Australian NotesEconomising in the bin: A column by Gary McLennan 1. Introduction
This is my last column for 98 and I thought I would use it to say something about what is happening to us in economic terms. Without I hope giving way to paranoia, it seems to me to be a truism that we are being lied to everywhere about the economy, above all in the mainstream media.
I have been delaying bringing up matters economic in this column, because quite simply I am no economist and indeed those that know me and the chronically chaotic state of my financial affairs would readily assent to the fact that understanding economic matters would indeed appear to be beyond me. But after watching the professional economists at work I am beginning to suspect that not having studied economics might just be an advantage when it comes to comprehending what is happening to us. Moreover I have been increasingly emboldened by the spectacle of not only nations but entire regions of this planet being managed with the same quantum of skill that I bring to my household affairs.
2. A little allegory
First, though, I want to take you on a journey to a land where a thing called 'the economy' has been worshipped and like all gods it is a living force outside the control of the People. It is moreover a god that must be constantly mollified and paid tribute to. It seems now that this Economy-God is demanding the people's very life blood. Every year the sacrifices they must make to satisfy it get greater and greater.
Everything they produce goes to a large temple that is called TINA. This is supposed to be the sacred mantra of the people. There are even schools where the People are expected to learn to chant it three times a day. 'TINA, TINA, TINA". Intoning the sacred mantra is supposed to make one contented and happy. There are also higher schools which give out things called 'degrees' in TINA-Thought.
However the People, instead of chanting, are generally grumbling about the small amount of goods that come trickling back down from the temple for them to live on. This is not enough and although the People labour and strive harder and harder they seem to sink ever deeper into poverty.
However they are told to keep working by the Priests, who minister to the God. They promise repeatedly that the sacrifices will lead to a full and decent life for all, but these promises remain unfulfilled.
The Economy-God, that the Priests worship so loyally, is indeed a wrathful god. It lives on things called 'profits' while the People live on something known as 'wages'. Every wage rise seems to make the God angry. Only an increase in profits appears to please it. When profits are high the Priests announce that the God has wrought an economic miracle.
The People are supposed to be grateful. Most of them try but it is hard because they are getting poorer. Moreover their sacrifices are never enough. For just when the People think things are going to get better and they cannot possibly get worse the Priests come out and announce that more sacrifices are needed to build up profits and make the God smile a little more. These new sacrifices are called 'reforms' by the Priests, and always before a reform is introduced the air hangs ever so heavy with the priestly chants of 'TINA, TINA, TINA.' Such is the power of this chant that even the grumbling fades away before it and the People sink back into the dull compulsion of their karma of blood, sweat and tears.
The Priests alone seem to do well. They have a thing called a superannuation scheme. It seems that this is very good indeed. There is also a large trough where the Priests come and feed every day. Feeding time can be rough. The Priests elbow and shove and snap at each other. Always they seem to want to stick their snouts into the trough to slurp up the feed. It is as if they were a lot of pigs.
These Priests serve the God in a temple where the People fear to go. The latter have been told that the Economy-God lives within a sacred part of the Temple. None of the People are ever allowed near the Temple unless they get their degrees in TINA-Thought and become Priests.
In fact some of the People do become Priests and they have even formed a party called the People's Priests and they continually promise to look after the People. But when they are in charge of the Temple, nothing changes. They too call for the People to make even more sacrifices to help the God-Economy get better. Their chants of the sacred mantra 'TINA, TINA, TINA' seem even louder than those of any other group of Priests. However the People's Priests are different in some ways. They are above all especially fierce at fighting to get at the trough. Moreover the longer they stay in the temple the sharper their teeth and the longer their snouts become.
As for the God, no one has ever seen it. It is rumoured to live in a Holy of Holies within the temple. Let us, though, use our authorial freedom to bring about our Feuerbachian moment. Let us take a quick look inside the Holy of Holies. There is the answer to the great puzzle, the remorseless dialectic - how can it be that if the Economy-God does well, the People will suffer? Within the Holy of Holies where the Economy-God is supposed to dwell, there is no deity but a class of Elites bloated from a life style that most of the People could not possibly comprehend even if they knew of its existence.
It is these Elites who consume most of the wealth the People produce and it is the same Elites who give orders to the Priests. They also have control of the trough and can dictate whose turn it is to feed. Within the Holy of Holies there is a lot of sniggering at the feeding time behaviour of the Priests, especially the People's Priests.
The Elites have also established competitions among the Priests. These are for things called 'grants' to enable some of the Priests to study TINA-Thought. Scholar Priests are very keen on these grants. There is also a Priest of the Year competition and a noble prize for the Priest who has made the greatest contribution to Tina-Thought.
Outside the temple the People mutter about the Priests being only interested in getting to the trough but they know nothing of the Elites. Always though, if discontent grows, the Priests give commands for a new campaign of TINA-Thought in the schools, and all grumbles stop together.
Does this tale have a happy ending? Do the People enter the temple and drag out the Elites, cast down the Holy of Holies, and smash the Priests' trough? Do they insist that there is no Economy-God and that the point of an economy is to ensure that the people do not starve while a few grow rich?
Well here I am afraid that authorial license and power reach their limits. I will say though that the hard truth is that it is unlikely that there will be a happy ending unless the People make the effort to understand what is happening. That means they will have to go beyond mere grumbling. They will need to break with TINA-Thought, and reject Priests of all kinds.
3. So what is going down?
In general terms since 1974 we have been going though a cycle which is marked by a recession every 7-8 years. These recessions seem to be getting deeper. The unemployment levels are increasing but this fact is deliberately concealed by the manipulation of the figures and the policy of harassing people off the dole. So we are spiralling ever downwards.
There is no agreement as to the general cause of this spiral, but the explanation that makes sense to me is that we have a crisis of over production or excess capacity in conventional jargon. There are too many goods being produced in terms of the numbers of people with money to purchase them. Thus, to take one particular commodity, computer chips are flooding the world. Now I would dearly love to have a pentium computer chip but I do not have enough money to be a customer, so I do not count. Therefore in economic terms my needs and desires do not constitute 'demand'. Similarly people starved in the 1930s while they burned wheat in the fields. Starving people do not have money and so are not customers.
Faced with a fall in demand, prices drop and we have what is called deflation. Now that is a word which only appeared in the newspapers for the first time last year. Since the seventies we have been told unceasingly that inflation is the enemy and that we must fight it. Politician after politician has deliberately made Australians poorer in the "fight against inflation". Well, the fools have succeeded so brilliantly that we are now poised on the precipice of a great deflationary abyss. In fact we came very close to systemic break down in October. It looks now as if that danger has passed. Dies Irae has been postponed, probably until the next down turn in the spiral in 2007 or 2008. But for the present the alternative to collapse remains stagnation in the 'West' and starvation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. So we are locked into the cycle of high unemployment and ever increasing social misery.
4. Internal versus external market.
There are of course many aspects of the economy that need discussing. I would for instance like to talk about the links between poverty and ecological disaster. Think of the trees that the starving peasants cut down in Central America. The rich had introduced cattle and driven the peasants off the land. The peasants in desperation cleared forests. Yet the trees would have lessened the impact of the hurricane. However I have only space for one key component - the distinction between the internal and the external market.
Australian capitalism is orientated towards overseas trade. That means that domestic wages must be cut because they erode the profits of the exporters and also make Australian goods less competitive. Importantly too, if Australian workers are poor they will not be able to buy foreign goods, so Australia will sell more than it buys.
So the take home point here is that Australia is being run by people who do not particularly want Australians to have money in their pockets. Now I know that might sound radical or extremist to many of you, my readers, but if you think it over it will make sense of what they are doing to us.
Another point to remember is that all round the world for the last two decades governments have made their people try and export their way out of trouble. Just like in Australia they too have reduced the internal market. So worldwide the number of customers has been steadily shrinking, which has aggravated the crisis of over production.
5. Mea culpa
Over the years I have made hundreds of speeches (thousands, if you count my lectures and I know some students who would!). Some speeches were better than others. But one of the worst was delivered at the height of the MUA dispute. The occasion was the picket of Peter Reith's address to the Small Business Association here in Brisbane. I had just overheard an MUA official discuss with the police how they could both cooperate to keep control of the "rent a crowd" i.e. people like me who had come out to support the workers. That was the exact expression the union official used. Naively I had thought that the MUA officials and the rest of us were on the same side - but we will let that pass for another day. In any case the result was that by the time Reith arrived I was deeply angry. That is my only excuse for my raving through the megaphone at the small business representatives who entered the hall. I called them for all manner of scum and filth and the foam and the froth flew freely.
What I should have done of course was to try and point out to them the central contradiction. They were hosting Reith inside the hall, but we outside were their customers. The government is crushing unions and lowering wages and cutting into the capacity of people to buy. Yet almost all small businesses are orientated towards the internal market. They need the workers to have money. But if you destroy the unions then the workers cannot bargain for wage rises so the domestic market softens.
Walk around Brisbane and count the number of shops that are closing. These are people who sold to Australians and they suffered and failed because Australians did not have the money to buy their goods.
Now why cannot small business see that their interests are served not by cutting wages? Why did they not come out and support the MUA? The answer is that they too employ Australians and attacks on unions drive down wages and provide what every employer covets - cheap labour. But they cannot see that they need customers. As Marx pointed out in the Grundrisse, no capitalist wants to pay his workers. He hopes though that other employers will pay theirs so they can be his customers.
So small business is faced with some very stark choices. They will have to break with the ties that bind them to the Liberal Party, i.e big business, or they will go down. They will also have to eschew the alternative of an ignorant racially inspired economic nationalism i.e. Hansonism. We will all have to argue not for a return to economic nationalism but for the kind of internationalism which aims to eliminate poverty throughout the world.
There is no 'third way'. Either capitalism is eliminated or we will all perish. We will all then have to commit ourselves to the long struggle to bring capitalism and the capitalist class under control- total and absolute control. Our aim should be to ensure that the wealth of the world is shared equally by everyone in the world. That will not be easy but nothing else will save humanity.
Oz update. (12.12.98)
Across the road from me in the old silky-oak a kookaburra is laughing. It has just moved in recently and despite the noise it generates it is really a welcome guest. Its presence is a sign that the planting of trees in the city suburbs is beginning to bring the birds back. Suitably encouraged I thought I would post one of these updates before the holiday season grips us all here Down Under. But, I must confess, it is hard to find anything to say. An atmosphere of social peace reigns. It is of course the kind of peace that Tacitus spoke about when he had a Caledonian rebel say of Roman Imperialism - 'They have made a desert and they call it peace.'
Thus the Prime Minister, John Howard, is getting his legislation through parliament's Upper House or Senate because of the venality of two so-called independents. So we will have a goods and services tax as yet another burden on the poor. Meanwhile in the health system money is being taken from the public and used to subsidise the private health system. It is yet another rob-the-poor-to-help-the-rich initiative that is so typical of this government and this historical conjuncture.
To cap it all it seems that the government now plans to abolish Abstudy - the educational grants for Aboriginal Australians. They are doing this apparently in response to complaints from Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party about the "favoured treatment" that Aborigines get here.
Throughout all this deeply sickening period the working class remains sullen and silent about it all. Nor is there is any sign of popular opposition to the new Howard Government. Though he did not gain a majority of the votes cast and has a relatively slim parliamentary majority the Prime Minister is beginning to grow in confidence. Among his latest gestures is a push for legislation strengthening junior pay rates. It is all part of the move towards a low-pay work force. The kind of 'economic miracle' that the Thatcher Govt pioneered. "The working-poor will always be with you", as Christ might have said. Faced with the passivity of the union movement such an outcome was to be predicted.
There are though a few noises off stage that are tending to disturb the business as usual atmosphere that reigns in Canberra. The Asian crisis is still there and despite repeated Govt assurances that Australia has escaped the worst of it, the medium and long term effects have yet to be truly felt. Moreover the situation in Indonesia deteriorates by the day. The possibility, even a remote one, of a radical Indonesia emerging from the current crisis is an absolute nightmare for the Australian ruling class. One can almost smell their fear.
There has also been something of a loss of confidence among the knowledge class - those mandarins who have designed and cheered on the program of economic liberalism that has held sway since 1974. They are nervous and this is due to the fact that the Repressed has returned - the spectre of deflation is once more haunting the imaginary of our economic elites.
Significant indicators here are the editorials and columns in praise of 'economic rationalism'. Some of these have been very defensive indeed. They have set out to explicitly vindicate the 'reviled' (sic) economic rationalist program. It is extremely unusual that such open manning of the intellectual ramparts has been thought to be necessary. It is a sign that there is a crack in TINA-Thought - the dominant ideological belief that There Is No Alternative.
Moreover among the rural conservative Nationalist Party there have been speeches against "economic rationalism" and even believe it or not against - capitalism. This is of course because regional Australia is suffering greatly. Such is an inevitable part of the drive to rationalise and down size. Rural and regional Australia is only viable with massive subsidies from the centre and these run against the spirit and letter of Neo-Liberalism.
Thus the first act of the new Government was to further cut into the Public Service. Thousands of jobs will go in the Government Employment agencies. Branches will close in regional centres and the multiplier effect undermining the economies of regional towns will be greatly strengthened. Moreover the recently privatised Commonwealth bank defended its decision to close rural offices by saying that the interests of share holders were paramount.
Yet regional Australia remains a core part of the emotional and psychological structure of this country. It is still said that out there is the "real Australia", even though 95% of the population live in urban centres. Such a mythology is an essential element of what was after all a pioneering colonial nation.
The point I wish to make here is that this government's economic policies are eroding the ideological basis of conservativism. That for me is the key dialectical contradiction. Conservative commentator after commentator has complained that this government "cannot tell the kind of stories" that are necessary to produce a national consensus. We are then moving towards a kind of legitimation crisis.
Still as I have said the moment of opposition has not yet come. The phenomenon of One Nation, with its contradictory and confused responses to neo-liberalism and globalisation, has been well and truly beaten back. Here in Queensland the media helped Pauline Hanson's Party to a triumph in the last State Election, but at the command of the capitalist class they have cut One Nation down to size ever since. Thus Hanson's Party lost a recent by-election. Their vote went down from 31% to 15%. The Leader too seems to be well and truly off the front page. Once her every whine made for headlines. Now she is doing the hard yards.
Nevertheless at 15% of the vote she and her party remain very important. I am also expecting them to do well in the upcoming state election in New South Wales. It continues to be a very bitter truth that there is no way any left wing party could come even close to getting 5% of the vote anywhere, never mind 15%. That is an enduring and very powerful limitation on the Left and keeps many within the Labor Party.
So how to sum up the situation here? Well I see a government that lacks the capacity to get the public to welcome its program. Howard and his cronies have only blood, sweat and tears to offer and they have no way, despite the gross and absolute cooperation of the media, to make the people believe that this is the Good News.
However there is still no sign of a political rupture. Such will only come when the social and economic crises deepen. I am becoming more and more convinced that only a mega disaster -ecological or economic- will arouse the working class and make them throw up a non-collaborationist leadership. I should make it clear here though that I do not believe we should hope lightly for any catastrophe. The scale of human suffering will be truly terrible.
So I feel we are trapped between a kind of scissors - a reckless and ruthless capitalist class and a passive if resentful working class. My only reservation about such a pessimistic prognosis is that the recent MUA dispute on the Australian waterfront did show that in the people there is a desire to fight.
This strike was betrayed and sold out by the union leadership, but for a while the trade union bureaucracy - i.e. the legitimate leaders of the working class - was compelled to mobilise to defend themselves. They did so half heartedly of course. They continued to communicate and cooperate with the police and they used the cant of non-violence to control the resistance.
Nevertheless for a period of a week at the docks in Melbourne there was popular and working-class resistance to Capital. For a wonderful while, the elements of time and place and class struggle came into alignment and we had a potentially explosive situation. That has been thoroughly defused and sold out. Yet the memory of that moment lingers. It is a sign that the class is not yet defeated. Building workers did down tools and march off the defend the jobs of other workers. They did surround and terrify the police who had come to smash their way throughout the picket lines. Class struggle was open and wonderful and genuinely inspiring.
Is it all over? 'Was *that* it?', as a young lady once said to me long years ago. Was the struggle at the docks in Melbourne the last hurrah of the union movement or was it the harbinger of a new dawn of widespread resistance to Capital? Who can say? I personally feel I am like an old Jacobin, propped up at the bar, staring into my beer and recalling to mind the glories of yesteryear and me all the time muttering - 'Will ye no come back again?'
I won't go over old ground either, but I have been giving the culture question some thought especially with regard to the cultural level of the Australian w/class.
I went to see the First Test match between England and Australia at The Gabba Cricket Ground. Cricket is an old love of mine and I like nothing better than to go along and enjoy a chat with other spectators. Unfortunately the only seat I could get had me sat near the public bar. There were 3 Englishmen beside me and around us hundreds of true blue Aussie diggers. In the seats immediately beside me a group of young men drank heavily and kept up chorus after chorus of:
Goughie takes it up the ass. Doo dah! Doo Dah!
Goughie takes it up the ass. Oh! Dee doo dah day!
Goughie is Darren Gough. England's number one fast bowler.
The only variation from Doo dah etc was a series of chants:
Goughie is a wanker!
All this went on for hour after hour. The only people capable of making any sensible remarks were the 3 Englishmen. Now I never thought that in this turn on the Wheel I would ever meet a nation that would make me support an English team in any sport. Not ever. Never.
But I found myself hoping against hope that the Poms i.e. the English would smash the Aussies or the Yahoos as I prefer to call them.
Yet what I was experiencing was authentic Aussie popular culture. The sooner it is erased and everyone moved to a higher level the better.
personally i think cricket is one of the most mind-numbingly boring pastimes, almost as boring as john howard - and he loves it. i prefer soccer myself, though with the banning of non-australian flags at matches, this too threatens to be less than interesting and pummeled into the version of australian culture you seem to think is the authentic one.
Gary MacLennan wrote:
Yet what I was experiencing was authentic Aussie popular culture.
what, latent homosexuality? seriously though, don't you think that popular culture is a tad wider than this, and somewhat contradictory? as for authenticity, don't you mean imperial culture?
The sooner it is erased and everyone moved to a higher level the better.
mm.. a higher level? erased? me thinks me hears the strains of wagner's ring circle right now...
what do you expect at the cricket?
I love soccer. Absolutely my most emotional moment ever was when Holland beat Ireland for the European Cup qualifier and the Irish Crowd started singing the Fields of Athenry as a tribute to their defeated heroes. Then when the English fans took up 'You'll never walk alone' in solidarity with the Irish - the pub here in Brisbane was full of weeping drunken exiled Irish males.
As for cricket either you love it or hate it. But what did I expect - is it wrong to hope for something more than "Gouhghie takes it up the ass" for hour after hour after hour. I do not think so. That kind of imbecilic homophobia leaves me as a gay male very cold indeed. But do I have a right to expect something different? Of course I do. So there!! Unless you think Australian male are a lower order of species. Uhmm!!
Actually Carroll and Angela and me are off list on this but I thought I would drag it back on list. Now the reference to latent homosexuality is of course in the behavior of the males. My homosexuality is latent also but that is not for want of me talking about it!! alas.
Angela is a sister so this is all cool.
Now I disagree that the mob of yahoos were latent homosexual. Unfortunately we over read Freud and suggest that homophobia always hides anxiety about one's own homosexuality. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a homophobe is just a homophobe.
What I witnessed was the homo social in action - actually male heterosexuality in its purest form. It was truly a horrible sight.
Now is there a touch of the Nazi about me and my comments on Aussie popular culture? Is the shade of ubermensch knocking at the door? Well we will have to debate this out, but no I think not. I am sick to death of the mindless celebration of the popular that passes for Cultural Studies here at university. We need to return to the notion of the education of desire. People must be helped to improve themselves (in the best Freirean manner of course). It is a form of trahaison des clercs to suggest that the present cultural level of the people is sufficient to the task of building socialism.