It’s not a reactionary party without the rum
American satirist HL Mencken once observed that democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Witnessing the latest efforts of the reactionary wing of Australian politics to develop a local branch office of the Tea Party, misanthropic as it may seem, one must concede perhaps Mencken had a point.
Of course, over-the-top rallies are not strange occurrences in Australian political life. Labor has been traditionally associated with uncouth Trade Unions demos, the Greens with hippies blockading various environmental degradations, and of course conservative parties show up at various meetings of annoyed farmers and frustrated middle-class types.
Obviously politicians of all stripes try to utilise such groundswells to further their own agendas, rather than the interests of the masses they claim to represent.
The interesting turn in this contemporary case is primarily how clumsily the formula is being transcribed.
Many have argued that John Howard’s political success was tied to his mastery of conservative wedge politics borrowed from US conservatives; the dog whistle being the most elegant art form in his repertoire.
Contrastingly the populist “direct action” which attempts to mimic US Tea Party movement, employed first in the campaign against a mining super-profits tax and now against a carbon tax, seems as spontaneous and genuine as any Soviet People’s Committee.
Sadly, it seems the organisations and interests associated with reactionary politics in Australia are also extremely lacking creative skills. For starters where is the party name? The Tea Party is simply gold in terms of the imagined identity it conjures for sympathetic Americans: contemporary descendants of the self-organising, local patriots who mischievously defied an oppressing power. All the things a major nationwide political movement reflecting entrenched elite interest wants its rank and file to imagine it to be.
In the Australian setting I would like to suggest the Rum Party after the colonial-era Rum Rebellion.
In this little incident of “direct action” politics, colonial magnate John MacArthur took advantage of ill feeling against the Governor of the day William Bligh to organise an uprising. While there can be little doubt Blight was a poor leader, MacArthur’s role was far from altruistic. Before Mother England could reassert coherent authority MacArthur used the intervening period to assume public office and further his own interests.
While these historic details perhaps work against the use of the name “Rum Party” they shouldn’t be much of a handicap. The very nature of direct action politics runs completely against any notion of attention to detail, considered debate, or collaborative participation.
Instead it tends to favour loud displays of agitated faux individualism. These provide cover for the reality that direct action populism is predicated on the emotional rewards of blissful, ignorant, group membership. Assume the imagined identity, live it, love it, it’s much easier than thinking for yourself.
If you’re lucky someone might even give you a nice placard to carry.
So, as we encounter further displays by disgruntled Australians being serenaded by politicians with vague policies promising billions of dollars of “direct action” democracy to the benefit of their interested friends and allies, let us remember Mencken’s warning.
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