One of the most special moments you can have as a scholar is for a particular project to irresistibly place itself at the centre of your attention. You think about it, obsess about it, lose sleep over it, sure in the knowledge that you must pursue it wherever it may lead. I was lucky enough to have such a project land in my lap about two years ago, when I first read David Ireland’s 1971 Miles Franklin prize-winning novel The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (hereafter TUIP). Through Progress in Political Economy, I was vaguely aware of the emergent fields of literary geography and literary economy but, beyond dabbling in literary analysis several years previous, that was the limit of my knowledge. I was no literary theorist, still less a geographer. However, it was immediately clear upon that first reading of TUIP that it was a text brimming with geographical insights, and ever since I have taken it upon myself to delve into them. The first fruit of this project is a recently published article in Political Geography, the key themes of which I will introduce in this blog post.
The novel is set at the fictional Puroil oil refinery at Clearwater Bay (based upon the real-life Caltex refinery that operated at Kurnell between 1956 and 2014). The plant dominates the lives of the blue and white collar workers that inhabit it. Whatever their station, Ireland creates a world in which all are less than a whole human, alienated from a “true function” they can never grasp. Ireland paints a simultaneously tragic and darkly comedic vision of post-World War II Australian capitalism, presenting in sharp relief its most reprehensible features: its waste; its environmental damage; its mediocrity; its subjection to foreign interests; and above all its physical and psychic destruction of the workers fed through it. Gelder best describes the result: ‘No other Australian novel has attempted to textualise Australia as a totality in this way; nor has any contemporary Australian novel represented industry and the working class in such rigorous detail’.
However, a very significant element of this totality has been largely overlooked, and that is its geographical dimension. My argument is that, through the vehicle of the novel form, Ireland can actually tell us a lot about the production of the spaces of post-World War II Australian capitalism, particularly insofar as this production is a class phenomenon. This naturally segues to the notion of literary geography, the idea that literature “knows things” about the geography of the society into which it is born. Through literature, authors can paint pictures of how they conceive the spatial structure of their world. Moreover, due precisely to the fact that creative writing is freed from fidelity to a “scientific” truth, authors can push these spatial structures to their limits and reveal their contradictions.
The primary influence on my approach in terms of theory is the radical geography that has been a vibrant perspective on the spatiality of capitalism since the 1970s and 1980s. The essence of this perspective is that the social relations of capitalism matter in terms of understanding space. I particularly wanted to deploy the understandings of “space vs place” in this literature, as it speaks strongly to TUIP.
Through the operation of its own intrinsic drive to accumulate and render the whole world in the raiment of exchange value, capitalism tends to the creation of an abstract, homogenous and unified space within which it can produce and appropriate surplus value. In its most simple and abstract form, the inherent drive of capital to produce and realise surplus value through the production of commodities (M – C – M‘) is completely agnostic as to where those commodities are produced and sold. The drive of the system is towards abstraction and the reduction of meaningful difference between locations to “rational” economic considerations such as cost and profitability. In capital’s ideal world, the necessary concrete phase of production which must separate the two poles of money in the M – C – M’ circuit is determined by these technical points.
As against this tendency, however, living, breathing and thinking people can react, desiring instead to create and preserve a differentiated, specific and meaningful social place within which to live and work (Lefebvre’s “differential space”). The interaction between these two tendencies inscribes itself in concrete spatial forms, producing what Herod describes as “landscapes of capitalism.”
We see this process play out throughout the course of TUIP. Ireland provides a forceful illustration of the circuit of capital:
What was Puroil? In Australia it was a few gardens in which distant proprietors planted money and after a while tangled masses of plants grew, though with no fairy princess inside waiting to be wakened with a kiss. Their financial budgets were larger than the States in which they operated. What was Puroil? At Clearwater it was a sprawling refinery, an army of white shirts, a fleet of wagons, a number of apparently separate companies, dozens of monolithic departments protected from each other by an armour of functional difference and jealousy. On the refinery site it was two hundred and fifty shabby prisoners, a heavy overload of foreman, supervisors, plant controllers, shift controllers, up to the giddy height of section-heads…who were clerks for the technologists; project and process engineers and superintendents who were whipping-boys for the – whisper it! – the Old Man himself, the Manager, who was actually only a Branch Manager and a sort of bum-boy for Head Office in Victoria which was a backward colonial outpost in the eyes of the London office, which was a junior partner in British-European Puroil its mighty self, which was the property of anonymous shareholders (pp. 6-7).
Ireland here wonderfully captures the dialectical relationship between the abstract and the concrete within the spatiality of capital. The passage starts with the symbols of the abstract, the distant proprietors planting gardens from which money will mystically emerge. From there, this money capital must pass through its necessarily productive phase, whereby it is immobilized in the concrete facilities and complex workforce that will power the creation of various grades of oil. Once the surplus value embedded in this product is realised in the form of money, we are returned from this concrete interregnum to the rule of money, with the Australian operation returning it to the anonymous shareholders who were the “distant proprietors” to begin with.
What is interesting is that these alienating and abstracting qualities have a distinct antipodean twist. Australia’s subordinate status within the global division of labour serves to impart real spatial effects. The very structure of the plant reflects the domination of foreign capital. For example, Puroil’s Clearwater refinery is characterised by its dependence on equipment and technologies made overseas. Turbine rotors, power recovery plant, pressure vessels, all the way down to the amenities block – all are designed and/or produced in America and Europe. The very space of the refinery is constructed out of the products of international capital, and it is structured in such a way as to reflect the understandings of that capital. Things are forever going wrong because the plant is not actually adapted to Australian climatic, economic and social conditions. In a particularly revealing insight into the backwardness of Australian industry in the context of this structure, Puroil at one point brings in an old boiler from a battleship sunk at Pearl Harbour in order to supply steam for the new plant. That American technology more than three decades old nevertheless can find productive use in an Australian refinery is a glaring indictment on the state of Australian industry, and one that finds much support from contemporary observers of the manufacturing sector.
Throughout the course of the novel, it is clear that this production of abstract space has a devastating impact on both Puroil workers and on the natural and built environments around the plant. The logic of Puroil informs the spatial arrangement of the working-class suburbs that surround it, which are agglomerated so as to serve the interests of the plant. The space of these suburbs is constantly being invaded by the toxic by-products of Puroil, and the natural environment is so polluted and governed by the logic of capital that it no longer pays to think of it as some kind of pristine space existing outside the circuit of capital. Rather, as per Neil Smith, it is better to conceive of it as second nature, produced out of and governed by capitalist social relations. The power of Ireland’s description I find particularly meaningful, as the spatiality he describes is very similar to some areas of the Illawarra (from whence I hail), particularly two or three decades ago; the working-class suburbs in the shadows of the Port Kembla Steelworks, the cancer clusters, pollutants etc.
Given the horror of Ireland’s description, you might wonder if there is any kick-back from the workers. I think it is important to note that, despite the fact that TUIP is ultimately a pessimistic book, the workers nevertheless attempt to impose their own political economy in the construction of social space. In response to the depredations of Puroil, workers try to generate their own spatial fixes. The most important of these is a project to create and maintain a collective “hole in the wall,” the so-called “Home Beautiful.”
It is difficult to convey the nature and complexity of this place to those who haven’t read the book. It is one of the most remarkable and contradictory settings developed by Ireland across his entire corpus. In a purely physical sense, the Home Beautiful is located across from Puroil, on the opposite bank of the highly-polluted Eel River amidst an extensive mangrove stand. It consists of a hodgepodge collection of huts built largely from pilfered Puroil materials and equipment. Workers are ferried across the river from the Puroil wharves to the Home Beautiful, and there enjoy a retinue of prostitutes and copious quantities of beer.
The founder of the Home Beautiful is one of the novel’s most significant characters, the so-called Great White Father. A highly-intelligent, charismatic and completely unrepentant alcoholic, the Great White Father features as the leader and philosopher of the Home Beautiful. What are his hopes for the Home Beautiful? The answer he gives to this question changes somewhat throughout the course of the novel, but his broad aim can be captured by the following quote: ‘He’d get them pining for the natural state of man. Where they would start to do what they wanted when they wanted; acknowledge no man’s orders simply because they were orders; where women were easy…and where you can always get a drop to drink when you’re dry’ (p. 26).
Most importantly, this desire to provide a relatively simple set of freedoms is from the very beginning allied to a spatial conception of the Home Beautiful as existing outside the circuit of Puroil. It is worth quoting an extract of the Great White Father’s speech given at the official dedication of the Home Beautiful:
‘’What we have to do is make our little hole in the barbed wire and creep out now and again to our hidey hole where we can forget we are born prisoners and will die prisoners, a little place where there are no bosses and no commands, where nothing we say is taken down and used against us…
With the Home Beautiful to come to, life can be made bearable!’’ (p. 36).
From this statement we can gather several things about the Home Beautiful. First, it is specifically designed to be a place regulated by a logic very different to that which governs Puroil. As against the abstraction and alienation of the refinery, the Home Beautiful is a place designed to cater to concrete needs for human contact, intoxication and sex, to be enjoyed without the supervision of managers. Second, this freedom from, and freedom to, is explicitly conceived in spatial terms. The Great White Father’s is a totalising philosophy that sees the refinery, the suburbs and indeed world capitalism as a homogenous space colonised by a universal capitalist logic. Against this totality, escape has to be had to the gaps in this spatial fabric, in the hidey-holes, the little places, the holes in the wall.
Throughout the course of the book, we see that the workers who frequent the Home Beautiful do indeed come to see it as a meaningful social place that gives them the escape and freedom promised by the Great White Father. At its best, the Home Beautiful is thoroughly utopian, erasing not just the depredations of Puroil but also human suffering in general. One of the workers conceptualises nicely the pleasures and possibilities of the Home Beautiful: ‘It was a break…where any little thing you did was for yourself and the boys, and you could see it. It wasn’t for some rich bastards the other side of the world’ (p. 168).
As can be gleaned from this statement, the Home Beautiful appears to the workers not just as a retreat from the evils of Puroil, but a retreat from the global division of labour that structures their exploitation. The Home Beautiful is thus a place in the strict sense – a location vested with differentiated meaning and specificity, as opposed to the abstraction and alienation of Puroil.
Does this mean that the Home Beautiful offers a durable spatial fix to the depredations of capital? Ultimately, Ireland concludes not, due to three inter-related reasons:
- First, the psychic importation of capitalist imperatives in the minds of the workers. It is clear throughout the book that the spatial separation of the Home Beautiful is porous to the mental scars of Puroil. Selfishness at various points rears its ugly head, and at a certain point we see death enter the Home Beautiful, with a special “death hut” added to the collection of buildings.
- Second, the fundamentally undemocratic and passive nature of the Great White Father’s philosophy. At first glance we are tempted to think of the Great White Father as a first amongst equals, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he is more in the mould of a cult leader. He views the denizens of the Home Beautiful as intellectually and spiritually stunted, thinks that they can’t cope with the demands of democracy, and actually naturally desire the kingship of one who orders them to do that which they want i.e him. This is reflected to some degree in the physical layout of the Home Beautiful, which often sees the Great White Father speaking from pride of place to his unwitting disciples. The structure of the space, the additions, even the colour scheme – all are decided by him. It’s also significant to note that the Great White Father’s philosophy is thoroughly fatalistic. He believes that workers will always be on the “arse-end” of life (to use the character’s own terms) and no political ideology can change that. He disavows communism, repudiates the French Revolution, and when called a leader of rebels by a top manager, responds that he is in fact a leader of revels. There is a difference between a space of retreat and an anti-capitalist space, and I argue it is clear that the Home Beautiful is the latter.
- Last, whatever the Home Beautiful is or isn’t, it is threatened with physical destruction. It is clear early on in the novel that the Home Beautiful occupies a marginal space, with the opposite bank having been all but denuded of vegetation as the Puroil facility grows. Towards the end of the book, we appreciate that the peril is imminent, with bulldozers starting to clear mangroves on the Home Beautiful side of the river. The physical space of the Home Beautiful thus appears to be on borrowed time, a prospect which frightens the workers who avail themselves of its pleasures. And for what purpose is it being cleared? Probably for the construction of new plants that are already taking off on the other side of the river. At one point this built work is described in these terms: ‘Down on the cleared clay flats, for months heavy trucks had been delivering thousands of tons of beach sand, graders to spread it out into rectangular plots of three to five acres, just the size of the dozens of new plants’ (p. 378). This is the essence of abstract space – the destruction of particularity and uniqueness in favour of geometrically equal and fungible parcels of land, all occurring at the expense of the natural environment. So, abstract space establishes its dominance, and nature itself is interiorised within its logic.
To conclude, I am not suggesting that we can read The Unknown Industrial Prisoner as a mirror displaying an unmediated geographical truth. No text, fiction or non-fiction, can do that. What I am suggesting is that Ireland is able to take the qualities of Australian capitalism and, through the novel form, is able to explore them, tease out their contradictions and provide creative symbols demonstrating their inner logic. Through the representation of Puroil, he captures the spatial effects of Australia’s subordinate position in the global division of labour. Through his painting of the surrounding suburbs and the environment, we learn about the corrosive logic of abstract space, its hierarchies of class and gender, and its capacity to colonise other spaces. Through the Home Beautiful, we see that workers themselves contribute to the landscape of capitalism. I think for these reasons and more David Ireland deserves our attention.
The set image reproduces with permission ‘Factory staff, Erehwyna’ (1972) by Jeffrey Smart, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne