September 2006

Arts & Letters

The contours of the everyday

By Judith Brett
Writing ‘Ordinary People’s Politics’

“I can't stress enough how important it is for you to just be an ordinary person. You know, there aren't enough ordinary persons around. There are real high-flyers and jetsetters and all those sorts of things. There's a place for them. But I just think there are too many of them. There aren't enough just ordinary, OK guys."

This high praise for ordinariness comes from a middle-aged, self-made businessman - Tjaart Reinkman, let's call him - born in Victoria around 1950 to Dutch parents. His commitment to ordinariness is many-layered. It began at school, where he wanted to fit in and hated his Dutch heritage: "I wanted to be just like everybody else. You know, like Barry Lugg and David Higgins and Graeme Boyle - just ordinary names, being ordinary people. I didn't want to be different in any way."

As Tjaart made his way into the wider world and joined the Young Farmers, ordinariness took on the pleasures of sociability, and the belief that one should judge people by who they are and what they could do. He still doesn't really trust people who are "bluebloods". In his business, Tjaart's belief in the importance of ordinariness is expressed in the care that he takes to remember his employees' first names and their personal circumstances, and his shunning of conspicuous displays of wealth. And it informs his concern at the way society has become more unequal over the past decade, and his compassion for people made redundant by the pace of social change - "the casualties of war", he calls them - who he meets as a volunteer at a regular church-run breakfast.

The people Tjaart serves there are also likely to describe themselves as ordinary. Mark Peel said of the poor people he talked with for his wonderful book Voices from the Lowest Rung that "If those to whom I spoke were best characterised as disadvantaged, they mostly called themselves ‘ordinary'."

For the past four years I have been writing a book with Anthony Moran called ‘Ordinary People's Politics', and Tjaart Reinkman is one of the people whose life and political outlook it describes. It comes out of a large, two-part interview project. The first phase was in the late '80s, when a group of researchers interviewed people at length for a project called ‘Images of Australia'. Then, earlier this decade, colleagues and I repeated that process, interviewing some of the original participants and some new ones.

Writing about ordinariness in today's political climate is a fraught enterprise. Since John Howard's election and the rise and fall of Pauline Hanson, being ordinary has become a contested political commodity. Howard's success is regularly attributed to his understanding of ordinary people, as in Paul Kelly's claim in the Australian after the 2004 election that Howard "doesn't have to imagine what ordinary Australians think - he has just to decide what he thinks because they are virtually the same". And the failings of Howard's opponents are regularly explained by their being out of touch with ordinary Australians.

Howard-haters are accused not of hating Howard's policies, but rather of hating all those Australians who voted for him. When David Williamson reflected in the Bulletin on the narrow materialism of his companions on a cruise ship, the Australian took up the cudgels against his sneering attack. The paper's energy came less from empathy for ordinary Australians than the chance, yet again, to attack the Left art-establishment as arrogant and self-interested. And Williamson's piece was less sociological observation than an expression of the Australian intelligentsia's continuing ambivalence about suburbia.

When I wrote in a Quarterly Essay last year about four ordinary people who voted for Howard, that ordinary chappie Christopher Pearson was seriously discomfited. He found them "too close for comfort to clichés from the world of Fountain Gate, the land of Kath & Kim" and chastised me for not tackling Howard's more middle-class supporters. But these were real people I was writing about, their words I was reporting, their lives I was describing - and why to them voting Liberal seemed a reasonable thing to do. Who is uneasy with ordinary Australians here?

The enterprise of writing about ordinariness is just as fraught from the Left. In appeals to ordinary people, a left-leaning ear hears the siren call of populism. After all, in her campaign of complaint about self-interested politicians, Pauline Hanson presented herself as just an ordinary person, and One Nation was a classic populist protest-party, rejecting the compromises of representative politics for the chimera of the unified popular will. Jennifer Rutherford called her film on One Nation in Queensland Ordinary Australians, because that is what the people she was filming called themselves. So when I have told people that I am working on a book called ‘Ordinary People's Politics', some have assumed that it is a book about Hanson's supporters, or at least Howard's.

But ordinary people are both left- and right-leaning; they are Howard-haters, Howard supporters, Howard sceptics. Some follow politics closely; others are not really interested, though they take seriously their responsibility to vote. And in a democracy, the views of ordinary people will always be of interest. They comprise the bulk of both the public and the electorate, and in both guises their opinions and judgements can affect the course of governments.

Since World War II, the detailed social knowledge and hunches which once guided politicians' and journalists' judgements about what the public thinks and feels have been replaced by increasingly sophisticated techniques of opinion-polling. The professional pollster and market researcher have replaced the backbencher with his finger on the pulse as conduits of popular experience and feeling to the political elite. Opinion polls are now regular fare for political reporting in the media, for political parties fine-tuning their policies and self-presentation, and for governments developing new policies. Social research not only maps people's opinions; it also regularly checks their demographic and socio-economic characteristics, providing policymakers with statistical maps of the country.

With these new tools, policymaking is ever more expert and technocratic. For despite the democratic impulse behind polling's attention to what people think, the techniques drain agency from people. Citizens as active members of the body politic become customers of government service-delivery or recipients of policy innovations; in the private talk of politicians and their factotums, they are often referred to simply as "the mob".

We have come at ordinary people's thinking about politics in a different way. What do Australians have to say when you engage them in conversation about politics, giving them plenty of time and a willing ear? How do they explain their views? What sorts of arguments and evidence do they use to support them? How do their political ideas sit with their social understandings and experiences? Rather than scooping up opinions in huge vats to run through statistical strainers, in the research I carried out with my colleagues, we talked at length with a few individuals about their lives, and the place politics has and does not have in them. Quantitative methods, even as they stream and sort, also homogenise. Voices are turned into numbers, and the reasoning, the hesitations, the moral inflection, the emotional colour all disappear into rows of figures.

The trick and the fascination of this sort of writing is to capture both the individuality of people's ideas and experience, and also their representativeness or typicality. For it is the latter that makes the individual life a way into wider social knowledge. As much as anything, this is a literary challenge, and its achievement stands and falls with the writing and with the judgements made about which aspect of a life has been most significant: downward mobility, the expectations of gender, the experience of war or a lifelong occupational identity, for example. And it is literary in the way that it aspires to a form of representation in which the depiction of an individual life draws the reader into an emotional identification with that life, and thus into a more general understanding of the place and times in which it was lived.

As Andrew Denton says when he turns his attention from celebrities to ordinary people for ‘Show and Tell' on Enough Rope, "Everyone has a story to tell." Life-history writing is burgeoning: biography, autobiography, memoir, interview, personal testimony of difficulties overcome. In the more naive of these, such as many of the personal-testimony narratives, the balance between biography and history shifts decidedly to the former, and the impersonal social forces which limit and shape experience slip from view. Even so, putting the individual at the centre of the story captures something of the reality of life in the early twenty-first century, when the erosion of traditional social and economic institutions is changing the conditions in which people make their lives.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has described the imperative to what he calls "individualisation" in contemporary life, as social and economic changes compel people to experience their lives as individual, self-chosen projects, rather than as lived-out fates. This is not about the rise of individualism as a value, but about individualisation as the fate of many people in contemporary Western societies. As jobs for life disappear, as family forms multiply, as people learn to live among others with whom they barely even share a language, society no longer gives them a stable social identity with a life plan and taken-for-granted places of belonging. Because they move between countries, cities, jobs and families, fewer people than in the past feel that the story of the nation or the class or the region is their story.

In place of what is shared and common, people want to hear and read about the individual and the particular. Time and again in our interviews, people responded to questions about collectivities and groupings with answers about individuals. A young Indigenous woman, Renee Simmons, who has struggled all her life between the prejudices and stereotypes of black Australia and white Australia, summed this up for many when she said, "I don't look at groupings ... culturally, socially, everything is just so diverse now. It's getting harder and harder to group. People are moving beyond structures."

In Australia, the term "ordinary" trails with it another set of associations which are not about politics at all, but rather about class and status. "Very ordinary" or "rather ordinary" are class terms of disdain for people who lack manners, education and possibly intelligence. They invoke a status system based on degrees of refinement. Australia's egalitarianism of manners has never been universally practised. As John Hirst has argued, it was strongest amongst men working together, and weakest among women, many of whom put a good deal of effort into maintaining the boundaries of class difference. So when people claim to be ordinary, they are saying something about what matters in their judgement of people and themselves, and cocking a snook at those who value refinement and social airs and graces.

Caroline Walker, a woman we interviewed who described herself as "a very ordinary, average mother" and "a pretty ordinary person", pointed out that "there are lots of people with pots and pots of money who live very ordinary, simple lives." The people she didn't like were people who regarded themselves as upper-class and lived in "the social whirl". "I know some doctors who are very ordinary sorts of people, but others who are always partying and trying to outdo the next person, and flaunting their possessions. Still, in the same income bracket there are quite down-to-earth, ordinary sort of people."

Many of the people we talked to were keen to refuse unworthy members of the upper class the deference and admiration they imagined them to be demanding. Interviews conducted in the '80s included one with an elderly woman from one of Australia's wealthy establishment families, and even she was at pains to make it clear she was not a snob and that she despised the Toorak social set and "that dreadful hairdresser".

Australians' preference for ordinariness expresses unease about putting people into social categories. A hardworking 22-year-old who grew up in the country and was managing a take-away restaurant put it like this: "It's bad that we can class people as poor and middle and rich, because it's a way of saying that they're better people. But they're not better people at all. The richest man, Kerry Packer, is not necessarily a better person than the person who washes dishes at my restaurant who's in the poorer class, is he? All he's got is a lot more money." And, as we saw in the extravagant public praise of Packer when he died, not even massive wealth need stand in the way of people accepting you as ordinary.

In Australia, the term "middle class" often operates as a refusal of social categorisation based on economic role. In his paean to the middle class, Menzies claimed that the real life of the nation was "in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised". The decisive move in Menzies' system of social classification was to locate people's real life and the basis of their social identity not in the workplace, where Labor put it, but in the private world of home and family. As occupational identity has loosened, the plausibility of this has increased for many Australians.

Like Menzies, most of the respondents in our research believed that the real life of the nation was in the middle, where they put themselves. The dominance of the middle in Australian politics - the middle class, or middle Australia - has long been recognised, but just what it means is not entirely clear. It has often been interpreted as if it is the opposite of "working class" - that this is the choice people are making. And in much research it is the choice that people are given. But the synonyms many of our interviewees used to describe their social position - average, normal, everyday, ordinary - suggest that for many people, the term "middle class" has never been part of a two-class model at all. A married tradesmen in his mid-thirties working in the family business said that he was "just average ... I am very simple. I am not out there to big-note. I am just a very, very simple, average, middle-class - whatever you want to call it - person."

Sometimes middle is just that: the midpoint in social schemas, loaded with judgements about respectability and moral worth. A 44-year-old housewife interviewed in 1967 for Don Aitkin's study of the social bases of the Australian party system, Stability and Change in Australian Politics, said, "Friendly people are middle-class. Hotel types are lower-class. Upper-class are snobs." Twenty years later, Lois Angus gave us a more elaborate version of essentially the same social map. She described her own position as "middle of the road." She felt out of place with people who were "for want of a better word, snobby", but looked down on "the yobbos getting drunk in the pubs".

Lois constructed her schema on the basis of what she saw and what was of interest to her and the people with whom she felt comfortable. So do most people. And because people generally mix with people they regard as being like themselves, they perceive themselves as average and unexceptional. At the centre of their worlds looking out, people on the whole see others like themselves. The self-description middle-class is linked to the idea of moderation and social harmony, as people project outwards from the general equality and consensus they find among their own circle of family and friends to the society at large. Middle thus becomes associated with positions that are sensible and level-headed, and a politics of compromise rather than one of conflict between entrenched positions.

John Howard's repeated appeal to the metaphor of the pendulum and the need for balance mobilises this meaning of middle in Australian politics. This is not so much a matter of the substance of the argument, but of its form: the aim is to identify oneself with the moderate middle. Australia, we might speculate, has an Aristotelian political culture, where the best path is always the one between extremes.

In writing about ordinary people and ordinary life, it helps to be ordinary oneself. This, rather than the supposed political views of ordinary people, is the biggest barrier between many intellectuals, of both Left and Right, and ordinary people. Intellectuals' autobiographies are full of stories about how ill at ease they felt with the people among whom they were born, the trials of solitude and how they never feel quite at home in the world. Sometimes, the tale is one where the intellectual or artist does eventually find people with whom to feel at home, socially or geographically far away from the place of their birth. Sometimes, the restlessness and alienation is endemic. Much twentieth-century intellectual history was driven by a critical and avant-gardist energy which pushed many intellectuals to explore the margins of social worlds and the dark side of human existence, and to expose the costs and repressions of particular societies and moral systems.

I have no objection to people doing any of this. The dark and marginal are part of human experience, just as the normal and ordinary are part of systems of social classification which construct opposites such as exotic, abnormal and deviant that can make life tough for people who don't fit in. It is also essential to keep alive the understanding that human beings could live differently from the way we do now, and think about how that might be. As Karl Marx showed us, the ordinary and everyday are produced and constrained by larger social and historical forces, and people live their lives in conditions not of their own choosing. We need to understand those conditions if we want to change things.

However, in writing about ordinary Australians, these intellectual approaches are of only so much use. Some of the people involved in our research were refugees from terrible wars; but others had lived rather uneventful lives, and the challenge in writing about them is to understand and map the contours of the everyday. I do not believe that the true or only meaning of the ordinary and the everyday is to be found in the people and experiences it excludes. It is also to be found in what it includes.

Writing about ordinary people, I am not so interested in the dark nights of their souls as in their view of the world on a sunny day, when they sit down to lunch with family and friends; or the view from the kitchen table mid-afternoon, when they are feeling a bit down. I am interested in the people who bring up the children, organise the barbecues, visit the old folks and generally keep the show on the road; in how they do it, their wisdom, and their understanding of life's necessary compromises and the perplexity of time and memory. To me, this seems as important as exploring the underworld, especially if you want to understand where politics sits in people's lives.

Because we talked with people for so long about their politics, we were able to get a sense of its place amongst their priorities. One of our older respondents, a man who has been politically active throughout his life, regarded politicians as ordinary people grappling with the complexities of globalisation. A couple of others also respected politicians and recognised the difficulty of the decisions they have to make: used to authority themselves, they identified with its demands. Others saw politicians as doing a necessary job, and apart from voting at elections were happy to leave them to it. Others, again, were turned off politics by its lies and deceit.

Yet, for all of them, family and friends were far more important. As Tjaart Reinkman said, "Life isn't about having the most of anything. It's about relationships. It's about family. It's about love." On this sort of scale, politics unsurprisingly starts rather low down.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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