Conservatism and authority in industrial relations

Work leaves me little time to blog. However Qantas dispute and the revival of conservative anti-unionism are of note. It represents the latest manifestation of a liberal-conservative tradition in Australia which I discuss below in an extract from a paper of mine under review. This tradition is hostile to unions on conservative grounds that they challenge authority relations. The vehemence of conservative critiques of unionism reflects this concern. Activists on the right are as committed as those on the old left to a view of hierarchy of reward that reflects moral desert, arguments about wage and conditions are phrased in tones of moral outrage that employees should enjoy particular concessions (consider comments here). A consistent liberal might argue that the bargains that individuals make are their own business, employers constrain their freedom to act all the time by making contracts in relation to goods and services, but they are in the vision of conservatives to be statutorily disbarred from making agreements with their employees. Sometimes this is justified on the basis of increasing ‘productivity’ but what other contracts are subject to regulation for this purpose, the price for example of a 3D TV is not set on the basis of its improved ability to produce visual images but on the basis of what the market will bear. if productivity is to be a criteria for regulating workplace agreements why not income inequality etc.?  Popular anti-unionism is closely linked to the defense of authority relations. Capitalism privatizes political authority employers exercise power over employees. Patriarchy also does privatizes power by enabling men to exercise power over women. Freedom in this liberal-conservative tradition is defined to include the right of superiors to exercise power over inferiors. An analogous position applies to religious conservatism; religious freedom is taken to include the right of the dominant religious group to express their values in legislation. Forms of individual choice are articulated with these relations of subordination. Individuals can convert to the dominant religion, if women choose to marry then they consent to patriarchal authority it people become employees then they are resumed to voluntarily accept subordination. The campaign to define marriage as contract and to penalize parties who break the contract empowers patriarchal authority. American states without no-fault divorce have higher levels of domestic violence. ‘Freedom’ is a contested concept different people mean quite different things by it. Many on the Australian left however presume that freedom has a single meaning and interpret it as freedom from the authority of the state; however non-state entities can exercise political power.  Employers are an example but individual patriarchs or violent individuals can also exercise power. The later has occurred in some indigenous communities. paper extract follows:

Herbert Spencer’s liberal-conservatism combined a public optimism about the possibilities of human freedom with a deep secret pessimism about the possibility that most humans could be worthy of this freedom. In some aspects it exemplified a Jacobin style of politics with a deeply authoritarian potential.  These values have been echoed by an influential strand of Australian political thought. It is Spencer, not Mill or Smith, who is the parent of the ‘classical liberalism’ evoked by the contemporary Australian right. Australian scholars have understated the role of conservatism in Australian history. There is an Australian conservative tradition whose lineage stretches back to the opponents of colonial democracy, the defenders of ‘freedom of contract’ in the 1890s and to the critics of Deakinite liberalism such as the Australian Women’s National League. Even recent scholarship on the critics of Deakinite liberalism from the right has defined them as ‘free trade liberals’ rather than conservatives. Herbert Spencer’s Australian champion Bruce Smith ended his 1887 Liberty and Liberalism with a threat of armed resistance against democratic excesses. The late nineteenth century saw many former liberals move rightward as exemplified by British Liberal Unionism and German National Liberalism. Those who identify a hegemonic Deakinite settlement after 1910 neglect the extent to which the ‘right to manage’ was a core value of many Australian employers for decades after the Harvester judgment. The radical right of the Great Depression vehemently criticized Deakinite institutions.


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