The Subversion of Language: Class Warfare and the Politics of Envy in 21st Century Australia

“…when the Church takes itself seriously as an alternative culture, baptism is politically charged. When we recognize that “the people of God do not go to church; they are the church,” baptism can…accurately be seen as an act of civil disobedience.”

Rodney Clapp,
A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in Post-Religion Society, p.101-2

In Australia, we pride ourselves on our “egalitarianism” and the fact that we are a “classless” society not bound by some of the more oppressive historical manifestations of privilege.  But a couple of articles I have read in recent times suggest that this “national myth” is no longer a narrative that sustains our sense of self-identity as Australians; rather, it has become part of the web of complacency and apathy that blinds us to the increasing inequality within society – indeed, which co-opts us and makes us complicit in economic and social injustice.

The first article[1] drew on the research of the British journalist George Monbiot who traced the relative productivity and wealth increases in the US in the periods 1947-79 and 1980-2010 respectively.  Monibot found that in the first period, productivity rose by 119% and the incomes of the lowest 25% of the population went up by 122%.  In the second period, productivity rose by only 80%, the income of the poorest 25% fell by 4%, while the income of the wealthiest 1% rose by a staggering 270%!

The second article[2] reviewed a recently published book by scientist Peter Corning, who is investigating the evolutionary, biological, and behavioral roots of social order.  Corning found that since the 1980s, nearly 94% of the increase in wealth in the US has gone to the wealthiest 1% of the population; 25 million US citizens struggle with chronic unemployment or underemployment; 50 million Americans experience hunger on a regular basis; and 75 million Americans (one quarter of the population) live in poverty.

These bleak figures tell us that the nation which regularly declares itself to be “the greatest country on earth”, and where every political speech is apparently mandatorily accompanied by an invocation of God’s blessing on the land, is a place starkly lacking in abundance, prosperity, and human flourishing.  But anyone who thinks that these trends are not being replicated in Australia is either naïve or willfully ignorant.

And perhaps one of the most insidious manifestations of this inequality in Australia has been the appropriation of the language of revolution by the mega-rich in order to preserve their own position of privilege.  By which I mean the disturbing trend among wealthy vested interests (and their political representatives) to describe any proposal to redistribute wealth or require the wealthy to pay more tax as “class warfare” or the “politics of envy”.

“Class warfare” is straight out of the lexicon of 19th and 20th century working class politics and social reform: it describes the various ways in which the rich utilize the mechanism of exploitative capitalism to victimize the poor and the powerless.  “Politics of envy” describes the moral inversion that has taken place over the course of the last 40 years: instead of the rich being obliged to help the poor, the poor are now obliged to become rich – and any suggestion to the contrary is to be condemned as representative of a “culture of entitlement”.

The fact that the wealthy and privileged are now co-opting this terminology for their own purposes represents a serious challenge to our society’s capacity to meaningfully respond to inequality.  That’s because this terminology has a moral as well as a political dimension; by deploying this moral dimension against any notion of making the rich pay more tax or restructuring the economy to redistribute more wealth to the poor, the privileged few have, in effect, associated a more equitable society with “sin”.  Ironic given the distinctly irreligious nature of our culture; but the cynical manipulation with which this terminology is utilized understands that, despite all our claims or pretenses to the contrary, the notion of “sin” is still a powerful one in society.  That which is “sin” is not merely wrong but also harmful to human flourishing; therefore, making society more equitable is not only not desireable, it actually does harm.  The usurpation and inversion of the moral dimensions of revolutionary terminology reflects the usurpation and inversion of our collective understanding of what human flourishing actually involves.

But the success of the mega-rich in pursuing this agenda also rests on their co-option of the rest of society (especially comfortable or “aspirational” middle class society).  And this co-option occurs because the privileged 1% have succeeded in painting the poor to whom any redistributed wealth might flow as the “other” who would benefit at the expense of “mainstream” Australia.  In just the same way as refugees are depicted as the “other” who threaten our social stability and employment security if they are granted entry to Australia, so the poor are depicted as the “undeserving other” who will benefit from “handouts” at the expense of “deserving” hard-working “mainstream” Australians.

Or, to put it more bluntly, helping the poor make ends meet will come at the cost of us being able to maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.  Not that the cheerleaders of exploitative capitalism put it like that; but that they appeal to narcissistic self-interest in order to head off any imposition upon their own privilege is what lies at the heart of their public relations success.  Moreover, they provide a moral salve to our consciences by declaring that what they are “really” in favour of is breaking the “dependency” of the poor on welfare.  Put that way, narcissism becomes not merely understandable, but a moral virtue.

Do I sound angry? Good, because I am.  And so should we all; we should be as angry as Jesus was when he drove the money-changers from the Temple.  Jesus understood that they had corrupted a process that was intended to help people come closer to God by enabling them to undertake their religious ceremonies with materials dedicated to the purpose – the money which they offered as part of the sacrifice was “sanctified”, imbued with meaning beyond the mere accumulation of wealth.  The money-changers had perverted this process, turning it into a wealth-generation exercise; in other words, the opposite of what it was intended to be.  Jesus’ rage in the face of this corruption was anger at its effect; the people had been impoverished by the money-changers’ greed, and not just financially.

A similar thing has happened to economics generally and capitalism specifically.  When Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he not only established modern industrial economics as this is now understood, he imbued that process with a profound moral core that united all people in a web of interactive relationships, wherein the pursuit of “self-interest” involves more than mere self-enrichment.  For Smith, “self-interest” extended to the welfare of others in the context of how their well-being affected your own.  But modern “economic rationalism” has conveniently overlooked this reality: “self-interest” has become the means through which each individual achieves maximum autonomy and happiness, irrespective of the effects on others.

Despite claiming Smith as one of their “spiritual founders”, economic rationalists regard adverse outcomes for individuals (and communities) as merely a part of the matrix of economic phenomena – hence, they talk about “trickle down effects” to justify the appalling inequality that arises from a system that does not see “self-interest” as an interlinked and relational process.

Do I sound political? Good.  Because despite the blandishments of “prosperity theology” and the demand by militant secularists that religion be “kept out” of politics, Christianity is not apolitical.  The Brazilian Catholic archbishop and social justice campaigner Dom Helder Camara understood this when he famously noted: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist”.  But as the epigram at the head of this article also makes clear, baptism as a counter-cultural self-identification is a politically charged act of civil disobedience.  When Jesus accepted baptism at John the Baptist’s hands, he articulated God’s solidarity with suffering and broken humanity – contrary to the claims of the rich and the powerful that their wealth and standing were themselves indicators of God’s favour and approval.

Indeed, Jesus’ whole ministry was filled with politically charged and revolutionary acts.  His defiance of the religious authorities over the interpretation of Scripture, his continued association and sharing of hospitality with “sinners”, his defense of those condemned by conventional wisdom and the demands of social tradition – all these were overtly political acts challenging the legitimacy of the social order of his day.  But unlike the purely political revolutionary whose purpose is to overthrow power in order to seize power, Jesus’ revolutionary activity was designed to alert people to the transformational prospect of the Kingdom of God.  And the authorities recognised Jesus for what he was – which is precisely why they had him killed.

Or, as Terry Eagleton has written:

“The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls…the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the Kingdom of God[3].”

Jesus’ rage and revolutionary theology were enacted for and on behalf of others, not for his own narrow self-interest.  He did not seek to replace one set of elites with another; nor did he characterize his own self-interest as the highest form of moral good, while denigrating everything else as “sin”.  Rather, Jesus set out to preach the Good News that all people are included within the transformational possibilities of the Kingdom of God; and this was a transformation that was available in equal abundance to all, regardless of how soon or late they heeded the call (Matt 20: 1-16).

The subversion of the language of revolution by the mega-rich in our own times mirrors the subversion of God’s covenant with Israel by the powerful elites of Israelite society.   And just as the prophets and, ultimately, Jesus himself both spoke out against, and articulated an alternative to, this subversion, so must we, the Church.  Living out our baptism must become the hallmark of our civil disobedience and of our politics; by embodying the Kingdom of God on earth, we must call ourselves and our society to account, and articulate a definition of “wealth” that is not about privilege and all about the life-affirming fullness of human flourishing.

[1] Watson, Don, “Blessed Are The Wealth-Makers”, The Monthly, April 2012, p.10.

[2] Jost, John T., “Social Justice: Is It In Our Nature (and Our Future)?”, American Scientist, Volume 100, March-April 2012, p.162

[3]Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.23

(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.