With the political rise of ghastly people like Farage, Trump, and Hanson, and the rejection of the two party system of government – the only kind of democracy we’ve known here or the in the U K or the U S – there has been a lot of bullshit about ordinary people shoving it up the elite. You will get different takes on what the phrase ‘ordinary people’ might mean – we no longer speak of the common people, and only Marxists ever embraced the ‘masses’. In the current context, it tends to be applied to people who are missing out on the benefits of globalisation, technology, and immigration, and are at the lower end of an increasingly unequal spread of wealth and income. My own view is that inequality is the biggest problem of our time. I’m fortified in that conclusion by the fierceness with which doctrinaire reactionaries dispute it.
I wish to say four things about the current fashion of shoving it up the elite.
The first is that ‘elite’ means ‘chosen’. The OED has ‘the choice part or flower (of society, etc.).’ Well, we don’t dislike people because they’ve been chosen, or elected, to play for the Wallabies or the All Blacks, and so have become part of their nation’s sporting elite. Nor do we ordinarily react to people good enough to be the captain or dux of a school, and so part of the elite or flower of the school. But some react against people getting into Eton, or Melbourne Grammar. The relevant emotion is called envy. People can be put out when they see some much better off than them. This timeless tension between the haves and have-nots – it’s what got Eve thrown out of Eden – is reflected in two clichés: ‘the tall poppy syndrome’ and ‘having a chip a chip on your shoulder.’ We are world class exponents of each down here.
The second point is that if some people are objecting to others for being better off, we may want to ask in what ways the objectors are worse off. Well, they may obviously be worse off in wealth and income. And they may also be worse off in upbringing and manners. We all tend to feel differences between creeds and peoples, but those who are well brought up usually have the manners that prevent those feelings hurting others and creating division in the community. People fortunate enough to have come from good homes or to have gone to good schools are less likely to allow any innate bigotry to give offence. But it is the people who are not so fortunate who are appealed to by the likes of Trump, Farage, and Hanson. They go straight to the gutter. You will not find many supporters of Farage who went to Eton or many supporters of Hanson who went to Melbourne Grammar. We have seen what people like Hanson can do in Australia – aided by people like Jones and Bolt – and we are now seeing just how hateful bigotry can be when it is unleashed by someone like Farage. And when did you last hear a well educated person saying that they subscribe to the views of Bolt or Jones?
Now, the hardline reactionaries respond to this simple observation by invoking the label of snobbery. Well, perhaps we’ve got something to be snobbish about. I don’t know anyone who would allow anyone like Trump, Farage or Hanson into their home – much less their deluded acolytes. In the name of Heaven, is it not plain that these people are invoking a stratagem that is as old as the Bible and as infected as Hitler and Stalin – the scapegoat? And we certainly have got things to be snobbish about with the mainstream politicians. We now have in Victoria our first unclean state government and the (former) leader of the federal opposition has earned the title of Billy Liar.
The third thing is that when members of the press celebrate this rejection of the elite, they don’t realise, or they just decline to accept, that they are an integral part of what people are rejecting. Our press here in particular has failed to monitor and analyse our politics. The commentary is short-term and partisan. If you fail in politics you get a job with Murdoch or Sky. Just look at the bitchy and witchy backbiting and infighting going on between former Liberal staffers on Sky. They are not commentators – they are fighters; they are parties to the cleavage. It is not so much that people are rebelling or revolting against an elite – they are appalled by the whole bloody system, of which the press is an essential part. The hypocrisy of the press more than matches that of our politicians.
The fourth thing is that it doesn’t add much to say that when people like Farage, Trump, or Hanson, enjoy electoral success, this is democracy at work, and we should be heartened to know that we have ascertained the will of the people. All judges, juries, and peoples can make mistakes. Those who lose on a plebiscite may or may not have to live with the answer, but they don’t have to agree to it. This expensive form of opinion poll may have legal consequences, but it is unlikely to have moral consequences. The instrument can of course be abused. Some, including me, think that the proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage is an odious consequence of a factional split among conservatives – as was the recent plebiscite in the U K. The will or voice of the people has no claim to moral endorsement. Napoleon and Hitler knew how to get overwhelming endorsement from the vox populi- the voice of the people. When that voice belongs to people like Farage, Trump, or Hanson, it is both envenomed and venomous.
Poet of the month: Keats
This living hand, now warm and capable
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And that thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.