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The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform.

THE EXPERIENCE OF MIDDLE AUSTRALIA: THE DARK SIDE OF ECONOMIC REFORM Michael Pusey Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2003, xvii, + 244 pp., $36.95 (paperback).

This is a troubling book, in a number of ways. It portrays a deeply troubled middle class, sure of little about the future except that things seem to be getting worse and no one can be trusted to make them better. It shows the great importance that 'middling' men and women attach to time and security, for themselves and their families, and finds that they feel in command over less and less of both. It confirms the growing conviction--obvious to all but those who are leading us--that most non-elite Australians don't much like the way the world is being reshaped and hold particular fears for the future of their children. Few have captured more ably than Michael Pusey the sense of grievance, uncertainty and anger, the deep mistrust that has come to poison relationships between leaders and led, and the feeling of precariously hanging between ever more divided 'haves' and 'have-nots'. As the champion of those to whom he has listened, he helps us understand how their sense of well-being and worth matters. Even if his portrait is a little rosy (was the pre-1980s middle class really so inclusive and broad?), and even though he sometimes fails to recognize that 'social memory'--of a time when everyone was equal, for example--can be bad history, Pusey has paid this broad group of Australians the respect of asking them what they think of the world. As he argues, it is a respect paid them by few of those arguing for economic reform.

Yet if The Experience of Middle Australia is strong on the shaping of attitudes and beliefs, and convincing in its portrayal of how 'the economy' is increasingly experienced in terms of unpredictability and vulnerability, it is less compelling when it comes to the question, 'And what should we do?'. Coming to this book from a project in which I also listened to hundreds of people, but people living in hardship in public housing estates, I was struck by the differences between their words and those of the people Pusey describes. Middle Australians talk a lot about what they lack and what they feel has been taken away. The mostly impoverished people to whom I spoke could certainly identify their losses, but they also knew their strengths and could often point to a concrete history of activism and collective effort, volunteering, self-sacrifice and obligation. They were less interested in assigning blame, more interested in defining justice. It is not so much that middle Australians blame others, which in a way seems reasonable; what is more troubling is that they also seem to see others--both above and below--as solely responsible for solutions.

In that light, it is more difficult to forget the apparent enthusiasm with which middle Australia has embraced 'mutual obligation' or the shameful practices of punitive public welfare. It is more difficult to forget the large sums of money some of these middle Australians--with the help of the governments they apparently despise--have always invested in privilege. Of course, it is also hard to ignore the polls and research that suggest deep concern over growing inequality. Yet to many readers, I think, the situation will look more contradictory than Pusey acknowledges. It is hard to see the arguments that will mobilize the people described in this book towards greater justice or equality. It is hard to see what they are already doing in that direction. If, for instance, there is a crisis over tax paying in Australia, it stems in part from the unwillingness of some of these 'middle Australians' to acknowledge their obligations to strangers, and their preference for spending money on the comforts and security of the people they already know.

Their complaints are important and real: they don't want to be suckers and taken for a ride, they don't want to be insecure or feel unsafe, they want their children to do well, and they want governments to do something about it. But on the evidence of this book, it is difficult to imagine what they might endorse as an agenda for change. Perhaps I am being harsh, but their response to other people's advantages is not 'That's unfair, let's change things', but 'That's unfair, me too'; in recent discussions of negative gearing, for instance, the most common vox pop response I heard did not concern the ethics of massive tax breaks but how to get a piece of the action. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, which this book helps us see in a new light, that Australia is suffering a failure of moral leadership, values and principle, and that this failure is most evident among its most powerful and wealthiest people. If people in the middle see only self-interest at the top, they are justified in their angry contempt. I'm convinced by Michael Pusey's analysis of what middle Australians think has gone wrong. But I'm less sure, having read this book, what many of them are contributing and can contribute to putting it right.

This is an important book, a timely book. If it does not, in the end, help us as much as it might in the crucial challenge--finding the arguments that will mobilize and move the middle towards real investments in equality--it has provided some of the foundations.

Mark Peel

Monash University
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Author:Peel, Mark
Publication:Journal of Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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