This paper will examine the Australian social perspective from the nonprofessional’s point of view before undertaking a deeper socio-economic analysis. On the surface, Australians would like to believe that they are classless but in fact, they are subject to the classes that are inherent in a capitalist society. This paper will use the theories of Marx to describe the development of a class. We will also use the writings of other scholars such as to chronicle how the ruling class developed in Australia and how it has affected everyday life of the people in terms of the distribution of power. In the end, this paper will combine the aspirations of the common Australian for equality and the possibility of achieving it through concerted capitalist efforts of the middle class.
Many Australians pride themselves in being a classless society. This notion is often held in comparison of English speaking contemporaries such as the United Kingdom and United States of America. Compared to the two, Australia has a less checkered history as far as classism, racism and other forms of social discrimination are concerned. Australia’s pride in its equality and matism arises from the shared history of the majority population who are descendants of convict immigrants (Martin, 2004, p. 32). These convict foundations united the pioneers of the country against the minority free immigrants. Race and any other factors that justified discrimination in America and Britain were a minor issue compared to the collective shame of being children of convicted criminals. Consequently, there are no identifiable class accents or ethnic labeling of individuals based on ethnicity. Unlike America, there are no educated accents to show status or ethnic distinctions such as African Australians.
In everyday Australian life, a worker and a manager refer to each other on first name basis or even using the common endearing term “mate.” After work, they patronize the same pub and buy each other rounds of drinks. During the weekend, they barrack for the same cricket team and later swim on the same public beach. In Australia, the political power is achieved in a fair democratic process and any qualified individual has an equal chance to ascend to political office. Compared to the United Kingdom where there is an active monarchy, Australia seems like a free and fair country. However, equality may be a notion that reflects the common dreams and aspirations of the people of Australia rather than the reality of daily living (Kuhn & Lincoln, 1996, p. 56). These convictions run so deep that the people choose to ignore the obvious social classification and class struggle that is inherent in a capitalist state like Australia.
A great majority of the Australians categorize themselves as middle class. The middle class is a sociological concept that is used to stratify society according to income and how it affects how one is perceived in society. The most commonly used social categories are upper class, middle class, and lower class (Cohen, 1997, p. 500). A social class is therefore synonymous with economic status. Therefore, the middle class would be a group of working individuals who earn a certain level of income because of their professional skills. To belong to the middle class, one would have to possess a given level of educational training, economic ability, and social status (McGregor, 2001, p.3). On the lower spectrum is the lower class. This is composed of blue-collar workers who take up most of the menial jobs in the labor market. This category of laborers often consists of indigenous Australians, immigrant workers, and women. From this definition, the middle class demarcates a class from a higher and a lower differentiation thereby reinforcing the fact that Australia is not a classless society. McGregor (2001, p 4) emphasizes that there can never be a classless society because class provided the structure for all modern societies
A number of studies conducted to investigate Australia’s market concentration in relation to other capitalist countries found that industrial concentration has remained stable throughout the country’s industrial development (Connell, 1982, p. 41). Studies spanning over twenty years found that in most companies, the top twenty shareholders; about 5% of the total shareholders for most companies, held more than 55% of the total shares. These numbers displayed similar patterns over the last two decades (Connell, 1982, p. 41). A closer examination of the ownership and the board membership of the leading companies show that the ruling class own significant shares or seat as board members. Connell presents the ruling class as a small group of powerful individuals and families who control shares even in competing companies and retain this power through alliances and even strategic intermarriages (Connell, 1982, p. 42). Examples of these ruling class families are the Baillieus, Fairfaxes, Knoxes and Robinsons. The upper class, it seems, is keen on defending its position in the social order since it affords them privileges that are not available to the other two social classes.
Currently two thirds of the working population is classified as “white collar” while only a one third of the population works in “blue collar” jobs. The wealthiest Australians make up 5% of the population yet they own more than the rest of the country put together. The top twenty percentile of households earns an average of $1.7 million annually while the lowest 20% earns $ 27,000, which is a meager 1% of the country’s wealth. It is therefore a fact that Australians live different lives base on their jobs and incomes (McGregor, 2001, p 20).
The daily life of a typical middle class Australian worker involves waking up and going to work at a bank, local factory, a mining company, a government job or a multinational chain. At the end of the week, he or she receives a salary or a wage. This is the daily routine of close to two thirds of the Australian population (Cohen, 1997, p 522). This group of laborers such as drivers, carpenters, mineworkers, and teachers sell their labor power to capitalists in exchange for salaries and wages. Since this group is the majority, they feel that society is classless because they share a similar standard of living due to comparable incomes. At the same time, there is a group of the working class who are close allies of the capitalist class. These individuals earn significantly larger incomes in addition to fringe benefits such as shares and property.
They may appear as part of what the upper class but they are merely puppets of the powerful capitalists. Examples of this category of middle class workers are company executive officers, heads of government departments and judges.Under Australian law, all citizens have equal rights. Some of the rights guaranteed within the constitution are the right to vote, the right to run for elective office, the right to protest and right to petition the government on a particular issue. The presence of the ruling class challenges the equality promised in the constitution. Instead, social classes introduce equitable distribution of rights. Equitable distribution of rights gives more weight to the interests of the ruling class whenever there is conflict among the classes (McGregor, 2001, p. 19). In Australia, the wealthy hold the most economic, political and social clout. The capitalist class seldom has to agitate for its rights because the political class acknowledges that the capitalists occupy a relative position above the political class (Connel, 1982, p 52). Most political outfits rely on the generous funding of the wealth business class. Politicians are therefore forced to bend the government resources they control to the will of the capitalist to avoid losing their crucial support and goodwill.
Secondly, the business world is composed of over 200,000 companies. Most of these companies are small entities operating few giant corporations. Studies have shown that the small manufacturing plants that employ one hundred or less employees account for 40% of the total industrial output (Connell, 1982,p. 55) Such industries provide a realistic entry point for middle class business owners into the upper class. Such businesses and industries embody the spirit of free enterprise, which is a key principle in capitalism. However, this transition can only be achieved by the most energetic and ambitious entrepreneurs. This shift will not remove class divisions but will expand the boundaries within which Australians can enjoy the benefits of the upper class.
Compared to its English speaking contemporaries, Australians are least concerned a about social class in their daily interactions. They are unencumbered by cultural stratification of people as rich or poor, black or white. However, the capitalist economic policy that is used in the country forces social classification of classes within the citizenry. The middle class can still achieve equality but this will require a concerted economic effort to move reduce the power of the upper class by transitioning as many middle class business men as possible to the upper class.
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