Turnbull's plan to destroy Australian literature

Issue 
Malcolm Turnbull is using the Productivity Commission to attack the book publishing industry.

Eight short months ago, much of the population celebrated Malcolm Turnbull's ascension to power. Small-l liberals were drunk with joy and rumour has it that even some self-styled socialists joined the love-in. Turnbull was the Great White Knight who had slain the Abbott Dragon. He would turn the political rudder to the left, so we were told, and we would all live happily ever after.

Many writers, no doubt, were also sucked in by this master of spin and his chorus of sycophants. Eight months on, the illusions of those spring days pile up like dead leaves.

PM Malcolm Turnbull stands revealed as the embodiment of neoliberalism and as the advocate of the thoroughgoing commodification of almost every aspect of life. Stinking rich himself, his government is quite literally government of the people by the rich, for the rich.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in his determination to destroy Australian literature.
Governments rarely commission enquiries unless they are reasonably certain that the findings will justify their policies. And so it is with the Orwellian-sounding Productivity Commission, whose members move seamlessly between lucrative big business and public service jobs.

Charged with reviewing the Australian book publishing industry, they have served up Turnbull's dish to order. The Commission has recommended the virtual destruction of the Australian book publishing industry and the federal government agreed in advance to accept its findings.

Books, incidentally, are no longer that. According to these hacks they are “cultural externalities”!

The Commission's findings sound the death knell for book publishing and writing in Australia: “The expansion of the book production industry over recent decades has attracted and held productive resources, notably skilled labour and capital, which have thereby been unavailable for use in other industries. The upshot will have been reduced growth in employment and output in other parts of the economy.”

The solution to this “problem” is to further reduce subsidies and other forms of support for the publishing industry and allow it to sink or swim in the global marketplace. This is bad news for Australian writers and small publishers who are cast as an “undeserving” industry.

Subsidies are small. Total government subsidies to Australian writers amount to no more than $2.4 million a year in comparison with the public largesse of $18 billion to the fossil fuel industry — no doubt a deserving case in the eyes of Turnbull and the Productivity Commissioners.

The government is also considering proposals that will strip writers of all rights to their work after a period of 15 years. After that, any publisher will be able to appropriate their work without payment of royalties.

We are witnessing the complete commodification of life as explained by Karl Marx in Capital: “Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum (consecrated objects, beyond human commerce).

“Just as in money every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished, so too for its part, as a radical leveller, it extinguishes all distinctions.”

Marx established that under capitalism any item or service has both a use and an value. The use value of, for instance, a table or a pair of trousers is that they satisfy a human need, whereas exchange value refers to the sale of the item or service on the market.

Books are enormously important for human civilisation. We read for enjoyment, to learn, for spiritual inspiration, even to gain the knowledge with which to change the world. For Turnbull and the Productivity Commission, however, books are mere commodities to be bought and sold, and are even impediments to more lucrative uses of labour and capital.

Writers, it follows, are labourers producing surplus value for capitalists. As Marx and Fredrick Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie has stripped off its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyers, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

In his mindless determination to destroy Australian publishing and writing, Turnbull resembles Oscar Wilde's Lord Darlington: “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

An elderly relative once ventured into my study, shook his snowy head and observed that “There are enough books here to start a revolution!”. Let us hope he was right and that books and writers will bite back at the Turnbull government and its philistine agenda.

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