Editorial: October 2006
Progressivism now a preserve of the
There are two more books on a familiar theme: growing numbers of the
upper middle-class are turning progressive.
Now Australia: Inside the Lives of the Rich and Tasteful by
Andrew West and NEO Power by Ross Honeywill and Verity Blyth add
to the list of labels for this ascendant class - ’culturalists’ and
‘NEOs’ (new economic order) join ‘knowledge workers’ (Peter Drucker),
‘symbolic analysts‘ (Robert Reich), ‘bourgeois bohemians‘ (David Brooks)
and ‘the creative class‘ (Richard Florida).
While West, Honeywill and Blyth fail to draw out the full implications
of their analysis, they accept that today progressivism is a worldview
of the privileged. This has long been a bugbear for progressive
opinion-leaders. Take Professor Belinda Probert, one of the country’s
most prominent academics. Her centenary of federation Barton Lecture was
a tortured attempt to disassociate progressivism from the sources of
power in Australian society.
Probert argued that four classes have emerged since the breakdown of the
‘class compromise’ achieved at Federation.
The overclass includes the interests of capital and the managers
of capital, the employing class and those who earn very large salaries
or fees and invest in shares as a major source of longer-term security.
The middle class are ‘defined increasingly by their
tertiary educated credentials or cultural capital’ such as highly
skilled managers, professionals and technicians (Probert adds small
business or the self-employed to this class, but they could be assigned
to a distinct ‘lower middle class‘). The working class,
including the better-off segment whose employment is still regulated by
awards and enterprise bargaining and a less well off segment employed in
non-unionised service industries or those dominated by casual and
part-time work. Finally, the underclass includes the very
insecurely employed and the welfare dependent.
For Probert the overclass stands apart from the other classes, which share a common
cause in economic regulation and a strong public sector. This is a
relatively conventional Marxist analysis, with echoes of a ‘ruling
class’ manipulating political and economic agendas. It is also
comforting from a Left standpoint since it blurs any conflicting
interests of the tertiary educated middle class, including most
progressives, and the working classes - who Honeywill and Blyth label ‘traditionals‘.
However, Probert’s political position is based on a false cultural
That the possibility of political solidarity
between the middle class, the working class and the underclass – I don’t
think I’d count on the overclass - depends, in part, on our ability to
remember and revivify an emotional solidarity that is there in our
The proposition that ‘emotional solidarity’ can emerge between
progressives and traditionals misconceives the interplay of economics
and culture in contemporary politics.
Much is written about globalisation, expansion of the services sector,
particularly the fields of information and communications technology,
and how these are transforming work and social relations. In Probert's
class scheme, the middle class is defined by its ‘tertiary educated
credentials‘, or ‘cultural’ rather than finance capital. More than a
decade ago, in his seminal The Work of Nations, Robert Reich
described this group as ‘symbolic analysts‘.
An interesting perspective on the cultural implications of this
evolution emerges from David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper
Class and How They Got There.
In this era ideas and knowledge are at least as
vital to economic success as natural resources and finance capital. The
intangible world of information merges with the material world of money,
and new phrases that combine the two, such as "intellectual capital" and
"the culture industry", come into vogue. So the people who thrive in
this period are the ones who can turn ideas and emotions into products.
These are highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world
of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and
worldly success. The members of this new information age elite are
bourgeois bohemians. Or, to take the first two letters of each word,
they are Bobos.
Brooks argues the rising middle class represent an amalgam of 1960s
counterculture values and 1980s free market ideals. This distinguishes
them from the old conservative (‘establishment‘) middle class and, in
the Australian context, the left leaning public sector middle class of
What's happened is simple enough. The Bobos
have invaded the business world, and they have brought their
countercultural mental framework with them to the old conference rooms
of the bourgeoisie…There is the hybrid culture of Silicon Valley, which
mixes antiestablishment rebelliousness with Republican laissez-faire.
Especially in the business sectors dominated by information age elites -
high technologies, the media, advertising, design, Hollywood - business
leaders have embraced an official ideology that will look very familiar
to radicals and bohemians: constant change, maximum freedom, youthful
enthusiasm, radical experimentation, repudiation of convention, and
hunger for the new.
In short, Brooks believes ‘the 1960's unleashed wild liberationist
forces into American society, but that antinomianism has merged with the
enterprising ethos we associate with the 1980s‘. Consequently, ‘a new
order and a new establishment have settled into place…’
In the sense that Brooks describes a convergence of Probert's
‘overclass’ and ‘middle class‘, this bodes ill for ‘emotional
solidarity’ between the middle and working classes. On the level of
personal values, Brooks endorses research identifying ‘tolerance and
respect for diversity’ as a prominent norm.
…members of the upper middle class think of
morality in personal terms. They think of establishing moral
relationships with those close to them but do not worry about formal
moral rules for all mankind.
This is the essence of progressivism. All roads lead to ‘the word
diversity, which has become one of the key words of our age…[italics
Such a class evolution continues to gain pace in Australia, though
perhaps at a different stage of development.
Another book on the subject received more attention here, The Rise of
the Creative Class by Richard Florida. Addressing Brooks'
argument about ‘a blending of bourgeois and bohemian values‘, Florida
maintains ‘we have done more than blend these two categories; we have
transcended them completely so that they no longer even apply‘. Like
Brooks, Florida believes the arrival of the ‘creative class’ was both
inevitable and desirable. They are formed by technological, economic and
social change, but also exploit change to generate ideas, innovation and
Unlike Brooks, however, Florida touches on some negative features of the
new social dispensation. For instance ‘while the creative class favors
openness and diversity, to some degree it is a diversity of elites,
limited to highly educated, creative people‘. Florida says
These trends point toward deep and troubling
divides in American society. I fear we may well be splitting into two
distinct societies with different institutions, different economies,
different incomes, ethnic and racial makeups, social organizations,
religious orientations and politics. One is creative and diverse - a
cosmopolitan admixture of high-tech people, bohemians, scientists,
engineers, the media and the professions. The other is a more
close-knit, church-based, older civic society of working people and
rural dwellers. The former is ascendant and likely to dominate the
nation's economic future.
According to Florida, ‘one of the most significant fault lines of our
age is the growing geographic segregation of the Creative Class and the
other classes‘. Elsewhere, he calls this ‘a new geographic sorting along
class lines‘. Nevertheless, Florida is on the side of the creative
The kinds of communities that we desire and
that generate economic prosperity are very different from those of the
past. Social structures that were important in earlier years now work
against prosperity. Traditional notions of what it means to be a close,
cohesive community and society tend to inhibit economic growth and
innovation. Where strong ties among people were once important, weak
ties are now more effective. Where old social structures were once
nurturing, now they are restricting. Communities that once attracted
people now repel them. Our evolving communities and emerging society are
marked by a greater diversity of friendships, more individualistic
pursuits and weaker ties within the community.
Paradoxically, openness to cultural diversity equates to greater
In Australia, too, the focus on difference and diversity is not
restricted to academics and public intellectuals. It is now a key
concept in management education and corporate sector human resource
policy. This trend can be traced back to Enterprising Nation:
Renewing Australia's Managers to Meet the Challenges of the Asia-Pacific
Century (‘the Karpin Report‘), which criticised Australian managers
for ‘not capitalising on the talents of diversity’ and recommended an
overhaul of management education. In now familiar language, the report
said ‘the valuing of difference in organisations can uncover new
perspectives, tap different knowledge and experience, and generate
ideas, suggestions and methods not previously considered‘.
Today graduate and post-graduate credentials are a pre-requisite for
advancement in the corporate sector. ‘For people hoping to climb to the
higher rungs of the corporate ladder a bachelor degree is no longer
enough‘, said one report in The Australian Financial Review.
The spread of progressive values to the corporate sector will, in the
medium to long term, strengthen the hand of ‘moderates’ in the Liberal
Party. Over time the post-Howard Liberals will emerge as the Bobo party
par excellence. Of the ten federal electorates with the highest
proportion of tertiary educated voters, seven are currently held by the
Liberal Party. There were 2004 election swings against the populist
Howard government in many inner metropolitan seats, including
upper-middle class blue ribbon Liberal seats.
But structural developments are likely to thrust Labor in a different
direction, however reluctantly.
The trend to cultural polarisation mirrors structural polarisation of
the workforce. A couple of years ago, Mark Cully of the National
Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University found the total
number of jobs grew by 1.8 million (28 per cent) between 1986 and 2001.
No less than 1 million of these were in the highest-skilled occupations:
managers, professionals and associate professionals. However, contrary
to conventional wisdom 700,000 (about four in ten) were unskilled or
semi-skilled jobs in the services sector (200,000 were for shop
assistants). So less skilled jobs have seen strong and continuing
At the time, Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning
Herald, was struck by the absence, according to Cully’s work, of net
growth in the number of middle-level jobs which require post-school
training, but not a university degree. Gittins referred to the
‘hourglass’ shape that the skill structure of the workforce was
Of course, Labor progressives argue these trends can and should be
reversed. While there is plenty of scope to upskill routine workers - a
good Labor objective - professionals will only ever constitute a
minority of the population. The dream of an increasingly progressive,
environmentally conscious, ‘post-materialist’ society formed by rising
levels of education will not come true. Traditionals are here to stay.
footnotes for the sources used in this editorial are available on
Like to respond?