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The "new class"



ecently reactionary journalists and right-wing populists have been dusting off and resurrecting Pareto-style theories about the "circulation of elites" and the idea first raised at the end of the 19th century by the nihilist Jan Waclaw Machajski and the anarchist Max Nomad, that the modern intelligentsia constitute a new and oppressive social class.

This recycled "new class" theory takes a variety of forms in different hands, but all the major recent Australian exponents of it give it a distinctly conservative spin, imitating similar thinkers in the US and Europe. Katharine Betts argues that this "new class" forms a rootless cosmopolitan elite, whose views, sympathetic to migration and opposed to racism, defy the more popular racist wisdom of the native Australian Volk. Michael Thompson takes a similar line. P.P. McGuiness very explicitly revives Pareto and says that the "Chardonnay set" and the "chattering classes" are a silly group, who continue the "self-destructive hedonism of the 1960s", when what is really required is constructive conservatism as represented, of course, by his own reactionary ideas on all questions.

The only point at which this sustained right-wing ideological polemic impinges on sociological reality is in the chapters in Katharine Betts' book The Great Divide on The Social Location of Intellectuals and Australian Intellectuals and the Immigration Question. In these chapters Betts gives some statistics about the changed educational composition of the Australian population, which is, in fact, not a bad starting point for a serious inquiry into what are the new features of the class formations in Australia.

Betts, however, only uses her figures in a very loaded polemical way, to develop her tendentious "new class" thesis. Unfortunately on further investigation Betts' figures turn out to be a bit inaccurate, and therefore I have collected all the useful material available from that wonderful institution, the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics. The figures I now rely on are some of Betts' figures, with those of her figures that seem to be inaccurate corrected by the statisticians' figures.

The two most useful census documents for this inquiry are Australian Social Trends 1999 and the Social Atlas for each capital city, and I will use the 1996 Sydney Social Atlas as my working example. On page 83 of Social Trends 1999 is the ABS classification of qualifications, which divides post-school qualifications into five categories: "bachelor degree and above", "undergraduate diploma", "associate diploma", "skilled vocational qualification" and "basic vocational qualification".

For purposes of describing people who have a university degree or equivalent, it seems sensible to group the first two together as representing a university degree. In the first census where degrees were tabulated, 1966, 1.5 per cent of the population over 15 years had degrees. In 1976, 3 per cent had degrees. By 1996, Katharine Betts gives the figure of 10.2 per cent, but she seems to be wrong, as the Bureau gives the figure of 12.8 per cent.

In addition, the Bureau gives a figure of 8.8 per cent for people with undergraduate diplomas and associate diplomas together. For simplicity's sake, we may assume half the 8.8 per cent for each category, which means that in 1996, according to the Bureau, approximately 17.2 per cent of the adult population had a university degree. By 1998, according to the Bureau, the figure had become 14.5 per cent plus 7.9 per cent, which takes the number with a university degree up to 18.4 per cent of the adult population, a very high figure indeed.

Another framework that is useful in relation to the educational qualifications of the population is the figures for the raw number of tertiary students. In 1912, when the Australian population was 4.5 million, there were a tiny 3672 tertiary students. In 1938, when the population was approximately 6.5 million, there was a still tiny 12,126. In 1966, when the population was 11.7 million, the number of students had risen to 91,272. Thirty years later, when the population had increased about 50 per cent to about 18 million, the number of tertiary students had soared seven fold to 634,094.

Women predominate among graduates in the fields of health, education and society and culture

In the Census Bureau's documentation there is a very detailed breakdown of "People with post-school qualifications, by type of qualification" by both age and sex. They reveal a very sharp increase in the number of women with university qualifications, who now number about the same as men, and who are concentrated in such areas as teaching, the health industry, social work and also, to some degree, in commerce and business.

The number of female primary teachers went up between 1988 and 1998 from 71.7 per cent to 77.5 per cent. The number of female secondary teachers went up from 48.3 per cent to 53.5 per cent, and the number of women teaching in higher education went up from 27.3 per cent to 35.1 per cent.

In 1996 227,000 people had bachelor degrees or higher in business and administration, 35.7 per cent of them were women; 213,600 had university degrees in health, 66.2 per cent of them were women; 357,800 had university degrees in the delightful ABS classification called "society and culture", defined as "economics, law, behaviour, welfare, languages, religion and philosophy, librarianship, visual and performing arts, geography, communication, recreation and leisure, and policing", 54.8 per cent of them were women. In engineering, however, with 120,100, only 8.4 per cent were women.

The great numerical explosion of people with university degrees was a product of the Whitlam period educational reforms. The extremely useful book, Australian Social Trends 1999, has a detailed breakdown of the age composition of people with university degrees. Part of this table is reproduced here.


Bachelor degreeAssociate or

Age (years)or higherundergraduate diploma


15-244.2 per cent2.4 per cent

25-3414.6 per cent5.9 per cent

35-4416.2 per cent6.9 per cent

45-5413.5 per cent7.0 per cent

55+6.6 per cent4.4 per cent

Total10.8 per cent5.2 per cent


15-246.8 per cent4.6 per cent

25-3416.6 per cent8.5 per cent

35-4515.3 per cent9.5 per cent

45-5410.7 per cent8.6 per cent

55+3.6 per cent4.5 per cent

Total10.1 per cent6.9 per cent

The extraordinary increase in both men and women with degrees in the age group 25 to 54 clearly illustrates the magnitude of the explosion of tertiary education from about 1974 onwards. This forcefully underlines the very important point that this was the period when women soared from being a very small portion of the people with university degrees to rough numerical equality with men. It is fascinating to note the rage of conservative misogynists like Michael Thompson against the Whitlam period of free education. Possibly the rough equality in educational achievement gained by women in this period is one of the features that infuriates them.

What emerges most strikingly from these statistics is the enormous growth in the proportion of the whole adult population with university degrees. The very size and diversity of this group makes nonsense of the conservative rhetoric that they comprise, as a whole, an elite "new class".

It is important to bring to bear other available statistical information to get a picture of what is really the Australian class formation at the moment and how this vastly increased group of university graduates fits into it. This is where an investigation of the information contained in the Social Atlas comes in, particularly if you superimpose on this information the fairly elementary and obvious information provided by the statistics of electoral behaviour in federal and state elections.

The Social Atlas tells you that people with degrees are heavily concentrated in Sydney on the North Shore, most of the Eastern suburbs, and in a belt in the inner Western suburbs. There are smaller concentrations in the Sutherland shire, the Georges River area and the Blue Mountains. If you go, however, to the useful separate category that was provided in the 1991 Social Atlas, called "managers and administrators", you find that this coincides almost exactly with the map of "high income earners".

Both these maps, however, coincide only in part with the map of people with university qualifications. Most of the people in the southern part of the Eastern suburbs and in the Inner Western suburbs, with university degrees, are thus neither "managers or administrators" or "high-income earners" as defined by the ABS. I submit that, quite obviously, these graduates are by and large the ones working in teaching, health, social work, etc.

Coincidentally, the divide in political voting behaviour is on almost exactly the same geographical lines among graduates as the apparent geographical divide between "high income earners" and "managers and administrators" and the rest of the population. The southern-eastern suburbs and the Inner West vote overwhelmingly Labor or Green etc. The North Shore, Wentworth, the Georges River area, etc, all vote solidly Liberal. Any serious investigation of all these statistical tools shows that a real economic, political, and class division exists within the ranks of university graduates, not between graduates and the rest of the population.

Census information, combined with election results gives a rough but informative insight into the current Australian class structure

The Social Atlas provides a wealth of useful information. There are maps of the distribution of migrants of different backgrounds, and these maps are very informative. Most non-English-speaking migrants are concentrated in the Eastern suburbs, the Inner Western suburbs, and the middle western suburbs.

The pattern of people with trade qualifications is the obverse of the pattern of people with university degrees. Many people with trade qualifications are concentrated in the southern part of the Eastern suburbs and the further Western suburbs, but quite a few are also concentrated in the Sutherland shire and areas like Hornsby and the northern beaches. An overview of all the statistical information available gives a breakdown of the class structure of the Sydney population on broadly the following lines.

At the very top of Australian society there is a powerful ruling class, which interlocks with a power elite, if you prefer that form of words. This group is very small. It, however, exercises direct ideological influence and hegemony over a broader group who show up in the statistical figures as "managers and administrators" and "high income earners", and these two maps in the Social Atlas are almost completely coincidental.

For statistical purposes, it is useful to group the core power elite and/or ruling class and the aforementioned two groups, together, as statistical Group One.

Statistical Group Two are very distinctly represented in the Social Atlas by the section of the map of university graduates, who are excluded from the map of "high income earners" and "managers and administrators". These lower paid university graduates comprise university staff, teachers, health workers, many public servants, minor bureaucrats in welfare organisations, and other such people. They are concentrated heavily in the Inner Western suburbs and the southern part of the Eastern suburbs. A very large number of these people are of upwardly mobile Irish Catholic or older European migrant background, and include many people who don't state a religious belief in the census. They are overwhelmingly Labor voters.

Statistical Group Three are the most diverse group. They are scattered all over Sydney except in the areas of very high incomes on the North Shore and in the northern Eastern suburbs. They include such people as clerical workers, proprietors and workers in small retail businesses, bank workers, computer workers, call centre workers and finance industry workers. They also include many self-employed tradesmen.

They range from low incomes to quite high incomes and are of very diverse ethnicity, Anglo, Irish Catholic, European migrant and even including self-employed recent migrants. A significant part of this group votes Labor, but many also vote Liberal and the biggest number of swinging voters is concentrated in this group. The ruling class attempts to exercise ideological hegemony over this group, particularly through television and the tabloid press, and a lot of the current reactionary populism of the right is an attempt to influence this group electorally.

Statistical Group Four includes the blue-collar section of the working class and the unemployed. Although manufacturing industry has declined somewhat, the blue-collar section of the working class is still a very decisive section of the population. This group is now composed overwhelmingly of recent non-English-speaking (NESB) migrants. This section of society is concentrated in the Western suburbs, which are also the areas of recent migrant concentration and relatively high unemployment. This group overwhelmingly votes Labor in elections.

Even a cursory overview of the correlation between the information provided in the census publications and electoral results confirms the general thrust of the above break-up and analysis. This four-level description of Australian society is realistic and useful for a variety of purposes.

In my view the decisive class division in Australian society is between the ruling class, with enormous economic and political power, which exercises very great ideological influence and hegemony over the "high-income earner" and "managers and administrators" Statistical Group One, and the rest of the population. This four-level division of Australian society holds for all the major capital cities and for the Illawarra, Newcastle, Whyalla, Launceston and Geelong, with the qualification that the smaller capitals and the provincial towns have a much lower NESB component in Statistical Group Four, the blue-collar section of the working class.

Rural and provincial Australia contains some elements of this division, but a concrete analysis of rural and provincial Australia has to incorporate a number of other factors, and I will deal with rural and provincial Australia in another chapter.

The alternative intelligentsia "new class" thesis is really ideologically loaded nonsense, belted out from time to time by different conservative pundits for a variety of purposes. In the P.P. McGuiness and Michael Thompson version, which is reproduced at its crudest in the unspeakable Murdoch tabloid, The Telegraph, in Sydney, the obvious aim is to whip up the hatred of the most underprivileged Australians against more educated Australians, as scapegoats, and it is an attempt to persuade the most underprivileged Australians that their interests lie with the free market and the ruling class.

This construction is episodically useful to the ruling class electorally. Michael Thompson's unpleasant humbug about non-manual employees' "core values of family, hard work, independence and patriotism" counterposed to the almost unmentionable alternative values of his "new class" is the clearest expression I've seen anywhere of this kind of pitch to backwardness.

In the McGuiness-Thompson version it is associated with a ferocious misogynism directed against "femocrats" and the "obscenity" of the Whitlam-period free education, when so many women made the great initial leap into further education. This curiously vehement anti-feminist rhetoric from the McGuiness-Thompson coterie has a delightfully personal quality, suggesting many years of grievances on their part against the feminist phenomenon.

The Katharine Betts-Robert Birrell bunch's anti-migration version of the "new class" theory

The most sustained and developed recent version of the "new class" theory is the Betts version. In The Great Divide Betts repeats, from her old book, the chapter headed, The Case for Growth. This chapter heading is rather deceptive. It would be more correctly titled, "Betts' arguments against growth". She nowhere states, in a clear or developed way, the arguments in favour of migration, to then go on to refute them.

Rather, she just mentions cursorily a few sentences of some arguments, and the whole of the chapter is a sustained polemic against migration, with her arguments overwhelming the rudimentary "straw men" she constructs on the first couple of pages. This enables her, to her own satisfaction at least, to start her next chapter, called The Social Location of Intellectuals, with the following imperishable paragraph:

"The new class cannot have supported the idea of high immigration because expert opinion told them that it was a good idea. Disinterested experts refute most of the arguments for immigration and are equivocal on nearly all the others. Consequently if we want to explain new-class attitudes we must look at the ideological role which support for immigration plays for them, which means exploring its role as a status symbol. But before the evidence for this theory can be investigate there are some background questions to be explored. What is this entity termed the "new class", what role does it play, and why should educated people want to demonstrate that they belong to it?"

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