Egalitarianism is an article of faith in Australia. While the nation still faces issues of class, Australians tend to be uncomfortable about discussing these or acknowledging their extent. Interestingly, it has fallen to Australian authors such as Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas – as well as American writer David Simon, creator of the TV series The Wire – to wonder at and question the taboo.
Today The Conversation launches a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. To begin, Christopher Scanlon observes that terms like bogan and hipster and much of our popular entertainment make no sense without a social awareness of class.
“This is bullshit,” the student muttered under her breath. The tutorial topic assigned for that week was class. I’d kicked things off by asking whether class existed in modern Australia, or whether it was a relic of 19th century Europe.
Struck by the student’s response, I asked her to elaborate. She did:
Look, I went to a private school and my Dad’s a CEO and most of his friends are business people. So I guess that’s supposed to make me upper class? But class has nothing to do with it. Going to a private school was my parents' decision. And my Dad’s friends are just his friends.
I suggested that the choice of school – not to mention the capacity to afford the fees – and her father’s friendship network might have been shaped heavily by their class position. That wasn’t to say there was anything wrong with it, but it did show how our lives are shaped by larger social and economic forces we don’t control.
The student was having none of it. It was clear that she’d encountered the notion of class before and found it singularly unconvincing. In her world, everything was simply a matter of individual choice – choices that were unconstrained.
She didn’t say it, but class seemed to be an excuse for people who made the wrong choices in life. Alternatively, it was a way to unfairly label people like her and her family who’d worked hard for their success, presenting their achievements as little more than the luck of being born into the right family.
Her response isn’t surprising. Many Australians share her view. Part of the reason for this is that class is less visible than it once was.
Ready access to cheap credit has blurred class distinctions. When most people can afford the latest smart phones, wear Prada, get about in four-wheel drives and take overseas holidays, class seems like an irrelevance.
About the only time we hear the word “class” in public debate any more is when someone questions the wisdom of rewarding CEOs with multi-million dollar salary packages. In a culture that has internalised the mantra of “You Can Do Anything”, this apparently constitutes the first salvo in a class war.
The only time we’re happy to discuss class openly is when it can be viewed from the safe distance of the past or another country, as in shows like Downton Abbey. Class in this world is a simple matter of upstairs/downstairs.
It’s about much more than money
But class has always been more complex than this view would suggest. As the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued in his book Distinction, class – and the reproduction of class – has as much to do with your tastes, the way you speak and comport yourself as it has to do with income levels.
Taking this broader view, class is as prevalent as it ever was. It’s just that when we talk about class, we don’t use the “C word”. Instead, we use other less threatening terms – “bogan”, for instance.
One definition of a bogan is someone who fails to conform to middle-class standards of taste, dietary habits, leisure activities, styles of dress and ways of speaking. You don’t have to have read sociology or understand the political economy to notice such distinctions.
When, for example, Channel Ten launched the 2014 season of The Biggest Loser, which centres on the town of Ararat in Victoria’s south-west, a theme running through the audience reaction on Twitter centred on class. Some of the uglier tweets included:
That’s the entertaining thing about #biggestloserau We’re laughing at them cos they’re bogans.
FunFact My cousin used to own a $2 shop in Ararat he did a roaring trade, couldn’t keep up with track suit & thong orders.
Hahahaha no money for your poor town unless you lose weight. No pressure. #biggestloserau
The crime of the contestants — and by extension Ararat — is that the show features people who don’t conform to middle-class standards of health and well-being. Like the worst stereotypes of the working class that have been around since Karl Marx was a boy, they are assumed to be slovenly, poor and poorly educated, and lacking in taste and refinement.
Looking through the biographies of the contestants, you begin to notice that most are working class or lower-middle class. Along with a couple of students, the contestants are supermarket managers, a baker, nurses and what former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich refers to as “in-person service providers”. The few professionals who are on the show tend to be ones that, relative to other professions, are on the lower end of the income scale, such as nursing or teaching.
Of course, the class hatred expressed on Twitter at The Biggest Loser contestants is nothing new. But it’s now wrapped up in messages about health and exercise. Income, occupation, residence and eating and activity habits are all part of what defines people’s class.
At the other end of the spectrum to bogan is the hipster. Whereas bogans fail to conform to the lifestyle norms, values and tastes of the middle classes, a hipster cleaves to them closely to the point that they end up a parody of them. Hipsters trade on authenticity, individuality and a rejection of the mainstream. Sometimes this parody is ironic, while in other cases it is unconscious.
I have no doubt that these arguments wouldn’t find much traction with my former student. Imbued with a heightened sense of choice, she would probably regard all this as people just being funny on Twitter about a TV show or, in the case of the hipster, simply a personal matter of style and taste rather than pointing to any deeper social reality.
Popular culture makes no sense without class
The problem with this kind of response is that if class truly does not exist in modern Australia, or has no bearing on shaping – not determining, mind, but shaping – one’s behaviour and life chances, then large swathes of contemporary Australian culture appear completely random and utterly baffling.
Everything from plays (and movies based on the plays) like David Williamson’s Don’s Party and Emerald City, to novels like Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded and The Slap, to comedies such as Upper Middle Bogan, The Castle, Kath & Kim and Ja'mie: Private School Girl are premised on the social realities of class.
All of these presume their audiences have some experience of social class. Ja’mie’s behaviour is appalling, in large part, because she’s oblivious to the privileged bubble in which she lives. The slap in Tsiolkas’ book of the same name is based on differences in working- and middle-class attitudes to parenting and what constitutes appropriate discipline.
If class were not a lived part of people’s everyday experience, these productions simply would not resonate with audiences in the way they do. They would just appear surreal, completely disconnected from Australian culture.
For those whose choices are more constrained, this is self-evident — a point that was underscored for me by another student in a different tutorial. Unlike the first group, the students in this tutorial had lower ATARs and lived in suburbs with lower incomes.
Once again, I kicked off the tutorial by asking if they thought class existed in modern Australia. They looked at me as if the answer were obvious: of course it did.
I asked one student why he was so certain. He replied simply:
I live in Frankston and work at Woolworths.
See the other instalments of the series Class in Australia here.