The Birth of Australia: Non-Capitalist Social Relations in a Capitalist Mode of Production?

Journal of Australian Political Economy
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Journal Article
Journal of Australian Political Economy, 2012, 70 pp. 110 - 129
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In the final chapter of Capital: Volume 1, Karl Marx discusses E.G. Wakefield's insights into the colony in the Swan River district in Western Australia and pokes fun at the 'unhappy Mr Peel' (1976: 933). Despite Thomas Peel's foresight to bring 'means of subsistence and production to the amount of 50,000 [pounds sterling]', along with 300 working class persons, he failed to arrange for 'the export of English relations of production' to the isolated district (ibid.) (1). In the years that followed the colony's establishment in 1829, it approached collapse. Unable to generate capital and extract surplus labour, by the early 1840s colonists were petitioning for the first 'free' colony of Australia to introduce convict transportation (2). It was ultimately through the introduction of unfree labour to Swan River in 1850 that capitalist social relations were able to advance, and almost 10,000 convicts were relocated to the location by 1868, when transportation ceased (Battye, 1924: 197). A question that emerges from the story of Swan River, and from the early years of the other Australian colonies further east, is whether a land lacking virtually any 'doubly free' labour should be considered part of the capitalist mode of production. Marx notes double freedom was the necessary condition for labour-power to become commodified in order that surplus value could be extracted: a person is free to sell their labour-power (in that they are no longer bonded to another as under feudalism or slavery), but also free from the ability to subsist (lacking control of the means of production) (Marx, 1976: 272-73). Legal ownership over the means of production (the natural world, land and materials) and the separation of those from labour mean that capitalism is not only a technical or material process in which social classes are constituted but an irreducibly social one (Clarke, 1991: 68). Along with the organisation of work, which disciplines the classes, these relations ensure accumulation is realised. In this way, Marx analyses the rise of capitalism as a political act and it is necessary, therefore, to 'insist on the political nature of those social relationships which are commonly "termed economic" relations' (Barker, 1997: 26).
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