Australia


Among the many intriguing delights of Pyongyang is the Juche friendship wall:

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Plaques from nearly every country in the world represent the various Juche study groups and DPRK friendship groups. I even managed to find one from Australia:

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Many of the plaques date from the 1970s and 1980s, but a few from more recent times. However, since the Australian one comes from 1976, I thought it was time to update the representation. I gathered the Australians in our group for a photograph:

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On our recent 9,000 kilometre rail journey, on one of the trains we were given a little bag with lost of interesting items. One such item had this on the back:

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The long list of items are fair enough, but ‘positive energy’? I couldn’t help wondering if it too is organic.

Australasia’s own Historical Materialism conference will meet again this year: 17-18 July at the University of Sydney. More information here, but I have copied the call for papers.

Historical Materialism Australasia 2015: Reading Capital, Class & Gender Today

The year 2015 marks a series of conspicuous anniversaries. Three books in particular celebrate significant milestones this year. Raewyn Connell and Terry Irving’s seminal Class Structure in Australian History was published thirty-five years ago, Louis Althusser and his students published Reading Capital fifty years ago, and Silvia Federici produced Wages Against Housework forty years ago. These works function at once as indices of the diversity of approaches licensed by the Marxist tradition – historical sociology, philosophical inquiry, polemical ardor – while also sharing that singularly Marxist commitment to the ruthless criticism of all that exists (including Marxism itself) in light of the real movement that abolishes the present state of things. It is in that spirit of diversity and critical engagement with the world as it is that we announce the 2015 Historical Materialism Australasia Conference.

The diversity in the works commemorated above is not limited to their methodology. The issues they address remain alive today, as questions of politics or scholarship or both: the interaction of class and race in settler colonial societies; the place of class and labour in historical inquiry; the concept of a transitional period; the philosophical status of Marx’s work and its relationship to other forms of knowledge; the concept of critique itself; the question of Capital’s continued reproduction; the relationship between feminism(s) and Marxism; the role of care labour in a theory of work; the place of the wage in capitalist society. This list does not exhaust the challenges these works undertook to address nor, of course, the specific challenges and opportunities that confront us today. But it is the wager of this conference that the vitality of historical materialism is precisely in this propensity, even bias, towards interdisciplinarity, seen not as a conference buzzword, but as the only adequate response to the society that faces us.

With that in mind, we welcome submissions of 250-word abstracts for papers on the questions above or any others that engage with this broader tradition, critically or otherwise; panel proposals should include short abstracts for each paper coupled with an outline of the panel as a whole. We especially welcome contributions from activists and scholars outside of (or peripheral to) the academy. All submissions should be emailed to hmaustralasia [at] gmail.com by Friday the 15th of May.

That was the hottest ride I have ever done: 420 km in 4 days, from Armidale (up north) to Newcastle. On the hottest day, the temperature topped 45 degrees. On the others, it hovered between the high 30s and low 40s. That’s hot enough to melt the bitumen under my tyres. Day after day, I heard the clicking sound of tyres running over globules of molten bitumen. I saw strips and spots of the shiny black stuff all over the road. And from time to time, I had to stop for a while, when my vision blurred and I became light headed – drinking copious amounts of water and getting my body temperature down to reasonable levels. Today, on the last day, it was a cool 36 degrees, but only because of the gale-force headwind.

It began with a glorious train journey to Armidale:

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More than twenty years ago I lived in this town, a university town up north. The railway line to Armidale had been reopened under a Labor government, but I never had the chance to take the train. Now I had that chance:

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Beside the glorious railway station, the Gospel Hall (Brethren) still does its thing:

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I checked out old haunts, when my kids were little. At the house where we lived, I was blown away by the fully grown pine trees. I had planted two of them 23 years ago, knowing that they were slow growing. I nurtured them as seedlings and now they are grand trees:

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After a night in my tent in Armidale (where it is cool, even in summer), I set off through through countryside I still love:

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That’s an old signalman’s cottage on the railway line. After rolling up and down through the tableland, I had the breath-taking drop down the Moonbi mountain:

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Only to come across one of the highlights of the ride: the Moonbi chook (chicken):

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I have told stories about this chook, which adorns the park in the village of Moonbi. The village, you see, is a chook growing centre. I never thought I would see the big chook again, but it has a fresh coat of paint and sits there still, sagely surveying its fellows busily popping out bumnuts. After a stop in Tamworth, which boasts guitar-shaped pools (it is the country music capital of Australia), I was able to indulge in my fascination with abandoned cottages in the midst of nowhere:

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While coming to terms with the fact that the only thing blocking the blazing sun was my body and my bicycle:

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My next stop was the magical Murrurundi, which is almost as magical as Newcastle, only smaller:

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I tend to judge a place on whether I could stay a while and write. Murrurundi is such a place:

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The next day was the real scorcher: 45 degrees over 120 km. I was busted by the end. But not before I became intrigued by the regular appearance of bottles on the side of the road, filled with bright yellow or orange liquid:

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Yes, it’s piss. Drivers – truckies or whoever – seem to enjoy pissing into a bottle and tossing it out of the window. After viewing quite a number, I came to the conclusion that they either need to drink more water or see a doctor – soon.

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On the last day, with its stiff headwind, I rode on a new section of freeway – the Hunter Expressway. While I lament the fact that the billions spent on such constructions could produce some wonderful railways, I am also fascinated by the engineering. Local Aborigines were part of the planning and construction, with place names and routes marked by song lines. The treatment of water courses means they are now cleaner than they were before. And along the route much concern was given to animals and their need to cross the road. Along here there was very little road kill, for tunnels and overhead passageways had been constructed for their passing. I was intrigued by the possum bridge at one point:

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Too soon does the ride come to an end, even if you are knackered. So I tarried long in Jesmond Brush, in Newcastle itself. I had an early dinner, lit a fire and boiled a billy for tea:

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But eventually I wound my way home.

We used to be known as a paradise for workers, for all sorts of reasons. One was the world’s first legislation for the minimum wage, back in 1907. Much of the rest of the world followed our example, although we’ve usually been in front with the level of the minimum wage. Currently, it stands at $16.87 an hour.

However, it’s always been a target by the capitalist bosses at the big end of town. It curtails productivity, they cry; it increases unemployment, since there is less money to go around. The last point is complete crap, as even The Economist admits. There’s no evidence that it raises unemployment and a good amount to show that it lowers unemployment, at least within a capitalist system. Which explains why there seems to be a push to raise the minimum wage in the USA from its current parlous level.

Meanwhile, here in the land of Oz, the Productivity Commission has suggested dumping the minimum wage. Yes, the bosses are having another go, although they really should be up front about why: it lowers their profit margins.

Back to the workers paradise. If they had been serious about that 100 years ago, they would have set a maximum wage as well.

When I was in Beijing, a somewhat aristocratic Englishman was asked what he thought of Australia. ‘I have been there only once he said’, with evident disdain, ‘but it struck me as very British?’ I was somewhat nonplussed, wondering what Australia he had visited. I am by nature a generous person, assuming the best of people. So after pondering his odd comment for a few moments, I actually managed to say, ‘Every now and then, the odd person arrives with such an expectation. The intelligent ones soon learn how mistaken they are’.

One of the great things about being in remote parts for a while is that you miss out on the news. So I returned from the latest bicycle tour to find out that the pugilist Tony Abbott (our despised prime minister) has finally managed to pick a fight. A boxer from way past, he was known as a fighter with a simple, crude, but effective strategy: breathe heavily, sweat, close your eyes and throw everything at your opponent. He won all four of his bouts in the second round. Disdaining headgear, he seems to have blocked any punches thrown at him with his face. He took up boxing after being dropped from the rugby team, but while he did play rugby, he was the first to sink a short jab into an opponent when he thought the referee wasn’t looking. He carried this pugilistic approach into student politics, on one occasion hitting the wall with his fists on either side of the head of an opponent. Fast forward to today: when stuff-up after stuff-up happens for a prime minister like Abbott, what do you do? Pick an international fight. First, he tried to pick a fight with Russia over Ukraine, proposing to send Australian soldiers. Putin, it seems, found it nothing more than amusing. Now he has picked a fight with the Islamic State, and succeeded. Busting to send soldiers to Iraq before almost before anyone else, he pulled a political stunt. Last week a massive police operation threw everything at supposed ‘terrorists’. The result: two arrests, with most of the sixty odd people detained released soon afterwards. The Islamic State obliged with a fatwa against Americans, Europeans – ‘especially the spiteful and cursed French’ (love that phrase) – and as an afterthought, Australians and Canadians. Abbott has the fight he so desperately wanted, except that now it is on the international stage.

Meanwhile, there has been much talk of ‘intelligence’ by ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). They now have yet more powers to monitor anyone in Australia and to decide who might be a ‘risk.’ As they do so, I can’t help remembering an insightful piece I read many years ago concerning the recruitment profiles for such organisations. They prefer people of moderate intelligence. Too little and you can’t do the job; too much and you may question the nature of the work you have to do. But a moderate intelligence ensures you are more likely to do the job faithfully, without asking questions. Obviously, we are in good hands.

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