Lumpen Politics, Whiteness, Race and Policing
Mark: Part 4 of 5
In the previous post the discussion covered issues of class composition in relationship to unemployment, criminal economies, and wageless life. In this entry, informed by the context of the previous posts, the conversation turns to a consideration of the meaning of the lumpenproletariat, danger, and class struggle, and then turns to a consideration of whiteness, race and policing in rural housing commission and poor areas, all in relation to Mark’s experiences.
Nick: I’m glad you finished off with ‘lumpen’. Because it’s a term I don't really like and have rejected. It suggests something, when you deploy it within the Marxist tradition, something that's contested, but is commonly a writing-off, splitting the people in those circumstances from the class. They're not the class, they’re something else. So, there’s that and you talked about your own contradiction in wanting to escape from those circumstances and then also how doing that involved lost connections, lost understandings of what is useful about those forms of class struggle. So, even though we can make a distinction and say that there are obviously different class experiences in different class struggles and class compositions that are related to people who tend to be classed as lumpen, they are still engaging in class struggle, they're still composed as part of the class, etc. So, why do you use the term lumpen to describe what you are describing as lumpen?
Mark: I think partly on some levels, consciously, subconsciously, in all sorts of ways, probably taking on that same problematic meaning of the word lumpen, is one aspect to that. Even though I come from that, myself being guilty, at times, of writing it off. But, on the other hand, I see it as a reclamation of the word as well, where I feel like if we are able to look at those lived experiences that people have and if we are able to shift that writing-off and be like ‘no, this is actually a painful but dignified and rich life in many ways and there's a lot within this which does speak to contemporary forms of class struggle’, then to reclaim that lumpen word to a certain extent.
Part of the reclamation, it doesn't make sense for me to do it anymore 'cause I'm not there and I don't live that life anymore, but at the time it was sort of a bit like a ‘fuck you’ to everybody, to every other thing as well. It's like, yeah we are lumpen and that's fine in some sense. At that time, I think I was also reading Bakunin a lot and Bakunin has a different sort of take, still problematic, but much more valorising all of it I suppose. But now I think there's different class compositions within class composition and different experiences of class struggle and I'm just trying to see it more as its own valid way of trying to understand what contemporary class formations are like. Particularly in terms of down there in Bomaderry, it is funny to think about what feels significant.
There seems to be this common way of framing class and class power, which I don't think is always a good thing, but I think I'm still guilty of it, where there's so much like class struggle, but there's an emphasis on points where you or the class can have power through proximities to certain capital formations, and if you're in proximity to that capital formation you can stop it, then you have power. Or if you have this sort of role/job then you have a dignified role not only now, but you also have a strategic role in producing the new society that's going to come next. There's all that sort of stuff, which still characterises a significant amount of leftist/anarchist/Marxist conversation, analysis, discourse. There is a lot to learn or think about in this framing, but it also risks cutting out a whole array of experiences of the unemployed, excluded, surplus populations or whatever.
At the time, I don't really think this anymore, but at the time when I was first getting involved with the left in the late 90s, of course I thought the lives around me were important, and feeling like allies were important and caring about people and being upset when people passed on, or went to prison, all these sorts of things, but feeling like we were cut off from capital and also cut off from what passed for class politics. So, while I had a range of attachments to my life and the lives around me, it also felt like we were entropy or something, left-over. Because if proximity to strategic capital formations is a basis of class politics, well Bomaderry is just a shitty little town next to a slightly larger shittier town. Growing up, it didn't even feel that connected to Wollongong. It wasn't until later I started, through other cultural forms, shrinking that gap.
So, in that sense, I remember even when I was starting to read Marx and at home in Leno and just like being so taken with the theory and seeing yourself in it, but then also being like this is just Bomaderry nothing happens here, no jobs no anything. So, a weird disconnect between your lived reality and how much it is the stuff of the theory but not being able to draw that connection in a meaningful way, because we didn't work in a factory, we didn't have a wage, we have all these other things. It’s been a long time since then and my thinking has changed about that, it's much more open, because if you don't only think in that sort of classical workerist symmetry between capital and that particular form of strategic workplace conflict, then you can see all sorts of other ways of living as part of the class struggle. Now I'm able to look at what happened back then and be clearer on how that is itself its own set of class struggle relationships.
N: One of the ways that the lumpen is understood within Marxism in general is as ‘dangerous’, and danger is a theme that runs through everything you've been talking about. So how dangerous is the ‘lumpen’ and who, or what, are they dangerous to?
M: Danger, it's such a funny thing because of how normal stuff can feel and danger is meant to be an exception to normal, it's not meant to be normal, that's what makes it dangerous. So, looking back, all of that was pretty fucked and dangerous in all sorts of ways, and what does it mean to live with danger as such an everyday feature? What does that do to you? That's an interesting thing to think about.
I kinda feel like the ‘dangerous class’ usually, and maybe I'm wrong, is used in at least two ways which I think is wrong in both senses. So, one is it's a dangerous class because it's dangerous to undermining the proper struggle of the workers. It can detract from it or can deviate into individualistic petty interests as opposed to a collective class interest, so there's that danger. I think that's the more traditional meaning of it and then I think there's maybe a more anarcho meaning, or response to that, which is to reclaim what that means and say ‘yes it's a dangerous class’, but it's dangerous to the system.
I disagree with both of those, mainly because I don't think anything just comes of itself, nothing about being lumpen makes you dangerous, or non-dangerous. What matters is how you come to build relationships with other people and the world that you’re in, and the same goes for so-called worker’s struggle too. There's nothing inherently history redeeming about the worker’s struggle either. None of these things really assume any meaning until they're happening in real life and so class comes about through struggle.
So, I don't think there's anything about, for example, what happens in Housing Commission neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in, that in any way detracts from, or is dangerous to, some other worker’s movement, ultimately they’re the same thing and this is an organisational question.
It also seems to me increasingly like that classification was never a good one and the division that was posed was never a good one. Many people move between, across, that so-called division at different points in their life, probably in a week, so it doesn't make that much sense. Increasingly that's the case too, now, where people are moving across being waged and being unwaged or having a totally insecure relationship to a waged income. So, in that way, it just doesn't hold up.
I reject it's an inherently dangerous class in both of those ways, because we only become dangerous to capital or whatever, through relating with each other and struggling together, ultimately breaking down and overcoming all these identity formations. So in our shared struggles we can become dangerous to capital, and in doing so create something else for each other, like solidarity or something.
But there is danger in those neighbourhoods, and like we do in all sorts of ways, we embody the violence and the structures of the world, at the same time as we're trying to refuse them and not reproduce them. So who are these neighbourhoods dangerous too? Sometimes ourselves, but, and this comes to the thing about care, at least when I was living there, there was a lot of struggle to survive, and I remember people, Mum and Tony's friends who passed away and took their own lives, my own friends as well, and that's something that obviously repeats intergenerationally, and one person doing that is already too many people, but it’s also important to remember that most people didn't do that, most people were struggling to survive and even though it was difficult to survive, the reasons that people usually did survive was because of the care and solidarity that’s hard to express in words.
The conditions of life that characterises neighbourhoods that are often very dangerous, dangers of dying, of imprisonment, of violence, of just never getting out of the grips of the cops, as well as all sorts of other things, I feel like, I hope I’m not just romanticising things, I felt like there was a sense of togetherness, at least me and my friends certainly had that and I feel like that expanded beyond just me and my friends. That said, and something I think about nearly every day is that not all of those friends are here anymore, neither are mum and Tony, so I’m not sure what that means about the durability of those relationships, or the togetherness I’m alluding to. But I do think that care was there, that it was an important factor in terms of not going off the edge. The danger didn't rule everything, it was a factor, but it wasn't the only factor.
And I don't know about in relationship to other parts of the class, I feel like there are factors in neighbourhoods like the ones I grew up in that are not necessarily present in other ones. Everyone felt like we had shared similar conditions, but I'm also questioning that too, because there's a lot of other stuff we haven't touched on yet. Like questions around race within the neighbourhood and how policing functioned along racial lines too.
N: In the last interview we didn’t get round to discussing the negotiation of race and racism, so I thought we could start with that.
M: I was thinking about that this morning and wondering how am I going to talk about this, as it’s such a big thing, and I guess it feels both obvious but important to acknowledge the limitations of what my own perspective on race and racism would be, due to being white within that neighbourhood.
I’m recalling a conversation that happened once back in those days, about a fight that had happened in East Nowra, I wasn’t there though. Anyway, a friend was there and was involved and telling me about it. I don’t remember how the fight started, but he was saying that it had been a group of white fellas and black fellas. This friend of mine, older than me, a punk guy from Bomaderry, found himself in this fight. He was saying how he and this other guy had each other by the shirt, and my friend was saying something like, “you’re not a black cunt, I’m not a white cunt, we’re both just cunts!” hoping this might kinda help defuse the situation. And I don’t know, I feel like there’s a lot in that, which is a certain truth, but also white good intentions that don’t cut it, a missing of the mark in terms of what racism is and who assumes to be able to choose out of it, and a world and history of violence that might not immediately have anything to do with this particular fight and why these people are facing off, and yet the fight can’t be removed from this history. In this context, what is a meaningful way to build relationships that challenge racism, beyond just using the right words?
Anyway, the population of the neighbourhood I grew up in was either lower class white or Aboriginal families. There was a couple of migrant families, a Chinese family, South-Asian family, but the majority of people were Aboriginal or white. So, that was the sort of demographic element to it. In one sense I think it is possible, and I remember a feeling of, a common set of experiences and conditions in our lives and real, meaningful friendships, but also a clear situation that all of this was overlayed with or inseparable from structures and relationships of race and racism.
And I guess I am unsure how to speak of the neighbourhood, the things I’ve been talking about earlier and so on, as something that gave expression to commonality, to difference, but also to division. As one example, how does that set of experiences of a common material deprivation, a lack of access to social wealth, how did the negotiation of that, both in terms of maybe not always overcoming, but composing relationships, grapple with and sometimes overcome racism, or at least overcome division and the relationships that reproduce racism? What was the positive productive side of that where commonality in difference superseded division, at least from how I understood it? But also, the other side of that which was how were those relationships also characterised by racism and reproduced racism and division? So, there's that kind of internal question about how did we, the people that were living there navigate all of that and then also on top of that how did the state and policy in all of these sorts of things bear upon all of us within that neighbourhood, but in different ways?
And one other thing I’m interested in with this question, is how people who don't have clear anti-racist ideas or an anti-racist conception of themselves, in a way that's maybe legible among ‘political’, ‘educated’ and ‘progressive’ milieus, but who live everyday lives that are far more complex and sophisticated around negotiation or interactions around relationships of race and the construction of race due to the conditions in which they live, negotiate and grapple with race in contradictory ways.
For example, thinking of Mum and Tony who in times of more tension or when arguments with neighbours might have happened, have said things that were racist. They didn’t hold these views in general, and I’m not excusing what they have said and not denying that it had real impacts. But at the same time, they lived a life deeply entwined with these neighbourhoods, all the people there, the families, and the resistance to the policing and so on with Aboriginal families, and who were at times supporting each other in prison. So, in many ways, I think there's something in those experiences, those acts that come through living together in difficult circumstances, that kind of challenges whiteness in a more material way than say some of the theorising of whiteness from, say, white academics who aren't in immediate material relationship with non-white folks, poverty, and who weren’t part of those practices of sharing and solidarity for survival we spoke about earlier.
And yet, while its obvious that I lived in a household which didn't produce the poverty and the difficulty of the neighbourhood – my household was not responsible for all of us being poor and policed, that’s clear. But my household was closely related to bringing police into the neighbourhood in a number of ways, at a higher rate than might otherwise have been the case. My household increased the policing in the neighbourhood, we were very well known to the cops and so on. And to flip that around once again, throughout all of that, as far as I know, DOCS were never that concerned about us as kids within that household, apart from when perhaps there was a possibility of both our parents going to prison at the same time. And juvenile detention was never something that seemed to come near any of the things I was doing, there was never any intervention that looked like me or my white friends would go to juvenile detention. But Keelong juvenile detention centre was right there in Unanderra, and for friends of mine who were Aboriginal, not all of my friends but all of the friends I had that went there were Aboriginal, and it was a material reality in the lives of those friends of mine and us. So, it’s clear that the way in which you were drawn into the carceral system, beginning within childhood, was racialised and that was clear even then.
So, it's one of those things where you look at what's going on in the neighbourhood, you look at the particular role my own household played in bringing cops into the neighbourhood, and still that immediate threat of DOCs or juvenile detention was not there for us as white kids. Whereas, as I say, I remember a bunch of friends and others who regularly would be away from school and then they'd be back and there’d be stories about Keelong. It wasn't like this thing that was removed from our everyday conversations at school or in the neighbourhood, it was much more present than prisons were really, because it's a juvenile version of that and we were juvenile at the time.
N: So, how close were your relationships with Aboriginal youth and what did you learn from them about their situation? Also, how did that anti-racism, that solidarity you’ve mentioned operate?
M: There was a lot of friendship and solidarity amongst many people, within that neighbourhood. At least that’s how I remember it, while trying to be aware that I might just be not clocking all sorts of shit that other people were clocking because of race. The most fundamental point of reference for that is the ongoing friendships that we had in those times and went beyond those times. That doesn't mean that there wasn't tension and at times conflict that sometimes was clearly expressed along racial lines and you saw this play out sometimes in the street, at school or at the back gate of school, in terms of how arguments and fights maybe took place, why fights took place, and there was a certain racism that produced explicit conflict or violence. Then at the same time, that was undermined and overcome through friendship and relationship by people who were living there.
Beginning with myself, friendships, and how close were we, I would say really close. Because we all lived in close proximity with each other, spending time and sharing space. On Leonard Street and Sampson Crescent all my immediate neighbours were Aboriginal families, next door, across the road. Next-door was Sue and Geoff, and their kids. Sue and Geoff and Mum and Tony were pretty good friends and earlier I was talking about sharing stuff, and how we would borrow a car, well it was usually Geoff and Sue who would share their car, that we would borrow, or vice versa when we had a car and they didn’t. Their kids were all quite a bit younger than me, so in some respects it was more like looking after them, more than being peers. Across the road there was two families I was closest with, especially the Campbells and Walkers, and I was friends with other families in the neighbourhood. And many of us were all similar ages, in the same year or one above one below, and often in the same class at school, from like year 2 to year 10. So, we'd walk the back gate and so on and play football or cricket in the street or marbles or whatever. We would hang out at school, after, and so on. Later smoke or drink in the park at the train station or round the ways. Same with friends from the Cres and that. It was just a thing to do.
To try to give an example of how this played out in simple and complex ways, even as kids and teens. It was one of those funny things, sometimes at school there would be games of football or whatever and maybe this gives you a sense of what the population of the school is like, we would play Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal teams at lunch or recess. To my recollection there wasn’t any hostility within that, well maybe between some individuals, but not in the basis of how we organised the teams – it was just there’s an acknowledgement of racial difference and a way to organise teams. There’s no overcoming that in the world that we live in, so it’s not like ‘Oh well we’re all just in the same condition, same histories and experiences’, instead there’s an acknowledgement of it, but the acknowledgement of it and the way in which that engagement plays out was not only in division. It looks like a division as two teams, but it was a way of playing with and negotiating those differences that are imposed on your lives, so it’s a way of constructing friendship, I think, via difference. It’s a way of constructing relationship which acknowledges difference in a context, in the colony, that really tries to produce division more than solidarity. And the reason I say I don’t remember this as based in hostility, as we were all friends – it would all be laughing and fun, and then just going back to class afterwards.
What did I learn? A lot about where we were, not necessarily about Yuin Country so much, but about what it meant to live in those neighbourhoods. Another way you learn stuff is that you learned racism through the questions of other people about the conditions of your neighbours, so often you get asked ‘what are those kids like’ or ‘what are these people like’. That’s not so much an answer to what I learned from my Aboriginal friends, but more like there's a question about proximity to certain neighbourhoods that gives you an insight into racism, into the racialized and racist ways of how things are framed and structured, and of course this is about class as well.
In terms of the solidarity question, I think that takes place in various ways. Even just in friendship, like that I felt part of a group or community and that community was the neighbourhood and being a part of that. You’re so young as you enter into a social world, so for me growing up, I wasn't within Aboriginal families, obviously not within culture, but I feel like it was a very big privilege in so many ways to have those friendships from such a young age and to learn from all the people that you meet, the survival and struggles of people not only in those neighbourhoods but who are also struggling against racism and colonisation. A lot of it comes, again, through the sharing of things, whether that's time, or food, or weed, just sharing shit, and there not being a currency to it beyond sharing and being there.
The other side, and not specifically within the neighbourhood but just in Australia in general, I guess is being drawn into conversations because you're white with other white people that invite you into racism. You’re assumed to wanna participate in that and I hope that I refused that. So, perhaps in that sort of way maybe there's a sort of solidarity, where it’s about who you find yourself with when shit starts to go wrong, or when the rules start to impose themselves, and they want to divide you up, or when racism manifests. Like, where do you put yourself, on which side, and who are you standing with when that happens? Through the experiences of my friendships and time in Bomaderry I think I learned where to stand.
As I'm saying this, memories are coming back about hanging out up at the skating rink, or in the car park at the skating rink. You walked through the bush from where I lived to get there and there was someone from school who was with us, not from the neighbourhood, and when we got there he said something stupid and racist. A friend, J, he's a black fella, heard him and came over and was confronting him about it. That's one example where I was walking with someone who said something fucked, and it provoked this scenario. It's one way in which all of these messy relationships can come together and manifest in violence in terms of the language that was used in the first place and then become another form of violence in terms of where those encounters can go. In this instance, J just basically put this guy on notice.
Then my proximity to that, as a white person. And you know, the person who said it would probably nowadays be thought of as white. But this is twenty-five or twenty-six years ago and he got a lot of shit at school, would be called a ‘wog’ at school. I'm not excusing what happened that night in the carpark, but his own relationship to whiteness was not clear cut. He wasn't a ‘skip’, well we called ourselves and were called ‘gubbas’, 'cause that was more the language that we used in those neighbourhoods. But from the perspective of many white people, he wasn't like a white person either at that point in time. So, there’s an order of whiteness playing out in all of that too and that’s another way in which that shit comes to a head in all sorts of ways.
And it is worth mentioning that Bomaderry and Nowra are towns with a far-right, fascist presence. Nazis ran a tattoo parlour not far off the main street in town, the Fourth Reich was very present in various ways. Not far off the main street in Bomaderry, one of them had a Swastika tiled into the fucking front doorstep of their house. I think most people saw these fascists as the violent, racist, pieces of shit they were. But, it was an area in which a kind of poor, white resentment was present, as was a more explicit far-right and fascistic politics, and that can’t be ignored. Struggling against each of these iterations of whiteness was important, as both are forms of violence, sometimes extreme.
Racism and whiteness in these contexts obviously occurs in these everyday confrontations, while also being connected to broader historical and structural problems. And while I’ve said I hoped I learned where to stand with regard to racism and whiteness as I think many people did, you also can’t just choose out of it, you are implicated and participate in it all the time, even if not always through individual fault as such, but through structural or social relations. And you can only work to refuse your part in this with your actions and practices.
So, going back to the idea of solidarity, I dunno, I guess the kind of everyday, ordinary practice of it, is less about a declaration than it is a long lesson in learning how and where to be or act, and with who. I think many people in these neighbourhoods are constantly grappling with this, in both good and bad ways, ways that work and ways that don’t. I’m not saying everyone does that well or that I’ve personally done that well, but I think that is the lesson and it is one that extends beyond those neighbourhoods too. I like to think there is a lot to learn about solidarity and a lot of potential to overcome racism and abolish whiteness in the messy everyday acts that happen in conditions of adversity and deprivation, despite the fact they are not only less visible but less legible to many capital-P political, academic, or policy frameworks or whatever.
The next post is the final part of the interview with Mark, it covers the themes of the morality of crime, crime as a form of rebellion, and crime in relationship to class struggle and power.