So, 2016 may well be remembered by political scientists as the year in which the median voter theorem became about as useful as tits on a windmill. The time may be more personally remembered by us as one when we stopped talking to so-and-so. Brexit, Trump and Hanson were among the public shocks that provoked our private disagreements. Of course, there are far worse outcomes that the rise of right populism will produce than frosty relations on Facebook. But, being now largely friendless, I have had time to consider how these small and intimate arguments help me understand the large events at their centre. Perhaps your own brawls have been similarly instructive.

I don’t suppose that my private arguments, most of which have been quite serious and one of which resulted in the end to a professional arrangement, have precisely the same nature as yours. For a start, I have long been a member of the media class, so we can rationally suppose that the people with whom I am familiar are way more stupid than your mates. I mean, seriously. These journalist people have become quite thick. The man who came to fix my fence in June provided me with a far more enriching exchange on class-motivated voting than anyone I know at Fairfax. He could see plainly what was invisible to that class: the Democratic National Committee had made a terrible mistake in grinding “to a pulp” the candidate who dared talk about economic capital.

I agree with my fence-mender, which is why I have lost a number of friends. Economic capital matters to a voter, especially one that fears, or has experienced, its loss. Of course, many of my media colleagues must be aware that their employment is insecure, that at any moment, a boardroom decision about profitability could put an end for good to their diet of humanely raised beef. But many of the people that I know, like most in the knowledge class, see economic capital and cultural capital as indistinct. This has been their labour experience. Their non-financial assets — their accents, their taste in food, their identities — have been directly related to career advances. Of course, being human, they suppose that their conditions are the same as everybody else’s. The guy who mended my fence has never experienced this correlation, as real as it can be in other sectors.

The democratisation of cultural capital has been of central concern to knowledge class people these past months. If only we weren’t racist, sexist or homophobic, they say, then there would be ample opportunity for everyone. And while I agree that such cultural bigotry is vile and can often prevent economic mobility, I have not been able to agree that economic capital and cultural capital behave identically. Tolerance, in other words, don’t pay the bills. Nor does it result in the provision of social services.

[Razer: Yes, world is fukt. No, Gillian Triggs is not to blame.]

It is quite possible to run an unjust, and ultimately self-defeating, austerity regime while believing in the equal distribution of cultural capital. Look, for example, at David Cameron. They guy who said “We are all Thatcherites now” posited himself as a multi-culti champion for the EU. That this guy, whose cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels resulted in a 2015 spike in deaths, could be seen on the just side of a debate sent me spare. It sent the people with whom I was arguing spare as well. They believe that tolerance, respect and equally distributed cultural capital will result in a good life for all. They also believe that the health of the British finance sector is a measure we can use for the health of the people, even if they happen to be dying.  “Look at the growth under Obama!”, my combatants say, as though the matter of widespread social and economic poverty in the USA were not a legitimate measure of anything. These are legitimate measures. Cultural capital and GDP are not the only way to gauge a flourishing society. My frustration with this belief has produced so many arguments this year.

There can be no doubt, of course, that the racism and sexism that Trump publicly advances — that which he formerly eschewed within those New York City liberal circles in which he so recently chose to socialise — has potency. To say that racism is nothing in a powerful nation state that built its economic power on this evil is actually stupid. Of course his racism is something. And I have tried to express this with many friends who are no longer my friends. But all they hear is “I don’t want people to be equal”.

To say that the rise of Trump or Hanson or the decline of support for the EU is something that can be explained is not to say that you endorse it. This, however, is, in my experience, how such claims have been understood. One is seen as a stupid, even a racist, positivist if one observes, as Clinton 1.0 once did, “it’s the economy, stupid”. No, it’s not the economy, some of my former friends tell me, and if you think that shuttered services, poor health and job losses impact on a person’s vote, well, you are, if not actually racist, then so ensconced in your white privilege you can’t see racism in others. Also, you have been, along with those few thousand voters who decided on the President, deluded by Russian “fake news”. In other words, if you can’t see that cultural and economic capital are exactly the same thing, then you are stupid.

Yesterday, as the French Prime Minister called Donald Trump “not clever”, he echoed the anxiety of many centrists known to you and me. Trump seems to be boorish, impulsive and is largely seen by measured liberals as lacking in the good that they rank highly, expertise. All of which is probably true — you can’t see Trump’s as the stuff to inspire one of those Ivy League political superheroes beloved by Aaron Sorkin. But surely you can see that Trump, or people like him, are, without an adjustment to the way in which we think of economic and cultural capital, here to stay?

[Razer: The alt-right is filled with party starters, the left with party poopers]

This, really, has been my only argument. The Right is on the rise, and the rational centre is no longer a meaningful answer to it in the opinion of many voters So, shouldn’t we do something about that? This question, you’d think is something that would occur to the centrist Hollande, who currently enjoys a 4% approval rating and faces a defeat by the right as certain as anything can be in this era. But, instead, he chooses to do as my knowledge class former friends and just says that a terrible fact is stupid.

This attitude recalls to me that of atheist Islamophobes; Sam Harris types believe that in calling the idea of God stupid, they can cure the afflicted. Such a view again privileges the cultural over the economic and material, and attributes all extremist views just to extremist views, and not to the conditions in which they were mutated. To say that the decline in real wages and failure of healthcare, education and other services we have seen in the West over the last 40 years does not inform peoples’ votes is quite a lot like saying that sanctions and air-bombing in Iraq had nothing to do with Islamism. Yes, the “solution” at which some forces have arrived is fucking ludicrous. But no, your centrist solution of a purely cultural antidote to these troubles is not any better.

The right is on the rise. Hungary, France, Holland and Finland are among the other Western nations where it has grabbed, or is about to grab, significant political power. When it is beaten back, as it has been in Spain by Podemos or in Greece by Syriza, the cultural centre is not doing it.

One can argue that the rational, educated, tolerant and culturally inclined figure of Clinton was the better choice for US voters to make. Certainly, life in the West would appear less ugly if it had been made. But voters aren’t making that choice, and short of electing a new lot of voters, we have, ourselves, as I have told my former friends, no choice but to see that the centre is failing the people.

The stoushes we have been having in our private lives are not going to be one nth as damaging as those we see unfold in states in coming nationalistic years. If you or I lose a few mates, it’s really no big deal. It is, in my cantankerous, friendless view, a big deal if we keep seeing the equal distribution of cultural capital as the solution to all of our problems. This is both the extremism of the centre, and the reason I have not received a single Christmas card.

 

 

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW