Dec 11, 2014

So, you think you’re middle class …

With almost 93% of Australians identifying as middle class, we need to start talking about the c-word.

Mel Campbell — Freelance journalist and critic

Mel Campbell

Freelance journalist and critic

Class has never been a dirtier word in Australian public discourse, even for a nation that indulges in fantasies of egalitarianism. Anyone who recognises that wealth and opportunities are unequally distributed is accused of waging class warfare. And “elite” is no longer a social status to be analysed — it’s a slur intended to shut down debate.


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11 thoughts on “So, you think you’re middle class …

  1. Scott

    But think of the question that was asked in the survey

    “Some people in Australia are rich, some are poor and others
    are somewhere in between. Thinking about your family
    income (before tax), how do you think you compare overall
    with other Australians?”

    The answer was to place a mark on a scale of 1 to 10. So it’s a relative question, with unclear definitions of “rich” and “poor”. I am rich compared to some Australians (people earning less than 100,000) But I am poor compared to others (those earning $200,000) So am I rich or poor? Depends on whether I think most people earn over $100,000 or under. And if my peer group is all on $100,000 plus, then I think I may be normal. Hence I may enter 5, when I should be putting 7 or 8.

    It is no surprise that the result is almost a perfect bell curve distribution around the mean (5) which is what you would expect from a crap question in a survey. Every one thinks they are normal…that is sort of the point. No one wants to be an outlier.

  2. GF50

    Yes! John Howards “battlers” aspirationls, that constantly use class(self)definitions to constantly vote against their own best interest, as well as against the common good.

  3. Edward Thompson

    As for most political discourse in Australia. When you ask people where they sit, what you see in effect is:

  4. Altakoi

    In the US being a social progressive seems to have become identified with an endless mental hygeine project – avoid being racist, sexist, homophobic, cruel to animals etc. All of which are fine things. But, as noted, people seem unable to talk about structural issues like wage equity, employment security, welfare levels, access to education and access to healthcare in concrete terms. These are really where social progress resides, I think, and its become a vacuum. Certainly the ALP shows no sign of wanting to step up.

  5. Liz Van Dort

    Australia is an incredibly class-driven society. Yet unlike the UK – where class is endemic but is consciously addressed and acknowledged, and where processes are put in place to at least try to equalise things – we in Australia prefer to put our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist and that we’re all equal. The more we shy away from discussions of class, the more those at the lower end will continue to be disadvantaged by their status in life.

  6. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I wonder if the term ‘class’ in the marxist sense is really the same thing. Working Class in his day really did mean poverty – poverty in terms of continual hunger, long working hours and families sharing a single bed. In Australia today the ‘poverty line’ is a little unclear – I have qualified as ‘below the poverty line’ for many years but I have never gone hungry and have had my own home. I’ve also worked part time through most of it. Given the questions I would probably put myself down as ‘middle-class’ as well. I suspect that apart from many indigenous Australians and the mentally unwell very few of us really go without as those in the 1800’s did. Yes there is a ‘class’ system in Australia but it isn’t measured by money I suspect.

  7. Norman Hanscombe

    One problem with this ‘analysis’ arises in part at least from our failure to pay sufficient attention to the activities of the many overlapping, competing elites in Western Societies.
    In Post WWII [which is as far back as I can meaningfully go in terms of personal observations] socioeconomic status and educational opportunities were linked; but it was also a time when bright working class kids could and did enjoy opportunities to receive better educations than did the average middle class child.
    It’s obvious you can never make everyone equal, then or now; but there was a widespread egalitarian attitude then which is absent now, in part because of the antagonisms generated in today’s society by hopelessly concocted pseudo-progressive policies devised largely by well-intentioned but intellectually mediocre ‘progressive’ middle class minds.

  8. Guy Rundle

    actually on a point of scholarship, the Marxist definition of middle-class isn’t anything to do with Mel’s suggestion of it.

    Middle-class, as used, is a sociological definition, based on consumption and status. It doesn’t really appear as such in much Marxist discussion

    Thus a ‘middle-class’ person is, at its most vulgar, either bourgeois or proletarian depending on their source of income. a printer who pays themselves $25,000 a year, employs one part time assistant, and makes $5000 annual profit is bourgeois (albeit petit). An engineer who earns two hundred grand employed by a company who makes two million profit, or five thousand, or a loss, could be called proletarian.

    It gets a little, ie a lot, more complicated since you could say high-paid professionals are getting a share of the profit in the differential between their wage and base workers’s salary, from which the bulk of the surplus value/profit comes

    The managerial stratum are usually bourgeoisifed with share options etc, but if they’re not, not matter how high the wage, they could be considered working class.

  9. Stuart Coyle

    Damn you, Guy. You just consigned this engineer to being a prole.

    I think if we had more of a realistic view of where we stood in the world, in terms
    of our material wealth, ability to earn, lifestyle and support then perhaps we would
    make some very different decisions than we seem to now.

    Anyone with a bank account, a flat screen TV, mobile phone, roof over their head and
    a bicycle (or other form of transport) is probably in the top few percent worldwide.
    To be in the bottom 50% you’d have to be earning less than about $4000 a year.

    We have no right to claim to be poor.

    1. Charlie Chaplin

      Tha’s the way! Put the guy on the bicycle on his way to a compulsory appointment with his job services provider on a par with the guy on the bicycle riding for pleasure on a break from running the corporation because they are both richer than the guy in the slums of Mumbai.

  10. Gavin Moodie

    The broken link supporting the claim that ‘the median Australian taxpayer in 2010-11 had a pre-tax income of $48,684’ is to Matt Cowgill’s posting on 13 May 2013 on his ‘We are all dead’ blog headed ‘What is the typical Australian’s income in 2013?’.

    Incidentally, on his same blog Cowgill refutes claims that Australia’s welfare system is too big and is growing rapidly as a share of the economy, and that too much spending is to middle and upper income households. This post was on 21 June 2013 headed ‘Middle class welfare: a presentation’.

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