2011-12-11

In recent years, my ongoing experience of 'progressive communities is that issues around gender, sexuality and race seem to get acknowledged in a way that issues around class seem not to be.1 And i can't help but wonder if much of this is due to many progressive communities being dominated - either in terms of numbers or influence - by middle-class2 people.

i should preface what i'm about to say by noting that i myself come from a middle-class background. Both my parents were professionals. i wouldn't say we were particularly well-off - at least by Western standards - but neither did i ever want for food or shelter. So i had access to resources when growing up that many less privileged people don't. My enthusiasm for reading was supported through the purchase of books and access to the wide variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, in my parents' libraries; my interest in computing was supported through the purchase of a IBM-compatible PC; my learning in general was supplemented. My family background also resulted in me developing a "general Australian" accent, rather than a "broad Australian" accent; the latter is often read as implying that one is not particularly intellectual. All of these things, together with extra-class privileges such as being Anglo, contributed to my success at school, at university, and in finding work. So my comments here are written from the perspective of someone trying to be conscious of hir class privilege.

For decades, 'class analysis' was damaged by the often simplistic reductionist perspectives of strands of Marxism such as Stalinism. The 'New Left' movements of the 60s helped to address this; rather than dismissing any non-class systems of oppression as ultimately unimportant, they were increasingly treated as objects worthy of change in their own right. Further, the late 60s saw the rise of postmodernism and its important critiques of 'grand narratives', particularly those based in modernism, such as Marxism. The eventual collapse of the "actually existing socialism/communism" in the Eastern Bloc further marginalised class-analysis perspectives, as people like Fukuyama declared "the end of history".

However, the needed correction to reductionist political analysis has, i feel, become an overcorrection: class analysis has become at best ignored, and at worst dismissed as irrelevant. In turn, 'progressive' politics, lacking in class analyses, has become dominated by middle-class voices whose class privilege - not only in terms of economic capital, but in terms of social and cultural capital as well - allows them to both speak and be heard.

Some common - and, i feel, problematic - perspectives that i think are probably linked to middle-class privilege include:

  • The (at best naïve) belief that Western states are an essentially neutral institutions that just need "the right government".

  • Western 'democratic' governments care about people who have at least middle-class levels of access to resources. They care about home owners, those who have investment properties, and those who have shares beyond those that exist in their (in Australia, compulsory) superannuation funds.

    To these people, governments can seem relatively (or potentially) responsive to their needs, because, due to the above, they are indeed responsive, at least relatively speaking. But that overlooks the fact that governments aren't particularly responsive to people who don't have those sort of resources: those who can only afford to rent housing, those who are homeless, those who have to use public transport because they can't afford to run a car, and so on. Governments only care about meeting the needs of this latter group to the extent that society would be substantially destabilised were they to do otherwise; they generally do the minimum amount necessary to prevent such a destabilisation from occurring.

    Related to this is an emphasis on - and sometimes an apparent obsession with - electoral politics. i've often noted with wry amusement that a number of people who look down upon those who enjoy television soap operas and/or 'reality tv' nevertheless seem to follow the sayings and doings of parliamentarians with a similar fervour. "Did you hear what Julia said?" "Oh I know! And then Tony's response, well, that was even worse!"3.

  • Hostility towards unions.

  • Middle-class people often have, or have had, access to resources that have allowed them to spend time in education to develop skills for which a premium is paid in the employment marketplace, and which they can bring to the table when looking for work.

    People that don't have these skills, or who at best have 'commodity' skills - such as those required for entry-level construction work - don't have this bargaining power. The strength-in-numbers that unions provide is a significant way in which many people can improve their bargaining power to ensure that they receive a living wage.

    One of the grounds on which i've observed 'progressives' to attack unions is that they are, in some sense, corrupt organisations. And it is true that, in Australia - and, i believe in most Western countries - many, if not most, unions are dominated by careerists and opportunists for whom union activity is not so much about improving working conditions for union members as about being a stepping stone on their path of personal advancement, often into electoral politics (cf. Martin Ferguson). i feel this not inherent to unionism, however; i consider it to be connected to unions believing that the state is a neutral institution which can be filled with 'worker-friendly' politicians. "Don't let a Coalition government get power, that will be so much worse for workers than a Labor government!" "Striking is a last resort that we use to help get the ALP back in to power!"

    More concerning to me, however, is when 'progressives' argue that people working in 'essential industries' - e.g. power supply - should not be allowed to take any industrial action which significantly affects the ability of those industries to provide their goods and services. i find this appalling. If one is not allowed to withdraw one's labor power, one is effectively a slave. And countering with "if you don't want to work under such conditions, find work elsewhere" significantly ignores the probability that for many people, practical employment options are quite limited, which further suggests privilege-made blinkers.

  • Hostility towards the "uneducated unwashed masses".

  • Here in Australia, this often manifests as derisory attitudes towards 'bogans', who are regarded as inherently lacking in intelligence and/or 'progressive' attitudes (such as "If you don't vote ALP, you're letting the reactionaries win", or "You should be forced to work to provide power to my computer" :-P ). And not only that: actively reproducing such stereotypes is itself somehow regarded as a demonstration of "progressive street cred".

    Ironically, dismissing the "uneducated unwashed masses" as unsophisticated is, to me, a highly unsophisticated approach, which i can only (charitably) assume comes from regarding the 'lower' classes as a homogeneous mass in the same way that Anglo racists feel that "all Asians look the same". It assumes that 'education' - where 'education' is defined as "credential-producing education" - is there for anyone who wants it, and that anyone who isn't 'educated' is therefore simply willfully ignorant and/or stupid. And it also arrogantly dismisses ways of being intelligent and/or analytical which don't involve e.g. the tertiary education system.

  • An overoptimistic belief in the possibilities of technology alone producing political change.

  • A number of 'progressive' people seem to have the belief that the development of new technology can automatically and inherently bring about positive social and political changes, as though if and how technology gets deployed isn't strongly influenced by social and political issues.

    In response to second-wave feminists who have decried the apparent lack of gender activism among younger generations, some feminists have essentially said "Hey, grandma, we're doing stuff - it's just that we're doing it online". But Internet access is strongly mediated by various forms of privilege - class privilege not least amongst them - and such attitudes don't do much to dispel the oft-justified notion that feminism is a white middle-class pursuit. And not only 'net access: although it's true that one can get second-hand hardware for free and install FOSS on it, this overlooks the fact that doing so often tends to require middle-class privileges.

    As i noted above, my own middle-class background enabled me to develop a certain level of literacy, and an idiolect, which in turn enabled me to relatively easily obtain skilled work, which in turn enabled me to purchase (good quality, but expensive) O'Reilly and Associates books, which in turn enabled me to develop skills in programming and system administration, which in turn has allowed me to set up several FOSS-based LANs for my extended family on the cheap, using second-hand hardware provided to me gratis by people whose workplace was planning to throw them on the garbage heap.

    As with formal education, it's not true that technology is accessible to anyone who wants or needs it.

  • Overestimating the extent to which government services are available and accessible.

  • As someone who has presented to government agencies looking very dishevelled and the worse for wear due to CFS, i can tell you that one gets treated very differently by bureaucracies depending on how one looks when one presents oneself at government offices.

    People see advertisements on television saying "Help is available!" for mental health problems. So they assume that anyone who isn't getting help for mental health problem must merely be indolent / lazy / slack etc. Anyone that has actually tried accessing those services, however, knows the very different reality; the mental health system in Victoria is a shambles, and i know a number of people who have been continually bounced from one service to another in their quest for help.

    So there are many people who "fall through the [many] cracks"; and if you're one of those people, and still actively want counselling and support, you'll find that accessing private mental health services doesn't come cheap. Even when one can, in Australia at least, claim back most of the expense via Medicare, one still needs to have the cash to spend it in the first place - something that's not necessarily the case for those whose mental health issues prevent them from earning a living income.

The middle-classes can have a strong interest in defending the status quo, and diminishing or ridiculing class-based analyses, since they can be threatened by the possibility of losing their privileges and being "cast down" into the pit of the lowly masses. They can also have an interest in promoting and buttressing the mythos around middle-class values, beliefs and aspirations (such as "You can achieve anything if you're just willing to work hard enough"). So the middle-classes don't occupy some unique position which 'transcends' society, politics and culture, and which leaves them able to 'objectively' assess how society should work, "based purely on merit". On the contrary, they are as deeply influenced by their sociopolitical position (and its attendant social and cultural capital), and the class-based privileges and "invisible knapsack"4 that usually accompany it.5

i think it's well past time for class issues, and recognition of class privilege, to become a more significant part of 'progressive' discussion and debates.



1. By "acknowledged" i certainly don't mean "always acknowledged upon and resolved appropriately"; that's all too far from being the case. Rather, i mean "at least acknowledged in a theoretical sense, if not practically". Issues of disability, which frequently end up connecting with class issues, are also less acknowledged than i think appropriate; but i'd like to focus primarily on class here.

2. An important issue is "what constitutes 'middle-class'?" Although e.g. one Marxist perspective might be "the petit-bourgeoisie; that is, small business owners", i'll here be using 'middle-class' in the lay sense i most commonly encounter. This sense contrasts "the middle class" with both "blue-collar workers" (i.e. those whose work primarily involves physical labour, such as construction workers, farm laborers, assembly-line workers etc.) and with "the upper classes" (i.e. those with many millions of dollars of assets, on the boards of corporations, those from "old money", etc.).

3. Rogers Waters, ex of Pink Floyd, has referred to "the soap opera state", e.g. on his Radio KAOS album.

4. A reference to Peggy McIntosh's influential essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [PDF]".

5. Thanks to Flavia Dzodan for raising these issues in a private email.

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