Review of On Charlatans, by Chris Bowen

This review was first published in The Australian


In 2004 US author Thomas Frank wrote a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which charted the rise of populist conservatism in the formerly Democrat-leaning state, as well as the shift from socioeconomic to cultural issues that accompanied it. According to Frank, blue-collar Americans were increasingly likely to vote against their own economic interests if offered a socially conservative politics centred on issues such as immigration and abortion and couched in a rejection of ‘liberal elites’. The right had found a way to leverage the social conservatism of the white working class against its desire for better wages and conditions, and was reaping the electoral rewards.

Nearly 20 years after Frank’s intervention, Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen has written a book that, had it not been published in Hachette’s ‘On’ series, might well have been titled What’s the Matter with Queensland? Starting from the 2019 election (which Labor lost unexpectedly, thanks in no small part to the Sunshine State), On Charlatans suggests that the process Frank identified has now worked its way around to Australia. For Bowen, the evidence for this is twofold. First, working-class Australians are voting for Labor in ever-smaller numbers. And second, they have elected their own populist ‘charlatan’ in the person of Scott Morrison.

Though Bowen begins On Charlatans by asking why social democratic parties command less support among the working class, he spends the great majority of the book outlining the ‘fake legitimacy’ the populist parties offer them – a combination of post-truth rhetoric, resentful white identity politics, hyper-partisanship and climate-change denialism. This is fine as far as it goes, and Bowen is surely right to say that rightwing populists peddle easy answers to complex social and economic problems. But he hasn’t begun to understand why those answers in particular might appeal to some sections of the working class. Early in the essay he writes:

The post-war Western political order was by and large straightforward: traditional centre-right parties that believe in free markets, trade, social conservatism and tight budgeting competed with centre-left parties, which believe in more market intervention to ensure equity, opportunity and social progress. It was a valid, legitimate contest, with two well-rounded ideologies calling on evidence to support their cases. It was a genuine battle of ideas.

It’s the phrase ‘two well-rounded ideologies’ that highlights Bowen’s central error. For the ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’ were ensembles of three ideologies – socialism and liberalism in the case of the centre-left, and liberalism and conservatism in the case of the centre-right – and never as coherent as Bowen implies. The crucial development of the 1980s and 1990s was the rise to dominance of neo-liberalism (an emphasis on market solutions, globalisation and financialisation), which the centre-right introduced into mainstream politics and the centre-left moulded into a more palatable combination of broadly pro-market economics and cultural progressivism, losing most of its socialism in the process. This was the ensemble that dominated politics from the mid 1990s to 2008, when it blew up in the form of the global debt crisis. The politics of economic and cultural ‘walls’ that has emerged in the wake of the GFC may be ugly and incoherent, but its relationship to the failures of this ‘double liberalism’ should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention.

What Bowen misses, then, is the extent to which populism is a response to his own brand of politics – a politics that remains broadly defined by its progressive, pro-market liberalism. He mentions the phenomenon of ‘Pasokification’ by which support for social-democratic parties collapsed during the 2010s (the phenomenon is named for the Greek party Pasok, which saw its support go from 44% in 2009 to 5% in 2015). But he hasn’t understood why this collapse occurred. Calling the populists ‘charlatans’ implies that the battlers are being duped, which they are. But the politics that preceded the populists was in some ways just as delusional, even if it wasn’t always as dishonest.   

In the final 20 pages of On Charlatans, Bowen does float some interesting suggestions as to how Labor might reframe its offer. But these are dealt with only briefly and couched in a rather nebulous notion of patriotic unity. Probably we need another book: What’s the Matter with Labor?, perhaps. But for now I’d be spending a little time reflecting on what the charlatans get right, in spite of their obvious scumminess, and remembering too that not all populism is as reactionary as the current offerings. As Thomas Frank will tell you himself, there is a long tradition of leftwing populism stretching back to the nineteenth century. To nineteenth-century Kansas, as it happens.


Chris Bowen, On Charlatans (Hachette; $16.99; 130pp)