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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

‘Political Correctness’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ – Why the Right is Wrong ; a Response to Kevin Donnelly

above:  Conservative Social Commentator, Kevin Donnelly is a high-profile 'public intellectual' - best known for his opinions on Education.  Donnelly also regularly challenges multi-culturalism, and radical views on 'gender fluidity'.  Like many Conservatives he criticises so-called 'Cultural Marxism' . (arguably capitalising on fear and ignorance) He argues that 'Cultural Marxism' is a threat to Western Civilisation and the legacy of the Enlightenment.   But Donnelly's opinions deserve to be challenged - For the sake of 'genuine pluralism' ; and for the sake of clarity when it comes to understanding the modern Left.

This is the first of what I hope to be two essays in response to Kevin Donnelly

Dr Tristan Ewins

Australian Catholic University based public intellectual,  Dr Kevin Donnelly has established himself as one of Australia’s most prominent big ‘C’ Conservative voices: and undoubtedly as an important influence on the ethos of the governing Liberal Party.  This essay is a progressive response to Donnelly’s book, ‘How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without’.   (probably to be followed by a second essay into the future)

As part of the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ in Australia, Conservatives have decried what they call the ‘Black Armband’ view of the nation’s history (Historian, Geoffrey Blainey’s term) : a view of Australia’s complicity in imperialism and colonialism ; and a past Conservatism which disadvantaged minorities.  Instead Donnelly and those like him emphasise a narrative of Australia’s broad liberal and Christian traditions. (and even of how liberalism developed in tandem with the broader Enlightenment tradition).  Donnelly argues that these have involved pluralism, freedom and intellectual rigour.  

What is ‘Cultural Marxism’ anyway?  Double Standards in our ‘Historic Memory’

While most on the ‘broad Australian Left’ could probably still fit comfortably into the ‘liberal left’ category , Donnelly and other big ‘C’ Conservative thinkers see something more ‘sinister’ at work. The term ‘Cultural Marxism’ is increasingly thrown around with abandon. (Donnelly seems to prefer that to the use of the alternative term, ‘Critical Theory’)  He cites ‘the Left’s’ ‘Long March through the Institutions’ as leading to ‘Politically Correct’ thinking in schools and universities ; and more broadly in popular culture.   Importantly ; this so-called ‘Politically-Correct’ (PC) outlook often has a tendency to emphasise gender, sexuality, culture and race. (a shift from  ‘old left’ emphasis on social class and a critique of capitalism)

Despite most of the ‘broad Australian Left’ arguably identifying as ‘liberal left’, ‘Marxism’ in particular is cited as the ‘bogeyman’.  The reasons for this are obvious: to capitalise on fear, ignorance and confusion. 

Many Conservatives identify ‘Marxism’ as an ‘unbearable evil’;  even though most of them cannot pin-point what the term actually means.  Donnelly refers to Pol Pot and Stalin amongst others as examples of ‘Marxism’. A more thorough investigation might have identified the place of US bombing in Laos -  in facilitating social collapse, and the consequent rise of Pol Pot.  (this is before mentioning the place of Pinochet’s coup and the mass murder in Chile 1972; the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, 1980; and of the massacre of over half a million Leftists and labour movement activists by Suharto in 1960s Indonesia ; and other ‘Cold War atrocities’) Also, the place of Western intervention in giving rise to an outlook of utter desperation amongst the Bolsheviks in the period spanning 1917 through the 1920s – could accompany a more thorough investigation.  As would the place of the First World War – which set the scene for Russian social collapse ; and itself resulted in approximately 20 million deaths.    

Bolshevism specifically degenerated into Stalinism.  Other Marxist thinkers such as Karl Kautsky and Julius Martov identified the effective likelihood of this , and the damage consequently done to the broader socialist cause – relatively early on during the Bolshevik Revolution.  Marx himself had identified the threat of ‘Bonapartism’. – whereby  a political leader consolidated themselves above social classes and other interests.   (that could apply both to Napoleon Bonaparte I AND to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III ; and finally to Stalin himself)  Arguably Stalinism – and the Cult of Personality around Stalin – saw this taken to a level previously unthinkable.   Even before Stalin’s rise, ‘Jacobin’ strategies of revolutionary Terror were also an important factor – but that was not the whole story. 

To consider the prevailing ‘selectivity’ in our ‘historic memory’: Trotsky’s march against Anarchist dissident Sailors at Kronstadt in 1921 might be compared in nature to Winston Churchill’s sinking of the anchored French Fleet during World War II (July 1940) – following the French surrender to Germany.   While the Bolsheviks responded to what they saw as an existential threat to the Revolution, Churchill considered a scenario (Nazi capture of the French fleet) which could have turned the tide of the War in Hitler’s favour.  In Churchill’s case over 1000 French sailors (until then Allied to Britain) were killed.   In the case of Kronstadt total causalities were over 10,000. (considering both sides) 

(As an aside ; If the Bolsheviks had heeded the voice of Rosa Luxemburg (in 1918) a maintenance of liberties may have provided an ‘outlet’ through which the whole situation may have been avoided in the first place in Russia.  But in reality now we will never know.)

Both acts could be questioned morally.   It could also be argued that desperate circumstances lead to ethically challenging dilemmas. (to put it mildly)  What is often missing with ‘Conservative critiques’ as usual – is intellectual and moral consistency.  Critics of Trotsky, for instance (and I am not a Trotskyist), are often silent when it comes to other ‘fateful decisions’ such as that of Churchill.  Dissident Marxist critiques of Bolshevism and Stalinism  (rg: Kautsky, Martov, Luxemburg) are also largely absent from popular memory . It should not be like this.

Donnelly points to the ‘Frankfurt School’ as the source of the so-called ‘Cultural Marxist’ movement.  The ‘Frankfurt School’ began as an intellectual movement in interwar Germany, before migrating to the US in for fear of Nazism. (some ‘Critical Theorists’ were to re-establish themselves in Europe following the defeat of Hitler)  Forming the ‘First Generation’ of Critical Theory ; thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, while retaining a critical disposition against fascism, could not delude themselves about the direction of the USSR under Stalin.  

Also, the prospects for the organised working class and traditional socialism had appeared increasingly questionable as fascism rose in Europe.   

‘The Frankfurt School’ increasingly became synonymous with ‘Critical Theory’.  Broadly speaking ; ‘Critical Theory’ developed a critique of Western culture, and an emphasis on minority perspectives and rights.  Some self-identifying ‘Critical Theorists’ tended to suppose that the ‘traditional’ socialist movement’s ‘historical moment’ had passed.   In other words – that the working class had largely been co-opted ; in part because of the role of popular culture.  (to which you could also add other factors, including religion and nationalism; In more recent decades, the decline of ‘Fordism’, factory labour and so on in many countries – has seen an accompanying decline of organised labour as well) 

Nonetheless, Marcuse – with his work, ‘One Dimensional Man’  (originally published in 1964) – focused on the socialist project as one of ‘radical negation’ – of ‘a Great Refusal’ (of capitalism) involving ‘minority’ perspectives, including racial minorities, women, students and so on.   This was a break with the traditional (Marxist) view of socialism arising primarily from ‘a Dialectic of Class Struggle’ .  

Marcuse especially was influential in the late 1960s with the wave of ‘student uprisings’ which swept Europe. (and the rise of the ‘New Left’)  Marcuse was notable in rejecting modern society’s emphasis on an outlook of ‘social closure’ for which there is no room for deep criticism or negation ; an outlook for which ‘the system delivers the goods’ and should not be questioned. “Democracy”  was becoming increasingly tokenistic and shallow on account of its manipulation ; a tendency which continues still.

But importantly, some examples of ‘Critical Theory’ are radically at odds with Donnelly’s caricatures.

‘Second Generation’ Critical Theorist’, Jurgen Habermas  argued about ‘Legitimation Crisis’ ; a decline and perhaps even collapse of public confidence in the State and other institutions.  For example: the perceived legitimacy of the State (and indeed capitalism itself) – could suffer in the wake of attacks on welfare, and other hard-won gains of working people, such as labour market regulation and workers’ rights and liberties.  (all the more so where Social Democratic and ‘Left’ parties actually refuse any ‘consensus’ around austerity, and other policies harmful to the working class and the disadvantaged)

Habermas also argued about the conflict between ‘System’ and ‘Life-World’  - a consideration of capitalism’s economic-system-imperatives ; its priorities ; and the way these conflict with peoples’ ‘quality of life – especially for the working  class.  ‘System’ effectively ‘colonises’ ‘life-world’ ; becomes  detached from the real-world needs of human beings. Economic insecurity and increasing intensity in the processes of exploitation are part of this.  (eg: falling  wage share of the economy ; less free time ; increasing class ‘stratification’ or ‘bifurcation’)

Drawing in part from Habermas: Arguably, democracy is increasingly reduced to ‘administration’ in the interests of capitalism.  Real pluralism is ‘hollowed out’.   And the inability of governments to resolve the economic and social crises which follow intensify the consequent crises of legitimacy.  As an aside: the ‘Identity Politics’ which Donnelly opposes so strongly – actually helps maintain an illusion of greater pluralism.  This outcome is ironic in light of Marcuse’s original vision of a ‘Great Refusal’. All the oppressed of the world need solidarity more than ever.  But to paraphrase Marcuse ; objectively, without this ‘Identity Politics’ society and politics would have been better-exposed as being otherwise ‘One Dimensional’.

Also importantly: democratic socialism more broadly is part of what we might call ‘The Western Tradition’.  (which Donnelly argues he is defending)  Capitalism increasingly puts the gains of democratic socialism – including labour rights, broader liberties, the mixed economy, progressive tax, the social wage and the welfare state – under threat.   

But rather than ‘rejecting’ the Enlightenment project, Habermas instead refers to it as ‘unfinished’.  So without rejecting ‘Modernity’ and ‘Enlightenment’, Habermas defends the potential for what he calls ‘Communicative Action’ and the achievement of a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’.  (that is, perfectly free and rational exchange and engagement without distortions or coercion; And hence: social actors striving for agreement on the substance of human liberation through Reason and Ethics-inspired dialogue)

There is more than so-called 'Cultural Marxism' on today's Left ;  We've considered Habermasian Critical Theory for a start  - but 'Post Marxism' and 'Agonism' are also notable ; Past Conservative and 'Centrist' traditions also opposed hard economic Liberalism

There is a different emerging tradition on the Left, also, that is worth mentioning. ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxists’ such as Chantal Mouffe assume enduring pluralism, and a permanent place for dissent. That enduring pluralism is at the heart of their perspective. In other words: they assume consensus will not ensue .  Indeed, for  many either it is thought to be overly-optimistic to seek that consensus - or maybe even it is undesirable.   There is also the question of class struggle ; which can be exclusive of communicative action and any ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ in contexts driven by interest. When capitalists have been increasingly (and successfully) dictating terms in response to various economic crises from the 1970s onward – they are not necessarily interested in dialogue which involves compromise.  (unless forced)

Crucially, though – in practice both Habermas and the Agonist democrats assume a need for pluralism, liberty and engagement.  The examples they provide ‘fly in the face’ of Donnelly’s characterisation of ‘the modern Left’ and ‘Politically-Correct-enforced-conformity’. 

Continuing our consideration of Critical Theory:  To assert the centrality of Habermas to Critical Theory is also to assert that the broad Critical Theory tradition cannot be boiled down to post-modern and deconstructionist rejection of Modernity, Enlightenment, Reason ; or what might be called ‘the Western Tradition’.  ‘Post-Modernism’ itself also has meant radically different things to different people. While some people claim it as a rejection of ‘Modernity’ and its assumptions, Australian social theorist Peter Beilharz (in ‘Postmodern Socialism: Romanticism, City, State’)  suggested it might be constructed as ‘the critical moment in Modernity’. Here ‘Modernity’ refers to societies and economies of increasing scale and complexity ; developing further with industrialisation, and with themes of Enlightenment, Reason, and so on. We’re talking about a frame which in a way is inclusive of certain tendencies in socialist, liberal and capitalist traditions – even though these are historically in conflict with one another as well.

Again we are in highly-contested terrain.

It might be noted, though, that there is also a now-mostly-forgotten tradition – a tradition historically associated with the Catholic working class – a tradition which styled itself as ‘Centrist’.  (Though notably, those such as Giddens and Blair have also tried to resuscitate a kind of ‘Centrism’)  Yet intellectuals such as Donnelly have apparently chosen to ‘side’ with big ‘L’ Economic Liberalism and big ‘C’ Cultural and Political Conservatism.   (if this is not so, Donnelly does a good job of hiding or avoiding it)  

The old-style ‘Centrism’ emphasised ‘corporatism’, welfare state, and some labour rights including labour market regulation.  Today, Giddens and Blair identify as ‘Social Democrats’ or ‘The Radical Centre’.   But looking back to the original ‘Centrism’: amongst some there was a clear authoritarianism. Some ‘Centrist’ leaders such as the ‘Christian Social’ President of Austria, Engelbert Dolfuss – beginning with his seizure of power and dissolution of a democratically-elected Socialist government in 1934 – historically chose to side with a kind of fascism.  (ironically, not long before the formalisation of the ‘Axis’ of Germany and Italy , Dolfuss sought the protection of Mussolini from Hitler – in return for the suppression of Social Democracy!)

‘Corporatism’ –including state mediation – or forcible suppression - of class conflict and differences– was itself part of the broad fascist tradition ; though arguably different kinds of ‘corporatism’ (eg: re: Swedish Social Democracy) were much more ‘democracy-friendly’.  (or even co-existed with a kind of ‘democratic class struggle’ (see: Walter Korpi) )  (the ‘Accords’ under the Federal Labor Government in 1980s and early 1990s Australia could also be considered corporatist ; not fascist in the sense of Dolfuss ; but compromising the interests of the working class on a number of fronts)   Importantly: though a right-wing authoritarian and fascist, Dolfuss was not a Nazi.  Indeed he opposed Hitler.  (and was assassinated by Nazi agents)

Today - to overcome an ensuing negative electoral response to austerity and other associated attacks, fear of ‘Political Correctness’ is played-upon.  This means  ‘papering over’ the contradictions which could ‘get in the way’ of preserving right-wing footholds amidst the working class – parts of which feel ‘abandoned’ by ‘self-styled social democratic’ parties for whom issues of economic inequality and exploitation have been largely  ‘relegated to the Too-Hard Basket’.  To elaborate: in this context modern-day Conservatives attempt to make inroads into traditional social democratic working class support bases.  They exploit often-exaggerated discussions around ‘Political-Correctness’ ; with the assistance of the monopoly mass media. This is in a context where much of the working class is relatively conservative on culture compared with the so-called ‘cultural Left’.

In light of the tendency of Critical Theorists to emphasise what they saw as the almost-totalitarian nature of modern popular culture and capitalism in achieving ‘systemic closure’, it is ironic that today some Conservatives see its own perspective as a totalitarian, ‘politically correct’ threat to everything laudable in Western Civilisation.  In reality, today’s Left is highly plural.  While some still identify with the theoretical lineage of Marxism, many (perhaps most) post-modernists and deconstructionists do not identify as ‘Marxist’ at all. 

That said, it would be dishonest to simply ‘deny’ ‘The Cultural Turn’ and the transformation of what passes for progressive politics. The point is to establish that the retreat of a ‘more-traditional’ socialism has not been ‘total’ ; that ‘culture’ and ‘economics’ need not and should not be considered exclusive of each other ; and for much of the Left economics and social class still matters ; though the project of an alternative democratic socialist economic project  in ‘The West’ has arguably been mainly in retreat since the 1970s.  To some extent it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Much More to Marxism than The Conservatives Understand

Donnelly’s emphasis on ‘Stalinist Dystopias’ and ‘Political Correctness’ also side-steps the matter of Marxism’s original ‘Cultural Project’.   For Marx – and many who followed him (including, for instance, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov) economic abundance under Socialism was not to lead to surveillance, Terror, Cult of Personality,  labour militarisation and labour conscription (In short: Oppression) – but rather to cultural and social opportunity arising from material plenty, including free time.  For instance, this might mean freedom to partake in Art and Philosophy -  amongst other pursuits.

To take the example of Austrian Social Democracy (or ‘Austro-Marxism’) in the 1917-1934 period: this meant promotion of working class culture including sport, radio stations and libraries ; and involving amenities for working class people.  This included impressive public housing estates, including hot running water, communal pools and communal laundry facilities.   (rare for the time)

And even before this timeframe ; going back to the original theorists of Marxist orthodoxy during the height of the Second International and earlier (ie: pre-WWI):  this might even have meant assisting people in seeking after the highest truths for their own sake.   In addition to ‘freedom from oppression’ that also includes ‘enabling freedom’: empowerment for the purpose of self-realisation.  Understood thus the tensions between collectivism and individualism can also be mediated ; and socialism can provide opportunities for individual self-realisation which do not arise under capitalism.

To conclude: Donnelly portrays  a Left that  has nothing ‘positive’ to say about ‘Western Civilisation’. He totally misses the whole point made by thinkers like Marcuse – that societies which refuse to accommodate debate whereby a significantly-different kind of future can be envisaged and communicated – are not genuinely free!  This must also involve the inclusion of dissenting social movements in public debate.

But also, the idea of a ‘teleology’ (or ‘necessary direction’) of history – as presumed by orthodox Marxists - is questioned amongst today’s Left.  Following the lead of ‘Post-Marxists’ and ‘Agonists’, the future is considered by some a matter of ‘collective will formation’, strategy and choice. (indeed, a matter of ‘counter-hegemony’, or the mobilisation of the broad social forces necessary to facilitate change)  Hence as part of a pluralist agenda we ought strive for a tolerant Left ; though still: radical democrats ought not be na├»ve or complacent in the face of existential threats to democracy. (eg: the resurgence of fascism in Europe)

Also: arguably capitalism has always been ‘repressive’, ‘regressive’ and in some senses even ‘progressive’ - at the same time and in different ways.  As Marx argued in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848):  Capitalism unleashed an unprecedented wave of economic growth and innovation .  (establishing the preconditions for socialism)  At the same time capitalism has involved waste, exploitation, excesses, and warped priorities. These conditions gave rise to various movements; for Socialism – but also the Centrism which we have mentioned, and more recently environmental movements.

So in that context: for today’s socialists, the socialist project should still be about ‘radical negation’ in the sense of class struggle (and broader struggle) against the exploitation, warped priorities, injustices and excesses of capitalism. 

But socialism can be about affirmation also.  We can acknowledge the progressive economic contributions of capitalism: and of ‘modernity’ considered more broadly.   And along with the original Marxist Social Democrats – who trail-blazed in their pursuit of Free, Equal and Universal Suffrage as early as the 19th Century (when almost all others neglected that cause as ‘too radical’) – we need not reject the place for some kind of parliamentary democracy and far-reaching liberties.  Most definitely we should also be striving to extend the reach of democracy ; including economic democracy – whether through the restoration of a robust mixed economy ; or through workers and consumers’ co-operatives ; or through other avenues such as ‘wage earner funds’ and comparable projects.   

While the perspective of ‘class’ should not be considered ‘sufficient and exhaustive in its own right’ ; We should not shy away from ‘class struggle’ in the broad sense.  We should embrace the fight for social justice ; for economic security and distributive justice ; and a fulfilling life for everyone.  Again, that does not have to mean rejecting the very humanity of individual capitalists. (we must avoid the ‘brutalisation’ of politics where we can) It does mean questioning the morality and outcomes of capitalist social and economic relations. 

Finally: we should work to decouple the view of liberties and capitalism- whereby they are seen somehow as ‘essentially and inextricably linked’. (to the exclusion of socialism)  In fact ‘liberty’ and ‘capitalism’ are often in tension and conflict with one another.  And depending on the specific expression, the causes of liberty and socialism can be mutually sympathetic.

The cause of democratic socialism is not forever exhausted ;  but ‘hope’ requires of  us that we take a stand.  Donnelly’s narrative on so-called ‘Political Correctness’, and his ‘beating up’ of the bogeyman of ‘Cultural Marxism’ - is part of the problem.  So too is the abandonment of the cause of economic justice by significant sections of the self-identifying Left.  As an Australian Labor Party member of approximately 25 years it is painful but necessary to acknowledge that for decades Labor has been at the heart of a range of policies which have undermined certain rights of labour, as well as the mixed economy, and at times the welfare state.  Importantly - the Trans-Pacific Partnership has recently been endorsed by the Federal Labor Opposition: a move which could leave governments open to being sued by foreign corporations should they facilitate policies (eg: on the rights of labour) which affect company profits. Even in Victoria under Daniel Andrews of the Socialist Left we see ‘Public Private Partnerships’ and ‘Asset Recycling’.  (‘code’ for privatisation)  It is those kind of scenarios that leave the broad Left vulnerable to Conservative and Far-Right strategies of ‘divide and conquer’.

We should have learned that lesson by now.


Beilharz, P. (1994), ‘Postmodern Socialism—Romanticism, City and State, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Donnelly, K (2018) , How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without, Wilkinson Publishing,  Melbourne
Eley, G. (2002), Forging Democracy, The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Galili, Z. (1989), The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution—Social Realities and Political Strategies, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Gruber, H. (1991), Red Vienna—Experiment in Working Class Culture 1919–1934, Oxford University Press, New York
Hudis, P. and Anderson, K., eds, (2004), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, New York.
Kautsky, K. (1964), The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, University Of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
Korpi, W. (1983), The Democratic Class Struggle, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Lenin, V.I. (1996), Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Pluto Press, London.
Marcuse, H. (1968), One Dimensional Man, Sphere, London.
Marx, K. and Engels, F (1989), Selected Works I, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Mouffe, C. (2005a), On the Political, Routledge, Abingdon.
Mouffe, C. (2005b), The Return of the Political, Verso, London.

Outhwaite, W (1994) Habermas – A Critical Introduction, Stanford, California
Rabinbach, A. (1983), The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War, 1927–1934, University of Chicago Press, London.
Trotsky, L. (2007), Terrorism and Communism, Verso, New York.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn , the Left and Marxism: With Lessons for Australia and the World

above: British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is seen by many as radical, but his policies are traditional-social-democratic

Dr Tristan Ewins

Australian Labor Party activist and social commentator

British social commentator, Mal Fletcher (On Line Opinion 7/11 ; and ‘2020 Plus’)  warns of the ‘dangers’ of a ‘Hard-Left’ Jeremy Corbyn and the spectre of Marxist and socialist resurgence.   But what’s the reality behind this posturing?  We’ll look at both the claims made against Corbyn and at the deployment of Marxism as a ‘political bogeyman’. From there we’ll look at social democratic and Marxist arguments around economy and society more thoroughly.

Firstly: yes British Labour is turning Left after years of Blairite Centrism.  Corbyn is bringing British Labour back to the ‘relative historical mainstream’ of ‘traditional social democracy’. 

Still, Corbyn’s plans for limited resocialisation (eg: of railways and utilities) threaten a precedent whereby decades of privatisation are not necessarily “a one way street”.  Some on the Right – including so-called ‘Labour moderates’ appear quite frightened at that prospect.  If anything it is they who are ideologically-inflexible on the public sector ; and cannot abide by its extension in any way, shape or form.  But compare this with the 1970s when Labour thinkers such as Stuart Holland (in ‘The Socialist Challenge’)  were demanding “Nationalisation of the Commanding Heights”.   Considered historically, Corbyn is not ‘far Left’ ; but rather is suggestive of British Labour ‘returning home’ ideologically to ‘traditional social democracy’. (although some in the Corbyn camp – and in the ‘Momentum’ movement which supports him - might be more ambitious over the longer term) In light of this, Australian Labor’s Bill Shorten’s ‘shift Left’ appears much more modest. Shorten will not consider resocialisations ; but may pursue ‘a living wage’ (though has equivocated on prior commitments to raise minimum wages), and moderate progressive tax reform.

Other Corbyn signature policies include Free Education, preservation of the National Health Service,  efforts to reduce inequality, and an investment in public housing.  This also means a more-progressive tax system; improvement of wages – including for the working poor;  a proper industry policy ; and public investment in infrastructure.  It suggests a Labour Party which treats social democracy seriously ; not a ‘far Left’ Labour Party ; but a Labour Party which refuses ‘Policy Convergence’ on neo-liberalism and ‘right-wing economic consensus’.  The ‘shift to the Left’ is not ‘extreme’, but nonetheless it is the most significant development on the British Left in decades.

Fletcher seems to agree that ‘planning’ is inevitable ; but poses the question “who does the planning?”.  If planning is not democratic, here, do we suppose it is done by the corporates ‘behind closed doors’ ; with many politicians just taking it for granted that ‘the crucial economic decisions’ are not to be made democratically?  That is: that the job of representative government is merely to ‘provide support’ to the corporates – who are the real economic decision-makers.   Nonetheless, comprehensive economic planning by central government is not the answer either. Not least of all because it could result in unacceptable centralisation of economic (and hence cultural, social and political) power if implemented without safeguards.   Arguably we need both ‘democratisation’ AND ‘checks and balances’ in the economy ; which also translate into political, social and cultural ‘checks and balances’.

That said:  what are we to make of charges of ‘Marxism’ ; and is ‘Marxism’ really such a bad thing?

Capitalism is a real ‘mixed bag’ here: a mix of success and chronic failure.

Market economies involve corporations and businesses which can be driven by the market context to respond innovatively to the intricacies of consumer demand ; and allocate resources as efficiently as they can in order to remain competitive.

On the other hand there is the threat of monopoly or oligopolistic collusion ; as well as planned obsolescence.  Some areas (eg: energy markets) exist in a context where product differentiation is difficult ; many consumers would just like to ‘take such things for granted’.  At the end of the day many of them are simply fleeced by predatory corporations. 

So on the other hand while the traditional Marxist aim of ‘centralising the means of production in the hands of the State’ may seem archaic, great swathes of the Marxist critique of capitalism retain force.  What Marx referred to (in Capital Vol I) as ‘the coercive laws of competition’ means that capitalists are constantly driven to revolutionise the means of production.   Historically, this has led to relative material abundance – which Marx saw as ‘a good thing’.  On the other hand, these dynamics result in inefficiencies, including duplication of cost-structures and premature obsolescence.  To offset this capitalism is forced to adopt a posture of ‘perpetual growth’. This can have environmental and social consequences as ‘the economy’ is decoupled from human need ; and instead the emphasis is ‘growth (regardless of actual quality) no matter what the cost’.  Also today’s capitalist economy is truly global ; and arguably capitalism is ‘running out of new markets to expand into’.  This could lead to serious crises into the future with insufficient markets to absorb capitalism’s ‘excess produce’.

Today,  also, those ‘coercive laws of competition’ might result in ‘an unsustainable race to the bottom on tax’ or with regard wages – which means less consumer demand over the long-run.  It can also result in privatisation of essential infrastructure and functions ; which means the State abdicating responsibility for ‘what it does best’.  Hence the possibility of nepotism and corruption in the context of ‘Public Private Partnerships’ for private sector mates ; and/or full privatisations ‘at a relative discount.’

Privatisation of ‘Government Business Enterprises’ (eg: Medibank Private and the Commonwealth Bank in Australia) also means that those enterprises’ ‘social charters’ are lost.  In many cases that included a responsibility to behave competitively.  Reversion to privatisation can mean a return to private oligopoly ; an inferior deal for consumers ; and in the worst of cases damaging collusion.

At the end of the day workers, businesses, citizens, consumers – all end up paying for this.  But many capitalists support the ‘neo-liberal status quo’ for Ideological purposes ; or because they are fearful of “a foot in the door for socialism”.  (more on that later)

Marxism also critiqued the tendency in capitalism to centralise ownership of most capital in fewer and fewer hands.  That observation remains in force ; and the consequence is “the translation of economic power into political power”.  Narrow-neoliberalism is enforced with the zealotry of “an official ideology” ; as are corporate interests.  Unions are curtailed and vilified ; the wage share of the economy falls ; Media Moguls manipulate the climate of public opinion cynically.  ‘Political Correctness’ is constantly beaten up to divide the constituencies of broadly-Left Parties by attrition. A return to the principles of social democracy is dismissed as ‘populism’.  In Australia specifically we have the Conservatives banning labour movement imagery in workplaces (eg: the “Eureka” flag) ; threatening charities who speak out on public policy ; trying to shut down mass movements (eg: ‘GetUp!’) and prevent them from participating in elections.  (and yet at the same time they still talk of ‘liberalism’ and ‘free speech’)

Capitalist societies dealt with problems of distribution via markets and through the dynamics of  ‘supply and demand’.  This was ‘more efficient’ than the ‘waiting queues’ we once heard of in the USSR ; and market forces also meant innovation and responsiveness.  But ‘the market’ also ruthlessly excluded the poor on the basis of ‘capacity to pay’.  In the West arguably we had greater cultural freedom and innovation.  (though perhaps ‘post-the-Cold-War’ the West does not ‘need’ liberalism and democracy as much as it used to for purposes of legitimation ; hence liberties – and perhaps democracy itself - are under threat)  But the ‘economic abundance’ we enjoyed existed in the context of a global economy where the [economic]  ‘Core’ exploited the ‘Periphery’.  For example, American economic exploitation and subordination of Central and South America ; and the emergence of countries like Bangladesh as ‘the sweatshops of the World’.    The ‘World Economic Order’ will also ‘be up for grabs’ with the rise of China and India; and continuing relative prosperity cannot be taken for granted.

But if a ‘traditional socialist economy’ (along the lines of the former USSR) is not the answer, what is?

Firstly in response to those specific issues just raised:  again considering the Australian context ; a socialist energy policy might provide micro-renewable energy for the poor, and for public housing estates (see: the former South Australian Labor Government’s policy as of February 2018) , to reduce demand on the National Grid, and ensure that everyone can enjoy cooling in times of ‘peak-demand’. (eg: Heatwaves)  The ‘leave it to the market’ response, however, would see vulnerable people (eg: the elderly) ‘opting out’ in the process of ‘supply and demand’ – despite the fact they are the ones who need the product most.  (and human lives are at stake!)  Meanwhile importation of textiles from enterprises who ruthlessly exploit their workers – including unsafe working conditions – might be banned.

More generally: Probably the best Leftists can expect in the foreseeable future is to forge “historic compromises” which deliver security, freedoms, opportunity and happiness for the masses they represent.  We should talk about Marxist ideas on socialism and communism honestly and not closed-mindedly.  But if ever the world does approximate Marx’s ‘authentic communist ideal’ it might never occur strictly via the path Marx predicted. The industrial working-class might never return to the economic pre-eminence that Marx predicted, and to a significant extent as he observed in its early development.  This also means the industrial working class might no longer be considered the ‘universal subject’ bearing ‘universal liberation’.  The reality will be much more ‘messy’ ; and the task is one of building alliances ; and indeed what Gramsci may have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’.  This is exactly why efforts to divide the Left’s constituencies against each other are such a threat.

A more ‘rational’ economy means – to begin with – setting the public sector free to do what it does best.  Efficiencies arising from Natural Public Monopolies ; and more competitive markets in the context of Government Business Enterprises with ‘social’ and ‘competitive’ charters ; can mean a ‘better deal’ for everyone . (workers, citizens, business)   And ‘collective consumption’ (via tax) of essential social goods and services (eg: Health, Infrastructure, Education, Welfare Services) also results in a ‘better deal’.   Extension of the public sector in this way does inevitably involve ‘planning’.  And while central planning might not be advisable for an entire economy, there is a strategic place for it.

Most of the OECD is also far from emulating ‘the Nordic Historic Compromise’.  In Australia, specifically, though, we are well behind the OECD average with regard our Tax to GDP Ratio as well. Extrapolating from the percentage gap between Australia and the Nordics, Australia would need to raise tax by around $300 billion/year to match Nordic tax to GDP ratios.  (The current figure may be slightly lower: The OECD recently placed the Nordics at around 45% of GDP ; though Wikipedia suggests in the vicinity of 50% - with 54% for Finland ; Perhaps Wikipedia is somewhat out-of-date ; sadly the Nordic Model continues a slow retreat) And redistribution via tax remains an important lever to ‘grow the social wage and welfare state’.  (which are vehicles not only for redistribution and fairness, but also for ‘efficient collective consumption’)  

But that kind of change ‘does not happen over-night’. A medium term objective for Australia, then, might be to match the OECD average ; and progressively raise an additional $80 billion/year (in today’s terms) ; or otherwise put: raise progressive tax by 5 per cent of GDP.  In the rest of the ‘Anglosphere’ (USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) progressive parties could do to think on a similar scale over the medium term.

Beyond this Leftists could also think in terms of a ‘democratic mixed economy’.   That is: an economy based on a strategic mix of competitive markets and planning ; but also promotion of economic democracy at a range of levels.  Let the public sector do what it does best ; and don’t necessarily be narrowly Ideological or traditional in determining this. (for instance, strategic and limited public investment in print media may be a ‘cultural imperative’ : where ‘legacy media’ retain great cultural power ; are centralised in the hands of a few ; and where the quality of journalism is declining in that context)  But where market forces act more to the benefit of society than not – then democratise those market forces.  This can mean State Aid in support of mutuals and co-operatives on both a large and a small scale. (both producers’ and consumers’ co-ops)  That could also involve ‘public sector co-investments’ with co-ops to help them maintain the scale necessary to remain competitive.  In specific contexts regions could also contribute: where local jobs are at stake.  It can also mean policies for democratic collective capital formation, and also for (union-friendly) co-determination.  ( ‘Democratic collective capital formation’ refers to a range of policies from Superannuation in Australia (less radical and democratic) to the attempted ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in Sweden (more radical and democratic) which aimed to compensate workers for wage restraint with collective capital share ; resulting in radical economic redistribution.  ‘Co-determination’ means structural corporate consultation with workers ; including worker representatives on company boards.)

Critics could argue that such policies are ‘a foot in the door for [democratic] socialism’.  And indeed they might well be.  But the ‘Keynesian Post-War Historic Compromise’   - which benefited workers and citizens – was in the interests of business as well.  Resurgent social democracy and democratic socialism today might also (in some ways) be beneficial to business as well as to workers, consumers, citizens.  We should be able to reach a ‘rational consensus’ around a robust mixed economy where the debate is focused on ‘where to draw the line’.  This would mean Liberals, Conservatives, and the so-called ‘Social Democratic (Blairite) Centre’ ceding Ideological ground.  It would result in a rebalancing of class forces ; and for this alone it would be strenuously resisted by many.  The Nordics show both the potential for delivering ‘a good society’ on the basis of similar policies ; and also the possibility of pitched struggles over ‘where to draw the line’ on economic democracy.  Swedish corporates ‘had their way’ in defeating the ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in the 1980s.  Again, there has been a ‘slow retreat’ since ; but the overall historic example is still inspiring.

Today ‘Labour’, ‘Capital’ and other social forces could agree that a ‘robust mixed economy’ is pretty-much in the interests of all ; but that what Swedish social theorist Walter Korpi called ‘the democratic class struggle’ will continue on many fronts ; and in this process there are ‘no guarantees’.  In this process we could envisage what Gramsci would call a long  ‘War of Position’ or what Kautsky earlier referred to as a
‘War of Attrition’.  They are different conceptions; but are similar in way ; and both are valid in their own sense. ‘War of Position’ assumes a long ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – not only a struggle for the state ; but for society’s ‘common sense’ (the Ideological assumptions that are reinforced such as to be ‘taken for granted’ in a given society) ; and the way that Ideology is entrenched in the various institutions and social bodies of civil society. ‘War of Attrition’ meanwhile suggests a ‘wearing down of capitalism’ over the long term ; through social movements, cultural, industrial and electoral interventions – but not a ‘War of Annihilation’ (another Kautskyan term) which assumes more of a ‘frontal assault’ to overthrow the capitalist state.  Importantly, Kautsky supposed there were (rare) circumstances where ‘War of Annihilation’ made sense ; but if pursued under the wrong circumstances this could simply exhaust the proletariat ; see it demobilised or even suppressed or crushed.   ‘Wars of movement’ (the Gramscian term for a ‘pitched assault’ against capitalism) are not to be ruled out in every circumstance ; but where democratic processes could provide ‘a pathway to democratic socialism’, a strategy of ‘revolutionary reforms’ or ‘slow [democratic] revolution’ is preferable.  Though the Left needs to be prepared for the contingency that the bourgeoisie could well ‘dispense’ with democracy itself (as far as it is capable) if its interests are seriously threatened.

Finally let’s remember the underlying human principles of Marxism  ; which were made a cruel mockery of under Stalinist regimes.  Marx saw the material abundance produced under capitalism as creating the economic basis for human freedom.   This could mean a shorter working week, as well as greater opportunity for cultural, social and economic ‘personal growth’ and participation.  In Australia a reformed National Curriculum might also promote active, informed and critical citizenship, amidst a backdrop of tolerance and deep-seeded pluralism.   (though this is more in the spirit of Chantal Mouffe’s  ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxism’ than the original perspective of Marx) Marx’s overall approach was not a mere ‘bread and water socialism’ ; even though socialists believe there are areas (eg: health and education, water and energy) which demand comprehensive socialised provision.  Indeed there are aspects of the Marxist vision which could be compatible with certain strands of liberalism concerned with personal growth, liberty and empowerment.

Marxism should not be seen as an ‘Ideological bogeyman’ ; especially where terms like ‘cultural Marxism’ are thrown around with abandon – but where few people understand what Marxism really means anymore.   The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is experiencing such resistance to any return to ‘traditional social democracy’ (including substantial disinformation) provides some idea, also, of the resistance and ‘muddying of the waters’ we might encounter if we propose anything more-radical.  But future convulsions in response to capitalism’s shortcomings (or what Marx would have called its ‘contradictions’) are inevitable.  Somewhat ironically: in the ‘big picture’ socialists could well hold the key to ‘saving capitalism from itself’ even while setting the foundations for surpassing it with a far more democratic and free society much further into the future.

April 2018

Monday, January 29, 2018

Left-Turn necessary for Labor at this year’s National Conference to end narrow ‘Policy Convergence’

by Dr Tristan Ewins ; ALP member of over 20 years

In 1998 radical American Leftist intellectual, Noam Chomsky made the telling observation that:

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”

Another name for this phenomenon is ‘Convergence Politics’.

In Australia there is ‘Convergence’ on the economy, with debates focusing on relatively minor differences ; but where heated debate on the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ fills the vacuum.

Every day in the mass media we are subjected to the positions of ostensibly “Centre Right” and “Centre Left” political parties.  But in reality the ‘relative centre’ has shifted way-right on the economy since the 1970s.  And dissent against that orthodoxy is minimal. Where it occurs it is modest.

The Hawke-Keating years saw convergence on ‘economic neo-liberalism’  in Australia – and there has been no significant turning back since.  Kevin Rudd attempted a Mining Super Profits Tax but was quickly ‘disciplined’ by the mining industry, and removed in short order with a ‘palace coup’.  For a time Sam Dastyari focused attention on corporate tax evasion.  But while corporate tax evasion arguably costs the Australian people tens of billions annually, in reality Dastyari’s proposals were minimal. (in the hundreds of millions)  Julia Gillard delivered a National Disability Insurance Scheme, but it was argued that  ‘savings’ had to be made elsewhere to compensate; the  logic of which was thereafter embraced more enthusiastically by the Liberals.

Under Bill Shorten Labor has committed to reforming Superannuation Tax Concessions, making some cuts in the applicability of Negative Gearing, and reforming Capital Gains Tax Concessions. ‘The Guardian’ argued in 2016 that these measures would save $100 billion over ten years.  This is substantial in the relative scheme of things ; but less impressive when you consider inflation.  Perhaps after that is factored in we’re talking about around 0.5% of GDP in a $1.6 trillion economy.

Shorten received a lot of Kudos from the Australian liberal left (for instance Fairfax journalists) for these ‘bold’ policies. But the fact these measures are considered so remarkable only underscores the reality of ‘Convergence Politics’ in Australia on the economy.

Meanwhile vigorous debate rages in the context of ‘The Culture Wars’. The Equal Marriage debate has been won.  But at a cost whereby Australia’s economic and cultural Right-wing are attempting to claim substantial Christian strata as a ‘base’.  (But this should not be taken for granted; it should be fought ; socially-conservative should not necessarily mean economically-conservative  or economically-Liberal ; nor should ‘Christian’ necessarily mean ‘socially conservative’) 

And now debate turns to the date for ‘Australia Day’ and the content of the National Curriculum – or at least how it is applied in Victoria. 

These debates are truly important. They are more than ‘distractions’.

After the ‘Australia Day debate’ the next logical step is for a Treaty with indigenous peoples.  And Conservative attempts to promote a National Curriculum which mixes Ideological Liberalism with uncritical nationalism – are deeply concerning.  But Labor’s position on the National Curriculum is also arguably too-conservative.   Arguably the National Curriculum should promote  ‘active, informed and critical citizenship.’  Which means deep and inclusive pluralism when it comes to informing students of the interests, social movements and ideological perspectives that have comprised Australian society. Here I am thinking along the lines of ‘post-Marxist’, Chantal Mouffe’s ‘radical pluralism’ , or ‘Agonistic Democracy’ ; and how those principles might be reflected in curricula.

 Nonetheless these debates are more ‘tolerable’ for capitalists and the wealthy than debates which question neo-liberalism, labour market deregulation (but no right to strike),  and ‘small government’.  (Though perhaps the debate on Education is less ‘tolerable’, here, than the Equal Marriage debate.  There is the potential to detract from narrow emphasis on ‘labour market demands’ ; and to encourage critical thinking and active citizenship which may meaningfully strengthen our democracy).  

The debates are substantial ; are not ‘merely distractions’ ; but the way public debate is presented these debates do constantly and over-the-long-term deflect attention away from a substantial, more wide-ranging debate on the economy, and especially economic power and inequality.   

Debates are also framed in such a way as to divide Labor’s traditional constituencies ; with the decline of class as a central ‘reference point’, and erroneous assumptions of ‘essential working class conservatism’ and ‘aspirational’ mentality’. ‘Political correctness’ is also regularly beaten-up in order to weaken Labor’s base via attrition.  In response Labor needs policies and language which promote social solidarity.

But anything which truly questions ‘Convergence’ is summarily dismissed as ‘Hard Left’.   Outgoing Labor President Mark Butler has made welcome demands for internal democratisation . But his description of British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as ‘Hard Left’ is regrettable. Corbyn is trending towards something more ‘traditionally social-democratic’ ; and has plans for railroad and utility re-nationalisation  that would ‘set a precedent’ whereby decades of privatisation are not necessarily permanent.  The policies are progressive, but not radical ; and Butler’s dismissal of Corbyn shows that ‘Convergence thinking’ still has a strong grip even within the ALP Left.

What would a ‘break’ from Convergence Politics look like?  The author of this article has been working on an updated  (unofficial)
“Model Platform” for Labor (currently in draft form) which is suggestive of a genuine reform footing for the ALP.  As a democratic socialist my long-term aim is the eventual surpassing of capitalism with a truly fair, rational and democratic economy. But even Marx understood that the transition from feudalism to capitalism took centuries. (though Marx did think socialist revolution a nearer prospect at the time)  And now there is the likely prospect ‘a clear and genuine break’ will not occur in our lifetimes.  Though the prospect of further crises and economic convulsions is nonetheless real.  Perhaps ‘barbarism’ is the more-likely prospect ; though we have to fight.

On the other hand, many on today’s Left still look to the Nordics for inspiration.  The Nordic model may not have ‘abolished’ capitalism ; but what some see as ‘the end goal’ is not everything. Billions of people will live in the context of historic compromises we fight for over the decades to come.  Their security, opportunities and happiness truly mean something with or without the over-arching capitalist context.  Yet sadly most in the Labor Party have not supported policies which meaningfully progress Australia towards something ‘Nordic-inspired’. 

The ‘ALP Model Platform’  (otherwise ‘For an Equal and Democratic Australia’) , suggests a short to medium term orientation, which breaks with ‘convergence thinking’, and has the meaningful aim of reaching the OECD average Tax to GDP ratio over as long as three terms of Labor Government.  That means raising progressive tax by $80 billion/year in today’s terms, or 5% of GDP.  (keep in mind the economy is worth over $1.6 Trillion)  It falls far short of the Nordics. (perhaps over $300 billion/year would be necessary) But it is suggestive of meaningful and substantial progress. (no more ‘one step forward, two steps back’ ; ‘the forward march of labour re-commences’)

What this means is substantial progressive restructure of Australia’s tax mix ; funding big improvements to the social wage, welfare, public provision of infrastructure.  It also means National Aged Care Insurance ; slashing hospital and public dental waiting lists ; industrial rights and liberties including a ‘re-regulation’ of the lower end of the labour market which delivers to the working poor ; strategies to improve life expectancy for indigenous Australians and the mentally ill ; progress towards free higher education ; support for mutuals and co-operative enterprise – with strategic public ‘co-investments’ which help these maintain the scale necessary to remain competitive ; an end to insufficient and ‘punitive’ welfare ; a big investment in public housing ; and much more.  These are central to the ‘ALP Model Platform’: a document intended to influence debate leading up to Labor’s National Conference this year in July 2018.

Those who want to support the Model Platform can ‘Like’ the ‘ALP Model Platform Supporters’ Page’ at Facebook and take part in debate there.

Labor has long been a ‘broad church’ with its own ‘internal pluralism’, and that is not likely to change.  But Labor should straddle the political ground across ‘traditional’ social democracy to democratic socialism ; and arguably there is also a place for what may be called ‘classical’ social democrats.  (radicals inspired by the original (largely Marxist) social democratic parties ; and those who followed in their wake)

Arguably a  strong radical-left can also contribute to the climate of culture and public opinion as well.  The Communist Party of Australia never had serious electoral success.  But it was a cultural and industrial power.  Ultimately it broke with Stalinism, also ; and in many ways that legacy is important and valid. 

In the US, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been registering impressive gains in membership. They intervene within the Democratic Party ; but at the same time they are more broadly-based. They demonstrate how a Left movement can be a cultural, political and electoral force ; but not be restricted to a single electoral strategy.  DSA includes radical perspectives, but are not narrowly Leninst.  Perhaps a similar strategy could also ‘bear fruit’ in Australia ; with a strong challenge against ‘Convergence’ – which all progressives should agree has to end.

The ‘ALP Model Platform' Supporters’ Page can be found here: (PLS Join!)

The current draft of the Model Platform can be found here:

Please join the supporters group ; and get like-minded friends to join if you support a strongly-progressive but realisable platform for the ALP.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The State of Aged Care in Australia Today - by Sharyn Ladiges

by Sharyn Ladiges  (ALP member and activist)

It’s been 20 years since the government brought in the Aged Care Act 1997 to deliver a new model of care for older Australians who could no longer live at home and required assistance with daily tasks. The act aimed to facilitate choice and independence for the elderly, and direct services to those with the greatest needs.

But the legislative change also coincided with an era of advanced ageing and more complex needs in our elderly.

People who had previously entered low-level residential aged care (then called hostels), are now cared for in the community. Once they enter aged care, they’re older and sicker than before, and have more complex needs. Since 2008, the number of older Australians admitted to a residential aged care facility has remained steady, but the proportion of people with high-care needs has progressively increased.

Older and sicker Australians

Currently, around half of people living in aged care have dementia, depression, or another mental health or behavioural condition. The proportion of older people requiring high care for complex needs, which includes assistance with all activities of daily living such as eating and bathing, has quadrupled from 13% in 2009 to 61% in 2016.

When the act was introduced, more emphasis was placed on supporting older people to remain at home for as long as possible. Now, the transition to permanent care only occurs once all options have been exhausted. The needs of the elderly population often outgrow the available community aged care support. This then requires an admission into one of Australia’s 283,000 (subsidised) residential aged care beds. As a result, our aged care facilities are increasingly functioning as hospices for the frail elderly with complex care needs.

The main flaw of the act was to repeal the legal requirement for all aged-care facilities to provide 24-hour registered nursing care to assess and manage resident’s changing clinical needs, wounds and unrelieved pain. So residents have minimal access to this. Too few have access to the necessary help from a geriatric medicine specialist (doctor), psychologist or social worker. And their families have minimal access to psychological and social support, and bereavement follow-up.

Why was the act introduced?

The 1997 act replaced two outdated and confusing 1950s laws to create a single statutory framework for Australian aged care services. It detailed the responsibilities of aged-care operators in relation to quality and compliance. It also empowered the relevant minister to set out principles covering matters such as quality of care, accountability and user rights.

The introduction of the act fuelled a much-needed capital works program funded by low interest bonds from older people entering residential aged care. This was meant to make aged care facilities more home-like, while also meeting care needs.

A major achievement of the act has been the amalgamation of hostels (social care accommodation for older people) and nursing homes (frail aged accommodation with 24-hour nursing care) into a single, user-pays regulated system. Now, people live in one institution, but are classified as having either low-care or high-care needs.

This was to provide older people with an opportunity to “age in place”. So, to have a seamless transition into higher-level care as lower-level physical care needs intensified; and to ensure people living in an aged care facility received all of their care needs in one location.

Major pitfalls of the act

The act’s repeal of the legal requirement for 24-hour nursing care reflected the social model of care underpinning the legislation. The idealistic yet impractical philosophy took the focus away from nursing and medical care. So now, the bulk of personal care is provided by a pool of untrained and unregulated aged-care workers supervised by a very small number of registered nurses.

Registered nurses employed in aged care are central to assessing, planning, monitoring and delivering complex care to older people living in these facilities. But there are too few registered nurses (and they are often managing the facility) so they have limited capacity to ensure the older person’s function, comfort and dignity is optimised, their mobility maintained and dependence minimised.

These skilled nurses also have few opportunities to ensure the resident’s family members receive the appropriate level of psycho-social and spiritual support they often need. Primarily because they’re dependent on the unskilled workers alerting them to changes in the resident’s condition or the families concerns.

Aged care facilities lack the clinical infrastructure of our hospitals. So, if a registered nurse is not on duty, there are few people the unskilled care workers can call for timely clinical review.

If the GP can’t be contacted and the registered nurse is not on duty, an ambulance will be called and the frail older person will be transferred to hospital for assessment.

What needs to happen

Numerous inquiries have highlighted the need for a skilled aged-care workforce to ensure older Australians have access to the level and quality of health care they deserve. These health care gaps persist largely because the act’s principles, while possessing the status of law, are not subject to the same parliamentary control and public accountability.

A new nursing skill mix model is urgently required in aged care to address the level of unmet health care needs. At a minimum, the act should be amended to stipulate appropriate staffing requirements for the delivery of direct clinical care, including the presence of at least one registered nurse at all times. As part of the skill mix, a higher ratio of registered nurses and enrolled nurses supported by a team of care workers is required.

The availability of a nurse practitioner, with advanced training and prescribing rights, and a geriatrician to all aged care facilities would do much to improve timely access to medical care. It’s also likely the addition of this tier of health professionals into aged care would reduce the need for unnecessary emergency department presentations. These are often distressing for the resident and their family, as well as being costly to the system.

Unfortunately, the act fails our most vulnerable members of society and their families by not providing them with the skilled nursing, medical and allied health care they require in their last year, weeks or days of life.

Afterward (by Dr Tristan Ewins, blog publisher)

Sharyn Ladiges
has described the evolution of the Aged Care sector very well, and has made a compelling case for "a new nursing skill mix model" which would include a registered nurse on site at all times.  This has long been a core demand of Aged Care workers, nurses, and families. Also broader 'staff to resident' ratios are necessary to ensure all residents in high intensity care receive the care they need ; including regular turning to prevent bed sores and so on.

Arguably, though, we could do with a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme model involving relatively comparable resources as the National Disability Insurance Scheme  - but hopefully learning from any problems which have been experienced in the implementation of that model.  This would provide comprehensive services for all in need of any kind of aged care: ageing in place ; low intensity residential care ; high intensity residential care...

Firstly we need to get rid of user pays: for both high intensity and low intensity Aged Care (and 'ageing in place') ; and fund fully from progressive taxation.  User pays mechanisms have often been onerous ; have forced the sale of family homes ; have weighed relatively heavily on some working class households.   Aged Australians from all kinds of backgrounds should have access to the same very high quality Aged Care services as one another ; where no-one experiences relatively inferior quality care on account of socio-economic background.

Secondly we need to ensure *happiness* and mental health as well as physical health.  This means ensuring social and intellectual engagement for people of a variety of backgrounds and interests.  It could mean outings ; forums ; access to information technology ; creative and artistic activities ; listening to or even playing music ; mediated discussions ; access to books ; reading and discussing the papers, current affairs, the news ; watching and discussing films, and so on.  This needs to be addressed in both low and high intensity care, and for those 'ageing in place'.  Perhaps more effort and resources need to be put into addressing loneliness amongst those 'ageing in place' alone as well.  High quality food needs to be ensured for all as well ; as does privacy; and access to pleasant surroundings - eg: gardens ; where possible sunshine ; and so on.

Finally , we need to be taking a close look at the 'for profit' part of the residential aged care sector.  Private providers should not be gouging residents and families ; and the sector needs to be thoroughly regulated to prevent 'short-cuts' and so on to reinforce 'bottom lines'.  We need more emphasis on the state sector and on 'not for profits' ; and subsidising these to ensure the highest quality care for everyone.

Thanks again to Sharyn Ladiges for her informed overview of the development of the sector and the issues it faces today.