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Reframing aspiration as a collective force

  • 26 September 2019


The idea that you can aspire to have more is a relatively new one. In fact I would suggest that it only really came into its own in Europe with the dawn of capitalism. Under feudalism you accepted the position in society that had been determined by god. It was futile to want to be a lord, for example, if you were born a serf. It was also blasphemous because to question the socio-economic order was to question the wisdom of god. And there was to be none of that, thank you!

With capitalism, a new narrative emerged. You didn't have to have noble blood to get on in the world. You could even, if you had enough nous and an enterprising spirit, get to the very top, even if you started with next to nothing.

We were all taught to love those rags to riches stories, much as we were taught to love the fabulous inversions of fate from the earlier feudal period, where the pauper discovers their hidden nobility and gets, at the end, to enjoy the life they so richly deserved. But while that trope was usually about fate, the emerging bourgeoisie at the dawn of capitalism explained their own rise as the fruit of their hard work, thrift, daring and superior intellects, as well, from time to time, as their luck.

So it is no surprise that the sacredness of aspiration is so entrenched in our political discourse. As the old satirical rendering of the socialist hymn, 'The Red Flag', puts it: 'The working class can kiss my arse. I've got a foreman's job at last.'

Last year there was a telling exchange on the subject between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. Shorten posed a question to Turnbull on whether a hypothetical 60 year old aged care worker should aspire to be an investment banker from Rose Bay to get a better tax cut. Completely unflustered, Turnbull answered: 'The 60 year old aged care worker in Burnie is entitled to aspire to get a better job, is entitled to get a promotion, is entitled to be able to earn more money,' adding, following a few jeers, 'No. Working in aged care is a good job, but you are entitled to seek to earn more. Every worker, every Australian is entitled to aspire to earn a better income.'

While Prime Minister Morrison speaks of aspiration reverentially as the touchstone of all that