Archive for April, 2013

Making the world unsafe

April 11, 2013

Yesterday’s Financial Times included an interview by its Beijing correspondent with a senior executive from the Chinese-owned engineering and construction firm Sinohydro.

In it, Wang Zhiping lamented the billions in dollars of asset write-downs and lost contracts suffered by Chinese firms due to ‘political instability’ (i.e. US-promoted regime change, state failure and secession) in Libya, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Iraq, Afghanistan and Burma.

FT April 10 2013

The article described the fallout – regrettable and inadvertent, of course – from NATO’s recent African military ventures, diplomatic intrigues and assertions of force majeure:

After years of expansion into emerging markets and developing a reputation along the way for taking on projects in difficult environments, experiences such as Libya are prompting a change in the way that Chinese companies assess risk. The shift – backed by Beijing – comes as Chinese companies increasingly compete with Bechtel, Hyundai Engineering, Leighton and other international contractors.


Chinese engineering companies last year produced $117bn in revenues from contracts outside China – a 10-fold increase over the past decade, according to the Chinese government. Five of the world’s top 10 contractors are now Chinese, according to the Engineering News Record, a trade publication.

While Chinese contractors can compete on technological prowess, they face a big challenge dealing with political risk, particularly after hard-earned lessons through kidnappings in war-torn areas such as Libya, Mali and Afghanistan.

Many of Sinohydro’s overseas projects – from mines and roads to power stations and football stadiums – are funded by Chinese loans to the host country, which are repaid with resources such as crude oil.

While the model has helped cash-strapped governments that might otherwise shy away from building needed infrastructure, it has left Chinese companies exposed in many of the world’s conflict zones.


“If the risks are too high, we just won’t go there [now],” says Mr Wang. “Our greatest concern is the instability caused by political risk in overseas markets, including armed conflict.”

Sinohydro’s “caution” list includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar, where the military junta unilaterally suspended a $3.6bn hydropower project in 2011.

The shifting attitude reflects some costly lessons. Mr Wang says the conflict in Libya cost Sinohydro $1.2bn in suspended contracts and $200m in writedowns.

“That is just an estimated figure,” says Mr Wang. “For other losses, like how many cars have been blown up, or exact losses for every physical asset . . . it is very difficult to get an exact number.”

Sinohydro has also been caught up in other conflicts with workers either killed or kidnapped in South Sudan and Afghanistan. And the current conflict in Mali threatens to jeopardise one of its hydropower projects.

construction and engineering industry

To these methods of overt US aggression and tortious interference, we can add the less objectionable corporate watchword of ‘green growth.’

In recent years, the need to invest in ‘clean energy’ has supplied public justification for the state-assisted efforts of US- and European-owned engineering, construction and mining firms (Bechtel, ABB, RWE, Skanska, etc.) to secure infrastructure contracts and fasten down supplies of raw materials ahead of their Chinese competitors.

But these developments aren’t the real interest of the FT article.

What the piece quietly makes clear is that the sovereign needs of the US government now conflict with the system-wide needs of world capitalism.

Washington’s exercise of its imperial power is no longer the benevolent, positive-sum game of yore, in which it could pursue its own interests while acting as guarantor of private property rights, monopolizer of force, keeper of civil peace and manager of the global division of labour on behalf of the world’s governments and propertied elite.

Rather than satisfying the wishes of the world’s investors for stable political institutions, Washington’s need to maintain strategic pre-eminence now leads it to create continent-wide zones of political turmoil, state failure, secession and insecure property rights.

Amidst such basic uncertainty, where one’s assets may be seized, obligations repudiated or agreements turn out to be worthless, how is stable global accumulation possible?

Such questions, no doubt, rankle the editorial board at the FT.

But the options for elite decisionmakers are bleak. They are faced with a structural impasse, since demographic and resource constraints, and economic and political factors, militate against any prospect of imperial succession with Beijing or any other power supplanting US hegemony. There will be no repeat of 1945 and no escape from prolonged disorder.

The institutions of world capitalism are therefore in acute and probably terminal disarray.


On English ground

April 11, 2013

The Argus journalist Marcus Clarke reports on the passage through Melbourne of French Communard prisoners en route to New Caledonia, 24 April 1873:

The arrangements for the safe-keeping of prisoners on board [the French steamer] the Orne are already known. Seringue says that he was treated with great kindness. A strange notion, however, was in his mind. He thought that any man who ‘touched English soil’ was at that moment free, and when the vessel reached Melbourne determined to escape.


At 9.30 he judged that the hour for his last effort had arrived… The night was dark, there was no moon, and it rained. When about 300 yards from the vessel he heard a cry, and thinking the alarm had been given, he loosed his hold of the boat and struck out in the direction of the lights on the Sandridge shore…

About half-an-hour’s swim brought him aground, nearly opposite the sugar factory. Wading ashore, waist-deep in water, he met some fishermen, and – firmly believing in his notion that he was now free – he accosted them, and endeavoured to explain who and what he was. Whether they understood him or not is uncertain, but with rough and kindly laughter they shook his hands, and pointed towards the town.

He went on, still firm in his belief that he was a free man, and entered Sandridge.


By and bye he found an empty shed, and shiveringly crawling in slept till morning. At sunrise he went down to the beach, dried himself, and then, having rested placidly until midday, walked calmly along the road to Melbourne.

A French gentleman, who had visited the Orne, was crossing the Falls-bridge about 1 o’clock, when he was hailed. He stopped. ‘Do you not remember me? You spoke to me yesterday on board the Orne!’ ‘Yes! But what do you do here?’ ‘I? – Oh, I am free,’ was the reply. ‘I am on English ground!’ ‘Are you indeed!’ cried the Frenchman, who had, like M. Taine, studied much the customs of Albion, ‘you had better say nothing and follow me.’

Hobsons Bay railway pier, c. 1870

The Argus also published, ‘for what they are worth’, three letters which ‘the Communist prisoners on board the Orne‘ had contrived to smuggle ashore while moored in Hobsons Bay.

They described the abominable conditions on board the ship, including 419 cases of scurvy among 550 prisoners – the latter caged, according to other reports, in a ‘human menagerie’:

Gentlemen Editors, – Confiding in the generous sentiments of great humanity which characterise the large English nation, some unhappy Frenchmen political prisoners, come to beg you to give publicity by the way of your newspaper to the facts which are next after…

Leaning in

April 8, 2013

In Australia, the ascent of a female prime minister has brokered an open, passionate embrace of the parliamentary order by several ex-radicals and self-described socialists. Few hints of restraint or scruple are apparent.

The governing party, in turn, has mobilized these feminist courtiers and thrust them to media prominence. With its traditional sources of electoral appeal now exhausted, the ALP plainly seeks, in imitation of the US Democrats, to convert women into a reliable vote-bank, and make its own leader into a celebrity object of adoration.

Thus, in the glare of Klieg lights purposefully re-positioned, several feminist intellectuals now operate as canvassers, vote gatherers and general-purpose ideologues, churning out a partisan stream of commentary, advocacy and encomium on behalf of their Labor patron.

The Monthly - March 2013

Let me give two examples of this phenomenon before trying to explain it.

In 1978 Anne Summers wrote a brief piece in Hecate about Adela Pankhurst Walsh.

The first Women and Labour Conference had just been held at Sydney’s Macquarie University, organized by labour historians including the ex-Stalinist Ann Curthoys.

Summers, like Curthoys a founding member of the Refractory Girl collective, observed a renewed interest within these circles for the ‘unwritten history’ of ‘Adela Pankhurst Walsh’s own intellectual odyssey from her espousal of militant feminism to her decision to reject it and devote most of her energies to the socialist movement.’

Miss Adela Pankhurst - Trades Hall

war and revolution

In those days Hecate sought what it called ‘contributions employing a marxist or radical methodology to focus on the position of women in relation to capitalism and patriarchy.’

The journal’s founding editor, the Queensland academic Carole Ferrier, helped to establish an Australian section of the so-called International Socialist tendency (to which she apparently remains devoted).

Hecate‘s deputy editor, historian Carmel Shute, was a member of the Communist Party until its 1991 dissolution. Having worked as a union official, she later ran her own PR firm before most recently moving to the National Tertiary Education Union.

Ferrier’s editorial in Hecate‘s third issue (January 1976) noted:

‘Women’s Liberation’ has become big business…

Not surprisingly, up-and-coming academics, both female and male, have not been slow to leap upon the profitable women’s studies bandwaggon. Utilizing the increased funding and research facilities available in this field, they are spawning a diverse array of data and theoretical material about the position of women.

Regrettably, one must entertain serious doubts about the worth of many of the new intellectual endeavours that are engaged in under the aegis of feminism. For some academics they provide a fashionable and not too difficult means of ascending the academic ladder.

By 1983, as if to prove the point, Bob Hawke had taken Anne Summers on as an adviser on the Status of Women. By 1987 she assumed the New York-based editorship of Ms. magazine, after Australian media firm Fairfax acquired the struggling title.

Summers immediately aligned the magazine, now run as a for-profit concern, with the US Democratic Party.

Yet what Summers’s website proudly describes as ‘the second only women-led management buyout in US corporate history’ quickly ended in commercial failure, and Summers returned to accept induction into the Order of Australia and work for Paul Keating’s 1993 election campaign.

Speaking later in an interview from ‘her Upper West Side condominium’, Summers explained that Ms. had needed an update for the 1980s and 1990s.

Under her control, the magazine sought to be ‘a player on Madison Avenue as well as Capitol Hill’:

I think a lot of women, as they started to get good jobs, started having kids, saw themselves developing in all kinds of ways the magazine wasn’t keeping up with. I thought there was a constituency out there I could claim.

More recently Summers has returned to media prominence as an opponent of the ‘political persecution of Australia’s first female prime minister’. She complains that ‘sexist and discriminatory treatment’ (including use of the epithet ‘liar’ to describe Julia Gillard) seeks to ‘undermine her authority as prime minister’ and ‘assault her legitimacy’.

It would be wrong to understand this as merely the natural idiom of la gauche respectueuse, of pleas from the journalistic insider to respect the ‘dignity’ of ‘the holder of our highest office’.

The impulse behind Summers’s appeal is more tawdry.

For neither Gillard’s personal qualities nor her government’s political record suffice to invite loyalty, let alone giddy engouement, from anyone who self-conceives as a feminist.

Even invested with the authority and mystique of office, she is devoid of the magnetism, conviction or aplomb that might otherwise have allowed her to personify female triumph over gender prejudice or any other uplifting popular identification. Nor has her government been willing to dispense the socio-cultural confetti of lifestyle and mores, the sops of symbol and ‘values’ (marriage, faith, etc.), necessary to propel culture warriors into the ALP camp.

Electoral support for the female prime minister (whom Summers renders as ‘CEO of Australia Pty Ltd’) must therefore be motivated by eliciting sympathy for her mistreatment at the hands of sexist enemies.

The appeal is purely negative. As with Hillary Clinton in 2008, Gillard’s sole contribution is her putative ‘toughness’ in the face of unfair attacks.

Now to the second example.

In 1987 Carole Ferrier, Carmel Shute and Zelda D’Aprano (former CPA member) joined a colloquium in the Communist Party’s Australian Left Review, along with the feminist historian Marilyn Lake.

Described as a ‘well-known activist’, Lake was to expound on ‘the current state of socialist feminism’.

In her piece, she referred derisively to ‘femocracy’ as the ‘the public face of feminism in the 1980s.’ Women were divided by social class, she said, and one ‘cannot help but wonder, in the Australian context, to what extent some Affirmative Action strategies are facilitating the “inevitability” of this hierarchy.’

‘Socialist feminists’, declared Lake, ‘must learn how to bargain with the men in the socialist movement, for socialist feminism must continue to grow.’

In 2013, Lake no longer publicly evinces interest in ‘building a socialist movement with men’ or without them.

Instead she has used a recent column in Fairfax newspapers to write, like Summers, about the widespread hatred for Labor prime minister Gillard.

Lake’s defence drifts into  putting it politely  cloying boosterism:

The future belongs to Gillard, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus and others with talent and forward vision. It also belongs to politicians who care about more than themselves and their careers, who care about climate change and the environment, as Combet does, who care about disability insurance, as Shorten does, who care about the state of our hospitals, as Plibersek does, and who care passionately about access to education as our Prime Minister does.


Enough is enough. It has been exasperating for many of us, as citizens without power, to watch helplessly as this campaign of [anti-Gillard] denigration dragged on and on. Journalists seemingly too lazy or unimaginative to investigate policy innovation, larger contexts, new ideas or broader social and economic change seem to rely wholly on polls for their subject matter and many seem personally obsessed with destroying Gillard. She has been subject to sexist attacks and unwittingly called up the misogyny that lies deep in Australian culture, brought to the surface by the terrifying sight of women in power.

Little wonder that men still dominate those other august institutions, the military, the churches, the press and our universities.

When some people speak of Prime Minister Gillard they do so with the particular contempt and dislike they usually reserve for women. People often spoke about Margaret Thatcher in the same way…

As the Prime Minister displays extraordinary grace under pressure, as she continues to govern the nation in the face of incessant attacks, as she shows admirable commitment and clear-sightedness, male commentators now move to deplore her toughness  an admirable quality in a man suggesting surely that it is unbecoming in a woman.

But Gillard doesn’t only have strength, she has compassion and good humour. And she knows that most women and fair-minded men support her in her program of change and her vision of a fairer society.

The career trajectories of Summers and Lake, and their recent media interventions, ought to raise a number of questions.

In the first place, why are such not-very-clever ideas springing to the mind of eminent academics and media intellectuals, and why are they being given an airing in centralized media platforms right now?

The answer is plain: they meet a pressing need to rebrand a creaking Labor Party, increasingly vacant of members and popular appeal if not yet of funds. And this organisational and electoral decay ultimately is because traditional labourism and social democracy have outlived their usefulness and are defunct.

Intellectuals whose career fortunes are bound up with those of the Labor Party have made large sunk investments that they cannot easily redeploy. New patronage networks are hard to find. Mindful of the need to safeguard their professional assets, these ageing intellectuals must invent new reasons for the moribund entity (the ALP) to survive.

The historical basis for social democracy  conditions in which wages and salaries could rise apace with labour productivity, preserving a constant share of value added for employee compensation  has long since evaporated.

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Mohun - Oz real wages and labour productivitySince no later than the mid-1980s, the activities of labour parties and union officials have therefore been openly inimical to the interests of employees, their dependents and the vast majority of the population. Cast to the winds have been the fortunes of every segment of society besides a tiny financial oligarchy and an upper-salaried layer.

The former mass membership of trade unions and the ALP has been hollowed out and the organizations reduced to corrupt shells.

trade union membership

The bourgeois state accordingly needs other ideological supports and mystifications to perpetuate its rule. Political institutions that now rest on an unprecedentedly narrow distribution of wealth and social power must, to sustain their own existence, secure the fealty of other, less traditional social layers.

Among these latter-day helpmates of the ruling elite are many ideologues and activists of feminism.

In Australia, the embarrassingly toadying efforts of Summers and Lake attest to this, as does the success of Julia Gillard’s contrived ‘misogyny’ speech in inspiring a dutiful and fawning response hailing a so-called ‘new wave of feminism’.

For these writers and academics, the task of applying a ‘progressive’ gloss to the political establishment presents, as Hecate wrote in 1976, an opportunity for new sources of earnings and career advancement.

In return for the anticipated rewards of clientelism, they provide a reliable constituency or voting bloc. Their elite patron finds this support useful not just for partisan electoral purposes, but more fundamentally as a guarantor of social stability at a time when Australian authorities are preparing for a decade-long decline in popular living standards.

Eisensein - Oz femocrats

This brings us to a second question. What does degeneration of these intellectual seers (Summers) and avowed radicals (Lake) into shameless vote-gatherers and canvassers for the ALP say about the political movement of feminism as the latter grew out of Women’s Liberation, antiwar protests and the New Left?

Conventional opinion  where it does not simply welcome such individual journeys towards political moderation as examples of inevitable maturation and coming to one’s senses  ‘explains’  them as mere apostasy.

What, after all, is more familiar than the betrayal of youthful convictions?

But this media and scholarly commonplace exaggerates how much danger was ever posed by the intellectuals of the New Left and activists of the ‘new social movements’. Despite their bloodcurdling slogans, the latter were always politically harmless and were known to be so by their most canny patrons among the ruling elite.

As clear-eyed servants of the political establishment would have discerned, the booty of middle-class ‘inclusion’  a few academic posts, access to the professional salariat and positions in the middle ranks of the public service  would be enough to satisfy many sex-based demands. These spoils of office, accruing to a few women, would be presented as gratifying symbols of esteem for them all.

To serve this purpose, institutionalized rent-sharing did not need to be the explicit goal of the entire group (i.e. it did not need to accommodate the wishes of all or even most feminists, as of course it did not). Such a program was simply the logical outcome of group-specific politics, and the point beyond which it could not progress: the maximum that could be achieved.

Today, if one sorts Australian full-time non-managerial employees by mean weekly earnings, the lowest-paid occupations are still typically filled by women: textile, clothing and footwear trades, hairdressers, childcare workers, checkout operators, cleaners and laundry workers, receptionists, food-preparation and hospitality workers.

Curthoys, probably the most astute and intelligent of her milieu, noted in 1984 that ‘many feminists are anti-male in a crude sense, are simply seeking their own advancement vis-à-vis middle-class men, have abandoned socialist ideals and organizations, and are out of touch with or unsympathetic to the very real problems of working-class people, both female and male’ (emphasis in original).

Of course by 1988, having herself re-examined the ‘shibboleths of the left’ in an academic discussion group, Curthoys declared that she was now persuaded by Alec Nove’s vision of market socialism. She hoped to ‘reconcile public ownership with competition and the operations of the market.’ (In 1987 the Kremlin bureaucracy, in whose orbit Curthoys’s early political formation took place, had enacted a Law on State Enterprises that conferred managers of state firms with decision-making autonomy. This reform would quickly lead to full privatization and capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union.)

This concession to political fashion was instructive about more than just Curthoys’s own political background, ideological unmooring and personal demoralization (‘the perspective of the traditional left’, she announced, ‘has lost persuasiveness in recent years’).

In scrambling to stay just inside the left-most boundary of respectable public opinion as the latter rushed swiftly rightward, Curthoys was being true to form. In doing so she divulged the social character of the broader enterprise that she and other feminist intellectuals had long been engaged in.

Today the behaviour of Lake and Summers discloses the truth about their feminism even more unsparingly: it is a kind of abject truckling for favours, in which fortunes (media profile, recognition from one’s peers as someone intellectually fashionable, advisory gigs, perhaps even a pensionable job in the state bureaucracy) depend on maintaining the favour of the wealthy and powerful, or joining their ranks.

Speaking on behalf of his ‘own class… the educated bourgeoisie’, and as a pioneer of ‘novel measures for safeguarding capitalism’, J.M. Keynes observed in his General Theory:

[Dangerous] human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth…

Liberal ‘policymaking’  as it’s pursued and carried out by lobbyists and technocrats in think tanks, government agencies and pressure groups  is chiefly a matter of tinkering with markets through subsidies, taxes and legislation to shift economic surpluses between groups, transferring rents from one set of interests to another.

All political ‘movements’ that look to the bourgeois state for salvation thus ultimately become vehicles for rent-seeking.

From time to time, ruling authorities accommodate the redistributive demands of a particular constituency (e.g. an industry, class fraction, social layer or ‘interest group’). The latter will then be done the honour of being indulged by ‘progressive’ public opinion.

Spokespeople and ideologues responsible for articulating group aims will suddenly find themselves the subject of media fascination and patronized by the powerful. They will be invited to write newspaper columns, give convivial TV interviews, make submissions to parliamentary inquiries and have tea at the prime minister’s residence.

Whether in the name of social stability and preserving a fragile status quo, or of reformist meliorism, journalists and academics will begin to rail against the exorbitant privileges won by other powerful but narrow groups (mining companies, large landowners, financial institutions, sugar growers, pharmaceuticals corporations, professional doctor’s guilds).

These ‘special interests’, it will now be admitted, have long sought to influence state policy (e.g. tariffs, patent law, monetary policy) to garner for themselves a larger share of the pool of property income. Why not the little guys: small proprietors, manufacturers of solar panels, etc.?

Piously a broader share of the spoils will be demanded, with other industriesclasses and social layers getting their ‘fair share’ of the pie.

Even the apparently ‘radical’ or subversive varieties of such movements, the most sensationally ‘militant’ and incendiary activities of comparatively subaltern groups, conform to Marx’s 1850 verdict:

The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole society [by which he meant overturning property relations of employment and private ownership] … only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.

Masquerading as democrats, egalitarians, reformers, patriots and even socialists, such groups pursue privileges and wheedle for favours: the laurels of officialdom and government-service jobs, dedicated seats in parliamentary chambers, advisory posts and commissions, entry to the liberal professions and senior management positions, admission to higher education which serves as a passport to those jobs, favourable credit terms, academic chairs, property rights, procurement contracts, monopoly rights and commercial licences, etc.

Modern feminism (as distinct from the struggle for women’s rights and equality) is unblushingly a variety of this. Its gurus and cynosures aim to carve out for themselves a lucrative niche in existing society, rather than to transform the latter’s basic economic institutions, such as household labour.

Like ethnic identity, sex is an excellent device for political mobilizations, since its defining characteristics are easily identifiable while group entry and exit are restricted.

But increasingly the figureheads and hacks of feminism also play something more than a mercenary role. While pursuing their own careerist goals, they have become crucial bulwarks for existing society and its political institutions.