Good God, the political class is back. I mean the “political class”, the concept, is back. The people labelled the “political class” — who aren’t anything of the sort– have never gone away. The term “political class” is beloved by a certain type of commentator — someone with a degree of cultural or social power, who wants to deny the fact of such and to construct the relatively small band of politicians, advisers and staff, with whom they have close relations, as a class apart.

Politicians, advisers etc, are indeed a group apart, especially in Australia, but they’re not a class apart — they’re not a distinct, abstract social category. As I’ve noted before, politicians in Australia most neatly conform to the idea of a “caste”, a smaller group of more tightly identified people, reliant on a process of induction, selection and self-preservation. Thus, the priestly castes of old would select children from the general population, educate them, induct them, and eventually pass on the social leadership role to them.

In Australia, this has become the role of student politics, which provides the route to power and leadership. Not every mainstream politician has to pass through it, but the vast majority of the core group now do. When they have made their way through the mediating institutions of think tanks, union bureaucracy, etc, they join their fellow caste members in the forbidding city of Parliament House, Canberra.

[Rundle: Trump is the end of the left as we know it]

This great disaster of a building, this sham of openness about to look a lot more realistic with a fence put around it, seals the caste-ly nature of the enterprise. It takes half an hour to get there from anything resembling an urban bit of Canberra, 10 minutes to get in, the amenities are a series of Soviet-style cafeterias and a coffee shop. I am not exaggerating when I say that the only thing I have seen like the interior of Parliament House, Canberra, is the Hall of Culture in Pyongyang. In DC, in London, Parliament sits in the middle of a busy city. You nip out, nip back, meet people off site, go to events, talks, etc. In Canberra, in the House? Nuh-uh. Once you’re there, you’re there. The tenders of the spirit must have their house of secrets.

When we say “class” we mean some larger group of people, formed by a general social process, either oppressing or oppressed. Which is one reason why those people who are part of the same social class as the political caste — journalists, commentators, think tankers, consultants — try and separate the caste out entirely, and deny any relationship to them.

Political journalists are the worst. They all style themselves as Woodward or Bernstein, write “love letters to their profession”, etc, pretend to be radically separated. It’s nonsense. Most of them edited or wrote for the student paper while the politicians they now call the “political class” were down the hall running for the SRC. Now they sit one floor below them, being drip-fed with political gossip dressed up as news. Please.

Consultants are nearly as bad. Look at Warren Mundine in the Hun, talking about “the political class'” as if he has not been a member of the political-bureaucratic orbit for a decade or more, talking about the type of figure who’ll really show the pollies. Academics running research centres with millions of dollars do it, News Corp columnists do it, as do leftists who have worked in the grant system, or the higher reaches of public service, their whole lives.

What’s the purpose of this relentless deployment of the “political class” term? It is not to make visible class power relations, but to hide them. The particular power and privileges of the political caste are minor, compared to the divides that exist around knowledge, and the use of it in work. Since our society is shaped and disciplined by knowledge and culture production, and policy enforcement of it, those assailing the political caste are usually on the same side of the divide as them, in real class terms (at least on this axis — many overworked, underpaid cultural producers may not feel this way. But this is a question of social power, not economic desserts).

The right and left of the knowledge etc class have different versions of the same reason to hide their commonality with the political caste. The right want to pretend an unmediated relationship with those outside that wide orbit of power, that they are “undercover” among the power groups. Some on the left want to deny that the class relation between knowledge and non-knowledge workers is one of difference; to see themselves as all on one side against power, whether wielding laptop or hammer, etc, etc. Since the hammer-wielders feel very much dominated by laptop wielders, that wilful delusion opens up a space where right-wing populism can flourish.

Seeing clearly the new class divisions under which we live is of utmost importance for the success of a progressive-left politics — one in which different groups, with different life worlds, form a coalition of interests, rather than an unending intra-group struggle for cultural dominance. In doing so , it’s as important to identify the political caste as such — as people who will, by and large, defend their absurd superannuation paydays, their open-ended expense accounts, their public-private lobbying conveyor belt, their self-reproducing patronage, as something common to them all — all so it can be more readily broken up, when an opportunity presents.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey