Know Your Product

Clearly, members of the Howard government have been surprised at the success of the labour movement’s campaign against the IR laws — although whether John Howard himself is one of them remains to be seen. Many have forgotten the old pusher’s rule that you never sample the merchandise while working — they’ve inhaled their own propaganda, the story that the Coalition is the natural, spiritual representative of the ‘battlers’.

Yet such support as non-Labor received from working people was always dependent on leaving IR out of the picture. It was based on a widespread belief that the Coalition was a better bet for national security, macro-economic management and, compared to Latham, maturity of leadership. It is offered strategically — it was given to Howard in 1996 to knock Keating out, and taken back in 1998 when Beazley still had credibility — and the canny ACTU campaign has made the most of it.

Yet it was also likely that the unity of resistance would start to come unstuck as soon as questions arose of IR models of the future. Kim Beazley’s recent qualified support for the use of AWAs (Australian Workplace Agreements) in the face of opposition from union leaders was a case in point. It is inevitable that Labor would support AWAs, since a vital part of the vote they have to claw back (especially miners and some skilled tradespeople) do well out of them, or believe they do, and to oppose them would have the same effect as opposing the recent tax cuts: it would paint Labor as standing between workers and higher wages.

The unions rightly say that such agreements, which cover only a small minority of workers, individualise the workplace. But they also cut with the grain of a combination of mobility and full employment in some economic sectors.

Consequently in this area, and perhaps in others, the labour movement as a whole will be on the defensive — but only because the process of developing new ideas for IR from within the heart of the union movement has virtually ceased just when it was most needed. The division occurs because a new program for transforming IR — and hence a leading and aggressive strategy — has not been hammered out.

From the late 1960s into the 1980s, the dominance of labour and Labor was driven by the force of its ability to draw on separate sections of the left to set the agenda, a process culminating with Australia Reconstructed in 1986. That document came in for critical analysis from the first series of this publication, but at least there was something to criticise. In the last decade the labour movement — as part of a wider malaise — has simply foregone the essential task of getting a picture of the world and setting a policy agenda from it. This is not simply an old strand of anti-intellectualism, just as the new pragmatism is not simply improvisation. In fact it is a knock-on effect of the wider cultural belief that there is no better or worse picture, no more or less untrue analysis. It is precisely in the face of that trend that some process of rethinking is necessary. That has begun at the edges of the movement. If it is not quickly brought to the centre, the movement is looking at another wilderness decade to add to the first.

 

Stones and Bones

Before the echo of the London bombs had even begun to die away, local pundits had a suspect in their sights, and a headshot-to-kill policy in their minds for multiculturalism. Pamela Bone was one of the first to suggest that this might be a warning sign that we have gone too far. Might it be time for a new policy: ‘couscous yes, child marriage no?’ John Stone went further and suggested that an ethnically based immigration policy and an assimilationist culture should now be on the agenda. Muslim clerics were found who could be called to pledge a commitment to policing the views of other Muslim clerics. In all of this there were two ruling assumptions: that multiculturalism was to blame, and that multiculturalism was nothing other than a specific cultural policy.

As John Hinkson notes in his essay, and as Spiked columnist Josie Appleton observes of the UK scene, the assumption that suicide bombing is something that comes, like a virus, from a medieval ‘over there’ — borne to the west by subversive crackpots, and permitted to flourish by Whitlamite social policy wonks — is a consoling fantasy. Suicide terror comes from the heart of modern global society, as does religious fundamentalism. What allows the most radical and political forms of the latter to flourish in the west is the feature of the west held to be most characteristic of it: a liberal public sphere. Were an assimilationist policy to be re-enacted it would presumably teach that this was the centrepiece of civil life, and that it is assumed to stop at the entry to private life — chief among which is religion. The confusion is exemplified by Bone’s comment above: it already bloody is ‘couscous yes, child marriage, no’. If Bone means that we should take steps to stop the cultural transmission of the (rare) practice of arranged marriage then she is proposing a total intrusion of the state into parent-to-child values formation and/or the restriction of religious education, the latter protected by the Australian constitution.

Stone appears more consistent until you remember that he is a free-marketeer, and that the hypercharged neo-liberal economy he proposes is going to need a variety of global labour flows — Indian computer programmers this year, Nigerian nurses the next — in order to remain competitive. It doesn’t matter whether you have a multicultural policy (as we do), a mandated secular civic culture (France) or rely on guest workers (Germany), people will practice their religion and way of life. Fundamentalism, of any stripe, comes not from these practices, but as an answer to the deep sense of dislocation that people feel in relation to these processes. Multiculturalism is not a policy that leads this global process, it is a cultural technology that adjusts both migrant and recipient society to a new level of mobility and exchange. In this context, a small number of people — usually of the next generation and thoroughly assimilated — feel ‘called’ to commit an ultimate act in a manner that fuses outrage at injustice at what is seen on CNN with a deeper and wholly modern sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness. The most urgent thing to do is to get a less inaccurate picture of what is happening. To judge by the mainstream debate, we have a long way to go.

 

Ripe for New Politics

Watching the tractors and harvesters roll off the Tasmanian ferry in Melbourne was enough to make one think they had come in search of vehicles capable of more than ten kilometres an hour. In fact they were on a mission to link up with Victorian farmers to protest at decisions by major food buyers, including supermarket chains and McDonald’s, to buy a larger proportion of their produce from overseas, whether it be New Zealand (for McDonald’s potatoes) or China (for supermarket fruit and vegetables). The direct action was admirable, but the demand — for a ‘Buy Australian’ labelling initiative — was lame. To put one’s hope in a patriotic super-vigilant consumer is to sell your own cause out: the contemporary shopping experience is all about minimising the time and torture of the activity itself, via supermarkets and, eventually, online ordering. The farmers have in mind an earlier era when shopping was a daily, neighbourhood-based act of social exchange, not the mass hauling of bulk-bought supplies. The only shoppers likely to shop in such a manner in any sustained way are environmentally conscious label readers,  likely to be only partially sympathetic to the farmers’ plight.

Yet what else could they do? For years, farmers large and small have supported the NFF, and for years the NFF have slavishly supported the National Party, and for years the National Party has told its constituency that free trade will ultimately be to its benefit. That may be true for the whole sector quantitatively, but it ignores the social devastation of rural Australia that will occur in the coming shake-out of the agricultural sector. In this era, the interests of small farmers, larger agribusiness concerns and pastoralists diverge utterly, and it is the first of these that will suffer the most, simply because there is no living level at which they will be able to compete in the wake of an AustraliaÐChina free trade   agreement. They are currently being fed with fantasies of specialisation and niche markets, with no acknowledge that our relationship with China will be asymmetrical, to put it mildly.

What such farmers need to argue for, loud and clear, is a measure of protection, on the grounds that it is necessary for any region or community that wants to maintain its independence to have a viable and diverse agricultural sector. They should argue that slightly higher prices for all are necessary for this social good (and that most purported savings would, in any case, rarely reach the consumer). But of course it is impossible to come out for the virtues of protection when their peak bodies have spent so much time knocking them down in manufacturing and other areas. The rural   sector is still seeing the new world through the categories of the old. They will realise eventually that their interests lie more with the increasing numbers of people being deemed socially redundant, (including the workers they scabbed on during the waterfront dispute) than with pastoral combines. They are ripe for a new politics — as Labor realised when it developed its ‘country Labor’ brand. But the Greens could also make headway if they were to send out organisers — possibly with a differently named organisation and devoid of the inner-city sartorial style and cultural baggage — and make connections over rural decline, viable community, OHS and more. If small farmers are hoping to survive by appealing to the better instincts of the globalised shopper, then they haven’t yet begun to realise what is about to happen to them.

 

Arena and the Internet

One of the most cherished pieces of cyber folklore is that the internet will provide the means to reconstruct an ethic of co-operation and reciprocity. The rise of Napster and the evolution to peer-to-peer computing which enable users to share songs, movies and any other digital content; the open-source community responsible for the freely distributed operating system Linux and associated open-source programs continue the apparent gift culture of the internet.

That promise — and it was no more than a promise — is fast receding. Indeed, in some ways the internet is undermining the deeper sources of co-operation that gave rise to and sustained its ethic of reciprocity.

A case in point relates directly to the magazine you’re now reading. Each issue of Arena Magazine is sent to a multinational academic publisher in electronic form in the Portable Document Format (PDF). Such formats are necessitated by the fact that, increasingly, readers, students and researchers no longer access information by going to the bound version, but simply download electronic copies of individual articles which effectively appear as off-prints of the original article.

However, the publishers with which we deal also sell articles on the open market. This editorial, for instance, will no doubt be available from Amazon.com in the months after its publication for US$5. Arena makes very little from such sales; in 2004 it amounted to around $500.

It is here that the contradiction between the internet and the deeper sources of co-operation and reciprocity become evident. It is disconcerting to see the freely given fruits of one’s labour being sold on the internet and seeing little or nothing in return. Contributors (not to mention editors and publishers) are likely to feel that they’ve been used by such arrangements. The on-selling of articles cuts into the fabric of reciprocity and co-operation on which Arena’s publications are founded. Indeed, Arena finds itself caught within a contradiction the core editorial team has discussed at length in both the journal and the magazine; namely the tendency of highly abstracted forms of life to dominate and reconstitute more basic sources of sociality.

The problem here is that the internet enables one to bypass the embedded conditions under which magazines are produced. By reconstructing publishing and writing in these ways, they reconfigure the ground on which co-operative ventures such as this magazine are based.

One solution to this would be to undercut online providers, by putting the complete contents of the Magazine and Journal online, making them freely available. But this is a partial solution. To keep the bound version viable, some limits would have to be placed on this, such as a time gap. Ceasing production of the bound versions altogether and going to a completely ‘virtual’ Arena is not realistic: people still baulk at reading content onscreen, it would limit access to those without online access, and would be to give up on the ethic of co-operation and reciprocity based on the face-to-face relations that are central to producing a magazine like Arena. In other words, it would be to imagine that these relations, which have their basis in face-to-face interaction, could be simply reconstructed in virtual form without cost. Such a view is, in the long-term, untenable.

In the face of these changes the editors will examine alternative arrangements by which to engage with the transformations in publishing, while remaining committed to the collective ethic on which Arena’s publications are founded.

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