Western writers have long used diametrically opposed images to explain, justify or challenge persistent inequality between categories of people. Dichotomies of free and slave, rich and poor, rulers and ruled, haves and have-nots, abound. This abundance is due partly to the capacity of dichotomies to dramatise political struggle, despite the awareness that some kind of hierarchical order has almost always been present in human societies.1

Dichotomous images of oppressor and oppressed were used in the Bible. For Plato and Aristotle, the distinction between freeman and slave had a biological basis. Early Christian writers saw inequality in economic terms, usually as relations of ownership between masters and servants. Peasant revolts often involved a distinction between the idle and the worker, or the aristocrat and the serf, which was explained by reference to the primacy of inherited power in the acquisition of wealth.2

The Industrial Revolution precipitated major changes to the ways in which social divisions were represented. The term 'rank', previously in common use to describe social division, was challenged by the term 'class'. This challenge involved a shift from rigid, status-based divisions to more fluid economic criteria for conceptualising inequality. In 1776 Adam Smith proposed a tripartite class structure of owners of land, producers of stock, and laborers. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx identified a tripartite structure of rulers, bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx argued that the interests of capital and labor were diametrically opposed, and conceived this opposition as a political struggle that would end with the triumph of the proletariat. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Max Weber proposed a more stratified and less politicised model, and employed it to measure what he called life chances.3

The theories advanced by Marx and Weber, and the related tension between class as political struggle and class as sociological category, have dominated twentieth century writing about class. Historians and sociologists have used the concept to identify social structure and explore power relations between classes, and have examined the extent to which class membership shapes collective identity. As both category and concept, then, class has proved remarkably durable, although in recent times its relevance as a tool for social analysis has come under challenge.4

As it was across the British Empire, class was a core idea in colonial Tasmania, akin to natural law, and it played a central role in the creation of social structure, managing social relations, and shaping life chances for both individuals and groups. The state was a key player. It fought a bloody war with the island's Aboriginal owners, then, using a land grant system based on patronage, gave free land to colonists with capital who duly created a colonial gentry. Convict labour was provided to larger landholders free of charge until the 1840s. A state-funded Commissariat Store provided a market for farm produce. Gangs of convicts built roads, bridges and public buildings.5

By 1830 most arable land had been granted to a small number of male colonists. New colonists were forced to take tenancies. Combined with the system of convict assignment, the land grant system laid the basis for the creation in the 1830s of a three-tiered class structure of landlord, tenant farmer and itinerant farm labourer, mainly in the colony's central north, where wetter and more fertile country encouraged mixed agriculture. In the drier Midlands, the pastoral economy spawned a class structure more reminiscent of the older British system of landowners and serfs.6

By the 1830s, the colony's major towns, which played administrative and trading roles, had formed a class structure of wage labour, small production and mercantile capital. The towns were governed by the local landed elites, whose members, as magistrates, controlled law enforcement in rural districts. Through the administration of policing and master/servant laws they imposed surveillance, regulation and punishment on the labouring class, most of whom were or had been convicts. Magistrates also administered landlord and tenant laws that were heavily weighted in favour of landlords. Ruling elites thus had not only substantial economic power, but also substantial legal power.7

In line with the historical impulse to dichotomise class relations, early class structure in Tasmania is commonly seen as convict and free. In broad terms this dichotomy is correct, although social classes are rarely homogenous entities with shared experience, common culture and collective aspirations. In early Tasmania, gradations based on status or rank prevailed. Some convicts were chosen to police their former peers. Those with skills were advantaged over unskilled. Some were assigned as shepherds, others forced to work in chains. The usual distinctions of rank existed within the military, and the small class of landholders and merchants was graded according to background and wealth. The more powerful landholders and merchants, and some senior officials and churchmen, formed an appointed governing elite, the Legislative Council.8

Two major episodes of class warfare occurred in Van Diemen's Land. One episode was the armed struggle between Aborigines and colonists to control the land. This struggle is not normally presented as class warfare; the definitions of class used by historians have positioned Aborigines outside colonial society. But Aborigines were an underclass within colonial society. They were not welcome as members of it, but were a constant presence in and threat to that society until dispossession was complete and survivors were exiled to islands in Bass Strait.9

Except for a few bushrangers, armed struggle did not characterise relations between convicts and their rulers. This would suggest that (narrowly defined) class warfare did not occur. One could argue, however, that the systematic subjugation and torture of large numbers of convicts by a brutal apparatus of state repression can be seen as class warfare waged by the state against an unarmed enemy. This kind of warfare bespeaks a society and culture racked by moral cowardice.10

By 1850, the moral vacuum of Van Diemen's Land was filled by the middle-class ideology of moral enlightenment. Its ascendancy reflected the increasing ideological power of the colony's urban middle-class of small producers, professionals and civil servants. Temperance and education movements were expressions of this power, as was middle-class control of outdoor charitable relief for the colony's destitute.11

The Tasmanian government's statistics for the 1850s defined class structure in terms of occupations. Rural Tasmania had a four-tiered class structure of gentry, professionals, tenant farmers and landless laborers. Urban class structure included merchants and bankers, professionals and self-employed, the middle-class waged, and the laboring class. Each class was broken down into sub-classes, and the structure was ordered top-down according to status and income.12

In 1870, statisticians amalgamated urban and rural class structure into a four-tiered structure of professional/commercial class (5 percent), middle-class waged (20 percent), industrial class 34 percent), and labouring class (41 percent). Each class was still broken down into sub-classes. Tasmanian industry and hence the shape of the workforce remained relatively static until the 1940s. Similar categories were revived later in the twentieth century. In 2001, the six major categories used, accounting for 76 percent of the workforce, were: managerial (8.7 percent of total), professional (16.9 percent), associate professional (11.6 percent), trades (12.4 percent), clerical, sales & service (16.7 percent), and laboring (9.7 percent).13

A comparison of occupational structures in 1870 and 2001 shows similarities and change. The industrial or trade class shrank from 33 percent to 12 percent of the workforce. The laboring class shrank from 44 percent to just 10 percent, although the inclusion of sales and service would push the 2001 laboring category to 27 percent. In 1870 the middle-class was 17.8 percent; in 2001, professionals and associates occupied 26.5 percent of jobs. These changes reflect the decline of manual work, and the increase in service and professional occupations.14

Marxist historians Connell and Irving propose that an occupational category becomes a class when it develops a consciousness of itself as a separate group with common interests. The discussion above suggests that class consciousness was well established in Tasmania by the 1850s. The advent of self-government in 1856 moved class relations from the socio-economic into the formal political realm. A restricted electoral franchise limited political participation. The Legislative Council, for which one in seven adult males could vote, was the locus of power. The House of Assembly, for which one in three could vote, was marginally more representative. The franchise for local municipal councils, also controlled by local elites, was similarly restrictive.15

The elites used their political and legal power to exercise control, primarily over former emancipists (many of whom were itinerant farm workers), the working-class more generally, and tenant farmers. These groups comprised 70 percent of the colony's workforce. Control was formalised in legislation often couched in the language of class. Much social law contained penal provisions and was a device for structuring social relations. The Master and Servant law, heavily weighted in favour of masters, was used to regulate relations between employers and employees. The Police Act provided for the policing of public space, especially the prosecution of vagrants, whose crime was often no more than destitution. Many working-class leisure pursuits were legislatively regulated or confined to times and places determined by authorities. Landlords' customary discretionary powers were enshrined in the 1874 Landlord and Tenant Act. Tenants had few legal rights. Other laws, aimed at tenant farmers, enforced measures to eradicate agricultural pests and diseases and limit the hunting of indigenous fauna. This battery of laws ensured that life chances for the working-class and many of the tenant class were limited.16

The exercise of elite power was never absolute. Apart from the two examples mentioned above, class war did not occur, but conflict and antagonism were common. Emancipated convicts irritated masters by pleasing themselves when to work. Itinerant workers denied assistance sometimes set fire to fences, haystacks and barns. Local or regional interests underscored cross-class resistance to central power. In the 1880s, tenant wheat farmers from the north challenged the free trade policy favoured by the elites. Conflict over the local administration of Rabbit and Thistle acts united local classes against the central government, and demonstrated the strength of cross-class loyalty to local places. During the South African War and the First World War, loyalty to Britain united classes, at least until the conscription debates of 1916–17. Class, in other words, was never the sole basis on which collective identities were formed.17

The development of a colonial middle class was retarded by gold-rush emigration and by extended economic depression in the 1860s and 1870s. Its desire to impose its social values came under periodic challenge from publicans and promoters of spectator sports. Nevertheless, the middle class was an active player in class relations, especially in the later nineteenth century. Respectability was perceived as its natural condition, although this could be attained by the labouring classes if they converted to middle-class values of temperance, thrift and hard work. Class mobility was therefore possible. Education was a key middle-class issue, and mechanics' institutes, usually organised by the middle-class, were often involved in this uplifting process, as were temperance associations, working men's clubs and the developing state education system.18

The provision of outdoor charitable relief was a middle-class function. It involved a distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. The latter received less, and the deserving were encouraged to adopt middle-class values. Failure to behave appropriately could mean loss of relief.19

A different segment of the middle-class provided the most effective challenge to landed power in Tasmania. In the 1880s a new generation of politicians, mostly lawyers and businessmen hostile to notions of landed privilege and critical of what they (and earlier criticis) deemed class legislation, established a reformist political class that reshaped the political landscape and hence class relations in Tasmania by replacing landed power with parliamentary democracy and centralised executive power.20

Class relations were further rewritten after the west coast mining industry was established in the early 1880s. A Trades and Labor Council was formed in 1883. The rise of unions was a challenge to capital, pointed to distinct class interests, and was a focal point for collective identities based on work. The movement for reform was aided by the devastating impact of the 1891 Depression. Disputes in the shipping, pastoral and mining industries dispelled the liberal belief that labour and capital had shared interests, hastened working-class organisation, and ushered in a period of class conflict. The Tasmanian Workers' Political League, the Tasmanian forerunner to the Australian Labor Party, was formed in 1901 and represented workers' interests at a political level.21

In the early twentieth century, parliamentary reformers continued efforts to redress class inequalities. Electoral laws underwent further reform. Municipal control of policing and the magistracy was removed. Closer Settlement Acts redistributed farming land, except in the wool-rich Midlands where large estates remained substantially intact, partly because they were too dry for small farming.22

State Wages Boards were established from the very late nineteenth century. They set wage rates in accordance with a status hierarchy of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Differential status was not a new development, but Wages Boards did represent recognition of worker entitlements, and was a significant advance on the discretionary system that characterised the earlier master/servant regime.23

The parallel emergence of trade unions and the ALP did not lead to significant class struggle. The reforms of the immediate post-Federation period and the impact of the Great Depression ushered in a period of close co-operation between Labor governments and unions, based on the ideology of economic development, that in significant respects still persists. The Labor party and construction unions collaborated in a mutually beneficial relationship based on the strategy of building hydro-electric dams to provide cheap power for big industries that only partly materialised. More generally, forestry, agriculture, pastoralism and mining, all major extractive industries, maintained a numerically significant working-class. Working-class affiliation remained strong and was a continuing source of collective identity. A widespread scepticism of the value of education, reflected in low retention rates, limited opportunities for class mobility.

One explanation for the relative stability of class structure in Tasmanian history is that economic activity has been seen as an undisputed good. The ideology of unfettered development was akin to a secular religion. All classes embraced it. Since the 1980s, however, the nature of work has changed, economic interests have faced the challenge of environmentalism, and the role of class as a primary signifier of life chances and cultural identity has come under challenge from certain sociologists. After the 2004 federal election, commentators argued that political affiliations have shifted to the point that the older divide between the middle-class and working-class has all but dissolved.24 The long view, however, suggests that while the terms have changed, the need to distinguish persists.

American sociologist Richard Sennett argues that class has declined as a signifier of collective identity as a result of the changing nature of work. Many western workplaces, once occupied by males who practised a common set of manual skills, are now computerised. The skills that once bound people to occupations and hence collective identities have declined. In addition, many workplaces are now gendered and culturally diverse. The upshot is that western workplaces now inhibit rather than encourage work-based identities. Identity formation is pursued outside the workplace in wider cultural arenas, and without restraints of class location defined by work.25

Contemporary Tasmania offers much evidence to support Sennett's analysis. Several other categories of affiliation and identification that cross older class lines have emerged. The rise of environmentalism was portrayed as an attack on both unions and the state generally, and on the ideology of economic development. This dynamic continues over the issue of logging old-growth forests, where an alliance of unionised workers, forestry commission bureaucrats and politicians constitute a defensive bulwark, the only one left in Australia, against the claims of environmentalists. Likewise, the environmental movement draws support across class lines.26 Class as a signifier of identity in Tasmania has been further eroded by movements associated with social justice, especially Aboriginal land rights and reconciliation, rights' agendas encompassing women, older people, gays, lesbians, asylum seekers and refugees, and by cosmopolitan youth cultures, all of which draw support or opposition across traditional class lines, and have diminished the role of class as a primary basis of collective identity.

Conversely, a case can be made that notions of class still feed the processes of identity formation. Research shows that in Britain most people still have a sense of class affiliation and identity,27 and I suspect a similar case in Australia. The Tasmanian union movement, especially in the forestry, mining and construction industries, remains strong and politically influential. Both Jim Bacon and Paul Lennon, two influential Labor politicians, had backgrounds in militant unionism and gave strong support to 'working people', namely forestry workers, against perceived attacks by cultural elites. In this context, the replacement of working-class with 'working people' looks like a piece of new-age political spin.

Teaching and nursing workplaces are now computerised, gendered and culturally diverse, but retain a strong sense of class affiliation and collective interest based on the workplace, most evident when industrial disputes occur. I suspect the traditional suspicion of the boss persists, and some believe a Tasmanian gentry still prowls the sparse plains of the Midlands. The strength of class may have declined, but proclamations of its death are premature.

One commentator recently argued that in Australia the language of class has been discarded by all but the remnant Left. The term battler has replaced worker, and middle-class has been distilled into a stereotype of the self-interested, materialistic aspirational, the natural enemy of which is not the working-class unionist but the disenchanted educated elite who threaten economic development and social cohesion. While the terms battler and aspirational have entered the political discourse, a casual survey of Australian (and international) newspapers shows that the terms middle-class and working-class are still in use, not only by radical lefties.28 In the long view, battler and aspirational may be just one more dichotomy.

Perceptions aside, structural inequality in Tasmania is a historical fact. The burden of chronic working-class poverty has passed to what can be called the welfare class, some 30 percent of the state's population, many of whom live in chronic poverty in out-lying suburbs and small country towns. For many, life chances are heavily circumscribed. They join Aborigines, convicts, emancipists and itinerant farm workers before them as a Tasmanian underclass. Increasing casualisation of the Tasmanian workforce, evident in the state's tourism and hospitality industry, is reminiscent of the chronic itinerancy that prevailed among farm labourers in the nineteenth century. And some suburbs of Launceston and Hobart are still distinguished according to income levels and perceptions about values and behaviour.29

In recent times, most job growth in Australia has occurred in highly-skilled and low-skilled jobs. Some scholars now argue that a creative class of qualified, highly-paid professionals has emerged. At the same time, the service class of low-skilled, poorly paid, casual workers has rapidly increased. The service class supports the creative class by minding its children, caring for its old, cleaning its homes and offices, and waiting on its members in bars and restaurants. Growth in low-skilled jobs has been accompanied by increased casualisation and industrial relations flexibility. The commercial classes applaud workplace deregulation, but while the creative class continues to flourish, protections and benefits for casual and service workers are progressively removed.30

Tasmanian statistics for 2001 confirm the national trend of growth in low-end service occupations. The limited life chances for the low-end service class, for the labouring class more generally, and for most Tasmanian Aborigines, are compounded by the fact that almost 70 percent of the Tasmanian workforce does not have post-school qualifications, on which the life chances in the new economy depend heavily. Structural inequality is as common today as it was in the 1850s, and class remains one of several concepts necessary to understand and, one hopes, redress that inequality.

Shayne Breen

My thanks go to Kate Harrison for able assistance with research for this chapter.

1. Lewis Coser, The dictionary of the history of ideas, Virginia, 2003, vol 1, pp 442-43.
2. Coser, pp 442-43.
3. Coser, pp 442-43.
4. Dictionary of Sociology, pp 49-51.
5. Henry Reynolds, '“Men of substance and deservedly good repute”: The Tasmanian gentry 1865–75', Australian Journal of Politics and History 15/3, 1969, pp 61-62; Sharon Morgan, Land settlement in early Tasmania, Melbourne, 1992, pp 10-19, 25-28.
6. RW Connell & TH Irving, Class structure in Australian history, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992, pp 33-44; Shayne Breen, Contested places, Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2001, chapters 2 & 3.
7. For a discussion of ruling elites see John Higley, 'Elites', in D Woodward, A Parkin & J Summers, Government, politics and power in Australia, Melbourne, 1985, pp 324-33.
8. Lloyd Robson, A history of Tasmania, vol 1, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1983; Lloyd Robson, Short history of Tasmania, pp 22-23; Connell & Irving, pp 33-37.
9. Dictionary of Sociology, p 56; John West, The history of Tasmania, vol 2, Launceston: Henry Dowling, 1852, pp 92-96.
10. For discussions of the treatment of convicts, see Ian Brand (ed Michael Sprod), The convict probation system: Van Diemen's Land 1839–54, Hobart: Blubber Head Press, 1990; Bruce Hindmarsh, 'Scorched earth: contested powers and divided loyalties on Midlands properties, 1820–40', Tasmanian Historical Studies 6 / 2, 1999.
11. Michael Roe, Quest for authority in Eastern Australia 1835–51, Melbourne, 1965; Robson, Short history, p 20.
12. Statistics of Tasmania, 1851.
13. Statistics of Tasmania, 1870; Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 'Basic community profile and snapshot, Tasmania', 2001.
14. ABS, 2001.
15. Connell & Irving, p 4; Robson, Short history, pp 20-26, 36; Breen, ContestedpPlaces, p 118.
16. Breen, Contested places, pp 7-9, 101-08, 119-20, 56-61, 132-43, 160-61. For a discussion of the centrality of law in Australian colonial societies, see Alex Castles, 'The Vandemonian spirit and the law', THRAPP, 38/3 & 4, 1991, p 107.
17. Breen, Contested places ; pp 108-13, 67-72, 132-43; Robson, Short history, pp 44, 78; Marilyn Lake, A divided society: Tasmania during World War 1, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1975.
18. Robson, Short history, p 26; Roe, Quest for authority; Robson, Short history, p 20; Joan Brown, 'Poverty is not a crime', Hobart, 1972; Shayne Breen, 'Outdoor poor relief in Launceston, 1860–80', THRAPP, 38/1, 1991, pp 19-50.
19. Henry Reynolds, 'The island colony: Tasmanian society and politics 1880–90', MA thesis, University of Tasmania, 1968; Robson, Short history, p 33.
20. Connell & Irving; Robson, Short history, p 52.
21. Breen, Contested places , pp 143-50, 42-46.
22. Breen, Contested places , p 101.
23. Dictionary of Sociology , pp 53-45.
24. See, eg, Paul Kelly, Weekend Australian , 23-24 October, 2004, p 32; Richard Sennett, The corrosion of character: the personal consequences of work in the new capitaliam , cited in Christopher Scanlon, Age Review , 17 April 2004, p 8. Scanlon is a researcher at RMIT University's Globalism Institute.
25. These ideological conflicts are played out in the media and in local settings.
26. Dictionary of Sociology , pp 54-55.
27. Scanlon, Age , 17 April 2004.
28. In addition to Paul Kelly, George Megalopolos and Greg Sheridan used the terms unproblematically in analyses of Australia's 2004 federal election; Australian Social Trends, 'A study of socio-economic disadvantage and inequality', 2001, based on 1996 census; for a discussion of the concept underclass, see Dictionary of Sociology , p 365.
29. Anthony O'Donnell, Age , 2 August 2004, p 11. O'Donnell is a research fellow in the Centre for Employment and Labor Relations Law at the University of Melbourne.
30. ABS, 2001.