Strategy 2013 [cited 10th February 2014]. Available from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/hockeys-nation-building-strategy/story-fn59nsif-1226734380759.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England Harvard University Press.
Hockey, Joe. 2014. “The Case for Change”. http://www.liberal.org.au 2014 [cited 4th September 2014]. Available from http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2014/04/23/case-change-address-hon-joe-hockey-mp-treasurer.
International Monetary Fund. 2014. Imf Executive Board Concludes 2013 Article Iv Consultation with Australia Press Release No. 14/53 February 12, 2014. http://www.imf.org 2014 [cited 1st September 2014]. Available from http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2014/pr1453.htm.
Shepherd, Tony. 2014. Cutting through the Infrastructure Impasse: Ways and Means. Business Council of Australia 2013 [cited 24th January 2014]. Available from http://www.bca.com.au/docs/58eb9347-a8eb-4b07-9397-af1c8e0869fc/TS_Speech_to_Wollongong_Uni_SMART_Infrastructure_Facility_Symposium_FINAL_30.9.2013.pdf.