The history of all hiterhto existing society is the history of class struggles…in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight…The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of fuedal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
Marx & Engels – The Communist Manifesto
Everywhere, it seems, except in Australia.
The myth of egalitarian and classless Australia has served the ruling class well. It is a convenient deceit that leads to passivity and an unnamed restless feeling that things could be different if only… The idea that we are somehow all middle class denies us the possibility of a better world. It also leads to the self-loathing sentiment that if we fail it is our own fault. It leads to the doublethink situation in which feelings of inadequacy fuel our aspiration.
On the other side of that ideological coin is the idea that it is only the ‘Left’ that doesn’t believe in this myth and that the ‘Left’ promotes agitation for its own devious ends, rather than to fight for a more just distribution of wealth. Only old Trots like me (and the dupes who I’ve duped) believe in class any more – that’s the myth peddled in the mainstream media.
This week the ruling class’s lackeys in the mainstream media have again invoked this twisted image of class war to, attack the Labor government and endorse Tony Abbott as the Prime Minister in waiting.
Unfortunately this is myth of egalitarian mateship and fair-go, fair-dinkum class-free Australia is far from the truth.
Class war in Australia? I wish it were so
The idea that Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan have launched a ‘class war’ in Australia through this week’s federal budget is a huge joke.
I don’t believe The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell even believes his own rhetoric.
A small ‘redistribution’ of wealth – in the form of increased family benefits – hardly constitutes an attack on the privileged few. The class war argument is even harder to sustain when the budget gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Some family payments have gone up, but single mothers will be forced onto the dole. This budget has not increased the pain for Australia’s richest people and it certainly does not represent any kind of class war push back against those with privilege or against members of the elite.
There’s nothing in this budget to make the ruling class tremble. Scrapping a 1% cut in corporate tax rates hardly constitutes class warfare; nor does throwing a few dollars at child care, disability services or education.
Wayne Swan called this budget ‘Labor to its boot straps’ and it seems that this line has been seized upon to justify the class war rhetoric. However, the ALP is now into fashionable dolce & gabbana boots like the ones on the right, rather than the shopfloor-worn hobnails that traditionally adorn the working feet of miners and labourers.
Then Julia Gillard (rightly) accused Tony Abbott of being out of touch with ordinary Australians because he lives in Sydney’s reasonably affluent northern suburbs. A red rag to some bulls already predisposed to snorting and charging at shadows.
Hardly enough evidence to back up headlines like ‘Reform agenda lost in class war’ from Thursday’s Australian newspaper. But enough for Tony Abbott to jump on to the tumbrel as it rolled passed his well-upholstered doorway.
In his budget-in-reply speech the Opposition leader accused the government of cynically playing ‘the class war card’. He also repeated the myth at the heart of this nonsensical charge:
‘our country has normally been free from the class struggle that’s waged elsewhere to other countries’ terrible cost.’
The idea that Australia is a classless society is a mistaken myth that many of us cling to – mateship and egalitarian stories of sacrifice in war are promoted as enduring and iconic virtues.
But it is none-the-less a myth. And it’s a powerful myth that both sides of mainstream politics stick to. Simon Crean says Labor governs for ‘all Australians’ and the Coalition would make the same argument.
Yes, Virginia; there is a ruling class
The truth is somewhat less sugar-coated. The class struggle is alive and well in Australia and low-level class war is a constant feature of daily life. Most workers know this instinctively – prices go up faster than wages, car industry handouts don’t save their jobs but (coincidence the bosses claim) seem to be equal to the ‘profit’ announced by the ‘struggling’ Ford Motor Company.
However, this low-level and constant class war is not talked about in these terms, particularly not in the mainstream media. It is there, it is just hidden inside unchallenged assumptions along the lines of competition and growth are good for everyone and that we are all ‘middle Australia’.
We can’t all be in the ‘middle’, some are on the top and some on the bottom. The top one per cent are almost invisible except as role models of vast entrepreneurial skill and business savvy and the bottom 10 percent are invisible because they exist in the liminal cracks of long-term unemployment; or they are marginalized like the vast bulk of indigenous Australians.
The coded and ideologically embedded language of the news media does provide a few clues, if you know where to look.
Take the front page story from The Australian I mentioned earlier (Reform agenda lost in class war); a close read of even the first few pars gives a clear idea of where that paper stands in relation to Australia’s class system.
‘Business leaders have blasted Labor…’ [1st par]
‘Company executives rounded on the government…’ [2nd par]
‘Peak industry groups called for…’ [3rd par]
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott warned…’ [4th par]
The Australian listens to and speaks for Australia’s ruling class as represented by these ‘business leaders’ and ‘peak industry groups’. But the class nature of this position is disguised – business leaders are lauded as the creators of wealth and the structure of class in Australia is misunderstood.
The working class is invisible to most commentators as Troy Bramston demonstrated in The Australian this week.
He doesn’t acknowledge wage-earners, instead he eulogises ‘the modern, ambitious, entrepreneurial and creative middle classes’ who ‘prize aspiration’, ‘respect pioneering business leaders’ and ‘seek reward for effort’. This group – which Marx described as the ‘petty bourgoisie’ – are, according to Bramston small business owners, independent contractors and sole traders.
But this group is tiny compared to the bulk of the population: most of us work for wages or salary. On a generous estimate about 11 per cent of Australians are in managerial jobs and about 17 per cent are self-employed members of the middle classes. The rest of us, around 71 per cent of the population (if we leave aside 1% for the idle rich), are workers in manual, clerical or service jobs.
The 2012-13 budget holds out a small and rather limp carrot to this group (by far the majority of Australians) in the form of a mild redistribution of wealth. But what it does most certainly not do is declare class war.
The Australian’s headline from Wednesday (Smash the rich, save the base) sent out alarmist signals that the ALP might be about to charge the Stock Exchange. The front page cartoon certainly gave that impression with Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard at the head of a phalanx of marching workers, with the hammer and sickle red flag aloft behind.
This headline is not available at The Australian’s website – perhaps the editor-in-chief now realises it was stupid and inflammatory.
But why would The Australian go down this line?
The simple and direct answer is that it is a newspaper that supports the interests of Australia’s ruling class and, like ruling elites from Moscow to Cairo, the Australian elite is greedy. Even a small impost on profits must be resisted, at the same time such naked grasping must be dressed in the rhetoric of national interest and the real class interest of this tiny minority must be denied or disguised.
A few truths have emerged this week from all the rhetoric about class warfare.
The first and most obvious is that the ALP is desperate. On current projections and readings of voter sentiment there is almost no chance that Labor can win the next federal election. The response, as The Australian has pointed out correctly has been to launch verbal assaults on Australia’s small group of super-rich. In particular Clive Palmer, Gina Reinhart and (to a lesser extent) Twiggy Forrest. Julia Gillard is trying to re-connect with Labor’s traditional working class base by (rightly) accusing Tony Abbot of being ‘here to serve the rich’.
However, this does not signal a return to class war politics for the ALP – that’s actually the last thing they want – it is merely a rhetorical flourish and perhaps too little too late to save their arses at the polls.
The second is that The Australian is clearly in support of Australia’s ruling class and has this week cynically exploited the rhetoric of class warfare to support the Coalition’s attacks on Labor.
The third point is that the convenient national myth of a classless Australia is strong. Instead of understanding real class divisions, we prefer to think of ourselves as all being ‘middle Australia’.
The fourth is that Tony Abbott is now and always has been a class warrior. He learnt his politics at the sclerotic knee of B. A. Santamaria, Australia’s leading anti-communist for more than 40 years. Nothing has changed. If elected next year Abbott would cut even more from low income families and further subsidise the rich one per cent.
Real class struggle, not rhetoric
Despite this refusal to talk about real class politics, the class struggle is alive and well in Australia and class war is a reality for many workers.
The workers at the Baiada chicken processing plant certainly know about it. They resisted full frontal attacks from Victorian police to maintain a picket line and win their union fight for improved wages and conditions. Baiada is very profitable and the company’s owners are listed in the BRW rich list as worth nearly $500 million. But the workers’ resistance was described as ‘thuggery’ by Miranda Devine and denounced as ‘old fashioned’ class war unionism in the Herald Sun newspaper.
The workers at Toyota in Melbourne also got a lesson in class warfare when the company hired a private security firm to escort sacked staff off the premises.
TAFE teachers in Victoria also learned a thing or too about class warfare when their funding was cut and many now face redundancy and financial uncertainty.
Victorian nurses also learned the hard way when they were forced to take illegal action and walk off the job to save their jobs and working conditions.
To paraphrase Karl Marx and Frederick Engels:
A spectre is haunting Australia – the spectre of class struggle.
The opening line from The Communist Manifesto is even more apt today. In the original it was: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. Of course the French and Greek socialist parties are a long way from the politics of the Communist League or the Bolsheviks, but the situation in Europe today does represent a revival of real socialist thinking.
The mere thought that this spectre might actually spread here is a fear that unites Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Chris Mitchell. If real class warfare were to erupt in Australia they would all be on the same side and the chicken pluckers of Baiada would be on the other and (I reckon) so too would be TAFE teachers, car workers and nurses.
As Florence Reece put it in relation to a 1931 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky: “Which side are you on?”