Wageless Living, Class Composition, Resource Scarcity, and Time Abundance
Mark: Part 3 of 5
Here we discuss how the experiences of the criminal and informal economies outlined in the previous two posts relate to a consideration of class composition and class struggle. Stories from the neighbourhood are told in connection with things like wageless life and class struggle, exclusion from the wage, forms of capitalist discipline to control the wageless, and how life outside of the wage can be a time and practice of resistance and a kind of wealth in itself.
Nick: We'll come back to this stuff too and keep looking at it but taking a bit of a different tack in relation to some of the other things you flagged, which are all interconnected obviously, so work, wages, welfare, relations to money and the black economy, criminal relations to money, and other types of wealth and possessions. In what ways was that important, or how do you remember that playing out?
Mark: When we first started getting this idea, I remember thinking about class, class relations, and what is a class subjectivity and the way in which the wage relation seems to be so central to how we think about class. And often how in political milieus we’re in, wages are this key point of reference, which they are for a reason. But I was also struck by how, in my own experiences back then, how absent the wage was from people’s lives. It didn't seem to factor into what people were concerned about. Because most people didn't have one, and so the access to stuff came by other means, and this gives you a different sense of time, and all sorts of things.
So, at the time, I found this feeling of being stuck in the neighbourhood a little bit claustrophobic, but again that might just have been getting older and wanting to get out of the neighbourhood. But as I have said earlier, there were a lot of things that meant it could also be awesome there. And one of those things was it felt like many people/the neighbourhood had their own sense of time – a slower moving time shaped by the neighbourhood itself. You got pulled out of this time to be involved in other things, as in school for example. Obviously, it starts at 9 and it finishes at 3 or 3:30, and so the kids in the neighbourhood would be drawn into that time, that rhythm of the day, the day being punctuated by school hours. But that felt like something that happened outside the majority of households, outside the neighbourhood – it felt like that rhythm was outside of the neighbourhood, and the neighbourhood wasn’t integrated with it. It wasn't like people getting up going to work, going to some other part of town for most of the day to earn their money, and then coming back.
I noticed this when I eventually got a job - you get up and you go to work and you see other people doing the same sort of thing out in the town, the town comes to life. You can kinda see where a part of that sort of worker identity comes from, by being the bodies that make all of that happen. But where I grew up that wasn't really what happened, and you didn't have that sense of being a part of what was around you. One of the reasons was because of the lack of a wage, the lack of a need to go and do this, or the exclusion from it, depending how you look at it.
The thing that punctuated the morning at my house was the phone ringing for people to come round and usually score and having to get to the methadone clinic before it shut at 9:15am. While there was an overarching commonality around a relationship to Centrelink, which would be the other main thing that people in the neighbourhood shared, this was all sort of before work for the dole took off, and I think quite a few people would have been on the pension anyway, by which I just mean that you didn’t have to leave to perform activities to keep the dole.
So, having that experience and not having a wage, not having work, and then alongside that and, maybe this is skewed 'cause of the particular house I was in, but some version of crime was on the side of that. So, for my folks it was not really on the side, but for many other people there was some sort of informal economy, whether that was making shit and selling it from your front yard for example, my friend Jeff his dad did that for a bit, making concrete bird baths to sell from the yard, and got in trouble because the Housing Commission wouldn’t let you do that. Or other people that would come around to our house would often have been involved in some kind of small-scale house robberies, or just other ways to get wealth. There was almost this whole other world unto itself and obviously if you're stealing shit it has to be coming from somewhere, so there's some conception of where you could get shit from, for example. Or for example in my own case, stealing beer kegs from the beer factory which we used to do pretty regularly. So, again, we didn't have money really to buy things, but you knew where shit was that you could just take when you needed it.
N: One of the things that you mentioned in relation to that, and you brought up specifically as a question, was the connection between resource scarcity and time abundance. You have talked about how time discipline via the wage was largely absent, which meant that there was this time abundance, but at the same time without a wage there was resource scarcity, unless you went out and got what you needed. Did you want to say more about that?
M: Again, it's hard to think about things sometimes in hindsight, 'cause I feel like I remember two things - one is the claustrophobia of the neighbourhood in itself and that time abundance often meant being bored and that boredom isn't always a good thing. So, having that sort of boredom and that time abundance didn't necessarily feel good was one part of that experience.
But, at the same time, also still enjoying it, feeling good about being ‘outside’ of things, and still having nostalgia for this time of less discipline from a workplace and a wage, especially when I stopped being like a full stoner and used that time a bit differently, like reading and doing all sorts of things. So, it was contradictory, there was like an element of boredom and an element of wanting to escape it and not get caught, like stuck in it, like it was quicksand. We always used to joke about the ball and chain of Bomaderry and how you never really escape. It’s funny, I still joke about how I moved from Bomaderry to Wollongong to Sydney to Guangzhou back to Sydney to Wollongong, is the next one back to Bomaderry?
But also, that time abundance, that lack of wage discipline and productivity discipline led to lots of other good things, like people self-educating around cars, or people having bands. There were kids who lived a few doors up who I became friends with, and they were part of punk bands that used to come play up here at the Wollongong Youth Centre and so on. So, that, or just going to the bush, going swimming, or when I got into reading, reading what I wanted to read, and doing things but not ever feeling like you had to do them. That's a good thing and in a way still something I think I have.
I don’t feel like I really suffer from a lack of a productivity impulse or a concern about being ‘productive’. Like I don’t really care about whether I’m being productive or not, in the sense that I need to be doing something that is legibly productive, I don’t feel I need to demonstrate a productivity in my life. You know, I think you can just do your thing and be doing your thing in collaboration with other people and that is in itself its own worthwhile thing to be doing. I think that comes from, in part, not ever having to suffer through the discipline of your olds going to work and your olds going on and on about how you have to get a future, otherwise what's the value of the present? I did not ever have that pressure.
And I haven’t really mentioned my dad, who I have always had a really good relationship with. Throughout these years he was living in a little shack with no electricity which was kind of like this magic place for me, so when I visited him it too was also this other world, out of sync with the productive rhythms of capital.
In the few times when my granddad was like ‘you don't want to be like your parents’, even then I was like well I don't want to be doing what mum and Tony were doing, but I also don't want to go get a job and do what I’ve done now, become what I have become, like someone working full time in a uni. So, even when granddad would say that I remember mainly being sort of repulsed by it.
In a way that's a great luck and privilege, like it's a good thing not to really feel that way ever, to never feel like what you are doing isn’t already enough. The only thing that's bad about it now is I feel like I work better in that scenario, like I do things way better when there's no externally imposed deadline or framework that I need to check off, no other structure of discipline that you don’t make for yourself or with friends etc.
N: Is that because you’re resisting that discipline?
M: I guess so. I honestly think my brain works better when I'm not thinking about or stuck in a context shaped by managerial and performance measures. I also have quite a lot of weird self-doubt. It's like I have to meet these external measures and things and I probably won't do that well or properly.
There is a resistance to those measures too, like if I feel like something in my job is counter to my co-workers and my own interests, then I’ll be like I don't wanna do that so I'm not going to do that. But I would be lying if there wasn't a little bit of on-going impostor sort of thing, where it's just like not being from that world where I work. It’s weird to think about where you're from, where you belong, who knows where, not there, not there. I don’t know, not the neighbourhood anymore, not where I work either.
But coming back to the resource scarcity question and getting what you needed. I guess it is worth mentioning how much shoplifting there was. And I don’t mean just a little bit here and there, but like a lot and my mum was really good at it and she would often do a significant amount of the shopping for the 7 of us in the household by shoplifting from Woolworths. She had this denim jacket, and other clothes that she was really good at loading up with all sorts of food. Maybe this is not something everybody did, but it wasn’t like exceptional either.
And when some of my friends started getting jobs at, it was called Big Fresh at the time, I guess that was Franklins or something before that, that was another way of getting things really cheap. For example, Crow worked in the deli or butcher part of Big Fresh, and another friend worked on the cash registers, and so you could line it up with them to get lots of things for very little money just by ringing things up for way cheaper than they were, like weighing a sausage and printing the price barcode sticker but then sticking it on a bunch of steaks that were wrapped in the paper. Or just not scanning things at the cash register end of things. Me and my friends would do it, but also Crow’s mum too. So, there were practices like these as well.
On some level, maybe this is just what everybody does, I don’t know but I feel like it had a sort of significance related to resource scarcity and also some of that solidarity we were talking about earlier.
N: One of the things we were keen on talking about was how we understand these things in relation to class struggle and class composition. So, this is going to be a big question but let's start on it, how do you think the things that we're talking about relate to understandings of class, your own understanding of class, other people’s understandings of class, how you developed an understanding of class, how that’s changed, however you want to address it?
M: It's so contradictory and hard to piece apart, in terms of class composition I will follow on from the wages question, then maybe we can go back to the more biographical stuff. There’s this large layer of people who are living a life which is not dominated by the wage, still dominated by money and that sort of rule, you need to have some access to money in order to get things, so money is not out of the equation, but the wage is not really in the equation. And they’re such policed communities and neighbourhoods. So, you don't have this immediate relationship to the wage and that form of capitalist discipline, but you are often running up against other elements of capitalist discipline by the state, whether that's health services, prison, the cops, it can be all of these sorts of things. The way in which those two things come together to produce a class experience of some sort is I think important not only cause these are real people’s lives but also for learning about forms of class resistance and composition, yet that stuff still seems kinda absent from a lot of discussions about class.
There's still often quite narrow discussions around what class is, what shapes class, and other lived experiences of class. That happens within discussions of waged workers as much as anyone else too, like which workers are ‘most important’. We talk about this, but a process of actually engaging with what people’s lived experiences are like and the politics that emerge from those conditions is important. The political backgrounds that we draw from are better at asking those questions than some others. Maybe not better, but at least make an effort to ask those questions, and would begin from those everyday experiences, and everyday antagonisms, and that politics comes from that, rather than taught from outside into that.
I just think it's still interesting that that kind of everyday solidarity in adversity that we were talking about before, and the knowledges, the experiences, the skills and practices, and relationships that come from that, that's not often seen as like a legitimate form of class struggle. That our struggles around, or for, communism can't learn from those, or at least try to understand them. So, there's this group of people that have all of these experiences, but it doesn't really seem to register except as sociology or a Guardian article or whatever.
Then for me, I've experienced this weird process, of having grown up in those circumstances but also cutting them off or cutting myself off from them to an extent. Like for context, I joined the socialist youth group Resistance when I was 17 I think, and at that time I would never have even thought I’d ever go onto a university campus in my life really. Then essentially via Resistance, I did go on to Wollongong uni campus as part of what they were doing, and then about 5 years later I ended up studying there at the uni. This already kind of tells us something about broader questions of class composition that it was even possible for someone like me to go to uni, and the conditions of that possibility. But at a personal level, I don't think I registered at the time that by stepping into this university world I was reproducing this separation between not only myself and the conditions I came from, but that I also stepped into a way of thinking class that kind of devalorised the conditions of struggle I had come from.
I was opening a different kind of world in both good and bad ways, well good and bad is probably not a useful way to frame it, but some weird process of removing myself from the conditions that got me into say communism and Marx as a teenager in the first place. Like when I started reading those books, and in a way it was therapy for me to read Marx and all of these sorts of things, it was a way to take all the shit that was happening in my everyday life and then be able to add another layer of complexity to my understanding of it, but also dissociation from those experiences, and understanding of them. But, this time, to reframe it not so much as like denying that it's going on and just keep pretending it's not happening, and I'll be fine, like I had as a much younger teenager. But more to reframe it like - OK here's this historical arc of social and class struggle, and the everyday shit that happens here in this neighbourhood is a part of this stuff of class struggle and exploitation, and can be understood with the help of these books, and maybe if I get out of here and into this historical narrative, if I can participate in this struggle through (an) ‘organisation’ my life will have a purpose beyond just what is happening here in the housing commission.
But a lot of my thinking also didn't really centre that, didn’t centre those experiences of the neighbourhood, right. My own conceptions of class and my own participation in the socialist left as a teen somehow kind of neglected that history, my history, in its own way and the lessons that I learned in that – it was like the proletariat and communism was still elsewhere, not Bomaderry and definitely not Leonard Street, so I better go find it. That was contradictory, it wasn’t quite as simplistic and stupid as I’ve just made myself sound, but something like that.
I do remember that being in RA (Revolutionary Action) and reading certain things through RA helped to challenge that, to re-find a more complex and accurate way than such a one-dimensional framing of the working class, to connect better my own experiences with a conception of communist struggle that drew from experiences like mine. But at the same time, I remember thinking well there's this complex, layered and contradictory working class, there's no middle class as it is essentially a part of the working class, and there’s the ruling class. I remember that sort of argument, and I still think that in many ways, but at the time I did that in a way that also didn't really valorise that sort of more lumpen experience I’d lived as much as I should have.
The next post picks up on the issues of the lumpenproletariat and underclass life. The consideration of lumpen politics leads into a discussion of race, whiteness and policing, and the real tensions that took shape along lines of race and whiteness. The next post also asks if material practices of solidarity in the neighbourhood were able to challenge and overcome whiteness and racism. It will be posted in about a week.