The Marked Increase in Economic Inequality Has Widened Society’s Class Divisions.
Listener: 24 February, 1996.
Keywords: Political Economy & History;
Erik Olssen’s just published Building the New World is an outstanding contribution to New Zealand historiography and to our understanding of the origins of modern New Zealand society. Over the years he, his colleagues at the University of Otago, and their students have built up a detailed picture of the life, work, politics, and society, in the Dunedin working-class suburb of Caversham in the period from the 1880s to 1920s. Olssen points out that what happened in Dunedin 90 years ago may not apply elsewhere, or at other times. But having grown up in Sydenham, a comparable Christchurch suburb, I was intrigued by the resonances with my experience, especially about social class.
Class is not a subject that New Zealanders talk easily about. The one major exception is eth-class, the place of racial minorities in our society. Important as it is, eth-class diverts us from the class structure of the majority. Caversham (like Sydenham) had few Maori, so the study focuses on pakeha society.
As a student I found myself (with others) importing overseas notions of class which simply did not fit local experience. It does in some places. Len Richardson’s recent history of the United Mineworker’s union, Coal Class and Community , portrays a society riven by the difference between coalminer and coal owner.
In Caversham, as Olssen meticulously demonstrates, the distinction between worker and owner was much more complex. At the heart of the male social structure were the skilled tradesmen. Some became substantial employers of labour, but dont seem to have lost their craftsmen’s vision of the world. More often the masters and skilled journeymen became selfemployed, or perhaps they employed a few workers or apprentices. They defined their world not in relationship to capitalists (as the coal miners could) but one of independence, pride in their workmanship, and self reliance. While very aware of their community, the notion of a collective class consciousness did not seem to exist, nor was theirs the language of class conflict (except in some political rhetoric). That was Caversham at the turn of the century: that was the Sydenham I remember a couple of generations later.
If class was different social phenomenon from that of Britain, it was different from America too, at least in rural society. Respectable Lives: Social Standing in Rural New Zealand is a study by a US anthropologist Elvin Hatch comparing a Canterbury farming district which he visited in 1981, with one he had worked on in California. The conclusion was much the same. Among the Canterbury farmers, status was measured by competence rather than wealth. Hatch says there had been stronger class distinctions fifty year earlier, identified by whether a farm had one dining table or two. By the 1980s all the farms had a single table at which the family and workers dined (and the farm wife cooked) no matter how rich they were. Again the author would be hesitant to generalize to all New Zealand but the contrast with his US rural community was great.
Hatch found a significant difference between the teachers too. The Canterbury ones enjoyed higher standing than did their Californian compatriots, who “were placed on roughly the same level as experienced dependable and skilled farmhands”. He attributes the higher status of New Zealand teachers to their being more highly educated, and to the Californian ones being appointed by local school boards whereas the New Zealanders were managed by a more distant governing authority. (This left me wondering whether bulk-funding of schools would see a diminution of our teachers’ status, and whether that would be a good thing.)
Note how the class structure (the social hierarchy) of the studies are strongly (but not wholly) affected by economic factors: the antagonism in the coalmines was reflected in coal town society; the industrial structure of Caversham enabled the skilled workman to be independent of employers; the difficulty of recruiting farm workers was one of the causes of the demise of the two table farmstead. The economy has changed a lot since the period studied. Has our class structure changed too?
We are going to have to wait for contemporary studies as painstaking as these. But let me speculate. There have been two new factors. First the diversification of the economy and the rapid economic change probably contributed to a weakening of the old hierarchy. But the marked increase in economic inequality seems to have increased the class divisions of society. Today the rich flaunt their wealth in a display of conspicuous consumption, last fashionable in the nineteenth century. There may have been as many very rich a couple of decades ago, but they were usually modest about it. Meanwhile we seem to be much more willing to accept poverty and deprivation.
This may be a consequence of the globalization of our economy which has increased economic and social diversity in New Zealand, while giving us acceptable images of inequality. If so we may be shifting away from the world which Olssen and Hatch studied, to one more like that of Richardson’s.