Closing down and opening up “spaces”
Europe’s Romance languages use the word “spaces” in a political context to mean platforms, forums or media where political participation can take place. It is being used more frequently in English in this sense in recent times, as well. A feature of the latest phase of capitalism in developed countries like Australia is the shutting down of spaces where progressive forces can express their opposition. Sometimes the debate-limiting objective is reached slowly and subtly, sometimes quite abruptly. The challenge before us is re-open spaces and/or to open effective alternative ones.
The current situation in Australia, in which the left has been largely excluded from public debate, has been a long time in development. The starting point is hard to define exactly but appears to coincide, more or less, with the full court press carried out by global capitalism against the gains made by socialism and the working class internationally in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The world was going to be made safe for the next phase of globalised capitalism, sometimes called neo-liberalism. Socialism was going to be defeated. Unions were going to be pushed from the workplace or neutralised; wages and conditions were going to be forced down with some compensation coming from greater access to relatively inexpensive consumer goods flowing from “supply side economics”.
Of course, a major factor – if not the major one – was an ideological assault on the opponents of capitalism and imperialism. All available assets were mobilised to turn around an intolerable situation for capitalism in which the working class was able to achieve significant gains from struggles for reforms and gains in the workplace. The coup against the Whitlam Labor government was part of the assault and no return to the genuine, though limited, reforming days of social democracy was to be tolerated thereafter.
Socialist and Communist ideas, once seen as part of a liberal, pluralist mix, were suddenly beyond the pale. Advocates had always been placed under surveillance and harassed by security agencies but the partial tolerance shown in academia and other sensitive ideological posts was suddenly withdrawn. Only people likely to bring working class ideology into disrepute were safe, as were apostates.
The socialist countries were subjected to the most savage campaign of vilification, throwing into reverse a growing understanding during the years of detente. The seeds of confusion, sown during the 1960s in the Communist movement in Australia, bore fruit in this period. The euro-communist Communist Party of Australia formally dissolved itself in 1991. This allowed the Socialist Party of Australia, the Marxist-Leninist party founded in 1971, to resume the name Communist.
By the 1990s, however, the terms “Communist” and “socialist” had been smeared to good effect. The un-stated strategy in the corporate media was to starve the Party of publicity oxygen. The little interest shown in the CPA was of the sort that would confirm the findings of an ABC documentary of the time – that it was dead or all but dead. This how the widely viewed program was promoted in the TV guides:
Program Highlights (July 28-August 3, 1990):
Sunday: ABC presents The Party’s Over, a 90-minute documentary in the Hindsight series presented by Geraldine Doogue, looking at the story of the Communist Party of Australia, an organisation that had as many as 100,000 members over its 70-year lifespan before it was quietly wound up after the fall of Eastern Europe.
Occasional human interest pieces would focus on the aging membership of the Party despite ample evidence of younger recruits. Media treatment was directed at confirming the Party either doesn’t exist or was unable to have much impact on events. It was a strategy to demoralise members and others interested in breaking away from capitalism.
Noam Chomsky, in his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, argued that the role of the media in societies like Australia is to set the political agenda on behalf of the ruling class. It prefers to do this while appearing liberal, inclusive and tolerant so that genuine dissent is considered “off the planet”. The parameters of “reasonable debate” are set by the mass media’s treatment of a given issue.
A vigorous, sometimes knock-down, drag-out battle of ideas is encouraged within these strict limits. If your opinion is to the left of the limits set, you are not to be taken seriously or, worse, considered an “extremist”. The danger of the latter assessment of left opinion has grown exponentially in these post 9/11 days. Right political opinion struggles to be declared “extremist” in current political debates as even the country’s Attorney General insists that people have the right to be bigots, for example.
Of course, the media monopolies don’t need a written directive or agreement to pursue these anti-left objectives. They are huge corporations pushing for social and economic conditions most favourable to their profits and those of other monopolies. It is unlikely memos were ever circulated to “lay the boot” into the Communist Party or the left in general in whatever way possible but the practice is evident. The left’s media releases are mostly recycled without consideration. It is not invited to contribute a fifteen second grab on social developments it may be intimately involved with. Spokespersons won’t get on programs like the ABC’s Q&A to provide “balance”.
The legal noose
The labour movement, generally, has come under sustained legal attack in the period in question. Trade unions have been de-legitimised by a variety of means in addition to media slander. Royal Commissions, such as the Costigan Royal Commission of 1980-1984, the Cole Royal Commission of 2001-2003 and the current Heydon Royal Commission into “trade union governance and corruption” have all served their purpose in putting worker solidarity under suspicion. The architects of this strategy have refined their methods over time. The Costigan Royal Commission gave insights into the real sources of corruption and organised crime in the community – the upper reaches of capitalist society – and was promptly snapped shut. The terms of reference for the Heydon Royal Commission make sure that mistake won’t happen again. Kangaroo courts are acceptable when dealing with ship painters and dockers but intolerable for the very wealthy.
Unions lost control of their own elections and their books are open for the employers’ tacticians to see. The Wages and Incomes Accord undermined on-the-job organisation of workers. Eventually, employment issues became totally absorbed into questions of contract. Awards were stripped and union officials were obliged to run around in bureaucratic circles dealing with Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs). “Secondary boycotts” – sympathy strikes, observance of other unions’ pickets and other practical expressions of solidarity were banned and breaches punished with crippling fines. In just about all cases, industrial action in support of legitimate claims for improvements in pay and conditions were only legal once the term of the EBA had expired.
Unions were not allowed to consider “non-industrial” issues. Conferences and councils that used to be lively forums for debate and intervention on a variety of matters of concern to working people narrowed their focus dramatically. “Peace is union business” is a truism that, unfortunately, belongs to a bygone era. Unions have largely ceased to be organisations pursuing the broader interests of the class, a source of support for campaigns outside the purely economist ones. Of course, there are exceptions and the “culprits” are generally the ones the authorities continue to hound, seek to bankrupt and, ultimately, de-register.
Laws in various states claimed to be directed at criminal activity in illegal motorcycle clubs don’t even mention motorcycle clubs. They introduce draconian new definitions for “association” and penalties for it.
Anti-“terror” laws have played a major part in closing down spaces or, at least, discouraging people from taking their rightful places in them. In what is claimed to be a response to the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001, Australians have lost the right to presumption of innocence and the protection of Habeas Corpus, the right to remain silent and more. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation now has police powers making it a secret police force. There are very harsh penalties of up to life imprisonment for revealing the name of its operatives or any operational intelligence. Public interest is no defence.
Fear has been whipped up by stories and images depicting Islamic State. A very exaggerated need to protect the Australian public from terrorist threat has been put in many people’s minds. Reports of pre-dawn raids and improbable plots crowd the front pages at regular intervals. In the lead up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, police flooded into the city from all over the country and areas locked down. Protest had to take place in a strictly quarantined area. Across Australia, people suspected of wanting to travel to Brisbane to protest were interviewed by police. Police tracked down activists who produced small stickers protesting the gathering for a very serious chat. In Tasmania, it appears legislation simply banning protest is going to get through the state parliament.
The Internet was once considered a gift to anti-capitalist activists – an organising tool that can reach across the globe. In light of what Assange, Snowden and others have told us we know it is also a major vulnerability. It would appear most progressive people believe there is nowhere to hide from the “Five Eyes” network sharing intelligence among the agencies of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Computer networks can be hacked and masses of data on the whole population scooped up at the presentation of a warrant from the likes of Attorney General George Brandis. Informal arrangements between police and service providers have been in place for years.
In recent times the federal and state electoral commissions have all changed their requirements for registering parties. If a candidate is from a party that is not registered, the name of the group will not appear on the ballot paper or any other official documents associated with the election being contested. This puts a party at an enormous disadvantage, especially at booths the group is unable to attend for the distribution of how-to-vote information.
The number of names of members required to be supplied to register a party has shot upwards over the past decade, particularly in the states, placing an insurmountable barrier or a bureaucratic burden on parties not already represented in parliament. Nomination fees and the number of names required of residents supporting a candidate’s nomination have also sky-rocketed. The reason given for the choking off of access to the electoral process is that the various electoral commissions need to restrict the size of ballot papers, particularly for upper house elections. The effect is to shut down the space for organisations like the Communist Party who use the opportunity presented by an election to get their message before a broader audience.
Exclusion – from the macro to the micro
A hostile mass media is not new but the almost total exclusion of left voices from its pages or broadcasts certainly is. Laws against rightful trade union activity aren’t new, either, but the emergence of a construction site Gestapo and star-chamber hearings certainly are. Anti-“terror” and anti-“bikie” laws are a relatively new phenomenon, though the hysteria used to justify them and some of the consequences are reminiscent of the days of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and the subsequent referendum that the Australian people had the good sense to defeat.
Those are the big changes that have overtaken Australian politics and the politics of comparable countries in the past few decades. The combined effect of all them can only be guessed at but likely serve to discourage people from acting on social concerns or at least make them more cautious. But other, smaller obstacles hampering the work of progressive Australians have added to the authoritarian atmosphere.
There is little that is “free” or absolutely spontaneous about protest in Australia today despite the mainstream mantra about such features of the lucky country. Numbers of people wanting to hold meetings on matters of concern might be down but so are the number of venues available for such gatherings to take place. The cost of public liability insurance has discouraged many proprietors from allowing them. Obtaining insurance is another financial and bureaucratic hurdle in the way of groups. Permits from local councils and police are required as never before.
Surveillance cameras, heightened security and building design have come together to almost kill off the good old political poster. Places in popular precincts that used to have first-in-best dressed surfaces for notices and posters are often maintained by contractors advertising performances by visiting musical troops and other “cakes and circuses” events.
One recent local development, a small but emblematic event that prompted this piece, concerns this growing intolerance of unauthorised messages. The abandoned former site of a Holden factory in Birkenhead in Adelaide is surrounded by a cyclone fence to which the local CPA branch used to attach slogans painted on weatherproofed cardboard.
Over the years, neatly produced calls for the release of the Cuban 5, land justice for local Aboriginal people and for the end of uranium oxide (yellow cake) exports out of Port Adelaide have appeared for the community’s consideration. People were free to rip them down but they often stayed up for a remarkably long time. Slowly, banners advertising pool chemicals, Taekwondo lessons and other goods and services joined our political messages. Finally, the Council erected signs to advise that any “advertising” material would be removed immediately.
Many areas in shopping centres where the footpaths were under Council’s usually benign control are now administered by a business-appointed “centre management”. Attempts to distribute leaflets or otherwise engaged with passers-by promptly lead to intervention by private security personnel. Sometimes the instructions given are confrontational and intimidating. The market place is no longer a “public” space. Political voices are pushed to the margins; locations less valued by commercial interests.
How can these spaces be opened up?
The list of challenges before the left to get its message out and to lead people in action is a very long one. The list of suggestions to turn this around is, on the other hand, very short. In fact, it could be reduced to one word – Resist!
We need to keep it in mind that, even in the current very alarming circumstances, people will struggle. It was heartening to see reports from Perth recently of workers risking massive fines themselves to attend a protest outside the Federal Court in Perth where charges against 76 of their comrades were being heard. It is alleged they engaged in “unprotected” industrial action by attending a rally. Each of them faces fines of $10,200.
This type of solidarity carries a high risk and we must respect the courage of each of the protesters. In these circumstances, however, there is little else that can be done. The message to the ruling class must be that if you want to strip us of universally recognised human rights – such as the right to organise a trade union worthy of the name – you will have to arrest us all and suffer an endless and embarrassing parade of victims through the courts. Networks of solidarity with these workers will have to be established.
Secure habits will have to become second nature to activists. Unfortunately, convenience and immediacy decrease as security increases. Sensible compromise is required but the encouragement of the use of Tor anonymous web browsing and PGP encryption for more sensitive email is a minimum. These techniques must be taught. We need to remember technology is the forte of the class enemy; it will be hard to compete and win in this field. On the other hand, we should make it as hard as possible for profiling and other intelligence work to be carried out on the movement. And caution should never be allowed to cross over into paranoia or prevent us from taking what action we can to fight back against the awful agenda being forced onto the people.
The question of tactics for non-violent protest in defiance of growing legislative abuse is a related subject worthy of ongoing attention and learning through practice. If we are going to force open spaces closed off from workers and other exploited people, we are going to have to be braced and well organised for heavy handed repression. The alternative is to withdraw and watch as authoritarianism grows into fascism and the hopes of the people for peace and economic and environmental security are snuffed out.