Last Friday police in full riot gear smashed a peaceful protest in Melbourne that was organised in solidarity with the 'We are the 99 per cent’ movement, which had first arisen in New York. Peaceful protestors were left bruised and bleeding, many suffering the effects of capsicum spray, chokeholds and pressure point tactics. The protestors were engaging in peaceful ‘sit-in’ tactics of the kind popularised by the anti-segregation movement in the United States in the 1960s. And yet the Melbourne Herald-Sun (22/10/11) labelled them a “defiant mob”. But citizens would be better advised to consider what this precedent means for allof us.
In Australia we are supposed to be a liberal democracy. This should mean we enjoy certain rights: freedom of speech, of association, and of assembly. If citizens do not have the right to freedom of assembly in a dedicated public square, then this is this a violation of those same liberal rights. What would we have said 25 years ago if a similar kind of occupation was forcibly and violently dispersed in East Berlin? If people will not stand up for their rights, or are contemptuous of those who do, then they have to be prepared to lose those rights: not because this would be right, but because that is the logic of their attitude.
Some right-wing critics attempt to portray the “We are the 99 per cent” movement as being hypocritical. Apparently partaking of any of the benefits of modernity makes one unqualified to criticise the excesses of capitalism, which have almost brought the United States and Europe to ruin. If I own an I-Pod apparently I am unqualified to complain if after losing my job and my home I am thrown onto the street. And apparently I am a ‘hypocrite’ if a own a mobile phone, but being unable to afford private schooling for my children, instead watch them flounder in a state system starved of funds, resources, staff and infrastructure. Poverty is relative. In today’s information age Internet access is crucial for basic social inclusion; and even for job seekers to have the opportunity to find employment in the first place.
It's important to recognise the core message of the protests also. In Australia and worldwide (especially the United States) extreme inequality is rife. According to the ACTU in Australia “the ‘top’ 20 per cent own 61 per cent of the wealth while the ‘bottom’ 20 per cent own just one per cent of the wealth.”
This translates into lopsided power relations, culturally, economically, and politically. It is anathema to democracy. Meanwhile there is a massive shortfall in disability services, aged care and public education. There are cost of living pressures with energy, water, and housing stress stemming from privatisation and the Howard era housing bubble. Taxes are gradually ‘flattened’, becoming less and less fair, and providing the context for increasing ‘corporate welfare’. The needy go without to pay for the privileges and excesses of the few.
Here in Australia the first step forward must be progressive reform of tax so the wealthy pay their fair share, so the vulnerable get the services they desperately need, and so ordinary working people get a fair go.
We know that capitalism involves tendencies towards class bifurcation and monopolisation. We know that the rate of exploitation has intensified in recent decades, that the wage share of the economy has been shrinking, that there is greater inequality in the labour market, and that there is a social services shortfall to pay for effective corporate welfare. We know that we are experiencing a ‘two speed economy’, with mining prosperity driving up the dollar and making other industries uncompetitive. And yet tens of billions of mining profits, from our resources that can only be extracted once, are heading overseas. Meanwhile the rise of new competitors (China, India) increases the future risk of war as Great Powers strive to dominate a finite world market. In short, we know there is a problem with capitalism.
We must set out to build the kind of mass movement that will influence a generation, and begin to ‘turn the tide’ against neo-liberalism. However, the movement needs discipline to maintain and appeal to a ‘broad base’ and avoid unnecessary confrontations that could see it isolated. ‘Ultra-leftism’ – an indulgence in confrontation that serves no strategic purpose – needs to be rejected. Here a balance must be maintained between keeping momentum and avoiding exhaustion of new and casual participants. The aim must be massive mobilisation and retention at a variety of levels over the long term.
We also need to be prepared for defensive struggles in the event that a worldwide economic downturn leads to further attacks upon our social wage, our welfare state, and our liberal rights, including industrial rights. This would necessitate co-operation with the broad labour movement. In the face of austerity there could be need for industrial actions that serve a very real and clear strategic purpose.
We must have resolve that the recent excess on the part of police in Melbourne is not the end of our campaign, but only the beginning. And we must resolve to broaden the appeal and the base of our movement to maximise our impact.
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