November 2019

Comment

Revolutions past

By Don Watson

Napoléon à Fontainebleau, le 31 mars 1814, by Paul Delaroche.
© Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

Labor and the Liberals have abandoned their old ideological contests as they battle to define the values of the new middle class

“In revolutions everything is forgotten … The side once changed, gratitude, friendship, parentage, every tie vanishes, and all sought for is self-interest.”
— Napoleon, 1816

 

Despite the noise of politics and many indications to the contrary, it is not outlandish to suppose that a healthy majority of Australian voters hold the most basic tenets of modern political economy in common. They generally agree that a market economy is far more efficient and productive than a command economy, and, no less generally, that a cohesive, just and good society depends on well-judged government regulation and activity.

Labor speaks of the Liberals’ “top end of town”, and the Liberals of Labor’s “class war” and the “politics of envy”, but these are sham refrains. Anachronisms. Were politics reset in keeping with the times, the parties would concede that it is not a contest between social democracy and a capitalist free-for-all, or “the light on the hill” and “the forgotten people”, or even conservatives and progressives, but one in which the ghosts of organisations that once had some claim to represent these passions compete to prove themselves the superior financial managers.

No one now speaks credibly of an organised and conscious ruling class, or of a working class organised against it. The class war, like the Cold War, is long over and both sides of it have been decommissioned. The parties continue, but much as the Protestant churches do – either emptied of both parishioners and faith or reborn without the poetry.

Yet politics has never been more vicious. This is at least partly because the general consensus obliges the major parties to exaggerate their differences, traduce the other’s policies, and fight phony (culture) wars. It is also because the parliament – the place where the civil war was continued by civil means – is no longer the principal battlefield. The media is, and the media needs blood. And loot. The more politics resembles Game of Thrones or a bad marriage, the more loot of every description. The parties, substituting for old armies, are too tame. It is not an accident that, in the early stages of impeachment proceedings in the United States, the president was retweeting his supporters’ warnings of the civil war resumed.

It is equally no accident that a delusional celebrity with contempt for Congress or any form of democratic check on his ambition got to be president, or that another narcissist with scant respect for parliament became conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom. Australia has plonked for Scott Morrison, equal parts Barnum & Bailey and Ogilvy & Mather.

“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst,” David Hume said.

Sceptic, atheist and profound influence on American revolutionary thought, Hume’s thinking goes to show that the definition of conservatism in the 18th century could be stretched to accommodate many different strands of thought, including classical liberalism, altruism, and the notion that the origins of morality (and aesthetic pleasure) lie in human sympathy. It was why Robert Menzies could get away with calling his party Liberal. And it was what for the briefest moment Malcolm Turnbull seemed to promise.

But the ruling faction of the Liberal Party loathes liberalism, and is conservative only in confounding ways. They are for small government, and for big government surveillance regimes; for freedom of the individual, and camps for the indefinite detention of innocent people; for freedom of the press, and for raiding the homes of journalists and sending whistleblowers to jail; for standing up for “dinkum” Australian values, and being the White House hamster; for globalisation as it relates to capital, but not as it relates to the United Nations; for farmers clinging to their land, and for international agribusiness. One could go on.

We might think conservatives would see climate catastrophe as a threat to order and reason, not to mention self-interest. Not the modern strain. As spiritual descendants of landed classes and traditions of noblesse oblige, the desecration of the natural environment, the loss of productive land to urban sprawl, the degeneration of our river systems, the shrinking of country towns unto death, the loss of both beauty and function in the landscape, and forms of intensive farming that threaten the land’s sustainability – all these should be a plague upon their souls. Not the present crew.

Conservatives of a certain stamp once held it almost as an article of faith that staggering progress in science and technology is not matched by improvement in human nature, and that the survival of civilisation required us to encourage the nobler instincts of men and women. Don’t conservatives by nature value cultural memory, tradition, language, “the refuge of art”? (“And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”) But there are none like these remaining.

Yet, forgive them their apostasy, as we will be obliged to forgive the Labor Party for theirs if, having lost the election, they renounce the policies on which they ran and the beliefs underlying them.

Paul Keating says the Labor Party lost last May because it failed to understand the “new middle class”. Perhaps he’s right, and perhaps also right to say that he and Bob Hawke created this new middle class – though when Forbes magazine recently reported that signs of a class fitting this description had turned up in figures published by US Bureau of Statistics, they seemed to think the upheaval had something to do with ­technology and globalisation and the like. The new class comprised “healthcare workers, for instance, and technicians, service sector employees and lower-level managers” and unlike the old middle and working classes, it was growing.

However it was created – by government fiat or a momentous lurch in history – it is not middle class in ways that would make a lot of sense to old residents of Camberwell or Mosman, or to old sociologists either.

We are not talking about the middle class that Marx and Weber tried to figure. Having just tumbled out of capitalism’s revolutionary churn, the new middle class is bound to lack the timeworn habits of the old one. Being new, it has no roots in much beyond its own self­interest, and no values to call its own, except perhaps those picked up from management philosophy. Being middle class, Flaubert and his ilk would say, the thinking will be of a “low” kind. More likely it will reflect not just self-interest, but rational self-interest – so long as the sentiment is compatible with any irrational aspirations that might be governing them.

Being new, the new middle class is in part defined by the absence of ideology, or even of any consciousness of itself as a class. The prime minister, however, has quickly addressed this shortcoming by giving it – and any others happy to accept one – an identity. Or at least a brand. It is a very touching and powerful moniker, even suggesting a philosophy – or is quietude more of a faith? They have become the Quiet Australians, and now they know that self-interest and aspiration are the blessed states of Man.

It is the age of aspiration. Labor, its deputy leader says, must become the “party of aspiration”. We thought it was. The shadow minister for communications says the party must “advance aspiration”. We thought it did.

Debate about the party’s direction as usual leads us to wonder if the ALP will remain a vehicle for the broader – and dare we say higher – aspirations of humanity. Will they add the high ground to the low ground lost to Morrison? Or try to take what conservatives have relinquished?

If that invites a contradiction, so what. Labor will never be without contradictions. No party ever is. And no party ever wins except despite them. This government is proof of that.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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