In search of lost time: nostalgia for a workers’ paradise that never existed
It's easy to romanticise a working-class suburb and factory life for one who escaped them both.
Sep 7, 2015
It's easy to romanticise a working-class suburb and factory life for one who escaped them both.
Danny Noonan: I haven't even told my father about the scholarship I didn't get. I'm gonna end up working in a lumberyard the rest of my life. Ty Webb (Chevy Chase): What's wrong with lumber? I own two lumberyards. Danny: I notice you don't too much time there. Ty: I'm not quite sure where they are. -- CaddyshackThere's a scene early on in Dennis Glover's engaging, passionate and ultimately irritating memoir/manifesto that sums up the whole enterprise. Glover, a former speechwriter and special adviser to numerous Labor leaders, recalls working at the Heinz factory in Doveton, south-east Melbourne, in the early '80s, a summer job, tending a large kettle in the soup works. The job is low intensity; while tending the machine he reads Marx. Having initially been impressed by Karl, he is fast falling out with him, seeing his revolutionary scorn for capitalism as a disdain for the people he sees around him, and the lives they have made. The scene is part Wolfgang Sievers, part Jacques Tati, and a little bit of the Goodies -- a young man on the edge of great things, leaning over a funnel, reading about surplus value, and trying not to fall into the soup. The Heinz factory is all but gone now. As is General Motors, so big it once had its own station on the Pakenham train line. And three or four other works concentrated around the south-eastern edge of Melbourne. Doveton, the suburb built by the Housing Commission to house the 6000 workers and their families of this factory triangle, was where Glover grew up. At that time it was a stable working-class community, with people living on goodish wages, in a place with clubs, societies, friendly neighbours, neat streets and well-tended gardens. When Glover revisits it to write this book, much has changed. With all the factories gone, Doveton has become a place to house benefit-dependent tenants, people with little reason or cash to go out, and not much connecting to the wider community. "I don''t like to use the word underclass," Glover writes -- but he has no choice but to describe litter-strewn streets, unkempt gardens, sad, rundown shops, and a closed-down local school (his old school) now a graffiti-tagged wreck he revisits in a particularly evocative chapter. Glover is angered by the decline into which Doveton has fallen, and who wouldn't be? He uses it to pose the question that we have been told for two decades we are not allowed to ask: what if things have got worse, not better? What if the trek from the "Australian settlement" -- class war stalemate might be a better description -- has left us with a society rich in consumer durables, leisure and image goods, but otherwise debt-saddled and overworked, and that's for the lucky ones? The gap between winners and losers that has opened and vastly widened since we abandoned that settlement has left us with an atomised social life that sets people against each other. The life of Doveton -- where streets, friendships, sports teams, social outings, etc, were grouped around factory life -- is an idyll in comparison. Glover is scathing about the propaganda that the economic rationalists have foisted on us about choice and freedom, arguing that this has simply treated all the embedded meaning and sociality of a place like Doveton as a mere incidental intangible, of no value. A way of life was thrown away, and Glover isn't that optimistic about what might revive its best features. A tour round the new high-tech manufacturing hub near Dandenong makes him briefly optimistic -- until he notices how few people these gleaming new factories actually employ. One is left with the strong impression that, whatever modifications we might have made to the ol' settlement, leaving a lot more of it in place would have been his preferred option. The vague and undefined conclusion is a product of the book's weaknesses, which undermine its strengths, but which render starkly the grievous limits of a Laborist analysis of our past and current predicaments. To base your critique of our currently very prosperous nation around the memory of a Housing Commission suburb in the '60s and '70s is courageous, minister. It's particularly so when you were always on your way out of it. Glover was part of a group of a half-dozen friends who travelled to the middle class, and -- in the case of Glover and John Pandazopoulos -- into the corridors of power (well, the Bracks government in Panda's case). Glover went to uni -- Monash, then Cambridge -- at a time when only 8% of the population did, very few of them from Doveton, and he kept on going; finally into a profession, politics, that is frequently vicious, lonely and isolating. So his recollection of Doveton life may not only be tinged with the usual childhood fondness, it may also be an active nostalgia for a world of social solidarity and reciprocity that he had left behind -- and others haven't. Villages and towns always look peaceful and content when you're on your way out of them. Thus, one doesn't doubt Glover's memories of many aspects of this life -- but one would be more interested in testimony from those who spent their whole lives there. Christopher Lasch once noted that the Thatcherite nostalgia for "Victorian values" was a measure of how joyless a post-'60s world had become, that an era of repression and abnegation could be yearned for. Glover is keen to point out how decent were the lives of the people of Doveton, with an eight-hour day, social clubs, a smartly designed cafeteria, etc, etc. People who worked in the soup line or the spaghetti section of Heinz still get together for reunions, he notes. One is tempted to point out that so did the survivors of Stalag XVII, but that didn't mean the place was their first choice to spend years of their life. True, he interviews people about their recollections of working life there, and they have good memories, but they tend to be either those who had interesting work, or family and friends, and a certain human desire to look on the bright side can be at least suspected. A more forthright assessment of the blunt end of the Australian settlement would come from unconnected people who worked 30 years on the tomato sauce line, not three university summers, or the women who raised children in an under-resourced and isolated suburb, or those who, as they faced another day spot-welding hubcaps on the GM line, wondered if there might be something more to life -- the ceaselessly variant days of a rising young policy adviser, for example -- and gradually realised, as their 20s turned to their 30s, that Doveton wasn't going to let them out. It's one thing, and quite legitimate, to say that the work of a skilled tradesperson is an interesting and engaging existence and that criticism of it would amount to snobbery, but to simply be neutral about a life of factory labour is to remove all content from your idea of what the good life might be. The Fordist-Taylorist systems that such factories operated are a perversion of the fully incarnated human being, relying on some unique features -- intentionality, bodily assemblage, task orientation -- to turn the worker into a fleshbot by systematically denying all other aspects, such as capacity for boredom, need for challenge, variety, exercise of skill, etc (and this is quite aside from the economic aspects of exploitation). Progressive visions of the good life come in many guises, and some of them may reasonably favour the idea of people living in a fairly modest manner. But no genuine progressive or leftist can be indifferent to the dominance of Taylorism -- it is simply a contradiction of human possibility at its deepest level. Against Glover's memoir, which tries and repeatedly fails to avoid reverie, one could counterpose a work like David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner -- a gothic and terrifying dystopia to be sure, but not necessarily a less accurate picture of factory life and what it felt like to many of the people living it than that of the that one kid who made it out. Or one could simply remark that most people who have had a boring and repetitive job stretching into the future will recall the tightening of the guts on a Monday morning, the sense of life draining away; worse, when you've been in it long enough, the sudden realisation that that feeling has gone. I don't think I'm saying anything very controversial here. So to refer back to it as a lost era is a bit of a problem. Glover notes once or twice that he's comparing the much-criticised life of "protectionist"-era Australia to the often even less-rewarding life on offer to many today, and point taken. But he slips back repeatedly into a pretty uncritical picture of a life handed to people by a state/market ensemble -- factories built out of town for cheap land values, people decanted to where the factories were, and a town built around the place they ended up. If Doveton is something of a wreck now, then its end was in its beginning, since the value of its assets -- i.e. its population as labour commodity -- was bound to fall to zero some day. A genuinely social democratic state would have built the town as a new town, with its own centre and focus, and then made the factories come to it. The rise and fall of Doveton is a measure of the thinness of the Australian settlement, the degree to which much if it was imposed and administered, and there is far more continuity between that form of regulation and the new form of regulation -- sometimes called deregulation -- that the restructuring of the Hawke/Keating years entailed. It's in this regard that Glover's book, in search of an answer as to why this catastrophe hit his hometown, is unwilling to go beyond a certain point in thinking it through. Like many Labo(u)rites, his emotional attachment to the party and the tradition is so strong that measuring its impact on the communities it was meant to protect while preserving a belief in its spirit can only be completed by delusion, and the search for enemies. They are easily enough found -- right-wing neoliberal economists with no eye to the complex whole, imposing an economic schema as a social vision. But also, unbelievably, but inevitably, the left, who, well, um. It's never quite clear, but Glover lumps the Marxist left in with the neoliberal right, as those destroying the settled world of working-class life. Stirring the soup and reading Marx, he comes to resent the notion, allegedly in Marx, that workers are "naturally revolutionary", dissatisfied and exploited. At university he finds the left to be middle class, disdainful and uncomprehending (not an uncommon experience). Ultimately he decides that the Marxist attitude is partly to blame for the neoliberal takeover:
"It was carried through by the true heirs of the political psychology that once belonged to the Marxist Left; the economic reformers, armed with their philosophy of creative destruction ... when I call these people the heirs of the revolutionary psychology of Marxism, I mean it quite literally ..."This is the moment, common now in Labo(u)rist writings, equivalent to the exposure of the butler as the murderer in Agatha Christie. Of course t.e.h. Left dun it. Who else? This assailing of the left from such quarters borders on the hysterical -- a reaction to the belated realisation by many Labo(u)rites that they created a society many of them do not particularly like, an acquisitive, individualistic, consumption-centred one, with the working class shattered into fragments, and atomisation and fear replacing the solidarity and generosity, which, selective as it could be, characterised much Australian life hitherto. In Glover's case, that realisation is very belated, because he has been of the Laborist tradition all his adult life, and was there when all this was being put in place. From the '80s onwards, as the Hawke/Keating restructuring got under way, there was voluminous criticism from the left, which acknowledged things could not go on as they were, but that there were other ways of restructuring -- more in line with the northern European transition from heavy industrial to value-added/information/culture societies -- than the neoliberal open slather. Such alternatives -- from Hugh Stretton, Eva Cox, Boris Frankel, Michael Pusey and others -- were scorned by the Labor Right as hopeless nostalgia. The market became as much of a panacea as merciless socialist planning had been after the war, as much a chance to be forthright and unsentimental as it was to actually implement good policy. That many on the Labor Right never saw the new world coming -- or, like Mark Latham, hate its manifestations while still lauding the market it is based on -- is due to a deep anti-intellectual strand within their politics, a barely concealed ressentiment, which deforms their ability to develop new policy. They should read a little more Marx. Those who have read Marx should read him in situations more congenial to concentration than on top of a ladder over an industrial kettle of tomato soup. For the telling thing in everything Glover says about Marx is that he gets it all completely wrong. He has never understood it for a moment, a point made clear in this recollection of walking around the now deserted and derelict Heinz factory where he once fed the kettle:
"I can see the very spot where my little piece of surplus-extracting capital had been fixed to the floor, and where my Marxism had started to evaporate with the tomato pulp ..."Dennis, the surplus-extracting capital was you, not the dead machine you were operating. That's pretty much, uh, well, if you were only allowed to explain Marxism with one fact to someone, it would be that one. And had you understood that fact you would have understood that a community that has been built around that fact -- that workers are a commodity, containers of labour-power -- will not survive the point at which the value of that commodity falls to zero, as all commodities sooner or later do. Marxism didn't kill Heinz, for godssake, nor did neoliberalism; the invention of the shipping container did, because it meant you could unload 100,000 cans with a swing of a crane. Given that and a few other factors, the "happy family" of the factory ended when Heinz fucked off to a zone with a more attractive rate of surplus-extraction. It's Glover's consensualist view of post-war industrial capitalism that's the problem, not Marxism. Not only does he take one period of capital accumulation in one place as the norm, and its departure as the pathology (it's all the same to capital), but he ignores the conflicts that did take place in a period when strikes were a vastly more common occurrence than they are now. Some -- like the Ford Broadmeadows wildcat strikes of 1973 -- rose to the level of national and international incident. That consensualist view is the Labor Right at its worst, guaranteeing that in the last analysis it will refuse to represent its base, and will side with management and capital in the resolution of crisis. That is the profound continuity between the consensualism of the arbitration era, and the Hawke/Keating/Howard restructuring that Glover damns, however much their content may differ. That consensualist view would tell you that Heinz abideth forever; a Marxist approach would say that all that is solid melts into air. Which approach would better have prepared Glover's people for what was to come? Without that insight, nostalgia takes over, and then you're left with an either/or situation -- the rather faded Kodachrome snap of Doveton versus the more exciting but precarious and debt-laden way we live now. Very few want to go back to Doveton, however many wanted to be there in the first place, but they might want, and deserve, a life that offers reasonable security, opportunity and a share of the surplus, as well as mobility, variety and choice. Achieving that means going forwards, not backwards, far beyond the limited possibilities of Australian industrial statism, and getting over this tic about disdainful leftism. The productive and economic base of the world is shifting radically; even moderate solutions will have to be radical. Glover's evocation of a vanished world, his portrait of its ruined present is moving and acute, but this book would be a lot more useful had he had the real showdown -- with the political tradition he joined. The Labor Right can't subsist forever on pulling in ideas from the Green-Left, (such as Shorten's 50% renewable base) while carping at it all the while over who loves the workers more. It is going to have to come up with innovative ideas from within its own traditions -- and fast, or poised over the bubbling kettle of history, it will soon go down the gurgler.