Issues that won't go away

Issue 

Class and Class Conflict in Australia
Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln (ed)
Longman, 1996. 176 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

As the low farce of the federal election ground on, there was talk by all mainstream parties of workers — would they or wouldn't they be worse off? One word, however, was conspicuously absent — "class" — and there have been no confirmed sightings of such a mythical beast as the "ruling class".

Kuhn and O'Lincoln's new book of essays (mostly by current or former International Socialist Organisation members or sympathisers) is a timely reminder that class, and class struggle, can not be conjured away by the Howard and Keating servants of the Australian ruling class.

Tom O'Lincoln defines what a ruling class is — "a network of elites which benefit from the exploitation of the working class and which exercises effective control over economic production, social institutions and political processes" — and pins down those who make up the ruling class in Australia, naming names of the business elite and top public servants. This ruling class runs to no more that 2-3% of the Australian population, yet it makes the major decisions.

Diane Fieldes turns the spotlight on the working class, which, despite being almost 70% of the population, gets only to participate in the occasional election circus whilst capital merrily goes on choosing whether and where to invest, shed jobs, destroy wilderness and so on.

There is an underlying class consciousness by workers, but politically this usually takes the form of reformism — looking to politicians to achieve change within capitalism. This arises from the feeling of powerlessness which comes from being under the daily hammer of employers or the dole queue and the shortage of trade union victories in recent decades.

Tom Bramble takes a stick to the trade union leaders. As mediators between employer and employed, these "managers of discontent" (C. Wright Mills) make a fetish of "industrial legality" (Gramsci) because of their basic commitment to the capitalist system, which is structured on the classes which they mediate between and which materially rewards them. Three times as many trade union officials (37%) as workers (12%) earn over $40,000, whilst five times as many workers (60%) as union officials (12%) earn less than $25,000.

The growing gap between well-paid, bureaucratically remote and careerist officials, and their members, weakens the effectiveness of unions and strains their internal democracy. The officials' embrace of nationalist ideology (believing that the interests of the working class and the ruling class are as one within the "national interest") is making it harder to attract or retain members who look to unions for support with problems in the workplace and to win better pay and conditions.

Bramble's essay contains an element of sociological determinism — all officials will be corrupted by office and turn against their members — which, if true, would diminish the possibilities for rank-and-file unionists to gain control of their union. The risks of good unionists turning into rotten officials are great but not inevitable as long as democratic principles and organisation are jealously nurtured.

Barriers to working-class unity, and how a common class interest can surmount them, are explored in three essays: Mick Armstrong on Aboriginal struggles and the labour movement; Janey Stone on how women's tendency to occupy lower paid and less secure jobs does not imply industrial weakness or that women have separate interests from men; and Robert Tierney on migrant workers and trade unions.

Tierney also has a useful discussion of a Marxist approach to multiculturalism — the need to defend it against the racists of the right but not uncritically, because the monolithic, classless ethnic identity it seeks to promote, and the conservative Australian nationalism which lies at its core, aim to bind migrant workers to their ethnic and Australian-born bosses.

Verity Burgmann and Andrew Milner tackle the class role of the social movement intellectuals whose "retreat from class" ironically suits their own advantaged class niche and reinforces the broader class system. "Femocrats" discover new career paths and power over other women workers, whilst green consumerism and the commercial gay culture open up new marketing opportunities.

Burgmann and Milner argue, with some validity, that many forms of social inequality, such as patriarchy, heterosexual dominance and "white Australia" immigration policies, have become dysfunctional or inefficient to capitalism, but they argue that therefore some forms of oppression can be eliminated under capitalism by capitalism. This is not entirely convincing because the strategy of divide and rule, and the nuclear family with its privatised caring and child-raising functions, are still essential tools in capitalism's kitbag.

Rick Kuhn traces the treatment of class in the populist/nationalist tradition, where the main division is between different sectors of capital (with such villains as landowners, banks and foreign capital) rather than between capital and labour. This tradition has now degenerated into the embrace of "national competitiveness" by the ALP economic managerialists and has lost all echo of class struggle. Marxist class analysis, however, lives on, in relative obscurity but with some punch where it is translated into labour movement practice.

This is an important book for the left, a well-argued reply to the end-of-Marxism cheer squad. Much more could have been detailed on a strategy for the left. This would require a more thorough analysis of the ALP — whether it is a workers' or a bourgeois party, i.e. whether we should judge it by its actions (the Marxist yardstick) or by its (disintegrating) links to the working class and its program.

The answer of most contributors would probably favour the latter analysis of the ALP, and we would be stuck with such hindrances to a more effective labour movement as union affiliation to the ALP, unions campaigning for the ALP during elections and left abstention from socialist electoral campaigns whilst calling for a vote for the ALP ahead of progressives and socialists. Nevertheless, for what the book does do, it is highly recommended.