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John Passant

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October 2009



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Hey hey it’s yesterday: Australian capitalism and racism

Australian capitalism is built on two pillars of racism. They define Australia today.

The first is the ongoing genocide against Aboriginal people.

It began in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet.

It continues today, as evidenced by the Northern Territory invasion.

The second was Federation in 1901 which was based on a number of compromises between capital and labour, including protectionism, arbitration and a white Australia.

The changing nature of Australian capitalism, especially its integration into the global economy, has seen these three federation foundations collapse, at least in name.

Thus Whitlam abolished the last vestiges of the White Australia policy in 1973.

And yet anti-foreigner and anti-aboriginal sentiment abound.

Governments of both persuasions have changed the nature of racism in Australia from virulent anti-black and anti-Asian restrictions and rhetoric to an inclusive ‘Australianism’ against the rest of the world, and sometimes against perceived unAustralians in ‘our’ midst.  Anti-Muslim hysteria comes to mind.

This doesn’t mean overt racism no longer exists. The Cronulla riots, the Tampa and the anti-refugee campaign, Hansonism, the Northern Territory invasion are all examples of the crimson thread of ‘Australian kinship’ that supposedly runs through us all.

The racism of the Northern Territory invasion is couched in terms of paternalism to make it saleable to the soft liberals, the sort who have illusions in Rudd and Obama.

The racism of the Cronulla riots and Tampa are more overt, reflecting the success of the ruling class in creating divisions among workers along racial lines. This division aids and reinforces the exploitative process and reduces its cost. 

Racism is essential to Australian capitalism’s extraction of surplus value from Australian workers.

While attitudes to race might be changing, racism is institionalised. Aborigines are jailed at more than 6 times the white rate.  They die 17 years earlier than whites. They are the poorest group in society.

Similarly Muslims, the other target for racism, are overrepresented among the unemployed and poor.

While we are fighting among ourselves, we are less united and less capable of winning the battle for a better share of the surplus we create.

Racism is but one of the divisive tools the bourgeoisie use. Homophobia and sexism are convenient tectonic  plates they can set into action to help keep pay lower than it would otherwise be. 

for example the fact that women’s wages are on average 17 percent lower than men’s acts as a break on the class as a whole winning larger wage increases.

These divisive tools resonate with some sections of the the working class.

There is a seeming overcoming of institutionalised alienation (arising from the social relations of capital and labour) when race or nationalism become flags for superiority.

Those of us who threaten those flags or do not drape ourselves in them or are perceived through difference to not be part of Australian nationalism become ostracised and doubly oppressed – at work and in society.

As the overwhelming support in Australia for the overt racism of the Jackson Five skit on Hey Hey it’s Saturday shows, racism  is such an ingrained part of the exploitative process which rules us and determines our lives and livelihoods that we don’t even recognise it.

Is there a solution? 

Education and laws are a furphy.  They do nothing to address the essence of racism under capitalism – an expression of our profound alienation from ourselves and others in the production and consumption process.

A combative working class, fighting for its interests, can give a real sense of hope and power to workers.

It can unite workers of all races and move the country from the racist backwater Australian capitalism has made it to one where relations between people are on a more equal footing.

True equality can only arrive when we abolish the source of inequality – the wages system and the classes that give rise to it.

The fight against racism is an integral part of the fight for a socialist world.



Comment from Marcp
Time October 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm


I’ve just found your article at National Times and I never thought there was a blog like this in Oz.

Anyway, about this post. Maybe I am mistaken (I myself am a migrant, by the way) and I refer to my personal experience. I suppose this may not explain the situation of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, of which I confess I am mostly ignorant.

But I believe in Australia is not so much that people are inherently racist (although there are exceptions), but that racism is deliberately exploited as a political and economical tool.

Say, for instance, the Howard years. Immigration was high. The justification is that skilled migrant workers would arrive to Australia and promote local development. The reality is that we arrived here to perform low skilled jobs and to drive down wages. The reason given by employers when one applies for a skilled job: lack of local work experience.

Observe here that employers win, and both, foreign migrants and local unskilled workers loose.

Of course, local unskilled workers they may be, but they are neither blind nor stupid, and they see that foreign workers are taking their jobs and driving down wages, so they feel angered. What they don’t see is that this is a deliberate policy, and the same government who fostered this situation manages to exploit this anger: anti-foreign rhetoric, for instance. Or anti-foreign posturing: Tampa, children overboard and asylum seekers in general.

The end result is what you mentioned: workers vs. workers. Migrants vs. locals.

In fact, in my experience, often enough it is older migrants who are most openly racist, believe it or not. As if by attacking new arrivals they proved that they became “locals”.

The recent scandal (now under the Labor government) with Indian and Chinese students is just a more extreme version of this: now, local businesses manage not only to save in “labor costs” -as students must work up to 900 hours for free to get their work experience-, but they actually get paid by their foreign workers (under the guise of student fees).

Now, this is what I call a capitalist’s wet dream.

By the way, if you have the chance or the curiosity, the link below leads to a book called “The Conservative Nanny State”, by the US economist Dean Baker.

He explains, among many other things, how wages are kept low in the US and I believe it’s strikingly similar to the situation in Australia. I only mentioned here the immigration piece of the puzzle, but there is also the effect of globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs, for instance.

I don’t believe Baker has any clearly defined ideological stance, but he seems to be an honest intellectual and his work is both comprehensive and rigorous, although presented in a language accessible to the wider public. And you can download the book for free, although you have the option of paying, if that is your wish.

Best wishes,


Baker’s profile
The Conservative Nanny State

Comment from Peter
Time October 12, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Gillard came out with this appalling defence of the skit. Basically saying it was ‘meant to be humourous’ so that makes it OK.

This is entirely consistent with the ALP’s usual approach to racism. The politicians personally might feel that something like a blackface skit goes beyond the bounds of what’s acceptable (maybe…). But their whole centrist logic means that they are really reticent to denounce racism, and in practice regularly support it.

The same has been going on with UK Labour and the BNP. Rather than straight out condemning the BNP as fascists, Labour talks about there being ‘legitimate concerns’ behind demands like ‘rights for whites’ and ‘British jobs for British workers’.

Both cases demonstrate that if your project is to manage a capitalist state, you have to either promote or at least tacitly (or not so tacitly) sanction racism.

Comment from Peter
Time October 12, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Sorry, didn’t include link

Comment from John
Time October 12, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I wonder if there is any developed capitalist country where racism is not institutionalised.

Pingback from En Passant » Rudd’s refugee racism
Time October 13, 2009 at 10:57 pm

[…] Readers might also like to read Hey hey it’s yesterday: Australian capitalism and racism […]

Comment from Mark Russell
Time October 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

I don’t believe the people doing their routine on Hey hey were trying to be racist at all – they were paying a homage to Michael Jackson. Anyway how can there be racism when there is only one race – the human race. What is common is culturalism.

Comment from John
Time October 14, 2009 at 7:19 pm

mark, I actually use the human race argument against people who think there is more than one race. But unfortunately you and I are a minority, and the majority do think in terms of skin colour, or even religious difference, to distinguish people, and divide them, often into ‘races’. I think the effect of the show was racist. Anyway, I think the wider issues about institutional racism are the more important questions. But now we have Rudd trying to out Ruddock the Liberals on immigration for political gain, I suspect that just reinforces my point – racism is institutionalised in Australia.

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