Oral history as politics


Weevils at Work: What's happening to work in Australia? An oral record
By Wendy Lowenstein
Catalyst Press
240pp., $24.95 (pb)

Review by Gerry Harant

In 1978, Wendy Lowenstein published an oral history of the 1930s depression called Weevils in the Flour. It became a landmark in Australian oral history and is still being used in university and college courses.

With 40,000 copies sold, that book, and Lowenstein's later oral histories (Under the Hook and The Immigrants), demolished the elitist academic notion that "workers don't read".

Twenty years later, Lowenstein has produced Weevils in the Workplace, based on five years of travelling the continent to record the voices of working people from across the social spectrum.

There are some fundamental differences between the first and latest books. While the first had survivors reflecting on traumatic experiences some 35 years in the past, the latest relates to the here and now.

While the first was recorded in the late 1970s, the end of a period of relatively benign capitalism in Australia, and described the descent into deep depression in earlier times, the latest book relates to a decline from apparent stability and affluence into poverty, despair and uncertainty.

Nevertheless, there are sufficient parallels to invite comparisons.

In 1932, Sir Otto Niemeyer, representing the Bank of England, insisted that Australia cut wages, reduce the deficit and slash welfare spending; this would restore prosperity. Predictably, these measures to shore up profits made the crisis for working people far worse. Niemeyer could have been writing the speeches of present-day economic gurus and the policies of current governments.

In the 1930s, "dole-bludgers" were under attack; only they weren't called that (the dole wasn't introduced until later). "Work for the dole" was called "sustenance" and ruined the health of many people forced into heavy manual labour.

As illustrated in some of Lowenstein's interviews, then, as now, blaming the victims was a pastime of not only the rich, but some fellow workers.

Lowenstein's books aren't about the economy in the sense which pervades the media today. They are about the men and women, young and old, who are at the receiving end.

There, too, we find parallels between the two periods: individuals hard hit by their inability to fulfill the roles into which they have been slotted by society.

We also find unfortunate differences, however. The workers of today seem far less equipped to cope with aspects of their oppression. Support structures have largely disappeared: the corner shop which gave credit, the union, the solidarity of the streets, the extended family, a pervasive Communist Party.

Nevertheless, not all is gloom and doom. The interviews in Lowenstein's latest book are disheartening only to those who hanker after a stable and prosperous capitalist society (as if this had ever existed).

There are some success stories. Charlie, the Hobart Tip Shop coordinator; Michael and Richard who work with the Glenorchy Evergreens, a group of older workers supplementing their unemployment benefits with odd jobs; Russ and Eric from the old Dynavac, which, over 20 or so years, has proved that, even within a capitalist framework, cooperation is more effective than authoritarian management; community activists who realise that self-esteem comes not from recognition by the "respectable" segment in society, but from living within a community.

Again and again, the innate intelligence of the working-class comes through. With the insights gained from experience, workers — employed and unemployed — analyse the incompetence of managers, expose the destructive ideology behind managerialism and nail the waste and inhumanity of the system.

Weevils at Work shows that oral history is not a simple matter of talking to a variety of people. It is the result of a meticulous selection and editing process.

The questions have been cut to a minimum and small paragraphs in italics explain the environment in which the respondents found themselves. The result is a coherent story which is not contained in any one of the contributions but is sketched out in an introduction.

Weevils at Work is a political statement. Lowenstein is clearly motivated by an anger which will be felt by every reader of this book — anger at the way humanity is destroyed by the system and its brokers, the way good people are ground into the dust, the way the environment is damaged. And for what?

This anger strikes at the intellect, which can't cope with the misuse of humanity's opportunities. But it also touches the heart, which goes out to oppressed humanity everywhere.