Is social class important in Australia?

Prominent Australian novelist Tim Winton has a very long winded article in "The Monthly", Australia's premier Marxist magazine.  Marxists of course obsess about social class and that would seem to be why Winton appears in that magazine -- because his article is all about class.  Wordy as it is however, there is not much you can pin down in the article as a firm claim.  It is more a  collection of soliloquies and anecdotes.  I reproduce just his conclusion below as that seems to be as near he gets to saying something definite. My own investigations into social class were rather more numerate.

Winton concedes that  class has become much less important in recent decades but probably overestimates how important it used to be.  He sees his own emergence from a working class background in the '70s as a sort or rare good fortune.  It was not.  My days at university were a decade before his.  I was there in the '60s to his '70s and I had no barriers in my way at all.  I came from a background as least as working class as Winton's (my father was a red-headed lumberjack who liked a drink and was ready with his fists) but I was a beneficiary of the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme initiated by that great conservative Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.  That gave free university education plus a living allowance to the top third of High School graduates, reasonably regarded as the population slice most likely to be able to absorb a university education.  It was a lot more generous than the present HECS-HELP arrangements.

My studies were largely untroubled and I had a lot of fun as a conservative student activist.  Where most students were marching in anti-Vietnam demonstrations, I joined the army (Reserves).  I guess I was brought up in a psychogically healthier home than Winton was -- one that did not seethe with resentment of other people's good fortune -- which appears to be Winton's background, according to his account.

And after an interlude of just one year I went into academe, got tenure and stayed there until I retired.  Obviously I had the brains to do that but my point is that that was all it took.  Social class at no point entered into it.

In conclusion, I am amused that Winton is happy with his own lot and seems to have no resolve to do anything personally in aid of the poor.  He and I have that in common.  But he thinks that "something should be done" about the poor, while I think that nothing more can be. But his thinking gets acclaim while mine gets obloquy.  Fortunately not much bothers me.  I am pleased that a very great Rabbi agrees with me though.  See the Gospel of John 12:8

Where once Australia looked like a pyramid in terms of its social strata, with the working class as its broad base and ballast and the rich at the top, it’s come to resemble something of a misshapen diamond – wide in the middle – and that’s no bad thing in and of itself. I say that, of course, as a member of the emblematically widening middle. The problem is those Australians the middle has left behind without a glance.

At the bottom, of course, there are the poor, who make up almost 13 per cent of Australia’s population. The most visible of them will always be the welfare class: the sick, the addicted, the impaired and the unemployed, who only exist in the public mind as fodder for tabloid TV and the flagellants of brute radio. But if ever there was a truly “forgotten people” in our time it must be the working poor. These folk, the cleaners and carers and hospitality workers, excite no media outrage. They labour in the shadows in increasingly contingent working situations. Described as “casuals”, the only casual element of their existence is the attitude of the entities that employ them. Often on perpetual call or split shifts, their working lives are unstable. Many of them women, a significant proportion of them migrants, they have little bargaining power and low rates of union representation. As Helen Masterman-Smith and Barbara Pocock vividly document in their 2008 study, Living Low Paid, these people work in hospitals, supermarkets and five-star hotels. They mind the children of prosperous professional couples and wash their incontinent parents in care for an hourly rate most middle-class teenage babysitters can afford to turn their noses up at. It is upon these citizens’ low pay and insecurity that the prosperity of safer families is often built.

 For these vulnerable Australians, there is little mobility. And precious little of what mobility affords – namely, confidence. The cockiness that irritates the old middle class when they encounter fly-in, fly-out workers with their Holden SS utes and tatts and jetskis is rare among the labouring poor. For years I worked in a residential high-rise where the looks on people’s faces in the lifts and on the walkways ranged from wry resignation to unspeakable entrapment. Single mothers on shrinking benefits, injured workers on disability allowances, middle-aged people stocking supermarket shelves at night. Even the most functional and optimistic of them seemed tired. They were not exhausted from partying, from keeping up with all their dizzying choices; they were worn out from simply hanging on and making do. As an accidental tourist in their lives, I was struck by this weariness. And I felt awkward in their presence. Their faces and voices were completely familiar. They smelt like the people of my boyhood – fags, sugar and the beefy whiff of free-range armpit – but despite the cheerful, non-committal conversations we had on our slow ascents in the lift, I felt a distance that took many months to come to terms with. Like the expatriate whose view of home is largely antique, I was a class traveller who’d become a stranger to his own. For all my connection to family, for all the decades I’d spent in fishing towns among tradespeople and labourers, the working class I knew was no more. My new neighbours were living another life entirely.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes about the contrast between the “light, sprightly and volatile” working lives of mobile citizens at the top of society and those who are largely without choice and prospects. Comfortable, confident people, heirs of the new individualism, often view strangers in cohorts below them in astoundingly superficial terms, as if they have adopted a look, chosen an identity as they often do themselves, as if life were a largely sartorial affair. Faced with your own surfeit of choices, it’s easy to assume everyone has so many. The “liquid” elite understands exotic poverty – it rallies to it tearfully – but it often fails to recognise domestic hardship: poverty of choice, poverty born of constraint, the poverty that is working servitude or the bonded shame of unemployment. Despite the angelic appeal of market thinking, there is no gainsaying the correlation between success and certain family backgrounds, geographical locations, ethnicities and schools. Pretending otherwise isn’t simply dishonest, it’s morally corrosive.

The culture that formed me was poorer, flatter and probably fairer than the one I live in today. Class was more visible, less confusing, more honestly defined and clearly understood. And it was something you could discuss without feeling like a heretic. The decency of our society used to be the measure of its success. Such decency rescued many of us from over-determined lives. It was the moral force that eroded barriers between people, opened up pathways previously unimagined. Not only did it enlarge our personal imaginations but it also enhanced our collective experience. The new cultural confidence this reform produced prefigured the material prosperity we currently enjoy. It was government intervention as much as the so-called genius of the market that underpinned our current prosperity, and it amazes me how quickly we’ve let ourselves be persuaded otherwise.

I have no illusions about overcoming class distinctions completely. Nor am I discounting the role that character plays in an individual’s fortunes. But it disturbs me to see governments abandoning those at the bottom while pandering to the appetites of the comfortable. Under such conditions, what chance is there for the working poor to fight their way free to share in the spoils of our common wealth? No one’s talking ideology. There is no insurrection brewing. For many Australian families, a gap in the fence is all the revolution they require. But while business prospers from the increased casualisation of its workforce, and government continues to reward the insatiable middle, the prospects of help for the weakest and decency for all seem dim indeed.


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