Opinion

Guy Rundle
Judgement day for progressives

Down Swanston Street they came, under Melbourne’s summer weekend sun, a parade, a march, a torrent of people, coming and coming. Black, red and yellow T-shirts, flags and placards, denouncing the official celebration of Australia Day. Sixty thousand assembled to hear a range of speeches of unflinching militancy – the right-wing yellow press picking out one moment of angry passion, Tarneen Onus-Williams’ hope to see that Australia “burns to the ground”, as a moment for a manufactured shock-horror.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind, cheering it on. They didn’t seem to take it literally, either. They had come from all across town, but no doubt a great many had streamed in from Fitzroy, from Brunswick, from Richmond, from Northcote, from the inner suburbs of red-green Melbourne. They were Kooris of all walks of life, and non-Indigenous students, workers, urban poor, teachers, old lefty activists and, let’s face it, a lot of prosperous inner-city property owners.

You bet “burns to the ground” was taken figuratively – a lot of the people cheering it were otherwise busy converting $2 million terrace houses into $3 million terrace houses. That doesn’t make their support for the Invasion Day rally any less genuine, but it points to a condition governing our cultural and political life, one whose paradoxical nature is rarely explored, but which is crucial to many of the “culture wars” we are currently experiencing.

The numbers at the rally may have surprised the organisers, who had put the whole thing together in the three weeks since New Year’s Day. They gobsmacked the political right, who had spent weeks trying to portray the Change The Date movement as a small crowd of misanthropes, rolling out decades-out-of-date imagery. The media defences of Australia Day were pettifogging and special pleading – how could they be otherwise? The day was conceived in an era when people proudly professed their white race identity and its manifest destiny. The official celebrations were poorly attended, and the hard-right counter-protests pitiful.

Far from being miserabilist – the right probably had some ’80s socialist protest in mind, during the hard years, a few skivvied types gathered around a trestle table as indifferent crowds passed – the occasion was exuberant and joyous, a moment to express a universal solidarity, to reject the demands that one makes one’s identity on someone else’s tragedy. Previous, smaller protests on the issue had been stalwart, the politics of refusing to consent. This was something else, and the right knew it.

What might explain this shift, these enormous numbers, their exuberant confidence? Not the message itself, which hasn’t changed, nor, by and large, the capacity of social media to spread a message. Rather, it is that there is now an entire social class of people for whom a dissent to the official Australia Day is not merely a passively held opinion, or vague thought, but an insistent and central value. The notion that the Enlightenment values about which the right harps on must be applied in the direction of universal human equality is the core of the doctrine of progressivism. That makes it central to the class that, by and large, produces knowledge, culture and the governance that defines and runs much of our society. This is the “knowledge class”, and it really can’t be spoken of enough, because the failure to recognise the emergence of such a group is what defines much of contemporary politics. 

Put simply, from the 1830s to about 20 years ago, the group who created knowledge, culture and policy content were too small to be considered a social class in their own right. For a century they were “bohemians” or “the intelligentsia”, on the edges of Christian, capitalist society, and defining themselves in opposition to its values focused on nation, race and property. The intelligentsia emphasised universality, cosmopolitanism and human rights, and also defined dissent as a value in itself. In World War II that changed: knowledge, industry and government were fused together, and a new educated subclass was created. They joined labour movement parties, creating a two-group alliance that lasted from the 1960s to the 2000s. By then, with the internet, mass cultural consumption, higher education, the vast extension of state “social management” programs and much else, this group became a class in its own right.

Like the Skynet computers of the Terminator films – which mythologised the rise of this class and the cultural sidelining of the Western working class – the knowledge class became self-aware some time around the 2000s. They had transformed whole sectors of cities, and were creating new billions and trillions of value in new economies, and they saw themselves everywhere. That is one thing the Change The Date rally was: the knowledge class celebrating its new-found power and identity, and the decomposition of other contesting classes, such as the nationalist bourgeoisie.

But there is a paradox, and we are living it at the moment. This new class coming to prominence has always conceived of itself as transformative and transgressive, as a group fighting the power. But what do you fight when you are the power? One answer is a phantom enemy, an old establishment that has long since lost its hold on culture. Transgressive hero stories – currently centred around the refugee and the trans person – replace the proletarian ones, and are couched in terms of taboo-breaking and silence-breaking, even when their telling has become commonplace.

At other times the enemy is themselves – ourselves – and the knowledge class turn on one another. Or rather, their processes turn on them. The self-surveillance of social media, and the placing of an abstract ethical command – full equality, unlimited rights, now – at the centre of the class culture, has created an autonomous, and now feared, process of calling out, condemnation, annihilation. The notion that the public and private spheres should be primarily negotiated within a rights framework – thus limiting forms of speech as oppressive by their very expression, and morally rejecting the unevenness, inequality and sheer difference of power that may be present in relationships – channels social exchange through an almost exclusively moralising frame. By insisting on individual rights, catalogued through various attributes, as the essence of equality, and the demand that no one be importuned, offended or disempowered, full and forthright exchange and action between people becomes subject to an indefinite series of checks and inhibitions. Moralising becomes the way in which people express their desire, a contradictory cultural process that can only produce an ever-faster process of subjective mistrust and atomisation. Current diseases of the self – from the new anxiety to myriad food allergies – are a product of this distorted libidinal feedback loop. Like the 17th-century Puritans, or the 19th-century Viennese bourgeoisie, the knowledge class, like all classes on the rise, would rather be dominant and unhappy than cede their power. Prior to the question of whether this or that accountability is moral or not, there is the fact that the cultural process as a whole is not indefinitely sustainable.

Puritans examined their conscience until they had worn through their own humanity. Their idea of selfhood was both tortuous and essential to their rise as a class. The knowledge class faces a similar dilemma. The new world is reducing many to atomised, mistrusting, anxious subjects, but at the same time they are aware that it is their cultural milieu, their class being. There is now an endless checking of privilege, of accusing others of racism, of sexism, of anything.

But for all its sensitivity, it is preferable, as a power expression, to the absolute shemozzle of the cultural right – the broken-down, disorganised, neurotic, hysterical, resentful remnant of what was once a nationalist bourgeoisie, confidently imposing states and markets on social life. With a series of events over the past couple of years – from the failure of Tony Abbott, to the postal survey victory, to Barnaby Joyce’s buy-one-get-one-free approach to “family values” – the old political–cultural right in Australia is almost dead. Because we have been spared the worst of the past decade of global stagnation, no populist movement of any size has come along to replace it.

What happens when the knowledge class comes to dominate productive life and power, but not so numerically? Where it advances a simple progressive core of Enlightenment values, it succeeds, because a wider population is part of a modern world. Where it advances its specific values – the denial of any legitimacy of national communal feeling, for example – it will eventually meet substantial resistance. If it allies with the mirroring abstract, universal process of the global market – as the Hillary Clinton movement did – it can generate enemies strong enough to annihilate it.

Where it explores ways to make this universalism hybrid and pluralist – as the Jeremy Corbyn-led “new industrial democracy” movement is doing in Britain – then a new super-progressive majority can be created.

Should that succeed, we will march down the streets and take the city. Should such a process fail, then left and right will recombine entirely into a globalised knowledge class against a local and parochial movement of the poor and excluded. That’s when the place would burn down for real.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Judgement day". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.