Civilising capitalism is not nearly enough

So the ALP Left is finding its voice supposedly through a new website.

The website supports a new campaign to reinvigorate the party rank and file. Their five principles are;

1. A bigger, growing and more active Labor Party: With more members, more branches and more engagement with local communities.
2. A real say for members: Making sure Labor members have the resources to grow the Party but most importantly have a real say in the policy and direction we take.
3. Reaching out to supporters: Ensuring that the 5 million Australians who vote Labor in each election are more of a part of our movement.
4. Driving new policy agendas: By embracing new policies and ideas grounded in solid Labor values.
5. Always putting Labor’s values first: By making sure that whether we are elected Members of Parliament, trade unionists, policy committee activists or branch members – we always keep our unique Labor values at the core of our work and put the Party’s interests as a whole first.

But they never seem to enunciate what those “solid Labor values” are.

No amount of direct election solves the problem of being faced by 50% of the conference being goons from unions that represent no-one and are led by a class of professional politicians. No amount of vigorous policy work will help invigorate a membership base if the messages and campaigning are crafted from opinion polls and other research.

Reflecting back to the voters what you think they want to hear doesn’t even require a party – as Rodney Cavalier observed in Power Crisis.

Meanwhile Paul Howes is reportedly launching a new think tank called The McKell Institute.

Howes said;

Labor in NSW always had the philosophy of making the market work for people, of civilising capitalism. That is still the driving force behind social democracy but in the past 10 years there hasn’t been a clear ideological split between social democrats and conservatives. There is a crisis of identity for social democracy globally.

“Civilising capitalism” is a long way from the “democratic socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, the ALP’s stated objective.

The clear ideological split that has been missing is between social democrats and neo-liberals – not conservatives. That split doesn’t get created merely by civilising capitalism, it comes by recognising that a market economy does not need to give a privileged position to capital and needs to target the instruments of the State at limiting any individual or collective’s ability to exercise power over others. That is the distinction between the socialisation of the market and merely civilising capitalism.

Meanwhile, by recollection, Paul Howes own personal contribution to “Five Big Policy Ideas” in the Right’s journal Voice was a new program to populate the Kimberley. If you ever wanted something not differentiated from the coalition and irrelevant to the cause of the oppressed that would be it.

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Know your enemy

To advance the cause of the socialist objective it is worthwhile to know your enemy.

Writing in the SMH this morning Peter Costello decries Tony Abbott accusing him of being more DLP than Liberal, writing;

The DLP – like the ALP which sired it – believes in collective rights like the rights of unions and trade associations, and in statutory marketing organisations where individuals are bound by collective decisions. The Liberal Party believes in individual rights, individual freedom to trade, and personal liberty.

Costello uses the word “collective” with venom, in common with all who come after Hayek. But our nation is a “collective” pursuing national defence, an orderly society and societal values. Churches are collectives. Most importantly the essence of capitalism is the collective operation of capital.

Workers are not queueing up demanding their right to individual contracts and a freer labour marketplace – they know that just means being put under the control of the despots called CEOs charged with “maximising return to the (collective of) shareholders.”

There is no evidence that workplace law reform will have any impact on productivity. The claim that workplace reform increases wages is only true of the wages of executives, not of workers. The net welfare test favoured by the neo-liberals privileges the choice of the wealthy over the worker.

The distinction between liberty and collective action is a false one. The assertion that the Liberal Party stands for individual freedom is a joke.

The Liberal Party stands for giving a privileged position in society for the collectives called big business, and bugger the rest of you.

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Looking for new directions

The leader of the FPALP, Julia Gillard, today gave a Chifley Research Centre address titled <a href=”http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/labor-australia-movement-address-chifley-research-centre-canberra”>Labor in Australia is a movement</a>.

In it she outlined some thoughts on party reform but also tried to express what Labor stood for.  The rather unfortunate title – which made me think of the normal output of a “movement” – was explained in the peroration;

<em>Because ours has never been solely a parliamentary caucus or a campaigning organisation.

Labor in Australia is a movement. A movement of people, in a great cause for change.  A movement for the future and a Party of hope.

That is what we have been on our best days. That is what we have been on our bravest days.

I firmly believe it is what we remain on this day in this House. I absolutely know it is what we will remain in all the days to come.</em>

In explaining that movement she tried to answer the question “What do you stand for?” Her first answer was “Opportunity for all, not as a theoretical concept but as a call to arms,” but opportunity was mostly focussed on the opportunity for a job and for education.

The second was “Not leaving any one behind” which was a reference to health, disability and aged care.

The third was “Recognising our responsibility to the Australians of the future” which frame “the social, economic and environmental reforms which will create Australia’s future prosperity.”

Finally she stood for the union heritage and union links – and semed to relate these most directly to the “fight against conservative forces, … who represent the interests of the privileged and the powerful.”

After detailing how these words had been reflected in deeds she said  it was her role “To do everything in my power to ensure our Party is always its best self. Being our best means facing up to some hard truths.  We meet in difficult days for social democracy – at home and around the world….The grand paradox of this lean season for social democracy is that it is occurring when the catastrophic global costs of markets focussed on profit but devoid of responsibility have never been more evident.”

She then went philosophical, “Indeed, I believe this clash of the choices of modernity with our need for security in life is one of the reasons that there is a sense of anxiety in the community.”  This was followed by a defence of “collective tradition” and “collective method” ending with “we have argued for collective action through Government, through a fair distribution of risk.”

She then talked of “our historic mission of ending want” (not really having mentioned it before) and said “we have achieved so much.”

She gets close to a grand vision saying “Friends, this mission of fairly distributing opportunity and sharing risk is not yet done.”

She then diverted to say that “collective action” wasn’t an end in itself, “Understand, collective action was never simply an end in itself: we saw strength in shared endeavour in politics, we saw value in sharing risk through government, for a reason. Because we wanted to empower “the great mass of the people”, all those the conservatives would leave behind.”

She then came to her grand challenge “our ethos of collective action must respond to individual needs and demands for choice and control” and “our great party of collective action must embrace new ways of enabling individual empowerment.”

And so the leader of the ALP walked away from democratic socialism into the arms of small l-liberalism.

As Crikey’s Bernard Keane put it;

<em>It was a long rhetorical bow to link Labor’s tradition of collective action to the provision of individual choice and empowerment, particularly given her earlier comments about the anxiety induced by information overload and too much change. But it serves as an apt reflection of the contradictory and occasionally confused ideological moment Labor finds itself in, particular under Gillard, who has adopted an almost Thatcherite focus on the redeeming quality of education and hard work. A party traditionally of the Left, the advocate of collective action and government intervention, one that still retains a “socialist objective”, that now finds itself arguing for market solutions and liberal economics against conservatives arguing for the sorts of populist interventionist policies Labor would have been proud to own four decades ago.

The structural reforms may get up at the party conference in December, and they may even work to breathe some life into the base of the party. But the party’s ideological problem is one that will remain far less amenable to repair.</em>

Much as I disagree with Ms Gillard’s statement, much as I think it undersells the real battle of Labor which is about addressing the way power is weilded to the disadvantage of the powerless, she is right to recognise the need to reconcile socialism with liberty.

Socialism suffered much from the practices of Soviet Communism.  It suffered more from the way the champions of liberty – such as Hayek and Friedman – managed to describe socialism as collectivism as a process by which decisions for you are made by others.

But socialism and collective action are not essentially anti-liberty.  They can also be used to empower the powerless so that the exercise of liberty can be shared by all, not just those endowed with wealth or talents.  Even Hayek in Road to Serfdom cautioned against hubris from those whose position of power comes from their initial endowments.

Just as the forces of privilege rebadged classical liberalism and jetissoned its core values of mutual concern (we are all responsible for everyone’s happiness not just our own) and relabelled it “neoliberalism” so too can socialism rebadge itself  where the focus is on equally empowering the individual through collective action rather than on collective ownership.

(there is however a branding challenge as <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neosocialism“>neosocialism</a> has a corporatist background, though others <a href=”http://savageminds.org/2010/02/16/why-not-neosocialism/“> have used it in</a> in something close to the sense here.  It was even <a href=”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123359648072740013.html“>ascribed</a> to Kevin Rudd’s musings on “social capitalism”.  Though a CIS writer <a href=”http://www.cis.org.au/media-information/opinion-pieces/article/123-the-rise-of-neo-socialism“>took the view</a> that there is nothing new in either neoliberalism and that calling the Rudd stuff neosocialism doesn’t mask a huge shift to “Government control.  But that is, of course, the issue.  We need to break the nexus between collective action being government control, we want collective action to empower the individual.

“New Socialist” on the other hand seems to be even deeper in the mire of attempts to resurrect direct state control.  See for example   http://www.newsocialist.org/,  http://www.thenewsocialism.org/ and http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book//index.html

An important distinction to make is that the socialism that we write about here is not a program to “plan the economy”. Nor is it just wishy-washy third way stuff.

Interestingly one other <a href=”http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism“>of new socialism</a> is the collectivist nature of much modern IT, including open source platforms and other collaborative endeavours.  As an example a good socialist policy process is one that favours and facilitates that kind of creativity.)

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The making of the socialist objective

The socialist objective as it currently appears in the ALP platform following its adoption at a special conference in 1981.

A 1985 history of the objective by Frank Farrell traces it from its origins. The 1905, 1908 and 1912 federal conferences all called for the party to affiliate with the Second International, but the absence of a Federal Executive to act on it resulted in inaction.

The party adopted a socialisation objective at its 1921 conference modelled on a very radical platform adopted at the All-Australian Trade Union Congress of 1921. The party objective was however modified by the “Blackburn Declaration” also moved in 1921 that “the Party does not seek to abolish private ownership even of any of the instruments of production where such instrument is utilised by its owner in a socially useful manner and without exploitation.”

The obfuscation continued in a manner thatFarrell describes as;

the 1948 conference passed a motion which “reaffirmed” the Blackburn Declaration and in 1951 the ALP conference finally inserted an “interpretation” below the text of the socialization objective which summarized the qualifications and obfuscation developed by politicians over the years. Every triennial ALP conference of the 1950s and early 1960s added to or modified the objective until finally the historic commitment to “the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange” was almost completely obscured by a mountain of prose and “explanation.”

Farrell’s conclusion after citing the objective in its current form is;

However, in its aims the ALP also openly states its support now for promoting “a competitive non-monopolistic private sector controlled and owned by Australians” and specifically declares its commitment to “the right to own private property.” It is clear that the weight of even this theoretical statement of the ALP’s purpose is now towards populist reformism within a mixed economy of a dominating capitalist mode. The Hawke Labor government has concentrated on elucidating modern-day populist policies aimed at creating a more nationally-oriented bourgeoisie, a “spreading” of wealth and “social equity” and holding the trade unions in consensus through a social contract based on traditional arbitration procedures. Only in the widest measure of moderate and social-democratic reform can the Labor Party be seen as radical at all, and then only in relation to the society it seeks to govern.

On another day we shall debate whether “populist reformism within a mixed economy of a dominating capitalist mode” can be reconciled to the socialist objective. I happen to believe it can but it requires some significant rethinking.

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Democratic socialists or social democrats

The ALP in common with most “progressive” parties these days “identifies” as “social democrats.”

That Wikipedia entry starts as if social democrats are just another form of socialists advocating incremental and democratic change. But it points out the distinction nowadays that social democrats tend to stop short at the point of “welfare capitalism”.

Meanwhile “democratic socialism” is still identified as being a strand identifiable by its rejection of the revolutionary thrust of Marism-Leninism.

The latter wiki article makes the following distinction;

The term is sometimes used synonymously with “social democracy”, but social democrats need not accept this label, and many self-identified democratic socialists oppose contemporary social democracy because social democracy retains the capitalist mode of production.

Interestingly the ALP still has its socialist objective but Wikipedia lists the ALP among the social democrat parties, not the democratic socialist ones.

This raises the real and important question of whether the “socialisation of the means of production” necessarily entails the “common ownership” of production means, or merely the reflection that the ownership of the means of production actually comes with social obligations other than “maximising return to shareholders”.

Indeed, a modified capitalism where social goals also belong to firms is likely to be more effective than a welfare state mentality whereby the capitalist is free to create problems that the state then seeks to rectify.

This is one of the core reasons why the ALP needs to debate the significance of the socialist objective. It does not necessitate state ownership.

indeed state ownership has been a major problem for the NSW ALP because it creates the perception that the purpose of state ownership is what it does for the employees rather than the citizens. Take transport. The logic of state ownership is so that all areas are served by transport, not just those areas with the most money to spend. But unionists inside transport then pervert the intent to being about the treatment of themselves.

This highlights one of the little discussed crises of the Iemma Government. John Watkins had proposed a North West Rail solution with a new harbour crossing. Treasury opposed it. Its replacement by the Metro project was inspired to create the line in a different entity so that it would not be populated by the unionists in railways.

That decision cost the ALP dearly. Firstly a good transport plan was jettisoned for a dud, and secondly the need to make up lost time saw the Metro project hurried and large sums of money wasted before it collapsed under the weight of its own illogic.

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Socialist Objective

The Australian Labor Party is a party with a proud history, and very uncertain future.

In common with all political parties that have started life as “mass movement” parties it finds the 21st century an uncomfortable, even hostile, place. Years of refinements in campaigning brought electoral success but a declining party.

Prescriptions for reform focus on subjects like leadership, policy and organisation. But none of these can achieve anything without an organising ideal.

For the ALP that has been its “socialist objective”;

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other antisocial features in these fields.

Through a number of factors, not least the need to distance the party from revolutionary socialists, a misunderstanding of the significance of the changes in Eastern Europe and campaigning for the political centre, the party seldom mentions the objective any more.

And yet, in its simple form it stands for much that appeals to the modern citizen, who feels powerless in the face of corporations and governments.

The objective as stated in the ALP’s platform includes 22 listed items that the party “stands for” in axhieving this objective. These 22 are by no means as clearly relevant.

This blog is intended as a place in which the socialist objective can be discussed and given new life that can reignite a political movement that actually values equity without also seeking an end to progress.

I hope you will join me on the journey.

This blog is commited to exploring the

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