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the book covers of Bri Lee's 'Who Gets to be Smart', Rick Morton's 'One Hudred Years of Dirt' and Lech Blaine's Quarterly Essay 'Top Blokes'.

A long-standing myth about Australia is that we are a classless society. This, of course, is complete bullshit—but its cultural aftermath is such that few discuss their socioeconomic status honestly, informedly or comfortably. Class is not so much our nation’s Voldemort, whose name we dare not speak, as some writers suggest (often at writers festival events dedicated to the very subject); it is rather our Basilisk, whose gaze we cannot meet except in glimpses through a distortionary lens. It is through such fleeting interactions we slowly develop a class consciousness, however skewed or self-deluding, through the fog of taboo and performative egalitarianism.

Thus, Australian writers less often make blunt assessments of relative power, and more often capture class relations via its cultural refractions, often in memoir form. Universities, as traditional frontiers of class distinction, are well-mined contexts. It was at uni where I too first encountered children of the financial elite—gawking at a classmate’s Instagram selfies outside her family’s holiday home backing onto Lake Como in Italy; serving that same family at donor-only events at an art gallery, where I was casually employed in customer service, the matriarch shuffling awkwardly while her daughter fraternised with the help.

Several recent Australian non-fiction books have recounted similar narratives, exploring the subjective hardship of moving through elite universities as someone from a lower or middle-class background, immersing oneself in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable milieu.

A long-standing myth about Australia is that we are a classless society. This, of course, is complete bullshit.

Bri Lee’s recent book Who Gets to be ​Smart (Allen & Unwin) examines the perpetuation of social power by elite schools and universities, interspersed with reflections on moments when she was made to feel intellectually inferior or unrefined. The book opens with Lee visiting Oxford University, where her friend Damian had attained a Rhodes Scholarship. Lee vacillates between unpacking the patriarchal and white supremacist foundations of the Rhodes, and panicking about her inability to fit in among Damian’s new highbrow friendship circle.

Later, Lee recalls a childhood sleepover at her friend Jane’s house. ‘In the morning, as I was leaving, I walked past a hall table upon which sat copies of magazines: The Economist, the New Yorker, and, on top, New Scientist…’ Lee’s family were by no means impoverished and were eventually able to send their children to fee-paying Catholic schools. But she still felt, in the competition for grades, she was starting from behind, ‘up against people like Jane, who used tickets to the British Museum as bookmarks’.

Lech Blaine’s recent Quarterly Essay ‘Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power’ is similarly intertwined with personal anecdotes about feeling out of place at the University of Queensland while trying to leave behind the outward trappings of his regional, working-class upbringing. The chief cultural touchstone Blaine uses to parse class distinctions is rugby codes—toffs follow union, battlers follow league—and his essay is rich in imagery from meat pies to Bundaberg Rum.

Both books evidently borrow from Rick Morton’s modern classic, One Hundred Years of ​Dirt (MUP), a memoir about the difficulty of leaving behind the psychological encumbrances of growing up in poverty in rural western Queensland. The Morton family’s path was evidently tougher, from divorce to insecure work and addiction. But cultural intermediaries, from hunting to being baffled by vegetarianism, are similarly deployed to distance Rick from his Bond University classmates.

This terrain is worthy of literary excavation, and these accounts are compelling. They relay their lived experiences of social mobility authentically, and in a manner surely relatable for many. Yet they are sometimes afflicted by the same disease as Australia’s broader discussion of class—an overreliance on dated signifiers of ‘snob’ and ‘bogan’ culture, like accents, education and ‘taste’, as the metrics of privilege, while actual economic power becomes increasingly unmoored from such expressions. For a nation so proud of ostensibly rejecting the class structure of our colonial masters, it is ironic that class is so often interpreted as a jumbled series of clashing pastimes and aesthetics, as opposed to persistent, deepening inequalities of income and wealth.

There are plenty of ‘cultured’ workers who struggle to pay rent, and who’ve travelled to European cultural sites precisely because it is a more realistic saving goal than buying a home. Rugby league left behind its ‘working class’ roots long ago, while there are plenty of players in all our nation’s codes who’ve embraced the fads of mullets and sleeve tattoos despite ascending from all-boys grammar schools. And while Malcolm Turnbull’s exaggerated elocution still smacks of Sydney’s North Shore, there are many whose ‘ocker’ accents thinly conceal handsome savings accounts. The cultural lexicon our writers draw from and contribute to is rapidly ageing, as Australia’s economy has mutated, and it urgently needs updating. Without such, we’ll be stuck punching at shadows as the relative distribution of socio-economic power remains misunderstood and unchallenged.

Australia’s discussion of class is overreliant on dated signifiers of ‘snob’ and ‘bogan’ culture, like accents, education and ‘taste’, as opposed to persistent, deepening inequalities of income and wealth.

One reason cultural signs are decreasingly relevant to class diagnoses is that the relationship between higher education, occupation and economic power has been destabilised. Lee, Blaine and Morton share an abrasive depiction of life on campus, with cultural barriers to being ‘in the know’ and ‘fitting in’ exacting a humiliating form of social violence on the uninitiated. Similarities to Sally Rooney’s Normal People abound, in which the intelligent, shy Connell from Ireland’s deindustrialising north-west is alienated from his Trinity College classmates and crippled by imposter syndrome. These accounts reflect a broad truth—student cohorts remain skewed toward the urban and privately educated, and working-class and regional kids face subtle barriers to engagement with campus life. Lee’s account is particularly eviscerating of sandstone ivory towers, depicting them as ‘kyriarchal’ pillars of conservative hegemony.

Yet the equation of degrees to class power is fast slipping, as universities evolve from upper-class enclaves to mass-participation ‘learning factories’. Enrolments have ballooned, which has necessarily somewhat diversified student cohorts. More jobs now require a degree, which has moved middle-class professional disciplines like education and nursing onto campuses. Meanwhile, actual economic outcomes for graduates are stagnating, due to both lower-paid professions now requiring degrees and the gutting of working conditions in previously well-off ones. The cultural and knowledge sectors, sometimes lazily associated with highbrow snobbery, exploit their veneer of fulfilment by entrenching ‘do it for the love’ insecurity and poor working conditions, and graduates entering such fields must often compete for unpaid internships and insecure work to get a ‘foot in the door’ of their preferred field. They are also weighed down by increasing student debts, forming what Noah Smith calls the ‘haut precariat’. The percentage of uni students and graduates who are pompous prats is shrinking, and it’s not even clear they’re always punching down.

Conversely, those who learned skills outside university, such as tradespeople, are financially ascendant. Blaine explores this phenomenon in Top Blokes: ‘a generation of men who looked and sounded working-class had ditched unionised jobs for small businesses’, grew significantly wealthier, and ‘voted with their hip pockets’—i.e. for the Coalition, who promised them tax cuts. Their economic clout also engenders cultural cachet, with the powerful desperately seeking to woo aspirational tradies through mimicry. Witness Scott Morrison: a well-off, puritan rugby union fan who rebranded as ‘ScoMo’, a beer-sculling Cronulla Sharks diehard. Other examples include The Block presenter and Morrison government ‘ambassador’ Scott Cam, who has built a TV career on cosplaying as a knockabout tradie, and former KPMG economist-turned LNP Senator Matt Canavan who used black makeup to pretend he’d just crawled out of a mine shaft. Blaine portrays this as disingenuous opportunism—and it is—but the ‘big swinging schtick’ rests atop a shared neoliberal economic program. Morrison and Canavan are not just feigning relatability to the working class; those we often mislabel working class based on outmoded stereotypes such as hard hats and steel-capped boots are now a lot more like their traditional conservative electoral base. And Cam’s relatability to his audience is not simply born from overwrought mannerisms; his show is about the precise vehicle that vaulted many blue-collar men into the upper-middle class: investment properties.

Yet we rarely see literary depictions of individuals struggling to secure an apprenticeship or fit in on a building site, unable to strike up banter about fishing, betting or four-wheel drives. No one calls tradies or miners ‘elites’. Our literary impressions of everyday social exclusion are hampered, perhaps inevitably, by a preoccupation with settings in which writers congregate. Readers might misunderstand knowledge hubs as the primary loci of in-group exclusivity, however, and non-tertiary educated people as necessarily not patronisers but patronised.

Our literary impressions of everyday social exclusion are hampered, perhaps inevitably, by a preoccupation with settings in which writers congregate.

The second muddling factor is a simplistic conception of the urban/rural divide. Lee, Blaine and Morton all hail from Queensland, a particularly decentralised state. Morton portrays the genuine difficulties of life in far-flung localities, from school-via-radio to medicine-via-helicopter. Blaine, conversely, gets more political, describing the growing sense of alienation of rural and regional residents from their metropolitan counterparts and their progressive politics. This hints at broader media narratives that the regions are being ‘looked down upon’ and ‘left behind’, which Blaine flips between deconstructing and reinforcing, never quite committing to a critique or defence.

Yet the Grattan Institute has analysed the movement of regional voters toward (usually conservative) minor parties and found, to the extent they differ from urbanites, they are driven by a cultural backlash to shrinking rural populations and increasing multiculturalism in urban centres making the bush feel less central to modern life. Economic decline is not a major driver—while some regional centres are struggling, others have benefitted significantly from commodity booms. As the Grattan researchers note, ‘On most measures of economic performance, the regions have kept pace with the cities over the past decade. And in terms of overall well-being, the regions remain in front’.

Our culture’s overemphasis on well-read, inner-city wankers looking down their noses at bogan interlopers is not simply imprecise—its consequences are political. A narrative has emerged since the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, that depicts liberal university graduates as sneering snobs, intolerant of those who don’t misapply buzzwords like ‘intersectional’ gleaned from half-read gender studies textbooks. We are often told that those of us who hail from capital cities don’t ‘get’ the regions; that we ‘latte sippers’ (another meaningless class signifier) have it easy and wantonly champion unworkable demands on the bush, particularly in relation to climate policy. This supposedly pushes otherwise progressive people to the right; Blaine interviews a regional blue-collar worker who abandoned Labor due to the ‘contempt he feels emanating from progressives’.

I don’t doubt Blaine’s professed experience of ‘bigoted comments about bogans’, but I fail to see evidence genuine intra-country prejudice is growing in Australia, outside of COVID outbreaks and Barnaby Joyce’s paranoid fever dreams. Contentious missteps aside, its political effects appear limited and born largely from reactions to the narrative of geographic division itself. And when one considers that many blue-collar workers and regional areas are doing relatively fine economically, their shift to the right looks less like downtrodden alienation with urbanite discourse than plain old disenchantment with uninspiring politicians, parochialism and self-interest.

Economic power is not an identity but a relation; it matters less whether writers diversify their settings and characters to include traditional working-classness, and more whether they communicate radically egalitarian messages.

Education and geographic polarisation are real and happening across the Western world. Economist Thomas Piketty describes this new paradigm as a ‘multi-elite’ electorate, with high-education voters moving left and high-income voters moving right—these groups overlap somewhat and are porous, but are distinguishable. One group is not ‘the elite’ oppressing the other; it’s a complex picture of semi-agential groups vying for economic and cultural power, both filled with flawed people in turns compassionate and myopic. Whereas politicians may need to pander to certain lazy tropes in pursuit of electoral gains, non-fiction writers must represent truths as best they can. We must grapple with this nuance and squarely challenge accepted class tropes, and publishers should look to diversify our storytelling to capture broader forms of socio-economic exclusion.

Beyond politics, the literary community is increasingly conscious and critical of its own middle-classness, partly due to modest diversification of its constituents. Author Michele Freeman critiqued in Overland the patronising tone of writers like Jacqueline Maley towards working-class women, who supposedly spend their time ‘manning tuck shops…working in receptions… shopping at K-Mart, and maybe, on special occasions, Sussan’. Criticism of such crass stereotyping is warranted, but merely recentering ‘tasteless things’ risks reducing class consciousness to a form of aesthetic representation, which not only lends itself to aforementioned distortion but is also artistically unambitious. Economic power is not an identity but a relation; it matters less whether writers diversify their settings and characters to include those traditionally associated with working-classness, and more whether they communicate radically egalitarian messages.

On this front, Lee, Blaine and Morton cannot be faulted. My demographic quibbles detract not from their respective commitments to educational, industrial and social equality. One puts down these volumes with a greater appreciation for the urgency of dismantling socio-economic privilege in Australia. And the teasing out of nuances in our social fabric is an ongoing project for these writers—for instance, the forthcoming anthology Growing Up in Country Australia, edited by Morton and including a chapter from Blaine, is pitched as an exploration of the diversity of regional areas which will examine the class divides within regional communities.

Such nuance is sorely needed in a country too often distracted from incisive critique of social stratification by misdirection and division. As John Quiggin has written, bushies, latte-sippers, brickies and literati, ‘we’re all “real Australians”’.