Why Australia is an imperialist country by Max Lane

Australia is a small country of 25 million people. It ranks between 12th to 14th in the world in terms of the overall size of its economy. Although the gap between it and the large population, industrialised countries is substantial. Its military spending, ranking also around 12th in the world, therefore matches its ranking in size of economy. However, while the US economy is almost 20 times larger than the Australian economy, Australian defence spending per capita is very high at about 65% of that of the United States. Australia spends high on the armed forces for its small population. Military spending rose by 29 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 2007 and 2016 and is projected to grow from $35 billion in 2017-18 to $42 billion by 2021.

us navy

This proportionally high expenditure cannot be explained as a reaction to any serious visible military threat from anywhere nearby in the region. No South Pacific country nor any Southeast Asian country has either the military or industrial capacity to launch an invasion of Australia. Many countries may have the capacity to carry out minor harassments of each other’s’ trade routes, although this has never happened. To fend off such harassments, should they ever actually happen, do not require the kind of armed forces expenditure reflected in the figures above.

Further north, Japan and the Peoples Republic of China, but especially Japan, have the industrial capacity to support a large armed force. Although, in China’s case, it does not have capacity for creating an Armed Force competitive with that of the United States in terms of geographic spread or technological base. Its primary military concerns are defensive, including in relation to the South China Sea, and as a potential local policeman, in relation to its immediate neighbours. There is no impending military threat from the Peoples Republic of China to the Australian land mass: it simply does not have the industrial and military power projection capacity. Additionally, there are no signs that it has any interest in such ambitions. Japan has no effective military power projection, as a consequence of the conditions imposed on it, and still mainly effective, after its defeat in World War II.

This is not to say that the Australian capitalist class and its state do not think there are potential threats to their interests that may need to be answered through the use of military force. In order to understand how this class and its state might view such threats it is necessary to grasp that Australia is an integral part of the world that can be described as an imperial core. This imperial core – originating back at the turn of the 20th century – has remained stable as the group of countries able to monopolise the most advances methods of production and thus concentrate the accumulation of wealth (and capital). The most important of these countries, especially since WWII, has been the United States of America. The United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan are the other large players. The rest of Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand are also part of this group, although the latter two became more mature members later than the others. The capitalist country in each of these countries has a monopoly over the capacity to “revolutionise the means of production” which is manifested both in their accumulated wealth and their per capita incomes, which contrast monstrously with all the rest of the world.

This division of the world naturally gives rise to resistance to its continuance.  (See figures at end of this commentary.) This continuance of this structure condemns most of the world to underdevelopment or, at best, a restricted capacity to grow economies. This makes it impossible that some generalised level of prosperity can be achieved for a majority of its population. Resistance to this status quo always, to one extent or other, takes the form of a struggle for national liberation, that is a struggle to end the constraints on the economic and therefore the social and cultural development of a particular nation. Where this struggle is led by elements of a nation’s capitalist class, it will be a struggle to end restrictions on the growth of its corporations. Where the struggle has been led by elements from a nation’s working class, this struggle also takes on as aspect of maximising, within the material conditions applicable, a planned national economy, with significant nationalised sections.

Both these forms of resistance are perceived as a threat to the hegemony of the imperial core that has stabilised over the last 120 years. Over the last 75 years, it has been the capitalist class and state of the United States of America which has become the most powerful enforcer of this divided world, and its biggest beneficiary. Both kinds of resistance, whether from non-core capitalist states or from socialist movements and states, are viewed as threats by the US – and, at different levels, by the rest of the core countries.

Australia has shared this sense of threat with its fellow members of the imperial core. In particular, the Australian capitalist class and state has assessed that its interests are best served by helping maintaining this global condition, by maintaining a close alliance with the United States. In this context, Canberra is not under US an enforced, but a voluntary, hegemony or dominance. It has made a conscious decision of where its interests as the dominant class lie. Since 1945, Canberra sent armed forces to join US forces in Korea and then in Vietnam, and more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In the 1960s anberra also sent forces to join with United Kingdom in Malaysia to combat a communist insurgency.

A close alliance with US imperialism, including close military cooperation, demands that the Australian Armed Forces can engage in joint war activities with the US Armed Forces at the same technological level. It is the need to integrate with the most technologically advanced Armed Forces in the world which necessitates very high levels of defence spending.  Technological upgrading of the US military is constant and across all arms of the military and in all aspects, requiring the same for the Australian forces. Countries not integrated to this extent can choose what areas of their military machine they want to modernise, in accordance with how they might see their needs. Australia has to attempt a more comprehensive technological upgrading.

This all flows from Australia’s membership of the imperial core, and how its ruling class sees the threats to the current division of the world into two sectors can be best resisted. In the past, threats from socialist revolutions at the time, such as in China, Vietnam, later Cuba, all of which benefitted from a defensive umbrella from the Soviet Union (even if to different degrees at different times), which also made the USSR a threat, were a central focus. Currently, after 75 years of post-WWII growth several non-core countries have increased their capacity to offer resistance to the dominance of the imperial core, and in particular, to that of the US. This resistance is not a threat  to fundamental division of the world as it has evolved over the last 120 years, but it is a threat to the depth of US and imperial dominance – the extent to which the US can always get its way.

The Australian ruling classes voluntary integration into US foreign policy is also reflected in its constant aligning with the US on a question such as Palestine, even being the lone second vote opposing a UN investigation

In a period of permanent economic crisis for capitalism, which is reflected in, among other things, an unrelenting decline in the rate of profit and monstrous levels of uninvestable money , the US capitalist class and its state desperately needs to deepen the depth and level of dominance it has achieved over the last 75 years. Both the success in economic competition and the state intervention required to assure the absolute maximum level of monopoly conditions for capital means that the US in particular – and to a less urgent sometimes but still necessary extent the other imperial core capitalist classes – intensifies. The increased ability of non-core countries – China, Russia, Iran, for example – to resist and assert a greater level of independence is felt as an almost existential threat. None of these countries have the remotest chance of “catching up” to the core countries, but a rising level of independence can make core countries’ internal contradictions even more impossible to resolve. Moreover the 75 years of the US ruling’s class’s “social being” as hegemonic and “triumphant” super-power has created a ruling class consciousness that cannot conceive of itself being anything else but the unquestioned single global power, a consciousness that not only envelopes its big capitalists but the legion of officials and “thinkers” that staff its official and unofficial apparatus,

The Australian state, therefore, will do whatever is necessary to integrate with the US Armed Forces and join it in interventions aimed at pushing back resistance from the non-core countries; the countries excluded, to all intents and purposes, from access to the vast majority of the processes revolutionising the means of production. The Australian state, like those of all the core countries, will also not lift a finger to do anything to overcome the underdevelopment of that two thirds of the world chained to poverty as a result of ongoing neo-colonial conditions. Symbolic of this is that while the Australian state can constantly increase spending money on its war machine, it is constantly cutting its expenditure even of its always paltry and token overseas aid program.

Even more concretely symbolic of the moral bankruptcy associated with the Australian state’s defense of the division of the world into rich and poor nations has been its rapacious attitude to the oil and gas to be found in the Timor Sea.  While the army of the dictator Suharto occupied East Timor (1975-1999), shortly after East Timor’s first 1975 Proclamation of Independence, Canberra negotiated with the dictator to obtain majority access to the oil and gas revenues that would flow from the resources on the East Timorese side of the maritime border. Suharto acceded in return for Canberra’s ongoing support for the occupation of Timor.  A weird border was agreed to that located all these resources in “Australian waters.” This was a very archetypal {“blood for oil” imperialist resources agreement. Canberra resisted East Timorese independence up until such resistance was a lost cause. Canberra fought independence knowing full well that an independent East Timor would fight back to rewin sovereignty over its resources. Since independence the new East Timorese state has been able to force Canberra and Australian oil interests to accept agreements more favorable to East Timor. Reflecting its imperial core mentality, Canberra has resisted every step of the way, resorting to bullying and spying.





Graph based on figures prepared by Sam King, Victoria University



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