Penrith: Is reformism dead?
It was Karl Marx who said that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.
Most struggles in society today are fought out within the boundaries of class relations and the class consciousness of capitalism.
The limited nature of bourgeois democracy is the sine qua non of Parliament, the grundnorm of its existence. The long and bitter struggle of the working class for democracy within capitalism has resulted in the democracy of capitalism, that is the consensual dictatorship of capital.
This political democratisation of capitalism (at least in some of its developed heartlands) saw working class parliamentary parties arise to seemingly challenge the direct rule of the bourgeoisie.
History has shown that rather than challenge the capitalist class, reformist parties have been the mainstay of capitalism.
At their best they seek to ameliorate the rate of exploitation of workers. When the times do not suit, they use their links to the working class to impose reforms that benefit the elite.
At their worst they use the forces of the capitalist state to smash working class resistance and revolt.
The ups and downs of reform are intimately linked to what is happening with the rate of profit.
Numerous studies (Fred Moseley, Thomas Michl, Anwar Shaikh and Ertugrul Ahmet Tonak, Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Ufuk Tutan and Al Campbell, Robert Brenner, Edwin N Wolff, and Piruz Alemi and Duncan K Foley) show that profit rates declined from the late 60s to early 80s, and then recovered somewhat, then with ups and downs on a general downward trend accompanied by partial rationalisations, but with rates still below the levels of the 50s and 60s.
This partial stabilisation was due to partial systemic restructuring. But the too big to fail syndrome meant there could not be a complete restructuring because rather than benefiting capitalism as a whole the collapse of major players would have dragged the whole system down.
So the state intervened to prevent what Schumpeter called creative destruction. This has postponed the bonfire of value.
But it has not restored profit rates to the levels of the 50s and 60s. The boat’s keel is close to the bottom of the pond.
This stagnation means that the pressure is on governments of all persuasions to use the state and its revenues to improve profit rates.
This involves a combination of factors – for example increasing productivity, lengthening the working day, diverting tax revenue from the social wage to capital and the enforcement of its rule.
The run down of our schools, hospitals and transport systems (and the concomitant partial privatisation of these functions) is one result. So too is the fact that Australian workers have the longest working week of workers in any OECD country.
And the explosion in household debt is a medium term response to the shift in capital’s share of the national cake at the expense of labour.
None of this could have occurred without a trade union movement and its political expression – the Australian Labor Party – committed to the increased exploitation of workers for the benefit of the bosses, with the hope that there would be some scraps from the bosses’ table for workers.
In an editorial on Saturday the Australian Financial Review described this trickle down theory well:
Mr Rudd’s and Mr Swan’s predecessor’s – Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and peter Costello – did a very good job over the past quarter of a century educating the public about the positive impact of thriving enterprises on their personal and national welfare.
This ideological victory could only occur in the context of the delivery of real wage increases, but one built on the historic shift in the share of national income to capital. This confluence of favourable outcomes in Australia cannot continue indefinitely.
The Australia Council of Trade Unions outlined the underlying situation in its submission to Fair Work Australia over the minimum wage (and in doing so condemned itself without realising it):
Profits are at record levels of 26.9% of national income, while the wages share is close to a record low of 53.6%.
Labor in New South Wales has been in power for 15 years. Its inability to provide real reforms that benefit working class people, its failure to improve the health, education and transport systems in the state, means it stands condemned in the eyes of even its own working class supporters.
In the Penrith by-election – Penrith is a working class constituency – Labor’s primary vote halved to under 25 percent. The Greens’ vote more than doubled to 12.6 percent.
But the main beneficiary of working class disgust with the New South Wales Labor Government was the outright party of the bosses, the Liberals. For the first time ever they outpolled Labor in Penrith on primary votes, winning 50.9 percent compared to Labor’s 24.4 percent.
The swing to the Liberals on primaries was 18 percent, and to the Greens 7 percent.
The heartland has deserted Labor, with 7 out of ten of those fleeing the ALP going to the Liberals, and the other 3 out of ten to the Greens.
The Liberals will not be better able to solve the crisis of profitability and the lack of adequate spending on the social wage or address the environmental challenges facing humanity. They too will attack workers and support bosses who do so.
The Penrith result shows that a sizeable minority of workers switched to the other version of reformism on offer – the Greens. But the Greens have no links to the trade union movement. They have no grand social democratic vision.
They offer social but not economic reformism. Their prescriptions for radical change (such as dealing with global warming) are predicated on the market system and its manipulation rather than seeing the market as being at the heart of our environmental and other problems.
This makes the Greens unreliable allies for working people, and as they get more powerful this is likely to become clearer to workers, and without other major struggles in society shifting society to the left, is likely to see a swing back to Labor.
This would be possible if Labor were to adopt a left facade, but given the nature of the Party’s personnel and their links to capitalism and its neoliberal ideology, this will not occur.
I cannot see either Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard for example arguing that we should nationalise the mines under workers’ control. I can’t see anyone of any substance in the ALP who could perform the function of developing a credible left lie for the ALP.
The contradiction between the working class’s yearning for reforms and the inability of reformist parties to deliver them can be broken. Struggles for reforms and the defence of current living standards and conditions offer that possibility.
A mass revolutionary party of the working class can offer an alternative to the economic reaction of the major and minor parties. This is a party that argues the whole system is rotten and that only a democratic society in which production is organised to satisfy human need can save humanity from barbarism.
We can’t short circuit history. Building such a party is an enormous task, but it is our duty to the future to do so. We have to be patient and grow our small nucleus and then win confidence within the working class.
From little things big things grow.