Sally McManus’ essay ‘On Fairness’ is set against the background of her first ever interview as Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
In that now famous 7.30 clip, she responded to a question about the rule of law by saying, “Yeah, I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it’s unjust I don’t think there’s any problem breaking it.”
Fairly modest stuff, but it sent the bosses and the right wing press into a tailspin. They demanded that she withdraw her comments. Some even demanded she resign. To her credit she stood her ground and explained that much of what we take for granted today was won by workers striking in defiance of unjust laws.
In the two years since the interview, right wing commentators have regularly described McManus as radical, lawless, crazy, militant and even a Marxist!
But the ideas outlined in ‘On Fairness’ are not all that radical. They are more of a mild rebuke of the excesses of ‘parasitic capitalism’. She does not propose any sort of systemic change, but more of a tinkering at the edges in the hope of making the current system a bit more ‘fair’.
In that sense, McManus does not even go as far as social democrats like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Nevertheless, McManus’ essay does do a decent job of dismantling the arguments of the neo-liberals. She explains that far from wealth ‘trickling down’, neo-liberal policies like corporate tax cuts, labour market deregulation and privatisation have led to a huge increase in wealth inequality.
There are good figures highlighting the obscene salaries of corporate CEOs and the lack of tax paid by big business. McManus talks about the many workers who are justifiably angry with all of this, warning that unless something is done “it is pitchfork time”.
As far as the changes that McManus herself would like to see, it’s not exactly torches and pitchforks. She harks back to the ‘golden age’ of the post-war boom years, when Labor governments promoted full employment through government spending on infrastructure and expanded services.
This was a unique period that’s unlikely to be repeated. In that era, capitalism enjoyed about 30 years of solid economic growth. This both strengthened the labour movement and gave the bosses the leeway to part with a small portion of their profits.
The presence of Stalinism also acted as a counterweight, forcing capitalism to put on a ‘friendlier’ face. This included the creation of the welfare state, which was also an attempt to undermine the socialist idea of a planned economy.
Capitalism today is much more crisis-ridden. Economic growth is based on huge amounts of debt, and the increased exploitation of the working class. We are looking down the barrel of a recession, which would force any new Labor government to rein in spending.
In this context, a full-on challenge to capitalism would be required to actually re-win an adequate welfare state, and claw back a bigger share of the wealth. We would need to return to the methods of the past and strike in defiance of unjust laws.
But why would we bother to shakedown the entire system just for a few crumbs? Surely this effort would be better spent fighting for a different system, one that is actually fair?
The idea of ‘fairness’ has actually been debated in the workers movement for many decades. Marx and Engels challenged the notion of “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work”, explaining that capitalism is specifically designed to rort workers out of a portion of the wealth they produce.
Engels commented that under capitalism, fairness is all on the side of capital. “A very peculiar sort of fairness”, he said.
The fairness that McManus talks about is actually very limited, especially when you consider past debates in the labour movement and the magnitude of the problems we face today. It is just not possible to make a system based on exploitation into something fair. Trade unionists today need to set their sights much higher than just capitalism with a friendly face.
McManus is right when she points towards the potential power of an organised movement of working people. But rather than this power being used to patch up a rigged system, we should use it to create a socialist system based on public ownership, democratic control and sustainable planning.
This is the only real path to fairness, and it’s the bold vision the trade union movement needs if we are going to rebuild going into the 2020s.
By Sally McManus
Published by Melbourne University Press
Reviewed by Anthony Main