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Re-affirming the politics of class

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 7 June 2007


It seems, today, whenever you hear a proposal for the progressive redistribution of wealth, through the tax system or otherwise, you are immediately subject to a tired war-cry. On both sides of the political spectrum, both Liberal and Labor spokespeople seem fond of the saying “there should be no return to the ‘bad old days’ of class warfare”, and we should not be engaging in the “politics of envy”.

These well-worn tirades are spoken with such regularity they appear to have become part of the “common-sense” of the political milieu. Their validity is accepted almost without question by journalists and others participating in the public sphere.

But how does such rhetoric sit with the reality?

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In Australia, especially since the Hawke-Keating governments, the stigmatisation of the politics of class struggle went hand in hand with a consensual suppression of real wages that characterised the Accord.

While such moves improved the competitiveness of Australian capitalism, the decline in the wage share of the economy could not be properly compensated by tax cuts: which, after all, led to the decline of social expenditure and the social wage. The process of the Accord was one in which workers lost, and Labor’s promise of compensation via the social wage failed to meaningfully emerge.

Talk of the “politics of envy” is, in reality, a cover for the kind of politics that have represented real attacks on workers and the underprivileged. Distributive politics are not those of “envy”: they are those of social justice.

All over the world, stigmatisation of the issue of class has gone hand in hand with tax cuts for business and the wealthy, accompanied by a shift towards regressive structures of taxation, the erosion of the social wage and social programs, the shift towards “user pays”, and the implementation of “labour market reform”.

The Howard Conservative government’s agenda in Australia has gone so far as to fine individual workers tens of thousands for “illegal” industrial action.

The process commonly referred to as “globalisation” has also deterred governments from re-regulating finance markets and has led to a worldwide “race to the bottom” in wages, along with efforts to provide an “internationally competitive” taxation system.

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There have been attacks on worker’s job security, income, access to affordable housing and to services in health, education, aged care: it seems perverse that those arguing for a shift to a fairer, more egalitarian system are accused of wanting to “take the nation back to the bad old days of class warfare”, and of playing “the politics of envy”.

The “bad old days of class warfare” are now: Conservative attacks upon our social rights and the quality of our services; upon the progressive structure of the tax system; and upon our rights to organise and withdraw labour.

Attacks on the interests of workers are also inherent in the drive to maximise share value at all costs: which has seen the withdrawal of services, mass redundancies, and the implementation of regressive fees by Australia’s banks. The refusal of companies like Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank to recognise social responsibilities underlines the folly of privatisation, and the need for a democratic mixed economy, including a healthy public sector providing services on the basis of need and much needed competition in industries that otherwise might be characterised by oligopoly and collusion.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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