No jobs and no workers? Strange contradictions of capital accumulation in Australia

No jobs and no workers?  Strange contradictions of capital accumulation in Australia

An attempt to grasp what recent reports of both rising unemployment and a skills shortage means tells us about capital accumulation in Australia

The core hypothesis that I have proposed, and seek to test, is that Australia is in a condition of ‘precarious prosperity’: that the solid level of economic growth driven by the mining boom faces increasingly unsure conditions due the various impacts of the continuing global crisis of capitalism. In this situation two national barriers to capital accumulation have become especially important: the shortage of labour-power and the difficulties the state faces in funding social reproduction. (This must be grasped within an understanding of both the ecological crisis we inhabit and the possibility of a radically different and better society that arises from the everyday struggles of everyday people.) I have argued that much of the action of the state in recent years has been attempts to address these conditions, and that the ‘front-lines’ of struggle match these ‘fault-lines’ of capital accumulation. In short the response of capital to these barriers is to intensify work – paid and unpaid.

This hypothesis has a temporal dimension: the future of the boom, and thus the dynamics of capital accumulation in Australia, is uncertain, and due to the speed capital moves at it could change any time – and thus we would have to rethink our condition.  Perhaps I fall in the trap of making predictions. I am about trying to grasp the ‘tendency’ of the unfolding logics of capital(Negri, 1991). These predictions, like all predictions, are probably wrong. But they are also necessary attempts to map, think and strategize. They need to be constantly revised.

It is with that in mind, that I want to think through two seemingly contradictory pieces of information which have appeared in the popular presses about capital accumulation in Australia: that there has been a rise in unemployment and that there is a skills shortage. The first refers to how different capitalist firms are structuring their businesses to navigate the current economic conditions, the second to the problems on the level of society in ensuring the reproduction of labour-power with the competencies and willingness capital desires (which can then also be understood as the product of a diffuse resistance by workers to be reduced to nothing but labour-power for capital.)

As argued in the 2011-12 Federal Budget the mining boom was causing worries about a labour shortage –leading to major state initiatives to find more labour-power in the various pockets of the population. ‘Labour market constraints are likely to increase as the mining boom ramps up, with businesses not linked to the boom likely to find it relatively more difficult to attract and retain workers’ (2011, 6).  As I have argued here and here the welfare changes of the last few years have been attempts to push those sections of the population on the edges of the labour market into it. Already there is evidence that the changes to single parent payment have had this effect(2013d).

However on the Tuesday 15th January 2013 the Australian Financial Review noted that unemployment was rising and  job advertisements have fallen for  ‘ a 10th straight month in December’(Greber, 2013, 1).  The most recent ABS statics show unemployment to have risen from a revised count of 5.3% in November to 5.4% in December(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).  Though to be fair this rise follows a fall in unemployment from October to November from 5.4 to 5.2% (this is the figure that has been revised up) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012a).  The latest figures also detail the following:

  • Employment decreased 5,500 (0.0%) to 11,538,900. Full-time employment decreased 13,800 to 8,112,500 and part-time employment increased 8,300 to 3,426,400.
  • Unemployment increased 16,600 (2.6%) to 656,400. The number of persons looking for full-time work increased 12,600 to 476,500 and the number of persons looking for part-time work increased 4,000 to 179,900.
  • The unemployment rate increased 0.1 pts to 5.4%.
  • The participation rate remained steady at 65.1%.
  • Aggregate monthly hours worked decreased 1.1 million hours to 1,623.5 million hours.(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013)


So there has been a slight drop in jobs (with a growth in part-time employment) but the rise in unemployment  in the ABS figures can also to be attributed to more people looking for work  and finding less opportunities( perhaps at the end of the school year?) rather than companies laying off people . The problem seems to be a lack of jobs growth rather than substantial job loses – 2012 has the lowest level of jobs growth in 15 years (McMahon, 2013). The argument being made in the AFR is that even if commodity prices rise– as the drop in the price of iron ore is often cited as the key indicator of declining Australian economic conditions -  the current ‘focus on cost reduction’ won’t equal jobs(Greber, 2013).

Since these figures were released there has been a rise in reportage on job loses – though these would be loses that wouldn’t be figured into the ABS stats.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in total in early January 1200 jobs have been lost(Hutchens, 2013). These include losses due to the Vodafone closing down their phone chain Crazy Johns.  Bluescope Steel has announced cuts to 170 jobs from the Western Point plant in Melbourne (Greber, 2013, 1). Boral has announced that it plans to reduce 700 staff  (Robins, 2013). A great deal has been has been made of these last two but these are planned redundancies that are yet to come. They do seem to be examples of the problems of manufacturing in Australia for the Australian market.   Generally speaking I think we can safely assume that this slight, but noticeable, rise in unemployment is due to a restructuring in the mining industry, the impact of the high Australian dollar on non-resource based exports, large scale job cuts in the public service and community organisations (especially under the Coalition/LNP governments down the east coast) and weak levels of domestic demand for retail and housing despite low interest rates.

Undoubtedly one of the major causes has been the cut in public service positions at a state level – 14,000 full time jobs in Queensland alone(Helbig and Ironside, 2012), and so too the impact of reduced funding to community organisations. ( Queensland’s unemployment rate has risen from 5.5% to 6.2% since the LNP came to power)(AAP, 2013). ‘The data also follows statistics that show the Queensland economy contracted by 1.6 per cent in the September quarter’ (Syvret, 2013).

The notable examples of restructuring appear to be attempts to streamline production to make the companies increasingly competitive and responsive to global uncertainties. ‘Announcing the changes, BlueScope Australia and New Zealand, Chief Executive, Mr Mark Vassella, said “Whilst domestic coated steel demand has not materially declined, this is part of our strategy to continually find better ways to do business and remain a cost effective producer. Regrettably, this change will mean a reduction in the number of employees we require to operate our lines at Western Port, with around 110 employees and 60 contractors expected to leave the business over the coming months’(2013c). CEO and Managing Director Michael Kane explained these changes at Boral as follows:  ‘the Group into an organisation that is more  responsive to the realities of a cyclical marketplace and one that remains competitive not just during the  cycle highs but when conditions are challenging, as they have been for the past few years’(2013a). I am earmarking here that further research is needed on this point. My assumption would be that these are changes in the organic composition of capital  that is the ratio between the amount of capital spent on means of production and that spent on labour (Marx, 1991, 244-245).

Lateline Business (2012) had reported in November 2012 the mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto were already planning to restructure. BHP Billiton’s earlier detailing of its planned restructuring of its production process seemed focused on increasing out-put relative to investment ( to perhaps remain competitive when the market-value of resources may be declining) and on reducing turn-over time or as Jimmy Wilson President Iron Ore says in the usual management garble ‘targeting the release of substantial capacity at low capital intensity’ (2012, slide 10). That means more coal and faster. Generally speaking the quicker that a capitalist firm can produce and sell its commodities the quicker that its capital and its profit will return to be invested again, and thus the greater profit which can be made in a certain period of time on a certain amount of capital invested(Marx, 1992). Whilst the pressures to reduce turn-over time (both the production time of producing commodities and the circulation time of transporting and selling these commodities) is an inescapable part of capitalist accumulation in general is it convincing to think that as the future of the mining boom is uncertain that the desire to decrease turn-over time (get the stuff out of the ground and sell it as quickly as possible) becomes all the more important?

Yet at the same time there has been another story of a persistent, perhaps deepening, skills shortage (Hobbs, 2013, Dinnen, 2013). In later September the COAG Reform Council ( COAG is the Council of Australian Governments – the body which aims to coordinate Federal and state governments ) reported that whilst there had been an increase in the qualifications of the Australian workforce it hasn’t been to the level to meet COAG’s targets  as part of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (2012, ix).  This agreement is an explicit attempt to facilitate a Vocational Education and Training Scheme to create a workforce that can function in the contemporary Australian economy. It aims to assist ‘all working age Australians to develop the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and contribute to Australia’s economic future’(2). Interesting there has been no increase in the proportion of people with Certificate III or higher amongst those 20-24 whilst there has been for all other age groups (15).

The shortage of skills which worries the state is that of skilled blue-collar labour, with many employers struggle to fill these positions whilst there seems to be a larger available pool of white-collar workers. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations details the skill shortage in the financial year ending June 2012 (that is before the slight economic down turn at the latter end of the calendar year). The most noticeable finding was the recruitment of professionals was relatively easy, ‘74 per cent of vacancies filled (13 percentage points higher than in 2010-11) and an average of 2.3 suitable applicants per vacancy (up by 0.6)’, whilst ‘there was little change in the technicians and trades workers labour market and employers recruiting these workers generally experienced more difficulty than those seeking professionals, with 61 per cent of vacancies filled and 1.7 suitable applicants per vacancy’(2012b, 3).

There is also an argument being made by Mick McMahon the chief executive of Skilled  Group (a labour-hire company)  that ‘the downturn in manufacturing and the privatisation of government utilities are reducing the number of apprentices and draining the economy of important skills’(Hobbs, 2013, 6). Paradoxically the restructuring of capitalist and government firms is leading to greater difficulties for the reproduction of capital on the level of society.


What to make of this, as these arguments seem to describe an impossible situation – a lack of jobs, and a lack of workers?

Firstly it is probably important to take account of the different speeds that these phenomena move at. The recent drop in employment and the reduction of job ads represents the actions of individual capitalist organisations attempting to respond to both the current economic conditions but also their understanding about the future.  The efforts to establish a labour force with sufficient skills represents longer term efforts by the state to ensure the reproduction of capitalist society on a whole. It also demonstrates that training has shifted from an activity carried out by companies as an investment in their staff to one facilitated by the state and specific companies focused on education as a profit making activity and one funded, at least in part, by workers themselves.

This focus on training is an expression of a problem for capital accumulation generally and Australia specifically – that the division of labour is both necessary for capitalism but simultaneously prevents its movement. In Adam Smith’s (1981) early theorisation of nascent capitalism the division of labour is considered crucial to prosperity as it increases the productivity of labour and thus the greater out-put of wealth. The division of labour means the rise of specialisation on at least two levels – the development of different kinds of industry and occupations and specialisation within specific processes of production itself.  The mistake in Smith’s work is an understanding of capitalism as a system geared towards the production of wealth: that is utilities. Marx’s critique of capitalism correctly points out the capitalism is geared not to the creation of wealth but the accumulation of value. The drive to productivity, and thus the reorganisation of the labour process most often using increased investment in machinery, is the drive to accumulate value: both the hunt for relative surplus-value( to produce at a cost lower than the social average and to sell at this average or just below and realise extra-profit) and the use of technology to order the work process in the most effective way to ensure the compliance of labour to capital (‘it would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt’) (Marx, 1976, 436 & 563). But if this division of labour requires increased specialisation of workers and their training this can mean workers will not or cannot shift from industry to industry as fluidly as desired by the movement of capital.

The dynamic transformations of the capitalist mode of production should make us sensitive to changes in class composition: that is the relationship between the way that work is organiser by capital and simultaneously the way that on this terrain workers articulate their own struggles and desires – which can force capital to reshape the former.

The most obvious shifts in class composition in Australia are consistent with the experiences of much of the Global North – the decline of the industrial production and the rise of services. ‘For most of the first half of the 20th century, around half of Australia’s workers were employed in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing; Mining and Manufacturing.  Today, these industries represent 13% of the workforce.’ Whilst what we call services now employs three quarters of the workforce. (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, 2012a, 14). The largest demographics of workers are those that work in white-collar, care and service industries. ‘The largest occupational group in employment terms is Professionals, with more than 2.4 million workers. Professional jobs generally require completion of a Bachelor degree or higher qualification…In percentage terms, employment growth was strongest for Community and Personal Service Workers’(Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, 2012a, 25) This change in the workforce has also lead to an increased emphasis on formal qualifications. ‘Since 1990, employment growth for jobs that generally require a qualification at the Diploma level or higher (or extensive on-the-job experience) has outstripped the growth in low skilled jobs (employment growth of 78% for occupations at skill levels 1 and 2 over this period compared with 17% growth for skill level 5 occupations)’(Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, 2012a, 26).

These figures tell us something but we need to go beyond them. My general sense (so take it with a grain of salt) is that the contemporary work force is built around a highly stratified division of labour and specialisation. That is terms like ‘professional’ and ‘services’ hide a vast amount of different occupations which often require specific skill sets that don’t easily shift from one area to another. But more than this, the division of labour seems to produce different kinds of subjectivities and styles, different senses of the self which makes people resistant to change occupations ( let alone locations) even when facing a difficult future.

One of the difficulties for communists today is that the mass worker (Negri, 2005, 12) of the past no longer functions as symbol of the experience of work and struggle that the majority of the working class can see themselves in. Indeed the notion of class, especially of working class, doesn’t fit with many of the self-perceptions of workers, even though we may say, since they have nothing but their labour-power to sell, they are objectively ‘working class’. Rather the vast spread of jobs, the hierarchies between them and the way they overlap with structures of gender and ethnicity produce a spiral of different identities and on the job cultures.

In Brisbane it is striking the different styles between different workers (speaking in generalisations). Baristas at fancy cafes are noticeable for their piercings, sense of fashion and increasingly prominent hand, forearm, neck and facial tattoos that would be more than a novelty elsewhere (and even ten years ago would have been considered ‘jobstoppers’). On the rallies against cuts to the public service and community funding in Qld construction workers marching under the banners of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Builders Labourers Federation stood out remarkably from the rest of the rally. They were the loudest contingent, seemed to have a tighter sense of being part of a group and carried themselves with far more of a defiant swagger than the rest of the march – for example it seemed to be overwhelming construction workers who were in the pub before the march and had much more of a fuck you attitude than many of the white-collar public servants – also being at the pub meant that these workers weren’t planning to go back to work after the end of the rally like the rest of us. At a strike meeting of construction workers during the Queensland Children’s Hospital dispute organiser Bob Carnegie argued how the industry plays an important role transforming the lives of many locked out from other occupations.

More negatively these differences in style manifest themselves in hostilities between sections of the work force often based on the correlation of employment with lifestyle. Either in a  form of snobbery directed say towards fly in flight out mining workers as ‘cashed up bogans’ or towards say public servants as overpaid lefty do-gooders who are allergic to work and drain on the economy ( that later was a relatively successful refrain trotted out by the LNP government to rally support to cutting public service employment.)

Now whilst there are many exceptions to all this I think it helps explain a lack of mobility in labour, a resistance to being moved and shifted around the country and from industry to industry as capital demands.  I think it also, confusingly, is an expression of a kind of non-political confidence, that hasn’t arisen from collective struggle in the present, but rather from a matrix of inherited victories, economic boom and individual non-compliance. Also workers in Australia have been offered a high work, high credit and high consumption deal by capital – and the ideological wrappings of this deal was the promise that you can be who you want to be which corresponded to a certain level of lived experience – as long as what you want to be can exist within the circulation of commodities and the accumulation of capital. Thus now capital needs to organise a way of disciplining workers to greater compliance and lowered expectations whilst maintaining social stability.

How will this happen? Can we expect any large set piece industrial conflicts?  In the next few weeks the PM will announce a response to the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Manufacturing’s report which may detail at least the Federal Government’s plan to address these barriers to accumulation(2012). However since the Federal election has already been called this may mean that normally aggressive and right-wing allied sections of capital may delay any large confrontations as they might raise the spectre of Work Choices – arguably the Achilles Heel of the Coalition – and wait till the Coalition’s victory ( which is a dead certainty). Will this have an impact on the activities of state governments  - for example the Qld Government’s plan to move service and retail workers from the Federal to State awards and thus decimate their conditions(AAP, 2012)? After the announcement of the election Peter Anderson from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called on both the ALP and the Coalition to provide policy which would lower the cost of business and create the necessary infrastructure (‘human’ and ‘economic’) for capitalism in Australian to be competitive (2013b).

What can radicals draw from all of this? Firstly it challenges to how we understand capitalism. In conversations with comrades often capitalism is seen as being driven by either the desires or plans of the ruling class or by some amorphous set of ideas called ‘neo-liberalism’. Yet the closer I try to grasp capitalism as it moves ( and thanks to the work of Marx and others) the more it seems to be driven by a series of often contradictory needs, efforts and tendencies that may or may not find some form of overt expression in some of the political factions of capital. Thus in any one moment there are numerous incoherent and contradictory needs for capital accumulation and reproduction to take place which form a functioning totality only through the movement of these separate and diffuse parts themselves. Capitalist growth reduces the supply of workers and thus can drive up wages, whilst increased unemployment can reduce demand and so on. The state then is necessary to hold together and to attempt coordinate, or at least minimise the friction between, these multiple tensions – but this can create other problems too.

In terms of struggle I hypothesise then at least some of the antagonism by workers is at the moment is largely expressed individually in various forms of reluctance or refusal to train in certain skills, look for certain work or move to certain locations in as so much to do so would break from their desired or normalised form of life such as it is. Obviously different groups of workers at different places in the internal hierarchy within the class can do so more than others. Also such an ability can only hold whilst capital is growing and unemployment remains low – it is a limited strategy. Is there a way of seeing a more aggressive and collective articulation of the refusal to reduces one’s life to being nothing more than labour-power to be organised, used and exploited as capital desires?

The hierarchy within the class, which arises in part from the division of labour, is a stumbling block to this. The few overt and collective struggles that do erupt don’t seem to circulate much through the class as a whole (mainly only to small groups of overtly politicised workers and on the basis on their expressed political commitments). Whilst  the September quarter 2012 saw a rise in number  of and days lost to industrial disputes there was a decline of the number of workers involved and ‘the Construction industry (44,700) and combined Education and training and Health care and social assistance industries (40,400) together accounted for 77% of the total number of working days lost in the September quarter 2012’(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012b). The limitations of trade union structures which are unable and unwilling to allow broader class circulation can only take part of the blame. How can we attempt to work out a way of organising that will build real social solidarity in the class? Where are some of the points where it does emerge? Are they always in the workplace proper? The recent natural disasters of the last few years have seen remarkable moments of self-activity and collectivity. The class movement to come must be able to draw in cleaners, teachers, miners, shop assistants, computer game designers, labourers, security guards, cooks and on and on, all of us, into a common project. We don’t know how to do this. We have to invent it. Our starting point can only be the reality we live in.


Image is of the ‘Our Future’ poem/monument by Gina Rinehart taken from The Worst of Perth

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Feb 1 2013 14:00

I contemplate social mechanisms in a broad holistic way, I see globally a 2nd wave industrial revolution in the form of computerised design and management and a technique of massive machinery operation by minimum operators. In a way this new capitalist method of excluding or obliterating the working class in favour of providing a diminished blue-collar bourgeois class an excessive wage has altered a once stable yet undesirable socio-economic strata. This merely confirms the extent of our imprisonment to the capitalist hegemony, they are willing and able financially to provide a welfare state to expendables/collaterals because they are still able to accumulate capital. It's basically how a prison works, damn!.

Feb 2 2013 13:48

This is an informative and interesting article. Australia does seem to be in some kind of South Sea Bubble at the moment. Wages there are very high in comparison to the UK, for example, but the cost of living evens this disparity out by being around 40% higher than the UK. But I am more interested in WSS’s attempt to situate, or develop ideas concerning the practice of radicals within class struggle.

I would like to ask: is this ‘research’ (as stated in your blog) part of a University/Academic project? If so, how is the research being directed, and in which discipline is it being carried out?

The general thrust of the piece seems pertinent to a few questions I asked in another thread:

With Sober Senses concludes:

“The limitations of trade union structures which are unable and unwilling to allow broader class circulation can only take part of the blame. How can we attempt to work out a way of organising that will build real social solidarity in the class? Where are some of the points where it does emerge? Are they always in the workplace proper? The recent natural disasters of the last few years have seen remarkable moments of self-activity and collectivity. The class movement to come must be able to draw in cleaners, teachers, miners, shop assistants, computer game designers, labourers, security guards, cooks and on and on, all of us, into a common project. We don’t know how to do this. We have to invent it. Our starting point can only be the reality we live in.”

To me it seems that this paragraph points to the continuing attempt to restructure the concept of class to fit with older ideas of struggle. Like much other work on this site in which class is discussed – this ‘rethinking’ seems to mirror the concepts and ideas of Gramsci.

Gramsci, before Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, developed the concept of cultural hegemony. Following Lenin, who argued that the working class needed to develop its own emergent alternative hegemonic practices to combat the hegemony of the ruling class, Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony to formulate a strategy by which a revolutionary working class movement could be built (but it was never as coherent as Trotsky’s theory). Gramsci’s formulations, aided by Lukacs, preceded those of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, and found fertile soil in the radical student movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as profoundly influencing a large portion of the academic establishment, in the UK at least (‘history from below,’ etc). This influence, I would argue, is now apparent across libertarian communist, anarchist and ultra-left circles. It has been aided and abetted by the work of such people as Adorno and Marcuse, and other modern pioneers of the social sciences.

In Gramscian terms, the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie forms the accepted precepts by which society under capitalism lives – but these precepts and ways of doing things are not necessarily correct or infallible. Therefore, it is valid, in Leninist terms, to propose a counter-hegemony. It is valid to try to create a movement amongst people which challenges the dominant social ideas and structures.

This, then, is more than simply a call for eruptions of class warfare - it is the conscious building of a real movement. It is a theoretical formation which came out of the split in the Comintern (the Communist International) in 1921 when the ‘Theory of the Offensive’ (an insurrectionist stance supported by Bukharin and Zinoviev in Russia) was put into disrepute by Communist leaders, such as Trotsky, who then properly began theorising the concept of ‘the United Front’ (which is basically a more coherent version of Gramsci’s war of manoeuvre and war of position). The formulation of concepts such as The United Front, and the War of Position and Manoeuvre, by both Gramsci and Trotsky, were part of the Comintern’s, and Lenin’s, attack on the Left Communists and Vulgar Marxists (the Economic Determinists).

It was Lenin who really kicked off the whole arena of cultural theory. He did this in his rejection of economic determinism and in his attacks on those elements in the left who tried to preserve some faith in the creative potential of untutored workers. (Unfortunately, those leftists who had faith in workers never got far enough from Lenin theoretically to be able to develop their ideas into a truly negative critique of existing conditions. Their faith in workers was always as misplaced as the lie that they would never act on the behalf of others.)

As Lenin writes in ‘What is to be Done?’

“The spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”

Now, in order to fully understand what Lenin is meaning here we have to understand what he meant by ‘spontaneity’ in this context. He means that spontaneously, or on their own, workers can only devise a tactic to resist their oppression which is fully acceptable for the ruling class. Indeed, that very structure of resistance which they are able to create forms part of the social and economic fabric of society (workplace or industry unions of any kind).

Also, and very importantly, in order to understand what libertarian communists aspire to, it is also useful to replace the term ‘revolutionary social democracy’ with something like ‘the building of the real movement’, or ‘communisation’. If we do this we are able to asses what Lenin is saying here in a way that is useful for us, without causing us to have a knee-jerk ‘anti-Lenin’ reaction.

This is where the oft-quoted, but oft-misunderstood, idea that Lenin believed workers could only achieve a ‘trades union consciousness’ comes from – his formulation was, as we can see here, more complex than that, and, startlingly perhaps, directly relevant to modern libertarian communist or anarchist practices.

Lenin continues:

“But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.”

This conception was taken up by Gramsci and he ran with it. His notion was that this development of socialist ideology was a very broad task which had to be undertaken in various sectors of the society and economy. Gramsci’s notion that a class of worker-intellectuals had to be created to lead workers beyond a trades union consciousness was taken up by significant sectors of future academics in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Rudi Dutschke reputedly termed the process of developing a counter-cultural hegemony as ‘The Long March through the Institutions’ – the conscious placing of worker-intellectuals in Universities and other cultural and intellectual spheres. Is this what Libertarian Communists are doing unconsciously? Or is it a symptom of most radicalism now actually emerging from the university? In which case, Gramsci was indeed correct.

Pierre Bourdieu writes, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984) : “…the division between the different fractions competing for dominance in the name of different principles [are] bellatores (warriors) and oratores (scholars) in feudal society, businessmen and intellectuals now.” If Gramsci and the Libertarian Communists (?) are right then worker-intellectuals can take over the Universities for Revolution – if Bourdieu is right then it is the Universities which define the ideology of radicalism - and the university cannot escape its role in society.

[As a side point: If Bourdieu’s formulation is correct then the critique of the University must come to the conclusion that the University is a function of social control which is unable to extricate itself from this position. Therefore, Intellectuals (students and academics and others) can show that the University is not the solution to problems of social justice and they can show that the University stands in opposition to the dominated, since it is a competing faction in the arena of dominance – which will therefore lead them to the conclusion that the University serves to stabilise or develop current forms of domination and exploitation. This will mean that they will have to acknowledge that all the work they do in University contributes directly and creatively to the cultural hegemony of the ruling class, or at least one of the two competing sections of the ruling class.

Beyond this realisation the University Intellectual has no contribution to the ending of domination, or even it’s critique, because the University academic is fatally compromised. The ‘solutions’ to problems of dominance and domination cannot come from the University because the University is the factory in which Bourgeois intellectuals (radicals of all sorts) are created. This creation of radical ideas and intellectual processes is indispensible to the dialectic which plays out between the Business sector and the Intellectual sector. Gramsci is wrong. Like ‘The Maniac’ at the end of the play, ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, our impulse should be to Burn the Universities down.]

Gramsci argues that in order for any social class to achieve dominance in society it must go beyond its economic interests. Therefore, the bourgeoisie have attained dominance not only through their control of economic factors, but also through control of cultural and intellectual factors. Gramsci suggests that through wars of manoeuvre and position (Trotsky’s United Front), and through the building of working class influence in all sectors, the revolution, aided by military conquest, can be won. How do Libertarian Communists escape this Gramscian logic in theory and in practice? Do they escape it, or is their distance from Leninism a delusion?

Is it the case that Libertarian Communists, Anarchists, Anarcho-Syndicalists and Ultra-Leftists adhere to the same principles: building a nascent working class hegemonic, or historical, bloc? Or do they adhere more to the incoherent praxis of the Left Communists and Vulgar Marxists, who were unable, in the final analysis, to oppose Leninism? Why were the oppositions to Leninism so weak? Why have these oppositions continued to be weak – even in the era in which Leninism in the West has been marginalised? As I said in the other thread: why do all the solutions of the Libertarian Communists, Anarchists and Ultra-Leftists seem to turn out to be Leninist? Is the problem something to do with continuing to offer solutions?

Libertarian Communists et al persist in promising the imminent end of capitalism, revealing its fatal flaws and cracks - ‘Its coming comrades, hold fast’ - and they persist in talking about winning, about building a movement, that will ‘win’. This is always just about to happen, or just around the corner. And yet, when one asks: so what is the plan? There is nothing really substantial, and those asked are quick to point out that they don’t actually have any blueprints. But didn’t they just say that capitalism was about to crash down and we were going to win? Is this still the essence of the weak theory which led so many good people to help set up the Leninist State? How do we avoid the Leninist solution?

With Sober Senses
Feb 2 2013 22:42

Hi Taxirank, whilst I work ( some of the year) doing sessional teaching at universities in Brisbane, this project is my attempt to contribute something away from academic research ( which I still do - mainly theory related stuff). I might try to synthesise some of my articles for journals like Overland or Arena but I this isn't just resume fodder. Also on the whole I am trying to avoid providing 'answers' to the class - as I don't have them and think they can only emerge from struggle.

Feb 3 2013 02:37

(Hi Dave, good luck with it all.)

In the post above I said:

“Libertarian Communists et al persist in promising the imminent end of capitalism, revealing its fatal flaws and cracks - ‘Its coming comrades, hold fast’ - and they persist in talking about winning, about building a movement, that will ‘win’. This is always just about to happen, or just around the corner. And yet, when one asks: so what is the plan? There is nothing really substantial, and those asked are quick to point out that they don’t actually have any blueprints. But didn’t they just say that capitalism was about to crash down and we were going to win?”

I would like to add something to this.

This enthusiasm for the future seems to be fundamental to our whole culture. Every day we hear stories about some scientific or medical breakthrough which is going to make life better. Every day we hear how people are dealing with crisis and coming out of it. Every day we hear how wars are coming to an end and solutions are imminent. Every day we hear how charities are making the lives of people better in poverty stricken places. It’s all so upbeat.

When we hear about things going ‘wrong’ – for example in Syria at the moment – we actually don’t hear much about it. There is a news black out (yes, this is sustained by the Syrian State, of course, but the news black out is there, nevertheless), and only snippets of atrocities get through. We wait, as spectators, for the thing to resolve itself – at which point we will be told that a precarious peace has been achieved and things are looking up. We were assured that ‘The Holocaust’ could never happen again, but it did. What should these events be teaching us? That things are getting better?

The’ news’ reader smiles.

We don’t get a list of all the awful things that are happening around the world first up on the news. If we did we might seriously have to reconsider the way we look at the world. Children (or do we mean all of us?) would not even be allowed to see or hear ‘the news’. Of course, we aren’t.

This boundless and quite irrational ‘hope’ for the future that we find in mainstream culture seems to be mirrored exactly in the stance of ‘revolutionaries’. Why is this?

This faith in the future seems to come directly from Christian ideas about progress. These ideas about progress informed the Enlightenment and informed Hegel and Darwin and Marx. It is the search for meaning. Anyone who attacks the idea of meaning in history and in life, in the ‘progress’ of human beings, is attacked virulently by all those who cling desperately to the idea of meaning and progress. At one extreme of this group we have Christian Fundamentalists and at the other stand the Libertarian Communists et al. But across this spectrum there are what Adorno termed the ‘unbelieving priests’ – these are the people who go through the motions, to recruit and dominate others, but who have no belief in what they teach themselves. We can see this clearly in the current state of the Catholic Church (which has been doing this kind of thing for well over a thousand years). We have also seen it in the recent ‘scandal’ in the SWP. What does this tell us?

The stock response, across the political and cultural spectrum, to the ideas above is that if you allow people to think like this they will become suicidal, or they will stop working for progress, or Revolution. The stock response is to shout down ideas such as this for fear of them getting out into the open (“It’s no more than right-wing nihilism!”). But this response exposes the person who has it as someone who does not want people to think for themselves.

Feb 3 2013 04:03

Note: people might think that the above post is drifting off topic here. I would argue that it is not, on the grounds that the OP examines flaws and problems in capitalism: “The core hypothesis that I have proposed, and seek to test, is that Australia is in a condition of ‘precarious prosperity’: that the solid level of economic growth driven by the mining boom faces increasingly unsure conditions due the various impacts of the continuing global crisis of capitalism.”

and in effective class struggle, and offers hope:
the possibility of a radically different and better society that arises from the everyday struggles of everyday people.”
The recent natural disasters of the last few years have seen remarkable moments of self-activity and collectivity,”

and solutions:
The class movement to come must be able to draw in cleaners, teachers, miners, shop assistants, computer game designers, labourers, security guards, cooks and on and on, all of us, into a common project.”

To continue on the subject of solutions, WSS’s writes:
Perhaps I fall in the trap of making predictions. I am about trying to grasp the ‘tendency’ of the unfolding logics of capital (Negri, 1991). These predictions, like all predictions, are probably wrong. But they are also necessary attempts to map, think and strategize.”
The question the reader must ask here is why would one bother to make predictions if you are virtually certain they are wrong – and how can these almost certainly erroneous predictions possibly be used to feed into any believable ‘strategy’ which you are attempting to design? Further than this, if you say you are “ trying to avoid providing 'answers' to the class,” then why are you suggesting that you and other ‘revolutionaries’ examine capital in order to ‘map, think and strategize’?

As I said before, how far does this common attempt to ‘think for the class’ resemble the strategies of Gramsci, Trotsky and Lenin? I am sure that you would be horrified if I suggested you were a Leninist, but can you tell me why what you are doing, what you are proposing, is not essentially Leninist?

With Sober Senses
Feb 3 2013 09:26

Ummm...well I am in the class, and I act and think and attempt to be involved in struggles. This I think is different from saying this is the solution for all of us. Look my aim here is to map out what is going on as part of the debate in the class about where we are at and what to do. If you think that is Leninist well so be it, I don't really care. But if it is helpful for comrades then great if it is counter-productive then I will need to do some rethinking.

Feb 3 2013 10:33

Yes, my questions are not directed at you ‘personally’. They are directed at the style and content which you follow. I suppose I could have picked any of many texts here to respond in this way to.

When you say, “If you think that [what I am doing is Leninist] well so be it, I don’t really care. But if it is helpful for comrades then great, if it is counter-productive then I will need to do some rethinking,” - this is a huge problem.

If someone who has some idea about leftist etc politics suggests that what you are saying is basically Leninist, and backs it up – then shouldn’t you care about that (unless you are Leninist, in which case it would be useful to say that)? It doesn’t mean you have to give in and accept defeat (!), but it does mean that you should probably work out some kind of reply.

And how will you ever know if what you are doing is counter-productive or not?

If you are relying merely on the approval of ‘comrades’ (and who are these comrades?) for this decision on whether you are acting productively or counter-productively, then isn’t that a little shallow?

You are a uni lecturer (of some sort) – why are your arguments so lacking in reflexivity (to use a social science buzzword) and poorly backed up?

With Sober Senses
Feb 3 2013 12:42

Hi taxirank
Look I think the historical narrative that you have constructed is interesting but I really don't have the time to engage with it seriously. If you are interested in what I think about communist thought and practice in relation to Leninism there are elements of an examination of this in my book Autonomy:Capital, Class and Politics. By the way for me Leninism is premised mainly on the idea that revolutionary ideas can only come from outside the class, and secondly a vanguard party. I don't think my blog meets these criteria. If you do (or the criteria you have established), you do. It doesn't concern me. I am trying something new for me here which is far more focused on what is seemingly concrete and material in the world I exist in. By the way the topics you raise are ones I do enjoy talk about over tea, coffee and beers - I just don't have the time to do so in writing on the internet.

When you say

You are a uni lecturer (of some sort) – why are your arguments so lacking in reflexivity (to use a social science buzzword) and poorly backed up?

Which arguments are you referring to? My original post with which you don't engage with the substance much at all, or my comments in reply to you? I hope that whatever my occupation ( its between semesters so I work in a warehouse at the moment) I am generally better in many ways than the comments I make on the internet.

With Sober Senses
Feb 3 2013 13:02

As for making predictions, well in daily life I make them all the time, they are are often wrong, but without imagining possible futures I find it very hard to do anything - even the shopping or making dinner.

Feb 3 2013 20:19

OK, thanks, I won't pursue it.

Feb 4 2013 16:24

Interesting thread from both of you intellectual giants, not being sarcastic, I really mean this!
As much as I admire Gramsci, I'm more into the multiple causality which Althusser proposed for conditions of cultural hegemony, just as in the other thread on Jared Diamond's new book, taxirank summarized eloquently an approximation of indigenous identity and consciousness which allowed for a critique of it's own values and hegemonic significance, relevant to the colonial perspective. Hegemony is a social paradigm reinforced by mythical illusions, let's not assume that any culturally indoctrinated state of mind has produced any metaphysical truths
There can never be any social order ever, mathematically, order creates strata, social strata is labour division, one way or the other. The new revolution must recreate a new myth, it has to supplant the 2000 yr old christian myth with a new alternative. I'm working on that now, I am vacant at the moment, just strumming 5 chords on an acoustic, trying to come up with a global savior, but nothing yet, maybe later,,,,.cheers