The rally on the 7Th August organised by the union Together was at best a fairly dispiriting affair. The thing that I found the most depressing was a dual lack of vision and possibility. Most noticeably the lack of vision of the leadership of the union, a lack of vision which means not only can they do little to lead an effective resistance to the slow (now gathering pace) austerity of the LNP Newman government but also more despairingly they are contributing to the political disempowerment of the working class and setting us up for defeat. But the second lack of vision is the lack of vision of the anti-capitalist or radical left (to use a term that few will be happy about) to do anything to change the situation, to contribute to a real mobilisation of the class, or lay the foundations for emancipatory politics. What was on display was the double poverty: the poverty of the left-over machinery of social democracy and the poverty of those who want to do something about it. This needs to be addressed and discussed and ways out planned – ways out based not on ideological purity but reality.
Now before we get into this perhaps more depressing material lets focus on the positives. Firstly in our generally depoliticised times getting together a few hundred people on a Tuesday night is an achievement. The fact that despite the crushing defeat the LNP government handed us last year and the piss-poor leadership of Together that these fellow workers had not given up in despair but rather had turned up because they wanted to stand up and struggle is heartening. Secondly the union did get somethings right: the speeches given by workers who have lost their jobs or faced decimations in services were powerful and humane. Also the union has moved to get its design and presentation together and make it be more appealing. Now I know that generally unions’ use of contemporary communication techniques is often seen to be symptomatic of their drift from organising to adopting top-down advertising strategies. Now this might be true but is it possible to keep the good design and also add good politics? Or is radical anti-capitalism condemned to make posters and papers that look like they have come from a time-capsule (30s? 70s? 90s?). One of the things you noticeable about the unions in the building industry, which are both a) the most militant b) the closest to the members, is that their material looks fucking cool. They make shirts and jackets and symbols that their members seem to wear in great numbers, that have an appealing aesthetic and contribute to a feeling of collectivity. Considering that the organised socialist sects still build themselves around newspapers (a dying medium) or that anarchists are often emotionally attached to 30 year old counter-cultural traditions its seems that too many of us have less technical and cultural nuance than your average 12 year old with an IPad. (One of the shocks of the Occupy phenomena was how popular right-wing conspiracy theory has become, in some ways displacing socialism as the ‘spontaneous’ ideology of social opposition. This is a complex phenomena and does in part represent the material and cultural structures of contemporary capitalism – but can partly be attributed to the successful use of media by various conspiracy selling hucksters.)
Moves in a positive direction to engage with current cultural practice probably isn’t a bad thing. Of course the critiques of the ‘culture industry’ or ‘the Spectacle’ are important (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997; Debord, 2004). Indeed we perhaps need more of them – as the content of daily life, that is the reality of capital’s domination, is often ignored by the ideologies of the Left. The danger of slick messages from unions just being another face of an endless slideshow of bullshit indistinguishable from any other element of it is real. Yet this doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t try to communicate it a way that can actually be heard.
This inability to experiment with effective forms of communication is further entrenched by much of the Left’s not so hidden belief that people are stupid. At a recent meeting to discuss organising against an upcoming G20 meeting the most boring possible name was chosen on the basis that it had to be obviously clear what the group was about. That is that if we don’t call ourselves the group of people explicitly for or against something then the workers will be too dim-witted to get our message. Have these people never seen capitalist advertising or even listened to anyone ever talk about films or music?
As comrades desert the socialist sects, which are the last incarnation of a now irrelevant party-form, and I hope they do, perhaps one of their areas of experimentation can be around and in contemporary media as a form of communication and propaganda. Who after all needs a party for this? ( See Novara Media ) But I digress.
The main weaknesses of the mobilisation were organisational and political: or better yet organisational-political. There was neither the collective organisational relations between members or a sufficient understanding of what we are facing and how to fight it.
The union leaders firmly run the line that the current wave of austerity can be explained solely by the nefarious nature of the LNP. That is if the LNP hadn’t broken its word/ wasn’t beholden to neoliberalism as ideology then no cuts would be implemented, secondly that a change in government will be an end to austerity i.e. the Labor Party will save us. As argued elsewhere (and here) whilst the Queensland Commission of Audit have overstated the level of debt Australian states do face a very real challenge in how they can fund social reproduction. Global capitalism is, you know, in crisis and this actually matters. But the entire political discourse in Australia operates as if the global economic crisis hasn’t happened/ in a paranoid state about the decline of demand for mineral resources in China.
Of course trying to talk about capitalism in any public way is a challenge as much of the language needed to do so finds very little traction. But again it is a necessary challenge.
Firstly to fail to point out how the current austerity is a product of systematic global crisis means that we further deepen illusions and raise hopes of the viability of some form of desirable life in capitalism. This means that if the crisis deepens we are even less prepared with how to resist.
It also retards the development of an appropriate vision of an alternative propagating the notion that some kind of continuation of the welfare state in its current post-social democratic form is possible. It’s increasingly likely that it isn’t. It seems likely that the growth of Australian capitalism is slowing and these the difficulties in funding social reproduction will probably intensify.
Thus we are compelled to confront the possibility that simple defensive politics is impossible –rather that the response to austerity needs to be the generation of a radical alternative that can both meet the challenges of holding together a decent and dignified form of living and creating the forms of living for a radical different and better society. (But these have to be concrete and real)
Secondly the only alternative that the leadership offers is an electoral one: which means the ALP and at the rally speeches quickly shifted from state to federal politics and the fear of a Coalition victory. Now undoubtedly the recently elected Coalition government will undermine legal working conditions, the powers of unions and impose cuts and reductions in social services? But how is that a) substantially different from an ALP government b) how would an ALP victory relate to working class self-activity?
More than this considering their recent drubbing it is unlikely that the ALP will win Federal or state elections anytime soon. Thus what appears to be the most reasonable strategy is rather an illusionary unlikelihood. Frankly I doubt we will be ‘voting out Campbell Newman in two years.’
Not only that the ALP is so shit it couldn’t even organise a presence at the rally – neither did surprisingly the socialist sects. Thus it was only Katter’s Australia Party which had any open representation – and a free BBQ too. No surprise why right-wing populism is doing so well ( I wrote this pre-election and I am surprised how poorly the KAP did)
All that the union offers its membership then is a politics of fear – fear that things will be worse under Abbot. As Badiou has pointed out the political Right offers fear and the Left offers ‘fear of the fear (2008, p. 17).
The content of these politics on the ground then is pathetic – yearly rallies. The unions marched out the membership last year, then marched them home as 14,000 jobs were lost. Is it any surprise then that the vast bulk of the membership don’t respond to another rally? What’s the fucking point? Also what needs to be grasped is that rallies have become part of a practice of defeat. Ever since the anti-war movement the evidence should be obvious. Struggles built around rallies don’t do anything. People aren’t idiots; they have seen this in practice. The call by groups like Socialist Alternative for rally after rally after rally whatever the issue might be great for gathering people in a geographical area to sell papers to and try to recruit but is a terrible idea from a class perspective– it doesn’t take into account the actual historical experience of the Australian working class.
In short the rally as a strategy, or a strategy built around rallies, is without social power. Numbers on the street, in and of themselves, literally don’t count in the current political order. Perhaps during the social democratic period the rally had power because it was a manifestation of a wider class dynamic and also because the city street mattered. But after the anti-war movement the evidence is clear: hundreds of thousands of people can appear in the street, march through it and leave, and the state doesn’t flinch. The difficulty is that it is unclear what kinds of action the class should take and also how we get to the point of being able to take such action, that is how to organise and motivate people, is even less known. There are some sections of class – construction workers, nurses, wharfies etc – who have kicked some goals through industrial action those struggles often don’t circulate more broadly. Ecologists still achieve a few spectacular actions though these mobilise only small numbers. Overseas the experience of the movements of the squares offer us much to think and learn about.
And thus Together is getting solidly thumped by the government. The day after the LNP announced amendments to legislation which nullify the unions’ attempt to evade legislation compelling the union to poll members on any expenditure over $10,000 and forcing the union to reveal how much officials are paid. A brilliant tactic by the conservatives as the unions had to embarrassingly justify why the leaderships wages were so much greater than its members. The union’s response: to ask members for funds to hire some motorbikes to drive trailers with posters on them around the city. For fuck’s sake.
As a relatively new member of Together I can attest that its presence in the work place is nothing beyond a cork-board. In the time I have been at my job I have mainly been trying to listen to gauge how people feel. Its pretty clear most detest the state-government (including my surprisingly reasonable senior managers who are cut from a different cloth from the managers I have encountered elsewhere in my working life) but the union never comes into conversation. Most I think are fatalistic, or focused elsewhere or have fallen into that trap of white-collar workers everywhere: the belief that doing their job well will mean that they are treated reasonably, that exploitation and the dominance of capital happens elsewhere. I have also noticed how people are more resigned to precarity – project ending well I better put in a new resume, time for a change anyway.
All of this is an entirely reasonable response to getting thumped in a time when we all have large debts and bills to pay and little experience of successful collective struggle.
This means thinking about the question of unions in a complex, materialist and grounded way. The Left too often has a monochromatic view of the nature of unions: either hopeless compromised or a workers’ paradise held back only by a layer of lazy ALP officials.
Trade Unions in Australia are now both, often at the same time, part of capital’s left wing and also sites of class organisation and struggle. Thus we can find the AMWU suggesting new plans for capital accumulation and also we can find paid officials doing their best to organise openly, democratically and try to win some fight. As bad as unions are, they are also in some ways excellent. It is wrong to reduce the complexity of the class to unions (unionised workers make up only 18% of paid workers) but it is also an error to see unions only as some form of cliché (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).
Class struggle happens throughout society that’s true, in the long run we will have to go beyond unions, but right now it is a few unions in a few industries who are actually kicking any goals for our side – and it is these same organisations and workers who stand in the gun sights of capital. There is no room for neutrality here.
These are inescapable contradictions, because our lives as workers are contradictory. We might oppose capitalism, but it is also where we and everyone we care about live. We might be the force that can abolish capitalism – but we also need to pay the rent.
This this is all evidence of a major lacuna in anti-capitalist circles in Australia: the inability to imagine a viable and radical class response to current material conditions. The Left, including its socialist wing, is largely social democratic: the horizon of struggle is defending and extending what remains of the welfare state. I suspect that this is a product of frozen thinking from the 70s – that socialism is a land that lies beyond social democracy and one must push through. The generally better stance of anarchist and ultra-left comrades for #fullcommunism is not however very real. Socialist Alliance do attempt a transitional program which, to quote Rob, “in its attempt to be real ends up be the most abstract possible”.
And truth be told Words from Struggle Street /the Ho Haa Group does’t have anything to offer either. And this isn’t a surprise. Unlike Socialist Alternative’s argument that revolution requires the purity of the program, ‘firm theoretical foundations’, communism comes from the real life of the class. And this is a potential that at the moment speaks very softly and is obscured by the dense ideological mists of capital. To be a partisan of emancipatory politics means trying to start to communicate, investigate and act in a form that would be very different even perhaps unintelligible to the current Left practice. It means be far more theoretical sophisticated than at present, it means being far better at listening to what people are saying around us, it means learning to communicate in ways that aren’t trite, formulaic and easily mocked and derided and it means thinking about strategy and tactics, that is fighting to win, with both clarity and determination. And no, I don’t know how to do this.
The solution must be an organisational-political one not simply a question of ideas. By this I don’t mean reverting to the out-of-the-box answers of the Left (the Party! Anarcho-syndicalist unions!) rather we need to construct some forms of a collective body the details of which are yet unknown. The last few years of experimentation globally, centred around the encampment in the squares, give us some starting places perhaps. But even before this, more elementarily is revising the idea of the meeting.
Politics, especially emancipatory politics, which is the only politics worth the name (the rest being largely management) has at its heart the collective process of peopling coming together to reshape the world that they live in(Badiou, 2005). But the meeting has fallen into disrepair. The Left parties often hold meetings but these are a priori subordinated to the logics of building the party which too often makes them rote affairs and stifles the possibilities of invention and novelty. In the broader activist scenes meetings are far too scripted and the lines of debate and division (voting vs. consensus, informal vs. facilitation) stifle the ability to communicate. But deeper than this we run up against the problem of how to meet and with who. The post-Fordist reconstruction of the Australian working class has created a vast amount of internal heterogeneity and hierarchy that means there is no singular image of the workers, a common pole, which people can easily project themselves onto. This doesn’t mean that the broadly shared proletarian condition doesn’t exist it just needs to be worked at, more effort is needed to construct the ‘We’.
The attempts to do this which I have participated in over the last few years – the Assembly for Dignity, The Brisbane Workers Assembly, the May Day Group have had mixed success. The first wound down because we couldn’t construct a form of activity in which those on benefits came together – rather the main people in the group were in paid employment constantly seeking an engagement that didn’t happen; the Brisbane Workers Assembly was perhaps too idealistic – we have imagined a form before we investigated reality and thus built nothing. The far more humble May Day Group has succeed in producing a very interesting public meeting – but that specific meeting didn’t, perhaps out of necessity and timing move to concretise something more.
A knotty problem indeed
Adorno, Theodor W., & Horkheimer, Max. (1997). Dialectic of Enlightenment. London & New York: Verso.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2013). 6310.0 – Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, August 2012 Retrieved 28th September, 2013, from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/6310.0Main Features2August 2012?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6310.0&issue=August 2012&num=&view=
Badiou, Alain. (2005). Metapolitics (J. Barker, Trans.). London & New York: Verso.
Badiou, Alain. (2008). The Meaning of Sarkozy. London New York: Verso.
Debord, Guy. (2004). Society of the Spectacle (K. Knabb, Trans.). London: Rebel Press.