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The book corner: Class in Australia

  • 03 June 2022
  Before reading a book outside my own area of study I find it good intellectual hygiene to reflect on the prejudices that I shall bring to the reading. As I was reading the illuminating contributions to Class in Australia  I had to confront my attitudes to Marxist analysis, to the claims of sociology, social work and psychology to be sciences, to the relative importance of inequality based on wealth, gender and race, and to any claim that canonises individual choice while claiming to be value free. My reading of the book introduced me to a much more self-reflective and complex field of thought than I had suspected.

Although we may hesitate to use the word, class inevitably shapes our view of the world. It denotes the way in which since antiquity we have divided the world into unequal groups. It embraces the gaps we perceive between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the week, the wise and the foolish, the saved and the reprobate, the connected and the unconnected, the religious and the irreligious, white and black, male and female, and many others. In all these pairings class marks the perception, not only of difference, but of social superiority and inferiority. If you are in the lower class you can expect disapproval and discrimination.

As the contributors to Class in Australia recognise, modern reflection on class has largely been inspired by Karl Marx who focused on the stark difference between the conditions of those with capital and of those who worked for them. He studied the dynamic by which the upper class grew richer and the lower class poorer under nineteenth century capitalism, and recognised also the ways in which the lower class were led to accept their plight as unalterable.

His study was not confined to observation. He was appalled by what he saw, believed that a capitalist society would collapse under its own contradictions, and wanted to change it by empowering the working class to struggle and through revolution to give birth of a new classless society. His focus on economic inequality, its dynamic, and his vision of a conflictual path to a classless future, have inspired much later reflection on class and later efforts to eradicate the inequality associated with it.

I believe that both Marx’s insistence on the blight of gross economic inequality, and also his analysis of the ways in which both those who benefited from it