Why You Shouldn’t Underestimate the Upper Class

Read a fascinating piece in the Australian Financial Review by Pru Goward called ‘Why You Shouldn’t Underestimate the Underclass’. Apparently just everybody is talking about it!

Now another of Pru’s colleagues at the AFR, good old Crud Blower, has replied along like-minded lines to deepen the top-of-town class analysis even further. 

There seems to be no stopping this neo-liberal rethink of our social ills. Caring condescension for all! Bravo! Rah rah! Read on….




“They are damaged, lacking in reliability and restraint, and highly self-interested. But the ultra-rich are still a force that Australia needs to properly harness.”

Crud Blower

Columnist, AFR

“You can’t have your cake and let your neighbour eat it too.” So said Ayn Rand, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers thinly disguised as a novelist, in her spookily prescient work, Atlas Shrugged. 

I believe my own lifelong fascination with the upper classes began when I pondered that declaration of self-interest over any threat of government restraint, which has thankfully turned out to be not that much restraint at all.

As a miner’s son, I always understood that rich people were above the law, that they worked obsessively or hardly at all, sent their kids to very different primary schools to the one I attended, and were determined their children should inherit all their privileges and power, be it deserved or not. 

But the ultra-rich as an even more elite class, small as it then was, behaved differently.

Like Mr Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows, yet another English children’s book on the topic of class, the ultra-rich were mischievous and boastful and lived by their own rules. They were to be feared and were, to use my mother’s words, not very nice. It took Ayn Rand to exhort the pragmatically industrious and selfish rich into the totalitarian-inclined and ruthlessly greedy ultra-rich.

Since the 1980s there has been a remarkable growth in the wealth of ultra-rich. The welfare state only held them back temporarily, as the world of Dickens attests. Government agencies limply acknowledge the ultra-rich as rampant tax dodgers; they are certainly over-represented in their rorting of corporate welfare and government subsidies; and are always the last to give up quaffing wine, discover sobriety and dine modestly.

Of course, they are always declared an asset. Social workers, traditionally good young men and women who thought it would be nice to be kind for a living, despair of their ostentatious homes, spoiling of their children and, notably, their sharp and unrepentant manner when told to lift their game by the patronising do-gooder.

Oh yes, and they don’t need to vote that often due to their control of government by covert party donations, although, as I found door-knocking, it will be issues such as negative gearing and franking credits – rather than climate change or how much we spend on public education (unless it affects how much is spent subsidising private education) – that gets them voting.

Despite the billions of dollars that governments are milked in supporting the lives and interests of the ultra-rich, their hunger for even greater wealth increases by the day. Their birth rates are less even than those of professional couples and they could be a significant potential contributor to our society. Except their children languish in the growing number of narcissism treatment classes in private high schools where they learn little and teachers itch to offload them to local corporates and get them off their books.

Once graduated with a basic studies completion certificate and little else, their prospects are just brilliant. The discipline of work and often its thanklessness, especially at the less skilled end, have little appeal and there is no need for them to consider such challenges and everyday human struggle. Promotions all the way forward, doors open for them.

Ayn Rand was right. The ultra-rich can smell an opportunity at 50 paces, distrust social justice rhetoric and have little time for welfare philosophy. They know what they want and see no reason why they should take notice of some man or woman bent over a bicycle delivering them their designer pizza. Just get out the way when you’re done delivering! Life, it’s one big devouring thrill.

Of course, the upper class is not always a happy place to be – and bumping into the rest of the world mostly does not go well. People with the aforementioned chronic narcissism, bouts of bullying megalomania and childhoods marked by detachment are mixed together in a sometimes brutal way, indulgence and cruelty never far from their fists, living in an array of Toad Hall mansions on exclusive streets or passing time indolently on their yachts.

And yet, I like them. I like them because they show us how things really are. They are uninhibitedly self-interested, and you always know they don’t give a damn about some mythical ‘us’. I know many of them. So many clever, actually very clever, kids and adults, although they are often damaged and almost entirely lacking self-restraint, respect for the society, or trust in anyone who might represent a fairer system.

I am convinced we can do better to harness the force that the people of the upper classes represent. We need to make it a focus of social policy, not a by-product of it. We have little choice, or we will continue to import our ultra-rich in growing numbers via multinationals and other off-shore indulgences when our own home-grown gorgons are well able to mine the landscape here.

So long as we keep looking at the billions of dollars they take from us, we will continue to dislike them, reject them and write them off. Yet, in an age when cultural hegemony is now as strong as it was 70 years ago, only different, never have we needed them more to challenge any hint of social justice threatening our profit margins and property portfolios. The king who despised the child who cried “look at the King” in The Emperor’s New Clothes was surely a member of the upper class.

ARTWORK CREDIT: Detail from ‘Swamp Flowers of Capitalism’, 1919, by George Grosz.