Christopher Scanlon: Class easier to see from the outside

Large swathes of Aussie culture hang on understanding social distinctions, writes Christopher Scanlon.

This Magpies fan might not enjoy the same life chances as the private school girl who denies that social classes exist in Australia. Photo / Getty Images
This Magpies fan might not enjoy the same life chances as the private school girl who denies that social classes exist in Australia. Photo / Getty Images

'This is bulls***," 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. 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 4WDs and take overseas holidays, class seems irrelevant.

About the only time we hear the word "class" in public debate any more is when someone questions the wisdom of rewarding CEOs with multimillion-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 a safe distance, 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, 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".

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, in others 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.

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 like David Williamson's Don's Party and Emerald City, to novels like Helen Garner's Monkey Grip and comedies such as Upper Middle Bogan, The Castle, Kath & Kim and Ja'mie: Private School Girl are premised on 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.

For those whose choices are more constrained, this is self-evident - a point that was underscored for me in a different tutorial, where students 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."

Christopher Scanlon is Associate Dean (Academic), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University.

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