Remember Katherine Betts’ The Great Divide? Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians? Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class? Mark Latham’s From the Suburbs? The decades worth of columns in The Australian; the reports churning out from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies?
The narrative was always the same. A chasm separated ordinary, decent Howard-voting Australians from an arrogant tertiary-educated, intellectual elite: a clutch of sneering know-it-alls who wanted to overrun the country with immigrants, make everyone guilty about Aborigines and brainwash the youth with Parisian post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.
As a theory, anti-elitism possessed a tremendous advantage in that anyone – billionaires like Lachlan Murdoch; well-fed sports stars like Eddie Mcguire; even, in David Flint’s astonishingly silly book the Twilight of the Elites, the Queen – could embrace it. All you had to do was leaven your opposition to Land Rights or refugees with a few tributes to the innate decency of suburbia, even if you’d personally long since left the picket fences behind.
“Is there,” Paul Keating once asked, “anything in contemporary Australian life more outrageous than the sight of the most powerful figures of Australian conservatism cloaking their well-nourished frames in the rags of the powerless?”
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No, probably not. But how did they get away with it for so long? The theory prospered by tapping into a genuine resentment.
The social agenda of the contemporary Left came out of the movements of the sixties and the seventies. Feminism, Aboriginal rights, environmentalism: all of these began as mass campaigns, built through popular protests and collective organizations. The people who marched on Sydney’s first gay Mardi Gras in 1978 were attacked by police and arrested. Strangely, they did not regard this as a privilege.
By the election of the Hawke government in 1983, the social movements were in decline. Hawke’s focus on consensus encouraged many former activists to take up public and semi-public positions, in the universities and the government bureaucracies. They became out of touch and the language of social justice grew increasingly top down rather than bottom up, which alienated their base even more.
As the climate shifted to the Right, the academic feminists and official multiculturalists became easy scapegoats for everyone feeling bewildered and lost after the rapid economic reforms of the eighties. Consider the jingle that accompanied John Howard’s “Future Directions” manifesto of 1988.
Never mind the fancy dancers
Plain-thinking men know their right from wrong
Don’t deal with silver tongues and chancers
Keep your vision clear and hold it strong.
I watched as things began to change around me
The fancy dancers got to have their say
They changed the vision, spurned the wisdom
And made Australia change to suit their way.
It’s time we cleansed the muddy waters
And cleanse the muddy waters they proceeded to do, with hostility to elitism central to eleven years of Liberal dominance.
Which brings us to the 2020 forum and Margaret Simons’ concern about which Australian public intellectuals have refused to attend.
The problem with 2020 is not that it’s a talkfest, nor a waste of money. Talk is good; governments waste money all the time and it may as well be on this as something else.
But there’s simply no getting around the fact that the forum is elitist. Unambiguously, unashamedly so. That’s the point of it, after all – to bring together the “best and the brightest”.
In that respect, it’s far more of a confirmation of the Right’s description of public intellectuals than anything that happened under the last Labor government. Bob Hawke’s consensus approach might have co-opted representatives of the trade unions and the social movements but those people were, by and large, elected representatives of organisations. The 2020 goers have no social base whatsoever. No one voted for them; the process involves not even a pretense of democracy.
All the angry, marginal people who voted for Pauline Hanson and applauded John Howard’s response to Tampa have not gone away. There remains a huge social base for a revival of the Right’s popular ‘anti-elitism’. After the grim experience of the last ten years, you’d think that Australian public intellectuals would know better than to participate in an anti-democratic event that simply confirms the old “fancy dancing” canard.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.