WA Premier Mark McGowan's firm stance on border protection doesn't deserve as much criticism as the capitalist society that controls our lives, writes Alex Hipgrave.
IN THE WAKE of Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s decision to keep the state’s border closed on 5 February and subsequent accusations of authoritarianism, Australians should recognise the more immediate source of authoritarianism in their lives — their employers.
Employers occupy inherently authoritarian positions within the structure of a capitalist enterprise, under which most people spend a good portion of their waking lives.
From the moment an employee clocks in until the moment they clock out, employers have almost total control of every aspect of their life. Employers control the clothes you wear, when you can eat your lunch, the tone of voice with which you can speak to them, the physical space you work in, whether you can sit down or not — everything.
Economically, material conditions coerce workers into renting themselves to this unaccountable private tyranny in exchange for a wage. Nineteenth Century labour activists referred to this as “wage slavery”. In contemporary society, we call it “having a job”; we celebrate it as a virtue and vote for political candidates who offer to create the most of them.
Most of the value that workers produce doesn’t even end up in their wage — their employer steals it and calls it “profit”. They decide what to do with the product of your labour — not you.
If people attempt to exercise self-respect by refusing to partake in this arrangement, they face homelessness.
Working-class rage ought to be directed at this. However, given that state power is more easily recognisable and cinematic than private power, excessive time and energy is being used opposing less severe infringements on civil liberties in relation to COVID-19.
This is not to say that opposing Australian state power is unimportant – it is crucial to resist expanding police and surveillance powers – it is to say that consistency demands such opposition be extended to the employee-employer relationship.
Arguments against COVID mandates have predominantly been based on protecting bodily autonomy. Workers under capitalism have never enjoyed bodily autonomy — they are tools of production in the hands of owners, not human beings. British-Swiss journalist Johann Hari, whose 2018 book about depression and anxiety, Lost Connections, is one of the best investigations into the subject to date, found that one of the main sources of psychological distress amongst working people is feeling like a cog in a machine.
Citing a study conducted within a hierarchical workplace, he concluded:
‘If you...had a higher degree of control over your work, you were a lot less likely to become depressed or develop severe emotional distress than people working at the same pay level, with the same status, in the same office, as people with a lower degree of control over their work.’
Somehow, having no say in decision-making processes at work and subsequently feeling alienated from the sense of personal autonomy that defines their humanity has a deleterious impact on workers’ wellbeing.
Unfortunately, raising concerns over COVID mandates seems to have been left to right-wingers who would prefer working people to be subordinate to private capital. Their concerns are justified, though. Former UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, for example, shares some of them.
However, Corbyn’s views on democracy and freedom are far more consistent and, ironically, given right-wing authoritarians’ co-option of the term, far more libertarian. Corbyn, who recently voted against compulsory vaccination and vaccine passports in the UK, applies this libertarian principle to the workplace, too, advocating worker co-operatives.
Worker co-operatives emphasise workers’ self-management and democratic ownership of enterprise, eliminating illegitimate power dynamics. During the 2017 and 2019 UK General Elections, one of Corbyn’s key policies involved offering workers first refusal to buy out their company if their company’s owners decided to sell or dissolve. Had he won either Election, a Corbyn Government would have lent workers the money to do so.
In Australia, there are only approximately 1,700 worker co-operatives.
Disgruntled Australian workers, such as those demonstrating in defiance of vaccine mandates, could apply pressure on McGowan and other leaders for their lack of support for worker co-operatives. Or they could take direct action to change the conditions of their working lives, such as striking or occupying factories.
It is towards this end that working-class solidarity must be most vigorously exercised, especially considering the difficulty workers will have in acquiring media coverage of such protests compared to COVID-related protests.
McGowan’s state-wide vaccine passport rules, which essentially require Western Australians to inform the Government of their every public movement, do violate civil liberties and should be opposed by the Left.
However, the threat he poses to libertarian and democratic principles pales in comparison to the one staring working people in the face every day from nine to five.
Alex Hipgrave is a libertarian socialist writer principally concerned with social and political issues. He studied a Bachelor of Arts at Edith Cowan University, majoring in literature and writing. You can follow Alex on Twitter @alex_hipgrave.
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