Poverty causing poverty.

Greg Schofield gschofield at one.net.au
Sun May 6 23:44:46 MDT 2001


Australia is a reasonably developed, though increasing distortion of that
development, capitalist country. A genocidal approach to colonisation
allowed capitalism to mature, more or less, straightforwardly.

But even so, this development did not happen without struggle. That is
capitalism here did not develop as a bacteria on a petri-dish, indeed
without struggle we still would have capitalism of a kind, but one that
looked more "feudal" than modern.

Developed from a slave/convict base the working class strengthened its-self
sometimes by means not praiseworthy. The so-called "white Australia" policy
specifically excluded non-Europeans from migrating here, was created to
protect already resident workers from the competition of slavery in the
North ("blackbirded" Melanesians and Polynesians brought to the cane fields
as virtual and actual slaves - while enslavement of Aboriginal people was
widespread and has only recently been destroyed - real enslavement in the
1890s and practical enslavement to ration-wages until the 1960's in some
places) and contract workers from Asia.

Adopting a racist policy of immigration had the practical effect of
narrowing the foreign employment field to those that shared a similar
expectation of living standards and by similar logic limited the potential
numbers of immigrants.

Thankfully those days are gone of the "white Australia policy" and my
country is all the better for that. But I cannot shrink away, just because
it is so distasteful, the practical effect of this policy, whose logic
depended on the colonisation of Australia's neighbours by European powers
who had the potential to draft large numbers of workers from Asia to work
in Australia, cheaply.

Until 1940's, as distasteful as this was, there is no getting away from the
fact that the potential of large scale "cheap" labour being brought to
Australia was a real threat to the working class already here (of course
there were alternatives to such racist policies which could have still
protected living conditions, but that is not the way history moved).

I have brought up this nasty episode in my country's history, not to defend
it, nor to put up protectionism as the workers' salvation. Rather I place
it here at the beginning as a grim reminder that history does not move in
simple directions, that things are often complex and not easily squeezed
into the boxes we would like them to fit.

Having touched on the controversial (for to concede that such an obnoxious
policy had some real effect is inherently controversial especially to those
who want history to a simple drama of good versus evil), I wish to bring
another aspect to bear.

If the Australian working class had been unable to improve their living
standards, capitalism in this country would not have developed without
gross distortion (systemic underdevelopment). After all the capital-labour
relation is just that, a relation. If the labour part merely succumbs,
capitalism does not move forward - after all why invest in machinery if
labour can be forced to do what is necessary at even below reproduction costs.

Capital, left to its own devices pushes relentlessly towards slavery and
becomes bogged down in the contradictions of slavery if there is not a
contravening process. Capital would love to push costs down to this,
slavery, actual and unpaid for, is their dream - what does it matter if the
workers cannot feed themselves or their families, so long as there are
plenty of workers.

Historically, even capitalism is aware of this, the more productive and
skilled a worker needs to be, the less can capital afford to push that
worker down to abject poverty, and indeed the more bargaining power that
worker has.

Now the point I mean to make here is that the struggle of workers to better
their conditions also pushes capitalism along to develop itself and not
languish in backwardness as it is constantly tempted to do (no real long
term benefit in this but capital does not as a whole have a long term view
- for it does not know itself).

Of course capital itself is fragmented, some forms of capital cannot
prosper when the working class is pushed to the limits, just as some forms
of capital (usually those who have the greater vista in terms of markets)
do benefit directly. There is also a third, parasitic, distorted fragment
of capital whose reason for existence, whose ability to make money exists
in exploiting the need for cheap labour by supplying it, or being involved
in its supply, or skimming-off the top of this supply.

The third form of capital has a direct interest in keeping labour cheap,
unlike those who see cheap labour as purely a cost cutting measure and thus
only an element in its investment (but not the only element).

In an undeveloped economy the critical question and the most primary is
raising the standard of living of the working class. Two things become of
immediate concern, those elements of capital who benefit solely from the
existence of cheap labour (likely to be closely identified with the
government) and the sources of renewed competition from the agricultural
hinterland.

Logically, the struggle against corruption, for trade unions and against
extra-legal violence (and legalised violence) is one aspect of the
struggle. Another has to deal with the hinterland question - the for want
of a better expression the "peasant question" which increasingly overlaps
into indigenous rights question.

On this there is no pure answer because to ignore it and applaud capitalism
ability to proletarianise rural life also goes hand in hand with its
ability to provide a constant pool of impoverished competition to
established workers. The historical view may allow us this luxury, but the
reality is that it is in the immediate interests of the working class that
rural life becomes more sustainable, that indigenous people retain their
land and do so on a basis which improves their life on the land - which is
also a way of upping the price of the resources contained on that land
(indigenous people, may be tricked, but they also learn and one thing they
learn pretty quickly is the real value of the resources they have - given
the power, I doubt they would be selling these resources at a song as is
now the case when governments play their hand).

I can see no shortcut to this, and it will have the contradictions
(hopefully none as terrible as the "white Australia policy"), but that is
history in the making - always there will be lose ends and things in
hindsight that could of, should have, been done better.

So to sum up, poverty causes poverty and to this capital is attracted as a
moth is to a flame. Poverty does not move capital to develop fully but only
in a distorted way. It is the labour side of the capital-labour relation
which has the power to rectify this, not the capital side which by its
one-sided dominance distorts its own trajectory.

Now that things are being played out on such a large world-wide scale, we
marxists have to be far more clear as to what we suggest. Pre-capitalist
relations play a role (by definition not a determining role), they set the
ground work in a particular place, give it a particular character. These
pre-capitalist relations are already absorbed into the capitalism, the
point is to turn them against capital and in favour of labour.

Indigenous struggle, may appear to be a struggle to give traditional
relations dominance, but the expression in struggle is always in order to
strengthen their position as a group against capital. Their control of
resources, better conditions on the land, directly aids workers in the city.

I do not expect these largely rural and indigeneous struggles to be
anything other than an expression of cultural-self, for that is their very
expression in struggle to gain a better deal and some form of autonomy.
However, accommodating these is not against the interests of the working
class and we must all expect such movements to follow their own route to
self-awareness - in my own country, this is manifested in an Aboriginal
leadership in which some are the very best fighters in the land and others
succumb to forms of corruption - for this the Aboriginal people will sort
out as best they can when they can - they are an emerging nation and the
Australia will be better for that emergence.

To conretise this a little further. One thing my country does and has
continued ever since it was first invaded by my ancestors (1788), is rape
the natural resources and worse do it for a pittance. Capital in my country
is thus distorted, always favouring speculation rather than investment in
the means of production.

The majority of people who consider themselves aboriginal live in urban,
semi-rural, rural areas, however, and here is a contradiction not much
stated in my country - that over the vast area of Australia the dominant
occupiers are still aboriginal people even though they constitute only a
tiny fraction of the Australian population.

You see this vastness we have with all its immense natural resources is
viewed by capital here as a empty land (which it is because the people
occupying most of it have no rights over it - this has been in the process
of change but not enough quickly enough). Resources can be brought cheaply
because the government bestows no rights on the inhabitants and is
materially far removed from them - they are abstract resources in abstract
places - mere map references duley marked off by existing property and
lease borders - the people on the ground do not exist - unless they sit
right on top of what is desired - in which case they are shifted.

Aboriginal people in these remote areas enjoy a lifestyle that it
unacceptably bad in nearly every respect. The stores they buy food from
supply poor food at high prices, basic services are just never constructed.
Add land rights to this picture, give the people on the land the right to
negotiate, the right to determine their own future and they begin to
accumulate a basis for improving their condition.

But it has an effect on the rest of Australia, correcting over time a
distortion to our own capitalist development, for one it will develop those
regions which now languish in neglect, and secondly, it slowly puts an end
to wasteful and cheap abuse of our (meaning part of the world's) resources.
Yes it becomes in the aboriginal land owners interest to still exploit
resources, but it also becomes in their interest to do better out of it and
have something left after wards (both socially, in terms of capita and in
terms of the resource itself), something that does not concern a government.

I should be forgiven for drawing a parallel between cheap resources and
cheap labour, however in certain ways capital fails to make an distinction
so the effect of making cheap labour available and cheap resources,
overlaps and shows some common symptoms.

In Australia the working class as a whole would do so much better in many
different ways is capital did not just get resources cheaply and ripped
them out at the greatest possible speed - one aspect of this would be to
have a better balanced economy and one which encourage investment in the
means of production. And all of this can be said without touching on the
basic human issue of respecting the struggles of Aboriginal people.


But then there is the other form of pre-capitalist relation manifested in
the fragment of capital who maintains cheap labour as its very means of
existence. On this no ground need be conceded. Pre-capitalist relations
which maintain cheap labour, which impoverish toilers in order to live off
this surplus (ie the surplus derived from pushing the margin down just that
little bit extra) these are immediate foes to which no quarter should be given.

In Australia, these "pre-capitalist" fragments of capital are nonetheless
real - a subclass of parasitic capitalists and speculators, often promoted
as our entrepreneurs (they are no such thing). They also become for similar
reasons the most reactionary political fragment of capital. Their
"pre-capitalism" lies in a direct line to the bunyip aristocracy
(pastoralists) and this leads back to the officer corps of the first fleet
which can be traced to the lines of second sons of the lower aristocracy in
Britain (the tradition that sent them into the army and navy) - funny how
history works really - the continuity changes only in the bloodline and
only a few decades ago, other than that they are the same (Murdock was just
one who made it in the big game - beginning by a pay off by the Americans
for his services in the 1975 coup where he was given a step into the door
of US media).

"Gloablisation" has this effect - it brings out national contradictions to
the foreground.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia






More information about the Marxism mailing list