After reading about the emergence of “cashed-up bogans”, I got annoyed and wrote this opinion piece, which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 June, 2006. In it I draw on the main argument of my MA thesis: that ‘bogan’ is a figure of national identity rather than class.
Hold onto your tinnies, Australia. A new social subgroup has been found in our midst: “cashed-up bogans”, or cubs for short.
The social analyst David Chalke recently described cubs as being “well-heeled, skilled blue-collar workers” in their 30s and 40s. “Executive plumbers,” he called them. “On over $100,000 a year.”
There’s the clincher. Cubs have money, and they want to spend it on flash stuff. Like cars, boats and motorbikes, luxury clothing and expensive home entertainment systems.
We’ve heard plenty about aspiration and consumerism in Australian politics. Both major political parties have attempted to woo the “aspirationals”, just as marketers have discovered the cubs.
And in these bounteous, economic rationalist times, we’ve become homo consumen, to borrow a phrase from Australian Heartlands, a recent book by the academic Brendan Gleeson.
Still, what makes cubs so different from the rest of us? Surely most of us have aspirations. And surely we all work hard in order to live in comfort.
More to the point, why does this imaginary market segment go by the ideologically loaded name bogan?
Many Australians think they know exactly what a bogan is. Some say it’s a socio-economic class. Some say bogans are a subculture. And others say that tastes or pop-cultural references make someone a bogan.
Ultimately, bogans are none of these things. Rather than being grounded in reality, bogan is an abstract idea that is expressed through culture. And when we talk about bogans, we’re really talking about national identity.
Bogans pop up in the media and in the public imagination as figures that are both embarrassing and “un-Australian”, and instantly, recognisably “hyper-Australian”. We use the idea of the bogan to quarantine ideas of Australianness that alarm or discomfort us. It’s a way of erecting imaginary cultural barriers between “us” and “them”.
Put simply, the term cashed-up bogan suggests that there’s something embarrassing and unsophisticated about a certain sort of spending – that some aspirations are somehow wrong or misguided. By labelling these tastes bogan, we don’t have to consider the unsettling proposition that they’re our tastes, too.
Under the hazy notion of “aspiration”, consumerism in Australia has become a battleground of national identity. Interviewed for George Megalogenis’s new book The Longest Decade, John Howard describes self-employed blue-collar workers – in other words, cubs – as “a natural fit with me”.
Perhaps more accurately, the Howard Government has created this fit by linking neo-liberal social and economic policies with a brand of Australian identity emphasising the acquisition of social status and material wealth.
Naturally, Mark Latham sees things differently. In the introduction to The Latham Diaries, he savagely implicates consumerism in what he sees as a slide from community and collective responsibility to destructive individualism. Australians under Howard, says Latham, seek comfort in buying things and prying into the lives of others.
Buying big-ticket items speaks to a desire for respect, for others to acknowledge hard work and success. But as Latham points out, consumerism can’t fulfil our aspirations. It just puts us on a relentless treadmill of working longer hours to sustain our “lifestyle”.
Still, as a nation, we’ve invested heavily in the idea that material wealth is a virtue and a reward. Hell, we’ve voted for it. Four times. It makes us distinctly nervous to consider that we might be wrong.
So we dispel this anxiety by displacing our hunger for possessions onto someone “else” – those trashy bogans. Kath and Kim are cubs. And their cashed-up bad taste is something to point at and laugh.
It suits the political ideology of the bogan to declare certain tastes – and people – “lower class”, because that makes it their fault and not ours. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu declared that people in blue-collar occupations can never fulfil their aspirations to higher social status, no matter how much money they have, because their natural taste is for the utilitarian and necessary. When they splurge on luxury goods, they go comically awry.
But as another French sociologist, Bernard Lahire, has found more recently, only the very rich and the very poor have a coherent set of consumer practices. Most people’s tastes are a highly dissonant mixture of posh and trash, expensive and cheap. Plenty of people like beer and barbecues. And plenty of people like lattes and chardonnay.
Let’s hope this stupid term “cashed-up bogan” doesn’t catch on, because when we talk about cubs, we’re refusing to take responsibility for debating our own culture and identity. Such squeamishness about cash gives Australians no credit.