As a North London academic of a left-wing persuasion, I am a member of the enemy of our age: the liberal, metropolitan elite. I may not feel very elite, trundling along with my battered satchel on a second-hand bicycle, but apparently those nerdy props are precisely what signals my elite status.
Forget the City. Forget Wall Street. Forget hedge-fund managers and multinational CEOs. Forget the fact that eight people, all men, own as much wealth as half the world’s population – and I’m certainly not one of them. No, it is people just like me, along with burned-out MPs, journalists on zero-hours contracts and members of the creative precariat, who are now regarded as the imperious masters of the universe.
The new philistine oligopoly has pulled off a devastating coup. It has diverted public anger away from financial and corporate power and turned it onto experts, politicians, journalists and intellectuals: those who keep us safe, improve society, hold our leaders to account, and increase the sum of human knowledge. They’ve turned class struggle into culture wars, and replaced the fight against inequality with anti-intellectualism.
Big business is not the problem, it’s big government, they insist – while quietly centralising control, removing state support for the vulnerable, and taking the heat off the super-rich.
The notion that the populist right represents ordinary citizens is a lie. These billionaire property tycoons, privately-educated former investment bankers and oil company executives are themselves revoltingly privileged. Their policies will actively harm the working class citizens they claim to support.
According to a pernicious and false new narrative, the political “establishment” and the mainstream media are left wing, and the left is the enemy of the disadvantaged rather than their true advocate.
The Daily Express, for example, framed Trump’s victory as a backlash by “millions of ordinary people” against “a lofty elite which believed only in the triumph of the liberal, progressive agenda”. Americans have had eight years of the moderately progressive Obama administration, yet the response to it suggests the triumph of global capitalism, the Bush administrations, the war in Iraq, the years of New Labour, the multi-trillion dollar bank bailouts, five years of coalition government austerity and David Cameron’s premiership never happened.
If we want to challenge the way things are for ordinary voters, we need to target not only brute power itself but the forces that legitimise it – that is, whatever provides it with public licence. Anti-elitism is that licence. It is the myth undermining the left’s attempts to counter right-wing power.
Attacks by the alt-right are bad enough, but what I find really depressing is the way we liberals have lost our nerve. Normally confident adults are terrified to say in public what they really feel about Brexit, for fear of patronising “ordinary people” who may have voted differently to them. Scores of MPs suppressed their reasoned convictions in the farcical vote on the Article 50 Bill this week, cowed by the fictitious construct of the popular will. Opposition to a hard Brexit is now the only acceptable resistance.
Politicians, we are told, are out of touch. Broadsheet commentators should have spent more time in Scunthorpe and Nuneaton if they wanted to understand what “ordinary” people want. Maybe we should get out there and start listening?
No. We need to start saying difficult things. It’s time for progressives to stop being in a muddle about “elitism”, to stop being petrified of being branded a snob if we stand up for what we believe is important, true and good in our society. It’s time to defend the positive elite values of rigorous expertise, difficult ideas, judicious government and well-resourced journalistic scrutiny.
Democracy and civilisation are being destroyed for the benefit of the real power elite, all in the name of “the people”. We need to come together to invent new institutions, standards and forms of authority that aren’t associated with the crumbling dinosaur models and privileged discernments of the past.
What would these look like? That’s a conversation we need to start having, and fast.
Eliane Glaser is a writer, lecturer, radio producer and author of 'Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life'
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