Inside Story

What we talk about when we talk about bogans

The language of class distinctions tells us a lot about Britain and Australia, writes Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno 11 April 2012 2530 words

Dorothy Woodgate/AFR

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
By Owen Jones | Verso | $34

The Bogan Delusion
By David Nichols | Affirm Press | $22.95

AUSTRALIANS, rather like Americans, have long nurtured the myth that their society is classless. Some people have much more wealth than others but that’s where the distinction between them supposedly begins and ends. As a result, one Australian mining billionaire can become a National Living Treasure while another is referred to by the same nickname as the most famous British female model of the 1960s, and Australian bankers have had names like Nugget and Nobby.

The writer Craig McGregor suggested that Australians liked to think of their country “as comparatively classless because they didn’t like the idea of class.” There are certainly differences in how inequalities of wealth, status and power have played out in the everyday life of Australia compared with other Western nations. In his recent book about Rupert Murdoch, David McKnight recounts the story of Phillip Knightley, as a young journalist, being assigned to help Sir Keith Murdoch and finding himself outside his employer’s hotel. “I watched a procession of government limousines and the occasional Bentley come up the driveway,” Knightley recalled. “Would Murdoch have a Bentley or a Rolls?” Murdoch, it turned out, had a dirty old ute, which was being driven by his down-to-earth son Rupert; Knightley squeezed in. “Such a scene, between a very junior cadet journalist and a knight of the realm and managing director with his son, would have been unthinkable in Britain,” McKnight concludes.

The historian John Hirst calls this an egalitarianism of manners and believes it has been a major force – for good – in Australian history. But Hirst adds that distinctions were nevertheless maintained in colonial Australia by social rules about who was entitled to call himself a gentleman, the clothes a man wore, and the imperial honours system. Others have extended the argument to colonial women – they, too, signified by their language, bearing and behaviour just where they belonged in the hierarchy. Were they truly genteel, merely respectable or sadly fallen? Here, marriage and sexuality seemed to loom rather more prominently. But for both men and women, occupation (or a husband’s occupation), wealth and income were like Banquo’s ghost. Few were prepared to equate them openly with either moral worth or social standing; yet how one made a living, and how much one earned in doing so, were the building blocks of class in Australia just as they were in the old world.

They remain so today, even while we have devised new and increasingly elaborate ways of disguising the fact. In Australia, we have the “bogan”; in Britain, there is the “chav”; the Americans talk of “trailer trash.” All amount to class labelling, although there are differences between them that become fully apparent only on closer examination. Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson would have had British journalists scratching their heads and reaching for their dictionaries when, in the context of an attack on the Melbourne Grand Prix’s $50 million cost a couple of weeks ago, he called the daughter of the British Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone a “billionaire bogan.” Bogan, reported the London Daily Telegraph, is “an Australian term denoting a person of limited education or class.” Kevin Rudd is reputed to have referred to The Lodge as “Boganville” after Julia Gillard and Tim Mathieson moved in.

That one might apparently be filthy rich and politically powerful and yet still a bogan says much about the extraordinary versatility of a label more commonly applied to less exalted personages than the star of reality TV show Billion $$ Girl or the prime minister of Australia. My enquiry with the Australian National Dictionary Centre yielded the information that its earliest recorded mention of “bogan” occurred in an Australian surfing magazine in 1985. During 1988, on the hit TV series The Comedy Company, the schoolgirl character Kylie Mole (played by Mary-Anne Fahey) would do more than anyone to popularise the term. On the same show, pop singer Brian Mannix appeared as a model in Bogue magazine (a spoof on Vogue), complete with ciggies stored neatly under the short sleeve of his tightly fitting t-shirt. His accessories included a bogan key-ring (a brick) and a bogan pen-set (a can of spray paint).

There is now a burgeoning genre of faux sociology – well, two books from Hachette Australia, at any rate – which will tell you about Things Bogans Like and Boganomics. According to the former, the bogan defies “income strata, class, race, creed, gender, religion and logic. The bogan is defined by what it does, what it says and, most importantly, what it buys.” Yet even a cursory examination of the contents of these books suggests they are thinly disguised exercises in class prejudice. How many middle-class professionals do you know with a Southern Cross tattoo or a hotted-up Holden? How many are prone to glassing their enemies in pubs? How many make a habit of “purchasing a Buddhism-themed figurine, statue or water feature from the garden section of K-Mart”? The bogan, we also learn, lacks “the required self-discipline and rigour to achieve genuine success” – presumably, of the kind that comes with writing books about bogans – so “it resorts to trying to convince itself that it is a part of elite society by ‘suiting up’ once in a while for a major event such as the Melbourne Cup, a wedding or its little sister’s deb.”

The bogan – as well as “its” British cousin, the chav – has also begun to attract the attention of more serious authors. Two books published in the last year allow us to compare these near or distant relations: Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class and David Nichols’s The Bogan Delusion. The differences between these books’ treatment of their respective subjects are as revealing as their similarities. Where Jones provides a powerful critique of this most recent manifestation of the iniquitous British class system – the war on chavs and chavettes – Nichols seems uncertain about what to do with his bogans, or whether they in fact even exist. Sometimes he writes as if they do and feels he needs to defend them, their lifestyles and their communities against traducers. At other times he suggests they are an invention. At the end of his rambling book, I still wasn’t entirely sure what “the bogan delusion” actually was, but elicited that it had something to do with the disparaging attitudes of culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan inner-city types to those who like listening to Cold Chisel and watching cop shows and action flicks on the home entertainment system.

No one could accuse Jones of “writing around” his subject in this way. His argument is that the term “chav” is the modern weapon of choice used by Britain’s version of the comfortable classes to foster hatred of the working class. Where other forms of prejudice, such as those based on gender, race or sexuality, have been widely discredited (if still also widely practised) “chav-bashing” is openly conducted in the media and politics, on university campuses, at middle-class dinner parties and in the blogosphere. Princes even dress up as chavs to amuse their friends.

“Chav” appears to be of even more recent coinage than “bogan.” The electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary in my university library has 1998 as the earliest recorded reference, although there is a suggestion that the term might be derived from an older Anglo-Romani term for a male child (chavvy). Jones’s book is full of vivid quotations from the war on chavs, many of them deeply disturbing. One London gym actually went so far as to advertise classes for its wealthy clientele that would teach them how to give the chavs “a kicking,” and thereby turn their “grunt into a whine.” Jones’s book was written before the riots of last summer.

FOR JONES, chav-hatred is in one sense simply the latest instalment in the long history of demonisation of the working class. Yet he also makes much of the changes wrought since the 1970s, especially under Margaret Thatcher. Deindustrialisation and the decline of union power have devastated the working class, destroying jobs and communities. As Britain moved away from a mining and manufacturing economy to one based on services, it became possible to view working-class people as mere “detritus” left over from an earlier phase of history. Meanwhile, the cult of individual success, meritocracy and social mobility celebrated by both Thatcherism and Blairism undermined the legitimacy of working-class identity and culture. Even while inequality grew, the myth developed that everyone was now middle-class. Anyone who remained otherwise therefore had to be deficient in intellect, aspiration or morals. As Michael Young predicted in the 1950s, meritocracy raised unfortunate implications for those who failed to flourish. In short, they were “feckless,” a word that on the face of it seems to stand in about the same relationship to modern English usage as crinoline to women’s fashion. But as Jones shows, this epithet redolent of the Victorian era is trotted out repeatedly to explain what’s wrong with chavs.

Jones is clear that chav-hatred is class warfare, an effort by the conservative middle class to explain its own affluence and success as well as rationalise vast inequalities of wealth and opportunity – what Jones rightly calls “a rigged society.” Chav-bashing is also indulged in by the polenta-appreciating progressive middle class, as a way of avoiding the implication that social deprivation might be connected with economic inequality. “Liberal” chav-haters talk up the racism and ignorance of the “white” working class.

Here is a point at which there is considerable overlap of the discourses that whirl around their chavs and our bogans. I went to an academic event last year attended by a number of young postgraduate students. Several used the “b” word during discussion without apparent embarrassment. All, if challenged, would probably have been shocked by the suggestion that they were exhibiting class prejudice. For them, the bogan is defined not by class or wealth, but by (bad) values and behaviour.

The particular impulse they most associated with the bogan was a boorish nationalism. The bogan was not for them a “feckless” member of an underclass so much as an ignorant and bigoted person of any class. Hence the common image of the cashed-up, conservative, refugee-hating bogan in a McMansion full of shiny electrical goods. The bogans’ reputed material affluence, when combined with their reputed prejudice and bad taste, is seen to justify censure and ridicule of them. As Things Bogans Like puts it, they’re the kind of people who put “Fuck off, we’re full” stickers on their cars but wouldn’t join a racist group because that would be moving too far from the “mainstream.” Oh, and the white supremacists’ meetings clash with Two and a Half Men.

The term “chav” does seem to me to have a nastier edge than the talk about bogans, a point that may well reflect the greater social deprivation and class consciousness in Britain. Unlike Jones, who makes plain that chav-bashing is class warfare, Nichols seems not quite to know what to do with class. While his sympathies appear to be broadly with the left, he sometimes lapses into language about progressive inner-city elites that bears a striking resemblance to neo-conservative discourse. Nichols himself is a repentant former member of the inner-city elite who now lives in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows – an area sometimes dismissed as a bogan haven – and he provides a robust defence of the suburb and of others similarly stigmatised. With his academic expertise in urban studies, he is at his best in talking about housing and suburbs, and he appears to recognise that it is the sites of post–second world war industrialisation that have mainly come to be dismissed as bogan places.

Yet Nichols is vague about much that happened in Australia in both the recent and more distant past, so that the reasons for the emergence of the term “bogan,” with its particular cultural associations, are inadequately explained. There is an obvious affinity between the bogan and the Sydney westie, and it may well be that the former term gained popularity in view of the geographical limitations of the latter when translated into national media. Moreover, many attributes of the bogan seem very similar to those once attached to the ocker, something that Nichols half-recognises in passing. But the ocker was a decidedly post-imperial and anti-feminist figure, one associated with the emergence of the new nationalism in the 1970s and especially its influence on the advertising industry through figures such as Paul Hogan and John Singleton. For the first time, one could hear decidedly working-class Australian accents urging us to buy “Meadow Lea, the good taste in spread” and advising, “Anyhow, have a Winfield.” And although there was occasional talk of female ockers – “ockerinas” – the ocker was basically a bloke; a white Anglo-Celtic Australian male chauvinist who looked and sounded working-class. But the bogan, like the chav, seems more post-industrial than post-imperial, can be either female or male and, like later manifestations of the westie, may apparently even be “ethnic.”

For Jones, the British class system is like “an invisible prison”; the genius of the chav stereotype is that it both denies the existence of the prison and helps keep the prisoners securely locked up. While his book ends on a hopeful note, it is a bleak picture of a society divided rigidly according to class, and kept that way by a cruel but effective stigmatisation of working people as the “scum of the earth.” Nichols’s bogan is an altogether fluffier creature, and the Australia he paints is one marked more by confusion and prejudice – mainly on the part of educated inner-suburban elites – than fear or hatred.

The chav has a central place in British Tory complaints about “Broken Britain.” Chavs, it is said, are the products and makers of dysfunctional communities riddled with violence, crime, welfare dependence and teenage pregnancy. They are, said the Daily Mail, a “feral underclass.” It is true there have been instances in Australia of this kind of talk, but the keynote has been snide ridicule more than outright moral condemnation, as in the sensationalist media coverage of the tragic death of toddler Jaidyn Leskie in the Latrobe Valley town of Moe in 1997.

Yet even a moment’s contemplation of the unlikely phrase “Broken Australia” highlights the fact that a much more optimistic society gave birth to the bogan. •