Thursday, July 06, 2006

Self-employment and politics again

NSW Labor party secretary Mark Abrib has pronounced:
In a rare public analysis of Labor's electoral failures, Mr Arbib has described what he calls "a huge change in the dynamic" as former blue-collar workers turn away from unions and become independent contractors, with no rusted-on political allegiances. "They think, 'I'm running a business, I want to keep going up the ladder, so who's the best party for business, who's the best for managing the economy, and who's the best party for aspiration?',"
But have former blue-collar workers actually become independent contractors and small businessmen (and it is men that the proponents of this analysis have in mind)? The short story is that self-employment and small business activity did increase in some areas of the economy, areas in which blue-collar males were employed, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s but if anything the trend has slightly reversed since then. This is explained in my new paper; Herbert Spencer buys a truck: class, politics, ideology and the Australian petty-bourgeoisie in the Howard years.
Labor's electoral problems among workers are too great to be explained by a growth of self-employment. Abrib's analysis also ignores a large section of the working-class; routine clerical and service workers, but they're women so perhaps they don't count. Increasingly labor notables assume workers vote against Labor because they are 'aspirational' but currently state Labor governments are giving workers plenty of reasons to vote against them, such as NSW trains and
Queensland hospitals. Does this mean the left can win workers by a simple class appeal? No, as I said in my PhD:

Recent concepts of ‘social movement’ unionism call for a return to the identity of trade unionism as a movement. These arguments sometimes seem to assume the existence of a unified working-class subject waiting to be called into political activity by a Labor party that has returned to ‘traditional labour values’. It is here that Langism has some lessons to teach. The alliance of Lang and the Trades Hall Reds fused class and populist themes into a powerful force. Without union support Lang’s appeal withered; equally a political party that was no more than the political reflection of organised labour, centered around production relations, would not have been successful as was NSW Labor was in 1930. Production relations are as likely to generate segmental loyalties to employers or sectional craft or group consciousness rather than class-consciousness. A productivist appeal divides male production workers from female family workers. The mobilisation of political support requires the construction of a subject that exists at the level of the political. A revived popular radicalism in Australia would not centre on a concept of ‘class’, and concepts of the nation would play a central role in its formation.
Now not so sure about the Miriam Dixson-style “nation” theme at the end.


At 8:57 PM, Blogger Jim Belshaw said...

Geoff, I struggled a little with your article on Herbert Spencer. I think I found your mix of statistical analysis and dialectic a bit difficult. Let me come at your argument a different way.

In his 1972 book Class and Ideology in the Nineteenth Century, Ron Neale (p30) defined what he called a "middling" class:
"petit bourgeois, aspiring professional men, other literates. Individually or privatised like the middle class but collectively less deferential and more concerned to remove the privileges and authority of the upper class, in which, withouth radical changes, they cannot realistically hope to share."

In explaining his rejection of the Labor Party the Country Party politician David Drummond said that nothing would convince him that there were just two classes, employees or wage slaves and employers. Drummond went on:
"I knew that in between there was a middle class of decent law abiding people, farmers, graziers, small shop keepers, & to a certain extent professional men. They were either self employed or small employers but largely consisted of people who valued their independence and sought by hrad work to build a secure place in society they could sustain."

Born in 1890, Drummond (along with Ellis he was the Country Party's real theoretician) had been a ward of the state and then farm labourer.

Drummond's definition of the middle class fits with Meyle's middling. This whole group was economically insecure. They could not identify with the employed on one side, the big people on the other. So their voting pattersn were different.

I suspect that the early history of the Country Party explains more about current voting pattersna than all the discussion of so-called aspirational voters.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Geoff Robinson said...

IInteresting point, where did Drummond say this? Forgotten about Neale but I have some of his books. The Country Party must have appealed to a broad stratum. The alternative argument might be that the Country Party won the support of deferenterial workers. Even in the 1930s union membership among non-pastoral agricultural workers was very low. I estimate that slightly over half of the electorate in rural NSW in the 1930s were manual workers. For Lang to lose every rural seat in 1932 many of them must have voted against Labor. I think Don Aitkin hints at this in his Bruxner biography. I suspect that few of the ‘middling classes’ ever voted Labor, unless they were Catholic.


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