Archive for June, 2012

Fundamental and longstanding principles upon which journalism is practised

June 29, 2012

From the 22 May 1901 edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, a report on the previous day’s debate in Melbourne’s Federal Parliament:

Referring to the general election, Mr. Reid said there was an imaginative production [The Age newspaper] published in Melbourne at a reasonable price, whose proprietor [David Syme] was the virtual dictator of Victoria, and held its politicians in the hollow of his hand. (Cries of “No.”) He intended to let them hear something novel. No prominent politician had the pluck to face the dictator. One man, the Rev. J. B. Ronald, faced him, and was still alive, and tolerably well. He hoped that would give courage to others to follow his example. They must reckon now that one paper ruled Victoria, and that affected the results of the election.

Syme, the noted patron of Alfred Deakin, who ran the paper from 1860 to 1908, in an unfinished essay on ‘the Working of Party Government’:

The Press has… been described as the organ of public opinion. But a newspaper is something more than an organ of public opinion… A newspaper, if it is of any account at all, has its own opinions. It does not ask the man in the street what he thinks, but it tells him what he ought to think.

Joseph Goebbels, 15 March 1933, speech to press proprietors:

Gentlemen! I believe that I can present myself to you as a colleague, as it were, because I do not come to the press field as an innocent but am myself from the press… As I have already said, the press must not merely inform: it must also instruct. I turn first of all to the explicitly national press. Gentlemen! You too will consider a situation in which the press is so finely tuned that it is, so to speak, a piano in the hands of the Government and on which the Government can play, a situation in which it is an enormously important and significant instrument of mass influence that the Government can make use of in the work for which it is responsible.


An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism

June 25, 2012

The Australian historian Ann Curthoys has often spoken of her time in the Eureka Youth League, Sydney University Labor Club, Vietnam Action Campaign, Student Action for Aborigines and Women’s Liberation.

This impeccably Stalinist upbringing acquainted her with fellow CPA scions like Brian Aarons and Patricia Healy, left-wing activists like Bob Gould and the Percy brothers, as well as future establishment figures like Jim Spigelman and Charles Perkins.

Curthoys later described these years as ‘a middle-class baby-boom generation experience, not uncommon, but not typical either.’ She drifted into the New Left around the time the CPA, under the leadership of Laurie Aarons, turned Eurocommunist.

Meanwhile her parents were among those hardcore Moscow loyalists who split to form the Socialist Party of Australia.

In 1990 Barbara Curthoys was granted access to the Comintern archive in Moscow; she later published an article describing how the parents of historian Lyndall Ryan were expelled as right deviationists from the CPA in 1929.

Strangely enough, during the early 1970s Ann Curthoys shared a Sydney residence with Lyndall Ryan while each undertook postgraduate studies at Macquarie University.

They helped to co-found the Women’s Liberation periodicals MeJane and Refractory Girl. Joyce Stevens, a prominent member of the CPA until its 1991 dissolution, also sat on the editorial collective of MeJane.

By 1988, having re-examined the ‘shibboleths of the left’ in an academic discussion group, Curthoys declared herself persuaded by Alec Nove’s vision of market socialism. The future, she now believed, lay with ‘competition and markets.’

Curthoys is one of many Stalinist and ex-socialist academics who played a part, now largely forgotten, in the Hawke and Keating ALP governments’ institutional and ideological renovation of Australian society.

She wasn’t a fulsome and direct participant, as were others like Stuart Macintyre. But, as I’ll explain, her scholarly contributions to the field of labour history  most importantly her work with Andrew Markus on working-class racism and anti-immigrant movements during the nineteenth century  did provide useful ideological tools for that elite policy program.

The latter was presented to the population as ‘a root-and-branch re-examination of many long-standing features of our national life’, ‘dismantling some of our most cherished orthodoxies… deeply embedded in the very psyche of the nation.’ The state leadership openly sought to conscript historians to its project, which it described as a ‘process of deepening our sense of national identity, national responsibility and national maturity. We have altered the focus on our past. With that new focus on the past, has come a reassessment of the past’ (Hawke).

This modification to official nationalism had mundane objectives.

First there was the ‘competitiveness agenda’, which, on the pretext of repairing the current-account balance, took an axe to real wages, working conditions and the social position of employees (while a ‘war on inflation’ subordinated asset-poor borrowers to wealthy creditors).

Then there was the ‘process of national reinvigoration and reinvention’ (Keating) demanded by Canberra’s regional policy. The latter, pursued through ‘multilateral’ forums, in fact aimed to prevent the economic and political integration of East and Southeast Asia independently of Washington’s hub-and-spokes framework of military and diplomatic alliances. The growth of external investment by Japanese firms, alongside the re-entry of China to the world market and the industrial development of various SE Asian countries, raised the possibility that a regional bloc could be formed which could conceivably produce a military-political competitor to Washington  thus threatening the position of Canberra and of Australian-owned firms in the region. Hawke linked so-called ‘regional engagement’ to ‘changes which have occurred in our attitudes to our history, our culture, and our relations with the rest of the world, especially with the peoples of our own region… [which] may be said to have begun with the fall of Singapore in 1942.’

Finally there was the attempt to channel the frustration and disappointment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into a political response based on ethnic identity, by granting administrative powers, limited property rights and other privileges to an Indigenous elite. This project involved bringing Indigenous people into ‘the Australian legend’ (Keating).

The old labour radical nationalism (associated with one-time CPA members and historians Russel Ward, Robin Gollan, Ian Turner and Eric Fry) was inadequate to this new age.

In the hands of Curthoys and others, this old labour history, and the nationalism it supported, received a postmodern makeover.

The superseded account, Curthoys explained, ‘has suffered many theoretical blows, has met with other desires, multicultural, postcolonial, feminist. It has been seen as inappropriate to postwar, culturally diverse, urban Australia, expressing the aspirations of a British Australia that no longer exists.’ The retrofitted model would be attentive, in the words of Curthoys and John Docker, to ‘heterogeneity, difference, contradictoriness, and indeterminacy’.

Journals like Labour History therefore applied new methodological and interpretive strictures to contributions. Property relations should be denied any categorical primacy or priority in historical explanation. Social class would instead hold the same conceptual status as various ascriptive traits (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity, generational cohort and religion). Class, like these personal attributes, would be seen primarily as a badge of identity or a label of group membership.

This involved various lamentable concessions to intellectual fashion, as can be seen from the following embarrassing passage. It is by Curthoys, from a 1991 article in the journal Hecate, in which she described the treatment by historians of sex, ethnicity and class:

Many have noticed the similarity of chaos theory to poststructuralist theory in the humanities, in the questioning of older theories of order… [The] similarity between chaos theory in the sciences and recent theory in the humanities is intriguing… Having read my way through [a book by the journalist James Gleick] and learnt something about fractals and strange attractors and bifurcations and iteration and nonlinear equations and the like, I started to think about possible specific connections between feminism and chaos theory… Feminist theory has long had its own “three body problem.” Our three bodies are the concepts of sex (or gender), ethnicity (or race), and class.

In the midst of Australia’s so-called History Wars, Curthoys spoke of the need to ‘develop the kind of pluralist inclusive account of the past that might form the basis for a coherent national community.’

This might have been said by Hawke or Keating, or by Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Stuart Macintyre or Don Watson. Indeed, her stated objective was shared by all those ‘left’ historians who, during the 1980s and 1990s, combined their avowedly progressive politics with a taste for sitting on committees and advisory panels appointed by ALP governments, tasked with investigating civics education or a ‘re-founded’ national identity.

For Curthoys, the purpose of the historian’s craft was still to support nationalism, now re-cast in the language of identity politics:

At the forefront, then, of the construction of national identity in the Australian context  as, perhaps, everywhere else  is the question of history. As a cultural practice, history is tied to questions of belonging, kinship, betrayal, inheritance, attachment, fear, and danger. Representations of history are, we know, constructions of social identity…

The insight that all social groups, whether defined by gender, ethnicity, nationality, or politics, construct an account of the past that works to authorise their identity as a group is as relevant and lively in Australia as elsewhere.

It seems likely that such views were prepared by Curthoys’s political upbringing. As part of her youthful education, she would have been exposed to Austro-Marxist theories on the ‘national question’ (the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft), as well as those proffered by her own party, and subsequently to those varieties of Third-Worldism prevalent in her later radical milieu.

It’s not generally appreciated by people unfamiliar with the Marxist tradition how many of the issues and topics that preoccupied late-twentieth century thinkers (e.g. national identity, unity and diversity within a mass movement, etc.) were originally debated, usually with far greater depth and seriousness, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, by adherents, interlocutors and opponents of classical Marxism. The idea of the nation as a ‘narrative’ that ‘works to authorise their identity as a group’  favoured by post-structuralists, post-colonial theorists and ethno-symbolists, as well as by people like Benedict Anderson and the New Left Review crowd  emerged from this background and contained unmistakeable echoes of it.

The path from Stalinist nationalism to postmodernist nationalism is short, a fact which must be recalled when considering the intellectual origins and political implications of Curthoys’s ‘pluralist inclusive account of the past that might form the basis for a coherent national community.’

What then was Curthoys’s contribution to this new liberal-progressive Australian nationalism?

Much of her early scholarly research concerned labour history, and examined the place within it of racism, sexism and colonialism. In her doctoral thesis, Curthoys had discussed the 1861 anti-Chinese riots on the New South Wales goldfields at Lambing Flat.

Thirty years later she returned to the historical episode, linking it to contemporary issues under the Howard government:

Our treatment of these Chinese men shames many of us… As a nation, our fears and our hatreds, and our interest in the exotic and the Other, live with us still. In imagining those who observed, met, liked, hated, loved and traded with those Chinese gold seekers we see, ultimately, ourselves as we were and in some respects continue to be.

Here was the ideological raw material of nationalism: a supra-individual personality (‘the nation’), a grammatical person that possessed beliefs and attitudes (‘our fears and our hatreds’), stable traits giving rise to repeated behaviours, a ‘national character’ to which events more than a century apart could be attributed.

This was not an idiosyncratic treatment. The nation as collective actor was similarly invoked at this time by Sir William Deane and by Paul Keating.

More specifically, throughout her scholarly career Curthoys returned, again and again, to an idea: the notion that, for two centuries, the male, non-Indigenous Australian working class had benefited from racism, colonialism and sexism, at the expense of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and immigrants.

Through her work, readers and students of Australian history were taught a curious lesson: they were encouraged, correctly, to consider instances of racism (both in episodes of anti-immigrant chauvinism, and in the exterminist logic of settler colonialism) as obviously wicked and repugnant (at least from a contemporary standpoint). Yet with this negative evaluation was packaged the factual claim that racism had had beneficial consequences for the majority, or at least a large minority, of Australians.

In a 1978 article in Labour History (later published in a very influential book on the history of Australian working-class racism, which she co-edited with Andrew Markus) Curthoys wrote that the ‘super-exploitation’ of Aborigines, Melanesians and women in late nineteenth-century pastoral, sugar, clothing and food-processing industries ‘may have enhanced the wage rates of the greater part of the workforce, the male European workers’:

The relative roles of capital and labour in the emergence of a movement against Chinese immigration are [therefore] somewhat clearer. Organised labour’s position as the defender of jobs and wages meant that it was the logical leader of opposition to the Chinese as economic competitors with European workers. In so far as the anti-Chinese movement went beyond the specific cheap labour issue into the realm of social, political, moral, race-purity, and general economic complaints against the Chinese themselves, labour’s leadership was augmented by small employer, self employed, and general middle class concern. For their part, the larger representatives of capital were at this stage anti-Chinese in the sense of supporting their super-exploitation, but not in the sense of wishing to exclude them from the colony.

Markus added that ‘for the labour movement the campaign against non-European immigration was part of a broader battle to maintain established standards by restricting access to the labour market.’

On this account, popular racism and exclusivism were not tragic errors that divided Australian workers from their class allies, thus playing into the hands of the propertied elite. Instead (according to Curthoys and Markus) they had followed rationally from the material interests of Australian employees.

Curthoys and Markus’s interpretation of events rested upon the assumption that Labor parliamentarians and union officials reliably represented the views and well-being of their constituents, rather than having encouraged parochialism and nurtured atavism out of their own self-interest. As one historian has recently pointed out, ‘no evidence is provided to justify this assertion.’

In its absence, readers were left with Curthoys’s claim that employees were the ‘logical leader of opposition to the Chinese’ since racism ‘enhanced the wage rates of the greater part of the workforce.’

But she likewise offered no empirical or theoretical support for this claim, merely pointing readers to the work on segmented labour markets by Berkeley economist Michael Reich. (In reality, she was relying upon the influential theory of discrimination offered by the Chicago economist Gary Becker, for whom employees find it in their interests to support racist prejudice, while profit-maximizing firms cannot do so, since otherwise they will be driven out of business by low-cost competitors. Reich, on the other hand, had just published a paper called ‘Who Benefits from Racism?’ which reached the opposite conclusion: ‘Capitalists gain and white workers lose.’ He had written as much several years earlier: ‘the economic consequences of racism are not only lower incomes for blacks but also higher incomes for the capitalist class and lower incomes for white workers… where racism is greater, income inequality among whites is also greater… [Racism] is in the economic interests of capitalists and other rich whites and against the economic interests of poor whites and white workers’.)

Many decades later, Curthoys’s ideas about who benefits from imperialism and racism continue to inform her historical work and her recently expressed political attitudes.

They account for her repeated claim (which I mentioned in a post some time ago)  that all ‘non-Indigenous Australians’ are ‘the beneficiaries of the colonisation process’ which devastated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.

[All] migrants and their descendants, including those of non-Anglo-Celtic background, [have come] to be recognised as colonisers, as part of and benefiting from colonisation with its history of indigenous dispossession.

These ideas are favoured and expressed most relentlessly by members of a particular milieu: those, like Curthoys, with a tribal affiliation to the ALP, the children of union officials and public servants, Stalinists and social democrats.

Their eagerness to implicate others as the beneficiaries of imperialism perhaps stems from a guilty awareness (recalled dimly from childhood catechisms) that the privileges have accrued, in fact, to people like themselves.

In the political education of her youth, Curthoys would have encountered the idea of the ‘labour aristocracy’, a Marxist term applied to the privileged layer of union bureaucrats and labour party officials. In Lenin’s canonical account, the income, social influence and living standards of this stratum were supported by ‘morsels of the loot’ extracted from the direct producers, particularly the super-exploited toilers in colonies and other low-wage countries. Material self-interest then gave rise to this group’s reformist and conservative political outlook, which (thanks to their degree of social influence) contributed to maintaining the prevailing order. Above all this meant their encouragement of racism, xenophobia and allegiance to the flag. The social-democratic leaders of the Second International stood as object lesson and exemplar of this type. The nationalism of the Stalinist parties provided a sad historical echo.

This ideology (i.e. the one expressed in the above image, that all Australians without Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry are ‘beneficiaries of the colonisation process’) has been promoted by the state elite (most emblematically in Keating’s Redfern speech and in Sorry Day, and in literature and film).

It has become a core proposition of one contending strand in Australian historical thinking: the ‘progressive’ left-liberal version.

The latter is one of the acceptable interpretive options, presented to tyro students and readers on big historical questions, and from which set of alternatives they are invited to choose (the options are exhaustive) based on ideological inclination. It’s the version favoured in bien-pensant organs of opinion, spanning from the ABC and ALP-aligned thinktanks to the ‘radical’ left, and adhered to by all avowedly ‘progressive’ people.

Historian Marilyn Lake, with whom Curthoys recently edited a book on ‘transnational history‘, expressed something like the above notion when describing the formation of Australian ‘national identity’:

Aboriginal people were active in identifying all settlers – whether hut-keepers, clergymen, convicts or military officers – as one people, as ‘white men’, whom they held jointly responsible for taking their land… [The indiscriminate nature of] Aboriginal retaliation and revenge… is explained by the Aboriginal perception that a group of people defined by their ‘whiteness’ had taken their country.

Curthoys’s claim that ‘all migrants and their descendants’ have ‘benefited from colonisation’ serves an obvious social function. It implies that Australian history has been, and contemporary society remains, a zero-sum conflict between various ethnic groups. The fortunes of every member of one group (Indigenous Australians) have varied inversely with the welfare of every member of all other ethnic groups (non-Indigenous Australians): the two parties have contended over relative shares of some fixed pie, with the fruits shared out according to ethnic distinctions rather than any other relevant social category.

The political implication of this argument is dire and reactionary: if A benefits by inflicting some loss on B, then B can only gain or recover the loss at A’s expense, in which case A isn’t a credible ally for any project by B to advance its material interests, for in doing so A would be harming itself. B can only satisfy its wants by breaking with A. In other words, there is no basis for common cause between Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and any other Australian people.

The spread of such beliefs upholds the political exclusivity of groups defined along ethnic (or linguistic, religious etc.) lines, and partitions members of populations who otherwise might act in political concert. Such nationalist thinking channels the frustrations of oppressed groups into political solutions based on ethnic distinctions, a pursuit which benefits only a rent-seeking elite of ‘minority representatives.‘ It justified the CPA’s advice to the Gurindji cattle workers and members of other Aboriginal groups to seek ‘land rights’, a political decision which served the designs of the Australian state elite.

Curthoys has declared she developed this idea (i.e. that all migrants had benefited from colonialism) from reading feminist writers, as well as from the ‘wages of whiteness’ theory of the US historian David Roediger.

I suspect that during the 1970s she would also have encountered the idea of ‘unequal exchange’ from Arghiri Emmanuel and the Latin American dependency theorists. The latter were popular in the Third-Worldist circles of the New Left, and they purported to describe the relations between imperialist countries and underdeveloped economies.

Emmanuel enlarged the category of ‘labour aristocracy’ to include all waged and salaried employees in the advanced economies, all of whom were now considered to share in the spoils of imperialism (via differences in wages relative to labour productivity). Emmanuel suggested that the ‘chief beneficiaries’ of imperialism ‘since the middle of the nineteenth century’ had been ‘labourers and ordinary skilled workers’.

In an exchange with Charles Bettelheim published in Monthly Review, he mocked the ‘delusions of internationalism’ and socialist hopes for worker solidarity: ‘a majority of mankind is suffering from hunger whereas in certain countries the workers are struggling to acquire washing machines.’

[The] antagonism between rich and poor nations is likely to prevail over that between classes…

It is not the conservatism of the leaders that has held back the revolutionary élan of the masses, as has been believed in the Marxist-Leninist camp; it is the slow but steady growth in awareness by the masses that they belong to privileged exploiting nations that has obliged the leaders of their parties to revise their ideologies so as not to lose their clientele…

Today everything suggests that there is more socialism and internationalism in the brains of the intellectuals of the Labour Party, and perhaps more still in those of some bourgeois liberals, than in the feelings and reactions of the British working class.

Emmanuel thus claimed that the ‘imperialism of trade’ gave rise to a ‘de facto united front of the workers and capitalists of the well-to-do countries, directed against the poor nations’.

This wouldn’t have been too alien to someone, like Curthoys, who received a Stalinist education in the early 1960s. At this time the Soviet leadership claimed that ‘national bourgeoisies’ of newly independent countries (represented by Nasser, Nehru, Nkrumah, etc.) were allies of the propertyless classes in the struggle against imperialism.

Support for such thinking (i.e. the Curthoys-Markus theory of Australian racism, and the Curthoys-Lake theory of colonization) is broad. It attracts adherents despite the unwillingness of people like Curthoys to lend empirical backing or persuasive advocacy to what, as a result, becomes a mere ideological edict. Even allowing for the functional purpose it serves for the ruling elite, part of its success derives from a genuine appeal it holds for a fraction of middle-class opinion. Why?

I’ve said elsewhere that guilt is a positional good. Like private consumption choices and leisure activities, expressed political attitudes sometimes involve the signalling of good taste and discernment. What today passes for ‘progressive’ political activity increasingly involves a person’s public declaration of alignment with a cause, or loud expression of opposition to an entity or person (e.g. Andrew Bolt or Pauline Hanson). This has little to do with political principle. Instead it’s about the signalling of correct thoughts, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person. Being ‘right-thinking’ requires a costly investment (i.e. of time and effort to learn the group-appropriate ideas and perform the necessary ablutions). It thus works as a kind of screening device that reveals one’s underlying ‘type’, since only certain kinds of people can afford the investment.

Following the death of social democracy, evident in the decline of trade unions and the ALP as mass-membership organizations, the electoral politics of parties like the ALP and Australian Greens (which both now pursue a kind of social liberalism) are increasingly based around appealing to a narcissistic, educated social stratum (skilled professionals, often self-employed or earning partnership income, with control over productive assets and their own labour process).

The members of this layer habitually see the broader population (mere employees) as racist, less sophisticated, vulnerable to demagogy, etc. In contrast to those whose work involves contracting to provide specific labour services (e.g. lawyers, consultants, tradespeople) employees hired by firms surrender decision-making authority and independent direction over their own work process. Within firms, low-level workers are accustomed to submitting diligently to the orders of managers and supervisors, and responding to external rewards and sanctions rather than (as higher-level functionaries must) internalizing the values of the organization and acting out of personal initiative.

These workplace experiences do have an ongoing effect on individual personality development and attitudes.

Long ago, Adam Smith gave expression to this middle class self-regard, describing the mental atrophy induced by ‘the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people’:

[The] understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…

Many supporters of left-liberal parties accordingly flaunt what they see as their heightened sensitivity (especially their taking on of collective guilt), compared to the boorish masses. It is an article of faith for these people that inter-ethnic hostility arises mostly from competition within the low-skilled, low-wage labour market. (The work of economist David Card suggests otherwise.)

The racist bogan is a fantasized character against which the chattering classes define their own social existence and understand their own political role.

‘Progressive’ left-liberal opinion-makers and figures of cultural authority – in schools, in the mainstream media, etc. – thus insistently tell the population, just as their openly chauvinist and right-wing counterparts do, that internationalism is a ‘delusion’: that anti-immigrant parochialism and race hatred are explained by their rational pursuit of their own interests.

Both versions of ‘legitimate’ opinion promote, delight in and license the spread of racial discord.

Whatever works

June 22, 2012

Prescriptions for economic development, though never more abundant, still speak in one voice. The fashionable guidelines of NGO and international agency, while hailing diversity, tend to rise and fall in harmony.

The latest piece of World Bank policy advice concerning land was issued in 2003. It emphasises the need for ‘tenure security, not necessarily formal title’. According to the World Bank, ‘sometimes communities are perfectly capable of handling the situation, by continuing to enforce and adapt the traditional rules governing property rights’.

In other words, the task of enforcing private-property rights need not be left to the centralized coercive power of the state. It can do without registration of title deeds with government agencies, or their recognition in statute or common law.

The task may instead be performed, in decentralized fashion, by ‘traditional’ sources of authority and with local instruments of sanction:

It is now widely realized that the almost exclusive focus on formal title in the 1975 paper [by the World Bank on land reform] was inappropriate…

In customary systems, legal recognition of existing rights and institutions, subject to minimum conditions, is generally more effective than premature attempts at establishing formalized structures.

The appropriate ‘subject of right’, moreover, isn’t necessarily the individual. In some circumstances, says the Bank, it may be wiser to assign ownership of tracts of land to a clan, lineage, local community or ethnoregional group, incorporated as a legal person.

For there are ‘many contexts where group rights will be more feasible and cost-effective than individual assignment of property rights’:

Group rights will be more appropriate in situations characterized by economies of scale in resource management or if externalities exist that can be managed at the level of the group but not the individual.

Group ownership is also often adopted in situations where risk is high and markets for insurance are imperfect or where the resource in question is abundant and the payoff from any land-related investment that individuals could undertake on their own is low.

Far from nullifying the latter, private-property rights can now be justified by their role in protecting the rights of indigenous groups and women:

[For] indigenous groups, herders, and marginal agriculturalists, definition of property rights at the level of the group, together with a process for adjusting the property rights system to changed circumstances where needed, can help to significantly reduce the danger of encroachment by outsiders while ensuring sufficient security to individuals…

[Ensuring] secure land tenure will be of particular relevance for groups that were traditionally discriminated against. In addition to being warranted based on basic considerations of equity, attention to women’s land rights will have far-reaching economic consequences where women are the main cultivators, where out-migration is high, where control of productive activities is differentiated by gender, or where high levels of adult mortality and unclear inheritance regulations could undermine women’s livelihood in case of their husbands’ death…

Greater control of assets by women often translates into higher levels of spending on children’s education, health, and food. Similarly, even though the significance of land for indigenous peoples and herders goes beyond economics, even its economic impact has often been underestimated.

Transferring property rights to indigenous communities, especially if combined with technical assistance, can allow them to manage these better or to derive greater benefits from the resources associated with their land.

Such easy pragmatism marks the current outlook of national governments undertaking land reform in ‘less-developed’ countries. It is common, too, within ‘development’ circles (NGOs like Landesa, government agencies like USAID and DFID, and international bodies like the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization), which bestow policy advice and donor funds on the former.

Since the 1980s, these actors have come increasingly to favour arrangements in which private-property rights to tracts of land are assigned (nominally) to groups or collective entities, and enforced by ‘customary’ sources of juridical-political authority.

This is evident in the substance and lexicon of recent laws and in planning documents on tenure reform. (It’s also apparent in the scholarly ascendancy of ‘common property’ advocates of natural resource management. That prominence has only increased since Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Swedish Riksbank’s ‘Nobel’ prize).

Development agencies like USAID and AUSAID run permanent and ad-hoc property-rights and tenure-reform programs. These programs encourage, promote and fund the extension of what they term ‘secure and well-defined’ private property rights to agrarian land and waters.

But these organizations adjust, based on country-specific circumstances, what USAID terms ‘new programmatic approaches to foster property rights around the world… [adopting] new strategies and sequencing in reforms to promote property rights in diverse economic, political, and cultural settings.’

In other words, while the goal is the same in each case, the means of pursuing it will vary depending on local factors.

Respect for ‘customary rights’, ‘legal pluralism’, and the ’empowerment’ of ‘local communities’ has thus found favour, as a means by which to establish exclusive and indefeasible rights to land and other resources.

Policies are given names like ‘community-driven development’ and gestion de terroirs.

Following examples of endowing ‘tribal’ property in the Philippines, Cambodia and Botswana, recent land reforms in countries like Mozambique, Benin, Niger and Rwanda have included provisions recognizing the ownership claims of ethnoregional groups. Administrative powers are wielded either by ‘traditional leaders’ — village chiefs, lineage heads — or by directors of incorporated entities or trusts.

Timor-Leste, which in February passed several new laws on land tenure, was advised by USAID and Australian academics to follow those recent examples.

‘Customary’ group property has generally been invoked in arid and infertile parts of the world, in humid tropical conditions, and in remote or economically marginal regions like the Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa and the South West Pacific.

These areas are occupied by small farmers, ‘garden’ cultivators, livestock herders and foragers. As the World Bank observes, population densities are usually low enough, in such settings, that land is a relatively plentiful resource, and ‘the payoff from any land-related investment that individuals could undertake on their own is low.’

In such circumstances agrarian land and other resources is usually not subject, initially, to exclusive private ownership. Hunting, pastoral or cultivated land may be organized as an open-access resource, common property or small individual plots (in many cases, post-colonial governments brought most of the land into public hands).

Whatever the precise arrangement, in such societies usufruct or access rights are generally not exclusive (i.e. outsiders or non-owners are not prevented from using the resource or subtracting units, e.g. water).

In these societies, the enclosure of agrarian land has proceeded via the assignment, to an ethnoregional group or other collective entity, of property rights to these assets and resources. For this purpose the pragmatic acknowledgement of ethnically-based group property isn’t new: a recent post described how British colonial administrators recognized the communal property rights in land of ethnic Fijian clans as long ago as the 1880s.

The economic historian Robert C. Allen has described how it worked, around the same time, in colonial British West Africa:

Communal ownership usually became a custom, so people could acquire farm land only by being members of a tribe – and at the discretion of the chief, to whom they were subservient…

The new-style chiefs became the foremen of empire, levying taxes, compelling labour, and using their powers to amass personal fortunes. Colonialism created a system of rent-seeking petty despots to rule the countryside.

Thus the evolution of World Bank thinking in the three decades from 1975: ‘customary land tenure’, having formerly been marked for eradication, is now considered a suitable tool by which (or under which aegis) to impose private ownership rights in places where they currently are absent: among ‘indigenous groups, herders, and marginal agriculturalists’.

This shift in official ideology is a manoeuvre repeated by the envoys of imperialism, again and again over the past 500 years, whenever they have encountered and sought, on behalf of capitalism, to engulf and destroy a foraging, herding or horticultural society.

In the first place it is loudly announced that these societies have none of the features necessary for ‘development’, and must be remade immediately; before it is declared that hold on! we may have something useful here, after all.

In no case has the second step signalled the dawning of enlightenment, a progressive recognition of some hitherto ignored truth about colonized societies.

The change in official ideology, like that today of the World Bank or USAID, was in every case a calculated and instrumental espousal of whatever theory, given the circumstances, was likely to advance strategic objectives: a turn to ‘new strategies and sequencing in reforms to promote property rights in diverse economic, political, and cultural settings.’

Colonists and their successors evaluated these societies using categories familiar to their own. In the first stage, this was to find ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ peoples lacking: they didn’t know how to farm, dress properly, or treat their women, etc., in ways that ‘civilized’ peoples did.

When such a society was conquered or settled by forces (states, organizations, etc.) bringing with them the novel institutions of capitalism, its defeated members were constrained (by the coercive power of the victors) to adopt new cultures, property rights and other forms of economic governance, child-rearing practices, schooling and constitutions.

Australia and Hawaii can stand as examples of these practices, and of the devastation they unleashed.

Eventually, in the second stage, local societies (or rather the wasted wreckages of them that remained) were discovered to possess, after all, some familiar and characteristic attributes: ‘customs’ and ‘traditions’ that resembled, however imperfectly, the laws and institutions of an advanced society.

In Australia, anthropologists, historians, novelists, politicians, missionaries, lawyers and civil servants gradually detected in Aboriginal societies all the common paraphernalia that Talcott Parsons suggested were evolutionary universals: monarchs, territorial possession, social stratification, incipient markets.

Ethnographers claimed to recognize the existence of tribal ‘kings’ and ‘chiefs’. Others, as recently detailed by Ian Keen at ANU, detected the presence of ’estates’ of land to which ‘tribes’ held property rights.

Which of the two attitudes predominated at a given time depended on which was most propitious for the needs of imperialism.

(This functional relationship worked either through the deliberate tailoring of ideas to suit ruling needs, or through a kind of selection process: ideas that contributed to the successful flourishing of imperialism were fostered, rewarded and differentially transmitted throughout society by funding, the granting of advisory and consultative roles, recognition as an ‘authority’, inculcation through media and schools, etc., whilst those deemed unhelpful were thwarted, penalized and ignored.)

Thus, when the Australian state leadership made a bipartisan decision to grant limited property rights and administrative authority to Indigenous trustees, it also called forth and promoted theories favourable to the policy’s implementation. In its ruthless pragmatism it preceded the World Bank by several decades.

W.E.H. Stanner was the anthropologist appointed by Prime Minister Harold Holt to the Council of Aboriginal Affairs. His name is inevitably invoked (inviting cheers or boos) in public discussions about the origin of Indigenous land-rights policy. Stanner defended the horde model of Radcliffe-Brown, in which a clan or totemic descent group was considered to possess its own territorial ‘estate’ and foraging ‘range’, and ‘acts of trespass’ on the proprietary lands of another group could be punished by death. (Of this theory Marc Gumbert noted: ‘there was an homology between the economic and political background of colonialism, and its ideology which crystallized in the Radcliffe-Brown horde’.)

In a 1978 book, Kulinma: Listening to Aboriginal Australians, the high-level civil servant H.C. Coombs could assert that the opposition of Aboriginal people to environmental despoliation by mining companies was based on a prohibition, within ‘traditional cultures’, of ’infringement of property rights’.

The historian Henry Reynolds, quoting the diaries of G.A. Robinson, could reveal the existence of ‘exclusive possession of territory’, as well as ‘patriotism’ and martial spirit, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.

To untrained but hopeful and well-meaning ears, the recognition of Indigenous ‘customary rights and interests’ by the Australian state leadership over the past four decades, as with the recent policy advice from the World Bank on land reform, may seem vaguely ‘progressive.’ Each promises to assist ‘groups that were traditionally discriminated against.’

Group-based ownership rights hold obvious appeal to such terribly oppressed groups as the San, some of whose members now seek recognition as the First People of the Kalahari. (A royalty-sharing agreement was famously struck following an intellectual-property dispute with a pharmaceuticals firm over an anti-obesity product derived from a desert cactus.)

The pursuit of ethnically based property rights finds ready adherents amongst the desperate mass of asset-free people — as well as amongst elite figures, who hope thereby to gain social status, decision-making authority and income streams.

But the appearance of progress is illusory. The recognition of ‘customary rights’ and the candidly racist contempt of the past are obverse sides of the same Janus-faced beast.

Imperialism is driven by necessity to extend private ownership and capitalist property relations into every available domain, and compelled to overrun and devour whatever gets in its way. The adoption of ‘new programmatic approaches to foster property rights’ is the behaviour of an insatiable predator, remorselessly circling its quarry in search of the latter’s most vulnerable point.

From whichever direction the attack proceeds, the consequences are the same. For a forager or herding society, whose members are dependent for survival on access to unowned things, the enforcement of private claims on resources, however it occurs, has a genocidal logic.

On these societies imperialism imposes a new principle, to which it brooks no objection and admits no query: personal entitlements with regard to worldly things (e.g. natural resources) — including the power to use such material resources or facilities to satisfy basic needs, undertake sustenance-drawing activities or secure personal livelihood — are conferred only by virtue of holding property rights in the resource, or from the consent or authority granted by owners. Unless an individual holds personal property rights, is a joint owner through membership of a group or entity that holds communal property rights, or receives permission from such an owner, he has no claim at all over the owned resources: they are unavailable to him.

Since, everywhere, the distribution of productive assets is drastically unequal, only a tiny number of owners benefit from the enforcement of property rights. ‘Customary rights’ and related concepts usefully invoke national distinctions and ethnoregional parochialism to persuade the remaining people — to whom private ownership will mean at best a sharp decrement in welfare — that their salvation too rests in the latter’s embrace.

‘We are us’: Australian economic nationalism under Hawke and Keating

June 14, 2012

During his time as treasurer and prime minister, Paul Keating, seeking a soothing dietary supplement with which to serve his less palatable economic fare, insisted on the need to forge ‘a new sense of national unity… a common national sentiment… to create a new unity of purpose’.

‘Institutions and symbols’  chiefly the constitution and the national flag  should be adjusted. Doing so would ‘encourage closer identification with the nation’ and create ’a more spirited sense of national goals and purpose.’

In describing the ‘powerful unifying element’ needed to ‘re-cast Australian identity’ and ‘evoke pride in our Australian heritage’, Keating counterposed ‘traditional Labor ideals’  ’egalitarianism’, ‘social justice’, ‘the fair go’  with the ‘forelock-tugging’ of the conservative parties, ‘British to the bootstraps.’

Having flown by troop transporter, accompanied by a military historian, to the Papua New Guinea Highlands, the prime minister, overcome by the solemnity of this ‘sacred ground,’ stooped reverentially to kiss the soil of Canberra’s former colony.

‘[In] accordance with his mission to secure Australia’s interests in the region,’ reflected Keating’s speechwriter, the prime minister was moved to genuflection:

Somewhere on the flight from Moresby to Kokoda, as he talked to David Horner, Keating decided that he should make a gesture which would do justice to these events  an act of some kind which would indelibly mark Kokoda in Australia’s collective memory, as perhaps Gettysburg was marked in the American mind by Lincoln.

Around the prone head of government, a local children’s choir waved flags and chirruped the national anthem of both countries. ‘And no one had a dry eye.’

Keating Kokoda 1992

Such was the electoral formula for the era, adding comforting gestures of civic consensus to more strident policy imperatives.

For Keating and Hawke’s ’new unity of purpose’  in the form of a refounded national ideology  was required to legitimize, distract from and sustain the social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s.

The latter involved a crushing re-assertion of the prerogatives of ownership (and the outlook of lenders) over the opposing claims of employees, borrowers and other subordinate classes.

It brought stagnant and declining real wages between 1983 and 1996; sharp redistribution of income in favour of property owners; creation of a vast reserve army of permanent unemployed, elimination of ‘restrictive work practices’, allowing longer hours at higher work intensity, alongside the emergence of sporadic or intermittent short-term employment; lowering of the company tax rate (from 46% in 1983 to 33% in 1996) and flattening of the personal tax scale; privatization of state assets including Qantas, Telecom and public utilities; removal of various banking restrictions; assignment of new decision-making powers over large pools of assets to union bureaucrats and Indigenous ‘representatives’; restrictions on eligibility to previously universal welfare entitlements through means testing; opening of capital markets; designation of price stability as the supreme goal of monetary policy; and rapid destruction of local steel production, car-making, heavy engineering and clothing, textiles and footwear manufacturing, etc.

To accomplish all this, Hawke and Keating  and others manning the levers of mass psychology and attitude manipulation  insistently invoked the first-person plural pronouns  the national ‘we’ and ‘us’  and affirmed the existence of a collective ‘national identity’.

In 1988, Hawke spoke before the National Press Club in Canberra:

As a nation  and as a Government  we have had to make hard choices. And there are hard choices and hard decisions to come. Because of world events, we have had to look very critically at the way ahead – what we are doing as a nation, where we are going as a nation…

The role of the union movement  the willingness of workers to create jobs through sustained wage restraint, an unprecedented attack on outmoded work and management practices, including under the auspices of the current two-tier wages system, and reduced  industrial disputation, has been indispensable…

But the task is far from complete  indeed given our rapidly changing world, and especially the massive changes in prospect among the giants of our region such as China and Japan, that task will never be complete. The reality is that our prosperity will not be handed us on a platter. We will have to match and better the productivity, the product quality, the creativity and the entrepreneurial flair of the world’s best across all sections of the economy, even those not directly engaged in trade.

Thus went the hypnotic mantra, aiming to secure popular adherence to policies (the ALP’s ‘competitiveness agenda’) that imposed hardship on most of the Australian population for the sake of benefits enjoyed by a few.

The false image of a unified domestic entity (‘the nation’), engaged in a shared project in pursuit of ‘our’ common objectives, was presented to obscure the class-specific goals and unequal sectional impacts of those policies.

‘I see policy’, said Keating, ‘as a process of national reinvigoration and reinvention. I see it as a process of national character building.’

He went on helpfully to explain that ‘conflict in the workplace is not a quintessentially Australian way of operating.’

This ideology of economic nationalism (the political base of which was found among trade union officials like Laurie Carmichael) had long been the means by which class objectives, laid out by the policy elite, were repackaged as ‘the national interest’, and through which the state’s pursuit of those objectives secured popular allegiance.

The task of formulating it traditionally fell to ‘radical’ or social-democratic intellectuals and its designated electoral lure was the ALP.

From the mid-1960s, an influx of US, British and Japanese capital, fleeing a global downturn in profitability, had rushed into the local mining industry.

In the early 1970s, state managers sought to create room for struggling Australian-owned firms to switch their capital into this profitable sector. Jack McEwen’s ‘buy back the farm’ slogan was used when the McMahon government imposed restrictions on foreign investment and the Whitlam government required 50% local equity in mining projects.

During this period, left-nationalist economists like Ted Wheelwright and Brian Fitzpatrick, along with various Stalinist groups, especially the CPA (M-L), presented Australia as a ‘dependency’ or ‘client state’ of transnational corporations, a branch office whose ‘comprador’ elite (Kosmas Tsokhas) was controlled from New York, London and Tokyo.

Parochialism of this sort  which described an ‘Australia ripped off’ (Carmichael) by foreign-owned firms  assisted domestically-owned firms like BHP, the ‘Big Australian’, to move into mining.

In 1981 a CSR executive declared to a business paper: ‘We quite cold-bloodedly used the rising Australian economic nationalism and the beginning of the resentment against multinationals.’

The economic nationalism of the 1980s was rather different, though any novelty might have been difficult to perceive at the time.

In 1975 Wheelwright had sat alongside ACTU President Bob Hawke on the Jackson Committee of Inquiry into the Australian manufacturing industry. Several of the guiding principles and policy recommendations developed there would subsequently form part of the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord under Hawke’s party leadership. And the weakness of the Australian manufacturing sector, a key complaint during the 1970s from the Stalinist AMWU official Carmichael and the ‘dependency’ economists, would eventually be a key pretext for the ‘reforms’ of the 1980s.

But in other respects the form of nationalism encouraged under Hawke and Keating was something quite new.

Industrial capitalism had always depended on the national state to provide its own conditions of existence: creation of a national workforce through mass education, unification of the domestic market through provision of public goods like transport networks (roads and railways), and through abolition of internal tariffs, enforcement of private-property rights via centralized bureaucratic rule over a contiguous territory and maintenance of a standing army, etc. These also provided the material foundation for nationalist ideology, by which members of a population came to see themselves as members of a single nation with a shared fate, and to believe that their common interests were tied to the economic (and inevitably military) needs of the domestic state.

The particular state-supporting Australian nationalism that emerged full-blown during the 1980s corresponded to the state’s new role, as decreed by elite policymakers: to facilitate the adjustment of private firms to global competition by reducing wage costs and raising the amount of labour effort extracted per given hour of paid work (‘productivity’).

In the 1980s, the national watchword was ‘international competitiveness’: global and regional integration called for ‘Australia’ to accommodate itself to the discipline of the world market.

‘National consensus’, courtesy of ‘a very enlightened central leadership in the union movement’, formed around ‘a principle of keeping wage movements competitive with our trading partners.’

This new imperative emerged slowly following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, when Australian firms were increasingly able to borrow funds in offshore capital markets.

From the 1980s onwards, compulsory subscription to funded pension schemes (‘defined contribution’ superannuation) channelled local funds into financial markets. The increased liquidity allowed sustained inflation of domestic stock prices. Following the removal of foreign-exchange controls on cross-border capital movements, there then ensued large inflows of portfolio investment, mostly from Britain and the US, in pursuit of the speculative gains promised by these rising asset prices.

These private financial inflows, rather than direct investment and rather than the few instances in which Australian-based firms purchased productive assets abroad or undertook transnational operations, were the means by which Australian capital was ‘globalized’, and through which it became necessary for domestic firms (and a fortiori their employees) to obey ‘international benchmarks’.

The latter requirement, in turn, necessitated a shift in the relative size and role of various departments, branches and agencies of the Australia state.

There was hypertrophy of those governmental arms (Treasury, Finance, the Reserve Bank, etc.) responsible for inflation targeting and wage repression; and a withering of welfare or service agencies, in order to reduce non-wage sources of income and thereby reduce the bargaining power of employees.

As the state acquired a new shape, so did the national ideology by which popular allegiance to the state was secured.

Hawke gave a ‘major statement about what we must do together to meet the economic challenges facing this country’:

Today I want to speak to my fellow Australians, not in the jargon of economists, but in terms we can all understand…

Government has the responsibility to lead the community by getting the right policy framework – we will do that. But it is only with the understanding, the commitment of all Australians – as individuals and through their representative organizations – that our nation will meet the challenges ahead. What are those challenges? The first is for us to realize that this tough, increasingly competitive world of five-and-a-half billion people does not owe, and will not give, seventeen million Australians an easy prosperity. The days of our being able to hitch a ride in a world clamouring, and prepared to pay high prices, for our rural and mineral products, are behind us. From this fact flows everything else.

The challenge for the foreseeable future is to produce more than we spend. The rest of the world will not allow us to continue indefinitely to live beyond our means by borrowing from them. Our rural and mineral products will remain important into the future. But the challenge is to add to them. That is, we must export more manufactured goods and services and substitute more quality Australian production for imports.

Thus ‘adaptation to the changing world economy’ demanded ‘change in our national habits and attitudes and way of thinking about things and our way of doing things.’

This raised what were ‘fundamentally questions of national confidence: could Australia survive, compete and prosper in this rapidly changing world?’

Australia had reached a fork in the road: down one track lay great challenges, coupled with the prospect of renewed vigour in our economy; down the other, an apparently easier ride, but one that would have seen a permanent fall in living standards, not only relative to our traditional standards of comparison in Europe, but relative to our rapidly growing neighbours in Asia.

An ‘Australia with a modern, diversified, competitive and export-oriented economy, an Australia vigorously engaged with the world economy and enmeshed in particular with the dynamism of Asia and the Pacific’ needed ‘the industrial wing of our great [labour] movement’ to bear ‘the pain and the difficulty, to further the fundamental objectives, both of the party and of the nation.’

This required ‘a root-and-branch re-examination of many long-standing features of our national life and of the assumptions underpinning them’. It involved ‘dismantling some of our most cherished orthodoxies… deeply embedded in the very psyche of the nation.’

In particular ‘we confront the prospect of perhaps the greatest changes in our wages system we have seen. The sharply increased emphasis on workplace bargaining against demonstrated productivity benchmarks will fundamentally alter industrial relations in Australia.’ Pleasingly, ‘in reforming awards to make them relevant to contemporary industrial conditions the union movement has been in the vanguard.’

There was also the matter of ‘anachronisms in many areas of public ownership.’

This state-sponsored project of renovating national ideology required that scholarly and published history, too, must adjust (I’ll explore this more in the post to follow this one).

Hawke, who was to that point the most uncompromisingly pro-Zionist and Washington-aligned leader in ALP history, suggested that ‘changes which have occurred in our attitudes to our history, our culture, and our relations with the rest of the world, especially with the peoples of our own region… may be said to have begun with the fall of Singapore in 1942.’

Canberra’s strategic turn from London to Washington had initiated a ‘process of deepening our sense of national identity, national responsibility and national maturity. We have altered the focus on our past. With that new focus on the past, has come a reassessment of the past.’

Hawke made this remark about Singapore in the same year that popular historian David Day published his book The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia and the Onset of the Pacific War 1939-1942. This commercially successful work, promoted by Keating and inventing a spurious ‘Battle for Australia’, portrayed Menzies as the credulous sycophant to a perfidious Whitehall.

Day’s was the latest in a genre of anti-British pro-Curtin Irish-Catholic republican histories, officially favoured by the ALP ever since Manning Clark described the struggle waged between the ‘old dead tree and the young tree green’.

Established via a concerted elite project, this vision of ‘the nation’ as a collective personality (with its own common destiny, moral qualities, etc.) would form part of the repertoire and lexicon of ‘progressive’ politics in Australia during subsequent decades.

The nationalist ‘we’, apparently delineated on the basis of ethnic ancestry, was the subject of Keating’s celebrated Redfern speech (‘…it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters’). This speech was written by the biographer of Brian Fitzpatrick, the left-nationalist historian.

William Deane, the former High Court justice and Governor General appointed by Keating, declared that the criminal horrors of Australian colonialism were ‘properly to be seen as acts of the nation itself’.

The nation was thus presented as a kind of supra-individual agent, capable of undertaking actions and of possessing beliefs and attitudes.

Predictably, with the onset of a deep and protracted recession in 1990, the elite project to assert Australian national identity assumed a more sinister form.

The government and its media conduits had spent years instructing members of the population that their interests were tied to those of Australia, a collective entity (‘us’) engaged in a competitive struggle with other nations: a game with winners and losers. The frustration and disappointment accumulated throughout those years of reduced life chances – of income, working conditions, job security and basic services sacrificed in the name of the ‘national interest’ – was readily displaced into racist chauvinism and scapegoating.

Were not ‘our’ jobs being taken by ‘them’? Were not outsiders receiving welfare payments to which only insiders were properly entitled? (In the 5 years before the recession, net inward migration had risen sharply, though it had plummeted from 1989 to historically low levels.)

Refugees and various ethnic groups became a useful diversion from the unfolding social misery.

(Keating’s Working Nation policy package, released in 1994 after the number of unemployed people had reached over 1 million, contained various ‘mutual obligation’ and workfare measures that prepared the ground for the Howard government’s work-for-the-dole scheme and privatization of the Commonwealth employment agency. Drafted with the participation of Carmichael, now chair of the Employment and Skills Formation Council, Working Nation‘s Job Compact pushed long-term unemployed people into training programs and subsidized private employment for which they received below-award ‘Training Wages’.)

In 1992, Keating’s Immigration minister Gerry Hand (Hawke’s former minister for Aboriginal Affairs) introduced mandatory incarceration of ‘boat people’.

A former AMWU officer, Labor senator Jim McKiernan, spoke of the country being ‘inundated’: ‘boats filled with people’ would soon ‘land on our shores by the score.’ Said Hand, as he introduced the legislation to Parliament: ‘The Government is conscious of the extraordinary nature of the measures which will be implemented by the amendment aimed at boat people. I believe it is crucial that all persons who come to Australia without prior authorisation not be released into the community.’

The federal government publicized workplace raids and subsequent deportation of ‘illegal immigrants’. Public-opinion survey responses showed a dramatic rise in negative attitudes towards immigration during the early 1990s.

The following years produced the sudden rise to media attention and electoral prominence of a vicious and openly racist brand of nationalism, advanced by Pauline Hanson. She spoke at the launch of her One Nation Party:

We, all of us here tonight, and millions of people across Australia can celebrate, at last there is the chance for change…

The chance to stand against those who have betrayed our country, and would destroy our identity by forcing upon us the cultures of others.

The chance to turn this country around, revitalise our industry, restore our ANZAC spirit and our national pride, and provide employment for all Australians who have given a fair break would seize the opportunity for a better way of life, for themselves, and for their families.

The chance to make sure the Australia we have known, loved and fought to preserve will be inherited intact, by our children, and the generations that follow them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, chances are fleeting, they must be held tightly, and so tonight more than celebration, is a time for resolve, for if we fail, all our fears will be realised, and we will lose our country forever, and be strangers in our own land.

As it stands, the future is one where the majority of Australians will become second class citizens in their own country, under a government who panders to minority interests and denies the majority their right of decision…

We can win, we can make the difference, we can be the best place, but we must learn the lessons of the mistakes made by so many other countries.

We must stop our government repeating these mistakes, before we become like all the other places everyone wants to leave.

We cannot continue pursuing the failures of multiculturalism.

We cannot just give away what we all know to be so valuable.

If you want to live here permanently, you must want to be an Australian.

We must stand together to make these changes, or eventually be dragged down by the conspiracy of divisiveness that has been encouraged by our governments, and let loose upon the people of Australia without their permission.

Australians can no longer afford the luxury of apathy.

We must stand up.

We must all pull together.

We must win this battle, or lose the war.

After the political establishment had made use of Hanson, who provided cover under which ‘moderate’ politics shifted drastically to the right, she was removed from the scene through a legal stitch-up orchestrated by senior government figures.

Her invocation of ethnicity as the basis for ‘national identity’ was described as something sui generis, contrary to all that had gone before it (or, at least, and as she thought, wholly opposed to the nationalism of the recent ALP governments).

But the insipid rhetoric of the above speech plainly borrowed both tone and substance from more exalted, and very proximate, sources.

Hawke, Keating, and the respectable figures of Australia’s ‘progressive’ political elite had spent the previous decade and more drumming into heads the idea of a collective entity called ‘Australia’, and the categorical distinctiveness of ‘Australians’, who were said to be engaged together in a competition with the rest of the world. In this battle (loss of which threatened a ‘permanent fall in living standards’) Australians were said to share a common ‘unity of purpose’.

Whether membership in this national group was defined by ethnic origin or cultural ‘values’ or degree of workplace pliancy (in truth Keating used each of these criteria at various times) was therefore relatively unimportant.

For the deliberate purpose of ‘encouraging a closer identification with the nation’ was to nurture parochialism: to bind the vast majority of the population ideologically to the goals of a ruling elite with which they shared no common cause, and to divide them from the billions throughout the rest of the world, with whom their interests, should they have come to know them, were aligned.

The southern anchor: APEC and Canberra’s so-called Asian engagement since the 1980s

June 11, 2012

To explain the meaning of ‘Asian engagement’ and APEC regionalism under the Hawke and Keating ALP governments, I’m posting something I wrote back in 2003.

The near-simultaneous visits to Canberra of George W. Bush and Hu Jintao had prompted me to write a long essay (part 1part 2part 3) on Canberra’s attempts to straddle and exploit the dyadic competition between the hegemon and its challenger.

Hu and Howard

In a public speech given that October, Keating deplored the Howard government’s posture as ‘vicar of empire, or deputy of the United States’. He compared it unfavourably to the ‘multilateral regionalism’ of his own government.

But was it really possible to distinguish Keating’s ‘strategic promiscuity’ from Howard’s ‘realism’? And, if so, then what explained the apparent switch by Australian state elites from one stance to the other?

I wrote at the time:

October’s events in Canberra were not a pageant of Napoleonic bourgeois solidarity, but signs of an historical impasse. The issue of strategic orientation figures in all the semi-public theoretical models and policy discussions of Australian imperialism right now.

Last month former PM Paul Keating addressed a congress in Melbourne on ‘Australia’s Economic and Geopolitical Positioning’.

It is precisely because Keating is the avatar of Australia-in-Asia, of the integration of Australian state and capital within some fantasized Asian co-prosperity sphere, and in the geostrategic architecture of an ASEAN-type framework, that his views so clearly reveal the various underlying tensions and projects at the heart of the Australian state at a time of tectonic movements between Japan, China and the USA.

They do more than indicate an individual’s mindset: the joint visits of Bush and Hu saw a rash of ruling-class strategic daydreaming around altering Australia’s historical relationship with US imperialism.

Of course, Canberra cannot choose or decide to do anything, tied as it is by millions of economic, political and military threads to US strategy, unless there is first of all a substantive regional weakening of US hegemonic power, which could only come about through failure to compete with China…

While the world market and international financial architecture continue to function under US protection and political legitimation, then the Australian state and its capitalist firms continue to benefit as a regional power from access to markets and resources, maintained asset values, custodial military support and inward investment.

As a lesser regional power, Canberra depends upon the successful functioning and continued growth of the capitalist world market, and while it may have real interests and goals which strongly contradict those of the US, it is nonetheless committed to aiding, sponsoring and materially supporting US hegemony.

The same applies to larger rival states such as Japan, Germany and China.

This mechanism of internal social reproduction and external geopolitical regulation, whereby states acquire missions and operate in an imperial world system, serves as an efficient model of accumulation, and is the only alternative to revolutions and inter-imperialist wars.

The failure of the US-Australian alliance will only occur when internal social unrest interacts with external geopolitical realities to produce ruptures in the system.

GW Bush 2003 Canberra address

What deeper currents lay beneath the shimmering, rippling surface appearances of Canberra’s foreign policy?

In the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crises, new entities like ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, the Republic of Korea along with the 10 ASEAN nations) and the Asia-Europe Meeting were created. These were supposed to allow regional coordination in the event of balance-of-payments and liquidity problems, thus easing dependence on the IMF for dollar borrowing.

Australia and the United States had deliberately been excluded from these bodies. Malaysian PM Mahathir had long suggested the creation of an East Asian Economic Caucus (‘caucus without Caucasians’).

The first major step towards breaking dependence on extra-regional funds and currencies came in 2000 with the Chiang Mai Initiative, a bilateral and multilateral currency-swap agreement concluded by ASEAN Plus Three finance ministers. This had followed a series of smaller bilateral swap facilities. The Singapore meeting of September 2000 announced the initial step on the road towards a 10+3 free trade agreement.

ASEAN Plus Three began developing into a key institution of East Asian organization and Chinese regional authority.

Beijing’s growing ability to exert political and diplomatic influence in regional capitals arose from its ability to offer credit and provide funds. This in turn derived from China’s own very strong balance-of-payments position as a powerful exporter with external capital controls.

Following the Manila heads of government meeting of November 1999, regional cooperation had acquired momentum and matured at a rate exceeding most expectations, through bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Asia Cooperation Dialogue and the Boao Forum for Asia, some of which spoke of currency unification, until then an unthinkable proposition.

In November 2002 China signed several agreements with the ASEAN 10, including the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Between ASEAN and the PRC, the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and the Joint Declaration on Cooperation in Non-Traditional Security Issues.

Further negotiations on sovereignty in the Spratly and Paracel islands involving the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan seemed likely to cement Chinese maritime control of the South China Sea, a key strategic, commercial and energy-supply zone.

CSBA AirSea Battle

In 2003, the ALP’s foreign policy spokesman, Kevin Rudd, called for the revival and reform of the APEC project. Rudd claimed to have ‘grave concern for our future trade and our future exports to these areas and therefore our future standard of living in this country’. He suggested that the Australian government needed to take up the APEC drive alongside Japan, as had occurred under former Labor PM Bob Hawke and, of course, his successor Paul Keating.

At the same time, the Sinophile Rudd reiterated the priority of the US ‘special relationship’, the base-rock of Australian imperialism, which anchored Canberra firmly (and perhaps finally) in the US geopolitical framework. Rudd would later return to this project as Prime Minister, in his plan for an Asia Pacific Community. This initiative provoked Washington’s hostility before Rudd’s sudden removal from office in June 2010.

One of the favourite images of ‘engagement’ mythology – popular at this time among critics of the Howard government – was Bob Hawke’s speech in Seoul in January 1989, in which he proposed ‘a more formal vehicle for regional co-operation’. This was to become APEC, an organization initiated mostly by diplomats from Australia and Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

What was the nature of APEC? It allowed Australia and Japan to fulfil their special roles as US Trojan horses in the regional architecture, rather like Britain and some eastern European states do in the European Union (Washington encouraged London to join the European Community during the 1960s).

By implementing the US-sponsored economic reforms of the 1980s (e.g. removing capital controls and trade barriers), the Australian state had (unwittingly?) furthered the integration of domestic economic activity with northeast Asia.

Labor governments, under the stewardship of Hawke and Keating and the aegis of ‘consensus’, helped to liquidate Australia’s industrial base, deeming it ‘a completely uncompetitive lump of industrial archaeology’ (Keating).

With the withdrawal of subsidies and tariffs, manufacturing firms like CSR and the steelmaker BHP moved increasingly into minerals extraction and processing. (Mining, together with finance, had become the most internationalized industry in Australia from the late 1960s.) Manufacturing output collapsed to just 12% of GDP, amid mass unemployment, de-unionization and declining real wages.

Trade was thereafter structurally skewed towards Asian markets. East Asian and Southeast Asian firms displaced local steel producers, car makers, heavy engineering and clothing, textiles and footwear manufacturing, etc. This shifted the centre of gravity of Australian-based production toward agricultural and mining commodities and simply-transformed raw materials, with most of them exported to industrializing East Asian countries. By 1996, Japanese trading houses made up six of the ten largest exporting firms in Australia.

In a famous report to Prime Minister Hawke, Ross Garnaut spoke of the trade ‘complementarity’ resulting from the ‘northeast Asian ascendancy.’

This sectoral re-composition of the Australian economy, which reallocated labour between industries, also meant a change in the material form taken by the social surplus product (the output over and above that required to meet the consumption needs of producers), i.e. the visible embodiment of class power and appropriated wealth.

From the Hawke-Keating years onwards, a smaller portion of this surplus was embodied in capital goods: buildings, machinery, etc. Instead it increasingly took the form of luxury consumption goods and services (e.g. the grand harbourside house of Hawke himself) and unproductive expenditure on ‘financial services’, advertising, administration (which then took the form of new offices for financial institutions and law firms, the personal consumption of bankers), etc.

This was a more complex regional division of labour than might have appeared by looking merely at bilateral trade relationships.

Despite high rates of investment (recycled from retained earnings), wages were so low in China and ASEAN countries that the domestic market was not sufficient to absorb produced output. A large fraction of the Chinese surplus product was therefore appropriated by the propertied classes in external-deficit countries like Australia.

But a disproportionately large fraction of the Australian economy was devoted to unproductive activity like finance. So this capital could not be imported productively (i.e. funding investment in new plant and equipment). Therefore it was absorbed in the form of consumer credit, borrowed mostly on US and European financial markets, themselves made liquid by the currency reserves of Chinese and Japanese central banks. Unproductive consumption was financed by loan capital: external borrowing was a way to accommodate global trade imbalances, including the permanent export surpluses of China, Japan and Germany and the structural trade deficits of Australia, the US and Britain.

Meanwhile Tokyo lost its economic competition with Washington in the 1980s. Nixon’s abandonment of the Bretton Woods/gold convertibility system in the 1970s was followed by successive dollar devaluations in a bid to secure manufacturing competiveness. The competitive strategy of Japanese firms (along with those from the German federal republic) was to raise domestic labour productivity through increasing quantities of capital per worker, alongside technological advance and wage restraint.

The Japanese elite thus, for a time, made a virtue of necessity. They used the enforced deflationary consequences of high yen currency values as a mechanism to restructure domestic capital. They raised manufacturing quality and productivity, instead of themselves devaluing to avoid the loss of external markets.

The neo-mercantilist strategy led to a Japanese bubble which, despite the stock market crash of 1987 in New York and London, permitted Tokyo alone to maintain prices and keep world markets afloat long enough to prevent global depression. In fact, the Nikkei thereby took the strain of global reflation, and following the asset-price boom it paid the bill for Eighties excess. The Japanese bust of the Nineties was (until 2007) the biggest of them all.

At the same time, US capitalism garnered almost all the fruits of NATO victory in the Cold War. For decades the unstable situation of inter-imperialist rivalry and bitter battle for long-term economic supremacy, created by Washington’s refurbishment of Japanese (and West German) capitalism after 1945, had been contained within a framework of Cold War unity and alliance.

First as anti-communist glacis and client state, then as imperial rival, both the Japanese boom and bust were determined by Japan’s subordinate place as the anchor of US policy in Asia.

The collapse of Japanese competitiveness against the USA obliged future restructuring of the regional order in line with new realities.

This was calculated to prevent the future re-emergence of a potent competitor: China. It would fatally trap Japanese capital on an export-led platform (in case anyone in Tokyo considered a temporary 1930s-style autarkic withdrawal from the world market involving deficit spending, restructuration, rearmament and future forced re-entry through warfare and aggression).

The new arrangement would ideally bind the Japanese elite into even greater dependency than before, preventing them from forming a regional bloc independent of US capitalism and its strategic interests.

This was the story behind the founding and subsequent development of APEC, in which historians now consider the Japanese MITI to have been the initiator and key player, as opposed to the traditional Australian-centred view.

For several decades Japan’s stock of fixed capital (buildings, equipment, etc.) had grown at a much faster rate than its workforce, leading eventually to declining rates of return.

Japanese firms responded by looking abroad for profitable investment.

The country’s large trade surplus put it into a position to be a substantial capital exporter, converting dollar holdings into equity capital and building up a stock of overseas assets. Capital outflow increased from $US3 billion in 1975 to $US81 billion in 1985. Much of this was directed towards south-east Asia, leading to rapid development of the so-called Asian Tigers.

Tokyo’s initial plans to further East Asian integration, in line with its own imperial interests and plans for regional hegemony, were co-opted by the US agenda.

After strong US criticism of the proposed New AID plan for coordinating Japanese trade and investment in Asia, MITI considered a US-Japan free trade agreement to avoid a protectionist contest it could no longer win, before eventually proposing a multilateral network for regional economic co-operation in trade and investment. ie. for the implementation of GATT and the Uruguay Round, SAPs and trade liberalization.

Washington originally viewed the new arrangement as a typically effete and ineffectual creation, incapable of securing its own future. This stance changed as APEC grew in authority, allowing the region’s two subordinate imperial powers, Japan and Australia, to respectively act as the ‘northern and southern claws of the US crab’ and its strategic interests (as Beijing put it).

Through joint US-Japanese-Australian efforts, APEC quickly became a forum for structural reform and regional trade liberalization, with ministers agreeing at the 1990 meeting that ‘it was desirable to reduce barriers to investment and trade in goods and services among participants – and liberalization in a manner consistent with GATT principles’. Australia chaired the Informal Group on Regional Liberalization, which formed an eminent persons group with US economist Fred Bergsten as chairman and effective head of APEC. Through Bergsten’s aggressive direction, outlined in ‘A Vision of APEC’, the move to liberalization accelerated with the celebrated Bogor leaders’ summit in 1994, which agreed on a timetable for free trade and investment.

The Bogor summit was assuredly the zenith of APEC ‘new regionalism’, and probably the highpoint of Keating’s ‘Asian engagement’. Keating’s regionalist project involved a recognition that Japan was Australia’s ‘natural ally’, with a shared outlook on Asia-Pacific affairs based on the US alliance, common interests in security matters, an approach to free trade and the APEC partnership.

This was a remnant of Cold War geopolitical realities and the evolution of both Japanese and Australian economies, but also an aftershock from the collapse of Tokyo’s competition with the USA and declining regional power.

Japan became Australia’s largest trading partner in the 1970s, and the two states signed a Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1976, after three years of planning.

DFAT submitted a paper to a Senate inquiry into Japanese defence policy in 1992, stating that the two countries were the ‘southern and northern “anchors” of the Western alliance in the Western Pacific’. In line with this approach, Keating declared in a 1995 visit to sign the Joint Declaration on the Australia-Japan Partnership, that Australia was Japan’s only real regional partner, and that Japan should ‘take the reins of leadership’ in APEC.

From this perspective, Keating’s engagement followed a logic later shared by the Howard government. The latter’s 1997 White Paper described the Japanese relationship as ‘by far the most substantive and successful’, and called for the upgrading and consolidation of defence and security ties with Japan.

The Coalition government identified the US and Japan as the two most important strategic relationships in the rapidly shifting regional equation, which called for a US-Japan-Australia strategic triangle. Howard’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called for Japan to ‘enhance regional security and the security architecture’.

This merely continued the basic thrust of Keating’s regionalism, particularly its underlying anti-Chinese framework.

While Defence strategic planning after Howard’s victory declared that ‘it would not be in Australia’s interests for China’s growing power to result in a diminution of US strategic influence’, this was in no way distinctive or opposed to Keating’s earlier programme, which moved closer to Indonesia due to strategic concerns about China.

The focus of Keating’s ‘special relationship’ with Indonesia was to encourage closer engagement between Indonesia and the US alliance network in Asia-Pacific, ensuring that Australia and Indonesia were not pulled into China’s orbit.

This move culminated in the Australia-Indonesia Agreement on Maintaining Security, signed by Keating and Soeharto in 1995. This formalized a network of military and security arrangement, cooperative activities and regular consultation.

Keating leaned towards Indonesia as a buttress for regional security and Australia’s imperial sphere of influence: in his words, Australia did not want to be in the ‘Chinese orbit’ or the ‘pull of gravity of China’ (interestingly, Downer criticised these remarks).

Indonesia itself had always been concerned over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and Natuna Islands, and of course was home to general anti-Chinese chauvinism, resentment and repression. According to Keating, Indonesian foreign policy was defined by suspicion of China and its maritime capacity in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile Australia was anxious that Japan’s declining regional imperialism was destined to create a new Asian power-axis of Chinese economic and political dominance over Japan, and opposed to the US.

The 1994 Defence White Paper, ‘Defending Australia’, foreshadowed this change in the regional balance of power, with Chinese growth eventually surpassing Japan, forming a regional bloc which would rival the US and cause competitive conflict for markets and resources:

This will affect global power relationships and become a dominant factor in the strategic framework of Asia and the Pacific. Economic growth is already allowing China to increase its military capabilities, especially of its maritime forces.

Chinese displacement of the US as dominant regional power was in the script, and formed the basis of Australian strategic manoeuvring.

A DFAT report circulated in late 1995, leaked and published in the Fairfax press in January 1996, stated that China constituted the greatest security threat in the Asia-Pacific. Indonesia was in turn ‘our most important [relationship] in the region and a key element in Australia’s approach to regional defence engagement’.

Throughout the early to mid-Nineties, publications in the official journal of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaiko foramu) frequently echoed this general line, which was the basis of APEC partnership and the goal of creating an Australia-Japan negotiating axis within APEC and other multilateral forums.

Australia and Japan thus advocated the full ‘engagement’ of the US in the region, and participated as junior partners towards maintaining the successful function of American hegemony and its imperial world system, international trade and investment architecture, and the US-regulated world market.

Led of course by Washington’s Bergsten, APEC advocacy of structural adjustment and trade liberalization (along with the benefits of seigniorage, the IMF and other parastatal institutions) allowed North America to export its own accumulation crisis to Asia.

This strategy was inherently limited and self-defeating. The Washington Consensus and SAPs obliged wrenching, stressful change.

From the late 1990s this led to the complete collapse of societies and failure of states in the Asia-Pacific region. The loss of functional integrity experienced by the Melanesian states has been described as ‘the Africanization of the South Pacific.’

Meanwhile endemic deflationary pressures strangled Japanese growth in the 1990s. The symptoms of Japanese crisis – over-saving, deflation, high unemployment levels – were outcomes of an historical defeat, of internal social policies to increase productivity and export capacity, and of US offloaded costs.

They were the obverse to the US debt pyramid, with the emission of dollar-denominated liabilities forcing central banks to hoard dollars and reinvest them in US Treasury bills, reducing the available pool of capital elsewhere.

The Asian financial crisis, which began in July 1997, was caused by short-term foreign credit and overvalued fixed exchange rates, defended by foreign reserves which were rapidly drained, leading to devaluation, defaults on dollar debts, and sudden capital flight.

The meltdown was clear proof that Japan’s decline implied the ultimate failure of its regional authority, collaborative formations and political institutions. While intra-regional trade cooperation was strengthened throughout the 1990s, internal East Asian financial and investment flows were still light. There was no strong Asian debt or bond market, causing an over-reliance on short-term external loans denominated in foreign currencies. When lack of foreign exchange (mostly dollar) assets disturbed debt repayment and led to the devaluations and financial devastation of 1997-98, there was no regionally-aligned financing facility ready to provide liquidity.

In short, the Asian financial architecture was uncoordinated and underdeveloped, resulting in a vicious spiral of crisis.

Simultaneously, APEC began its terminal decline, as the strong US and Australian push for the Early Voluntary Sectoral Liberalization (EVSL) program, part of the ‘concerted liberalization’ mechanism, met Japanese opposition and broke down at the Kuala Lumpur summit.

With the onset of financial crisis, the Indonesian state apparatus showed signs of increasing disarray and limited custodial capacity for its resources, people, property rights and frontiers. Among other problems, this implied the possibility that Jakarta’s agreement with Canberra on development of the Timor Sea oil and gas fields could be nullified.

Acute generalized disorder presented itself to the imperialist ruling classes on many different fronts at once.

An underlying ‘arc of instability’, hitherto largely invisible, had seen whole regions slide stealthily off the economic map, with societal and state failure. All the efforts of Washington to privilege the unique weight and power of its economy had done nothing to resolve US problems, and everything to exacerbate them.

The devastating blow dealt to the idle dreams and pretensions of hegemonic rivals such as Japan, the overheads of crisis exported to global economic extremities, had only creating wastelands of despair and turmoil, intensified contradictions and produced evolving multiform crises whose blowback-effect now threatened the geopolitical formations of the US late-imperial system.

Suddenly an abyss had opened at the feet of the ruling classes, generating political incoherence, confusion and loss of strategic direction.

Behind the hypnotic repetition of mindless apologetics and delusional mantras, the soft words of its diplomats and academics, the liturgy of neoliberalism – with its polite talk of reforms, open markets and global democratic freedom – foundered abruptly as its intellectual models and practical policies faced grim new challenges.

It was time to stop the rot and reconstruct the framework of imperialism in Southeast Asia, to restabilize strategic positions there before rivals (above all Beijing) rushed in to fill the vacuum with promises of development aid and long-term investment. In this abrupt change of direction, vestigial international structures without real power or influence were discarded: the choices were now incalculably starker, and couldn’t be left to social-democratic wimps and their faint-hearted multilateralism.

This is the meaning of the so-called Howard Doctrine as it was implemented from 1999, through military and police interventions (‘stability operations’) in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Operation Astute - Timor Leste

In Fred Benchley’s notorious 1999 interview with John Howard in the Bulletin, the Prime Minister apparently described Australia as Washington’s ‘deputy sheriff’ in the southwest Pacific and southeast Asia. According to the PM, the INTERFET operation in East Timor was a ‘turning point in external relations’, with Australia responsibly acting ‘above and beyond its immediate interests’, bringing into play its ‘unique characteristics as a Western country in Asia – with strong links to North America’.

The ‘arc of instability’ (a favoured term of Rudd’s) forced Australia to become ‘the strong man of Asia’, with a large scope for war-preparation, undisguised repression and the political reconstruction of alliances and coalitions of interest.

These were political methods of last resort, which state breakdown and basic disequilibria in the peripheries made both desirable and necessary. Thus future restructuring of the global or regional order demanded the creation of a new Asia-Pacific power-axis.

This meant colonial intervention in the peripheries and reassumption of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of colonial administration by US-aligned states like Australia and New Zealand.

David Feeney RAMSI Solomon Islands

Nonetheless, the Howard Doctrine only arose because history had temporarily closed off all options for the Australian ruling elite. Despite the long-run systemic disarray of US hegemony, there had been as yet no successful historical move for Asian economic integration and the definitive emergence of a powerful Asian politico-military competitor to the US.

In these profoundly constraining historical circumstances – with the current absence, yet with the looming possibility, of a powerful centralized East Asian state gaining strategic and economic domination of Asia as a whole, saturating its markets and controlling its skies, sealanes and information networks, and ending US unicentric financial domination – Canberra became ever more tightly aligned with Washington.

Kevin Rudd’s suggested APEC solution therefore suffered from the fatal combination of being both too much and too little.

It was impossible to remake the utterly anachronistic APEC omelette, which was at any rate an institution of US regional hegemony, not some assertion of ‘independence’ from Washington.

At the same time, avoidance of full-scale Australian participation in US adventures was politically unacceptable to Washington in the epoch of its decline (‘You are either with us or against us’) and would be regarded as the passive, effeminate, perfidious action of an unreliable subordinate obviously in need of constant supervision. [So it seems to have turned out for Rudd in 2010!] 

Any Australian government that tried this trick would get smacked over the head with a balance of payments crisis, while imperilling the bilateral security cooperation which is the basis of subimperial strategic planning and Canberra’s main source of advanced military technology (the information network arising from the UKUSA agreement is also the technical basis for Australian signals intelligence and geospatial imagery).

The claim that Australia ‘can have a thoroughly robust alliance with the US while pursuing an independent policy of engagement with Asia’, because ‘foreign policy is not a zero-sum game’, ignored the inevitable fate of the US-regulated world market, in which competitive conflict underlies the lesser powers’ overt support for the hegemon.

What would happen when a downturn cut short growth trends, and when systemic breakdown and crises of international markets and finance capital stifled international trade and investment flows?

The fragmented regional blocs (EU, East Asia), which were economic and political rivals of the US, would be forced into autarkic restructuration and remilitarization. As the regional architecture was rebuilt, possibly under Chinese hegemony, some fractions of Australian capital and state would evolve a position of overt opposition to the USA, despite fear of what a vengeful US could still do. Some political wing, most likely the ALP, would then take up this cause, draped in the finery of the ‘national interest’, i.e. whatever it took to preserve capitalist property relations in Australia.

Their principal source of demographic support would nonetheless come from various non-bourgeois social layers, stung by the collapse of the US Ponzi scheme and the global debt pyramid… Such a vicious collapse would surely elicit a minimum of popular resistance, cause internal unrest and threaten social peace, even from the cowed population that vocally supports the chauvinist hysteria of the Howard regime.

This open crisis would expose the hitherto latent and concealed contradictions between the Australian propertied classes and the US elite.


Manipulation of public attitudes and mass consciousness has been sufficiently refined by the ruling class to build on a small but established base-rock of anti-American chauvinism, if necessary. The nationalism of the Australian Greens may be useful here, though the party has nurtured an even more virulent Sinophobia.


Howard and the more canny members of the Australian ruling class do not really base their ad-hoc international Realpolitik on ‘special relationships’, but through an ideological prism of ‘the national interest’ and tactical blocs dictated only by short-run advantage. Howard will anyhow be long gone before the occasion of a split and strategic reorientation, replaced by a more suitable figure.


While the panjandrums will continue to inexorably press ahead on all fronts until they are confident of achieving both short-term and long-term aims, which means aligning with the United States for now, Australian sub-imperialism is ultimately confronted with an impasse, and the possibility of being destroyed in future competitive conflict between East Asia and the US. For the moment they cling feebly to the thesis of complementarity, mutual dependency, ‘international community’ and generalized bourgeois law and right.

That is, they speak as if paid-up Chinese membership in the capitalist club will prevent regional conflict and geopolitical crises.


Keating’s position reveals the truth behind this evasion.

The kinds of policies he recommends, while superficially innocuous (going for RMB revaluation, China satisfying domestic demand more etc.) are potentially devastating to US rentier-imperialism, whose predicament mirrors that of late c19 Britain: while controlling global money, and possessing military force-of-last resort, the hegemon is comparatively  uncompetitive relative to rivals experiencing intensive, deflationary productivity growth.

China may indeed abandon the export-led path and transfer production towards satisfying the domestic market, as Keating predicts: Wen Jiabao has recently foreshadowed this long-term reorientation, which emerged officially if not in reality in the ninth and tenth Five-year Plans (1996-2000 and 2001-2005). Feldman and Xie suggest this has already occurred if we integrate mainland and Hong Kong trade data into a single unit.

It is nonetheless unlikely to initiate such a move.

The US, with its own wild external deficit, should eventually try to rebalance its economy through out-competing its trade rivals in export markets. Such a move would imply a massive reduction in US consumption levels and a slump in global demand, hitting major exporters such as China. Despite the blather about US productivity gains and the New Economy, China surely has the competitive edge in any such conflict, which would not be the beneficent positive-sum struggle of Keating’s neoliberal lore.

Rather, the scenario suggests the fragmentation of the world market amidst a turbulent deflationary spiral of protectionism, currency devaluations and militarization, of profit crises, mass unemployment and colonial redivisions of markets and resources.

Readjustment of Chinese production and the industrial base towards domestic demand entails economic war with the US, a restructuration of Asian economic and political space, and in turn an ineluctable step-change for Australia.

China’s pretensions for regional dominance may appear strong, but it would have to ride the tiger of its own internal contradictions, with real potential for demographic, agricultural and ecological catastrophe.

Since re-entering the capitalist world market, Chinese development has continued the traditional trajectory of Chinese development, centred on an axis embracing Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta. The eastern coastal provinces have historically been tied in closely with the world market, both functionally through transport links and structurally through the interlinking of domestic Chinese capital, diasporic investors and foreign finance capital.

Recent decades have seen a demographic wave of displacement from the Chinese countryside towards the cities and towns, correlating to the law of combined and uneven development, which drains out peripheries and concentrates development and populations around poles of accumulation. Beijing’s scheme to increase effective demand by tilting the economic axis towards innercontinental development in the northern and western hinterlands (Sichuan, Yunnan etc – the ‘West China Plan’ itself has received RMB 600 billion in investment over two years) may well combine with interethnic conflict, the rural strains of WTO accession, tidal immigration and the fate of state-owned enterprises in the Northeastern rustbelt to threaten internal stability and external relations with adjacent neighbours: South Asia, Russia, Central Asia and the menace of US bases beyond Tien Shan.

Continued growth will eventually – rather soon – come up against ecological and resource limit-points. These factors mitigate against the possibility of any true imperial succession with China supplanting US global hegemony. They increase the likelihood of prolonged global turmoil punctuated by war and revolution.

Possible outcomes include deepening systemic disarray and outright endgame of the capitalist world economy, a cul-de-sac from which there will be no escape.

It is clear that the United States must maintain its pre-eminent position, and cannot voluntarily cease to be world hegemon: its productive forces are too irrational and geared to military-industrial requirements to allow anything else, while 400 years have effectively exhausted the raw materials and energy resource base of the Americas.

Meanwhile the US government’s Energy Information Administration predicts that China will consume oil at the rate of 10.5 million barrels per day by 2020, indicating that it will eventually oppose US strategic manoeuvring and cut its own deal with Middle Eastern energy suppliers.

The short-term outcome to this stalemate – along with the fate of the dollar and the priceless benefits of seigniorage – is being decided in Iraq.

Australian Stalinist academics face the 1980s

June 6, 2012

I recently described how prominent contributors to the CPGB’s Eurocommunist monthly Marxism Today  the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, historian Eric Hobsbawm, and journalists Geoff Mulgan, Charles Leadbeater, Martin Jacques and Beatrix Campbell — helped transform the British Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and laid the foundations for Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Those intellectuals were preoccupied, as Jacques put it recently, with ‘Post-fordism, globalisation, the state, the changing nature of the culture, post-modernism’.

Several of them founded a Third Way think tank and later worked as policy advisors for Downing Street.

The CPA’s Australian Left Review followed a similar trajectory until its end in 1993.

During the 1980s CPA leaders Brian and Eric Aarons sought to preserve their flagging apparatus by appealing to a ‘diversity of radical movements.’

Most ALR contributions thus included admiring references to Gramsci and the ‘post-Marxists’ Laclau and Mouffe.

Images of Madonna dotted the pages in a feeble attempt to mimic the style of Marxism Today. The self-conscious cuteness and sham populism of an article like ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Kylie Minogue’ was representative.

The ALR‘s last editor, David Burchell, later became a Third Way cheerleader for Mark Latham.

Sadly, for those interested, little from the ALR has been digitized and made accessible online.

The final issues were mostly given over to questions of ‘cultural policy’. Debate participants included a nest of ‘culture industry’ experts (Graham Turner, Stuart Cunningham, Colin Mercer, Tony Bennett, John Hartley) from Queensland universities.

During the 1980s these academics, several of whom were then CPA members, had (following Stuart Hall) written of a need for the ‘left’ to re-evaluate ‘popular culture’ (i.e. adopt a less critical attitude toward products of the media and entertainment industries).

These figures were now, by the early 1990s, jockeying for Creative Nation funding and consulting work from the Keating government. Accordingly they had discovered that ‘cultural practices’ were ‘intrinsically governmental’ and required the formation of ‘cultural policy’.

Closely related to this group, and in solid agreement with them, were Queensland Foucauldians such as Jeffrey Minson, Gary Wickham, Ian Hunter and Denise Meredyth. They were preoccupied with cultural ‘governance’, and wrote in support of the Dawkins reforms to higher education.

With them stood the British ex-Althusserian, Barry Hindess (who incidentally was last seen here).

Most of the remaining contributions came from cultural studies academics such as Jennifer Craik, Toby Miller, Gay Hawkins and Meaghan Morris (who, inspired by the ALR’s ‘showbiz profile’ of Paul Keating, notoriously described the strange ‘ecstasy’ inspired in her by the appearance of the then-Treasurer).

Of the few recognizably political articles, the tone and substance of the following is representative:

Whether an airline is government-owned or privately owned is never going to be as important to people as whether the planes have a tendency to drop out of the sky. Careful regulation is obviously necessary here. Similarly with water supply – a privatisation campaign of much controversy [sic] in Britain. Who cares whether water authorities are publicly or privately owned? People care much more about the quality of the water provided. Again, careful regulation is obviously necessary… The truth is that debate about good services in most complex societies will very rarely reveal a compelling case either for or against privatisation.

Though most of these intellectuals had once described themselves as Marxists, there now was no residual trace of a political allegiance or theoretical commitment, save the occasional invocation of Gramsci (‘counter-hegemonic’ cultural policy, etc).

The historical significance of these figures, and that of the CPA’s late publications, may therefore seem slight, besides the obvious contribution made by each towards the intellectual and cultural degeneration of Australian society.

But some Stalinist and social-democratic academics did play an influential political role in the institutional and ideological renovation of Australian society undertaken by the Hawke-Keating ALP governments of the 1980s and 1990s. These changes included cuts to real wages, creation of permanent pools of mass unemployment, sharp redistribution of income in favour of property owners, privatization of state assets, assignment of new decision-making powers over large pools of assets to union bureaucrats, and rapid destruction of local steel production, car-making, heavy engineering and clothing, textiles and footwear manufacturing, etc.

Several of these consequences ensued directly from the Prices and Incomes Accord between the ALP and ACTU. So I’m going to briefly describe how some intellectuals contributed towards the forming of that agreement, in its various stages.

The Accord couldn’t have taken place without Stalinist union officials, as Bill Kelty has declared. Today, Julia Gillard’s former membership in the Socialist Forum of Bernie Taft and John Halfpenny is one of the few reminders that such circles ever existed. These people and organizations were effaced in part by the results of their own deeds. Yet exist they did, and in determinedly pursuing their project they found practical assistance from avowedly socialist and left-wing intellectuals.

The most important role fell to left-nationalist (Ted Wheelwright and Greg Crough) and social-democratic (Frank Stilwell) members of the University of Sydney economics department.

From the mid-1970s these economists, based around the Journal of Political Economy and Wheelwright’s Transnational Corporations Research Project, became closely aligned with the Stalinist leadership of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (and to a lesser extent with the Building Workers Industrial Union, Seamans Union, Waterside Workers Federation, etc).

AMWU deputy leader and CPA president Laurie Carmichael, together with union research officers Ted Wilshire (a former graduate student of Wheelwright’s at Sydney, and later an Executive Director of the Trade Development Council), Bill Mountford (later CEO of WorkCover Victoria and currently a commissioner at the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission) and Max Ogden, had written a series of pamphlets bemoaning the state of local manufacturing. Dwindling investment and employment growth in the sector was blamed on multinational mining and energy corporations and on what Wheelwright and Crough called the Australian ‘client state’.

To reverse Australia’s gradual deindustrialization and incipient ‘dependency’, the AMWU released pamphlets (Australia Ripped Off, Australia Uprooted and Australia on the Rack) and policy reports that proposed an alternative economic strategy, inspired by the British Labour Party and Swedish social democracy. It would include ‘industry development’ programs, a ‘Department of Economic Planning’, wage restraint and consultation between trade unions, firms and governments on ways to improve productivity.

In 1982 the JAPE devoted a full double issue to these questions, including contributions by left ALP parliamentarians John Langmore and Andrew Theophanous. Stilwell later wrote a long positive article about the AMWU’s policy document.

The Australian Left Review hosted pieces by Ogden, Mountford and others. These writers spoke favourably of a wage-freezing Prices and Incomes agreement, pursuit of which had become ALP policy under Bill Hayden. Bruce Hartnett (now chairman of the Victorian State Services Authority and a director of VicSuper) advanced this ‘counter-strategy’ as the means by which Labor and unions could pursue ‘socialism.’ Using Leninist language, Carmichael dismissed ‘economistic’ struggles for higher wages, in favour of ‘political unionism.’

Yet it soon became clear that left-wing ‘strategic unionism’ was merely a formula for pursuing objectives  especially real-wage cuts for employees  held by right-wingers on the ACTU Executive (Kelty, Simon Crean), by the ALP and the policymaking elite generally, and by owners and managers of firms.

Carmichael and the BWIU’s Pat Clancy, Tom McDonald and Stan Sharkey (long-time members of the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia) became prominent and fierce supporters of the Accord between the ACTU and ALP.

In 1986 Carmichael and Wilshire were sent as part of a joint delegation from the ACTU and the Trade Development Council, on a ‘fact-finding mission’ to West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Britain and Austria. The resulting report, Australia Reconstructed, suggested that Australian manufacturing should adopt features of the ‘Swedish model’, with union-led adjustments to wages, ‘work practices’ and training, as a means to ‘secure price and productivity movements in the internationally traded goods and services sector’.

Also on this trip was former CPA theorist Winton Higgins, now an expert on Swedish employment relations.

During the 1970s, Higgins had been one of many historians and political theorists, including Stuart Macintyre, Alastair Davidson, Tim Rowse, Douglas Kirsner, Kelvin Rowley and Bob Connell, to advance a Eurocommunist outlook, based variously on Althusser and Gramsci, in new journals like InterventionArenaThesis Eleven and Australian Left Review.

Arena had long expressed a fascination with technology and education as ways to bring forth socialism. The outlet therefore took a close interest in Australia Reconstructed, and during the late 1980s it hosted a debate on the report between editor Geoff Sharp (a critic) and McKenzie Wark.

The latter, who would later write for ALR, chose to hail  while ‘deconstructing’  Australia Reconstructed:

The most immediate danger for Australia is that our productive culture is not innovative. The pace of innovation in many sectors of our economy is slow, non-existent, or totally dependent on imported expertise and hardware. We have a declining manufacturing sector, not because manufacturing ceases to be a player in the hi-tech game, but simply because our manufacturing sector has suffered too long from bad policy decisions, bad management, and labour movement strategies rooted in a long-vanished past.


[Wage] militancy is not a progressive policy in its own right. Wage growth has be linked to growth in output.

By 1997 Wark was writing Derridean deconstructions of native title for The Australian, saluting Barry Jones as ‘Australia’s first postmodern politician’, describing Peter Garrett as an ‘organic intellectual’, and expressing Third Way enthusiasm for Mark Latham and Lindsay Tanner (‘The agenda for Labor beyond 2000 is clear: it has to spread the cultural and economic benefits of cyberspace’).

Soon after he emerged as an internationally prominent videogames theorist.

I’ve described the bare bones of this history in preparation for the post to follow this one. I anticipated that the argument of that next post would, in the absence of the facts presented here, seem unconvincing and provoke unvoiced objections from people unfamiliar with this material. Yet raising any of this stuff in the following post would have taken me too far afield from its main topic: the role of ‘progressive’ history, and the political and intellectual origins of progressive historians, in Keating’s ‘big picture’ of Australian nationalism.

Update: What I promised to deliver in the following post eventually came here.