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The politics of denial and refusal in the working class of the Australian state:

some (nearly random) notes on the composition of social struggle

Bruce Lindsay
(36 Queen St, Williamstown Vic 3016)

Table 2: "Our Worlds and Their World"


The social struggles of capital and the working class in Australia have intensified in the past 18 months, as capital and the state have sought to deepen austerity, control, and "flexploitation" over the mass of the population. In the wake of ongoing crisis of the late 1980s/early 1990s, a "space" or "front" of resistance has developed across differing social sectors, notably indigenous, civil/community, workers, students. The state has shifted decisively to the right and has become openly reactionary. The politics of the antagonism *within* the working class have progressively become a refusal on the one hand, and a denial on the other hand. These remain marginal tendencies, but increasingly important, as the Power responds to crisis by (at least sponsoring) a more violent exclusion. The antagonistic refusal takes the form of a method of struggle emphasizing "constitutional" and civil resistance; the denial takes the form of suppression (beyond "management") of the diverse social character of the class, captured in a racist or authoritarian (fascist?) response to exclusion and despair.

Main text.

1. For nearly the last 18 months there has been a new phase and an acceleration in the project of neoliberalism in Australia. This has accompanied the rise of a neoconservative government at the Federal level, alongside a majority of similar state governments, and this period has witnessed the rapid implementation of new policies aimed at social austerity, flexibilization of wage-labor and the offensive against organized labor, further enclosure of collective or public space, insulation of the state from class demands, etc. The same period has largely coincided with a renewed, if uneven, cycle of struggles, that is itself a moment in a longer development of social-industrial antagonisms from c. late 1980s/early 1990s, and that is focussed upon four principal sectors: the workers' movement, the students and youth, the indigenous societies, and the ecological and civil movements.

2. This phase is neoliberal and reactionary: it focusses on social control and imposition of greater work through social exploitation (of "social labor": the category representing the real breakdown of any division between work and social action/activity) and "flexpoitation" of wage-labor.

3. The previous phase - from about 1982/3 - focussed on social management (of struggles) and autonomizing the (neoliberal) economy, the global rule of money, austerity and flexibilization, etc. Toward the end (from 1992) is progressively became more reactionary, especially at the (constitutional) level of the states.

4. Capitalism within the Australian state suffered a period of significant crisis between 1987 and 1992, firstly in financial meltdown that produced debt and inflation crisis and focussed on the corporate sector, and secondly in productive meltdown, in severe recession and escalating unemployment and austerity after 1990. From the early 1990s, in the wake of anti-Gulf War demonstrations, significant industrial strikes against sectoral and general austerity, periodic student agitation, and indigenous land rights' gains, there began to be a broad-based recomposition of the class. It was based on a collage of antagonism and struggle. It has been based largely in activist networks. A new crisis began to emerge from early 1996 based on this recomposition, and possibly extends back to the mineworkers (and dockworkers) strike sparked off by attacks on unionization at Weipa in August-September 1995. It is still a crisis without a definitive shape, except that it is a more generalized social crisis.

5. If there is any sort of "vanguard," a "human vanguard" in the terms of the Zapatistas, perhaps it lies in the Aboriginal and Islander resistance, which is by and large a resistance of the "Fourth World within the First World," and the civil and ecological movements in alliance with this resistance. Its vanguard lies not in an hegemony over the class but in the development of its methods of struggle. This is a resistance that that circulates regionally, in the epicentres of Bougainville, the Gulf, Newtown, Kamurajungk, Wanganui, Tahiti, etc. In the epicentre of the community. At least in the Australian state, its analytic epicentre is in history and the historiography of indigenous struggle and resistance: this in a public-intellectual epicentre. In the epicentre of the organized networks. In the constituent power of custom, or of communal ethic. In the "political" and "legal" method of struggle, ie. a "constitutional" method, fused with civil resistance, even uprising^ (eg. the anti-racism movement, periodic uprisings in apartheid towns in rural Australia, also land occupations in New Zealand, and anti-colonial uprising in French Polynesia). This is a vanguard on a national level, within the national project, of the Australian state. Its resistance is a resistance to effective genocide, deriving from the "final enclosure" of land, culture and community, from the social extermination of "unprofitable" populations, at the core of the neoliberal project.

6. There is a sense that this resistance, this method of struggle, is extending to other social sectors. The confines of the "constitutional" channels are breaking down. This refers to formal political and legal channels of resistance, but also to other channels of extracting concessions from capital and the state. The latter had been progressively regularized in the "social contract" that, for example, allowed workers limited right to strike and after the 1960s limited rights to occupy public space (eg. mass demonstrations and student occupations). This "constitution" was absorbed, as an industrial and social project, within the State between 1975-95, especially in the period of "neocorporatism" and Labor governments (1972-5, 1983-96). It has been progressively limited and wound back in relation to the needs of the neoliberal project. It is the indigenous movement that has pushed the political-legal channels of this constitution to breaking point, through the acceptance of the courts of "native title" (ie. customary Aboriginal ownership of land and sea), through acceptance of state commissions of official genocidal policies (ie. through criminalization, social and health crisis, and the "stolen generation" of separation of Aboriginal children from their society). Now is the time for the reaction to shore up neoliberal Power. Racism, new waves of enclosures, the rise of fascism. The rapidly diminishing space of state-sanctioned resistance, and the opening of a space of effective civil resistance: this is a pattern beginning to reproduce itself across the social sectors. The union heirarchies, the civic and community "leaders," the student union functionaries, etc, still attempt to contain and control the resistance within the impotent "constitution." But activists are being made out of "ordinary people" and they are doing new things: in my state (Victoria) there have been blockaded highways and strikes in support of these community movements, student occupations are becoming endemic and even "guerrilla" in form, there have been mass anti-racist mobilizations to physically stop the neo-fascist "juggernaut."

7. The spectacular moment of this constitution's crisis occurred in the national rally on the capital (Canberra) in August 1996. 30,000 converged on the Parliament to protest the new austerity and repressive labor laws. The careful orchestration of the union hierarchy came to pieces with the aid of police harassment. More than a thousand people, led by construction workers and Aborigines, laid seige to the Parliament building for hours in a battle with Federal Police, chanting "Let the workers in!", making a material unity between black and white, exposing the farce of the "People's House." The politicians (and reporters) cowered behind the police lines in this enormous bunker, later spitting fanatical statements. The speeches of the union hacks drifted off inaudibly into the air.

8. The matrix of struggle has become more intensified, notably as a greater tension opens up between social-liberal strategies (building means of mediating/managing antagonism) and more autonomous organization and action. A summary investigation of leading social struggles:

a) the indigenous struggles and the appropriation of juridical functions of the state (relating to native title and land rights, "deaths in custody" and repression/criminalization, "stolen generation" and reconstruction of community);

b) the student movement and reappropriation of space, relating to occupations over university fees, strikes of high school students and parents;

c) unions and the strike: general strikes of WA workers against labor laws, Weipa, Parliament House seige, strikes of industrial workers for unconditional wage increases and for collective bargaining;

d) civil movements and the reappropriation of space and communications: forest and urban occupations, solidarity (Bougainville, Timor, Burma, etc) and civil disobedience, public services and public sphere of the state (La Trobe Valley, anticorruption in police and government, secrecy of the state, etc) and public intellectual movements (from liberal academics and journalists to socialist-liberal parties).

9. The forms of action spelt out within these sectors are generally representative of struggle at the public level, and therefore must be qualified by the development of struggle at the "clandestine" level, the microstruggles, which may well be both massive and of intense antagonism at closer investigation. The public form of social life is, at the same time, the subject of struggle and does not represent a neutral terrain, indeed the public condition is itself a key focus of reappropriation by the broad sectors of the class. Of course, this reappropriation is, on the one hand, unevenly poised between positions equating "public" with the (social-constitutional, welfare, etc?) State and the (social?) market and those that tend to push the question of the "public" into more antagonistic directions (through direct appropriations, collectivist organization, subversive/guerrilla tactics of struggle, and so forth). Insofar as the antagonism may deepen on a mass scale, the "public" and "clandestine" or private forms of resistance become increasingly difficult to distinguish, precisely because the "public" space is recomposed out of the mass of particular, localized resistances. This recomposed "public sphere" tends to exist without necessarily being articulated as such, in series of networks and organizations. What is notable in particular is that there is a generalized antagonistic tendency within the specific struggles, that is irreconcilable to neoliberalism in either its content or its form (eg. unconditional wage increases, autonomous media, militant direct action, refusal of user-pays structures, community or customary control of land or space).

10. The "archipeligo" of struggles. With a few exceptions, the limits of these struggles lie in the absence of direct relations between the spaces of social antagonism and the means for organizing this. Rather these relations are mediated by the need to pressurize the state (or other institution) and the apparatuses established for this process, including the market (eg. media/PR, emphasis on fundraising and commercialism, consumer boycotts). Alternately, there is a real possibility of struggles becoming isolated and marginalized and even ghettoized. Considerable energy that is consumed in the rallying of "support" and "solidarity" tends to reproduce politics and social struggle as a commodity, as an appeal either to the state or to the "public" (that simulacrum of civil society defined and measured in opinion polls, so often derided by the "Left" as "apathetic") in which its value - the real, expropriated activity - can be realized and determined. Perhaps it has been described elsewhere, but Marcos' analysis of "politics as a commodity" remains a most eloquent representation of this.

12. The society is increasingly organized in the "dual economy" of the included and the "excluded," where the latter are represented by precarious work and income, eroding conditions of work and living, shrinking spaces of conviviality and self-determined time, and so on. The social existence of the working class is broadly attacked by capital through long-term erosion of wages, the social wage, and control over collective/public/semi-public spaces. At the same time, neoliberalism continues its push to subordinate all aspects of social life and space to commodification and to processes instrumental in this. The rule of the market and the measure of profitability are symptomatic to developments everywhere. Among the mass of people, precariousness, dislocation and the "struggle to survive" contribute to a real social force of despair, anger, exhaustion, cynicism and fear, which is productive of the system of command generally speaking.

13. The election of the rightist government fuses hardline technocratic-neoliberalism with a developing conservative reaction. At the state level it mingles with a straight-out authoritarianism and even dictatorial style. A neoconservative alliance of "new right" and "old right" constitutes the dominant faction within the national government. This reaction has exposed a more intense field of antagonism, notably in the advances of the racist and fascist right-wing that is now crystallizing around the "One Nation" movement at the political level. Its social base would seem to be somewhat fragmented and perhaps unstable, grouping middle-class elements (Christian fundamentalist, etc) with the rural petty-bourgeoisie (small farmers, etc, who are more accurately proletarians within social capital), traditional "lumpen-proles," and industrial workers (notably white men). At least the latter sectors represent populations in crisis, who very existence is threatened by globalization and industrial restructuring, and subject to long-term economic depression. It is possible that real and significant divisions are emerging among sectors of the elite over this movement and the affect it is having on the government's policy (which, in the ruling coalition, seems to have ideologically been resolved in favour of conservative reaction over liberal sections). There are a number of overlapping lines of possible tension: between liberal and conservative ideology, between judicial and governmental power, between nationalist and multinationalist projects, between the Power that lies in - "represents" - the "public" and that which lies in money, etc.

14. The institutions of the traditional incorporation, especially the unions, the parties, and the large organized social lobbies (from aid organizations to ATSIC to NUS), would seem to be in or on the verge of a period of "restructuring," in which they intensify their "social production": there is an increasing competition for the commodity of "public opinion" (or "membership") on the one hand, and, and they "rationalize" and "entrepreneurialize," for new markets on the other hand. In the rise of "public" weariness or apathy or indifference, these institutions must not only get more work out of their employees for the same or less, but they must in turn make "the public" (or the electorate, or the "community," or whatever) work harder also, to extract more and more "living" emotion, intellect and action. Representative democracy is hard-sell marketing.

15. The opposing strategies of refusal and denial of neoliberal Power are developed by the mass of the population, by the working class extended throughout every part of the society, and are means of their existence within capitalism. That is, they are strategies of and by both individual labor-power and social labor-power.

16. Refusal of the politics of the neoliberal project: in the most antagonistic of our social sectors, the struggles to free themselves from a politics of "public opinion" and entrepreneurialism, from the spectacular "15 minutes" (on TV or in the minister's office - by invitation or by occupation - or in the ballot box) and from the fetish of the balance sheet (ie. the command of money). It remains a struggle in and against this politics, which is an overwhelmingly superior "political" machinery: it cannot be defeated on the terrain of public opinion (or "consciousness" to the Left) or money (membership or papers sold, to the Left). The refusal is a "protracted war" on the social terrain, no matter whether our specific struggle arms itself with guns or schools or our bodies or strikes or words. In many cases we already have the "autonomous" spaces to withdraw to - of our organization, our respite, our ideas, our dignity and love, our bodies, our power - even if they are under assault. And we already collectively coordinate some attacks on the political, economic, repressive/military, ideological, etc Power of the system. The coordination is not centralist and delegated but democratic and recalleable. It is built upon deals that represent our collective needs and desires, or upon the possibility of such deals.

17. Denial of the politics of neoliberalism: in the most reactionary and despairing and violent of the social sectors, the struggles to reinsert themselves within the terrain of public opinion and entrepreneurialism. It is a struggle to realign and recompose this politics in the terms of the process of suppression. The reaction of suppression on the political level, represented by conservatism, racism and repressiveness within the state (incremental dictatorship?), is made all the more intense by the increased rate of exploitation on the social level, by the intensifying mobilization of public opinion and of money within the political process, and by the sense of (individual or collective) loss accompanying this. This "loss" - which may be represented religiously as in fundamentalism or secularly as in racism and nationalism - substitutes a violent abstraction of decline and corruption (eg. of "family values," or "national sovereignty" or "public and personal integrity") for what is in fact a real expropriation of sensuous and concrete social activity. The denial also assumes the form of a "protracted war," but one whose "zones of autonomy" are simulations of democratic and collective relations across the social terrain. And its attacks on neoliberal politics are calculated and determined to "revolutionize" those politics, to reorganize the deal within the capitalist social-economy, and to pose as the dominant form of the State not management but suppression (and repression adequate to this). In our context, this suppression is particularly aimed at

1. cultural relations, and oppression of indigenous and ethnic peoples,

2. industrial relations, and intensification of wage-labor,

3. civil relations, and dismantling of rights,

4. political relations, and insulation of the state from popular demand,

5. personal relations, and the tendency of compulsive (heterosexual, familial) sexuality and emotional life.

Bruce Lindsay June 1997

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