Australian imperialism's new apex

Mark Kelly looks at the relationship between Australian capital, imperialism and the labour movement.

More than 30 years ago in 1975, Australia made Papua New Guinea independent. Following the withdrawal of Australia from Vietnam in 1973, the formal ending of the White Australia policy and the granting of citizenship rights to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the 1960s, this represented the completion of a shift - of which the Whitlam administration was clearly chronologically the expression and not the cause - away from the racist colonialism which had been a clear part of the national essence since the notion of Australianness had been invented in the 19th century. Prior to the withdrawal from Vietnam, Australia had been involved in continuous overseas conflict since the beginning of the Second World War. Up to the withdrawal from Papua New Guinea, Australia had been controlling territories without the consent of their population since its own inception as a self-governing entity.

This shift was in part a response to internal changes in the nature of capital accumulation. It was also a shift under pressure from the national independence movements in the colonial world and an increasingly confident - and politically dangerous - working class in the developed world.

This is not something to be uncritically celebrated, however. This was a national modernisation, part of the great worldwide trend in the late 20th century away from naked racist-colonialism towards something more subtle, in which the profits of Australian companies was prioritised ahead of national chauvinism. Labor, arguing consistently that the health of Australian capital is closely bound up with the well-being of Australian workers, was able to push through a number of modernising measures that eliminated or minimised contradictions traditionally present in Australian society, while allowing profits to increase. The Accord was arguably the ultimate contribution of Labor to this process of class collaboration.

Two factors condemn this apparently win–win situation. The first is that it is a deal with the capitalist class, by which the leaders of the working class in the Labor Party get power and prestige and become a politically independent caste, but the workers themselves are ultimately denied their birth-right, namely political control over what they produce. The second is the lot of non-Australians in all this. While the rhetoric suggests that the political independence of, say, the people of Papua New Guinea, represents the opportunity for them to achieve economic prosperity on a par with Australia ultimately, the simple economic facts utterly belie any such idea. On the economic level, imperialism continued unabated; albeit in a different form. Australian capital would never accept an Australian withdrawal from anywhere unless it could see a profit-maximisation. Of course, occupation is also made unprofitable by resistance of various kinds, as in the case in Vietnam. Self-government of Papua New Guinea, like democracy everywhere, was always about channelling resistance in such a way that it does not become disruptive to the operations of capital, even if this meant some concession in the bottom line. This led eventually to independence. The 'leftwing' of capital accepts the reality that without such concessions to the exploited, there will be disruption to its operations in the form of direct resistance. It chooses therefore to make a strategic withdrawal from a battle, in the hope of continuing to win the war. Resistance has today on many fronts dropped to levels which allow for a regrowth in naked exploitation and accumulation, however.

The proof of the utter callousness of Australia, the Labor leadership and the left of Australian capital was its complicity with the genocidal annexation of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975. Although this in fact happened shortly after Whitlam’s dismissal, his administration had already greenlighted it. One would be right to point out that the go-ahead was ultimately given by the US rather than Australia. For the US, having Suharto bulldozer a left-wing enclave in the archipelago made clear sense. But for Australia too, this was true. While Whitlam’s government - under pressure from the working class - was of a more tradition reformist and social-democratic bent, its overseas policies were mostly in line with America’s, which had in this period shifted to a policy of withdrawal from Vietnam and recognition of the People's Republic of China, in other words towards a new strategy for dealing with Asian communism through more subtle methods.

Australia is now in an odd situation apropos of imperialism given its subordinate relation to the US in particular. This has led to some confusion, specifically that of the now-nugatory Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), which has maintained that Australia is a victim of imperialism, a country that needs to be liberated. Of course, Australia has a head of state who is a foreigner, but we all know that this means little. America and Britain don't care much in general about what happens in Australia of course, but about Australia's foreign policy, its trade policy and certain domestic policies which might affect US or British interests. As a result, Australia buys American military hardware, signs a farcical, catamite's free trade agreement with the US, and sends its sons to serve as auxiliaries to the US military in its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most foreign direct investment in Australia is from US and British concerns (a combined $265.3bn out of $428.4bn in 2004). However, this economic reality does not change the fact that Australian capital exists in its own right; albeit in an increasingly interpentrated global economy. (Global foreign direct invetment flows worldwide doubled from 1987 to 1992, then doubled again during the following five years to around US$450 billion in 1997). Foreign ownership of equity in Australian enterprise groups was 30.8 per cent in 2004. Australian capital is spread widely throughout the world in close alliance with British and US capital, and is itself also rapaciously imperialist. In most parts of the world, it more or less relies on the protection of British or US military might. It is only in Australia's own 'back yard', where George Bush has appointed John Howard his "deputy sheriff", where Australian capital is often far larger than that of other countries, and where the Australian military may operate directly in small and powerless adjacent territories, that Australian imperialism is clearly visible.

Indeed, under Howard, Australia is again flexing its muscles and expanding its imperial apparatus to the greatest extent since the Whitlam withdrawal. Not only is Australia doing its bit for its alliance with the rest of the Anglosphere in helping to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also in its own right now on its own account occupying two of its neighbours, East Timor and the Solomon Islands, and threatens to invade others. The economic interests here are patent. Australia, having helped the East Timorese to liberation from a genocidal occupation by Indonesia to which it had long turned a blind eye, now shows its true colours by shamelessly trying to grab its natural resources. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) are also deployed in these missions, and in Vanuatu (where the Australian ruling class likes to hide its money, which the Australian state is trying to dig up) and Nauru (where Australia imprisons refugees) besides.

Australia is readying for further imperial expansion, moreover. Both the AFP and ADF (Australian Defence [sic] Force – the Australian military) are in the process of major expansion, on the back of recent expansions to the ADF and the extension of the field of action of ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service – Australia's external secret service) in 2004.

Conventional wisdom, the kind you hear from blokes in the pub, will tell you that Australia is a country with a small population, vast size and small military, vulnerable to all comers, and in principle Indonesia. This is a grotesque miscalculation. It is analogous to claiming that the wolf is threatened by the flock of sheep because there are so many more of them. It’s true that a hundred sheep could maul a wolf to death, but equally obvious that this does not happen and will never happen. It’s true that there are enough Arabs to defeat the state of Israel, but this has never ever happened, at least until this year, when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was halted by a new breed of sheep with horns – but this is merely a sheep the wolf does not know how to eat yet, not a sheep that will hunt the wolf.

Australia, like its pack-mate Israel, is a wolf, which is to say, an imperialist nation. Imperialism is closely correlated with richness: imperialism is essentially the control of foreign resources by one country’s companies such that profits from the other country flow to the imperialist country. Australia is rich, hence the Australian ruling class’s own diverse holdings overseas, perhaps most notably in the minerals sector, which are mined using cheap, super-exploited native labour to give Australia’s rich the greatest possible profits. In order to maintain such a grossly iniquitous arrangement against the natural tendency of humans to resist exploitation, imperialism must include a powerful coercive element. While the colonialist form of imperialism in which troops from imperialist countries were directly dispatched to colonies to discipline local people has declined in favour of delegation to local state apparatuses, there are significant signs of its resurgence. The poorer nations themselves tend to resist imperialism, and therefore need to be threatened with a coercive apparatus, ultimately leading to the carrying through of such threats in full-scale invasions, as well as bribed through the enrichment of local elites.

Hence, Australia maintains a military, which acts in concert with other imperialist militaries, those of nations with whose ruling classes the Australian ruling class is in synergy. It is true that the ADF has fewer personnel than many armies of poorer nations, about 53,000. Although it is expanding fairly rapidly, by 1,485 last year, and 2,600 this year, though of course recruitment is not easy at present, given the vastly better employment opportunities available to most young Australians (maybe Howard’s trying to bring on a recruitment crisis so large it necessitates reintroduction of conscription, though that’s never been popular in Australia), it is nevertheless miniscule compared to the military of, say, India, which has nearly two-and-a-half million members, or close to 50 times as many troops as the Australian force.

However, in modern war, the major determinant is not manpower, but technology, which of course largely means money. In the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last occasion on which a first world army fought a third world army, albeit with the third world army having a defensive advantage, the purely-military kill ratio was 542:17,298 or approximately 1:32.

Certainly, Australia is not about to invade India any time soon. But nor is India about to invade Australia. Their troop carriers would be bombed out of the water before they landed. They would be lucky to take Broome and would never advance beyond it.

India spent nearly US$17 billion on its military in 2004. So did Australia. That is, they spend about the same amount on its military. That is to say that Australia spends as much on preparing to fight wars as does a country that

  • has a population of over a billion, making it the second most populous country in the world
  • has nuclear weapons
  • has two nuclear-armed neighbours, Pakistan and China, with whom it shares significant borders, and with whom it has fought bloody wars in the past, and with whom tension still simmers
  • fought a defensive war as recently as 1999
  • faces at least four domestic guerrilla movements
  • faces several actually-active (as opposed to merely suspected and invisible) terrorist movements.

In Australia’s immediate region, Oceania, it is the superpower. In South-East Asia, China and India are also regional superpowers, but Australia is still also a force to be reckoned with in comparison with these.

Why does Australia need such a mighty military? To conduct wars overseas in pursuit of imperialist interests, of course, the same interests that mean that Australia has about the same GDP as India, a country with 500 times Australia’s population. The two spend about the same proportion of that GDP on weapons to fight wars with (although India is today surpassing Australia on both indices for the first time – until recently it was well behind). India uses its weapons to threaten and cajole and support pliant regimes in its local sphere of influence, the even poorer nations of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka. Australia does much the same thing in the South Pacific. Apropos of America’s vastly superior financial and military might, both are subordinates, however. For many years, during the Cold War, the Indian ruling class aligned itself as much with the Soviet Union as with the U.S. ruling class, but in the current global configuration of forces, American imperialism is effectively the only game in town. Formerly autonomous nations, such as Russia, India and China now play the game of allowing unbridled American investment, American ownership, American exploitation in their economies in the hope of becoming rich.

Of course, for Australia, this makes little difference. Australia has been aligned to US imperialism for decades, and before that to British imperialism, which in the last fifty years has itself become an adjunct to US imperialism, as British foreign policy today demonstrates, with a supposedly-left-wing British regime falling over itself to co-operate in the reckless expansionism of radical right-wing American administration.

Australian imperialism is tied to American imperialism because it is part and parcel of Australian capitalism, the rule of the Australian bourgeoisie, the control of Australian society by the capitalist class, whose rapacious profiteering is Australia’s ultimate foreign policy principle, and because the Australian bourgeoisie is allied to the American bourgeoisie.

There is little discernible difference between Labor and Liberal apropos of Australian imperialism, precisely because they are both ardent supporters of Australian capitalism. While the ALP may baulk at certain pieces of adventurism, usually due to the pressure from below by the labour movement, ultimately the only rhetoric the ALP today seems capable of producing is a left-capitalist rhetoric which argues that says that in fact the Australian economy is benefited by more peaceful policies than the Liberals are advocating. The ALP continues to peddle policies to its working class base in which the interests of Australian capital are identified generally with the interests of Australian workers. Contradiction between the two is almost never explicitly acknowledged by either political party. The WorkChoices legislation, clearly legislation for the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie against workers, is presented by neither side explicitly as such, but rather as good for Australia by the right and bad for Australia by the left – only the socialist left (small ‘s’, small ‘l’) of the ALP is capable of actually pointing out that there is a class conflict here.

When it comes to Australia’s imperial expansion, real voices of criticism are relegated to the far left. All sections of the Australian media uncritically accept Australia’s most recent invasion of East Timor as being a simple matter of an invitation by a friendly government for assistance. Such presentations are disgraceful hogwash, however. The deployment of the military in foreign contexts is clear interference in the internal affairs of other nations, and effectively abnegate those countries’ sovereignty. There are inevitably forces in any country who would welcome any forces who intervene from without on their side. Certainly this is the case in East Timor and the Solomons; such was the case too in Iraq. It is quite clear however that in intervening in East Timor, Australia backs its friends, and wins favours for itself while its friends remain in power, which they assuredly will with such powerful backing. Which is to say, that Australian imperialism, both as practised by Australian companies and by the Australian state, is essentially a subversive, corrupting force in the region. Australian ministers and chief executives generally complain about corruption whenever they don’t get their way, but in reality the converse is the case: those who are pliant to Australian interests have been bought-out by Australian largesse.


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