Towards A Socialist Australia second edition

Our world is in turmoil

One way or another, the 21st century will be decisive for the fate of human civilisation. Unless greenhouse emissions are swiftly and drastically curbed, scientists tell us, the result will be environmental catastrophe on an almost unimaginable scale, threatening the survival of all life on the planet. Alongside this developing ecological disaster, the system shows no sign of being able to escape its worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The slump shows the structural crisis of capitalism has not been resolved and is deepening. As their dilemmas mount, the capitalist response to these challenges is either denial, quack “remedies” or business as usual and, above all, savage attacks on the welfare and democratic rights of working people. Huge resources are misdirected into war and repression, rather than to solutions to the problems we face.

Why socialism?

The rise of resistance to dictatorships, corporate rule, military occupation and corrupt politics, which has occurred in the 21st century, brings new hope for humanity. The revolutions sweeping parts of Latin America, the movements in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Europe, which put democracy, the planet, and the rights of all people at their centre, are an inspiration across the globe to all who believe that fundamental social and political change is both possible and necessary. The current ecological and economic problems facing the world have happened precisely because we live in a political and economic system that puts profits ahead of people and the planet — capitalism. To save ourselves and our planet we need a sharp change of direction towards a new people-centred form of social organisation — socialism. Imagine a society where each individual has the means to live a life of dignity and fulfilment, without exception; where discrimination and prejudice are wiped out; where all members of society are guaranteed a decent life, the means to contribute to society; and where the environment is protected and rehabilitated. This is socialism — a truly humane, a truly ecological society. The socialism we support is based on five principles

  1. Solidarity and collaboration. Not dog-eat-dog competition.
  2. Environmental sustainability and eco-socialism. Not degradation and destruction that hits the poor the the worse.
  3. Participatory democracy. Where people and community make decisions directly.
  4. A social and democratic economy. Where people's needs come before corporate profits.
  5. True equality. Between peoples, nations, religions, genders and sexualities.

Climate change is real and immediate

The reality of climate change is manifesting itself in an increasing number of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, hurricanes and tornados. Melting ice sheets are resulting in rising sea levels and increased flooding of low-lying areas. Some islands will soon be totally submerged, turning their inhabitants into climate refugees. Alongside climate change is the unrelenting destruction of the environment, such as deforestation, pollution of the air, waterways and the soil and the destruction of or harm to many animal species. All have consequences for the human environment. These problems disproportionately affect the world’s poorest people, who contribute the least to the crisis. Some solutions to climate change are known and simple: rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, make the switch to renewables and halt deforestation. But significant economic interests at the heart of the capitalist system have big investments in coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. Protecting these interests, governments refuse to take more than token measures to halt climate change. The goal of the big corporations is to secure the greatest possible profits for their super-rich owners — regardless of the consequences to the planet and its people. More and more people are realising that society needs to be liberated from the rule of the big corporations to seriously address the climate change crisis.

Globalisation has hit a brick wall

World capitalism has survived the past half-century largely by accessing cheap labour in poor countries. Globalisation has allowed big capital to maintain profit levels, keeping the high-profit functions of research and development, design and financing in rich countries, while outsourcing manufacturing to some poor countries. In wealthy countries capitalists now seek big returns through financial speculation, creating bubbles in information technology share prices, real estate, or exotic derivatives, rather than investing in useful production. Employment and wage structures have been hollowed out, with a layer of jobs disappearing from the economy. Manufacturing jobs have been exported and technology has enabled much routine administrative work to be computerised. Pressure on jobs has allowed employers to reduce real wages and conditions. New jobs are largely in the low-skilled service sector, offering low pay and little job security. Profit rates are being crushed by overproduction. Low-paid workers and super-exploited workers in the developing world simply cannot afford to buy all the extra goods and services now available on world markets. In countries such as China and India, where some capital accumulation has emerged through manufacturing and debt-financing, capitalists are seeking to enter the high-profit sectors of the world market and expand their own operations elsewhere in the developing world. They now undertake their own research and development, design and financing, and compete with traditional capitalist powers. Wealthy countries, through copyright and intellectual property laws, free trade agreements and military and diplomatic pressures, are attempting to counter these efforts. But this model for capitalism’s survival has hit a brick wall. Since 2008, a boom built on financial speculation has been replaced by the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. In wealthy countries, the first task governments set themselves was to protect the bankers and speculators whose unrestrained greed has been the distinctive feature of the problem. Trillions of dollars in stimulus spending have largely finished up in bankers’ pockets. More and more, the capitalists are trying to make working people and the poor pay for the system’s failures. Jobs, wages and democratic rights are under attack. Austerity measures and the resulting contractions in consumer spending are simply making the crisis worse. The crisis won’t be fixed by simply disciplining a few selfish speculators, because the problem is with the system that bred them. The United States, the mainstay of world capitalism, is gripped by intractable problems. The American elite refuse to consider serious tax increases for the rich, or to curb militarism. So the government has been cutting public spending on health, welfare and education in an attempt (so far unsuccessful) to reduce the budget deficit. Millions of people in the US have been evicted from their homes and real unemployment has been estimated at more than 20%. In Europe, the response of capitalist governments to the crisis is austerity, with cuts to pensions and wages and further sell-offs of state assets.

Australian capitalism: Built on dispossession and racism

Prior to the coming of Europeans in 1788, this vast continent and surrounding islands was populated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. More than 300 languages were spoken. Over tens of thousands of years, these nations established social, political and economic structures with varying degrees of complexity. They engaged in trade — for example, the clans in the continent’s north traded pearls and trepang with the Macassans — and sustainably managed the fragile ecosystems across their estates. The process of colonisation, which started in 1788, required the destruction of these structures and the imposition of a class society brought from Britain by the colonisers. The wealth of what is today the capitalist state of Australia was built upon the dispossession of the first nations; stolen Aboriginal land — and the valuable resources which lie therein, and the unpaid or underpaid Aboriginal labour used to establish the pastoral industry. For Aboriginal people, this process of colonisation and dispossession has included inter-generational trauma, enslavement, genocide, assimilation, and a loss of language, culture and identity. This legacy, along with continuing institutionalised racism, has resulted in a massive health burden, sky-rocketing imprisonment rates and shorter life expectancy. The 2007 Northern Territory intervention by the Howard Liberal government, and the subsequent Stronger Futures legislation introduced by the Labor government that followed, was a massive bipartisan attack on Aboriginal communities. These policies represent more attacks on Aboriginal language and culture, self-determination and land rights. Paternalistic welfare measures introduced as part of the intervention are being extended to other parts of the country, particularly areas with large migrant and Aboriginal populations. Meanwhile, Aboriginal communities, particularly in remote areas, are given the false choice of “welfare dependency” on one hand or “development” through allowing mining companies access to their land, on the other.

Australia: Governments avoid climate action

Some commentators claim that Australia’s greenhouse emissions are insignificant in world terms. But this is a lie. Per head of population, Australia is the worst emitter of any large developed nation. In absolute terms, we pump out almost as much carbon dioxide as Italy, with its 60 million people. Take into account coal exports, and our share of world emissions roughly doubles. Now, Australia’s resource moguls plan to increase those exports by as much again. New coalmines are being planned and built across the country. In many instances prime farmland and water sources are being destroyed in the process. Cheap fossil fuel lies at the base of Australian capitalism’s business model, and the big parties know it. Labor’s market-based emissions trading scheme aims for a tiny cut of 5 per cent by 2020, and the Liberal-National coalition’s misnamed “Direct Action Plan” proposes to reach the same target by paying emitters to cut their pollution. Rather than a full-scale switch to renewable power sources, both federal and state governments are promoting the large-scale development of gas. The big resource investors are on board. But unconventional gas extraction techniques can cause grave environmental damage. And evidence is mounting that when venting and leaks of methane—a potent greenhouse gas — are taken into account, energy from gas has a greenhouse impact as bad as or worse than that from coal. Also taking place is a massive expansion of uranium mining to fuel the nuclear industry. Nuclear power is not the answer to humanity’s greenhouse gas dilemma. Weapons proliferation is a serious danger. Current nuclear technology has potentially catastrophic safety risks, and waste storage issues are unresolved. Even if the proven dangers of nuclear power could be overcome, the lead times for building sufficient new nuclear plants would not allow climate disaster to be avoided. In addition, cost projections for nuclear power are escalating as fast as the price of renewable energy is falling. Australia has some of the world’s best capacity for renewable energy — solar, wind, wave and geothermal. There are no technical barriers to moving to 100% renewable energy in Australia, however the switch to renewable energy is being blocked by those who profit from the polluting industries. Successive Coalition and Labor governments have refused to invest in the new infrastructure and a just transition to jobs for a zero emission economy. Instead, they choose to subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Conservative governments in Victoria and NSW have now imposed crippling restrictions on the wind and solar industries.

Economic crisis already here — with worse to come

Compared to Greece and many other countries, Australia so far has had an easy run during the global economic crisis. Decades ago, this country’s capitalists found a lucrative niche for themselves as low-cost exporters of raw commodities, especially iron ore and coal. Over recent years, investment and prices in these sectors have largely held up. This is partly because of growing Chinese demand. In response to the global financial crisis, which caused the loss of 20 million jobs in export-oriented manufacturing, the Chinese government embarked on a massive program of public works (high speed inter-city rail, etc). Chinese demand helped Australia’s mining industry to continue growing during the global crisis. But the impact of the mining boom on the broader Australian economy has been mixed. The rising Australian dollar has hurt manufacturing and some other industries. Mining itself is not immune from the crisis. Many economists doubt whether Chinese demand for Australian exports can be sustained. Chinese exports remain vulnerable to the crisis in Europe and the USA. Other problems, such as the rising indebtedness of Chinese local governments and the deflation of the real estate market, could also have an impact. Many Australian and foreign-owned manufacturing companies have closed down or cut back their Australian operations. In many cases they have shifted production to overseas locations. Australian governments have done nothing to create alternative jobs, despite the potential that exists in areas such as renewable energy. Already, decades of neoliberalism have made Australia a more harsh, cruel and unequal society. Privatisation, outsourcing, casualisation, restructuring, deregulation and user-pays have been the means for shifting wealth from working people to the well-off. The richest 20% of Australians now own 61% of total household wealth, while the poorest 20% own just 1%. Two million people live in poverty, and at least 100,000 people are homeless on any given night. Public health care is under-funded and quality education is increasingly only for children whose parents can pay. Pensions and unemployment benefits are far below poverty levels. Australians living with disability have the worst quality of life in the developed world with one in two living in poverty. Official unemployment is a “low” 5.8%, but at least as many people again who want fulltime work can’t find it. Millions fall into the categories of “underemployed” and “working poor”.

Billions wasted on corporate handouts and war

Australia is a wealthy, industrially developed country. We have the resources to give everyone a decent, comfortable life and provide aid to our poorer neighbours. Yet calls to address the state of the public healthcare system, housing, welfare and social services are met with the mantra: “Where’s the money going to come from?” While social programs face endless cutbacks, “corporate welfare” is booming with handouts, tax breaks, concessions and cosy contracts such as public-private partnerships. The official company tax rate is a very low 30% but many big corporations pay far less than that. Faced with opposition from the mining industry, the former ALP government watered down its projected mining super-profits tax, and the Abbott government intends to scrap it altogether. Billions are wasted on militarism. Up to US$6 trillion — more than the total cost of World War II — has been spent on the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which Australia has been an enthusiastic participant. These countries have been wrecked and hundreds of thousands of people killed and displaced. Bipartisan support for the Australia-US war alliance makes Australia complicit in the human and ecological disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. Australia has sent police and army units to Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. Until recently, Australia maintained a military presence in East Timor. When people flee war, seeking refuge and a new life in our country, they are demonised by the government’s policy of mandatory detention. Temporary Protection Visas have been reintroduced, with no right to family reunion, no right to leave the country and a requirement to reapply for the visa every three years. Asylum seekers face being sent “offshore” to prison camps in Nauru or Manus Island in PNG, with no right to resettlement in Australia, at a cost of millions of dollars each year. Refugees also face the threat of deportation and discrimination.

Our economy must be owned by society

Under capitalism, a tiny handful of people — the capitalist class, “the 1%” — control the means of production, distribution and exchange. They own the corporations that own the mines, factories, banks, transport networks, supermarket chains, media empires, and so on. Managers sympathetic to capitalist interests control the superannuation funds in which workers are forced to invest part of their wages. The Murdochs, Packers, Harveys, Rineharts, Forrests, Lowys and others dominate the headlines, but behind each of these pillars of Australian capitalism is an army of workers whose stolen labour makes up their profits. Much of the precondition for these massive profits is created through the capital investment market. In Australia, around 75% of this comes from workers’ superannuation contributions. The economy is a social enterprise. We all depend on it and the labour of working people keeps the wheels turning. But because the capitalists control it they get the profits and workers’ wages never reflect the full value of what they produce. The fight for a decent wage is a constant struggle against entrenched corporate power, backed by the state. The market-based system is represented in the media as all-powerful and constant. Any possible alternative is excluded. But our economic and social relationships are a human creation, and as such, they can be changed. Our economy must be socially owned and controlled. Key sectors of the economy should be placed in public ownership under worker and community control. The privatisations of recent decades should be reversed and the public sector massively expanded. With the economic levers in the people’s hands, society could make a conscious plan focused on meeting human needs. Combating climate change and building a sustainable economy would be the most urgent priorities. Plans would be democratically decided. Workplaces would be controlled by their employees. There would be no obscenely overpaid CEOs and insecure, badly-paid workers with no say in what happens. The work week would be significantly reduced enabling workers to play a much greater role in political and cultural life.

Democracy under capitalism: Formal and limited

Capitalist democracy is highly restricted. Every few years we get to choose which of two neoliberal parties will govern on behalf of Australia’s corporate elite. So much of the electoral spectacle is theatre as the media tries to pretend that there are real differences between the pro-corporate Liberal/National coalition and the equally pro-corporate Australian Labor Party. The very limited democracy we have does not extend to the economy, the workplace or the state bureaucracy. There, ownership rights, managerial prerogatives, hierarchy and subordination rule largely unchecked. The civil liberties we enjoy are real and important. They are a result of past workplace and community-based struggles. But they are fundamentally undermined by severe practical limitations inherent in the way capitalism works. We generally enjoy the right of free speech, although laws, by-laws and special powers enable the state in some instances to restrict our right to political expression and protest. The corporate media is privately-owned and run in the interest of the wealthy and powerful. Working people’s interests are not represented. Workers’ ability to fight for better wages and conditions is limited by anti-union laws that criminalise industrial action (except under very limited conditions), outlaw solidarity actions by unions (e.g. secondary boycotts) and make workers and their unions unequal with employers before the law. Employers can legally lock out workers without pay, close down industries and force thousands out of work. Under capitalism, sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination against people with disabilities restricts participation in political life.

Women's liberation: Unfinished business

Women and their supporters have fought for women’s rights in numerous campaigns for over a century. The mass movements of the first and second waves of feminism of the twentieth century were high points. Women in Australia today continue to enjoy the advances won through those struggles. However, the gains made by women have come under sustained attack by successive Labor and Liberal state and federal governments. Women’s organisations, trade unions and others have continued their campaigns — though not today on the scale seen in previous periods. Despite the undoubted gains of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women’s oppression persists in Australia today. It rests on women’s definition in terms of sex and reproduction and is institutionalised through the family system, where women are expected to take on the majority of unpaid work. It is manifest in numerous ways including unequal pay, job discrimination, sexist objectification of women in the media, and the pervasiveness of rape culture — the cultural acceptance, promotion or excusing of rape and blaming of its victims, along with a high prevalence of rape and other forms of violence against women, especially in the home. After a period of relative quiescence, following the demobilisation of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, the past few years have marked some important developments in terms of women’s willingness to fight back. These include: the Australian Services Union equal pay case; domestic violence clauses won by the union movement; the rekindling of inclusive campus and off-campus feminist activist networks, which are influenced by lesbian, gay, bisexual trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) struggles; and substantial mobilisations against victim-blaming and violence against women, in SlutWalks and Reclaim the Night marches. Achieving the liberation of women economically, socially, politically and psychologically requires the building of an independent women’s liberation movement, pushing forward every struggle against every manifestation of women’s oppression and linking them together in a movement to reorganise society. Within the women’s liberation movement there is a need for a range of organisational forms that develop women’s confidence and leadership, including women-only organising spaces. In the struggle for women’s liberation, a strategic alliance has to be built with the working class (composed substantially of women) and its organisations. The struggle for reforms to improve the situation of women under capitalism today is critical. However, women’s liberation will not be lasting without an end to capitalist exploitation, and without the dismantling of class society and the family system as we know it. Neither can the struggle for socialism be victorious without the participation of women and the organisation of women into a movement for liberation.

For real democracy, for people's power!

We need a radically different political system: a system of grassroots, participatory democracy that empowers the big majority of people who are currently excluded from genuine decision making power. This would be based on organisations of popular democracy in localities, workplaces and schools which could directly make decisions affecting their respective communities. Any administrators or officials elected by these bodies should receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker and should be subject to recall through a simple process if their electors are dissatisfied. Central (ie: state and national) decision making bodies need to be accountable to their local counterparts. The voting age should be lowered to 16 years and elections should be based on proportional representation. All public officials in leading positions (including in the public service, the military, government enterprises and boards) should be subject to election and recall. A critical step in creating a genuine democracy is social ownership of the economy on which we all depend. Real democracy is impossible if one part of society (the capitalist class) owns the main levers of the economy and can run them autocratically in their own private interest and at the expense of the workers who are compelled to work for them. By contrast, social ownership makes possible democratic decisions about the main goals and targets of economic activity including environmental, labour and human rights standards. These goals and targets should be popularly decided. Workers should be able to elect their managers and collectively direct their workplaces. Anti-union laws should be scrapped. The mass media should be placed under the control of the community to reflect the interests and concerns of ordinary people.

How will we get there?

How will lasting fundamental social change in the interests of the majority come about? There is no precise map or blueprint, but long experience gives us a guide. The problems we face are not the result of mistaken policy positions by government or a poor choice of leaders. They are the inevitable product of a system based on the interests of a tiny minority: the capitalist class, or more popularly: “the 1%”. It follows that it is not enough to simply appeal to the better nature of the current rulers or try to persuade them by clever arguments to make changes. Even to win very limited reforms and improvements within the current system (such as restrictions on the gas fracking companies) typically requires the pressure of a popular mass movement. This is because the corporate elite fight ferociously when their interests are challenged. They resist even more when the challenge they face threatens the very existence of their system of exploitation and oppression. There is not yet an example in history when a ruling class has given up its power and privilege without a fight and there is no reason to think that the current corporate elite will be any different. That's why progressive social change is a little more complicated than just “putting better people in power”. We have to replace the institutions in society that protect and defend the interests of the capitalist elite (such as parliament, police and the military) with institutions under the democratic control of ordinary people. In other words, we need revolutionary change. Revolution doesn’t mean a violent coup by a minority: a revolution can only come about when the majority of people see the need for radical change, and are actively involved in bringing it about. A revolution is a mass struggle to create new and far more democratic forms of political power and a new social system. While this seems a long way off in Australia at present, deepening economic, environmental and political crises can create a situation where people are looking for solutions and are open to revolutionary ideas. An important step in the struggle for such change might be the winning of an electoral victory within the current parliamentary system by popular forces. In this case, the corporate rich would try to destabilise and even overthrow the progressive government. History has shown, that we would have to mobilise in the streets, workplaces, schools, campuses and neighbourhoods to defend any progressive moves made by such a government. Further, to truly consolidate any meaningful socialist change, we'd still be faced with the need to create new institutions of grassroots democracy without which genuine socialism is impossible. To advance this process, the creation of militant, democratic campaigning organisations, determined to win, is crucial. One of the most important of these is a socialist party that seeks to unite all those who want to fight to end capitalism and that strives to win mass support through its involvement in all the day-to-day struggles of the exploited and oppressed. Through working with unions and all progressive social movements and organisations, helping to fight for and defend immediate gains, participating in elections and discussing and putting forward solutions to the problems we face, such a party can help to build the consciousness and forms of participatory democracy needed to take political and social power away from the 1%, and to start to create a system that serves humanity and the planet.

The problem of bureaucracy

Apologists for capitalism have long devoted enormous efforts to arguing against socialism. They argue that it is a completely utopian exercise that flies in the face of human nature. They say that it will never work or that it will always lead to bureaucratic dictatorship. It is true that some revolutionary governments have degenerated into bureaucratic regimes, leading eventually to the restoration of capitalism. This highlights the centrality of the struggle for democracy as a part of the struggle to build a new society. But it is also necessary to understand the objective conditions that contributed to such degenerations. Most revolutions in the twentieth century took place in poor countries devastated by war. They faced constant attacks from the imperialist powers that used war, terrorism and economic sabotage to undermine them. This created shortages and desperation that eventually drove many working people out of public life and allowed an increasingly unaccountable bureaucracy to usurp power and accumulate private wealth and privilege. If these countries had not suffered blockades, war and intervention at the hands of richer countries, things may have turned out completely differently. Thus, socialist revolutions in rich countries are important, not only for their own people but also for those of the poorer countries.

Towards socialism

If we can overcome capitalism — if the economy is socially owned and controlled and we have a system of popular power — then we have a framework for dealing with the ecological and social problems that we face. The most urgent order of business of a real peoples’ government would be an emergency program of action to tackle climate change, including the consequences of decades of inaction, and to build a sustainable economy. A peoples’ government will negotiate treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, recognising and compensating for their original dispossession and supporting their self-determination. A peoples’ government would move rapidly to overcome disadvantage at all levels and in all sectors of society. The guiding principle of a post-capitalist society would be placing the welfare of all people and ecological sustainability first. No one would be abandoned to their fate, as is the case under capitalism. Increasingly more and more basic goods and services could be provided without charge (such as healthcare, education, transport, welfare). These rights belong to every human being.