Speaker: HUMPHREY McQUEEN, Australian Historian
I’m glad I’m not in the paid workforce after hearing that introduction! [laughs]
In reflecting on this space and Eureka, and Rod was asked to give the dawn address there, it reminded me of four years ago when I was speaking here for the 150th anniversary, it was an occasion on which I, at the end of the evening, I had a long discussion with a great supporter of Eureka, the late John Cummins. And I think it only proper that [pause for applause] that John’s great contribution to the Spirit of Eureka should not pass unremarked here this evening.
I’m going to try and do two things, one of them, I’ll earn my keep as an historian by saying a couple of things about the even of Eureka and their significance, and then I’ve been asked to say something about where the world is going in a hand-cart at the moment.
The single important thing to understand about the Battle of Eureka is that it, like every other thing that goes on in this world second by second, was a part of the class struggle. The particular class struggle being waged at that time in Victoria was that, as one member of the legislative council said in some amazement, “Shall we tax ourselves?” and clearly they decided not to, and therefore the government still needed some money, and so it was forced to put all the tax burden on to the miners.
Now this is something that is totally not unknown to us today, of people not wanting to pay their taxes and then calling other people ‘bludgers’. But that’s what the basis of the battle was about. And of course it led to another aspect, a less common aspect for Australia but one we’re seeing a lot of in relation to the building commission, that is the State has organised violence on behalf of one class against another.
Now the third thing that came out of this of course is something that we should all cherish, the verdicts at the trials where the juries acquitted these people who were as guilty as sin. There was no way in law that what the rebels did at Eureka was not a crime but the jury acquitted them one after another. And as Ralph said, “a law that you can’t enforce is no law,” but it was that democratic spirit amongst that population that fed into the jury and assured acquittals for all of those people who had engaged in acts of treason against the crown.
But of course, and this is my forth historical point, the property class couldn’t leave it there. So they built themselves a stockade and they called it the Legislative Council. And to get elected you had to won about ten thousand pounds, to vote, you had to have one thousand pounds. And a battle went on in Victoria for one hundred years until finally there was universal male suffrage for the Legislative Council.
So that when we think of democracy in our society, what we are always looking at is something that working people have fought for and won by braking the law, more often than not, against a system that is biased in favour of the owners of productive property.
Now . . . I want to now go on to talk about the other subject that Shirley asked me to discuss and raise questions to what is happening in the global economy. And here I am reminded of something in my own history: When I was a teenager I used to go to the Rationalist’s Society in Queensland on a Sunday evening . . . I’d take my mother to Church on a Sunday morning and then go to the Rationalist’s Society in the evening! And one evening, the speaker announced that his topic was ‘A Short History of the World and its Economic Consequences for the Worker’. He took seven minutes to get from the Neanderthal man to the Bolshevik Revolution. Well we’re going to have another go here this evening.
The word ‘crisis’ is everywhere today. When you listen, though, behind the news, every time they’ve solved the ‘crisis’ they use another word, “the ‘catastrophe’ we just averted”. They never say ‘catastrophe’ when they are averting it, it’s only after it’s been solved, as they’ve done in the last six, seven, eight, nine times in the last twelve months, only then . . . do we here about ‘catastrophes’. We’re told that it’s a ‘financial crisis’, a crisis in the financial system. My basis point throughout this evening is for us to understand that is not true. It is a crisis in the system of production which is realising itself in the financial system and that is how the. capitalist system operates.
It starts in the excess capacity that Capitalism generates. A few years ago the car industry in the world was in such a condition of excess capacity that if all the car plants in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada closed down, the rest of the car plants would still produce more vehicles than there was an effective demand for. That’s the crisis that the automobile industry faces and it’s one that exists throughout the entire system of Capitalist production. Now because of that, Capitalists still want to make money and what they do, they try for a while to do something else, they think can short-circuit the system, they try to make money out of money. So instead of going: money – production – commodity – more money; they think, “Let’s leap from money to more money.” And you can do it, it’s very simple, you just swindle people. The other route is more painful: money – production – commodity – more money; that, you’ve got to exploit people in the workplace. That takes longer, more difficult. But it’s the basis of the wealth that working people add to nature. But with that excess capacity, that really wasn’t quite open to them.
Now we need to understand why excess capacity is generated in every Capitalist system at all times; it’s in the nature of the system. There are twin drivers of why it happens. Even in a society like ours which is now dominated by huge oligopolies, the bigger those corporations become, the more intense the competition becomes between them. The other thing that is happening at the same time is that these workers who are being exploited to produce the wealth . . . two things happen to them: they get funny ideas about their worth; the second thing is, the Capitalists needs them to buy the things that are being produced, otherwise there’s no more money at the end of the system. So we have needs induced in us by Capitalism. But to pay for them we need more money.
[00:33:16] So every individual Capitalist is pressured to pay higher wages so that aggregate social capital can keep expanding. So these double forces happen: The corporations are fighting with each other to get hold of these sales at the same time as the workers are being forced to demand more money as well as thinking they’re entitled to it. And the Capitalist has to respond to this. And the way that Capitalists respond to this is to try to reduce the unit cost of producing every item. And they’re quite successful a this. Technology, new work methods, everything you know from your own working lives. They make you work harder, they make you work faster, they make you work longer and they reduce the unit cost. But in reducing the unit cost of course, they also reduce the unit profit. So to solve this problem, they’ve got to sell more units. The volume has to go up, otherwise their absolute profit begins to decline.
So what they’ve got to do is to get us to buy more stuff. There was a wonderful cartoon in the ‘New Yorker’ a couple of years ago with a shop being re-fitted. And the sign on the window said, ‘Opening soon: More Stuff’. They’ve got to sell more and more because exploiting people in the workplace is no use to them at all; total waste of time. Let me give you a simple example: If you’ve got people growing flowers for you, you pay them next to nothing, you work them twelve hours a day, you poison them with chemicals, you do all of those things, and when the flowers go to market they’ve wilted and nobody wants to buy them. So you haven’t made any money out of exploiting your workers. You can only realise on the exploitation if you sell and get the money back. So you’ve got to find more and more people to but more and more and they’ve got to have the money to do be able to do it. There’s no point in saying, “I would like some flowers,” if you haven’t got any money to do it. I’m sorry, the system doesn’t work like that. There’s no point in saying, “I’m thirsty,” unless you’ve got a dollar to buy something with. That’s called effective demand, not human need, this system works on effective demand.
So what we see in this system now is that this classic crisis in Capitalist production has reproduced itself again now. This is not unusual, there is nothing rare about this. But of course new things happen; Capitalism happened, that was new, with any luck Socialism will happen and that will be new. At the moment, what we’re seeing is a novel expression of the classic ‘crisis’.
Over the last fifty years marketing has driven us to want more, buy more, and go into debt for more. Credit cards, every kind. As somebody said, ‘In the nineties people will be encouraged to use their houses as ATMs’. Then in the early years of this century it went one stage further: people who are now referred to as ‘NINJAs’ (No Income, No Job and No Assets), people who you would not lend money to, but there’s no one else left, everyone else is up to here in their debts. You’ve got to find someone else to lend it to, anyone will do. So you’ll lend it to these people who you would not have advertised to. When I was a kid there was a wonderful show on television called ‘Gunsmoke’. It had the biggest audience in America and they killed it, why? Because the people who watched had no effective demand: they were old, they were poor, they were in the mid-west, they were all the wrong kind of people. So although there were more of them watching, nobody wanted to advertise to them. But now people want to lend them money to buy houses. But this is okay . . . we’ll spread the debt around, everyone can have a little bit of this bad debt and it will be alright.
So this is the situation that the world crisis is now in. It’s a classic crisis of over-production but manifesting itself in this new phenomena which we could call ‘over-consumption’. And that’s where the crisis is banging together: between production and consumption, the inability to realise the profit outside the exploitation.
Now, to ask another old-fashioned question, “What is to be done?” Well I think the first thing we have to do is to battle for clarity about what is happening. Because we are, all of us, in a super-saturated solution of bourgeois bullshit. It’s very difficult to keep even one nostril above it because it comes at us in every direction as to what is actually happening in the world. You listen to the experts: one of the problems they have is they’ve all got PHDs that none of the last eighteen months could’ve happened. And they’re the people who are going to fix it. I heard two people who had been given the fake Nobel Prize if economic science being interviewed, and then they interviewed Wayne Swan and Wayne Swan made more sense then they did!
So we need clarity about two big areas: about change and about interpretation. Now I’ve been trying in what I’ve said very briefly now to give a bit of that basic clarity for interpretation. But we need it, to be clear about our interpretations in order to know what to do about change. They are not choices, you don’t get to say, “I’ll change the world, I won’t interpret it.” Because we’ve just done that and we see what a mess we’ve got in in relation to Work Choices. We looked at the campaign now against Work Choices and how much of it was about what a naughty, evil, awful person John Howard is? As if that explained anything. Then we were told that why we were against Work Choices is because we were in favour of a fair day’s pay . . .There is no such thing as a fair day’s pay. Every night say that three times before going to sleep!
But that whole campaign started out around those two misleading propositions: We know that if you get rid of Howard, there’s Reith, there’s Costello, there’s Abbott, there’s no end of them on that side that would’ve done it and now we’ve seen we’ve got Rudd and Julia Grad-grind doing the same thing on the ALP side. The ‘fair day’s pay’ thing doesn’t go away because that is the basis of how Capitalism functions. So that the opportunity in that campaign to begin to re-explain to the working class in Australia what was everyday knowledge among working class activists twenty years ago but is so often now just been erased and forgotten. That chance was lost because the interpretation was wrong. And we’ve ended up with this new version of Work Choices; we’ve still got the Construction stasie. And it’s part of this connection this interpretation and change that we need to get to be right about this.
If we interpret the crisis correctly as a crisis of Capital accumulation, then we can at least begin amongst ourselves as activists to get a better understanding of where we might be taken to with this next stage. If we don’t have that, then we’re just going to get swept aside. There’s a wonderful remark by John Mortimer, he’s of Rumpole fame, he wrote a volume of memoirs which he called ‘Clinging to the Wreckage’ . . . I don’t know about the rest of you but for the last twenty years, I’ve been clinging to the wreckage. And it’s kept us afloat, since the Berlin wall and what’s happened in China and all these things. We’ve all got a spar or a bit of a life boat that’s been wrecked and we’ve been clinging to it and we’ve been keeping it afloat . . . it’s been keeping us afloat I suppose. But in this situation, the turmoil, the change, the enormous impact of what this crisis is going to bring means that we can’t do that any longer. Because the danger that I think we all now face is that having clung to this bit of the wreckage, we think that’s the whole boat; we think this is going to explain everything to us and we’re totally imamate with the one little bit of the explanation that we’ve sort of clung to. We need to get clear about the whole system again, not to be linked to something that somebody said to you thirty or forty years ago, we’ve got to be able to move beyond all of that.
We’ve got to move beyond the situation where we say that this was worth . . . that your rights at work were worth voting for which is what it ended up as and go back to saying that it was worth fighting and worth striking for. And that is obviously, as Ralph was saying and as Marcus was saying, they’re the things that are beginning to happen again.
But these things can only happen in mass activity. I’ll quote what somebody said twenty or thirty years ago, I’m going to quote Norm Gallagher. Norm used to say about what he would do in leading the union, “I get,” . . . he’s talking about the master builders, “I get the members to tenderise ’em and then I get the QC to sizzle ’em,” and that’s how the system works. You’ve got to go through the bowels of the legal system but unless you’ve got that mass activity outside you’re not going to get very far just by turning up to court and saying,” Please Sir, can I have some more?”
What sort of things are going to happen as this crisis unfolds? Well, in the 1890s and the 1930s there were evictions struggles. They were at one point in the 1890s, I read, called ‘Rent Reversion’, another nice phrase. But that may well come again where we go back to organising local anti-eviction struggles. There are plenty of workplace struggles: the big picket line down at the Boeing dispute earlier this year was one example of that where Dave Kerrin and Union Solidarity is one of the places in which they have been most active. Then, of course, there’s building into particular communities. And one of the things I’m delighted about being down here tonight is that tomorrow gives me a chance to go into the electorate of Yarra and hand out ‘How to Vote’ cards for Steve Jolly, the only openly elected Socialist in an Australian elected organis. . . you know . . . public organisation. And Steve’s great work [pause for applause] has been to organise that community, to deal with people who he said I wouldn’t otherwise give the time of day to. In those big blocks of flats, he’s had to, in defending crèches, childcare centres and health centres, he’s spoken underneath South Vietnamese flags. He said you don’t get to choose the people you’ve got to fight with over particular issues. With these Vietnamese who were going to have their child centre taken away, then in his electorate he stands with them and fights with them and involves them in that struggle against the ALP administration in Victoria.
You can combine these things, of union work and community work. And I think, to give another example, Tim Gooden in Geelong is a wonderful example of how a trades and labor council is being used to advance a whole range of political issues in a community as well as trade union defense.
And in thinking about this we need to recall that jury verdict after Eureka: That we need never fear the people. They’re not always going to agree with us just because we tell them something because quite often when we tell it to them we’re half wrong anyway and we need to listen to what they’re saying. Because as somebody else said, “The educator needs to be educated.”
I’ll just end by taking one of the phrases that you would’ve heard from our ‘beloved’ leader in recent times: That what we’re suffering from, we’re told, is “extreme Capitalism”, by which he means too much greed in the system. Well what this indicates, of course, is that he hasn’t the faintest idea about how Capitalism works because it’s not greed that actually drives Capital accumulation. You can behave like J.P. Morgan and accumulate a lot of money and then, at the end of your life, spend it on buying artworks and end up almost bankrupt. But if you behave like Warren Buffett who lives in the same house as he lived in fifty years ago, shows very little sign of manifesting greed and irrational exuberance. The accumulation of wealth that he has put together, that’s extreme Capitalism, but it’s also ordinary, everyday Capitalism.
So if that’s extreme Capitalism we’re up against I’d like to suggest, in conclusion, three extreme things that we should do. The first extreme thing we should do is to be extreme in our investigation and understanding of what is going on, not to short circuit those processes of investigation but to really work hard at it again, to be extreme about that. The second thing we need to be extreme about, and I take this to heart and you having listened to me will understand why, we need to have the extreme capacity to “shut up” until we’ve done the first thing. And not just behave like some sort of garbage tin when someone trods on your foot and your mouth flies open. We have to think through how it is that we’re going to explain to people what is going on because for most audiences that we explain to I wouldn’t present it in quite the way that I’ve presented it here to you, as a politically conscience and active audience this evening. We’ve got to listen to the people who we are trying to talk to as well.
The third extreme is built on those two. When we’ve done the extreme investigation, when we’ve had the extreme good sense to stay quiet until we’ve got something to say about what is to be done in action and in analysis, then our determination to win has to be as extreme as any extremity of Capitalist exploitation.
I thank you.