Bien pensantism: pretentious political ignorance

Bien pensants litter political debate with ignorant statements devoid of critical analysis or informed insights.


One of the most pronounced and intractable political biases in Australia’s election environment comes from a core of notionally educated, engaged people who regard it as a heresy to agree with anything connected to the the labels ‘Coalition’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘right’. Not that this might be unjustified, except that the bias extends to believing that everything the ‘progressive left’ or ‘Labor’ does is OK, regardless of what that might be.

Such people might be thought of as bien pensants (right-thinking, self-righteous), a French term, originally implying people who repeat orthodox, conservative prejudices, but now also those who adopt and repeat ‘fashionable’ ideas without critical analysis or judgement. Ultimately, and ironically, that latter definition is actually the meaning of unthinking conservatism, even if so many bien pensants today believe themselves to be progressives or left-leaning.

Misunderstanding ‘conservatism’

The principal cause of bien pensantism appears to be fundamental ignorance about political taxonomy and history, as it is pursued in the intellectually disciplined study of politics rather than the hackneyed, hebetudinous reportage of it in the news media, and in increasingly ridiculous online and casual ‘discussions’.

In that light, for example, the technocrat impulses of fallen Labor idol Kevin Rudd and his inconstant deputy, now prime Minister, Julia Gillard, are actually closer to classically defined fascism, or at least krypto-fascism, than anything recognisably ‘mainstream’ or ‘progressive’ in recent Australian politics, and the orientation of Howard and Abbott is mostly devoid of ideological commitment to anything but the grasping opportunism of attaining and holding power, even if there were and are elements of reactionary Christian Right fundamentalism, and of ‘movement’ ideology, embedded in their rhetoric.

Movement ideology, in this context, is the ideology contained in stated ideals, but not necessarily reflected in the actual content of specific policies, actions, or outcomes.

This does not mean that somewhere, in both parties, there are no longer any people aligned to traditional left and right ideologies – actual socialism, liberalism and conservatism rather than merely nominal derivatives, but they are becoming a rare species.

Stereotypical prejudices about conservatism don’t always match reality.

Instead it is becoming easier to recognise the contemporary Victorian Left of the ALP as quite conservative in trying to preserve the special status of unions at a party level, but not socialist at all in its support for withdrawing a substantial component of welfare assistance to single parent families (mostly single mothers), and in its intractable opposition to gay marriage. Put another way, the label ‘left’ has become nominal only, and does not reflect actual policy or attitudes.

Labor’s NSW Right faction is probably the archetype of a pragmatic conservative movement, meaning that it doesn’t seek to ‘rock the boat’, but also doesn’t aim at preventing change for the sake of preventing it in the way that Family First, Katter’s Australia Party, and a third of Coalition MPs appear to, mostly by way of a dimwitted, kneejerk reaction to notions that economic and social paradigms might have progressed since the 1950s.

In that light, it would be more appropriate to put aside for a moment the label ‘conservative’ when it comes to considering the range of views represented in the Coalition.

The real flavour of the Coalition

The Abbott faction in the Liberal Party appears almost completely ideologically neutral, and dedicated only to the goal of attaining and holding onto power as an end in itself. This may make that grouping talk about ‘traditional conservative ideals’ as justification for certain policies, but not necessarily because their policies are actually conservative in character or ambition. This is the dimension of movement politics which seeks symbolic justification for policies as a means of selling them to an uncritical electorate.

A case in point is the almost uniform adherence to a quite recent idea that was actually quite radical in its time, but which has become a completely undisputed orthodoxy in the present Australian political climate: the neoclassical economics of the ‘Washington consensus’ emerging in the 1980s, typified by Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and Greenspanism. That consensus includes an irrational faith in totemic free market economics, including an unprecedented (and therefore actually ‘counter-conservative’) dismantling of state controls over private enterprise and corporate market manipulation.

So, the neoclassical economics being promoted under the guise of ‘traditional’ conservative fiscal conservatism is actually a major contradiction in terminology and policy content, particularly when we look to the massively protected, regulated economy that typified the Menzies era, which is the only recent kind of Australian conservatism rooted in history rather than fantasy or foreign imports.

Quite apart from this historically rational rather than romantic analysis of actual as opposed to nominal ideology, another reason the Coalition is not well described as conservative is that quite prominent in its broad constituency is a perspective, particularly pronounced in the National Party, that it is entirely rational to mix dated tenets of agrarian socialism with strongly reactionary social ideas, seeking to undo change, oppose progressive legislation, and nostalgically idealising a highly sentimentalised version of a mythical past that traded off paternalistic authoritarianism for stability and an imagined prosperity that conspicuously excludes acknowledging the marginalisation of women, Aborigines, non-English-speaking migrants, homosexuals, and political dissidents.

Movement politics masks intentions and outcomes in symbolic but meaningless rhetoric.

In a harsh irony, Treasurer Wayne Swan’s Australia Day vision for a national future, rooted in the 80-year-old Bodyline Ashes cricket season, appealed directly to the same mindset (see separate comment here), suggesting that he is actually not even a Labor conservative, but overtly reactionary in his political conceptions.

It is unarguable that since 2007, Labor has embraced the neoclassical economic orthodoxy as much as the Coalition, no matter that it has sometimes espoused a notion of ‘social democracy’ that is simply not reflected in its policies.

In contemporary Australian political terms, that leaves independents and Greens to claim a traditional left ideological ground. However, the Greens are mostly so economically illiterate that this is unlikely; economic literacy, and forceful arguments based on it, were a hallmark of the international, intellectual left that has largely disappeared since the 1980s, including in Australia.

In terms of voting intentions in the Senate and the House, our independents are probably cosy bedfellows for any pragmatic (mercenary?) political leadership. No principle or ideals are in play there at all.

It seems that missing in this picture of Australian politics is classical liberalism, as characterised by progressive reforms aimed at both liberating individuals from state and private controls (civil liberties, human rights, as well as safeguards against contrived monopolies, oligopolies, and plutocracy), and a limited welfarism aimed at the most disadvantaged (ie, not catering to rent-seeking demands by the middle class and the private sector).

Bien pensant blind spots

In light of any intellectually disciplined examination of popular misconceptions about political nomenclature, it becomes easier to recognise and understand bien pensant political myopia. Instead of any actual analysis and evaluation of individual statements, policies, and outcomes, the majority of these poseurs simply reflect preconceived notions based on stereotypes going back as far as the Whitlam administration.

They deny political bias in such obvious sources of it as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and find it instead in the news media that do not reflect their own views. The delusion here is to believe that there is an absence of bias in any news media. The reality is that they all represent particular prejudices, cater to particular viewpoints, and filter news according to particular criteria. That may or may not be desirable or ideal, but it is a reality, and complaining about it on the basis of some mythical standard of objective journalism is quite childish, if only for the assumption that bien pensants should be absolved of the adult responsibility to form their own conclusions based on critical analysis.

One has to look to only two dynamics to appreciate that an ‘objective’ media is an impossible ideal: journalists are people, not machines, with all the impressions and alignments that shape political perspectives in all other people; and the flow of money always determines a dominant tone. In terms of that latter criterion, when looking at bias in the ABC, it is instructive to look at the comparison of ABC funding under Labor and Coalition governments since the 1980s. When looking at the bias in commercial media, it is instructive to look at the commercial and political interests of their owners.

Unfortunately the naïve fantasies about objectivity and righteousness that underlie bien pensant political misconceptions are quite widespread, including among many journalists, and much of the educated middle class of middle-managers and professionals, who collectively support a stiflingly narrow-minded conception of what is ‘fair and reasonable’, particularly in terms of justifying their own prejudices, and using a shield of political correctness to seek to censure and censor dissent from their own views.

In some senses this stratum of bien pensants is more toxic than extremists at either end of the political scale, not only because they actually create these extremes via their own self-righteous demands that such views should not be permitted or debated, but also because they fail to spot the intrusion of extremist views into what they regard as mainstream politics; they ignore every sign that dangerously autocratic, as well as economically tyrannical and ignorant things, are being proposed and carried out by the mainstream parties, and by unaccountable, officious types of people in workplaces around the country, particularly in the public service.

A bien pensant model for arriving at opinions.

The effect on journalism in Australia is a deadening kind of consensus that is frightened by anything outside a well demarcated comfort zone. This journalism acts rather more as a stenography service for authority figures, including a caste of notional ‘experts’, whose obvious political taints are never examined or questioned. As a result there is no real public debate on many issues that deserve to be addressed. Examples that come readily to mind include, but are not limited to: the rising criminal militancy of Australian Islamists; racial tensions that do not involve white perpetrators; sexism that does not originate from men; rent-seeking behaviours by unions, the middle class, and corporations; stigmatisation of the lowest socio-economic strata; and, perhaps especially, the nature of what exactly is a public interest matter, when the opinions of a majority of the public are excluded from such considerations.

Perhaps the most noxious of all ideas emanating from this bien pensant bourgeoisie is the idea that balance and fairness means not criticising ‘mainstream’ ideas no matter how cretinous they might be, but vigorously persecuting individuals and their ideas if they challenge orthodoxy, never mind the facts or integrity of the ideas themselves. Such behaviour implies a direct complicity in socio-economic class snobbery, an adherence to the idea of guilt by association, and a self-righteous demand that the prejudices of the bien pensants are exempt from examination or critique.

The failure of so many people to exercise any kind of critical faculty, or the personal drive to seek out information rather than rely on preconceived ideas, permits the major parties to perpetuate a myth that they differ from each other in terms of policy and substance. It also obscures the reality that, just as in any other group of Australians, intellectually gifted, well-read, well-educated, and competent people are rare among politicians and so-called experts. This is not a matter of possessing degrees or post-nominals, but of demonstrated capacity to think creatively, explain sophisticated ideas, and administer the complexities of turning such ideas into outcomes.

As a consequence it might be argued that since 1996 there has been an unbroken chain of unquestioned, recycled, dysfunctional policies, which is becoming ever more dangerous as Australian long-term interests, or the future wellbeing of its children, is confronted with ever more critical, perpetually unresolved, and menacing dangers that can only intensify the longer resolutions are delayed. These include, prominently, an ever growing gap between a smaller and smaller group of filthy rich, and a larger and larger majority of effectively destitute poor; a linked immiseration of ever more children; the failure of ‘multiculturalism’ to address root causes for ethnic tensions, violence, and social ghettoisation; maintenance of laws that criminalise benign behaviours and exact huge legal and penal expenses with no clear justification; the marginalisation and immiseration of mentally disturbed people; abatement of climate change disasters already in train; declining education standards tied nevertheless to rising costs; an unfunded and rising cost to the health system of an ageing population; national goals in the South East Asian region beyond selling resources; Australia’s relationship with the US, the British Commonwealth, and other first world nations; etc, etc, etc.

In that environment of an anti-intellectual subservience to unquestioned orthodoxies, usually determined outside Australia with little regard to local dynamics, it seems increasingly difficult to gain perspective and any depth of understanding about local issues just by relying on mainstream media and ‘water cooler’ discussions. Instead it would require an active engagement with issues and a longitudinal effort to remain informed about these issues independently of party political shenanigans or the economic interests of news media.

If such an outcome were not such an obviously unrealistic fantasy, it might actually make some inroads into achieving a more balanced media election coverage, and less open access to the more dimwitted ideas bien pensants are attached to so firmly.

2 thoughts on “Bien pensantism: pretentious political ignorance”

  1. Wow! That was one long “Fuck you” for some of your favourite Targets …

    I would like to read some basic Definitions what moden Conservatism should look like – not just a List of it’s many Failures.

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