Far from being the essence of socialism, planning is a typical feature of capital as it reaches hegemonic maturity (Negri 2014, 295).
Last year I argued here on this blog that capital in Australia had a ‘Plan A’ to deal with the end of the mining boom: a vast wave of investment in infrastructure.[i] My core argument was that this plan would see the rise of an ‘Infrastructure State’ (in the tradition of Negri’s (2005) ‘Planner’ and ‘Crisis’ states) that would enable and often fund or help finance infrastructure spending, shift some of the costs of social reproduction off its books and onto the wage and into the home, and work to dissolve points of opposition. There is a clear alignment between organisations such as the Business Council of Australia and Federal and state governments. Indeed since writing the original piece the volume of arguments for just such a plan have increased. As the government argued in the Mid-Year Economic and Financial Outlook:
A key component of this Strategy is the continued roll out of over $50 billion of infrastructure investment. These investments have already begun and include major
projects across the nation that will reduce congestion, improve productivity and create jobs. The Government’s investment in infrastructure also includes incentives of
$5 billion through the Asset Recycling Initiative, which will catalyse over $38 billion in new infrastructure. In total, the Infrastructure Growth Package will lead to over $125 billion of new productive infrastructure over the next decade.
On a global level both the G20 and the IMF are looking to infrastructure as the solution to flagging demand (International Monetary Fund 2014 , G20 2013). The secretary of the Treasury summarised the logic for infrastructure spending committed to at the Brisbane G20 Leaders Meeting as follows:
G20 members focussed on supporting investment in infrastructure as a means of managing the short and longer-term challenges of promoting growth while undertaking fiscal repair. In this regard, they noted the benefits of investing in expenditure are threefold:
it supports aggregate demand during construction;
if done well, it augments the economy’s supply capacity and boosts productivity for the long term; and
if priced appropriately, it may even help the fiscal position in the medium term (Martin Parkinson 2014, 7)
However it now seems that governments on both Federal and state levels has significantly failed to implement this plan – despite the above claims in the MYEFO.[ii] In August it was reported that none of the major planned infrastructure projects which were meant have been started within one year of the Coalition’s election were ‘shovel ready’(Duyn 2014).
How much is this due to the crisis of political authority due to the antipolitical condition of the present (to draw on the work of Left Flank)? How much is this due to the struggle of the class – even if this takes most often sullen and silent forms (to draw on the theoretical legacy of operaismo)?
Central to the ‘Plan A’ has been the attempt to establish a framework for ‘Asset Recycling’ as laid out in the Budget – put simply states which sell assets to generate funds for infrastructure investment will get increased funds from the federal government (funds generated in part through the sale of Medibank Private and future privatisations)(Commonwealth of Australia 2014a, 114). Indeed at the October 2014 COAG meeting Victoria, NSW and Queensland all agreed to do just this. So too ‘The Commonwealth signed agreements with New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory under the new $27 billion National Partnership Agreement on Land Transport Infrastructure. This funding will support freight rail and road projects that help deliver a safe, sustainable and efficient national transport system’(Council of Australian Governments 2014, 3-4).
This has stalled at both a national and state level.
The Asset Recycling Bill remains before parliament after failing to make it through the senate twice already, and Joe Hockey’s attempts to bypass the senate and raise the funds through appropriations have also failed(Greber 2014). In short the hostile composition of the Senate – something that we might say is the product of the antipolitical condition manifesting within the heart of the State – has jammed the government’s plans.
So too plans to privatise assets on a state level have run into trouble.
Almost immediately after NSW Premier Mike Baird placed asset privatisation to fund infrastructure investment as central to his election campaign the Shooters and Fishers Party (!) has announced that if it holds the balance of power it will block the sale of assets (Nicholls and Saulwick 2014, Nicholls 2014).
In Qld the LNP government is heavily marketing its Stronger Choices: if the LNP wins the next election, it will lease state assets to fund infrastructure investment (and subsidise those that lease them). The step back from privatisation to leasing, whilst largely cosmetic, is a product in part of the deep unpopularity of any privatisations. So too the Stronger Choices process, a state-wide attempt to manufacture popular consent – through advertising, public meetings and online participation in fake state budgets – is a reaction to the deep hostility that the idea of asset privatisation has encountered. This process itself then generated a wave of cynicism as it was obvious that we are being bullshitted(Remeikis 2014). In some polling the Premier Campbell Newman looks likely to lose his seat in the next election (ABC 2014) – though I suspect the LNP will win the election.
The recent state election in Victoria saw the then Labor Opposition, now state government, campaign attempt to capitalise on mass popular opposition to the EastWest Link(Willingham and Carey 2014). Since winning the election they seem to be sticking to their commitment of tearing up the EastWest Link contract. This has led to increased fracturing between Federal and state governments(Hurst 2014). However Hockey has just clearly stated that the Victorian government can still get access promised funds for the road if they spend this money on an equivalent level of infrastructure. ‘He said an alternative construction project could get the money, as long as it can proceed now and create a similar number of jobs to compensate for the downturn in the mining industry’(Lillebuen 2014). (Seriously could it be any clearer? From the horses mouth etc.? Can we please drop the paper-thin explanations built around ‘neoliberalism’, ‘austerity’, and the apparent power of Rupert Murdoch?)
These failures happen in the context of other failures.
The state’s ability to facilitate and partly fund investment in infrastructure is contingent on the state reducing its debt and deficit by shifting part of the costs (in money and labour) of social reproduction onto the wages and into the homes of the class. This is coupled with an attempt to reduce the cost of providing social reproduction by reducing select services, payments and staff numbers, capping or cutting paying and reducing and/or reorganising the funding of the provision of social reproduction through nongovernment third party providers. This shift of social reproduction is a profoundly gendered process – as it often results in the intensification of reproductive labour in the home, which is most often the intensification of the labour of women. (The other side to this is the reduction of funding for services and organisation achieve by feminist struggles of the past and most importantly the resistance to this – see No Shelter!)This has been played out already on state level fairly successfully – take for example the Qld LNP government’s cutting of 14000 jobs, reorganisation of awards for public servants, and holding wages down and restricting a great deal of funding for community organisations.
(Contrast this to plans to increase punitive forms of welfare quarantining on Indigenous welfare recipients in the NT that will increase costs(Taylor 2014). This contradiction and others are best understood as part of a generalised crisis of reproduction (see below): the difficult of capitalism as a society, and the state specifically, in affording and carrying out the various tasks it needs to do to facilitate its continuation and growth.)
This is what the Federal budget is largely about – and not some ideological commitment to ‘neoliberalism’. On this front the Federal Government has hit major problems and has only been able to pass parts of the Budget. It has not been able to pass key elements for example the GP copayment (now reshaped as an optional $5 co-payment) or the deregulation of uni fees. In the context of the general slow down of growth the Federal deficit has actually increased. Chris Richardson from Deloitte Access Economics predicts a budget deficit of $49 billion, that ‘the budget is burning’ due to ‘a combination of falling commodity prices, lower tax receipts, slow wage growth and political deadlock over savings measures’ (Glenday and Jennett 2014). Richardson as a clear-eyed thinker for capital understands the problem as an intertwined product of economic crisis and political failure. For what it’s worth the actual MYEFO predicts an ‘underlying cash deficit of $40.4 billion is now expected in 2014-15’(Commonwealth of Australia 2014b, 2).
This failure to ‘balance the budget’ can be located in the deeper and more long term ‘crisis of reproduction’ – that since the revolts of the 1970s capitalism has struggled on multiple fronts to ensure the reproduction of capitalist society and in particular the reproduction the working class as working class(TPTG 2010). (TPTG for their part understand the current global crisis as a product or development of this decades long inability for capital to ensure it’s continuation – the work of TPTG deserves to shoot up the reading list of anticapitalists everywhere). Part of this, just part, can be seen in the general tendency across the North for state expenditure to rise, especially social expenditure, funded by both rises in taxation and debt in relation to GDP(Streek 2014). Simply put the state even before the crisis faced a challenge funding the reproduction of the working class. Thus this specific failure is just part of a deeper saga and part of a common problem that afflicts most nation-states of the Global North. (Thus it can’t be explained with references to Abbot or the IPA…)
The nascent Infrastructure State is also tasked with facilitating the profitability of infrastructure investment. The latter is impinged by the relative high cost of labour in the construction industry and the slow downs and delays caused by environmental regulation and protest.
How successful has been the attempts of the State to combat these? The high costs of labour are due on one hand to the labour shortage driven by the boom itself and on the other the ability of unionized workers in construction to push forward with their claims or at least dent the plans of capital. If you scan the comments that come from the bosses the high cost of labour refers not just to wages but also any impact workers or their unions may have in the running of a building site. Thus this involves the literally life and death struggle over OHS amongst other things.
Even if the end of the boom means a rise in unemployment it is not clear that this will solve the problem for capital – it’s not very obvious that someone who loses their job in accounts at the ABC is easily going to jump on a plane and become a FIFO worker building a rail line. The clearest attempts to address the costs of labour by the state are the attacks on the CFMEU (via the Royal Commission, The ABCC and various state based building codes of conduct t that attempt to exclude companies from large contracts if they aren’t hard enough with the unions) and via increasing in the labour supply through immigration.
We are yet to see if these strategies will work or if they will produce more opposition and/or dysfunction. Attacks on the CFMEU will perhaps galvanize a certain amount of opposition amongst workers and the social democratic bureaucracy. The use of 457 visas offers capital access to cheaper labour and workers who lack full legal rights and protections of citizenship. Yet it also threatens to exacerbate deep and messy divisions which are internal to Australian society – for as much as the complex régime of the border is necessary to put labour to work for capital it also constitutes a series of points of conflict and contestation both reactionary and emancipatory (cf. Mitropoulos 2006).
So too the Federal and a number of state governments have reduced environmental protections and increased laws against ecological protestors. The MYEFO claims that ‘The Government has accelerated environmental assessments and approvals for over 300 major new projects worth over $1 trillion for Australia and these projects are now getting underway’(Commonwealth of Australia 2014b, 1) Will this work?
The increasing attempts to wield state power also produces opposition in the form of protests over civil rights – the VLAD laws in Qld have seriously undermined the government’s popularity. And despite all this there have been in 2014 at least two prominent victories due to popular mobilization: against the EastWest Link and the Bently Blockade (CSG mining deserves its own separate investigation). The campaigns around CSG, following in the environmentalist NVDA tradition in Australia, contain militants who are willing to overtly break the law (within certain ethical limitations). We are yet to see if strengthened state repression will limit this.
The Federal government celebrates it own reduction of environmental regulation: ‘To reduce the stock of existing regulation, the Government established a red and green tape reduction target of $1 billion per year and has set aside two parliamentary sitting days each year to repeal counterproductive, unnecessary or redundant legislation’(Commonwealth of Australia 2014b, 29). I have no found any work or research that attempts to quantify the effectiveness of this.
Thus if part of the state’s role in reproducing capitalism is carrying out a plan for accumulation then the Australian state is currently failing in it’s ability to do this – at the very historical moment that the two decade long mining boom is ending.
Antagonism & Composition
Society is torn by contradictions and in antagonistic battle and reproduces itself by virtue of its contradictions and antagonism(Bonefeld 2014, 64).
Even though it remains often hidden from view, mystified by it’s normally operation, capitalism is a social order essentially split by antagonism. Plan A, as a plan to stimulate the accumulation of capital, is thus a plan to overcome some of the specific antagonisms that confront capital; just as it is antagonisms which limit and prevent the Plan being put into motion.
Thus Plan A requires the dispersal of a number of points of opposition: workers in construction, ecological protest and community opposition. Here very numerically small sections of the class are posing claims that at the least problematize capital accumulation. We could understand these claims as fairly modest demands for wages and conditions at work, for an articulation of a sense of place and community and ecological sustainability that go beyond what is offered in this current period. The failure of Plan A both in the ability to pass legislation that could raise the funds to fund infrastructure investment and shift more of the costs of social reproduction onto the wage and into the home could be understood as a more general refusal of the class in Australia to sacrifice for capital.
All of this is happening as the tide of the mining boom goes out. All of this is happening in the context of the end of a class deal of high credit, high work, high consumption. This class deal, whilst not ending class antagonism, allowed it to function in a certain framework that on the whole guaranteed social stability. Thus we have lived though a very interesting situation in which whilst the share of income to capital had increased at labour’s expense, household incomes across the board have increased, albeit in a very unequal fashion, access to credit has increased and imported commodities have become much cheaper. Thus access to material wealth for the class increased. This deal also had a profound ideological element – utopian desires were turned inward towards the private sphere in the hope of building whatever kind of lifestyle one my find pleasurable, meaningful and desirable. In the last two decades more of us are working more, and working more intensively, but we are also earning, borrowing and buying more. Increased exploitation was balanced, in a way, through increased consumption. (Of course there were still plenty of dissatisfactions, misfittings and refusals they were just, on the whole, contained within the frame of this deal.)
The backbone of this deal was the mining boom. With the mining boom coming to an end the material basis for social stability is ending. We can see this in a fragmented way in slowing GDP growth, rising unemployment and stagnating wages growth(Martin Parkinson 2014). In the 1970s the social democratic deal feel apart because we rebelled against it; now this deal is falling apart because of the impacts of the global secular stagnation of capitalism. (Some of course understand this as at least in part the effect of certain kinds of class refusal) (cf.Midnight Notes Collective and Friends 2009).
I have no idea how this will play out. As Plan A struggles to get moving the only practical tool the State is using is the attempt to keep demand afloat via monetary policy; cheap credit is being used to help stimulate domestic demand especially for housing and also to contribute to the depreciation of the value of the Australian dollar. This means increased private debt for households and an effective drop in incomes as Australian dollars loose their purchasing power.
The Productivity Commission will release reports this year on Federation and Industrial Relations, the appointment of Scott Morrison as the Minister of Social Services probably signal a further wave of changes to welfare but beyond this there is to my mind no obvious Plan B – but we should be prepared to start seeing some contenders.
Also the State’s capacity to plan and to rule is increasingly becoming a thing of concern. There are blogs such as Piping Shrike and Left Flank that deal more effectively with the question of the state’s faltering ability to rule. I can’t determine if what we are seeing is simply a product of a specific composition of the parliament within a specific historical context or a deeper more profound and global collapse in the current organization of the capitalist-parliamentary state’s ability to rule. (News for New York of a police force in revolt against the Mayor and declaring a wartime footing on the public is certainly evidence of the latter.)[iii] I expect the question of the State’s ability to implement a Plan is just as crucial to the health of capitalism as the content of this Plan.
But what do we know of the working class in crisis? What determinations does the crisis establish in the very body of the working class (Negri 2005, 55)?
As for us? Two interrelated dynamics: how will the end of the boom and the end of the deal impact already existing struggles and how will it impact the development of new ones? These are open questions that depend on the multitude’s internal ability to increase its own autonomy against capital and the state. The current struggles are ones that are taking place arising from a certain class composition in a certain conjuncture. As the boom ends and thus perhaps as capital can no longer offer the deal of the last two decades will these struggles be able to maintain themselves and spread? Or as the ground collapses under them will they be dragged down into a vortex? Considering the deeply internally unequal and stratified nature of the working class in Australia there is always the possibility that a decline in conditions further widens reactionary internal contradictions. Struggles in Australia already run up against the heterogeneity of the working class – they face difficulties circulating through the class and resonating with the different elements of it. Over 90% of people in Australia after all think they are ‘middle class’. This is a tension between the increased contagion and reverberation of solidarities and autonomy which may allow us to break out of and end the capital-relation and the rigidification of segmentations and divisions internal to labour which may further increase our dependency on and cementation to capital. Will international struggles be able to find a resonance in Australia and lead to a thickening and coagulation of solidarity?
Trying to understand the plans of the state is at best a question of knowing the enemy, trying to understand the ground we stand on and the efforts of those in power to enforce their rule and the accumulation of capital. Our actual efforts can only be effective if they are aimed at ourselves, at grasping the class composition of our present and trying to detect useful tasks we can do to increase our collective power. Class composition refers at least to how we work and where, the way work is intertwined through life on a whole, forms of power we face and perhaps oppose and the political, organizational and subjective capacities we hold. It is dynamic; it shapes the class struggle just as the class struggle shapes it. Trying to determine the class composition of specific moment is not a mechanical reading of the present but an engaged and active attempt to transform the world we find ourselves in.
The struggles mentioned here are only some parts of the broader struggles in Australia; and not enough work is done assembling an encyclopedia of working class science. Such a document would be a living process written by countless authors in multiple divergent media that brings together where we are at in a way that opens the possibility of where we might go. And one that would require the use of what El Sup used to call an ‘upside periscope’ to see what exists under the normality of everyday life (El Kilombo Intergaláctico 2007, 9) These struggles are unfolding within wi a specific conjuncture at the historical moment that this conjuncture is collapsing. We don’t know what the impact of this will be. My general impression, purely subjective, is that a deep reservoir of sullen refusal, of a broad dissatisfaction, which exists amongst the class, has not yet found it forms of articulation and agency. We are all waiting for something. Can we detect signs of its arrival?
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[i] Following on from discussions with Tadeusz it is probably best to reframe this not as ‘capital’s’ plan, but a plan articulated by different factions of/for capital. It is common error, one I often make, to write of capital as a subject that thinks and makes decisions. It is perhaps best to think of capital as a set of social relations embodied in things and in motion(Marx 1991). However there are certainly various factions and wings that act in the interests of capitalism’s reproduction and develop and try to implement strategies and plans to this end. The collective noun for these various factions and wings may be the ‘ruling class’ – however such a group is much larger than just the owners of capital.
[ii] For the sake of clarity ‘State’ refers to the state; ‘state’ refers to NSW, Qld etc.
[iii] How does all this fit within the general shift of sovereignty away from the nation state into the complex global organization of power we may call ‘Empire’ (Hardt and Negri 2000) and the way in the operation of governance that the distinction between the state and private capital is collapsing (Brown 2010)?