Australia at a political crossroad

The federal election result tells two important stories, and also includes a critical subtext for the left. The first is growing insecurity among the working class in Australia and the decreasing legitimacy of neoliberal politics. The second story is about the Greens and the difficulties they will face holding onto anti-neoliberal politics, without any mobilised social base among working people and with a history and political outlook built on parliamentarism. The subtext, which you are not likely to read in the Murdoch press or see at the Press Club, is the importance of the socialist left taking this cue to rebuild a radical politics.

Australia is finally joining the rest of the world, most of which has been experiencing the decline of neoliberal political hegemony for some time. In the developed capitalist countries, this has yet to take any positive shape. In the Third World, especially in Latin America, a mass radical alternative has been building since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez as Venezuelan president.

Crisis of neoliberalism

Neither Labor nor the Coalition will be able to form a government on their own, a reflection of the deepening crisis of legitimacy of neoliberal politics. Since Hawke’s Labor pioneered neoliberalism, with the consistent application of “microeconomic reforms” aimed at increasing labour productivity and profits, there has been a growing revulsion against Labor. This election, like others before it, manifests this abandonment of the ALP. But the inability of the Liberals to secure electoral dominance, despite the usual backing of important business and media sectors, and the growth of the Green vote — from 2.6% in the lower house in 1998 to 11.4% in 2010 — reflect a larger legitimacy crisis for neoliberal politics.

The election result and the “campaign” and internal party machinations that preceded it also reflect uncertainty among the power players, Australia’s capitalist ruling class. Among the ruling elite — the big business Chief Executive Officers, Treasury and other leading bureaucrats, media magnates and political and intellectual leaders — there is growing fear of Australia being sucked into the now apparently bottomless global economic crisis and the potential political fallout.

Almost three years after the crash of the US economy, most of the world now faces the aftermath of the assorted “stimulus packages”, which, having been implemented by governments to patch up the problems, are now winding down. Sooner or later, capitalist governments face the unenviable task of implementing harsh new austerity measures. Either capitalist firms or workers have to pay for this crisis; borrowed money can only patch it up for so long. The former option is simply not acceptable to the ruling class. In fact, as the mining companies in Australia have demonstrated, capitalist corporations will not even throw in their loose change.

Economic outlook

Very few capitalist economists believe the world economy is heading for anything other than more trouble. Although raising labour productivity, that is driving down wages and conditions and increasing mechanisation in some industries, has been a critical element of neoliberalism, economic growth has been built as much on debt. Both the growth of debt and the savaging of the social wage are now reflected in a major crisis of overproduction and over-accumulation. The US, where the crisis started, continues to face a gloomy outlook. August US figures show that new orders for manufactured durable goods, excluding transportation items, had their largest drop in July since January 2009, while sales of new homes fell 12.4% to the lowest pace on record. The latter is especially worrying for the banks and funds across the world that have already suffered for their links to the US housing market and banks.

Japan is barely moving, with what economists like to refer to quaintly as “anaemic” growth figures. China is making gains only because it has managed to capture a larger piece of a shrinking pie, raising its import share in the US and Europe at the cost of other capitalists and continuing to supply lower priced goods produced by workers who have had labour protection rolled back and wages frozen. Both economies have much to worry about, which is of growing concern to Australia’s capitalists, who are banking so much on exports to these two markets.

Not all governments may be forced into the sort of savage austerity the Greek government has launched, but everywhere working people will be made to pay. Both Abbott and Gillard are prepared to lead the drive to get Australia’s “finances into order”.

Forming a real opposition

The question facing the socialist left in Australia is how we can begin to forge an active opposition, out of the frustrations and growing de-legitimation of neoliberal politics.

One issue that can’t be avoided right now is to take the debate to the Greens. Comments such as the suggestion by Greens leaader Bob Brown that the Greens could be good leaders in Liberal or Labor cabinets are only the most obvious reflection of the contradictory character of the Greens.

It is certain that a party built on parliamentarism, only meagrely connected to any grassroots movements and spared the influence of the socialist movement — which has been so weakened in the last two decades — is not likely to respond with any consistent policy alternatives. This does not disqualify the Greens from potentially playing a role in helping animate the anti-neoliberal sentiment among working people. However, the Greens will only shift rightwards without the further mobilisation and organisation of anti-neoliberal struggles around the many issues already emerging, and the outcome will depend in some part at least on the ability of the socialist left to rise to the challenge.

The Revolutionary Socialist Party ran an election campaign aimed entirely at raising some of these issues — racism, war, growing poverty and inequality — and the need for working people to unite and fight around them. Our candidates, Hamish Chitts and Van Rudd, were extremely effective in doing this. Through the media coverage and the campaigning in local networks that we organised, the RSP was able to put on the stage some of the issues that we will no doubt be fighting around throughout the next few years. Other socialist organisations, such as the Socialist Alliance, Communist Alliance and the Socialist Equality Party, also managed to raise some of these issues and profile socialism.

However, it would be a mistake to read too much into the electoral work of the socialist left. Electoral tactics are not likely to play a significant role in rebuilding the socialist movement in this country, in the short term at least. What is far more important is the campaign leadership the socialist movement can provide and the ability it may find to reforge a united revolutionary socialist agenda for this country.