Whichever path they go down, working class youth in Australia are struggling to make ends meet and are looking at more of the same post the federal election.
Widespread unemployment, exploitation in the workforce, homelessness, living with parents well into adulthood or in unliveable homes for skyrocketing rent prices, skipping meals, living below the poverty line, and increasingly being priced out of higher education – are the harsh day-to-day realities for massive amounts of young people in Australia.
The latest Federal budget has revealed plans for a number of fresh attacks on youth and students to cover up for a lack of any real solutions being put forward to address the crisis of youth unemployment.
Among the most sinister proposals is the roll-out of the PaTH internship program, in which people under 25, who have been unemployed for 6 months or more, will have the “opportunity” to gain practical work experience within a business after 6 weeks of pre-employment skills training for what averages out to be $4 an hour – well below minimum wage.
In return for this service, the businesses that take on interns are offered a payment of $1000. And then at the final stage of the program, businesses will be eligible for a “youth bonus wage subsidy” of between $6,500 and $10,000 depending on the young person’s job readiness.
After the initial announcement, the government clarified that internships would only be funded for legitimate workplace vacancies. In other words, businesses could not make up positions to rort the government subsidies, which outraged various business peak bodies.
Nevertheless, this means that work which should be filled by a fully waged staff member, will be done by a youth for a fraction of the cost which doesn’t cover their cost of living.
The ACTU has since criticised the program as being illegal as it breaches the Fair Work Act which sets minimum wages, but it remains on the table should the Libs win the upcoming election.
And this is just one of the ways that the bosses are exploiting youth to boost their bottom line, stronger incentivised by the Liberal government.
As addition to this, universities are looking down the barrel of a 20% funding cut, which we can expect them to make up by squeezing more cash out of students and more unpaid work out of staff. The recuperation of funds through fee hikes is likely to further push working class youth out of tertiary education altogether.
There is another option which youth can and do look towards, which is to join the military. Working class youth certainly can be tempted by the promise of employment and a livable wage, free or subsidised tertiary education and a roof over their heads. Especially when the Turnbull government’s nationalism and fear mongering is at a high point. The Australian Defence Force is looking to recruit an extra 5000 troops to run the costly new warships, aircraft and army equipment promised by Turnbull’s budget – most of them we can expect to be young people.
Despite all of these attacks on youth, which could form the basis for a renewed student movement in Australia, the student movement at this stage is ill-equipped to meet the challenge, having generally fizzled out since the defeat of fee deregulation under Abbott and Pyne.
We attribute this stagnation to the sectarian elements of the education campaign. This trend is mirrored by the National Union of Students, which has failed to relate to youth and to draw them to action, due to it’s hostile environment of bitter factionalism, electoralism and the bureaucratic exclusion of the grassroots elements of the movement.
The lack of response lends legitimacy to the mainstream media’s line that youth are just lazy and disinterested, and that we need the starvation incentive of forced internships to get us off our bums. This election saw a jump in the number of 18 year olds enrolled to vote, from 51% to 71%, but this is still the lowest percentage of any age group.
As we know however, youth abstentionism from the political process is certainly not hardwired, and it’s the anti-democratic two-party system that doesn’t offer any alternatives. Youth are fed up, but don’t know what to do about it, or how to do anything about it, and that's where we come in.
Though while it’s true that youth aren’t mobilising as part of the student movement in particular, it can’t be said that youth aren’t mobilising.
Recently we’ve seen a spate of actions across campuses to demand that universities divest from fossil fuels. Students at La Trobe University have successfully won that demand, and other campuses are still organising around it. Our campus interventions have had very varied levels of success with initiating divestment campaigns or relating to the existing campaigns. The contested space in the environmental movements on campus is dominated by green-capitalism NGO’s and an anarcho-grassroots milieu which can be hostile towards us. It’s an ongoing challenge for us to intervene and inject eco-socialist politics into these movements.
The campaign to defend the Safe Schools program has drawn notable amounts of high school students - not only along to rallies, but also into the organising committees - with particular success in Sydney and in Perth. As a stand-out opening for engaging with high school students, we have a challenge here, to strategically intervene in these campaigns with an aim to win these young people over to a broader political platform, and help them in becoming activists in the longer term, working closely with them and approaching them about party membership where possible.
On the other hand, the Anti-Islamophobia campaign is also drawing youth along, but under the banner of ‘smashing the fash’ and brawling with neo-nazis. For anarchist groups and Socialist Alternative who throw gas on the fire of these violent confrontation, these rallies are useful for attracting hotheads which they can entice into their ranks, but leave a lot to be desired in the way of mass action and class analysis. We need to make strategic and political interventions into these movements where we can to relate to the youth who come along and provide an alternative political leadership to the dominant line of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘acquainting fascists heads with the pavement’.
A layer of young Indigenous people are emerging to lead the charge in the Indigenous rights movement, under the mentorship of their elders. Finding ways to relate to these young movement leaders is an ongoing task which is crucial for maintaining strong links with the Indigenous community. Our long-standing work in this area lends us credibility and support in our interventions into anti-racism movements, and in solidarity with the movements of First Nations peoples. This is an area of networking we cannot afford to forget in our youth work.
Youth are also being mobilised against the detention of refugees. This was clear in response to the recent self-immolation in detention by Omid and Hodan - two young refugees. And in the recent past, Brisbane high-school student Mojgan, whose school mates and teachers protested her detention. We have held successful campaign stalls on campuses around the issue of the government’s treatment of refugees, as an issue which is polarising in the Australian context and draws left-leaning students to us.
And while there are openings for us around single-issue campaigns, unfortunately there is little in the way of sustained mass movements consistently drawing youth into action, like we’re seeing in European countries and in the United States.
It’s no wonder that we are noticing that Australian students have a fascination with Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Jeremy Corbyn. These campaigns are drawing in massive numbers of young people by talking about democratic socialism in popular language and relating it to people’s lives. On campus we have experimented with hitching a ride on this wave of interest in socialist ideas.
Last year, socialism was the most searched word according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. That’s a 169% rise, compared to 2014. All of this has made socialism easier to talk about to young people, giving the ideas that we’ve been talking about for a long time a renewed currency and popularity - and in the process, dispelling some of the myths of sections of the left which reject our Marxist politics as old fashioned and irrelevant.
This spike in interest is a great opportunity for us and lays the basis for a strong relaunch onto campus.
Resistance held our national leadership elections on May 16 and elected a leadership of 7. This leadership includes Jacob Andrewartha (Melbourne), Zeb Parkes (Sydney Central), Lucinda Donovan (Brisbane), Chace Hill (Walyup-Fremantle), Dima Alm (Melbourne) Sarah Hathway (Geelong) and Mia Sanders (Sydney Central). Mia and Sarah were re-elected as National Co-conveners.
The leadership elected includes some experienced members, some members who are new to the party, and some members who aren’t new to the party but are new to the leadership body.
It also reflects a diversity of views, including those of the tendency, and reflects comrades engaged in our various areas of work - such as Green Left Weekly, the Moreland council re-election, the National Office, and also from different social movements and campaigns - the Save Safe Schools campaign, the refugee rights movement, the Divestment campaign, and others.
The previous leadership saw a gradual decline in participation, due to several members stepping back in activity - which led to 3 members being co-opted onto the leadership to relieve this in December.
To avoid this sort of drop off in activity, this leadership has voted on a more formal distribution of labour which assigns specific tasks to each member to follow up on. This includes organising the Resistance page in Green Left Weekly, Green Left sales, Radical Ideas organising, campus working group organising, membership, propaganda and materials and our social media presence.
The upkeep of the weekly ‘Resistance in Action’ page in the Green Left hard copy has been a continual challenge for us and we recently discussed its continuation. We resolved that the ‘Resistance in Action’ page is still one of the most important tools for organising Resistance members around the Green Left project, and is an important part of building pride in the paper, training new writers, and integrating young members into our national party priorities.
Our last Radical Ideas conference was a success, and the next conference is planned for January 20-22 in Victoria next year, though its structure and themes are still yet to be decided on. And the Geelong and Victoria branches are yet to resolve which will hold the conferences.
Discussions have happened in light of our recent successful Socialism for the 21st Century conference which indicates that we may need to evaluate whether Radical Ideas does occur on a strictly annual basis if the Socialism for the 21st Century conference does proceed on a regular basis as well, a running two major public conferences in the same year may not be tenable.
The campus working group held a discussion recently about upcoming student conferences and voted to prioritise making an intervention into the Students of Sustainability conference which will be held at Griffith Uni in Brisbane, as one of the healthiest student conferences with the most openings for us. The intervention includes comrades from Brisbane branch as well as several leading RYSA and SA members from interstate.
It’s difficult to characterise Resistance nationally because the development of Resistance is uneven across the country, and while we can make some generalisations, the reality is that our Socialist Alliance branches are the home of Resistance in our party.
The branches are where we build, grow, integrate and train our young members, where we carry out the work of Resistance. Without the support of SA branches and members, Resistance would cease to exist in many cities.
As Susan mentioned in the Party Building report, a key strategy for party building is calling on our cadre base to support other branches which are thin on the ground. During O-Week Sarah and I did some travel to other branches, as well as SA comrades like Duncan and Liam. This effort to make youth activists available to travel to other cities for O-Week interventions is instrumental for recruitment during these opportune moments on campus.
So, what are the debates on how to move forward in the coming period?
The 21st Century Socialism tendency in their document ‘10 Alternatives for Socialist Alliance’ under the section ‘Youth’ made the following proposals as ‘Concrete alternatives’:
“Resistance becomes a central priority of the party. Over the next period, the explicit goal should be to re-establish Resistance with a new semi-autonomous structure, aimed at building an independent, anti-capitalist youth movement. This includes empowering Resistance to set its own campaign priorities, develop its own national strategy for youth recruitment and encouraging the formation of Resistance collectives (with elected conveners) in branches and the formation of strong university clubs with deep roots in campus life and a structure of their own that allows them to act in a serious way.”
This proposal represents a sharp departure from the path we’re currently on, and needs to be examined.
The first sentence, “Resistance becomes a central priority of the party” is listed as a “concrete alternative”.
This infers 1) that Resistance is not already a central priority of the party and 2) that the subsequent proposals the tendency makes are how we prioritise Resistance.
But when you consider the state of Resistance, the reports from the branches suggest that Resistance is a national priority for us.
It is clear that our youth and campus work is strongly dependent on non RYSA-aged comrades doing much of the week-to-week work in most branches. This shows a serious prioritisation of comrade resources in the branches.
This is in line with the resolutions we adopted at our last national conference on Youth Work which read:
“While we continue to make progress in this area, recruiting and training new young socialists is the single most important party-building challenge facing the Socialist Alliance.
We continue to prioritise political work on campus as a means to reach out to young people.
The Socialist Alliance reaffirms its commitment to training youth and branch organisers and tasks the incoming National Executive with the extension of our current organisers school to create a full programme for training organisers which aims to be in place by early 2016.”
This illustrates that both on paper, and in practice, these decisions to prioritise Resistance are being carried out.
And the insinuation begs the question: Why do we take Youth and Campus reports at National Councils and National Conferences at all?
Why does the discussion occur in the Socialist Alliance’s highest decision making bodies, and not off in Resistance-only spaces?
Why does youth work get organised primarily through the branches?
This is how we bring youth and campus work to forefront of our priorities, by assigning it the attention and energy of our whole party, not just a subsection, and generalising our experiences across the branches.
To take youth off the agenda, and allocate the organisation of youth work to Resistance members-only would be a detraction of resources and a de-prioritisation of Resistance which we should avoid.
The tendency document continues, “Over the next period, the explicit goal should be to reestablish Resistance with a new semi-autonomous structure, aimed at building an independent, anti-capitalist youth movement.”.
Members of our party are likely to have a range of conceptions of the word ‘autonomy’, which is understandable.
The concept does not appear anywhere in our constitution, nor in the ‘About Socialist Alliance’ section on our website (which is commonly used as an introduction to SA), or in our Membership Guide.
This is because the theory of Marxism, and the practices of the class and labour movements do not look towards autonomism as an organisational principle.
So, where does the concept of ‘autonomy’ as is used in the tendency’s document come from?
Autonomism is the central concept of what we know as ‘Identity Politics’.
The concept is now reaching a prominence on campus, as the primary modus operandi of collectives of oppressed people (specifically queer, ethno-cultural, and women’s collectives) which operate exclusively of others.
The better of these collectives do discuss or organise around politics, but our experience is that they are stunted when it comes to building broad networks and campaigns. Instead they tend towards becoming narrow and inward looking, and as a self-defined leadership, they are unaccountable to any broader movement.
However it is not uncommon for these groups to be apolitical and even ban political conversation, materials or attire in the designated autonomous spaces. And this is because autonomism and identity politics overlaps strongly with liberalism and individualism.
A key claim of autonomism is that the experience of being oppressed is inherently radicalising.
The concept follows that because socially oppressed groups have a unique radicalising experience, they should hold ultimate political authority, and that they should retain leadership through administrative means - that is, to exclude other people who have not had the same experience to ‘level the playing field’ per se.
But that’s not how we build leadership teams in the Socialist Alliance.
Section 4.10 of our constitution states:
“The Alliance actively encourages working class women, Indigenous people, immigrants, queers, people with disabilities and young people to take on leadership roles within the Alliance.”
This is how we build strong teams. We do not use administrative measures to ensure a diverse leadership in the party, but it’s fair to say that we elect diverse leaderships at the national and branch level nevertheless, and this is as true of youth as it is of any other group.
We have always taken principled stands against this type of identity politics in the social movements, and defended open and non-restrictive organising spaces for movements as a crucial element of building broad coalitions that can win.
Many of our long-term feminist activists were involved in the debate against separatism in the women’s movement, for example.
Resistance’s most recent collective experience of autonomist politics was highlighted by our intervention into Queer Collaborations last year, in which we were essentially red-baited out of the conference and banned for putting forward Marxist positions.
In our statement on these events we wrote:
“Socialist Alliance seeks to build a broad and united movement to advance LGBTQIA+ rights, as is our history in the campaign. As Socialist Alliance members argued throughout the conference, our strength is in our unity and shared struggle, not division and exclusion.”
We take these positions because we have an understanding of the class dynamics at play, and we know that identity does not equal action.
In turn, our practice follows theory, and in our party we divide work on the basis of action - those prepared to do the work - not on the basis of identity.
We argue that our capacity for political organising is damaged by the fracturing of our forces, and our strength as a political party is that it enables us to operate as a unified whole across all of the divisive barriers which capitalism erects.
We want to do away with these barriers so that we can hit back against capitalism together, rather than enforce them.
The tendency document continues:
“This includes empowering Resistance to set its own campaign priorities, develop its own national strategy for youth recruitment.”
However, Resistance itself has avoided setting strict national campaigns in the recent past.
Branches need the flexibility to pursue local issues of relevance to students. Further, setting a unilateral campaign can be counterproductive.
For example, while UQ has had success with the Divestment campaign, students at WSU have always been more responsive to refugee rights, and at USYD marriage equality and feminist campaigns do better.
In general, refugee work continues to be a common campaign which has had generalised positive results on campus, and the recent survey of young people in Australia ranks refugees as a top election priority.
While we’d be remiss not to take account of this, at the same time we need to account for the Socialist Alliance branch’s local campaigns and strategies when we discuss our national relaunch onto campus.
Resistance work cannot be separated from the work of the local branches.
The section of the tendency’s document finishes:
“...and encouraging the formation of Resistance collectives (with elected conveners) in branches and the formation of strong university clubs with deep roots in campus life and a structure of their own that allows them to act in a serious way.”
However, the facts on the ground speak louder than this document, and those are that the vast majority of our branches cannot even enact this proposal.
As a serious organisation, we cannot detach our theory from the on-the-ground reality.
The practical case for not moving in this direction is strong as well.
A key gain of the merger process was an end to the duplication of branch structures - a practical and convenient merge of our organisational form.
Even in a "youth dominated branch" there still would be a case for not organising separately in the current circumstances: namely to help build and promote strong Alliance branches and not divert energy away from this.
It would not be desirable to have a separate Resistance sucking the life out of the SA branch. This would result in doubling up on discussions, and creating a disconnect between those who make the decisions and those who carry out the work.
As such, this report argues that principled autonomism is a failed strategy of sections of the left.
This type of organising will not work in Socialist Alliance, and the NC should reject moving Resistance in an autonomous direction for these reasons.
If comrades do wish to move in this direction, they should win support from the membership as a whole before implementing such a line in practice.
So, what does this report presenting instead?
Resistance is the youth wing of the Alliance - it is a party body - and it operates to help build the Socialist Alliance and promote the priorities and campaigns determined by local and national bodies of the Alliance.
As such, Resistance needs to be accountable to the Alliance as a whole.
While we cannot rule anything out for the future and what may arise of a change in the objective conditions, this assessment of our current situation makes it very clear that the tendency’s proposals are not practical or practicable for our organisation at our current stage.
The truth is that when it comes to our youth and campus work, there are no quick fixes. It’s important that we proceed scientifically, not idealistically.
Our assessment is that it will be the steady and patient work to build our Socialist Alliance branches which will continue to show us gains in this area.
We must continue to prioritise this work at a national and branch level.
The fact is that we cannot wish the objective conditions of having a mass youth wing into being.
We shouldn’t look towards making these type of sharp departures from our current perspectives out of impatience with the pace of results.
The reasons for the merger into the Socialist Alliance are just as valid today as they were when we first began the discussions in Resistance. As we have reaffirmed in multiple reports since the merger, the decision to merge was the correct decision at the time and is proving to be the correct decision today.
The challenge for Resistance today is generalising the most effective approach to recruiting and integrating youth into the Socialist Alliance.
It is in the experience of the Resistance leadership that the best way to do this is by taking a united approach and combining our forces as a multi-generational party.
We need to continue the work of training our young members as party leaders.
This includes skilling comrades up in areas of branch organising, finances, Green Left Weekly writing, selling, recruiting and other tasks in the branch. In addition, skilling young comrades up in movement work and organising in a collective framework.
We need to continue to hold party schools and organiser schools in branches.
Encouraging branches to remain alert and flexible in terms of reacting and taking advantages of opportunities for engaging youth as they arise
Ultimately, we need to remain united in action as we proceed into the coming period.
We need to continue building up bigger and stronger teams in the branches, which are inclusive of the various demographics in our party and reflective of our on-the-ground reality.
1. That RYSA in conjunction with GLW develops updated materials on 'How to write for Green Left Weekly' for internal use to help skill young comrades and develop their confidence in writing for the paper.
2. RYSA develops an updated introductory zine for O Week 2017, and encourages branches to continue using the 'Another world is possible' zine as an introductory material and the new Anti-Racism pamphlet for reading circles and discussions on campus.
3. We recognise that unity in action between Resistance aged and non Resistance aged members is critical if we are to build on our successes in youth and campus work in the coming.
4. That Resistance liaise with the National Office to roll out the party school and organiser schools in a number of branches to facilitate the skilling up on young members.