REMEMBER THE BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE? There was a time when this top corporate lobby group was a real power in the land. It’s Executive Director, Roger Kerr, was feted by prime ministers and newspaper editors alike. His media releases were small masterpieces of ideological invective. The studies he commissioned and the submissions he presented on the BRT’s behalf had a nasty habit of becoming the law of the land. The Employment Contracts Act may be the most famous product of the BRT’s ideological factory – but it was far from the only one.
The BRT’s successor, The New Zealand Initiative (NZI), is nowhere near as well-known, and its German-born director, Dr Oliver Hartwich, enjoys a much lower public profile than Roger Kerr’s. Indeed, it is probably true to say that, in 2013, right-wing bloggers David Farrar (Kiwiblog) and Cameron Slater (Whaleoil) exert considerably more influence over the direction of public discourse than Dr Hartwich and the NZI.
This does not mean that the NZI has given up on its job of winning new friends to the cause of neoliberalism and continuing to influence the right people. Like the BRT before it, the NZI sponsors national tours by ideologically “hot” individuals. The latest of these right-wing proselytisers to grace the New Zealand speaking circuit was the prominent Australian journalist, columnist and author, Nick Cater.
Cater’s book, The Lucky Culture – Rise of a New Ruling Class, provided the theme for three ticket-only NZI forums held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch earlier this month (mid-July).
Cater’s underlying thesis is simple: by the 1970s the post-war expansion of the welfare state had created a vast number of highly qualified professionals whose ideas about the way society should be organised and run have since come to dominate the developed nations of the West – to the point where they can now be identified as those nations’ ruling class. Working from this analysis, Cater follows the growth and rise to power of this new ruling class in Australia.
There’s so much wrong with Cater’s thesis, it’s difficult to know where to start.
Let’s begin with his book’s defining concept: the ruling class. Presumably, this fraction of society is distinguishable from all the others by the fact that the state-of-affairs it considers to be most compatible with its own interests is the state-of-affairs which prevails. Or, to put it another way: a ruling class is the social class which all the other classes can least afford to piss off.
Now, in the case of Australia, you might be tempted to nominate the big mining companies; the great land-holding families; the owners of the major banks and insurance firms; the leading food processors and retail chains; the big manufacturers; and, of course, Mr Cater’s own sector, media and communications, as the core elements of that country’s ruling class.
Not according to Cater. Rather than the owners of Australia’s natural resources and its principal means of production being the people in charge, it is actually Australia’s university lecturers, schoolteachers, librarians, social workers, architects, town planners, medical professionals, artists, writers, arts administrators and other “luvvies” too numerous to mention who are running the show.
Where has Cater got this nonsensical notion from?
It’s a very interesting story.
The idea of a “new class” may be traced (like so many of the Right’s ideas) to the writings of Marxist theorists – in this case the Yugoslav Communist, Milovan Dijlas. Observing the manner in which key party officials and their protégés had effectively replaced the former capitalist ruling class in Yugoslavia, Dijlas penned a stinging rebuke of the social system that was rapidly emerging under the conditions of actually existing socialism in the 1950s. For producing The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System Dijlas was rewarded with a nine year prison sentence.
Dijlas’s “New Class” thesis did not, however, disappear. Across the Atlantic, in the USA, a group of right-wing intellectuals who had, back in the grim Depression years of their youth, espoused the ideas of the Soviet renegade, Leon Trotsky, seized upon Dijlas’s concept as a means of both explaining and attacking the entrenched human infrastructure of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” liberalism within the American political system.
A truly useful exposition of the “New Class” thesis did not, however, appear until 1976, when two American socialists, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, published their seminal paper The Professional Managerial Class.
What the Ehrenreichs grasped was the historical importance of the social layers which had, over the course of more than a century, grown up between Capital and Labour. Partly the product of scientific and technological change; and partly a response to the growing ferocity of the struggle between the “Robber Baron” capitalists of late nineteenth century America and their exploited workers; these highly educated, highly specialised “experts’” principal function was to more rationally and efficiently manage a capitalist system which was rapidly outgrowing the ability of even the Carnegies and the Rockefellers to control.
As capitalism expanded throughout the twentieth century – especially in the years following World War II – so, too, did this intermediate professional and managerial strata. By the 1970s its expansion had reached a point where the fiscal implications of its upkeep (a very large portion of the Professional and Managerial Class (PMC) was supported by central and local government) were becoming politically troublesome. It was also the period in which the interface between the PMC and an increasingly radical and restive working-class turned sour.
No matter how much they tried to hide it from themselves, the critical role – even of the “helping professions” – was to keep the workers happy and productive in their factories and offices. The PMC may have thought that they were putting an end to the brutalities of capitalism, but they were only ever filing smooth its sharpest edges. When push came to shove they very soon discovered who it was they could least afford to piss off.
As capitalism went global in the late-1970s and the 1980s, the Right brilliantly exploited the latent hostility between the well-remunerated, socially superior liberals of the PMC and their increasingly hard-pressed working-class “clients”. The concept of the “New Class” was refined to the point where, in the English-speaking countries particularly, it could be presented to working-class voters as an oppressive new “ruling class”.
These people were, after all, the “bosses” workers met every day: their managers. They were also the pokers and priers into every aspect of their lives; the social workers who took away their kids; the WINZ case-workers who stopped their benefit. It was remarkably easy to confuse those whose job it was to protect and serve the interests of the ruling class with the ruling class itself.
And this, of course, is the real purpose of Nick Cater’s book: to recruit an alienated and friendless working class into an unholy alliance with the “job creators” of big business. He wants the “battlers” to turn on the people who took over their unions and ruined their Labor Party. He needs them to focus on what remains of the state-funded PMC – all those snot-nosed little wankers who’ve never done a real days work in their lives; the ones who have only ever been to school and yet presume to tell the rest of us how to do everything – from saving the planet to raising our kids.
It’s a scary project, and one the PMC should take very seriously. Because Cater’s book signals a profound shift in the thinking of twenty-first century capitalists: away from the rational management strategies of the twentieth century, and back to the bloody Darwinian struggles of nineteenth century capitalism.
Put bluntly, the PMC no longer has a purpose. Cater and his ilk are hoping that by painting these self-deluding capitalist enablers as the people in charge, the anger of the people will fall upon their heads and not those of their paymasters.
The real ruling class, meanwhile, will continue to divide and conquer its enemies from a social position more secure than it has been for 120 years.