Discussion of “the Australian identity”, lament for possible lack of same and search for one, have been favorite indoor games for local intellectuals. This is likely to intensify as the debate on the republic proceeds, indeed one of the aims of the movement is to sharpen the national identity. Much debate centres on “the Australian legend”, supposedly set forth in the 1890s by contributors to The Bulletin and given its most authoritative exposition by Russell Ward in a book of that name in the 1950s. According to the legend, often called “the legend of the 90s” the typical or exemplary Australian was a bushman or a pioneer, innovative, independent and individualistic (though egalitarian), scornful of material ambitions, committed to a frugal and hard-working lifestyle with an ethos of mateship that tended to exclude women.
These three books critically address the legend in various ways and the legend takes a severe, most likely fatal battering. This is a little disappointing. As a Tasmanian farmboy I grew up thinking of myself as a bushman and a pioneer but John Carroll is on the right track in his chapter on ‘Mateship and Egalitarianism’ where he writes:
”I am not doubting that such bushmen existed: they very likely did, and still do. Nor am I denying that they may have been some of the most interesting Australians, and in some sense the most genuine native products. What I am doing is criticising the legend that has grown up, its amplifications, the attempts to give it a greater historical plausibility, and the almost complete misreading of how egalitarian-mateship attitudes really developed in Australia”(148).
John Docker’s approach to the legend is a survey of the source decade to find what pops out from behind the screen of mythology. He previously wrote Australian Cultural Elites, a comparison of the intellectual climates of Sydney and Melbourne, and In A Critical Condition, on theories of literary criticism. This book reflects a turn from the peaks of literary achievement to popular culture. He examines the rich diversity of characters, groups and ideas that were fermenting in Australia around the turn of the century. The amount of diversity is hardly diminished by focussing on a single vehicle of opinion, The Bulletin itself, which provided a forum for many free spirits who did not toe any party line.
Those who think that the bushmen, pioneers, radical nationalists and male chauvinists of “the legend” dominated the scene will be amazed at the picture that emerges. Feminism, anarchism, socialism, republicanism, and anti-religious free thought in various forms were running strongly, with other more esoteric currents of orientalism and mysticism. One of these was the myth of Lemuria created by Madame Blavatsky of the theosophists. This was a theory of a Golden Age on a lost Southern continent where the spiritually elevated Lemurians created the wisdom that pervaded the ancient cultures of India and the Levant. According to Docker’s account these ideas spawned a batch of Australian novels and joined with the works of Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker to inform much early Australian science fiction writing.
The flagship of feminism was The Dawn, a monthly which ran for over a decade from 1888. Edited by Louisa Lawson and printed by all female staff on the Dawn press it clearly perceived itself as a part of an international movement. It drew upon Edward Bellamy’s socialist classic, with an article in the August 1890 edition by Bellamy himself titled ‘Brief Summary of the Industrial Plan of Nationalism Set Forth in Looking Backward’. Docker devotes several chapters to an account of the influence exerted by Bellamy and other socialist visionaries including William Morris, who wrote News From Nowhere as a rejoinder to Bellamy, and locals such as Joseph Furphy (Rigby’s Romance) and William Lane (The Workingman’s Paradise and the socialist colony in Paraguay).
In addition to the sheer diversity of the literary and social currents described by Docker, two features stand out. One is the absence of any sign of deference or cringing to influences from overseas, especially from Britain. To the contrary, A. G. Stephens, literary editor of The Bulletin, urged reviewers to scorn the nationalism and provincialism of the British literary and artistic scene. The second is the overwhelming predominance of socialist ideas. Occasional comments refer to a growing and prosperous middle class, but the prevailing obsession in literary circles was the need to sweep away capitalism, to put an end to Victorian laissez-faire and usher in some kind of socialist welfare state. Futuristic fiction depicted either a socialist utopia or some kind of hell on earth, as described by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine, where capitalists and workers have actually evolved into separate species.
The hegemony of socialist ideas in literary and artistic circles is one of the reasons, if not the major reason for the eclipse of market liberal principles over the last century. So long as that hegemony persists then the future of liberal principles remains in the balance. As Norman Podhoretz pointed out in a retrospective essay on The God that Failed, recanting on communism is not enough if lapsed fellow travellers and true believers still adhere to socialism and insist on a moral equivalence of free markets and communism.
The collection edited by John Carroll also demolishes some aspects of the legend of the 90s. Part I contains brief essays on the bushman, the pioneer, Ned Kelly and Anzac. Part II treats some problems with received historical views. An essay on the conditions of early settlement reveals that they were not especially arduous by world standards after the first few years. A paper on the nomadic tribes of urban Britain identifies the pathological roots of some bushman characteristics such as restlessness and irresponsibility which were modified or idealised for the purpose of the legend. A chapter argues that some superficially attractive features of the semi-nomadic bachelor existence ascribed to the bushmen were projections by alienated urban intellectuals who occupied a “sleazy urban frontier” of boarding houses, pubs and radical meeting places. Maps indicate the concentrations of boarding houses in central Sydney of 1890 and the close proximity of the premises of various socialist, republican, land-reform, freethought and literary organisations.
Carroll argues, in a paper on the failure of upper middle-class nerve, that the three main influences on Australian culture have been upper middle-class Victorian values, working class (mostly Irish) egalitarianism, and twentieth century consumerism. The first is the most valuable influence but it has been subverted by the second, aided by renegades from the middle classes and the decline of Protestant Christianity. Among the renegades are the proponents of the legend of the 90s.
Part III contains essays on some modern myths including aspects of multiculturalism, the notion that the convict era was a time of shameful horrors and some relatively recent left and right-wing mythology. Robert Manne ascribes the most resonant myths to the left, such as the Petrov Case and The Coup that disposed of the Whitlam government. However during the 1980s “...it was the conservative intelligentsia, or, more precisely, the laissez-faire ideologists of the New Right who fabricated the most potent political myths the ‘seven wasted years of Fraserism’; the disastrous protectionist legacy of Menzies and McEwan; and H. R. Nicholls as the improbable hero of the crusade for decentralized wage fixation” (209).
In the Conclusion John Carroll offers some thoughts on the Australian way of life, including the tendency to settle disputes without the intrusion of volatile passions. This is probably one of our most valuable British legacies, though it is constantly threatened by fanatics of all kinds, and especially by the corrosive doctrine of the class war. Carroll claims that potential social divisions have been avoided by the New Protection of tariffs and central wage fixing. He thinks that this way of life is threatened by liberalism in various forms which are no longer resisted due to the failure of upper middle-class nerve as noted above. Left-liberals dispense rancour and guilt on all sides and another brand of liberals, through a decade of deregulation, have endangered the economic preconditions for the Australian way of life. This analysis conveniently overlooks the long-term decline in Australian economic performance from the turn of the century (the start of the New Protection) when we ranked at the top of the world league in per capita income.
”The strand of liberalism that drives radical free-market economics is naive and foolish, rather than wicked. It is blind to the tendencies towards violence and evil that are a staple part of human nature...it induces a carelessness about custom and tradition, and the way in which they act as brakes on human egoism” (236).
Market liberals who have read the classics from Adam Smith to Hayek will endorse Carroll’s views on the importance of healthy traditions, without feeling any obligation to abandon free trade. At the same time conservatives of the authoritarian persuasion need to understand that one way to limit the violence and unrest that flow from human egoism is to minimise the agenda of politics so that every issue under the sun does not fall into the hands of bureaucrats and special interests.
Frankel was brought up on a radical nationalist version of the Australian legend and his concern is to find a more up-to-date vehicle for the radical reforms that he desires. He sees himself as a custodian of the Enlightenment project of emancipation and this book sets out to defend humanist values from a number of deadly enemies - cultural relativists, cynical postmodernists, economic rationalists and the Old Right. The argument runs along the following lines (in my words):
'Australia and indeed the world face a crisis due to the failure of capitalism and Soviet-style communism. Radically new modes of social organisation are required to retrieve the situation. The rampaging free traders will kill what remains of democracy, human rights, civilised values, culture and the ecology, not to mention the economy itself. The ‘Old Right’ conservatives associated with Quadrant have belatedly realised the destructive potential of the ‘dry’ agenda but they offer no real alternative. People who have their hearts in the right place (supporting feminism, aboriginality, gay rights and environmentalism) do not see enough of the “big picture” to generate the necessary policies...'
To correct this situation Frankel is writing a series of books to explain the socio-economic-cultural-political linkages that need to be uncoupled and recoupled to turn the Titanic around. Such a broad and ambitious programme has something to commend it as a corrective to the cramped specialisms of academia. Unfortunately, on points of substance, the venture is almost totally misguided and the book cannot be recommended even at a remainder price, except to show the infinite capacity of leftwing prophets to delude themselves. Frankel’s work is fatally flawed in many and various ways. He claims that dry economic policies will lead to economic disaster and the shadow of the New Right hangs over virtually every page. However there is no sign that he has really come to grips with the ideas of market liberals and free traders. Many of his postures are absurd.
”Even blind Freddie can see that contemporary Australia is becoming a sociocultural desert...We have passed from the explosive optimism of the early 1970s - when Australia seemed to be a fertile ground for new ideas and visions.” (page i)
One does not have to be an admirer of the Australia Council and other publicly funded cultural activities to see that there has been a steady increase in the volume and diversity of cultural pursuits over the last three or four decades. Nor does one have to attriibute more than a fair share of credit to the hand of the State. The “explosive optimism” of the early 70s was merely a blip on a rising graph from the end of World War 2, not a turning point or a high tide mark followed by decline.
He wilfully misrepresents opponents.
”There is also ample hypocrisy displayed by some conservatives when they call for ‘cultural freedom’ and ‘pluralism’, but through their ‘media watch’ surveillance, demand that the ABC and other public organisations censor Left and feminist views and discriminate in favour of those who express pro-capitalist views”. (149)
Who are the media watchers who demand censorship of Left and feminist views? No evidence is provided. The two most active media monitors are probably Mark Cooray (Pamp Probe) and Gerard Henderson (Media Watch). They do not call for censorship, they call for balance, fair dealing, attention to issues and arguments and for the retraction of damaging false statements about public figures who deviate from political correctness.
More interesting is the notion that free trade and the dry agenda will destroy the fabric of civilisation and culture. This view is very much in need of critical attention because it is also held by many conservatives of the kind that Hayek was not and by market-oriented left-liberals such as Hugh Emy. It has to be said that no convincing evidence is offered for the claim which ignores all the more obvious forces at work to undermine traditional mores. It ignores the argument of Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit that the extended order of markets, far from challenging moral systems, in fact depends on them, and on a framework of law as well. It also ignores the work by Michael Novack which described how democratic capitalism in the US has spawned whole new forms of communal organisation and mutual support. One could argue that the modern decline of the market order has not just been achieved by a frontal assault by regulators but also by the simultaneous undermining of our moral and legal systems by radical propaganda.
As a counter-example to the claim of cultural disintegration by market forces, consider the Chinese community in Australia, and comparable communities overseas, which have retained their cohesion over several generations despite their participation in all manner of trading activities. Much the same could be said about orthodox Jewish communities all over the world.
There is something quite absurd and possibly even obscene about leftwing claims that market forces disrupt community life. Socialists have no scruples about destroying traditional cultures and moralities, indeed that is an primary objective of revolutionary struggle, pursued by more than a hundred years of propaganda against traditional values. Docker’s book reveals the total domination of anti-market ideas among writers and associated intellectuals in the 1890s; small wonder that market principles have been hard to revive, despite the repeated failure of socialist regimes to deliver on their economic or social promises. This situation was not confined to the 1890s; Michael Cook in the course of a review in Policy (Summer 1990) noted that “In the early 1950s, the influence of the communists in literary circles appeared so great that the left seemed to be the only group that cared about Australian writing at all”.
Philosophy is not an area that is much covered by Frankel and he would do well to pay attention to a point made by Paul Craig Roberts in the Commentary debate on the rise or fall of the US. He sketched a fundamental philosophical malaise which he described as “a land mine” at the very basis of Western thought?.
”The 18th century Enlightenment had two results that combined to produce a destructive formula. On the one hand, Christian moral fervor was secularised, which produced demands for the moral perfectibility of society. On the other hand, modern science called into question the reality of moral motives”.
These tendencies might appear to be contradictory but they have not balanced each other. Instead they have produced an explosive mixture of moral indignation and moral scepticism. The first leads to assaults on traditional mores and institutions while the second pre-empts any defences that might be offered. The malign consequences are legion, ranging from the nihilism of so much avant garde culture to the divisive and counter-productive activities of the grievance industry.
The debate on the republic threatens to unite various groups who are dedicated to further erosion of the liberal order, and also to a radical revision of the national identity. These three books have grappled with the national identity in their various ways, and all the authors could learn a great deal from a paper by Chandran Kukathas. In “Multiculturalism and the Idea of an Australian Identify” he has challenged some of the errors and confusions of thought which adhere to the concepts of national character and identity. He suggests that a common history and a set of legal and political institutions should be used to specify our national identity. This approach unhooks the quest for national identity from the sectarian, coercive and collectivist tendencies which have caused, and daily continue to cause, so much ruin and suffering around the world. If this liberal vision can be effectively promulgated in the republican debate then it may turn out to be worthwhile.