The rise of capitalism in contemporary times has brought about rapid changes to the lives of many as it spreads to previously untouched economies. At the beginning of Cate Kennedy’s “Sleepers,” the story’s protagonist, Ray, is stuck in traffic because of a construction project that has thrown his otherwise slow and quiet town into turmoil. Many of the town’s residents are struggling with unemployment, so they are furious that the project was planned and executed by outside organizations that did not hire any local labor. To make matters worse, the construction company is upgrading the railroad tracks, but instead of letting the local residents have the discarded railroad sleepers (wooden beams that support the rails on the tracks), the construction company plans to sell the discard wood for profit. This further infuriates the town’s residents, and they begin to steal them for landscaping and firewood. The rush to obtain the sleepers is a reaction to the disruption caused by capitalist forces, as the locals are desperate to get something—if not work, then resources—out of the project. In her depiction of Ray’s community, Kennedy criticizes the effects of capitalism on small towns but suggests that it is inevitable that people will fall into this system—it is ultimately too powerful to fight.
Inequality of wealth and opportunity in the town is created and magnified by capitalism’s effects. At the pub, Frank, one of the town’s unemployed residents, calls the contractors of the construction project “bastards” out of frustration over being unemployed for the past 14 months despite the number of jobs the project necessitates. Frank angrily explains that “[the company] will be selling [the sleepers] on to some other subcontractor, any money. That’s why they’ve got that barrier round them. They tender for these jobs and they screw the last cent out of ‘em. That’s the way they do business.” The contractors are concerned with maximizing the project’s profit, which includes selling the old sleepers even though they are only a byproduct of the actual work. Additionally, the construction begins at 6 a.m. each morning, prioritizing the work over the needs of the locals, whose morning commutes are disrupted and delayed. This causes people in town to feel justified in stealing the sleepers for themselves. Ray’s coworker Bernie, for instance, is proud of “grabbing a ute-load late at night to finish off his pool area.”
The story also suggests that capitalism can trap people in meaningless work and apathetic mindsets. The road worker in the beginning of story, with his “mirrored and shadowed gaze” borne by an “expressionless face,” is representative of all the other bored, miserable laborers under the construction project, and more broadly suggests that capitalist ventures inevitably breed this sort of dull, unfulfilling work. As Ray drives past, the two of them acknowledge their apathy towards “pretending to be doing a job” while actually feeling “bored shitless” by the work. Again, the road worker’s lack of identity and individuality makes him a generic, interchangeable figure representing not only all of the workers on the construction project, but also all of the labor in a capitalist economy. Ray considers his own part-time warehouse position a dead-end job where his manager never supervises the employees and won’t care if everyone is late to work. Like the road worker, Ray displays apathy toward his job, under a supervisor who does the same.
Ray’s dissatisfaction in his job, which essentially situates him as a cog in a capitalist machine, bleeds over into all aspects of his life. He is unfulfilled personally, professionally, and relationally. This despair culminates in Ray following the lead of the others in town and stealing sleepers for himself, with the hopes of creating a vegetable garden outside of his shed. The night of the theft, he considers asking his friend Vince for help with the sleepers but realizes his friend is likely “three bongs down” and asleep in front of the TV, engaging in substance abuse and cheap entertainment to numb his own boredom. As Ray loads the sleepers into his truck under cover of night, he finally feels good “to be working up a sweat” and clear his “fogged head” through this physical task, engaging in meaningful work. Though done in the spirit of self-interest, stealing the sleepers is not capitalistic work since the locals do so as an act of resistance against the system, take only what they will use, and are not selling them for profit.
Despite the undesirable consequences capitalism brings about, Kennedy suggests that the town’s resistance to the project is ultimately an empty gesture and that the lure of the capitalist system is ultimately too powerful for the town’s residents to resist. Locals are stealing the sleepers out of “a sudden professed desire to landscape,” implying that they are only taking the wood for the sake of taking it—not out of any genuine want or need. As well, the way in which locals repurpose these sleepers for purely aesthetic landscaping projects arguably only reaffirms capitalistic values of wealth accumulation rather than subverting them. At the construction site, the sleepers are left relatively unprotected by a “token” perimeter of flags, implying they are not too valuable to the contractors. Stealing them—the residents’ big act of protest—is only “harmless, face-saving looting” that makes them feel empowered but does not impact the project. Furthermore, the project was “dropped onto the town from above” and involves “thousands of dollars being spent every minute,” suggesting that the political and financial support behind it is too strong for the town to oppose on a practical level.
Ray’s situation and his sense that his life has gone to waste are representative of the negative effects of capitalism. Workers can be outcompeted and become alienated from their labor, and experience downstream impact to their social and romantic lives. The competition for the sleepers, in which already successful characters succeeded, also shows capitalism’s tendency to amplify inequality. Kennedy ends the story ironically, suggesting that meaningful labor is forbidden in a capitalist economy.
Capitalism and Competition ThemeTracker
Capitalism and Competition Quotes in Sleepers
The road worker aimed his mirrored and shadowed gaze at Ray as he drove past and gave a wave that had been reduced to its bare minimum: a single, slow-motion finger lifted in acknowledgement that here was one man passing another man who was pretending to be doing a job of work, bored shitless and leaning on a one-word sign. Ray raised a finger off the wheel in response, glancing at the expressionless face and looking away again. Didn't know him.
“See, if that contractor was a local,” said Vince, “anyone could go and help themselves to some of them for firewood. Anyone at all.”
“Not these bastards. They'll be selling them on to some other subcontractor, any money. That's why they've got that barrier round them. They tender for these jobs and they screw the last cent out of 'em. That's the way they do business.” Frank, who hadn't worked for fourteen months.
“I guess,” said Ray. Inside the opaque layers of shrink-wrapped plastic on the pallet, he could see stacked ornamental Buddha statues. It was like gazing into a submerged shipwreck, crammed full of calmly waiting monks.
Ray lifted his knife and sliced through plastic, breathing in the chemical, sealed breath of some factory floor in China.
At Steve's barbeque that night, he walked up and down the brand-new paved barbeque area, bordered by lines of sleepers. Set at intervals in the freshly shovelled topsoil were small clumps of perennials, which reminded Ray somehow of a hair transplant.
“It looks great,” he called, feeling Steve's eyes on him.
There must have been something wrong with him, some bug he had—how else to explain that bottomed-out energy, the sapped, exhausted feeling as he watched Steve turning steaks on the grill? He'd go and have a check-up. A blood test.
“A rustic border,” Steve was saying. Full of focus and purpose, pressing here and there on the meat with the tongs. “That's going to grow in no time.”
Ray swatted a mosquito in the dusk, racking his brain for something to respond with. Nothing.
“We'll have a pool in here next,” Steve added. “Get rid of the lawn altogether. Just an outdoor entertainment area. You right there, Ray?”
“Hey, Ray,” a voice was calling him. Steve's teenage son. Scott. Sam. Something.
“Come and check this out,” the boy said, beckoning Ray over to a big black telescope on a tripod, pointed straight up into the night sky.
“Not quite dark enough yet, Sean,” Steve called from the grill, scooping meat and sausages up onto a platter. “Wait till it's dark and I'll show you how to adjust it properly.”
Ray stooped and squinted through the lens.
“I think it's Mars,” said Sean.
The smell of him—grass and sunscreen, sweat and energy, all of it barely contained—registered in Ray's head with a sudden painful awareness. This shortness of breath, the pressure on his chest…He thought of his old man's heart attack, the way he'd staggered crabwise across the lounge room, his arm out, wordless. Take him five weeks to get a doctor's appointment, anyway. He'd ring tomorrow.
Ray stretched as he stood, his spine cracking. In the back he found himself a pair of gloves, let down the tailgate, and here came the moon, sailing out from behind a cloud, ready to help him. Sean, if he was still up, would be able to see every crater on that surface, it was so clear. Ray ducked under the orange flags and tugged at a sleeper, pushed and pulled it free, dragged it over to the ute and heaved it in with a grunt. Easy. Another one. Another. He'd only need ten. Some people he knew had taken dozens of the things. It felt good, even though it was the middle of the night, to be working up a sweat. Cold oxygen in his lungs prickling like stars, clearing his fogged head finally.
And as he turned, squinting in their sudden highbeam, his chest squeezing, all that false warmth descending into his boots, he knew that they wouldn't bother with their siren, because they could see that it was just him. Just Ray. They knew he'd turn around like this, and take what was coming to him. Because they need an example, he thought wearily as he peeled off his gloves, the realisation flaring like a little chunk of burning rock, a tiny meteor.
What was the word? An escape-goat? Nowhere to put the gloves, so Ray threw them onto the ute tray, and missed. The cops' headlights casting big crooked shadows.
He waited there for them, next to the sleepers, lowering his bare hands for comfort onto weathered, solid old redgum, hauled up and discarded but with so much life in it, still, it just broke your heart to see it go to waste.