Aspirationalism: The search for respect in an unequal society
journal contributionposted on 2023-05-25, 23:31 authored by Gabriel, M
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.
Publication titleJournal of Australian Studies