Social class (or simply ‘class’) is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory centred on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories.
— Jimmy Wales
Just as I was considering it possible that the existence of the three-tiered class system I was taught as a kid had been made redundant after feminism, Prime Minister Julia Gillard makes an impressive and impacting speech against the ideology of the white Christian Right, who are currently represented by public figures such as Tony Abbott and Alan Jones, thus providing me with the evidence I require to see that my argument is, at least, empirical.
The idea that Australia is a classless society, or devoid of a traditional class structure, is not a recent idea. Nor is it uncommon for us to attempt to account for our classlessness by constructing memes and metonyms as a way of explaining a thing such as classlessness. What is an uncommon occurrence in our recent classless history is seeing a female prime minister attack a male opposition leader on the grounds of being a misogynist, thereby providing us all with a reason to reconsider the meaning of feminism and misogyny in our country and what relationship these two things have to ideas of class structure and ideology. I am thankful to Prime Minister Gillard for providing me with the means to test some undeveloped ideas and to quote US-based feminist blog Jezabel — ‘Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard is one badass motherfucker’.1
To propose that the rise of feminism resulted in a three-tiered class system becoming redundant is born of the understanding that before feminism it was uncommon for a man to have sexual relations with a woman of his own class or from above it. And that inter-class sex was restricted to men of the upper and middle classes having unmarried or premarital sex with women of working or lower class ranks. That this phenomenon is in fact true to the point of being regarded as the most accurate historical account of inter-class sexual conduct is beyond the scope of research of this article (save for another day). However, for the sake of the argument let’s take for granted that the social practices of the Australian white Christian right male baby boomer, and his father, since colonisation, have followed this practice and, if not, have at least ensured that it appeared to their wives and mothers that this was world’s best practice.
Assuming the above is plausible, which is to agree that the traditional three-tiered class system was not actually formulated simply on the idea that groups of humans of the same race are easily classified by locating differences in cash assets, genetics and geographies, this traditional class system can be understood as being influenced by the psychosexual aspects of sex outside of marriage during the 1970s and 1980s. If we understand the class system of these decades to be informed in this way, then it seems plausible that key social changes in respect to socio-sexual behaviours forced by the emergence of the women’s liberation movement — such as availability of contraception and legalised abortion — had an impact on our ability to construct an argument for Australia as a classless society today.
The origin of this classlessness, beginning in the 1970s with the emergence of feminism and the women’s liberation movement, is at the least plausible, but one cannot simply isolate shifts in socio-sexual behaviours at around this time as being the single force that created the classless condition. Thriving immigration into Australia in the 1970s becomes equally as important to my argument. If Australian men and women had developed rampant inter-class sexual practices during the 1970s it wasn’t simply as a result of political and ideological shifts: cultural shifts and the growing multicultural society must also be credited for this. I guess I am suggesting that if primarily Anglo peoples of an ageing English-based three-tiered class system were all of a sudden socially and culturally permitted to widely and comfortably cross-fuck, or inter-fuck, (your choice of neologism) it would, at a glance, seem that the growth of a raging (pun intended) Mediterranean population would play a huge part is this social shift.
The school directly across the street from my house (Debney Meadows Primary, School Number 5065) has a large enrolment of students from Northeast Africa, in particular Somalia and other Horn of Africa nations, in addition to a large number of students of non-white Australian backgrounds. You could say that the school is the epitome of the ideology of a multicultural Australia.
Each morning and lunch time as the multicultural throng rush and ramble around the school grounds, ‘great’ pieces from the canon of Western classical music (from what can only be ‘Great Pieces of Classical Music to listen to while Gardening Vol. 1’) are pumped into the grounds via a very loud PA system. As Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo in Forma di Sonatina — Andante Non Troppe — Allegro Moderato by The Sinfonia of London (and conducted by Alexander Faris) blares away, at what seems like an unnecessarily high level of volume, the children of the Ethio-Semitic and Omotic peoples of Northeast Africa are sharing snacks, swinging, planning and plotting, all only metres away from the confines of the Holland Court Housing Commission Estate where a large number of the students live.
Exactly what music should these students be subjected to, you ask? The music of Wedi Tukul, or Bereket Mengisteab, or Bangs? Why do I take issue with playing classical music, unsolicited, to children of non-Western cultural heritage? Is Mengisteab’s Zew Zew or Bangs’ My Life is Hard more appropriate, or am I being culturally over-sensitive because of my inherited privileged-white-Australian paranoias? I don’t know, and this essay is not going to attempt to find out. But, because I am an irritating privileged-white-contrarian, I have taken on the daily clamour of Mozart and co. (and the lack of Mengisteab) as one of my new issues to get intellectually irritated about. Which brings me to the question of class structures and ideology.
If the northeast African diaspora of my inner-Melbourne street traditionally live under a caste system rather than a class system like the one proposed to me as a child, then how are they now classified in Melbourne? Are they lower class because they live in public housing and attend poorly resourced schools? Or, are they middle class because they live in public housing, attend poorly resourced schools, and drive Mercedes Benz cars? My guess is that because of the public housing and poorly resourced schools, even the presence of Mercedes Benz cars still excludes this diaspora from being classified as upper class. So what is blaringly obvious here is that our traditional white-Australia class system — the one based on the systematisation into three tiers of personal wealth, genes, geographies, architecture, job placement and tennis — is no longer applicable, therefore redundant.
And, without getting overly semiotic here, if the consumption of classical music has traditionally been used as a sign of culturedness, social positioning, etc., in Australia then the playing of classical music to the northeast African diaspora can be read as a class-based action. This is not to suggest that there is a transformation at work here, or even a colonial attempt at transformation, more so an action brought about by the death throes of a class system becoming redundant, or shifting definitions. It feels to me that the classical music playing, because it is so deliberate and culturally awkward, is a white middle class anachronism: these children are not part of the stolen generation, the public housing is not an orphanage, this is not an action that would seem to stem from a classless society.
Stuart Hall suggests that by constructing this sense of classlessness I am emphasising my working class origins because ‘where the subjective factors determining “class consciousness” alter radically, a working class can develop a false sense of “classlessness”.’2 On the same hand, Hall reiterates that simply by writing this article and sending it to the editor for publication I am reinforcing the very existence of the three-tiered class system I have been arguing against. ‘The working class boy must find his way through a maze of strange signals. For example, the “scholarship boy”, who retains some sense of allegiance to his family and community, has constantly to draw the distinction within himself between the just motive of self-improvement (which took him to university in the first place) and the false motive of self-advancement (“room at the top”).’3
So if the three-tiered class system I grew up with has indeed become redundant because my parents were free to fuck people from Toorak and as a result Prime Minister Gillard is free to tell Tony Abbott he is a misogynist, and loud unsolicited classical music being forced upon children of the northeast African diaspora means that we also live in an anachronistic triple-tiered class system (replete with sub-classes of course), and by the mere act of even considering these ideas I am reinforcing my own position in a class system I thought didn’t exist — if all of these things are true, then I am as confused as I was when I began this article.
Jarrod Rawlins is a Melbourne-based writer.
Tracie Egan Morrissey, ‘Best Thing You’ll See All Day: Australia’s Female Prime Minister Rips Misogynist a New One in Epic Speech on Sexism’, Jezebel, http://jezebel.com/5950163/best-thing-youll-see-all-day-australias-female-prime-minister-rips-misogynist-a-new-one-in-epic-speech-on-sexism?tag=juliagillard, accessed 9 October 2012. ↩
Stuart Hall, ‘A Sense of Classlessness’, Universities & Left Review, No. 5, Autumn 1958, p. 30. ↩
Ibid. p. 29. ↩