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Apr 16, 2013

The slippery and convenient concept of 'class warfare'

"Class warfare" is a confected term sprayed about across the nation's newspapers of late to shut down policy debate. But funny how it only applies to the rich ...

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At times, it’s easier tracking what’s not “class warfare” than what is.

You’d be well aware the government’s proposal to require people earning over $100,000 per year from retirement savings to pay 15% on the amount over that threshold is “class warfare”, according to both the opposition (Mathias Cormann) and the commentariat (Robert Gottliebsen). Even Simon Crean, self-anointed guardian of the consensual, Kumbaya-singing Hawke-Keating era, thinks the government’s super changes are “class warfare”. And Treasurer Wayne Swan’s criticism of mining magnates engaged in campaigning against the government, too, was called class warfare, including by sources that were anonymous at the time but that now look very much like the miners’ former friend-at-court, former resources minister Martin Ferguson.

But you need to be aware that “class warfare” is far broader than that. For example, the mining super profits tax was “class war”, according to Andrew Forrest, (although Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholomeusz disagreed and thought it was a “civil war“).

There’s class warfare everywhere in education. Christopher Pyne claimed in 2008 that asking publicly funded private schools to reveal financial details was class warfare. The schoolkids’ bonus was, according to Pyne, also class warfare. The Gonski Report itself, according to right-wing education activist Kevin Donnelly, was class war. The Fair Work Act, too, is class warfare, according to Ken “independent contracting” Phillips, and it is destroying the mining boom.

Trying to reduce the cost of the private health insurance rebate is also class warfare, said Peter Dutton.  Attempts to close the massively rorted Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme were declared by noted pharmaceutical expert Piers Akerman to be class warfare.

Even mentioning that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hailed from north of the Harbour in Sydney was, according to The Australian‘s journalists, class warfare.

What journalists, commentators and politicians are referring to when they say “class warfare” is actually “attacks on the wealthy”, although “class warfare” sounds better — and we’ll get to that. Not to mention that “class war” traditionally has meant mass slaughter, rather than asking high-income earners to pay the same tax as low-income earners. Few commentators have called the Coalition’s plan to scrap the Low Income Superannuation Contribution “class war”, despite being targeted at people on incomes below $37,000. Few have termed the government’s shift of single parents onto Newstart “class warfare”, despite being targeted at some of the lowest income earners in the country.  And no one has called the government’s refusal to countenance a lift in Newstart, which even peak business bodies have called for, “class warfare”.

“But more to the point, it delegitimises any debate about government policies when the benefits disproportionately flow to the powerful and wealthy …”

The flexible and nebulous character of the term reflects its confected nature. And despite the Kevin Rudd camp embracing it in internal exile, a quick count of media commentary shows who’s doing the confecting: since the beginning of 2012, Smh.com.au has run seven articles that discussed the government’s “class warfare” and “class war”, in addition to reporting of the use of the term by Coalition and Labor figures and other contributors to public debate. The Australian Financial Review, a reliable critic of Labor under its current management, has run 10 articles that discuss “class war”, aside from reportage, in that period. The Daily Telegraph has run 21 pieces on “class war” during that time. And The Australian has run 77.

Use of the phrase peaked during both The Telegraph and The Australian’s 2012 budget coverage, even before Tony Abbott used the phrase in his budget reply, although as we now know, Abbott consulted with Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker about his paper’s coverage on budget night. But it’s had a resurgence in March and April this year.

The co-ordinated use of the term by the Coalition and some editors is a tactic borrowed from the Republicans in the US. As early as a few weeks after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, he was being targeted for “class war” policies by the Right in the US, and mainstream media outlets were reflecting its use. It’s since become a staple of both Fox News coverage and GOP talking points that Obama is engaged in “class war”, not to mention socialism, communism and a “war on wealth”.

The reason the term is so appealing to critics of the government, both those without and, like Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, those within, is because it comes loaded with negative connotations. To accuse someone of class war is to suggest a rigid ideologue, someone motivated not by the national interest but by mere jealousy toward those more hard-working/intelligent/business-minded than party apparatchiks, even if a Gina Rinehart inherited the bulk of her wealth and then enjoyed the accident of an historical boom in Chinese demand.

But more to the point, it delegitimises any debate about government policies when the benefits disproportionately flow to the powerful and wealthy in a way that never happens in debate about government policies that benefit the poor. There is something bracing and rigorous about the demand that welfare recipients feel the discipline of the market rather than enjoy the support of the taxpayer; in contrast, it is “sickening class warfare” to wonder why superannuation tax concessions costing billions flow to high-income earners who will never go on the age pension.

The term thus serves a purpose. Whenever “class warfare” is invoked, you can be sure that disproportionate or unjustified benefits for high-income earners or large corporations are under threat, benefits they would prefer to keep hidden.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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81 thoughts on “The slippery and convenient concept of ‘class warfare’

  1. supermundane

    Frankly Australia is in dire need a some class warfare and a good dose of consciousness-raising about the long and hard fought battles by successive generations of working class men and women to acquire the rights that people take for granted today and which would be unwound at the first opportunity. Blood was shed and lives were lost over and those who seek to monopolise the world’s resources; who believe that the world is their rightful property and that your labour also belongs to them haven’t forgotten the near unfettered dominance they once had over it all. They are conscious of their class and they work together in solidarity. They conduct class warfare on a daily basis, not least through the myths they perpetuate about themselves and the weakest in society particularly through the media.

    When we buy in to their self-serving myths – that their success within what is a rigged system arises solely from their genius, determination and hard-work, and equally importantly when we tacitly accept the world and everything in it can be framed and recast recast as private property we are defnding their place at the top of this rigged and anti-human system.

    Those who accumulate and hoard the greatest wealth – however decent and community-minded they might be and however accepting of of the obligation to contribute their share in taxes – have invariably accumulated their wealth through successfully externalising the costs, rent-seeking (rather unproductive wealth accumulation and appropriating surplus labour.

    Until we begin to realise that while the fruits of our labour belong to us (that produced with your own time, effort and skill) the land, water, seed, genes, animals, air and of course people be commons then we cannot hope to challenge a system that brutalises the planet and all life on it. We need to understand that governments weren’t established by the weakest and imposed upon the strongest. The rise of governments coincided with the land enclosures (theft of the commons) and that states came into being to protect – violently if necessary – claims to property and surplus labour. The welfare-state arose only when it looks like the proles would unite and rebel. Now that the threat has subsides the welfare-state can be rolled back.

  2. Hamis Hill

    Part of the deception and oppression of the public has been the suppression and distortion of the Philosopher of Society who gave the world the term “The Idle Rich”.
    The “Idle Rich” are those who do not offer up their time and effort to make a living.
    They have enough money to live off the interest.
    As wealth and money in the general society increase, the idle rich lose income as borrowing decreases.
    They have an interest then, to deceive and oppress the public, and this, in Australia, takes the form of increasing the debt carried by the public.
    Mortgages, student loans, the credit card society.
    During the terms of the Howard governments private mortgage debt increased by one trillion dollars, much of it enabled by middle-class welfare.
    The “Idle Rich” then have an interest, having oppressed such people with debt, to also deceive them that their debt is wealth.
    Howard’s battlers and aspirationals spent most of their time chattering about their housing prices always going up, unaware and unconcerned that these rises were facilitated by the lending policies of the true owners of the property, only to increase the overall loan repayments.
    Sixty percent of their income is/was spent on interest, depriving other sectors of the economy of their spending.
    Because ” a dwelling house, as such, adds nothing to the income of its inhabitants”, the mortgagees must find their repayments outside their “investment”.
    That class of society, described as “The Idle Rich”, killed the goose that laid the golden egg overseas as their victims/mortgage slaves failed to maintain their house repayments causing the GFC.
    The “Idle Rich” in Australia, having deceived and oppressed their mortgage slaves, using the MSM to effect, are about to kill their golden geese with unsustainable debt when their preferred Prime Minister ushers in a regime of austerity, focussed not on private debt but government debt, which in the conservative governed Eastern states is already causing job losses and falling property prices, all the hall marks of a recession.
    The boom will bust and the GFC will visit Australia.
    It is too late to turn the lemmings around.

  3. Hunt Ian

    “class warfare”, it has such a ring to it. Bernard’s research on how many times it has been used by Murdoch’s loss making flagship and by his propaganda machine for fixing the anomaly in the 2010 election shows that Murdoch has taste only for class warfare while the rich are winning. Poor Damien McBain stumbles into thinking there would no Australia without high income earners , since low income earners pay so little tax. Dear, oh dear. trusts, tax havens and all the rest are forgotten and low income earners seem to exclude the great middle, who are mostly low income earners compared with the top 10%. People earning above the great middle would not simply disappear or be turned into people who earn middle incomes. So Australia would survive, if only state and federal governments taxed at the level of Germany–that notorious have of “dumb trots”–which takes 36% of GNP, and it would probably muddle along as it does now with tax at 26% of GNP.

    David Hand dips his usual oar in too, by noting how the billions inherited by Gina are deployed by managers and workers to earn a lot of income, as though Gina had anything to do with how her inherited billions earn a lot of money. If Gina put all her money in a trust and the trustees exercised their discretion to pay her nothing, the billions now owned by the trust would go on earning but Gina would not continue to grab the limelight and would not get headlines for scolding the poor on how they should give up everything Gina enjoys and just work hard.

    What’s so bad about class war? A one sided war with the rich winning is not good for the poor or those in the great middle. Perhaps it is time to make it a two-sided and more fair war, so that while the MSM might continue to ignore Tony’s attack on super concessions for the poor, other voices could be heard, so long as the first condition for getting heard is not that you are already rich.

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