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2017 Capital as Power Essay Prize

Bricks and Straw: Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume 1

by Joe Collins on October 23, 2017

In 1975 E. L. ‘Ted’ Wheelwright commenced a series of edited volumes entitled Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism. In the following link we provide full and searchable access to the PDF of Volume 1 in ESSAYS IN THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AUSTRALIAN CAPITALISM. The ambition was to provide a morphology of the historical and contemporary development of capitalism in Australia from an ‘eclectic Marxist standpoint’. From this starting position, the essays set out to deliver both ‘bricks and straw’ in constructing an alternative social and economic history of the anatomy of civil society in Australia from the viewpoint of political economy.

As Wheelwright relays in his introduction to the first volume, it was Samir Amin—writing in Monthly Review in 1974— who queried, ‘Why is Australia a world of absolute silence?’, when it came to contributing to socialist thought. Whether this was an accurate representation at the time, of the dearth of Marxist-based historiography and social science in Australia, or since, is beside the point. As a response, the first volume of the essays appeared a year after this caustic statement and subsequently in 1978 (with Volume 2 and Volume 3), 1980 (with Volume 4) and 1983 (with Volume 5), to complete the set.

The leitmotiv of the series was to assess the condition of uneven development or how capitalism takes on different forms in diverse historical periods. Attuned to a focus on the social relations of production, matters concerning the role of the state in the economic development of Australia; the production of space, territory, and access to land; the import of labour and capital in shaping class structure; the vortex of imperialism; and questions of nationalism, were all raised. Irreverent criticism of ‘technocratic Laborism’, ‘mass media’ and ‘social policy’ functioned as a means to interrogate capitalism in its totality as a mode of production, rather than treating superficial critique as an end in itself. This is political economy with a purpose. The very first essay in the series, by Ken Buckley, tackled the origins of primitive accumulation in Australia at the centre of which, of course, was the extirpation of the indigenous population as one of the ‘idyllic proceedings’ in which the transformation of ‘blood into capital’ was enacted, as famously relayed in Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. The emphasis on structural features of capitalism as it evolved historically in Australia while also treating ideology, environment and immigration as imperative concerns reflects the watershed moment this period represented in both the material context and the intellectual environment. New and Old Left positions sharpened their critiques through strategic interventions in an enduring class war fought on shifting terrain.

It was admitted in the introduction to the first volume of the Essays that there would be obvious gaps in the coverage. For example, one can witness clear emphasis on the penetration of capital in the development of Australia, which would be regarded by some subsequently, such as J.K. Gibson-Graham, as a narrative that marginalised the possibilities of non-capitalist development. Nevertheless, as part of the history of the Department of Political Economy as well as its continued and changing contemporary presence in challenging orthodoxy we feel that it is vital to revisit these original debates and offer them to a wider readership.

Bricks made without straw would crumble easily.

Here we offer the first volume in Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism as part of the structure of bricks with straw in building a critique of political economy.

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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