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.
This would indicated healthy growth rather than malfunctioning – and this is despite the continual end of the mining boom which was the engine that drove capital accumulation in Australia for the last two decades. And GDP growth is, I would attest, a mystified indicator of profitability. If the economy is growing it is because firms are investing; and they are investing because of a sufficient level of profit today and expectations of them tomorrow. So much for declining profitability then, so much for over-accumulation too, so much for looming crisis…
In part two of Australia You’re Standing In It I’m going to attempt analyse the relationships between state debt and social reproduction. In particular I want to argue that rising debts and continuing deficits provide a challenge to how social reproduction is carried out by the state. This directly flows on from the previous chapter as the core of my argument is that the rising debt and deficit of the Australian state are at least in part a product of the global stagnation of capital accumulation. This manifests in the drop in revenue caused by the winding down of the mining boom.
I want to emphasise the stakes of my argument. In mainstream debates in Australia debt is most often framed in one of the following two ways. For the Right debt is a cause, if not the cause, of economic stagnation and crisis. For the Left Australia’s debt levels are unproblematic and the panic over debt is a production of the fetid imagination of the neoliberals and/or a cynical manoeuvre to justify the sort of policies the Right always carry in their back pockets. Here I wish to reject both these arguments. Debt is not the cause of crisis but a particular manifestation or expression of it; but it is a manifestation that has its own contradictions. And debt levels whilst overblown by the Right do present a serious challenge to the state’s abilities to finance and carry out social reproduction. Also a new revelation for me, one often ignored in the debates about debt, but one that is obvious when you think about it, is the role that sovereign debt in the form of state bonds plays in the financial markets. The debate over state debt is also always a debate about securing the value and the profits generated by financial assets.
A limitation of my investigation so far is that since my methodology looks at the movements of capital from ‘above’ there is the risk that I can slip into a form of presentation that ignores the class struggle that goes on ‘below’ and throughout capitalism. There is a danger, from Marx on, that our analysis can be too ‘objective’ and not grasp the subjective role struggle plays in the corresponding unfolding of the dynamics of capitalism(Shortall 1994). (Perhaps it is possible to see class struggle as the struggle of humanity against its entrapment in the objective categories of capitalism). My challenge is to express how the ways the state funds social reproduction and the shapes social reproduction take are products and sites of class struggle. Spiralling state debt is an expression of our power – even if it is latent. We need to enlarge our understanding of class struggle beyond a model that sees it primarily happening within the confrontation between labour and capital in the work-place proper, that is move beyond a ‘factory-office-farm’ model (Caffentzis 2013, 242). We need to understand the complex and multifaceted struggles that happen across all of society.
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.
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]