Elections, struggle and building the left
These are notes for a talk I am giving at a Socialist Alternative meeting at 6 pm on Thursday 25 October in Room G8 of the Moran Building at the ANU on why there is so little choice in Australian politics and what the left alternative is.
Some of you may remember we had an election on Saturday in Canberra. It wasn’t earth shattering. It didn’t involve much passion. It didn’t resonate.
Why? Because the choice between Liberal and Labor was, apart from a few differences, essentially a choice between the two major parties of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism just means letting the market rule; using the state to ensure that happens, and using the state to keep workers under control.
Both major parties have adopted this approach to running the economy, with differences of nuance and interpretation, but not of substance. This ideology and practice of neoliberalism became the dominant political, economic and ideological trend after the economic crises of the early to mid-70s and declining profit rates underpinning that.
Far from being out of the ordinary for Labor, the ALP has always adopted the dominant ideology – Keynesianism after WWII, and neoliberalism as it was embraced in the UK and the US under Thatcher and Reagan respectively. Hawke and Keating, with their own brand of neoliberalism, followed shortly after in Australia, in 1983.
What this means is that there is little choice for voters wanting to change the world, wanting to make it a better place for the large majority of the population, not just for the rich and well off with the wealth somehow magically trickling down to us.
The Hawke and Keating brand of neoliberalism involved capturing the trade unions and working class in a self-limiting agreement called the Accord. This cut real wages over time and began the shift of wealth and income to capital at the expense of labour. And most importantly, strikes and other industrial action collapsed. That has continued under Howard and Rudd and Gillard. It is I think one of the key factors in understanding the political and economic situation today.
The strike figures in Australia for 2011 and previous years are at historic lows, not withstanding minor blips last year. As Michael Janda put it:
When one smooths out the volatility, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) figures show industrial disputes have declined steadily and significantly since limited protected industrial action was introduced in 1993.
The typical rate of work days lost per thousand employees at the start of the 1990s was between 40 and 60, for most of the 2000s it has been under 10. For the last half-decade, generally less than five.
However comparing strike days lost now to the 1960s and 1970s shows an even bigger decline. As Jade Eckhaus writes ‘… in the 1970s annual strike days per 1000 workers varied between 600-1200…’ Today, as Janda notes, it is ‘generally less than five[!]’ I should add one qualification. The number of working days lost to industrial action this year jumped to an eight-year high, largely on the back on strike action by teachers and nurses.
Even with the slight increase this year because of nurses and teachers, the figure is still less than ten. It is this loss of class combativeness, this lack of class struggle that explains the neoliberalisation of Australia and much of the right wing nature of politics and debate today.
It laid the groundwork for the election of Howard in 1996 and his attack on public servants; his anti-worker laws, and eventually the rotten Workchoices. Th union movement rather than striking against his laws called some impressive demos but failed to mobilise the anger to action in the workplace, instead diverting the anger into television ads and other dead ends.
Keep that lack of struggle, apart from occasional outbursts of the nurses, teachers, Baiada, Grocon, QCH, the ASIO building here in Canberra, keep that lack of struggle in mind.
Class struggle, and also street struggles, e.g. demos over refugees and equal marriage, can become an alternative focus to the parliamentary approach of Labor and the Greens.
Vote for us and things will be OK used to be Labor’s mantra. Now, after real examples for long periods of time of Labor in power and the attacks on wages, public services, privatisation and the like, the mantra has become – vote for us because the other lot are worse. However because of Labor’s action in power voters have drifted away, or more recently abandoned Labor. Labor’s current base level of support is 34%, and this is evidently something to cheer about because it is better than 26% or 30%, levels it has been at not so long ago.
The Greens for a time seemed to offer some focus point for activists and left voters. But they too are a party of neoliberalism, as the carbon tax for example shows. And so their vote is stabilising around ten to 12 per cent. In the ACT election on Saturday it fell from 15% to 10%, perhaps because left voters rejected its conservatism and do little approach. But they didn’t go back to Labor.
It is against this background that we can begin to answer the question – why is there so little choice in Australian politics. Neoliberalism of all the parties is the surface answer; lack of class struggle the underlying answer.
What is the left alternative? For many years now we in Socialist Alternative have been arguing we need to build a revolutionary party, one committed to workers overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a system in which production is organised democratically to satisfy human need.
This involved and involves a coalescing around some basic ideas – the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class; state capitalism – the idea that the Stalinist regimes were and are a form of capitalism in which the state expropriated the surplus value workers created; that capitalism cannot be reformed to socialism; that mass working class revolution is the key to that. On top of that we have had a fairly sensible grasp of the situation we as a few hundred members find ourselves in. There are no get rich schemes for the left.
That means we continue our orientation to struggles when they break out. Why? Because that is where the challenges to the rule of capital even in small ways are occurring. Why the crackdown on Occupy in Sydney and Melbourne a year ago? Why the massive police presence at the Grocon dispute? Why the police attacks on Muslim demonstrators in Sydney, on Aboriginal tent Embassy demonstrators earlier this year?
Because to varying degrees and in different ways these actions challenge the unfettered rule of capital. And we support them. We are too small in most cases to instigate action, but we can support actions. We were heavily involved in the community picket at Baiada, the community picket at Grocon, the building workers’ dispute across the country at Lend Lease sites across the country. For example we went to ASIO building picket here in Canberra. We are an important part of the equal love movement – one of our members won an award for her work in Equal Love in Victoria – the refugee movement and, when it erupted in 2003, the anti-war movement. We work too in the pro-Palestinian movement. One of our members has won the ASU young delegates award for her work in organising workers at the tenants’ union in Victoria over better pay and conditions and leading strikes there.
We do this as part of our support for workers and others in struggle for a better life, to test our ideas and to meet people who might be interested in our politics. However we have also been building our group through our work on the campuses.
Socialist Alternative is a propaganda group. This means it attracts people on the basis of ideas. Campuses contain often young people some of whom are open to different ideas. A smaller group are open to revolutionary socialist ideas. But we are a propaganda group which intervenes in struggle where we can. So we don’t just talk about things, we try to put our ideas into practice.
This focus is very far removed from that of the Labor Party or the Greens, whose focus is not on struggle but every four years getting us to vote for them, a passive, all too infrequent exercise of democracy. We elect our rulers to dominate us for the next 3 or 4 years. Because there is little choice between Labor and the Liberals, (and I would add, the Greens) there is little enthusiasm, energy or fever gripping society about the various elections – because little will change.
In 2008 in the US there was massive excitement about voting for Obama, who has delivered the Bush agenda for the last four years, an agenda of making sure the rich stay rich and the rest of US society survive just, of shifting wealth to the wealthy. An agenda of war, of drones, of austerity. This lack of real change is systemic, not caused by particular individuals but by an accumulation process that demands more and more wealth for the rich to continue and to address declining profit rates and by parties representing the interests of the rich, the one per cent if you like.
History is built on the back of change, and change happens not because we elect good kind people to office but on the back of struggles – economic struggles for better pay, conditions, the defence of jobs, and political ones around for example refugees, equal love and against war. The 8 hour day was won through struggle and as one senior trade union leader remarked recently, maybe we need to fight for it again.
Sitting here as little group all this talk about workers and struggle, in an environment of class passivity, can seem a little unreal. Surely we should be involved in elections?
We have few resources, and we have to concentrate our forces in the appropriate areas, where people are in struggle, and where we can attract more people, the campuses and social movements.
Even if we were bigger elections would not be our main focus. It would be struggle – workers on strike, demos for gay marriage and the like. We would if were bigger instigate them and drag in significant sections of society because it is only through struggle that we can change the world.
However as profit rates dry up, as the economy worsens around the globe, the capacity of capital to pay for better wages, conditions and jobs, to service social spending, becomes less and less and capital goes more and more on the attack to keep and extend its profits.
Struggles have broken out in Europe, especially Greece, against austerity. They have had 19 general strikes. In Portugal and Spain workers have also been stirring from their slumbers, and striking. And of course the Arab Spring has been a magnificent example of what the masses can do – mass demonstrations to rid themselves of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, a mass uprising in Syria and so on.
The struggles in Tunisia and Egypt in fact show the real power in society too of workers. In Tunisia the UGTT called a four hour stoppage to join the day of protests. The dictator lost his last support and fled. In Egypt mass strikes in 2008 at Malhala – a site of massive textile and other factories, possibly the biggest in the world – won economic demands and showed that Mubarak’s regime was not impregnable. The success of the revolution in Tunisia sparked the Egyptian masses and a few weeks later Mubarak was gone. In September 2011 strikes broke out across the country – a tenfold increase in what had been happening.
And the echo of that in the Occupy movement in North America and the globe was also felt briefly in Australia.
What do we see today? An ongoing process of revolution or turmoil in Egypt as more and more workers and peasants demand a better life; workers in different countries in Europe demonstrating and on strike to different degrees against austerity; the brief spark of the Occupy movement a year ago across the globe.
And in Australia, what do we see – endless replays of the PM tripping over in her high heels in India. But more than that we see Labor, again, attacking the poor, single mums, and the like and looking for more ways to use the scalpel, not the meat axe, on public services. We see a rabid Opposition ready to do a Campbell Newman federally and attack public service jobs and social welfare and social services; a Green movement that has abandoned its activist base and activity and mobilising people on the streets (but because they don’t have a class analysis or working class orientation, not and never mobilising workers) for the respectability of Parliament.
And a revolutionary left in Australia that is small, but in Socialist Alternative’s case, growing slowly or not at least falling apart.
We are the biggest revolutionary group in Australia. And when the members of the smaller Revolutionary Socialist Party join us, we will be even bigger, and an open group with different ideas but committed to revolution and the working class overthrowing capitalism.
We will continue to work steadily on campuses, do work in our unions, relating to and supporting struggles where we can and leading them occasionally. We will continue too to develop our ideas, to strengthen our theory and our practice as best we can, to develop a current of revolutionaries in Australia. If you agree with that, you should find out more about us, or consider joining. We have a world to win.
If you are on the left of politics, if you want to fight against the system and see workers democratically running society to satisfy human need, not to make a profit, if you believe that goal requires a bigger group of socialists, then you should consider joining Socialist Alternative and joining us in the fight for a better world. We have a world to win.
 In looking at the situation up to 2006, Chris White makes the same observation. Chris White, ‘Inside the Tent,’ Evatt Foundation <http://evatt.org.au/papers/inside-tent.html>.
 Michael Janda, ‘Qantas dispute no reason for rushed IR reform’ The Drum 1 November 2011 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-01/janda-qantas-dispute-no-reason-for-rushed-ir-reform/3613164>. See also Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s conflict.
 Jade Eckhaus, Why strikes are good’ Socialist Alternative 28 November 2011 <http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7153:why-strikes-are-good&Itemid=392>. For a graph showing the dramatic decline see Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide , 7.
 Michael Janda, above n 2.