It is frequently contended that present-day working conditions and wagelessness are analogous to those experienced during the severe economic downturn of the 1930s.
Using methods of historical sociology, Professor Lisa Adkins explores oral and manuscript testimonies of those who lived through the period to test the claim that the conditions of the present, and especially those associated with work, are comparable to those of the Great Depression.
Professor Lisa Adkins is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Sydney and an Academy of Finland Distinguised Professor (2015-19).
Image: A Family Standing Outside a Tin Shack Called Wiloma during the Great Depression, New South Wales. c. 1932 (detail), nla.cat-vn6247378, courtesy Fairfax Syndication.
Fellowship lecture: Wageless life in the Great Depression
*Speakers: Martin Woods (M), Professor Lisa Atkins (L)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 21 November 2018
M: Still got one or two people coming in so we might wait another minute. Alright well the clock has struck half past. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Dr Martin Woods, I’m the Curator of Maps here at the National Library and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to tonight’s fellowships presentation and to introduce you to our guest speaker, Professor Lisa Atkins.
As we begin I acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose land we meet and pay my respects to the elders past, present and emerging of the Ngunnawal and Nganbury peoples.
Professor Lisa Atkins is the 2018 National Library of Australia Fellow supported by Library patrons and supporters. This is a fellowship of 12 weeks of deep archival research which Lisa has used to underpin her investigation into the conditions of work and working in the great depression era. Professor Atkins is head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney where her home department is Sociology and Social Policy. She is also an Academy of Finland distinguished professor and has previously held chairs in sociology at the University of Manchester and at Goldsmiths, University of London. Lisa has also served as a member of the Australian Research Council’s college of experts and before her recent move to Sydney was s a professor of sociology at the University of Newcastle.
Lisa’s contributions in the discipline of sociology lie in the areas of economics sociology, social theory and feminist theory. Her recent research has focused on the restructuring of labour, money and time in the context of growth of finance and Stanford has just published her new book, The Time of Money, a gripping story about money and our increasingly financialised lives. Perhaps in contrast Lisa’s fellowship with the National Library has gone to the condition of unemployment and wageless life. This work has been supported by the Australian Research Council, the Academy of Finland and the National Library of Australia. Lisa has used her fellowship to gather data on the conditions of work and working in the great depression era against which to test the claim that present day working conditions are in some way analogous to those experienced during the severe economic downturn of the 1930s.
Here at the Library Lisa has worked with oral histories and manuscripts collected by Wendy Lowenstein to develop a rich database of human experiences of work, working and wagelessness in 1930s Australia and much more. Wendy’s interviews provide a firsthand account of life during the depression consisting of interviews with people from all sections of the community including those who made it as well as those adversely affected. And some of you will know selected interviews were later published in her book, Weevils in the Flour. The Lowenstein Manuscript and Oral History Collections continues to provide valuable source material to researchers and writers. In this case Lisa’s research has looked especially though not exclusively on the experiences of women in order to generate data through which the great depression and the present day may be compared.
Please join me in welcoming Professor Lisa Atkins.
L: Thank you so much, Martin, for such a lovely introduction and before I begin I’d like to thank the Library for supporting me to do this research and especially thank the sponsors of the fellowship. And I’d also like to especially thank James Warner and Michael Mullins who’ve helped me prepare for today’s presentation especially in the preparation of the sound files that I'm going to use.
So as Martin’s laid out I’ve become or I did become, rather, drawn to a particular claim that circulated in the current era especially post the financial crisis of 2007 and 8. This is the claim that somehow our current conditions are somehow analogous to the great depression era and if you read kind of popular commentary and academic work, especially the work of the columnists, you’ll find that claim repeated. So for instance you find it in the work of The Economist’s Paul Krugman, whose work you might have read and also The Economist’s Mark Blyth who’s done some really amazing work on austerity.
But the claim that circulated isn’t simply that what our current day conditions and those of the great depression share in common is a background of financial crisis, in other words it’s not simply an argument that a big crisis disturbed our ways of life and ways of being but rather it’s an argument that the relations between capital and labour alongside a fundamental reorganisation of the state have taken place such that our current conditions share certain features in common with those of the 1930s. Now as I’ll go on to talk about, this claim actually largely exists as an assertion with little or no reference to empirical evidence.
So to be able to think about this claim I think – or even to assess its relevance we need two things, we need to know about the present and we also need to know about the 1930s so let me start with the present. So what do we know about work in our current moments and especially in Australia? So work as we know has become increasingly precarious, insecure and contingent and that’s especially so when we compare those conditions with the post-world war 2 period of the Keynesian era. In Australia as many of you will know as for many of its counterparts the Keynesian era, the post-world war 2 era, was an era in which there was a settlement or a compact between capital, labour and the state which created relatively stable employment and wages for particular sections of the population and especially for male workers. The Keynesian era was also an era in which the model for economic growth was tied to that employment, in other words it was tied to men’s employment, women’s dependency on those men and the heteronormative household.
From the 1970s onwards that model began to be wound down and one of its kind of key organising mechanisms, the family wage, was slowly unravelled and in its place a model of economic growth was installed based on competitiveness and the incorporation of the whole population including women, especially women actually, into the wage labour imperative. So there was a kind of optimisation of work and working capacities of the whole population in this new model of growth.
So from the late ‘70s onwards we slowly see for instance the embrace of a model of the family in which – which wasn’t kind of modelled on a male breadwinner and women’s dependency on that breadwinner but rather on a family in which all adults were working. So we see increasingly from the ‘80s onwards and through the ‘90s a policy emphasis on working families.
Now that – the model of growth that replaced the Keynesian model of growth is also associated with the unwinding of national wage setting agreements and in their place the putting in place of local enterprise agreements. It’s also associated with the growth of chronic underemployment so one of the things that characterises the Australian labour market today is kind of huge underemployment rather than kind of straightforward unemployment.
We’ve also seen the institutionalisation via various means including legal of precarious forms of work and critically declining income shares for labour in the context of rising productivity so even though labour’s productivity has gone up the income that labour sees back from that productivity is declining. And that declining income share has also taken place in the context of what Thomas Pickersey, the economist, has termed the return of wealth. So an increasing share of income is flowing to owners of capital.
So the model of economic growth that’s replaced the Keynesian model then is then associated with a new contract if you like between capital and labour where the balance of power lies with capital, where it clearly lies with capital. So the certainties that – which were previously associated with wage labour, for instance wage rates, working hours, terms of employment have generally been transformed into uncertainties. And it’s also important to stress that our current period has seen a kind of huge transformation of the state. So there’s been a move away from a state that’s concerned with protecting its populations – its population in times of need through for instance the provision of benefits to one that’s concerned with activating the working capacities of populations.
So unemployment I think is an important case in point here. In the second world war period – post second world war period, Australia introduced a flat rate of payment for the unemployed and for those temporarily incapacitated for work because for instance of sickness or accidents. Now this was certainly not universal so the entitlement to such benefits was for example denied to married women on the grounds of their economic dependency of men but nonetheless you can see this kind of model of the idea of protection working through a kind of breadwinner-dependent model. There were exemptions in that model for wives for instance if they could demonstrate that it was not reasonably possible for their husbands to maintain them.
But since the 1980s onwards albeit unevenly the Australian state started to take up employment and unemployment policies which were aimed at securing employability and competitiveness. So it’s – the state has progressively disengaged from the idea that populations are entitled to unemployment benefits as a social right. And located benefits as conditional on participation in work and work-like activities and extended that conditionality to the whole population. And that participation in work and work-like activities has generally been located in terms of the need to enhance employability, that is, to secure or intensify competitiveness.
And we can see this especially in the workfare or welfare to work policies as they’re sometimes called that have been rolled out from the 1990s onwards in Australia. And Australia was very much at the kind of forefront of rolling out these workfare policies and was often seen as a model worldwide as being almost the frontier nation in terms of these policies.
So workfare policies essentially enact regimes of conditionality where that conditionality coheres around work and working so work for the dole and so on. And what these policies do is not only make welfare conditional on working activities but they tend to economise the unemployed so in other words they kind of calibrate unemployed populations and underemployed populations in terms of kind of economic worthiness as it were.
So in Australia for instance at the moment there’s an instrument called the Job Seeker’s Classification Instrument which places the unemployed along a scale of employability so you kind of get ranked in terms of how employable you are. And more recently still we’ve seen the rollout of even more kind of forms of conditionality including conditionalities – including for instance – sorry, including further benefit cuts so it’s a kind of national scandal that Newstart - the Newstart allowance is actually below the poverty line.
So generally what we can see is this shift from the protection of populations to the increasing optimisation and activation of lives so – and there’s this overriding logic of attempting to activate the unemployed, to optimise life through work and working. And we can also see this process if you like of economisation through other kinds of slow policy shifts that are taking place not just in Australia but also elsewhere so for instance there’s extension to state pension ages so in other words you have to be progressively older and older to get access to state pensions, there’s a gradual stripping away of other kinds of state benefits and slowly there's been an abolishment of default retirement ages.
So what we can see in all of those kinds of developments is this extension and expansion of work and working so you know it’s clear at the moment that a clear life phase called retirement is kind of being undermined in certain ways. So increasingly we’re expected to work as long as we possibly can. So there’s an optimisation of work and working across whole lifetimes and that’s as true I would argue for those in work as it is for those out of work so it’s as true for the jobless as it is for the employed.
So it’s these kinds of transformations, and obviously I’ve had to gloss over them really, really quickly, to work and working lives alongside this kind of hollowing out of the protection arm of the state and the protection of populations by the state that have prompted these analogies to be drawn between the conditions of the present and those of the great depression era. In other words they’ve prompted parallels between the present and the very era paradoxically that underscored the necessity for state intervention in the protection of populations. And in and through which John Maynard Keynes developed his foundational thinking on aggregate demand and the role of the state in sustaining such demand. So there’s this kind of really interesting paradox at the heart of these analogies.
So as I said right at the start the parallels that have been drawn then are not simply rooted in a kind of empiricist observation that the present and the great depression era both share in common a background of financial crisis but they derive instead from the observation that the recalibrations of the relations between – relations of power between capital and labour together with this fundamental reorganisation of the state is opening out conditions similar to those structural conditions if you like similar to those of the ‘30s.
Now I think that it’s a really powerful analogy, there’s a kind of effective dimension to it you know when people kind of say wow, this is – when Krugman right after the financial crisis in the States said oh my goodness, we haven’t seen anything like this since the great depression people – it kind of made people sit up and think. So it’s incredibly alluring but nonetheless I think it remains ill-defined in many ways and what’s missing is any kind of empirical verification that the experiences of today and especially those relating to work, working and wagelessness are somehow similar in texture and form to those of the 1930s.
And I became very interested in thinking about well if we were looking for this kind of elusive empirical evidence what would that material look like? What kind of data would allow the conditions of work, working and wagelessness in the great depression and those of the present to be compared? What kind of data would we need? And it was in that context that I came – I was drawn to the Wendy Lowenstein Collection which is held here at the NLA. As Martin’s already pointed out this is an extensive collection compromising recorded oral histories, transcripts and also associated manuscripts relating to a number of the oral histories carried out by Wendy Lowenstein who of course was a pioneering oral historian.
And in – as part of this collection the materials associated with Lowenstein’s Weevils in the Flour project are held. Now these are oral history recordings that compromises that – sorry, project comprises oral history interview recordings, transcripts and other materials such as photographs and letters. And the project focused exclusively on life in the great depression – on life in the great depression in Australia and the interviews were carried out by Lowenstein herself in the 1970s. And they are incred – the interviews are incredibly fastidious in detail and they chart the conditions of life during the great depression with a special focus on the conditions of work, working, unemployment, intermittent employment and wagelessness so in a sense the collection was perfect – held the perfect kind of data that I was looking for.
Having said that I should say that I’m a sociologist and not an oral historian so I approached the collection with some trepidation because I think sociologists and oral historians approach data slightly differently and that’s something maybe we can talk about afterwards. So the oral historian presents data with a whole person you know the interview is the history whereas sociologists do I guess what is a terrible thing of cutting data up and thinking about themes and so on. So I did approach it with some trepidation and – but as Martin said I initially started to read the extracts from the interviews that were published by Lowenstein in Weevils in the Flour in 1978 but the collection actually contains far more material than appears in the book and in fact I realised during – as I worked my way through the fellowship that the book only contains a tiny amount of the material held in the collection.
In the book actually Lowenstein described her depression era project as a grassroots history and for me that’s where its value lies. The interviews are really a unique resource offering firsthand accounts of life in and out of work in the great depression so – I mean I think their value is immense and not just to oral historians and I hope that as part of my engagement with the collection I’ll kind of open out its value to sociologists. What’s remarkable about the collection as well is that Lowenstein included participants from a range of backgrounds, an enormous range of class backgrounds so when we – I think tend to think of the great depression, we tend to think of those of those kind of iconic images that we’ve all seen of people being very, very destitute and we tend to think about people who are probably working class and lose their jobs and then slip into homelessness and had to be incredibly inventive around how they lived.
And what is remarkable I think about the collection is as I said, this kind of cross-section of the population that Lowenstein interviewed from a range of class backgrounds from kind of the working class to the upper class. And those people that she interviewed came from a range of locations as well in Australia from Tasmania to north Queensland. She also – and this is really important for me as a sociologist – included as many women as she did men, I think, roughly. I tried to do a count and I think it was – it’s roughly equal.
So during the fellowship period at the Library I engaged with this remarkable collection and I actually transcribed a number of the oral history interviews and set about creating a database which oral historians probably wouldn’t do around three themes so wages, the conditions of wagelessness and unemployment and the conditions of work and working. So tonight I’m just going to concentrate on the first two and it’s worth repeating that there’s so much data in the collection that I’m only just going to give you a kind of sense of what’s in there. And it’s also worth saying that during the great depression era in Australia unemployment peaked in 1932 at a rate of 30% which is extraordinary when you think about it.
So let me begin then with thinking about wages so as I was reading and listening to these remarkable interviews certain themes emerged around wages and the two that stood out to me most was – were the unpredictability associated with wages during the great depression and also the downwards pressure that was being applied on wages. So just to give you a sense of that so - in terms of the unpredictable wages so one woman interviewed described how in the early part of the depression her husband had worked on the wharves and how that work and wages were both incredibly intermittent and unpredictable. She described how her husband would get up incredibly early in the morning and run down to the wharves in the hope of work and would get in a queue desperately hoping that he would be given some work and work was literally allocated on a day-by-day basis.
That same woman also described how during the great depression era for those who did manage to get work on the wharves, there was an intensification of work so there were increased working hours for the same pay. She also described how when there was no wharf work he tried to get odd jobs but these she said paid incredibly little. People, she said, took advantage and this is a quote from her, to get their work done cheaply because of the unemployment around. So I think there’s an interesting intersection there between the unpredictability of work and the downwards pressure on wages.
So to give you some more sense of this downward pressure on wages one incredibly interesting woman was interviewed by Lowenstein who was incredibly middleclass, she lived in Sydney and she had a really good job in the Commonwealth Bank across the depression era from 1927 onwards. And her work involved working on the ledger keeping machine. Her father by the way was a music teacher and was one of the founders of the Music Association in Sydney. She described how she got her job which was a really interesting story as well so she said there were 400 people on a waiting list for employment in the bank and how she had in fact jumped the queue through family connections with the Commonwealth Bank.
She made clear that that list with 400 people waiting on it was just the women and that there was a much, much longer list for men. They, she said, by which she meant the bank, were very choosy. But she also went on to describe - she has this really fascinating kind of almost like a work life history – to describe how in 1930 all of the wages and salaries in the bank were cut by 10%. So what we – what’s so fascinat – what I found so fascinating about this particular interview is that it gave a sense of how even those in kind of safe middleclass jobs were subject to this kind of downwards pressure on wages.
To give another example another woman who was interviewed by Lowenstein described how during the depression her eldest son had a job in an orchard and lived away from home. He had incredibly low wages, it was 10 shillings and keep but the orchard owner cut her son’s wages in half and he then went back to the family home so there was this really theme actually throughout a number of the interviews which kind of illustrated just how significant family and kinship were for survival during the era so family and kinship were critical for people just being able to kind of get through day-to-day.
Another example of wage – downwards pressure on wages came from a woman who was a teacher in a small country town in Victoria. She described how after 1932 all teachers’ wages were reduced by 10% or more, perhaps even up to 20%. She in fact was the main breadwinner for the family. Her father was unemployed, her mother was dead, her younger sister was working in a grocery shop where she was underpaid and this breadwinner role for women really stood out for me in the interviews, it was repeated across a number of interviews and I’ll return to that later on.
The downwards pressure on wages was so strong in certain cases that many people were not earning enough to live so being in work didn’t necessarily make you any better off during this period and so one woman for instance was earning three shillings a week but her fares to get her to work were five shillings a week so work wasn’t paying. And I think that’s – there’s definitely a parallel here with the present because that’s one of the characteristics of the present, that we don’t earn enough to live, most of us have got huge debt and one of the things that’s talked about constantly in social policy circles is the phenomenon of in work poverty so I think there is a connection there.
Some workers as well were not paid their wages and that was a common theme across the interviews as well so one man who was interviewed for example got a job on a farm and it was for general farmwork for £1 a week plus keep. But he was never paid, he was there for four months and he made money on the side by catching, training and selling – get this – wild horses. So there was this huge inventiveness around survival during the great depression as well.
A tactic that many employers used was to kind of offer workers in kind payments so one man interviewed for example did gardening work in exchange for food, did cement work for a company in exchange for food, and women, especially single women, worked as live-ins or domestic workers where their extremely low wages were compensated by board and food.
So I want to move on now to think about the conditions of wagelessness and unemployment. One of the remarkable things about the Lowenstein Collection is it has these incredible stories of men, and it was all men, being on the track, in other words what was termed being on the track. That is, men who travelled around mostly by train but also sometimes by foot in the hope of finding work. And at times receiving track rations, in other words food relief for those travelling in search of employment and that scheme was put in place in 1932. So in other words what the Lowenstein Collection contains, the Weevils in the Flour collection contains, is this incredible set of stories about itinerant workers who moved around the countryside. And those stories are of incredibly dangerous journeys with men often getting injured, jumping on and off trains and also of travelling great distances. They’re also stories of living off the land and sometimes finding odd jobs or very temporary forms of employment, for a few days or maybe for a week.
One interviewee for instance travelled from Tasmania to Queensland and back again in search of work and he describes his journey and how he lived in great detail and especially how he kept on moving. And I’m going to play you a section of – a short section of his interview in which - how he describes getting to Brisbane.
“Female: Of course mind you they were getting – yeah, they were getting the labour dirt cheap, for a couple of loaves of bread or four loaves of bread and they were only about <inaudible> 38:17.
Male: Oh no problems. <inaudible> 38:20 Thrippence eight and it went up to fourpence. <inaudible>.
Female: Might be, well –
Male: Well anyhow we got through – the cities were the most – we went into Brisbane and then – no, it’s very hard in the city you know you start to feel depressed, you feel that you’re you know one of the army of the unwanted and no-one wants you in the city and it’s best - you can live better out in the bush because as I say you can always get a rabbit, you can always get a b – although one time we couldn’t, we shot a poor old magpie. Terrible thing but we ate it.
Female: You never got any repercussions from that sheep you killed?
Male: No, no, never heard any more about it, no. And never – I shouldn’t have got any repercussions knocking off a magpie but -”.
L: So what interested me there, and I'm sure you picked up on it, was the – his phrase, you feel like you’re one of the army of the unwanted. So – and he felt that no-one wants you in the city. So here I think there’s this kind of clear reference in sociological terms to a kind of reserve army of labour that’s moving around the countryside trying to get work. And in another interview someone mentioned actually that Queensland had at the time a population of half a million people and it was supporting a travelling population of over a million workers or would-be workers.
What was really interesting and striking about these tales of being on the track is that they’re tales of suffering but you could probably hear it in the interview extract there but also tales of adventure. There’s a kind of heroic narrative of survival within those – the interviews with men who have been on the track and it was only men who went on the track and it was only men during this period who - mostly only men who received any kind of welfare or benefit payments or benefit payments in kind which I’ll go on to talk about in a moment. And there was one woman interviewed who talked about living in country Victoria and how it was incredibly depressing because she said all of the boys had gone on the track so – and she went on to describe how most of the women who were kind of as it were left behind in this small town were kind of doing incredibly low-paid forms of work including typing work. So she talks about the great depression as being depressing.
The other – another really interesting - elements of the interviews when thinking about unemployment and worklessness was that – were the work for the dole schemes that were in operation during this time and again they were for men and men were working for the dole on public infrastructure projects, big – often big public infrastructure projects including roads. So one woman for example described how her husband was working on the dole for the council, he worked on the roads. And another described how her husband worked on the dole in local gardens.
Another – a man actually described how there was mass enrolment of men into these schemes so he described a scene in Footscray in 1930 here, work was offered to 750 en masse who wanted to work in return for the dole. So he describes six shillings of welfare for a single man, 12 for a man and wife and two and six for each child and how that work was unavailable to men who were living with their parents. So I’m just going to play you part of an interview here where a woman describes dole payments as well.
“Female: Well you see at that time we were on the dole and we weren’t allowed to earn any more than £2 a week, the whole family. If we earnt more than £2 you lost the dole.
Female: That’s for a family of seven children?
Female: Golly. Now how long were you on or when did your husband finally go onto the dole? Had he been –
Female: Well he was doing these odd jobs for quite a while and then it was when we lived on quinces for a month.
Female: Yes, tell me about that.
Female: Well the man who –“
L: The important parts in there for me was conditionality so the conditionalities operating so once you started to earn over £2 that was it, you couldn’t – that whole family earnt over £2, the family could not get access to the dole anymore so we often think about – when we kind of read literature on the current welfare state and how it’s restructured conditionality and working for the dole are the things that we associate with the current period but there were clear conditionalities operating in regard to welfare and especially access to the dole in the great depression era.
The last example of – in regard to unemployment and worklessness that I want to talk about is welfare payments in kind and especially the operation of sustenance relief which operated for men and their dependents, again it was accessed by men. Sustenance was a system of food vouchers that was introduced in the depression. It was state-based so it varied slightly by state, the schemes varied a lot and they were for those without assets or savings. Interestingly some people did have savings during the great depression but they couldn’t access them because the banks kind of cut off access to savings so that – because they had savings they couldn’t get access to sustenance so that people were in this kind of terrible double bind.
So – now what I find interesting about the system of food vouchers is of course the parallels with our present day cashless welfare card which is used in a similar way and there are incredibly – incredible stories in the Lowenstein collection of people simply surviving on the vouchers, the sustenance vouchers. So one woman described in great detail for instance how she would go to the sustenance office and get food supplies as well as other items such as second-hand clothing.
So stepping back from all of that there was this really – in terms of the kind of gender order of what was going on with wages, employment, worklessness and welfare there was one woman interviewed who had this incredible craze, girls were both lucky and unlucky and what she went on to describe, she kind of tried to unpack what she meant by that so she said women were unlucky because they couldn’t get the dole but paradoxically women’s labour and wages was actually critical for household survival.
So one – to give an example of that, one man looking back on the great depression era told the story how his wife, who worked in a factory, when she turned 21, he said, she was earning £2 and five shillings a week. That meant that her father, because it was over the £2 threshold couldn’t get the dole and that there was family friction. He also talked about how women couldn’t get married or move out of the family home because the family was completely dependent on them. So there was this incredible paradox – set of paradoxes going on around women’s labour so women were both defined as dependents and yet were the main breadwinners. So I think there was this really interesting dynamic going on in terms of gender during this period.
But generally I think we also need to acknowledge, and I think I kind of got a real sense of this going through the interviews, that welfare for the out of work was not coordinated terribly well during the depression era. Many of the welfare measures were actually emergency measures that kind – that states had rolled out and some of them were very chaotically administered. But they were also – those measures themselves were also precarious and unpredictable so people could be suddenly cut off from the dole without warning and then would retrospectively have a kind of reason presented to them as to why they’d been cut off the dole. So for instance someone said - a man who was interviewed was told by an official that the particular scheme that he was enrolled on to get the dole was only meant to give them a start and not to kind of last month on month.
Some interviewees as well also talked about how they were warned not to be rude to officials in benefits offices so one official advised that a woman’s husband for instance be taken off sustenance after a visit to their home and she happened to see what that official wrote in the ledger and he’d written – and this is a quote – in my opinion this man does not want to work and should be taken off sustenance. So there was this kind of precarity associated with welfare, you couldn’t take it for granted, you had to do a lot of work to manage it and to make sure that you had access to it. And also men could be taken off the dole and sustenance for refusing to work so here we see conditionality operating again.
So in conclusion I think clearly work, worklessness and unemployment in the great depression era in Australia was by no means a unified experience and if we return to that kind of question or issue that I became drawn to and what drew me to the Lowenstein Collection, that is, are there kind of similarities between the now and the great depression era, I think we can say there are certain similarities, precarity, welfare conditionalities, downwards pressure on wages and so on but also there are critical differences, not least I’ve tried to highlight the key differences in terms of gender in this talk.
What I think we can say most definitively though in terms of those differences is the great depression actually led to a coordinated political action which was aimed at protecting populations and also aimed to curb inequalities of wealth via strategies of redistribution so we saw welfare states develop. In our present day we almost see the opposite, the protection of populations is being undone in the context of the return of wealth inequalities. Thank you.
M: Thanks very much, Lisa and I think we can all think about examples of conditionalities and downward pressures in our own lives and times that perhaps Wendy’s recordings and Lisa’s research start to bring to the fore and to the forefront of our thinking. I can think of a few, I don’t know whether they even are correct ones to think about. One of them I thought of ‘cause I’d done some research into the rise of the women’s ag bureaus and Country Women’s Association in 1920s and ‘30s and to me that seemed to be something that’s comparable with what’s been happening recently but really qualitatively different in what they were attempting to achieve.
And another one was the conditionality of the sale of assets before you were eligible for the dole which was the case in many jurisdictions, you had to sell certain of your assets before you could demonstrate your eligibility for the dole. And of course that doesn’t happen quite so much now but then we are subject to massive credit intrusions ourselves to maintain standard of living etc and the rise of cheap credit or quick credit. I wonder if you had some comment on either of those.
L: Yeah, I mean I think the credit thing is really interesting partly ‘cause I’ve just done a whole load of work on money and finance. One of the critical qualitative differences between now and the great depression era is that in our lives everyone I would argue is connected to finance in profound ways, in ways that were unimaginable during the great depression era. So of course there was a financial crisis prior to which kicked off the great depression but that kicked in a depression where – which was all about kind of businesses drying up. The kind of situation that we have now is that finance and banks are actually completely dependent on us, not just businesses participating in finance in our everyday lives so paying our mortgages, paying our bills on time, all those kind of things and politically there is a lot of action that’s done to make sure that we all do that. So payments on time are critical, yeah, I agree that’s one of the key qualitative differences in terms of our lives.
M: Can we have some questions from the floor and Lisa will bring the microphone to you? There’s one in the middle there. Lisa.
A: What do you think are the silences in the Lowenstein Collection? What voices are you not hearing?
L: Yeah, that’s a really interesting – it’s a really interesting question. There’s very little discussion of indigenous Australians. There’s some but not much so that’s I would say is the key set of voices that’s not present. However I think as I said it’s a remarkable collection and the voices are so varied so you know there’s unionists, there’s business owners, there’s someone who formed the Unemployment Workers’ Union so I would say that actually the collection as it stands is remarkable in its diversity.
A: Thanks for a great presentation. I’m interested in the sort of historical moment of the 1930s when all this was happening, the 1970s when the interviews were happening and then the moment now, GFC, post-GFC and the historical events before that, the relationship with war and the economy and the relationship with the citizen to the state and I think each of those three historical moments are different in those dimensions. So I just wonder if you have any observations particularly about the interviews being conducted in the ‘70s about the ‘30s?
L: Yeah. I mean that’s actually something that - I think you’ve put your finger on something there which is a methodological difference between sociologists and oral historians and oral historians in the room please join in this conversation especially if you think what I'm about to say doesn’t do you justice but from where I sit as a sociologist oral historians are asking people about their memories, right? Of the past and – whereas sociologists when they do interviews, they tend to be about the now so sociologists – well if they did you know I'm not – sociologists tend to do that, sociologists sometimes do kind of historical-style interviews but mostly they’re about the now.
And I know there’s a huge methodological debate in oral history about memory and obviously memory and what we remember and how we remember and why we remember things is caught up in those historical periodisations that you’ve highlighted. So the question is – the critical question is have these specific kinds of memories been structured by the fact that they were being uttered in the 1970s I think is your question. And I suspect yes, that’s right, I think that is right but for me what was really interesting as well is in a way those – some of the interviewees were contrasting their life then in the ‘70s to what it was in the great depression era so they were themselves performing historicisation.
And it was quite compelling in that sense so they would talk about you know how their lives now and how you know you could – that kind of state benefits were much more predictable, easier to manage and that kind of no-one faced these kinds of conditions. And I think the fact that it was the ‘70s, during that kind of rollout of – the kind of Keynesian Gross model, a state that wanted to protect its population, that stood out for them, that’s what stood out for them. And you’re right, that would make a really interesting further paper around those comparisons that the interviewees were themselves making. I mean I performed my historicisation but it wasn’t their one. I hope that answers your question.
A: I just wanted to ask you about the idea of absolute and relative poverty because you would think that people in the depression would be much closer to absolute poverty than people today and that our you know we’re in such a consumerist society now that people today are a very long way from the depths of deprivation that you might find during the depression?
L: Yeah, I wasn’t trying to say that people – the poverty levels were at the same level, I wasn’t implying that at all but what I do think - what I think is really interesting about today now in Australia is that poverty is making a comeback in quite extreme ways. Just as wealth is making its comeback so – I mean I wouldn’t – I was more interested – so I didn’t want to go through that kind of route because I think you get in trouble when you start to make that kind of argument. As I tried to make right at the start what I’m interested in is the idea that the structural conditions so the relationship between capital and labour have shifted to such an extent that you know in the 1930s that actually there wasn’t a welfare state and today the welfare state is being rolled back, right? So you know there are – I was – I’m much more interested in those structural conditions and how those structural conditions kind of resonate through people’s lives.
M: One question at the back there we have time for.
A: Thank you for a very interesting talk. I think my question – you’ve touched a little bit upon it but I just wanted to ask whether you would be thinking of doing some research into conditions of work in the kind of pre-Keynesian era prior to or in the absence of the great depression? Because of course the conditions of work which you’ve described as indeed the conditions of work today are not sort of caused exclusively or solely by the fact that we’ve had a depression but rather these conditions emerged certainly in the case of today with the decline of the welfare state and since the ‘70s with the – and that of course is a period during which we had extraordinary economic growth, real or one might sort of be contemptuous of this economic growth but nonetheless there was growth and at least upfront prosperity.
So my question is isn’t it just - really I suppose it comes to this, isn’t it a bit misleading to make the contrast between today and times of the great depression when in fact the contrast is more conditions of work today as opposed to conditions of work in this pre-Keynesian era, this what the French call – prior to what the French call, they call it Glorieuses, the glorious 30 from ’45 to 75?
L: Yeah, I completely agree, of course, I completely agree. I don’t think in any way that the conditions of today have been caused by the global financial crisis, those processes started in the ‘70s. I completely agree but as I said right at the start a whole range of economists were making that comparison, right? And what I’m trying to say is actually there really isn’t that straightforward comparison, it’s much more complicated than that so I agree with you.
M: Look, I’m sorry to say we are up, our hour’s passed and we do have time upstairs to talk so please join me in thanking Lisa for her wonderful presentation.
M: Thanks Lisa, wonderful.
L: Thank you.
M: And before we continue the conversation in a few minutes upstairs with some refreshments I’d just like to commend to you our next fellowship lecture which will be held next Thursday, the 29th of November at 6pm. This will be the National Folk Federation 2018 presentation by Salvatore Rossano presenting Sonu, a project exploring the themes of migration using field recordings. And on Thursday, 6th of December please join us to hear Dr Maggie Tonkin. Thank you very much.
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