ABSTRACTS – LABOUR HISTORY NO. 121

Capitalism: New Histories from Australia
Edited by Hannah Forsyth and Sophie Loy-Wilson

Thinking Capitalism from the Bedroom: The Politics of Location and the Uses of (Feminist, Queer, Crip) Theory
Yves Rees

The New Histories of Capitalism (NHC) boast a foundational narrative that decries the supposed elision of the “economic” during the long reign cultural and social history. Yet, at the same, the NHC are themselves based on a recognition that ideas of “economy” are not natural, and hence must be historicised using the same intellectual tools that powered the cultural turn in the first place. In practice, however, the demographics and structuring assumptions of the “new” histories of capitalism are remarkably similar to the “old” labour and economic history. Both its historical actors and its practitioners remain, by and large, white cisgender men engaged with normative visions of “capitalism” and “economy” that privilege finance, waged labour, business and trade. As the NHC take shape within Australia, this article highlights the imperative to learn from – but crucially, not appropriate – the expertise of communities who have long theorised and critiqued “capitalism” due to their subordinate position within its cultural and economic hierarchies. Using examples from feminist, queer and crip theory, I argue that the knowledges of those marginal to or excluded from waged labour, capital accumulation and material consumption constitute a rich repository of intellectual tools with potential to engender more robust historicisation of “capitalism” and the worlds it helps create.

Surviving School and “Survival Schools”: Resistance, Compulsion and Negotiation in Aboriginal Engagements with Schooling
Amy Thomas and Beth Marsden

In Australia, Aboriginal peoples have sought to exploit and challenge settler-colonial schooling to meet their own goals and needs, engaging in strategic, diverse and creative ways closely tied to labour markets and the labour movement. Here, we bring together two case studies to illustrate the interplay of negotiation, resistance and compulsion that we argue has characterised Aboriginal engagements with school as a structure within settler colonial capitalism. Our first case study explains how Aboriginal families in Victoria and New South Wales deliberately exploited gaps in school record collecting to maintain mobility during the mid-twentieth century and engaged with labour markets that enabled visits to country. Our second case study explores the Strelley mob’s establishment of independent, Aboriginal-controlled bilingual schools in the 1970s to maintain control of their labour and their futures. Techniques of survival developed in and around schooling have been neglected by historians, yet they demonstrate how schooling has been a strategic political project, both for Aboriginal peoples’ and the Australian settler colonial state.

Aboriginal Worlds and Australian Capitalism
Heidi Norman

Australia has a fairly established literature that seeks to explain, on one hand, the pre-colonial Aboriginal society and economy and on the other, the relationship that emerged between the First Peoples’ economic system and society, and the settler economy. Most of this relies on theoretical frameworks that narrate traditional worlds dissolving. At best, these narratives see First Peoples subsumed into the workforce, retaining minimal cultural residue. In this paper, I argue against these narratives, showing the ways Aboriginal people have disrupted, or implicitly questioned and challenged dominant forms of Australian capitalism. I have sought to write not within the earlier framework of what is called Aboriginal History that often concentrated on the governance of Aborigines rather than responses to governance. In doing this, I seek to bring into view a history of Aboriginal strategies within a capitalist world that sought to maintain the most treasured elements of social life – generosity, equality, relatedness, minimal possessions, and a rich and pervasive ceremonial life.

Nature, Labour and Agriculture: Towards Common Ground in New Histories of Capitalism
Julie McIntyre

Goods developed and exchanged in the production of capital value are commodified nature that is acted upon by humans. Yet new histories of capitalism have for the most part ignored nature as impacted by this economic, social, and environmental system, and the agency of nature in commodification processes. This article responds to the call from a leading historian of capitalism to consider “the countryside” as a neglected geography of human-nature relations that is integral to generating capital value. It asks whether co-exploitation of “the soil and the worker,” as Marx stated of industrialising agriculture in Britain, also occurred in Australia. To answer this, I have drawn together histories of environment, economy, and labour that are concerned with soils and labour for agriculture, which has resulted in a twofold conclusion. First, it is a feature of capitalist production in Australia that the tenacity of “yeoman” or family farming as the model for Australian market-based agriculture did not exploit labour. Farming has, however, transformed Australian soils in many places from their natural state. This transformation is viewed as necessary from a resource perspective but damaging from an ecological view. Second, Australian historians of labour and environment do not participate in international debates about whether or how to consider the historical intersection of nature and labour, or, indeed, nature, labour, and capitalism. The reasons for this are historical and methodological. The environment-labour divide among historians is relevant as global environmental and social crises motivate the search for new sources and relational methods to historicise these connected crises.

Managerial Capitalism and White-Collar Professions: Social Mobility in Australia’s Corporate Elite
Claire Wright and Hannah Forsyth

This article considers the interdependence of managerial capitalism with the historical constitution of professional work in Australia. Using data on the composition of the boards of Australia’s largest companies between 1910 and 2018, we show a deep connection between the managerial class and the top layers of professional hierarchies. Professionals in Australia forged a managerial-capitalist elite within large corporations, relying on a combination of professional expertise and signals of legitimacy that were enabled through higher education and accreditation structures. Relatively low levels of professional enclosure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created opportunities for Australians from middle and working-class backgrounds to move into the capitalist elite. These opportunities were reduced significantly from the 1980s onwards as pathways to managerial roles themselves enclosed and as managerialism – as a mode of production – increasingly dominated global capitalism. The result was that by the end of the twentieth century, Australia’s corporate elite more closely resembled the rest of the world’s in its homogeneity and inaccessibility. This demonstrates the central role of professions in the reproduction of Australian capitalism over time, and the influence of professional enclosure on social mobility and inequality.

Labour in the Technocratic Frame: Macroeconomic Policy and Wages in 1950s Australia
Michael Beggs

The labour market has always been central to macroeconomics, but macroeconomic policy has usually had no instrument for intervening directly in the wage-setting process. But in the mid-twentieth century, economists commonly believed that there should be such an instrument. In 1950s Australia, it seemed that the arbitration system could potentially be used as such. This article uses Trevor Swan’s contemporary model of Australian policy in the 1950s so as to understand the tensions facing policy and explain why wage control seemed to be a solution. The arbitration judges began to consider macroeconomics in their decisions, and the unions adapted by presenting macroeconomic arguments of their own. In full employment conditions, labour had considerable economic power outside the tribunal, and the limitations of arbitration as an instrument of policy raised the shadow of unemployment as an alternative disciplining device.

Shopgirls as Consumers: Selling Popular Music in 1920s Australia
Henry Reese

The mid-1920s were boom years for the Australian gramophone trade. The most prominent multinational record companies had established local branches, and a handful of new factories produced millions of records for sale on the local market. Department stores joined an established network of music traders in retailing these cultural products. This article explores the labour of women involved in the retail sale of gramophone records in Melbourne. Selling recorded sound animated a charged rhetoric of musical meliorism, class and taste, according to which the value of the product was determined by the supposed musical quality thereof. Australian saleswomen or “shopgirls” were required to perform evidence of their modernity in the commercial encounter. I propose that conceiving of record saleswomen as simultaneously sellers and consumers provides valuable insight into the entangled nature of capitalism and culture in the realm of Australian music. This exploration of the process of commercialisation of recorded music illuminates the connection between labour and culture, leisure and society in colonial modernity.

Greek Migrant Labour and Their “Capitalist Compatriots”: Towards a History of Ethnic Capitalism
Andonis Piperoglou

The relationship between migration and Australian capitalism has long been a topic of robust scholarly debate in sociology and economics. Researchers in those fields have highlighted how migration has had an indelible imprint on Australian capitalism. By contrast, Australian migration histories have given scant attention to the role ethnic groups played in Australian capitalism. This lack of attention is particularly curious in historical studies of Greek Australia given the significance of small business in facilitating migration and settlement. From Federation onwards, Greek ethnic capitalism – or more precisely, the relations between Greek migrant labourers and their petite bourgeoisie employers – became a topic of media coverage. In fact, the relations between Greek workers and employers were so important that newspapers routinely reported on the subject. This article examines this media coverage, its racialist and criminalising connotations, and historical relevance. It concludes with some observations on how histories of capitalism can productively engage with the histories of ethnicisation.

Putting Capitalism in Its Place: Economies of Worth and the Practice of Australian History
Frances Flanagan and Ben Huf

Writing histories of capitalism involves making decisions about how to contextualise the wider non-capitalist formations that underpin and sustain capitalist processes. This article introduces Boltanski and Thévenot’s economies of worth (EW) framework as a tool and stimulus for historians to historicise capitalism as a social order while simultaneously avoiding the determinism of concepts such as commodification and capitalist accumulation. The article identifies four dominant approaches to contextualisation of capitalism in Australia in the past: economic history, radical nationalism, the New Left and settler capitalism. It then introduces EW, a repertoire of competing conceptions of the common good that, we argue, offers a framework for systematically drawing contested, hybrid and co-existent forms of capitalist and non-capitalist value, or “worth,” into view across multiple temporal and spatial scales. The potential usefulness of this framework is illustrated through a discussion of recent scholarship in the history of capitalism in Australia.