Last week, playwright Van Badham wrote a piece about gambling that generated much discussion both on- and offline.
Badham posited that ‘gambling is at the core of the post-colonial Australian cultural experience’ and mused: ‘Given the popularity of gambling in this country, I wonder if the public shaming of Australian gamblers has more to do with bourgeois loathing of working-class habits than any genuine moral crusade for public good. It must be very confusing for those who base their social self-esteem on the accumulation of money to witness a pastime that involves the happy sacrifice of it.’
Many took issue with Badham’s characterisation of the gambling industry and of its role in working class life. In Overland, Lizzie O’Shea argued that there was ‘something galling about defending gambling on the basis of its working class cultural credentials, given the industry thrives on stripping money from the disadvantaged’.
I don’t have the expertise to respond on the specifics of gambling. What interests me is the history that lurks behind this debate. I agree with O’Shea on this issue and valued her response but I also acknowledge that Badham’s piece presented an uncomfortable truth for many of us: that historically, many ‘progressive’ movements have centred on ‘improving’ and ‘uplifting’ the working classes rather than engaging with their rights, needs and desires.
In his 2010 defence of the welfare state, Ill Fares the Land, the late historian Tony Judt argued that in the gradual erosion of social democracy, much that was precious had been lost. ‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today’, he wrote. ‘We cannot go on living like this’. Yet Judt acknowledged the more problematic side of l’état providence: a smothering desire to use the power of the state to, in the words of the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, ‘protect people from themselves’.
As a determined class traitor himself, George Orwell was a keen observer of the tendency among ‘socialist’ movements to impose middle class norms on the proletariat. In 1937 in The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote scathingly: ‘The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders’.
Orwell was not himself immune to these tendencies; he noted that in some districts, efforts were ‘being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money’, a notion which left him ‘torn both ways’. Orwell continued:
I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right – I agree heartily. Yet all the same it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow.
In this age of a much-hyped ‘obesity epidemic’, obsessive concerns about what the poor might be eating become particularly pronounced, together with an anxiety around ‘cashed-up bogans’ and smug hypotheses about just how many consumer items (with flat-screen televisions being the prime example) people might be purchasing with their Baby Bonus.
There is, unavoidably, a rich history of middle class reformers telling workers what to do. It would be dangerous to conclude, though, that this impulse lurks beneath all of the efforts made to restrain industries – whether gambling, alcohol, tobacco or convenience foods.
The argument that it is patronising to regulate addictive substances and pastimes is attractive to these sectors who seek to blur the lines between, for instance, contempt for smokers and hostility towards the industry which markets to and profits from them (the former attitude is appalling; the latter surely not). O’Shea posits that dismissing criticism of the gambling industry as ‘snobbery’ is ‘lazy and politically irresponsible’. It is also a tactic beloved of those who are paid handsomely to argue against meaningful regulation.
Similarly, a reification of ‘culture’ is not unique to postmodernists; in their 2009 book Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan noted that in 2007 the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia dismissed the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines for safe alcohol consumption as ‘culturally irrelevant’. Their medical relevance, it seemed, came second fiddle to the all-important place of alcohol in our daily lives.
The argument that a middle class ‘insider’ elite sneers at the proclivities of the workers is also popular among the Right and forms the core of Nick Cater’s much-critiqued book The Lucky Culture. Rupert Murdoch might be one of the world’s richest and most powerful men, but by virtue of publishing tabloids which are widely read, he becomes a defender of the common man against middle-class prudery: he tweeted recently that complaints about Page 3 girls were ‘elitist nonsense’.
The old tenet that the personal is political has become firmly entrenched, and an emphasis on the former often seems to crowd out the latter. In the rush to prove one’s credentials as a non-elitist and a non-patroniser, debates about matters that are properly political have come to centre around the question which group – the social democratic left or the free-market right – is more respectful of ‘ordinary people’ and their likes and dislikes.
The tensions between individual freedoms and the collective good are real, and they give rise to hard questions. We need to be wary, though, of reducing political debates to battles of rhetorical empathy rather than of ideas or plans of action.