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Issue #1794      September 13, 2017

Our class history

When I first planned to emigrate to Australia because I was so sick of the snobbery and class system in England, I remember my cousin from Perth telling me that Australia didn’t have a class system. That’s how politically ignorant he was.

With capitalism there can only be two main classes – those who own the means of production and employ labour to make a profit, and those who own no means of production, having nothing but their labour to sell.

I’m glad I came because it’s been another lesson in how the ruling elite operate to protect their ownership and power systems and, although Australia doesn’t seem to have such a dyed-in-the-wool class system as the UK, here it’s based on wealth and it is well and truly in existence in the 21st century. In fact, it is reverting to the times of Dickens in terms of inequality.

Manning Clark, in his 1976 Boyer Lecture presentation A Discovery of Australia, said:

“In the nineteenth century Australians enjoyed the reputation of being in the vanguard of human progress; they were often the pioneers in the introduction of bourgeois democracy, and rather boastful about it. By contrast, in the twentieth century Australians seem to have missed the bus carrying humanity into the future. We had the institutions and the values to promote the use of parts of our country as quarries for foreign powers, but neither the institutions, nor the inclination, nor the belief to make our country a paradise for the people.”

Looking at the way Australia was settled to some extent explains how this has happened, but what I can’t understand is why it has been allowed to happen. The origins of capitalism here are unique. People were transported into what started as a military prison, initially containing few capitalists, no free labour and no peasants, but within a generation the colony became essentially capitalist with a growing free labour market and an emerging peasantry.

And here’s where Australian history begins to echo what has happened in the United Kingdom over the centuries; dispossession and land seizure – no doubt in the name of whoever was sitting on the throne at the time, or his sidekick, God! What should be called stealing but is called colonisation and which, in the eyes of the colonisers, is for the greater good. This has happened all over the world. When colonising countries the officer class of the occupying armies forms the nucleus of the landed oligarchies who then develop into nascent capitalists. In this way, the capitalist class structure has successfully been transplanted, colonising a country using time-honoured methods:

Destruction of the Indigenous society; seizure of the means of production; capital accumulation; formation of social classes; the use of state power; imperialism and racism.

To paraphrase Marx, with capitalism there can only be two main classes – those who own the means of production and employ labour to make a profit, and those who own no means of production, having nothing but their labour to sell.

In the beginning of Australia’s colonisation, the means of production was the land. Therefore the native people had to be driven off their land, and as always capitalism was created by force i.e. state power. Once that has occurred the next phase was to encourage lots of people to migrate and work for the people who got here first.

Australia has always been beholden to its political overmasters in England who, for a long while controlled the purse strings, e.g. look what happened to Australia’s trade when they joined the European Common Market.

But going even further back the first slump was caused when the Yankees kicked the Brits out and stopped buying British cloth, made from Australian wool. Government revenue was affected so who had to pay – the squatters in the form of licence fees for their land. This brought about an emergent political dominance by the colonial ruling class, which has always seen the function of government to provide as much assistance to private capital as possible i.e. to themselves! Sound familiar?

By the mid-19th century came a rising middle class – doctors, lawyers, senior bureaucrats, businessmen, farmers and gold miners, and radical elements of these middle classes combined with working-class urban forces and some liberal elements among merchants and landowners to advocate for popular democracy. This was the time of the Eureka uprising. It was also a time of blatant racism because of the number of Chinese arriving on the gold fields. But there were also other sources of division which weakened the working class – ethnic and religious difference.

So in brief, for 40 years from the middle of the 19th century Australia experienced a boom time when the population was small and there was work for everyone and by the end of the century a rural petty bourgeoisie was emerging and class alignments were changing. There were growing bush workers’ unions, such as the forerunners of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) and rural labour in Australia was far better organised, with the average income per head one of the highest in the capitalist world.

In the 1880s there was a growth of class consciousness and an upsurge in union militancy which felt the full force of state power during the slump in the economy in the 1890s. As is typical of capitalism, the slump was caused by over-borrowing unrelated to export growth or import replacement (sound familiar?) and over-production of wool (not iron ore) for a declining world market. This decimated the unions but led to political action which saw the formation of the Labor Party.

Nothing seems to change, as can be seen from this quote from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516):

“I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men, procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the Commonwealth. They invent and devise all means ... first how to keep [what] they have unjustly gathered together; and next how to hire and abuse the work and labour of the poor for as little money as may be, and oppress them as much as they please.”

This is a very broad-brush potted version of Australian political and class history, but I think it paints a picture describing how we’ve reached the state of society today, which is still a case of the ruling class trying to screw the workers. A case of not forgetting history as it has a habit of repeating itself if we do.

Next article – Refugees protest phone card cuts

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