I should have read the warning signs. Australian academics Bob Connell and Terry Irving erected them 30 years ago, using big neon lights, when they wrote their classic essay, ‘Yes, Virginia, There Is a Ruling Class.’
‘Arguing about classes is like going for a swim in a country dam,’ they warned. ‘As soon as you put your foot in, you are up to your neck in mud.’
I began sinking into the sludge a year ago when I starting peeling back the egalitarian artifice of Australia. I wanted to investigate the lifestyles and values of our unofficial establishment. I was in search of the upper middle class.
To briefly explain my terms, I define ‘upper middle class’ as that stratum of society that is relatively moneyed, educated, and employed in the professions. They earn between, say, $80,000 and $400,000 a year a substantial differential, I acknowledge but they are not, or not yet, financially independent. To maintain their particular lifestyle, they still have to work.
I have made a subtle distinction between the ‘establishment’ and the true elites. The former are comfortably, and often immovably, ensconced in positions of influence but sometimes negligible power. The latter are the multimillionaires and government ministers who appear on the annual lists of the rich and powerful they are the ones who make the big decisions about whether to close factories, raise our taxes or commit us to war.
But it is the upper middle class the professional class that I argue keeps the country ticking over on a day-to-day basis. This group runs the big law firms, the bureaucracies, the universities and research labs, the hospitals, middle management of major corporations, the non-profit organisations and the media. They are the new functionaries.
Few people confess to belonging to this class, which the sociologist Peter Saunders, of the free-market Centre for Independent Studies, estimates to be 10-15 per cent of the workforce. Perhaps it is the use of the qualifying adjective ‘upper’ that sends these influential Australians into denial.
For example, one man, a former media executive turned corporate lobbyist with a house on Sydney’s lower north shore, a child in private school, a degree from Sydney University and an estimated income of $250,000 a year insisted he was just an ordinary middle class man. Instead, he suggested a far better representative of the upper middle class was the scion of one of Australia’s top 10 wealthy families who was building a harbourside pleasure palace costing at least $20 million. I let you decide if there is anything ‘middle’ about that.
The most interesting feature of Australia’s upper middle class it that it is anything but homogeneous.
In the United States over the past 15 years, there has been a coalescence of college-educated professionals around a set of broadly small-l liberal values, and who support the Democratic Party. David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, christened them ‘Bobos’, as in bourgeois bohemians, in his 2000 book Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. (Meanwhile, the super wealthy of the corporate world, and the middle and lower middle classes whose labour put them there, have become the bedrock of rRight-wing Republican support, as Thomas Frank points out in What’s The Matter With Kansas.)
I went looking for Australia’s Bobos this monolithic Keating-worshipping cultural elite that John Howard so frequently spurns but instead found the upper middle class at war with itself, divided between those who crave possessions and those who value experiences; between the materialists and the culturists; between, if you like, the rich and the tasteful.
I found that while both groups prize education, it is for starkly different reasons: culturists for its broad, mind-expanding potential; materialists for its functional, income-generating capacity.
Your typical culturist might be a professor of international law, a CSIRO researcher, a diplomat, a clinical psychologist or an architect (especially in the Frank Lloyd Wright school!). Your typical materialist might be an information technology specialist, a political staffer (from either side) turned pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, a property developer, or a fund manager.
Materialists are slaves to trends in fashion, home dÃ©cor, cars and technology whereas culturists are obsessive in their quest for authenticity, be it in a free range egg, a Patrick White first edition or a Mayan antiquity.
While the two groups meet occasionally on the sidelines of Saturday morning sport because materialists and culturists send their children to private schools their motives are often light years apart. Materialists, especially those with first-generation wealth, are pretty honest about trying to buy a place for their kids in the old school tie network. The school crest is a socio-economic trophy.
The culturists dress up their angst-ridden decision to ‘go private’ as a need to find a school that offers the right ‘pastoral care’ to their children. There is now an entire cohort of expensive private schools, especially those run by the Uniting Church and some by the Catholics, that aggressively pitches itself to Labor-voting professionals who want their children to have a ‘classical liberal arts’ education with a generous serve of social conscience.
But overall, materialists and culturists have nothing in common, creating a fascinating new divide in the most influential group in society.
Andrew West’s new book Inside the Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful RRP: $17.95 (the first title in Pluto’s ‘Now Australia’ series) will be launched by Maxine McKew at the Malthouse during Melbourne Writers Festival, at 5:15pm on Saturday, 2 September.
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