Australian capitalism built on forced labour

Editorial comment from the July-August 2020 issue of The Socialist

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to cut across the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June by claiming there was no slavery in Australia. He was quickly forced to retreat. Australia’s ruling class and the capitalism they preside over is born of and maintained by terrible violent racism.

Our brutal ruling class began with the theft of this entire continent and the mass murder of the people who have thrived here for tens of thousands of years. Racism was used as a justification for the needs of capitalism. It was also used to justify the practise of ‘blackbirding’.

‘Blackbirding’ was tricking or kidnapping people from across the Pacific to become indentured labourers on sugar cane plantations in Queensland. From 1863 to 1908, this despicable practice built the wealth of plantation owners and created the sugar industry in Australia. 60,000 people were stolen from their homes and taken into forced labour.

Today Australia is the second biggest sugar exporter in the world. Major Australian company CSR, now a diverse multi-national, owned plantations in the era of ‘blackbirding’. Now a special visa scheme for Australian sugar and fruit companies enables a continued form of bonded labour from Pacific Island countries.

Shocking stories of abuse and super-exploitation of the low-income workers on the scheme have been reported by the media in recent years. Examples include serious workplace injuries ignored by bosses who force workers to continue labouring under threat of deportation. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Since the invasion of this continent Aboriginal people have also been forced into slavery-like conditions.

Gurindji people’s famous struggle to regain their land from the British Lord Vestey, a cattle baron, sprang from their inhumane conditions working as stockmen and domestic labourers. They received pitiful rations, no real wages and slept in the dirt under corrugated iron.

With so much wealth accumulated from land theft and extreme exploitation of non-white workers, it’s no wonder racist ideology is still so strongly perpetuated by Australia’s rich and powerful.

Right-wing commentators quibble over whether Australia’s forced labour was ‘technically’ slavery, but this misses the point. Australian capitalism shares a similar history of exploitation and racism to other capitalist countries. That is no coincidence. Systemic racism is an international phenomenon because it’s part of the DNA of capitalism everywhere.

Many of the first of Australia’s elite came from slave owning Carribean plantation families. They were handsomely compensated from the public purse when the British Empire abolished slavery. They used that money to establish themselves as the new ruling class on this continent.

The foundation stones for Australian capitalism were bought with money from the slave trade.

Today the biggest profit making ventures in Australia are still rooted in racist violence, theft and exploitation.

Thieving mining magnates are the most infamous villains. Big banks, the summit of Australian capitalism, are guilty too. Their business model is profiteering from a housing bubble constructed on stolen land.

Anti-racism always clashes with capitalist interests and the way this system runs. There’s no way to separate capitalism from racism.

That idea was widely recognised during the high point of anti-racist struggle in the mid 20th century. Malcolm X said “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. He was right.

On top of justifying highly lucrative exploitation for the bosses, it also helps them to prevent the majority of society, the working class, from uniting and overthrowing ultra-minority rule.

That’s why the renewed surge in COVID-19 cases is being narrated in the big-business press as the fault of low-income migrants with “big families” and in public housing. In reality, we know that this second wave relates to breaches of quarantine by untrained hotel security, working under poor conditions and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Recently slogans like “The whole system is guilty” are finding many people in agreement. For those rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner, and against racism, a thoroughly anti-capitalist stand point is needed to finally triumph.

But knowing what you’re against is only the first step. Knowing what you are for is crucial for the next one.

Famous Black Panther leader Fred Hampton explained “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Democratic socialism is a system that is based on collective, not private, ownership of society’s vast wealth and it’s capacity to produce it. On that basis it’s possible to democratically decide how to use the existing wealth, and how to produce and distribute more.

In those circumstances the capitalist class and exploitative minority rule come to an end. There would be no need for divisive ideology. There would be no basis for oppressive violence or false justifications of exploitation and land theft. Instead everyone’s needs and desires could be met and their rights respected, regardless of skin colour or ancestry

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