Friday, July 17, 2009

Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class

I thoroughly enjoyed Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class by Judith Brett. Easily the best academic study of non-Labor politics I have read, often genuinely enlightening. (The best non-academic book is Peter Blazey’s biography of Sir Henry Bolte.) There are still traces of the failings of contemporary academic culture, but they are mostly only traces; there is none of the opinion-bigotry-fuelled intellectual incompetence you get in a Michael Pusey or a Stuart Macintyre on these subjects. She has genuinely engaged with her material and has come up with a very thoughtful analysis.

One of the many things I like about the book is that it views religion seriously as belief-systems. She is particularly perceptive on the depth of the views of individuality and society contained in Protestant culture. She clearly regards (I believe correctly) religion as historically a bigger dividing and organising factor in Australian politics than class. This shows up again and again – for example, the overwhelming majority of those who followed William Morris Hughes out of the ALP over conscription were Protestant. She is particularly good at undermining the myth that Catholics were disproportionately poor or working class.
Brett seems also correct to pick the 1920s as when the Liberal tradition in Australian politics became most narrowly conservative – a result of the effects of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution on liberal optimism and (a particularly perceptive point) the need to integrate the death of so many young men into a harmonious view of the world. I like her alertness to how rhetorical excess and overstatement works both ways, to how pacification of public space is needed for women to securely play a major role in politics, to the real appeal of a sense of honour in the politics of national debt (which so dominated the 1930s). She conveys very powerfully why Joe Lyons seemed a heroic figure to so many. (It is a sign of the narrowness of Australian academic culture that, 65 years after his death, there is still no serious biography of our 6th-longest serving PM.)

Brett is excellent in analysing Howard’s strengths and limitations (which are mainly the downsides of his strengths and presented as such). She, alas, uses that annoying term ‘neo-liberalism’ but at least makes its usage more plausible and historically situated than is usually the case and soon reverts back to the more sensible term ‘economic liberalism’. (The phrase ‘revival of neo-liberal economics’ [p.162] is a revealing linguistic slip of how unhelpful neo is in this context.) She is particularly perceptive on the dissonance between the language of policy wonks and people’s commonsense view of such matters; a dissonance that had existed somewhat under Keynesianism but became intense with the form of economic liberalism pushed in the 1980s.

Brett’s book does suffer from a lack of critical sense about politics on the left, except in its critiques of non-Labor politics – she notices the separation between actuality and intelligentsia constructions, but doesn’t think through its implications.

One of Brett’s lapses is talking of:
Fraser’s record on ethnic affairs and multiculturalism, on indigenous issues, on women and on the environment is good, particularly when compared with the government of John Howard(p.157)
thereby moving into, as she generally doesn’t, the language of dissent-as-wicked. But she is otherwise mercifully free of the superior-sneering-passing-as-analysis of a Pusey or a Macintyre.

Another lapse is
But the problem is that a right-wing Philip Adams, someone with his capacity to talk intelligently on such a breadth of topics, is not easily imaginable in contemporary Australia (p.207)
a ‘lack of competence’ argument Brett would no doubt treat with complete derision if advanced as a reason not to employ blacks, gays or women. It is a sign of how entrenched and unthought opinion bigotry is in the contemporary Australian intelligentsia that the lack of conservative and other non-left dissident presenters on the ‘national (sic) broadcaster’ is not treated as the scandal it is and that as sensible and usually fair-minded a commentator as Brett could evade the point with such a tawdry trope.

Brett has a good sense of the moral extras to non-left politics; to the politics of liberal individualism, citizenship and nation-building as being more than just self-interest. She has weaker sense of the self-interests within left politics. For example, that the working class is not, even in theory, a power class and that socialist politics is politics on behalf of, not of. (Indeed, by crowding out working-class action such as friendly societies, the paternalist state can actually undermine worker-organisation.) Brett early on refers to this statement by George Reid as a class one, in the workers-versus-middle sense:
The question that separates us is whether development of Australia along lines of private enterprise is the right method of development, or whether industrial development of Australia along lines of state control is proper.
But the workers remain employees in both structures: it is just in the latter their employer also controls the entire state apparatus and the regulator is also the producer, with all the dangers to worker freedom of the first and to quality, prosperity and fairness of the second. The real choice is not between middle class and working class, but the private-sector middle class – the class that makes its money by selling you things, seeking daily consent for its income – and the public-sector middle class – the class that gains its role by or through organised compulsion and whose contemporary power and status is greatest when it can police opinion. (What Mark Latham called the conservative and progressive establishments and I, in a 1994 article, contrasted as private sector bourgeoisie and public sector nomenklatura.) Moreover, visions of social perfection are far more dangerous than mere greed: even if the grand disasters of actually existing socialism were not enough of a warning, the petit examples of the opinion-intolerance and consequent quality-failings displayed in the areas where the public sector middle class wields power – such as contemporary academe and the national (sic) broadcaster – are cautionary.

Brett also continues the talking up of Alfred Deakin and the talking down of George Reid which is normal in Australian academic discourse, despite many of the continuing themes in Liberal politics she picks up being rather more Reidian than Deakinite.

On the other hand, Brett has a good sense of the risk with modern ‘cosmopolitans’ (adopting sociologist Katherine Betts’ helpful formulation) of elevated identification with the ‘global’ resulting in a lack of commitment to the local, the places where people actually live.

The biggest single failing in the book is the complete absence of any sense of the social and policy context of the welfare state. Brett is very aware of how the declining importance of commodities in world trade put the economic elements of Australia’s Deakinite policy structure (trade protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism) under pressure. She has no sense of the pressure an increasing welfare state put on the same. A situation where the proportion of working-age adults dependant on income support has risen from 3% in 1967 to 18% now is a huge shift in social experience and fiscal demands which she nowhere refers to or considers, even though it puts much of what she discusses in a more revealing context – both in the undermining of the professional-service model of the state (not least in undermining the distinctiveness of state action) and in the shift in economic policies as the growing welfare state increased the premium on economic efficiency until governments were forced to respond (hence much of the shift to economic liberalism around the Western world). This is, though, a common contemporary academic failing (and at least she is not as bad as a Pusey, who has little, if any, sense of greater policy context; or a Macintyre, who, though he grasps the wider economic context, blathers on in his Concise History of Australia about a shrinking welfare state). Presumably it is a failing the rise of Latham made harder to sustain – after all, if a Labor leader talks about the problems of rising welfare dependency, it must really be happening.

But, despite these caveats, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class is an excellent and revealing study which I heartily recommend.

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