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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Remembering Fidel

Mourning the Death of Fidel Castro and Remembering
Readers are encouraged to discuss Castro's legacy, and what happens in Cuba now

Tristan Ewins

News today of the passing away of former Cuban Marxist revolutionary and President Fidel Castro.

Fidel rose to power through the vehicle of a popular insurgency which overthrew the corrupt US-backed Batista government.
   Turning to the USSR for support, Castro survived arguably hundreds of assassination attempts, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and more.  He built a one-party state – albeit one based on overwhelming popular mobilisation and participation.  Arguably his government was authoritarian: though this must be largely understood in the context of terror attacks, and the aforementioned assassination attempts.   Much like Western intervention in Revolutionary Russia drove Lenin to embrace a spiralling Red Terror (which ultimately descended into Stalinism), Castro embraced authoritarian measures to ward away his adversaries.  Though certainly he was never a monster like Stalin. 

For decades Cubans flourished in the context of a system which prioritised Health Care for all,
  reducing infant mortality, eliminating illiteracy, and reaching out to Cuba’s neighbours  through the vehicle of volunteer doctors and teachers.  Indeed, on many indicators (eg: infant mortality) Fidel’s Cuba out-performed his neighbours, including the United States itself.

Castro was one of the earliest and most consistent opponents of Apartheid in South Africa.
  He actively supported revolutionary movements in Central and South America, including in Nicaragua and El Salvador.  The brutality with which those movements were repressed – with US support – stands in stark contrast with many Western nations condemnation of Fidel’s government as ‘totalitarian’.  Repression of left-wing movements, including the murder of Liberation Theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero ; saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But when Communism collapsed in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-1991 Cuba was left exposed to the long-term US Economic Embargo.
   Living standards fell on many indicators.  But still Cubans overwhelmingly supported their government.   Fidel lived to see the Cuban economy recover ; and to see his brother, Raul engage in ‘fence-mending’ with the government of Barack Obama.  Under Raul there were market reforms – which were essential to Cuba’s survival, including its engagement with the rest of the world ;  But Cuba’s identity and orientation remained inarguably socialist.  For instance Cuba remained implacably in solidarity with the Leftist/Bolivarian governments of Venezuela.

All this aside,
 the threat of Terror and assassination do not fully explain or fully excuse repression in Cuba.  There have been extrajudicial executions ; Imprisonment of political prisoners, systemic harassment of critics.  Cuba’s government may have overwhelming popular support: but as Rosa Luxemburg effectively argued in contrast to Lenin and Trotsky: human rights and democracy must always also be rights for those who dare to think and speak differently.  It is easy to romanticise Fidel’s reign given his enormous personal charisma.  But on the Left we must keep in mind the shortcomings, also.  And strive to do better.

Nonetheless for many of us on the Left this is a sad day.
  Fidel achieved so much in his leadership of socialist Cuba.   And socialist Cuba’s survival in the post-Cold War world is remarkable.  Fidel deserves to be remembered for the sum of his achievements and of his legacy.  Some of that is questionable ; but much of it is laudable.   When we remember him let it be in applying those same standards to our own governments ; and the governments of our historic allies.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What the Trump Victory means about 'Political Correctness', 'Anti-Political Correctness' and the American Working Class

above: An Exhausted Hillary Clinton after the Shock Donald Trump Presidential Victory

'Political Correctness' is a common bogey deployed by the Right in order to wedge the Left ; But here 'Anti-Political-Correctness' is the much bigger problem when viewed in perspective ; (As effectively argued by former Keating speech writer, Don Watson)  At the same time the Left needs to 'return to class' ; and engage with opinions we don't like.  The 'political pressure cooker' alternative may blow up in our faces...

Dr Tristan Ewins

In response to the surprise Trump victory in the US Presidential election  I’ve written a couple of letters to Australian newspapers : though neither published yet.  Before engaging in a broader examination of ‘political correctness’ and ‘anti-political correctness’  (which I thought I’d deal with in response to some negative commentary) – here are the letters in their original form.

First to ‘The Age’:

Hard as it may be to believe there’s a silver lining to the US Election result. Instead of being taken for granted one way or another, both Republicans and Democrats will now have to take account of the needs of the US working class. Bipartisan support for the neo-liberal interpretation of globalisation will need to be re-thought. In the mid-West and elsewhere the industrial working class and its sons and daughters have long suffered a deindustrialisation which robbed them of social and economic security and identity. The Right also increasingly uses narratives of ‘Left elites’ and ‘political correctness’ to drive a wedge against the progressive Left. An unambiguous return to class politics could sweep the rug from under that strategy. The old Left made the mistake of taking working class support for granted. Some in today’s US Democrats make the opposite mistake of ‘writing white male workers off’. What we need is a strategy to build a multi-faceted electoral bloc based on a politics of solidarity, mutual respect, and mutual liberation.

And also to the ‘Herald Sun’ ( a counter to Andrew Bolt):

Andrew Bolt calls the Trump election victory “a revolt against the Left’s arrogance” (10/11). But reality is more complex than this. A neo-liberal consensus - a particular INTERPRETATION of ‘globalisation’ - has prevailed around much of the world, facilitated by BOTH the parties of the Right and of the ostensible Centre-Left. Working class people who had lost their identity, as well as their economic and social security with the destruction of their jobs – gravitated towards a promise to restore America’s industrial base. Trump’s old school protectionism might not be the answer, but Nordic-style, targeted industry policy might serve better. Policies which promote high value-added manufacturing alongside Research and Development, and promotion of information and communications technology industrial development. Instead of taking their orientation for granted, the US Left needs to actively court the working class – including white males – with policies that offer the respect and security which could be key to building a broad electoral bloc, and rolling back Trump’s support base.

After I had posted one of these at Facebook I got the response from one reader:

I see, so white males are the most important in all of this are they?

I was surprised at this as I thought many on the Australian Left could see the problems with US politics ; that is – the lack of a clear class perspective; and hence the political alienation of a great many American workers.  Great swathes of the American working class have been co-opted by Conservative interests who play ‘divide and conquer’.   This is similar to the situation in Australia.  For instance where certain media outlets play the working poor off against some of the most vulnerable welfare recipients.  

That strategy is detestable ; but has proven quite effective.

The best response it to build solidarity – and promote the rights and interests of both those on benefits AND the working poor.   More robust labour market regulation and social wage provision for the ‘working poor’ is a crucial strategy in response to those Conservative ‘wedge strategies’ in Australia.

In the US, however, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be wedged by propaganda which emphasizes themes of  ‘political correctness’ , ‘Left cultural elites’ and so on.  (also similar to Australia) What’s more, modern identity politics has paved the way for this strategy’s success.  The class perspective was abandoned.   There has been an emphasis on the privileges of white men – but where class just never comes into the picture.   At its most vulgar and simplistic this is interpreted by some as suggesting there is something just ‘essentially bad’ with white male identity, sexuality and status.  

Race and gender no doubt need to be seriously taken into account when constructing a critique of privilege and power in modern capitalist societies.
  They are a big part of the overall picture.  We need greater equality in the labour market, the public sphere, sport, the home, and so on.  We need a women’s movement which demands these – and more.

But as former Keating speech writer Don Watson effectively argued on QandA recently (I paraphrase) : ‘political correctness can be bad’ ; although ‘anti-political correctness is much worse!’.

The lack of tolerance for real engagement with more conservative social perspectives : indeed the tendency to supress debate for fear of being vilified or shamed – actually plays into the Right’s hands.  It can create a ‘pressure cooker’ environment which can finally explode with the rise of a Trump-like character.  And if people are already disengaged because no-one is speaking to their economic and social interests ; and because they are prejudged as ‘red-necks’ – that just facilitates the Conservative agenda.   (not that Trump is ‘traditional Conservative’)

But sure
 - the monopoly mass media does the same thing – but in reverse.  Mostly it fails to engage with progressive perspectives.  Systemically excludes them on any significant scale. Often it facilitates that strategy of ‘divide and conquer’.  It facilitates intolerance, fear, ‘downward envy’ and so on.  Often it is intellectually dishonest.

Compared with so-called ‘political correctness’ the ‘anti-PC’ movement
 is so frightening as it could facilitate a full-on political and social Reaction : perhaps even fascism in some instances.   There is a disposition to wind back past gains: social security and welfare ; affirmative action and women’s right to choose ; the welfare state and social wage. Civil and industrial liberties are mocked, belittled and trivialised.

Here I had chosen in one of my letters to mention white working class men specifically because of their strategic importance ; but also because they matter as human beings ; and should just not be ‘written off’.
 Karl Marx argued for the human liberation of ALL working people.  Facilitating the fullest possible human development of all working people ; and the amelioration (and finally abolition) of alienating forms of human labour under conditions of material abundance.  That is: Marx critiqued physically and/or mentally punishing labour with people treated people like ‘cogs in the machine’.  Where labour was for subsistence ; and its fruits are taken by capitalists in the form of a surplus.  So emphasising peoples’ class interests could be ‘the foot in the door’ – to gain peoples’ trust for a broader strategy of mutual solidarity ; and of building an unbeatable electoral bloc. 

I like to think of the strategy I propose as one of ‘mutual liberation’.
  The aim, here, is not to write off or humiliate those demographics who are considered ‘problematic’.  But rather to suggest that the liberation of each is interconnected with the liberation of all. This should involve a real conversation: about democracy, and about class, race, sexuality, liberal rights, education and civic activism, and gender.   

In Australia right now it could be argued we’re wrapped up in veritable ‘cultural revolution’ with regard to gender and sexuality.
  Broadly this revolution is a good thing.  But arguably sometimes ‘the Left’ gets it wrong.  Privilege can be conceived of in a overly-simplistic way: not only neglecting social class , but also age, disability, body image and so on.  What is more: real privilege is complex.   If we are to employ an approach of ‘intersectionality’ (ie: the various forms of privilege and the ways in which they intersect) we need to use those more complex variations on that framework : which look to specific experiences.  Not ONLY the large scale social relations of inequality and oppression ; but ALSO the highly individualised experiences.   When we accept this we can see that we ought not judge any person until we fully understand their individual circumstances.  Without accepting this we are left in the position of unnecessarily alienating some people: people who might otherwise be convinced if there was a strategy of respectful engagement.  

But where the project of liberation is subverted into becoming a project of ‘turning the tables’ this also can fuel a political and social reaction.
  It can ‘blow up in our faces’ with exactly the opposite consequences to what we aspired towards.

So the Trump electoral result is a real wake-up call for the broad American Left.
  ‘Class’ has to return to the front and centre of progressive American politics.  Promotion of working class interests is a good thing in itself ; but also ‘a foot in the door’ for a broader engagement on the project of mutual human liberation. 

Active and targeted industry policy is a desirable strategy to engage with the needs and aspirations of the traditional industrial working class.
  To achieve full employment ; and the creation of secure, well paid jobs.  The movement for a $15/hour minimum wage needs to be fully embraced – and even updated to account for inflation and a rising cost of living. Industrial rights and liberties are paramount.   The neo-liberal interpretation of free trade and globalisation needs to be re-thought in a way which does not undermine popular sovereignty.  While nonetheless encouraging nations to take advantage of each others’ specialisations and comparative advantages.   And making the most of everyone’s  ‘skill sets’ ; not leaving them on ‘the labour market scrapheap’. And the benefits of the social wage and welfare state need to be sold to layers of the working class which used to enjoy such benefits provided through the private sector.
Finally I should mention the fact that despite being slaughtered in the electoral college vote, Hillary Clinton won a clear majority of the popular vote.   In this scenario the ‘industrial rust belt’ really was critical to the Trump ‘electoral college landslide’.  That’s the sense in which we have ‘a silver lining’.  That those displaced by a decades-long process of deindustrialisation must finally be taken seriously.  That workers’ interests more broadly will be embraced as being of real strategic value.  That the working class will no longer be practically ‘invisible’ in American politics.

The question of Trump’s ‘mandate’, however - and the ‘mandate’ of the Republicans more broadly – needs to be viewed in this context.
  Also it is cause to apply a critical eye to the US electoral system.  It demands constitutional reform.

Finally: although Bernie Sanders will not likely re-emerge as a Presidential candidate in four years time, nonetheless the movement he helped create is far from exhausted. If anything it may gain momentum if Trump’s failure to deliver disillusions parts of his base.
  Economically Left: they are in a position to appeal to workers’ interests.

Hillary Clinton has not ‘shattered the glass ceiling’.
  And indeed while her victory would have been of great symbolic importance – it is actually POLICY and how it affects specific groups which matters most.  Clinton will not likely return ‘for another shot’ in four years’ time.   But also it really is only a matter of time before a woman ‘takes the top job’.  Also she was the first woman candidate to run in a US Presidential election.  And she won the popular vote.  Regardless of her flaws: that will go down as history.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Trump Economic Policy not 'Business as Usual' for Neo-Liberalism - But Clinton offers real change for the Working Poor

above:  The Economic Policy Contest between Clinton and Trump is more interesting than a first glance may suggest

Dr Tristan Ewins

This week I begin my blog post with a correction.  In an earlier article I described Donald Trump as ‘a neo-liberal’.  Based on corporate welfare policies – such as cutting corporate tax by more than half , as well as cutting other taxes affecting corporations  – this may have appeared accurate.  But upon closer inspection this election is more interesting than it first appears.

Yes, Trump wants to hold minimum wages down to the existing miserly rate of $7.25 an hour.  Yet Democrats are campaigning for an increase to $15 an hour. For the American working poor this could prove to be a real watershed.  Though Clinton has only absolutely committed to a rise to $12/hour she will be under significant moral and political pressure to go further.  That could result in a defining moment for social justice in the workplace at ‘at the lower end’ in America.  But the centre-piece of Trump’s economic policy is a reversion to protectionist policies.  Hence Trump's position is NOT 'neo-liberalism as usual'. He has talked about a 25% tariff on Chinese goods and a 35% tariff on Mexican goods.    The immediate effect of this may well be to shore up some American jobs ; but there’s the prospect of economic retaliation as well.  If that happens it could hurt everyone.

Trump is assuming massive growth in jobs and investment – and that revenue from tariffs will pay for the massive tax cuts ; as well, perhaps, as reductions in some military expenditure – pressuring NATO allies, and East Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea to invest more into their own defence.  Hence Australian commentators such as Paul Kelly suggest (I paraphrase here)  a ‘US withdrawal from the world stage’ , and the end of the US as ‘world’s policeman’, ‘enforcing a liberal political model’, including in our region.  (though In reality the US was often concerned with its diplomatic and economic hegemony more-so than ‘enforcing liberalism’)  Conservative commentators such as Greg Sheridan fear US partial withdrawal from the region and what it might mean for Australia.  (eg: pressures to increase our Defence budget)

Hillary Clinton’s economic policies contrast quite starkly with Trump’s economic policies.  She is proposing  big investments in infrastructure, child care,  and in boosting women’s economic participation.  Also borrowed from Bernie Sanders – she is proposing policies to cut back student debt and hence make tertiary study more accessible.  Further she supports profit sharing with workers, collective bargaining rights for organised labour, and investment in the broader education system – both academic and vocational training.   She’s also supporting longer-term investment by taxing short term investment more severely than long term investment .

Other authors are also pointing to the malaise amongst layers of the US working class – still scarred by the process of deindustrialisation which took effect from the 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s.  Authors observe the loss of certainty and security.  Often there have been much lower wages.  Losses of health benefits.  Loss of respect, working class identity, organisation and social networks.  And where the US Democrats have increasingly pitched their message to ‘the middle’ , working class Americans are sometimes left to wonder ‘if they really matter anymore’.  Many modern middle class liberals have a lot to say about the privileges of being white and male, but have had little to say about the working class ; or about class more generally.   These ‘blind-spots’ have left many working class Americans disoriented ; and at least Trump was speaking to their experiences, fears and insecurities.  Even if his ‘solutions’ are dubious.  Sometimes working class Americans even feel patronised by a ‘middle class liberal establishment’ which hasn’t taken class seriously enough ; which sometimes have disrespected or misunderstood them, or subjected them to caricature.

On the other hand Clinton’s policies do offer more social mobility through greater access to tertiary education.  And while she won’t restore the industrial working class jobs which many look back to as representing a kind of ‘heyday’ ; some working poor Americans could see  close to a doubling of their hourly wages rate.   Some jobs might go ; but others will be created by the increase in consumption power.  Clinton has some good economic policies – obscured by the never-ending mud-slinging ; the constant emphasis on ‘dirt’ and ‘denigration of character’.  (which has become the defining feature of the campaign for both sides)

That said Clinton needed to do more and say more to win over great swathes of working class America. 

US industrial working class music icon,
Bruce Springsteen has called Trump a ‘conman’ with ‘glib’ and ‘superficial’ ‘answers’ to a problem which has spanned over several decades.  Massive tariffs on China and Mexico are a very blunt instrument.  Again, they may provoke retaliation which ends up hurting everyone.  What jobs are created will possibly pale in comparison to the collapse in corporate tax revenue , with a loss of public sector jobs.   

But a more nuanced industry policy – such as the Nordics have experimented with over the decades - should not be considered ‘out of the question’.   Furthermore: The age of retirement must not rise – either in America or in Australia – in order to buoy the economy.  That’s the wrong approach – which depresses rather than improves real living standards. (ie: with a ‘work/life balance’)  Neither should labour market deregulation aim to ‘clear the labour market’.  

Strategic economic intervention makes more sense.  Targeted education and training linked with job creation for existing/sympathetic skill sets.  More extensive retraining where necessary for those deemed capable.  Perhaps even government support for workers co-operatives – providing tax breaks and co-investment to help maintain jobs, and improve economies of scale without dependence on take-over capital. 

The US government needs a PLAN for a far more balanced and equitable labour market and economy.   Clinton’s increase in the minimum wage is a good start ; as are her plans for accessible education and greater economic and social mobility.  But depressed regions cannot just be left ‘to carry the can’.  Durable jobs need to be created and maintained over the long term.  And communities need to be reinforced around the necessary social infrastructure.   Where the loss of well-paying working class jobs in manufacturing and heavy industry saw the loss of private sector benefits in areas like health – the State needs to step in and fill the gap.  The social wage is potentially the answer for both middle income and lower income Americans.   And the working class needs to return to ‘the front and centre’ of Democrats policy and rhetoric.

The real danger now is that Trump is gathering enough momentum to deny the Democrats control of BOTH Houses ; ie: the House of Representatives AND the US Senate.  SOME of the truly progressive policies emanating from Hillary Clinton have been derived from Bernie Sanders ; and enshrined in the Democratic Platform.  With control of both houses and massive political and moral pressure to implement that platform – we could see some truly meaningful gains under a Clinton Presidency.  But failure to speak to the fears and insecurities of the US working class – including recognition of the dignity of labour – have undermined the Democrats position ; and left these people exposed to Trump’s demagogic posturing on the home front.   

Even on parts of the Left some are also fearful that Clinton may prove to be too ‘Hawkish’ on the foreign policy front.  Trump is seen by some as ‘the lesser evil’.   Julian Assange will likely never forgive the US Administration’s pursuit of him under Obama.  L.B.Johnson implemented ground-breaking ‘Great Society’ social and welfare policies – but will be remembered by most as pursuing the war in Vietnam.  We need a United States which doesn’t just ‘roll over’ in the face of aggression.   But which at the same time goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain peace as well.  And which appreciates the concerns of other Great Powers where they are legitimate.  Yet a vacuum from any US withdrawal within our own region could create more instability, not less.  (though no I am not making excuses for past US policies, such as support for the Suharto regime)

The US Presidential Election is almost upon us.  Let’s hope for a Clinton victory.  But also for a reformed Democratic Party which speaks to – and shows clear respect for – the United States’ working class.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Freedom and Mutual Respect: Progressive Letters for October 2016

above:  The Herald-Sun commonly questions the right to protest , but doesn't question its own assumptions re: the availability of work , or the right to refuse exploitative employment

The following are a series of progressive letters sent to 'The Age', 'The Herald Sun' and 'The Australian' during October 2016.  The clear majority were not published.  But I am hoping they spark debate here.  

Topics include:

Benefits and Drawbacks of Globalisation'

'A congestion tax for Melbourne?'

In a similar vein:  Immigration, Tax and Infrastructure'

'Refuting Double Standards on Tolerance while Promoting real Pluralism and Freedom'

'Engaging with Feminism on the Complexity of Intersectionality and Privilege'

'Gender, Sexuality and Mutual Respect and Consideration' 

'Refuting the Herald-Sun Again on 'Welfare Shaming'

Refuting the Herald-Sun Again: Misleading Characterisations on the Unemployed'


Dr Tristan Ewins

Benefits and Drawbacks of Globalisation

Jeremy Francis (3/10) observes the benefits of globalisation ; criticising the double standards of Conservatives . He compares free trade with the defence of “strong borders” ; limiting the free movement of people – punishing and indeed criminalising refugees. But globalisation is too complex and multi-faceted for progressives to simply be ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.  Cultural exchange and engagement is arguably a good thing ; enriching cultures and acting as a check on abuse of power by particular nation states.  But the ‘inverse side’ of globalisation is the ‘free movement of capital’ .  Agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are deployed to break down all barriers which would prevent the exploitation of every potential market by the transnational corporations.  This kind of ‘free movement of capital’ disciplines labour, compelling states to provide corporate welfare.  It also acts as a barrier to ‘natural public monopolies’ in diverse areas including water, energy, communications and so on.  Yet such natural public monopolies could drive efficiencies and fairness in the Australian (and other) economies.   The TPP might  also arguably prevent ‘market-distorting’ economic democracy policies such as state support for co-operative enterprise. (nb: that is a criticism of the TPP not an endorsement) Again: Globalisation is just too complex to simply be ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.

A Congestion Tax for Melbourne?

Daniel Andrews and the Liberals as well have quickly ruled out any congestion tax. (in the state of Victoria in Australia)  But there are things we should keep in mind. Taxes have been falling and becoming less progressive for some time.  The Conservatives especially wear that as ‘a badge of honour’.  Before the most recent ALP National Conference Labor also considered holding taxes down as non –negotiable.  But if we don’t provide infrastructure and services through progressive taxes (which tax target the wealthy more) – then we must pay in other ways.  A ‘congestion tax’ is not especially progressive ; but would at least promote the use of public transport , taking pressure from our roads.  Also experience has shown infrastructure privatisation (eg: of roads) can actually stymie possible competition – as governments guarantee profits – shutting down alternatives while consumers pay.  Privatised ‘cost structures’ also include dividends and corporate salaries.  As a matter of fact consumers get a much better deal paying for infrastructure in their capacity as taxpayers than they ever will as atomised consumers in a ‘market’ which involves nepotism and monopolism.  And progressively structured tax can ensure ‘a fair go’ for all.

 In a similar vein:  Immigration, Tax and Infrastructure

Tom Elliot (HS 7/10) takes aim at immigration to explain the failure of infrastructure and services to keep up with population. There is an element of truth that there are logistical limits to how swiftly migration can proceed without running into such problems.  But there’s another side to this.  Cumulative migration creates ‘economies of scale’ in areas like the public service and Defence.  That is: it becomes possible to finance these for a proportionately smaller amount of resources.  The most significant problem we have with infrastructure is that the tax take has been cut unsustainably by Liberal and Labor governments alike for over 30 years.  (though Labor might be beginning to realise things must change) This situation means ‘corporate and middle/upper class welfare’ which average workers and vulnerable pensioners are now expected to pay for. Limited resources and Ideological opposition to debt financing (even when interest rates are so low!) also means roads, communications infrastructure etc are privatised. Consumers end up forking out more for their services and infrastructure because they must pay for marketing, executive salaries, profits and dividends – that go with privatisation. Taxes need to rise – but they must rise fairly.  Increasing the GST is not the answer.

Refuting Double Standards on Tolerance while Promoting real Pluralism and Freedom

With regard to Rita Panahi’s recent Op-Ed in the Herald-Sun ‘Students who Refuse to Learn Tolerance’  (10/10/16) there are a number of observations to be made.  Personally I am sympathetic to some of the ideas of the radical Leftist democrat, Chantal Mouffe- who has argued that: 

“within the ‘we’ that constitutes the political community, the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is legitimate.”

Mouffe justifies this on the basis that pluralism (a genuine variety of viewpoints) is necessary for democracy to function effectively.  And that we ought respect each other as human beings. 

How refreshing this is in light of the brutality that passes for modern politics. (which are often ‘the politics of personal destruction’)

Democracy demands informed choice. The problem, though, is that much of the monopoly mass media in this country does not promote ‘a level playing field of ideas’ , or ‘tolerance’ of perspectives that diverge from dominant right-wing narratives.  Concentration of ownership doesn’t help.  If we are to argue for a stronger (and inclusive) pluralism in our universities – we must apply the same principles to the broader ‘public sphere’.

(nb: though the narrative of 'left elites in universities' is dubious anyway - when you consider the hegemony of neo-liberal perspectives in Economics faculties for example ; and attacks on the Humanities and Social Sciences)

above: 'body shaming', and body image expectations increasingly affect both women and men....
Engaging with Feminism on the Complexity of Intersectionality and Privilege 

‘The Australian’ (14/10) reports school curricula content which emphasises ‘male privilege’ with a tone of apparent concern.  But promoting a debate on different forms of privilege in our society ought not be a worry if only the curricula is rigorous and inclusive of critical perspectives.  For instance, the most advanced forms of what is referred to as ‘intersectionality’ theory emphasise the influence of class, gender, sexuality, body image, age, ‘race’,  disability, ethnicity, religion – where individuals experience disadvantage or privilege to different degrees on the basis of individual and particular circumstances.  So a ‘white male’ who comes from a background of socio-economic disadvantage – who does not comprise the ‘ideal’ male body type promoted in popular culture ; who does not enjoy the opportunity for higher education – may be less privileged than a woman who is educated, economically comfortable, and attractive according to popular standards.  But definitely, there is a long history of male dominance of the public sphere and  sport ; devaluation of ‘feminised’ professions ; exploitation of women in the home ; and so on.  (which needs to be challenged) We need ‘critical/active’ curricula which encourage ‘political literacy’ ; informed and active citizenship ; on the basis of a robust, far-reaching and inclusive pluralism.

 Gender, Sexuality and Mutual Respect and Consideration

The Herald-Sun reports that women are “victims of sexual attention” (16/10/16). A couple of points are important, here, though.  Firstly, ‘objectification’ increasingly affects men, also.  And men are also increasingly victims of unrealistic physical expectations around body image.  Secondly, we need to be careful we don’t portray male sexuality as ‘essentially bad’.  It is natural for people to feel and express attraction for each other. The question is ‘where to draw the line’ so as to be considerate and respectful as well.  And that cuts across gender lines.   It includes how women and men approach each other when they are sexually interested.  It also includes how we reject a person’s advances if we are not interested.  (ie: kindly and respectfully if possible)   There are also power relations based on physical expectations and body image which cut across gender lines. The question ought be: “how would I like to be treated were I in the other person’s shoes?”

 Refuting the Herald-Sun Again on 'Welfare Shaming'

The Herald-Sun (16/10/16)  reports that welfare-dependency figures are “shocking”.  But Disability pensioners, Carers and the Unemployed should not be ‘shamed’.  Carers save the public hundreds of millions of dollars by providing care and support for pittance that otherwise would cost the state a fortune. If we do not value their work just because it is not part of the ‘market sector’ then that itself says something  disturbing about our priorities.  Meanwhile those with a mental illness – who are commonly looked upon as ‘not-really-disabled’ can expect a reduced life-expectancy of 16 years – or 25 years for those with Schizophrenia. Who would ‘choose’ to be in that position?  Finally, research shows there are roughly five job-seekers for every position.  Were the government serious it would develop an industry policy to create real long term jobs – matched to peoples skills. (as some Nordic countries have tried)  Instead it tolerates an unemployment rate of around 6 per cent (much more if you include those who have given up the search) , and also ‘massive under-employment’ for people looking for full-time, secure work.  Because ‘Ideologically’ it cannot bring itself to support ‘economic intervention’.


Refuting the Herald-Sun Again: Misleading Characterisations on the Unemployed

The Herald-Sun (19/10/16)  proclaims on its front page:“70% of arrested meth users supported by your taxes” and also: “Dole Blown on Ice.”  While the apparent connection between Ice addiction and crime is alarming, the headline was irresponsible for several reasons.   Firstly, for those who don’t read the article thoroughly there may be the utterly false assumption that most Newstart recipients are ice addicts. In fact there is no proof of anything like this.  .Secondly: ice addicts need help overcoming their addiction. Yes there must be compulsory rehabilitation programs. But a purely punitive approach could lead to a downward spiral of desperation and crime.  It seems more than an accident that the headline coincides  with the Liberal Government’s attempt to wind back benefits such as Newstart, the Disability Support Pension, the Carers’ Allowance, and so on.  To ‘make room’ in the Budget to accommodate corporate tax cuts.  And hence to demonise and vilify these people.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

An Australian Response to Tony Blair: ‘Convergence Politics is not the Answer’

above:  Tony Blair urges Bill Shorten to 'Return to the Centre'

By Tristan Ewins

The ‘Weekend Australian’ (8/10/16) quotes former Labour British PM, Tony Blair as urging Bill Shorten to tack “back to the centre”. Typically, Blair holds that the occupation of ‘the centre ground’ is crucial to building a significant-enough constituency to carry an electoral majority. And that regardless of this ‘it is the right thing to do’. Furthermore, Blair contends that Australian Labor must not only “talk to its core constituency”. (ie: we might reasonably assume he means ‘the traditional working class’).

Blair also warns of the danger of unions becoming a small ‘c’ conservative force: mainly fixated on the public sector, and unable of grappling with the nature of today’s private sector – where unions have long been in decline.

Finally, Blair makes the usual assertion that parties of the ‘centre-left’ must be about ‘growing the [economic] pie’ – with the implication that ‘dividing the cake more fairly’ runs contrary to this.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is dismissed as ‘ultra-left’, with Blair raising his head as the champion of the globalist, cosmopolitan ‘third way’ ‘social democracy’ popularised by Giddens and others. Importantly: ‘globalisation’ is not some single, homogenous phenomena. There are desirable aspects of ‘globalisation’ as well. Though specifically, here, we are concerned with its neo-liberal guise; including how that applies to world investment and trade.

To briefly engage with some of Blair’s contentions before moving on:

There is truth in the observation that organised labour must ‘return to the private sector’. Indeed a strong foothold in the public sector could provide a base from which solidarity could be extended to less-secure private sector workers in the midst of industrial upheavals. Furthermore, Labor’s legacy of labour market deregulation must be reconsidered ‘at the lower end’ – with the aim of ending the exploitation of various workers in areas as diverse as child care, aged care, cleaning, retail, hospitality and so on.

Labor’s ‘natural constituency’ – the broader working class – is still very much in the majority (if one focuses on the social relation of wage labour, as opposed to peoples’ ‘self-identity’). Labor’s difficulty is not the dissolution of the working class: but the development within it of various conflicts and contradictions. Including conflicts of ‘consciousness’ and ‘identity’.

For example: there are residual delusions on the part of some white collar workers that they comprise ‘the middle class’ ; which are reinforced by social democratic reluctance to actually speak of ‘the working class’ – and elucidate what that really means today. Also: there is the supposition that ‘Labor’s base’ can be taken for granted – and that it’s ‘the swinging middle’ that really counts.

Class loyalties do not necessarily shift straight away – but over generations. Surely the United States shows the consequences where the US Democrats have long spoke only of ‘the middle class’, and could not bring themselves to prioritise discussion of ‘the working class’. They did not deliver workers from the ravages of deindustrialisation and ‘the neo-liberal version of globalisation’. And demagogues such as Trump have filled the vacuum. Trump does not represent workers’ interests; and this could be made apparent if only the Democrats would rise to the occasion. Similarly, Labor must overcome and heal the internal divisions within the Australian working class to promote a social democracy which appeals to the interests of the majority of voters.

Also admittedly: Unions are not ‘essentially progressive’ even if their class location positions them to effectively promote the interests of the majority of the labouring masses (as against a minority bourgeoisie). German unions, for instance, were central to mobilising the war-effort in Germany in 1914 ; and beforehand had turned against more radical elements who had traditionally led the Social Democrats, and who would come to oppose that conflict. That war decimated German social democracy, and also the German working class.

Revisionist socialist scholar and parliamentarian Eduard Bernstein also warned that specific unions had the potential to become ‘corporate interests’ who furthered their own dominance of particular markets and industries without prioritising the position of the broader working class and labour movement, and others amongst the disenfranchised and oppressed.

In Australia, meanwhile, (with a much different phenomenon) some right-wing unions have promoted agendas of privatisation and economic neo-liberalism; and some (such as the right-wing ‘Shop, Distributive and Allied’ union – or ‘SDA’) have at times abandoned their own members’ interests in order to secure industry coverage (and hence political power within the Labor Party) due to collusion with employers. Sometimes unions are seen as vehicles for political power and political careers, as opposed to being primarily vehicles for workers’ interests, and social democracy.

That said: these instances should not be taken as ‘typical’ of the Australian labour movement. Despite legitimate misgivings about The Accord years and their aftermath, for example, Australian unions waged a vigorous campaign against the Howard Government’s regressive ‘Workchoices’ industrial legislation. They are still capable of representing and mobilising their members, and of waging successful campaigns.

With regard the old shibboleth that neo-liberal economic policies are required to ‘grow the pie’: something ‘traditional social democracy (supposedly) is not positioned to do’ , we might make another series of observations. The Nordics have demonstrated that it is possible to build a robust public sector and welfare state; with saturation levels of unionisation ; and a culture of solidarity. In the ‘golden age’ of the Swedish ‘Rehn-Meidner’ economic model, this combined effective full employment with low inflation, and the extension of welfare and social services. If not for a series of tactical errors, economic democracy might also have been entrenched through the ‘Meidner wage earner funds’ initiative during the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, today it is ‘the systemic imperatives of capitalism’ and capitalist Ideology that stand in the way of fulfilling the personal and social needs of humanity. Amidst greater abundance than has been known ever before in human history, we are informed repeatedly that we must ‘tighten our belts’. Welfare and social services are progressively cut. Education is for ‘industry needs’ and not ‘the development of human potential’. And of course ‘the user must pay’ (though this is taken to mean students; and not the corporations who benefit from the various skills and aptitudes which are developed). Improved life expectancy is seen as a ‘curse’ rather than a ‘blessing’. So the retirement age is pushed upwards incrementally. The elderly are made to feel they are ‘a burden’ , and working class people are expected to exhaust their assets and savings to pay for ‘aged care’ which denies them dignity, comfort or happiness.

Alongside an increased age of retirement, the intensity of labour increases. Capitalism demands growth into new markets to preserve its own stability; but with ‘globalisation’ (just for now interpreted as the expansion of international trade; though it has other interpretations) reaching its limits, markets for consumption depend on increasing the sheer volume of labour (and hence purchasing power). Though casualisation shows it does not always work out that way (‘capital mobility’ is another aspect of globalisation; as is the rise of a ‘global culture’ that emerges via improvements in communications technology; Marx himself had observed the emergence of a ‘world literature’ as early as the 19th Century).

Where technology does not improve productivity, instead productivity is tied to that intensity of labour. In Australia today improvement of wages and conditions are largely ruled out without such productivity improvements. Hence for a great many wages and conditions stagnate or are rolled back. Organised labour is vilified. The working poor are even played off against the vulnerable welfare-dependent with ‘the politics of downward envy’. In response the Left must promote a politics of respect and solidarity.

A move back towards a social democratic mixed economy could stabilise national economies and the world economy over the short to medium term as a consequence of superior cost structures. But this is eschewed for reasons of Ideology, power, and private greed. Instead trade agreements are deployed to break down any ‘barriers’ preventing the fullest possible exploitation of potential markets by multinational corporations. ‘Natural public monopolies’ could stand to be criminalised (ie: sovereign governments could be sued); as well perhaps as ‘market distorting’ initiatives which may promote economic democracy (for example, any scheme providing assistance to co-operative enterprise of various sorts). Amidst all this ; and even after the cataclysm of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – Tony Blair and ‘The Australian’ are still trying to sell us ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’.

From the outset it is also worth observing that historical traditions other than ‘modern third way social democracy’ have also claimed the ‘centrist ground’ (for instance Catholic ‘social Centrism’ in Germany, and the Swedish ‘Centre Party’). Defining ‘the centre’ is fraught with possible confusion. As opposed to a linear ‘left-right spectrum’ a ‘political compass’ accommodates both economic egalitarianism AND personal and collective liberties. But Blair is employing a more ‘traditional’ left-right spectrum.

Hence Blair’s ‘centrism’ is confusing: sometimes comprising a mish-mash of liberal and authoritarian positions. Hawkish foreign policy; rejection of class struggle; embrace of economic and cultural globalisation; according to some interpretations implementation of ‘punitive welfare’ and labour conscription; and effective rejection of a traditional mixed economy in favour of privatisation and what we have come to know as ‘neo-liberalism’.

Also importantly: ‘the Centre’ is always RELATIVE. A political party which makes a habit of ‘passively occupying’ ‘the middle ground’ rather than striving to RE-DEFINE and shift it resigns itself to a passive or even reactive response to social issues and conflicts.

Under Hawke and Keating – who Blair praises profusely – Australia moved decisively to the Right on many fronts– embracing small government, privatisation, deregulation, dilution of progressive taxation, rejection of class struggle; widespread deindustrialisation ; and so on. Whereas Blair followed Hawke and Keating, Australian Labor in turn followed Blair. The consequence was a ‘rightward-spiral’ which was the undoing of social democracy and labourism as we had known them.

In a further article in ‘The Australian’ by Troy Bramston (8/10), poet, W.B.Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ is taken very much out-of-context. The title proclaims “Things Fall Apart – The Centre Can’t Hold’. Bramston is very much with Blair, fearing the decline of the ‘centre-left’ as a consequence of a more unambiguous left-turn by Corbyn. Corbyn (and perhaps by implication, Shorten) are portrayed as wanting ‘a return to the past’ rather than ‘progressing forward’. Ironically this implies the in-some- ways similar notion of a ‘progressive teleology’ as proposed by Hegel and Marx; and more recently by Fukuyama. ‘Neo-liberalism’ is upheld as ‘the progressive and objective direction of history’: in a way which denies historic choice; and the meaningful contestation of history by social actors.

The problem with Blair is that his position is very much one of ‘convergence politics’. ‘Convergence on the centre’ actually dissolves genuine ‘centre-left’ politics as we once knew them. Whereas democratic socialists once claimed ‘the centre left ground’ – roughly halfway between liberal centrism and the unambiguously revolutionary Left traditions; today ‘convergence on the centre’ is the undoing of meaningful democracy. It is the undoing of meaningful choice.

As French social theorist Chantal Mouffe has insisted ‘convergence politics’ ‘empties out’ democracy by denying real choice and democratically-mediated conflict as a consequence of ‘a rush to the Centre’. It is worth briefly considering her position – and that of critical theorist, Jurgen Habermas – to critique the ‘Blair-ite Third Way’ from different perspectives.

Whereas Habermas supposed a ‘deliberative democracy’, with the pursuit of a ‘perfect speech situation’ – or ‘communicative rationality’, Mouffe does not believe rational exchange and engagement can resolve all differences and conflicts. Still strongly-influenced by Marx, though, Habermas continues to suppose a ‘historical telos’; which will be realised through ‘communicative action’ (ie: rational engagement, argument and deliberation by social actors). Importantly, as opposed to Blair, Giddens, etc, Habermas was optimistic enough to suppose that this process would ultimately lead to socialism (realised via communicative rationality and not only through ‘traditional’ class struggle; hence some divergence from Marx’s original position).

Both Habermas and Mouffe are radical Leftist democrats, however; and BOTH Habermas’s ‘communicative action’ and Mouffe’s ‘Agonism’ reject ‘centrist convergence’. What is notable with Mouffe’s position is essentially that history is not assumed as ‘having a fixed direction’ (or ‘telos’). And as opposed to traditional Marxism, neither are particular social actors (such as the working class) assumed to have any ‘essential and fixed historic mission’. For Mouffe history is contested by social actors who articulate ‘counter-hegemonic strategies’. History is not pre-determined but rests on our CHOICES. Though Mouffe does accept that despite this capitalism has systemic imperatives and ‘logics’ that no isolated individual can challenge.

Here ‘meaningful choice’ – central to democracy – must mean a robust pluralism. But as opposed to older notions of class struggle, Mouffe’s ‘post-Marxism’ insists that:

“within the ‘we’ that constitutes the political community, the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is legitimate.”

And most preferably these assumptions must cut both ways! (though it will not always be the case) Importantly, Marx argued for the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a class; that is the dissolution of particular social relations – as opposed to the wholesale murder of human beings as occurred under Stalinism. But Mouffe insists an ongoing and legitimate place for pluralism, and hence appears to reject Marx’s notion of communism as ‘an end destination’ (or to put it in Marx’s own words, ‘the end of pre-history’).

So Mouffe assumes mediated conflict as being central to meaningful democracy. And the silencing of dissident voices by ‘third way, cosmopolitan, neo-liberal globalism’ could perhaps even lead to a technocracy – governance by ‘experts’ – and rejection of the proper place of democratic conflict.

Effectively siding with Blair, ‘The Australian’ has predictably embraced ‘neo-liberal globalism’.

Shorten has ‘been taken to task’ for a very modest step back towards traditional social democracy and labourism. Under Shorten there has been talk of enforcing corporate taxation and effectively tackling ‘corporate welfare’. There is talk of holding the banks accountable. ‘Small government’ is no longer explicitly endorsed (though neither is ‘big government’). “Trickle-down” is rejected.  In the ranks of Labor there is some talk of tackling obscene superannuation concessions which feather the nests of the unambiguously wealthy (to the tune of tens of billions annually) at the same time as vulnerable pensioners are vilified by the Conservatives for the sake of ‘budget repair’. But Shorten still insists on ‘budget repair that is fair’.

None of this is particularly radical! But as the Anglosphere and parts of Europe continue to turn Left in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis the voices of Conservatism and neo-liberalism have become more shrill. Modest reversions to ‘traditional social democracy’ are ‘fought tooth and nail’ as they ‘set a bad example’ which may provide a ‘turning point’ away from neo-liberalism, and the prioritisation of corporate interests in economics and trade policy. Bernie Sanders has seen the rise of a distinctly Left politics ‘into the US mainstream’. Accused of ‘ultra-Leftism’, in fact British Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn is also reverting to more-traditional Labour perspectives on the mixed economy, rights of labour; affordable education; and support for progressive tax; with a commitment to the NHS (National Health Service); as well as a rejection of ‘Hawkish’ foreign policy. This ought not be seen as ‘going backwards’ – because (contra-Marx) there is no objective definition of what ‘progressing forward’ actually means anyway.

With his warnings of ‘impending doom’ for British Labour – as well as the need for a ‘policy correction’ by Shorten in Australia, Blair does not seem to perceive the shift Leftwards in parts of Europe, and even the ‘Anglosphere’ itself. Ironically it is Blair who is ‘looking backwards’: to the 1990s – when ‘the historical moment was his’. Similarly ‘The Australian’ looks back to the ‘reform era’ where Hawke and Keating to a significant degree liquidated much of what had before-hand passed as labourism, social democracy and democratic socialism in this country. That’s not to say ‘Third Way’ theorists cannot strategise such as to set the agenda once more. But such success in the past is no guarantee of success today or in the future.

So history does not stand still. Over a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union neo-liberal triumphalism is beginning to wear thin. The Stalinist nightmare is fading from living memory; and the Democratic Left is finally re-emerging from behind its long shadow. Bernie Sanders has brought the American democratic socialist Left ‘into the mainstream’. McCarthy-ist hysteria is largely in the past. And despite defeats, parties like Syriza and Podemos have heralded the return of the Democratic Left after years utterly eclipsed by a ‘Third Way consensus’ in European social democracy.

Again: Amidst all this Shorten’s tentative shift to the Left is very modest. And hand-wringing by Blair and ‘The Australian’ that Shorten Labor must ‘return to the Centre’ clearly demonstrates how narrow a political milieu certain interests, as well as ‘the media establishment’ would have us choose from. ‘Convergence on the Centre’ denies politics; denies pluralist, democratically mediated conflict; and denies real democratic choice.

Nonetheless; Mouffe’s ‘Agonism’ suggests the possibility of a new pluralist democracy – where the democratic Left and the democratic Right accept each others’ ‘right to exist’ – and indeed their ‘legitimacy’ in the sense that voters and citizens must always be posed with real choices in order for democracy to flourish. And that certain liberties are necessary to overcome alienation; and socialists perhaps should even think of their adversaries here.

Perhaps therefore the Left could accept a place for Conservatism in a pluralist democracy; and on the basis of an inclusive public sphere; a more ‘level playing field of ideas’. But in Australia the monopoly mass media is dominated by figures such as Murdoch and Rinehart. The monopolists think they are in control and beyond effective challenge. Hence they do not discern any compelling pressures to accept a more inclusive public sphere; or say ‘active-critical’ civics and citizenship education curricula which also promote ideological and political literacy, and hence informed and participatory citizenship. Some would argue when the opportunity comes the advantage must be pressed. And so long as the Conservatives are not willing to accept the democratic and authentically pluralist principles promoted by the likes of Chantal Mouffe – then perhaps they have a point.

Also ‘social rights are human rights’. No less essential than civil liberties. And ideally should be constitutionally enshrined. Even though these matters should nonetheless be deliberated upon freely. There is the challenge of balancing the aim of ‘pluralism’ and hence ‘openness to change’, while striving for a ‘baseline consensus’ of liberal and social rights which is acceptable to the various social actors. Habermas believed this (and ultimately socialism itself) could be achieved via ‘communicative action’.

In many parts of the world ‘the tide is beginning to turn’. PERHAPS once again the future belongs to radical social democracy.