Monday, May 16, 2011

Neither consumerism nor carbon taxes: Bob Pringle's vision for a new society and a new city

I'm just back from a couple of days spent in the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra, looking at papers relating to the 'green bans' that took place in Sydney during the 1970s.

Inside the Noel Butlin Archives, ANU, Canberra...

For those who don't know about them, the green bans were actions in which extraordinary alliances of resident action groups and workers from the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation worked together to block a number of major developments across the city. The developments which were banned threatened open space, affordable housing, and architectural heritage (among other things). The green bans involved a range of practices - strike action and industrial sabotage, secondary boycotts and bans, squatting, the construction of barricades, the formation of alternative plans, protest meetings and marches, and much more. Before the bans were finally broken ('s a long story!!), it was estimated that around $3 billion of development in Sydney was being held up by this kind of action.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the first green ban at Kelly's Bush, Nicole Cook and I have organised a session called 'Remembering the Green Bans' at the June conference of the Institute of Australian Geographers. Our agenda is to try to remind folks about these extraordinary events, and to think about their on-going relevance for urban policy and politics in Australian cities beyond the usual 'heritage' angle that has come to be celebrated as the years have passed. In my paper, I'm trying to think on the lessons of the green bans for current efforts to re-imagine the possibilities of urban politics (there's some initial reflections along these lines in recent and forthcoming pieces for City). And so, I've hit the archives in order to get more of a sense of how the bans were conducted and justified at the time by the participants.

Anyways, among the many great finds on this trip, I came across an article called "Consumerism: it’s no way to a new society" by Bob Pringle (b. 1941, d. 1996), published in the National Times on 18 October 1976. Pringle was President of the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation during the green ban period. By the time he wrote this piece, he'd been expelled from the Union by rivals in the Federal Executive (along with Jack Mundey and several others who were prominent in the NSW BLF leadership during the green ban period).

I've reproduced the article in full below because I think it's an extraordinary piece of writing. There's a little bit of analysis after the piece if you make it that far. Enjoy!

Consumerism: it’s no way to a new society
Bob Pringle

Supply and demand, the first commandments of capitalism, have been discredited as absolute values, BOB PRINGLE argues. We have created a monster, ruined our environment and wasted human resources on frivolities.  Mr Pringle suggests we harness the beast and work it efficiently for a new master – the needs of society.

The purpose of the application of economics should be to distribute the overall product of society in the most efficient and humane manner for the mutual benefit of all the people who make up that society. This is not the way economics is being applied in Australia today.

If we accept that the major question facing the whole human race is whether or not we can survive into the twenty-first century, then we must question whether we can continue to consume at an every-increasing rate the finite energy and resources of the world; whether we can continue mindlessly to pollute the air, sea and waterways; and whether we can continue to distribute the available food in the present inefficient and wasteful way.

And in questioning these essentials we must also examine whether all present productivity is beneficial to society and whether to increase it is not, in fact, destructive.

It is not in the best interest of society to accept the theory that the only way to cure unemployment is to increase consumer demand, thereby increasing productivity.

We would consider it quite made if in a hypothetical village society the people threw their effluent into their drinking water; threw away their drinking cups and fluid containers after only one use; made everything so frail that it broke or wore out quickly so that people would continually have to buy new ones; and threw people out of their houses to live under the trees while they built other houses that no one would live in – all for the purpose of increasing consumer demand, the gross domestic product and to keep the population working at an ever-increasing intensity.

And yet we readily accept comparable insanity as part of the normal running of our society. Based on the pretext that it is good for the economy to stimulate demand, it follows that any increase in demand requires an increase in productivity to supply that demand.

But the pretext itself requires examination. It is arguable – and indeed it is my own view – that what is deliberately created is a false demand that is both socially and environmentally destructive.

Is it not creating false demand to use all the tricks of psychology in advertising to psych great masses of people into buying products in most attractive packages? Is it not false demand to produce plastics to wrap up tomatoes, corn (which has its own natural cover) and other vegetables?

Is it not false demand to produce paper cups, cardboard cartons, plastic containers and glass bottles which are thrown away after only one use? Is it not false demand to produce paper tissues which are thrown away after a wipe of the nose? Is it not false demand to produce motor cars, washing machines, stoves and other so-called durables in such a way that they fall apart after a very short life of usefulness?

Was not the classic of false demand the so-called building boom of the 1970s when hot money poured into this country because the Australian national interest rates were high at a time when interest rates in the UK and US were low, and people were thrown out of houses to make way for office blocks that to this day stand empty?

Is it not also a form of mass insanity for a multitude of individuals to project themselves from Point A to Point B and back again each day in a ton of metal, plastic and rubber when they can collectively make the same journal using less resources?

Is it not false demand for the energy and resources that produce all this garbage which is clogging up our cities? And is it not all this productivity that makes humankind so destructive to the natural environment?

I don’t believe that the working people of this or any other nation should accept that this is the most efficient and humane way to run society, particularly if their own interests are to be served.

I question just how much affluence the collective working people of Australia have gained from the productivity of the 1960s and 1970s when the Henderson Report shows that 1.5 million people are living below the poverty line. And while some individuals may have temporarily gained in material terms in the 1970s, the collective has in fact lost in social terms of having time to do more than just go to work to get the money to buy bread, to give them the strength to go to work, to get the money to buy the bread…

Figures show (Table 1) that the average of hours worked per week increased over the 10 years from 1963, which means that a decade of technological advancement meant a loss in terms of leisure time of workers.

The leveling-off of the figures in 1974 and the gain in 1975 in terms of leisure time is in fact a false gain, because it has been achieved only by that section of the workforce which continues to be employed and because others have been put out of work. As a result of unemployment, consumer demand has fallen so that machines are working at a lower capacity, there is less productivity and less hours are being worked.

Not only has increased technology meant a gain of nothing in leisure hours, it has also meant an increase in intensity of work performed by each employed individual (Table 2). At one end of the scale is the building industry with its subcontract system, and the car industry where increased work intensity has been achieved through speed-ups of the assembly line which means working under increased pressure.

At the other end of the scale, as on the waterfront and in the sugar industry, increased work intensity has been achieved through mechanization. But the overall gain to the worker has been zero.

In environmental terms, this increased and intensified productivity of the 1960s and 1970s has meant larger mountains of waste disposal, increased pollution of the air, sea and waterways, and wasted use of our energy, resources and labour effort.

In social terms, as with the office-block building ‘boom,’ it has meant – particularly in Sydney – the breaking-up of communities, the destruction of historic buildings, cultural centres and hotels and the desecration of parkland, not to mention the pressure on individuals through increased production and increased travelling time, further adding to the length of the working day.

So should we now jump back mindlessly on to the treadmill and accept that the workers’ lot will forever be just live to work? Isn’t there – or shouldn’t there be – such as thing as the right to work to live?

I believe there should be, and I believe we should not accept the notion of just work for work’s sake or of productivity for productivity’s sake.

I believe there is an urgent need for a re-examination of priorities to establish what productivity is socially necessary and what work is socially useful. If the basic philosophy of the economies of our society is supply and demand, as we are told, then let us establish what is the REAL demand as against that which is false or manipulated demand, then share that work which is necessary to meet that supply. For instance, right through the office block boom of the 1970s the real demand was – and still is – to house the 30,000-odd people on the Housing Commission’s list in NSW, as well as for schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

This would mean the abolition of such things as inbuilt obsolescence, useless packaging and other forms of wasted energy, resources and labour effort.

I believe the interests of society and the working people would be better served if the trade-union movement were to adopt a social conscience and join with interested groups to bring this about, and at the same time to campaign effectively for a 35-hour working week or less, based on sharing socially useful and necessary work, and permanency with a guaranteed annual wage so that work can be distributed as equally as possible.

The alternative is to go, cap in hand, asking just for more work at any cost. Permanency of employment in this context would be organized on an each-industry basis, with available work distributed on a rostered system. This would provide a day-to-day knowledge of the exact number of people seeking work, industry by industry, so that flexible working hours could be negotiated on a share-work basis as production slackened off or increased.

Those who believe this utopian will be interested to know that rostered pick-up centres and guaranteed annual incomes exist with the waterside workers and seamen, and that rostered pickups exist to my knowledge in some sections of the mining industry, ship’s painters and dockers, shipwrights, metal tradesmen and ironworkers on the waterfront, some sections of the building industry in America and Canada – and were it not for the Federal takeover of the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers Federation, it would exist now for builders’ labourers in this State, or at least in the Sydney metropolitan area.

I believe that economic theory should either bend to cater for the needs of the people or be cast aside – the people should not be made to bend or (as is the case with 1.5 million on the poverty line and 264,000 registered unemployed) to be cast aside to cater for the whims and fancies of the economic theorists.

I don’t believe that society simply needs more work. I believe what we need to do is to share meaningful jobs so that every individual can live a dignified existence.

TABLE 1: Average hours worked per week, including overtime

1963                        42.3 hours
1964                        42.8
1965                        (n.a.)
1966                        43.0
1967                        43.1
1968                        43.4
1969                        43.6
1970                        43.5
1971                        43.2
1972                        42.9
1973                        43.1
1974                        42.0
1975                        40.6

(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

TABLE 2: Productity per person employed, (using 1968-69 as the base, 1000)

1962-3                        840
1963-4                        867
1964-5                        899
1965-6                        925
1966-7                        947
1967-8                        971
1968-9                        1000
1969-70                      1037
1970-1                        1069
1971-2                        1083
1972-3                        1103
1973-4                        1147

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics


Great, right? I don't want to say too much here. I just love the way in which Pringle brings together class and environmental politics in his analysis of wasteful consumerism. This is a critique of consumerism which doesn't wag a condescending finger at individual consumers for their materialism, or urge us to buy new lightbulbs to save the world. Instead, Pringle seeks to establish the relationship between wasted resources associated with consumer capitalism and wasted effort/labour.

What's most exciting to me in this piece is how Pringle develops a response to environmental concerns that actually seeks to make everyone's lives better by reducing the amount of work they have to do. He argues that reducing wasteful consumption also ought to be a matter of reducing wasteful production. The benefit of tackling the issue in this way is that if you reduce production, you reduce work. If the work that remains is shared equally, then we would all be working less, and our work would be more meaningful because we'd producing only that which is needed.

This is a vision which goes way beyond many of the currently-dominant efforts to 'manage the consequences of climate change' through technocratic solutions like carbon taxes or technological fixes like energy efficient lightbulbs. Indeed, encountering this in 2011, it stands out as a strong contrast to some of the contemporary post-political and cynical approaches to urban sustainability that folks like Eric Swyngedouw and Mark Davidson have documented. It's a political vision for a serious re-organisation of our urban and regional economies.

For Australian readers, it also offers a great alternative to our current Gillard Labor Government's emphasis on the 'dignity of work'. In the Government's vision, growth - in jobs, in productivity, in wealth - is beyond question. But as Pringle emphasises, while being in work is important, surely we ought to be questioning the kind of work that is being done, the conditions in which it is carried out, and the environments that it produces? You can really see how his argument emerges from his experiences as a builders labourer and unionist ... the anger at both the things that he and his fellow BLs were expected to build, and the conditions in which they were expected to build them is palpable.

More from the archives soon!

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