Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bernardi and the revival of anti-Communism

Nick G.

The leader of the new Australian Conservatives Party, ex-Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi, has won support for a notice of motion on an annual commemoration of “victims of Communism”.

Bernardi has distinguished himself by moving a raft of notices of motion, many on obscure matters such as his call to “eat a croissant” to celebrate a medieval French defeat of a Muslim army.  When he first raised his “victims” notice of motion on November 14, he also moved motions about governmental standards, the Crossroads program in NSW schools, White Ribbon Australia’s advocacy of abortion, and GetUp! -  all of which were opposed by a majority of Senators. So too was his “victims” notice, on that day at least.

Two days later, the Manager of Opposition Business on the Senate, the ACT’s Senator Gallagher agreed to the notice of motion proceeding, although she did say that “our position remains that this simple motion is the wrong way to deal with this topic, and we will be opposing it.”

Bernardi’s slavish following of Trump

What is Bernardi’s motion?
He has moved that the Senate—

(a) notes the Trump administration in the United States of America has declared 7 November to be the National Day for Victims of Communism;
(b) further notes the Senate motion passed on 18 October 2017 rejecting any assertion that the teachings of Lenin or Marx should be celebrated in a liberal democracy;
(c) recalls the number of refugees who came to Australia fleeing communist regimes; and
(d) calls upon the Government to organise a similar annual commemoration remembering the victims of communism from 7 November 2018 onwards.

Trump’s declaration about November 7, the day on our Western calendar when the Bolsheviks took power from the Provisional Government and placed power in the hands of the Soviets, has been driven by an organisation in the US called “Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation”.  For the last two years it has conducted online polls about the attitudes of US citizens to Communism, socialism, fascism and capitalism.  It breaks responses down demographically – by gender, age group, “race” and educational level.

To its concern, it has found “disturbing trends” amongst the Millennials – that group in their late teens and early twenties (most demographers equate Millennials and Gen Ys over a slightly wider age range, but this group reports both categories separately). What concerns the organisation is that this year, more Millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country (44%) than in a capitalist one (42%). Some even said they would prefer to live in a communist country (7%). The percentage of Millennials who would prefer socialism to capitalism is a full ten points higher than that of the general population.

This is the age group that almost succeeded in having Bernie Sanders, the US social democrat, elevated to the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate ahead of Hillary Clinton.

“It seems that the majority of America’s largest generation,” the organisation continues, “would prefer to live in a socialist or communism (sic) society than in a free enterprise system that respects the rule of law, private property, and limited government. This is even more disconcerting when coupled with the fact that, despite Millennials’ enthusiasm for socialism and communism, they do not, in fact, know what those terms mean.”

It is the last observation – probably true in some respects – that has prompted the organisation to lobby Trump for the observance on November 7 each year of a commemoration for “victims of Communism”.

“Communism isn’t back: It never left,” concludes the summary of this year’s poll.

Bernardi, well-known for his right-wing conservative beliefs, would have needed no pushing in the direction of anti-Communism.  He no doubt shares the concern of his US counter-parts about the growing popularity of Marxism amongst Millennials.

However, one of his own Millenials, Richard Zheng, an IT project manager at Wesfarmers, is probably more in need of some education about Communism than any of those who worry the US “Victims of Communism” pollsters.

Posting on Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives Facebook page, Zheng endorsed Bernardi’s notice of motion with this comment: “Unfortunately Australia is a communist country because of welfare, universal healthcare, too much government ownership and high taxes. We need to stop all that in order to stop the levels of communism.”  So much for the intelligence of a Bernardi groupie! And Zheng is not alone: others post similar comments on the Conservatives Facebook page.

Understanding “victimhood” and the question of class

Communists must prepare for another round of anti-Communism if Bernardi’s motion gets any traction.  Already the LNP Senators are supporting it.  Labor senators like Gallagher may well try and strike an “even-handed” pose, appealing to small-l liberals and the petty-bourgeoisie generally by copying the European Parliament’s equation of Communism with Fascism and its “equal” condemnation of both.

We don’t deny that there have been victims of Communist parties in power that have failed to correctly handle contradictions among the people.  It is not as if a piece of litmus paper can be dipped into a social and political dispute in a socialist country and pulled out a few seconds later to reveal whether it is a contradiction between the people and their enemies or a contradiction among the people themselves.  Different methods must be used in each case, but it can take a fairly long time to ascertain the nature of the contradiction and the methods to be employed.

We do not include hostile class forces, supporters of an overthrown bourgeois class, supporters of imperialist intervention and “socialist” pretenders who are active counter-revolutionaries and restorationists as “victims” of Communism.  Here the question of victimhood is a class question: those from the ranks of the people who are wrongly treated are victims of wrong approaches to the handling of contradictions; those from the ranks of the enemies of socialism who are subjected to coercion and repression are not “victims” of anything other than their blind loyalty to the overthrown classes whose interests they continue to serve.

If there is to be any commemoration of victims, then let us commemorate all those victims of oppressive class forces determined to prevent the liberation of the people.

We condemn Bernardi for slavishly falling in behind Trump and US imperialism with no mention of the crimes committed by the US and other imperialist powers.

Millions have perished at the hands of the US alone.  If we add the killings done by British, French and other capitalist and imperialist ruling classes, the millions killed and enslaved in the period of European colonialism, and the millions killed by semi-feudal and landlord class regimes backed by imperialism, then the victims run to the tens, if not hundreds, of millions. If we add to the millions of the dead the horrific numbers still in slavery, the masses of children being exploited in various countries backed by the imperialists, and the living hell of starvation and misery in famine-ridden regions, then we get some idea of the scope of the victims of the pre-socialist minority ruling classes of the world.

We should certainly arm ourselves ideologically and politically to contest any new wave of anti-Communism.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Zionism: It is black and white – it’s simple!


The thirteenth Edward Said annual memorial lecture hosted by the South Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA) in Adelaide was recently addressed by Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist employed by the Haaretz newspaper. His lecture provided an important update about domestic Israeli political life and the whole question of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now into its 50th year. The event also formed part of a three-day symposium organised by AFOPA around the theme 'Palestine and the West, History, Contemporary Realities and Challenges Ahead’.

Despite being an Israeli citizen of Jewish ancestry, Levy remained highly critical of the role of Israel and its repression of the Palestinian population, both inside Israel and in areas occupied by the Defence Forces. The problem was compounded with widespread indifference inside Israel itself to most important political questions and the ongoing crime of illegal occupation. 

The Israeli state controlled three regimes: domestic Israel and its population of people with Jewish ancestry; secondly, the domestic Palestinian population some of whom were Israeli citizens but subject to discrimination in every aspect of their lives; finally, those Palestinians resident in occupied areas who lived under military rule.

Being an Israeli citizen, Levy took time to explain what he regarded as three national core-beliefs. There was a strong hidden belief that those concerned were chosen people, of higher status and superior to others. Secondly, a strong belief Israeli Jews were the victims of history, and therefore could operate within a culture of impunity. They saw themselves, for example, as owning the concept of the Holocaust while not acknowledging other peoples such as Armenians had also been subject to similar treatment. Finally, a strong racist belief system that Palestinians were not really human and could not be considered social equals with other Semitic peoples.

The mainstream Israeli media and the culture of demonisation of Palestinian people was regarded as a serious problem. The Zionist narrative was very biased, with a long drift toward more right-wing, nationalistic positions in recent decades. A major problem was also that Israel had no incentive for political change, with levels of ignorance striking to the heart of Israeli reality and their acceptance of daily repression against Palestinian people. There was an urgent need to increase awareness of the basic issues at stake. Attention was drawn to Israeli teachers losing their jobs for supporting Palestinian students, raising questions about the promotion of social education.

The whole question of Israeli military checkpoints was also raised as part of the state repressive apparatus used against Palestinian people. It was common for Israeli military officials manning the points to keep Palestinian people waiting for a long time including ambulances carrying patients to hospitals who required emergency treatment. There had also been numerous cases of Palestinian women giving birth at check-points, with newly-born children actually dying for lack of necessary medical care.

Within Israel, about 700,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank were also regarded as a problem. They were a large lobby group inside Israeli politics. No Israeli political leader would ever attempt to evict them, it was suggested, as it would be political suicide.

Internationally, there was also the acceptance of unconditional diplomatic support for Israel. Many M.P.s around the world had also been drawn into pro-Israel positions in many major parties. The only hope, Levy stated, was from solidarity organisation within civil society opposed to Israel. The boycott and sanctions movements were crucial to Palestinian people winning the support they needed to bring about change.

Raising US-Israel diplomatic relations provided Levy with the opportunity of questioning what 'US interests' really were with Israel. Was the matter really the other way around? Was it really the strength of the Zionist lobby controlling US positions?

Finally, Levy raised the question of the failure of the two-state solution for resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue. It was the option accepted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the United Nations in the late 1980s although never accepted by the Israelis. The only other option was a one-state solution. The question therefore arose of 'what the Israelis really want' and what were the implications.

Despite the grim picture of contemporary Israeli society, the lecture was inspiring. Concluding with references to similarities between Zionism and apartheid in the former South Africa, together with the statement that 'the question is black and white, it is simple', Levy received thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a packed Elder Hall, Adelaide University.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

SA Unions Organising Conference

Ned K.

On Wednesday 22 November SA Unions held its annual Organizing Conference. It was attended by about 100 Organizers from affiliated unions and provided them with an opportunity to step out of the quagmire of members' workplace issues that capitalism gives rise to, in order to reflect on what organizing strategies were working for building collective power and what needs to be done in the coming year.

While there was an awareness of the need for Organizers to educate and mobilize members and the community around a set of key demands for the coming state election in March 2018, the main focus of the day was on building a mass movement to force changes to the "Unfair Work Act" and to address the growing inequality in income and wealth in Australia.


SA Unions and the ACTU leadership under Sally McManus have framed a campaign for such change as Change The Rules because "the (IR) system" in particular is broken.


While the scope of the campaign is not an overt campaign for socialist revolution, the Change The Rules campaign is important because like the Your Rights At Work: Worth Fighting For, it has the potential for broad appeal.


Why is this? As Organizers heard at the Conference, 72% of workers in Australia are "trapped" within the repressive Unfair Work Act and so there is the potential for mobilization of broad sections of the working class as was the case against Howard's Work Choices.


The Conference workshops demonstrated to participants the potential breadth of such a campaign. For example, a workshop on chicken processing and tomato growing industries where large numbers of temporary migrant workers are employed showed that not only are these workers affected by the Unfair Work Act, but that there is enormous interest among these workers to be active in their unions. Organizers at the conference were made aware that the 1.4 million temporary visa migrant workers in Australia, which includes all forms of temporary visas, is greater than the total number of private sector union members in Australia. They have a vital role to play in the union movement's revival and the stories told at the Conference show that they want to be part of such a progressive union movement.
The short term goal of the Change The Rules campaign is to build towards a national day of action on or about May Day 2018.


The aim of the campaign, embraced by the Organizers at the Conference was buoyed by the workers victory against Streets owned by multinational Unilever who attempted unsuccessfully to slash workers’ wages and conditions by over 40%!


The aim is to mobilize workers around four key demands:


1. Job Security - especially regulation of labor hire and casualisation
2.  Workers' Rights - including right to strike, right to have access of an Organizer, recognition and protection of workplace elected union reps
3. Right to Arbitration
4. Broader parameters at law for collective bargaining - including the right of workers to require employers to collectively bargain for industry or sector wide Agreements


While some may seem this campaign as "back to the future" and yearning for the days when Australia had closed shops and high tariffs, participants at the SA Unions Conference were under no illusions that changing the Unfair Work Act is only a small part of an even bigger picture campaign about inequality, power and control in society and that central to that is the issue of class.


This came out in discussions over the March 2018 election and when the Premier Jay Weatherill addressed the Conference, he was under no illusions that union members through their representatives at various levels were developing an independent working class agenda that no aspiring state government could afford to ignore.

Wages: why the capitalist system is always exploitative

Nick G.

Two new studies into aspects of wage payments in Australia, and the repeated call by the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Philip Lowe, for higher wages, create an opportune time to discuss wages from a Marxist perspective.

That perspective requires us to go beyond the surface phenomena of wages and to understand why Marx, sounding at first like a grumpy old industrialist, called for scrapping the slogan: “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage”. After all, that is what motivates union activism and is the cornerstone of much of what passes as progressive politics.

We will look further down at why Marx rejected the “fairness” of the slogan. We highly recommend Humphrey McQueen’s 150 Years Young: Marx’s Capital , available to readers as a downloadable pdf on our website, for more on this topic.

First, let us note that amongst the many contradictions of capitalism is the one that compels individual capitalists and corporate CEOs to try to keep the wages of their own workforce as low as possible, while requiring the workforce as a whole to have expanding wages in order to absorb through consumption those goods and services which provide the capitalists with their profits.

Lowe wears two hats: as the head of the financial industry in Australia and as CEO of a particular, if central, component of that industry.  In the former case, he said last June that workers should demand “wage justice”, a call repeated last week when he pointed the finger at employers for Australia's extraordinarily low growth in wages, saying they are not paying more despite the tightening jobs market. This was Lowe looking at this from the perspective of the capitalist class as a whole – worrying about the sustainability of profits, of bank loans and the housing market.

In between June and November, Lowe granted Reserve Bank employees average pay rises of just 2 per cent a year over the next three years - below the current rate of inflation and Treasury forecasts of inflation. Workers who are meeting all the expectations of their role could still see their pay go backwards in real terms under the new RBA workplace agreement. This was Lowe as a corporate CEO trying to contain the same costs that he accused other employers of trying to contain.

Dr Lowe said he wasn't "calling on the workers of the world united to rise up against the evil capitalists”. He was trying to say that it was okay for wages to grow a bit more quickly – just not in his bank!

The Reserve Bank workplace agreement fits the pattern of post-GFC Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) as revealed in this graph from Alan Kohler:

The graph shows that since 2008, wage increases under new agreements have been below those contained in agreements that were current at the time new ones came in.

Other evidence of the current decline in wages comes from the Australia Institute’s Excessive Hours, Unpaid Overtime and the Future of Work: An Update, and a paper by two NSW academics for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative, Wage Theft in Australia. Both papers provide quantitative data on the deterioration of wage levels in Australia.

Not surprisingly, those polled for Excessive Hours… provided evidence of ongoing polarisation between those with full-time, relatively secure jobs, and a growing portion working part-time, casual, temporary, or insecure positions. On average, full-time workers gave 6 hours of unpaid overtime per week to their bosses; part-time and casual gave 3.3 unpaid hours per week on average.  This “time theft”, as the authors call it, has an estimated value of $130.7 billion in 2016-17, an increase from the previous year’s $130/7 billion.

The “breadth, depth and complexity of non-compliance with Australian labour law” is acutely felt among the 900,000 temporary migrants with work rights in Australia according to the Wage Theft…study.  These include international students, backpackers and s457 visa holders. Together they comprise about 11% of the Australian labour market. All are required to be paid minimum wage rates by law.  A substantial proportion (detailed figures by employment area, ethnicity, migrant status etc are given in the report) were paid around half the legal minimum wage.

Most people would know that for Marxists, wages are a mask for exploitation.  And for most, this simply means that the wages are “unfair” by being too low or earned because of excessive demands on the time of workers or through harsh intensification of the work to be performed.  Wage Theft… offers a definition of exploitation along those lines: “exploitation means an employer’s use of workplace practices that are coercive, criminal, or constitute serious breaches of Australian labour law, in order to benefit the employer”.

Marx, however, offers a radically different concept of exploitation, one that sees exploitation embedded in every purchase from the worker of his or her labour power by the employer, regardless of how high or low the wage, safe or unsafe, tiring or relaxing, long or short the conditions for the performance of the work.

Paradoxically, that concept of exploitation is based on what Marx called an exchange of equal values.  If the employer pays the worker enough to cover his/her cost of living and the worker creates values equivalent to that in the production of saleable goods or services, then there has been an equal exchange of values.  However, the worker enters into a contract with the employer to work, say, for 8 hours a day.  It may only take 3 or 4 hours to create the value of his/her wage in products.  The remainder of the time at work is time in which the worker produces more than the value of what has been paid in wages: upon its sale, the employer takes that value, surplus to the exchange of equal values, as profit.

On this basis, a person may be paid a high wage in a comfortable work environment and cover his/her own costs in an hour, working the remaining seven for nothing.  Here the rate of exploitation is very high. Conversely, a low wage worker may find it hard to cover his/her own costs in seven hours and really only contributes one hour of labour power to the surplus value taken by the employer.  Here the rate of exploitation is very low.

If this seems to stand logic on its head, then it does so only to the same extent that pre-Copernicans thought Copernicus a liar and heretic for claiming that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe and that the Sun did not circle it.  The Sun quite obviously rose in the East, travelled across the surface of the Earth and sank in the West. How could there be logic in the theories of the crazy Polish scientist?

All of the matters that have emerged in the studies above (the extension of the working day, the intensification of the work routine, the just-in-time employment conditions of contract and part-time employees, the non-payment of overtime, the payment of wages below legal minimum levels and so on) relate to the employers’ need to reduce the amount of time the worker spends on the equal exchange of values with the employer and increasing the amount of time spent producing surplus value.

For Marx, exploitation was not a moral judgement, but a mathematical relationship between the two types of time hidden behind the mask of the “indivisible” working day. Swindling -  that is, not even allowing the worker to earn enough to cover living costs – denies even the exchange of equal values and is exploitation of a special type. Swindling is particularly in evidence in the industries covered in the Wages Theft…study.

Be it exploitation or be it swindling, Marx could not conceive of a situation where there was “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage” in the capitalist economy. There was always the unfair and unjust fact of the capitalist economy requiring the theft from the worker of at least part of the time he or she was at work, and thus, of part of the value created by the worker in that time.

That theft arose solely from the private ownership of the materials, tools and processes used to create goods and services – commodities - for sale. If that private ownership could be abolished then the surplus values need no longer be privately appropriated by a handful of rich and super-rich capitalists, but socially appropriated as a revenue stream for the benefit of all productive members of society. 

The replacement of a society run by and for capitalists, where exploitation always exists in the relations between labour and capital, by a society run by and for the workers and where there is no basis for exploitation, is the promise of socialism.

In Australia’s case, the first socialist measure is the winning of anti-imperialist independence. Smashing the power of the biggest, best-organised and most powerful section of the ruling class, the section which comprises the imperialists and their hangers-on, will facilitate the further expansion of the socialist economy and remove wage-slavery from the equation.