Towards a socialist Australia

[This was written as part of the process of preparing a draft resolution for the Socialist Alliance January 2012 National Conference.]

A world in turmoil

The 21st century is shaping up to be a pivotal one as human society faces a profound and deepening crisis.

Runaway climate change caused by soaring greenhouse gas emissions threatens the survival of life on the planet.

Alongside this developing ecological disaster the capitalist world is being shaken by what is perhaps its greatest ever economic crisis.

The capitalist response to these challenges is business as usual and ever more severe attacks on the welfare of the people and restrictions of democratic space. Huge resources are expended on repression, militarism and war rather than urgent and equitable solutions to the challenges we face.

Climate change real and immediate

The reality of climate change is manifesting itself ever more sharply in a host of 'extreme weather' events. The media headlines are dominated by reports of heatwaves, droughts, melting ice-sheets, floods, seawater incursions, extra-severe winters, hurricanes and tornadoes. All exact their toll of human misery, especially in the Third World which is in no way responsible for the crisis.

The solution to climate change is known and simple: rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels and make a mass-scale switch to renewables. But gigantic economic interests at the heart of the capitalist system have massive investments in coal, oil, gas and nuclear power and will not change.

The sole operating imperative of the big corporations is to secure the greatest possible profits for their super-rich owners — regardless of the consequences to the planet and its people.

Economic meltdown

Combined with the ecological crisis and flowing from the same fundamental cause is an ongoing crisis of the international capitalist economy, possibly more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The United States, the mainstay of world capitalism, is gripped by seemingly intractable problems. The ruling class refuses to countenance serious tax increases or curb militarism so the government is debasing the currency and attacking welfare entitlements. Millions of people have been evicted from their homes.

In Europe the response of capitalist governments to the crisis is savage austerity and further selloffs of state assets.

In all cases the governments first task is to protect the bankers and speculators whose unrestrained greed has brought on the problem.

Governments avoid climate action

Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any country. We not only depend heavily on fossil fuels but are the world's largest exporter of coal. In an insane denial of the desperate seriousness of climate change, there is a veritable orgy of new coal mines being planned and developed across the country. In many instances prime farmland is being destroyed putting our food supply in peril.

Rather than a full-scale switch to renewable power sources, the federal ALP government is promoting a move to gas, another fossil fuel with an emissions profile almost as bad as coal. Thousands of coal-seam gas wells using the incredibly destructive hydraulic fracking technology are being sunk across the continent, threatening people's health and livelihoods.

Also taking place is a massive expansion of uranium mining to fuel the nuclear industry (so far in other countries). Nuclear power with its potentially catastrophic safety risks, unresolvable waste storage issues, and high greenhouse gas emission footprint is no solution to climate change — but it is immensely profitable.

The switch to renewable energy across the board is being blocked by those who profit from the polluting industries. Lib-Lab governments have refused to invest in clean industries and green jobs, instead choosing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions each year.

In NSW and Victoria the state Liberal governments have imposed crippling restrictions on the wind and solar industries, making the take-up of these sustainable technologies far less feasible or economically attractive.

Economic crisis already here

Apologists for the system constantly tell us that Australia is faring better than most in the world economic storm. The reality, however, is very different.

It is true that we have not yet experienced the savage cutbacks that the Greek people are facing. But decades of neoliberal attacks have already had a marked impact. Privatisation, outsourcing, casualisation, restructuring, deregulation and user pays are radically changing the conditions of life of the great majority. Insecurity and fear of the future is widespread and growing.

Utilities bills are soaring to previously unimagined levels presenting a real challenge to large numbers of ordinary people. The rising cost of living, health care and education are slowly undermining and destroying the lives of millions.

Real distress grips a significant part of the population. Two million people — 9% of the population — live in poverty. The poorest 20% owns only 1% of total household wealth, while the richest 20% owns 61%. At least 100,000 people are homeless on any given night.

As in the United States, Australia has its working poor, that is, people whose wages are too meagre to cover their basic expenses or give them any degree of comfort or security.

Many pensioners are condemned to a miserable existence on a disgracefully low fortnightly payment.

The unemployment benefit is even worse and is impossible to live on. While the official unemployment is a 'low' 5.3%, the real figure for people looking for fulltime work and unable to find it is at least double that.

Indigenous oppression remains

Since white colonisation began in 1788 the Indigenous population has suffered the trauma of invasion, enslavement, assimilation, genocide, racist exclusion, land theft, the destruction of life, language and culture, and the denial of basic human rights.

The Rudd government's official apology was an important symbolic step forward but remains a hollow gesture. The scandal of black deaths in custody continues and racism is endemic.

The Northern Territory Intervention is a massive bipartisan attack on Indigenous rights and welfare. It represents an attempt to gain control of enormous potential mineral wealth for the benefit of the corporate rich.

Corporate welfare versus social welfare

Australia is a wealthy, industrially developed First World country. We have the material-technical means to give everyone a decent comfortable life and be able to help out our poorer neighbours.

Yet calls to address the disgraceful state of healthcare, housing, welfare and social services are met with the mantra 'Where's the money going to come from?' At the same time the big corporations post ever higher profits which flow solely to their shareholders (the 1% oligarchy).

While social programs face endless cutbacks, 'corporate welfare' is booming with handouts, tax breaks, concessions, and cosy contracts such as public-private partnerships. The official company tax rate is a very low 30% but many of the big corporations pay far less. Faced with the opposition of the mining industry, the federal ALP government capitulated, abandoning its projected mining super-profits tax.

Billions are wasted on militarism. Australia has been an enthusiastic participant in the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries have been wrecked and hundreds of thousands killed. When desperate refugees try to flee to a new life in our country they are demonised by the government and subjected to fresh torments.

Economy must be owned by society

The source of all our problems is due to the fact that the economic infrastructure of society is privately owned. A tiny handful of people — the capitalist class, the 1%, the super-rich, the corporate oligarchy — own the means of production, distribution and exchange. They own the corporations that own the mines, factories, banks, transport networks, supermarket chains, media empires, and so on.

The Rupert Murdochs, James Packers, Gerry Harveys, Gina Rienharts, Andrew Forrests, Frank Lowys etc. dominate the headlines but behind each of these pillars of the 1% is an army of workers whose stolen labour makes up their profits.

The economy is a social enterprise. We all depend on it and the labour of working people keeps the wheels turning. But because the capitalists own it they get the profits. The workers get wages and getting a decent wage is a constant struggle against entrenched corporate power backed by the state.

The media constantly talk about 'the markets' as if they are some sort of all-powerful deity whereas actually this is code for profit-crazed capitalists and greedy speculators. The economic universe we are presented with excludes any alternative. But our economic and social relationships are a human creation, not an act of god. They can be changed.

The economy must be brought under social ownership and control. The commanding heights of the economy should be publicly owned (whether federal, state or municipal). The privatisations of recent decades should be reversed and the public sector massively expanded.

With the economic levers in our hands we could elaborate a conscious plan focused on meeting human needs. Combating climate change and building a sustainable economy would be the most urgent priority.

Plans would be democratically decided. Workplaces would be controlled by their employees. There would be no obscenely overpaid CEOs and insecure badly paid workers with no say in what happens.

Capitalist democracy purely formal and limited

While clearly an advance on dictatorship, capitalist democracy is more formal than real. Every few years we get to choose which of two neoliberal parties will govern on behalf of the rich. So much of the electoral spectacle is theatre as the media tries to pretend that there are real differences between the pro-corporate Coalition and the equally pro-corporate Labor Party.

The very limited democracy we have does not extend to the economy, the workplace or the state apparatus. There ownership rights, managerial prerogatives, and hierarchy and subordination rule largely unchecked.

The civil liberties we enjoy are real and important. They are a result of past struggles. But they are fundamentally undermined by severe practical limitations inherent in the way capitalism works.

We enjoy the right of free speech. You can shout your head off on just about any subject but the corporate media is privately owned and essentially inaccessible to ordinary people so the audience you can reach is limited.

Workers' ability to fight the bosses for better wages and conditions is heavily circumscribed by anti-union laws which criminalise a whole range of activities (strike action except under limited conditions, solidarity action, etc.).

For real democracy, for people's power

We need a system of popular democracy that empowers the mass of people.

A first step is public ownership of the economic base of society on which we all depend. Real democracy is impossible if one part of society owns the economy and the other part is compelled to work for them.

Parliament requires some fundamental reforms. MPs should carry out their duties on the wages of an average worker. They should be subject to recall through a simple process if their electors are dissatisfied. The voting age should be lowered to 16 years.

All public officials in leading positions should be subject to election and recall.

Workers should be able to elect their managers and generally control their workplaces, especially in regard to health and safety. Anti-union laws should be scrapped.

The main goals and targets of economic activity should be publicly discussed and voted on.

The mass media should be radically opened up to reflect the interests and concerns of ordinary people.

How will we get there?

How will fundamental social change come about? The road to the future is not charted but long experience shows that we will get nothing unless we fight for it. The struggle of the people, of the great working-class majority, is decisive in winning real change and defending it.

The capitalist oligarchy and its hangers on will fight to the end to defend their privileges and ill-gotten wealth. They will not simply hand over the keys to the mansion and quietly leave. They will have to be compelled to stand aside. Only the power of the organised and mobilised working-class majority can do this.

The creation of militant campaigning organisations is crucial. The most important of these is a mass-based, fighting socialist party, uniting as much of the real vanguard of the struggle as possible.

History teaches us that there are many possible scenarios for the victory of the people. The struggle will decide. But even if popular forces committed to fundamental change win an electoral victory, we will have to mobilise in the streets, workplaces, schools, campuses and neighbourhoods to defend any progressive moves made against the power of the corporate rich.

Towards socialism

If we have overcome capitalism, if the economy is socially owned and controlled, if we have a system of institutionalised popular power — then we have a framework for effectively dealing with the ecological and social problems of the past.

The most urgent order of business of a real people's government would be an emergency program of action to tackle the looming disaster of climate change. We need to make a forced march to build a sustainable economy. We need to ensure our food and water supply, prepare to live under higher temperatures, and so on.

A peoples' government would sign a treaty with the Aboriginal people recognising their original dispossession and move rapidly to overcome Indigenous disadvantage at all levels and in all sectors of society.

The guiding principle of a post-capitalist society would be the welfare of the people. The satisfaction of the needs of the people — all the people, not just a few as in the past — would be the aim of all economic activity and social policy. Gradually more and more basic goods and services could be provided without charge (healthcare, education, transport, welfare, etc.).

Each individual would have the means to live a life of dignity and fulfilment, without exception. Discrimination and prejudice would be wiped out. Everyone would be looked after to the limits of our possibilities; no one would be abandoned to their fate.

This is socialism — a truly human society.

Is it possible?

Apologists for capitalism have long devoted enormous efforts to polemicising against socialism. They constantly try to prove that it is a completely utopian exercise, flying in the face of human nature; that it will never work; or that it will always lead to Stalinist dictatorship.

Of course, the idea that society will only function if we have a system of organised, institutional greed — that is, capitalism — is completely ludicrous. Our current problems have arisen precisely because we have such a society. To save our ourselves we need a sharp change of direction

The capitalist apologists ignore the fact that anticapitalist revolutions in Russia and China began in very difficult economic circumstances and faced constant attacks from the imperialist powers that used war, terrorism and economic sabotage to undermine them. If they had met support and disinterested aid, things may well have turned out completely differently.