Socialists and the economy

The following is Peter Curtis’s response to observations and questions arising from the economic crisis.

As a socialist and trade union activist, I am raising these critical points among socialist and labour union activists with the hope of stimulating a dialogue. From there, we can work together to develop a program to carry out our primary task of defending the interests of the Australian working class.

The global economic collapse has already marked this as a period of political transformation. None of the ruling classes’ attempts to solve the crisis will result in greater economic and social equity for the vast majority, the working class.
An organised labour voice must be developed if we are to counter the solutions being pushed by the ruling classes to save capitalism at the expense of working people. To win at that defence, we must also offer a vision of how we can transform our lives through socialism.

Labour’s task: Reviving Capitalism or Building Worker’s Solidarity?
Fueling the panic of the ruling classes is the fear that economic disaster will translate into social upheaval. All governments have the powers to disarm industrial and political strikes. The Federal ALP government is reiterating this fact by overtly denying us our critical means of defense, the right to strike, and above all, the political strike.

The armed forces have been gearing up ready to administer the rough justice of the bourgeoisie. The twenty billion dollars spent on the global War on Terror by the Australian nation-market-state is to prepare the armed forces to exercise the mis-named ‘civil power’. Armed force and the legal machinery of the state are being used against organised labour now, and that repression will be stepped up, as in our past.

Organising local industrial and political actions against the inevitable cuts to our tax-funded services and living standards will condition activists for the confrontations between the needs of our class and the compulsions of capital. Strategically and tactically, workers and our organisations will have to face up to the ways that the state will respond to opposition from the working class.  Of course, politically isolated movements, often reactionary formations and particularly the thoughtless violence of disparate gangs and individuals, will be dealt blows relatively easily by the state’s enforcers. Such outbreaks are signs of hopelessness and mitigate against class solidarity.

Class solidarity is built in action which is possible only if we are able to develop and provide clear arguments and analyses of the crisis and its effects on the majority, the working class.  Hopelessness is born from a sense of powerlessness, that is, the inability to do anything about our predicament. The absence of analysis will continue to be an obstacle to developing a purposeful working-class program and response.  Currently, the labour movement is faced with a situation where it has no political leadership to speak of, least of all from the ALP, and, more critically, from the ACTU.

Too many labour leaders are abstaining while countless workers and unionists resist the ceaseless indignities of the conditions driving bosses to turn a profit. Where there is oppression, workers will resist and organise.  Some instances are the MUA nationally, and the exemplar of its regenerated WA Branch. Similarly, the postal workers in Victoria persist in their defence of permanent jobs and sustaining postal services despite Federal union obstruction in alliance with brutish Australia Post managers. The building trades and sections of manufacturing maintain their campaign opposing Gillard’s Construction Stasi, the ABCC.  Through fifteen years of resolute campaigning in the City of Yarra, Socialist Party councilor Steve Jolly trebled his vote to top the poll last November.

The formation of Union Solidarity is another success for working -class organisation. Punching well beyond its weight, Union Solidarity reminds the bourgeoisie and their agents that it will be an arduous and ongoing struggle to tame generations of steeled activists. These living, breathing, examples of the working class traditions of the labour movement are, if nothing else, a reminder to our “representatives” within the labour movement of what they once knew, or must relearn. Too many of those who claim to represent us within the ACTU, its affiliates, and their parliamentary leaderships, have become functionaries of the capitalist state.
Neo-liberalism: Disarming the Labour Movement.
Three decades of the neo-liberalism carried out by successive governments of the two key parliamentary parties have left capitalist political economy ideologically dominant. This hegemony is disarming the labour movement’s practical struggles for participatory and economic democracy. Despite this continued assault by the corporations and the parliaments, workers have been resisting all the while, with and without their union leaderships. 

The class struggle is fought out every minute of everyday in everything that we do. No amount of ideological bias or propaganda can eliminate exploitation and the inequality that capitalist political economy builds on.  However, no matter the circumstances, it is always difficult to wage a struggle and win ideological clarity. Equally difficult is maintaining those practical and conceptual gains. The ruling classes know it.  They have at their disposal not only the political dominance that their boardrooms carry but equally the collaboration of their fellows in the corporations that organise the mass-media which lives off mass-consumer-culture by driving it forward. Therefore, to revive working class organisation means that we must find our own ways to communicate for our ideological struggle against the rule of capital.

Currently, the ruling classes are getting away with providing the script through their mass-media outlets. Their task is to misinform us about the forces driving this economic turbulence. They are also doing all they can do to placate scared small-business people, lest they lose faith in “individual enterprise”. In addition, they work on their in-house concern of whipping their own global corporates into line. 

The assumption is that it is capitalists who create wealth, the same class that created the economic and political mess. Who is responsible, and why is there the daily destruction of the means of producing wealth? Who is throwing hundreds of thousands of workers out onto the grass, to shut down more of the machinery in the factories and businesses that they operated? These themes provide questions that are ignored by the corporate-mass-media. True to their class interests they are most concerned to assist in unifying the business, political and union leaderships to resuscitate the capitalist economy at the expense of the majority.

For what reason is the corporate mass-media reiterating that the “increasingly irrelevant trade unions” must assist the bosses in managing the recovery of profit rates? If unions are irrelevant why are litres of ink and volumes of breath being expended by bosses to ensure that Workchoices Lite, otherwise known as FairWork Australia, does not see the light of day? While governments may change the demands of the corporate boardrooms do not. So far, the bosses still have little reason to fear anything put by the leadership of the ACTU , who are encouraging the delusion that the Fair Work Bill will reinstate or protect their union rights. This legislation, combined with job losses, will make many more of us scrabble  a living. What becomes of our rights at work then?  The ACTU is at a loss to explain anything, offer any counterarguments, least of all, an economic alternative to those offered by corporate leaders. To do otherwise means betraying their allies within the ALP.  It is not unions and the organising of workers that is irrelevant. Rather those who stand in the way of a radical class response will make themselves moribund.

Preparing workers for leadership: A collective responsibility?
To provide the leadership necessary to prepare workers and families, and the generations of younger workers, we need to understand why the capitalist’s system has succumbed to its internal contradictions. The corporate masters are justified in their concerns about rebellions within the ranks of our unions as more of us understand why labour needs to regroup.

Ruling-class descriptions and analyses variously describe our unfolding predicament as anywhere between a loss of confidence, deregulation and extreme greed by a few investors and bank managers. The spin of a few CEO’s reducing their salary to one dollar a year is example enough of this gambit. What the ruling classes can not expose is that the looming catastrophe erupted through the financial sector, but is now manifest where it had its origins, namely, in the production of goods and services. We face a crisis of capital accumulation.

The point that needs to be emphasised over and over again, and then some more, is that the cause is the failure of capitalist accumulation, over-production, and the consequent expansion of credit. To describe the meltdown as a “financial crisis” is to miss the crux. That description reinforces the misconceptions fostered by the mass-media, including Radio National, twenty-four-seven. They dare not probe into production for fear of uncovering exploitation.

How will the educators be educated?
Workers are already expected to make all the sacrifices for the “common good” and to foot any of the bills run up by our rulers. The immediate destination for workers and many school leavers will be the dole queue, missing out on the experiences of older workers and the social organisation that workplace activism instills. Understanding that there is an economic crisis is hard enough. But in the absence of any radical alternatives, we are abandoned to the prejudices and the self-deceiving explanations of the ruling class’s think tanks, CEOs and politicians.

We are facing a systemic meltdown of the global economy, which while complex to comprehend, needs to be understood and explained if we are to organise responses which we can achieve. Reaching knowledge is never an easy task and does require thinking through our fears, and moving beyond trembling, so that we can consider, collectively, the myriad implications, both positive and negative, for our proximate futures.

The devastation blasting through the corporate sector should alert those of us in government service about what is to come. The state is spending billions to refinance capital and stimulate liquidity through the system. Who will fund the state’s debts? Who will pay the costs? What will the implications be for recurrent funding levels of health and hospitals, public education, transport and the multitude of other services that we appreciate fully only after they are gone?

The bastardry of Australia Post management toward their workers over the past decade is but one toxic example of a continuing and unfolding story of reducing a permanent public service workforce to on-call casuals. The corporatising thrust is always to pay workers only for the times when they are adding value by producing goods and services. That regime is being imposed on all tax-funded activities. A reliable government postal service, or any tax-funded service, is not essential to the corporate pursuit of profits. Many corporations have other corporate systems. What will working citizens do?

Socialist sections of the labour movement failed to fix on these concerns. The current political and economic conditions, and their histories, need to be investigated. The impact is being felt in Australia - here - in our workplaces, homes and suburbs. They are the sites where we should be active, with all our energy, because it is there that we can do the maximum damage to global capital.

Echoing the misleading description of the “financial crisis”, the left’s message generally fails to emphasise the significance of the current global economic catastrophe for the Australian working class. Almost every socialist grouplet website, by way of current example, is emphasising events in the Middle East. Horrific as that barbarism is, there is little we can do about it other than maintain focus on our common enemy here in this country. 

Socialist currents within the labour movement cannot afford to have our agendas set for us by the global highlights of the mass media, nor by the moralising of petty-bourgeois liberals and their hopes for justice in the abstract. As activists within the labour movement, we must pursue radical explanations – getting to the root – listen to the concerns of others, and ask ourselves questions. To do this requires giving the same attention as the ruling classes are to the demands of thinking in terms of political-economy.

Unemployment is the concern of us all. Already workers are being thrown out of their jobs, regardless of their income and status. Labour organisations need to be prepared to set agendas rather than merely react. Unions have adopted and carried out policies that acquiesce in, rather than challenge the rule of capital. In practice, too many unions are assistants to management. Often, they educate young workers to be anti-union. Class compromise of this kind provides ever more opportunities for the capitalists to disorganise workers and thereby increase exploitation, making militants ‘redundant’. Sell-outs must be meet with hostility from our rank and file as shown by the victories of the Victorian posties.

The Socialist Project, here, now, in Australia
Economic and political mayhem is now beginning to blow through our communities. As workers and political activists, we can only demonstrate our commitment to the defense of the common good by advancing the theoretical and practical steps to do what ever is necessary for our class to voice its needs. From there, the movement will be able to expand to engage all who recognise the need for a socialist project in their backyards.

A socialist and Marxist orientation to political organisation means to educate, and most critically, be educated by our class. Collective enlightenment requires tolerance and patience with each other as we seek clarity on the conceptual questions of political economy and of philosophical and scientific Materialism. Those of us who are committed to a Socialist Republic of Australia must develop the means for popularising this idea among our class. Our collective belief should surely be that such a national objective still provides the minimum inspiration to defend our labour movement. In the process, we will develop the means to transform our class internationally.

Marx and Engels still and will endlessly challenge us to find the keenest methods for explicating the forms of tyranny arising from the political-economy of the capitalist class. We must strive to absorb the intelligence and methods of the founders of Marxism into a practical thoughtfulness. As activists, we require the means to achieve clarity around how best to provide the means most necessary to develop organisationally and theoretically a broad socialist current within the labour movement.  This practical activity can provide the political leavening within our class.

Monopoly capitalism uses the state’s machinery for disorganising the labour movement. These methods and results can only ever be draconian impositions on the majority of wage slaves. The ruling classes have demonstrated disregard for any of our commonly recognised human rights, so much so, that it is no longer possible for social democrats to put any sort of democratic gloss over a sell out. We can see the obvious political and economic class bind that the Federal ALP Government is in regarding the FairWork Australia bill and their refusal to abolish the ABCC.

The loss of livelihoods and freedoms of expression are not coincidental and will provide the grist for processes that will drive a multiplicity of workers to rise and meet the demands necessary for defending our class interests. The meeting of these commonly held needs and interests provide the possibility of a transformation that can carry forward the well-being of our species and of our planet.

We build barricades to spot who is lurking on the other side of the class divide. Our choices then become sharper. We work, live and love in this country, and we must work out for ourselves the terms that make struggles meaningful for working people, here and now. To say otherwise suggests we are not deserving of their interest. We have everything to lose, our self-preservation as a class, and with it, any chance of transforming the social order so that a more truly human history can begin.

Peter Curtis
8 February 2009