Sally McManus, civil disobedience and the bland laziness of neoliberal politics

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Sally McManus is setting an important example for all of us (Image via @MissKayeSera)

Although Sally McManus is setting a good example, both major parties are aiding Australia's slide into greater authoritarianism, writes Dr Tristan Ewins.

MUCH OF THE MEDIA as well as leaders from "both sides of politics" have made an issue out of new ACTU Secretary Sally McManus’s statement that it is fair and reasonable to break unjust laws.

McManus has also called for a $45 a week wage increase for Australia’s lowest paid workers; raising the full-time minimum wage to $37,420 per year. She has explained that inequality in Australia is at a 70-year high — something that must certainly have been influenced by factors such as labour market deregulation, a more globally competitive labour market and the decline of full-time work. Other factors include a "flattening" of Australia’s tax system; greater taxation on labour and consumption, as opposed to capital; flatter wages growth; and "middle class welfare" (as well as "welfare for the rich"), with policies on superannuation tax concessions.

McManus also argued that neoliberalism has “run its course" and, interestingly enough, was supported here by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who traditionally has been lauded by economic Liberals as a trailblazer for deregulation, competition, privatisation, small government, user pays and so on. Keating announced that neoliberalism had arrived at "a dead end". The implication was that pushing for those kind of economically-Liberal principles any further would be counter-productive. For Keating Labor governments had the "balance" on equity, growth, investment and competition "about right". And along with Labor shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, it appears even the ALP Right is beginning to take inequality and redistribution more seriously again. 

The aim for McManus as ACTU secretary on wage justice has been widely lambasted as "impossible radicalism". In substance, though, McManus only aspires for now to move towards the OECD benchmark for minimum wages of 60% of average wages. If that 60% target was implemented, minimum wages would rise from $673/week to $738/week. Furthermore, McManus’ more immediate aim to increase the minimum full time wage by $45 a week is significantly below this benchmark. Effectively, her "outrageous ambit claim" (as some would style it) is for a minimum wage rise of approximately $1 an hour for some of the country’s most exploited workers.

The monopoly mass media response to McManus was outrageous but predictable. Melbourne 3AW radio presenter Neil Mitchell responded by branding her statements "class warfare"

We hear these words whenever anyone raises issues of distributive justice for the exploited and disadvantaged. For instance, we heard cries of "class warfare" amidst the debate on superannuation tax concessions for millionaires. But, interestingly enough, Mitchell had nothing of the sort to say in response to moves to undercut penalty rates for some of the country’s most disadvantaged workers. The double standards are striking, marking Mitchell, Andrew Bolt and other right-inclined journalists as guardians of the dominant ideology and of the interests of capital as against labour.

Federal Government Minister Christopher Pyne referred to McManus as an "anarcho-Marxist". In so-saying, Pyne exhibited a typical ignorance of both Anarchism and Marxism. As against Pyne’s apparent inference, Anarchism was always more about refutation of hierarchy than it has been about "chaos". Further, Marxism and Anarchism have traditionally been at odds with one another. Typically, that was because of Anarchism’s optimism that humanity could dispense with the need for a state power sooner rather than later. Also, some anarchists, such as Proudhon, emphasised strategies such workers’ co-operatives — at the expense of the struggle for state power.

Right-wing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs responded to McManus by reaffirming its belief that minimum standards in wages for the working poor interfere with the process of letting the labour market clear. For the economic-hard-right of Australia’s political milieu, minimum standards price workers out of the labour market and prevent the unemployed from building “human capital”. Their argument is that minimum award wages priced approximately 88,000 low-skill workers out of the market. The implication is that people are better off exploited as part of a class of working poor than they are to be unemployed. But added competition in the labour market would flow on with falls in real wages for other low paid workers as well. 

And there are workable alternatives, which are unpalatable to the IPA and Liberals for ideological reasons. That includes proactive industry policy and establishing government as the employer of last resort (the sustainability of which depends on whether government is creative enough to provide work which actually fulfils a real social good).

What are we to say in response to McManus? And further, how are we to "respond to the response" in the media and the broader public sphere?

If we consider the movements that arose against the segregation of the Old American South and against conscription during the Vietnam War, civil disobedience involving breaking unjust laws was crucial. Contra Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, there are certain contexts which demand immediate action and resistance, where crucial moral questions, non-negotiable interests, or human lives are at stake. Arguably, tolerance of dissent and even civil disobedience are hallmarks of a strong democracy.

The response to Sally McManus’s statement is indicative that Australia is slipping into greater authoritarianism. For instance, as embodied by anti-protest laws enacted by various Liberal governments and by heavy-handed responses to protest and civil disobedience. The Liberals claim to uphold "political liberalism" by opposing 18C; but, in practice, they undermine civil, political and industrial liberties. In some cases, state Liberal governments are even criminalising freedom of assembly — take the example of the former Baird Government in NSW.

Shorten, especially, is playing to broad sentiments of conservatism in the electorate — even, today, amongst parts of the working class. Both strategically and tactically, this is understandable, even if disappointing. Harking back to Hawke in the 1980s, there are narratives of "industrial peace and reconciliation". Those themes assisted Labor to power at the time, but had long term implications that weakened the labour movement and stigmatised conflict.

In recognition of this, it must be said that for social democracy and democratic socialism there must be a return to themes of struggle — including class struggle. Looking back to the 19th and 20th Centuries, there were many struggles and many gains which depended on conflict. That included class conflict – with "civil disobedience" – but also what Swedish social theorist Walter Korpi would call “the democratic class struggle” (that is, any class struggle through democratic channels; including distributive struggles (for example, over wages and conditions), fights for "social goods" like welfare and the social wage, and fights for economic democracy). 

The thing about "ideology" as such (in the Marxist sense) is that the dominant practices and institutions of any given time are made to seem "natural", "eternal" or "inevitable". Weighted suffrage (where voting rights depended on class and gender) was one such practice. And free, equal and universal suffrage – including women’s suffrage – was once seen as a truly revolutionary (and hence an "outrageous" and "unthinkable") proposition. Ending child labour, implementing the eight hour day and the 40 hour week, and the right of free association to form trade unions and social democratic parties were all, in their time, seen as "unthinkable" and "beyond the fringes of respectable opinion".

But for decades now, often Labor has played a defensive game. At its best, it has consolidated a highly-targeted welfare state, while bringing us Medicare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the stimulus in response to the Global Financial Crisis and the fight for the Gonski education reforms. At worst, Labor has capitulated on social democratic policy and principle in the rush to neo-liberalism and "economic respectability". And the tightly-targeted welfare state has precipitated its own problems of a narrowing base — perhaps creating the conditions for its own eventual undoing.

The problem is that much of the core social democratic and democratic socialist narrative has been repudiated by ostensibly "Left" and "Centre Left" parties and replaced with opportunist "Third Ways". Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is seen as the archetypal "Third Way" leader but, in reality, he was following the lead of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Almost nowhere, now, is there some sense of a "forward march of labour". A sense of what "progress" means for the labour movement now and of how social democratic parties can actually arrive at such progress. The once-Marxist confidence that "progress" is "inevitable" because of some essential telos built in to the historical process, is perhaps irretrievable. As is the sense that the working class is an essentially (and hence inevitably) progressive force. 

But at the same time, the loss of a fatalistic view on history and the role of the working class stands to re-awaken the Left to the possibilities of counter-hegemonic strategy and tactics (that is, struggle at the level of culture and civil society), and of democratic and collective will mobilisation. It’s actually good for the Labor Party to realise it cannot take the working class for granted. But it’s bad for Labor to accept notions of "intrinsic working class conservatism", which are the reverse of the old Marxist notions of its "intrinsic radicalism".

So, with the ACTU turning left, what can be said for the ALP — the political wing of the labour movement?

On the Australian Politics Live Podcast, Labor Shadow Treasurer Bowen recently reaffirmed his commitment to modest redistribution for equal opportunity in education and overcoming poverty traps. Elsewhere he has argued for "equal outcomes in health" — which, if implemented properly, would surely demand tens of billions of dollars in additional annual investment into socialised health. All this is encouraging. The Labor Right is talking about redistribution, which would have been rejected by the worst opportunists in order to avoid those absurd cries of "class warfare".

On the other hand Bowen ruled out implementing the "Buffett rule", (named after the billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffett, who first proposed it), which would see a minimum level of tax (say 30% of income) for the very wealthy. Sadly, Bowen provided traditionally economic-Liberal reasons for his position — for example, not wanting to provide disincentives for philanthropy or investment. Such arguments could be deployed as a rationale to reject just about any redistributive measure. And, indeed, in the past Bowen had also supported company tax cuts. Perhaps Bowen is simply adapting to sell the platform and the decisions of the shadow cabinet? Either way, these seemingly conflicting messages are confusing.

And it’s not only the ALP Right which is creating cause for concern here. NSW Labor leader and Left member Luke Foley has repeatedly and publicly repudiated socialism

The ideological underpinnings of the Left are falling away and, in its place, we are seeing a more bland liberalism and Third Way ideology develop.

Broadly, privatisation is only rejected as an issue because there’s almost nothing left to privatise. Though, in Victoria, the Port of Melbourne was leased out for 50 years in a process of "asset recycling", which drew barely a murmur of protest from within the Victorian Socialist Left. 

And what do we do with the NBN (National Broadband Network) when it’s completed? Surely the NBN is a natural public monopoly, where normal assumptions of competition do not apply. Further, what about moves to privatise Australia Post? This has greater urgency when the scenario of using Australia Post branches as the framework around which a new state-owned savings and loans bank could be established is also considered.

Building the public sector is no longer considered the measure for progress within much of Labor – and even within the Left – that it once was. But perhaps it should be. Consider the benefits of natural public monopolies in improving cost structures and countering-exploitation, and of strategic government business enterprises in improving competition, socialising profits and perhaps providing for progressive cross-subsidies.

The reality is that the "traditional mixed economy" is gone in any substantial or meaningful sense and can only be conjured as an apparently-going-concern when compared with the most extreme Hayekian free market "night-watchman’s state" fantasies. This has to change.

The ALP Socialist Left needs to confront a developing crisis of identity. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus is a trailblazer within the trade union movement, who is refuting bland opportunism and drawing a line in the sand on growing inequality. But what about the future of the political wing of the labour movement?

The ALP and the Left especially need to reconsider their aversions to conflict and struggle, as well as their position on the mixed economy and economic democracy, tax reform, welfare and the social wage, labour market regulation and industrial liberties, and so on. 

Opportunism and the path of least resistance mean defeat on policy over the long term. Labor needs to change and McManus is setting an important example for the Party.

You can follow Dr Tristan Ewins on Twitter @vaughann722.

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