Collective struggle is borne of the decline of material conditions. The rise or decline of the union movement broadly represents the working class’s faith in the ability of the movement to secure material gains.
Mass support for unionism is determined by the level of development of a union movement's organisation. The more a union movement is able to wield political power through the expression of mass militant action, through rank and file democratic will, the more developed it is. The intrinsic purpose of any union movement must therefore be to secure material gains for the working class, and help it grasp the nature of its position within capitalism. The purpose of unionism is to act as a tool for the working class to defend its interests against attack both at home and from abroad.
In this contribution I will argue that unions within the core of imperialism, such as in Australia, should adopt clear anti-racist, anti-imperialist and pro-refugee objectives. They should also be committed to the objective that the capitalist mode of production should be abolished. We can only achieve a just, common future through the establishment of a democratic mode of production and we can only achieve this end if we follow the guiding principle of international working class solidarity in all union activity. There is no genuine conflict of interests between workers inside or outside the barbed wire fences of imperialism.
I also want to argue that Australia unions should disaffiliate from the Australian Labor Party, and adopt strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist platforms. To show why this is so, I will provide an overview of capitalism and the contradictions it generates.
The economic and political system the entire human population currently lives under is capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system that declares “all capitalists are created equal”, and economic profit is to be maximised at all costs. The costs referred to are those suffered by the mass of working people. The whole point of capitalism is to maximise one's amount of capital. That is the only thing that matters under this mode of production. The importance of this goal is so overwhelming that entire industries are created for the purpose of allowing sums of money to multiply. This is the unstated aim of the finance industry, to attempt to free the multiplication of bank accounts from any physical connection to labouring.
From the very moment of its birth, capitalism created its own resistance — the working class. Capitalism requires part of the population to spend most of their lives working for the system to function. To entice people to work, capitalism wields the threat of starvation and poverty. For capitalism to become a successful economic system, most people had to be stripped of their wealth so that the only thing they had to trade on the market was their labour power. Occasionally, the working class manages to wring some minor concessions from the capitalist state, when the capitalists themselves fail to provide sufficient resources to survive. The state makes these benefits difficult to access, and the press aids their vilification of any who seek access to a basic level of social security.
Capitalism also transformed human life, restructuring the priority of human behaviours to those of labouring and economic exchange. In so doing it dramatically reduced the breadth and variety of human capacities that were promoted on Earth. This reduction of human behaviour to just labouring is called alienation. Rather than explore human activities, workers are compelled, by virtue of their material position, to labour in the manner prescribed by the capitalist. Rather than collaboratively organise so as to meet shared needs, workers are thrown into competition with one another, an unnatural and intolerable arrangement. Grasping at scraps thrown by the capitalists, the worker lurches through various forms of alienation, never able to realise their potential. All of this is caused by capitalism's reduction to and replacement of human interaction with commodity exchange.
Life is rendered desperate for the many because of the organisation of human society around generalised commodity production. The state of human existence now is a bizarre and temporary one. Life does not need to be this way. Mass emiseration and destitution is unnatural. In this period of human history, there is sufficient resources for each human being to live a dignified life. (http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/csdb/en/)
From the very beginning of capitalism, people have periodically risen up and resisted the imposition of work. As Marx and Engels wrote in 1845:
For [capitalism] to become an "intolerable" power, i.e. a power against which people make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity "propertyless", and produced, at the same time, the contradictions of an existing world of wealth and culture ... (The German Ideology, 24)
The interests of the international working class are bound together by the nature of this shared, antagonistic relation to capital. Global capitalism is integrated through the political instrument of imperialism.
Imperialism is when capitalism grows to be the dominant mode of production on Earth, but is unable to grow any further within certain confines. What happens next is that industrial production and financial interests fuse with particular capitalist states, so their militaries become appendages of certain industries. This incessant calcification of power requires the expropriation of the wealth of those countries often referred to as "developing nations". Those in charge of imperialism create an artificial separation between different populations of the global working class. This allows the global capitalist class to subjugate and rule over the global south and allows the workers in the core of imperialism to live in apparent material advantage. Global imperialism also artificially pits firms in the global south against one another, and by maintaining arms’ length relations with said firms, transnational corporations are able to maximise the surplus value extracted, all while obfuscating the nature of their dealings. For instance, much of the profit derived from international capitalism originates within the global south, but is deceptively recorded officially as originating within the core of imperialist economies. John Smith revealed in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century that:
In 2009, according to the International Coffee Organization, the roasting, marketing, and sale of coffee added $31 billion to the GDP of the nine most important coffee-importing nations, more than twice as much as all coffee-producing nations earned from growing and exporting it — and, as noted above, this does not include the value-added captured by cafés and restaurants. (p 29)
Mainstream economists contort the reporting of economic data so the economies of countries in the global south appear unproductive, and therefore their status as “developing” countries is somehow deserved. The reality is that these countries are, as Michael Parenti puts it, subject to "superexploitation". (Against Empire, p 9) The economies of the global south are propping up global capitalism, not the other way around. The profit-seeking behaviour of capital is the motive force behind the outsourcing, and offshoring of jobs. Neoliberalism is as much a story about the offshoring of industries to the global south as the savage cuts to the public sector within the global north. Massive profits to all the major sectors of imperialism are generated through the relentless minimisation of labour costs. The appearance of disparate interests between workers from the north and the south, is just that — an appearance. It is not the truth. The falsehood can only seem true as long as neoliberalism holds sway as the dominant ideology.
The subjugation of the working class in the global south only benefits the capitalist class. The concoction of racist ideologies disseminated by the mainstream media gives the appearance of divergent interests among the international proletariat. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. (p 15).
Capitalist states all over the world restrict the free movement of labouring people just as much as they promote the free movement of money. This is the fundamental way capitalism is developed today. Racism has always been an ideological stick wielded by the global capitalist ruling class, but never before has it seemed so all-pervasive, and apparently widely-accepted by the population of the core of imperialism. Racism, xenophobia, and demonisation of refugees is the most important ideological agenda for the capitalist class right now.
But, while the global ruling class uses bodies of armed people to physically coerce the workers of the global south, their strategy in the north is much more insidious. The global ruling class opts to poison the minds of as much of the population of the global north as possible. Racism and xenophobia is a classic divide and conquer strategy. It is as simple as it is evil. As Lenin wrote in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism:
The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others. The intensification of antagonisms between imperialist nations for the division of the world increases this urge. And so there is created that bond between imperialism and opportunism, which revealed itself first and most clearly in Great Britain, owing to the fact that certain features of imperialist development were observable there much earlier than in other countries. (p 298)
While the working class is divided over mythical internal antagonisms, their class enemies get away with hyper exploitation, in pursuit of ever more elusive profit margins. The origins of racism in the global north are directly caused by capitalism's need to maximise profit. The most effective way to do this is to minimise wages, or as economists put it, production costs. Racism is an artificial concept that is predicated upon, and feeds into the notion that some groups of humans are simply deserving of less, and this is exactly the myth that capitalists must promulgate in order to avoid outright class warfare.
This is the reason why the vilification of refugees and various migrant groups is a prevailing feature of capitalism today. It is because the ruling class requires the maintenance of false and immoral ideas in order to keep the global working class divided, so that they may maintain hegemonic rule. The capitalist state, as the organising committee of the ruling class is directly interested in quelling all social movements that aim to affirm working class solidarity. This is evidenced by the repeated historical and present efforts of states to crack down on all militant unionised action — particularly mass striking. Strikes directly cause fraternisation between white and non-white people. The recognition of shared humanity is unavoidable, and this in and of itself is threatening to bourgeois ideology. Boots Riley provides some useful historical context in a recent interview:
Racism, or the creation of the idea of race and the racist ideas that formed around it, was necessary for the creation of capitalism. Slavery was necessary. Before that you always had groups of people that didn’t like each other, but it was around nations. There was no one who thought that the people from Ireland somehow because they looked the same were similar to the people from France. It was easier to justify that these darker-skinned people were different than the rest of the European working class, and that it was okay, by saying: “This is a different race”. This is a different species, basically, is what they were saying. “You don’t have to worry, white working class” — that was how they ensured capitalism was able to work. It’s something that still has utility to this day, in the same way. Racist ideas about people of color are how poverty is now explained: that there are cultural deficiencies people of color have, such as families not being together, or even just outwardly racist ideas like we’re stupid or savage or we have this aggressiveness that I need to learn away ... You’re not going to get rid of racism without getting rid of capitalism. On the other hand, you’re not going to be able to have a movement that gets rid of capitalism without also working to get rid of racism at the same time. (https://jacobinmag.com/2018/08/sorry-to-bother-you-boots-riley-interview)
As previously established, the union movement is only alive in so far as it is able to further the essential interests of the working class. Consequently the policies of imperialist capitalism are diametrically opposed to the efforts of union movements that fight for the interests of the working class. This helps explain the state of the leadership of the Australian union movement today. Much of the leadership of the Australian trade union movement remains under the control of Labourism. Labourism is the political philosophy of the Australian Labor Party. It is the philosophy that, through class collaborationism, unions affiliated to the Labor party can bring about the effective development of neoliberalism in Australia.
The ALP is what Lenin called a “capitalist workers party”. It is a party of class collaboration that serves to help promote and strengthen the development of capitalism in Australia. The introduction of neoliberalism into Australia was sold on the compromise that if unions agreed to suppress the growth of wages, greater economic ''productivity'' in Australia would lead to an increase in living standards for the working class. Australia did enjoy a period of relative prosperity during the beginning of neoliberalism, but this ''growing of the pie'' actually lead to the relative decrease in the percentage of working class wages as a component of overall GDP. Now the lie that neoliberalism actually benefits anyone no longer needs to be maintained. ''Secure work'' is now almost impossible to find if you are starting work at a new job today. The emergence of increasingly insecure sections of the economy, such as the “gig economy”, reflect the reality of capitalism: capital strives to maximise the rate of profit, at any cost to the working class. Suffice to say, the claim that the marketplace will provide any benefits for the mass of people has proved itself again and again to be unfounded.
It is not enough for an economy to deliver headline growth statistics. The aggregate numbers are only part of the picture. Sitting below the numbers are communities, businesses and workplaces. Economic relationships make up the bulk of our social relationships. The jobs we do, where we work and how we relate make up the essence of our day-to-day lives. The economy is not separate from the social system. It is an integral part of a culture and a way of life. (Lindy Edwards, How to Argue with an Economist, xvi)
This explains why much of the leadership of the Australian union movement remains captured by the position that certain imperialist capitalist ventures can sectionally aid the interests of the Australian working class. It is because the Labourist leaders of the Australian union movement are more interested in maintaining the power of the ALP and its neoliberal agenda than working in the actual interests of the working class.
Take for instance the enormous coalmine the federal government and the Adani corporation wants to build in Queensland. The leaders of several unions in Queensland have refused to come out in outright opposition to it, citing that in the short term, it would help them secure employment for their members. This kind of cynical, contentless analysis is a dead end for the working class, and can only ever lead to transient gains. Without democratic control over the value created by workers, there can be no just, common future.
Unionism has a future as an institution for progressive transformational change in our lives in so far as it addresses the dynamics of existing capitalism. This means grasping fully the role that racism and xenophobia plays in helping perpetuate capitalism. The capitalist mode of production is a given set of transitory social relations and it does not suit the human condition well, Capitalism's failures do not implicate the mass of ordinary, working people. Workers of the world are fully capable of realising the full extent to which they yield this transformative power. The haze of bourgeois mystification hangs heavy only so long as the working class are disorganised. Active, collective, principled struggle is the most liberatory praxis.