ALLAN PATIENCE: Whose class war?

Jun 29, 2018

The Murdoch media and its political minions in the Coalition have declared that Bill Shorten is conducting a class war against hardworking Australian “aspirationalists”. The pseudo-conservatives in the media and the parliament equate Labor’s opposition to their taxation policies with seriously undermining the Australian economy while destabilizing Australian society.

There is a grim irony in the fact that what is increasingly becoming the alt-right in Australian politics is using the epithet of class war to describe the ALP’s opposition to the Coalition’s flagrantly unbalanced tax policies. The irony lies in the fact that the concept of a class war originates in Karl Marx’s bitter denunciation of the very capitalism that the alt-right so passionately defends. It is very much a Marxist concept still favoured by communists around the world today.

Marx declared that late-capitalism will be defined by the emergence of two sharply differentiated and competing social classes – the bourgeoisie or capitalist class, on the one hand, and the proletariat or working class on the other. The capitalists, he wrote, are defined by their ownership of the means of production – they monopolize the ownership of capital. The members of the proletariat have to work for the capitalists, increasingly on terms that advantage the bosses, who depress wages and increase costs in order to maximise their profits.

The policies pursued by governments in the advanced economies over the past three to four decades contain not a few echoes of Marx’s predictions about the kind of capitalism they are fostering.

For Marx, the result of the bifurcation of the capitalist class structure will be increasingly violent conflict – at many levels – as the proletariat becomes aware of (develops “class consciousness” about) its ruthless exploitation by the capitalists. Ultimately, Marx declared, the conflict would turn violently ugly and result in the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat. As he and Engels concluded in The Communist Manifesto: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

So that’s the pedigree of the class war concept. It is about working class anger erupting into violet revolution to overthrow a ruthlessly self-regarding and oppressive capitalism. There are not a few non-communists – and even non-Marxists – who are inclining to revisit Marx in light of what is occurring in the late-capitalist world today. Maybe he had a point about class war festering in the interstices of the capitalist system as the bourgeoisie becomes more aggressively greedy and insouciant about the majority in society.

The usage of the class war mantra by the Murdoch crowd and their ideologically blinkered Coalition allies completely upends the theory of class war (turning it, as Marx said of Hegel, on its head). They are using it to defend capitalism, suggesting that class war is something being promoted by Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to strangle the perfectly justifiable materialist aspirations of thousands of Australians who want to become rich like Malcolm Turnbull, Clive Palmer, James Packer or Lachlan Murdoch – and/or any or all the other heartbroken or misbehaving celebrities paraded endlessly and tediously in the bathos of the yellow press’s pages.

Marx has been roundly attacked – and widely dismissed – for his theory of class war on broadly two grounds. First, the sharply defined two-fold class structure he predicted hasn’t eventuated. There have been numerous classes at various times in the history of capitalism and within them there are numerous strata. Secondly, capitalism itself has proven remarkably adept at ameliorating class conflict and stifling class wars – for example, through industrial legislation regulating wages and working conditions, through the welfare state and related redistributive policies, and by its remarkable success in nurturing economic growth that has resulted in many in the proletariat being “bought off” by special deals, share ownerships, publicly funded health and education provisions, public housing, social security safety nets, etc.

Nonetheless, there is a class war beginning to churn in Australia. It is directly a result of economic policies slavishly adhered to by all governments over the past three or four decades. These policies have vandalized public enterprises (for example, the old Commonwealth Bank, Medibank Private, the major airports and docks, electricity, gas and water utilities, public transport), selling them off to private interests and carelessly and wantonly deregulating the conditions under which they are permitted to operate.

The beneficiaries of these policies are overwhelmingly the rich. The time frame of the policies being referred to here has seen a devastating growth in inequality in Australian society as the rich get richer and ordinary folk struggle to buy a home, have access to quality child care, are obliged to cope with inferior public transport, are forced to cope with disintegrating infrastructure, are suffering because of declining health care, are being obliged to send their kids to overcrowded, under-resourced schools, and are having to watch their aging relatives being herded into viciously exploitative  aged-care facilities.

So, yes, there is a class war erupting in our midst. It being waged against public hospitals, public schools, public universities, and basic social services like Centrelink. It is being waged against the NDIS and the recommendations in the first Gonski report. And now it is being waged against the ABC. Moreover, if the Coalition is returned at the next election it is likely that we will see the “old,” most prestigious universities being sold off to the private sector – and the rest will be defunded just as the present government has been savagely defunding the ABC in order to prepare it for privatization. And all this will be done with assurances that soon the benefits of it all will “trickle down” to those of us who are wondering how on earth we can makes ends meet.

Who are the perpetrators of this class war – a war now being systematically and very cynically waged against ordinary Australians by the rich and powerful? None other than those very people accusing Labor of using class war rhetoric in the current mess we call Australian democracy.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.


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