4 December 2019

Astra Taylor: “I have long argued that democracy has never truly existed. Instead of being something we once had and only recently lost, I see democracy as a horizon people must continually struggle towards. It is an ideal that must be deepened and expanded. … What makes democracy so elusive is its inherently contradictory nature. Working towards a more democratic society will involve balancing a range of opposing values: freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, the local and the global, the present and the future. Democracy also requires weighing spontaneity and structure. Open revolt and rule-making, insurrection and statecraft — both sides are necessary in order for progress to be achieved. Democracy is messy. Time and again, rebellions, wildcat strikes, debtors’ revolts and urban uprisings have bent the will of recalcitrant authorities. But history also shows that there are no shortcuts: sudden outpourings of discontent have to be expanded, managed and advanced by the hard, slow work of organising for change. We should celebrate the contagious energy of mass demonstrations and street confrontations, while also channelling their fervour into focused, strategic efforts that have a chance of being longer-lived. … May this generation not look back and say it didn’t try.”

3 December 2019

Lizzie O’Shea draws on Frantz Fanon’s work on race and identity to reconceptualise digital privacy as a form of self-determination: “A key part of the problem is that privacy as a right has been defined too narrowly, framed as the right to be left alone and little more. Part of our job, then, is to open up the more radical possibilities of this concept, to show that privacy is about the capacity to explore our personal faculties without judgment, to experiment in community-building on our own terms. The right to privacy is the right to exist in a world in which data generated about you cannot be used as an indelible record of your identity. Privacy is not just a technical approach to information management delegated to individual responsibility. … A more expansive way to think about privacy, then, is to see it as a right to digital self-determination. It is about self-governance, the right to determine our own destiny and be free to write a history of our own sense of self. Self-determination has a long history in legal and philosophical thinking, but it gained new meaning in the latter half of the twentieth century during the explosion of postcolonial struggles, including in the struggle for Algerian independence that Fanon was involved in. There are good reasons to see the struggle for digital self-determination as a successor of these movements.”

Osmond Chiu: Community wealth building aims to develop a framework to develop workable solutions that tries to keep money in local communities. Instead of spending significantly more, it relies on being smarter with how money is spent, taking advantage of the benefits of local industries, which support local multiple businesses through their supply chains and employ workers that will spend back into the local economy. It sees the economy as circular and rejects the extractive model of economic development which sees money taken out of local communities, and encourages a race to the bottom on taxes, wages and conditions. … While it is not a silver bullet to the challenges of regional economic development, community wealth building might be one way to start pushing back against economic decision-making that is based on the narrow criteria of financial cost. Instead, this approach can help re-embed the community into discussions about the kind of economy, and society, that we want.” Chiu highlights the success of Preston, in the north of England, to illustrate how community wealth-building can strengthen a community and improve people’s daily lives.

29 November 2019
28 November 2019

Melbourne’s tram drivers are on strike today — a soft strike, in the middle of the day when it will have minimal impact, because our prohibitive laws ban any strike that might put real pressure on an employer; even a one-day strike by Sydney train drivers was ruled illegal (by a former Liberal staffer who continued to engage in partisan propaganda even after being appointed to the Fair Work Commission). But the RTBU has signalled it may become more militant in future. Launching a short documentary about Clarrie O’Shea’s resistance to crippling fines for industrial action, the new national president of the RTBU, Mark Diamond, drew parallels [$] with the Liberal union-busting bill now being pushed through the Senate: “[L]et’s take a page from our own history. A page that shows exactly what comes next. … At that time, in 1969, about 1 million people stopped work. … [They] went out then, and if it’s in the best interests of our members, we will go out now. So here’s a message for Tory politicians and for aggressive employers. If you do not respect us, you will fear us.” The industrial relations system works by ensuring the benefits of staying inside the system outweigh the costs, but as it has been ratcheted tighter and tighter, the cost-benefit analysis will change. Back to basics — strength in numbers.

(The full text of Diamond’s speech has now been posted on the RTBU website.)

26 November 2019

UWU’s Tim Nelthorpe explains why organising Australia’s food supply chain is vital: “[T]he terms of employment on farms are reminiscent of indentured labor. Workers are usually forced into employer-owned accommodation and transport, and rather than obtain their own food, they are required to pay a food bond.” But collective action works, as union member Anh Nguyen explains: “One day, my management were instructing our quality assurance workers to pour chemical products on the lettuce while we were working. We could feel our eyes sting, our throats burn, and we were even vomiting. I decided enough was enough, I went around to ask … my workmates to walk off the job. Then I walked to the middle of the packing shed and shouted, ‘Everyone out!’ The workers followed me to the lunchroom, and the scared manager meekly asked if we would come back to work as normal. I told him if he ever poured chemicals while workers were in the room again, he could expect the same. We will come back to work if there is no harm to our health. We worked out a system to protect our health and safety that day, and four years on, the company still respects the right of our union delegates to decide when it is safe to return to the packing shed after chemicals are poured. This experience showed me that the power to create a permanent change has to come from us and through our collective actions.”

A survey of corporate executives by Herbert Smith Freehills — an aggressive bosses’ law firm — shows they are gearing up to resist both traditional union activity and “unpredictable forms of worker activism, amplified and co-ordinated through digital communication”. According to The Australian’s summary of the report [$], “Companies were asked what percentage impact they believed workforce activism might have on their global annual revenues, and the responses ranged from 17 per cent to 25 per cent. More than 80 per cent expected to see a rise in activism among both employees and casual ­workers and almost four out of 10 thought the increase would be significant.” Helpfully, the executives have provided a list of planned corporate chicanery they expect workers will resist: “Executives said the main triggers for increased activism by Australian workers in the next five years would be automation, diversity, company surveillance and monitoring of workers, pay and benefits, and corporate strategy. More than half the companies said the gap between executive pay and employee wages, fuelled by years of stagnating wages, would be a trigger for activism. An estimated 47 per cent of Australian businesses, compared with 37 per cent globally, expected employees to increasingly protest against the actions or decisions of companies that they felt were not in keeping with the organisation’s mission statement.”

25 November 2019

“Neither in Venezuela nor in Bolivia, nor in any of the countries that turned to the Left over the past twenty years, has the bourgeois state been totally transcended nor has capitalist rule been overthrown. The revolutionary processes in these countries had to gradually create institutions of and for the working-class alongside the continuation of capitalist rule. … Any attempt to fully transcend capitalism was constrained by the power of the bourgeoisie — which was not undone by repeated elections, and which is now the source of counter-revolution; and it was constrained by the power of imperialism — which has succeeded, for now, in a coup in Bolivia, and which threatens daily a coup in Venezuela. … Nonetheless, both Venezuela and Bolivia experienced the full thrust of a ‘hybrid war’ — from sabotage of physical infrastructure to sabotage of the ability to raise funds from capital markets. Lenin suggested that after capturing the state and dismantling capitalist ownership, the revolutionary process in the new Soviet republic was difficult, the stubborn class struggle alive and well; imagine then how much more difficult is the stubborn struggle in Venezuela and Bolivia.” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ana Maldonado, Pilar Troya Fernández, and Vijay Prashad wrote a letter to intellectuals who deride revolutions in the name of purity: it’s worth reading.

21 November 2019

The Nation has published a long excerpt from A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal: “[F]rankly, there are some jobs that ought to be crowded out. … A job guarantee would give workers options to leave socially and environmentally harmful jobs, and would strengthen the position of workers organizing in the private sector. … Shitty work also takes a toll on your soul. The great modernist writer Virginia Woolf once made a living from odd jobs of the kind then available to women… It was dull work, and usually poorly paid. ‘What still remains with me,’ she recalled afterward, ‘was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me.’ Then she inherited £500 a year from an aunt who fell off a horse in Bombay. It wasn’t a fortune—about $40,000 today, a little more than the median individual income. But it set her free. ‘Watch in the spring sunshine,’ she wrote, ‘the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.’ A colonial inheritance isn’t something to aspire to. But the freedom Woolf experienced should be available to all — and that’s what a job guarantee can offer.'”

20 November 2019

The government has — at last — accepted that ‘robodebt’ is cruel and probably illegal. As Kate Galloway explained, a computer would scan tax office data and apply a flawed algorithm, so that “even if you earned nothing for six months while correctly collecting Newstart, the amount you earned in the next six months is averaged over the entire period to make it look as though you were collecting Newstart payments to which you were not entitled. The department automatically generates letters demanding that the former social security recipient prove the calculation to be incorrect”, and then aggressively “recovers” the “debt”, with predictably awful consequences for the innocent people trapped by the scheme. Now, with victims’ lawyers breathing down their neck, the government has abandoned the worst aspect of the system, with retrospective effect: “The department has made the decision to require additional proof when using income averaging to identity over payments. This means the department will no longer raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australia Taxation Office income data.” Lawyers say their cases will continue, but I expect the government will attempt to have them thrown out as hypothetical — they don’t want public scrutiny of the robodebt system, and especially the internal considerations that led to its callous design.