Magazine article IPA Review

Rule by the Upwardly Mobile

Magazine article IPA Review

Rule by the Upwardly Mobile

Article excerpt

TOWARDS the end of August, ABC radio's AM program carried an interview with an academic from New South Wales who likened the Marks Royal Commission in Western Australia to the 1955 Royal Commission into Espionage, which was established in the wake of the Petrov defection. Both enquiries, so the learned doctor claimed, had the sole purpose of removing from public life a brilliant but troublesome politician, unquestionably of prime ministerial mettle, before his humane and impeccably social democratic radicalism could upset the established order. Carmen Lawrence and Herbie Evatt were both intellectual giants, he said, a breed a too rare in Australian political history. Their visions were boundless and sunny, their principles higher than Everest. And yet, they were undone. If any fault of their own contributed to this, the professor concluded, it was that the arguments they used in their defence drew on standards and an idea of public life that ordinary people were simply incapable of understanding. If only the voters were a little more intelligent, he seemed to be saying, if only they were not so stupid, the two great Docs could have led us to a radiant future.

The attitude here expressed, that the citizens of a democratic polis are too moronic to know what is good for the country, let alone for themselves, is commonplace today but very seldom remarked. An important local exception is Melbourne analyst Bob Browning, whose new book, Bad Government (Canonbury Press), provides a damning catalogue of the appalling contempt with which Australia's ruling elites treat the ordinary people they no longer pretend to serve. Another, better known exception is the late American historian Christopher Lasch. An important part of The True and Only Heaven (1991) was dedicated to documenting the gulf that divides the values of 'the elites' and 'the masses', and in his latest and last book, The Revolt of the Elites, this division takes centre stage.

OLD ELITES AND NEW: The existence of ruling classes is not the problem for Lasch. They have always existed and always will, but they have never been so dangerously isolated from those they rule as they are today. The old democratic elites were bound by strong local and regional loyalties--old families became 'old' because they put down roots--and an ethic of civic responsibility which dictated both an active involvement in public life and generous contributions to building the physical amenities of the public domain. The motivation for these involvements and contribution obviously varied, and was doubtless sometimes self-serving. But underlying it was an important assumption: that the ruling classes were part of the world held in common by all.

The democratic elites of today, comprising for the most part "the producers and manipulators of information," are quite different. International in outlook, and without an attachment to place, they live in "a world of abstractions and images" and despise ordinary people for their "parachial" and politically backward concerns about the problems of everyday living. They enjoy enormous privilege, but because their privileged position is owed to talent rather than to blood or valour, they do not feel obliged to make "a direct and personal contribution to the public good," and actually resist any such obligation. They are the best and brightest, so they claim, and the privilege they enjoy is self-made. The justification put forward here is that democracy means meritocracy. …

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