Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsNovember 6, 2021

In a captured state

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

There’s nothing wrong with having a society that’s run by smart, hard-working, educated people, writes Danyl Mclauchlan. The problem arises when that class is unable to see itself.

”I’m not wise but I read a lot of novels” – Elena Ferrante

Whenever I feel like hating myself more than I already do I think about a scene in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Lenù, our narrator, is about to head out to dinner with her old friend Nino and his new wife. Lenù has known Nino for years, she’s been in love with him since childhood. And she’s seen a photo of this new wife: she’s both rich and beautiful. As she gets ready Lenù seethes about the social expectations of women to make themselves attractive to men: “reducing myself to a table set for the sexual appetite of the male, to a well cooked dish to make his mouth water …  I hated competing in looks with a woman, especially under the gaze of a man”. She dreads the thought of Nino’s wife sizing her up “with cruel lucidity” and dissecting her faults. 

But when they arrive at the dinner Lenù discovers, to her glee, that in the flesh Nino’s wife is short and plump. And small-chested. And she’s wearing a bad dress. And, best/worst of all, she’s uneducated. Nino is an academic and Lenù is a successful novelist, but this new girl is just some law student. She has the wrong opinions; she thinks and says the wrong things. She’s nobody, nothing. Lenù instantly sets all her principles aside and carries out her own cruel dissection of her rival, then goes on to steal her husband. 

This is one of Ferrante’s grand themes: the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the educated class, and I think about this sequence whenever I’m reading about New Zealand’s housing crisis. Because, like Lenù, I can enjoy morally contradictory positions. I experience a thrill of self-righteous outrage at the destruction to the social fabric caused by housing hyperinflation: all the families sleeping in cars, or trapped in emergency accommodation; I rage at the failure to solve housing, that it’s getting worse instead of better, that the political and economic system seems utterly broken. But I also feel, simultaneously, a warm little glow because I own a house in a leafy suburb, and the steady, unending increase in property values means I make money off it without doing anything, or paying any tax. It’s bad for the country but good for me. And I think this Ferrantesque sensation of having-it-both-ways, the self-righteousness and the cash, points to something important in our politics.

Here’s a chart showing the household income distribution of Labour and Green voters in the 2017 election (the 2020 data isn’t available yet). It shouldn’t surprise anyone; it looks like the support base for most modern left-wing parties: a coalition of low- and higher-income supporters with a scattering of middle-class swing voters. The government’s housing policy makes more sense when you see it in this light: they represent two constituencies whose material interests are in direct conflict and the interests of the wealthier, more powerful faction wins. Political parties are supposed to be coalitions, but coalitions with common interests, not profound conflicts. The bigger question is: why does our politics look like this? 

Back in the 1970s, John and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a famous essay about the “professional managerial class”, often abbreviated as “PMC”. This was the meritocratic, technocratic, educated group of “bureaucrats, planners, and experts of various sorts”. At the time this was a new and rising group in society, but they’d quickly come to be “the most powerful faction” of the ruling class, “controlling production processes through superior skills”, to use the academic jargon. The Ehrenreichs were cautiously optimistic that the PMC might unite with the working class to form a “mass radical alliance for social change”, but they also worried about the possibility of “what may at first sight seem to be a contradiction in terms: anti-working class radicalism”. 

Attacks against “the PMC” became popular in US politics in 2015, deployed by Bernie Sanders’ supporters to critique what they saw as the Clinton faction’s take-over of the Democratic Party, and its transformation into a client party for a wealthy urban elite. At the time Barbara Ehrenreich expressed disappointment that her term had become a slur, and it's hard to find anyone using it without a tone of deep contempt. Which is a shame, because the existence and power of this class seems (a) obviously true and (b) mostly a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with having a society that’s run by smart, hard-working, educated people. 

The problem arises when that class is unable to see itself. When you walk around a university campus you’ll see posters and meeting notices and public lectures critiquing a wide range of injustices, inequality and oppression, but you’re very unlikely to see anything suggesting our society is ruled by technocratic elites. Because the campus is where that leadership class is manufactured and the students are ferociously clambering to join it. The university is the apex of a gigantic sorting mechanism to sift those who are economically productive from those who aren’t. 

Talking about this would be awkward. But Ferrante loves to be awkward; to say the things you’re not supposed to say. She doesn’t use the term “professional managerial class”, but she’s very interested in its construction and the way it uses left-wing ideology for its own purposes. The overall plot of the Neapolitan quartet is well known: two brilliant girls, Lila and Lenù, growing up in a slum in Naples, become close friends. One of them gets an education and makes it out (for a while) and the other does not. 

The dual structure lets Ferrante show us two very different modes of left-wing politics as Lenù and Lila’s lives diverge. There’s the politics of the slum where the struggles are very concrete: poverty, crime, corrupt politicians, worker exploitation, drug addiction, sexual violence. And the solutions are also concrete: organising unions, exposing corruption, giving money to the poor. This is all in contrast to Lenù’s academic and cultural world in which politics consists of having opinions about politics – the correct opinions, the more radical the better, preferably about international issues. “Real” politics is a luxury good available only to the well educated; it creates a sense of both moral and intellectual superiority generated by the consumption and production of cultural commodities – books, papers (essays like this one) using complex jargon and abstract ideas. Here’s a young and impressionable Lenù in the 1960s, at a party filled with intellectuals: 

I became nervous: I don’t know what they’re talking about, I don’t know who this person is, I don’t understand. They were sounds without sense, they demonstrated that the world of persons, events, ideas was endless, and the reading I did at night had not been sufficient, I would have to work even harder in order to be able to say to Nino, to Professor Galiani, to Carlo, to Armando: Yes, I understand, I know. The entire planet is threatened. Nuclear war. Colonialism, neocolonialism. The pieds-noirs, the O.A.S. and the National Liberation Front. The fury of mass slaughters. Gaullism, Fascism. France, Armée, Grandeur, Honneur. Sartre is a pessimist, but he counts on the Communist workers in Paris. The wrong direction taken by France, by Italy. Opening to the left. Saragat, Nenni. Fanfani in London, Macmillan. The Christian Democratic congress in our city. The followers of Fanfani, Moro, the Christian Democratic left. The socialists have ended up in the jaws of power. We will be Communists, we with our proletariat and our parliamentarians, to get the laws of the center left passed. If it goes like that, a Marxist-Leninist party will become a social democracy.

Conservatives have fretted endlessly about the danger of radical professors indoctrinating students with Marxist postmodernism, but Ferrante understands two things that they do not. Firstly, that Lenù isn’t being indoctrinated into an ideology: she’s being socialised into an elite class; and secondly, this class often presents itself as radical – revolutionary even – but is almost always “symbolically liberal but operationally conservative”. Its members occupy privileged positions in a wildly unequal society while presenting themselves as outsiders and critics. But they employ forms of activism or protest that don’t really change anything. Lenù helps Lila because they’re friends, but nearly everything else that Ferrante’s intellectuals do in the name of progress or social justice or the revolution is self-promotional; none of it ever helps anyone other than themselves.

The Neapolitan books critique the intelligentsia but they don’t describe electoral or party politics (except to tell us that Nino, the dazzlingly brilliant Gramscian intellectual, becomes a corrupt centrist politician as soon as it's advantageous for him to do so). And it’s a little awkward to write about the politics of Ferrante since writing about politics instead of doing things in the world is the exact thing she holds in contempt. But I justify this because she also holds that the inability of the educated class to see itself is part of the problem. When Lila starts an IT company (to distribute the profits to people in her neighbourhood as charity) she calls it “Basic Sight”. The ability to perceive things as they are then act upon them in the world is the quality she possesses that the educated, intellectual Lenù lacks.

We can see Ferrante’s model of a superficially-radical-yet-actually-conservative left emerge in the datasets compiled by Thomas Piketty and his collaborators over the last few years, examining the electoral demographics of western democracies. From the abstract of his May 2021 paper

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for democratic labor, social democratic, socialist, and affiliated parties was associated with lower-educated and low-income voters. It has gradually become associated with higher-educated voters, giving rise to “multi-elite party systems” in the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income elites continue to vote for the “right”. This transition has been accelerated by the rise of green and anti-immigration movements, whose key distinctive feature is to concentrate the votes of the higher-educated and lower-educated electorate, respectively.

Piketty’s work draws on the New Zealand electoral survey (and similar datasets for the other nations). Here’s education and income voter polarisation in the 1970s:
Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies, 1948-2020

New Zealand is interesting. Almost the highest income polarisation in the 1970s series but barely any difference in educational polarisation. If you were rich (top 10% of earners) you probably voted National, if you were in the lower 90% of the income distribution you were more likely to vote Labour. Your educational status didn’t really matter. Now here’s the 2010s:

Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies, 1948-2020

That’s education polarisation. More than almost any peer nation (except the US) New Zealand’s left-wing parties are supported by a cohort of people with professional and advanced degrees: the top 10% by education level. And, because education mostly correlates with income, they’re the people at the top of that earlier distribution of left-wing voters by income. So we’re a textbook example of the phenomenon Piketty talks about: the transformation of a 20th-century politics based around income inequality into a “multi-elite party system” dominated by “the brahmin left” and “the merchant right”; rival factions of the professional managerial class. 

Twentieth-century left-wing parties were socially democratic in the traditional sense: establishing welfare states, building infrastructure and institutions in the poor communities that voted for them, paying for all of this with higher taxes. But the brahmin left tends towards a form of “upwardly redistributive socialism” in which most problems are addressed by centralisation of the state bureaucracy and the creation of high-income jobs for educated knowledge workers: lawyers, consultants, ICT, corporate communications and PR; endless layers of management. Which makes sense if, like Ferrante’s intellectuals, you've convinced yourself that knowledge work carried out by the educated class is the primary solution to political and social problems, and that the creation of these jobs is altruistic rather than self-serving. 

In the first book of the Neapolitan quartet Lila and Lenù read Little Women and decide they’re going to be famous novelists when they grow up. That’s their way out of poverty. But to do this they have to stay in school instead of going to work: Lenù convinces her parents to let her keep studying, but Lila’s father refuses, then throws her through a window when she argues. When she recovers from her injuries he puts her to work making shoes. Sometimes stories and ideas are transformational but often they aren’t, is Ferrante’s point here. The set of hard problems that can be changed by stories (or communications, or reports or campaigns or legal analysis) is smaller than intellectuals and technocrats like to think. 

Consider the Ardern government’s 2019 wellbeing budget. This was very well communicated: it achieved a global level of coverage, hailed as transformational, but it doesn’t seem to have transformed anything because the story wasn’t connected to the real world. It was just a story. Or, as I was writing this essay, two news stories broke on the same day: at the same time as a Māori health provider was crowdfunding for a mobile Covid vaccination clinic because they were denied funding by their district health board, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage had given $500,000 emergency Covid funding to a literary website almost no one in New Zealand had heard of (naturally the site presents reading and promoting books as an important form of social justice; cultural consumption as activism).

When the government launched its plan to reform local government’s water infrastructure it did so with a celebrity-based communications campaign, not by building consensus with local government. And it’s almost too perfect that our Human Rights Commission has launched a national inquiry into the housing crisis. Instead of building lots of houses, the state is telling itself a story about why it can’t build houses. 

There’s nothing original about critiquing centre-left governments or the public service, but hopefully there’s something constructive in all this. It’s not unusual to meet public servants who complain that they work hard but fear that little of what they’re doing delivers anything impactful. And there’s a real frustration in this government that they aren’t more transformational; that they haven’t done more. Previous Labour governments built schools, hospitals, public transportation networks, entire suburbs. Why can’t they? It’s the main reason they’re establishing a “ministry of delivery” to get the public service to actually do what the government tells it to. And here’s health minister Andrew Little a few months ago: 

“We’ve put so much extra funding into the [health] system since we’ve been in government and the same pressures that were evident three years ago are evident now.

“So, what I’m saying is how can we possibly have pumped in billions of extra dollars, and it not appear to have made a difference?’’

If you believe that one of the most important tasks of the state is to provide healthcare, especially to low-income and marginalised people, and that the constraint on doing this is austerity, then pouring huge amounts of money into health and not making a difference is a real problem. But it’s what you’d expect to see if the system is being repurposed away from delivering healthcare to the upward redistribution of money to the class that manages it. You can’t have a healthcare system without a technocratic elite – you can’t have a technological society without a technocratic elite! – but my point here isn’t that it’s a bad thing, or that they’re bad people but, rather, that all political systems are vulnerable to elite capture, ours especially so because our technocrats have been carefully trained never to question their own intentions, or even see themselves as a privileged class. 

There’s a scene at the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah describing the wealthy and educated elite of modern-day Lagos. They’re standing around a pool at a party, drinking champagne, wearing t-shirts with pictures of African socialists on them, reminiscing about their time at Harvard or Yale and complaining about the lack of vegetarian restaurants in Nigeria, the bad smoothies, poor wi-fi, the terrible intellectual unsophistication of their parents’ generation. And one of those parents observes, “There are many different ways to be poor in the world but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.” It’s nice to be rich but even nicer to be rich while pretending you hate the rich, that you’re a member of the #resistance, bravely fighting against them. 

Some people take these critiques – that there’s a “PMC” that appropriates left-wing causes to promote themselves or their own material interests – and then they disappear down a weird rabbit hole of anti-wokeness. But one advantage of this hybrid PMC/Ferrante/Piketty viewpoint is realising that an awful lot of politics is just intra-elite squabbling; that many controversies and cultural events are either moral panics, propaganda or exercises in personal or corporate branding, sometimes all of these simultaneously. You can tune it all out and pay attention to things that seem interesting and important. 

But don’t tune out all politics! Not everything is fake; not all parties are interchangeable. There’s real oppression in the world, and you should still vote for people you think deserve to govern, who might ameliorate it. And pay more attention to local politics: things you have real-world knowledge of (“basic sight!”) and some agency over. Where you can get closer to the truth when you ask: who really benefits from some policy or solution? 

But the main advantage of this framework – at least to me – is that it explains a lot. You don’t need complex ideological justifications to understand why entities like the government, the state, or the culture are the way they are. And perceiving a problem is the first step towards solving it. Although Ferrante is pessimistic about even this. Her intellectuals are too narcissistic: they think they see and understand everything but they can’t see themselves, so they don’t understand anything. The quartet ends with a message to the reader from Lila, the weird, brilliant, difficult cypher at the heart of the story, warning us that our narrator, Lenù, hasn’t understood her at all. 

But Piketty is more optimistic: he hopes the world is ready for “participatory socialism”, a massively redistributionist state in which left-wing governments actually help the people they claim to represent. The alternative, he warns, is the rise of populist nationalism and the danger of authoritarianism as the losers of meritocratic, technocratic capitalism realise the game is rigged and look for alternatives, and bad actors rise to fill the political vacuum. 

It’d be nice to finish this essay on an optimistic note, and recently Labour and National announced a bipartisan bill to reform housing legislation, allowing more density in urban areas. Which is mildly encouraging, but it won’t come into effect for two more years, and is predicted to slow the growth of house prices rather than reduce them (I find this infuriating, and also a huge relief). It says a lot that the unprecedentedly popular and powerful Ardern government still needs consensus with the other large party to make even moderate tweaks to housing. In the multi-elite party system all parties are deeply constrained by the managerial class. This new alignment isn’t anything that’s gone wrong with any one political party, leader or ideology: it’s a huge social shift happening across multiple democracies simultaneously. 

Near the end of the quartet Ferrante writes: “A book, an article, could make noise, but ancient warriors before the battle also made noise, and if it wasn’t accompanied by real force and immeasurable violence it was only theatre.” Ferrante asks awkward questions, especially of writers: Who is your work really for? What’s it connected to in the world? Isn’t it all just theatre? And I find those questions hard to answer. But maybe one of the key differences between those ancient warriors and today’s educated class is that now almost everything is theatre – a theatre we’ve convinced ourselves is real. So maybe there’s some value in arguing that it isn’t? 

Keep going!