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Transnational Capital: Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume 5

by Joe Collins on February 13, 2018

The final volume in the five-part series of Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism delivers eleven chapters with a total of nine of those tackling difference aspects of state power and transnational capital. In this edition ‘nodes of capital’ are therefore treated through a concern with the relationship of Australian capitalism to world capitalism, although the persistent subject of the penetration of capital in the development of Australian capitalism is once more strongly evident. This centering of a totality (defining capitalism as the ‘everything everywhere’ of development that relegates non-capitalism to an inferior space or non-existence) would, of course, come to be critiqued as capitalocentrism. One consequence would be the preclusion of any focus on issues of diversity and multiplicity in the economic forms of development, as relayed by J.K. Gibson-Graham in The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It).

Commencing the volume is an essay on mining in Australia to address the disarticulation of the mineral industry since the 1960s with the rest of the economy and its reliance on increasing levels of foreign capital (J.G. Grough and E.L. Wheelwright). The second essay takes up a focus on semi-peripheral states with a broader optic, to develop a comparative study of Australia, Canada and Argentina focusing on regional inequalities, class shifts in power, and foreign capital from the 1870s to the 1980s (Warwick Armstrong and John Bradbury). With a shift to the local, the next contribution focuses on the iron ore industry in the Pilbara, Western Australia that boasted fifteen per cent of the world’s reserves, establishing Australia as the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, with 90% of Australian output coming from the Pilbara, controlled by four mineral companies across seven mines (H.M. Thompson).

The social function of economics and economists is then explored next, in order to assess how specific institutions such as the ‘citadels’ of the Industries Assistance Commission (IAC), the Reserve Bank, or the Treasury served particular fractions of capital in the shift from Keynesianism to Friedmanism (Chilla Bulbeck). The origins of the laissez-faire counter-revolution are therefore assessed that speaks to Damien Cahill’s focus in debating The End of Laissez-Faire?  and his critique offered there of ideas-centred conceptions of neoliberalism as the main drivers of political and economic change.

The theme of Aboriginal rights in relation to mining is then addressed in the fifth chapter, focusing on the Gurindji peoples in the Northern Territory’s Victoria River region and their role in a National Land Rights movement flowing from The Gurindji Strike of 1966 at the Wave Hill Station against the agro-food Vestey Group (Christine Jennett). The Gough Whitlam government (1972-75) established a National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) and a Department of Aboriginal Affairs flowing out of these indigenous labour struggles and processes of dispossession. Although the Gurindji people were successful in receiving inalienable title to their land, the problem of Aboriginal rights being subjected to continued dispossession by mineral, pastoral and other interests remains. The history of inter-imperialist rivalries surrounding the base-metal industry at Broken Hill, New South Wales, in constituting what would become Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP)—today BHP Billiton—as one of the world’s central mining, processing, oil and gas production companies, is also traced elsewhere (Frank Carrigan).

The dependent development of Australia’s pre-World War II economy is then traced with nuance by Stuart Rosewarne in an analysis of capital accumulation and the export of mining capital. The development of Australian stock exchanges in the 1880s and their significance after World War I facilitated, for a brief period, the transmutation of surplus value accruing to Australian manufacturers, merchants and pastoralists into tin mining in Malaysia, gold and oil prospecting in Papua New Guinea, and manufacturing in Hong Kong. The antipodean version of Reagonomics is then tackled in a concentration on the role of the capitalist state and its relation to the ideology of Liberalism at the time (Brian Head) and there is then a chapter on the Labor governments of South Australia (1966-1979) to address the increased involvement of capital fractions in determining varied state policies and programmes (Chris Nyland).

Outside these nine essays, the two additional contributions are, first, an assessment of how specific conditions of law grow out of social practice, empirically assessing the influential role of Henry Bourne Higgins (1851-1929) in defining aspects of Australian politics and law (Humphry McQueen). Second, the final chapter closing the volume is an empirical investigation into the limits of state autonomy in relation to the legal system, addressing monopoly law (Andrew Hopkins). Engaging debates on a Marxist theory of law, led by figures such as E.B. Pashkanis, the juridic form of capitalism is traced to highlight the the form of law and its internal relation with the content of capitalist society, something that again speaks to contemporary work in relation to Brett Heino’s Regulation Theory and Australian Capitalism.

It is at that stage that volume five and the series in the Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism closes. Starting in 1975 and finishing in 1983, the construction of bricks and straw to fill a gap in understanding the development of Australian capitalism ceased. This year also marked the beginning of the corporatist ‘Accord’ period that saw the Australian Labor Party preside over the largest shift in the share of national income away from the wages share and over to the profit side of the ledger. Radical critiques of Australian society seemed to disappear, swept away by a tide of scholarship enmeshed and engaged by the reformist politics that would set the tone for the next 13 years. Perhaps it is time to stoke the embers of radical political economy left smoldering in these volumes?

Back in the fourth volume, Ken Buckley indicated that there was ‘a long road ahead’ in tracking the pathways of capitalism in and beyond Australia. That journey still continues. It is hoped that the digitisation of these volumes helps new generations of thinkers reinvigorate the contemporary struggle to effect meaningful social change through grappling with the contours of the political economy of Australian capitalism. Let us all take heed from the progenitors of this noble struggle and continue to interrogate, with ruthless criticism, the existing state of things in this place. Onwards along the arduous paths toward luminous summits.

Joe Collins
Joe Collins is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and completed his PhD at Western Sydney University in 2016. His research offers a historical materialist critique of mineral-rent theory grounded in the historical development of the minerals industry and landed property in Australia.

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