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Why do we need an Occupy Australia?

The Occupy movement – itself sparked by the Arab Spring and the indignado protests in Spain and Greece – has quick spread across the United States and other countries including my own beautiful, ugly, homeland of Australia.

Many Australians have questioned the need for an Occupy movement of our own. In contrast to the US, we’re not struggling in quite the same way, economically, having never slipped into recession or been caught up in the Eurozone debt crisis. There are no largescale cuts to public jobs as in Europe or the U.S. At The Referral, Kimberley Ramplin points out that the Australian economy is quite healthy, comparatively speaking:

5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)

I’ve lived in Australia and the U.S and I know from personal experience that the substantially lower standard of living in the U.S is something few Australians can truly understand. Things are not perfect in Australia economically – not with the astronomical housing prices – but we can’t say that the middle class has collapsed in the same way as in the U.S.

We do ourselves no favours when we uncritically mimic American models without changing them to suit local conditions. The cultural cringe is no more useful in activism than it is in other areas. The 99/1% slogan is powerful stuff indeed but doesn’t adequately address the income distribution of Australia as accurately in the United States.  Activism must respond to local needs to be successful.

So it’s that bad news in the middle of that quote that I want to focus on. Climate change. Because that’s not incidental to the problem that Occupy addresses as a whole, a state of crisis that affects every sphere of human life, and Australia’s good fortune to have a crapload of natural resources disguises the fact that there is still a slowly exploding crisis in the heart of Australia.

First Thesis: The global economic crisis is a symptom of the failures of capitalism and democracy.

It needs to be said, because I see it all the time. The diminishing of ambitions and living standards in the sad stories of the 99% is not merely a problem of “excesses” of capitalism, it’s not an aberration. Capitalism is unstable, it always has been. The boom-bust cycle has been there right from the start in the rise of the modern nation-state.

There is nothing inherent to capitalism that creates livable wages or good working conditions – those are the result of struggle by the working classes against their bosses. Capital must be forced to deliver things, for without regulation, strong labour unions and a national social welfare net, horrific poverty and abuse of workers will occur. This is the utopia of which the extremist anti-regulation American right-wing libertarians dream.

The failure of democracy, therefore, is the failure of the ability to keep the rich and powerful in check, to prevent them from exploiting the rest of us. Fundamentally we still think of ourselves as citizens, still think that it is the role of governments to produce a country in which there is services, food, jobs for the populace. The United States is still a rich country, amazingly, incredibly so. Many companies recovered very quickly from the economic crash, but they didn’t return the jobs they slashed – instead, they kept that wealth, which is how you end up with Apple holding more money than the U.S. government. Unlike governments, corporations have no responsibility to uphold the social good, and they won’t do so out of the kindness of their hearts.

The problem is distribution of that wealth, and it is a result of huge, structural problems in the United States, and the unwillingness of governments to do anything meaningful to facilitate that distribution, like tax hedge fund managers or increase public sector jobs or actually build some new, desperately needed infrastructure.

The protesters in Occupy Wall Street have made it clear, over and over: American democracy is not working. Corporate personhood and Citizens United merely codified the corrupt American political process, controlled by lobbyists and producing a welfare state that as my friend Arwyn said to me yesterday, socialises losses and pritivatises profits. That socialises the welfare of banks but privatises human need, that does not provide basic healthcare and education as a matter of rights.

While we don’t have lobbyists in the same way, this is still a problem in Australia. If things have been getting so much better over the last decade, why have student fees been ballooning while full-time lecturers are replaced by casual tutors? Why is there no Medicare bulk billing? Why is the Medicare gap ever-increasing? How can the poor and working classes afford housing, in some of the most expensive markets in the world?  For that matter, why do we pay student fees at all?  If things have been so good, why do we deserve less as citizens than we did in the 70s and 80s?  Why do we accept less?

We are blowing up the very same bubbles that have burst so dramatically in the U.S, and it is the same process of destroying the social fabric that the welfare state held together – it’s just we started off from a much better place, from a more cohesive social whole (G_d bless you, Gough Whitlam). With privatisation and economic rationalism, we have treated Australians with the same cannibalistic attitude that created the US 99%.  Not citizens with rights and responsibilities any longer but consumers, markets to be exploited.

It is these failures (and others) that show that neither Labor nor the Liberals truly represent the needs of the people, and those failures point to a much greater problem in our democracy.

Second thesis: The climate change crisis is a symptom of capitalist excess, and the failure of democracy to put the needs of people before those of corporations.

Naomi Klein (oh dear I’m citing Canadians now) put it like this at Occupy Wall Street:

Unfettered greed has trashed the global economy. And it is trashing the natural world as well. We are overfishing our oceans, polluting our water with fracking and deepwater drilling, turning to the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. And the atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we are putting into it, creating dangerous warming. The new normal is serial disasters: economic and ecological.

Theologian Catherine Keller summarised it even better: “the 1% gave us the 1°” (the global climate temperature increase).

It is for this reason that the fantasy of a public-private partnership to prevent ecological catastrophe that lurks in the corridors of Canberra is wishful thinking of the worst kind. As with worker exploitation, capital must be strong-armed into doing the right thing. The lesson of the 2008 crash should have been that banks cannot be trusted to take care of themselves – let alone anyone else – just as the Gulf oil disaster showed that the short-sightedness of the oil industry when a 500k acoustic kill switch might have prevented an ecological and economic nightmare.

What does that have to do with Australia? Everything. The biggest political issue of the year has been a carbon tax proposed by Labor PM Julia Gillard. Chally Kacelnik wrote about the links between the carbon tax, class warfare by the rich and the press misogyny aimed at Gillard for me at Global Comment a little while back:

The big news story in Australia over the last few months has been a proposed carbon tax. Should it go ahead, only 0.02 per cent of Australian businesses will be taxed under this scheme, and 90 per cent of households will receive compensation for the increase in expenses they will undergo as we change over to clean energy. So far, so good – except barely anyone in the country knows those facts. Whoever is running the media show over at the ALP is floundering. Pushed hard by opposition leader Tony Abbott and Murdoch’s News Limited, the only message that is getting through is that the carbon tax is outrageous. Given that News Limited has control of about three quarters of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation in Australia, that’s quite a push. Make no mistake: Murdoch’s press is waging class war on behalf of the extremely rich, and it’s being done in the name of a phoney popularism. It takes quite some nerve to push a distortion of this magnitude down the throats of the people on whose behalf you’re supposedly speaking. More to the point, it takes power and money.

That is how well our democracy is functioning – when the top 0.02% of businesses and 10% of households won’t pay a tax for the benefit of the rest of us. Just as the screams from the rich toppled Kevin Rudd when he proposed a 40% mining tax – which should have been a political victory. Bloomberg said that that would have “taken A$85 billion ($74 billion) from the mining industry during the next decade.” Yes, and it would have taken for the Australian people whose land the mining is taking place on. Iron ore and natural gas won’t be in the ground forever, and sooner or later we’ll be left with none while the mining companies fuck off elsewhere. So needless to say, Julia Gillard immediately removed the tax after she pushed Rudd from the leadership after his popularity ratings plummeted. And now another tax is threatening to do the same for her. For the exact same reasons – the war of capital on everyone else.

This is how well democratic discourse functions when you have a Murdoch-Fairfax propaganda press – neither party is capable of truly departing from the needs of the super-rich, not with one eye on the polls all the time. And this is how valuable your vote is, in compulsory voting Australia. Not bloody much.

In Europe, bankers have been forced to take a 20% “haircut” (that is, loss) from their loans to Greece, with more to come. Preventing the looming climate change disaster may well require much, much, much more than a 20% haircut for business. But at the moment, in Australia the super-rich are bawwing about being taxed in 0.02% of businesses – imagine if circumstances required a truly significant cut to their ill-gotten gains?

Unlike the U.S, we don’t have a robust tradition of free speech in quite the same way as the US. It was no surprise to me when the riot police were sent in to Occupy Melbourne. It doesn’t matter that they’re non-violent hippies and seemed unlikely to really accomplish much, we don’t tolerate protest well. An extraordinary law was just passed in Perth to target protesters of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and ban them from entering parts of the city. In typically overinflated fashion, The West is calling protesters “would-be terrorists and violent protesters.” Yeah, think of all those terrorist attacks by people handing out those Socialist Alliances newsletters, riiiight. The only daily newspaper in Western Australia is apologising for police-state behaviour squashing protest – and showing in the process precisely how limited the range of acceptable views in W.A really is.

So yes: Australian apathy and irony have frequently served to protect us from U.S-style extremism, but what happens when enough people step forward to say something our political classes and media classes don’t want to hear? And what happens when we need serious changes to survive as a country and our politicians are unwilling to do anything about it? This is a problem that concerns all of us, in Australia and indeed worldwide, as we face climate change.

It is for this reason that we must have an Occupy movement in Australia that addresses the dictatorship of capital in our lives, that produces a democracy that truly centres the needs of the people. We need to protest. We need the right to protest. We need to be out in the streets to put the lie to the false consensus of the neoliberal press that there is no alternative to the status quo. And yes, we need to make sure that our needs are taken care of by our political system, even – especially – when they conflict with the needs of business. It is time that we made clear that running a “democracy” primarily for the rich is no longer a possibility in Australia.

16 Comments

  1. Chally wrote:

    Yeah, pretty much.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  2. Connie wrote:

    I think your post is the most persuasive pro-”Occupy” movement argument I have heard so far. That said, considering the different circumstances in Australia (in terms of specific policy causes of inequality rather than just the nebulous concept of “The Rich”), why should protests occur under the “Occupy” banner? It seems to me that to stage protests under the name is appropriative of the American experience. If the carbon taxes and mining taxes are an issue, why not stage more rallies that instead target those specific causes.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  3. Emily Manuel wrote:

    I think the danger in just protesting those two taxes is that it suggests that everything’s fine otherwise. When my point is really that what happened with those taxes (and indeed recent protests) shows how compromised Australian democracy is on the whole.

    I don’t care what banner that protest coalesces under – Occupy, indignant or something Australian – but there is a certain energy that moves with names (same with Slutwalk). People are inspired by one another, and that can spark things. But if it’s *just* mimicry, it won’t get anywhere.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  4. Chally wrote:

    Well, my problem with the name is that I think it’s vastly inappropriate in a colonised nation.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Right, it probably is – but I’d be curious to see if the Occupiers have talked to the Aboriginal elders on each bit of land to see how they feel about it. I’m not on the ground, but I suspect that Occupy is a very white thing in Australia, and that there hasn’t been much if any discussion with the local Aboriginal groups about their needs or collaboration on tactics, linking into local activism etc.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Chally wrote:

    Well, I know that the Aboriginal protesters at Occupy Melbourne were there will the blessing of the Wurrunjerri elders, but beyond that, I’ve not heard anything.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  7. Chally wrote:

    Er, with, not will.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  8. Jeremy wrote:

    “the indignado protests in Space”

    …SPACE PROTESTS?! :D

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  9. orlando wrote:

    I didn’t realise you had an Aussie in your stable. Nice.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  10. Emily Manuel wrote:

    @ Chally Oh, that’s interesting.

    I’m familiar with the critiques of “occupy” in the US and Canada, but feel like we also have to be careful not to import those North American models of critique too as a way of speaking over/for Australian indigenous people, too.

    So I hope the Occupy Melbourne don’t just leave it at permission, because centring Aboriginal people really needs to take place if this movement’s to be ethical.

    Eg if they did start responding to the mining issues I talked about, they’d need to take into account indigenous sovereignty, the shit that’s going on in the NT, etc.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  11. Emily Manuel wrote:

    @Jeremy

    I have a mild form of aphasia, my brain substitutes words. That’s supposed to be Spain.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  12. Deb wrote:

    @Chally

    Here in Perth, the Occupy movement has been mostly white- and male-dominated. Most of the socialist, etc groups here are generally very white and male, though, so it’s not unexpected.

    What seems to be happening here is that Occupy protesting and protesting against CHOGM has become sort of intertwined, which is interesting.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  13. Connie wrote:

    Well put, Emily. Definitely food for thought.

    Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  14. Isme wrote:

    I’d agree that using the “Occupy” label is a bad idea, in that local issues aren’t the same as US ones. And, to be frank, the Occupy movement has been fairly thoroughly demonised by the media, would harm rather than help to associate with them.

    Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  15. Scott Wilkie wrote:

    Good article. If you would like it published internationally on independent news sites, drop me a line, Emily.
    I break down the relative lack of success of ‘Occupy’ in Oz in the following manner –
    It is not a ‘groundswell’ phenomenon here, moreso one inherited from the US. This is evident in the lack of support. The ‘vested interests’ (ie Unions & political Socialists) have dominated the ‘image’ & created uncertainty amongst the general public regarding ‘Occupy’.
    15M (Spain) were very clear about the image that they would present from the outset – we are stuck between a rock & a hard place – we need numbers but not the ideology of our more active groups to attract people.
    “I think that everyone involved in or studying ‘Occupy/Town Square/15M & the Arab uprisings should consider that this is a ‘Values’ based Movement, not Ideologically driven one.
    Ultimately, we should throw away our ‘group’ banners, our superficial reasons for being involved, & take on the core value of simply being actively, non-violently expressing our wish for a better world.”

    Hugs
    Scott

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  16. Scott Wilkie wrote:

    I should add that I fully agree regarding your comments about the media in Australia – The skew to the ‘Right’ is something that requires addressing at governmental level.
    Had the unfortunate experience of listening to 2GB Sydney for a few days recently. I cannot believe that such hard-core extreme, scaremongering views can be allowed to be broadcast almost continuously on mainstram radio here..

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink