Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Materialism, idealism and the IR laws

by John Bailey

A world outlook is a general account of the nature of the world and of people’s place in it. Our world outlook is often known as our “ideology” and comprises our political, philosophical, ethical and aesthetic view of the world.

It is impossible for people to think in isolation from society. Our thinking is greatly influenced by the type of society we live in. Ideologies are not imported from some other world but are produced here on earth by people who, whether they like it or not, live in a society dominated by class relations and class struggle.

Therefore, there is today no ideology which does not embody a class outlook or which does not take sides, knowingly or unknowing, in the class struggle.

In general it is the privileged and wealthy members of society who have the means to express and propagate their ideas in the form of systematic ideology. Such people have always been the exploiting classes. It is their outlook which has dominated popular thinking, just as they and their outlook dominate most other aspects of society.

The ruling class deliberately propagates an ideology based on idealism, to disguise the real nature of class relationships and its position of power and privilege, how it came about and how it is maintained. Idealism posits “unseen” and / or “hidden” forces, which cannot be tested, to explain natural and social phenomena. “Intelligent design” is a current example. As such, social forces especially are beyond the control of humanity. In this sense, idealism is essentially a conservative force. It is an ideology that is used to help maintain the domination of the privileged by perpetuating illusions in people’s minds about their true social condition.

Materialism, on the other hand, holds that the social and natural world has an objective existence. Materialism seeks to explain natural and social phenomena in terms material processes, in terms of tangible and testable realities. Investigation, experience and practice are the hallmarks of materialism.

Materialism is not a dogmatic system. It is rather a way of explaining events, of conceiving of things and their interconnections, without resorting to fantasy or non-verifiable “causes”. Materialism is opposed to idealism. On every question we find materialist and idealist interpretations, materialist and idealist ways of trying to understand it.

Rich and poor

For example, if we try to explain why there are rich and poor people, there are, historically, two common but very different answers.

Idealists maintain the illusion that the rich are people who are far-sighted and who look after their resources, make the most of their opportunities and consequently grow rich. Others are wasteful and stupid and so remain poor. Idealists would have us believe that it is all down to human nature, that it’s a matter of luck, of providence.

Materialists on the other hand seek the reason for the disparity in wealth in the material economic conditions of social life. If society is divided into rich and poor it is basically because the production of the material means of life is organised in such a way that a small minority have the possession and control of the means of production while the vast majority have to work for a living.

Idealism often generates a “false consciousness”. It is used to justify the actions of the ruling class and their representatives in government and mystify, even confuse, the working class.

IR changes

We can see the role played by this idealist ideology very clearly when we look at how the present conservative government in Canberra is trying to fool the public into believing that the IR changes they are inflicting on workers are somehow going to result in an improvement in their working conditions. In fact, the opposite is true.

By discouraging collective bargaining and promoting individual contracts it is clear that the goal of the “Work Choices” legislation is to shift the bargaining power in favour of employers and hence increase the level of exploitation of the working class.

The bargaining power of workers is to be restricted further by significantly restraining workers’ ability to strike, by limiting what they can include in collective agreements and by making it more difficult for union officials to enter workplaces.

Government propaganda would have us believe the world consists of “independent atoms”, each complete in itself, concerned only with itself. By means of such ideas they seek to disguise their own aims of domination and profit. Worker and capitalist, they suggest, are both free agents, free “human atoms” who both choose to enter into a mutually-agreed upon contract, the one to work, the other to provide capital and pay wages.

IR myths

The myths on which the IR laws are based suggest that bosses are universally fair people and that all individual workers can negotiate on an equal footing with employers and their organisations. Yet if these myths were true there would have been no need to form unions in the first place.

To swallow this myth means workers can simply trust the big-hearted employers to look after their interests. Yet would those employees of James Hardie whose lives were ruined by their products say that their employer looked after their interests? Or did those employers that left workers without wages and entitlements when their companies folded give any consideration to their employees’ interests?

We are told that the changes to the IR laws are necessary in order to achieve a more “flexible” labour market which will result in lower unemployment, higher productivity, faster economic growth and improved living standards.

However, the real aim of the IR legislation is to seriously weaken the bargaining power of the working class and leave individual workers at the mercy of employers with virtually no protection or redress against gross injustices.

Driving the attack on working conditions and workers’ rights are the imperatives of the globalisation process. Companies everywhere are compelled to increase their exploitation of labour as the “race to the bottom” gathers breakneck speed.

The significance of the changes to the industrial relations laws is being hidden under a massive government propaganda onslaught which is costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The government is forced into this barrage of falsehoods because the changes they so desperately want to introduce are designed to fundamentally alter the way wages and conditions of work are negotiated. If they were to tell the truth about the far-reaching impact of these changes they would be confronted with massive popular opposition. As workers learn the truth, the opposition is growing.

Government propaganda is based on the lie that under the changes workers will lose none of their current entitlements. What they omit to say is that this is only true if workers are to continue working under their current awards, something that the new system is designed to do away with.

The misinformation is designed for one purpose only — to create illusions about what the changes to industrial relations laws are really about.

The reality is not hard to find. Already there are tell-tale signs of what life for workers will be like under the new IR regime.

Individual contracts approved by the Office of the Employment Advocate, which is to replace the Industrial Relations Commission, strip workers of paid holidays and sick leave, extend working hours and have no provision for shift or public holiday penalty rates.

Maintenance workers at Boeing who insist on refusing individual contracts and want to retain their right to collective bargaining were locked out of their workplace.

Workers at Dana, a factory in Melbourne are facing a 5% drop in pay, redundancy payments cut in half, waiting for a longer period before they can access long service leave and the loss of rostered days off. New employees face a 20% pay cut. Top-up payments to injured workers would also be reduced and income protection lost.

These actions by employers and those which are sure to come, expose the Government’s lies about what the changes to IR laws are all about.

In all cases the employers are refusing to budge on their demands to lower wages and conditions. They know that the changes to IR laws are in their favour. In fact it is for their benefit and indeed at their behest that they are being introduced.

The Government’s claim that the IR laws would not result in workers losing wages and conditions and that pay and conditions would be protected by law is exposed for what it is, mere camouflage to hide the fact that the new IR laws are being introduced to help maximise the profits of big business, to help corporations compete in an era of rapid globalisation.

It is very difficult, however, to continually deceive workers as they are faced with the cold realities of an exploited working-class existence every day of their lives. They know that workplaces don’t work the way their class enemies would have them believe. They know that the work they do and the pay and conditions under which they do it are an important part of their daily lives. They also know that collectively they have more power than when they negotiate as individuals.

Consequently, there is growing opposition to the IR changes as their negative impact on workers’ wages and conditions becomes more apparent.

Materialism vs idealism

The difference between a materialist and idealist conception of reality can be very important in a practical sense. They are opposed ways of interpreting and understanding every question and express opposite approaches to practice which can lead to very different conclusions in terms of practical activity.

Armed with a materialist understanding of society we can begin to see the way to change it for the better. We can see how best to defeat the attack now being mounted on workers’ pay and conditions.

The radical characteristics of dialectical materialism are embodied in the two features of Marxist philosophy which give it its name — dialectics and materialism.

In order to understand things so as to change them we must study them, not according to the dictates of any abstract system, but being fully cognisant of their changes and interconnections. This is an important aspect of a dialectical analysis.

Change takes the form of quantitative and qualitative change. The Howard Government’s IR laws did not appear out of the blue, but follow earlier changes.

The 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord resulted in wages being based mainly on productivity. The concept of “bargaining” was introduced. Trade-offs became the norm. The award system was undermined. Enterprise bargaining began to replace industry-wide struggles for wages and conditions. Solidarity actions by workers were outlawed.

Legislation introduced by the Hawke and Keating Government allowed employers to undermine awards by introducing individual contracts. The Weipa dispute in the mid-1990s was over this issue.

The Howard Government faced massive opposition when it introduced its first wave of workplace “reforms”, which sought to make individual contracts (AWAs) widespread. The opposition to the current “WorkChoices” legislation is deeper and more determined. The “struggle of opposites” — a prime principle of dialectics — is well and truly at work. Life does not stand still.

Dialectics demands we study things in their real movement. We must be objective and properly locate phenomena in their material context. We must understand all the influences at work. A materialist is a seeker of truth.

Capitalist offensive

For example, with regards to the IR legislation it is necessary to see the connection between this legislation and other attacks being waged by the capitalist class that result in lower living conditions for increasing numbers of working people and the denial of their democratic rights.

These attacks include; deregulation of the economy, the effect of privatisation and the winding back of funding for essential service, massive increased spending on the military, changes to taxation which are of benefit to the rich at the expense of the poor, the plunder of natural resources and the consequent degradation of the environment.

The draconian anti-democratic legislation being enacted in concert with these policies is designed to combat the growing opposition to these attacks. The laws which are supposedly necessary to fight the threat of terrorism are really about the denial of basic democratic rights designed to prevent people from taking actions to defend themselves.

The ruling class is well aware of the struggle of opposites and knows its anti-terrorism laws will mainly target domestic social and political opposition.

Historical experience clearly illustrates against whom “anti-terrorism” laws are primarily used. Apartheid South Africa had such laws. So did Nazi Germany. A host of other examples could be mentioned.

The unreserved support given to these policies by big business through their national and international organisations clearly shows who stands to benefit from these fundamental changes.

The IR offensive also exposes the role played by the legal and political systems in capitalist countries in propping up capitalist power, in protecting the rights and privileges of the bourgeoisie.

When the connections are made what we see is that workers face an unprecedented attack on their rights and living conditions with an accompanying limitation on their ability to defend themselves.

We must set aside preconceived ideas and fancies about things, and strive to make our theories correspond to the real conditions of material existence — and that means that our outlook and theory must be materialistic.

It must explain the actions of the capitalist class and the government which serves it in terms of the “barriers” to further exploitation of the working class being encountered by the capitalists. If our explanation of the IR offensive does not encompass the globalisation process, capitalist competition, capitalism’s need for increased exploitation of labour, and other material processes at work, then we fail to bring any real understanding to our target audience.

An idealist approach is not confined to the capitalist class, although others may not be deliberate in their intent to conceal the truth, as the ideologues of capitalism are. Many well-meaning people think that what is wrong with capitalism is that goods and services are unfairly distributed and that if everyone, including capitalists, accept the idea of fairness and justice then the evils of capitalism would be done away with.

Others suggest that it is the hatred that Howard and other conservatives have for workers that motivates the attacks on their wages and conditions.

The idealism of these beliefs lies in the assumption that it is simply the ideas that we hold which determine the way we live and the way society is organised. Those who think in this way do not look for the material causes.

What determines the way goods and services are distributed in capitalist society is not the ideas that people hold about the distribution of wealth but people’s level of income, which is very much determined by the place they occupy in the system of capitalist production. The working class is exploited. Workers do not own any means of production. The working class produces the surplus value which enriches the owners and controllers of the means of production, the capitalist class. Capital’s share of goods and services far outstrips the share gained by the majority, who own no capital and are forced to work for a living, subject to the conditions of capitalist exploitation.

So long as the capitalist mode of production remains in existence there will be growing extremes of wealth and poverty. The task is to unite all the exploited, to resist the current attacks and to find the way to challenge the power and privileges of capital. Ultimately, the power of the capitalist class must be replaced by the power of the working class so that society can be reconstructed and run for the benefit of the majority. Our materialist understanding of the world must lead to the liberation of humanity.

Weapon of reaction

Throughout history idealism has been a weapon of reaction. It has been used as a means of justifying the role of the exploiting class and deceiving the exploited.

In contrast to this, every real social advance, every increase in the productive forces, every advance in science is assisted by materialist ideas and at the same time, strengthens the materialist outlook. The whole history of human thought has been the history of the fight of materialism against idealism, of the overcoming of idealist illusions and fantasies, so that progressive humanity can restructure and thereby improve its conditions of life.

Materialism teaches workers to have confidence in themselves. It demonstrates that there are no mysteries beyond their understanding and that working people are very capable of understanding nature and society and are in a position to change both for the better.

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