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Election victories and the framework of social class

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Thursday, 18 November 2004


Social class is not an issue often discussed in immigrant nations such as the United States or Australia. Both countries are built on notions that they are different to the “Old World” of Britain with its rigid class system and limited social mobility.

While upward mobility and aspiration are themes heavily repeated in election campaigns, social class is rarely spoken of. It is doomed to have Marxist associations - and no political party wants that anymore.

In Australia, Mark Latham was repeatedly, and disparagingly, referred to by his rivals as a “class warrior” and his brand of politics as “class warfare”. Just the hint Latham might be involved in anything to do with “the classes”, and not just those in schools, was designed to discredit him.

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But the wrecking of the Left by conservative victories in both countries was very much related to social class. The successful framing of class as a product of culture and not economics was the key to the Republican victory in the US and the Liberal Party triumph in Australia, albeit less so.

According to the “Republican world view”, there is a left wing “elite” who make our movies, teach at our universities, write in our newspapers and make our court judgements. Evidently they are not representative of the population at large and they do not pay heed to people’s values or traditions. Consequently we should all be very angry with them for conspiring to rule our lives.

This theme is articulated in an Australian context most clearly by the prominent monarchist and ex-head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, Professor David Flint. In his book, The Twilight Of The Elites, he estimates the “elite” number approximately 10 per cent of the population,  as evidenced by the numbers who voted for the progressive minor parties in the 2001 election.

This is reiterated by the Fairfax columnist Gerard Henderson who notes:

The message of the Australian and US elections is that a majority of voters are not over-impressed by the self-important declarations of academics, actors, musicians and the like.

In this conservative narrative, the “establishment” is portrayed as the cultural powerbrokers who try to rule our thoughts. Intellect or sophistication is caricatured as something to be derided. A whole range of global symbols fall under the “elite” conspiracy, notably the United Nations.

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It is convenient that economics does not picture in this model, for it does not hurt the core “big-business constituency” of the Right.

The contradictions of this argument are clear. The mass culture that is derided is in turn a product of the market institutions that are held in the highest esteem.

On the flip-side, the failure to present the economic context of class has left the centre parties in ruins.

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Article edited by Darlene Taylor.
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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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