Neoliberalism and Australia's political divide

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John Passant discusses Australia's shifting political divide in light of growing global austerity and the rise of extremism.

WE LIVE IN dangerous times. Donald Trump’s Republican Party acceptance speech, with its overtones of the 1930s, shows how deep the problem of reaction is globally.

Here in Australia, the political resurrection of Pauline Hanson as the next step in the normalisation of racism, Islamophobia and other hate speech and actions, shows the danger is not confined to the United States. 

Emboldened by Hanson’s election to the Senate, it is no accident Sonia Kruger felt confident enough to make her racist outburst to ban all Muslim immigration. She has received lots of support.

Where we are today, is the long slow playing out of a dangerous divide and rule campaign by both sides of politics, attacking the "other" in the form of asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians, Muslims or whoever happens to be the favourite enemy du jour.

The target changes depending on the times. For Hanson, the targets in 1996 were Asians and Aborigines. Now it is Muslims. The ruling class in Australia’s history have targeted, to name a few, the Irish, Catholics, Chinese, non-whites, Asians, Germans, Japanese, Southern Europeans, Vietnamese and on the list goes. Of course, for the Australian ruling class, there is also the eternal "other"— Indigenous Australians.

In Europe, the rise of the far right is gathering pace.

In France, the neo-fascist Front National’s Marine Le Pen leads in opinion polls on who will be the next French president. At this stage, in a run off, she will possibly come second to right wing candidate and former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose policies are moving towards hers. The party itself will win a swag of votes in the parliamentary elections.

In Greece, the fascist Golden Dawn remains deeply embedded in society. With about eight per cent of the vote in a recent poll, it is the third largest party in the country.

All of these populists, from reactionary to fascist, play on common themes. They blame the other (immigrants, refugees, Muslims, native peoples, even foreign capital sometimes) for the problems of capitalism. They claim they will restore sovereignty. They claim they will make [fill in country’s name here] great again. Life will be good again, like it was in the 1950s, or 1960s.

Hitler used similar themes to win support. His solution to the economic crisis of capitalism was simple enough. It was to smash the organised working class by imprisoning the leadership of all the left – social democratic and revolutionary – parties and by destroying independent unions. Having done this, he could then drive down wages by up to 50 per cent and restore profit rates. 

Profit rates fell in the late 1920s and 1930s as a consequence of the operation of capitalism itself — what Marx called the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. They fell again in the late 1960s and early 1970s after the post war boom. Neoliberalism and austerity introduced various counterbalancing tendencies to reduce, or even reverse the tendency, for a time. 

These may include increasing the share of the national pie going to capital at the expense of labour, cutting real wages and in some cases cutting wages, increasing unemployment, longer and longer unpaid working hours (effectively a donation by workers to employers of $110 billion a year), cutting social spending (including on health and education), tax cuts for capital, privatisations, commodification (for example of universities and health care systems) and state infrastructure spending to satisfy sections of big capital, such as mining companies.

On top of this there has been an increasing reliance by both capital and labour on credit. Arguably, in Australia, the increase in workers’ debt mirrors the decline in their share of national income.

Globally, these various neoliberal policies worked to restore profit rates, till the mid to late 1990s. Australia’s position was somewhat different. While Hawke Labor set in train the neoliberal agenda we are still trapped in, the mining boom, built on the rise of Chinese market capitalism – a change from its state capitalism up till the 1980s – saw profit rates in Australia, at least in some sectors of Australian capitalism, remain above the global profit rate. They began falling from about 2013.

Fear won’t restore profit rates. Building walls won’t restore profit rates. Neither will locking up asylum seekers. Nor will vilifying Indigenous Australians — or unions.

However, the attacks on unions, including the Hayden Royal Commission – the greatest beat up of lies and innuendo since the Truth folded – are about further hamstringing the already weakened union movement from fighting for better wages and defending jobs and in the building industry, saving lives by trying to enforce safety.

The orchestrated but failing attack on the Construction, Mining, Forestry and Energy Union (CFMEU) is an attempt to destroy one of the few unions prepared to stand up for members, jobs, wages, and safety. It is an attempt to say to other unions, especially rank and file members: don’t fight back, capital rules.

In some other countries, there has been a shift to the left based on opposition to austerity.

In Greece, SYRIZA failed due to its roots to Eurocommunism, its failure to build on the people mobilising to defend their interests in the workplace and the streets and due to what may be termed "parliamentary cretinism".

In the U.S., Bernie Sanders inspired millions with a message of hope but capitulated to electoralism and now supports neoliberal Hillary Clinton.

In the UK, socialist Jeremy Corbyn has risen to the leadership of the Labour Party on not just verbal opposition to austerity but support and encouragement for those who resist it. Whether the economic base for his social program exists today is, in light of falling UK profit rates, a question we will find out if UK Labour under his leadership, and with its new politics, wins the general election. However, the mobilisation of the masses in defence of their interests may light the fire of self-confidence in workers to go further than just bourgeois democracy.

That is for the future. What we do know is that in Australia, there is no Jeremy Corbyn emerging from within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party. At the moment, what we have is two main parties of neoliberalism, with the Greens, the neoliberals on bikes, wanting to join them. Of course, some are less brutal than others in their neoliberalism. 

In power, the best neoliberal governments were Hawke and Keating Labor. They not only set the gold standard for shifting wealth from labour to capital but cemented union capitulation to capital through the Prices and Incomes Accord. That policy has weakened the union movement to a mere shadow of its former self.

So at the same time there is a resurgent racist right in Australia, there is no mainstream left giving direction to the millions who oppose it, other than mouthing platitudes. Further, the "have a cup of tea, a Bex and good lie down" approach of the Waleed Alys of the world will not stop a resurgent Hansonism and its dark underbelly, the putative mosque burners, the racists in groups like Reclaim Australia and the fascists in the United Patriots Front.

The threat is real, and it is growing. We cannot rely on the leadership of the major parties to mobilise a mass movement against the forces of reaction. We need a united front of members of the Labor Party and Greens, of rank and file unionists, of people like me to the left of the mainstream and ordinary members of the targeted groups to unite to fight the racists and drive them back under their rocks.

In doing that, we may be able to build a wider movement against the austerity and neoliberal policies creating the fear that is driving some Australian into the arms of Pauline Hanson and the others in the reactionary right. That would mean fighting against the policies of the major parties that feed that fear through the "nudge, nudge, wink wink" racism of locking up asylum seekers and intervening in the Northern Territory. It means fighting attacks on wages, jobs and conditions. It means protesting and striking against cuts to the CSIRO, public health, public education, public transport, universities and homelessness. 

Ultimately, in my opinion, it means opposing the irrationality that is capitalism. That is for the future. Right now, let’s unite to defeat reaction.

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Tax Office. Read more by John on his website en PassantYou can also follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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