Work councils could be the future of Australian industrial democracy in an ABCC world



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Eugene Schofield-Georgeson, University of Technology Sydney

Work councils are one model of industrial relations that could potentially fill the enormous gap in Australian industrial democracy left by precarious employment and the decline of the union movement.

Canberra was once again the scene of further blows against construction workers and their union when the federal government this week passed legislation to hasten the onset of laws linked to the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

In something of a one-two combination for the Australian union movement, the ABCC’s return accompanies reports that national union coverage has dwindled to its lowest ebb. Union membership now stands at around 15%.

In Australia, the growth of casual jobs outstrips the creation of permanent jobs by nearly two to one. Such precarious employment prevents workers putting down roots in their workplace, joining a union or engaging in enterprise bargaining.

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Pursuing happiness: it’s mostly a matter of surviving well together

Pursuing happiness: it’s mostly a matter of surviving well together

Analyses, Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, Stephen Healy

Katherine Gibson, Western Sydney University; Jenny Cameron, University of Newcastle, and Stephen Healy, Western Sydney University

This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.

Understandings of happiness are shifting. More and more research is finding that we cannot spend our way to happiness. Increasing incomes do not necessarily lead to increasing happiness. Even in a country such as China, average incomes have increased fourfold since the 1990s while life satisfaction has decreased over the same period.

Research is also finding that happiness is less an individual matter and more a collective endeavour. The quality of our relationships with others is pivotal. These others include those closest to us (our immediate family and friends) as well as those unknown to us but with whom we comprise a society.

In a climate-changing world, this relational understanding of happiness also has to extend to our relationship with the planet on which our survival depends.

The shift in understanding happiness could not be better summed up than in the words of the first elected prime minister of Bhutan in 2008:

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Five cities that could change the future of Antarctica

Five cities that could change the future of Antarctica

Analyses, Paul James

Juan Francisco Salazar, Western Sydney University; Elizabeth Leane, University of Tasmania; Liam Magee, Western Sydney University, and Paul James, Western Sydney University

Antarctica is at a crossroads. This frozen continent at the bottom of our planet has the potential to either become one of the most fiercely contested zones in the world, or the most collaborative.

Antarctica is one of four internationally recognised global commons along with the atmosphere, the high seas and outer space. These are all areas that have historically been guided by the principle of the common heritage of humankind.

The continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a complex set of arrangements developed to regulate relations between states with interests and territorial claims in the region. As of today, 29 states are “consultative parties” to the treaty. They demonstrate their interest in Antarctica by carrying out substantial scientific activity there.

Several states have very specific and long-standing interests in Antarctica, which not only determine national policies about engaging with the continent, but can also complicate those engagements. Seven have territorial claims including the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile.

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After capitalism, what comes next? For a start, ethics

After capitalism, what comes next? For a start, ethics

Analyses, Capital, Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, Stephen Healy

Jenny Cameron, University of Newcastle; Katherine Gibson, Western Sydney University, and Stephen Healy, Western Sydney University

If the comments generated by the recent publication of excerpts from Paul Mason’s forthcoming book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, are anything to go by, its release at the end of the month should kick up a storm.

Mason’s book is about a seismic economic shift already underway, one that is as profound as the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. In the excerpts, Mason observes that:

… whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.

The shift is evidenced by developments such as collaborative production and the sharing economy. Mason attributes this economic transformation to advances in information technology, particularly the global networks of people and ideas that are now possible.

Such large-scale pronouncements inevitably generate an equally strong pushback, albeit in very different ways. For example, some comments on the published excerpts align with Fredric Jameson’s observation that sometimes for the Left:

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Other comments are more aligned with climate-change denialism and the sentiment that “it is easier to desire the end of the world than to desire the end of capitalism”.

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Capital and Its Alternatives

Capital and Its Alternatives

Analyses, S A Hamed Hosseini

Why capital in 21st century needs a better definition?

By S A Hamed Hosseini

David Harvey in his short criticism of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in 21 Century, rightfully questions Piketty’s definition of ‘capital’ as one of his central difficulties:

“Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as my art and jewelry collection. How to determine the value of all of these things is a difficult technical problem that has no agreed upon solution.”

However, David Harvey’s definition capital remains very much influenced by its 19th century Marxian understanding of industrial capitalism. In 21st century, capital deserves a more comprehensive and a more representative definition than just a process in which money makes more money through production relations. I, therefore, propose the following definition:

Capital is a ‘social process‘ , through which surplus value is produced and controlled by ‘unsustainable’ and ‘un-sovereign’ ways of exploiting labor (both manual and intellectual), land (and other commons), nature (non-renewable sources of energy and the earth’s bio-capacity including climate), and societal cohesion/solidarity (from the level of household to the world community level).

Capital is a social process and not just an economic one, since it involves specific sociocultural and political modes of sociability as well as particular modes of livelihood. It is based on exploitation rather than ‘self-sustaining use’ of human and natural resources. Here, ‘exploitation’ is distinguished from ‘use’, since the former makes (1) the resources to lose their capacity to be sustainability reproduced over generations, and (2)  the communities to lose their capacity to ‘determine’ the levels and ways of use democratically and autonomously.

Thus, a comprehensive analysis of capital and capitalist systems requires not only the theorization of the exploitation of labor, land and nature through the processes of production (the first dimension of exploitation), but also of financial speculations, enclosures and hoardings, that are determined undemocratically through the chaotic interplay between the uncertainty of market mechanisms and the plutocratic influences of financial monopolies or corporate powerhouses. The latter includes what David Harvey calls ‘capital strike’ used by monopolies to cause “artificial scarcity” and thereby increase the “rate of return” or what I would like to call in more general terms, ‘spurious surplus’, which has real impacts on real production processes. Despite acknowledging this fact, Harvey (unlike Piketty) unjustifiably excludes the latter process of producing spurious surplus from his definition of capital!:

Money, land, real estate and plant and equipment that are not being used productively are not capital. If the rate of return on the capital that is being used is high then this is because a part of capital is withdrawn from circulation and in effect goes on strike.

The withdrawal of capital from productive circulation is part of (and has become increasingly a significant component of) today’s capital. This is because, according to our new definition of capital, even ‘capital strikes’ are about creating and controlling surplus (no matter how spurious it is) and it prevents democratic determination and sustainable use of resources associated with the withdrawn capital.

Accordingly, ‘alternatives to capital’, from this point of view, consist of a broad range of approaches from reformist orientations to democratic social regulations of ‘capital’ (like post/Keynesian visions), to antipodal alternatives to the existence of capital (like anti-market, anti-trade initiatives).