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What is Socialism? Part 2

Godfrey Moase

If we conceptualise socialism as the notion that all people should exercise power, then the question of who counts as people must be continually contested. Generally, socialist traditions can be grouped into one of two orientations towards recognising people; the expansive and the exclusive directions.

The proponents of the expansive tendency move towards organising with people and groups marginalised by the system as it exists to be recognised and counted as democratic agents. Meanwhile, those who advocate for the exclusive perspective view questions of immigration and trade as necessary preconditions for a socialist society.

A resolution of the expansive/exclusive question in the present conjuncture must be reached with an understanding that it is a recurring response to a historic crisis of the labour movement. Indeed, both the political and industrial wings are in a state of crisis.

This is a shared crisis which has different expressions in the industrial and political fields. Within the union movement we see this in falling membership density, and a set of industrial regulations that (even under the last federal Labor government) places Australia firmly on the authoritarian end of the global spectrum. Labor experiences this crisis in continually falling party memberships, a long-term trend of declining primary votes and an astonishing ability to give second-rate student politicians election after election.

There are those in the political-wing who imagine that a rift with the industrial-wing is a way out of this crisis. This may be so but only insofar as jumping off a ship taking on water in the middle of a stormy ocean resolves anything. At best, it will lead the political-wing to bob up and down on the surface of Australian social life and despite the most vigorous thrashing unable to move in any direction other than where the currents of economic, social and environmental crisis take it. At worst, the party would soon drown in its own irrelevance as a set of political agents can no longer depend on any social movement infrastructure to keep it afloat.

To be fair, this present crisis of labour is both externally and internally driven. To the extent that the labour movement crisis is internally driven, one of the factors is a failure to properly resolve the expansive/exclusive question. For the exclusivist approach is a cul-de-sac that leads to ongoing failure. It is morally and strategically a dead-end.

Senator Kristina Keneally’s comments earlier this year linking migration to unemployment, underemployment and low wage growth is only the most recent example of a long and problematic history within the Australian movement. There is a thread that runs from the 19th century to the White Australia Policy to the present.

Strategically, it is a disaster for three reasons.

First, the exclusive tradition generally obscures the actual dynamics with the labour market. Migrant workers, no matter how politely or delicately the position is put, end up bearing responsibility for both their own mistreatment and the woes of Australian workers. It is the existence of migrant workers within the Australian labour market that is said to create wage theft, insecure work and Dickensian safety practices. What this ignores is the actions of employers and corporations, and the wider regulatory environment, that creates the demand for such low-wage work. Moreover, it ignores the many ways in which migrant workers through their labour and efforts actually add to overall social prosperity.

Second, it reinforces ideological support for market-based logic. Linking migration to lower outcomes for the local labour force locates the problem as one of an oversupply of labour. The hidden contention here is that the labour market is not in equilibrium, and that if this is corrected the market would work to provide good outcomes for all. If only there were fewer workers on the market then individual workers would better be able to compete for higher paid jobs. The very existence of the labour movement itself, however, is a monument to the intrinsic unfairness at the heart of the employment relationship. The problem, in other words, is one of a fundamental power disparity in the employment relationship that requires a collective response.

Third, the exclusive tendency narrows the horizon of the possibile. Cutting Australian-based workers off from the struggles of migrant workers and international struggles hides victories, struggles and opportunities to learn. It stunts the growth and development of workers.

Osmond Chiu wrote about the struggles of Chinese migrant workers in late 19th century and early 20th century Australia last year. One example in the article was a 1908 factory strike by Chinese workers in Sydney, where the workers held on for two months, and won the right to elect their own supervisors. Yet the persistent and structural racism of the rest of the leadership of the wider Australian labour movement actively prevented any links of solidarity with Chinese workers. Here was an opportunity missed to learn from this struggle, and incorporate its demands. Managerial prerogative over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries in Australia might have looked very different if an expansive approach had been taken at that juncture.

What an expansive approach looks like, where it differs from corporate inclusiveness and how it might be adopted going forward; these are the next items to consider for part three.

Godfrey Moase is the Executive Director of the United Workers Union. Twitter

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