1) The Coalition’s first budget is an intensified assault on the living conditions of the vast majority of people in Australia
2) This assault has generated more opposition and anger than any element of the political class expected or feels comfortable about.
The budget aims to establish the infrastructure state which via encouraging the sale of state assets hopes to generate sufficient funds to create enough effective demand to offset the end of the mining boom; the budget is an attempt to address the rising sovereign debt (caused be the rise in expenditure and drop in revenue due to the global, secular not cyclical, crisis of capitalism) by pushing more of the costs (in both money and labour) of reproduction onto the wage and into the home; and despite (still slowly) rising unemployment the budget attempts to increase the supply of labour through restricting welfare payments, increasing conditions for the disability pension and raising the age to access aged pension ( it could be also argued that the increases in debt and costs for workers increases the pressure to work). All this in part works by using and intensifying the internal hierarchies that exist within the incredibly heterogeneous working class in Australia.
The response from the broader population has been generally hostile and angry. There have been a number of relatively sizable rallies. Students opposed to the deregulation of university fees have also carried out a number of brave and defiant acts of disobedience. The media is both reporting a constant stream of stories that represent people’s criticisms of the budget and a large section of the media and the political class have responded with tatty front pages and snide columns attacking the Australian population on a whole for their reaction.
Amongst the opposition to the budget there are a number of divergent threads. There is a great deal of hope that the ALP, PUP and the Greens will block the budget forcing a double dissolution election. Sections of the socialist and anticapitalist Left hope that putting pressure on the trade unions will lead to industrial action (or that making the demand for unions to act, and then having unions ignore these demands, will lead to recruiting new members….) and social media is circulating a call for a general strike.
The budget and the opposition to it are the peaks, the top of the ice-berg but not the totality, of the current conjuncture of capitalist society in Australia (which I try to examine in more detail here). A particular organisation of capitalism has come into crisis and the deal that was offered to the population has started to fall apart. Equally the political disorientation of so many of us is also part of the conjuncture: the long term changes in class compositions, the massive atrophy of social democracy, the rise of anti-politics and the historical experiences of the defeat of all the major struggles of the last decade(s).
We could say that the ‘disjunctive synthesis’ of this conjuncture is on one hand the crumbling popular authority of the state and the absence of any genuinely active and popular alternative.
Comrades come rally…?
Whilst we should always be ready to be pleasantly surprised it is unlikely that either the hope for a double dissolution or general strike will come to pass. Instead it is more than likely that the current discontent will follow the usual trajectory: a series of rallies, more or less framed in opposition to the Coalition and thus more of less supportive of a return of the ALP, which will generate a spark of momentum but eventually burn out and fizzle away. Indeed this is the direction that the vast majority of the organisers of opposition are moving towards.
The problem with a strategy built around rallies needs to be addressed in more detail. In short rallies are trapped within the framework of ‘capitalo-parliamentarianism’(Badiou 2003). Rallies are attempts to mobilise as many people as possible to influence the behaviour of the state by suggesting that those in the street represent a significant enough voting bloc that politicians should change their behaviour. Tied into this is often the hope that a rally will be of significant size that it will get significant media exposure; a recognition but a misunderstanding of the ‘spectacular’ nature of our current society
The historical lesson of the anti-war movement is that ultimately such an approach is a failure (a lesson that almost all movements since have been like painful remedial classes on). In our conjuncture the state just doesn’t care, and doesn’t have to care, how many people are involved in rallies. They can be safely ignored. And if the rally does make it onto the media we quickly find that rather than shaping the public debate the media shapes the images and presentation of the rally and slides it into the series of representations that work to reinforce the dominant ideological normality.
There is always the chance that a rally, or elements of a rally, will break out of formula and act in a different way: an example could be the conflicts with the police carried out by high-school kids during the anti-war movement. Such developments are normally experienced as a rupture with and a crisis in the rally. Most often the organisers of the rally itself work to contain, defuse and police such moments. The mandatory mantra of a rally being ‘peaceful’ or ‘non-violent’ is used as the ideological cover to discipline almost any rebellious behaviour that comes autonomously from the participants of the rally itself (and also shuts down the space for the very complex, nuanced and needed discussion about the role force may or may not place in the struggle for social emancipation.)
Strike! Strike! Strike!
Those comrades arguing for industrial action are identifying an objective truth: that the refusal to work is the centre of our power to shape society. But this then leaves open the far more difficult question: how does the class organises itself to carry out this strike action? So far the comrades’ strategy seems to be to use general meetings organised by the peak union bodies to demand the coordination of industrial action. This means trying to influence a union leadership deeply tied to the ALP to coordinate large-scale illegal action in a very hostile climate. (As mentioned above for many on the Left raising such a demand is done in poor faith. The aim is to ‘expose’ the lack of action of the union leadership in a hope to shatter reformist illusions, increase the influence of tiny Left groups and recruit members. Camatte (1995) was right. Such groups are rackets!)
Much of the debate focuses on what the possibility of the union leadership taking such action is. But lets flip the question. Say the ACTU, the QCU etc did call for a strike, even a general strike, how much traction would such a call have? Not only are only a minority of workers in unions it is only in specific industries and specific workplaces where there still exist the corresponding levels of organisation, culture and solidarity for such a call to work. Off the top of my head I would say the construction industry, on the wharves, in some mines, in some schools, amongst nurses and some cleaners. The fact that the anticapitalist Left is turning to pressuring the union leadership rather than their workmates in their own workplaces identifies a very really and debilitating problem.
For the vast majority of us, who work in either unorganised workplaces or workplaces where the union is little more than a corkboard, we need to do a lot more before we can move.
There is also a problem of those of us who are unorganised or poorly organised relying on those other elements of the class who are out the front fighting to do the heavy lifting for us. It is clear that the Federal government is gunning for construction workers through the reintroduction of the ABCC and the Fair Work decision that damages for illegal strike action can be taken from individual workers up to and including asset seizures. It is a lot for those of us not in these industries to ask these workers to put themselves on the line when we are so weak. There is a difference between comrades in the industry and relevant unions raising the demand for strike action around the budget themselves and a group of Lefties outside trying to push for strike action via the leadership.
Single Sparks and A New Possibility
What we need then is the creation of a new possibility (Badiou 2009). That is a new way of collectively acting that can manifest power in the present that can push capital and the state and simultaneously chart the path for a different and other kind of future. A new possibility works to negate the present and start to create alternatives (what we can call communisation or the creation of the commons).
Such a new possibility normally emerges as an event, as a tumultuous eruption of masses. Such events are by their nature thought to be impossible before they happen. Their very possibility is denied by the rules of the society they challenge and their foundation is only grounded retrospectively. For us communists we operate with a memory of previous struggles, attentiveness to the present and also try to seek out and see in the quiet ‘normality’ of capitalism the antagonisms that offer the possibility of emancipation.
This is the hard kernel of an emancipatory and materialist approach – that the potential for something more, something that breaks radically with the social order, exists within the fabric of society even if is unseen and unseeable on the surface level of normality. The axis this hangs on is that our creative capacity is both the very thing that capital vampirises for its endless accumulation and is also what we can, as a class, pull free of capital and organise in different ways. We can orientate ourselves to this potential. The Zapatistas(2006) are correct when they say as part of La Otra that we come ‘from below and to the Left’.
Whilst we can’t produce such an event as a force of will one doesn’t have to wait. If we wish to break from the frame of capitalo-parliamentarianism where do we go? The budget as it moves through parliament is far from us and is in a world that cares little for us. Its passage will be buffeted by the various winds of the political class and we as spectators can do little but cheer or weep from the sidelines.
What is required is the creation of a site, a real space, where the impact of the budget, as part of the broader coordination and functioning of capital accumulation, can be contested, and where people can physically and collectively struggle together. Think of some of the real struggles that have emerged that exert some kind of power: the MUA dispute, the Bently Blockade, Jabiluka, the Grocon dispute, etc. Here is a specific space where some workers walk of the job, protestors shut down a project, students occupy an admin office and many levels of supporters gravitate to it. Such sites undermine the state’s ability to guarantee normality, they prevent the circulation and valorisation of capital and they facilitate the prefiguring of alternative forms of society. The common thing you hear from being on the pickets or being at a blockade is how different life feels. These are the sites the state mobilises the cops against and these are the struggles that corporations higher spies to infiltrate and disrupt.
The Federal budget will probably pass and it will probably be complemented by state budgets that will privatise assets to raise funds for infrastructure investment and reduce the funding of services. This will be experienced on the ground in countless ways by countless people and in countless places: job losses, work intensification, welfare restrictions, closed services. In the present we can lay the ground work, prepare with each other, organise to fight in these spaces in the hope that we can discover our power, that our struggles will resonate through the social terrain and a new eruption will throw everything open. We struggle on the premise of something happening, a ‘Miracle’, which is‘awaited but unexpected’(Virno 1996).
Prairie Fire, Contagion and Resonance
What is the lesson presented to us by the global wave of struggles – OWS, the movements of the squares etc? Firstly that it is possible that seemingly from nowhere great crowds of people step into collective struggle. Despite the long depoliticisation (Hui 2009) that was generated during the neoliberal period, as economic questions where declared undebatable and generally we retreated to the personal to find utopia, now that the neoliberal period is over we see that suddenly and very quickly great crowds of people return.
The political lessons of this cycle of struggles are obtuse and of course these struggles are not exhausted. At first what we see is the great occupation of key centres of the metropolis that (unlike rallies) jam the ideological and practical normality of their functioning. These occupations have a radically hostile attitude to mainstream politics in total, often engage in various forms of confrontation with the state and model various kinds of direct democratic practice. Whilst most of the occupations have ended they have created numerous different subsequent political projects – though as Egypt shows there is no guarantee of victory and as the Ukraine shows the ideological dominance of an upsurges can be grabbed by the radically right and various ‘reactionary form(s) of anti-capitalism’(Postone 2006).
What should we take from this? After all the various Occupys in Australia remained fairly small if spirited and defiant. But then they happened before the long waves of the crisis really were felt here. At the very least since there is broadly similar political-ideological coordinates in Australia as there is in the rest of the North we can take heart in the high levels of contempt that mainstream politics is held in and the possibility of the return of the crowd.
What may be done?
On the periphery of the Left, sometimes sadly caught in its gravity, exist the thin network of comrades, dearly loved, fierce and caring, within which this blog sits. Rather than suggesting to a great audience ‘out there’ what to do, I would rather suggest a few limited moves to those in the room.
One thing we can do is work on developing and communicating a credible intellectual framework that explains the budget in the context of the global crisis of capitalism and our current conjuncture. Such an approach means dropping the easy tropes like ‘neoliberalism’ and actually sitting down together and collectively thinking and reading and perhaps writing. (Jokingly I would suggest that comrades read the budget with a copy of Capital on their desks). Coupled with is the equally hardwork of trying to communicate this understanding in ways that can be heard – an art and not a science. This would mean both experimenting with contemporary media and trying to organise forums and gatherings outside the geographical safety zones of the Left. A Trot paper and a meeting under the blinking fluorescents of student union or trade union offices just won’t cut it.
This can be paired with a process of investigation into sites where the budget will impact, working out how the cuts will impact, what that means for people’s lives, what forms of solidarity, rebellion and dignity already exists and how this is nestled in the broader social terrain. These investigations can both shape our work and provide the basis for other forms of knowledge to communicate.
This I see as part of constructing a radicalised vision of Lenin’s (1973) ‘revolutionary theory’ – where the lived knowledge of daily life is combined with rigorous engagements with theory as part of an ongoing organised process which then produces something new and greater than the sum of its parts.
This is listening, talking and discussing.
What organisational initiatives can we take? Left Flank authors Liz Humphrys and Tad Tietze(2014) recently wrote ‘Workers would be best served by starting a conversation based around how to secure their collective interests, whether or not they are part of a union’. We can contribute to organizing these conversations. This would mean experimenting in ways similar to the above of organizing meetings and using contemporary media to create the spaces for these conversations.
We can also work to start putting into contact with each other friends and comrades we know who work in similar budget impacted industries or use similar services that face cuts and support them in working together (in an old language the formation of ‘cells’). (Rob suggested this approach in the context of the state government cuts ).This should be done in an ongoing and systemic way and then we can stitch together these links into broader forms of coordination and cooperation.
We can work to amplify any struggles that are happening and circulate as much as possible the experiences in their totality, good and bad, amongst the class as a whole in the hope that these many resonate, inform and inspire with others.
Lastly lets put back on the table for discussion the idea of increasing the coordination, cooperation and organization of anticapitalist militants in a way that goes beyond the limitations of the network, the inwardness and moralism of activist milieus and rejects the racket building follies of the socialist sects and anarcho-syndicalist sectlettes. [As I get older and have less and less spare time it becomes obvious to me that only with the existence of some kind of organization can the few things I can do become part of something more coherent. I doubt I am the only one.] (A conversation with Andrew convinced me of the importance of this and of no longer shying away from such a project).
We live in the world. Left practice often erroneously draws people away from the terrain of their lives, affects and experiences. We can start to tally how the budget will impact (as part of the broader processes of capital accumulation) the places we inhabit. We can take stock of the relations we have there, the already existing antagonisms and points of tensions. We can begin to experiment with organising in these spaces on the wager that our acts here can contribute to transforming these areas into a site of open contestation and emancipatory politics.
The local Centrelink office is more important than the Senate. Those on the dole are more important than any Senator.
A necessary correction to get back on track.
In writing this I have obviously focused on opposing the budget. But we must remember that the budget is only part of the state’s attempts to facilitate and coordinate the accumulation of capital in a specific historical conjuncture. It is capital and capitalist society as whole we oppose and it is this society that is strewn with antagonisms. Thus if one focuses on the budget it is necessary to also have a wider view and an appreciation of the ability for emancipatory struggle to emerge anywhere in society.
Coda: Elections? A trap for arseholes!
Breaking the gravitational pull of elections is a core part of the struggle for class autonomy. Why?
1) The problem isn’t Abbott. The Coalition government is merely a faction of the political class that is attempting to drive the state in a way that responds to the problems confronting capitalism in Australia. Whatever the noxious elements of their ideology and actions these aren’t the source of the problem.
2) The state is over-determined by the movements of capital. It doesn’t matter who wins elections it is the imperatives and logics of global capital accumulation that really shape the actions of the state. Even if the Left wins the elections in the absence of society-wide collective anticapitalist struggle there is little they can do.
3) The atomisation of the voter is an entirely different dynamic from that the same individual may experience as part of a collective struggle.
4) The voter is an abstraction removed from the lived world which contains the ‘mines’ which can ‘explode’ capitalism (Marx 1993).
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Camatte, Jacques. 1995. This World We Must Leave & Other Essays. Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia.
Debord, Guy. 2002. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Malcolm Imrie. London & New York: Verso.
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Humphrys, Elizabeth, and Tad Tietze. 2014. Qantas and Job Losses: The Reality of Union Decline Must Be Faced. theguardian Comment is Free 2014 [cited 22nd March 2014]. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/05/how-relevant-are-australian-unions.
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Virno, Paolo. 1996. “Virtuosity and Revolution.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, 189-210. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
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