The personal and the political

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.

Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. The middle class are working class people with regular high income, inheritance and massive debt. The worst addicts, alcoholics and deviants I have encountered belong to the middle-upper class, the inheritance class, lost and devoid of purpose with cash to burn.
    No one knows what is best for another person based on economic power (fleeting), moral superiority or current wealth. It is just that the middle-upper classes are afforded the say over the rest of us. Remember, some one is paid to empty your recycle paper bins and are glad to have the job.
    Orwell is right – the poor do not benefit by being told what to do with their life by the observant, overbearing well-off. Don’t get me started on the unregulated role of the free market economy living off us bottom feeders.

  2. The idea that there is a general social good that can be deduced rationally by observation of social dynamics is, equally, embedded in phrases like “evidence-based policy”.

    There should be caution about accusations of moralism, wowserism, and the like, because they risk a needless and potentially false problematisation of the whole system of policy production.

    The political class that is subject to these accusations tends to attach itself to, and reproduce, specific policy ideas classifiable as “social engineering” (a pejorative right-wing term, of course!)—work for the dole, for example, or the disastrous NT intervention, or in the case of Van Badham’s article, mandatory pre-commitment—but these ideas emerge from a place of perceived intellectual authority and expertise, whether it be government, think-tanks, political parties, academe or the blogs.

    The mechanisms by which they appeal to the political class and are reproduced socially, often driven by a class-conscious confirmation bias, often gathering a repellent momentum before decisive votes, is troubling.

    But in my opinion, it’s the way, and from what place, these ideas emerge initially, and are promoted and framed, that deserves the most attention and critique.

    No one can be expected to understand the details of every policy issue—but at the vote, everyone is expected to have an opinion. It’s our trust in the authorities on whom we rely for our opinions, and their ability to faithfully produce the right ones, with the right qualifications and caveats, that’s the trouble.

    But isn’t there something very pernicious in the idea that policy thinkers, who are almost inevitably educated and members of the political class, and therefore generally either middle class themselves or surrounded daily by the very morally righteous chattering class that surrounds Van Badham, or that comments on Overland for that matter, should just “butt out”—on grounds of class, condescension, or self-determination—of certain social spheres?

  3. “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.”

    The nices moments in Pember Reeves’ Round About a Pound a Day are the ones in which the good upper middle class Fabian women – who amongst other things were hoping to spread amongst their working class charges the ‘gospel of porridge’ – come to the realisation that they couldn’t manage any better, not even with their ‘scientific’ (we would say ‘evidence-based’) knowledge of what constitutes good nutrition and rational budgeting.

  4. Thanks all for the comments.

    I agree with you Tom that ‘it’s the way, and from what place, these ideas emerge initially, and are promoted and framed, that deserves the most attention and critique’. I also agree it would be pernicious to expect certain categories of people to ‘butt out’ of debates, and I am very sceptical of phrases like ‘chattering classes’. Perhaps the question is of the influence that people wield in debates, and whether some views are given unwarranted added heft.

    Thanks Giovanni. It strikes me that the modern equivalents are just everywhere at the moment. If I had a dollar for every article I have read on how difficult it is to eat healthily on a low income, and then further dollars for all the sanctimonious comments beneath it about how people need to learn to budget more effectively…

    1. “I am very sceptical of phrases like ‘chattering classes’.”

      Yes, it’s a stupid term. Meant it tongue in cheek.

      That said, I’d guess that Van Badham’s piece on poker machines as part of the cultural heritage of the working class has been read, and discussed, whether with approval or disapproval, predominantly by the political class—the alleged moralism of a part of which it derides.

      When Van Badham makes her appeal to allow the working class to determine its own culture, the end result is not that different from a conservative cry to end the “do-gooding” of progressive policy.

      In this specific case, there’s an obvious, and curiously omitted policy middle ground which would result in harm minimisation without removing pokies from the clubs or the culture: these policies were under discussion when the recent pokies reform effort faltered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *