Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does Australia also have a ruling class?

In his article, ‘America’s ruling class – and the perils of revolution’, Angelo Codevilla suggests that Democrat and Republican office-holders in recent governments in the United States ‘show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits and opinions ... than between both and the rest of the community’. He claims: ‘They think, look, and act like a class’ (‘The American Spectator, July-August 2010).

I think the article provides a good explanation of why Americans who normally support the Republican Party are currently so disenchanted with it. Perhaps Australians should be thinking about possible implications for politics in this country.

Characteristics of this class identified by Codevilla include the following:
• ‘Its first tenet is that “we” are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained’.
• Its only standard of truth is consensus among its members. It does not take seriously the views of anyone - irrespective of professional competence, academic achievement, wealth or office held – unless they are members of the class. Like a fraternity, the ruling class requires its members to share the manners and tastes of the class.
• It views the common people’s words as ‘like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure and frustration’.
• It stakes its claim to power through intellectual-moral pretence but holds power through patronage – increasing the power of government to increase its own power and reward its supporters.
• It includes among its number people who have been chosen by government to be the true representatives of various sectors of society and who have been empowered to represent those sectors in elaborating laws and administrative rules.
• It seeks to make itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty by making economic rules dependent on the discretion of office holders who are members of the ruling class.
• It redirects the people’s energies away from satisfying their own desires – toward living more densely and closer to work, driving smaller cars, using less energy, improving their diet etc.
• It assumes that what it mandates with regard to education and welfare of children must be correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive.
• ‘Its principal article of faith, its claim to the right to decide for others, is precisely that it knows things and operates by standards beyond others’ comprehension’.
• It identifies science and reason with itself and pronounces definitive scientific judgment on whatever it chooses. Aggressive, intolerant secularism is the moral basis of its claim to rule.
• It interferes in the affairs of foreign governments that are not the enemies of America.
• It favours ever higher taxes and expanding government.

Before I go further, I think a confession may be in order. Some of those points describe attitudes I held 40 years ago. I’m not proud of that, but at the time I thought that Commonwealth public servants were the best and the brightest in the land and that they should have more power.

Another point I should make is that it is important to distinguish between opposition to ruling class attitudes and support for populist attitudes. In my view the words of non-experts on complex economic issues do have little more value than a grunt. Whether we are talking about economic policy, brain surgery or plumbing, I think it should be self-evident that the views of experts count for more than those of non-experts. The problem with the ruling class is not its lack of regard for the views of non-experts, but its lack of regard for the views of experts who do not accept that it has a right to interfere in the way citizens live their lives.

Coming to the question I posed at the beginning, it is obvious from what I have already written that I think Australia does have a self-appointed ruling class as described above. This ruling class is identified most closely with the public service and the political left, including the Greens as well as the Labor Party.

However, I don’t think the conservative side of Australian politics is as closely identified with the ruling class as in the US. When he came to office, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class. This antipathy remained until his government was voted out of office, even though his policies were by then virtually indistinguishable from those of the ruling class. Tony Abbott, the current leader of opposition, seems to want to maintain distance himself from the ruling class rather than to disempower it. His recent book, discussed here, is a strange mixture of support for traditional family values, classical liberalism and espousal of ruling class attitudes toward centralization of power in Canberra.


Lorraine said...

I don't know jack about Australia, but if there's any truth to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, then it's a very safe bet that yes, Australia has a ruling class. Perhaps the most famous Australian today is Rupert Murdoch, who is certainly wealthy enough to be considered ruling class, and more importantly is a very influential spokescritter for ruling class interests.

As for the caricature painted in your list of bullet-points, I seriously doubt that it even approximates what's on the minds of the actual ruling class. It, and the American Spectator article you point to, are refrains we've already all heard a million times, intellectual-bashing, euro-bashing, PC-bashing, and of course the bald assertion that there's more power in media and academia than there is in business, finance and 'national security.' The former are utterly financially dependent on the latter, and it shows. Elitism and rulership are two entirely different things. One has to do with attitudes, while the other has to do with power relationships.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Lorraine.
Perhaps I should start with Rupert. He is one of your mob now. He had to renounce his Australian citizenship some time ago because of concerns that foreigners who own media in the US might have too much influence on US politics. But he still sounds like an Australian!

I agree that media owners have a fair amount of political influence. But their influence has probably lessened with the growth of the internet etc. Murdoch may have had more influence in Australia in the past - when he was identfied as a supporter of the Labor party.

I'm not sure about your distinction between elite attitudes and power relationships. Do wealthy people have more influence on policies adopted by political parties than the ruling class as described in the dot points above? I'm not sure about the US but I don't think that is true of either of the major political parties in Australia.

Lorraine said...

Ken Jarvis informs us that not only is Rupert Murdoch ruling class, but he is the most powerful man in the history of the world!