The issue of tax has become a clear line of debate for mainstream politics in Australia. The general malaise of global capitalism expresses itself in Australia in slowing growth and rising state debt. As 2016 came to an end, we have saw the first negative quarter of GDP growth in years, stagnating wage and profit growth and rising state debt and deficits (and Australia’s AAA rating is still vulnerable)(AAP 2016) . The decline in mining construction investment has not been effectively offset by resource exports, services exports or the inner-city off-the-plan unit investment boom. Apart from the drop in investment we saw during the early 1990s recession, investment as a percentage of GDP is currently at its lowest point in 50 years
On the 2nd of August the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reduced the cash rate to the historic low of 1.5%. The actions of the central bank often seem either arcane or uninteresting to the vast majority of us – except perhaps for those playing the markets and various gold-bugs, currency cranks and other tin-foil hat aficionados. However we should pay attention to the RBA. The RBA’s action was an attempt to intervene on the level of money in a way to forestall a further decline in the prospects for the capitalist mode of production in Australia and thus dampen any intensification in social conflict or malfunctioning such a decline might contribute to. Therefore it also tells us much about the health of capitalism in Australia on a whole and gives us an insight into the terrain on which our efforts for emancipation play out.
It is important to place an understanding of money right in the centre of radical critiques of capitalist society. Money is a coagulant that holds together so much of capitalist society as well as the form in which capital finds its clearest expression. Money dominates our lives. ‘The individual carries his social power, as well as his bonds with society, in his pocket’ (Marx 1993, 157). In our world money is incredibly heavy: ‘the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”…’ and it is our access to money which allows us to access this wealth which is the collective product of our vast creative capacities and their metabolism with the world (Marx 1990, 127). There are very few moments of the day when the amount of money in my pocket, in my bank account and the level of debt on my credit card isn’t on my mind. Yet on the other hand money is now incredibly insubstantial: since the end of the direct linkage of the US dollar to gold and all other currencies to the US dollar money no longer has any other references than itself. This has facilitated a vast and dizzying explosion of liquidity. This contradiction was seen so starkly in the response to the crisis when vast sums of money were either willed into existence by states or appeared as state debts as the financial system was bailed out whilst money for many people evaporated and plunged them into poverty.
Anti-capitalists in Australia have not been very good at making sense of money and finance nor popularising this critique. We rely too much on very general arguments about the madness of markets or robotic interpretations of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. We haven’t been very good at explaining the specifics of this crisis or why crises and malfunctions that appear on the level of money are actually products and expressions of much deeper systemic dynamics. This space has been filled by less savoury types: currency cranks, Larouchites, anti-Semites and other species of reactionaries. Part of our collective self-emancipation is demystifying the operations of capital on all levels.
Tuesday 3rd May will see the first budget of the Turnbull-Morrison Coalition government. It is also the date of the Reserve Bank’s next monetary policy decision. So it is an important day for fiscal and monetary policy. Like most people (including the well paid opinion-makers of the commentariat) I have no idea what the budget will contain. It is unlikely that the government will be able to break the impasse facing the state: a general tendency of slowing growth , rising state debt and a pool of sullen and largely inchoate opposition amongst the population to various attempts by the state to address both. The picture is complex. On this blog I have written a lot about ‘Capital’s Plan A’– the stimulation of the economy via infrastructure spending to be financed in part by cuts to social reproduction and through the ‘recycling’ (read privatisation or leasing) of state owned assets. This plan, at a Federal level is stalled, due in part to the 2015 defeat of the Qld LNP government on the question of leasing power assets. However the recent Victorian state budget is built around increased infrastructure spending financed by the leasing of a port and a higher level of debt[i]. Preceding the Federal budget there has been a warning from JPMorgan and from Moody’s about the potential for Australia to lose its AAA rating, projections from Deloitte about the size of the increase in both debt and deficit and,what surprised everyone, the release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the latest CPI figures showing .2% deflation in the last quarter (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016d, Greber 2016, Janda 2016, Martin 2016). It is this last point I want to look at. What does this latest news tell us about the both the direction of capital accumulation and the tensions and fault-lines of antagonism that constitute capitalist society in Australia?
The work of the critique of political economy is a thankless task: especially when reality comes and fucks up your theorising. Over the last year on this blog I have been trying to address a number of interrelated phenomena: the end of the mining boom as a symptom of the global recession, rising state debt and the difficulties this presents to facilitating social reproduction and the failure of the Government to implement ‘Plan A’ – the stimulation of the economy via infrastructure spending financed by asset sales and cuts to services. Then the Australian Bureau of Statistics comes along and publishes the National Accounts which detail higher than predicted growth rates for the last quarter: 0.7% trend and 0.6% seasonally adjusted. Calendar year growth is then up to 3.0% rather than the forecasted 2.5% (Scutt 2016).
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…
Earlier in May I presented on Marx’s critique of political economy for the Queensland School of Continental Philosophy – here is the recording of it. (I didn’t write the very generous bio…)
Where is the proletariat? The proletariat is everywhere, just as the boss is.
On 10th of May in the lead up to the Budget the Federal government announced fundamentally interlocking changes to the subsidies to childcare and the provision of paid parental leave. Less money will be given to parents and more money will be given to childcare and early childhood education providers. These changes reflect an attempt by the state to address multisided and interrelated problems of the social reproduction of capitalism and do so in the historical moment of dwindling economic fortunes. These interlocking problems are: the rising costs of social reproduction in the context of falling revenue, the size of the supply of labour and the care and raising of children. The changes mean the intensification of work – in the broadest sense – for the class on a whole and for women specifically, especially mothers. Indeed both the cuts to paid parental leave and the increase in the subsidy to childcare are aimed at having the same impact: to reduce the time that parents, and this will usually mean mothers, spend out of paid work and at home caring for their children. This means in practice an intensification of both waged and unwaged labour and their concurrent stresses and challenges.
It’s now pretty clear the Campbell Newman’s LNP has lost the Queensland election due to opposition to the ‘leasing’ (the effective sale) of state assets to raise funds to pay down debt and stimulate accumulation through investment in infrastructure. These two things are key parts of what I have argued is the Plan A to ensure the accumulation of capital in Australia as the mining boom fizzles out.
How many other state governments will proceed with asset sales now? And the Federal legislation to encourage this asset recycle remains stalled and unable to pass the senate.
How then can the investment in infrastructure be financed? And what are any of the alternatives for capitalism in Australia?
Whilst elections have little to do with our struggle for emancipation this result makes it clear that the current malaise of bourgeoisie politics and the general soft refusal of large sections of the population to sacrifice for capital means the state seems unable to act effectively for the best interest of capital – and all this in the context of a bleak global economy.
As the end of the mining boom begins to bite will this layer of refusal hold? Can vast expenditure on infrastructure be financed any other way? What could possibly be a Plan B for capital? And what shape will our struggles take in this period of crisis, decline and malaise?