Out of town

I meant to post this before I left but had to mark 85 exams in a rush and jump on a plane.

I’m in New Zealand visiting family for a week so won’t be posting much. Then have a wedding to go to when I get back. Regular service resumes next week, though I might post some photos if I can remember to bring the camera into town.

This blog has been going for six weeks or so now and seems to have successfully become a habit. So hopefully I’m around to stay this time!

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Published in: on 25 June, 2007 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Enterprise bargaining and wage competition

‘Pattern bargaining’ is practically a dirty word these days, as if there’s something corrupt about workers organising across workplaces within an industry. It’s now illegal to strike over it. John Buchanan, speaking at Politics in the Pub the other week, said the abandonment of the right to pattern bargain was the most disappointing aspect of Labor’s new industrial relations policy, and would make organisation very difficult.

At one level it’s easy to see why business would want to keep what’s left of collective bargaining to an enterprise level, since it severely weakens unions. But at the same time, that can create problems for firms because it exposes them to competition over wages: other firms can out-compete them because they pay lower wages for the same work, or because they poach workers with higher wages. Remember that for a long time in Australia business favoured centralised industrial relations and feared enterprise bargaining for this reason, and also because in the postwar full-employment period workers in many industries were able to win higher wages and better conditions at an enterprise level.

So it is not so much of a surprise to see complaints like Telstra’s in the Financial Review on Monday. [Mark Skulley, 18 June, 2007, “Fairness test ‘unfair’ to Telstra”]

The Telstra submission [to the Senate inquiry on ‘fairness test’ legislation] said the legislation would require the authority to undertake the fairness test by reference to an enterprise award, an industrial instrument specific to a business or company rather than to an industry or occupation.

It argued the enterprise awards had had little application to salaries at Telstra for many years and were a product of its public-sector origins.

“Indeed, subject to the Workplace Authority directors’ confirmation, Telstra enterprise awards (in many parts of the business) are in the order of 20 per cent higher than comparable hourly rates that are likely to apply to our competitors,” it said. “In Telstra’s view, this would be unfair.”

Telstra said the authority should designate an industry award to ensure its competitors were covered by the same minimum salary standards.

Published in: on 20 June, 2007 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

A public-private partnership

Today I got a letter on official letterhead from Penny Shakespeare, the Assistant Secretary of the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing: Private Health Insurance Branch [sic].

Dear Mr M J Beggs

You have recently registered as eligible for Medicare and under Medicare you are entitled to free treatment in a public hospital as a public patient. However, many people in Australia also choose to have private health insurance.

Private health insurance gives you more choice in relation to your healthcare – for example, the doctor who treats you, what hospital you go to and whether to be treated as a public or private patient.

Now is a good time to think about private health insurance. You can take out private health insurance at any age, but as a new migrant to Australia there is a benefit in taking it out now if you are over 30 years old….

I wrote about last week about the welfare-industrial complex, but clearly that kind of thing was pioneered in health and is now an enormous business, even in Australia with a relatively decent public health system.

Private healthcare is a cancerous growth on the health system, entirely malignant. Its proponents like to portray it as an ‘extra’ – extra choice, extra resources – but it grows at the expense of the public system because it competes with it for the most scarce resource, medical staff, and makes what it poaches available only to those who can afford it. A health system that relies on private care and insurance is – at best – regressive taxation and blatantly exclusive, not to mention inefficient.

But private healthcare gives governments a solution to a chronic problem. Healthcare costs rise faster than most prices in large part because healthcare is professional labour intensive. As with education, you can’t raise productivity without decreasing quality. Just keeping the same level of care requires an increasing amount of society’s resources. But governments find it difficult or distasteful to raise taxes and expenditure. So the system is increasingly maintained on an exclusive basis by those who have more of society’s resources to command.

 Cross-posted to Australia Watch.

Published in: on 18 June, 2007 at 7:12 pm  Comments (4)  

One day soon, all of this will be apartments

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I first stumbled into the Eveleigh railyards with some friends one night a couple of years ago, walking home from a party in Newtown. The barbed-wire-topped corrugated iron fence most of the way up Wilson Street had always made me curious, and that night we were drunk enough to climb it and check out the post-industrial wasteland.

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It’s a vast site that was Sydney’s main rail workshop and carriage manufactory for several decades, and in operation for a hundred years. The 1917 general strike began there. It was, for the most part, abandoned in the mid-1980s, but still used for warehousing and such things until quite recently. Its latest claim to fame is as a location in the Matrix movies.

We were even drunk enough to open a locked door with an EFTPOS card and wander through an office building, abandoned like the Mary Celeste, a decade-old fax still in the machine, and (fortunately for us) the plumbing still working.

Now the site is open to the public, until it becomes a giant construction site, and it’s well worth checking out. (I took the colour photos today, the old ones are from here.) One building has been turned into the Carriageworks theatre – very tastefully, it must be said – and so the rest of the place is no longer locked up. Walk up Wilson Street towards Newtown from Redfern station, and take the steps down from the Carriageworks sign.

Now it’s a dump, but a beautiful dump. Some of the buildings are open; others have been nailgunned shut. The recent rains have left a lake in the middle in which rubbish floats around. Weird old machines are still anchored in the ground, but wrapped in black plastic. Some of the buildings have 21st century motion sensors and security systems, but all they seem to do is blink and beep.

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Published in: on 17 June, 2007 at 7:26 pm  Comments (7)  

The Beginning

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Speaking of HBO shows, and while it’s so cold that what warmth my blood has left to carry to my brain has to be expended on the thesis, check out the new Flight of the Conchords. HBO has saved us the trouble of downloading the torrent for the first episode. Normally I would never subject you to this kind of viral marketing, but the two guys behind the show are from my hometown, Wellington. Needless to say, us being New Zealanders, they are friends of friends, and it’s not every day such people get a show on Sunday night HBO, right after Entourage.

These guys have been on the stand-up circuit for ages. Funny thing is I never got around to seeing them live back home. (Though they were on my flight once between Wellington and Auckland, and the plane got struck by lightning.) The first time I saw them was visiting New York last year when a friend raved about them and played a recording of one of their gigs, and it was hilarious.

The show seems to be HBO’s answer to the BBC’s Mighty Boosh. To its credit, it’s commissioned its own British musical comedy rather than recasting The Mighty Boosh with Americans. (To American ears Kiwis sound like Brits, which seems to be a running gag in the show.) The first episode does not quite reach the heights the Conchords are capable of, but it’s pretty funny. It’s full of inside jokes for Kiwis too (some of which Australians will also get), like when Jemaine takes his new girlfriend out for a ‘kebab’. Australians will also recognise Arj Barker, who’s constantly on TV over here in one thing or another.

Published in: on 15 June, 2007 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  

The End

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[Sopranos spoilers follow.]

The biggest spoiler was, in fact, that there was no spoiler. Given that Tony getting killed and Tony getting arrested both seemed likely, to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that “perhaps this story should come with a spoiler alert, except that it was far from clear what was going to happen to Tony and his family,” was to find out beforehand that at least one of those things didn’t happen.

It was, overall, a satisfying final episode to a great series. In hindsight, the family having dinner together was both the most predictable and the most fitting end.

It’s hard to like the very end, though, the build-up that something was going to happen, then the cut to black. It was a gimmick. Apparently creator David Chase thought it was a very clever ending, that no show on the networks would ever allow. Unfortunately, the inconclusive ending is the cliche TV series finish, on account of the brutal creative economics of television in which producers can never be sure if they’re going to come back for another series or not.

The inconclusive ending to end all inconclusive endings was David Lynch’s finale to Twin Peaks. [Spoilers follow.] The show having been cancelled, he rewrote the last episode as a deliberately infuriating cliffhanger in which half the cast seemed to be killed in an explosion and the protagonist was possessed by the bad guy. Now that was a statement against the limits placed on art by commerce.

For all the excellence of the HBO dramas (and, with Entourage, the comedies), which do in fact depend on their having less short-term dependence on ratings, HBO has yet to show it can beat television’s most serious literary limitation and allow a series to end properly. Carnivale was cancelled on a cliffhanger. Deadwood has been left hanging.

Now, unfortunately, even if that’s not the intention, The Sopranos ends as if the creators think they just might be able to make a movie and continue the storyline.

Update: For a more positive reading of the ending, which I have some sympathy for, see this interesting essay by Larry Gross. As Gross says, though, the Sopranos‘ strengths have not been in formal innovation, so the last moment of the series is an odd time to whip out the Brechtian estrangement.

Published in: on 13 June, 2007 at 9:36 am  Comments (5)  

The welfare-industrial complex

 

The most interesting thing about Therese Rein’s divestment of the Australian side of her business is not that it says anything about ‘modern marriages’. (A woman having to sell her hundred-million-dollar business to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest should her husband become Prime Minister? A quintessentially modern dilemma any couple can relate to!)

It’s the nature of the business and how much it’s worth. Ingeus describes itself as a “workplace participation provider“. Much of its Australian business revolves around WorkDirections, which is a ‘job broker’, farming beneficiaries to companies looking to hire.

The business obviously depends rather heavily on government welfare policy. In the last couple of years, with tightening pressure on beneficiaries to look for work, business has boomed. Between 2005 and 2006, profits increased by a factor of eight – from $1.1 million to $8.8 million, on the back of a 38 per cent revenue rise. [David Crowe, “Sacrifice won’t go unnoticed”, Australian Financial Review, 26/5/07]

Now that Rein has to sell, the question arises as to how much the business is actually worth. It’s a tricky question. Because of the nature of the business, its earning assets are mainly intangible – how do you value the earning potential of tough welfare-to-work policies? By the simplest measure, based on a formula used for other personnel firms, you multiply earnings by ten – so around $90 million. [Crowe, again] But because company valuations are based on expectations of future profitability, and in this case profitability depends on a new Labor government not fiddling around with the Job Network too much… well, you can see the problem.

This kind of company, which exists in a netherworld between the state and the private sector, is increasingly common. Take ABC Learning. [On Friday I heard Sue Newberry present a work-in-progress paper on ABC, written with Sandra van der Laan and Deborah Brennan, at the inaugural workshop of the Australian Working Group on Financialization. All the following info comes from that presentation.]

ABC is the most successful of the child-care companies that have listed on the Australian Stock Exchange since the restructuring and extension of federal childcare funding in 2000. It owns more than a quarter of all day care centres in Australia, and has expanded into the United States, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. In 2006 it made a profit of $81 million, off revenue of $600 million. CEO ‘Fast’ Eddy Groves [pictured above] became Australia’s richest person under 40 in 2006.

The really interesting stuff is in the valuation of its assets. ABC doesn’t own the physical property of most of its childcare centres, instead leasing them off a related property trust. ABC itself values its total assets at $2.3 billion. Only $600 million of that is in physical assets. The rest, $1.7 billion, is in intangibles, mostly put down to its centres’ childcare licences. Now, childcare licenses are not exactly assets that can be bought and sold on their own, and they aren’t that expensive to obtain. Effectively, that $1.7 billion is a valuation of the profitability of ABC’s position in the market, of the fact that it will continue to reap a large proportion of the government’s childcare subsidies. Presently government subsidies total more than $1.8 billion per year.

Published in: on 10 June, 2007 at 4:37 pm  Comments (3)  

Banana republics and other bullshit

When Treasurer Paul Keating told John Laws in a radio interview in May 1986 that Australia risked becoming a ‘banana republic’ now that its current account deficit had reached 6 per cent of GDP, he might not have intended it to become one of the legendary moments of Australian politics. But he was certainly trying to generate a sense of crisis, and as we know, succeeded all too well. Politically it meant Australia was “living beyond its means”, and the fat had to be trimmed. A younger Keating thought the solution to “real wage overhang” was to “hit the unions on the head”. By 1986, though, he had the corporatist Accord, and no hit was necessary. If the economy was in such grave danger, the unions were happy to oblige with real pay cuts. Likewise, it justified moves to balance the budget and another ramp up of interest rates.

More than twenty years have now passed. The balance-of-payments figures were released yesterday and it was another chance for the media to revisit the “banana republic”. Because the current account deficit has been floating around those mid-1980s levels for the last few years, despite the ‘resource boom’. Funnily enough, no-one is making a big fuss about it these days. The deficit is just the collective consequence of business decisions made by ‘consenting adults’.

There’s no firm limit to a balance-of-payments deficit like there was in the days when the government fixed the exchange rate and therefore faced foreign exchange exhaustion from a persistent outflow of funds. Also, there is no equilibrating mechanism to pull a national imbalance back into balance. National balances are a statistical figment. The exchange rate of the Australian dollar is quite real, but there are financial forces involved that outweigh monetary flows for trade and direct investment.

There is an understandable temptation for some to use these figures as a stick to beat Howard with. Superficially, it’s a chink in the economic armour, and if the Coalition can get away with interest rate scare… But that’s a mistake. No good for the working class will come from state action to reverse the current account deficit, and it’s not clear the state can do much about it anyway. Keating was a true believer when he made his remarks to Laws. But by the end of the decade, when he saw the negligible effect of all his Herculean policy efforts on the current account deficit:

It makes the twin deficits theory look like bullshit. By the end of the year under forecast (1989–90) the govt will have presided over an 8 percentage point shift in the PSBR [Public Sector Borrowing Requirement]. It must be a world wide post-war record. 8 percentage points since 1985–86 (6 per cent public and 2 per cent private savings). Yet the current account will, according to these forecasts, be still 5 per cent of GDP. At least I can’t be burdened with any more talk about re-weighting the instruments of policy. We now all know what utter crap that is.

The real lesson is to be suspicious of official crisis talk about the ‘national economy’, because it is invariably used as a call for discipline, for all hands to come on deck ‘in the national interest’. Is your pay claim undermining the nation’s current account balance? Are you sure you want time out to bring up your kids when the country is suffering from a skills shortage?

Capitalist economic policy will often find itself between a rock and a hard place in a crisis. It has been a huge mistake for labour and the left to stop being the hard place.

Published in: on 6 June, 2007 at 10:23 am  Comments (1)  

In the tracks of Perry Anderson

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 I just read Perry Anderson’s In the Tracks of Historical Materialism [1983], a collection of lectures in which he surveys the scene a few years on from Considerations on Western Marxism [1976]. Generally, he finds predictions he made in the earlier book to have held up well: the concerns of Western European Marxism had drifted from philosophy and literature towards history and political economy; and the centre of gravity had moved from Latin Europe to the Anglosphere.

The mainstream is accustomed to seeing the Soviet collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the terminal crisis of Marxism, although most Marxists in Western Europe and the United States had ceased to see the USSR as model or hope for years, many for decades. The decline in French, Italian and Iberian Marxism traced here by Anderson reflected the belated estrangement from Russia of their Communist Parties – which had been serious political players – and the brief flowering of Eurocommunism.

It was here that the ‘crisis of Marxism’, so called, had its source and its meaning. Its real determinants had very little to do with its overt themes. What detonated it was essentially a double disappointment: first in the Chinese and then in the West European alternatives to the central post-revolutionary experience of the twentieth century so far, that of the USSR itself. Each of these alternatives had presented itself as a historically new solution, capable of overcoming the dilemmas and avoiding the disasters of Soviet history: yet each of their upshots proved to be a return to familiar deadlocks. Maoism appeared to debouch into little more than a truculent Oriental Khruschevism. Eurocommunism lapsed into what looked increasingly like a second-class version of Occidental social-democracy, shamefaced and subaltern in its relation to the mainstream tradition descending from the Second International.

It was, of course, the latter disappointment that was the crucial one. It directly affected the conditions and perspectives of socialism within the advanced capitalist countries which had seemed till then to offer the most opportunities for real progress by the labour movement in the West. Here, then, we can see why the ‘crisis of Marxism’ was a quintessentially Latin phenomenon: for it was precisely in the three major Latin countries – France, Italy and Spain – that the chances of Eurocommunism seemed fairest, and the subsequent deflation was sharpest. The forms of that deflation have varied widely, from clamorous transfers to the right to mute exits from politics altogether. The most widespread pattern, however, has been a sudden shrinkage of socialist challenge and aspiration, now scaled down – with a bad conscience, and worse pretexts – to fit the crabbed accommodation of a new social-democracy to capitalism. Decked out as a fresh ‘Eurosocialism’, beneficiary of the falling away of Eurocommunism, the governments and parties of Mitterand, Gonzalez and Craxi have since attracted the allegiance of most of the repentant and disabused, within a prospect of prudent reform at home and pronounced adherence to the ‘Atlantic community’ abroad.

The situation elsewhere was necessarily rather different. In Britain and the United States, West Germany and Scandinavia, there had never been mass Communist Parties to attract the same projections or hopes in the post-war period. In Northern – as opposed to Southern – Europe, social-democratic governments had been the norm for decades: reformist administration of capitalism held few novelties for the Marxism that had developed there since the sixties, whose main political focus was precisely a critique of it. In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War were relayed, virtually without interruption, by those of the world recession, to create the context for a continuous growth of Marxist culture, from a very small starting base, rather than a crisis of it. These conditions produced an environment affording little soil for collective conversions or collapses of the Gallic or Italian type. A steadier and more tough-minded historical materialism proved generally capable of withstanding political isolation or adversity, and of generating increasingly solid and mature work in and through them. This is not to say that analogous developments may not affect sectors of the Anglo-American or Nordic Lefts in the future. The popular consolidation of political regimes of imperialist reaction in Britain, or the United States, in the mid eighties may well break the nerve of some socialists, drawing them rightwards in an anxious quest for the middle ground. The extent of such possible responses, however, remains to be seen. [pp. 76-77]

A generation on, the intellectual current of 1970s Anglo Marxism is still quite strong, as an intellectual current. But as Anderson worried, the tide of broader socialist movements continued to flow out. That has left questions of strategy almost as remote as they were for the Western Marxists – and necessarily so, because without a mass far left movement, who is the subject of any strategy we might come up with? Recent works that have talked strategy – for example, Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power – have seemed more like motivational books than strategies proper.

In In the Tracks… Anderson makes some comments about the relationships of feminist and environmentalist movements to socialist ones, seeing them as challenges for historical materialism – not in the sense that they were opponents, but in that they posed issues Marxism had often been weak on and needed to come to terms with. In the context of discussing this, he writes about the differences between organising in class terms and organising in terms of gender:

Workers will characteristically rebel against their employers, or the state, collectively: class struggle is social or it is nothing. Women do not possess either the same positional unity or totalised adversary. Divided by economic class themselves, within their class dependent on men dependent on them, their forces are generally more molecular and dispersed, the point of concentration of their effort as liable to be a particular partner as a general gender. The peculiarity of the feminine condition within male-dominated societies can be seen, in this respect, from the absence of any specialised agencies for the regulation or repression of women: that is, any equivalent to the coercive apparatus of the State on the plane of social class… There is never any overall centralisation of the structures of women’s oppression: and this diffusion of it critically weakens the possibility of unitary insurgence against it. Without a centripetal focus for opposition, collective solidarity and common organisation are always more difficult to achieve, more friable to maintain. [p. 92]

The irony of this statement is that feminism has had much more success over the last few decades than the working class in general. And it has been successful despite the structural weaknesses Anderson supposes – the decentralisation of the oppression, the atomisation of women themselves. It has been successful – insofar as it has, there is clearly a long way to go – in a hegemonic sense – in nothing so much as a vast change in attitudes across society.

Clearly the problems of anti-capitalism are very different. But is the difference really that socialism faces a centralised adversary, in the state? I don’t think so, and the point is actually well-put by a younger Perry Anderson himself, in his 1965 essay “Problems of socialist strategy” (in the New Left Review collection Towards Socialism):

Leninism and social-democracy are apparently in every way poles apart: violence against legality, vanguardism against passivity, discipline against democracy. Yet in one respect there is a fundamental similarity between the two. They both polarise their whole strategies on the State: civil society remains outside the main orbit of their action. Here lies the clue to the real adaptation of the one and the false adaptation of the other. For in the East, the State was the sole vector of social action and transformation: civil society had no structured existence independent of it. To change society, Leninism, in one form or another, was a necessity. But in the West, just the opposite is true. There, in conditions of diminishing scarcity, civil society predominates politically over the State, and determines it in its image. The heteronomy of the State is the root cause of the failure of social-democracy….

Both parliamentary and insurrectionary strategies are aimed squarely at the State, to the exclusion of the whole terrain of civil society…. It has been seen how the whole structure of power in advanced capitalist countries is polycentric. In effect, beyond a certain point, diminishing scarcity tends to diversify and dilate the whole fabric of society. A multiplication of focal points, groups, institutions, takes place against the background of a continuous accumulation of capital and valourisation of resources. Where goods, skills, values are relatively more abundant, civil society becomes more solid and structured… It was this balance between civil society and the State which both allowed the growth of democracy – and its confiscation by the hegemonic class, in the successful defence of capitalism. The autonomy of civil society prevented the permanent erection of an arbitrary state, but it also made it unnecessary. Power was not exclusively lodged in a top-heavy, massive State machine, whose democratisation would de facto threaten to revolutionise the whole existing social order. It was diffused through the whole variegated, supple, intricate texture of civil society. It was the invisible colour of daily life itself.

It seems to me that the younger Anderson got this fundamentally right – the State is not the centre of power in advanced capitalist society. And his line – basically Gramscian – is miles away from poststructuralist ideas of ‘decentred power’, in that it actually sees footholds for counter-power, despite the decentralisation. But what are these footholds, 40 years on?

Published in: on 3 June, 2007 at 9:52 pm  Comments (20)