The People in the Suburbs
“And for once in my life it’s not the people in the suburbs, It’s me’s got it wrong” – The Whitlams, Life’s a Beach
I put a comment on Twitter this morning that was born out of frustration and generated a bit of discussion that I then didn’t really have the time to participate in.
The comment was: “What is it with middle-class people making fun of bogans? FFS use your time, education, and privilege for something more worthwhile.”
My first point is that the people being disparaged are usually not bogans. Usually, it is the ‘aspirational’ classes in the outer suburbs, “Howard’s Battlers” if you want (although they don’t seem to consider themselves Abbott’s Battlers). Bogans, by my understanding, do not participate to any great extent in the formal economy or have a great deal of aspiration. However, the term has come to be used as a catch-all, derogatory term for what we might once have called the working classes. But, of course, we kid ourselves that class is not a definer in Australian society and in recent years some politicians (Peter Costello, if I recall correctly) have tried to convince us that “working class” simply refers to anyone who goes to work for wages. If that’s not depoliticisation, what is!
Now one argument, which has some merit, is that the middle-classes, who are themselves struggling to get ahead yet see that all of their hard work and effort seems to leave them no better off than the ‘bogans’ with their wide screen televisions and late model holdens, are jealous or resentful. I get that. I have relatives who didn’t finish school and work on the factory floor who earn more than I do, and I have three degrees. Sometimes it is tempting to question whether the sacrifices and constant effort are really worth it.
For the most part, they are not the ones that piss me off so much. It is the ones who unthinkingly objectify, denigrate, and make fun of people they call bogans, presumably because it makes them feel superior or, at least, better about themselves. ‘Lefty’ intellectuals and media ‘professionals’ are just as guilty as those who sit only just above the objects of their scorn and are trying to differentiate themselves.
My argument is that we should be trying to understand where these people are coming from rather than stereotyping and denigrating them. Particularly those of us who consider ourselves to be ‘lefties’ and get frustrated that so often they seem to vote for conservative governments that we know do not work in their interests. See, it’s that assumption of superiority on our part again. Maybe we should ask why they sometimes favour conservative governments – we might actually learn something and find some common ground.
I’m not advocating that we somehow idealise or idolise this class either, or see them as belonging to some nostalgic golden past. There is nothing to idolise about excessive drinking, neighbourhood disputes, solving problems with violence, or being loud and opinionated even when uneducated on an issue. Mind you, there is nothing class specific about any of these things, it’s just that we associate them with some classes rather than others, in a way that is culturally one-eyed. Hot rods tearing up your street, and parties that spill out onto the footpath or into your front yard leaving the empties behind aren’t so great either. Nor are domestic disputes that keep your whole street awake at 2am.
But then most intellectuals I know don’t get car culture; don’t understand how Bathurst can be in your blood – how you’re either a Ford man or a Holden man, even if you drive a fucking big 4 wheel drive. Nor do they tend to repair their own cars. Of course, if you start work at 6am or 7am in an industrial estate, town, or suburb that isn’t well served by public transport, you either have a car or you want one if you are to have any independence.
Nor do most intellectuals and nice middle-class people I know understand that ‘family values’ can be lived out in a quite different way to what conservative politicians mean. The term might resonate in the outer suburbs, and the conservative rhetoric convince some voters despite the fact that the conservative parties rarely have economic policies that truly work in the interest of families, but valuing family can be quite different in practice to either what the politicians advocate or what we lefty intellectuals assume, and it’s not all bad. We talk about ‘family values’ as though there is just one agreed meaning and set of values, but there’s not.
Ok, respectable middle-class people don’t usually conduct their domestics on the street either. I’m not going to say that’s good, but it’s a display of human heartache and can’t we see it as that rather than an embarrassing display of impropriety?
And another point: capitalism in a materially saturated society doesn’t thrive on a few purchases of high quality items that will last a lifetime or on the minimalist, ethical purchases of new style hippies and greenies. It thrives, in part, because the people in the outer suburbs are buying wide-screen TVs, and cheap white goods from Harvey Norman, and home improvement products from Bunnings, and need to replace them every few years. Despite the cynicism and resentment, there’s a symbiotic relationship going on here. We can enjoy our little capitalist niche because economic growth is propped up by the consumption of other niche groups. There’s no point feeling superior or self-righteous unless we can come up with a way of changing the system that defines all of us.
Which brings me back to my original point. We’re all stuck in the same system, neatly divided by marketing strategy and lifestyle into niches and demographics. Denigrating others because of their lifestyle doesn’t achieve anything, either politically or socially, and division and resentment just reinforce the status quo. If you’re happy with that, fine. But if you’re not and you claim to be a ‘lefty’ or ‘greenie’ or progressive intellectual or whatever, get over the laughing and bitching at the funny little bogans and put your thought, energy and resources into doing something to change the system, which just might involve trying to understand them and see things from their point of view occasionally even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.