The black arts of marketing, Murdochism and right-wing academia have made the term “working class” almost as much of a taboo as the word “socialism” in mainstream public discourse. As Noam Chomsky says about the US, “you’re supposed to say ‘middle class’ because it diminishes the understanding that there’s a class war going on”. (Occupy: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity)
Here in Australia, Tim Winton has broken the taboo in a thoughtful essay in the summer issue of The Monthly. Brought up in the state-housing areas of Perth, Winton has class in his bones, but moving among the literati and the media, as he does today, he’s become aware that the c-word raises eyebrows.
He examines the way in which the old Australian concept of a “fair go” has been replaced by the Thatcherite view that you get what you deserve – and consequently, that governments have no responsibility for the working poor who are a rapidly growing proportion of post-GFC society. Rather, they pander to middle Australia in return for votes.
Winton acknowledges that he, like many others, owes his education to the Whitlam government. But crucially, he goes on to point out that governments of both major parties have since presided over “a transition from collective citizenship to consumer individualism … Federal ministers – Labor and Liberal – who’d been educated in the era of Whitlam promptly pulled the ladder up after themselves”.
Assault from the ideologues
The ALP bears a huge responsibility for this. Its leaders have bowed down before the threat from Howard’s, then Abbott’s, Tories that to stand up for public education, welfare and the public services is itself “class warfare” – when the assault comes entirely from the other side, from the bankers and multinationals and their university and media ideologues.
I’m glad The Monthly ran Winton’s piece because two months earlier it published a somewhat snooty review by Peter Conrad of his latest novel The Eyrie, comparing it unfavourably with The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the equally accomplished Richard Flanagan, Conrad’s fellow Tasmanian.
The Eyrie is informed by the same understanding of society revealed in Winton’s essay. Set in a high-rise block in Fremantle and peopled with characters marginalised by WA’s mining boom, it’s a far cry from the nostalgia of his most famous work, Cloudstreet, though it demonstrates the same mastery of story-telling. I think it’s the best thing Winton has done for a while.
I haven’t yet read the Flanagan, and look forward to it. But Conrad’s review of the two books has a curiously geographical frame of reference that seems intended to help him reach his conclusion: that Winton “remains a pastoral poet – and a great one – who is ill at ease in the squalid or glossily affluent urban milieu where his novel is set”.
It seems to me that it’s the Oxford don in Conrad who’s ill at ease in the territory Winton is now exploring. The best novels illuminate both the hidden recesses of the human heart and the inner workings of the society their characters inhabit, and The Eyrie has a place in this great tradition.