The unmaking of the Australian working class – and their right to resist

August 3, 2015

3 August 2015

by Dennis Glover

The smart backpacker chooses his travel reading carefully, preferably a single paperback equivalent in size to War and Peace. That’s how in 1985 I ended up reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class by a pool at the University of California. Its story has stuck with me ever since.

At the end of the 18th century, the English working class of handloom weavers, agricultural labourers, ironworkers, miners and the like still lived a largely rural existence. They were employed at home or in small workshops, with strong connections to village or parish life. Yet by the early 1830s many had been agglomerated into large factories under the discipline of the overseer and the mechanical clock.

Their once middling towns like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds had been transformed into the “dark satanic mills” of Blake’s poem. Thousands upon thousands of factory hands were crammed into dangerous slums, where they died young and poor. The old world had been physically transformed: bricked over, blackened, cheapened, uglified.

Thompson tells us that in the long run and on average, this Industrial Revolution made Britons wealthier, but it was carried through with unnecessary callousness and violence, according to a set of economic ideas imposed from on high, totally unrelieved by any sense of participation in a common project for the national good. Its ideology was that of the masters and the masters alone.

In barely 30 years – the same period of time that spans from the mid-1980s to today – an economy that had previously served the whole community now served a narrow class of winners, practically enslaving the rest. It wasn’t until the political system caught up more than half a century later that the material benefits began to be spread with any degree of justice. Thompson’s book suggests a question: did it have to be done that way?

Australia’s post-industrial revolution

This is our question too. Something similar to Thompson’s story of England in the first three decades of the 1800s has happened in Australia between the mid-1980s and today. Not the degree of immiserisation, but the pace and scale of social and economic change. The transformation from the industrial to the post-industrial era has been so total as to constitute the sociological equivalent of an extinction event.

The queues of workers’ cars lining up each morning to get through the factory gate – gone. The publicly owned banks and utilities – gone, or about to go. The union movement, which once covered half the employed workforce and rivalled the state for economic power – mostly gone.

Secure, full-time employment, with its guarantee of holidays, sick pay and promotion – in many industries long gone. The working-class dream of home ownership and upward mobility via cheap land, equal educational opportunities and apprenticeships – all are on the way out.

Just as 18th-century England’s green and pleasant fields were paved over with brick, its vocations replaced by the steam-powered machine, its pastoral life rent asunder by the regimentation of the industrial age, in just 30 years the world of the Australian working class, with its factories and unions and quality public services and the communities they supported, has been made all but extinct, wiped out, like the dinosaurs, by the fiery asteroid of creative destruction. By a revolution.

The Australian working class has been un-made.

The politicians and economists who brought us what they immodestly call “the great era of economic reform” have never been shy about telling us of their successes -just try opening the Australian Financial Review or The Australian any day of the week without one of them telling you all about it. But they never quite tell the full story.

The full truth is more dramatic, more morally loaded and less one-sided. Between 1983 and 2015, Australia has experienced not a benign economic reform era but a social and economic revolution as profound as any in our history; it has not all been for the good, and it could have been done differently.

This is the true story of modern Australian political, social and economic history: a revolution the little people lost.

Don’t expect the losers to accept their fate

But despite being largely defeated, these losers won’t go away – to the immense frustration of the editorialists and business lobbies. At election after election the losers keep voting down further economic reform. A higher GST? No! More privatisations? No! And so on.

So why won’t all these little people just lie down and let history trample over them? Why can’t they see that all this economic reform has been for the best? Why don’t they cheer when the economists remove public support for their industries and close down their factories and make them and their children unemployed?

How can they be so ungrateful as not to thank Paul Keating for liberating them from their dull, monotonous, supposedly unskilled and unimportant jobs making cars? Can’t they read the statistics? Can’t they see the upward trends in per-capita GDP that come from liberalised markets?

Are they blind to the cheaper price tags on all those goods they used to make but are now imported from China? Don’t they realise their children will thank them for sacrificing everything they have and know? Are they stupid?

These questions have a serious flaw: they are totally lacking in moral content and show no understanding of human nature. Such questions make sense to economists, but not to others. Humans just don’t work this way.

Like Thompson’s frame breakers and rick burners, Australia’s working class won’t easily give up without a fight, won’t voluntarily accept poverty, and won’t surrender its culture and traditions without a struggle. This may appear backward and borderline criminal to some economists, but that’s not how the people on the receiving end of change tend to see it.

Just as Thompson famously said that the Luddites and others had to be rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity, Australia’s wilful working class deserves to be rescued from the condescension of the economic reformers.

Just like the members of the English working class who went through the Industrial Revolution, the people who have experienced the destruction of their industries and communities in places like Dandenong and Doveton in Melbourne’s south-east, Norlane in Geelong, Broadmeadows in Melbourne’s north, and Elizabeth outside Adelaide, where the car factories and canneries are still being closed and where unemployment is still well above 20% after 25 years of economic growth, have something important to say to us.

It is this: economic change can’t be stopped, but we should at least try to make it work for everyone. If not, the losers have the moral right to resist – and they will.