The capitalist state, neoliberalism and industrial arbitration

by · September 8, 2014


Left Flank’s ELIZABETH HUMPHRYS has launched a new website for her own work, An Integral State: Notes on Marx & Gramsci.

The latest post is her paper from the roundtable on Leo Panitch & Sam Gindin’s Deutscher Prize winning book The Making of Global Capitalism, at the Historical Materialism Australasia conference last weekend in Sydney. Elizabeth spoke alongside Panitch, Mike Rafferty, Martijn Konings and Mike Beggs. She argues:

More concretely, based on their analysis of the state as related to the balance of class forces, the authors conclude that the state needs to be transformed politically if it is to function to reflect a different balance of class forces. So, for example, Leo argued in his Wheelwright address on Wednesday that we need to rebuild the institutions — unions and labour parties — or create new ones, and to nationalise and ‘decommodify’ that which should be a collective right: public transit; water; the banks. He agued we need to reclaim the concept of state planning and argue for higher taxation in return for collective goods. Similarly, in the conclusion to the book Leon and Sam argue that ‘today’s revived demands for social justice and genuine democracy [can] only be realised through…a fundamental shift of political power, entailing fundamental changes in state as well as class structures’.

Yet such a perspective — of a series of dramatic transitions in the existing policies, functions and responsibilities of states needing to occur prior to genuine socialism being possible — seems to bear little connection to the wider structures of social class forces where capital remains dominant over labour. Consequently, the ability of collective agency to transform societies from below seems to rest on somehow converting states that have remained impervious to democratic transformation. It is not clear to me how the authors intend to resolve this paradox.


Elizabeth has also written on “Arbitration & the ALP: Union strength or impasse?”:

Arbitration was a process where the state bought labour and capital together, in an institutionalised form, in order to settle matters in the national (and therefore the dominant class’s) interest. In reflecting on Gramsci’s words that open this post (penned in consideration of the different political currents in the Risorgimento in Italy), it is necessary for us to ask how the dominant class came to lead and dominate the labour movement in this way. The emergence of arbitration in the period of federation – celebrated by many unionists and Marxists as a symbol of the strength of labour in the colonies – should be seen as a key mechanism by which the hegemonic class led allied classes and dominated opposing ones. In this way, it is also a moment of failure – the failure of an independent working class project to emerge and the subsumption of labour’s interests into the dominant class’s project. This took place not simply because the strikes were defeated in the midst of economic crisis, but because of the development of arbitration as a mechanism of class hegemony to manage class conflict over the longer term. Arbitration, from this perspective, was an integral part of constructing class rule in Australia and the ability of the dominant class to lead all others in that historic moment.


Finally, she has also written a piece called “Where in the World Does Neoliberalism Come From?” on the new Progress in Political Economy website run by the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy:

[Raewyn] Connell and [Nour] Dados argue that mainstream theoretical work on the emergence and transmission of neoliberalism is dominated by two narratives: 1) that neoliberalism is about the spread of certain ideas amongst a network of right-wing intellectuals (based in Europe and the United States); or 2) that it is a mutation of capitalism resulting from a crisis of profitability. As a result, the story of neoliberalism in mainstream theory is of a phenomenon arising in the global North (and the US & UK in particular) and later exported to the global South. Such an interpretation places the global North at the centre of the account of the development of neoliberalism and, they argue, eschews the experience of the global South. Moreover, and as Raewyn [has] emphasised … it fails to emphasise that neoliberalism was a global process from the start.