This statement was produced by the Socialist Party National Committee and was discussed and agreed to at our 2019 National Conference in early October.
At an international level, capitalism is facing a number of serious crises. A new world economic downturn seems to have already begun, with the very real possibility of a 2008-9 type financial crash. This downturn is unique in the sense that it has been primarily triggered by geopolitical factors.
Inter-imperialist rivalries between the US and China have now escalated into a new ‘cold war’, which threatens the stability of all regions of the world. This is combined with the outbreak of mass upheavals in a number of countries, especially in Hong Kong and North Africa.
We also have a revival of mass struggle around the issue of climate change, an issue that profit-driven capitalism is incapable of solving, despite scientists warning that we only have a decade or so to act.
These processes will have a huge impact on world and Australian politics, as well as on the outlook of millions of people over the coming months and years. It is through this international prism that we need to view events and developments in Australia.
While Australian capitalism was somewhat shielded from the worst of the 2008-09 crisis, things will be much more difficult this time around. For example, heightened imperialist tensions make largescale capitalist co-operation much more difficult than a decade ago. Instead of cooperation rival imperialist powers are openly seeking to use, or even create, crises to destabilise each other now.
In addition, the world and Australian economies are now much more indebted. This makes it harder for governments to spend their way out of recession, meaning that the impacts on working class people are likely to be felt much more deeply.
The capitalist class themselves are in a deep crisis, in many cases unable to rule in the same way they did just a couple of decades ago. The Brexit fiasco in the United Kingdom is perhaps the starkest example but almost every country suffers from political and institutional crises to some degree.
In Australia the political crisis has been expressed in the huge turnover of prime ministers in recent years, the drop in support for the major parties, and the inability of many recent governments to win an outright majority. This was the backdrop to the May federal election which the Morrison-led Coalition won by the skin of its teeth.
They ran a small-target campaign putting forward very few policies. Their main message was that Labor couldn’t be trusted to run the economy, and that they would be better placed to maintain stability.
Morrison pledged to govern for the so-called “quiet Australians”, the people he claimed didn’t want any sort of drastic change and just wanted to quietly get on with their lives. But it wasn’t really the case that Morrison mobilised a layer of people around this message.
At the election both the major parties lost votes, it was just that Labor lost more votes than the Coalition. The Coalition voted dropped 0.6%, while Labor’s vote dropped 1.4%. The Coalition got over the line mostly thanks to preferences from small right-wing populist parties like Clive Palmer’s United Australia and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who each won a bit more than 3% of the national vote.
There was no enthusiasm for the Coalition, but just enough people decided to stick with the devil they knew rather than switch to Labor. People voted amidst great concern about the future, but Labor were not trusted to deal with their problems. This was partly because Bill Shorten came across as fake, but also because Labor are not seen as any sort of genuine alternative.
In a number of the states Labor govern for big business, and the memory of the last right-wing federal Labor government is still fresh in many people’s minds. Shorten used some mild populist rhetoric during the election campaign but it didn’t gel with people’s experiences. As such, very few were inspired to vote for them. People see the major parties as practically the same. With that being the case, most don’t see Morrison’s victory as a blow. Similarly, they wouldn’t have felt boosted if Shorten had won.
For the most part, people feel disenfranchised by the political process. They feel that politics is mostly irrelevant to their lives. While many people care deeply about the world around them, there is widespread disdain for the entire political establishment. People are disengaged from politics and, in that sense, they do seem “quiet”. But more than anything, they are quietly waiting for a viable political alternative to the major parties.
Being quiet is different from being happy. People feel that their living standards are suffering from a slow squeeze and that both the major parties have contributed to it. They see big business and the state as corrupt, and the media as a mouthpiece for the rich and famous. They know the system is rigged but they feel that no one is fighting on their side, and can’t see how to fight effectively for themselves.
According to the ‘State of the Nation’ survey, three in four Australians are not happy with the direction Australia is headed in. People are most concerned about the cost of living. There is a widespread feeling that everything is getting more expensive while wages are not going up. Around 30% of people are worried about job security, and 42% of those aged 18-24 are concerned that they will never be able to afford to buy a house.
While deep dissatisfaction exists, the decades-long rightward shift of the trade unions, and the weakness of the social movements, have contributed to class struggle being at a low ebb. This has had real impacts with huge amounts of wealth being shifted from wages to profits.
According to the Australia Institute, wages as a percentage of GDP were 58.4% in 1975. In 2018 the share had dropped to 47.1%. Almost all of those losses have been transferred from working people to higher company profits.
Overwhelmingly people suffer from low pay, job insecurity, high levels of indebtedness, and many types of stress. They know that wealth inequality is increasing and that things aren’t right, but in the main people are not clear about what needs to be done to turn the situation around. There is no real appreciation of the latent power that people have as workers and of the fact that struggle is the key to driving social change.
There are very few reference points that mark out successful struggles, and no mass organisations that people see as offering a way forward. This, coupled with the unique situation where Australia has experienced 28 years of continuous annual economic growth, has had an impact on people’s outlook. People feel under pressure, but they don’t yet feel really pushed to struggle or to engage with politics. This situation however cannot last.
The long period without a recession is an anomaly by world and historical standards, and commentators from all sides agree that Australian capitalism now faces a raft of economic and political challenges. As we have mentioned previously, it is really the quiet before the storm.
At an international level a number of processes are pushing forward outside of the government’s control. The trade and tech wars between the US and China threaten to engulf the entire world. Australian capitalism is in an especially difficult and entirely unprecedented position attempting to balance between its biggest trading partner and its long-time political ally. Not since the Australian ruling class established itself have they ever faced this type of extreme contradiction.
Global pressures are already putting limits on China’s ability to drag Australian capitalism along. In fact, problems built into China’s economy, like the huge amounts of debt it has accumulated, could end up being a trigger for an economic downturn in China.
Economists are debating the impacts on Australia if China suffers from a crash. Some estimate that if China suffers a ‘hard landing’ – a drop in growth of approximately 3% – it would wipe $140 billion out of the Australian economy and lead to 550,000 job losses. That would push up official unemployment in Australia from 5.2% to 9.3%!
But even if China suffers a softer downturn it will still have big impacts on the Australian economy. The demand for raw materials would wane meaning that Australia’s resources sector would take a hit. Depending on the severity, this would result in job losses and the government taking much less revenue via taxes. This would threaten their spending commitments and, of course, their promise to return the budget to surplus.
A similar scenario is on the cards if the US-China trade war escalates. Australia may be forced to get off the fence and choose a side, or China may decide to punish Australia for assisting the US. China’s sudden import restriction on Australian coal in February was probably a ‘warning shot’ coming after Huawei was locked out of supplying equipment for the new 5G network.
To give another possible example, the education sector which is Australia’s third biggest export earner, could be threatened. There are currently more than 150,000 full fee-paying Chinese students in Australia. If China implemented some sort of ban on students studying here that would have a devastating impact on the sector, leading to a funding crisis, job losses and potentially higher fees for local students. Areas like tourism could also be hit if China decided to crack down.
With Australia already suffering the worst annual economic growth for 18 years (just by 0.5% in the June quarter), developments along these lines would push Australia into recession. It would also seriously exacerbate the developing divisions in Australia’s ruling class between a China reliant camp and a pro-US camp.
But it’s not just international factors that pose a threat to Australia’s economy. On the domestic front a flailing housing sector is combined with stagnant wages, soaring household debt and worsening unemployment. Consumer spending is down, with the retail sector already in recession. Empty shops all around the country are a reminder of how things are getting worse, not better.
The effects of drought, floods and fires are also having an impact on regional communities, with the farming sector declining significantly over the past year. While unemployment officially stands at around 5.2% nationwide, in many regional areas it’s much worse, especially amongst the youth.
For example, outback Queensland records the highest average unemployment rate in the country at 14%. Across Australia, a quarter of a million young people are unemployed. Outback Queensland also takes the record for the highest youth unemployment rate, with 27.5% of young people out of work.
According to Roy Morgan, the official government figures hide the reality of the situation. They calculate that in May 1.37 million Australians were actually unemployed (10.3% of the workforce). An additional 1.22 million (9.2%) were underemployed. In other words, an incredible 2.6 million people (19.5% of the workforce) are either out of work or need more hours.
An unexpected boost to commodity prices, population growth and government spending has helped keep the economy growing, albeit very sluggishly. The main boss’s newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, cynically refers to Australia’s “1% economy”. But if you measure economic growth on a per capita basis it’s not even 1%, households are actually already in recession and that is how people feel.
Most likely, a technical recession will hit during Morrison’s term in office. It could be triggered by either global or domestic issues, or a combination of both. The government is already preparing for this eventuality and has begun to outline plans to sure up the system. In a nutshell they want ordinary people, rather than the government’s big business backers, to shoulder the burden. They feel they will get away with this because of the poor level of organisation of the working class, and the pro-capitalist politics of nearly all the union leaders.
The main props of the government’s plans were outlined by Morrison at a speech to the West Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in June. Morrison’s strategy could be summarised as wanting to introduce tax cuts (mainly for the rich), spend on infrastructure (mainly in conjunction with the private sector), carry out more deregulation (mostly for big projects), and look at changing workplace laws (to help boost profits).
The government has already begun cutting the corporate tax rate for small and medium businesses, and they are under some pressure from big business to revisit the idea of lowering the corporate tax rate for all firms. No doubt this will be put back on the table at some stage in the not too distant future.
In June the government also pushed through a raft of income tax cuts. The changes make for a much flatter tax regime that overwhelmingly benefits high income earners. But part of the package was immediate relief of around $1000 for many workers. The government used extra money it had collected because of higher than expected commodity prices to cover this scheme.
This is essentially a stimulus measure without using the term. The government continues to present as being ideologically opposed to stimulus. They don’t want to admit that any of their neo-liberal policies were wrong or to blame for the current problems. They want to avoid giving even a centimetre of ideological ground towards any kind of state-intervention or market-critical ideas lest the ‘appetite grows with eating’ for working class voters.
Extra cash being put into people’s pockets did give the government a temporary boost in the polls, but their fortunes are very much connected to Australia’s economic health. The poll numbers could turn very quickly if economic conditions shift and they are forced to carry out spending cuts.
In the meantime, the government hopes that the extra cash and tax relief will flow through to the economy and boost demand via consumer spending. But given that personal debt levels are so high, many are instead using the cash to pay off loans.
On infrastructure, the government has plans for a $100 billion investment programme over the next 10 years. Much of this will be spent on much-needed transport infrastructure. But many commentators say that this will not be enough to fill the gap left by the decline in the mining and property sectors. Most of the money comes in the latter half of the decade when, to avert a recession, the boost is really needed now.
The dilemma the government has is that one of the only promises they did make during the election campaign was that they would bring the budget back to surplus. They connected a budget surplus with economic stability and said that only the Coalition would be able to deliver it. In many ways they hitched all their political fortunes to this promise.
They are determined to achieve a surplus at all costs despite the fact that many economists suggest that putting it off and spending now would be a better way of boosting economic growth. The fact that they went on about a surplus so much makes it difficult for them to retreat now. It is much harder for them to bring forward not only much needed infrastructure spending, but also other measures that could provide an economic boost, like an increase to Newstart.
The government’s skewed priorities can be seen when looking at the defence budget. They expect to spend an incredible 2% of GDP on defence by 2020-21 and 2.2% by 2022–23. Over the next decade the government plans to invest an immense $200 billion in military projects – double what they will spend on infrastructure. This is the biggest increase to defence spending since World War 2 and is largely driven by the increased tensions between the US and China in the region combined with attempts to profiteer from it.
To put things in perspective, $48.7 billion will be allocated to defence in 2022–23. This would be enough to increase the Newstart allowance by $300 a week over four years!
The government has a plan to raise Australia from the 20th biggest arms exporter into the top 10 alongside the US, Russia and China. This is an opportunity for us to raise the idea of an alternative plan for the manufacturing sector with projects designed to halt climate change rather than a drive towards war.
When it comes to deregulation the government seem particularly keen to make things easier for capitalists in sectors like mining. No doubt they are frustrated that projects like the Adani coal mine have had to jump through many different planning and approval processes. This has allowed those who oppose the mine to drag things out and use the prolonged process to highlight the project’s many problems.
If allowed to go ahead, the Adani mine would add 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution to the atmosphere, while also threatening the health of both the Great Barrier Reef and Great Artesian Basin. The company claims that the project will create thousands of jobs, but this has been exposed as a lie. It has been revealed that once construction is finished, the mine will only support about 100 ongoing jobs.
At the same time, tens of thousands of tourism and agriculture jobs hang in the balance due to the potential for this project to wreak devastation on the surrounding areas. We have steadfastly opposed this mine and explained that it will not solve any of the problems facing the long-suffering regional communities in Queensland. An alternative plan to create green, socially useful jobs with union pay and conditions is urgently needed.
But rather than engage with the real issues, the government wants to cut across opposition to Adani and other similar projects by fast tracking planning and approval processes.
Deregulation and a simplification of these processes would also allow businesses to put capital to work quicker. Cutting so called ‘red tape’ has nothing to do with helping small businesses do less paperwork, it’s about making big capital investment more attractive and operations easier. This leads to more profits at the expense of people, natural resources and the environment.
Workers under attack
Ever since the Howard government was defeated in 2007 after introducing a raft of anti-worker laws, the Liberals have been reluctant to embark on major changes to workplace laws. They want to avoid a repeat of the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign, which helped throw Labor into office.
During the 2019 election campaign the Liberals said very little about industrial relations, being careful not to provide fuel for the union movement’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign. But because Change the Rules was essentially a thinly veiled ‘vote Labor’ campaign, it failed to cut through. It wasn’t lost on people that the very laws we need to change were introduced by Labor themselves post-2007.
We warned consistently that Change the Rules would only be effective if it was transformed into a real industrial campaign that mobilised workers around clear demands. Any attempt to use it as a vehicle for a Labor election victory would be fraught, especially given that Labor had not even endorsed the vague demands put forward by the ACTU.
In the end, Change the Rules was used almost exclusively as a marginal seats campaign, but in most of the seats the ACTU campaigned in, Labor’s vote actually dropped. This shows how out of touch the pro-Labor union leaders are, and how little authority they have.
Because of the failure of Change the Rules the government now has renewed confidence to revisit industrial relations. At the behest of big business, they have commissioned a review of the industrial relations system, with the view to making changes in the medium term.
In the short term however, they are testing the waters by trying to push the Ensuring Integrity bill through. This bill is ostensibly aimed at unions like the CFMMEU that flout aspects of the current laws. Amongst other things, it allows for union officials to be more easily removed from office, it lowers the bar for deregistering entire unions, and makes it easier for union mergers to be blocked.
The ACTU has not outlined any plans to actively oppose the introduction of this bill. They also allowed penalty rates for hospitality workers to be further cut in July without so much as a protest being organised. They are politically broken after the failure of Change the Rules, and despite saying that they would continue it after the election, they seem to have now shelved the entire campaign.
A review of Change the Rules conducted by a former Labor MP completely failed to acknowledge the problems with the campaign. The ACTU have since defended prioritising campaigning for a Labor victory over workplace organising.
The review stated that “changes to labour law will be a decades-long project and could not have been achieved in one electoral cycle regardless of the outcome.” This pessimistic conclusion highlights the pro-Labor union leaders’ inability to see the organised working class as a force that can create social change. It explains a lot about why their influence is waning.
While the ACTU most likely wouldn’t have put up much of fight against the Ensuring Integrity bill anyway, they are even less inclined to do so now in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding the Victorian CFMMEU leader John Setka.
Unions weak and divided
A number of unions, and the ACTU leaders themselves, have called on Setka to resign after he was convicted of using a carriage service to harass his wife. The Labor Party is also embroiled in a legal tussle to expel Setka from the party. A couple of unions have said that if the case is successful, they will cut funding to Labor.
All this is like manna from heaven for the government, who say that it would be easier to get rid of people like Setka on the basis of their proposed laws. While Labor say they formally oppose the bill it’s likely that the government will convince a few on the cross bench and get it passed. This could open the way for the government to deregister the CFMMEU in the coming years.
The predecessor of the CFMMEU, the BLF, was deregistered in the 1980s. The BLF resisted deregistration but they were ultimately defeated. In those days the government also found union leaders to use as scapegoats and played on the divisions in the movement.
Today the movement is not only divided but it is politically weaker. The traditions of struggle that existed in the 1980s have been mostly lost. While the CFMMEU has major weaknesses, if it was deregistered it would be a boost to the capitalist class and a blow to the workers movement. The union is seen as a barrier to profit making, not only in construction but in mining and on the waterfront.
If the government was able to get rid of the CFMMEU, and either transfer their members to a tamer union or deunionise parts of the industry, that would fit neatly with their plans to boost profits via infrastructure projects, deregulate and reduce the tax burden on corporations.
They hope that combined these measures could help to keep the Australian economy afloat by allowing a continual flow of profits to key sectors. But even if these measures were implemented quickly, at best they would only buy the government a bit of extra time. They would not overcome the deep-rooted problems that Australian capitalism faces.
Most likely they won’t be able to avoid a recession in the near term, but their hope is that any downturn will be short, and that these sorts of measures will provide the foundations for a new economic upswing. But upswings like Australia has been used to in recent decades are not going to be as easy in the coming years.
Trade conflicts, a US-led war with Iran, and the impacts of Brexit are also dangers that have the potential to slow the world economy down and engulf Australia. This is also recognised by the Reserve Bank who have cut interest rates down to 1% and may reduce them more. This is an attempt to push the Australian dollar lower and boost exports, but also to push down unemployment. The Reserve Bank used to have a target of 5% but now think unemployment needs to be around 4.5% in order to put some upwards pressure on wages.
That there is a focus on monetary policy to try and lift wages speaks volumes about the incompetency of the Australian trade union leaders. Their craven class collaborationist policies have relegated them to the sidelines of Australian political life. They have only one perspective, and that is to tail end the Labor Party. But now that Labor are in opposition for the foreseeable future, the union leaders are demoralised and without any strategy at all.
Even if Labor had been elected, workers wouldn’t have been any better off. With their pro-capitalist outlook, Labor would have been in much the same position as the Coalition is today, forced to defend the profit-driven system and offload the burdens of any economic downturn onto ordinary people. While Labor may have implemented their plan differently the results would have been the same.
Labor shift right
In the election aftermath Labor changed leaders, ditching Bill Shorten and giving Anthony Albanese the top job. While supposedly from the left of the party, Albanese has actually shifted Labor to the right. One of his first decisions was to wave through the government’s regressive income tax cuts, and he followed that up by supporting yet another round of anti-democratic “national security” laws.
Labor seem intent on narrowing the (almost non-existent) differences between the major parties even further. They hope that with a recession looming the Coalition will be beset with problems and may be forced from the field. Their plan seems to be to act as the loyal B-team and hope that they will be sent into play by default.
It’s a cowardly and cynical approach that shows just where their allegiances lie. Rather than trying to defend working people against the impacts of a recession, they are facilitating the Coalition’s plan to make workers pay for a crisis that they played no part in creating.
Unless the unions break with Labor and develop an alternative strategy, they will only suffer a further decline. While the Greens have at least opposed the worst of the government’s plans in the parliament, their reluctance to build movements outside of the parliament, and their almost exclusive orientation to middle-class wealthy professionals, limits their impact and appeal. Like Labor they subordinate themselves to the capitalist system.
The bankruptcy of Labor and the Greens and the ineffectual approach of the unions means that there are many barriers to successful struggle. New movements and formations can come into existence but they will tend to lack the weight and the stability that the old organisations of the working class brought to things.
But even on economic issues, if the unions refuse to lead a fightback, other organisations and campaigns can be thrown up to stop things like cuts to social services or the imposition of extra charges on working people. Even in relation to things like housing, you can see the possibility of new broad campaigns coming into being demanding financial relief. Socialists need to do whatever they can to support the establishment of these types of community campaigns.
The housing question is particularly stark in Australia. In reality Australia suffers from a multi-faceted housing crisis driven by the domination of the profit motive in the sector. Property speculation is rampant, fuelled by government policies like the combination of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. Low interest rates have only added fuel to the fire.
This has driven up house prices making them out of reach for many ordinary people. Among those worst affected, there are an estimated 116,000 people currently homeless across the country and over 140,000 people on social and public housing waiting lists.
A quarter of a million people on welfare payments have to pay over half their incomes in rent. Another quarter of a million pay over 30% of their income in rent, the definition of rent stress. In addition, one third of renting aged pensioners are in rent stress, even after receiving the ‘rent assistance’ supplement.
While house prices have dipped a little bit over the past two years, they are still out of reach for most. While prices have more than tripled in less than 20 years, the average wage has barely doubled. This means that it’s much more difficult to save a deposit and get a mortgage on a new home than it was a generation ago. Of those who have scraped enough together to get a mortgage, more than one million households are in mortgage stress.
There is a desperate need for a total shake up of the housing sector. We have been campaigning for measures like rent control and more rights for tenants in order to check the profit motive, but ultimately, the profit motive needs to be removed from the sector entirely.
With the housing crisis set to continue we will need to maintain our focus on this sector and continue to campaign for socialist solutions to the crisis, including a major expansion of public housing, real rental reforms and the total abolition of tax concessions that encourage speculation. It will undoubtedly be a flash point in the sharpening class conflict, as it has been in previous periods of Australian history.
The main social issue that dominates at the moment is the environment. Over the past year there have been hundreds of protests and student strikes across the world aimed at drawing attention to the climate catastrophe.
The protests have drawn in a layer of radical youth, many of whom blame the system for the ecological crisis we face. That there has been a shift away from individual action and towards blaming big business and capitalist politicians is extremely positive.
It is clear that the mass of the participants on the demonstrations stand to the left of the organisers. Initially the student climate strikes were led by conservative NGOs, but like the union leaders they were set back after Labor’s election loss. The NGOs demoralisation is at odds with most people given that Labor did not oppose the Adani coal mine and had no viable climate policies.
While they were still in shock at the election result, Extinction Rebellion (XR) stepped into the breach. They have since partially filled the vacuum by organising a number of actions inspired by what the group has done in cities like London.
XR have been able to make some inroads precisely because of their extra-parliamentary approach. While the politics of XR are confused, and not always even radical, they have been able to speak to a layer of people who see parliament and the major parties as a barrier to implementing the changes we need to save the planet.
While a new layer of youth has come to protests with placards calling for “system change”, XR tend to be more conservative. They say they are “apolitical”, despite calling on existing capitalist governments to set up citizens assemblies that would devise climate policy. Their naive suggestion is that these same capitalist governments would then implement policies against the wishes of their big business backers.
This proposal is actually full of (wrong) politics, but more importantly, policy changes within a capitalist framework are a far cry from what we need to really stop climate change, let alone all the other problems we face. That said, despite XR’s weaknesses, their focus on direct action does open up space to push the issue forward and for more discussions about the types of solutions we need.
The problem faced by XR, along with all other social movements, is how to build a social base substantial enough to actually force through changes. The answer lies in having a clear orientation towards the working class – the majority in society, and the class with the most latent power because of their role in the production process.
For example, during the election campaign the government and the coal lobby were able to successfully split regional communities from those campaigning against the Adani coal mine. These divisions can only be cut across with a socialist approach aimed at protecting the environment, jobs and local communities.
Socialists stand for a transition away from carbon intensive industries, but warn that this cannot be left up to big business profiteers to organise. The mining and energy sectors should be brought into public hands, and put under democratic control, so that a plan for a sustainable transition can be implemented.
For example, renewable industries could be set up in areas previously dominated by coal so that local jobs can be retained. New TAFE colleges could be built to assist with retraining. This would actually require an influx of people into these communities, which would mean that local economies would get a significant boost. This is the type of approach that the trade union and environmental movements need to adopt.
This type of class approach and orientation to working people actually needs to be taken on by all the social movements, including the women’s, LGBTIQ and indigenous rights movements. Movements with a narrow focus can be more easily divided, and they are less likely to build a resilient social base of support.
There needs to be a focus on the specific issues involved, but also an attempt to widen the movement, and make links with all those who are oppressed, exploited and discriminated against. It is the capitalist system itself that lies at the heart of most of our problems and social movements shouldn’t shy away from making that clear. As we see with the climate strikes, important layers of young people are already drawing these conclusions.
At the moment most of the social movements are led by middle class types influenced by identity politics. These narrow politics are a barrier to making real gains, but they are not a reason for us not to be involved. We need to be involved in social movements whenever we can, and while fighting around the issues at hand, we need to fight to win people to socialist politics that are capable of achieving long lasting social change.
If social movements remain narrow and do not orientate to working class people, big protests or meetings can be organised for a time, but inevitably momentum slows, and because of the lack of solid foundations the movement ebbs, sometimes even before it has even won anything.
Part of the reason that many social movements in recent times have struggled to win concrete gains is because the working class is without any form of political or industrial leadership independent of the capitalist class, their ideology and their system. This could be substantially resolved if the trade unions took on a fighting approach and sought to play a central role in other social movements that also affect their members.
The working class would also be much better equipped to make gains if a party that genuinely represented our interests was created. Such a party would do much more than stand in elections. It would see itself as a central place for all struggles to unite, a form of ongoing resistance to capitalism, and a tool for the implementation of socialist policies.
Connect ideas with action
At the current juncture, there is increased support for left and basic socialist ideas, but a disconnect between the ideas and the action we need in order to achieve social change. While it’s more popular now to be a socialist in a basic or general way than 10 or 15 years ago, socialist ideas and action are still marginal in the social and trade union movements. We are also faced with a suspicion of organised politics and a ‘proxy consciousness’.
One way to describe ‘proxy consciousness’ is to say that while people may be sympathetic or even supportive of socialist ideas, they simply say “thanks for doing this, it’s important, good luck” and move on. They want others to take responsibility for turning ideas into reality and are hesitant to get involved themselves. The lack of examples of successful struggles carried out by organised working class people is one important factor under-pinning this outlook. Solving this contradiction is one of the most important tasks facing organised socialists today.
It is still somewhat difficult for organised socialists, but it’s far from hopeless. While Morrison considers the so-called “quiet Australians” to be his allies now, it is clear that people aren’t happy with their lot and there is no prospect of a positive turn around any time soon. Signs of discontent are already present and this will only get worse when people are asked to further tighten their belts.
Economic and political shifts are on the horizon and this will shake things up in Australia and across the world. As we have seen elsewhere, those who are “quiet” today can turn into their opposite when politics and struggle is pushed upon them.
We need to strive to show those who are being politicised, but have not yet moved towards struggle, that socialist ideas and action are relevant to their lives. Inevitably it will be on a small scale at first, but even a few modest wins can help close the gap between ideas and action, and play a role in giving a wider layer of people the confidence to struggle.
Rebuilding the confidence to struggle can help to reinvigorate the trade union and social movements and push forward the idea of a new workers party. On the basis of experience, and by creating new reference points, the proud traditions of the socialist and workers’ movements in Australia can be re-established for the 2020s and beyond.