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Monday, January 15, 2018

The State of Aged Care in Australia Today - by Sharyn Ladiges






by Sharyn Ladiges  (ALP member and activist)


It’s been 20 years since the government brought in the Aged Care Act 1997 to deliver a new model of care for older Australians who could no longer live at home and required assistance with daily tasks. The act aimed to facilitate choice and independence for the elderly, and direct services to those with the greatest needs.

But the legislative change also coincided with an era of advanced ageing and more complex needs in our elderly.

People who had previously entered low-level residential aged care (then called hostels), are now cared for in the community. Once they enter aged care, they’re older and sicker than before, and have more complex needs. Since 2008, the number of older Australians admitted to a residential aged care facility has remained steady, but the proportion of people with high-care needs has progressively increased.



Older and sicker Australians


Currently, around half of people living in aged care have dementia, depression, or another mental health or behavioural condition. The proportion of older people requiring high care for complex needs, which includes assistance with all activities of daily living such as eating and bathing, has quadrupled from 13% in 2009 to 61% in 2016.

When the act was introduced, more emphasis was placed on supporting older people to remain at home for as long as possible. Now, the transition to permanent care only occurs once all options have been exhausted. The needs of the elderly population often outgrow the available community aged care support. This then requires an admission into one of Australia’s 283,000 (subsidised) residential aged care beds. As a result, our aged care facilities are increasingly functioning as hospices for the frail elderly with complex care needs.

The main flaw of the act was to repeal the legal requirement for all aged-care facilities to provide 24-hour registered nursing care to assess and manage resident’s changing clinical needs, wounds and unrelieved pain. So residents have minimal access to this. Too few have access to the necessary help from a geriatric medicine specialist (doctor), psychologist or social worker. And their families have minimal access to psychological and social support, and bereavement follow-up.


Why was the act introduced?

The 1997 act replaced two outdated and confusing 1950s laws to create a single statutory framework for Australian aged care services. It detailed the responsibilities of aged-care operators in relation to quality and compliance. It also empowered the relevant minister to set out principles covering matters such as quality of care, accountability and user rights.

The introduction of the act fuelled a much-needed capital works program funded by low interest bonds from older people entering residential aged care. This was meant to make aged care facilities more home-like, while also meeting care needs.

A major achievement of the act has been the amalgamation of hostels (social care accommodation for older people) and nursing homes (frail aged accommodation with 24-hour nursing care) into a single, user-pays regulated system. Now, people live in one institution, but are classified as having either low-care or high-care needs.

This was to provide older people with an opportunity to “age in place”. So, to have a seamless transition into higher-level care as lower-level physical care needs intensified; and to ensure people living in an aged care facility received all of their care needs in one location.



Major pitfalls of the act


The act’s repeal of the legal requirement for 24-hour nursing care reflected the social model of care underpinning the legislation. The idealistic yet impractical philosophy took the focus away from nursing and medical care. So now, the bulk of personal care is provided by a pool of untrained and unregulated aged-care workers supervised by a very small number of registered nurses.

Registered nurses employed in aged care are central to assessing, planning, monitoring and delivering complex care to older people living in these facilities. But there are too few registered nurses (and they are often managing the facility) so they have limited capacity to ensure the older person’s function, comfort and dignity is optimised, their mobility maintained and dependence minimised.

These skilled nurses also have few opportunities to ensure the resident’s family members receive the appropriate level of psycho-social and spiritual support they often need. Primarily because they’re dependent on the unskilled workers alerting them to changes in the resident’s condition or the families concerns.

Aged care facilities lack the clinical infrastructure of our hospitals. So, if a registered nurse is not on duty, there are few people the unskilled care workers can call for timely clinical review.

If the GP can’t be contacted and the registered nurse is not on duty, an ambulance will be called and the frail older person will be transferred to hospital for assessment.



What needs to happen


Numerous inquiries have highlighted the need for a skilled aged-care workforce to ensure older Australians have access to the level and quality of health care they deserve. These health care gaps persist largely because the act’s principles, while possessing the status of law, are not subject to the same parliamentary control and public accountability.

A new nursing skill mix model is urgently required in aged care to address the level of unmet health care needs. At a minimum, the act should be amended to stipulate appropriate staffing requirements for the delivery of direct clinical care, including the presence of at least one registered nurse at all times. As part of the skill mix, a higher ratio of registered nurses and enrolled nurses supported by a team of care workers is required.

The availability of a nurse practitioner, with advanced training and prescribing rights, and a geriatrician to all aged care facilities would do much to improve timely access to medical care. It’s also likely the addition of this tier of health professionals into aged care would reduce the need for unnecessary emergency department presentations. These are often distressing for the resident and their family, as well as being costly to the system.

Unfortunately, the act fails our most vulnerable members of society and their families by not providing them with the skilled nursing, medical and allied health care they require in their last year, weeks or days of life.


Afterward (by Dr Tristan Ewins, blog publisher)



Sharyn Ladiges
has described the evolution of the Aged Care sector very well, and has made a compelling case for "a new nursing skill mix model" which would include a registered nurse on site at all times.  This has long been a core demand of Aged Care workers, nurses, and families. Also broader 'staff to resident' ratios are necessary to ensure all residents in high intensity care receive the care they need ; including regular turning to prevent bed sores and so on.

Arguably, though, we could do with a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme model involving relatively comparable resources as the National Disability Insurance Scheme  - but hopefully learning from any problems which have been experienced in the implementation of that model.  This would provide comprehensive services for all in need of any kind of aged care: ageing in place ; low intensity residential care ; high intensity residential care...

Firstly we need to get rid of user pays: for both high intensity and low intensity Aged Care (and 'ageing in place') ; and fund fully from progressive taxation.  User pays mechanisms have often been onerous ; have forced the sale of family homes ; have weighed relatively heavily on some working class households.   Aged Australians from all kinds of backgrounds should have access to the same very high quality Aged Care services as one another ; where no-one experiences relatively inferior quality care on account of socio-economic background.

Secondly we need to ensure *happiness* and mental health as well as physical health.  This means ensuring social and intellectual engagement for people of a variety of backgrounds and interests.  It could mean outings ; forums ; access to information technology ; creative and artistic activities ; listening to or even playing music ; mediated discussions ; access to books ; reading and discussing the papers, current affairs, the news ; watching and discussing films, and so on.  This needs to be addressed in both low and high intensity care, and for those 'ageing in place'.  Perhaps more effort and resources need to be put into addressing loneliness amongst those 'ageing in place' alone as well.  High quality food needs to be ensured for all as well ; as does privacy; and access to pleasant surroundings - eg: gardens ; where possible sunshine ; and so on.

Finally , we need to be taking a close look at the 'for profit' part of the residential aged care sector.  Private providers should not be gouging residents and families ; and the sector needs to be thoroughly regulated to prevent 'short-cuts' and so on to reinforce 'bottom lines'.  We need more emphasis on the state sector and on 'not for profits' ; and subsidising these to ensure the highest quality care for everyone.

Thanks again to Sharyn Ladiges for her informed overview of the development of the sector and the issues it faces today.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Philosophical arguments about religion at Christmas



In the light of the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse some people are claiming a general redundancy of Christianity, or even religion in general. How are we to respond these claims (some even go so far as to claim religion is socially-damaging such as to warrant its suppression)? I will argue that there are philosophical reasons still to take Christianity – and religion more generally – seriously. The response will mainly be philosophical – except to express right from the outset my distress at the acts of the abusers, and my hope for justice and for the reform of the churches.

We might begin by exploring some broad philosophical questions.

It's become 'basically accepted' on much of the Left that atheism (and philosophical materialism) represents 'enlightened' opinion. This is the case in sections of the relative Right and Centre as well. Yet most atheists (most likely philosophical materialists) have no answer for the questions: 'how to explain free-will'? ; 'how to explain consciousness?' That is: except to claim consciousness and free will are simply matters of complexity rather than *quality*. And whatever the source of those - what happens when you die?


Assuming there is not merely some physical 'tipping point' where consciousness arises; how do we explain phenomena which are transcendent and do not make sense in ...the purely 'mechanical' schema of cause and effect?

Personally I am strongly influenced by Marxism (depending where you draw the line I might even still think of myself as a Marxist) but I have long harboured misgivings regarding pure philosophical materialism. Importantly, 'philosophical materialism' (the notion there is only 'matter' with no spiritual realm and no 'transcendent' properties) is different from 'historical materialism' or 'dialectical materialism' (which trace the place of economic systems and class struggles in shaping history).

Marx's view also descended from the Young Hegelian critiques of religion as 'self-alienation' (ie people became 'slaves' to doctrines and 'hypothesised beings' of their own creation). Insofar as some doctrines are purely-human creations there is weight to this critique.

One philosophical position, 'Cartesian Dualism', supposes transcendent properties of mind to explain this. Also in the 19th Century the 'Marburg School' and those such as Hermann Cohen (Neo-Kantians) considered a marriage of Idealist/Ethical and Marxist theory. Perhaps that is still of value today.

So maybe there is an after-life for us. Maybe we die - but some part of us lives on in some form. And if this were so, what kind of existence would there be in this 'afterlife'? What of 'the reincarnation of the soul', claimed, for instance, by Hindus and Buddhists? Do we remember past lives? Is there some kind of 'Heaven'? Are there 'unseen dimensions'? Or is the 'afterlife' as brutal as the natural world, which we have only effectively imposed our wills upon during the relatively brief period of civilised humanity? Perhaps life is like a veritable 'minefield', and certain religions (like Christianity) suggest 'a way through'. Finally possibly there is 'nothingness' for us, or at least a very long rest (perchance to dream?).

Importantly, Christianity is divided on the question of 'spiritual resurrection' or 'bodily resurrection', 'faith versus works' and so on. Some Christians might be concerned that I retain doubt about these and other aspects of the faith. But for me there is an interplay of hope and belief. I admit my faith is not perfect, but hope is better than hopelessness. There is still hope for peace of mind and the kind of good and decent life that might follow from that.


And it's not just the Abrahamic religions which have believed in 'the spiritual' but also a whole host of pagan religions with very complex associated beliefs. From Sumer and Ur to Babylon, to Greece and Egypt and Rome. And also consider other (non-Pagan) religions: Hindus, Buddhists and so on. How is it, for instance, that there are clear similarities, say, between Jewish and Hindu mysticism? Is it really all 'made up'? Or do commonalities suggest different religions may be attempting to apprehend the same reality?

If you approach the philosophical issues seriously it's not as 'cut and dried' as you may think ; no matter how fashionable atheist (philosophical) materialism has become.


Some claim the redundancy of doctrines reaching back over 2000 years and more. For instance, imagine "stoning adulterers" in Western societies today! That said many people have attempted, and are still attempting, to "modernise religion". Consider the Reformation; the response of the Counter-Reformation: and Christian churches' grappling with liberalism and the Enlightenment over hundreds of years now.

Largely (with important exceptions) the response of many Christians has been to liberalise. Though sadly the doctrine of 'Papal infallibility' arguably detracts from the ability of Roman Catholicism to respond to and learn from its mistakes (for instance the sweeping dismissal of socialism in Rerum Novarum).

Maybe one day we will fully understand why ancient and contemporary religions have believed as they have. Assuming there is a 'spiritual realm' maybe one day science will openly apprehend it. The Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus suggested the existence of atoms thousands of years before it was scientifically proven in the 19th and 20th centuries AD. And today science is arguably progressing more rapidly than any time in human history.

Some argue "what use believing in what you cannot perceive?" This was certainly Marx's view. He urged humanity to face the world "with sober senses". And to let go of the "opium" of religious belief. Which he understood as easing the pain of the oppressed while detracting from the cause of liberation in the world (not 'beyond' or 'from' it).

But so long as people don't have definitive answers and are questing after hope you can't blame them for exploring religions! Some may point to 'Pascal's Wager': that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from believing in God. (I like to think my belief is more than a cold calculation however!) Indeed Marx's position in this regard also rested on an article of faith: that 'reality' was only as confirmed by the senses and that, increasingly, there was nothing left which was 'unseen' (especially given the enormous leaps in scientific understanding which were progressing in the 19th Century ; the century, amongst other things, of the Industrial Revolution). The progressive accumulation of scientific discoveries since Marx's time suggests there is still plenty to be scientifically 'uncovered' even in the 21st Century.

One of the most significant problems with religions is that cynical people will exploit other peoples' sincere search for spiritual truth and hope in order to mobilise those people as a 'power base' in the world. And in a way which was not originally intended by the founders of various faiths. I think there is something deeply wrong with that. Arguably this happens with secular ideologies as well - and pretty much any organised interest or system of beliefs.

As a Leftist Christian I also worry at the possible consolidation of Christian communities as a political power base by the Conservative Right: which can only be facilitated further by those escalating voices of intolerance against the faithful (ie against their liberal right to practice their faith).

So religions are deployed regularly to rationalise bloody conflicts and that has also been the case for thousands of years.

In response Faiths have to engage with each other for the sake of peace and co-existence. Those cynical interests (mentioned earlier) will exploit differences in order to create conflicts and ultimately wars, which determine spheres of influence and power in the world. Innocents more often than not 'get caught in the middle'. They become 'fodder' for the 'power-plays' of cynical manipulators.

But at Christmas I still believe that the 'true' Christian church lives on in people who find God and Christ in their own way. Despite the manipulations that go on (wrongly) in the name of religions.


While I have little to do with worldly churches I still consider myself a Christian. I believe in the "unseen" as well as the seen. And I refuse the extremes of 'worldly' material acquisition: the pursuit of exponentially-increasing personal wealth by a small minority under capitalism.


Marx understood that material abundance could lead to a kind of freedom 'in the world'. Freedom from the need for alienating labour, and hence a recasting of the division of labour, enabling much fuller personal development and fulfilment (personal growth through the pursuit of art, philosophy, science and so forth). In other words "the good and decent life (in the world) for everyone".

That said I reject the waste, exploitation, repression, inequality and poverty that goes with capitalism and the subordination of everything to the endless accumulation of personal material wealth. And I believe there is a basis for this in Christianity.

And I believe that a critique of capitalism itself might be derived from scripture.

And yet perhaps "liberation in the world" alone is not sufficient given the human condition; humanity's striving for hope; and unanswered questions as to "what next?" What of eternity?

Finally at Christmas I consider the following from the book of Micah:

"…act justly….,love mercy and…walk
humbly with your God."

Peace and best wishes this Christmas.



This Essay is Dedicated to my Mum, Amy Ewins : I pray we will meet again.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Left-Wing Letters to 'The Age' and the 'Herald-Sun'




What follows are another series of Left-inclined 'Letters to the Editor' I have sent  to 'The Age' and 'The Herald-Sun' between July and November 2017.  Subjects include everything from 'Cultural Marxism' to 'Bracket Creep' and the Australian Welfare System. 
PLS feel welcome to discuss.
Only a few of the Letters were Published ; but I'm hoping consideration of the content here will justify the effort put in to writing the material

Capitalism and the Threat of Destitution

David Penberthy writes as if homelessness and destitution have nothing to do with capitalism. (Activists no help to the homeless, 13/8/17)  Unfortunately this is not the reality. Under capitalism most people do not own significant stakes in businesses themselves.  They have no choice but to sell their labour power to capitalists in order to survive.  In this system average workers can be ‘disciplined’ (kept in line) by the threat of sinking into a class of working poor.  And the working poor in turn are ‘disciplined’ by the threat of destitution ; sinking into an underclass of destitute and homeless.  This is actually functional for capitalists seeking to depress wages and conditions.  The situation is further worsened by ‘punitive welfare’. Benefits are low ; often below that sufficient for subsistence. (scraping by)  Savings must be exhausted to acquire Newstart. Workers’ bargaining power evaporates under these circumstances.  Also emergency housing, welfare and so on cost money. But even Labor governments are continually under pressure to deal harshly with the unemployed ; to cut spending in order to make room for corporate tax cuts and so on.  And attempts to ameliorate the condition of those affected is branded “class warfare”.



What are Shorten’s Tax Plans in Reality?

The Herald-Sun is waging a campaign against what it argues will be an increased tax regime under Bill Shorten. But so far Shorten’s proposals are in fact too modest. Reform of Trusts will bring in maybe one sixteenth of one per cent of GDP. (approximately $1 billion a year out of $1.6 trillion)  Negative gearing reforms will bring in a similar amount.  Contra the Herald-Sun, these reforms will tend to bypass low to middle income earners. Apart from this the Herald-Sun is emphasising Shorten’s resolve not to deliver Turnbull’s $65 billion corporate tax cut over 10 years.  The problem is that when you cut taxes this way it has to be made up for somewhere.  So corporations get a windfall – but Medicare might be ransacked for cash. To get a sense of proportion – it would take perhaps $400 billion in new taxes to bring in enough money to pay for a Swedish-style welfare state!  But if Shorten devoted an additional 2% of the economy ($32 billion) in a first term to reform of Health, Aged Care, Education and Social Security – surely that  would be a reasonable measure from which most people would benefit.


Bolt’s Double Standards on Liberties

Andrew Bolt (August 24th) argues against what he says is a ‘totalitarian’ Left.  But if Bolt is to adopt the cause of liberal rights let him do so without hypocrisy.  Let’s see if Bolt is willing to support rights of speech, association and assembly - without punitive laws, and without the dispersion, vilification and criminalisation of protest movements such as that once associated with the “We are the 99 per cent” cause, occupations against homelessness and so on.  Once the consensus on liberal rights breaks down everyone is potentially at risk.  Both Left and Right need to avoid double standards on liberal rights ; and that includes “celebrities” such as Andrew Bolt. Meanwhile attempts to shut down councils wanting to change the date of Australia Day celebrations – suggests a Federal Government which is not serious about reconciliation with Indigenous Australia.


Refuting Bolt on Welfare

The Herald-Sun (27/8) editorialises that “Welfare is Not a Right” and advocates a crackdown against the unemployed especially.  But at the same time provides scant room for the expression of the contrary view: that Australia already has one of the most punitive and austere unemployment regimes in the developed world.  Instead, the Herald-Sun ought argue for the kind of labour market and industry policy regimes that exist in Denmark.  This requires many billions to work ; but the returns in terms of the creation of more high-wage jobs – pitched to workers’ skill sets – makes it a price worth paying.  Meanwhile Newstart could do to be increased by a minimum $1000/year, indexed.  Job-seekers who cannot even afford transport, decent clothes or internet already have little chance of finding work.  Newstart provisions (introduced under the Turnbull Liberals) forcing job-seekers to exhaust much if not all of their savings before receiving support also need reconsideration. Where’s the incentive to save when losing your job could cost you everything?



Labor’s Modest Tax Agenda

Chris Bowen is laughing off claims by Scott Morrison that Bill Shorten is promoting a ‘socialist’ agenda.  In reality, Bill Shorten is talking about very moderate tax reforms that so-far will struggle to raise $4 billion a year. Or roughly one quarter of one per cent of GDP.  But there's a problem with such suggestions being “laughable” as well.  And that Labor has come to depend on such claims being laughable. Cert...ainly Labor are not outwardly democratic socialists. That applies probably to most Labor MPs 'internally' as well. But the Libs win by default if Labor is too scared to talk about democratic socialism, redistribution, economic democracy, social wage and welfare reform, industrial rights, public ownership and so on. For instance, Labor should be aiming to match the OECD average on tax (roughly 34% of GDP)  and associated social expenditure over several terms. In order to fund reform of education, health, aged care, infrastructure, welfare and so forth.  If Labor 'wins' on the Liberals' terms then the Liberals win anyway - through Labor’s internalisation of their economic and social assumptions and values. Even if Labor achieves government, under those circumstances Labor (and the people Labor represent) lose.



The Truth about the ‘Luddites’ has Lessons for us Today

Rosemary Tyler (Letters, 10/9) mentions the ‘Luddites’ and their response to the Industrial Revolution, comparing them to those who resist Clean Energy today.  But there are important differences.  The Luddites were not just ‘mindless wreckers of Progress’. They were largely skilled crafts-people who were resisting ‘proletarianisation’ and the de-skilling of their industries.  They were forced from their homes ; compelled to be wage slaves in dangerous factories ; reduced to bare material subsistence; compelled to suffer 12 hour days and worse.  They lost creative control over their labours and their labour’s products. The capitalism of the Industrial Revolution created a foundation for economic and scientific progress ; but it often came at a terrible cost.  Today, also, modern capitalism rests upon the brutal exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies such as in Bangladesh ; but also often the exploitation of working poor within the ‘first world’ itself.  Privatisation is arguably the main driver of the current energy-affordability crisis ; But if re-socialisation is not considered an option (it should be!), other measures must be taken to ‘immunise’ low income workers and pensioners during the transition to renewables and beyond.


Turnbull ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ on Energy

David Ingliss (Letters, 25/9) writes that the “electricity crisis” is the result of “rabid Green ideology”. Let’s get some things straight, though.  The current Conservative Government has had years to prepare for the closure of coal-fired plants such as Hazelwood. It’s Turnbull who has been “asleep at the wheel”. Also global warming is not an “Ideology” ; it’s a scientifically-verified environmental crisis and not necessarily to do with political values. Hence our response SHOULD be bipartisan. Further, if energy had not already been privatised the decision on what to do with the old energy infrastructure (and when) would have been the choice of governments.  Instead it’s out of our hands. If we had kept the old SECV which Ingliss refers to in public ownership arguably energy would be cheaper, and battlers would receive cross-subsidies.  Instead privatised or corporatized energy production and distribution – combined with shrinking economies of scale (as those who can afford to switch to micro-renewables) – means  ‘battlers’ are left with a spiralling cost of living.


Privatisation and Tax Cuts a ‘Two Edged Sword’ at Best

The Herald-Sun (27/9) proclaims the headline “Budget Repair: Nation $4.4 billion better off”.   And Scott Morrison has been boasting the Coalition Governments ‘success’ in bringing government spending down to 25% of GDP.  But do lower levels of government expenditure on services, infrastructure, and social security really improve our ‘national well-being’?   By contrast government spending in Sweden is at approximately 52% of GDP.  (A $400 billion difference if translated proportionately to the Australian context)  The difference is that in this country we have User Pays in everything from Aged Care to Higher Education – which hits those on lower incomes especially hard.  While the Conservatives provide ‘corporate welfare’ with tax cuts valued at about $60 billion over a decade, we treat the unemployed like criminals and allow barely enough (or not enough) for them to subsist and effective search for work.  We neglect state education by comparison ; and we are forced to opt for private provision of infrastructure – which ends up costing consumers AND business more in the end.



Coal Seam Gas a Risk

The Herald-Sun (27/9)  editorialises “Drop ideology and drill” : directing its attention squarely at Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews.   But Coal Seam Gas drilling has extreme risks – such as water contamination and contamination of land.  These risks have nothing to do with “ideology” ; and neither does the need to reduce carbon emissions in the face of a virtual scientific consensus on global warming. Also energy plants like Hazelwood have shut down – increasing the risks of an energy shortage - something governments were left with no control over as a consequence of past privatisations.  Hazelwood had to close sooner or later : but under public ownership could have continued until the State was ready for the transition.  Finally, Australia has ample reserves of gas without resort to coal seam gas (fracking) but the Conservative Government has not properly regulated the industry ; meaning this gas could be exported while at home we experience black-outs. Knowing all this it is Malcolm Turnbull who has been “asleep at the wheel on energy policy” for years ; and now is interested in blame shifting.




The Truth about ‘Cultural Marxism’

In response  to Dr Andrew P.Retsas (3/10/17) : while it’s true that Marx has nothing to do with many modern discourses on sexuality, some interpretations (eg: from Engels on ‘The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State) emphasise the potential of communal social solidarity and organisation compared with dependence on the monogamous nuclear family.  But the reality is that the vast majority of Marx’s work is to do with the struggles of workers to overcome exploitation and oppressive working conditions ; and enjoy opportunities for personal growth through engagement with philosophy, science, art, music and so on.  Critiques of ‘cultural Marxism’ ignore this, and try and use Marx as a ‘bogey’. Marx wants workers’ freed from the oppressive conditions of existence and labour – which in certain ways still prevail today.  Some seeing themselves in the Marxist tradition (eg: some from the ‘Frankfurt School’) lost faith in the working class, so instead looked to racial and sexual minorities, students and women. (for instance Herbert Marcuse in ‘One Dimensional Man’ (1964) But the Heart of the original Marxism is still the self-liberation of working people ; and “From each according to ability, to each according to need” as a doctrine of liberation, human solidarity and justice.


Education must Support Democracy

Anthony Gilchrist complains that “the socialist left has…infiltrated the education system” (Herald-Sun, 12/10) . A few points in response.  Firstly, education should support democracy.  That ought mean political literacy and support for active citizenship. That does not mean ‘indoctrinating’ with one doctrine or another ; but preparing students to make their own free decisions in a democracy in keeping with their interests and their adopted value systems.  Socialism has a place here, as do liberalism and conservatism.  A strong democracy means pluralism (ie: real choices) and not just ‘convergence politics’.  What Gilchrist calls “victim” politics might simply be citizens speaking up for their rights and interests in a democracy.  If we never questioned injustices, indigenous Australians and women would never have gained the vote.  And workers would never have achieved the 8 hour day.



Stop Vilifying Vulnerable People on Welfare

The Herald-Sun (23/10 ‘Trillion Dollar Handout’) is developing a pattern of effectively vilifying vulnerable people in the context of attacks on Australia’s already threadbare welfare system.  In reality the lion’s share of the welfare system is taken by the Aged Pension. (which funnily enough the Herald-Sun rarely talks about) Meanwhile for the vast majority unemployment benefits, disability payments and so on are ‘social insurance’ which ALL of us pay for via our taxes. Instead of vilifying the vulnerable we need an industry policy which actually facilitates the creation of decent jobs.  (as opposed to driving the car industry out of the country as the Coalition Government has done) And given activity tests already exist for Newstart there is no excuse not to raise the payment significantly: in part to support people as they search for work ; during which they need access to decent clothes, transport, internet access and so on.  Further, if the Herald-Sun wants to break the ‘dependency cycle’ and ‘poverty cycle’ it should agree to greater support for sole parents and low-income families ; and provide greater scope for Disability Pensioners to escape poverty traps by engaging in flexible work without losing a very significant part of their payments via means tests.   When those with a serious mental illness are dying on average 25 years younger than other Australians they are not ‘having us on’ or ‘rorting the system’.  See:  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-09/schizophrenia-lowers-life-expectancy-by-25-years/4680580



All the Usual Complaints from the Right on Socialism

Tom Elliot (27/10)  makes all the usual complaints about socialism that you hear from the Right. But what is socialism really meant to be? I wrote my PhD on this topic so I have a clue.  The totally-reasonable principle underpinning Marx’s philosophy was ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.  What is more Marx believed in achieving abundance and recasting the division of labour so every individual had the opportunity to engage in science, art, philosophy, popular culture and so on.  Everyone has the right to personal growth and fulfilment. This – and Marx’s passion for extending democracy across the political and into the economy – is what distinguishes him so clearly from those who abused his name ; using it to justify totalitarian regimes.  Countries – such as Sweden and Denmark – who have advanced socialist principles to some extent – have also enjoyed prosperity, equality, full employment and happiness.  We need a genuine pluralism in this country where democratic socialism is part of the debate.


More on ‘Cultural Marxism’

Chris Zappone (The Age, 13/11)  is right to be critical of the widespread condemnation of ‘cultural Marxism’ by people who don’t really even know what Marxism is.  In fact many Marxists were extremely concerned about ‘the cultural turn’ from the 1970s onwards ; with the embrace of ‘identity politics’ and the abandonment of themes of class struggle, economic justice and of the promotion of a democratic socialist economy. On the other hand the intellectual movement began by Adorno, Horkheimer and others was real, and is still real.  But it is very diverse ; and attempts to brand it as some ‘homogenous’ entity comprise something of a moral panic.  Adorno and Horkheimer especially were despairing of the prospects for socialism in an era of totalitarianism ; but they also critiqued popular culture in the West as a medium of social control.  Later critical theorists like Jurgen Habermas were more hopeful ; and Habermas promoted a theory of ‘communicative action’ which supposed a progressive consensus may be possible through dialogue. Contrary to right-wing assumptions about ‘critical theory’ Habermas was decidedly within the Enlightenment tradition.



Kevin Donnelly is Wrong on the English Curriculum

Kevin Donnelly (HS, 16/11) again takes the English curriculum to task, accusing it once more of left-wing bias.  But the modern English curriculum is about more than spelling and grammar. It is about communication life skills which empower students, including the critical analysis of texts.  This need not involve a bias towards the Left or Right.  It is about comprehending and criticising the assumptions beneath texts of both a Left or Right-wing inclination ; and also those which don’t fit within that framework.   The modern English curriculum is also about encouraging students to develop and express opinions. Again, this need not involve a prejudice towards the Left or the Right.  But it does empower students to make informed commitments on social issues , and to express their associated beliefs effectively. There are some Conservatives (but not all I’d argue) who feel threatened by this.


Tax Cuts, Corporate Welfare and Bracket Creep

The Herald-Sun (20/11) editorialises in favour of tax cuts to compensate for bracket creep. A few points in response.   Bracket creep tends to flatten the income tax system over time ; to make it less progressive.   But tax cuts emphasising the upper end can also exacerbate this.  The most equitable way of dealing with bracket creep is to INDEX the lower thresholds to ensure those on lower and middle incomes don’t end up paying proportionately more.  But progressively-sourced increases in tax should not be ruled out.  After all, tax is necessary to pay for Medicare, schooling, roads and so on ; and a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme could be funded via progressive tax ; providing for the health, happiness and dignity of older Australians.  Certainly sweeping Company Tax cuts amount to ‘corporate welfare’ ; where corporations fail to contribute fairly to the infrastructure and services they benefit from ; and hence everyday taxpayers are made to ‘pick up the tab’.



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Is it OK for a man to disagree with specific claims of some Feminists?


nb:  re: the above ; To be accurate the are many interpretations of feminism just as there are many interpretations of socialism ;  But I would like to think a feminism which sees equality and mutual respect as its aim will prevail ;  I don't intend to write about gender all the time ; But I've been thinking on these issues for a while and would appreciate some respectful discussion

Dr Tristan Ewins

If feminism was defined today as the pursuit of equality in the home, in public life, in sport, in popular culture, and in the labour market then personally I would undoubtedly support feminism.  (and in so far as this is true, I DO support feminism) In addition to that I would agree that going back millennia most societies have involved an exploitative mode of production (currently it is manifest with capitalism) ; but that nested within this (or maybe intersecting with that) there was also a regime of patriarchy. Where women were seen as ‘the second sex’ ; treated at times as property ; restricted in their aspirations ; socialised to be ‘submissive’,  and more recently ‘disciplined’ under capitalism by the separation of the labour market from unpaid domestic labour ; and with the exploitation of that domestic labour.  (ie: as part of the sexual division of labour) I would also agree that men benefited from that gender regime at various levels.

Arguably we’re in the midst of a feminist revolution across the ‘Western’ world. This is reflected in popular culture with a plethora of strong women characters in everything from Star Wars to DC Comics inspired TV series.  The ‘Male Gaze’ is also increasingly challenged with the representation of women’s perspectives. Affirmative action is challenging male ascendancy in public life – with systems of quotas and growing acceptance of women in high office.  Also there is growing popular impatience with the failure of Conservative parties to ‘come into the 21st century’ with regard the promotion of talented women.  In Australia women are making inroads into sports traditionally seen as male dominated. Australian Rules, Rugby, Soccer, Cricket and so on.  Corporate Australia is not ‘catching up’ ; but in any case we should be more interested with how ordinary women and men lead their lives than with the ambitions of ‘the one per cent’ – regardless of whether we are talking of women or men.

With regard this ‘forward march’ I am overwhelmingly sympathetic.  But as with most revolutions there are sometimes elements which take things too far.  The goal of liberation sometimes gets mixed up with desire for revenge, or to turn the old arrangements on their head.  Or just to gain an advantage. 

What do I mean specifically?   I’ll provide a number of examples , and hope readers will bear with me. 
Firstly ; sometimes analytical concepts are applied inappropriately to silence political rivals.  The term ‘man-splaining’ has been widely popularised, and refers to the tendency amongst some men to ‘condescend’ to women on account of their gender.  This is a genuine problem. But the term can also be misdirected so that in any debate a man disagreeing with a woman might be labelled in this way ; and not merely silenced, but judged harshly at a moral level as well.  And what if on a specific occasion a man is well-informed in that context? The consequence is sometimes men becoming relatively passive in the face of the threat of moral judgement and the stigma that goes with it.  This is not a ‘general problem with feminism’.  It is just to say there is the temptation for some to misuse such concepts for short-term or tactical advantage.   Although there are probably some (by no means all) feminists who would like to reconstruct masculinity in a way which is subordinate ; for those concerned with equality there is  still the imperative of rolling back the institutions of ‘structural’ economic and cultural gender disadvantage.  This is still overwhelmingly a question of women’s liberation from patriarchy. But also there is a concern that long-term we not replace the tyranny of patriarchy with a different kind of tyranny.  Where men know they cannot get away with habitually speaking over women, it is good to have that consideration ; But that must translate as mutual consideration.

Also there is sometimes a blurring of the lines as to what comprises abuse or harassment. Increasingly the act of a man looking at a woman where that attention is unwanted is endowed with the gravity of sexual harassment.  In response, most people – men or women – could probably agree that they have received unwanted sexual attention.  Indeed ‘no means no’ ; and persistently staring at a person can cause discomfort.  But ‘where to draw the line?’ ; and ‘what are the power relations’ underscoring this problem?  Men and women are generally attracted to one another, or same-sex-attracted. This is a natural given.  And often they express this (visual) attraction by looking at each other.  Here it is good to have such emotional intelligence to pick up on visual cues (like body language) ; and to try and not cause discomfort.  But this issue intersects with questions of body image, appearance and self-confidence.  Of course many of us enjoy the attention of those we also find attractive ; but tend to discourage attention from those we do not find attractive.  So all this has consequences for those facing social disadvantage  because of dominant perceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ ; where some people may feel relaxed expressing sexual attraction ; but others may retreat into themselves ; and avoid demonstrating attraction for others.  It is compounded by unreal body image expectations ; and it is contestable that increasingly expectations for men are the most unrealistic.  (mesomorphic, muscular, athletic, ‘six pack’ and so on)   The question is: How do we provide the right social cues without emotionally crushing a person who is attracted to us ; but who we are not attracted to in return?    Here we must again be careful not to have double standards.  ‘Power’ can be subtle ; and it is not just a ‘uni-directional’ question of male dominance and privilege.  Finally, to have such a broad definition of sexual harassment probably distracts from the gravity of more serious harassment. Hence when measuring the prevalence of that kind of behaviour we need a transparent methodology.
Continuing ; while Affirmative Action is justified in order to challenge ‘ground in exclusion of women’ in public life, what should be contested is the specific model of affirmative action ,  and how far it seeks to go. If affirmative action seeks a ‘minimum 50 per cent’ women’s representation that could turn into a fixed structural advantage. To be fair, therefore, a ‘40/40/20’ model is probably more realistically accommodating.  Also perhaps it makes more sense to reserve specific seats for women so as to reach the 40/40/20 target.  This is better than to have Affirmative Action leading to a situation where a person gaining a majority does not get the job ; and therefore where voters in democratic organisations do not get the policies which they voted for.  Here democracy should be the ascendant regime. But there is even the danger of affirmative action sometimes being manipulated so as to ‘bypass’ the principle of modern democracy – where one person equals one vote.  Reserved seats for women would over-come this problem while also promoting equality in public life.

It is also interesting to observe that gender tends to be privileged, here, over, say, disability, body type, social class, cultural identity and so on.  As the feminist revolution consolidates there is the question of whether it will satisfy itself with women’s liberation.  Or will it only be satisfied with turning patriarchy on its head?  To expand: Class relations can (at least theoretically) be abolished under a regime of mutual liberation.  Theoretically capitalists can cease to be AS CAPITALISTS ; that is following some theoretical expropriation ; with the abolition of the social relation of capital to labour.  The social relation can be undone without destroying the people concerned as human beings.  But ‘men are men’ (biologically AND according to social-construction) , and any settlement needs to take account of that.  We can get rid of patriarchal social relations but the question of men’s social position and the construction of 'masculinity' will remain.  Equality, mutual consideration, mutual respect – needs to be the aim.
Also, will the feminist revolution be the prelude to a much broader liberation struggle? Or will its proponents be satisfied once they have achieved their own distinct ends?   The allies of women’s liberation should be agitating at this point to broaden the struggle on a multitude of fronts.  The privilege, dominance and power of the capitalist class is ‘the hardest nut to crack’ ; but must be prioritised ; not left in ‘the too-hard basket’.
In some areas there is even arising the scenario of systemic male disadvantage. For instance when it comes to participation levels of men in higher education, and the performance of boys in secondary education. Were it the other way around there would be no patience for this.  But instead there is the spectre of a new ‘gender essentialism’.   There is always the old argument of ‘nature versus nurture’.  And where as I have tended to see nurture as the dominant influence, there is the problem of explaining falling male academic performance.  I struggle with this philosophically. Also, I disagree fundamentally with Education Commentator Kevin Donnelly when it comes to his Ideology, and with his prescriptions for ‘educational reform’ ; but the figures regarding boy’s educational performance speak for themselves.  This needs to be taken seriously as a social problem ; as a site of structural inequality.

Finally: what about ‘men’s rights’?  Mostly on the Left we would summarily dismiss ‘men’s rights’. After all – MRAs are all misogynists, right?  But just consider what’s going on here for a second.  The proposition that men have rights as men is also being rendered marginal by this characterisation of an extreme and hateful social movement.  But 30 years ago people were saying the same kind of thing about feminism.  There may be ‘really-existing’ men’s rights activists who are truly appalling human beings. Who want to ‘turn the clock back’ – and worse.  But what we should not be doing is invalidating the notion that ‘men have rights as men’ just as ‘women have rights as women’ ; but even more so – human beings have rights as human beings.   We have to be open to the notion that a ‘men’s rights’ movement is possible which is an ally – and not the enemy – of a feminism which seeks liberation, and equality in public life, sport, the labour market, the home, popular culture and so on.  A men’s rights movement is possible – which seeks mutual liberation and mutual respect.  But individuals in such a movement may have occasional disagreements or reservations with specific expressions of feminism.  (Such as I have raised here) That does not deserve to be lumped in the same basket with the proponents of gender hate and revenge – as exemplified by the MRAs we always hear about.  And people of a broadly sympathetic kind of thinking (towards feminism), but potentially with specific differences, do not deserve to be vilified.

I hope readers will take the concerns I raise here seriously.  As a person sympathetic towards Feminism ; but who has some differences with some of its specific expressions.  It is well for women to continue making gains: in popular culture, public life, work, sport and in the home.  But let’s be guided by principles of mutual consideration and respect as this transition continues.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What does 'Revolutionary' mean to Socialist Democrats today? (Including within the ALP Socialist Left)


Above:  Austro-Marxist leader and Theoretician, Otto Bauer


Does (and should) 'Revolutionary' mean anything anymore to the Democratic Socialist Left?

Should it mean anything anymore within the ALP Socialist Left?


Dr Tristan Ewins
A comrade in the ALP Socialist Left recently rebuked me for discussing "revolutionary" politics ; and said that "thankfully" the vast majority in the ALP SL are NOT revolutionaries and that that's "the beginning and the end of the discussion thankfully".

This was my response:

"When we speak of 'revolutionary' aims not everyone is talking of the same thing. Personally I'm NOT talking about an insurrection ; armed or otherwise. What I am talking about is qualitative change ; preferably through democratic channels ; though being prepared for whatever resistance may arise against said qualitative change through democratic channels when push comes to shove. So I'm talking about what various Leftists have described as 'slow revolution' or 'revolutionary reforms'.

What would be a 'revolutionary reform'? Well the Meidner Plan held that promise for a start. (ie: an economic plan which would have rewarded workers with collective capital share in return for wage restraint ; with the consequence workers collectively would over time become the dominant force in the Swedish economy) Going back further: free, universal and equal suffrage comprised a kind of 'democratic and political revolution' which only became possible in many countries following the end of World War I - and the fear of Bolshevism.

Were we around in the 19th Century - or in the 1917-19 period , would we have fought for the suffrage ; or would we have rejected 'revolutionary' changes of all sorts as a matter of policy so as not to rock the boat?

When I talk about a democratic economic revolution I'm talking about democratic collective capital formation ; restoring a robust mixed economy ; supporting co-operatives (producers' and consumers') with state aid. I'm also talking about decisive state support for the voluntary and domestic sectors. I'm talking about going down that road to the point where 'the democratic sector' becomes dominant. And hence a pivotal shift in the balance of class forces.

I'm also talking about a 'democratic cultural and political revolution' : driven by an exponential increase in political participation and consciousness. Where there is a qualitative change (a revolution) in our democracy which takes the form of said consciousness and participation.

For Marxists the final aim is to replace wage labour with economic democracy ; and then to transition to stateless communism. I'm not a full blown communist because I tend to believe human nature is not perfectible ; and therefore I think some kind of state power (albeit democratised) will be necessary for a long time to come.

I think the suppression of wage labour (ie: typified by the exploitation of labour by capital) can be taken so far ; But at a point you run into very serious resistance from the transnational corporations and often by their state-facilitators. Look what happened to Gough ; and look what happened under Rudd re: the Mining Tax.  Also there’s the problem of ‘workers exploiting themselves’.  Collective capital formation (workers - and hopefully citizens - holding what collectively is a significant share in capital) is a potentially democratising force.  (I specify 'citizens' as well so as not to exclude non-capitalist citizens who for whatever reason are outside of the workforce ; eg: pensioners) Hence my support for democratic collective capital formation as policy. At this point it’s a good outcome.  But it also creates complexities which would be hard to resolve.  So importantly I'm talking about a process - in this country and globally - which spans decades - and maybe more. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a kind of revolution - which took maybe a couple of centuries. Why not be a revolutionary over the long run?

Indeed the Guaranteed Minimum Income that some of my critics support  (and I support as well) itself has revolutionary potential - by getting rid of workers' dependence on selling their labour power to capital in order to survive. Perhaps critics are just worried some Liberal will take the word "revolutionary" out of context ; and depict us all as terrorists or the like? But where do you draw the line then? Do we stop talking about socialism as well? Do we stop talking about 'capitalism' as anything less than 'an eternal absolute'? A truly 'closed system' ; which cannot be relativised or criticised ; and with no way out?

I'm a 'revolutionary' in the sense I support not only political citizenship ; but also social citizenship and economic citizenship. That's how some Swedish radicals viewed the question interestingly enough. 'Economic citizenship' would be a revolution to democratise the economy.  'Social Citizenship' involves the extension of social rights ; including those delivered via the welfare state, regulated labour market and social wage. 'Political citizenship' WAS the political and liberal revolution. And it's not necessarily finished yet either. So what's really so objectionable about all this at the end of the day?"

Finally and interestingly: the ‘Austro-Marxists’ (arguably one of the theoretically-most-significant tendencies in 20th Century European Marxism) talked about "slow revolution" ; especially during the interwar period ; Which they meant in a very similar way in which I use the word.  They were also amongst the first to theorise 'multi-culturalism' - in the context of the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire. (ie: 'what would replace the Empire?')

The idea of 'revolution via democracy' is not new or unprecedented. And Yes - if Bill Shorten started talking about it at this point then it would confuse people.  I doubt it reflects his world-view in any case. But here on the relative margins we can discuss it ; and maybe we should discuss it within the ALP Socialist Left (internally) as well ; as part of a process of working out what the ALP Socialist Left really stands for these days. It’s a long struggle to rehabilitate the language and substance of democratic revolution from shallow understandings. (ie: that 'revolution' means 'violence'.) But I think it's worth it in the long run. And it is crucial that people see we're NOT suggesting a 'revolution against democracy' ; but rather "a gradual, democratic (and hopefully peaceful) revolution FROM WITHIN democracy - to EXTEND democracy.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

150th Anniversary of Capital : Marx still Highly-Relevant Despite the Critics



Debating Marx's ‘Labour Theory of Value’ and 'Marx on the Environment' on the 150th Anniversary of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ (Vol I) ; Responding to the Critics.


Dr Tristan Ewins  ; September 2017

At the ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’ Facebook group we’ve been discussing Marx’s ‘Labour Theory of Value’.  This is notable because this year is the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ (Volume One).

In the relatively-near future I intend restructuring, editing and partially-re-writing a speech I made on that subject.

But for now I would like to discuss Marx's famous 'Labour Theory of Value' specifically.  (and also whether or not Marx 'valued' the natural environment)  Another contributor basically argued that ‘labour theory of value’ (as argued in Capital Volume One) was defunct ; and that it led a lot of people to reject Marx.   This is a pretty common response ; and certainly ‘bourgeois’ responses to Marx have often fixated on discrediting his ‘labour theory of value’.  This has arguably been partly for reasons of interest – and hence a wish to discredit the argument that labour is responsible for all ‘values’ in terms of goods and services. (with the exceptions of land and the natural environment)   But there have been philosophical arguments about the nature of ‘value’ as well.  And there has been much confusion because for Marx ‘value’ is an analytical category with a specific (non-mundane) meaning.

Typically respondents have argued that ‘value is subjective’.   And indeed in my PhD Thesis I approved of (Marxist Revisionist) Eduard Bernstein’s merging of ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ elements in his critique of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.  Therein I argued that Marx did not account sufficiently for the relative privilege of what may be called the ‘labour aristocracy’.


Anyway: Having studied Capital more closely now, though, I feel in a better position to respond with greater confidence.  Here’s my understanding, now, of ‘Labour Theory of Value’.

My understanding is that Marx's labour theory of value is in some ways a self-referential system ; and it makes sense on its own terms. To begin you have to distinguish between the price of labour power sold to employers as a commodity and 'labour theory of value' where ‘value’ is ‘the amount of labour congealed in commodities’.  Though truly the idea of "average socially necessary labour time" does not distinguish between different *kinds* of labour.  That said: Marx does not deny a subjective element to items' values - or to the use values AND exchange values of different kinds of labour power ; He even recognises differences in the relative value of different kinds of labour power at some points in Capital ; but it's true that he doesn't explore that in enough detail. It’s a complication with regard his system and perhaps hence he neglects it. We are unclear how different qualities of labour should be recompensed under socialism for instance.  So yes, there are deficiencies in some of Marx’s notions even though they are internally consistent.

To elaborate: There is a problem not only with the *mechanism* or ‘process’ of Surplus Value Extraction (in the context where all value is ultimately created by labour ; so Surplus Value can be argued for as ‘unpaid labour time’)  ; there is also a problem that while some workers experience extreme alienation (ruinous working conditions, lack of creative control or fulfilment) in return for bare-subsistence, other workers (while technically exploited) experience superior conditions (including pay, creative control, prestige, career paths) ; and historically this is played upon to disrupt solidarity within and across the working class.

But also: While Marx DOES recognise the role of Demand and Supply on the price of labour power ; he does not consider as such ‘the relative worth’ of different kinds of labour once skill, difficulty etc are accounted for.  So under democratic socialism what kind of differences of recompense are possible – or even desirable?  How for instance do we promote solidarity and mutual respect ; but also some reward for skill, difficulty, effort and so on?

Nonetheless *Surplus Value* makes perfect sense. That is: workers *broadly* are paid the means of (relative) subsistence (a privileged minority (labour aristocracy) receive considerably more than the average) ; but there is not "an exchange of equivalents" ; the employer extracts surplus value from workers' labour.  The worker is only recompensed proportionate to a fraction of what he or she creates. That much makes sense. Also 'Labour theory of value' makes sense in that values (as defined by Marx) are created by labour ; and Capital is 'value in motion' ; a process for the cyclical creation of values ; and the production of surplus value ; and hence the reproduction of the capital relationship ; and capitalism generally.  Wages maintain workers at the relative level necessary for subsistence. The surplus is extracted both to pay for the maintenance and expansion of production ; and also for the maintenance of bourgeois lifestyles. All that makes sense. And no wonder capitalists and their apologists have strived to discredit Marx ; because the analytical category of surplus value implies a devastating moral critique of capitalism.

Theoretically some return on (small) investments of capital may be warranted ; because of the real sacrifices the small (working class) investors and some petty bourgeois make. But once you start talking about the bourgeoisie proper it's a different story. Only the bourgeoisie proper has access to such credit or reserves so as to overcome the barriers to entry into certain markets. And whatever risks and initiatives the bourgeoisie take ; the fact remains that Surplus Value is extracted. And what is more that the working class is separated from the means of production ; does not control the means of production ; must labour under the capitalists’ terms and labour discipline ; does not usually have creative control over its labour ; is often employed in monotonous, partial tasks which are profoundly alienating.

So there are big problems with capitalism that Marx is still very useful in analysing. Though he also observes capitalism's inbuilt tendency to drive innovations ; in search of what he calls Relative Surplus Value.  (think of it as a 'temporary advantage' in terms of quality or productivity - often driven by technological advances) That - in tandem with what Marx calls 'the Coercive Laws of Competition' - means that capitalism still drives an enormous amount of innovation and technological development. But capitalism proceeds at a terrible cost to some workers. Especially if you're at the wrong end of the Imiseration process ; ie: if you're a textiles labourer in Bangladesh.

‘Imiseration’ refers to class bifurcation ; as well as absolute impoverishment and ruination – which Marx anticipated.  Relative Western prosperity – largely delivered by technological innovation, qualitative developments, as well as improvements in technology-driven productivity ; has been argued as a refutation of this. But arguably absolute ‘Imiseration’ has also been ‘displaced to the Third World’ ; with an ‘outer dialectic’ where Colonial/Imperialistic exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies provides ‘relief’ in Western (core) economies.  (eg: cheap consumer goods for Western workers) Nonetheless we do see ‘relative imiseration’ WITHIN Western (core) economies as well ; as with the exploitation of the working poor within the United States. (hence perhaps an ‘external’ aspect to the ‘inner’ dialectic  of class struggle within the US ; ie: middle income (working class) living standards are supported by the exploitation of the working poor) And the global capitalist economy (having integrated economies the world over ; and having integrated the labour-power of women) is again pressing its limits ; leaving the question “what next for growth (and hence capitalism) – if not greater intensity of labour?  (and hence further attacks of the rights of labour)

In summary, David Harvey argues that Marx's Capital (Vol I) makes the most sense when applied to 'economically Liberal' or 'neo-liberal' capitalism especially.  This makes Capital (Vol I) highly useful for understanding Anglosphere economies which have largely gone down that path.  But admittedly Marx did not anticipate the rise of modern mixed economies, advanced welfare states, Keynesian demand management and so on.  Arguably these could comprise ‘stepping stones’ towards a socialist economy and society – while at the same time ‘stabilizing capitalism’.  (reducing cost structures and the like)   Marx is still highly RELEVANT ; but perhaps he is not on his own SUFFICIENT in responding to modern economic and social problems.

As for arguments that Marx did not recognise the  ‘value’ of Nature (one person at our Facebook Forum argued this) ; that is demonstrably untrue if you understand Marx in context.  Marx defines between use values and exchange values. Hence 'a beautiful rainforest' may have no 'value' in the sense of exchange value ; or Marx's schema of 'value' according to his specific (non-mundane) definition as ‘the labour congealed in commodities’.  But remember this is just a technicality based on Marx's definitions... It does not mean (literally) that Marx thinks 'nature has no value'.  Again; In Marx's scheme 'value' refers to the labour congealed in a commodity. But 'USE VALUES' are something else entirely. Marx recognises that things can have USE VALUE without comprising 'values' according to Marx's particular (contextual) definition. So 'a beautiful rainforest' can have a 'use value' in the sense that human beings can appreciate its beauty. And 'nature' may have the 'use value' of being necessary for the reproduction, health and happiness of the human species. Though it’s true Marx doesn't consider what some might call the 'intrinsic value' of nature.  Deep Ecologists may not find as much of interest to them in Marx.

Similarly “work/life balance” has value ; as do domestic and voluntary labour ; as does education, philosophical and scientific enquiry , and art ‘in their own right and for their own sake’.  But capitalism does not ‘see’ or ‘encourage’ the identification of these – EXCEPT insofar as they can be manipulated to somehow magnify exchange value ; ‘creation of ‘values’ in the capitalist context ; production of surplus value ; the self-expansion and reproduction of the capital relationship on which bourgeois power, privilege (and arguably purpose) rest.

On the 150th Anniversary of Capital (Volume I) it is worth revisiting Marx ; and questioning some common assumptions.  In-so-doing we encounter a thinker still highly relevant for the current day. 
Even though some (eg: the ‘Post Marxists’ Mouffe, Laclau and others) have suggested revisions and alterations which are also highly useful, and sometimes inspiring.  The 150th Anniversary is as good a time as any to ‘return to Marx’ and to work out what he’s really saying ; and not just depend on the second-hand accounts of bourgeois-Liberal economists.