Socialism’s Relevance Here and Now in Australia

Talking about socialism here and elsewhere

Dr. Tristan Ewins consistently seeks, from within the ALP, as an open socialist to the left of Australian laborism, to promote discussion about the meaning of socialism in Australia in the 21 st century.

Click here for his latest piece , “ALP Socialist Left Forum: The Prospects for Socialism Today”, that brings together discussions, debates and other exchanges on various Facebook pages and other sources.

We should develop the discussion further in the Australian context, and promote it more broadly, particularly reaching out to activists in the labour and green movements, and especially those who are active in both. It’s worth the effort, to sort out what we agree on and what we don’t, understand more deeply, and become better at explaining the great and immediate potential of socialism to workers who reject it at the moment.

Talking socialism, and acting on it, elsewhere

Before commenting directly on Tristan’s article, it’s worth noting that in the USA and Britain there is a lot more discussion about socialism in the context of political leaders, and the movements they are associated with, declaring themselves to be socialists. And the broader population is showing serious and growing interest. See this, for example.

You can also bet that the character of “socialism” and probably “socialist strategy” are a big part of the discussions happening in Venezuela and Mexico right now, and of course in Cuba as its mass participation in re-writing its socialist constitution reaches its final steps.

And, there is this from the Canadian veteran socialist intellectual, Sam Gindin: “Socialism for Realists”, click here.

Sam’s article is relevant because, although he comes at it in a different way to Tristan, he also focuses on socialism as an alternative society.

Socialism as an alternative society: foundation principles

One thing I like about Tristan’s effort is that he reminds us and takes us to, briefly, some foundation principles. These include, “Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system”, the Marxian principle “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”; the varieties of social ownership, the withering away of the state, and, “‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a ‘manner of applying democracy’ … the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the working class majority. (Widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin.)”

His primary reference points are Nordic social democracy on one hand and Stalinism on the other. For Tristan, it seems that Nordic social democracy in its history has 21st-century possibilities while Stalinism does not.

I agree on the latter and I think the former is far more problematic in the Australian context, and probably that is true in the Nordic countries also.

I agree with Tristan that we should be talking about the “foundational principles”. Even now, when we are a long way from socialism as an alternative society. And this is where Sam’s article fills some gaps.

I do think there are two problems in Tristan’s approach. First there are some holes and second, talking socialism only in terms of an alternative society neglects its immediate relevance.

Some holes in Tristan’s brief discussion

First, lets look at some holes, perhaps serious ones, in what Tristan says about the “foundation principles”.

First, socialism is an alternative society that is the antithesis of present-day capitalism. As such, there are new foundation principles that are explicit and central in addition to Tristan’s summary: first socialism restores and regenerates the natural world (this is actually a nineteenth-century Marxian idea); second, socialism elevates the potentiality and power of women within its development; third, socialism nurtures individuality and identity on the bedrock of tackling the common exploitation of nearly all.

But I think there is something terribly important missing in Tristan’s discussion of socialist democracy and the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat”. And I use the word “terribly” quite deliberately.

The missing concept is the counter-power of the capitalist class of the day that will, as it always has been, determined to destroy the development of socialism. This means that capitalist forces muts destroy the masses of potentials, starting with common access to food and water, clothing, shelter and culture. They will try to restore their command and control of the society, using whatever means are available and possible, including violence.

How should working people, as the 90 per cent majorty emerging as the new governing class respond to this? Accept it? Rely primarily or only on an electoral process? Exert their own command and control over the forces that wish to go backwards?

I don’t think we can talk about new and more powerful forms of democracy that enable the working class to govern the direction of the society, without grasping hold of what the “old” working class will do to destroy that process, including masses of people trying to make it happen. DEmocratic counter-fore must be part of the discussion.

I dont think Sam Gindin’s article grasps this dialectic either: force and counter-force.

Socialism’s immediacy in the Australian context, with an example

Socialism as an alternative society is some distance away. However, it also exists in the immediate presence in 2 important ways that are relevant for the here and now, not least because the present is the first part of the bridge to the better future.

Thus, Socialism also exists as a programme of challenge and change to the destructive logic of capitalism as it is happening right now.

A “political and economic alternative programme” that challenges 21st century capitalism’s logic exists inside the many struggles that many people are currently engaged in. Within those struggles, there are more, or less, articulate demands that describe a better deal for nature and humans in many different “fields”. Some of these, perhaps more than others, reflect the possibilities of progress towards a new society, or at least a more powerful challenge to the destructive trajectory of capitalism as we know it.

For Australians there is a distinctive feature for any socialist programme at any time in its development: it must incorporate the aims and demands of our First Nations peoples, and ensure a most powerful place for them in leading the pursuit of the programme.

Bringing greater coherency and unity to these many separate counter-demands of the people into a widely known and supported Programme is of the utmost priority for all of the struggles that are under way right now. That is socialism in immediate action.

Finally, socialism exists as a praxis that can be pursued here and now – a way of thinking and acting for big and small organizations, and for individuals, to break from the ways of thinking and acting that are acceptable in the current society. Effective immediate struggles of workers and citizens are born in ways of thinking that are rooted in a “critical outlook” with some specific characteristics.

Above all, and for the sake of brevity, “critical analysis” looks at problems with an eye for their “opposites” and for the relationship of each problem to other problems and phenomena (things, events etc.) And it sees any stat eof affairs as being in flux, changing and capable of being changed. And this way of thinking can be learned.

I finish with an example: wage stagnation and associated inequality have a lot to do with exploitation. But how this exploitation (of humans by a minority of humans) works can only be grasped by connecting wages to profits and also to private investment. Exploitation is NOT the payment of wages below a legal minimum; it is the payment of wages at less than the total value created by the waged workers and the difference being expropriated by the capitalists to enable ongoing and further accumulation that belongs only to them. This take on exploitation is a socialist way of understanding the problem: and, happens to be true and verifiable, especially in the daily realities of all workers and those who wish to work, but are denied the possibility.

Socialism exists in the present. Not just the future.

Understanding exploitation

This obituary for Erik Olin Wright makes me regret not paying more attention to his thoughts and writing. There was something of his that I read back in the early 80’s that provided some insights about union strategy at the time, that at short notice I do not recall. This says more, not good, about me rather than the quality of Wright’s work.

There are two reasons. First, as the obituary emphasizes, Wright focused on the primacy of class in understanding what’s happening in society. More of that please.

Second, that meant he focused on exploitation. The obituary elaborates a little on that.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I believe that the quality of understanding of what exploitation actually is very poor in the Australian left, especially in the union movement. I have said before that younger union activists have a stronger and more confident grasp of discrimination than they do of exploitation. This leads to serious strategic problems, including in the nature of demands that workers are encouraged to make on employers and governments. (For example see here, and here.)

It is quite common to hear or read exploitation discussed as the underpayment of wages relative to statutory minimums. The conclusion reached or suggested is that workers who are paid according to or better than the prescribed minimum are not exploited.

Of course, this is a nonsense that far too often is studiously and deliberately avoided. Among other things it leaves begging the possibility, and reality, of workers on relatively high wages, say above the average or the median, might be exploited at higher rate than workers on a relatively lower wage.

Yes, it is possible to work out, to some degree of precision, what the rate of exploitation is. It’s not just a conceptual thing, as valid as it is in that form.

If all workers are exploited, can there ever be fairness in a wages system within a capitalist society. Of course, that all depends on what moral or ethical value you attach to exploitation. Is it good, or is it bad? Or something else.

I don’t know whether Erik Olin Wright, as a marxist thinker for the 21st century, tackled these sort of questions.

I also don’t know from the obituary whether his focus on “exploitation” included the interactions and mutual dependencies between capitalism’s exploitation of the big majority human beings and of the natural environment.

Yet more learning to get stuck into in 2019.

Happy Birthday 200th Birthday, Karl Marx!

Karl Marx, Helen Razer and May Day 2018: Marx’ 200th birthday Anniversary – May 5th

In Australia, in the middle of our month of actions to build the Change the Rules Campaign, we should pause for a while to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, May 5th.

That might be a big ask for many Australian labour movement activists. And probably also for those of you in the First Nations liberation, environment movements, feminist activity, anti-racism, refugee solidarity, and so on.

Therefore, “Why pay attention to Marx?” 

Back in the nineteenth century Marx gave our forebears – the workers of the world – the first coherent and worker oriented explanation of how capitalism worked in his day, and some basic principles for a true alternative, a true socialism.

21st century capitalist society is quite different from way back then, but in its essences it is so much the same. There is a connection between the way in which 21st century capitalism is different and the way it is the same. We are still living in a world of exploitation, with various levels of hyper exploitation, of both the majority of humans and of most of nature as we know it. The exploitation is driven by the dynamic of the system.

Karl and Fred, with Jenny and some others lending a helpful hand in many ways (see the recent bio, “Love and Capital”), explained that dynamic thoroughly. Even right wing commentators in the financial media can’t help but recognise it, especially to understand the 2007-9 financial crisis and why it is taking so long for a recovery to happen, and that so far there is no recovery for the lives of billions of humanity.

It’s worth paying attention to Karl for lots of reasons, including a sparkling and at times bawdy wit, and his contribution as a refugee solidarity activist with the rest of his immediate family (again, take a look at “Love and Capital”).

Earlier this week we in Australia were reminded in several ways why millennial workers, and others like me (post ww 2 generation), might find using a marxist approach to understand wtf is going on worth the effort.

They included the media coverage reports of

– what the Australian government is going to do to continue the failure of successive governments to tackle and reverse climate change at the rate that is desperately needed;

– and, the housing crisis: there was this summary of a new report from Anglicare that told us, among other horrible things, that out of 67,365 rental properties surveyed across the country, only 3 were affordable if you needed Centrelink (social security) payments;

– and this that described precarious employment plight for workers of the millennial generation … unemployment at 12.5% average, double the general average, underemployment at huge levels, the government driven destruction of vocational education and the apprenticeship system, and “wage theft”, the systemic payment of wages at less than the legal minimum rate.

Helen Razer and Marx

Helen Razer is a popular and sharpish marxist social commentator. Her most recent (2017) book is “Total Propaganda”, a plain speaking, witty and bawdy (in a way that Marx and his household would smile at) 21st century introduction to Marx and Marxism for workers of the millennial generation. I recommend it as a good (with a couple of weakness though) 21st century introduction from an Australian starting point.

Her Introduction includes this:

“You guys have it bad … There is nothing character building about not being able to afford a permanent place to live. There is nothing fun about a shrinking job market. Stagnant wages are not exhilarating.”

And this:

“You are not a pussy for feeling that the world has failed you. The world has failed you, and it’s hardly your fault that its systems have begun to break down. You guys are not choosing to flit from job to job. You are not choosing to hurt those Chinese and Congolese workers who made that iPhone with their blood. You did not throw your chance at a home after a gourmet sandwich.” (You can read the next bit yourself “Oh Millennial Sandwich Eater.”)

At the end there is a chapter about what to do about it and also a pretty good suggested reading list.  (It leaves out a couple that I would recommend. For example I would include Terry Eagleton’s equally entertaining “Why Marx Was Right”, and Malcolm Robert’s blog posts that offer good plain language explanations of how the economy we live in right now is working / not working, based on key marxian ideas, see below.)

In between there is a sparkling overview of how Marx was motivated by his passion for freedom for all people by analysing how freedom worked (works) in a capitalist system, including its cultural and political dimensions, not just its economic. She points also to what she sees as weaknesses in Marx’ thinking.

She gets into 2 key “economic” concepts essential to understanding things like exploitation and recurring and irresolvable crises. They are the labour theory of value and the tendency for profitability to fall. She doesn’t quite nail these, nor the value of dialectical thinking (eg capitalism changes by staying the same, but retains its impulse into crisis and inability to fully recover from it.)

She does nail pretty well Marx on alienation and the fundamental reality that our material existence is the foundation for all else. Its also funny and entertaining, using the “problem” of masturbation as the starting point.)

She also grabs hold of another core Marxian idea and shakes our brains with it: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

This is a good entry point to understand the essential difference between individualism, as lauded by the employers and their Liberal Party, and individuality. The promotion of individualism – rooted in selfishness, greed, self-centredness – is a central idea of 21st century capitalism, just as it was in Marx’ 19th century. The material economics of individualism – capitalism – kills individuality. Individuality – the precious unique potential of each human being – nourishes and amplifies the possibilities for each one of us and, in itself, is dependent on the power of workers uniting across the boundaries varies of gender and race.

Her “what is to be done” chapter is simple and powerful: get engaged including through study and thinking. Act. Bring identity politics into the common struggle against exploitation and hyper exploitation. Study exploitation using Marx because his legacy provides the best perspective for doing that. It’s time for that now and over these next few years. No more whinging.

The place for millennial workers is in the struggle to Change the Rules, in the workplace. Its rescuing our environment. Its standing in solidarity with our First Nations peoples. And so on. It’s on the streets for May Day. It’s in the public meetings, the rallies, the demonstrations and the meetings that plan them. It’s in the development and driving of strategy, from below and the mid-levels of our movement, not just leaving it to “heroic” leaders, elected or otherwise. Its breaking out of the boring cycle of rapacious LNP governments followed by marginally better (oh we should be so grateful) Labor governments, followed by … more getting nowhere at all.

Everyone has the potential for it. Find a way.

%d bloggers like this: