Australian politics

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Thu May 24 21:06:27 MDT 2001

I find this discussion very interesting, especially since I don't think
these trends are restricted to Australia and NZ, but are fairly general in
the imperialist countries.

I don't think Greg and I have any significant disagreement, although
perhaps I am interpreting hegemony in a slightly different way.  I'm
talking about it more in the sense of a general ideological hegemony over
society, not in the sense of dominance via civil society organisations.

For instance, I agree that the wide range of social organisations, through
which the mass of the population were tied to bourgeois interests, are now
very weak.  So I can see what you're saying, Greg, when you then talk of
the ruling class having less hegemony.

My view that they have more is based on the dominance of the the concept
There is no Alternative.  This is the ultimate bourgeois ideology and it
exercises a dominance, or hegemony, over the population that is
unprecedented.  I think you agreed with this, anyway.

>I would point to other things, social organisations, things like sports
>associations, local identification through joint activities, even church
>attendance. Self organised social associations of all kinds either no
>longer function or have been commercialised and have alienated the support
>base. Little things like education being so corrupted that it has been
>reduced to a job finding enterprise and any wider vistas, the very things
>that once motivated struggle for public education, have just disappeared -
>a thing which once held people together in collective hope has been just
>being cast aside.

Well we are talking about atomisation here and it seems to be there are two
key factors: firstly the market reforms which effectively broke up old
collectivities and individuated soicety on a scale not seen since the
industrial revolution, and secondly, and related to this, the defeat of the
trade unions and the left.

Until new collectivities form - an example being new forms of workplace and
class organisation - people's individual experience tends to suggest to
them that it is a waste of time doing anything, that any effort they make
will get nowhere and may even make things worse.  (This is pushed not only
by mainstream capitalists and their hired ideologists but also by people
like the Greens, who have played a major role in undermining human agency.
The social democrats have, if anything, played an even bigger role in
undermining human agency.)

Just how widespread and deep-rooted the lowering of expectations is was
evident before my eyes today at a big rally here on campus (Canterbury
University, Christchurch, NZ).  The vice-chancellor, the person who runs
the university, shut the place for the afternoon in protest at the
government's underfunding of universities.  The university administration,
the academics' union, and the student union, united arpund the closure and
organised a big rally that attracted at least 2-3,000 people on campus
(This is a campus of about 11-12,000 people).  In the last few years
Canterbury has had by far the biggest rallies and occupations in the
country, but today's action was bigger than the round of actions on campus
here in late 1999.

Anyway, at the rally, the student president, who I generally have quite a
good opinion of and who is certainly the best student union president I've
seen in many years, gave a speech in which he said, "We're not asking today
for free education, although virtually every thinking person in the country
believes in it, we're not asking for the kind of funding necessary for etc
etc etc, and so on, all we're asking for is the bare fucking minimum needed
to maintain existing levels."  This drew the loudest applause of the entire

In fact, what has happened is that as the government - and we have a
'centre'left' government (Labour/Aliance) - has pushed back the position of
students and universities, student protesters and the left have responded
to each individual attack rather than staking a line in the sand  and
fighting for it.  So now, students and academics are fighting for "the bare
fucking minimum" needed to keep universities open, rather than for the free
education which the protest leaders acknowledge has majority support across

The left in NZ has a hopeless attitude to all this for a number of reasons.
Most of them don't know how capitalist society works because they don't
read and study 'Capital' and regard people who do as intellectual wankers,
and most of the left has no anlaysis of the role and function of the
university in capitalist society.  So their political approach is
studentist, rather than anti-capitalist.

We handed out about 500 wee pamphlets.  While welcoming the action being
taken, we went on to explain, in very brief terms, how the university,
including most of the cost of students' education, is funded out of the
exploitation of the working class and how, if students want free education,
there has to be a quid pro quo for the working class, and that such
reciprocity is actually impossible under capitalism.  We have also
organised a seminar for next Friday on the university under capitalism in
which we hope to develop these points.

It seems to me that if Marxism is to make any progress as a political force
we really need to get back to basics and start educating people about how
capitalist society works, and not simply pursue the old failed strategy of
the Trots of the 70s and 80s that if you join some campaign and be the best
builder of it, the campaign activists will be really grateful and join your
dumbed-down leftie sect.

>Perhaps it is the difference between simply being exploited and knowing you
>are at every turn and every level no matter what you do. This is very
>different than feeling that in some part of your life you are simply making
>a human effort, gaining human recognition, the little things that make
>people feel they belong, these are diminishing rapidly.
>In the interests of hegemony these things, more about social fabric than
>particular ideologies, had always been protected and given space to exist.
>They did no real harm to the bourgeoisie, but it received the benefits of
>this in the form of a more stable and pliable population, who were by these
>small strands connected to bourgeois interests, identified with them to
>whatever degree and by this secured a more long term balance in which to

I agree with all this.  But it is also important to understand that this
was only viable during certain periods, even in the wealthiest capitalist
centres.  The end of the postwar boom brought this to an end.  I don't
think most of the left understood this very well.

For instance, I recall joining a leftie group (NZ section of the FI) at
high school in the 1970s.  I thought socialism was brilliant, but also
wondered how we'd ever manage to convince people in a welfare state like NZ
why they should get rid of capitalism.  Because I'd spent my life til then
in a welfare state in a boom period, I never imagined that there would be
any other sort of capitalism in NZ.  And neiother did virtually anyone else
on the left here.  Least of all did any of us imagine that it would be the
Labour Party which would undo the welfare state in a blitzkreig of market

>Another aspect was the well oiled pressure valve of reformism, which caused
>immediate discomfort but usually secured even stronger compliance amongst
>the population as a whole. Reformism by dropping their agenda, not taking
>up peoples real problems as something that can be "fixed" effectively
>leaves them to stew without even hope of relief (this is an important
>factor for persuading people to identify with the system).

There is a positive side of this.  The discrediting of reformism was and is
absolutely essential to the development of a revolutionary project.  One of
the left's big mistakes was the assumption that us and the reformists
basically were on the same side but just have different methods of getting
to the goal, or maybe our goal was a bit bigger than theirs.  Few on the
left understood that since reformism is primarily not about changing
society but about preserving its existing basis - the exploitation of the
working class - the reformists would smash and disorientate the working

>Social-democracy collapsing into just the softer side of conservatism (if
>that) has ensured short term gains but at a historic cost.

I would put it the other way round.  It has ensured short-term
demoralisation and confusion, but opened up historic new possibilities.

>Take the ALP,
>which fashioned in 110 years in this country a huge amount of loyalty that
>whenever push came to shove would politely buckle at the knees - that
>loyalty is gone and cannot easily be regained. Even at their worst, people
>had some real faith, that a change in leadership, a renewal of vigor,
>anything no matter how insubstantial, in the past held out hope and would
>keep this loyalty alive. Belief in social-democratic credentials is zero in
>this country and I suspect in NZ and UK as well.

And isn't this a necessary thing if we are to build a revolutionary movement?

This is another example of the difference between our situation today and
the lead-ip to the Russian Revolution.  The reformists in Russia were a
mass force right up to the revolution, and the ultimate showdown was not
directly between the Bolshies and the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, but
between the Bolshies and the SRs/Mensheviks.  In countries like Australia,
New Zealand and Britain, social democracy has gone and the LPs are now just
liberal middle class parties administering capitalism in much the same
manner as the old Liberal parties of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries.  The less attachment the working class feels towards these
parties, the better.  We Marxists now, for the first time since 1917, have
a shot of helping cohere a new working class movement, one with a
revolutionary politics rather than reformist dross.

Whether we Marxists are up to the challenge is, of course, another whole
question. . .

>The ruling class is winning everything on nearly every front, their very
>lack of constraint points to their waning hegomonic connections.

Well I would argue it is because their hegemony is less challenged than
ever that they are able to win.

But, at the same time, I don't think we should overestimate their strength.
In the past ruling classes were cohered by attempts to contain the working
class and oppressed.  The lack of a real enemy against whch they could
unite and develop their political project has led to all kinds of problems
for the ruling class.  Even the necessary (from a capitalist standpoint)
market reforms have had quite some distressing effects for much of the
ruling class in terms of weakening the overall social fabric.

>So I read
>things in this case very differently, the social pluralism which I agree
>with you is more prevalent and does not in itself make things any better,
>goes hand in hand with a super-commercialisation, that is it does not
>matter who you are so long as you have enough dollars to be counted.

This is very much what I was saying.

>The liberal pluralism, does make it easier to manipulate people, with this
>I agree, but it also has its deficit which is that there is less to
>identify with, less to see oneself as a part of a society, rather it is an
>ideology of atomisation. Good short term benefits but much easier to bowl
>over if there is a new progressive ideology which can be identified with
>and which makes people see themselves as part of something bigger than just
>a collection of hedonists each making their own little way in the world.

I agree with all this.  Which is precisely why I remain quite optimistic
about the possibilities.  The question of questions is 'What is to be
done?' to take advantage of this downside of the ruling class.

>I suppose if you wrap all this together, that would be my point, the
>bourgeoisie despite (sometimes because) of their triumphalism are
>hegomonically weaker, getting away with everything as they are now doing,
>casting aside restraints they also severe the many small bonds that once
>connected their interests to society as a whole.

True.  But as long as there is no credible opposition, this doesn't matter
much.  They can get by.

>Their appearance of strength is just the measure of the oppositions own
>disconnection, it is therefore not an inherent strength but a defacto one.


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