CLASS was traditionally one of the great dividing lines in Australian society. But for some time now, it has been thought that class distinctions have withered away. Our tastes and values were meant to have converged. Social class, like religious sectarianism, was a relic of a country that progress had left behind.
Our current debates reveal how illusory this tale has been. On issues including mining and the economy, schools and education, class has been making its presence felt.
Barely a week now goes by without someone crying ”class warfare”, though it is the super-rich and their political allies who complain the most. The phrase has become part of the new conservative political correctness in this country. Any redistribution of resources tends to be portrayed as illegitimate government action, any talk about social justice to be denounced as an exercise in downward envy.
At the same time, some Gillard government ministers have made a sustained effort to speak with a more authentic working-class voice. At times this has been idiosyncratic, as with Treasurer Wayne Swan’s tribute to Bruce Springsteen. But within Labor’s ranks there’s a determination to sound more Labor and less technocratic.
So, for all of the triumphalism about Australians now all being middle class, a more complex reality prevails. Class still matters, as it always has.
Admittedly, our society has liked to consider itself relatively classless. There is a cultural egalitarianism, which has meant that Jack has always been as good as his master. But this levelling sensibility, laudable though it is, often conceals the true scale of inequality.
Take income. A study by economists Anthony Atkinson and Andrew Leigh (now a federal Labor MP) shows that income inequality has risen steadily in Australia since about 1980. Over the past three decades the income share of the richest 1 per cent of Australians has doubled. During that period, 13 per cent of household income gains have been attained by that richest 1 per cent.
We seem to have tolerated this without too much protest. Perhaps we’ve been too busy enjoying prosperity. Perhaps we hope one day to be among the rich and wealthy.
If this is the case, then it exists alongside a surprisingly resilient sense of class belonging. The best evidence lies in the longitudinal Australian Election Study, which shows a stable pattern of ”class image” since 1987. The most recent such study found that 40 per cent of respondents identified themselves as ”working class”, with 50 per cent identifying themselves as ”middle class”.
This isn’t to deny that the social meaning of class changes with time. It isn’t only about income and wealth. Today, it is as much about culture and the possession of what sociologists refer to as ”cultural capital”.
In some countries, markers of cultural capital can be as obvious as speech. Think of England, where opening your mouth broadcasts to everyone your class background. Here, working out someone’s social position requires more discerning investigation. Little wonder that we Melburnians seem to love asking a stranger where they went to school.
Of course, the economic and cultural dimensions of class frequently go together. Those with economic capital are in a better position to possess cultural capital, and to pass both on to their children.
This explains why the well off like to send their children to elite private schools. It is as much to do with gifting their children with the elusive cultural capital of knowing how to win and succeed, as it is with high test scores.
Which brings me to why class should matter. It matters because class advantage and disadvantage – however you define it – still gets in the way of social mobility.
It is the mark of a good society that careers be open to all talents. Individuals should be able to transcend the position of their birth or upbringing through ability and effort. By the same token, the state shouldn’t reward those who have the fortune of being born into good circumstance.
This should be the philosophical background for the current debate about school funding. While the Gillard government has been strong in framing the debate in terms of opportunity, it has dealt gingerly with the issue of class. It desperately wants to avoid a fight with the private school sector, fearing a backlash from aspirational voters who want to send their children to private schools with government assistance. A truer stand for opportunity would see a more emphatic effort to put money into the schools that need it most, plain and simple.
Then again, that’s easier said than done.
Today’s Australia remains one whose mindset is shaped by a sense of entitlement and a warped notion of justice. We seem to celebrate aspiration, just not an aspiration to become a more egalitarian and fairer society.