This blog was created as an outlet for some of my written work. I have also used it to record a few of my other activities. Hopefully people will find it interesting or useful. I was going to call it – democracy, peace and love – because that’s what I’m most interested in. However, I decided on revolts now in memory of my first zine, revolt now, produced during my high school years. At that time I thought of revolution as an event, but now I think of it as a historical process, a long series of varied events in the past, present and future. The name revolt now had already been taken but revolts now was available. So here it is.
This blog was created as an outlet for some of my written work. I have also used it to record a few of my other activities. Hopefully people will find it interesting or useful. I was going to call it – democracy, peace and love – because that’s what I’m most interested in. However, I decided on revolts now in memory of my first zine, revolt now, produced during my high school years. At that time I thought of revolution as an event, but now I think of it as a historical process, a long series of varied events in the past, present and future. The name revolt now had already been taken but revolts now was available. So here it is.
I intended to call this post ‘Is Winter Coming? because this was a question posed during autumn, when the weather was unseasonably hot. In fact, we’ve just experienced the hottest autumn on record and for a long time it seemed as if winter was never coming. Yet as we enjoyed an ‘endless summer’, it was hard to ignore that this was just a taste of the climate change threatening our lives. At the same time, a political chill was sweeping across much of the globe. Along with terror and war, hatred, racism, xenophobia, religious conservatism, fundamentalism, nationalism, right-wing extremism, ethnic cleansing, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny, all darkened our horizons. Here in Australia, new resistances also emerged to the black shirts of the border force, the ultra-right threat on our streets, racist militarism, and the torture and death camps. Is winter coming?
I decided on the title Winter is Here, when, as if to remind us that the diversity of climate change is already upon us, winter finally arrived, bringing a major storm to the east coast of Australia, causing flooding, widespread destruction, and resulting in the declaration of a ‘disaster zone’ in this region and many others. While we mourned the dead and repaired the damage, a number of friends re-posted a previous Revolts Now post – Disaster Communism – which discusses the way people often respond to such events with altruism, resourcefulness, generosity and love – and how authorities often respond with fear, panic, repression, and savagery. Winter is here.
Love or Hate
As the storm recovery was underway, news of its aftermath was overshadowed by the horrific slaughter in Orlando. While the motives for this attack were widely debated, a series of vigils and funerals began, and a common theme emerged – the attack was a hate crime and the best response was to promote, support, and enact, love.
Just days later, winter fell on a village in the north of England, when Jo Cox, the local Labour MP and a mother of two young children, was stabbed and shot to death by a fascist assassin. Jo was a vocal opponent of Islamophobia and a passionate advocate for refugees. While still alive, she argued that we “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Her husband Brendan put out a statement the day after she died saying; “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.” How to defend ourselves against hate is a crucial but difficult question and the importance of love to positive social transformation is becoming more obvious. Our loving resistance is at the heart of the crisis of capitalism, because love is a demand that capitalism cannot provide, a desire that it cannot satisfy, instead love is created by struggling against capitalism. Today there’s a global movement to promote love as a power for revolutionary social development and change. That’s why hate is being deployed against us and why we assert – ‘your hate will not defeat love!’
‘Winter is Coming’
The phrase ‘winter is coming’ has been popularised by the TV show Game of Thrones (GOT), a tale that captures the mood and temper of our times. In GOT, ‘winter is coming’ isn’t a proclamation of doom, nor is it meant to be a contemporary version of ‘the end is nigh’; instead it’s a warning – be vigilant. This call for vigilance is increasingly common as it speaks to widespread social anxieties about environmental and social crisis, climate change, war, terrorism, job and financial insecurity, and a range of other concerns.
According to George R. R. Martin, “history is written in blood” and his GOT characters are constantly haunted by the vicious and icy history hanging over their fantasy world. As well, those seeking to do some good are regularly reminded that ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’. While this truism is deployed to scare and intimidate people, the threat of the living dead – those for whom life is nothing – is rising again and the Seven Kingdoms have turned a blind eye, as they remain embroiled in civil war. This life during wartime, where armies continually gather, coups are prepared, barbarism is common place and walls are meant to secure borders, suggests an obvious comparison between the media spectacle of a TV show and a range of electoral versions of Game of Thrones, including the current US presidential election campaign featuring Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton in the starring roles.
Occupying the White House
The campaign for U.S. president has featured two of the most interesting candidates for many years. Not surprisingly, the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ candidate has received much less publicity than a multi-billionaire right-wing TV star. But importantly, not only has the Bernie Sanders campaign popularised socialism in the United States, its most powerful message has been that political/social movements are the greatest social forces, not electoral systems.
The Sanders campaign both reflects and feeds off a groundswell of grass roots participatory organising which was powerfully invigorated by the Occupy movement. Those who maintain beliefs in the electoral system and representative democracy have sought to occupy space within government, even within the White House – attempting to make this ‘public space’. Such a campaign once again poses questions about whether state-focused struggles can assist progressive social movements? Can state power be used to deepen democracy? How does a diverse movement of movements, avoid being co-opted, infiltrated, captured and managed by capitalist state forms?
The mainstream media went into overdrive to downplay and sideline the Sanders campaign, with Trump receiving the lion share of publicity, helping to channel widespread anger with the political and economic establishment into the rise of authoritarianism. Trump provides a smokescreen to obscure the Sanders campaign – starving it of media oxygen and helping to position Hillary Clinton as the ‘progressive’ candidate – in order to counter widespread rebellion and defend the ruling class. Meanwhile, the ‘Sandernistas’ have discovered that the Democratic Party is anything but democratic – a lesson seemingly needing to be learned by generation after generation of U.S. reformists.
The menace of Trump’s presidential campaign is only the most visible example of a political climate change. While the horrors of a Trump presidency are hard to comprehend, some ask; how much does it matter who gets elected? What difference does it make whether Trump beats Clinton? Or whether Clinton beats Sanders? In Australia, where the election race is still a 50/50 call, similar questions about the two major parties are understandable, since so little differentiates them. After all, doesn’t real power lie elsewhere – isn’t it the ‘ruling class’ who actually rule? Isn’t representative politics just a sham democracy – a cover for the dictatorship of capital?
But its cold comfort to believe it doesn’t matter whether a Green candidate or a far-right candidate gets to be Austria’s President? Or whether Golden Dawn or Syriza are elected in Greece? When we consider our options, doesn’t much of the world show us that extremist violence and hate could now have the hour? Are we really ready to let it all burn?
Here in Australia, the extended Federal election campaign feels like it’s lasted much longer than the current GOT season, and unlike that show, many are wishing we could just get it over with. There have been some interesting moments, like when the reactionary Murdoch press called for voters to ‘save’ Labor MP Anthony Albanese from the challenge of anti-capitalist Green candidate Jim Casey. Luckily for me, at least in this election I get to vote for one of my friends, Cath Blakey, the local Greens candidate. (For those interested in debates about the potentials and pitfalls of such Green electoral campaigns I highly recommend my friend Dave and Jon’s latest podcast).
Still, there is widespread mistrust of political parties and the political process in much of the world. Growing numbers of people see that power tends to lie elsewhere – both in the hands of the ‘ruling class’ and the social movements. Whoever wins the throne – the emperor has no clothes.
Winter of Our Discontent
What increasingly appears to be a stark choice between real democracy or no democracy, has also been brought into focus by the Brexit referendum. Not that this was the choice on offer. Although ‘taking back control of Britain’ was an attempt by some to democratise political institutions, for many it was about restricting other people’s room to move. The ‘Leave’ vote advanced the growing popularity of xenophobic isolationism, while those on the left supporting Brexit posited an escape from an undemocratic neoliberal union of European Central Bank dictatorship and austerity. For those on the left supporting ‘Remain’, the rise of nationalism and the growing danger of the far-right concentrated their minds on defending the European project, at a time when it appears to be disintegrating. However, both retreating to defend the sovereignty of the nation-state, or the fortressing of Europe as a project of internationalism, are clearly problematic in a ‘globalised’ world. As the Brexit votes were declared, the picture which emerged was of a widespread rejection of elites, growing vulnerability and division; a polarised country in a polarising world. With much of the continent now gripped by fear and a ‘crisis of compassion’, border fences are rapidly going back up. But these walls are no defence against the powerful forces breaking the bonds of the current world order and the civil wars in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Libya suggest Europe is on the brink of disaster.
Contrary to popular belief, World War Two did not defeat fascism and the Cold War isn’t over. In a relentless global war of terror – any victory or defeat seems fleeting and today we’re faced with growing doubts about our safety. At a time of great instability, as systemic crisis intensifies, sections of the ruling class are fanning fascism in order to defend their power and privilege, to maintain their oppressive apparatus, and to stymie popular revolt. The fostering of fear, hatred and bigotry is being normalised, while state authorities concentrate on countering some types of fascism, they continue to perpetuate and promote a range of nationalist, militarist and authoritarian alternatives. When capitalism is in deep crisis, the tendency towards polarisation doesn’t indicate our conquest or weakness but the system’s fearful reaction to proletarian power. Our micro and macro rebellions are at the heart of capital’s vulnerability – we are the crisis that winter is meant to dispel.
As political polarisation increases, intensified struggles are erupting between progressive movements and radical right forces. In Greece, which suffered under a military dictatorship during the 1960s and 70s, the far-right’s recent successes have been eclipsed by those of the left. As I have explored elsewhere, while those who pinned their hopes on the Greek electoral process have been disappointed, the power and promise of Greece’s solidarity movements remains. In Paris, after the terror attacks last year, a state of emergency was declared, protests were banned, and the extreme right sought to profit from the situation. Yet, a few months later, France is being rocked by a massive strike and protest movement seeking to defend previous social gains and attempting to develop more democratic ones. As well, the rise of the ‘new radical left’ in Spain, where the fascist dictatorship lasted for 40 years until the mid-1970s, has transformed the political situation in that country. These are just some recent examples of continuing widespread struggles against, within, and beyond the capitalist system.
In South America, political polarisation is also intensifying. For instance, those who recently cheered as a gang of corrupt right-wing politicians led a successful ‘coup’ against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last month, were quickly reminded of that nation’s dark history. In the 1970s, during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, Rousseff, at that time in her 20’s, was viciously tortured. For months she was abused and left rotting in a dark cell, surrounded by her own shit and blood. During the torture, she took a punch to the face that broke several of her teeth and twisted her jaw forever. She was electrocuted, with high voltage wires attached to her breasts, vagina, and inside her mouth. She was tied upside down as the shocks made her eyes glaze over and her mouth foam until she completely passed out. A doctor would assess whether she was still alive and after she woke up, the torture would start all over again. The man who did this to her was honoured last month in the Brazilian Congress by one of the most prominent defenders of Rousseff’s impeachment, Jair Bolsonaro, who is now planning to run for president in the next election.
Dilma Rousseff, at 22, in a military court (1970)
Yet despite suggestions that the ‘pink tide’ in the region is going out, the future is far from settled. Many people have good reason to protest and reject the machinations of state capitalist experiments in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela and it’s no surprise that right-wing forces have taken advantage of popular discontent to oust, or destabilise, progressive administrations. Yet, for how long they can harness economic crisis and broad-based distrust of the political process remains unclear. For all of their mistakes, failures, and betrayals, the fall/crisis of left governments is riven with contradictions which herald both opportunities and dangers for those engaged in anti-capitalist struggle. The institutions of these regimes were/are sometimes guided by communist desires and have at times defended democracy from fascism and reaction. Still, I have written elsewhere about the potentials and pitfalls of the revolutionary process in Venezuela and it is of great concern that the central question there is now more clearly – what will the army do? None-the-less, anti-capitalist social movements remain broadly popular and powerful across South America. The struggles continue.
The Summer of Love and a Global Spring
Across the globe, political systems are thawing out, offering a range of dangers and possibilities. So, perhaps, despite the cold of winter, we should join those who declare – Summer is Coming!
Yet many now fear the heat of our future summers, believing this will eventually rid the planet of humanity. While some dream of a cleansing fire – the power of violence to solve vulnerability and free us from slavery (Daenerys is coming?) – rather than revenge fantasies, what we really need is another ‘Summer of Love’. Historically, though, it is spring which is most closely associated with revolt and renewal. In the past few years, revolutionary uprisings have blossomed in many parts of the world. Although the suppressing of the Arab Spring illustrates how counter-revolution can put our desires back on ice and freeze our horizons, let’s not lose sight of the freedom fighters of Rojava and the continuing bravery of those struggling through the harshest of winters, as they continue to plant seeds for a different, more beautiful world.
So, instead of wondering, is winter coming? Let’s hope this is our winter and a new spring is coming. Or even better, let’s make sure that this is capitalism’s winter, by helping to sow a global spring of rebellion, democracy, peace and love. In the face of the extremes of winter, or summer, let’s renew our appreciation of people’s ability to change history, to take effective collective action, to struggle together despite various differences, to create progressive change, to construct a range of living alternatives, to reshape the world. We can get what we need and deserve because we are organising and struggling for it. Winter is here – but spring is coming!
Once upon a time . . . I decided to write about fictitious capital and the term ‘extend and pretend’.
At a friend’s NYE party he voiced confusion about the way capitalism values things. I replied that this meant he had a good grasp of the current situation. For those at the party concerned about their house prices, superannuation, pensions, investments, etc., our conversation wasn’t very reassuring. They preferred the story where you work hard, save, invest and can rely on the system to reward you. Yet, like many, they worry this is a fading illusion. Nevertheless, what choice do they have, but to keep going and imagine things will be OK?
‘Extend and pretend’ has become a popular way to describe the current situation in Greece, where the nation’s debts cannot be repaid, so their lenders extend loans, provide more loans, and pretend they’ll get their money back later. This popular fiction is supposed to defer greater economic crisis and collapse, by putting off dealing with reality until sometime in the future. More generally ‘extend and pretend’ is the motto of ‘late capitalism’ in the face of a growing range of existential crises.
The ‘extend and pretend’ story of Greece is a tale of democracy. You know the one – people vote in elections, they’re represented by politicians, and citizens get a say in government policies. Most likely, since you’re reading this blog, you also understand there’s a ruling class and corporate power is greater than that of any parliament. This was clearly demonstrated last year, when the hope and disappointment of the Syriza government revealed how state forms, elections, and popular votes can be subordinated to finance capital and ‘market forces’.
A popular tale of capitalist institutions is that economic decision making is ‘technical’ or ‘administrative’, rather than political, as if class struggle wasn’t at the heart of social history. In the ‘birthplace of democracy’, we saw how a nation’s future rests on the country’s credit rating and the demands of financial managers. The façade of democracy was exposed, as the impossibility of national governments deciding economic policies without the consent of ‘the market’ became clear.
Whose script . . ?
In 2008, the near-collapse of the global financial system was overcome through the conversion of bank debts into government debts and the implementation of austerity policies in many parts of the world. After being rescued with taxpayer’s money, the banking bosses voted that financial discipline was now required from the governments and people who’d saved them. This tragedy saw Greece in the spotlight, as a series of austerity measures was enforced, so new loans could be provided to ‘keep the country afloat’, even though there’s no way the mounting debts can ever be paid back. Austerity shrunk the Greek economy dramatically. Tens of thousands of businesses closed down. More than a million people lost their jobs and half of all young people are unemployed. Welfare benefits and government services have been slashed – poverty is widespread.
Last year, when Syriza won the national elections and formed a new anti-austerity government, it was made clear that their election wouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the economic policies being prescribed by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead they were commanded to execute further cuts – in order to get more loans, just to make the nation’s debt repayments. Then, in a national referendum, Greek voters rejected austerity. But in a vicious plot twist the financial institutions forced the closer of Greek banks and created a more severe economic and social crisis. The government’s resistance was broken and they agreed to deeper budget cuts, continued privatisation of government assets, more job losses, and an ongoing social disaster.
For many parts of the world this is a familiar story. When ‘the market’ decides that discipline is required, we witness the structural adjustment programs or ‘shock therapy’ prescriptions of the IMF, World Bank, ECB, etc. Again and again, people and governments are called on to demonstrate their subservience to capital, or face the consequences.
Like the fables of capitalist democracy, I have long found it annoying how those who write economic theory tell stories about ‘fantasy scenarios’ to explain the unreal worlds they describe. However, when we explore fictitious capital; ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Fictitious capital includes credit, shares, bonds, speculation and various forms of money, whose value is based on imagined future earnings. Banks and other financial institutions sell these claims to future profits, generating and accumulating more fictitious capital. When banks loan out more money than they possess, they create fictitious capital. Most of the lending done by banks is to other banks and financial institutions, buying and selling fictitious capital to each other – making bets with each other about whether the price of this capital will rise or fall in the coming days. The narrative of this fiction is constructed by means of a balancing act performed by the most powerful governments and banks, as fictitious capital is continually invented as a symbol of confidence in the future of capitalism.
There’s no clear distinction between capital which is ‘real’ and capital which is fictitious. As this becomes more widely understood, capitalism appears as precarious and crisis ridden to governments, banks, and corporate bosses as it does to us. Because people around the world have resisted paying for the current crises and have intensified their struggles against capital, the imagined gains from fictitious capital must be postponed for longer and longer and the promise of future profits must be renewed again and again. With little belief in the long-term viability of their accumulated wealth, capitalist gangs fight each other in destructive turf wars, intensifying the crises of capitalism and destroying the basis for continuing expansion and growth. As crisis intensifies, the main source of new capital is the continued fiction conjured up in the finance sector. Today, global trade in actual goods is only a tiny fraction of the trade in various forms of finance capital and the mass of fictitious capital circulating in the money markets, futures exchanges, and so on, is far greater than ever before. The market value of such capital is a creation of supply and demand factors which are manipulated for profit in a global story-telling contest. As fictitious capital has become the engine of production and capital accumulation, the whole system is increasingly precarious, reliant on continuing confidence in a concocted system, tottering from crisis to crisis.
Money talks . . . shit
There remains a popular fable that money has to be earned, even though the rich tend to be born with their wealth and/or steal it. The value of money is another fiction, fabricated by the world’s central banks and commercial financial institutions. A central bank introduces new money into the economy by purchasing bank deposits, bonds or stocks or by lending money to other financial bodies. Commercial banks borrow money and then multiply this money by creating interest bearing loans (most of this money exists only as a book-keeping entry). These loans are then considered to be among the bank’s assets. Since the GFC, China, USA, Britain, Japan and the Eurozone have created an estimated $12 trillion of money which didn’t previously exist. This money may appear to offer a reliable measure of wealth, yet many of us are familiar with how the value of money can fall (like the Australian dollar) or totally disintegrate (e.g. in Germany during the 1920s or Zimbabwe in 2008 when the inflation rate was estimated at 231,000,000% – yes 231 million) and how access to your money can disappear overnight (e.g. in Argentina 2001, Iceland 2008, Cyprus 2013).
Last year, annual inflation in Venezuela hit over 140 percent. According to the country’s Central Bank, the lion’s share of this was caused by currency manipulation (deliberate attacks on the value of Venezuelan money) as part of an ‘economic war’ to bring down the country’s socialist government. Currency manipulation and speculation, rigging and betting on the ‘value’ of money, is the largest market/scam in history, estimated at a couple of quadrillion dollars per year (that’s two million billion dollars). As discussed below, the institutions dominating this multi-trillion-dollar-a-day trade are able to stage-manage the way they play with money as a form of sophisticated criminal theatre. Yet, in his latest book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Professor David Harvey sounds a warning about the growing destabilisation of money, arguing that; “The rise of cyber moneys, like Bitcoin, in some instances seemingly constructed for purposes of money-laundering around illegal activities, is just the beginning of an inexorable descent of the monetary system into chaos.”
Harvey details a range of illegal activities that are crucial to capitalist appropriation, including robbery, cheating, and swindling, along with a range of ‘shady practices’ such as price fixing, Ponzi schemes, falsification of asset valuations, interest rate manipulation and money laundering, while arguing; “it is stupid to seek to understand the world of capital without engaging with the drug cartels, traffickers in arms and the various mafias and other criminal forms of organisation that play such a significant role in world trade.” Yet, if we are to explore and try to understand the lawless underworld, we shouldn’t neglect how the global finance industry is constructed by and for criminal activities, and what this could mean when considering the potential collapse of the monetary system.
My favourite TV show last year was the second season of Fargo. This fiction revolved around a criminal gang war in the 1970s, and its impact on two families and two communities. The final episode opens with a roll call of all the bodies that have piled up around Fargo and Dakota over the previous episodes. The big city crime ‘Syndicate’ has come out on top and their hitman, Mike Milligan, has seemingly made every correct step in advancing through the bloodshed. He avoids the slaughters and takes out those who stand in his way, but when he gets back to base, hoping to become the new territory’s top dog, he’s instead promoted to the accounting department. “This is the future,” his crime boss tells him. “The sooner you realise there’s only one business left in the world, the money business, just ones and zeroes, the better off you’re gonna be.”
There once lived some . . . banksters
Many people have a traditional view of banks – we deposit money, they loan money, and make investments. Yet, when we get angry about their fees, charges, and obscene profits, we often complain ‘they’re robbing us’. This criticism is fairly accurate – commercial banks are corporations that steal money. Their theft is part of the more widespread ‘legal crimes’ of robbery and exploitation at the core of capitalism. As well, banks and bankers are often involved in a whole range of illegal criminal undertakings.
From popular fiction we know Swiss banks have long been a favoured repository of capital from illicit activities. The role of these banks in laundering Nazi loot and their complicity with the holocaust is legendary. More recently, banks in so-called ‘tax havens’ or ‘countries of financial secrecy’, such as the Canary Islands or the Bahamas, are regularly reproached for hiding away ill-gotten gains. Some readers may also recall the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which collapsed in the early 1990s. BCCI was the seventh largest private bank in the world and a nest of corruption, money laundering and other secretive activities. In a report on the bank’s failure, John Kerry (at the time US Vice President and currently Secretary of State) explained; “BCCI’s criminality included fraud by BCCI and BCCI customers involving billions of dollars; money laundering in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas; BCCI’s bribery of officials in most of those locations; support of terrorism, arms trafficking, and the sale of nuclear technologies; management of prostitution; the commission and facilitation of income tax evasion, smuggling, and illegal immigration; illicit purchases of banks and real estate; and a panoply of financial crimes limited only by the imagination of its officers and customers.”
A long, long, time ago . . .
The collapse of BCCI was much like the fall of Australia’s legendary Nugan Hand bank in the 1970s. After this bank’s collapse, a Royal Commission found it was involved in money laundering, illegal tax avoidance schemes, and widespread violations of banking laws. The bank was also implicated in drug smuggling, illegal weapons deals, and providing a front for the criminal activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Before the GFC, the US Savings and Loans (S&Ls) crisis of the 1980s and 1990s was the greatest bank collapse (described by many as a ‘robbery’) since the Great Depression. By 1989, more than one thousand S&Ls had failed, effectively ending what had once been a secure source of home mortgages. Many S&Ls were engaged in criminal practices, fraud, false accounting, forgery, and dishonest conduct as deliberate commercial policy. In 1996, the US General Accounting Office estimated the total cost of the S&Ls collapse to taxpayers at more than $132 billion.
The regular exposure of bank criminality includes the recent guilty pleas by four major global banks to manipulating the foreign money exchange market. They joined three other major banks shown to be involved in the same crime. These charges stem from an agreement by the banks not to commit more offences, after the ‘Libor scandal’ of 2012, involving the fraudulent manipulation of interest rates by a whole range of prominent financial institutions. Meanwhile, those who’ve closely followed the GFC and its aftermath will appreciate that the above examples are just the tip of an unfathomable criminal-banking iceberg.
The GFC also made clear that corporate criminals usually have the power to avoid charges and convictions. While the myth of a fair legal system, where law enforcement ensures goodness prevails, still holds some currency – it’s also commonly understood that the wealthy are protected and there’s ‘one law for them and another one for us’. The stories of ‘equality before the law’ and ‘criminal justice’ are now worn-out deceptions, evidenced by popular culture, where police, politicians, judges, and corporate bosses are regularly portrayed as crooked characters up to their necks in crime & corruption. Even though the poor are still more likely to be considered a ‘criminal class’, the fact that the most serious crimes are committed by the rich and powerful is increasingly understood. Yet, banksters don’t go to prison; instead the cells are reserved for their victims.
A factory of broken dreams . . .
Since the GFC and global recession began, there’s been a series of movies about the banking and finance industries (e.g. Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call, Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps, The Big Short), often highlighting the crimes of banksters. In January, I went to see the latest of these – The Big Short, which is based on a ‘true story’ about the GFC.
Part of the film is set in a financial traders convention, appropriately held in Las Vegas, where the financial market is compared to a casino. Yet, what the movie could have made clearer was that for the major players, just like in a casino, ‘the bank always wins’ – for those deemed ‘too big to fail’ there was no serious risk of losing. These ‘players’ can gamble on almost anything, including betting on the failure of loans, the collapse of currencies, countries, other financial institutions, and even the bankruptcy of their own client’s. Major finance corporations like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase, created fraudulent pyramid schemes, sold them to investors, and bet they would fail.
I used to be a keen punter and with some knowledge of how the gambling industry was used to swindle people and launder the proceeds of crime. So I based my selections on various theories about how racing was corrupt and the races rigged. Today, the revenue from the ‘legal’ gambling industry is estimated to be around $US500 billion per year. Illegal gambling turnover is believed to run into the trillions of dollars. Yet, this is nothing compared to the hundreds of trillions of dollars’ worth of bets on various fictional accounts of the future and the assorted ways of measuring these fictions. Despite its weaknesses, The Big Short was disturbing, especially if you have a lot of money in a bank, financial institution, pension fund, etc., since it made a strong case that these were all on the gambling table and at any moment you could lose everything to the villains who run the game.
Another disturbing movie, from 2010, is the academy award winning documentary Inside Job. This film centres on the systemic corruption of the United States by the finance industry and what the filmmakers term the ‘biggest bank heist in world history’ – the theft of trillions of dollars, leading up to and during the GFC, by those in charge of the major financial institutions. As the film makes clear, this robbery was facilitated by a revolving door between the banks and the higher reaches of government, where bank/financial corporation CEOs become government officials, creating laws convenient for their past/future employers. To indicate how pervasive this revolving door is, we only need to consider the involvement of banking, securities and investment firm Goldman Sachs in the governments of USA, Nigeria, Egypt, Spain, Czech republic, Italy, Sweden, and the appointment of their directors as heads of the Bank of England, the Bank of Greece, and the European Central Bank. And let’s not forget the current Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was previously the chair and managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia.
As Inside Job explores, during the GFC the financial system froze up and it appeared the global economy may come to a halt, after investment banks Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch collapsed. Yet, after the ‘biggest bank robbery in history’, the commercial banking sector was bailed out of the situation they’d created with trillions of dollars of money from national governments. Then, those who’d profited most from the crisis were put in charge of reforming the financial industry ‘to ensure a similar collapse didn’t happen again’. The result was larger and more powerful financial corporations conducting ‘business as usual’. Meanwhile many other businesses went broke, global stock markets dropped, and housing prices crashed, resulting in evictions, foreclosures and mass homelessness. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs and unemployment skyrocketed. Poverty rose and wealth was redistributed on a massive scale from workers/poor to the rich. Having bailed out the banks, governments around the world cut back expenditure, unleashed austerity programs, and normalised a prolonged crisis, which continues to this day.
Some readers may recall another popular documentary, from 2005, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which gave some forewarning of the practices behind the GFC.
Enron was the seventh largest corporation in the US – buying and selling energy, running energy services and gambling on energy prices. Enron turned the energy industry into a casino, betting on the price of energy – while controlling the supply and creating a phoney energy crisis, involving rolling blackouts in California. For years, Enron always seemed to win – but this was a lie constructed using phoney accounting and falsified bank records/financial statements. Their fictitious earnings allowed them to publish imaginary profits, in order to maintain optimism in the firm and sustain a rising share price, while losing billions and getting deeper into debt, until the whole house of cards came crashing down. The CEOs cashed out their stocks, while the price was still high, and made off with the loot. Billions in investor, government, pension, and retirement funds disappeared.
Leading financial institutions assisted Enron’s deceptive practices, helping to design their fictions and profiting from them. Financial analysts at the time argued they didn’t understand how Enron was making money – “you just had to have faith in it.” When Enron went bankrupt (at that time the largest ever US corporate bankruptcy and widely described as the ‘corporate crime of the century’), the same people who’d received generous offerings from the firm were expected to investigate the company for fraud. Nearly every US Senator and member of the House of Representatives involved in the committees investigating Enron’s collapse, or the conduct of Enron’s accounting firm, had received donations from one or both companies.
Who pays the piper . . . ?
At the centre of the GFC was a crisis of debt and value. As the financial system went into meltdown the experts of finance and economics were at a loss to explain or calculate the value of shares, money and assets. They repeatedly exclaimed that the crisis was ‘too complex’, that they ‘lacked reliable data’; they didn’t know what had happened or was happening. This is a huge problem for the system, as it requires measuring processes and values that result in common activity for capitalism. Importantly, debt couldn’t be accurately valued. It became clear that trillions of dollars’ worth of loans were not going to be repaid – so most were ‘rolled over’ (becoming ‘new’ extended loans). Since then, debts have continued to grow faster than economies, with families, companies and governments borrowing an estimated $57 trillion more than they’d already borrowed.
Examining the debt situation in Greece, Slavoj Zizek argues; “The true goal of lending money to the debtor is not to get the debt reimbursed with a profit, but the indefinite continuation of the debt that keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination.” Debts are meant to maintain a hierarchy of power, since the daily reproduction of capitalism is centred on social control through the imposition of work for capital. Yet John Holloway explains that: “Debt is essentially a game of make-believe: it is capital saying ‘if we cannot make the workers produce the profits we require, if we cannot impose the submission that we require, then we shall pretend that we can: we shall create a monetary image of the profits we need.’” Elsewhere (e.g. Radio Interview, Global Revolt, Class Struggle in China), I’ve supported an analysis that argues ‘we are the crisis of capital’ – that powerful resistance to and rebellion against capitalist work has thrown the system into question, there’s a widespread rejection of capitalist values, and the GFC was a generalised vote of ‘no confidence’ by ‘the market’ in both people’s willingness and ability to pay their debts.
Today, confidence in capitalist fictions is again at a very low level. Last month, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) made headlines when it warned about growing debt, the coming “cataclysmic year”, and another crash; telling investors to “sell everything”. But before you follow their advice, it’s worth recalling that RBS was once a small retail bank, which transformed into one of the world’s largest. Then, during the GFC, went from a position of global leadership to a basket case – a failure that almost brought down the entire UK financial system. The bank’s collapse was only prevented by 45 billion pounds of taxpayer support and several hundred billions more in government loans.
A tale of . . . measuring the Emperor’s clothes
Over and over, around the globe, we hear a rising chorus of people asking – What is real and what is fiction? With a background in unemployed people’s organisations, I’ve long been aware that official unemployment rates and job creation numbers are made-up, with governments and statistical agencies ‘massaging’ and distorting the figures for political purposes. At a forum I attended last year, Victor Quirk, from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle, estimated the actual unemployment rate in Australia at close to double the official number. Unemployment rates are among a range of measuring tools used to help maintain and reproduce the fictions of capitalism. These figures, statistics, and valuations are not objective truths, but creations reflecting widespread power struggles within, against, and outside of capital.
Economists tend to imagine an artificial world of graphs, tables and calculations, ‘invisible hands’, debts that are assets, and endless ‘growth’ that in fact destroys. Some have developed elaborate theories to calculate the finance industry’s ‘investments in investments’, ‘bets about bets’ and ‘bets about bets about bets’. However, these theories are mostly fables – tales told to keep us working and help us sleep. Economic theory and analysis relies on information provided by governments, banks, ratings agencies, and other mainstream institutions. Yet none of these can be trusted.
In 2007, economist Li Keqiang, currently China’s prime minister, let the American ambassador in on a secret: China’s GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore “unreliable.” He explained that most of the country’s economic data should be used for “reference only.” Recently, I read political economist Minq Li’s latest book, China and the 21st Century Crisis, which discusses the untrustworthiness of official Chinese economic data, yet relies on this data to develop Li’s analysis of contemporary capitalist crisis. As we commonly find, in the absence of accurate information, people have limited options. It’s widely recognised that when considering China’s economy (on which so much now hinges) ‘we can’t trust the numbers’. Comparisons are sometimes drawn with the former Soviet Union. Although it was widely understood the Soviet government made-up many of their economic indicators, and was deluded about the political/social situation, it still came as a shock when this ‘super power’ collapsed.
Since the GFC, spending by the Chinese government has been a crucial factor in ‘combating global economic crisis’. It’s reported that between 2008 and 2014 available new loans in China rose by more than $US20 trillion. Apparently the Government has also spent over a trillion dollars on directly stimulating the economy. Yet fear of serious economic decline in ‘the world’s factory’ persists. Today, there’s little confidence Chinese policymakers know what they’re doing and growing concern that the Communist Party leadership are out of their depth is helping to destabilise ‘the markets’ and global economy.
In the world’s largest economy (apparently/for now) there’s a similar story. In 2008, the US government reportedly spent around a trillion dollars to stem systemic collapse. At the same time, as the finance industry went into crisis, in order to ‘save’ companies like General Electric, General Motors, Bank of America and Citi Group, the US Federal Reserve (as the lender of last resort) provided massive loans to corporations of all kinds. These corporations, like the banks, were ‘bailed out’, yet recession and economic instability continued. At the end of last year, a decision by the US Federal Reserve to very slightly raise interest rates was meant to tell a story of confidence in US economic recovery. The fragility of this gambit was indicated by the Reserve’s statement that this measure was made partially so it could be rapidly reversed if things started getting worse. So far this year, ‘the market’s’ vote on US and Chinese political/economic narratives has been one of ‘no confidence’.
Just an opinion . . .
Among the key players in the world’s financial architecture are the main credit ratings agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. They exist to assess the creditworthiness of corporations, institutions and countries who borrow money. Their ratings are meant to reveal how likely debts are to be paid back. A high rating indicates that a borrower’s finances are secure. But, surprise, surprise, the ratings are a fiction.
In 2001, it wasn’t until right before Enron declared bankruptcy that the agencies began to downgrade its credit rating. In 2007, the agencies rated Iceland’s banks at AAA (the highest possible) despite them borrowing $120 billion – ten times the size of the nation’s economy. Within a year, the banks had collapsed. And, in 2008, investment banks Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were all highly rated just before they went bankrupt.
The ratings agencies are paid by those they’re meant to be assessing and rely on the accounts provided by them. They also cover-up and disguise problems their clients wish to hide, they miscalculate, misinform, and fail to appraise the ‘real’ situation of corporations, banks, and other financial institutions. Ratings agencies have made billions of dollars giving high ratings to fraudsters. In fact, the higher the rating given the more the agencies receive in payment. While Governments, investors, and ‘the market’, place great store on these ratings – the agencies themselves say they “are just their opinions and shouldn’t be relied on.” According to Standard and Poor’s, their ratings “should not be viewed as assurances of credit quality or exact measures of the likelihood of default.” Instead, the ratings should be considered a “commentary”.
None-the-less, these ratings have a direct impact on ‘the market’ and the wider economy. They are tremendously powerful ‘opinions’ and ‘commentaries’, with the potential for a downgrade to destroy a corporation, help bring down a government or destabilise a country. The agency’s ratings are repeatedly used as weapons by ‘market forces’ against states seeking to challenge the power of capital. At the same time, the agencies are key players in covering-up the crimes of the rich and powerful. Along with accounting firms, these key capitalist measuring instruments are sophisticated story tellers, weaving tales of punishment and discipline for most of us, and a web of lies for their corporate pay masters.
Not the whole story . . . ?
As David Harvey indicated above, much of the global economy is secretive, ‘hidden’ or in ‘the shadows’. This is commonly acknowledged through terms like the ‘grey economy’, which includes the incalculable and common array of ‘cash in hand’ payments. The size of this ‘informal economy’ is impossible to measure. It’s guessed the ‘grey economy’ in ‘developing countries’ is about 40% of their official GDP. In some nations it’s the largest sector of the economy. In ‘developed countries’ it’s said to be around 20% of GDP. There’s also ‘shadow banking’ – which includes financial institutions not subject to ‘regulatory oversight’, as well as the unregulated activities of supposedly ‘regulated’ institutions. The size of this part of the global economy has been estimated at $20 trillion. Then there’s the so-called ‘black economy’, which is also immeasurable. You only have to consider a part of it, illegal drugs, thought to be about 1% of total global trade, to grasp the importance of this economy.
As well, any story about the hidden or ‘black’ economies should acknowledge the open secret that ‘behind every great fortune is a great crime’. Anyone familiar with the development of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism will have an appreciation of how they were founded on the theft of land and property, the plundering of environments, horrendous violence, cheating, swindling, the enslavement of millions, the robbery of people’s lives and freedom. And this history, written in blood, hasn’t ended.
In another blog post, The Last Delegation, I wrote about the rise of the new bourgeois in Russia during the 1990s. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, traditional crime areas, such as robbery, illegal drugs, gambling and prostitution, were thriving and those able to were enriching themselves. The black market ‘mafia’ were making off with whatever they could get their hands on, while cunning members of the ruling elite were using their privileges to become richer and to secure their futures. The up-and-coming oligarchs emerged as well-connected entrepreneurs, getting rich through connections to business or political networks, as they plundered state resources and robbed the populace as part of the new ‘free market’ economy.
During this period, as James Petras explains; “Over a hundred billion dollars a year was laundered by the mafia oligarchs in the principal banks of New York, London, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere – funds which would later be recycled in the purchase of expensive real estate in the USA, England, Spain, France as well as investments in British football teams, Israeli banks and joint ventures in minerals.” The winners of the Russian gang wars “followed up by expanding operations to a variety of new economic sectors, investments in the expansion of existing facilities (especially in real estate, extractive and consumer industries) and overseas. Under President Putin, the gangster-oligarchs consolidated and expanded – from multi-millionaires to billionaires, to multi-billionaires. From young swaggering thugs and local swindlers, they became the ‘respectable’ partners of American and European multinational corporations”, as they continued to ‘diversify’ into stock speculation, banking, finance and company buyouts. Petras details a similar process with the rise of the ‘new bourgeois’ in China, Brazil, Mexico, India, and more. Many others have investigated the legal and illegal crimes of the ruling class in different parts of the world.
What can we believe in . . . ?
For those who’ve managed to read up to this point, you may be asking – how long does this story go for? While many people across the globe are saying; ‘What can we believe in?’ ‘There’s nothing we can trust anymore’.
It’s not surprising that numerous pundits now believe ‘extend and pretend’ is a confidence trick whose days are numbered. Systemic collapse has been forestalled by government cuts, intervention, bailouts, stimulus packages, interest rate and currency manipulation, and so on, seeking to guarantee future profits. Yet, the continuing refusal of people to pay their debts, to accept austerity, and to work harder for less, (along with the vicious battles between different capitalist gangs and the ruins left in their wake) sees fictitious capital continually expand, a range of economic, political, environmental and social crises intensify, the system’s crimes become more apparent, and claims of growth and recovery revealed as fantasies.
Throughout The Big Short there’s a consideration of value – of what things are really worth. The movie appears to centre on the value of money, stocks, houses, superannuation, pensions, wages, salaries, and dividends, as this is what people are often preoccupied with when worrying about financial crisis. Yet behind these concerns are deeper questions about what we value and how we value. How do we value life? How do we value each other? What are our relationships worth? How can we treasure the environment? How long can we put off making difficult decisions – seeking to avoid harsh realities? Are we reaching the conclusion of ‘extend and pretend’?
The future is unwritten . . .
Punk – prostitute, queer, beginner, worthless person, youth, petty criminal, inspired by punk rock, a style or movement characterised by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, etc., and the defiance of social norms.
During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, the Illawarra region of New South Wales felt the impact of major economic restructuring, mass sackings and unemployment. Thousands were forced from their jobs and many youth faced ‘no future’. As unemployment and poverty in the city of Wollongong grew, so did a new youth culture – punk. Punk exploded into popular consciousness with the Sex Pistols, their 1977 hit single ‘God Save the Queen’ and their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. The Pistol’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of England with The Clash made both bands infamous, as city after city banned their gigs and conservative politicians and media commentators denounced them. The Pistols and The Clash were strongly influenced by revolutionary politics and their anti-authoritarian, anarchic spit in the face of the establishment struck a powerful chord among marginalised youth, not just in Britain, but also in far-away Wollongong.
Today, it’s hard to appreciate how incendiary punk was at this time of intensifying economic, political and social crisis. For both supporters and opponents it was like throwing a match into a tinderbox. ‘God Save the Queen’ was banned by the BBC and the U.K. Independent Broadcasting Authority. It’s widely believed the song was considered so inflammatory that the BBC and the British Phonographic Institute refused to allow it to reach number one. None-the-less, it was officially number two on the charts during the week that marked 25 years since the Queen’s coronation. Described by the contemporary BBC as “a clarion call for dispossessed youth . . . its energy and sense of dissatisfaction sum up perfectly what it felt like to be young and alienated in 1977.”
With my parents and younger brother, I spent six months in England during 1977. Returning to the old country, after three years in Australia, ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’ is a serious understatement of how I felt. Rather than finding an idealised past that never really existed, the U.K. was instead miserable and depressed. Thatcherism and the National Front were on the rise. The intimidating presence of ‘boot boys’ and ‘boot girls’ personified the violent reality of widespread poverty, crisis and decline. There was little escape from the sense of foreboding, that something even more brutal was coming. ‘No future.’
The idea that young people had ‘no future’ became increasingly common, and back in Australia in 1978, at the age of sixteen, I thought ‘fuck this shit’, fled Wollongong High school, and went on the dole. I was miserable, frustrated and angry. Punk offered me a way of breaking out of what I experienced as the suffocating living death of mainstream society and of connecting with other people who were rebellious. I was pissed off about my own situation, being a high school drop-out, poor, and unemployed, and I was enraged about the state of society. I wanted to revolt, rise up with other people who were sick of the way things were, and change the world. Punk felt powerful, dangerous, and to many of those in power it was considered a serious threat to the status quo.
The Ramones were the first overseas punk band I saw perform live, when they came to Wollongong in 1980. Playing 30 songs in 55 minutes of non-stop, high-energy, fun filled rock, they had those packed into Wollongong Leagues Club frantically pogoing up and down on the spot until exhausted. The Clash was my favourite band, because they combined punk music with serious political messages, while campaigning against war, racism, and Nazis. They toured Australia in 1982 and I used most of my fortnightly dole money on tickets for my then girlfriend Chris and myself. Much of my remaining cash covered our train fares to Sydney to see the band play at the Capitol Theatre. Attending the concert was our Valentine’s Day treat and we loved it. The whole gig was amazing and at the half-way mark an Indigenous activist gave a rousing speech.
As a young punk I was excited about the politicisation of music and youth culture, while being concerned about the contradictions of punk; the degeneration of bands like the Sex Pistols, the scene’s commercialisation, and whether punk would be reduced to a spectacle. A review of the first Clash gig in Sydney described the experience of a local punk friend of mine while he queued to get inside – “On the other side of Campbell Street, the cops are climbing out of their cars. As they emerge, a few sneers and jeers celebrate their arrival. Crossing the road, the cops move into the crowd and single out a few punks. Wrestling them back to the cars, they slam them into the bonnets, restraining them before loading them into the paddy wagons. In their second floor dressing room, oblivious to the scenes outside, the Clash are preparing to take to the stage. As the first of the paddy wagons pulls out, the kids in the back claw at the grill, screaming “Riot! Riot!” Nobody leaves the queue. The driver deliberately slams his brakes hard, sending bodies careering across the back of the van. And then he changes gears and drives off. The rest of the cops pull out as quickly as they’d arrived. As a tactical show of strength, the exercise has been successful.”
Of the other main punk bands around at this time, I especially enjoyed the Dead Kennedys and Crass, who attempted to push the militant politics of punk to their limits. I missed out on seeing the Dead Kennedy’s when they toured in 1983 as I was broke and couldn’t manage to sneak into their gig. But, from the same year, I still have my copy of Crass’s most infamous single ‘How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of 1,000 Dead?’, described by a Daily Mirror columnist as “the most revolting and unnecessary record I have ever heard” and “a vicious and obscene attack on Margaret Thatcher’s motives for engaging in the Falklands war.” The band sold tens of thousands of the record, produced on their own independent label, making it the number one indie song in the UK. Soon questions about the band were being raised in the British Parliament and a Government MP attempted to prosecute them under the U.K.’s Obscene Publications Act.
Wollongong’s punk scene began in the later part of the 1970s. It grew out of other local alternative anti-establishment subcultures, as well as the influence of the U.K. and U.S. punk scenes. Wollongong punks borrowed aspects of overseas punk’s music, dress, behaviour and attitudes and added to them with their own styles. Our punk inspired bands incorporated local social influences and addressed local issues, mixing with various alternative subcultures more so than in many other places. In Sydney, punks, mods and skinheads tended to stay apart and would often fight each other. Here in Wollongong there weren’t that many of us; so we tended to stick together for protection and solidarity.
At first, punks mostly hung out at the Wollongong Hotel or the Oxford pub – the Pox, as we called it, was the underage pub, where kids could go and get drunk without being hassled about their age. It was also a place where drugs were easily accessible, it had an outlaw culture, and at times they’d be alternative bands performing. Then we began attending ACME music co-op’s monthly gigs, at the Ironworkers’ Club on Crown Street. These were organised by a collective of local alternative musicians, for local bands who had nowhere else to play, and for people who weren’t into the usual pub bands. The same venue was used for ‘Revolution Rock’ gigs and later by the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) for benefit concerts featuring punk, skinhead, and new wave bands. It was here that local bands like Visitor, Sunday Painters, Nik Nok Nar, Young Home Buyers, the Rezistors and the Alternators got their early gigs and where local punks could hang out together with little fear of being beaten up. The university was another locus of youthful rebellion and Thursday night gigs at the Uni Bar were a popular haunt for punks and new wave music fans.
For most punks the idea of D.I.Y., having your own style, rebelling against and rejecting established conventions and behaviours was the key to being punk. It was a culture for poor people who couldn’t afford to buy a lot of stuff and for those who rejected the glossy mass produced crap that was usually on offer. Most local punks were unemployed or low paid workers and collectively they created their own culture as an assertion of social realism against superficiality. They formed bands, organised gigs, put out records, designed posters, and made their own clothes. Punk was a critique of the dominant culture and consumerism, an expose and subversion of the music industry, and a rejection of commercialism and elitism. You didn’t have to play or sing well, have flash clothes, or expensive equipment, and punk tended to break down the separation of band and audience.
Thanks to the cultural empowerment set off by punk the audience one week could form bands and be playing the next week. Punk’s message was – you can try anything – and what you do, what you create, doesn’t have to be done well, or be perfect, just give it a go. This was the message that inspired me to have a go at playing an instrument, to help form the Alternators (the idea with this band being that the members would alternate and we would also alternate what we did in the band), to help write lyrics for songs (such as C.A.P.I.T.A.L.) and deliver some political spoken word to the band’s free form accompaniment. We also helped to organise political benefit gigs with bands like Mutant Death from Sydney, who released a single called Priority One: Pigs Bum, criticising the Federal Governments employment policies. The song used cut-up excerpts from a fiery on-air exchange between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and myself recorded during a special nationwide radio talk-back on youth issues.
At this time, Wollongong was a very masculine society, still steeped in traditionalist blue collar values. As part of the punk revolution, and reflecting the growth and power of contemporary radical feminism, punk challenged traditional women’s roles in popular music. Punk women flouted musical and social conventions, often by being tough, aggressive, disobedient, rude, and by making themselves look ‘slutty’ or ‘ugly’ and confrontational. The first record my girlfriend Chris and I bought together, which we considered our relationship’s theme song, was the anthemic call for liberation written by female punk icon Poly Styrene and performed by her and the X-Ray Spex.
Wollongong has a long history of militant class struggle, which has created a strong sense of community and spawned a high level of social activism focused on the problems of the working poor and the unemployed. So, it’s no surprise that Wollongong’s punk scene was often overtly political and anti-capitalist. Here the individual and collective manifestations of punk were intertwined from the start. As joblessness grew and political struggles around unemployment swept the city, punk’s focus on ‘do it yourself’ rebellion, individual autonomy, and rejection of capitalist consumption, increasingly mixed with more traditional class struggle.
Unemployed people, many of whom were young punks, established their own union, the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW). Some of us had previously been involved in punk graffiti group YAPO (Young and Pissed Off) and for many years one of my YAPO contributions remained sprayed on the walls outside the Wollongong Social Security office – ‘Make BHP Pay!’
As a founding member of WOW, I was keen to see the Union take radical action and confront those in power. Happily I wasn’t alone. Soon after being established, WOW members broke into and squatted a house in Market Street directly opposite the Department of Social Security. Along with about twenty other WOW members I made this my home. With community support, the house became the Union’s offices for the next six years.
For many years, WOW had a high and fairly positive public profile, despite often being seen as a ‘bunch of punks’. As a union of the unemployed, WOW embraced a wide variety of ‘outlaw’ cultures and Union members included petty criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill, contributing to our notoriety. The ideology and practice of many of WOW’s most active members was a combination of contemporary street level punk, communist and anarchist culture and philosophy. While campaigning against unemployment and for job creation, WOW’s militant struggles and D.I.Y. projects gave people a sense they were contributing to creating a better society outside the realm of wage-labour. Reflecting punk’s rejection of capitalist exploitation and alienation, some WOW members’ were uninterested in traditional work, seeking other ways to make our labour socially useful, aiming to take control of our own lives and give them alternative purposes and meanings.
WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims outside Federal Parliament in 1983.
To a large extent, punk culture in WOW was a way of separating ourselves from the rest of society, of showing our difference, while at the same time having something, apart from poverty and unemployment, in common with each other. It was a way of demonstrating our rejection of society in a very visual way. Regardless of what we were doing, even if we were just walking down the street, people could see we were anti-establishment. Punk was both a response to, and a dramatisation of, increasing crisis, unemployment and poverty. Punks dressed confrontationally, presenting themselves as anarchic proletarian ‘degenerates’ and outcasts, spectacles of aggression, frustration and anxiety, at war with capitalist culture.
My own punk style, at various times, included wearing an army jacket with red insignia and communist badges, a padlocked chain around my neck, dyed scarlet hair, a razor blade necklace, torn up, blood splattered, local and overseas punk band T-shirts, ripped and dirty stove pipe jeans rolled up to expose cherry red doc marten boots, and large safety pins as earrings, pushed through my ears while I was high on pain killers. Other members of WOW sported similar get-ups, studded leather jackets, ripped and patched op-shop clothing, studded belts and bracelets, pieces of clothing held together with safety pins, suit jackets, flannelette shirts, a range of boots, patches, badges, hair colours, spiked, shaved haircuts and sculpted mohawks. Many, displayed various forms of self-harm, slashed arms, bruises and signs of neglect.
WOW’s punk culture was the clearest manifestation of some of its member’s rejection of the traditional role of workers, to do waged work, as they attempted to sabotage themselves as commodities. Many WOW members defined themselves against the conservative sections of the union movement and developed an oppositional culture and alternative value systems. There were debates and discussions within WOW about the impact of punk and the effect it was having on our relationship with the general community. Concern was expressed, within the Union, that punk was an obstacle to developing ‘working class unity and co-operation’, recognising that punk and work refusal were a rejection of labour movement traditions based on ideas of the ‘dignity of labour’. But those in WOW who attempted to curb its punk image found themselves in a minority.
Being involved in punk and being involved in WOW was thrilling. You just had to be around the punk scene and the Union’s members to feel the excitement and energy. Both punk and WOW helped young people feel like they could do all the things they wanted to do, that anything was possible. They both changed the way we felt about ourselves and the world around us. We didn’t have to wait around for things to happen, or just be passive victims, we could fight back, sweep the past aside, and create our own way of life. In response to the prediction of ‘No future’, we constructed our own futures, while hoping that time was on our side. It felt as if we had the power to create radical social change – we just had to use it.
Thirty seven years ago, in 1979, I bought a compilation album of punk and ‘new wave’ songs, which included the Mekons’ song ‘Where Were You?’ On New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, some of my younger punk friends released a CD which includes a wonderful cover version of the same song. As if this wasn’t glorious enough, they also released a video for the song which features the dancing son of some other younger punk friends. The future is now and punks not dead!
Callaghan, M., & Southall, N., 1985, WOW Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.
Callaghan, M., & Pusell, S., 1984, Raise the Dole Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.
Clash gig review, 1982, Rock Australia Magazine, Sydney.
Dilemas, 2015, Where were you?, YNTPM Records, https://dilemmasdilemmas.bandcamp.com/releases
Hebdige, D., 2003, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London.
Pusell, S., 1983, WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims, Wollongong.
Pusell, S, & Donarski, C., 1984, What Shall I Wear Tonight?, Wollongong.
Savage, J., 1991, England’s Dreaming; Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, Faber and Faber, London.
Regular readers of Revolts Now will know that I occasionally write about the use of love in advertising. In my post Advertising Love I discuss how every year we see debates about the meaning of Christmas and its increasing commercialisation. For many people Christmas is less about celebrating the birth of Jesus, or giving and receiving presents, and more about love actually (and Love Actually). Yet, many of us feel the tensions of the festive season, when we try to enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones, only to find ourselves stressed and unhappy. Christmas is both touted and appreciated as a time of celebration, joy, sharing, communing, caring, happiness and hope. It’s also understood and experienced as a time of mourning, over-consumption, grief, loneliness, sadness and regret.
I’m interested in love as an economic, social and political power and how advertising demonstrates both the importance of love to people and to capital; how commercials express, subvert, co-opt, harness and exploit love. Today many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others.
Love can be deployed as a constructive tool and utilised in destructive ways. Last month, following the attacks in Paris, I wrote about the importance of love in countering terror and war. A few weeks later, as much of the world again focused on Paris, to see how bad the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference would be, those seeking to thwart a more progressive environmental agenda demonstrated how limited perceptions of love, and general anxieties about people’s commitment to each other, can be harnessed to sell romantic corporate illusions of a green future.
SADLY THE VIDEO PREVIOUSLY POSTED HERE APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN REMOVED BY SHELL CORPORATION.
This year, for the first time, my youngest daughter is spending Christmas away from home, in the UK. As she prepares for a Christmas of festive knitted jumpers and the possibility of snow (even though December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’s), she may have seen this popular British Christmas ad, for the John Lewis department stores, highlighting the distance many people feel between them, especially at Christmas. It also speaks to more widespread concerns about the planet/society and our desire to reach out to others.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
And perhaps this year’s most popular UK Christmas commercial is ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
When such disasters befall people, this scenario is fairly common – their friends, family, neighbours and communities step-in to care and share. To a certain extent the ‘Mogs’ ad is a light-hearted expression of common concerns about the level of poverty in austerity Britain – with its message that ‘Christmas is for sharing’, as part of Sainsbury’s ‘Live Well For Less’ campaign. The company’s ‘Live Well for Less’ website begins by stating; “These are tough times for family budgets, no question about it.” The site also asks – “Do you love sharing stories?” – encouraging customers to upload videos of themselves reading from the book ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ (in order to assist Sainsbury’s marketing campaign) while explaining that; “Telling stories can ignite imaginations and build bonds between parents and children.”
As indicated at the end of the ‘Mogs’ advert, as well as promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties, Sainsbury’s is also sponsoring the charity ‘Save the Children’, reminding us that among the most prominent advertisers at this time of year are the major charities addressing poverty, homelessness, family breakdown, etc. The traditional economic exchange associated with the purchase of a commodity has increasingly moved into a wider range of spheres through the promotion of ‘ethical consumption’, solidarity, care and love. Attempts by apparently socially concerned or social justice-oriented businesses to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, and positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, are becoming more common in today’s marketplace, as states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to position themselves as interested in, and committed to, love.
Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad won a ‘Marketing New Thinking Award’ for ‘Creative Excellence’. The message of this advertisment was “It’s not just about the gifts, it’s about who you share them with.” The commercial re-told the story of Christmas Day 1914 (on its one hundred year anniversary) when British and German soldiers laid down their arms and gathered between the trenches to share greetings and treats, exchange mementos and even play a game of football. Sales of the chocolate bar that featured in the commercial, combined with shopper donations, raised seven million pound for the Royal British Legion charity (supporting military veterans) and helped Sainsbury’s climb into second position in the British grocery sector. I wonder if they would have considered running a similar advert this year, appealing to widespread desires for peace, after the recent decision by the British Parliament to begin bombing Syria?
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
In the past few weeks, it’s been interesting to see popular use of the nativity story to highlight the plight of refugees and the need to shelter and support them. This grass roots social media campaign stands in stark contrast to the annual flurry of ‘we can’t celebrate Christmas anymore because of Muslims’ urban myths. Meanwhile, the deceptively self-depreciating and self-aware advert below instead uses the nativity story to portray the commercialisation of Christmas and the love/worship of commodities.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
Clearly it’s not “just a bag” – it’s a powerful symbol. And who doesn’t love a beautiful bag? Even if it only promises short-term gratification and increased status, rather than eternal salvation. Of course, the commercial is humorous because it speaks a certain truth – that Christmas is no longer centred on Jesus, or on each other, but on what we buy.
Michael Hill jewelers are consistent users of love to sell their products, as commodities centred on relationship, displays of wealth, and gift giving. In this advert, from their long-term ‘We’re for Love’ campaign, they declare their commitment to a socially progressive view of love, where ‘everyone gets their fair share’. The commercial stresses that the company’s pieces of jewellery are much more than precious metal and jewels – they are declarations and symbols of love. Here the advertisers disguise the quest for profits with an appreciation of the value of love – highlighting the importance of moving beyond an appeal to individualistic yearnings for economic wealth and status towards collective desires for a diversity of deeper and richer social connections.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
One of the world’s major advertisers, Apple corporation, spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year and employs some of the leading marketeers, psychologists and sociologists just to promote their phones. Consider the sophistication of this Apple Christmas ad, and how it positions the iPhone at the heart of the family.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
The commercial centres on familial love – playing on common concerns about family breakdown, generation gaps and alienated youth, while countering the widespread criticism that smart phones are socially isolating, alienating and debilitating. It achieves its aims by demonstrating how this is may not be the case and in fact the opposite can be true. Having one of the largest advertising budgets in the world, Apple knows that associating itself with creative and positive social relations is their optimum strategy – love sells.
And what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love? So, this is Apple’s offering for Christmas 2015.
(Having problems viewing this video? It is also available here.)
Clever advertising reflects and mobilises our emotions, our dreams, our fears, and our wishes. The products of Apple’s sweatshop labour can help us create a heart-warming Christmas tune, bring friends and families together, and communicate our common hopes for peace and love. But we are meant to ignore the immense exploitation and destruction of people and the environment involved in the manufacture of the corporation’s merchandise, and who benefits most.
During Christmas we are often faced with important questions about being together, how we spend our time, how we value each other, as well as the nature of the things we consume; their purpose, their fate, their potential, their ability to be something more than profitable commodities, waste, or a means to address fleeting desires. For many people, Christmas is as disappointing as seeking meaning and fulfillment in the accumulation of things. Yet, while the importance of caring relationships can be contrasted to consumerism, they need not be opposed to consumption. People’s love for each other can be facilitated by caring for and about things. These things are not necessarily superficial distractions. But what does it mean to think of the things in our world as more than objects for us to profit from, use and consume – to have deeper encounters with them and to value them in more profound ways?
The distortions imposed on love by the capitalist system shouldn’t prevent us from proclaiming its importance. Loving social relations make our lives worth living despite, against, and beyond capitalism. A communal culture of sharing and caring can rebuild fragile relationships, communities and environments, weaving supportive networks and movements. These networks and movements are produced out of recognition that the widespread hunger and search for love, for meaningful connections to ourselves, to each other, to life, cannot be met by capitalism. Rather than buying into the failed system so widely promoted at Christmas, we can instead find joy, as we share the gift of love.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
The city of Wollongong has an Indigenous name, the meaning of which is contested. For tens of thousands of years before white invasion, the people who lived here cared for and helped to shape country. Today, Wollongong is a city of contrasts and contradictions; a beautiful city nestled between the mountains and the sea and blighted by the ugliness of heavy industry and pollution; a city of wealth and poverty; of over-work and mass unemployment. During the past century Wollongong has been a steel and coal city and a progressive city with a rich multicultural history. For much of this period, Australia’s biggest company, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), was the major employer, wielding significant political and economic power. Its steelworks and mines marked the landscape and its rhythms of industrial society were central to the Illawarra region. The predominance of an industrial workforce, many of whom were employed by a single employer, also helped to create a strong class consciousness. As well, the region has a long history of social activism, the most powerful and influential collective expression of which has been the labour movement.
The depression of the 1930’s saw a massive program of industrial expansion at the Port Kembla steelworks and unemployed people made homes out of the discarded packing cases in which the new equipment had arrived from England. A large shanty town grew up in the shadow of the works. Hungry men would gather around the gates desperate for work, waiting for the whistle to blow. The sounding of the whistle meant that somebody inside the plant had been injured, or perhaps killed. So there would be a new job available. By the time the victim’s blood had been washed away, the replacement would be on the job. Consequently, the steelworks became known as ‘the Bloodhouse’.
The maiming and killing of steelworkers was still a regular occurrence when a short film about the steelworks, The Bloodhouse, was released in 1976. The film highlights how the steelwork’s management sacrificed workers bodies and lives while pumping out pollution and propaganda “designed to get more for nothing out of the pockets of Australia’s working people.” While detailing the exploitation and environmental damage caused by BHP, the film also focuses on the treatment of migrant labour, and includes criticism of the steel industry’s ‘tamed’ right wing ‘grouper trade unions’.
During the 1940s, the Federated Ironworkers’ Association FIA (the largest steel union and now part of the Australian Workers Union) was organised by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) under the leadership of Ernie Thorton. CPA member, Jack McPhillips, was elected national secretary of the Union in 1950. After being jailed twice for his union activities, Jack was defeated in his position by the anti-communist ‘industrial groupers’ in 1952. In these ‘red scare’ years, anti-communists took control of many unions. During the 1960s, the CPA and other communists played key roles in establishing FIA Rank & File organisations to oppose the right-wing Short/Hurrell leadership. In 1972, the ‘Rank & File’ ticket won the FIA Port Kembla branch elections with Nando Lelli, an Italian migrant steelworker and a ‘friend of the CPA’, becoming the branch secretary. This broke the national dominance of the hard right in the FIA. However, the Port Kembla branch remained an isolated ‘red’ branch for many years and had to constantly struggle against being sabotaged by the national leadership.
By the later part of the 1970s, after years of determined and often bitter struggle, the workforce in the Illawarra steel industry was increasingly militant and had gained relatively advanced wages and conditions. None-the-less, the steelworks continued to damage workers, the environment, and the community. For example, during the recent past, there has been a great deal of attention given to cancer clusters among workers and nearby residents. The steelworks is Australia’s number one producer of the highly toxic chemical dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogenic by-product of steel making that affects body organs, the immune system and the reproductive system. The most minute exposure to dioxin during the gestation period can leave unborn children with a reduced immune system. The house I lived in, during the 1980s, was just down the street from the steelworks. So, when the south-easterly winds blew, my family and I were right in the path of its pollution, regularly exposing us to dioxin and a range of other chemicals. After my eldest daughter was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of nine, we wondered – Are these chemicals responsible for her malfunctioning immune system? Is it because of them she couldn’t open a door, brush her hair, dress herself, or walk upstairs without pain?
Learning to Labour
Come all students of High,
Hail to the black and the green,
Proudly shall our flag fly,
Flag of the emerald sheen,
Black for the coal that gives life to our mills,
Green for the meadows that slope to our hills,
Let your voice ring as we joyfully sing,
Wollongong High School are we!
(Wollongong High School Song)
In 1978, at the age of sixteen, I fled Wollongong High school and went on the dole. I joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and became a full-time cadre, working at the Party’s bookshop in Lowden Square, operating the Party’s offset press and becoming active in a range of local organisations and campaigns.
During this time, the Illawarra had elected left-wing ALP Members to both State and Federal Parliament and the most powerful and influential local unions were led by ALP members committed to their party’s ‘socialist objective’ and/or by CPA members committed to a not dissimilar reformist party program. The Communist Party was well respected among broad sections of workers, giving it significant influence beyond the size of its membership. CPA members and sympathisers were in leading positions in the coal, steel, waterside, and other unions. Party member Merv Nixon was the long-standing secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, the peak regional trade union body and hence also a member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive.
After working for ‘the Party’ for a year, some senior comrades encouraged me to apply for a job in the steelworks or the pits. CPA cadre on the shop floor were highly respected and the Party was keen to replenish its number of rank-and-file activists. Although it was difficult to get work in either industry, as ‘the company books’ were now closed and the era of mass sackings was about to begin, strings could be pulled and a position would be found for me. This was considered a generous offer and a sign of respect for my work. However, I was a young punk and my favourite band’s lyrics were ringing in my ear.
Face front you got the future shining,
Like a piece of gold,
But I swear as we get closer,
It looks more like a lump of coal,
But it’s better than some factory,
Now that’s no place to waste your youth,
I worked there for a week once,
I luckily got the boot.
(All the Young Punks, The Clash)
Instead, I became active in the unemployed people’s movement via various local attempts to create a union of the unemployed. This was a decision I was able to make thanks to the support of my comrades, friends and family. At the same time, many others were fighting for jobs in the steel industry (e.g. Jobs for Women campaign) and soon mass retrenchments began in both the coal and steel industries.
Through the 1980’s, the Illawarra felt the impact of major economic and technological change, as capital relentlessly attacked organised labour and deliberately targeted areas of worker’s militancy for ‘restructuring’. Mass sackings, unemployment, poverty and social crisis gripped the region. At the start of the 1980s, twenty five thousand people worked for BHP Steel and thousands more worked in the local mines. The sackings of the 1980s would see the closure of three quarters of the pits and the destruction of thousands of steelworker’s jobs. Over a number of years the steelworks’ workforce was slashed to five thousand.
Wollongong’s unemployment crisis brought out a collective response as the city’s people turned outwards in anger and protest. This included the infamous Kemira stay-in strike, the storming of Federal Parliament by Wollongong workers, the Right to Work march from Wollongong to Sydney and the formation of the Wollongong out of Workers’ Union. The militant actions of Wollongong workers played an important part in bringing down the Fraser Government and in the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 (for more on this period see Working for the Class).
Leading up to the 1983 Federal Election, it was argued by BHP and its supporters that if the Government and workers weren’t willing to make significant sacrifices the Port Kembla steelworks faced imminent closure. When the ALP Government was elected it had secured an Accord with the ACTU. In Wollongong, the nature of the Accord process was made evident with the implementation of the Government’s Steel Industry Plan. Here the ALP and the ACTU accepted BHP’s long-term strategy and supported the provision of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to the company to invest in job-displacing technology. The Steel Industry Plan was rejected by local unions when they were told what it entailed. They argued that BHP was using the ‘steel crisis’ to achieve long-standing objectives of rationalisation and restructure. But as the steelworks’ general manager pointed out at the time – “there is nothing like the contemplation of the hangman in the morning to get people to co-operate.”
During the Hawke government years, the left ALP/CPA alliance was cemented through the Accord process. The CPA worked very closely with the ALP, promoting and policing the Accord, and had soon liquidated itself. The deepening of the Accord process, and the Hawke government’s implementation of neoliberalism, led to increasing tension between those involved in unemployed people’s unions and many of the labour organisations backing us. Unemployed people were excluded from the Accord yet we were expected to support a strategy that would result in cuts in real wages, attacks on the social wage, and continuing sackings.
As unemployed unions continued to resist the Accord’s corporatist strategy, they were increasingly deserted by sections of their previous support base. At the same time, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) decided to classify people trying to help organise the unemployed, as subversives. As trade union power and support for the organised unemployed receded, the federal government intensified its crackdown on unemployed unions. In 1987, the government introduced an activities test which was then used to cut the benefits of jobless people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, since they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’. Faced with growing attacks from the state and withering support from the labour movement, most unemployed unions disbanded.
Today, unemployment in Wollongong is higher than the national average, and nearly one in every two young people are out of work. The average income of Wollongong workers is now significantly less than the NSW average and the lack of local jobs sees twenty five percent of the workforce commute to Sydney each day for work. Many of Wollongong’s unemployed remain economically and socially marginalised, condemned to a life of poverty and insecurity, consigned to the worst public housing estates and subjected to police and Centrelink harassment.
In 2002/2003, BHP demerged its steel operations and renamed them BlueScope Steel. Since then job losses have continued, wages have been cut and production has been increased. Today, the steelwork’s workforce produces around 500,000 tonnes of steel more than the Australian market needs. With the imminent closure of the domestic vehicle production industry, this excess will rise. At the same time, China’s steel production and exports are rapidly increasing. The current global oversupply of steel has already led to thousands of job losses at steelmakers around the world.
In July this year, BlueScope’s Port Kembla management were negotiating a new enterprise agreement with local steel union representatives. The company initially said it wanted $12 million in savings. After three months of negotiating, the company’s head office delivered an ultimatum, they now wanted $200m in cost savings, of which $60m had to come from workers, or the steelworks would be shut down. The unions and the NSW and federal governments were told, ‘it’s up to you to save the plant’ — and were given until mid-October to do it. If they didn’t, five thousand people’s direct and ten thousand people’s indirect jobs would go, $3.3 billion would be lost from the region’s economy, and the official unemployment rate would rise from an estimated 8.2% to 17%. (Since the regional unemployment rate is probably closer to 15% the estimate should be 24%)
The local union response was to brand the announcement ‘‘corporate blackmail’’ and ‘‘an example of corporate greed and arrogance,’’ explaining that; “We are being set up to fail” and; “The bosses’ Plan A and Plan B are not a plan for saving our industry, they are self-serving strategies to shut it down.”
However, since BlueScope was now demanding a full restructure of the workforce and the way work is done at Port Kembla, the steel unions’ national leadership got involved, with the Australian Workers’ Union’s (AWU) national steel officer, Daniel Walton, dealing directly with BlueScope’s ‘head of people and performance’, Ian Cummin. According to media reports, the two of them agreed that this would not be a normal union/company negotiation: they would instead treat it like mediation – a ‘problem-solving’ exercise. They also went to see the President of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), Iain Ross, to ask for a mediator, and Ross asked his deputy Adam Hatcher to do it. Before his appointment to the FWC (by Bill Shorten, the then Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations), Hatcher’s career had been spent as a lawyer representing unions, so he was regarded as ‘a union man’.
The negotiations got underway in late August at the NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s offices in Wollongong. According to media reports; “Early on in the negotiations, the local union reps still thought they were in a negotiation.” So, according to BlueScope sources, the AWU’s “Daniel Walton took them aside and convinced them to look at it differently, that it was life or death. The BlueScope people in the room say they can’t speak too highly of him.” Later in the process, when local union representatives again attempted to bargain with the Company, it was ‘union man’ Hatcher from the FWC who intervened, to give them “a lecture on the importance of seeing the process through.”
At the end of the talks, an agreement had been reached to get rid of five hundred people’s jobs, to freeze wages for three years, to suspend the remaining workers’ bonus scheme, and to include an ‘affordability’ clause if it was reintroduced. However, the company reportedly believes the most important union concession is the removal of the ‘status quo’ clause from the enterprise agreement. Since the Steel Plan in 1983, awards and enterprise bargaining agreements at Port Kembla have always contained a clause that said – if the company and unions could not agree the status quo would prevail. The new agreement says that if the parties don’t agree, a senior member of the Fair Work Commission will be asked to mediate and/or arbitrate. BlueScope management believes this “will allow them to regain control of the plant, and in particular allow ongoing change.”
Save Our Steel’ – ‘Defend Aussie Jobs’
During the ‘mediation’ with BlueScope, the local union movement launched a ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign involving petitions, rallies, etc., gathering support for the continuation of steel production at Port Kembla and lobbying State and Federal politicians to protect the steel industry. As a result, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for taxpayers’ dollars to be spent on supporting steel jobs in Australia. Steelworkers, the union movement, the ALP and the Greens have demanded a legislated requirement for Australian-made steel to be used in all state and federal government infrastructure.
Another suggestion by steel unions has been that Port Kembla be used to help build the new $40 billion navy ship fleet. Joining the call to arms, the AWU’s Port Kembla branch secretary Wayne Phillips hailed as a great success the securing of the Navy fleet construction on Australian soil and said the next obvious step was to make sure the ships were built with Australian steel. “This is an opportunity for the federal government and in particular the Prime Minister to show his credentials on promoting and defending Australian industry,” he said.
The union concessions to BlueScope are worth $40 million. The New South Wales government has also deferred $60 million in payroll tax payments over the next three years and the company intends to save a further $100 million through “worker flexibility”. Taken together, these savings provide the $200 million that BlueScope said would be necessary to keep the steelworks open.
In early October, a mass meeting of steelworkers endorsed the new agreement. But if anyone thought that, after decades of struggle, the Port Kembla workers were now totally cowed and broken, they needed to think again. According to reports from the meeting, it appeared the steelworkers were going to reject the agreement and there was anger directed at union officials. It was a concern that saw local AWU branch secretary Wayne Phillips beg those in attendance not to vote against the proposal. “Don’t vote no, please don’t,” he said. “It’ll be ‘see you in the dole queue’ if the no vote gets up.”
Of course, the threat of the dole queue is especially effective in areas of high unemployment, like Wollongong. Welfare benefits have been deliberately kept at poverty levels by both Coalition and ALP governments to help discipline the unemployed and to force workers into accepting worse conditions and poorly paid jobs. After being introduced by the Hawke government, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are now being widely expanded and the current Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor.
At the October steelworker’s meeting, Wayne Phillips admitted the steelworkers were being asked to eat a “shit sandwich”. “But think about if it shuts – what will happen? Where are you going to get jobs paying $60-$70,000?” He also said former ACTU secretary Greg Combet had gone through BlueScope’s books and confirmed the financial straits the company was in were real. Following the meeting, the South Coast Labour Council’s Arthur Rorris praised the sacrifice of the workers. “They’ve taken a decision to swallow a very bitter pill and to shoulder an unfair responsibility for the rest of us,” he said.
A couple of weeks later the BlueScope board announced that the steelworks would be saved from closure. At the same time, they announced a six month profit of $180 million and the acquisition of the remaining 50 per cent of US-based North Star Steel for $1 billion. According to BlueScope, the move to full ownership of North Star “delivers on our strategy … North Star is the most profitable steel mill in North America; it’s cost-competitive and its employees are incredibly productive.” Importantly, North Star’s workers are completely non-union and the company has never had to contend with collective labour contracts nor work stoppages. According to BlueScope, the Ohio plant is 15 years ahead of Port Kembla in “alignment” between workers and the company “but what we’ve seen in the last eight weeks is you can make progress very quickly”.
Pointing out the national implications of this ‘progress’, in his weekly newspaper column, Wollongong’s Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery, took “the opportunity to congratulate the employees, management and unions for the remarkable efforts and foresight towards collaborative industrial reform in an effort to save Port Kembla steelworks. This type of collaboration sets a benchmark for industrial relations in Australia and forms the basis of reform which is required to secure manufacturing jobs in our country. Gone are the days of adversarial opposing ideological views at six paces. Everyone has to work together to achieve a successful economy and in the common interest of the whole community.” Similarly, Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney Business School suggested the Illawarra was now lighting a new way for the nation.
However, the deal was still contingent on the new enterprise agreement being formally ratified. This was due to happen at another mass meeting of steelworkers in early November. But this vote was deferred due to concerns a large number of workers would vote against it. Instead, the Fair Work Commission directed the company and unions to conduct a secret ballot of employees, while they set out to convince the workers to vote ‘yes’.
Many steelworkers were angry that company managers were already enacting conditions in the as-yet-unratified agreement, that they had added extra conditions into the agreement, and were starting to bring in outside labour. They were especially bitter about the purchase of North Star and a proposed $8 million bonus to be paid to BlueScope CEO Paul O’Malley “for achieving his targets, the specifics of which the Board won’t disclose.” The South Coast Labour Council has also pointed out the “incredible coincidence” that a large number of union delegates and workplace representatives had been targeted for redundancy.
Workers at both the main steel plant and the Spring Hill site had to vote on whether to accept their respective enterprise agreements. BlueScope said that if either site voted ‘no’ – the steelworks would close. At the Spring Hill site, the agreement was accepted by a margin of just seven votes. After the vote, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris told local media; “What this close vote tells us all is that the workers are at the limits of how much they can give back in.”
While local unions, politicians and the media hailed the steelworkers as “heroes” who had saved the steel industry by sacrificing themselves, The Australian newspaper instead highlighted ‘The man who saved the Australian steel industry’ – with leading business commentator Alan Kohler saying – “if one man can be said to have saved the Australian steel industry, it’s Daniel Walton, the 32-year-old assistant national secretary of the AWU. Walton ran the union side of the negotiations . . . which culminated in this week’s announcement that it would continue making steel in Australia. BlueScope says the credit for that announcement should go to Daniel Walton.” Still, regardless of who ‘saved the steelworks’, according to BlueScope’s major shareholder, Perpetual Investments, the decision to keep Port Kembla open is only an “interim measure”, before eventual closure in the next few years.
Poisoning Unions and Policing Workers
Those in the local union movement genuinely seeking to defend workers have little power and remain under the domination of the ALP and its influence within the labour movement. This influence is widely distrusted for fairly obvious reasons. For instance, the AWU, which covers more than 95 per cent of the shop floor workers at Port Kembla, has been front and centre of recent revelations about the corrupt relationship between the ALP, the union movement and employers. Former union leader Dean Mighell has described the AWU as “a dying union with a woeful history of employer compliance and ALP treachery.” According to Mighell; “The ALP was always the main game for many at the AWU and like so many unions, ALP affiliation was the reason for their existence.”
In 1998, within four years of joining the AWU, current ALP leader Bill Shorten became Victorian state secretary of the union. In 2001 he became national secretary, a position he held until 2007 when he was elected to federal parliament in a very safe Labor seat. In 2006, Shorten came to national attention when his friend, multi-millionaire businessman Richard Pratt, flew the AWU leader on his private plane from the United States to attend the Beaconsfield mine disaster. When asked why he took such a prominent role during the rescue at Beaconsfield Shorten said: “Perhaps it was a bit of company strategy, it was a bit easier for them if the hard questions they might get asked you know the ‘Whys’ of this, we weren’t going to get asked.”
Shorten has admitted that under his leadership the AWU negotiated agreements with bosses that would leave workers much worse off, while the Union received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments during the negotiations. Just one of these deals lost 5000 workers more than $400 million over 10 years. Shorten has also admitted to receiving more than $40,000 in political donations from a labour hire company that paid the wages of his ALP campaign director for the 2007 election.
Various companies also paid for AWU membership tickets to help boost Shorten’s factional power within the ALP. A deal between Cleanevent and the AWU’s Victorian branch meant the union received $75,000 for not enforcing penalty rates for casual workers. The deal saved the company an estimated $2 million a year and employee names were supplied to artificially inflate union membership numbers. The majority of those signed up to the AWU were unaware they were members. After phantom members were culled and automatic sign-ups abolished, just 15 Cleanevent workers remained as members of the AWU — compared with the several thousand claimed to exist under Shorten’s stewardship. Yet, despite Shorten’s use of such members to boost his power within the ALP, the union lost more than 34,000 members while he was national secretary.
As the Port Kembla steelworkers were considering their future, in one of Wollongong’s more affluent suburbs, Wombarra, another prominent union leader, sitting in her $1.3 million dollar home, fronted the cameras of the ABC’s Four Corners program. Kathy Jackson, the former union official once lauded by the Liberal Party as a “lion of the union movement” for blowing the whistle on corruption, appeared on the show to defend her theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Health Services Union (HSU). Her partner, Michael Lawler, Vice President of the Fair Work Commission, also outlined how he had spent the past nine months on sick leave, working on Jackson’s defence, as he collected his $430,000 per year salary.
In August, the Federal Court ordered Jackson to pay $1.4 million in compensation to the HSU for misappropriating funds. She had funneled the money into a lavish lifestyle, including significant cash withdrawals, luxury goods, valuable artwork, fine wine and dining. Her union salary at the time was $287,000 a year. The serious financial fraud that surfaced in the HSU, including fraud convictions for another two former officials, Michael Williamson and former ALP Federal MP Craig Thomson, provided the Abbott government with a handy excuse to establish the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. When asked at the Royal Commission about her theft of funds, Jackson made the incredible claim that all of the cash she received was no longer union members’ money once it had been deposited into her bank account. Jackson also siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars of HSU member’s money into a “slush fund” to help support the political and factional campaigns of her ALP allies, which included officials from the Australian Workers Union.
Coupled with the diminishing social power of unions due to changing class composition, low membership, job losses, strict industrial laws and co-option by corporate states, it is not surprising that revelations like these see union membership again falling sharply. Today, under fourteen per cent of employed people hold a union ticket. In the private sector, only one in ten is a member. Membership among young workers is down to one in every twenty.
Responding to the latest fall in unionisation figures, former ACTU assistant secretary, Tim Lyons has described the official ACTU response as “pathetic . . . quibbling over whether catastrophe is immediate or merely imminent.” He also pointed to “those with an interest in unionism continuing to decline” which includes former ACTU president and ALP Federal Minister Martin Ferguson, “loyally mouthing the views of his industry clients.” Yet, indicating the lack of understanding by those supposedly supporting unions, Lyons also argued that; “Unions have one, unchanged, membership model. It delivers terrific outcomes in large factories, and still works brilliantly in places like hospitals.” Clearly he has little understanding of how those in the auto or steel factories feel about their “terrific outcomes”, or any inkling of what HSU members have to say about their union’s ‘brilliant work’.
The relationship between the ALP and the union movement is poisonous for workers. The ALP polices workers on behalf of capital and channels workers struggles into electoral politics. The previous Labor government was elected following the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work (YRW) campaign which mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers against the Howard Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ industrial laws. The YRW campaign revolved around the strategic necessity for an ALP election victory and is widely regarded as having played a central role in the election of the Rudd ALP Government. Yet when the ALP returned to power in 2007, it did so on a platform almost as draconian as WorkChoices, but now with the support of the trade union movement.
A New City
The ‘realism’ of capitalism tells us to resign ourselves to ruthless competition, exploitation, social insecurity, poverty and joblessness, while fighting a never ending war against other people and the planet. Many people believe there is no alternative to moulding the population of Wollongong to the contours and needs of powerful corporations. But even if we accept the ‘laws of capital’ and live with growing poverty, insecurity and unemployment, it appears the local coal and steel industries have no future.
Capitalist managers utilise crisis, new technology and restructuring to increase exploitation and erode workers’ power. Yet, the hope and promise of new technology is to reduce the need to work for a boss. The potential now exists for a materially abundant and more leisurely era and I have always been more interested in social transformation – how to liberate our lives from domination – rather than defending people’s position within the capitalist system. Importantly, those who want to build a different world are already constructing a new city here in Wollongong, with alternative forms of production, distribution and consumption.
An immediate and growing concern is how to organise production to meet people’s needs and desires without worsening the ecological crisis. In his recent article BlueScope blindsides Port Kembla workers, John Rainford explains that because of Wollongong’s continued dependence on the steelworks, the local economy is likely to be devastated by its closure. But “given that it is probably more likely than not, it is time for the unions and the community to come together and draft an alternative industry policy for the region. Time is running out.” In 2009, John was actually involved in preparing an alternative strategy for the local steel industry when he worked as a Project Officer for the Green Jobs Illawarra Action Plan. This detailed plan for ecological job generation and industry development aimed to protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce energy consumption, decarbonise the economy, and avoid the generation of waste through ecology/closed-loop production methods. However, since there was a lack of commitment from big business, State and Federal Governments and both major parties – the plan was left floundering.
Now, we have a situation where an abundance of something as useful as steel is considered a serious problem. We’re unable to use it to improve our lives, unless a rich and powerful minority can gain enough profit for themselves. Instead of transforming industry, work and production, building life-exalting technologies and improving society, we must waste our productive potential to help maintain a system in its death throes.
BlueScope’s industry isn’t ‘our steel’ and this multinational corporation will continue to shop around – seeking the most cooperative governments and workers – in a ‘race to the bottom’.
Meanwhile, given a choice between a ‘green new deal’ and a massive military expansion both the current Government and the previous Labor Government have chosen the latter. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his defence Minister visited Port Kembla in 2009, the main response they offered to rising regional unemployment was a contract to supply steel for the Navy’s new destroyers and major expansion of the local naval base. The current Coalition government is continuing with the largest military expansion since World War Two.
As global war and regional tensions grow, competition with China has become an important component of corporate strategy. However, we needn’t worry too much ‘because we have a fleet of Navy destroyers to keep China at bay’. More realistically, there will be no naval battles with China, as both nation’s economies and futures are so closely intertwined. Instead, global class war involves pitting Chinese workers against Australian workers and vice versa. As well, the Australian military has been intervening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria while playing a major role in policing the South Pacific. Australian armed forces are deployed to impose capitalist ‘restructuring’, law and order measures, and the removal of barriers for business.
Another major role for naval forces is the ‘defence’ of Australia’s borders from refugees (who are often fleeing the military action Australian forces participate in). While capital and the wealthy are free to move wherever they wish and receive massive assistance from governments, workers/the poor face increasingly authoritarian restrictions imposed by a growing militarised state, supported by nationalistic forces, including sections of the union movement and the ALP. At the same time, increased military funding means less money available for socially useful production and development – cuts to social security, education, health, environmental measures, etc.
When we consider better ways of living, on-going debates about workers’ organisations and the nature of work are clearly important. These debates often highlight the lack of clear demarcation lines between ‘workplaces’ and ‘non-workplaces’, between ‘work times’ and ‘non-work times’, and between ‘workers’ and ‘non-workers’. Many of those in waged work are working longer hours and for more years of their lives, as part of an increasingly flexible, mobile and casual workforce. The imposition of widespread overwork and vulnerability is creating growing psychological, physical and social problems. Meanwhile, worker’s desires for a better life are expressed in their recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships and in their concerns about the ‘quality of life’ and struggles over ‘family and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are ‘underemployed’ and the increase in casual work is creating a generation of working poor, a significant proportion of waged workers want less waged work, even if this involves a loss of income. Environmentalists also point out that using productivity improvements for shorter work hours, rather than more output, could mean that technological advancements go towards reducing ecological impacts.
It is also important to remember that despite the continuing poverty and degradation imposed on unemployed people, most continue to live worthwhile and valuable lives. They are not just powerless victims to be pitied and feared. Throughout Wollongong the poor are making positive social contributions in their homes, streets, neighbourhoods, and throughout the community. They are often involved in effective activities that create progressive individual and social change. None-the-less, there is a desperate need for greater solidarity and more support for the self-organisation of unemployed people, precarious workers, and all workers, here in Wollongong and across the globe, to increase our social power and to ensure we’re not a threat to other workers.
While the idea of shared interests between corporations, like BlueScope, and the people of cities like Wollongong, continues to restrict worker’s power and imaginations, unionists are still engaged in important struggles within their workplaces and outside them. Recently, there has been a proliferation of struggles around re/production – involving the creation of new organisational forms, alternative ways of being and different social relations. In Wollongong, unions remain an important part of these struggles. Still, traditional unionism is increasingly outdated and unable to represent a variety of domestic workers, students, unemployed people, cash-in-hand workers, the poor, mobile and flexible workers on short-term contracts, all of whom actively participate in social production and wealth creation.
There is clearly a need for democratic and powerful worker’s self-organisation to strive for better jobs, wages, working conditions and shorter work hours. A range of contemporary social movements are engendered by the bureaucratisation, corruption, conservatism and internal immobility within the union movement. These new forms of ‘social movement unionism’ are an organised expression of people doing something for themselves across the entire realm of social labour. They reflect changing ideas and practices of work and new strategies that seek to empower the individual and the collective.
Today, in Wollongong important struggles include;
Mutual aid and solidarity networks supporting individuals and collectives – most obviously young people, women, queers, refugees, indigenous communities, disabled, unemployed and poor people – via a wide range of activities and initiatives. From the micro to the macro level, social movements are countering patriarchy and transforming gender relations, challenging racism and constructing anti-racist community action.
Wollongong march against forced closure of Aboriginal communities. (May 1st 2015)
Many people are experimenting with different ways to address issues of personal and collective safety, around issues of peace, terrorism, domestic violence, mental health, well-being, etc. helping to create alternative forms of relating, communicating, cooperating and re/producing.
Wollongong ‘Reclaim the Night’ (October 2015)
There has also been a growth of consciousness raising, radical education, media and cultural production – including alternative news & analysis, gigs, performances, blogs, reading groups, radical history production and dissemination, films, videos, online debates, discussion, publication, etc.
University of Wollongong Feminist Society – Free School.
Here in ‘the Gong’ powerful environmental movements range from those opposing coal seam gas and other fossil fuel production, right through to a growing network of alternative food production, distribution and exchange experiments.
Current ‘work’/‘workplace’ struggles and contemporary class power is more diffuse, fluid, mobile, diverse and informal than traditionally understood. Many people are seeking to develop new ways to survive without capitalist work, to thrive in opposition to capitalist institutions, to unleash people’s power and potential, to build more democratic relationships, so we can better organise our own lives. Confronting capitalism involves much more widespread and complex considerations of wealth, the value of wages/money and consumerism. In Wollongong, a wide range of contemporary social movements involve a deep questioning of the purpose of work and production. They also remind us that the future tale of this city is yet to be written.
As Walter Benjamin explains; “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” The current ‘war with no frontlines’ involves us all in “a form of civil war cutting across the social body.” In this war, the enemy includes all of the competitive, regimented, authoritarian and violent subjectivities that capitalism produces and reproduces within people. Thankfully, it is widely understood that a ‘war against humanity’ cannot be won by an escalation of violence. Instead we defend ourselves by organising global peace movements and networks capable of powerfully confronting terror and war, deploying our most effective weapons – solidarity, communication, encounter, assembly, creativity, democracy, hope, peace and love.
Responding to the latest attacks in Paris many people have highlighted the lack of attention to, and concern for, those attacked in other parts of the world. Others have pointed to France’s long history of repression, colonialism and imperialism. None-the-less, France and Paris have a range of alternative people’s histories, at the heart of which is love. Paris is widely known as the ‘city of love’; for some this conjures up romantic thoughts of ‘amour’ and for others revolutionary ideas about fraternity, the Paris commune, or the revolts of 1968. For me, it’s a combination of these and many other notions and practices of love.
A couple of years ago, I visited Paris with my partner and youngest daughter. One day, Sharon and I purchased a padlock from a little stall on the left bank of the Seine and crossed the Pont des Arts. The bridge was festooned with thousands of ‘love locks’ and we found a place for our little lock near the centre before throwing the keys in the river and embracing. Then in June this year, the Paris council removed all forty five tonnes of padlocks from the bridge, due to ‘safety concerns’. At the time I posted this picture on Facebook
declaring “They may dismantle the artefacts of our love, in the spaces of revolution we adore. But these are mere symbols, of a power which cannot be tamed.”
I have previously written about Paris during ‘the Summer of Love’ and how the youth of the city sought to overcome the tension between subjectivities of pleasure-seeking and social revolution. In Paris in 1967, Raoul Vaneigem explained that “those who speak of revolution and class struggle without changing everyday life and without understanding what is subversive about love . . . have a corpse in their mouth”. In 1968, as revolt swept across France, many of those on the streets opened their hearts and proclaimed; “Embrace your love without dropping your guard”; “Revolution, I love you”, and “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution. The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.” Forty years later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made clear that the legacy of revolutionary love was well and truly alive in France, when he insisted the goal of his government’s conservative renewal process was to do away with 1968 “once and for all”.
The response of many governments, authorities and people to the recent attacks in Paris has been to stoke fear, foster hate, deepen despair and unleash more violence, yet love will not be tamed or done away with. While the attacks add to unending sadness and heartache, what I have mainly been struck by is the ability of people to be brave, hopeful, peaceful and loving. The intent and the result of terrorism is that it wounds us all and those who use violence to increase fear and hatred can be found everywhere. Some have appeared on my Facebook feed. Yet, my friends have also made sure that I see messages and examples of courage, hope, peace and love. This has included the circulation of information, statements, the discussion of opinions, the creation of blog posts, memes, songs, poems, etc. Importantly it has included a widespread defence of Muslims & refugees – from the French city of Lille, where anti-Islamists were forced off the streets just hours after the Paris attacks,
to peace songs and ‘Muslim hugs’ on the streets of Paris,
to the Illawarra People for Peace BBQ (mainly organised by the local Christian, Muslim, Catholic & Buddhist communities) I attended last week.
Across the world, once again, we can see powerful creative action to help deal with war/crisis/terror, with countless gatherings, engagements and events building bridges across borders and demonstrating that hope, peace and love can be, and is, embedded in our practice.
Along with every horror, the reality of common hope remains. A few months ago I blogged about the importance of hope and how fears and anxieties are transmitted between people – leading to widespread hopelessness. I also discussed how hope effects the way people think about and perceive events, the way we behave, and how it motivates our activity. Hope involves the expectation of something good, and we tend to use the past and present as the best indicators of the future. If we view the past as a long series of disasters and defeats, the present and the future are likely to appear grim. Instead of looking back with a sense of disappointment and regret, we can keep alive the experiences, lessons and experiments that offer us some hope. Our optimism can be based on the reality that, despite the level of current suffering, what we want has already, and does already exist in some ways; or at least parts of what we desire are already present. This can provide evidence of what is possible. Every day, around the world, there are many wonderful things happening and these should give us confidence that when we try to create a better world it is possible to succeed.
The shock and awe of terror and war shrouds our love, dims our hope, makes us angry, scared, and want to fight. Yet, despite obvious setbacks and obstacles to peace, the desire and struggle to end violence is widespread. A common response to the attacks in Paris was an outpouring of creativity and the most popular artwork was this peace symbol. Still, I do not underestimate the power of those creating, maintaining and profiting from war and terror and have recently written about these threats. The question of when/if violence is a legitimate defence from attack is a complex issue which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere and I hope to finish another post on the continuing power and influence of the global peace movement in the near future. Faced with a global war of terror, feelings of powerlessness are understandable. Yet, despite the impact of military propaganda, in word and deed, the reality of hope, peace and love are evident; illuminated by a multitude of brave, powerful and peaceful acts.
Today, there is a renewed interest in love and an upsurge of experiments to unleash our positive desires for connection, for more constructive and profound relationships. Here love is a desire for collective development and fulfillment, a social process that satisfies the need for love at the same time as satisfying the desire to love. This love isn’t spontaneous; it requires organisation, education and training. It is a gift produced for shared use through a variety of forms that help to coordinate this sharing.
All over the world people can and do resist isolation and estrangement and build togetherness and caring communities by confronting violence and repression. Yet, love is under constant attack and our ability to defend it depends on people’s capacities to act in affectionate ways, to share knowledge and power, to look after each other and to construct alternative social relations by building love in families, amongst friends, throughout social networks and movements.
From below, the most popular global response to war and terror is to turn to each other for support, to reach out to others, to seek safety in the embrace of those who care for us and who we care for – from those right in front of us through to those we cannot see or hear due to the noise, smoke and destruction created by bullets, bombs and deception. In the face of tragedy, most people demonstrate the desire to help others; to aid recovery and healing, to share and care, and to make life better, inspiring a vast amount of affective social action.
Still, people are often paralysed by despair and hopelessness. In the face of unending horror we ask ourselves ‘what can I do?’ For me, it is the reality of hope and the existence of love that demonstrates what we can do, here and now. Finding better ways of living with and remedying violence, hatred and fear involves concentrating on our treatment of each other. Many people and movements have understood and articulated their struggles as forms of love, and learning to love has countered their isolation and connected them globally to others involved in struggle. Yet when we touch the hearts of others, we also touch their sorrows. Love can be scary, because it makes us vulnerable, puts us in touch with each other’s pain, and is what most of us desire more than anything else. Because loving involves vulnerability it is often seen as a form of weakness. However, love is a form of power; a power which produces more love.
A little while ago I wrote a post about global war, terrorism and the widespread defiance of attempts to frighten us. Most people are tired of fear and the more we share our fears, the more we make connections with others who share these fears, and the more we take courageous action based on our common concerns, the more likely it is we can declare – ‘We are not afraid!’ Even though we are afraid, we declare that we are not – to defy terrorism, to defy fascism, to stand in solidarity, to be brave, and to encourage others to be brave.
Most of us know only too well the stresses of putting our families, friendships and other relationships under strain as we dedicate ourselves to various causes. Yet today there is a growing understanding that these relationships are vital to progressive social transformations. Many contemporary social movements generate different types of interpersonal relationships through the creation of caring spaces, openness to diversity and the organisation of communal activity. They bring people together in supportive groups and joyful activities, realising a desire to locate ourselves in community, to make our struggles a shared effort, to experience the value of our connections with each other and the tangible power of love.
Why is it that a short statement on the Paris attacks delivered on a low rating ‘current affairs’ show has now been viewed by more than one hundred million people across the globe? Is it because Waleed Aly’s argument that ISIS is weak resonates? Or because it gives people hope? Or is it because his call to come together and counter hate with love speaks to people’s common understandings and desires?
And why the widespread popularity of this Parisian father and son video? Is it just that such care and love is beautiful and reassuring? Or is it also because love actually is more powerful – because it is the weapon that most people use to defend themselves and others?
I was born in Walsall’s Manor Hospital, which was formerly the Walsall Workhouse, and where my maternal Grandmother worked. She was employed in the sewing room altering nurse’s uniforms and mending sheets and then became an auxiliary nurse. Walsall is a deprived English working class town in the heart of the ‘black country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. The Black Country gained its name in the nineteenth century from the abundance of coal in the region and the smoke from the many thousands of ironworking foundries and forges. The region was described as ‘Black by day and red by night’ by Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862. While Charles Dickens described it as a “cheerless region” in which “tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same, dull, ugly form poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”
Much of this area of England has been plagued by poverty for centuries. In the fourteen hundreds, a medieval Poor Law, the ‘Ordinance of Labourers’ was issued by King Edward III. The Law was introduced in an attempt to address the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, which killed about one-third of England’s population. The Law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. Later ‘Poor Laws’ against vagrancy were the origins of state-funded ‘poverty relief’ and from the sixteenth century onwards a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were able to work but couldn’t, and those who were able to work but wouldn’t: between “the genuinely unemployed and the idler.” While, the Poor Relief Act of 1576 established the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it.
The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the “persistent idler” was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the impotent poor, the old and the infirm, although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as outdoor relief – money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes.The workhouse system evolved during the seventeenth century, allowing parishes to reduce the cost of providing poor relief, by establishing ‘Corporations of the poor’ to ‘rid the poor of the idleness and sloth’ which the ruling class claimed were the root of their condition. If the poor could be made to work harder, they argued, poverty could be overcome. The parish Corporations were expected to make a profit from the cheap labour of the poor and increased incomes for the rich were among the expected ‘positive outcomes’ of the workhouse regime.
Among the first workhouses established, Bishopgate Workhouse was built soon after, and in response to, the ‘weaver’s disturbances’ of 1675. These ‘disturbances’ were militant workers’ struggles that were suppressed by the Army. In Walsall, during the seventeen hundreds, there were many similar ‘disturbances’ by large crowds, demonstrating against political parties, the church, the crown, unemployment, and high food prices.
As Peter Linebaugh explains in The London Hanged; “A new morality became triumphant among the capitalist class at the end of the seventeenth century.” Poverty was now evidence of wickedness, and idleness meant the refusal of discipline, subordination, or obedience. “The workhouses were institutions of incarceration and places for punishment. The purpose of the punishment was both to scare people on the outside and to produce docility on the inside.”
The early years of the eighteenth century saw the adoption of new repressive legislation – the Riot Act, the Transportation Act, the Combination Act and the Workhouse Act.
Under the Riot Act – if twelve or more people were assembled and a proclamation of a riot was read by a magistrate then any person who didn’t disperse was guilty of a felony.
The Transportation Act – authorised a sentence of fourteen years transportation to the colonies for those pardoned of capital offences and seven years transportation for those guilty of a felony such as ‘riot’.
The Combination Act made it illegal to enter into combination to improve wages ‘to unreasonable prices, and lessen usual hours of work’.
Finally, the Workhouse Act was introduced authorising parishes to set up their own workhouses. The Act stated that anyone wanting to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. Here they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes. By 1750, there were 600 parish workhouses and a government survey in 1776 put the number at more than 1800, with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. The growth in the number of workhouses was bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, which allowed parishes to share the cost of ‘poor relief’ by forming unions to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. So keen were some Poor Law authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish. In one such case in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham workhouse, were sold at Croydon market for one shilling.
As Peter Linebaugh outlines, the new repressive legislation of the eighteenth century combined criminal policy and labour policy to enforce labour both at home and abroad, while suppressing worker’s self-organisation by prohibiting public assembly and the formation of unions. Poor Laws and workhouses were counter-revolutionary weapons. The ‘idle’ were seen as a serious threat to the established order and the workhouse was an important innovation in social control.
Also looking at the early development of capitalism in Western Europe, Silvia Federici has explored the importance of the enclosures, the witch hunts, and the imprisonment and torture of the poor in prisons and workhouses. These crucial aspects of capitalist ‘progress’ intensified the fight for survival and undermined rebellion by disrupting the care and solidarity relationships that provide the basis for collective struggle. As Silvia explains, “the tendency of the capitalist class, during the first three centuries of its existence, was to impose slavery and other forms of coerced labour as the dominant work relation, a tendency limited only by the workers’ resistance and the danger of the exhaustion of the work-force.”
We Want More!
Growing up with communist parents during the 1960s I attended a wide range of protests and demonstrations. In 1968, as a six year old, we went to see the recently released movie Oliver. The film had a profound impact on me and led to a continuing love of Charles Dickens’ work. Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first major novel. It tells the story of the orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.
Dickens had some experience of poverty and incarceration. When he was eleven, his father lost his job and was imprisoned in a debtors’ prison. So, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. When he was growing-up, in the early eighteen hundreds, Dickens lived only a few doors down from the feared Cleveland Street Workhouse, which inspired Oliver Twist. ‘He would have seen girls and boys of only six years old — just a year older than him — bundled into carts and transported like cattle, often hundreds of miles away, to work in the factories and mills of Britain’s industrial heartlands, where they would be beaten as they laboured 16 hours a day in exchange for a few spoonful’s of gruel. And he would have shuddered as he saw the thin pauper-coffins arrive to bury the dead in the graveyard behind the poorhouse. He never forgot the sight, sounds and smells of that workhouse. And when he grew up he drew on those memories to reveal to Victorian Britain the inhumanity that went on under their noses in the name of progress.’
For me, as a six year old, Oliver was an eye-opening history lesson and incredibly thought provoking. The most famous and pivotal scene in the film is when Oliver asks for more food for the starving children in the Workhouse. This is the song leading up to Oliver asking for more.
Returning to school after seeing the film, I was struck by some similarities between the condition of the children in the workhouse and the children at my school. It didn’t help that the workhouse depicted in the film was made from stone and constructed in a comparable style to my school. Nor that my school proclaimed that ‘God is Love’, while displaying many of the contradictions and hypocrisy of Christian judgement and charity. As well, there was too much of the same type of regimentation, compulsion, and enforced work as a disciplinary tool for my liking. Obviously things were much better for us kids in 1968. However, it occurred to me that what many of us wanted was not more food, but more playtime. So, I gathered together my friends and organised a playground protest. When the bell went, we refused to go back to class, encouraged the rest of the school to join in, and marched around the playground in defiance of the teacher’s attempts to force us back inside.
The Walsall Workhouse
The former workhouse I was born in, Walsall Union Workhouse, was built in 1838. It replaced an older workhouse and could accommodate three hundred and fifty inmates. Many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind stone walls. A common layout resembled Jeremy Bentham’s prison panopticon, a radial design with four three-storey buildings at its centre set within a rectangular courtyard, the perimeter of which was defined by a three-storey entrance block and single-storey outbuildings, all enclosed by a wall. Entering the workhouse was a humiliating experience. People were stripped, scrubbed and made to wear uniforms of coarse fabric to avoid infestation. Unmarried mothers were put on a starvation diet to deter them from having any more children. Families were broken up: children were separated from their parents and husbands from wives. It was the children who often suffered the most. Pain was used to improve productivity: children were flogged with belts, their teeth were filed and their ears were put in vices to make them work harder. Some died, others were maimed for life. In one workhouse in Hampshire, the supervisor — a former sergeant major — was given to whipping children as young as two if they cried. Workhouse apprentices were often treated like animals and fed on scraps. Many died of malnutrition.
All inmates deemed fit enough would be given tasks such as breaking stones, or ripping apart old rope to separate the strands so that it might be recycled, or to produce ‘caulking’, a substance used to waterproof barges. Some inmates were allocated tasks in the workhouse such as scrubbing, kitchen duties, or caring for the sick. Others picked oakum using a large metal nail known as a ‘spike’, which is probably the source of the workhouse’s nickname. Bone-crushing, useful in the creation of fertiliser, was a common task, until a government inquiry into conditions in the Andover workhouse found that starving inmates were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were supposed to be grinding, to suck out the marrow.
In 1867, a sanitary commission from The Lancet medical journal paid a visit to the Walsall Workhouse. The Lancet’s report revealed that whole wards of inmates lacked a toilet and shared just one towel for a week. The ‘tramp wards’ accommodated up to twenty seven people, although they were designed for only seven. These wards were described as being like a dog kennel, only less clean and comfortable.
In 1896, the Walsall Workhouse was enlarged to include an infirmary. Further additions took place in 1903, taking the capacity to four hundred and seventy inmates. The eight infirmary wards had a total of two hundred beds and catered for patients who were admitted under the conditions of the Poor Laws. In 1926, more additions were made to the Workhouse, including a nursing home. In 1929, the infirmary was renamed Manor Hospital and the Workhouse was renamed Beacon Lodge. On April 1st 1930, the workhouse system was abolished in the UK, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils.
When the Second World War began in 1939, there were still around one hundred thousand people accommodated in the former workhouses. During the War, the ‘infirm’ patients of Walsall’s Manor Hospital were moved into Beacon Lodge, so the Hospital could cater solely for wartime casualties. The former Workhouse buildings were also used as air raid shelters. As the troops went off to fight, including both of my Granddads, my father’s mum, Olive Southall, who lived in Birmingham, not far from Walsall, took the opportunity to support her young family by working the night shift as a capstan lathe operator at the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) factory producing rifles and machine guns. This, of course, made the BSA a major target for Nazi bombers and the factory was repeatedly attacked by the Luftwaffe.
Despite the extreme danger, Olive and her workmates continued working through the raids, boosting production in the hope of assisting the men at the front. On November 19 1940, Luftwaffe bombing killed fifty three BSA workers, injured another eighty nine, thirty of them seriously, and trapped hundreds. On that night, stuck beside her lathe, the factory a chaos of smoke, fire, shattered machines, the dead, dying and injured, Olive was found and saved by a fellow worker. He smothered her burning hair and clothing with his coat and dragged her out of the inferno. Nearby another woman was trapped beneath her machine, crying out for help, begging to be saved for her children’s sake. Sadly, the machine was too big for them to move, and they had to leave her there to die.
After recovering from her physical injuries, Olive returned to work, this time as a brass grinder in another factory, across the road from her old school. Due to the bombing raids, my dad and his brother Brian were sent away, although not far enough that they couldn’t see Birmingham burning at night.
Although suffering from post-traumatic stresses and despite the constant threat posed by the bombing raids during the war, Olive’s work in the factories had given her a social worth, social life, social power and social mobility that post-war was again denied to most women. Olive was now back at home as a housewife, with no labour saving devices, little money, a baby, two older boys, ill health and a war-weary husband. She spent most of her days as a hardworking, but poorly rewarded, housewife. Her only paid work was as a low waged domestic cleaner for a more well-off family. In 1953, she committed suicide by drinking a bottle of cleaning fluid.
My maternal Grandmother, Gladys Grainger, was born in 1918. She grew up in a very impoverished household and overcame many obstacles to win a scholarship to a selective school. However, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her shoes, so she was given some boy’s boots by a charity to attend school in. When she appeared in the school’s play wearing her boots people in the audience laughed at her. As soon as she could, at the age of fourteen, Gladys left school and went to work in a factory. After the war, she went to work at the former Workhouse – what was now the Manor Hospital. Into her sixties, until she was forced to retire, Gran would ride her pushbike to work, up hills, through the rain and the snow. On returning home she would do most of the housework, cook the meals and look after my Mum, her brother Ken and sister Debbie. During these years, Gran became an active unionist and outspoken campaigner around workplace issues, community campaigns, anti-war struggles and many more. She joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s and as she aged became active in the pensioner’s movement.
When, in 1957, the Walsall Workhouse officially merged with the Manor Hospital, some of the old Workhouse inmates were kept in after it had closed. This is one reason that, for many of the old people in Walsall, the continued existence of the Workhouse haunted their final years. My Mum vividly remembers how, when she was young, her maternal Grandmother would beg “you won’t let them take me to the Workhouse will you?” This was a common fear amongst her generation, with many Walsall residents reporting similar experiences. The aged poor were terrified of ending up in the ‘Spike’, scared of going to the Manor Hospital, and often experienced humiliation and shame when they ended-up in the Hospital’s geriatric wards, which had previously been part of the Workhouse.
Work for the Dole
For a long time, I’ve been writing about the use of work, poverty, and joblessness as tools for social control. Part of the motivation for this writing were the many years I spent being unemployed. Having also been an activist in the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) I learnt a great deal about how joblessness is organised to discipline the poor. During the 1980s, WOW and other unemployed people’s unions were a thorn in the side of the Federal Labor Government, powerfully opposing their neoliberal work and ‘training’ policies. In 1986, the Hawke Government introduced ‘Work for the Dole’ as part of a strategy designed to increase the effectiveness of the unemployed as a ‘reserve army’ of labour and to re-impose work on better terms for capital. Then in 1987, as part of a concerted attack on the organised unemployed, the Government introduced an ‘activities’ test’ to proscribe political activity by the unemployed. The test imposed a wide range of activities on, and increasingly strict requirements to be met by, unemployed people to avoid losing their social security benefits. Soon after its implementation, the test was used to harass and cut the benefits of unemployed people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, such as unemployed unions, as they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’.
Under the ‘activities test’ I was persistently harassed by Centrelink and the Commonwealth Employment Service and forced into attending ‘job clubs’, applying for crap jobs, and signing an ‘activities agreement’. This ‘agreement’ gave government agencies more control over what I did with my time and a new means to deal with my ‘recalcitrance’. Around the turn of the millennium, I was given an ultimatum, ‘if you want to continue receiving welfare benefits you must undertake work for the dole, or enrol in an educational institution’. After some deliberation, I chose to enrol at Wollongong University. Since then, I have continued to interrogate the use of work and unemployment. Recently, I was asked by the Australian Unemployment Union (now Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union) to give a talk about WOW. The part of my talk that received the most positive response was when I spoke about how being unemployed and active in the Out of Workers’ Union seemed to me much more important than any other type of work I could have been doing.
The Struggles Continue
For hundreds of years the workhouses were powerful weapons used to scare and punish the poor and it took many years of intense struggle by millions of people to dismantle the workhouse regime. Today, wide-ranging and powerful struggles continue, seeking to improve working conditions, to reduce work, to redefine it, to change how it is valued, to democratise it, to share it, and to eliminate all capitalist work. Yet, the more people challenge and refuse the imposition of work that benefits a few, the more the bosses try to force us to labour for them. In contemporary Australia, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are being widely expanded and the Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor. Under the $5 billion Jobactive system, not only do privately-owned employment service providers have the unprecedented power to effectively fine job seekers for missing their ‘job search appointments’, but unemployed people under 30 are forced to work 25 hours per week, for six months, in order to receive the dole. Many of those taking advantage of this enforced labour are authoritarian and conservative religious ‘charities’, like the Salvos. The Government and those they serve continue to benefit from the cheap labour of the poor, seeing multi-billion dollar corporate profits from the ‘Job Services’ industry as a positive outcome of the current work regime. Successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, have increased the harassment, intimidation and poverty of the poorest, enacting and enforcing a wide range of new ‘Poor Laws’, whilst amplifying the lies of their wealthy sponsors and agenda setters, claiming the unemployed, sole parents, the sick, the aged and the disabled are leaners, bludgers, cheats, scammers and idlers.
Meanwhile, groups like the AUWU are exposing the modern ‘Corporations of the poor’ which seek to make us all work harder for less. For those seeking help with the new Work for the Dole/Jobactive system, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union has now launched a National Advocacy Hotline to help unemployed workers deal with Employment Service Providers. You can call between Monday-Wednesday, 10am-3pm, on 03 83945266. They also offer a call-back service, just email them – firstname.lastname@example.org – with your concerns and they will get back to you.
You can also find out more here: https://www.facebook.com/unemployedworkersunion?fref=ts