Pay Attention, Class

You Can’t Talk About An “Underclass” Without Implying That There is Also An Overclass.

Listener: 24 March, 2007.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;
Aside from those in the various communist parties, National’s John Key may be the first leader of a political party since Labour’s Harry Holland (who died in 1933) to raise the issue of class in New Zealand. For you can’t talk about an “underclass” without implying an overclass, or classes.

The New Zealand rhetoric was once that we were a classless society. We rejected the crude Marxist notion of conflict between labour and capital, imported from the Old World without adaptation to local peculiarities, such as the high proportion of people who were self-employed or wanted to be, or the small size of the typical workplace.

Certainly, the romantic left recalls the great industrial disputes – in 1890, 1912-13, 1932, 1951 – but Karl Marx had the notion of an ongoing intense struggle. (Accuracy requires mention that some Marxist-Leninist parties reinterpreted the struggle as being between overseas capital, with its local satraps, and the New Zealand people.)

However, social class – hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups – is universal in societies or cultures. We may choose to interpret it differently. There may be an upper class in New Zealand, who think they are better than the rest of us, but we refuse to defer to them. We do, however, defer to the rich, the powerful and the celebrated when we take seriously the unmitigated bollocks they too often spout.

Another concern has been opportunity. Are people trapped in the class of their parents? Research in numerous countries shows that the answer is not a decisive yes, although one’s class does tend to affect life opportunities. The processes can be complicated. Many of the apparently successful shifts from working class to middle class involve the “sunken middle class”: people with middle-class grandparents whose parents accidentally “sank” into the working class.

The possibility of intergenerational entrapment is one concern about an underclass. Once in, you and your children may find it difficult to get out. Actually, we don’t know a lot about the New Zealand underclass. Serious research on them (indeed, on class in general) is limited. Useful novels are Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors and Rosie Scott’s Glory Days, the latter reminding us that the underclass need not be brown.

But while they tell us something about the kinds of lives involved, those books don’t tell us how big the underclass is, nor whether it is growing or shrinking. We just don’t know.

In the early 1960s, Bob Chapman, professor of political studies at the University of Auckland, argued that New Zealand’s apparent classlessness was a consequence of its economic and regional structure, and that increasing urbanisation would sharpen class divisions, as the hierarchies became more visible. Certainly, our rich are more evident than in his day, with their “conspicuous consumption”.

My previous column pointed out that there appears to be rising income inequality in New Zealand, but it may be due to factors not anticipated by Chapman. The bottom fifth of the population is probably no better off today than it was in 1991 after the social security cuts, despite rising employment. Because that group includes beneficiaries, housewives and students – as well as the underclass – the trend is difficult to interpret, but a factor has to be that social security benefits have not increased with rising real incomes.

We don’t know what John Key makes of all this. Perhaps, like David Cameron, leader of the British Tory party, he is a “One Nation Conservative”, a term used to describe the left wing of conservative parties – that is, on the centre right of the political spectrum – aspiring towards unity of the citizenry and harmony between divergent classes and interest groups. The contrast is the societal polarisation seen in the likes of Thatcherism and – many would say – Rogernomics.

Alternatively, Key could turn against the underclass as his predecessor turned (unintentionally, he claimed) against Maori.


The fact is that there are hierarchies and classes in New Zealand, and there are great tensions arising from the changing political economy. Even so, one hopes that the vision of the centre right and centre left predominates: that we treat all our fellow humans with decency and respect, tolerating and celebrating their differences, and that we try to give opportunities to everyone to the fullest extent of their abilities.