GREG BAILEY. Class Warfare As a Rhetorical Device.

Now that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party have begun to propose some sensible restrictions on the irresponsible tax reductions proposed by the LNP government the old adage of “class warfare” is being invoked again in the mainstream media and by hard right politicians. But how useful is this as a rhetorical device and will it have any resonance for anybody other than those who use it?

In Wednesday’s Age (27/6) Tony Wright’s comment on Bill Shorten’s proposal to repeal tax cuts for companies with a turnover between 10 and 50 million dollars is titled “Voters to bear the brunt as class warfare breaks out,” with the prognostication that “Australia will be heartily sick of the term “class warfare” by the next election.”  He goes on to rightly point out that politicians now form a distinctive class–based on background of employment before their election–, a conclusion reflected in a cartoon placed in Thursday’s Age contrasting Capital, Labour and the Political Class. This is only a small sample of commentary and completely ignores what is found in the Murdoch Press.

Despite the various deconstructions of “Class Warfare” as exposited in PI of 29/6, journalists cling to this outmoded headline because it brings together the two words “class” and “warfare.”  This is because it is easier to create a yawning gap between the two parties, where none really exists. It also provides an organizing leit-motif that leading politicians of both parties will use to distinguish themselves from each other and for journalists to present simplified views of complex arguments about inequalities in distribution of wealth and privilege, or to ignore them completely. In addition, it allows them to eschew completely the existential threat represented by anthropogenic climate change.  Climate change is long term, whereas class war can be invoked with a high level of immediacy.

Already the inequities in the income tax proposals and the lessening of the progressive nature of our existing tax system have been well documented, even in the mainstream media. Yet instead of looking at the transformation in the tax system over the past three and a half decades, in conjunction with the drastic increase in tax evasion by the wealthy, the shibboleth of class warfare is brought out. This wonderfully conceals the bigger picture of the consolidation of capital in a few hands, the diminution of social capital under the cultural push of extreme individualism, the destruction of labour power due to the corporatization of the unions, the corporatization and privatization of high level sport, the negative taxation represented by low capital gains tax on housing and negative gearing, and, finally, the transformation of utilities–electricity, transport, communications–essential for daily life into money-making assets for the few. Resources are concentrated in very few hands, and the majority lose out. This is not class difference in any viable sense.

Wright also comments “Australians traditionally hate being told they live in a class-ridden society.” If so, why bring it up at all? Why use this rhetorical device to simplify a more complex argument between two political parties where one is trying to stamp its difference from the other because of forthcoming elections? Or is he simply reaffirming the myth of egalitarianism pushed so strongly by conservative commentators, when no such egalitarianism has ever existed.

Whilst class in the English sense has never been so pronounced here, nonetheless there has always been perceptions held by people at all levels–however defined–of society that some people have it easier than others because of inherited wealth, connections or simply because of luck. Particular suburbs have been classified loosely in terms of class based on the value of the land there and the professions of those who hold them. Yet the new concentration of capital held in a few hands is somewhat oblivious to all of this, even if those who hold it may have connections through attending the elite private schools and working in the large consultancy firms and merchant banks. 

Of the politicians, it is the Liberals who are primarily using the class warfare rhetoric, combining it with something about “aspiration” as if this is a dominant characteristic in distinguishing social and economic class. It can only be hoped the Labor Party will not fall into the trap of simplifying the debate about access to capital in terms of warfare, even if they have contributed over the years to the increased inequality of access to social and physical capital.

Neoliberalism as a cultural system creates class distinctions based on access to wealth and opportunity for advancement, but it is perhaps only coincidence that its principal proponents come from the older elevated social classes that may once have been more visible than they are now. Yet the kind of status associated with old money and the private school is not so pronounced as it was, being instead replaced by the network of close confidants who have reached the position of CEO and sit on boards of large companies, or those who aspire to do the same. From a neoliberal perspective anyone with sufficient competitive acumen can rise to the top. But even if it may be an exaggeration it is not class warfare, though the final result of a neoliberal economy/society would be the creation of a new class system sharply distinguished by access to, and possession of, capital. One can only hope the rhetorical device of “class warfare” will be observed in the breach.

Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.

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