Who Rules Ya, Baby? Thoughts on Nick Cater’s “New Ruling Class”


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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.

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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.


  1. Cater may well have an audience among your nominated PMC.

    I doubt the 99%, the non voters, the disenfranchised, the marginalised have even heard of Cater.

    Key is very successfully turning this once proud country back into primitive capitalism a la 19th century.

    There will be rebellion. No wonder that the GCSB has to spy on us.

    Forget that crapola about mentioning Hitler and nazis.

    Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Four legs good, two legs bad.

    Cater is feeding the converted not converting the unfed.

  2. Maybe Cater has read Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites and adulterated it to serve a more malign end.

    Christopher Hayes:

    Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating and extreme economic inequality of a scope and scale unseen since the last Gilded Age. There are numerous reasons for the explosion of inequality—from globalization, to technology, to the corruption of the campaign finance system, to the successful war on organized labor—but the philosophical underpinning for all of this, the fertile soil in which it is rooted, is our shared meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be a member in good standing of that select few.

    Nick Cater:

    The secret of Australia’s good fortune is the Australian character, the nation’s greatest renewable resource. Liberated from the constraints of the old world, Australia’s pioneers mined their reserves of enterprise, energy and ingenuity to build the great civilization of the south. Their over-riding principle was fairness: everybody had a right to a fair go and was obliged to do the right thing by others.

    Today that spirit of egalitarianism is threatened by the rise of a new breed of sophisticated Australians who claim to better understand the demands of the age. Their presumption of superior virtue tempts them to look down on others and assert the right to rule.

    Half a century after Donald Horne named Australia ‘The Lucky Country’, Nick Cater takes stock of the new battle to define Australia and the rift that divides a presumptive ruling class from a people who refuse to be ruled.

  3. It’s all crap, as always.

    For the past 500 years has only ever been one ruling class, and it is composed of land-grabbers, exploiters of other humans, exploiters of natural resources (looters), polluters, and money lenders.

    Those at the top of the pyramid carefully trained the lower echelons -the opportunists- to do the dirty work for them, and to never look at the big picture.

    Now it’s all coming to an end: the cheap and abundant energy needed to drive the system is no longer available; there is [human] population overshoot practically everywhere; pollutants have accumulated to the point of causing massive disruption to ecosystems and climate. And everything that matters gets worse by the minute.

    ‘Nobody’ sees any of it, of course, and the absurd mainstream narrative of perpetual economic growth and perpetual population growth on a finite (and now very strained) planet continues via massive money-printing, desperation measures to prop up the energy supply, and journalistic crap churned out daily by mainstream publications and quite a few not-so-mainstream publications.

    • @AFewKnowTheTruth

      I can’t find much to disagree with in your comment here, but I can’t help but notice you haven’t connected these ideas to the article above, or anyone else’s comments on it.

      Have you ever been at a party or barbeque where one person, regardless of the subject under discussion, will monotonously drag the conversation back to a favourite topic and repeat the same handful of points about it, ad nauseum? Not only are such people bores, and likely to stop getting invited to things, but they actually do significant damage to their pet cause, because people get so sick of being hectored about it they just stop listening and change the subject whenever it comes up.

      • I just find it so annoying that we are constantly presented with irrelevant nonsense to comment on. So most of the time I don’t bother.

        If you find even the very occasional reminder of reality annoying, then I won’t even bother with that.

        See ya’ all at the bottom of the cliff (if you manage to live through the fall).

  4. A great article thanks Mr Trotter.

    It is helpful to have a heads up on what angle the next bout of opinion manipulation is going to take.

    You say this sector of the society may be used as a scape goat for the “real rulers”; and at the same time it could also be used for the time-honoured divide and rule tactic that you mention.

    I very much like the way you provide historical context in a lot of your articles.


  5. If anyone can be labelled a ruling class, it’s certainly not the ‘chardonnay socialists’ that Nick Cater has an axe to grind with. Cater’s idea of egalitarianism is not so much about a ‘fair go’, but more akin to blatant anti-intellectualism.

    Rather, it’s the nouveau riche with all their acquired narcissism that can be best thought of as the new ruling class, and it’s this group that Cater is trying to repackage and dog-whistle on behalf of. Climb the ladder, and then kick it away so no one else can climb it.

    Key, Joyce, Bennett et al are its high clergy in NZ. In Aussie, Gina Rinehart is its figurehead.

    • I’m not sure I would have said that Gina Rinheart was nouveau riche.

      Between establishment and extractive, I could imagine seeing her as extractive, but really I’m guessing.

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