The 2018-19 Federal Budget predicted future wage rises of higher than 3%, however merely a week after it was released ABS data detailed that annual wage rises for the March quarter were only 2.1% and showed no sign of improvement (Jericho 2018). Not only does this take the shine off the Government’s panglossian numbers but it further highlights a fracture in capitalism in Australia. Low wage growth is starting to unpick the social order, contributing to rising insecurity and distress about current and future living standards (distress which is manifesting in, or at least is being channelled, by the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign), worries about the stability of the financial system and trepidations about the impacts on consumption. It is also creating demand for an explanation of what is going on. For an ideological mainstream that struggles to see the origin of problems within capitalism one of the answers that has been provided is… smashed avocado breakfasts (and/or brunches)! The problem is that people, especially young people, are spending wrong not that they aren’t earning enough. Here I want to show that not only is this a stupid idea, but it is a stupid idea that we can use to actually start to talk about what wages are and what is happening in Australian society.
Wage growth in Australia is in a pitiful state. Both the frequency and size of wage growth is at historic lows (Bishop and Cassidy 2017). The recent rise in inflation means that not only are wages growing at a lower rate than any time since the Second World War, they are now growing slower than the rate of inflation. This means that real wage growth is now negative.
(Fig. 1 & 2 Bagshaw 2017)
This is a grim situation for the vast mass of people as it means the effective stalling or decline in the material conditions of our lives. It also presents Australian capitalism with several complex and interlocking problems. First, while the overall share of national income shifted in capital’s favour throughout the late neoliberal period of the mining boom, the secret to social cohesion was the growth in the majority of households’ wealth as consumables became cheaper and incomes grew, as wages rose alongside the amount of people working and total hours worked. The disintegration of this deal poses the spectre of social and political disturbances, framed as ‘populism’ by spruikers of the political class. However, low wage growth threatens not just political stability in Australia, but the process of capital accumulation and the reproduction of capitalist society more directly.
While individual firms may wish to pay their workers with air, capitalism as a whole needs wages to be high enough to ensure there is enough money in people’s pockets and that people are willing to spend it. This is often called ‘aggregate effective demand’. The reproduction of capitalism requires that a sufficiently high level of commodities is sold to generate a profit that can be reinvested and so on. Declining wage growth directly threatens the profitability of retail businesses, and because retail businesses are part of a broader chain of capitalist firms, the health of the economy more broadly. The Reserve Bank of Australia are particularly worried about the impact the combination of low wage growth and high indebtedness could have on spending and Australian capitalism (Lowe 2017).
Another specific problem is that even as wage growth has stalled, house prices have soared, facilitated by the continual rise in household debt. Increasingly thinkers for capital are concerned that the capacity to pay this debt is faltering and that the prices of real estate assets are shaky. There is growing concern that a collapse in residential prices could hit the banks and destabilise the financial architecture of capitalism in Australia (Shapiro and Greber 2017) . Thus, the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority has acted to reduce the percentage of interest-only loans that can be offered in an attempt to ‘address risks that continue to build within the mortgage lending market’ whilst ‘balancing the need to continue to moderate new investor lending with the increasing supply of newly completed construction which must be absorbed in the year ahead’(2017). APRA aims to slow down the risk of rising mortgage debt whilst simultaneously allowing the housing market to continue functioning. Is it likely that such activity can both reduce the exposure of the banks whilst facilitating the continual accumulation of capital?
Low wage growth, continued housing price growth and high household debt all take place in the context of low investment in Australia. This is despite a rise in profits and in the context of a global situation that the World Bank describes as a ‘fragile recovery’ (Potter 2017, World Bank Group 2017).
This problem cannot be solved – for capital – just by raising wages. This would shrink profits and thus, accumulation.[i] Rather the challenge for thinkers for capital is to work out a way to increase aggregate effective demand and profits: to increase incomes in a way that ensures the continual accumulation of capital and thus the enlarged reproduction of the capital-relation. For us (meaning both those of us with nothing but our labour-power to sell and self-declared antagonists to capital) the problem is radically different – to work out ways of asserting our interests for a good life irrespective of capital’s requirements and to do this inside-against-and-beyond the whole totality of capitalism as a society and a way of living.
Edited 25/2/14 In December 2013 I received criticism via twitter from @redlizthompson and @Mitropoulos_A for my participation in Historical Materialism Australasia 2013. Readers should obviously read this criticism directly if interested but to summarize it runs as follows: since I participated in the conference which was subject to a withdrawal due to the presence of speakers from Solidarity an organization whose National Committee had recently released an internal statement supporting the Socialist Workers Party UK’s cover-up of rape and sexualized violence then I either directly supported the behavior of the SWP/Solidarity or at least my public quietism on the question meant that in practice I supported it whatever my actual thoughts. The absence of a public statement critiquing the SWP/Solidarity effectively meant public support.
Also I was criticized for having friendships and political collaborations with then current members of Solidarity.
I am in two minds about this assertion about the necessity for a public statement. On one hand I find it odd. The vast majority of my political thoughts and opinions are developed with and shared within a very small network of close comrades and friends. The idea of making some general statement to some kind of public seems weird at best. My written work that does exist on the internet is most often an attempt to follow a very specific project or intervene in specific debates largely focused on Qld. In the past I certainly commented on everything and anything but I have tried to reign in this practice as I slowly realized I was often commenting on things I knew little about.
However supporters of the call to withdraw from HM have pointed out that public silence on questions of sexualized violence reproduces the split between public and private that is so bound up as part of the gender relations of the society we live in. That’s a hard point to argue against and I can’t.
Also when I posted the original post bellow I referenced the HM debated but made no statement of my thoughts. This I think was a mistake as the post itself is a public artifact and I should have taken the time to clarify my position on the issues. I don’t believe however that such a need to address the public applies to other HM participants on a whole.
So my thoughts:
• The behavior of the SWP was appalling. It is more evidence for that decades old feminist argument that Left organizations not only continue the patterns of violence and inequality around gender which is part of broader society but organizational cultures often entrench power-relations that facilitate abuse. The following ‘crisis’ is more evidence of the need for feminism to be an integral part of any revolutionary project.
• The statement of Solidarity was horrible and shows how loyalty to a political brand can be so destructive and pathetic
• I don’t and didn’t agree with the withdrawal– It seemed off-target. If the problem was Solidarity why not call for a boycott of working with them in all forums until certain criteria were met? Why call for a boycott of conference in which they were participants but no other spaces they work in? On the basis of these objections I didn’t participate in the boycott.
• Finally I expressed my critique of Solidarity’s statement to my friends and comrades that were at the time members. I didn’t make my friendship with them conditional on them doing anything about what I said. Nor should I have.
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.
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 Passantand 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.
As some readers might be aware on 1st of January substantial changes to the single parent payment took place. The main change is that when their children turn eight parents receiving the single parent payment will be shifted to Newstart (the standard form of welfare for those considered unemployed) – this will mean both a $110 a week reduction in their payment and that they will be subject to the usual pressures, routines and requirements of jobseekers (dole diaries, endless appointments with job agencies and all that).[i] These changes are just part of a broader transformation of how welfare works in Australia; changes that include the expansion of welfare quarantining, increased disciplinary processes applied to the unemployed and increased requirements for those on other forms of welfare, such as parenting or disability payments, to enter into the job market. There has been some considerable media attention after Families Minister Jenny Macklin answered a question saying that that she could live on the $35 a day Newstart provides and then later the transcription of this press conference changed her answer to ‘inaudible’.[ii]