Australian politics, society & culture

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Whatever happened to the working class?

The left has forgotten where it came from

An empty billboard on the road to Corinth. © John Tsiavis
An empty billboard on the road to Corinth. © John Tsiavis
May 2014Medium length read
 

It is May 2013, a week after Orthodox Easter, and for my final night in Athens my cousins have taken me out to dinner at a taverna in the working-class neighbourhood of Kipoupoli. It is a warm night in the Greek capital, the alcohol is flowing, and after finishing our meals we all take out our cigarettes and puff away under the English-language no-smoking sign.

I have spent a fortnight in Greece, and every day has been a reminder of the social death brought on by the financial crisis and austerity measures: banks of homeless people sleeping on the streets near the university, the sullen and resentful faces of the refugee prostitutes soliciting clients behind the markets in Omonia, police in riot gear congregating on street corners in the Plaka, teenage heroin-users sharing needles in the parks, a pensioner blowing his brains out at Syntagma Square because he could no longer keep up with his bills. But tonight I am drinking, and I am reminded of the hospitality and anarchic spirit of the Greeks. Tonight, just for a few hours, in food, drink and song, we can forget the cuts to wages and the pensions, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank – that bloody Troika and its austerity. Tonight, I can feel proud of my Greek heritage.

I find myself in an intense and exhilarating conversation with a 19-year-old law student. Dimitri is intelligent and erudite. He offers a devastating critique of both neoliberalism and social democracy, arguing that the global financial crisis has extinguished the post–World War Two consensus between capital and labour. For Dimitri, the ideologies of the past century have little relevance and they no longer offer any social or economic value. His contempt not only for Greece’s parties of the centre-left and centre-right, PASOK and New Democracy respectively, but also for Syriza, the radical left coalition that he dismisses as social democracy cloaked in Marxist rhetoric, is matched by his distrust and abhorrence of the European Union. As I listen to him, I tell myself that even though youth unemployment is scraping 60%, even though his generation is one that free-marketeers, social democrats and economists have collectively forsaken as “lost”, this cohort will defy the bankers, bureaucrats and politicians. I interrupt his impassioned flow to ask a question.

“What does the European Union mean to you? Do you feel European?”

He is taken aback. I have asked this question of cosmopolitan Germans, Brits, Dutch and Danes. Publishers, academics, human rights activists and artists, they have answered me with conviction, that yes, they are European and for them the EU is the future. But not for Dimitri.

“Do you want to know what the EU means to me?”

He points his cigarette towards the no-smoking sign over my shoulder.

“The EU means anti-smoking laws and copyright laws. That’s what the EU cares about. It doesn’t give a fuck about the people hungry in my country. It doesn’t care that my generation won’t know what it means to work.”

I ask him another question.

“So who did you vote for last year?”

There is no hesitation this time.

“Me? I voted for the Golden Dawn.”

He voted for the fascists.

Greece is radically and violently transformed into the land field of “wasted lives” in the giant trashcan of global capitalism. Witnessing as I do this novel form of social necrophilia that eats alive every inch of human life, workspace and public space, I cringe at the sound of the words “sacrifice”, “rescue” and making Greece, according to the claims of Greek PM Antonis Samaras, a “success story”. Whose sacrifice and whose rescue? Who succeeds and who loses?

– Panayota Gounari, ‘Neoliberalism as Social Necrophilia: The case of Greece’, 2014


My mother and my father, Greek immigrants to Australia, were Paul Keating’s “true believers”. Their commitment to the Australian Labor Party was unshakeable. For years I used to boast that I went to my first demonstration when I was ten years old. It was outside Melbourne Town Hall, where the governor-general, John Kerr, was to attend a function not long after the dismissal of the Whitlam government. My father took me along with a bag of tomatoes to throw at the miserable royalist dog – his words. It was only recently that my mother informed me that this wasn’t my “first” demonstration, that when I was still a toddler she had taken me to one of the anti–Vietnam War marches. Thinking those protests the preserve of students and the radical left, I expressed my surprise at her involvement.

“Don’t be an idiot,” she responded curtly. “I had two young sons. Of course I marched against that stupid imperialist war.”

Unlike my generation, my parents had first-hand experience of war. First there was Germany’s occupation of Greece during World War Two, and then the wicked testing ground of the emerging Cold War that was the Greek Civil War in the late 1940s. Those two calamities destroyed the rural peasant class of Greece, the class to which my parents belonged. Their families were on opposite sides of the tragedy, my mother’s communist and my father’s anti-communist. But though the tragedy of the civil war arguably poisoned Greek politics for three generations, my parents both believed that in the “new world”, whatever the cost of exile, those differences could be put aside and replaced by an affirmation of a political party, the ALP, that took seriously their status as immigrants and as workers. Both my parents were denied education – that was the privilege of the bourgeoisie in mid-20th-century Europe – so they did not speak in the language of social democracy. But their faith in the ALP centred on that party’s commitment to public education, to public health, to industrial rights for workers and to its opposition to imperialist power.

The neoliberal economic reforms ushered in by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments were never explained to my parents and their peers. They extended a faith in both Bob Hawke and Keating, a faith in the ALP, that these reforms were necessary and would not undermine their conditions as workers. But these men and women, who supplied labour for the so-called “unskilled” textile, car parts and manufacturing industries of the postwar boom, distrusted the language of competition and globalisation that accompanied the reforms. In the late ’90s, I interviewed my father and a few of his colleagues, long after they had retired, and all of them expressed a preference for collective bargaining, for a system of arbitration that negotiated between capital and labour as equal partners. It wasn’t that they assumed all bosses would be mercenary and unjust but they knew that plenty were. My father could never understand the logic where the shareholder took priority over the worker; he saw the share market as analogous to the gambling table upon which he and his mates used to play poker or manila. People who moaned over losses on the stock market made him laugh. “It’s gambling,” he would say. “You win some, you lose some.”

I emerged a relative winner in the era of globalisation. I had to confront the enervating reality of recession in the early 1990s, but by the end of that decade I was part of a cosmopolitan, educated professional class that assumed mobility and flexibility in work, education, living standards, technology and travel. I didn’t say it to their faces, but I thought the old people’s anxieties and concerns were merely nostalgic, and that they were too uneducated to understand how Keating had saved us from descending into a “banana republic”.

What I didn’t understand then was how crucial that extension of faith from working-class constituencies had been in opening up our markets and ushering in the globalised era. This “faith” was extended to social-democratic parliamentary parties across the Western world. Towards the end of his life, my father lamented how the public education and health systems had been undermined, and he mistrusted the consensus among democratic parliamentary parties to privilege productivity over equity and the market over civic and community life. He believed that the faith he had placed in the ALP had been betrayed.

I too experienced a betrayal, years later, but for my peers and myself the betrayal was the result of the party’s vacillations over asylum-seeker policy and its muted response to climate change, especially when contrasted to the urgency and passion of the Greens. It wasn’t that I thought education, health and industrial rights were unimportant – far from it – but in some sense I took them for granted. Unlike my parents, I hadn’t known a social order in which they hadn’t existed. And as I took them for granted, they were no longer the focus of my political belief, my political commitment.

But what if we treated humiliation itself as a cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to “quantify” the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens before receiving the mere necessities of life? In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidised public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. Such an exercise is inherently contentious: How do we quantify “humiliation”? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society? Unclear. But unless we ask such questions, how can we hope to devise answers?

– Tony Judt, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?’, 2009


In 2007 I escorted my mother to the Greek consulate in Melbourne. Her sister was involved in a property dispute in Athens, and my mother needed to sign an affidavit of support, to be witnessed by a member of the consulate staff. We were eventually ushered into a small office where a young Greek man obsessively texted throughout my mother’s appointment. He had a bulky gold watch strapped across one wrist; his shirt was neatly pressed and clearly expensive. He hardly said a word to my mother, and I had to stop myself leaning across the desk, grabbing the phone and throwing it against the wall. At one point, my mother, in an attempt to be friendly, asked him what part of Greece he was from. The question made him look up at her for the first time.

“Why? What does it matter?”

My mother, humiliated, mumbled a response.

“I’m Athenian,” he answered shortly, returning his gaze to the screen.

My mother started telling him of when she was a young woman in Athens in the early 1960s, of how hard it was to leave and migrate to Australia, how much she still missed the city. He interrupted her.

“Look, that was a different time,” he said. “I really can’t be bothered with all these old migrant stories. We’re European now. The Greece you are referring to doesn’t exist anymore.”

My mother and I were both so shocked at his rudeness that we were speechless. She was shaking as we left the consulate.

“They really don’t care about us, do they?” she said to me, meekly, and meekness had never been something I had associated with my mother.

A year later, when the global financial crisis had hit, and the news of the human cost of the turmoil in Greece began to filter through to Australia, my first thought was of this young man with his expensive shirt and his gold watch. I wondered if he still had his job. I wondered if he was still proud of being European.

The political tumult of contemporary Greece cannot be separated from the economic turmoil across Europe. But unlike those of Iceland, Ireland and to some extent even Italy, Portugal and Spain, the crisis that Greece now finds itself enduring is also existential. There is a language of retribution directed towards the nation, an accusation that the Greeks had it coming. Stories of wholesale tax avoidance, overly generous pensions and a moribund and bloated public sector have been integral to the reporting of the crisis and its effects. In Australia, it doesn’t matter how much I attempt to steer conversations towards questions of EU culpability in blindly bankrolling the Greek state, of how decades-long deregulation of financial markets precipitated the economic collapse, of how social cohesion in Greece is being destroyed by the Dublin Regulation of 2003 (a directive that forces asylum seekers to be returned to the country through which they first entered the EU, which has meant that the countries of southern Europe have had to deal with a disproportionate number of asylum seekers and refugees). In the end, I am always challenged to defend the culpability of the Greek people themselves.

There is a peculiar dissonance between, on one hand, this understanding of the Greek character as lazy, entitled and culpable for the economic mess they now find themselves in and, on the other hand, Australia’s recognition of the hardworking Greek migrants who helped build and transform our nation. Is it the challenge and experience of migration itself that defines the Greek Australian? A recurrent cliché of multiculturalism is that migrant communities, wrenched geographically, linguistically and temporally from their homes, maintain a nostalgic and an ahistorical conception of their cultures of origin. When I first returned home to Australia after visiting Greece as a young adult, I crowed mercilessly to my parents that the stories they had told me were no longer true, that the history that had formed them had now vanished. My cousins in Athens had laughed at me when I called older people théa and théo, auntie and uncle. They saw this as residue of an old peasant and rural past that was irrelevant to their highly urbanised late-20th-century nation. “You’re stuck in the past, Mamá and Papá,” I insisted. “Greece has moved on.”

But just as the Greeks in Greece have changed over the last quarter of a century, so have the Greeks in Australia. The successive waves of immigrants and refugees who came to this country over the past 50 years didn’t bring multiculturalism with them. Multiculturalism emerged as a consensus within the body politic of the nation, as it negotiated the changing demographics once the White Australia Policy, and the legacy of colonial nationhood, had begun to be dismantled. Multiculturalism has had an impact as much on migrants and refugees as it has on indigenous Australians and Anglo-Celtic Australians. Whatever the contest over what the concept means, whatever the petty or serious racisms still expressed in our country, it’s a given now that we’re a multi-ethnic society home to numerous religions.

Multiculturalism was never part of the Greece I have been visiting over the past 30 years. It wasn’t part of the Greek conception of nationhood before the global financial crisis, and it certainly isn’t part of how Greeks have seen themselves since then. And not only in Greece: the antagonism towards multiculturalism is rife throughout the EU. The financial crisis has only exacerbated existing tensions over immigration in Europe. Here it is important to separate the politics of immigration from the politics of asylum. Immigrants in Europe, and their children, remain non-European in both political and popular language. The right-wing parties on the rise throughout the continent – in Holland and Denmark, Sweden and Hungary, the Czech Republic and France – are not only anti–asylum seeker but also anti-immigrant. In Australia, mired for more than 15 years in the toxic politics of border security and asylum, we can easily disregard the importance of this distinction.

The argument propounded by the right in Europe is that immigration is one of the main reasons the social democratic consensus has shattered. Fears are largely directed towards Asian, Arab and African immigrants but there is also a resentment of Balkan and Eastern European immigrants. That resentment reveals a contradiction at the heart of the EU project that has never been successfully resolved: that the economic union that arose out of Cold War politics was about Western European nations rebuilding and reconstructing European identity after the calamities of the world wars. According to the right-wing propaganda, the notion of who is European was decided not in national parliaments but in Brussels.

In his 2009 memoir Returning to Reims, translated into English last year, the French cultural critic Didier Eribon writes of visiting his family home in north-eastern France 30 years after he deliberately turned his back on the working-class world from which he emerged. In that long period of exile from his family, Eribon took on academic postings in Paris, wrote a biography of Michel Foucault, and became a prominent critic of and from within the left. Over those three decades, he effaced his working-class heritage, and understood this denial to be necessary in order to refashion himself as a leftist cultural critic in Europe.

A call from his mother prompts the return home. His father – a factory labourer, a drinker and, from what Eribon writes, a hard and sometimes abusive man – is dying. It is his father’s sexism and homophobia that has engendered the long silence between them. During Eribon’s youth, his family and their community were communists. On his return to Reims, he is shocked to discover that his parents and his brothers have abandoned socialism and now vote for the far-right Front National.

Eribon never reconciles with his father. He does not attend the old man’s funeral. He can’t abandon the rage of his adolescence, and he seethes at the xenophobia, casual sexism and homophobia of his brothers. He finds it hard to understand how they have remained untouched by the liberating social movements that have defined his life after Reims. But what remains unanswered in the book is the question of how his family were to make sense of such cultural transformations if Eribon himself saw it as a precondition of his liberation that he break his link to family and to his class. Eribon’s portrait of his family is not distant; it is familiar and recognisable. As is the paradox of his avowal of socialist and social democratic principles while at the same time deploring and rejecting the working class itself. I am not sure what the French term for “bogan” might be, or even if there exists an equivalent in the language, but the distaste, shame and fear that Eribon expresses when he writes about his family are contained in that word, in how it is used here in Australia.

Australia has escaped the worst manifestations of the global financial crisis. There is great wealth here, and unemployment levels are comparatively low. On returning to Melbourne from Athens, I found myself fulminating, in ways not too dissimilar to Eribon, at the complacency and entitlement of my nation. But my rage was tempered when I left the inner city to visit family and friends in outer suburbia.

If many of them were now indeed “cashed-up bogans”, just as many were unemployed. Many were on welfare, many on drugs both illegal and prescribed. Even among the “cashed-up bogans”, there was a real fear about how long this period of extended prosperity was going to last. And unlike my friends in the inner city, they worked in trades and jobs that still required hard physical labour, or they worked in retail, or as domestics, or in health services, where repetitive constant movement – from scanning a barcode to stripping and making up a bed to mopping a floor – could also lead to long-term physical damage. They were fearful of a rise in interest rates and in rents and of the loss of permanent jobs to casualisation. If I complained to them about so many of us entering the private health system or sending our children to private schools, they pointed out that the nearby public schools and the public hospitals were strained and over-committed.

Did they care about same-sex marriage? Some did, some didn’t. Did they agree with the bipartisan insistence on offshore processing for asylum seekers? Most did, some didn’t. Did they think that the media’s treatment of Julia Gillard had been misogynistic? Some did, some didn’t. Were they worried about climate change? Some were not, most keenly were. But none of these issues were central to their concerns. The cost of living, the uncertainty of employment, the erosion of public health and public education – that’s what mattered.

I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.

– Christine Lagarde, managing director, International Monetary Fund, 2012


It was on the drive from Athens airport to my aunt’s house on the western outskirts of the city that the immense transformation wrought by the global financial crisis hit home. Along the motorway, the billboards were all bare; there was only mile after mile of skeletal scaffolding. The Greek economy had come to such a standstill that no one was bothering to advertise anymore. This was a first-world nation, part of the EU, and yet capital had drained from it. The empty billboards seemed to presage an apocalyptic future.

The architects of austerity promise that the advertising will eventually return, that the ruthless measures introduced are necessary and will result in a more productive and economically sustainable Greece. But as anyone who has lived through unemployment understands, the social cost of this economic experiment will be paid by the present generation and the generation to come.

It was a central component of the social democratic consensus across the Western world that parliamentary democracy, hand in hand with the welfare state, would guarantee productive and sustaining labour for working-class people. For all of our outrage and mockery when Gina Rinehart extols the cheapness of African labour compared to Australian labour, at its essence the sentiment is not so different to Christine Lagarde’s privileging of a sub-Saharan child’s poverty over that of an Athenian child. Of course, it is a matter of degree, and only a fool would deny it: the poverty in the developing world is incalculably more pernicious and inhumane. But the faith my parents placed in Hawke and Keating’s neoliberal reforms was predicated on the promise not that they would democratise poverty but that they would democratise opportunity. That too was the promise of social democratic parties of Europe. That has been the promise that has been betrayed.

I came to claim a very different left-wing politics to the faith of my parents. My mother’s politics were forged from a personal experience of superpowers meddling in the political affairs of Greece. Her anti-imperialism grew stronger here, both from Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and watching from afar as the United States supported the military junta in Greece in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Subsequently, it was my parents’ experience of a migrant working-class life that determined their alliance with the party that represented labour. My politics, on the other hand, emerged from an intellectual and university-trained engagement with the identity movements of feminism, queer, anti-racism and anti-colonialism. These were forms of politics that, to put it most simply, replaced the idea of empowerment based on labour rights with principles of empowerment founded on human rights. It is neither my want nor my belief that a choice needs to be made between these two forms of political alliance, but it is clear that social democratic and labour parties have for a quarter of a century increasingly privileged the latter over the former.

There is a reasonable logic to that privileging: there has been the collapse of communism and with it the collapse of faith in state control over economies, the inexorable pace of globalisation, the obduracy of sections of the union movement (best exemplified by the suicidal lunacies of the UK unions in the 1960s and ’70s, which laid the ground for Thatcherism to emerge and smash them). And yes, the success of social democracies in educating and professionalising the children of workers has led to substantially increased mobility in terms of aspiration and identity. But a politics of rights, classically liberal and universalist, has never been adequate in addressing the conflicts between labour and capital. I might have a right to work, but what is the nature of the work available to me? Have I a right to a minimum wage? Then how and by whom is that minimum to be decided? The EU has a Charter of Fundamental Rights, including industrial rights, given force by the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2007. One can read through this document and applaud the language of dignity that suffuses it. But as my friends and family in Greece have discovered, including those who are still working though their wages are only intermittently paid, the document, for all its splendid rhetoric, is chicken shit.

In Returning to Reims, Eribon can’t answer the question he poses at the beginning of his book: Why has his traditional working-class family turned from the left, instead supporting Marine Le Pen? In part, he can’t answer it because he refuses to hold himself accountable for the 30 years he spent rejecting his roots. Still wedded to his allegiance to the sexual politics of identity, he wants his family to “return” to him, to reconstruct themselves as feminist, queer-friendly, Green and anti-racist. But surely there was a possibility beyond estrangement?

Maybe a clue to the paralysis of contemporary social democracy lies in our very use of the word “traditional” to describe people whose life choices and experiences are defined by labour and by familial and communal kinship rather than by professionalism, tertiary education and cosmopolitanism. Tradition assumes conservatism, and that is the preserve of the right, whereas we progressives claim a politics of consistent change. That this change has seen a possibility for greater mobility and opportunity is undeniable, but so is the fact – made clear by the financial crisis – that this mobility and these opportunities are not evenly shared.

The austerity measures in Greece may well result in greater future economic productivity, but the fear that animates many of my friends and family there is the suspicion that it will also destroy aspects of their “Greekness” that may not be quantifiable but are just as important to them: family obligation taking precedence over work, a notion of time that isn’t held hostage to the 24-hour clock of globalisation, and a pride in the historic and cultural specificity of their national identity.

For too long, like Didier Eribon, I didn’t listen to the questions and fears my parents and their generation of the working class were expressing. I pounced on any yearning for traditional values as being inherently right-wing, as counter to progress. But I now consider the silencing of such voices to be a disastrous mistake. It has meant that as far as working-class people are concerned, the mainstream parties – whether of the left, right or centre – are all advocates for markets first. Real fears for job security and unemployment are dismissed or papered over by talk of “green jobs” or “service jobs” as if such euphemisms need no further explanation. But what skills will be required in these new jobs? What opportunities exist? For whom do they exist? Are these jobs permanent or casual?

Working-class people are repeatedly being told that the welfare state can no longer function as it has, that the age of entitlement is over, but what is ignored is that this questioning of its efficacy has been occurring in working-class communities for decades now. If we had been listening, we’d have realised that the talk isn’t of cutting the dole or pensions but of how to reverse the penalties built into welfare for those who depend on casual or intermittent work or for single mothers who enter relationships.

As Noel Pearson has most eloquently expressed about the indigenous community, the conversation about welfare dependency, its dangers and tragedies has been occurring for years. The answer is not abolishing welfare but tackling the cycle of dependency. And if we had been listening, we’d have heard that people do want better schools but they know that it takes more than increased funding or increased teacher salaries to halt the deterioration of public schools, that we also must take seriously people’s concerns over discipline, curriculum and streaming. The knee-jerk reaction to such questions – as conservative or right-wing or traditionalist – is an indictment of the left. Why has the traditional working class here and in Europe turned against social democratic parties? Maybe because we haven’t been listening.

Listening cuts both ways, and in contrast to Eribon’s experiences, I found a way to speak about my politics to my parents, to have them listen to me. They initially had little sympathy for the identity politics that are part of my leftist heritage. But in time they came to understand my commitments to anti-racism, to feminism and sexual identity. They might not have agreed with all of my positions, but nor did I agree with all of theirs. I describe my politics as socialist but equally as libertarian, and the latter doesn’t always find favour with many of my own peers.

I believe the challenges facing the parties of the left and social democracy are serious, potentially terminal, and that smugness, obstinacy and purity when it comes to political beliefs are harmful. I think that multiculturalism has been one of the continuing strengths of Australian society. I also know I have to defend this position, including to the people who challenge me on it. Especially to the people who challenge me on it.

It was a truly frightening moment when the bright young student in Athens told me that he had voted for the party of fascism. At that moment I also came up against the futility of a politics of “listening to” that I have tentatively sketched above. There are principles and issues that are lines in the sand and that divide us. The party he voted for wants the forced repatriation of immigrants, and its leader denies the Holocaust. Golden Dawn members have attacked refugees and murdered left-wing activists. Sometimes there can be no common ground.

My voice trembling, I explained that I was a son of immigrants, that whatever my complaints about my nation, and I had plenty, I was proud of its multiculturalism. I told him that I abhorred, absolutely detested, the party he had voted for.

Dimitri went quiet, and when he spoke again he sounded chastened. He explained how he feared that he would be unemployed his whole adult life, how his mother worked three shifts a day as a cleaner, rising at dawn and returning late at night, how his father’s pension had been cut by 35%, and how his parents were supporting Dimitri and his unemployed sister. He wondered if he could ever afford to marry, to raise a family. He told me how he wished his grandparents had moved to Australia as my parents had done. He spoke of friends who were applying for visas to Canada, the US, Australia, but these rich countries were no longer taking in Greek immigrants. He spoke of a friend who had found work in construction in the Emirates, that maybe he could go there, maybe he could find work as a builder in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. “I just want a job,” he kept repeating. “I just want to work.”

We shared cigarettes under the English no-smoking sign. We smoked in silence because neither of us had any answers.

About the author Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including The Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.

 
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