I heard on ABC radio last week that anyone who spoke about class in Australia today is seen as an intellectual lepper.. an out of touch old Marxist with too simplistic an understanding of 'modern society'. Well I am sorry I do not agree. There is nothing simplistic about understanding the ramifications of an economic system based on profits and pure capitalism, when even Governments watch fiscal bottom lines rather than social responsibilities. It may have been naive to position Communism as the desirable social model but hey let's not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater!
This occurred in a week when at University my supervisor told me my writing was basically "all over the shop", disjointed and even random... or more precisely confused and disorganised.
Perhaps it is/was. But I cannot accept that speaking about class and social capital in the C21st century is outmoded. maybe if one lives a cossetted middle-class existence in a comfy gentrifying inner suburb with sufficient income to make ends meet, say six figures... it may appear that way.
But I live in a different milieu one that uncomfortably straddles two classes... the comfortable middle class bourgeoisie and the working poor and unemployed underclass. And whilst it is simplistic to claim that social problems are exclusively found in a particular class, there can be no denying that by having access to education and income life choices offer a greater choice of escape routes, chosen or not. It is having options that allow freedom, power and self-determination.
Many women, by virtue of holding the lesser financially stable (or even viable) position are constrained in their choices but by far the most severe cases where gender intersects with economics is in the area of class. I will never turn my back on this class war as a 70s style feminist. And whislt disagreeing with many women's choices I can at least understand them and empathise with their situations.
Does that make my novel's themes irrelevant today... or are they deemed passe, unacceptable or just plain unfashionable? So now we have 'acceptable victims of society' and 'unacceptable victims of society'.
It seems to play out like this in my mind; there are those who have 'had things done to them by society (usually in the name of good intentions), like the stolen generations and the forgotten children. These are the 'deserving victims of Australia'. In this camp are the 'good refugees', those fleeing war and persecution but arriving via the controlled screening methods. Then there are the 'undeserving victims'... the slackers, dole bludgers, dollar-driven welfare mothers and the queue jumpers.
How powerful is the rhetoric? But wait deconstruct it a bit further... especially the welfare recipients classification. Could not the term underlass be substituted? If this term is mobilised then society indeed has had an active role in constructing their position and power (or lack thereof). They too have been 'done unto' and not always in the guise of good intentions.
What happens when progressive Governments send manufacturing offshore where labor costs are significantly cheaper for Industry? We have a generation or two of workers who were content to work on the production lines... many even took pride in their labour, going home each day knowing that there was something solid to show for their exertion. Many even prided themselves on their dexterity and skill sets, along with a sense of purpose in financially providing for their families.
Now I am not speaking gender here... just what appears to me a middle-class devaluing of unskilled trades which drove our economic policies (and most other Western nations in the eighties, nineties and now).
Many female workers were exploited on factory floors and in machine shops but the Unions gave them a voice. We obtained (in theory) equal pay and maternity leave provisions, sick leave, hilday leave and the 38 hour week through the collective actions of bothe women and men unionists standing side by side to obtain a better work-life balance.
At the beginning of the C21st we have an emasculated Union movement and an exploited and fearful labourforce, with unskilled laborers confined to casualised and lowly paid service sector jobs. No-one works 38 hours as full-time employment these days... not even the boureoisie, many of whom are at their desks until well after 6pm at night, just to ensure they are perceived as taking their employment responsibilities seriously.
And what of those in our community whose parents cannot sustain employment for whatever reason.... housing instability due to suburban gentrification, negative gearing and escalating rental prices, reliance on poor public transport infrastructure or choices between affording and running a car and housing costs close to work opportunities?
When do the YUPPIES and DINKS recognise that not everybody has the same choices?
Just this week I attended a Magistrates Court and yet again the unequality is there in full view. The disenfranchised appear with monotonous regularity, their lives seemingly 'medicated' by booze and drugs. Next the downward spiral of legal costs, court hearings, records, bail, probation, criminal records, decreased employment opportunities whilst participating in Court Mandated 'mutual obligations' or ' community services' which in turn imapct negatively on Centrelink work diaries and 'preparedness for work'. Catch 22. Lack of employment due to track record.
Add in poor or little education, severe learning disabilities, mental illness, drug addiction and domestic violence and sexual abuse and then tell me that these people are 'underserving victims' of our society.
Today I have had a phone conversation with an acquaintance who is a single mother of two beautiful little girls. She is trying to study part-time to gain better employment opportunities whilst using the amount of child care she can afford on her Centrelink payment whilst paying private rental and trying to keep her car on the road. She is a single mother as a result of living in an abusive relationship (where the girls' father abused alcohol and drugs). He also threatened her many times with a registered fire arm kept in the house... as the gun must be kept at the house of the license holder (suburbia) even when it is deemed necessary for shooting feral animals and vermin on his family's farm some two hours drive away.
Yep, that's a safe home in this circumstance isn't it?
This man had his gun license suspended whilst having an alcohol interlock device fitted to his car... but now that his family have left him through fear, the Courts have deemed it safe to return his gun license! He has threatened his ex-wife's life with the bloody thing. She has an intervention order which he willfully ignores and the local police (who are frantically busy) ignore repeated calls to address his intervention breaches... as he is usually gone by the time they get there and there is no evidence! So no police action, no paperwork trail, no evidence for Court... only a woman in fear of her life and waiting for him to murder both herself and their daughters.
Is this a class issue? He also has no employment because if he holds a job he would have to pay maintenance. On welfare he doesn't have to... and he can keep paying his mortgage by living with another working single mother and her children, whilst he receives Centrelink benefits. No proof as they keep a separate bedroon for his new 'housemate' who as a sole parent couldn't afford to live in a house near her employment otherwise. It also allows her children stability of schooling to stay in the area.
Then let's look at another acquaintances twenty-one year old daughter. Left school at Year 9 because she is functionally illiterate and very disruptive. Like many young women her focus is on gaining a boyfriend, who just might be Prince Charming and bring with him the possibility of a home and family. She studies at TAFE, gets a low level qualifiaction in a service Industry and works very long hours for very little pay. From her perspective her friends (unemployed and students) are having a much better time socialising each weekend whilst she is salving away in a kitchen.
It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that she will be tempted away from her employment which is not stable anyway to go back on welfare and party with her friends... after all that's where a Prince Charming might emerge. Sometimes it happens. She has friends who have met and coupled with young male apprentice tradespeople who have a solid future ahead. That's what she longs for... but again alcohol and binge drinking are part of the environs. Very soon she fails her 'job readiness' test through breaches due to hang overs and day-time sleeping in. Then the job offers are worse. More casual, reliant on non-standard working hours (meaning need for own transport). She can only afford an unreliable car which does not allow for a solid work attendance and major financial burdons to keep the thing going.
Inevitably, this young woman perceives pregnancy as a 'career option'. She wants a family and sees that being home with children might be the answer. The government pension looks good through her eyes, as she has never tried to provide a home for her family on such a sum, and the baby bonus does appear generous. Ah but where does she and her baby live? Her mother has re-partnered and lives in her step-father's home with his family. Her boyfriend is drinking, gambling and totally unreliable. She begins to fear his outbursts and rage. There is a ten year waiting list at the Ministry for Housing in this area and even longer further away from Melbourne.
Are we as a society not culpable in this situation also? How can we have an education system that allows 14 and 15 year olds to finish and enter a competitive labourmarket with no skills and no functional literacy? Would this have happened if her parents had paid for a Private Education? I think not... or if she was functionally illiterate, her family could have at least supported her through levels of TAFE studies until she was employable and skilled... by paying the fees.
I despair, when I am constantly told that my outlook on life is 'outmoded'. Is this not examples of class in all these scenarios? Working-poor, Howard's battlers... call them what you will, but I say they are the new Australian underclass. Whilst our society is so unequal in opportunity the issue of class will continue to underpin my writing... and to deny the importance of class demonstrates to me the degree of disconnect between the lived experiences of the educated boureoisie and the rest of us.
Only connect, that's all I ask of my peers.