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Aspirationalism: The search for respect in an unequal society

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Gabriel, M (2004) Aspirationalism: The search for respect in an unequal society. Journal of Australian Studies, 80. pp. 147-156. ISSN 1444-3058

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Abstract

In the run-up to the 2001 federal election, Australia’s national political radar
settled on a new, influential constituency: the upwardly mobile lower-middle
class, the up and coming, or, most simply, the aspirationals. As with all sizeable
demographic groups, the aspirationals were wooed by Australia’s two major
political parties, both of which could legitimately claim them as a logical adjunct
to their core constituencies: while the aspirationals are the children of Labor’s
industrial workers, they are now typically putting in long hours at the office in
order to service a mortgage in a marginal Liberal seat. Of course, such a group
could not please everyone; following the rush of enthusiasm for the aspirational
vote, several Australian political commentators denounced the phenomenon as
repugnant.1 Their gripe was predictable, but nevertheless an incisive one. They
railed against the ingratitude of the aspirationals, who were said to have betrayed
their working-class roots, and against the aspirational’s vulgar desire for personal
advancement, which they viewed as an affront to their dream of an egalitarian
Australia. Although national debate has moved well beyond this relatively minor
outburst, the disparagement of the aspirationals is indicative of a deeper tension in
Australian political life over whether or not egalitarianism can endure into the
twenty-first century, and how such a project might best be achieved. While some
seek to redefine the scope and nature of egalitarianism and to refashion the
Australian egalitarian project in the light of changed national circumstances,
others view such reinvention as a renouncement of the core principles of the
Australian egalitarian project and instead have called for the reinvigoration of a
corporatist model of Australian governance.2
This article contributes to the national conversation about egalitarianism and
Australian governance by examining in greater detail some of the issues
surrounding the fissure between defenders of the egalitarian project and
aspirational workers. Rather than expressing further moral outrage at the
aspirationals, I present a critical review of the egalitarian project and a more
generous reading of the aspirationals, or rather upwardly mobile Australian
workers. As part of my review, I specify the key features of egalitarianism as
evoked by those who spoke out against the aspirationals and identify some of the
tensions and oversights within this principled stance on egalitarianism. These
include an incomplete understanding of the origins of contemporary inequalities,
the contradictory treatment of fraternity and equality by egalitarians, and an
uneasiness about the practical management of inequality. Drawing on interviews
with young people about their experiences of social mobility, I isolate the
pressures on young people to ‘get ahead’ and the problems that arise when people
try to distinguish themselves from one another. I conclude by noting that the
aspirationals are not the antithesis of egalitarianism but, rather, the aspirationals
are particularly well placed to contribute to debate over the reinvigoration of
Australian egalitarianism.

Item Type: Article
Journal or Publication Title: Journal of Australian Studies
Page Range: pp. 147-156
ISSN: 1444-3058
Date Deposited: 08 Nov 2007 05:02
Last Modified: 18 Nov 2014 03:23
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