If there was ever a time to put to the test the capitalist maxim that a rising tide lifts all boats, it’s Australia in 2018. After 27 years of non-stop economic growth, capitalism here is as good as it’s ever going to get.
So imagine what a shock it must have been to defenders of the status quo when a poll conducted by the right wing Centre for Independent Studies found 59 percent of young people in Australia think that capitalism has failed.
Former Liberal adviser Tom Switzer described the results as “disturbing”. Andrew Bolt found them “ominous”. But the poll just confirms what most people know: Australian capitalism, even when it’s as good as it can get, is garbage for most of us.
Rather than a society of shared prosperity, we’ve entered an era in which inequality is growing. While corporate profits increased 40 percent last year and the four big banks reported after-tax profits of $31.5 billion, ordinary people are barely treading water. Wages have stagnated while the cost of living skyrockets. The housing boom, an “economic miracle” for developers, has created a situation that is unlivable for millions – fewer than three percent of properties in Australia are affordable for people earning the minimum wage.
Control and competition
These extremes of wealth and poverty aren’t arbitrary or accidental, nor are they simply a result of bad government policy. They are an integral feature of capitalism, a system defined by two key characteristics.
First, private control. The capitalist class, which owns the majority of wealth, also has control over the major productive resources of society: the mines, the factories, the offices. It makes the decisions that determine the fundamentals of our lives – what is produced, where, when and under what conditions.
The Adani mine is a good example. It’s widely accepted that in order to avoid catastrophic warming, 90 percent of Australia’s remaining coal reserves need to remain underground. Yet Adani, with the support of Labor and Liberal governments, is ploughing ahead with plans to dig up 2.3 billion tonnes of the stuff from the Galilee Basin in what will be the largest coal mining operation in the country’s history. Most of us have no say in this.
The second characteristic is competition. Capitalists compete against each other to conquer market share, accumulate and edge each other out of business.
This has profound consequences for people in their day-to-day working lives. Workers are just another expense for the bosses on the way to turning a profit. Wages are just another number on the balance sheet. Safety equipment is just an extra, unwanted cost. The enterprising, business-savvy capitalists are always finding ways to reduce such costs in order to outstrip their rivals.
One way is holding down wages and slashing them whenever possible. Evelyn Kathner, a Spotlight worker, is one of the 700,000 low-paid workers faced with losing up to $6,000 a year through cuts to penalty rates announced last year by the Fair Work Commission in the biggest cut to wages since the Great Depression. This is a common pattern, as Evelyn pointed out at the time: “I earn $600 a week ... and I stand to lose $80…. Who gets picked on every time? The ones that cannot afford it”.
Another method is to speed up work and skimp on safety. Black lung, a deadly disease thought to be eradicated decades ago, has re-emerged among coal miners in Queensland. It’s an awful but easily preventable disease, so long as there is proper ventilation and basic safety equipment for mine workers. Mining bosses regard this as an unreasonable incursion on their bottom line, so workers suffer. As Steve Mellor, a mine worker diagnosed with black lung told the ABC: “Men are dying just because we went to work; that’s all we did, we went to work and now we’re going to die from it”.
Capitalism and oppression
This kind of injustice should be an affront to basic human empathy, but it is what capitalism depends on to thrive. Dehumanising particular sections of the workforce and sowing division are important for both deflecting anger and blame for social conditions away from the bosses, and further increasing profits.
The persistent gender pay gap, for example, means that, despite living in an age of formal legal equality, women remain second class citizens. In 2017 women earned on average $26,527 less than men across all industries. Over a lifetime, this inequality accumulates to the point where one in three women retire into poverty with no superannuation or savings. It accumulates for the capitalist class too: the pay gap results in billions of dollars saved on women’s wages year after year. The social inequality of women thus has an economic basis.
Similarly, the appalling treatment of migrant workers is possible because of racial oppression. The army of migrant workers in Australia’s rural areas who ensure that fresh produce lines the shelves of Coles and Woolworths are one example. One of these workers, Saiful Hasam, is paid just $110 for four days’ work. After paying his employer for rent, he is left with just $20. Some are less fortunate, going into debt and becoming bonded in conditions often described as modern-day slavery.
And as society becomes more unequal, the racism becomes more extreme and toxic. Successive governments, having no positive social program to offer, have leaned increasingly on the politics of border control and national security. The mass media have been more than happy to help them in this regard. Among the victims of this political game are the thousands of refugees languishing in detention and Muslims, who are treated like criminals and vilified.
The Australian state
This system of inequality and inhumanity isn’t maintained only by conservative governments. All the institutions of the Australian state, including the ones that claim to be neutral and balanced, are set up not to protect individuals but to defend the power and privilege of the capitalist class.
Workers who organise to fight for safer jobs and better pay find the legal system stacked against them. Grocon, one of the wealthiest construction companies in the country, was given a slap on the wrist and a $250,000 fine when a shonky unsecured wall collapsed in Melbourne, killing three pedestrians. But construction workers employed by that same company copped fines of more than $3.5 million for walking off the job because of concerns about safety.
Migrant workers on temporary visas find that, instead of the law protecting them from employers who would harass and underpay them, the law empowers those same employers to act as their own personal border cop. If workers speak out or demand their rights, their boss can have them deported.
Refugees and their supporters find, time and again, that the system of indefinite detention and offshoring – a system that has been condemned repeatedly by the United Nations – is held to be constitutional by the highest courts in the land. These are just some of the countless examples of the futility of fighting for justice within a system built to deny it.
What is the solution?
There are several widely promoted options if you don’t like the way the world is and want to change it.
Firstly, we are encouraged to start by looking at our own behaviour and habits, and to “be the change you want to see”. Whether by taking a canvas bag with you to the supermarket or switching to energy saving light globes, this approach is at best completely inadequate and at worst counterproductive. Shifting the blame onto individuals lets the real culprits off the hook – in this case the fewer than 100 companies that are responsible for more than 70 percent of carbon emissions.
More serious is the suggestion that we vote in a different set of leaders. Any decent person will be happy to see the backs of Turnbull and Dutton, but capitalism can’t be voted out of existence. The fundamental power that the bosses hold lies outside parliament. It rests on their control of the economy, and it is a power they are willing to use to stymie any reform that threatens their interests, whether it be better conditions for workers or environmental protections.
Those who attempt to capture the system find themselves threatened by this power, whatever their stated intention. The historic goal of the Labor Party has been to “civilise capitalism”. But on so many issues it has walked in lock step with the Liberals, from the barbarism of the detention centres to the kowtowing to Trump as well as innumerable economic measures. Winning government means managing capitalism “responsibly” or risking media smear campaigns, investment strikes and other forms of sabotage.
Attempts at change that don’t address the basic structure of the system from which all social injustice flows are therefore doomed to fail or eventually be reversed. This is why a radical politics is necessary.
There is a stifling conservative consensus in Australia that deems as controversial anything outside of what Malcolm Turnbull un-ironically refers to as the “sensible centre”. But the questions posed by the system demand radical answers. To be radical just means to grasp problems at the root, and the root of capitalism is competitive accumulation through the exploitation of workers. It is fundamentally rotten.