Throughout the Global South, the bodies of billions are devastated by trade and war. Across the West, workers are displaced and racists rise to power. Within Australia, neonationalist toddlers are throwing their toys into Parliament and out of the cot. And what is the response of our most storied media institutions to this era of chaos, inequality and violence? A quiz with cartoon illustrations. What is your “political persona”?!
Yesterday, the problems and effects of our time were reduced to a form of politico-astrology. Find out, urged the shareable headline, what kind of Aussie you are! Take our test to know where you stand on a political spectrum! I took the test. I learned nothing about myself, the nation or the world. I was reminded, however, of the lure of the Barnum Effect — a way to describe dodgy personality tests, such as Myer-Briggs, which have no function nobler than to award the respondent with a membership badge, so called because it refers to entertainment that delivers “something for everyone”.
It’s clickable, teachable, self-involved Oprah moments such as that unfolding to large audiences across Fairfax properties yesterday, which serve to remind we why I took out a Crikey subscription a decade ago. Do we always get our analysis of the era correct here? No. Do we pour our resources into some quasi-academic survey that seeks to say nothing more ambitious than “there’s no such thing as left and right anymore, and aren’t you special for knowing that!”. Hell no.
Complicated times demand complicated answers. Answers far more complicated than, “there are now SEVEN kinds of voter, instead of just two”. If there ever were just two kinds of voter in Australia, it was certainly before the time of Bob Santamaria, who knew there to be at least three.
This “project”, which bears the imprimatur of the Australian National University, is the latest and most elaborate in a long line of declarations that “there is no such thing as right and left anymore! The divisions are blurred.” People say that as though this is news, and not the way voters, politicians and political philosophers have tended to behave at least since the age of the Jacobins. We’ve long had confusing debate about what constitutes political freedom from within particular movements. Karl Marx, granddaddy of the left, argued with trade unions. Milton Friedman, bastard of the financialised right, advocated for same-sex marriage. The brilliant and erratic Hannah Arendt changed and challenged her own political positions, sometimes within a single paragraph. If I read ONE MORE piece about how “left and right means nothing anymore!”, with the tedious conclusion always being that centrism is the only compromise and somehow, a form of democratic deliberation, I will, I will … well, I will probably just keep whining about it in Crikey.
Although this survey, first conducted on a sample group and now unleashed on Facebook, purports to describe the era using “science”, it fails to generate new knowledge just when we need it most. And that’s not just because its illustrated results now appear on social media alongside those of the “Which Buffy the Vampire Slayer Boss Villain are You?” quiz. I don’t mind the cutesy pictures and the cheap pop-culture approach. What I do mind are those assumptions built into the test questions, which spring from precisely the kind of centrist ideology so common at Fairfax.
There is this peculiar idea getting around that centrism is apolitical; that something that sees itself as a compromise between left and right is necessarily free of ideology. How can we believe that centrism is best after its most famous advocates, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, are now largely remembered for their political obfuscation, and how can we believe it when centrist parties are being currently ejected from power in the West, in the directions of both left and right?
There’s a self-deluded centrist approach that can be easily seen in several of the questions. One question asks the respondent if they would be happy to sacrifice the value of their home if it meant greater housing affordability for all. Another asks if the respondent would “prefer” to save their money, or spend it all now. Another asks if weekly living costs are being cut back. All of these questions are, just like third-way policies were, based on the assumption that the citizen has wealth and assets about which they can make decisions.
On the question of housing affordability, there is great voter ignorance presupposed. During the last election, the ALP managed to claw back some of its territory precisely by describing to the people just who gets to determine housing prices. It’s not a secret, guys. We know it’s not us. We know it to be policies that favour investors. We know this is what forces 25% of the general population and close to 70% of Australian millennials to rent. I mean, come on. The Big Short was a very popular movie, and many of us have learned that we don’t individually determine a commodity price within a market, so why ask such a dumb question?
And why ask me about my “choice” to spend or save? It’s a fantasy question, asked by deluded centrists. One gainsaid by reports, also published by Fairfax itself. This week’s Household Financial Comfort Report showed the rapidly increasing divide in wealth in Australia. The historical tendency to capital accumulation is showing itself again. But, hey. Left and right mean nothing any more. The thing that matters, apparently, is a Barnum assessment of a voter’s ideas, not their material reality.
This is not good data. This is centrist garbage in and out. Not to assert my own “political persona” (that would be “historical materialist”, but they didn’t have a cartoon for it) but, if we are living in a nation where the growing number of people in the lowest income distribution are also the people experiencing the greatest income loss, don’t you think it’s time to have a bit less of a look at our values, and a bit more at our wallets?
This survey was designed to say that left and right mean nothing anymore. Even though these divisions are clearly now more meaningful in Europe than they have been in decades. I guess the guys who wrote this survey have not heard of Greece, a country that produced both Syriza and Golden Dawn. Actually, I guess these guys haven’t noticed the local rise of those who are both economically and culturally right. If the right means nothing anymore, I guess Cory Bernardi is just an unpleasant dream. And the default reality, as is so often the case at Fairfax, is centrism.
The imaginary centre. The fictional hub of deliberation. The delusion that political compromise is what will serve the people, or is what the people even imagine they want. If we keep producing knowledge and opinion from this false place, we will keep ignoring the very fact of political economies. This survey does nothing but support the ideology by which it was formed. The centre refuses to believe that it is the thing that will soon mean nothing anymore.