Opinion: Overcoming the class divide — reflections on ‘The New Class War’

By Deborah May

November 18, 2020


On October 26, The Mandarin published findings that revealed our collective blind spot: ‘it’s class more than any other diversity demographic that is the most strongly linked to workers’ experience of inclusion at work and one of the most strongly linked to exclusion.’

Two days later The Guardian reported union officials’ urgent advice to Labor MPs “to defend blue collar workers in traditional industries or face losing another election.”

Since then, Joel Fitzgibbon has left the Labor front bench in protest at Labor’s stance on climate and neglect of blue-collar workers.

The disappearance of this segment of society from the minds of the intellectually elite, and its consequence, is the fascinating and disturbing subject of economist Michael Lind’s book, ‘The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite’ published earlier this year.

I’m not an economist, nor a fan of jargon — both tend to create a gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’, so I opened Michael Lind’s book with a little foreboding and much resolve. I was rewarded by the excruciating exposure of yet another of my biases and the illumination of a group of people I’d failed to consider in my work as an equity practitioner over the past 25 years.

During my career, I’ve spruiked equal opportunity for women and people from diverse backgrounds within workplaces, organisational and public life. My aperture has been far too narrow.

I have excluded from my thinking a group of people I, too, have reduced to stereotypes such as ‘ignorant,’ ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘red necks’ and ‘yobbos.’ In some instances, appalled at the destructive behaviour or vile rhetoric of a few, I’ve cast my net over a whole class of society and labelled them definitively as ‘neo Nazis’ and ‘white supremacists’.

I’ve been snared in this net of ‘egocentric bias.’ I’ve cocooned myself in a bubble with people ‘like me’, made generalisations about a huge proportion of the population and have found myself speaking in an echo chamber.

This was a confronting observation for someone so committed to creating a more equitable, sustainable, connected world! And ridiculously ignorant and arrogant when my ancestors were working class, my grandparents milked cows and my own son works in a blue-collar industry!

If all voices matter, I ask myself, how have I managed to ignore the voices and overlook the concerns of such a large group of people?  People whose labour has kept us fed, serviced and self-satisfied? Farmers, truck drivers, shopkeepers? People paid a pittance to pick our fruit, empty our bins, clean the streets, feed the sick, fill the potholes? People who may once have worked on factory floors but now fly in and out to mine for ore to keep our homes lit, warm and comfortable?

How did this happen?

Like so many, I’ve been duped into thinking that my educated mind, privileged position and understanding of unconscious bias means I am more likely to see the world ‘as it is,’ make decisions that are balanced and act in ways that are fair and just.

As a practitioner, my focus has been on the ‘oppressed minority,’ not the disenfranchised majority. I’ve failed to take into account those our current political leaders have exploited so marvellously: those that Michael Lind defines as the ‘under class’.

We live in an increasingly divisive and polarised world where powerful narcissists and right winged politicians, claiming to protect the interests of the disenfranchised and marginalised working classes, back policies that heighten division, destroy the planet and feather the nests of the wealthy.

It’s easy to succumb to despair, numbness and apathy. It’s better to pay attention, notice what we’ve failed to see and change the course of action.

And if we looked, we would notice populist politicians striving to appeal to ‘hard working families’ and ‘quiet Australians’, people who increasingly and legitimately feel their concerns are disregarded, while ‘we’, the managerial elite, rise to the top, walk the halls of power and make decisions about and on behalf of ‘them’ — a group of people we know little about and have no connection with.

‘Us’ woke folk too frequently vilify or demean those who log forests, or fish the seas, slaughter calves or lambs or pigs to feed our families; We suggest their jobs are expendable because they contribute to environmental degradation and climate change, even when we’ve not given them alternatives. We have implicitly devalued their lives and obliterated their voices with the rising chime of ours and the convenient dismantling of trade unions, associations and guilds that used to ensure they had one.

These people, our neighbours, our families, have watched their jobs disappear at the direction and rising protest of ‘us,’ the educated elite. And yes, we can see the impact of such squandering of natural resources, but we also know where the profits go and whose pockets they fill – not ours or theirs, but the wealthy few who continue to benefit from subsidies, reduced costs and negligible tax. We have been complicit in silencing the voices of those who only want what we want: economic security, a quality life and a better future for their kids.

Those who have money and power continue to hold sway. Those that have education and the security of a professional, well paid job, have work, an income and a secure and privileged future. Those who prop up our lives have been neglected.

And we need to address this urgently.

Why? Because the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is widening as manipulative, self-serving and face-saving populist politicians assert they’re working to save jobs when it’s their own they don’t want to lose. Their power depends on funds from the wealthy who are motivated by greed and whose pockets are lined by a class of people with few choices paid to plunder the planet we all depend on to survive.

Short-term opportunistic and environmentally destructive decisions that are being made under the veil of COVID and the urgent need to ‘find jobs’ by investing in new gas pipelines is an example of how this plays out.

And we all lose.

‘When a society is trapped in a vicious cycle in which selfish oligarchs alternate with populist hustlers, economic growth and the rule of law are likely to be the casualty’ says Lind. I would go further: social cohesion, eco systems, our children, are the casualty.

There are jobs that emerge from sustainable means and we can work together to find them. But as Michael Lind writes, we need to move beyond the deluded belief that ‘we’ have the expertise to best promote the public interest, are insulated from mass prejudice and ignorance, and once again share power with those whose voices we’ve excised from the conversations.

In my scrutiny of jargon, I’ve learned that I’m a ‘pluralist,’ sceptical about theories that presuppose conformity whether they are grounded in Marxism, economic liberalism, socialism or anything else. I believe we can only have a world that works for the majority when the majority are participants in creating it. We have enormous opportunity to work together and solve the social, environmental, economic, geo-political issues we face today. But it requires us coming together side by side, listening and learning from each other.

Politician and scholar David Marquand stated in 1999 that a good society is a mosaic of vibrant smaller collectives, trade unions, universities, business associations, local authorities, miners, churches, women’s institutes and NGOs, each with their own identity, tradition, values and rituals who act as antibodies and protect the culture of democracy from infection.

And, good societies are supported by genuine democracy which requires equal representation, participation and negotiations among many social groups equipped with substantial bargaining power and the ability to defend their interests and values.

Whether it is ‘us’, the educated ‘elites,’ or the powerful populists who say they speak on behalf of the underclass, ‘them’, the majority lose.

Our future depends on the managerial elite sharing power with the multiracial, religiously pluralistic working class to create an inclusive, cohesive and sustainable world for all of us. A world that would benefit from knowledge and expertise gained through hard work, connections with country, and practical savvy rather than only that which has been ‘validated’ by embossed paper hung in frames over desks.

This world would not be free from bias or even corruption, but it would return the voice to those we’ve silenced and give everyone a say in decisions that affect them. It would create a world where productivity and prosperity are shared in a sustainable, even way.

It’s time to move beyond the inflammatory rhetoric that divides people into groups of ‘leftist greenies’ or right-wing racists and fascists, maintains division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and keeps us at war.

It’s time to get out of our echo chamber, engage people from all walks of life and create a conversation that includes all of us.

Our future depends on it.

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