Clash of the Elites


Craig McGregor, veteran journalist and now sage of Byron Bay, is one of the few journalists in this country to truly understand, and take seriously, the issue of class. Many academics have written exhaustively, and impressively, on the topic, but few have made the point as cogently as McGregor: Australia is still is a class-ridden society.

Where I differ with Craig a journalist whose writings on culture and politics I have long admired is that I am unperturbed by this persistent state of affairs.

The vast concentrations of wealth trouble me. I hate the idea that a corporate chieftain, or his board of directors, can throw thousands of employees out of work, destroy a regional economy and dislocate the lives of families. Such sheer economic power, now flexed across borders and completely disregarding the policies of elected governments, remains the great and intolerable injustice of the modern era.

Nor can a truly just society tolerate the salaries paid to executives, such as Macquarie Bank boss Allan Moss, on his $17 million a year. Even in the business community, they mutter under their breath about the absurdity, if not the obscenity, of such remuneration.

But class is about much more than economics. It is increasingly about values, and taste and nowadays these factors are freely chosen and often independent of income.

McGregor argues that the so-called upper middle class is the most persistent of the socio-economic groups in perpetuating itself, especially through education. I agree wholeheartedly. But I would also argue that it is a remarkably democratic class at least, that part of it that John Howard has, for 10 years, derided as the ‘cultural elite.’

One of the Prime Minister’s most successful political tactics has been to characterise the cultural elite as less accessible to the battlers than the financial elite, as though it is easier to get yourself onto the Business Review Weekly rich list than it is to get a ticket to the Sydney Theatre Company.

This was most evident in the recent taxpayer-funded commemorations for the late Kerry Packer, our richest citizen. Howard tried to characterise Packer as an ordinary Aussie bloke, the trick being to portray a man worth $7 billion as no different in taste and values to the brickies’ labourer worth, say, $70,000 a year (with overtime), and therefore in an alliance against those whinging school teachers and social workers on $65,000. Ya see, they’re the real enemy!

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

The assumed but not essential requirement for entry into the cultural elite is a university education. As Commonwealth Scholarships in Australia and the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act known as the GI Bill in the United States proved, many a working-class or lower-middle-class kid with sufficient smarts could get into university. Most of the eight million US servicemen who got a free college degree in the post-war years made it into the professions and scored the proverbial key to the executive washroom. But how many made it onto the Fortune 500 list?

True, this mobility has slowed since the 1980s, especially the flow of ‘battler’ kids into ‘cultural elite’ areas such as the humanities. Whereas in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, through teaching scholarships and later free higher education, blue-collar kids flooded the arts, they now gravitate to more vocationally oriented degrees, such as commerce and engineering. But this is surely a matter of choice?

Even without a university education, the cultural elite are an open, accessible group. Much more important as entry requirements are an appetite for reading widely, chatting incessantly hence the ‘chattering class’ and access to ABC television and radio. It’s always instructive to point out that two exemplars of the cultural elite, Phillip Adams and the late Donald Horne, did not have university degrees, even though the latter became our most heralded public intellectual.

The only personal attributes the cultural elite demands of aspiring members are a curiosity about the world and an ability to conduct a relatively fluent conversation. These things are free to acquire and not especially onerous. They are certainly no impediment to anyone from a blue-collar or lower-middle-class background.

The intrinsic democracy of the cultural upper middle class is rooted in the need to reinvent itself with each new generation. Sure, cultural elite parents can provide a house with lots of books and lively discussion about current events, but it is ultimately harder to bequeath a love of jazz or travel in South America or concern for the environment harder to pass on a particular worldview when there are so many competing influences than it is bequeath $10 million. It is the economic elites that can replicate themselves more readily, however proletarian or ‘everyman’ their pretences.

Even at its worst, when members of the cultural elite affect plummy accents or quote from Shakespeare, their behaviour is still more democratic. After all, anyone with access to a BBC ‘bonnet drama’ on the ABC each Sunday evening and that’s pretty much everyone or with the right to a library card also everyone can start sprouting lines from Coriolanus in received English.

The cultural elite are much more a state of mind than a state of being and you don’t pay anything for that subscription.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.