Archive for December, 2010

How do you deal toughly with your debtor?

December 31, 2010

Here’s a nice discovery. The second edition (2003) of Michael Hudson‘s book Super Imperialism: The Origins and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance is available here in its entirety (at a free online library maintained by a pair of Tasmanians interested in homesteading!).

Hudson’s book follows the international monetary system’s half-century-long transition to today’s US Treasury-bill standard.

The story runs from Coolidge and Mellon’s crippling use of inter-ally armament loans and German reparations during the 1920s; through the so-called “isolationist” years; the forced dismantling of British Imperial Preference via Lend-Lease and the Atlantic Charter; the subsequent establishment of the Bretton Woods system amid a US near-monopoly of export markets and gold stocks; the development of payments deficits during the 1960s; and Nixon’s abandonment of dollar convertibility in 1971.

This makes up some of the deep historical background to the macroeconomic imbalances that brought forth collapse in 2007, and which today hold the prospect of both currency wars and actual shooting wars.

Babylonian madness

December 23, 2010

Here’s an interesting paper from Mathew Forstater, a colleague of F. Randall Wray at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The author interprets the history of British colonialism in West Africa using the Chartalist theory of money. The piece is called “Taxation: A Secret of Colonial (So-Called) Primitive Accumulation”:

Colonial governments…required…means for compelling the population to work for wages. The historical record is very clear that one very important method for accomplishing this was to impose a tax and require that the tax obligation be settled in the colonial currency. This method had the benefit of not only forcing people to work for wages, but also of creating value for the colonial currency and monetizing the economy…[Although] taxation was often imposed in the name of securing revenue for the colonial coffers, and the tax was justified in the name of Africans bearing some of the financial burden of running the colonial state, in fact the colonial government did not need the colonial currency held by Africans. What they needed was for the African population to need the currency, and that was the purpose of the direct tax. The colonial government and European settlers must ultimately be the source of the currency, so they did not need it from the Africans. It was a means of compelling the African to sell goods and services, especially labor services for the currency. 

Post-Keynesians are surely right that the origin of monetary circulation lies with tax obligations to the state. Initially these were levied in kind (e.g. barley) or labour-time units owed (e.g. for military service). But eventually private agents were allowed to discharge their personal tax debts to the public power by surrendering symbolic tokens (indicating that someone else had fulfilled or cancelled the obligation). Soon enough these became transferable certificates: money. This money could, depending on the social context, take a variety of forms: tally sticks, paper vouchers, metal discs stamped with the royal insignia, etc. 

But the contemporary orthodoxy, along with most heterodox and left-wing Classical-type economists, adheres to a more polite outlook. In this view, favoured by Adam Smith and Marx, money emerged to facilitate commodity exchange, lubricating a tendency to ‘truck and barter’. The Chartalist approach has several advantages over this latter view:

  1. It helps to explain a wider range of historical developments, like those in British West Africa discussed above. Here the colonial state, rather than commodity exchange, created a monetary economy. The imposition of tax liabilities induced demand for and circulation of the new state-issued coinage. In doing so it forced part of the social product to take the form of commodities (goods and services sold in return for coin) in order for private agents to raise the money to pay taxes. The role of powerful bureaucratic states (domestic or imperialist) in the establishment of capitalism is thereby revealed to be less contingent than is often supposed, especially by Marxists.
  2. It allows a better understanding of government spending, suggesting that fiscal constraints and solvency risk are not problems for states that issue their own currencies, as explained here by Wray, here by Dimitri Papadimitriou, or here by Bill Mitchell.
  3. It provides a better grounding for a common argument: that which locates the proximate cause of the Eurozone’s “sovereign debt” crisis in monetary-fiscal mismatch. The governments of PIIGS countries do not issue their own currencies; equivalently, the EU lacks sufficient powers over taxation, spending and redistribution.
  4. It better supports the Smithian or Classical/Marxian notion of money as ‘the power to command labour.’ The state is the original appropriator of surplus labour. Money is the tokenisation of this surplus, that which permits the separation of the “symbolic appropriation” of this surplus (the levying of tax) from its “real appropriation” (the state’s procurement of goods and labour resources.) When the state receives tax payments, it merely collects its own tokens. Actual appropriation occurs when these tokens are used to buy and consume real goods or services. Central banks spend by crediting the accounts of sellers. Taxes falling due are then offset by an amount equal to this credit. If the Australian Defence Department purchases a submarine from ThyssenKrupp, it disguises the transfer of wealth by crediting Thyssen’s account. This account acquires purchasing power because the Australian government undertakes to accept its contents in settlement of tax debts.  The public debt is the difference between real and symbolic appropriation, terms which may not be equal for political or administrative reasons. As Keynes observed, the holder of this debt – the rentier class – symbolically appropriates a portion of the social surplus whose real appropriator is the state.

The irrepressible conflict

December 20, 2010

Today is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession from the federal Union. Four days later (24 December 1860) came the Declaration of Immediate Causes, a statement issued by delegates to the Charleston convention, explaining their earlier ordinance:

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.


On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guarantees of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Here are two contributions in the Beard tradition of Civil War historiography, i.e. seeking the political-economic basis for sectional conflict. First Charles Post:

The social origins and historical timing of the political crisis that culminated in the Civil War can be located in the transformation of plantation slavery from a spur into an obstacle to the development of capitalism in the US, as the result of the transition from independent household to petty commodity production in the northwest in the late 1830s and early 1840s…As industrial capitalism expanded rapidly in the two decades before the Civil War, plantation slavery’s noncapitalist class structure became an obstacle to the development of capitalism in the US. On the one hand, the master-slave relation of production prevented the use of new, labour-saving machinery and implements, limiting the market for factory produced capital goods. On the other, the attempt of slaveowners to make their plantations ‘self-sufficient’ in food stuffs, cloth and other items, limited the market for factory produced consumer goods. Together with the dominance of independent household production in the non-plantation districts, plantation slavery restricted the depth of the home market and made the south the least industrialised region in the antebellum US. The geographic expansion of plantation slavery, an unavoidable feature of this social property relation, into the west would have stifled the development of agrarian petty-commodity production and the home market for industrial capitalism in the 1840s and 1850s. The emergence of the conflict between the requirements of the development of plantation slavery and of industrial capitalism made the question of the future class structure of the west (slavery or capitalism and petty commodity production) the central and unresolvable political issue of the 1840s and 1850s.

And here’s the world-systems theorist Christopher Chase-Dunn:

The success of the Republicans and the split between the Northern and Southern Democrats broke the alliance between the farmers of the West and the planters of the South, which had allowed the Southerners to control the Federal state through the Democratic party. The crumbling of this alliance provoked the Civil War even though the Republicans never advocated the abolition of slavery but only prevention of its extension to the West. Southern peripheral capitalism was expansionist because of its extensive nature and the quick exhaustion of the soil, but this was not the main reason why the South desired the extension of slavery to the West. The main issue for the South was control over the Federal state. Planters opposed the creation of free states because the alliance with free farmers was tenuous and they felt they would have less and less power in the Federal state. The result would be a direct attack on their “peculiar institution” and their subjugation to the North as an internal colony. Therefore, when the South- West coalition crumbled and Lincoln won the election in 1860, South Carolina did not even wait for him to take office. As Rubinson (1978) has pointed out, the Presidency was everything because there was hardly a Federal bureaucracy in which the South could have institutionalized control. South Carolina seceded immediately, and most of the other slave states followed when it became clear that the North would make war in order to preserve the Union…It was not slavery that was the main issue but the question of who would dominate the Federal state. Free farmers and workers found themselves at odds with the interests of the peripheral capitalists of the South on the issue of the frontier, and so cast their lot with core capital. In so doing, they destroyed the plantocracy and created a strong core state. The Civil War and Reconstruction firmly established the hegemony of core capitalism and core labor over the Federal state.

Ten years ago this month, it became clear that, once again, the existing political framework could not support the needs and ambitions of the United States’ political elite. And, as with Dred Scott, the Supreme Court took the lead in supporting the most reactionary branch of state managers. Antonin Scalia‘s open elitism and contempt for the idea of popular suffrage was soon followed by people like John Yoo:

Contrary to Democratic rhetoric, the people have no right to vote for president or even the Electoral College; that power is only delegated to them by the grace of the legislature. In appointing the electors itself, the legislature would be directly taking up its constitutional functions again.

People (mostly Democrats) started to circulate funny maps comparing the geographic distribution of Bush and Gore (or Bush and Kerry) votes to the division between pro-Union and Confederate states. There was, indeed, a renewed basis for sectional divisions: the Democrats received most of their funding from “new economy” sectors in Silicon Valley, West Hollywood, and the Pacific northwest, and attracted support in gentrified urban areas (often containing hi-tech clusters like Kendall Square) of Boston, northern California, Portland and Seattle; the DLC increasingly pursued the support of high finance on Wall Street and Connecticut’s Gold Coast. The Republicans, meanwhile, drew backers from energy, construction, defence and the relatively backwards, anti-NAFTA manufacturing sector. The party’s support was thus concentrated in the Houston energy corridor, the Piedmont (including North Carolina’s Research Triangle), the Sun Belt and Wall Street.

This time, however, there was no practical conflict within the US ruling elite. Though the Republicans were most forthright in stealing elections through disenfranchisment, the Democrats and the broader “liberal” wing soon joined enthusiastically in a common project of constitutional rollback, open criminality and removal of hard-won rights.

C19 Tasmania by way of C21 China

December 18, 2010

Take the following visible features of social conflict in contemporary China:

  1. The full-throated ideological defence, by Liu Xiaobo and others, of private property as a matter of natural rights;
  2. The latter’s imposition, both violent and stealthy, via eco-tourism in Yunnan, dam construction in Hubei, urban expansion in the Pearl River Delta, legal reforms in Zhejiang, privatization of state assets in Jiangsu and ‘restructuring’ of TVEs in Liaoning;
  3. Popular opposition to (2) from peasant smallholders and state employees, with dissent expressed using self-mutilation, Molotov cocktails, self-immolation, petitions and protests.

Together these manifest sources of instability are placing enormous stress on the PRC’s brittle political apparatus, which Beijing state elites now privately suggest to their Washington counterparts may collapse.

But all three features (clamorous ideologues, state coercion and violence, popular resistance) are common enough tokens in societies where state, communal or open-access resources are being appropriated for private ownership.

So there are many historical precedents for today’s events in China, dating back to English enclosure.

These include the precocious use of ‘conservation’ or ‘environmental protection’ laws as a means to enforce capitalist social-property relations. The Game Laws stopped the English rural population from self-provisioning and thereby made them dependent for sustenance on income earned from the labour market (i.e. waged employment).

Consider now the establishment in Australia of private-property relations in land.  This occurred through a decades-long process of colonization. In particular, let’s look at frontier violence in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s and 1830s.

From the 1820s, the pastoral industry in both New South Wales and Tasmania grew rapidly. In the absence of labour-saving technical change (e.g. fencing), growth was extensive: wool graziers expanded their business by accumulating ever more sheep and pasture. The pastoral frontier thus moved swiftly into both colonial interiors, with Crown land divided, then granted or sold, and convicts assigned to supervise flocks.

Under George Arthur, the colonial administration of Van Diemen’s Land distributed over 2 million acres  half the island’s pasture and arable land  in the 10 years from 1824. This first chart dates from the beginning of that period.

This second map shows the extent of colonial settlement (land holdings, counties and police districts) in 1833.

The jurist Blackstone famously described property as ‘that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.’

Nowadays Blackstone’s aphorism is presented in legal textbooks as an exaggeration or rhetorical flourish. Proprietary rights, the tyro is assured, are never so absolute or anti-social!

But the history of nineteenth-century Australia shows the basic accuracy of Blackstone’s description. The establishment of private landed property, and the exclusion of non-owners from its use, was fatally injurious to Aboriginal Tasmanian society.

Exclusive possession was extended to land that had previously been accessible for hunting, shelter and other use.  Suddenly, non-possessors were no longer entitled to use privately held land, nor claim any of its resources, nor dispose of its fruits. Such prohibitions were enforced, on pain on death, by the presence of shepherds guarding livestock.

This, of course, led rapidly to calamitous social breakdown. The mode of subsistence (food acquisition and shelter), kinship and ceremonial activities of Aboriginal Tasmanian society were all based around ‘country’. Population density was highest in the same riverine drainage basins that formed the basis of pastoral settlement.

Denial of access to this land, in the name of  the propertyholder’s exclusive right to its use, meant that life for Aboriginal Tasmanians literally could not go on.

The ideological defence for this activity was made using the traditional Lockean case for just appropriation.

Take this editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1838:

The American Indians were divided into nations, having fixed localities  they cultivated the ground, and understood the right of property. Not so, however, with the natives of New Holland. This vast country was to them a common — they bestowed no labor upon the land  their ownership, their right, was nothing more than that of the Emu or the Kangaroo. They bestowed no labor upon the land and that  and that only  it is which gives a right of property to it. Where, we ask, is the man endowed with even a modicum of reasoning powers, who will assert that this great continent was ever intended by the Creator to remain an unproductive wilderness? Yet what else was it  what would it have remained, but for the labor of civilized man? Here, then, we take our stand. The British people found a portion of the globe in a state of waste  they took possession of it; and they had a perfect right to do so, under the Divine authority, by which man was commanded to go forth and people, and till the land. Herein we find the right to the dominion which the British Crown, or, more properly speaking, the British people, exercise over the continent of New Holland. From that authority the nation derives its right of possession, and, as a consequence, a right to portion out the land to individuals. The abstract rights of the Aboriginal inhabitants, who never made any use of the land, except to rove over its length and breadth, and to subsist upon the herbs and wild animals which it produced in a state of nature, does not enter into the present question: which is the right of the British nation to the soil, having been the first to take possession of it as a vast waste, and the consequent right of the nation to dispose of it.

But Aboriginal Tasmanians did not willingly accept the experience of rapine and the prospect of starvation.

This fact is shown clearly in the following letter, sent on 10 January 1828 from Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in Government House to the Secretary of State for Colonies:

I have the honour to report to your Lordship, that a more than usual temper of hostility has, within the last six months, manifested itself on the part of the Aborigines of this Colony, and has rendered some active steps for protection necessary, and I fear some still stronger measures will be required. On my succeeding to the government, I found the quarrel of the Natives with the Europeans…was daily aggravated, by every kind of injury committed against the defenceless Natives, by the stockkeepers and sealers, with whom it was a constant practice to fire upon them whenever they approached, and to deprive them of their women whenever the opportunity offered… It is not a matter of surprise that the injuries, real or supposed, inflicted upon the blacks, have been revenged upon the whites, whenever an occassion has presented itself; and I regret to say, that the Natives… have committed many murders upon the shepherds and herdsman in remote situations… The necessity of taking some decisive step… becomes every day more apparent, as the settlers advance on the favourite haunts of the Natives, but I confess I feel the subject exceedingly perplexing… They already complain that the white people have taken possession of their country, encroached upon their hunting grounds, and destroyed their natural food, the kangaroo… I cannot divest myself of the consideration that all aggression originated with the white inhabitants…

Whatever the subjective intentions of the various actors, the settlers’ defence of title or tenure to land thus led inevitably to genocide.

The Sydney Monitor of 27 October 1830 reported the words of Arthur’s Solicitor-General, Sir Alfred Stephen, at a ‘respectable’ public meeting in Hobart:

I take this opportunity of noticing Mr. Gellibrand’s observations as to taking the lives of the blacks. I agree with Mr. Horne, that their slaughter of the whites has been indiscriminate as any which can be the result of the proposed operations, and I say, that as they have urged such a war upon the settlers, you are bound to put them down. But there is another consideration, which weighs strongly with me. I say that you are bound to do so, in reference to the class of individuals, who having been involuntarily sent here, are compelled to be in the most advanced position [i.e. convicts assigned to work as shepherds on pastoral runs], where they are exposed to the hourly loss of their lives. I say, Sir… that you are bound upon every principle of justice and humanity, to protect this particular class of individuals; and if you cannot do so without   extermination, then I say boldly and broadly, exterminate! I trust I have within me as much humanity as any man who hears me, but I declare openly, that if I was engaged in the pursuit of the blacks, and that I could not capture them, which I would endeavour to do by every means in my power, I would fire upon them. I again and again say, I know not whether this is the opinion of others. I expose myself I am aware thereby, to much attack upon the ground of humanity, but I am satisfied that we are bound to afford all possible protection to those who are exposed to the atrocities of the blacks, and therefore I am of opinion, capture them if you can, but if you cannot, destroy them.

We can see that, beneath the obvious differences of scale and intensity, 1830s-era Van Diemen’s Land shared with contemporary China the three features described at the beginning of this post.

This is because, I have suggested, the two societies have something even deeper in common. Both underwent a similarly tumultuous process: the appropriation as private property of worldly things (especially land) that were not previously the exclusive possession of anyone, and which ‘non-owners’ hadn’t hitherto been prevented from using or accessing.

Canberra cables finally available

December 16, 2010

After two weeks of refusals, Fairfax newspapers in Australia have finally, if very quietly, made publicly accessible some leaked diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Canberra.

2011 likely to be grim

December 16, 2010

Many of the Minsky-inspired analyses of the Great Recession fail to emphasise that the massive debt run-up and asset-price inflation of the pre-2007 years was led by household borrowing rather than, as in the canonical treatment, over-leveraged firms. Throughout most of the 2000s, US non-financial corporations actually lent to the financial sector.

Australia suffered less than other economies because, after the early-2009 blip, household debt resumed growing quickly. But today’s national accounts release shows private credit growth has again slowed, and this time may turn into outright private-sector deleveraging. Investment levels certainly don’t look like growing enough to make up for the looming withdrawal of government spending and household borrowing. The near future doesn’t look great.

Freedom, property and the pursuit of happiness

December 12, 2010

Reforms necessary for China to join ‘the mainstream of civilized nations’, according to the what-we-advocate section of Charter 08:

We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.

In 1980, the private sector accounted for 0.5% of China’s industrial output; by 2001, that figure had risen to around 40%, and the increase has only accelerated since.

Many of the largest enterprises, in strategic sectors such as energy, are still state-owned assets. A disproportionate number of privatized and “restructured” SOEs have thus been small- and medium-sized.

These newly-created capitalist firms require a corresponding workforce of waged employees. This is conveniently found amidst massive, localized pools of unemployment generated by the transfer of communal and state-owned property to private ownership, as well as through rural-to-urban migration.

The latter, in turn, has been both a voluntary response to incentives, alongside confiscation of agricultural land, demolition of homes and villages, and forced relocation. As elsewhere, the gradual establishment of private property has involved “freedom” less than it has brute theft, asset stripping, corrupt patronage and repression.

Below is a map of “blood houses”, denoting deaths, immolations and verified protest events relating to coerced relocations.

Liu Xiaobo, the chief drafter of Charter 08, warns Chinese state managers of ‘social crises’ and ‘sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people’: ‘we see the powerless in our society…becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions.’ As the private remarks of Beijing’s foreign ambassadors to their US counterparts make clear, the local elite shares such concerns.

What then are the prospects for a Chinese liberalism – a set of sensible concessions and calculated reforms that, as Liu suggests, would preserve the current economic trajectory on a more secure political footing?

Signs are unpromising. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s well-known views on colonialism, military aggression and Islam reveal the influence of George W. Bush as much as they do that of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (while the title of this blog post, taken from the text of Charter 08, suggests a likely affinity with latter-day Russian oligarchs).

Indeed, recent US military aggression – with its geostrategic subtext the encircling and “containment” of Beijing and other rivals – could scarcely present less propitious circumstances for a Chinese transition to parliamentary elections and the full panoply of liberal rights. Caught in increasingly protectionist battles for external markets and raw-material supplies, Chinese state managers are hardly likely to relax their grip on the local garrison state. Oslo’s bestowal of the Peace Prize on a Chinese dissident and CIA grantee, an unsubtle contribution to the US State Department’s cause, thus seems reason more for dread than for optimism.

It may well be too late in the world-historical day for a Chinese liberalism to serve the need for stability of domestic and external propertyholders, or to meet any popular-progressive yearnings. As is becoming clearer everywhere, the preservation of basic civil and legal rights, let alone their advancement, requires a different course.

One view from the New School

December 9, 2010

Contributing no startling insights, but still worth a read, is Duncan Foley’s recent talk on the prospects for economic recovery, and the strength of US global leadership:

[From] a global perspective there is simply not enough demand generation to support continued rapid growth of the emerging-markets economies and provide politically acceptable levels of job creation in the advanced capitalist economies… While the U.S. still claims world economic leadership, it finds itself in a position as a result of the financial crisis of 2007-8 where it cannot create sufficient world aggregate demand through its own policies, and, ironically, is equally powerless to divert aggregate demand to its own stagnating economy. These problems are inherent in the very institutions that support U.S. hegemony… Inadequate world aggregate demand poses serious threats to continued economic cooperation among the advanced capitalist countries, as or more serious than the European imperial powers’ panic over control of natural resources posed in the period before the first World War.

Australian Greens come out as open supporters of militarism

December 6, 2010

I’ve written previously about Canberra’s place in the ever-escalating strategic conflict between Washington and Beijing, and the role of the Australian Greens in helping along this agenda.

A further insight was provided yesterday by the party’s leader, Bob Brown, in a radio interview with the ABC.

For a week, Brown’s party and all its parliamentary representatives had steadfastly maintained their silence about the content of US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks. They had also refused to criticize or remark upon the persecution, legal stitch-ups and threatened assassination of Julian Assange, and showed no desire to condemn the various attempts to prevent public access to the documents.

This silence was not due to an all-consuming focus on local affairs.

Last Friday, Brown issued a statement about Moroccan violence in Western Sahara, offering the party’s ‘concern and support’ for the local population. On Thursday, the party issued a press release on Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters.

But Brown was forced to speak yesterday after WikiLeaks released a State Department cable from March 2009, describing a meeting between the US Secretary of State and Australia’s then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

In this document, Rudd was revealed to have discussed various means of forestalling a ‘Chinese Monroe Doctrine’, which would reduce US and Australian economic and military influence in East and South-east Asia. These options included ‘preparing to deploy force’, through expansion of Australia’s naval capability and ‘US re-engagement in the region’.

One might have thought these revelations would concern MPs of a party which lists, among its four core beliefs, ‘peace and non-violence’. According to the Greens’ sales pitch, ‘Australia’s foreign policy should be based on dialogue, diplomacy and cooperation, not aggression. Trying to prevent or counter violence with violence itself will not work.’

Here was evidence that an Australian government was considering recourse to war, involving two nuclear-armed states, to protect its sphere of commercial and strategic influence.

Even the conservative Julie Bishop, foreign-affairs spokesperson for the Coalition, professed herself alarmed:

I find it troubling that Mr Rudd as prime minister advised the United States that it should consider the use of force if other measures failed to counter China’s growing influence. That is not a view that he’s expressed publicly and Julia Gillard should detail whether this remains the view of the Labor government.

The opposition raised the point that both the US and China possessed nuclear weapons, and criticized the government’s ‘rush to condemn’ Assange without having found any breach of Australian law.

Bishop’s cynical lurch into this, the Greens’ favoured rhetorical territory, finally prompted Brown to speak up.

Thus, in his interview with ABC radio, the Greens leader called for Assange to have his citizenship ‘respected’ and for him to be ‘reassured that his citizenship is kept safe’. He then refused to categorize Assange as either a ‘hero’ or ‘quasi-terrorist’, and emphasized that ‘it’s important that we ensure that information like this [the leaked cables] doesn’t threaten those lives [of Australian troops in Afghanistan]’.

Those matters dealt with, Brown proceeded to attack Bishop’s remarks, defending Rudd’s belligerence against any criticism:

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle this morning about the prospect of our Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, as Prime Minister, having suggested, if all else fails, force may needed in regard to another country, that being China. Well, goodness me, I’d ask the question of Julie Bishop, should we abandon the defence forces? Are there no circumstances in which force may be used? By that, presumably, meaning defensive force. I would think that’s the logic of the defence forces.

And when it comes to some forthright talking about the Dalai Lama and the need for consideration of autonomy in Tibet, in my experience, the great majority of Australians would be right behind Kevin Rudd in putting forward that option as a real one.

Brown made no mention, let alone criticism, of the cable’s further key revelation, that the ALP government was planning to extend Australian military involvement from Afghanistan to Pakistan: ‘Rudd indicated Australia was willing and able to help, especially in special operations and counterinsurgency areas, as soon as Pakistan was willing to accept’ it.

As the Pakistani government has since agreed to ever-increasing US military actions inside its territory – now essentially merged with Afghanistan into a single theatre of operations (“AFPAK”) – it’s natural to wonder whether Australian troops, too, have become active in that country.

Even with that matter left aside, the Greens leader’s comments are astonishing.

In recent years, Australian troops have participated in the regime change and military occupation of East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands.

Yet Bob Brown suggests that, ‘presumably’, military deployment against China would involve ‘defensive force’. Clearly, the presumption isn’t derived from contemporary experience or recent observation.

Nor can it be inferred from the details of the Rudd-Clinton discussion itself. Washington’s claim to naval prerogatives in the Yellow and South China seas, and its opposition, with Australia, to any declaration by Beijing of a ‘regional Monroe Doctrine’, can hardly be described as defensive in nature. It was publicly revealed, at the time of Rudd’s visit to Washington, that Canberra’s own military-intelligence analysts perceived ‘China’s military buildup as largely a defensive response to the perceived threat of US naval power in the Pacific.’

What then is the argumentative basis for Brown’s presumption about ‘defensive force’? It is simply, he claims, an obvious deduction to make from ‘the logic of the defence forces.’

So there we have it.

The Australian Greens proclaim their opposition to an Australian foreign policy based on ‘aggression.’ On this basis they seek electoral support and are proclaimed as a ‘progressive alternative to the politics-as-usual of the two major parties.’

Yet the party’s leader judges the ADF to be by definition incapable of aggression, while detecting aggression only from the Australian elite’s rivals and enemies.

In some respects, Brown’s words should surprise nobody. Over the past decade, the Greens have made little secret of their willingness to support Australian military ambitions in the southwest Pacific.

Nor have they blushed at identifying this ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent stealth Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence, especially in East Timor and Fiji.

Yet this is nonetheless, by my reckoning, some kind of first.

Presented with the catastrophic prospect of Australian involvement in war between the US and China, never before has the ‘progressive alternative’ responded: ‘So? What do you think armies are for?’