The return of the concept of ‘class’ to mainstream public debate is an unanticipated feature of the second decade of the new century. Whether defined by people’s relationship to production or distribution, or as a hybrid of economic and cultural identities, a consciousness of class is crystallising once again within democratic countries, and notably in the United States. Some reasons are obvious.
The Occupy (Wall Street) movement that was sparked in 2011 by the Global Financial Crisis, and which was replicated in over 900 cities in more than 80 countries, shined a global spotlight on the extraordinarily disproportionate incomes and wealth of the ‘top 1%’. The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016 turned international attention to the ‘white working class’. At the end of the old century, class had virtually fallen out of use in Australia. The other week, ‘Class Divides and Inequality’ was the topic of the ABC’s popular Q&A program, drawing on research by Jill Sheppard and Nicholas Biddle that supposes to divide society into six classes. Class inequality has many dimensions, observed the program’s Labor panellist, Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh: ‘One that strikes me very starkly is that the number of teeth that affluent Australians have is seven more than low-income Australians.
Within this context, two recent contributions to the debate are worthy of more than casual attention. The first is a paper titled ‘Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right’ by the leading inequality scholar, Thomas Piketty. In puzzling over the response to rising inequality, Piketty has examined the long-run evolution of voting patterns using post-election surveys in France, the US and the UK from 1948 to 2017. In typically exhaustive fashion, his analysis cross-references the basic left-right party vote against key variables. The most striking finding is that the left’s post-war class-based alignment with lower education/lower income voters has gradually given way, to the point where, from the early 2000s, the left has been the preferred party of voters with higher education, a complete reversal of the education cleavage. This is not merely a function of the great post-war expansion in educational opportunities. After controlling for this change, in all three countries, the higher the level of education the higher the left-wing vote. The other striking finding is that wealth is a stronger and more stable determinant of voting than income. While the correlation between high incomes and right-wing voting has weakened (albeit slightly, apart from the 2016 US Trump vote, where even most of the top 10% voted Democrat), it remains that the higher the pile of wealth the higher the right-wing vote. Thus, Piketty concludes that politics now tends to resemble a conflict between rival elites rather than classes, the educated ‘Brahmin Left’ vs the wealthy ‘Merchant Right’.
The rise of ‘elitism’ is the corollary of the rise of ‘populism’, or as Piketty writes, ‘low education, low-income voters might feel abandoned’. This dovetails with the other noteworthy contribution. Triggering a lively debate, the leading American historian of social ideas, Daniel Rodgers, recently launched a broadside at the left’s use and abuse of the term ‘neoliberalism’. His main burden is twofold. First, neoliberalism bundles too many disparate phenomena together, obscuring and disabling more than it reveals and empowers. Second, and more salient in this context, while neoliberalism functions as a virtual currency in left-intellectual circles, the term has practically no public political traction. Right-wing polemicists don’t defend neoliberalism but seek to engage their followers with words like freedom, choice, responsibility, innovation and flexibility. Populists operate similarly. Trump might be demagogic, vulgar, racist, sexist and untruthful, but his supporters hear straightforward vernacular speech. At a time when intellectuals are viewed with scepticism, concludes Rodgers, campaigning against ‘neoliberalism’ only reinforces ‘the sense that elites don’t talk to anyone other than themselves any more.’
It would be simplistic to think these findings can be automatically transferred to Australia. For one thing, compulsory voting rules out the massive abstention of low-income voters that has occurred in France, the US and the UK. For another, the Australian Labor Party’s institutional relationship with the trade union movement gives it a great advantage over its northern hemisphere counterparts in grounding it within working-class life, beneath intellectual abstractions. Yet equally, it would be myopic to pretend that long-run trends common to countries with as many differences in their party systems and political histories as France, the US and the UK have no application. It’s also obvious enough that ‘neoliberalism’ has almost no presence in Australian public debate, and after 30 or 40 years, it’s safe to conclude that it never will. Taking Piketty and Rodgers together, progressive activists might be well advised to pay less attention to ideological niceties and focus more on expressing their politics in language that has experiential resonance. From an ‘elite’ policy perspective, Labor has marshalled an impressive array of measures to arrest rising inequality, including the rejection of corporate tax cuts, the restoration of the deficit levy on the top incomes, and overdue reforms to negative gearing, capital gains, family trusts, tax expenses and dividend imputation. Yet the pledge to restore penalty rates might count for more where it now politically matters. Redistributing some of the revenue retrieved from the wealthy to revolutionise dental services for low-income Australians would be another way of augmenting its policies with not only physical but real political teeth.
This article was first published by the Evatt Foundation as on editorial on the 2nd of May, 2018. Permission to republish was courtesy of Christopher Sheil