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Raewyn Connell and Terry Irving, Class Structure in Australian History

by Llewellyn Williams-Brooks on October 16, 2019
Past & Present

Class Structure in Australian History has been ignored for most of its life as an academic publication. Historians argued the text was not empirically rigorous; left-wing commentators that it lacked a sufficient account of race, class, gender, the mode of production, the world-system etc. So why should we still read Class Structure? The text has lacked a public readership and understanding that it deserved. No text has gone further to locate the ways in which class structure has shaped Australian capitalism and while the text is about the historic construction of class, it offers a jumping off point for social theory across anti-capitalism for activists and scholars alike. We see that many of our contemporary collisions are longer term problems that relate to the ownership of private property, the structure of Australian cities and the architecture of the state. It suggests that Australian history offers a range of important moments that sufficiently account for many of our ongoing crises.

The theoretical usage of class in the book is among its most exciting contributions. The authors respond to debates within the New Left that asked: who are the working class and are they agents of their own history? For Connell and Irving, class is a social process mediated by conflict between owners and workers played out through institutions of the state. As capital accumulation is an unstable and largely improvised arrangement, this means that the terrain of struggle can be defined into historic stages. For them, these stages have been: pastoral economies (1788-1840), mercantilism (1840-1890), working class contestation (1890-1930), industrialisation (1930-1975) and, what we might now call, financialisation (1975-1990). Each ‘stage’ had generated distinct class relations and institutions serving to mediate social instability.

Class Structure in Australian History offers us a critical way of seeing the world, reminiscent of John Berger’s famous TV show ‘Ways of Seeing’. It identifies the distorting perspectives presented by the mainstream media, which neglect to highlight our society’s grossest inequities and failings. It suggests that, if we are serious about making real change, we must first understand the historically-specific ways by which Australian society has been built. Civil society is haunted by the ghosts of colonisation and its ongoing revisions and reconstructions. Overall, two major themes stand out: the institutional lock-out of the working class from nation-shaping institutions since 1930 and the urban revolution of the metropolitan city over the suburbs and regions of Australia.

First, some discussion of the former: Australian capitalism possessed an ambiguous destiny as an outpost of the British Empire. For this reason, there were concerted efforts by the British state to re-engineer a British class system, most prominently, through the recruitment of political economist E.G. Wakefield. He argued that by controlling the price of land around the planned city of Adelaide that stable geographies of class could be organised. Nonetheless, chronic labour shortages and long-run boom and bust cycles created the conditions through which the labour movement came to influence the national parliamentary system by the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus began the period of the ‘working-class challenge’ (1890-1930) documented in the book. It thus depicts the rise of the Federal Australian state as a disciplinary organ, capable of containing organised labour through its corporatist institutions, favouring the private interests of business. It can be argued that the longer term collapse in support for Australia’s two major parties is associated with the effect. The authors suggest that those marginalised by Australia’s public institutions must build new institutions.

On the second point, Australian society is marked by some of the largest urban and regional inequalities in the developed world. As the book establishes, this trend is a long-run outcome of the building of Australian capitalism. The earliest colonial-settlement was predicated on the relationship between regional commodity production and their transportation to colonial cities for the world-market. Through the success of mercantilists, industrialists and finance capital we have witnessed two centuries of ascendant metropolitanism, especially in the inner-city regions of our largest cities: Sydney and Melbourne. Meanwhile, today, regional Australia has entered its longest period of drought. The work suggests that these trends are deeply connected through the ongoing structure of Australian capitalism.

One conjecture that could be raised towards the book is its insufficient attention to Aboriginal political economy. While frontier violence and dispossession are acknowledged as foundational features of Australian capitalism, the authors do not adequately explore the continued survival and adaptation of Aboriginal people to the changing conditions of the class structure. In this regard, Henry Reynolds’ The Other Side of the Frontier, Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu all come to mind as useful companions, although not exhaustive, of this discussion.

So, what is to be done? The book’s second edition ends in 1990, anticipating the rise of neoliberal governance and the fallout following the Great Recession. In this crucial and trying time, the book suggests that working class institutions are a critical way forward. They might put upon themselves some of our greatest social challenges: the precarious nature of work, the crisis of housing affordability, climate change, the structure and effectiveness of the state, and rampant and rising inequality. But first, it must be understood that these problems are intimately connected to the architecture of Australian capitalism. In offering a way of seeing, no text has gone further in showing us the nature of social conflict and the possibility of a political alternative. For this reason we must continue to engage with the text and its most difficult and challenging questions.

The author would like to thank the Past & Present Reading Group for their dialogues and Rhys Cohen for his help in providing feedback on this piece.

The set image depicts the Australian Sugar Company’s works, Chippendale, Sydney (1868) by Samuel Elyard from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales [a1528154 / DG V*/Sp Coll/Elyard/2].

Llewellyn Williams-Brooks
Llewellyn Williams-Brooks is PhD Student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His current research interests are Australian Historiography, Class and State theory, Economic Policy and Labour History.

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