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The Kelly Gang and Australia's public intellectuals

By Marko Beljac - posted Wednesday, 27 August 2008

There has always been something simultaneously both comical and fascinating about the "Editor at Large" of The Australian, Paul Kelly, for he displays a curious disregard for what he refers to as "public intellectuals" while at the same time seemingly aspiring to be the alpha member of the species.

Surely few of us could forget the revelation of this deep seated vanity in that awful ABC historical documentary series during the centenary of Federation, 100 Years: The Australian Story, replete with Kelly narrating behind the sights and sounds of the Australian bush. Kelly's narration was made all the more awful for the whole episode was clearly a send-off of Ken Burns' mini series on the American Civil War.

We also had those TV advertisements by The Australian telling us that he is "so respected", even having been granted an audience with President Clinton, although it is clear that the big man had more respect for Monica's tail than Kelly's brain, if we are to judge such things by level of access.


Last year Kelly wrote a large article pouring scorn on "public intellectuals" and the "intellectual Left" demanding that they acknowledge that we are blessed to have a wonderful set of political leaders, who have given us a miracle economy by sheer dint of brilliance.

In a very recent editorial at The Australian, one with Kelly's fingerprints all over it, we get another dose. One wonders what the point of the whole affair is. It seems to be something akin to, "Rudd is ignoring the academic Left and that is a good thing". He seems to think that what the "intellectual Left" clings for is access to power. This curious thesis probably is due to mirror imaging. He writes of the Prime Minister, "he is right to stay deaf to the mournful wailing of the academic Left".

To demand that Australia be bound by the dictates of justice in its international dealings; that refugees should be assessed humanely; that the past wrongs, many of which were truly shocking, to the native population be duly acknowledged; that in responding to the terrorist threat we should not easily succumb to the temptation to throw away our hard won rights; that we treat fairly those who have met on hard times in our social welfare system and so on, is all "mournful wailing" for Kelly. It would do well to reflect for a moment just how much this aside reveals not so much about the "academic Left" but rather its erstwhile critic.

Kelly tells us that "prosperity abounds". There certainly can be little doubt that prosperity abounds in his social circle, that's the whole point of the economic reforms that he celebrates and demands everybody else celebrate, but if prosperity abounds why did the Howard government lose the election? What happened to all that Ruddian rhetoric directed at "easing the burden on working families?" How could the existence of such pressure in the "sun-belt seats of Queensland and outer Sydney", not as he curiously singles out at "Monash University", have delivered an election to Labor if prosperity stretches as far as the eye can see?

Perhaps Stalin was also critical of those who choose to "mournfully wail" about democracy and human rights when he was delivering consistent economic growth during the Five Year Plans of the 1930s. Did Hitler have Goebbels do the same when the Nazi Party begun to lift the German economy out of the Depression?

Alas, this comparison is unfair, to Hitler and Stalin that is, for it is well acknowledged that the economic performance of Australia in recent years does not owe to the neo-liberal economic reforms began during the Hawke-Keating years. The existence of what economists inform us is a "two-speed economy" attests to the fact that it is rising commodity prices, and state government funded infrastructure projects, that underpins Australia's recent economic growth. If it were the case that the neo-liberal reforms of the past two decades has driven Australia's economic growth we would still be speaking of a two-speed economy, but one where growth arises from elaborately transformed manufactures in New South Wales and Victoria not the mineral resources of Western Australia and Queensland.


Although we can be critical of the Kelly thesis we should acknowledge that there is an important grain of truth that lies behind it. He correctly points out, "the sad truth is that the once-progressive Left has become the regressive Left with nothing left to say. Nothing, that is, except for nostalgia for the rights-based politics of the 1970s and a mantra of the evils of Howardism."

The problem with the intellectual or academic component of the Australian Left is not that it refuses to celebrate neo-liberal reforms, as Kelly would have it, but that it has little to nothing to say about them. The academic Left has completely ignored economic issues and the class-based factors that lie at its core. Economics is very easy to understand. While it is true that economic theory is underpinned by elegant mathematical theorems it is also true that these theorems all derive from an underlying axiom, which also informs policy, namely that we must make the rich happy for if the rich are happy wonderful things will happen.

A lot of the regression to which Kelly speaks of has to do with the alarming proliferation of fashionable nonsense in the humanities and social sciences, with such things as "critical theory", "post-modernism", "post-structuralism" and all the rest achieving both institutional and doctrinal dominance. The Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski, in his justly critical three-volume survey of Marxism, once referred to "critical theory" as "Marxism without the proletariat". In essence the academic Left has become the Left without the working class, if I may dare use that forbidden phrase.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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