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Class Acts: Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume 3

by Joe Collins on January 4, 2018

The overriding commonality underpinning the third volume in the series of five volumes of Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism is the context of gender, race, and imperialism with the latter addressed both in relation to internal colonialism within the country itself towards Aboriginal Australians as well as its own colonial role in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Ken Buckley frames this volume from the outset with a salient question, then and now: ‘class-struggle is a vital concept, but what is class?’

Buckley’s introduction contains a clear and conscious articulation of the intersection of class contexts with race and gender. In the text itself this commences with an essay on the structure of feeling—drawing from E.P. Thompson—of class-consciousness to address the segmentation of the labour market in Australia along gender lines, especially women’s unpaid labour in the household. In Bettina Cass’s own words, drawing from Mariarosa Dalla Costa, among others, ‘Women’s unpaid domestic labour supports, like an infrastructure, the wage-structures and profits of the industrial-capitalist economy’. Further analysis is then offered in an examination of the segmentation of the labour market through a focus on the racialised conditions of class with reference to migrant labour (John Collins) and the ideology of racism and sexism projected through Italian anti-Fascist struggles in Australia resulting from post-1945 shifts in migration to the country (Gianfranco Cresiani). The conditions of Australia’s role as ‘a late and little imperialist’ power in PNG are then considered and how this was conducted through a colonial regulation of wage labour (Peter Fitzpatrick). The applicability of a theory of internal colonialism is then examined in its relevance to Australian Aborigines as a framework for analysis of the intersections of class with race (Marvyn Hartwig). The arguments in Arghiri Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (1972) are then turned to in order to examine the contradictions of unequal exchange between Britain and Australia (David Clark). Finally, the volume closes with chapters on culture (Ian Turner) and education (Helen Palmer) in class contexts situating developments in Australia within a broader social and political context.

Buckley gives a nod in his introduction to Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946) to lament that ‘there is no comparable, incisive analysis of the development of Australian capitalism’. That leaves an open question as to whether there is there still a gap for an expansive historical sociology and political economy treatment of the birth of the Australian colonies and “The Australian Road to Capitalism”.

Buckley’s introduction is dated July 1977. This may have permitted the author time to have read Raewyn Connell’s seminal contribution to Australian political economy Ruling Class, Ruling Culture, published 5 months earlier. Had this been the case, Connell’s incisive critical survey of approaches to class analysis in Australia would have highlighted the road map of Australian historiography to which the contributions in this volume added depth. Key to Connell’s critique of class analysis is the distinction between categorical and generative approaches. Categorical analysis belongs to the Weberians and statisticians whilst ‘Marxism of Marx’s kind’ remains, according to Connell, the best example of generative class analysis. Perhaps the reason Marx could muster no more than 5 paragraphs on class in Capital is because he was preoccupied with understanding the internal dynamics of the capitalist mode of production that generated classes. The contributors to this volume build upon attempts in the previous volumes to grasp the contemporary dynamics of capitalism in Australia as a means to generate a theory of class adequate to the task of abolishing class society.

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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