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                              Editorial: October 2006                       

         Progressivism now a preserve of the privileged

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 assumption:

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 history.

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 the 1970s.

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 his]’.

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 prosperity.

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 class:

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 socio-economic divergence.

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 growth.

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 adopting.

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 request

 TNC  15 October 2006                   Like to respond?                                 Top