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Brickbats and Hedges: Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume 4

by Adam David Morton on January 25, 2018

As Ken Buckley reveals in volume four of the Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, some ‘brickbats’ were expected from critics of their treatment of the economic history and political economy of Australia as well as their endeavour to destroy the hedges constructed around academic disciplines. Brickbats and hedges is therefore an apt way of coming to terms with this penultimate collection of essays on Australian capitalist development.

One of the charges levied against the series was its indulgence in methodological nationalism. But given the explicit intention to address capitalist development in Australia this brickbat is hit straight back. Even more, the first essay in the volume from Philip McMichael inserts the crisis of the 1840s both in terms of the world-economic context and its impact on the specifics of Australian wool-growing to tease out the conditions of pastoral capital accumulation in Australia set within an international context. As Buckley relays, ‘this essay is likely to become required reading in Australian history courses on the subject’. Indeed, Philip McMichael has become associated with pathbreaking contributions on agrarian change, agro-food systems, food sovereignty, and development ever since not least including his method of incorporated comparison. Incorporated comparison would become a way of orientating world-historical research so that comparisons are reformulated by developing historically-grounded theory located within time and space relations generating connective processes within the modern world. Indeed, many of the essays in this fourth volume could be seen as practicing the method of incorporated comparison before it was formally articulated.

The rest of the essays tackle varied aspects of dissident political economy. The racialised conditions of labour exploitation and the White Australia policy as it manifested in Queensland is analysed (A.A. Graves). Here the use of Kanaka labour in the Queensland sugar industry in the late nineteenth-century is examined, situating it within broader contexts of economic interests in the South Pacific and southeast Asia. Similarly, the neglected history of pearlshelling in the 1890s and early twentieth-century is addressed and its reliance (as in the sugar industry) on immigrant labour in the supply of pearlshell for the buttonmaking industry in Europe (Lorraine Phillips). In a return to a continuing theme from the previous volume, there is a renewed focus on Papua New Guinea and how a ‘dual economy’ was organised there within the Australian colony, tallying forms of precapitalist land ownership coexisting with production for the capitalist world-market (Peter Fitzpatrick).

The focus on class then takes a shift from previous concerns in the series, looking at historical divisions within the Australian bourgeoisie (Peter Cochrane) and the question of protectionist policy as it arises within the negotiations for Australia to join the IMF and the World Bank (Melanie Beresford and Prue Kerr). Once again, the theme of the political economy of housing is present (Jim Kemeny) and, for the first time, there is a focus on burgeoning interest in the imprisonment of the surplus population (John Braithwaite), or today what would be recognised as the response of ‘incarcerating the crisis’. Reflecting the interests of the time within the Transnational Corporations Research Project, there is attention paid to the growth of Australian investment in southeast Asia and the Pacific region in extending transnational capital to those geographies and participating in shaping a new international division of labour (Ernst Utrecht). The volume then closes with analysis of unemployment and class conflict—addressing themes related to the displacement of labour by new technology—including automation (Keith Windschuttle) and the growing trend within the Australian labour movement to capitulate and adopt the interests of capital through the pursuit of the policies of ‘national economic management’ (Bob Catley and Bruce McFarlane). In contemporary parlance the essay closing the volume is a precursor, perhaps, of “how Labour made neoliberalism”, not least in how the volume indicates that the struggle for socialism will go on within but also, increasingly, without the Australian Labor Party.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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