A Dirty Word


Nothing gets the middle-class Left into more of a froth than the label elite.

In any of the skirmishes of Australia’s Culture Wars, the mere invocation of this unfriendly moniker can be a knockout blow. The idea that progressives constitute some sort of powerful, remote and disdainful upper caste is poison. It also directly undermines how the Left likes to think of itself.


After a decade of conservative ascendancy, you’d think that progressives would have come up with an effective comeback, or at least a coping mechanism. But nothing decent has been forthcoming.

The prevailing response has been gasping, flailing indignation. Or a primary-school style riposte of, ‘No, you are!’ Or, at the very best, progressives try to bring the definition of elites back to a notion of class.

The Left doesn’t ‘get’ anti-elitism because it doesn’t look beneath the label to explore its underlying assumptions. An effective response should be premised on understanding what the Right actually believe, and why they believe it.

The first thing to acknowledge is that Right-wing anti-elitism is not merely populism. Sure, having a go at educated, inner-city, latté-sipping elites is populist immediately setting up such elites as outside and disdainful of the Australian mainstream. But current Right-wing attacks on the Left intelligentsia, along with attacks on ‘political correctness,’ started in a more rarefied environment as a response by conservatives to their own setbacks in the battle of ideas.

The rise of the campus Left in the 1960s and 1970s was greeted with bafflement by the Right throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, who expected that the children of the affluent middle class then entering universities at an unprecedented rate would be the standard bearers of modern liberalism. They were meant to uphold the principles of representative democracy, private enterprise, the family and respectful debate.

Instead, large numbers of these students opted for socialism, moral subversion and militancy. And while radicalism was nothing new to campus life socialism had been a staple for generations what was new was the assertiveness of radicals in redefining culture through attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and morality.

For old stalwarts of the Right, and a new force of so-called ‘neo-conservatives’ (who counted within their ranks former Leftists such as Irving Kristol)   it became evident that there was an emerging hegemony of the ‘cultural Left’ on campus. The observable trend was the dominance of Leftist ideas first in the universities and then through cultural institutions and the growing State apparatus (in Australia, the ABC and teaching would be the most familiar).

Early critiques of this emerging ‘elite’ often, but not always, called the ‘new class’ were painfully aware that the Right had been gazumped. Culture was the new battlefield and, as the Right saw it, the Left had parlayed its dominance in the universities and institutions into a stranglehold over the broader public debate.

Important too to the Right’s perception of victimhood was the idea that the Left-wing cultural elite represented the antithesis of liberal ideas. The new elite was middle class, but had betrayed all of that class’s ideals. They were liberalism’s traitors, dropouts, subverters and idiot cousins.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

This betrayal of liberalism was most pronounced in what was seen as the Left’s bullying tactics. The Right found their own ideas dismissed by broad-brush terms such as ‘racism,’ ‘sexism’ and ‘homophobia.’ By the late 1980s, this perceived cultural authoritarianism of the Left gained a name: Political Correctness.

The upshot of the perceived rise of the Left in the Culture Wars was a critique of Left ‘elites’ that was essentially a critique of cultural power. The cultural Left was defined as radical and anti-traditional. It exercised its power from the lofty heights of cultural institutions, aided by the jackboot of Political Correctness. Such power was necessarily top-down and excluded the Australian cultural mainstream.

Attacks on Left elites were a natural response by the Right to their declining position in elite debate. Aligning themselves with the Australian mainstream made intellectual as well as political sense, and again it was intellectual debate that came before populist usage. The pages of Quadrant magazine carried arguments about the Left abandoning the cultural values of the majority with increasing frequency by the early 1980s long before talkback radio took up the fight.

The idea of a Left-wing intellectual elite made sense of the Left’s then dominance of the Culture Wars, while the language of anti-Political Correctness provided the weapon for conservative counter-attack.

The scene has changed a lot today. If it could be argued that the cultural Left had a stranglehold on public debate in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s certainly not the case now. The national political climate is more conservative, and Right-wing media and academic voices proliferate.

The contradiction now is that, as the Right celebrate their commanding position in the Culture Wars, they are relying on anti-elitist language that is at its base an explanation for their previous failures. They’re playing the part of the victim, while also trumpeting their successes. A successful comeback to Right-wing anti-elitism has to exploit this contradiction.

The Right’s attacks on elites have degenerated into a series of stale, incoherent clichés. But they still have a powerful populist appeal. And the Right still has access to the enduring idea that inner-city types are culturally out of touch, as well as a lingering distaste for Political Correctness.

The dominant tactic for responding to this anti-elitism is to try to bring the debate back to ‘real elites.’ But this will only go half way. Talking about class is old hat the Right have been used to it for well over a century. Effectively fighting the Culture Wars means taking the argument into your opponents’ territory, and then redefining that territory. That’s why the Right’s attack is so successful it takes the Left’s preoccupation with class and uses it to create distrust between two of the Left’s constituencies (the working class and the middle-class intelligentsia) while reminding middle-class progressives of their middle-class guilt.

Rather than talking about economic class, a response to Right-wing anti-elitism has to critique power as the Right sees it as the ability to shape culture and public debate.

The Left should challenge the Right’s assumption that it is the defender of the liberal tradition. That’s the premise behind all its attacks on the supposed soft authoritarianism of Political Correctness, but after spending the best part of three decades perfecting the art of repetitive insult, the myth of the Right as the defender of sober debate is obviously out of step with reality.

The Right assumes the role of the perpetual outsider and victim in the Culture Wars. This is a falsehood that must be challenged head on. A successful counter-attack has to emphasise the fact that the Right are the new, out-of-touch bully boys in our national conversation. This isn’t just a re-spinning of the current reality. It is the way things really are for a side of politics that has deviated so far from the political Centre on issues from Ira
q to climate change.

Highlighting the fact that the Right has deviated so far from the liberal tradition and the middle ground has the added bonus of directly challenging how the Right likes to think about itself.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.