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You, Me and Gordon
I would strongly suspect that Childe’s first book is the one that is least read by archaeologists today, and for good reason. How Labour Governs: A study of worker’s representation inAustralia (1923) is a critical account of the rise, successes and failings of the Australian Labor Party between 1890 and 1920, and frankly it just isn’t that relevant to most archaeological research. The most likely exception being for those working in Antipodean Industrial Archaeology where it may be of some interest in setting the social background to their fieldwork1. Conor McHale has recently produced a fabulous recruitment poster for the Irish Archaeological Branch of the UniteUnion that features an illustration of Gordon Childe, and that poster was the spur for this short article which considers the relevance of Childe’s early political writing to the modern profession of contract archaeology in Ireland.
How Labour Governs is not a simple historical account of the development of the Australian Labour party. The first half of the book is dedicated to a detailed account of the actions of the Labour Party as a parliamentary organisation that was dominated by;
“politicians [who] could defy the clearly expressed will of the bulk of their supporters and [persisted] in so doing in spite of the decisions of Conference.”
It uses the Australian Labour Party as a case study to examine the problem of how a working class labour movement can attain political power without becoming subject to an autocratic and unrepresentative cabal of politicians and/or bureaucrats. It is clear Childe considered that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Australian Labour Party failed dramatically to resolve this issue.
The second half of the book begins with a description of the origins of unions in Australia prior to the 1850’s, with subsequent sections detailing the different types of unions that existed, the need for specific types of organisation adapted to the needs of the peculiarities of the Australian job market, and the various unsuccessful attempts to bind the separate unions into a nationwide organisation that could be more easily controlled by the parliamentary Labour Party.
The final chapters deal with the rise, fall and subsequent influence of the Industrial Workers of the World. This radical and revolutionary union was founded in America in 1905 and I.W.W. groups were established in Australia by 1907, with an official charter being granted in 1911. Childe declares confidently that;
“The most momentous event in the political industrial history of Australian labour, since the historic decision in favour of political action in 1890, was the establishment of locals of the I.W.W. Nobody has exercised a more profound influence on the whole outlook of labour in Australia.”
The I.W.W. believed that the workers should confront their employers directly, through strikes, protests and sabotage and they had little interest in engaging with existing political structures as they sought to form ‘the structure of the new society within the shell of the old’. Childe had already established why such an approach would find favour with the rank and file of the existing Labour movement who had been given ample reason to be disillusioned with their own representative politicians and he clearly had some sympathy with the organisation. The I.W.W. newspaper Direct Action is referred to repeatedly as “splendid” and “brilliant” whilst the legislation that outlawed the organisation is described as “horrendous”. That Childe was prepared to comment favourably on any aspects of I.W.W. activity in a text published in 1923 is rather astonishing, especially considering that he is quite frank about the later stages of I.W.W. activity which included the assassination of a police officer and a campaign of arson.
The final two chapters end with a discussion of the failed general strike of 1917, which occurred after the I.W.W. had been illegalised and disbanded, the subsequent attempts to establish One Big Union and the resistance to that movement that was spearheaded by the Australian Workers Union. The general strike and the incorporation of all workers organisations into a single union were the I.W.W.’s preferred mechanism for the actual revolution, but Childe expresses his opinion that without the “scientific” leadership offered by the I.W.W. the general strike was ultimately counterproductive. His concluding remarks describe his scepticism that the One Big Union would amount to anything of much worth after it’s reformulation following the conflicts with the A.W.U. and in the absence of I.W.W. leadership;
“While the One Big Union may be realised it will have to sacrifice its revolutionary idealism, and will degenerate into that state of soulless mechanism which seems to come over all Labour activities in the hour of their apparent triumph.”
But what on earth has any of this got to do with you? Good question. This year (2014) a group of archaeologists saw the completion of the first stage in an ambitious plan to unionise the archaeological work force in Ireland. On Saturday the 7th of June the Archaeological Branch of Unite, was officially formed at a meeting in the unions offices in Dublin. There have been two further meetings over the summer and the forth meeting is scheduled for the 8th of November.
Now I’ve joined the Union. This may not seem like a particularly remarkable statement, but for me personally, it really is. I am not a ‘joiner-inner’. In normal circumstances I’m more likely to be found standing on the edges mumbling my disapproval through a cloud of cigarette smoke. I think I joined a Rugby club when I was 7, the Prehistoric Society when I was 23 and Xtra-Vision back when renting DVD’s was something we still did. That’s about it as far as I know, the first incidence of me being a member ended when I was 12 and the other two don’t require me to actually do anything. And yet I’ve joined an actual Union. Like adults do. Shit!
So what’s it all about then? Well firstly it’s about getting a Registered Employment Agreement for the contract archaeological sector in Ireland. An R.E.A. is a clever mechanism that allows for a Union representing a particular industry to negotiate with a representative group of employers to establish an agreed set of pay rates for different employment grades within that industry. Once the levels of pay and the definitions of grades are agreed a submission is made to the Labour Courts. If the Labour Courts agree that the Union is representing a significant proportion of the Industry, and the employers involved in the negotiation are representative of the industry as a whole, it is passed on to the legislature who make the agreement legally binding for the entire industry. This process provides guarantees that staff will be paid according to the rates and grades set out in the R.E.A. and that the employers will be able to pay their staff accordingly without the fear that competitors may ignore the R.E.A. and be able to submit more attractive tenders based on lower wages.
Following the publication of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland’s ‘working group for the review of pay rates’ report earlier this year, and the subsequent ‘Discovering the Archaeologists of Europe 2012-14’ report, we can be fairly certain about where the contract archaeology sector currently stands. Do you remember the film Highlander? It’s been the corporate equivalent of that. One after another renowned firms, good companies with massive resources of skills and knowhow, have folded under the pressure of chasing ever slimmer margins on ever tighter tenders. Employment levels have fallen massively, as have wages for the surviving staff.
So what about Gordon? Well I’m wary of putting words into a dead man’s mouth, but seeing as Conor has already enlisted the support of his ghost, I think there are some points that can be made without getting into controversial territory. Firstly this is not the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. We are not facing the sort of genuine struggles for survival that the lowest paid workers were faced with at the turn of the previous century. Secondly there simply was no contract archaeology sector in Childe’s time. That archaeological work would ever take place at the sort of scale seen during the Irish boom would have been inconceivable, and even when pre development work did take place, perhaps most impressively Grime’s excavation campaign between 1939 and 1945 in advance of war constructions, it involved a small number of professional archaeologists supervising a large crew of labourers.
When Childe moved to Britain for the second time, in the early 1920’s, his initial employment was in a political role and he bounced around between academic and political jobs for several years before settling on academia in 1927. Throughout his academic career he remained politically active, serving on the editorial board of two important Marxist Journals and as a founding member and subsequent Executive Committee member of the Edinburgh branch of the Association of Scientific Workers. As Robin Gollan put it in his review of the 1963 reprint of How Labour Governs for the journal Labour History, “always, as scholar and citizen, Gordon Childe remained a man of the left, who believed in the possibility of a society both rational and good.”
I think he would be horrified at the mess we’ve got ourselves into as an emergent profession. And I think there are some striking similarities between the problems he was writing about 100 years ago and the problems we are facing as an industry today. The principle industries involved in early 20th century unions in Australia were all recent developments that lacked traditional graded career structures, and the ‘bush’ workers at the centre of the matter were itinerant low paid workers that lacked representation and had no job security. How far removed is the situation of Site Assistants and Supervisors from this passage of Childe’s describing the predicament of the bush worker?
“He lives from hand to mouth with the spectre of unemployment ever at his side, deprived of the solaces and distractions provided cheaply in a big city. He has no incentive to thrift, for his position is too precarious; the nomadic life forced upon him prevents the formation of home ties and precludes the possibility of settling down close to a regular job. To such it seems really more sensible to have a good time when they have money than to hoard savings that are sure to be exhausted as soon as the period of slackness comes round, and cannot well be turned to the same channels as those in which the more fortunate class of toiler can invest them. At the same time the nomadic life fosters a spirit of hardihood and self reliance which would not be found in a mere slum proletariat.”
I would suggest that there are some rather obvious similarities. I have commented before on how many times I have relocated since becoming a professional archaeologist, how the constant movement and dislocation becomes extremely wearisome, how constantly being separated from friends and family is an unrecognised hardship and how the general lack of money leads to a ‘fuck it anyway’ attitude towards drinking and drug taking. This seems to be the same complaint Childe is making that the poor conditions of employment affect all aspects of life, and these negative effects extend well beyond simple financial tallies.
Whilst we can point to some general similarities there are clearly some significant differences must be considered too. The Preamble to the I.W.W. Constitution starts with one of the most notorious passages in the history of left wing political writing;
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”Impressive sentiments but not ones that are particularly applicable to our current situation. Our employers certainly can’t be compared to the early 20th century capitalists such as the notorious Copper bosses of Salt Lake City or Calumet Michigan, or the Australian ranch owners, who as Childe himself points out, were at least a noticeably less murderous lot than their American counterparts. In contrast we have many things in common with our employers, we mostly share similar social backgrounds, similar educational experiences and at the very least we have a common interest in archaeology.
Surely the employers would be happy to pay the rates set out in the recent I.A.I. report if they could be certain that doing so would not be harmful to the businesses they have worked hard to create. And that’s the key to the R.E.A.’s; once in place it would be illegal for any firm to pay under the agreed rates and a company found doing so would have to answer to the Labour Courts and would need to present a very compelling case for why they were not abiding by the R.E.A. The companies that will succeed if an R.E.A. is enacted will be those who can devise the most efficient programs of work, those that have retained the most experienced and hard working excavation teams and those which make the best use of new technologies as they become available. That seems a reasonable basis on which a competitive and profitable industry can be run.
I suspect Mr Childe would be firmly in favour of our attempts at organising industrially. When he wrote How Labour Governs he was clearly rather radically inclined. The Childe of the 1920’s would perhaps think that our attempts to resolve our industrial problems are terribly mild mannered, too restricted in our scope and not nearly ambitious enough! Throughout his career Childe continually refined and developed his thoughts on archaeology. Whilst he never wrote a second large tract on industrial relations a series of letters and a paper given on his return to Australia in 1957 allow us to trace a similar progression in his political thought. Some authors have attempted to portray Childe as having abandoned his socialist principles by the mid 1950’s, having become disillusioned with socialism in general and communisim in particular. Certainly his return to Australia caused him to reflect on the current state of that country. Second hand accounts of a lecture he gave to the Australian Book Society in September 1957 have been much discussed over the years, but a published version did not surface until 1990.
In ‘Australia today is far from a Socialist Country’ he seems to be saying that the intellectual culture in Australia wasn't to his personal taste, but he is far from being critical of Australian society. In fact he seems rather impressed, and if the newly affluent masses were more interested in having a good time than more cerebral pursuits, that was their business, not his. He has a similarly pragmatic response to the apparent lack of socialism. He found a prosperous society where some of the main goals of socialism had been achieved, i.e. wealth was reasonably equally distributed and most people had a decent standard of living. If it had been done without moving into proper State sponsored socialism, so be it. At no point does he claim that earlier class struggles had not been influential and important, although the tone of the piece suggests he was surprised at how positively society had been remodelled without the guidance of the radical left. He certainly couldn't have been as alienated from his former allies in the Labour movement as is sometimes suggested; he stayed with Bert Evett the then leader of the Australian Labour Party whilst in Sidney and before leaving Britain he had apparently been planning to present a new edition of Engel's ’Origins of the Family’ with one of the leading figures in British Communism, Rajani Palme Dutt. A lot of things had clearly changed in Childe’s thinking since writing How Labour Governs, but the world had changed dramatically too. Perhaps the older more pragmatic Childe would have been much more sympathetic to our mild cooperative attitude than the younger and more confrontational Childe of the 1920’s. Much has been made, perhaps unfairly given his terminal intentions, of a comment from a private correspondence claiming he had “lost [his] old ideals” by the end of his life. I wonder whether a visit to ‘NAMAland’, other similarly screwed up Western Economies like Portugal, Spain and Greece, would have triggered another re-assessment? What would he make of those countires in the developing world where 50 years of ‘globalism’ can only be seen as an undisputed disaster, or to the success stories like India where a whole hearted commitment to capitalim is triggering phenomenal social changes, many of which are far from positive? Of course we will never know, but movements like ‘Occupy’ and the G8 Protests suggest a growing awareness that there needs to be a counter balances introduced to the free market model. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out the way to organise collectively has long been established, and that unionisation is the key to individuals being able to co-operate effectively in order to improve their own situations.
As for the Archaeology Branch of Unite, well we certainly don’t want to see the companies crushed and we genuinely don’t want an antagonistic relationships with them. Actually we would like to see the companies move back into more stable financial situations, where their long term future is safe guarded. We want to see the companies able to undertake new jobs to the same the excellent standards they were achieving during the boom years and we want them to be around to complete the process of turning previously excavated sites into interesting publications and properly curated archives.
At the same time we want to see the staff finally getting treated as the hard working professionals they undoubtedly are, rather than as some horrible hybrids of junior academics and immigrant fruit pickers created by some erstwhile Dr Moreau in a forbidden basement below the National Monuments Service. The pool of experienced excavation staff that had built up in Ireland during the boom is now sadly diminished. We know many of our former colleagues are away in other countries using the skills and experience gained here to protect and recover the archaeology of their new homes. We also know that many who have remained in Ireland have retrained and, having experienced employment under less deranged conditions, will not be returning to archaeology without a seriously attractive incentive.
As we move out of the recession we will have to rebuild the pool of skilled workers, but this time around we must have more to offer than over priced rented rooms in shitty houses, short term contracts and a few Euro’s a week above the minimum wage. Until we achieve these things we cannot claim to have a mature profession and Ireland will not have the archaeological organisations its fantastic heritage deserves.
If you are working as an archaeologist, were an archaeologist and might be an archaeologist again in the future or are just starting out in a career in archaeology please consider joining the Archaeological Branch of Unite and help us help create a structure that finally meets our aspirations for this unique and important profession.
I would like to thank Conor McHale for allowing me to accompany this article with his brilliant illustrations. Dr Iain Stuart, the aforementioned Australian Industrial Archaeologist, discussed with me at length some of his feelings about Childe’s work and legacy, and the various accounts that have been written about him which have attempted to portray Childe in different lights. I am really grateful for this assistance particularly as it was offered whilst Iain was up to his neck in the tail end of a large and complex excavation.