Labour, work, radical politics. All important parts of Australian history and our contemporary situation. Our question is: what is our task? The answer: we seek to shape and build the future of the Australian nation. The worker, the representative of labour, is the one who must carry out this task. This post is a meditation on labour and the figure of the worker. As is my habit, I begin with a brief philosophical discussion of labour and the worker before I talk about the importance of labourism in Australia’s history and in the contemporary nationalist movement.
The topic of labour is a theme found at the beginning of Western thought. In Plato’s dialogue Symposium, the prophetess Diotima tells Socrates that,
…there are varieties of composition, for the cause by which anything whatsoever passes from non-being into being is composition in general. And so anything that is wrought by any skill whatsoever is a composition, and the artificers thereof are all poets (205B – C).
The discussion hinges on the Greek word “poiesis,” which means both doing and making (“composition”) in a broad sense and the composition of poetry or music in its narrower sense. There are two important ideas to take away from this. First, the idea that all beings, all things, come into being through being made. Second, that the primordial worker unites two aspects of making, art and technique – he is both artisan, or artist, and technician. More primordially rooted than the labourer is the farmer. Heidegger suggested that the model of bringing into being found in work, where the worker shapes matter into a thing by keeping in mind its final form, is based on the organic pattern of the seed which grows towards maturity in its final form as plant or tree. Thus, for Heidegger, human culture is intimately connected to agricultural cultivation and a close connection to nature, and the doing and making of poiesis is derived from the natural being of physis. I will come back to the idea of the unity of art and technology at the end of the post, for now it’s worth looking at the idea of culture arising from cultivation in Australian history through a glimpse of how labour shaped the Australian nation.
The Australian nation really began to take shape in the latter half of the 19th century, culminating in Federation in 1901. The discovery of gold set off the Gold Rush in 1851, bringing many working men into the colonies to try their luck on the goldfields and massively increasing the wealth of the colonies. One of the political results was the strength of the radical politics of Chartism in Australia, which manifested in well-known events like the Eureka Stockade. The Chartist reforms of the franchise for all men, the secret ballot, and payment for members helped to shape our egalitarian culture and allowed for the strengthening of the labour movement, since it was no longer necessary to be independently wealthy to go into politics. It was not just the shape of our political life that emerged from the goldfields though, for there we also had the birth of one of our greatest poets: Henry Lawson. Lawson and Banjo Paterson drew on bush life, pastoralism, and radical working-class politics to shape a Radical Nationalist cultural vision of Australia, one rooted in the very soil of Australia. In Radical Nationalism we clearly see an example of culture arising from cultivation, embodied in the unified movement of working men erecting great monuments out of the Australian landscape. Australian culture organically developed from labourism and must do so again.
So, what sort of labourism can we have now? What can we do? Firstly, we must once again campaign for immigration restriction and the repatriation of foreign labour, as was necessary in the birth of the Australian nation. This is a precondition, too, of Australia’s rebirth. Secondly, we should reconceptualise our work to fit our situation. Sometimes, there may be a sense of pessimism about what Australian Nationalists can achieve, since we’re only a small amount of the overall population with limited resources. If we turn to the ANA, we find a smaller group again. I want to suggest that the solution to achieving things as a relatively small organisation can be found in the idea of the unity of art and technology. The traditionalist economist E.F. Schumacher developed the important idea of “appropriate technology,” which is small-scale and decentralised technology that works on a community, rather than regional or national level, and is based on artisan labour rather than requiring massive industry and capital. If we think about innovating with this eye to the small and beautiful, rather than the gigantic and inhuman, we already have the capacity to achieve a lot.
There’s no getting around it, victory in our nationalist struggle requires work. In the spirit of Radical Nationalism, let’s look to the Australians of previous generations who built the greatest labour movement in the world and get working to create the Australia we want to see!