Inside Story

Privilege’s alchemy

Money might bestow enormous power, but is the triumph of the wealthy complete?

Dean Ashenden Books 14 June 2024 1260 words

Big bang for the bucks: Lindsay Fox (centre) and Paula Fox (right) announcing their $100 million donation to the National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary, now to be called The Fox: NGV Contemporary. Joel Carrett/AAP Image

Elite wannabes could do worse than study up on Clive Hamilton and Myra Hamilton’s The Privileged Few, a documentation of the “machinery of privilege” as complete, orderly and detailed as a user manual: the four types of capital, the three elements of privilege, the five techniques of philanthropy, three ways to launder a reputation, eight ways to hide or justify privilege. The rest of us are there too, partly as complicit in the “social practices and norms that confer advantages and benefits,” mainly as bearers of consequences including carefully enumerated psychic, economic and social harms.

The focus is on the Australian case but often illuminated by American, British and Swedish equivalents. This is, as the authors point out, an under-researched area; their work will make it less so. It will encourage others and give them a head start, which they’ll need. The Privileged Few reveals a concentration of privilege deeply entrenched in institutions, language and habits of mind and behaviour; it will take much more than the huff and puff of exposé to blow this house down.

Of the many fields in which privilege can be seen at work perhaps the most revealing is philanthropy. Of course there are philanthropists who walk the talk, giving time as well as money, or giving anonymously or in proportion to wealth or out of a genuine desire to make the world a better place — people like Chuck Feeney, an American benefactor of Australian and many other universities, of hospitals and research institutes, of Vietnam’s public health system, of HIV/AIDS drugs distribution in Africa, and of charities and foundations around the world.

Much more common in this account are those who don’t so much give as invest. These are “givers” who expect and get a return, making monstrous wealth appear benevolent, shaping the terms of public debate on specific issues and/or in a generally conservative direction, or promoting an ideology of individual effort.

Big philanthropy often turns to the arts for an alchemy that transmutes financial into cultural and symbolic capital (according to the Bourdieuan categories deployed by the Hamiltons) not to mention networks of power and influence. At the apex of the visual arts is the National Gallery of Australia; its foundation board and council sparkle with Packers and Fairfaxes and that all-round magnate from the West, Kerry Stokes, plus the former chief executive of “the millionaire factory” Macquarie Bank Nicholas Moore, ANZ Bank and Origin Energy board member Ilana Atlas, billionaire arts patron Judith Neilson, and former Liberal Party president Richard Alston. “Handily,” the authors note, “the former secretary of the Council of the Order of Australia… is also a member of the council.” At the National Gallery, ACs and AOs abound.

The arts are particularly tempting for their fringe benefits: hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, building networks, big-noting, first nights and the simple pleasures of sycophancy. To quote at length from the National Gallery of Victoria’s thank you note to the Fox family for its recent $100 million donation might look like the politics of envy, so let us simply record that — unlike Chuck Feeney, who refused to allow his name to be used on any of the 1000-plus buildings he helped pay for — the Fox family got naming rights to an entire building in exchange for a mere fraction of the total cost, and a taxpayer subsidised fraction at that. Did they have to ask? The question hardly matters; unlike those naifs the swimmers, big receivers, like big givers, don’t have to be told.

Of high privilege’s many offences against the democratic idea, of particular concern to the Hamiltons is the increasing capacity of privilege to “reproduce” itself. Privilege, they argue, is increasingly transmitted from one generation to the next. The “engine” of reproduction is the high-end school. With colossal capital spending (between 2013 and 2017 the total capital expenditure of just four private schools exceeded that of the poorest 1800 government schools), per-student recurrent expenditure close to double the government school average and fees approximating the minimum annual wage, these gilded institutions mobilise history, opulence, ornamentation, rituals, alumni and rhetoric to induct students into a club where they are taught that they possess “higher spiritual and moral qualities,” build lifelong networks of power and influence, cultivate a special kind and degree of social and cultural myopia, and are instilled with a sense of entitlement.

Thanks mainly to the work of long-time student of private schools Jane Kenway The Privileged Few is particularly good on what happens when the mores of class fuse with gender to feed a “misogyny pipeline” and some truly disgusting behaviour by young people before they really understand what they’re doing. That these institutions are on the public teat, able to deploy top accountants and lawyers to make the most of their charitable status and mostly affiliated with religious organisations (almost all Christian) compounds their offence against the common good or even common decency. Perhaps worst of all in the Hamiltons’ eyes is the perversion of the “great ideal of social mobility” by the “reproduction” of privilege.

The strength of the Hamiltons’ forensics is the thoroughness of the exposé; our emperors are left with no clothes at all. Many readers will be left thinking: I knew it was bad but I didn’t realise it was that bad. They may also be left blushing at the recollection of a moment of complicity — wearing a put-down, offering deference, taking philanthropy at face value. As the extended discussion of hiding and justifying privilege demonstrates, most of us have been sucked in to at least some degree at least some of the time.

For the considerable contribution of The Privileged Few to the documentation of the Australian (and other) social orders, the Hamiltons are to be thanked. The focus on privilege and on the few comes at a cost, however. A spotlight trained on privilege leaves power flickering in and out of the shadows. Privilege does indeed get up the nose (as Jacqui Lambie put it with her usual disdain for euphemism) but it’s power that does the business.

In a similar way a spotlight on the few implies an undifferentiated many. In reality the few are on the top rung of a very long ladder. On that rung, as on every rung all the way to the bottom, struggle between individuals, families, groups and institutions never ceases, if not to clamber up then at least to avoid slipping down. Below the hundred or so schools of The Privileged Few’s account are another 9400 schools, intricately differentiated by kind and level of funding, regulatory and governance regime, look and feel, “reputation” and of course clientele. Their work includes allocating every individual to an even more closely defined place in a complex and constantly shifting social order. We are divided, over and over again.

But are we conquered, as the “reproduction” argument implies? Not yet, and not in any foreseeable future. Schools and those inveterate malcontents the teachers (for example) do things quite other than “reproduce” the social order, and sometimes they sow unwelcome awareness of it. They are leading adversaries of the reproduction of gender and race relations. Indeed, even good old-fashioned “class struggle” is everywhere in schools and schooling, channelled into “social mobility” (not quite the pure “ideal” of the Hamiltons’ account), muffled, euphemised and coded, but never absent. If you doubt me, just try opposing the principle of “needs-based funding,” for example, and see how you go. •

The Privileged Few
By Clive Hamilton and Myra Hamilton | Polity Press | $36.95 | 240 pages