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Ten Essential Reads on the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism

by Llewellyn Williams-Brooks on April 18, 2019

The study of the political economy of Australian capitalism begins with Marx’s Capital, Volume I (1867) Chapter 33 ‘The Modern Theory of Colonisation’. In this final chapter, Marx discusses the exportation of capitalist social relations to the global periphery. This required, it is explained, the recruitment of British political economist Edward Gibbon Wakefield to ensure the reproduction of British social relations of private ownership and class. This experiment is aptly titled, “systemic colonisation”:

First of all, Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things.

Thus it was in Australia that the material conditions of capitalist social relations became self-evident through the conscious effort to re-engineer them in the antipode. Given this historic context, it is unsurprising that Australia has produced a rich tradition of political economy in its own right.

The following list is more autobiographic than it is definitive; my work has focused on the intersection of urbanism, labourism, materialism and economic history. Thus a whole host of additional texts could be added. The criteria I have used is that the work must have contributed to understanding the political economy of capitalism in Australia. Furthermore, I have avoided multiple works by the same author, despite several having claims to a second masterpiece. I hope this short piece encourages readers to engage with the immense history that is Australian political economy and, in the process, understand the political possibility of the tradition. The list should also be of interest to a broader audience, as it is only through history and comparison that our theories of political economy can be tested and strengthened. I’ve tried as much as possible to ignore regional histories beneath the state level of governance, mainly because this could be a very interesting list in its own right!

I welcome additional entries in the comment section. 

1. Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs (1923).

How Labour Governs is more or less the Power Without Glory (Frank Hardy, 1950) of Australian political economy. It documents the birth of the labour movement in the Great Strikes of the 1890s and the emergence of the Australian Labor party. It explores the rank-and-file system, its relations with industrial unions and mergers, the parliamentary Labor party and its left-wing internal opposition. The work is a critique; in focusing on 35 years of Labor Party history, mainly in New South Wales and Queensland, it highlights the gaps between the socialist values of labourism and the Labor Party machine. Like most outspoken socialists, Childe was unable to find an academic appointment after his work, and lived in exile in the United Kingdom.

Why it matters: Critiquing the Australian Labor party forms a core of the political economy tradition; this all began with Childe’s polemic. Furthermore, the critique is unusual to the extent that it was written by a socialist commentator within the union movement, rather than by opponents. Anyone arguing with a labourist about the origins of the Australian Labor Party would be well placed to start here.

2. Brian Fitzpatrick, British Imperialism and Australia, 1783-1833: An Economic History of Australasia & The British Empire in Australia: An Economic History, 1834–1939 (1937 & 1941).

Fitzpatrick was an unusual figure in the Australian academy; unable to get an academic appointment, he still managed to write one of the most influential texts in Australian economic history. The argument goes something like this: British capital, within the confines of the evolving British Imperial system, was the secret to Australia’s economic development within the global periphery. Not only this, but British capital established a path dependency by which Australia’s economy would become dependent on foreign capital. The debate would stand the test of time: famously contested by N.G. Butlin in Investment in Australian Economic Development (1964) who stressed the importance of urbanisation and national income;  but agreed with by Ted Wheelwright’s work on foreign ownership. Anyone serious about the influence of foreign capital on Australia’s political economy must start here.

Why it matters: by exposing the Australian economy’s dependency on foreign capital, and more especially, the British Empire’s political economy, it was impossible to ignore Australia’s embeddedness in global systems of power. This would be continued in the post-war period in relation to critiques engaged with the American alliance, begging fundamental questions concerning the constraints imposed upon Australian democracy.

3. Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia (1970).

McQueen’s work in the 1970s was the punk rock of Australian political economy. McQueen built his intellectual muscle as a campaigner for the Australian labor party in Queensland, before migrating to Melbourne and joining a prominent Maoist group. This interactive praxis forged the foundations of a rich critique of everything which came before. McQueen’s principle target was the labour history tradition (what was bitterly titled ‘the old left’), which has tended to inadvertently fetishise labourism for its egalitarian, provincial and radical potentiality. McQueen was keen to dispel this mythology. Instead, he argues that Australian labour has historically been imperialist, nationalist and racist, and that anyone that appraises the tradition can not excuse these aspects. The left, it is argued, must therefore come to terms with history to build a superior social movement.

Why it matters: the work is our best example of immanent critique set upon Australian labourism. McQueen pulls no punches in this groundbreaking text. Most audaciously, he calls Henry Lawson a fascist!

4. Bob Catley and Bruce McFarlane, From Tweedledum to Tweedledee: The New Labor Government in Australia, A Critique of its Social Model (1974).

As previously mentioned, the Australian political economy tradition arguably begins with Childe’s critique of the Labor Party. It is only fitting then that this piece, by the famous Bob Catley and Bruce McFarlane team, updates this critique to deal with the crisis of the 1970s, and the emergence of ‘new labour’. The principle target of their attack is the Gough Whitlam administration, but they also anticipate the longest period of Labor governance: the Hawke/Keating era. The authors highlight their concern for the de-democratisation of the party’s platform from rank-and-file to a machine party. As the party’s leadership changed, so did the party’s overall agenda in developing a framework for governing civil society.

Why it matters: critiques of the post-1960s political party system begin here, and in many ways, this critique has not been transcended. (although I might add that Elizabeth Humphrey’s book: How Labour Built Neoliberalism (2018), usefully returns to this question with some exciting new insights). I should also mention that Catley and McFarlane’s: Australian Capitalism in Boom and Depression (1981) could serve as an excellent companion piece.

5. E. L. Wheelwright and Kenneth D. Buckley (eds) Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, 5 Volumes (1975-1983).

Following on the heels of developments in England of the Socialist Register, Australian political economy found comfortable footing in this huge collection of essays. If the 1960s in Australia started in the 1970s, so too did the Australian new left develop a distinct identity in these collections. Best of all, these essays remain relevant and can be picked up by anyone trying to probe into the major debates that define capitalism in Australia.

Why it matters: The work is best thought of as a sort of White Album: a huge range of collaborations, important in their scope more than their overall success as individual contributions. Anyone fresh to the literature is best placed to start here: debates range from the colonial origins of the Australian social property system, to intersectional questions of race, ethnicity and gender (all five volumes can be digitally accessed for free HERE). I can also recommend their work: No Paradise for Workers (1988).

6. Wendy Lowenstein, Weevils in the Flour (1978).

Wendy Lowenstein is among Australia’s most influential oral labour historians. Her work, documenting the great depression in Australia is an indispensable history, challenging narratives which have tended to allow the American and European experience of the Great Depression to dominate. Lowenstein produces a flesh and blood history of the great depression; offering a priceless emotional and social history. We hear about harrowing competition for dock work on the hungry mile; overcrowding and starvation. We also learn about the power of human empathy and the capacity for communities to protect each other from the harshest deprivations conceivable.

Why it matters: Lowenstein offered a way of understanding the lived-experiences of communities during the twentieth century. Her work is a treasure trove of the living memory of Australian society told by regular people. In turn, she gives agency to the blurred nature of our own times, assuring us that our struggles are universal. She wrote three other important oral histories: The Immigrants (1977); Under the Hook (1981); Weevils at Work (1997).

7. Terry Irving and Raewyn Connell, Class Structure in Australian History (1979).

Terry Irving and Raewyn Connell’s collaboration stands as a masterpiece in Australian political economy. It was produced throughout the 1970s within the Sydney Free University movement (basically a university run out of a shared townhouse, for radicals), and continues to stand as the high watermark in the possibility of the tradition to illuminate the distinctive features of capitalism in Australia. It sees the Australian class system as a series of long-run turns between different accumulation strategies. Thus class dynamics have evolved to cater to new forms of profitabilities. Few works have been as ambitious in their scope and theoretically innovative.

Why it matters: This was the book that single handedly got me interested in Australian political economy. The author’s expertise in sociology (Connell) and labour history (Irving) made this collaboration an astoundingly productive one. The text can be seen as a dialogue between Marxist structural theory and Australian labour history. I should add that Connell’s Ruling Class, Ruling Culture (1977) is another essential read in the same tradition, concerned with the Whitlam dismissal of 1975 and the development of cultural hegemony by the ruling class.

8. Michael Pusey, Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation Building State Changes its Mind (1991).

Michael Pusey’s work studies the emergence of neoliberalism (‘economic rationalism’) in the personnel of the federal bureaucracy from the 1970s onward. As Pusey demonstrates, senior administration began to accept a logic of governance predicated around the efficiency of markets to allocate resources. As a historic institutional transition, ‘economic rationalism’ began to dominate over other traditions in the federal state apparatus. Pusey conducted hundreds of interviews with public servants across the federal directorates showing how social scientific reasoning, and the memory of the great depression, has slowly been eroded by the technocratic logic of economists and their imitators.

Why it matters: no text has gone further in attempting to unravel the inner-workings of the Australian public service. Pusey attempts to establish the mechanisms by which a new way of governing became a material strategy for the public service, leading to the neglect of the ‘welfarist’ and ‘nation-building’ departments in favour of the power of the ‘central departments’ (Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and Finance). He proves once and for all that anyone that is serious about social reform needs, first and foremost, to wrestle with ideology clutching the purse strings of Canberra.

9. Frank Stilwell, Understanding Cities & Regions: Spatial Political Economy (1992).

Frank Stilwell arrived in Australia in the middle of the economics dispute at the University of Sydney. He quickly became interested in urban and regional economics as well as urban protest, undoubtedly influenced by the Whitlam government’s Department of Urban and Regional Development (under Tom Uren) and the urban protest movement emerging from Jack Mundey as leader of the Builders Labourers Federation and the Green Bans movement. Without the Green Bans and Whitlam government, Sydney would not have the Rocks, Glebe or Woolloomooloo, but instead more office spaces and cheaply built (but expensive to purchase) apartments (watch the documentary Rocking the Foundations (1985) if you want to hear the full story). Stilwell identified that political economy must be committed to spatial politics of redistribution, and that the Australian urban system is defined by the legacy of inter-colonial (today’s states) parochialism.

Why it matters: Stilwell’s work was incredibly important in building a common language between Australian political economy and economic geography. These debates were most fertile in the 1970s, indebted to the writing of David Harvey, Manuel Castells and Doreen Massey. All of this political content was embedded in Frank’s work, which continues to inform a range of political economists (myself included).

10. Brett Heino, Regulation Theory and Australian Capitalism: Rethinking Social Justice and Labour Law (2017).

The most recent addition to this list, Brett Heino’s Regulation Theory and Australian Capitalism utilises a regulationist framework to disentangle Australia’s industrial relations system after compulsory conciliation and arbitration. Heino argues that Australian Fordism (a framework of mass factory production accompanying the long-boom of 1945-1973), has been replaced by a new system of governance. This system, borrowing from Alain Lipietz, called ‘liberal productivism’ is a high-productivity / low-wage based system, in which incomes are increasingly polarised between managers and professionals in the so-called new economy, and workers trapped in the low-wage sectors.

Why it matters: Australia’s industrial relations system has been a definitive aspect of governance post-federation. Francis G. Castle famously identified Australia as a ‘wage earners welfare state’ ; that is, a system of welfare geared towards the wage-earner. If this is the case, then changes to our industrial relations framework has huge consequences for the Australian political economy. As the gig-economy model continues to grow, we should be terribly concerned about the impoverishment of our industrial relations, and work towards building a more egalitarian wages system.


The legacy of the political economy of capitalism in Australia movement is a treasure trove for reflexive social thought and critique. Over more than one hundred years, scholars have applied their minds to thinking about the Australian state and its political economy from a range of perspectives. When thinking about the circumstances of contemporary politics, it is easy to get bogged down and think that there is no systematic assessment of Australia’s political economy, leading us to conclude that indeed ‘there is no alternative’. In contrast, I hope this list can demonstrate that Australian political economy is a rich and lasting contribution that will continue to inform the terrain of critique, past and present; this leads us to an alternative assessment: ‘another world is possible’.

Special thanks to Brett Heino, Joe Collins, Alison Pennington, Humphrey McQueen, Frank Stilwell, Matthew Ryan and Oliver Mispelhorn for their support in developing this article. You are appreciated.

Llewellyn Williams-Brooks
Llewellyn Williams-Brooks is PhD Student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His current research interests are Australian Historiography, Class and State theory, Economic Policy and Labour History.
Leave a response
  • April 18, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    Have you read Ben Maddison’s article, ‘From “Moral Economy” to “Political Economy” in New South Wales, 1870-1900:
    It covers an important transitional period between that covered by Fitzpatrick and Childe.

  • Roy
    April 19, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    I found it very in lightning especially all the research you had to go through to write this great piece of work maybe you may consider on your next written project adding the political religion and foreign influence on the Australian political economic system and how that is influencing the political government in this modern time and what it means to the average Joe blow on the street

  • Shane Hopkinson
    April 20, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    Well as you say the list could be much longer… but I think I would include

    Wells Constructing Capitalism (1989)
    Metcalfe For Freedom and Dignity (1988)
    Tsokhas Beyond Dependence (1986)

    and Henry Paternosters 2017 ‘Reimagining Class in Australia ‘ is a critique of the whole project made me think…

  • Bob Boughton
    May 4, 2019 at 10:44 pm

    I think it’s a worry there’s not one book in this list which takes the continuing dispossession of First Natons peoples as central to the political economy of Australian capitalims’s development. Goodall From Invasipn to Embassy, although NSW focussed could be a starting point

    • Shane Hopkinson
      May 5, 2019 at 8:56 pm

      Good point Bob. Is ‘Invasion to Embassy’ political economy though?

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