Monday, June 17, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

 “THE LUCKY CULTURE- and The Rise of an Australian Ruling Class” by Nick Cater (Harper Collins, $NZ34:99)

            I have to begin my review of Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture with a statement that might immediately alienate a number of readers. English-born Nick Cater is a well-known Australian journalist and commentator, whose main homes have been the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Murdoch-owned The Australian, of which he is currently senior editor. Middle-class readers of the Sydney Morning Herald shun these publications in the same way that middle-class readers of the Guardian in England shun the Daily Mail. They are regarded as vulgar, populist and right-wing. Therefore there might be at least some readers of this blog who, sight-unseen, will already have made their mind up about Cater and his book. No worthwhile insights can possibly come from a man who works for such publications.

But, even if I disagree with some of his analysis, I’m prepared to give Cater a commodity which he often celebrates as one of the great Australian (and New Zealand) virtues – a “fair go”.

The Lucky Culture has a title which consciously echoes Donald Horne’s famous 50-year-old polemic about Australia, The Lucky Country. Cater begins by telling how, when he first stepped on Australian soil as a young man arriving from class-ridden England, he rejoiced to find a genuinely egalitarian society. There may have been wealth and poverty in Australia, but there was a strong sense of classlessness, of opportunity for all, and of contempt for people who gave themselves airs.

But it is Cater’s contention that this egalitarianism has been whittled away over the last half-century, and the book is an attempt to explain why. Cater’s basic contention is that university graduates (in Academe, in the media, as pressure-groups in political parties etc.) now constitute a commentariat or chattering class with values quite different from those of the mass of Australians. While these values pose as humanitarian, they are fundamentally a form of snobbery. So, in Cater’s reading, Australia is now divided into little Aussie battlers on the one hand; and on the other middle-class types, who sneer down upon the battlers from the better suburbs, while claiming to have impeccably moral credentials.

As he notes, when Horne wrote The Lucky Country in the early 1960s, relatively few Australians had tertiary education. But

today…. higher education is becoming ubiquitous. In 1939, only fifteen out of every 1000 school-leavers progressed to university; now the figure is closer to 250, and the Labor party would increase that to 400 if it could. It is time to take stock…. Quietly, and with little recognition, the higher education revolution has changed Australian culture, for better or for worse. A cohort of tertiary-educated middle-class professionals think, act and live differently from their forebears and their contemporaries who have not been exposed to higher learning. Why shouldn’t they? This, after all, is what they were promised. They were assured that they would emerge as people with knowledge and distinction, with clearer, educated minds better equipped to deal with the challenges of a complex world. The graduate class has become a new class, insulated and isolated from the world of the educationally deprived. They are inclined to live in different suburbs, shop and socialise in different places, listen to different radio stations, read different newspapers and websites, and adopt a different set of manners from the class we might call middle Australia.” (pp.24-25). Thus “for the first time in Australian history, snobbery has been legitimised, bringing with it the institutionalisation of contempt and the disparagement of difference. The new class elevates its own status by devaluing that of others.” (p.28)

For two chapters (2 and 3), Cater discusses those values which he believes made Australia great – scientific and technological ingenuity, generating both wealth and equality. There was a great faith in scientific achievement which (his subtext implies) is disparaged by current Australian historians. He sees the growing Green movement as at least in part an irrational fear of technology, and he narrates their successful opposition to new hydro-electric dams in Tasmania as the first victory of an elite conservationism against the common good. After all, he says, because of Green influence and opposition, there has been no growth in stored-water capacity for Australian cities in the last thirty years, despite the growth in population. All this he links to recent droughts and water-rationing in Queensland. Over-zealous conservationists have thought sentimentally about the wilderness, while ignoring the real needs of the population.

After taking a swipe (Chapter 4) at the growth in the teaching of impractical and theoretical subjects at new Australian universities, with their anti-technology bias, Cater moves on (Chapter 5) to pungent comment on the moralistic nature of new political movements and their tendency to excoriate the habits, manners and values of the non-tertiary-educated lower orders. “New political movements are as intolerant as the old” he says (p.94), and notes that while ‘progressivists’ are likely to be atheist or agnostic, they close together on the same unexamined assumptions, as if clinging to a religious faith, on matters such as history, anthropology and the environment.

Paradoxically, almost all progressive thinkers would imagine themselves as liberal and open-minded, tolerant of diversity and receptive to rational debate. The lack of self-awareness among the enforcers of correctness can be startling; the truths they set out to protect seem self-evident to them and they are dumbfounded that they should be challenged. The allure of righteousness, however, is a powerful force. They would be unlikely to consider themselves puritans, yet in their disdain for other people’s values and their presumption of a greater purity, they display pious disregard for the choices of their fellow citizens. They become vigilantes against vulgarity, policing public morality with the zeal of the late nineteenth century wowsers intent on turning Australia into a mirthless and monotonous place.” (p.113)

It is then the turn (Chapter 6) of Australian intellectuals’ well-established habit of looking down on suburbanites, beginning in the 1960s with Robin Boyd whingeing about dull suburban architecture; or Allan Ashbolt complaining that Australians were unadventurous in their politics; or the young North Shore grammar-school boy Barry Humphries inventing his original version of Edna Everidge (before she became a fantasy figure detached from any recognizable reality) as a smirk at the pretensions to gentility of the lower orders.

Do-gooders assume the mantle of dragonslayers, putting oppressors to the sword to liberate their victims. Yet the obsession with suburban architecture and lifestyles suggests an altogether more ignoble instinct: a search for markers of taste and refinement to buttress the middle-class right to rule. In short, while the causes of aesthetic beauty and environmentalism serve as cloaks of righteousness, much of the suburban sneer comes closer to old-fashioned class snobbery: criticism which starts with inanimate objects then passes seamlessly to criticisms of the animated masses and their inappropriate lifestyle.” (p.127)

For three chapters (7,8 and 9) Cater turns to the political scene, focusing mainly on the recent history of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As he correctly notes, up to the 1960s and especially under the long-term leadership of Arthur Calwell, the ALP was virulently anti-intellectual and genuinely representative of Australian workers. But since the accession of Gough Whitlam as leader, the ALP has increasingly been under the control of middle-class university graduates whose outlook is quite distinct from that of its original constituency.

The challenge of finding an acceptable place for the intellectuals in the socialist movement is not peculiar to Australia, although the relatively late attachment of intellectuals to the ALP, as a bolt-on upgrade as opposed to a factory fit, ensured that the relationship would be particularly uneasy. Karl Marx had wrestled with the paradox of a proletarian party led by an intellectual elite: you could take the intellectual out of the bourgeoisie, but you could never remove the bourgeois from the intellectual.” (p.141)

As Cater tells it, the result of this new leadership has meant that many of Labor’s traditional supporters have tramped over to the (conservative) Liberal Party. And, on many core values (such as the establishment of a republic) ALP leadership is often nonplussed to find that it does not have the support of the very people it once deemed indispensible.

You can tell what Cater is going to say about the media (Chapter 10) when he introduces his remarks thus:

The media class and the political class were cut from the same cloth: people more interested in ideas than things, who were fascinated with the abstract rather than the concrete. They were graduates who had chosen to work in the creative sector, as distinct from the wealth-creating sector.” (p.198)

In a chapter on universities (Chapter 11) Cater argues that the expansion of Australia’s university network (there are now 32 registered universities in Australia) has led to a pressure-cooker system which has downgraded teaching professionalism, led to a debasement in the quality of degrees, encouraged the introduction of nonsense courses and subjects, and made education a ticket to the middle classes rather the introduction to professions that serve the community.

Only in the last chapter does Cater tentatively address the changed ethnic nature of Australia in the last half-century. Correctly he notes that the old (pre-Gough Whitlam) ALP was once the most ardent supporter of the defunct White Australia Policy, seeing it as a means of protecting jobs from cheap imported (Asian) labour.

The stated aim of the [White Australia Policy] was to maintain ‘a predominantly homogenous population’, and it had succeeded; of the 10.5 million people in Australia in 1961, 99.6 per cent were of European descent, and under the nationality rules that prevailed, 95 per cent were considered British subjects. If the entire non-indigenous, non-European population of Australia – men, women and children – had assembled in the Sidney Cricket Ground, there would have been empty seats.” (p.250)

Now, as Cater tells it, the opening of Australia’s borders to non-European immigrants has led to a flourishing Human Rights industry; the perception (buttressed by disputes over asylum-seekers) that Australia is a “soft touch” for illegal immigrants; and the tendency of the chattering classes to appeal to “international opinion”, over and above the laws of the sovereign state. when determining policy about state security and the policing of borders. All these things Cater deplores.

Cater closes by quoting a nineteenth century document, in which an English immigrant rejoiced at the opportunities Australia offered for self-improvement, untrammelled by the type of petty regulation which Cater sees as now flourishing in Australia.

I think in giving this summary of The Lucky Culture I have given Nick Cater his “fair go” with the minimum of commentary on my own part.

I can say the obvious at once. This is a polemic, not a scholarly sociological study. It does have end-notes and references, authenticating the quotations Cater deploys, and it is written with considerable style by somebody who knows Australia well. But its main purpose is the expression of a point of view, in which purpose it is no better nor worse than polemics that have come from all quarters of the political compass. (In this respect, I would immediately compare it with the equally opinionated, but left-wing, polemics of New Zealander Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn). This being the case, readers will warm to The Lucky Culture only to the extent that they already agree with the positions Cater adopts. My summary should allow you to judge whether you see it as common sense or as intemperate rant.

            It’s easy for me to say where I think Cater goes wrong.

I believe he underestimates the existence of identifiable class barriers in Australia in the days he chooses to recall as blissfully egalitarian. Yes, there was a cheerful culture of Aussie larrikinism up to the 1960s, but there was already a huge distance in culture and outlook between, say, the Sydney factory worker and both the professional classes and the heirs of the squattocracy. Australia already had bitter and sometimes strongly-contested tribal dividing lines (ALP – Liberal/Country Party; Catholic-Protestant; Laborite-Commo; ALP – DLP etc.). Cater may have a point in noting that governments and opinion-makers now are more distant from, and less responsive to, the opinions of the majority. But this doesn’t entirely justify the golden nostalgic glow he gives to the past. Perhaps he also fails to acknowledge that new forms of production mean much of the old industrial base is not there anymore. What he sees as the emergence of a new ruling elite could have as much to do with IT as with university degrees.

            More obviously (and as Cater himself is aware), the past he laments was determinedly mono-cultural. Only in the last chapter does Cater even address the issue of race and ethnicity. Cater is quick to remind us that it was the old Liberal government of Robert Menzies – and not the ALP – that began the process of making tertiary education more readily available. He fails to note that it was also the 1950s Liberal government which began the process of making Australia less British. It was in the 1950s that considerable numbers of Italians, Greeks and Germans immigrated. One also notes how speedily Cater jumps over matters concerning Aborigines, preferring to tell us about the abuses of the Human Rights process rather than about the abuses that process was intended to amend.

On one specific point, I would also say Cater is dead wrong. Notoriously, an Australian referendum on establishing a republic and abolishing the monarchy failed to get a majority for a republic. Cater takes this as evidence that real Aussie working people love the Queen and reject the republicanism that fancy-pants intellectuals were trying to sell. This is nonsense. Notoriously, the referendum was conducted under the Liberal government of John Howard, which presented voters with a model of a republic (a president chosen by parliament, rather than popularly elected) which few people – even republicans – wanted.

            Yet, having said all this, I still find myself sympathising with some of Cater’s positions. Like him, I do indeed detect a culture – in New Zealand as much as in Australia – of middle-class liberalism, which purports to support humanitarian causes but which is often coded sneering at the middle-class liberals’ social inferiors. (I detect it strongly in the work of at least one New Zealand novelist). In New Zealand as in Australia, there is the phenomenon of liberal intellectuals not asking themselves honestly how wealth is generated in a society; and how humanitarian and conservationist and social-engineering schemes can be paid for without a flourishing productive base. Hand in hand with this, there is denigration of honest work, trades and skills – which has led to the phenomenon of kids wanting to do (perfectly useless) degrees in liberal arts instead of taking apprenticeships. I am painfully familiar, as Cater is, with social-engineers’ overuse of the words “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to skew arguments on any social or moral issue. Much of Cater’s analysis of the current intellectual bases of the ALP rings as true of New Zealand as of Australia, as do his comments on ALP in-fighting. (Wasn’t it a West Coast Labour MP who accused New Zealand’s Labour Party leadership of having been taken over by “a gaggle of gays” who no longer represented the party’s traditional base?). With sorrow rather than anger, I would also endorse many of his comments on the nature of tertiary education as now offered. To put it as simply as possible, a Bachelors or Masters degree earned in a New Zealand (or Australian) university in 2013 simply isn’t worth as much, in terms of real academic achievement, as a Bachelors or Masters degree earned in the 1960s and 1970s and earlier.

            More than anything, though, I sympathised with Cater’s criticisms of Aussie intellectuals’ habit of beating themselves up over the short-comings of their own country, without seriously considering the actually-existing alternatives available elsewhere. In New Zealand, the template for this would still be poor old Bill Pearson’s over-praised, and essentially somewhat hysterical, essay “Fretful Sleepers”. Despite its scoring some palpable hits, “Fretful Sleepers” strikes me as belonging to this genre – a hasty over-reaction to the mood of New Zealand at the time of Sid Holland’s rough handling of the 1951 waterfront dispute, which ends up as a great piece of self-flagellation, accusing New Zealanders of being crypto-fascists. And how the readers of Landfall loved it! After all, here was the ideal opportunity to look down on those uncouth, rugby-playing, tea-drinking, monarchy-loving, Woman’s Weekly-reading, commercial-radio-station-listening, non-university-educated masses who had never heard of Stravinsky or James Joyce. Here, gentle reader, was a chance for us to look down on them. Cater detects the same mood in current post-modernist Australian museum displays which ridicule suburban implements (rotary-hoist clotheslines etc.) while exalting the grand achievements of the Aborigines.

            I think he has a point. Ostensible social critique becomes real social snobbery.

            But then he is writing a polemic and we don’t have to believe everything he says.

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