Australian scars of rebellion

Australia is like our bush. To the untrained eye, the casual observer, it’s a land of unceasing monotony stretching languidly on, past any distance you can comprehend. The bush appears flat, brown and dry. At times it can feel like things have always been just so, and will always be so. What has changed in the last millions of years other than the mountains hunching into hills as they age? It’s far too easy to be pessimistic about any sort of positive change happening in Australia.

Look closer though. We’re sitting on a continent full of tinder. A land so unpredictable and dangerous that most of us crowd into a tiny number of coastal metropolises, finding safety in numbers as we cling to the edge. Innumerable floods, hurricanes and bush fires have left their marks. Learned Aboriginals found safety in singing the songs of the land. They found their way from place to place using songlines; paths that spirit creators left in the sky or the land.

When you learn to read them, you can navigate across this country with songlines of resistance that weave through time and place. If you really look you can see the scars in both the land and our polis. It begins with the Aboriginal resistance to invasion by the criminalised surplus of early British capitalist production in Port Jackson. It winds its way past the Stonemasons who marched from Melbourne University to Parliament for the world’s first 8-hour day. Bends its way around the striking shearers in rural Queensland, and runs into the hairy students blockading the Franklin River in southwest Tasmania.

Some people lament the lack of a dramatic moment of revolution in Australian history. Those moments of collective fire are there, it’s just that the bush grows over them and we forget. The fires slip from our memory. No doubt there has been a great drought over the last 20 years. Union power has declined along with the capacity of Australian politics to regulate and control corporate power. This drought, however, will not last forever. Why? Because the central chorus of our songline of resistance continues to be sung; the refrain of radical egalitarianism never left us. Even if the mainstream Left forgot the line.

The local organised Right in Australia is qualitatively different here compared to the US or the UK. It knows that it has to appeal to radical egalitarianism, and it has fought pretty damned hard for this turf from Hanson through to the carbon tax debate. Pauline Hanson touched a nerve because she spoke for a demented version of this radical egalitarianism – “[t]o survive in peace and harmony, united and strong, we must have one people, one nation, one flag“. The Right here takes the rhetoric of egalitarianism and uses it as a weapon against the vulnerable and those who threaten corporate power – “welfare cheats”, “illegal immigrants”, and privileged parts of organised labour. It works its way not through directly challenging the concept of an egalitarian community but narrowing the reach of this community.

Remember back to the mining tax campaign of 2010? Can you even really call it a campaign when only one side is fighting? The mining bosses presented themselves as the oppressed. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest dressed himself up as a worker struggling under the yoke of the government – an equal like one of us. Long live the Billionaires’ Liberation Front! Any outsider could have been forgiven for thinking we were living through a protracted episode of The Chaser or the latest Yes Men documentary. The federal government on the other hand presented its advertising campaign as a university lecturer, on a stage, lecturing to the students (presumably “us”) about the benefits of the tax. The ad only really succeeded in inverting the political perception of reality. Mining tax = elitist.

But that’s why there is hope for sudden change in Australia – the spirit of radical egalitarianism lives on. And anytime the mainstream Left remembers enough to even half whisper the song (remember the Your Rights at Work campaign) it sends a charge through the country. Some will tell you that too many people are obsessed with their flat screen TVs and mortgages but this is merely the fuel for the fire that has grown through the drought years. Australian household debt ratios have sky-rocketed by a six-fold rate between 1990 and 2008 to reach $1.1 trillion. My generation can no longer afford to even contemplate buying property, and the other generation has nothing to lose but its debt. You can feel it in the background crackle about cost of living, and the anxiety about Reserve Bank interest rate increases. We’re close to the edge of something. People are worried about sky rocketing levels of corporate power but have not yet learned a language of resistance.

That’s why our task should be clear as Left activists. Enough with cutting ourselves up about whether change is possible and the supposedly conservative nature of the nation. Enough with cutting ourselves up about whether we have enough power! We have to be ready for when the next recession hits Australia, for when jobs are being shed and the housing bubble bursts, drenching the entire country. The Right will be ready with their twisted language of egalitarianism where “shared sacrifice” means greater labour market flexibility, budget cuts and tax breaks for corporations. It’s already happening in #nswisconsin. We need a language that unites when the time approaches for “the troopers, one, two, three” to push us back into place. We need to sing from a common songline of resistance, one that is rooted in the everyday experience of Australian people.

When we learn to sing together, everything will change.

The only remaining question is after the fire rips through the land and the vegetation grows back, will we forget together again?

* I don’t claim any sort of originality here. I started writing this piece as a response to Richard Neville’s “The Spark that Lights up Australia” in the latest edition of AdBusters. The rest is probably just a rehashing of clearer thinkers and better bloggers.


10 thoughts on “Australian scars of rebellion

  1. Thank you for a great antidote to the defeatism so preponderant on the Left today!

    I would add that the egalitarian spirit is not uniquely Australian, rooted as it is in the collective conditions of the working class under capitalism. What is notable is how weak hierarchical bourgeois traditions are here — our capitalist class is ideologically and intellectually vapid, it relies heavily on appropriating and twisting radical subaltern traditions to justify its own existence. The fact that it moved so quickly to allow working class suffrage, tolerated the rise of the ALP and hurriedly incorporated the trade unions in arbitral structures (thereby legitimising their role) shows what a defensive ruling class it is. It has repeatedly defined itself not on its own terms but in relation to the other to bolster national cohesion.

    The trouble for the Left is that it has been dominated by anti-political or politically weak alternatives, complacent that the bourgeoisie’s political weakness meant it didn’t have to develop its own independent traditions, just engage in the practical struggle. No wonder its memory is so short.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Of course, I’ve always wondered how the Union movement has retained such a degree of influence when largely unlike the rest of the industrialised world we are still largely divided about craft lines.

    1. Thanks – nice YouTube channel. Change is always more fun with some comedy.

      Thinking that the next blog post should continue building on that vision thing.

  2. its why we’re nation of today tonight rather than fox news we’re all battling together, the question is how do we turn this into a strength rather than a method for singling out minorities as politicians and the media are using it currently. See any recent political campagin for examples?

    1. I would suggest that the best recent example was the Your Rights at Work campaign – although of course as a campaign it had some limitations and problems.

      1. Still the “Your Rights” was what I’d call a negative campaign (wrong thing to say on a lefty pinko blog such as this…), but as a society we’re always campaigning against everything on both sides (Work Choices, Mining tax, refugees etc) be nice if we actually campaigned for something for a change

      2. The YRAW campaign was both positive and negative. Negative in the sense that it was against WorkChoices but positive in the sense that it had to posit an alternative view of industrial relations.

        Personally, I’d like to see a strong campaign around job security centred around power on the job.

  3. I agree with the general sentiments expressed here, but I cannot accept that the YRAW campaign was a good example at all. While thousands of workers mobilised against Work Choices, the “campaign” was from start to finish a cynical manipulation of these legitimate desires for change. It’s real purpose was to get Labor into governmnet, which it achieved. Once in power, Labor introduced “Fair Work Australia” which was hardly any different than Work Choices.

    1. Not really a “cynical manipulation” at all. The union leaders accept the apparent separation of economics and politics in capitalist society. Therefore, in the absence of a serious political alternative to Laborism they will continue to look to that kind of political solution.

      It’s not like the Greens or the radical Left could pose a serious political alternative based either in localities or workplaces.

      I’m not saying the end result was good, but to see these things in terms of the masses being duped by their leaders’ betrayals doesn’t get us very far in terms of trying to construct a viable alternative.

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