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

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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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Not with a bang but a whimper: The End of the Mining Boom and the next Budget

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Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion

                                                -TS Elliot

On the 12th May Treasurer Joe Hockey will present his second budget. The budget lies at the heart of the state’s efforts to reproduce capitalist society; thus understanding what is in the budget plays some role in interpreting the terrain in which we contest capitalism on. His previous budget was the centrepiece of a clear vision (a Plan A) to address the challenges facing capital accumulation in Australia and it lies pretty much in ruins. Facing the end of the mining boom and thus a drop in growth levels, profits, wages, rises in unemployment and Federal debt, the budget aimed to reduce spending on social reproduction and increase stimulative spending on infrastructure. The latter was to be financed in no small part through asset recycling (privatising state assets and reinvesting the funds). This was sold as a response to a ‘budget emergency’, a narrative that over-emphasised the size of Federal debt for political effect (just as the Left/social democratic narrative denied its existence). Added to this were efforts, coordinated on a state level, to disperse points of social contestation: the construction unions, ecological protests and community opposition.

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Short notes on the failures of Capital’s Plan A

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.

(Commonwealth of Australia 2014b, 11)

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)?

 

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