Australia you’re standing in it part 2: Debt & Social Reproduction


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.

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Notes for an understanding of class deals be they social democratic or otherwise

treaty of detriot

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.

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No Jobs and No Workers? – Strange Contradictions of Capital Accumulation in Australia


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.)

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Welfare Changes and the Critique of Political Economy – Thoughts arising from, and a response to, ‘How the poor are shunted into deeper poverty just for political capital’ by John Passant.

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 Passant and 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.

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A New Start? Welfare Changes And the Labour-Power Shortage

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]

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