If you have been watching commercial television recently you would have noticed a series of advertisements for a financial product in which a smug financier wearing an expensive suit appears at various resorts, restaurants and shopping centres telling us that he’s enjoying your holidays, your meal and your retirement savings.
The punchline? He’s from one of the elite financial organisations that are stealing your hard-earned income and spending it on lavish lifestyles for themselves. You should choose instead to invest through the little guys. The ads are selling financial products to nervous middle class Australians using the open language of class warfare. Wealthy bankers bad, little guys good. They’re dividing Australians from each other solely on the basis of wealth. This is utterly disgraceful, and I expect the tabloids to begin a series of editorials, the financial institutions to fund a television advertising campaign, and spontaneous rallies to break out across the nation, led by Macquarie Bank executives.
The fact is, the language of class warfare is everywhere if you want to look for it. It has even become the basis of finance sector advertising campaigns. But despite this, it is now somehow illegitimate for social-democratic politicians to even hint of anything that might involve class warfare.
Strangely enough, whilst the language of class warfare has been made illegitimate when it comes from the Left, it’s a different case when it comes from the Right. The Right actually revels in the language of class warfare. It has become the Right’s stock reply to any proposed social reform. A new school funding system—class warfare. A change in the way mining is taxed from royalties to profits—class warfare. Removing absurdly generous and unsustainable taxation concessions from superannuation—class warfare. And so on.
Why is this?
I think there are two related explanations: one an electoral strategy, the other an intellectual ploy.
Firstly, during the Howard years the combination of wealth from the resources boom and electoral bribes in the form of upper middle class welfare, changed Australians’ financial relationship with their national government, turning the idea of welfare on its head. Whereas it was once Labor that funded welfare and public services for the little people and then screamed ‘heartless capitalists’ when the Liberals threatened to take that funding away, now it is the Liberals who hand out public money to their supporters in the form of tax breaks and vouchers for private services and cry ‘heartless socialists’ whenever Labor tries to take it away. ‘Welfare capitalism’ has become ‘capitalist welfarism’.
Explaining this reversal of the natural order to the voters requires an effective populist language of envy, and as any good businessman will tell you, why bother inventing one when you can buy one cheap off the shelf and simply turn it upside down? And this brings me to my second explanation: to aid their electoral strategy the Liberals have appropriated the intellectual categories and class warfare language of Marxism and turned them on Labor.
It’s all related to the intellectual revolution that has been going on in the Right since the late 1970s. Invented mainly by former American Marxists who later became Neo-Conservatives (and imported to Australia by former Marxists like PP McGuiness), a new class warfare has arisen. In this world there are two broad class alignments: the wealth creators in the shape of businesspeople, small business owners and the self-employed; and the wealth consumers, in the form of lazy welfare recipients, trade union members and inner-urban, public sector white-collar ‘new class elites’. It’s all about the hard-working everyday people against the useless, rent-seeking elites. A new class struggle. Even the language they used is derived from Marxism. This, in its most basic form, is the intellectual frame of Australian politics today.
My point in essence is this: the surprising reappearance of “class warfare” in Australian political discourse has little to do with the Labor Party, which over the course of generations has become part of the centrist, consensual fabric of Australian politics. It is the result of a populist electoral strategy of the Liberal Party which has its origins in the appropriation by right-wing intellectuals of the sociological concepts and rhetorical ploys of Marxism. Over many years of propagation, this ‘elites versus the rest’ frame has now become popular common sense. The Right in Australia, as elsewhere in the world, are the true inheritors of the aggressive and divisive psychology of Marxism. They’re conducting a “class war”, but from the top down.
That’s why you’re far more likely to hear Tony Abbott and finance industry lobbyists mention the term “class warfare” on the TV news tonight than you are to hear Julia Gillard or the head of the ACTU do so.