George Floyd black lives matter
US protests following the police killing of George Floyd (Image: Sipa USA/Anthony Behar)

Last weekend, while the streets of our major cities filled with enormous Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that were both in solidarity with the US, and protests of their own right, a few tweets of exasperation bounced around the sphere of… well… of the shrinking number of people I communicate politically with.

Not exasperation at the protests, which were inspiring, but at, of all things, Paul Kelly’s article/essay in The Weekend Australian.

The general tone of which was “nurgggggghhh”. 

This was striking, because the Kelly piece had given me a “nurgggggghhh” moment myself. Most people I know have long since ceased to read these Kelly pieces in the past few years, because they’re essentially the same piece (not something I’d do, as I’ve made clear on 29 separate occasions). 

Nor is it a particularly good piece. Kelly long since fell away from whatever critical acuity and reflexiveness he once possessed. Increasingly, he has become obsessed by a trahison de clercs sort of stance.

The wretched state of the West is due to the betrayal of liberalism by a progressivist elite, which as undermined it from within. The Standard Paul Kelly Essay (SPKE for short hereafter) implicitly poses a normal state of the world, which coincides with the stabilised politics and society of the post-WWII period — which faltered first in the neoliberal wave of the ’90s, then the 2008 crash, and then sputtered out in 2016.

By an incredible coincidence, the period of Western political stability coincides with the youth, maturity and professional career of one P. Kelly. 

In this iteration of the SPKE, the current BLM protests allegedly represent, beyond anger at the police killing of George Floyd, a new and unprecedented upsurge of a culture of grievance and blame; stoked by “progressivism”, which undermines the capacity for the shared values essential to liberalism.

The great struggle of the previous century, Kelly argues, was between communism, fascism and liberalism, and liberalism won out. But liberalism — whose pole stars are held to be Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill — has been traduced by an elite that has betrayed its principle of individual equality and responsibility, and some shared values. It’s this hollowing-out of liberal principles that’s led to the sorry state it’s in now.

You could start from the historical-material angle to expose this as a just-so story, and Alison Caddick does so at Arena.

However, let’s go from the other end, that of ideas. Kelly’s sketch of the century and what liberalism is is a straw man/person oft-repeated for self-justifying ends.

The struggle within Western society for three-quarters of a century didn’t much involve fascism — a brief movement — and communism — a mainly third-world one. It was between a conservative-liberal alliance on one side, and social democracy on the other. Now, you can say they are both part of the wide-branching family of liberalism as a movement and an idea — but if you do so, you can’t elevate Smith and Mill (or the Mill of On Liberty) as representative polestars of liberalism, as they represent only one side of the movement.

It is far clearer and more accurate to say that right-liberalism on the one side — advocating a shared culture, free markets and individualism — was opposed by social democracy which works off a different basis. From the Harvester judgement of 1907, through Hjalmar Branting’s creation of “people’s house” (folkhemmets) social democracy in Sweden in the ’20s, through FDR’s 1941 advocacy of the “four freedoms” (which included “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”), to Pierre Trudeau, Whitlam and Mitterrand in the ’70s and ’80s, the principle of social democracy has always been that collective and structural oppression does exist, that it can only be remedied by collective action through the state, and that human social meaning is anchored in collective life. 

For most of the century this division occurred around class and economic matters — and when it did, the liberal right attacked such measures as illiberal tyranny. In the final stage of social democracy, before the neoliberal era began, the structural oppression approach was rolled over into matters of race, gender and sexuality. 

So what Kelly likes to present as a tragic fall (as any good Catholic would) from liberalism to an alien elitism is really a continuation with social democratic traditions. What is “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” but an expression of FDR’s invocation of “freedom from fear”? 

Where does freedom from anything appear in the US Constitution, or in the 18th century liberalism Kelly invokes as liberalism’s sole tradition? It doesn’t.

“Freedom from fear”, social democracy, the living wage, and state-discursive measures such as 18C, are based on a notion of positive freedoms, as defined by Mill’s great “social liberal” rival and contemporary T.H Green — that you aren’t free unless you are enabled to be able to enjoy the capacity for “positive flourishing” as a human being, which want or fear would deny. 

Kelly is obsessed with the notion that some small self-knowing elite has distorted the “natural” state of western societies. It’s his most desperate ploy to not acknowledge that much of politics in the 20th century West was not liberal at all. 

There are elites on both sides of politics. But nothing changes unless there are great structural and class shifts in a whole society.

The West has gone from monocultural societies dominated by industrial production, manual/routinised work and economic class division, to multicultural societies with hollowed-out industrial cores, and with education, knowledge and cultural activity as a central “motor” of social life.

Shared values haven’t disappeared because an elite group of media producers have run propaganda (though that occurs) and “betrayed liberalism”. It’s occurred because of several factors: non-white/non-dominant-group people are of sufficient number to constitute a centre, not a margin of social life; 35% of the population does some form of tertiary education, up from 8% in the mid-1980s; and the operators of knowledge, culture and information sectors form a social class in their own right.

The values that Kelly tries to pin on the elite are the shared values of these disparate groups — non-whites who have experienced racism and exclusion from the legacy structures of a monocultural society; youth, students and non, questioning a received world, especially one which will offer them less than their parents and grandparents.

Together these groups form not an elite, but a new majority, or close to it.

The social division in our era is now between that broad social alliance — which could be called the progressive class — and the “old mainstream”, unified by their shared culture. That old mainstream unites the classic bourgeoisie, the Anglo- and some European-heritage working class, and most of rural Australia.

The old mainstream’s disadvantage is that its core being is defined by ressentiment, nostalgia and failure to adapt. Kelly’s latest SPKE is simply a gussied-up expression of that ressentiment, presented as analysis.

What Kelly doesn’t want to admit is that large sections of the old mainstream aren’t liberal in his sense of it either: in economic matters, they tend to be nationalist, protectionist and anti-globalist, which is why they turned out for Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and others.

But there’s a second part of this process in a complex, globalised, media-saturated society — and it’s terrible news for the SPKE as well.

And that’s that certain aspects of progressivism are becoming general to all social groups. Take the acceptance of same-sex marriage as an example. In twenty years, this idea went from a radical thought experiment to a referendum-created reality. The 67% yes votes crossed all areas of the country, which must mean that there were hundreds of thousands of people who believe immigration should be reduced, that political correctness has gone mad, that Safe Schools is an elite plot, who nevertheless voted “yes” for same-sex marriage.

Why? Because the basic texture and character of the world they live in has changed. Because people in Dubbo watch RuPaul’s Drag Race on cable, not Homicide. Because they go to Bali, not church. And so on.

That general progressivism is simply world change. The specific progressivism that Kelly so objects to — seeing racism as structural, seeing January 26 as nothing to celebrate — is the continuation of the principles that underlie social democracy, but in the field of culture and history. Indeed, they’re a continuation of the liberalism that Kelly seeks to invoke.

Take this for example: 

Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds … The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose.

That’s not Gramsci, it’s John Stuart Mill and Harriet Lane in their co-written The Subjection of Women from 1869.

Yes, it can be unreflective too, even nihilistic, in the treatment of history, the complexities of gender, other people’s values, and much more. But that’s just what happens in rising waves of social change.

For the most part, such “social liberalism” is present in our era in phenomena like the widespread community support for 18C — a law whose abolition Kelly supported, calling it one of the key battles of our time. When abolition of it failed, Kelly blamed the IPA for turning it into a crusade. But it failed because 95%-plus of the 1800 community submissions backed retaining the law.

Those groups backed a notion of “positive freedom” for non-white people, in having some redress or deterrence to public racism.

The public are not the liberals Kelly is looking for. And they never really were. Kelly is so desperate to construct an Edenic individualist liberalism, he can’t even recognise the collectivist bias in the bundle of values that went into the “Australian Settlement” which he himself sodding named!

I guess that’s what appears so craven about Kelly’s project, and why it seems to demand an extended (and, my editors will be glad to know, final) reply.

To aspire to intellectuality — and to critical scrutiny — only to put it into the service of deeper and more thorough self-delusion is ultimately a form of intellectual cowardice, a betrayal of critical thinking.

Kelly is an intelligent man, given the slot of leading public intellectual who could still write interesting stuff if he was willing to submit his own ideas to critical scrutiny. Yet he understands little of what is happening in the contemporary world, because he actively seeks not to.

His particular blindspot is that of a disappointed Catholic liberal centre-rightest in a world where the old working-class are protectionist and nationalist, the bourgeoisie and knowledge class are progressivist, the rainbow is a widespread symbol of the society people aspire to, and the Roman Catholic church is viewed with suspicion and disdain.

It’s not what he wanted, and he’ll continue to write the SPKE until his green-screen 386 goes quiet, in a desperate attempt to hold off a reality he cannot admit to.

Currently, he forms the Australian section of a sort of Befuddled International — Kelly, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Ignatieff, Jonathan Haidt, David Brooks, Melanie Phillips and untold more — whose unique contribution appears to be to train their own class sectors in how not to think effectively about the world.

The result is what we have seen over the past fortnight: when the world rises up in a manner whose strength and volume has surprised many of us, the Befuddled International are surprised it happened at all.

In The Weekend Australian next week? Paul Kelly writes on how progressive elites have betrayed liberalism…