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.

“It constitutes an ideological triumph for conservatives that even they must marvel at,” author Tim Winton wrote in The Monthly. “Having uttered the c-word in polite company, I felt, for a moment, as if I’d shat in the municipal pool.”

But there’s still one safe space. An unimpeachably bland and diffuse category where you can be rich, yet still believe yourself struggling. Where you can be mired in debt while still feeling in charge of your destiny. The middle class.

Indeed, when researcher Anat Shenker-Osorio analysed the language of class in American public discourse, she found the meaning of “middle class” had atrophied to merely “a status, a brand — a label you opt to adopt.”

From a Marxist perspective, the middle class is the salaried socioeonomic group that supervises the waged working class on behalf of the ruling class. They manage wealth and resources, but don’t own them. Statistically, the middle class are median income earners: in Australia Institute discussion papers, and his 2009 book Affluenza, Clive Hamilton characterises them as those households with a disposable income between the 30th and the 80th percentiles.

But almost all Australians think that’s them. A 2000 UNSW study found that 92.9% of survey participants believed themselves to be in the middle 60% of households; only 6.4% saw themselves in the bottom 20% and 0.7% identified with the top 20%. When the study was repeated in 2006 and 2010, we had no clearer notion of our relative circumstances.

In part, high-income earners consider themselves middle-class because Australia has a flattened tax system, with a top tax rate that only kicks in once you earn $180,000. To put that in perspective, the median Australian taxpayer in 2010-11 had a pre-tax income of $48,684. And modern urban design has increasingly stopped affluent Australians from encountering, and comparing themselves to, actual poor people.

But it’s not just a lack of wealth signposts that’s inflating the self-perceived middle class. Meritocratic neoliberalism, Australia’s dominant ideology, has sought to erase class as a structural category.

Neoliberalism encourages us to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs rather than workers with bosses: as mini-capitalists who can generate our own wealth. Cultural critic Mark Fisher dubs this philosophy of magical voluntarism “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”.

Cultural capital — a resource of privileged knowledges, credentials, tastes and attitudes — has historically helped people fulfil their aspirations. Transmitted by middle-class families, and by cultural and educational institutions, cultural capital once correlated strongly with economic capital: Gough Whitlam’s free education policies helped a generation of working-class kids enter the bourgeoisie.

But neoliberalism only values an exchange of commodities. Cultural capital is hard to commodify, so its value has plummeted radically: today’s young people are better educated than their parents, but the quality of that education is worse. And it’s harder to leverage in a more flexible, diffuse labour market where automation, offshore outsourcing, underemployment and short-term contracts have rendered traditional white-collar occupations precarious and poorly paid.

Now, the Australian middle class encompasses both a proletarianised “cultural middle class” struggling to parlay their cultural capital into wealth, and an embourgeoised “economic middle class” of self-employed or contractor blue-collar workers with increased disposable income. These factions coexist uneasily: the economic middle class rails about “politically correct elites”, while the cultural middle class bemoans “cashed-up bogans”.

As neoliberalism rewards opportunism and self-interest over strong social ties, many newly prosperous Australians are rejecting the labour solidarity implied by “working class”. Unions’ efforts to improve pay and working conditions see them negatively stereotyped as boring, insular finger-waggers who drag modern go-getters back from negotiating their own dynamic careers.

As many commentators noted in the wake of Joe Hockey’s absurd “lifters, not leaners” budget speech — and as Richard Cooke chronicled with especially searing rage in The Monthly — neoliberal government policy actively extends economic assistance to those who need it least. This upside-down welfare is paid for by savagely impoverishing the genuinely needy.

As Tim Winton observes: “if there’s solidarity at work anywhere in our society these days it’s among the very rich, and the middle class has watched and learnt.” They, too, cry poor; and it makes political sense to placate the 93% of Australians who identify as middle-class by offering them bonuses and tax cuts. Conversely, the genuinely vulnerable can be safely punished; there’s comparatively little risk in angering the 6.4% of people who identify as poor.

If there’s a real threat to the middle class, it’s neoliberalism. It provides both the sense of being embattled and the economic conditions Australians must battle against. Neoliberalism has also eroded the social and cultural power the middle class once wielded, along with government funding to institutions, such as the CSIRO and the ABC, that nurture cultural capital.

No matter how many Australians believe themselves to be middle class, they’ll fall right out of it without a social safety net or a commitment to group solidarity. But talking about class as a structural phenomenon is something middle-class Australians are increasingly reluctant to do.