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Dec 11, 2014

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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.

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11 comments

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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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

  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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