Image for It’s time to meet the people’s needs

The printed version of Australia’s most highly recognised economist of the 20th Century, the late Dr. H.C Coombs,’ 1970 Boyer lectures, sent to me by a good friend, makes interesting reading.
The lectures were published by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the days before Australia was moved to so called economic rationalism, or economic fundamentalist and right wing practices and the ABC lost its heart.

I will discuss some of the work of Coombs and his American counterpart, J.K. Galbraith and highlight the sharp contrasts, when compared to the ideologically driven economically unsustainable and ecologically suicidal theories of today’s mainstream economists.  The attitudes of both Coombs and Galbraith to Marxist analysis of capitalism will also be briefly commented on; as will the sharp differences between Lenin and, particularly, the American Marxist metal worker cum research worker and writer Harry Braverman on the issue of the liberation of workers.
The work of Braverman bears the mark of being influenced by both his own actual experience and the writings of the Italian Communist leader and martyr of the struggle against fascism, Antonio Gramsci. The writings of Gramsci were in effect buried for several decades, they offer a different approach to that of Lenin to some very basic questions.

In his 1970 lectures Coombs argued for a number of reforms of the institutions of society that would have weakened the current control of private corporations over our societies. He questioned the adequacy of our social economic system from a number of points but most particularly for its waste of our natural resources.  The brief samples from Galbraith’s writings reproduced in this piece indicate how directly and sharply critical of the corporation’s role and practices he was.

Coombs questioned the mad waste of natural resources for short term profit that, forty years ago, placed Australia firmly on a road to the ecological, economic and social crises that now beset us and promise ever more future problems. On page 50 near the end of the 5th and last of his series of lectures Coombs makes the point that “… within the economic system every thing is related to and affected by everything else.”

On page 22 of the published lectures he had written with enormous foresight “… to regard the proceeds from selling capital assets as indistinguishable from income earned from current and repeatable production is not merely incompetent accounting but also irresponsible behaviour and a betrayal of our heirs and successors.” This is a trenchant and apt criticism of current approaches.  On page 23-24 Coombs argues against oil exploration on the Great Barrier Reef.  The logical extension to today’s situation of these arguments of Coombs would be to oppose the destruction of the natural beauties that exist on Australia’s more northerly western coastline.

In short what gives our current generation any moral right to destroy the resources necessary to a human future for the sake of short term profits for a few and short term jobs for a very small minority of workers.  On page 23 Coombs wrote of these natural assets “Frequently, too, their immediate exploitation may threaten other assets and possibilities. Let me comment briefly on one or two.”  He then goes on to discuss in some detail particularly the many reasons why the Great Barrier Reef should be protected. An argument that could well be valid for the natural wonders on Australia’s West Coast and certainly is valid as regards stopping the slaughter of the natural wonders and potential wealth of our forests in Tasmania and elsewhere.

Coombs came to recognise the vital and central importance of environmental issues earlier than did his American counterpart J.K. Galbraith. It is, however, well worth recounting Galbraith’s warning in his last book written over two decades after Coombs Boyer lectures. Galbraith wrote “As earlier indicated, environmental concerns, both those which are contemporary and those affecting future generations, especially the latter, are inherently in conflict with the motivating force of the market economy” .(The Good Society page p84 pub.  1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company Boston New York.)

Galbraith was not a Marxist but he obviously knew something of and respected Marx’s contribution. He was for instance quite direct in his assessments of the role of the corporations he wrote :-  “ … they manage prices to which the not so-sovereign consumer responds.  And the corporation also shapes the tastes of consumers to its products. No one can fail to be aware of this power.  The advertising that does it dominates our vision and pre-empts our ears.” Galbraith paid much more direct attention than did Coombs to the power Corporations exercise over governments and public officials.

For example he also wrote in the same pages from which the immediately above quote is taken.:- “The corporation also exercises power in and by way of government.  This too is agreed. Its payments to politicians and public officials are believed by no one except the recipients to be acts of philanthropy or affection. And less mentioned but more important is the naturally advantageous relationship between the modern corporation and the public bureaucracy.’’ (For full context see Galbraith J.K. “The Age of Uncertainty’ 1977 pp257-259)

In his final paragraphs in the last of his Boyer lectures, Coombs had commented:-  “There is evidence that the hysterical pursuit of economic growth is distorting the guiding values of our civilisation and reducing man to the level simply of an instrument of production.”  This insight is a tribute to Coombs capacity to for-see some consequences of the neoliberal, economic rationalist or fundamentalist economic theories that his then Party of choice, the ALP, introduced into Australia some few years after he wrote this condemnation of fixation on growth.

From the land of the 5 day week for most and relative full employment we have become all too close to being a land of the virtual 24 -7 for great many in employment.  As a result of this and other factors there is considerably increased unemployment or short term only employment for far too many people. We have simultaneously become a land in which the gap between haves and have nots is consistently increasing.

Twenty years on, from his Boyer Lectures, in the final paragraph his book “The Return of Scarcity” Coombs was to write “…we are not inescapably dependent on this flood of commodities which our economic system is designed to produce.  There are conceivable lifestyles more modest in their material demands, less destructive of the physical environment-…”  This is a clear rejection of the current push for growth regardless of the ecological and social costs.  Had Coombs for example drawn on the last of the above quotes from Galbraith to indicate from whence comes the economic, political and social cultural power standing in the way of the changes he so correctly identifies as being necessary it could perhaps have made a difference.

Coomb’s position is perhaps explained if we go back to his Boyer Lectures where he is exploring or commenting on various theories.  On page 51 he wrote “The formal study of sociology has so far concerned itself primarily with sectional problems or the study of limited and unusual communities.”  Now this may or may not be largely true of the most widely accepted areas of such study,  I am personally in no position to judge. However I do know that it is certainly not true of the writings of Marx.  Coombs comments on Marx on page 41 of his published Boyer Lectures are limited to a dismissal of Marx coupled with Lenin.  Coupled with Lenin, Stalin, the Soviet Union and the so called Communist Party of China—- Marx, as thus interpreted, is not by any means necessarily Marx as written.

However coupled with the Italian Marxist scholar and martyr of the struggle against Fascism: or with people like the American metal worker and later Marxist Scholar Harry Braverman and several others Marx is particularly relevant.  As Tasmanian scholar, thinker and writer, Dr Peter Hay has suggested:- Marxism- ” .... as prescription… is now thoroughly discredited, with the practical experiments conducted in its name being dismantled around the world, and some of this discredit inevitably, though perhaps unjustly, spills across to analytical insights.” (Hay Peter, 1992,)

The prescriptions were written by Lenin and later Stalin.  The comments of Braverman revealing Lenin’s approach to Frederick Taylor’s, so called ‘scientific management’ ideas are informative.  Taylor’s ideas promoted what was in effect a system that introduced virtual control of workers every action in the various work processes by representatives of management.  Braverman wrote:- “Lenin himself repeatedly urged the study of of Frederick W. Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ with an eye to utilising it in Soviet Industry”  (Braverman 1974 Page 12 )True Lenin saw as he, himself put it the “refined brutality” of Taylorism as applied in Capitalist society.  And true Lenin was confronted with a war of invasion by several capitalist countries organised particularly by Churchill to try and crush the new Soviet State and developing a heavy industry base in what was still pre 1917 a basically feudal society and economy was a big issue.

However it seems, with the help of hindsight, that Lenin was among the many who missed the key points—namely that liberated workers as a rule produce more and better products—- and that Marxism was about liberation not subjugation of workers to petty bureaucrats and a haywire managerial system.  Taylorism involved workers being subjected to the whims and control of petty bureaucrats posing as experts.

In his introduction to Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital” Paul L. Sweezy refers to his own and Paul Baran’s Book on Monopoly capital as not having covered a subject that “occupies a central place In Marx’s study of the labor process”  He goes on to congratulate Braverman on his successful effort to largely fill this gap and at the same time draws attention to the need to also take Braverman’s work further by making a study of :-“ what may be called the subjective aspects of the development of the working class under monopoly capitalism.”  (These aspects are an important, huge and complex issue in their own right, and are now receiving attention from some scholars who, in some instances have had direct workplace experience and kept close contact with the present day work situation. (1)

Sweezy makes the point that Braverman”s ‘direct experience ‘ as an industrial worker helped equip him to do what few, if any, other than Marx have been able to do without having had direct experience of the industrial workplace.  Along with making other insights possible Braverman’s direct experience equipped him to expose, in his final chapter, “the myth of the increasingly skilled labor force”.

Braverman’s account indicates that the deskilling process in the metal and engineering trades in the USA began earlier than, for example, in the building industry in Australia.  While it is not deemed wise or polite , in some circles, to admit it what has happened, and still is happening, in the Labour force particularly in the industrial area the reality is that workers are being systematically deskilled.

This process of deskilling differs from industry to industry and could, in say the food serving industry be quite different to what is recorded immediately below about aspects of what has happened in the building industry. The level and character of the work potential and dangers in each industry differs.  But a bits and pieces skilling rather than an overall training and understanding of the industry concerned has become a common feature.

A multi skilled building worker and registered builder, who is running and has ran a successful small building business of his own for decades, in a discussion on the changes that have occurred in the 35 years since I personally last worked in it suggested to me:-  “the labour processes in the building industry have been specialised into pieces of the trade.  Unless they are extremely lucky apprentices are no longer adequately trained in all aspects of what was their trade. The, now practiced ‘on site proficiency evaluation by trade teachers’ tends to take the focus off testing what the apprentice being assessed has learnt about the trade as a whole. The widespread practice of Sub contracting now in vogue divides workers and scatters responsibility. 

Another aspect is that building regulations require all manner of unnecessary red tape”.  He further suggests that practical measures such as making it clear to young workers that in today’s world the building industry is a quite dangerous industry and training apprentices and other building workers in how to take care and responsible action to insist on all aspects of safe practices in building work are necessary. To day workforce and management are trained to tick a box in order to absolve themselves of blame when something goes wrong.  And responsibility and self awareness of personal risk has disappeared.  Further people management is a university course with at best a token theory based understanding of skills, processes and the physical environment in the work place.

The effect of current deskilling in terms of the ‘subjective aspects of the development of the working class’ is to weaken the position of each and every worker by limiting their knowledge of the industry as a whole.  The collective effect is to weaken the position of the majority, the workers, as against the minority group with power, namely management and owners.  This is both a dangerous and un- democratic development.  The essential point to it all is that the people who actually do the work are being further disempowered as they are systematically deskilled.

Deskilling workers who actually produce the goods and services tightens the control over workers by management and in consequence the power of corporation chiefs and boards of companies.  In other words a highly organised but tiny minority are enabled to tighten their control over the overwhelming majority of the people involved. Another important aspect is that it also actually under cuts many opportunities for better quality work and more efficient work practices. The likelihood and incentive for workers to initiate better and more efficient methods of doing a particular job have been/are being undermined.

What a tragedy for the world it has been that the, in several respects quite brilliant, main founder of the Soviet Union, Lenin, was so close to the capitalist way and wide of the mark on this vital question of democracy in the work place. The tragedy will continue until among other things we develop a system that excludes opportunities for what is actually a form of bullying by bosses and sets out to ensure, democratic practices in economic planning and in the work place.

As Braverman agues it was not only Lenin but also other communists and the social democrats who regarded capitalist production methods with“ awe as source from which it was necessary to learn and borrow”(Braverman 1974 page 12).  True that, in Australia,  over 40 years ago communists like Morrie and Ruth Crowe from Melbourne and the much more widely known Jack Mundey of Green Bans fame contributed to a lot of us beginning the process of re examining our ideas about what sort of development we needed to argue for; and to involve ourselves in environmental issues.

It is regrettable that a reason for some ongoing division in the left is the continued championing of the dynamism of the capitalist market by small number of ex communists, along of course with the social democrats or in Australian terms the Labor Party.  It needs to be recognised that when Hawke and Keating turned the Labor Party into a party of business they, substantially, deprived that Party of its once working class heart.  To a limited extent the Greens have filled part of the vacuum left by the fact of Labor’s desertion of its founders and original base. But pro capitalist ideologies are still very much present in the Green and wider conservation movements.  What ever peoples views about the importance or other wise of Marx’s ‘analytical insights’ the ideas and arguments of Coombs and Galbraith provide an immediate basis for uniting a majority of people behind policies and actions for positive change.

One of the positives that have come out of the struggle against Gunns Mill in Tasmania, is the development of a broadly based environmental movement, particularly but not only in the Tamar Valley, that increasingly recognises that environmentalism, to be successful, has to consider the role of people’s expectations and the social, cultural and economic issues.  It is to be hoped that development will continue and lead to an open and widespread public debate, about the real issues, that will take the place of the Statement of Principles and the whole common ground with Gunns and Kelty mission nonsense.(2) 

The debate should not be confined to forestry issues, but rather it should clarify a proper role for economically and ecologically sustainable forestry practices. We need to change our forestry industry from the present massive cost to the public purse and to future generations it currently is, to a socially beneficial industry in an over all economy that functions to meet people’s needs.


(1) In discussing this question with a Research fellow involved it appears that some studies indicate that in semi skilled jobs and largely repetitious work workers can be induced to believe that they are being supported and valued. This is particularly so if they have some discretionary power about how they do their particular jobs they are then more inclined to find some form of contentment in their work. We humans are in many respects creatures of habit.

It also appears that where there is absence of obvious bullying some, perhaps many, workers with limited skills doing work that does not involve obvious dangers or too much physical or psychological stress can be induced to tolerate even perhaps find some limited satisfaction in what they do. This “also means people are enculturated into certain practices, ways of thinking and being. But we are enculturated in every interaction we engage in. ‘  In short habits are formed.  There can be a dumbing down factor, in terms of expectations, involved.  (When the work itself is stressful or bullying is obvious there are a variety of reactions)

It is in trades that once involved trades people having a grasp of the overall processes of the production of the product they are working on and are now denied that over all knowledge and confined to expertise in one aspect, or a few particular aspects, of the work they are involved in doing that the deskilling is particularly obvious.. There are of course other questions of a directly social character that need to be investigated and thought about.  For instance why has the union movement lost ground ?  Is it simply that the lies told and hatred of unionism pushed by the hired hacks of the powers that be are confusing more people or are there other factors involved as well?

For example J, K. Galbraith argued, in his support for trade unions as a civilising force in the work place that some modern work systems make it very difficult for workers to organise and legislation to protect these workers is essential (Galbraith J.K 1996 “ The Good Society page 66 to quote “The good society seeks, where possible, to reverse this decline in trade union power, for worker organisation remains a major civilising factor in modern economic life.“For many workers, however, organisation is not now a practical solution. This is especially so in the widely dispersed service industries. As was once the case with the employment of women and children, direct action by the state on behalf of those in need outside the unions is required, including provision for health insurance and unemployment compensation and currently most important, a socially adequate minimum wage. In the good society the last is an absolute essential”.

(2) From Hansard Giddings spills the beans——-    Ms GIDDINGS - Mr Speaker, now we have quite an interesting question coming from the Leader of the Opposition who has rubbished and bagged the very process that has come out of the decision of Gunns to look at handing back their licences and the Statement of Principles.  What the member does not understand is that the whole Statement of Principles process that he has bagged time and time again is also about trying to assist Gunns to get their pulp mill up, with no thanks to the Opposition.  What we would say here————-  This is a direct quote from Hansard –available at—————-Details-to make it still easier to find-are—-  Hansard17th May 2011 Part 2 Pages 48-101   Questions .Proposed Pulp Mill 3.10 P M————The sequence of entries preceding the above direct quote from Giddings that spilt the beans good and proper was——-as in Hansard   Hodgman—Speaker——Giddings——Hodgman——Speaker——then Giddings again this time spilling the beans as recorded above——Then Mr Hidding comments as recorded———- “This is interesting put a bit more on the record about what this is really all about.”

• Mercury: Call to close Forestry rejected