Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Navigating in a Fog: Plotting a Marxist Political Economy

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Navigating in a Fog: Plotting a Marxist Political Economy

Article excerpt

It is usual to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet--the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

I would also like to acknowledge and pay respects to the elders of Political Economy--the dozens and hundreds of people, mainly about my own age, who fought for the establishment of a political economy program here at Sydney University, and without whose energy I could not have undertaken the teaching and research I was able to do. I remain indebted to them.

I arrived at trendy, lefty, Sussex University in autumn 1978 to begin my PhD at the Institute of Development Studies. It was a hip place: lots of African and South American students and new-generation punks with spikey hair, Doc Martins and facial piercings. I was still trying to look like Cat Stevens. Within a few weeks, I'd joined the famous Brighton Labour Process Study Group (which soon split) and I'd been up to London to a conference that had all the heavy hitters of value theory, in passionate debates between the Marxists and neo-Ricardians. That conference turned into a book edited by Ian Steedman and Paul Sweezy called The Value Controversy (London: Verso 1981). I thought I'd come to Marxist economic heaven. It was a well-populated and earnest place, where debate really mattered.

Within a few months I was living through the so-called 'winter of discontent'. There were strikes everywhere, as the British trade union movement flexed its muscle against a wilting Labour government.

The unions were posturing in preparation for taking on the inevitable arrival of the Thatcher government. It wasn't too long before the miners' strikes and the union movement's bloody battle with the state. Labour was always going to lose, though there are some fights you just have to have.

It was a class assault, and capital had chosen its ground well. Capital sited its battle in nationalised industries, where the state would represent capital's interests and do their work in breaking union power. Coal and steel were not the future of British work or profit, but smashing unionism in these industries opened the way for much wider, more profound change. The left called it 'Thatcherism', and depicted it as a coherent, idealised vision about markets and individualism. At the time it didn't feel coherent or idealised: it was simply a class assault, pitched on the run. But it did herald big change, creating the political and economic space for capital to re-load for its next boom.

I was also hanging round with people who I thought were using Marxism creatively. They knew their formal Marxist value theory well, but for them it was not a dogma. And they were serious people who had faced tough conditions under fascism in Chile and apartheid in Southern Africa. I learnt from them that theorising is strategic, in the sense that it needs to be adaptable and appropriate to context, and that Marxian value theory must be a vehicle to be ridden, but not an encyclical. The art of being a Marxist is to explore the complex and innovative ways in which capital works to shape its world. The contradictions you find are of course between classes; but they may also be within your own theory too. So trying to interpret how capital was re-loading for its next boom was a theoretical as well as a historical agenda.

I learnt that Marxism can't just stand for a simple opposition to economic and social change created by things like 'Thatcherism' or 'Reganomics', for it then becomes more and more like conservatism. We cannot opine the loss of the successes of the past (sentimentalising and indeed idealising the conditions of the long, post-war boom): we must look to capitalism's frontiers of innovation, and find ways of opening up ambiguities and contradictions therein. That's where an effective analytical insight and political opposition has to lie. These weren't things I simply learnt during my PhD and locked in. …

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