by Blake Sartori
Alison Pennington, Gen F’D, How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures, $24.99.
To tread the dangerous path of summarising a book in one word, let’s settle on disappointing. If Pennington succeeded in one aspect, it is demonstrating just how void the mainstream Australian left is today, and how much farther we have to go before any of us can provide genuine explanation and battle against the current tumults.
In fairness to Pennington, the pitfalls which Gen F’D leaps into are not unique, or new. Similar stories can be found through the opinion pieces slapped on the Guardian’s website, in the Green’s talking points, and from too many a ‘progressive’. These pitfalls all share a common root, which Gen F’D fails to unearth. This weakness stems from an inherently bourgeois economics, not a socialistic one. Let us, to paraphrase Marx, be radical – and grasp matters by the root.
The issues that Pennington identifies are shared by many of the proletariat – precarious housing without much hope of home ownership, insecure jobs that are typically underpaid, and a lack of faith in the political system (take note – a political system, at large, which escapes scrutiny in Gen F’D). But these are all signs of an underlying disease. This disease, Pennington posits, is the nebulous neoliberalism. This is wrong. Instead, these symptoms come from the disease that is Capitalism. Neoliberalism is the label attached to one of its recent phases.
The first chapter of Gen F’D demonstrates Pennington’s bourgeois economic outlook from the onset. According to Pennington:
“From the 1970s, but gathering pace in the 1980s, big structural changes were made to the DNA of Australia’s economy. Businesses became increasingly determined to make quick bucks for shareholders rather than investing in people for the long term.”
Seemingly the bourgeoisie only became more determined in ever higher profits in the late 1970’s and 80’s. When the aim of the game is valorisation, ever higher profits are always front and mind of a capitalist. Pennington’s claim fails to properly account for the nature of the class struggle within Australia in the 30-odd years following WWII. In those years, the bourgeoisie still had just as much of an interest in yielding ever higher profits. What was the counter to this drive? Put simply – labour militancy, through trade union struggle by the proletariat. This omission foreshadows Pennington’s later resorting to a ‘generational divide’ analysis later in Gen F’D. If we are to concede the proletariat of past generations had their own trade union militancy and class struggle, then any sort of analysis of ‘generational divide as a class divide’ becomes unravelled.
One need look no further than the sub-section in Chapter 4 titled the loss of class to lament at the liberalism tainting Gen F’D. Pennington fails to identify class in its most basic form – being determined by the social relations that different groups have to the means of production. Even for an introductory book, this requirement shouldn’t be a tall order. Indeed, without this conceptual understanding, how can one hope to comprehend the problems facing us today and begin to forge, at least in our imaginations, what a new world might look like? And while it is essential to understand there are different strata within the proletariat and bourgeoisie, especially so in a ‘developed’ capitalist country such as Australia, to understand their underlying commonality, one must understand how these layers relate to the means of production. In a word, as workers versus owners.
Another pitfall is Pennington’s resort to a ‘generational divide.’ The inability, as outlined above – to see class as determined by social relations to the means of production – allows Pennington to divide people by age. Given the title of the book, one shouldn’t be surprised at this lacklustre analysis. And although it is true that the ratio of the average income compared to the average house price has shifted significantly in the last 50 years, Gen F’D readers are once again denied the class analysis that would allow us to see that it is not baby-boomers who are our enemy, but rather the owners and controllers of global capital. Once again, a failure to see social divide in terms of property relations.
Pennington does make some strides when confronting the liberal’s tendency to focus on ‘identity formation’ as the guiding star of one’s politics. She does well to approach this subject by not discounting the varied challenges that marginalised communities continue to face. In addition, Pennington draws a potent link between this liberal identity formation and the types of content that today’s younger generation share and consume en masse.
“Millions of algorithmically tailored sales pitches entrench human differences… Despite facing similar conditions, time spent online can make people feel worlds apart from others.”
Greens, Labor Lefties and ‘progressives’ take heed. If we are to advance the processes for total transformation, this ideological battle must be understood, lest we land ourselves with a century of infighting.
Pennington’s final chapter, Making the Modern Fair Go, introduces readers to another re-heated slab of social democracy. Even using the term ‘social democracy’ is a stretch, given the lack of any proposals for nationalisation. There is some attempt to draw readers towards the importance of rebuilding the trade union movement. But without any class analysis, this cry rings hollow. Let us be clear, labour should be organised by our class. Our interest is directly opposed to that of the owners. Past union struggles, such as the green bans waged by the Builders Labourers Federation, understood this class analysis and distilled it into concrete action. Pennington’s failure to do the same will not help to deliver a reinvigorated labour movement. What’s more, Gen F’D in no way confronts the reality of today’s labour bureaucracy, exemplified by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, as the enemy of rank-and-file activism, let alone militancy.
Today, our class needs to be reintroduced to the basics. Good theory sharpens good practice. For all Pennington’s talk of neoliberalism, in the final analysis, we still exist in (or more accurately, are ruled by) the same economic system – capitalism. Today’s proletariat have greater means to access scientific socialist works, like those of Marx and Lenin. What’s more, we have had over two centuries of struggle from which to learn. Using the insights from theoretically informed practices will continue to prove the most adept at realising real benefits for our class.
If Gen F’D is the best on offer from today’s Australian left, that is because it is ‘best’ for those who dare not go to the root of a system of exploitation grounded on class relations.