Postmodern conservatism?

The Times Will Suit Them: Postmodern Conservatism in Australia, by youngish Deakin academics Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher, joins my pile of disappointing books about the Australian Right.

Its central fault is the usual one: an at best impressionistic understanding of its subject. It’s not quite Puseyesque in writing about a political movement seemingly without bothering to read anything its members had to say. But there isn’t very much direct quotation from Australian conservatives, and most of what is there is from John Howard. He’s certainly the most important conservative figure of the last 20 years, but hardly the only one. A few of the ‘Right’s culture warriors’ such as Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman and Janet Albrechtsen are mentioned in the introduction, but rarely appear again, and are never studied in any detail.

Writing about conservative movements is difficult. As I argued earlier in the year, conservatism is more whatever the people called conservatives happen to believe at a given time than a set list of key principles or ideas. Unlike American and British conservatives, Australian conservatives rarely help out with reflective pieces on their core beliefs (this excellent article by Owen Harries is a rare exception).

There is no substitute for a lot of reading and sorting, trying to work out the key themes and arguments, what is common enough to be classed as a core belief of Australian conservatives, and what is just the idiosyncrasy of one or a small number of people (this book does not discuss federalism, but I would put the Howard government’s centralism in the idiosyncrasy category, with negligible support among conservatives generally). It’s this research and analytical work that Boucher and Sharpe don’t seem to have done.

I can’t claim to have done a careful study either, though I’m sure I have read a lot more from conservative writers than Boucher and Sharpe, and I know a lot of conservatives personally. Some of Boucher and Sharpe’s assertions about what Australian conservatives believe don’t match my reading or conversations, which is why I would insist on a lengthy lists of citations before I would even grant them the starting points in their argument.

There is, for a example, a whole chapter called ‘culture wars and the new religiosity’. Certainly, many (though not all) conservatives are personally religious, and especially when they are Catholics this affects their views on issues like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and some forms of medical research. But is this right?:

The Right has been attempting to make a substantive worldview based on renewed religious faith and national belonging into the unquestioned core of the national community. (p.147, italics added)

How many Australian conservatives have been arguing that renewed religious faith should be part of a political agenda? While even atheists can argue that religion may have personal and social utility, very few people in the West think of promoting religious belief as a political project, something Western politics gave up on long ago.

The ‘evidence’ for this seems not to be from Australia, but inference from the ‘clash of civilisations’ argument about Islam and the West, and some American neocon material about the need for the Protestant work ethic (they note the worry from Daniel Bell and others in the 1970s that consumerism would undermine this ethic, but not how spectacularly wrong this concern turned out to be; by the 1990s cultural critics had switched from worrying about a too-weak work ethic to worrying about a too-strong work ethic). Christianity has been hugely influential in shaping Western culture, but that’s not the same as saying we need more Christianity now to see off the Islamists.

And what about this?:

Howard’s conservative Liberals and supporting media have jettisoned their belief in the liberal institutions and democratic ideals that founded modern Australia. The idea is that people of different private and religious persuasions cannot live together in one country under one set of commonly binding law…postmodern conservatives judge the existence of different faiths or cultures in Australian society a threat to community (p.12)

I wouldn’t have thought you needed to go much further than the Howard Cabinet itself to see that this is wrong. That it included vocal Catholics is a marked contrast with Liberal Cabinets of the Menzies era, and a sign of the huge extent to which the old Catholic-Protestant divide has been put behind us. And while other Western governments were banning headscarves for Muslim girls in public schools (France), Howard was busy handing out cash to Islamic schools – in a private school policy opposed by the left, but not the right. Indeed, while there are right-wing swipes at Islam, the main attacks on religious minorities are coming from the left: on funding for their schools, using the same social cohesion argument Boucher and Sharpe attribute to conservatives, and on their right to exemption from anti-discrimination law.

What will probably attract most attention is The Times Will Suit Them‘s claim that Australia’s conservatives are ‘postmodern conservatives’; given of course the regular swipes at postmodernism coming from those same conservatives. The main arguments for this description seem to be that postmodernists and conservatives have

a shared scepticism towards the modern idea that people can make the world a better through planned political action (p.33)

and that conservatives are not fond of ‘metanarratives’ like socialism or liberalism. But conservatives have been making arguments like this for centuries; if anything it is premodern rather than postmodern. Conservatives have often stood for particular against universal values, but this argument is complicated in countries where liberalism has been influential. In the US particularly, but also Australia, liberal values have both universal and particularlist qualities, and here we have seen a fairly durable liberal-conservative alliance.

As I read the conservative objection to postmodernism (or at least what they take postmodernism to be) it is to the relativist idea that all cultures and cultural artefacts are equal; that studying soap operas is as good as studying Shakespeare etc. In this sense Australian conservatives are certainly not postmodernists.

This book is a polemic rather than a scholarly account, but other than the therapeutic value in letting off steam about people you don’t like I can’t see much point in such misdirected polemics. A previous book by Boucher was called Traversing the Fantasy. He could have given this one the same name.

19 thoughts on “Postmodern conservatism?

  1. This sounds like a typical product from the “dead forest” of the left. It is truly remarkable that among all the commentators in that genre, David McKnight appears to be almost alone in actually reading some Hayek. Sadly he emerged with a grotesquely distorted version of the original. So if his book is the best you can get from people who do some homework, what hope for illumination from people who do not?

    But to pick a conservative social democrat as the image of modern conservatism is a bit hard on the so-called neo or classical liberals. What about us?

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  2. If you are a masochist, Costello is great value. Read it aloud on the crowded legacy of privatised transport he left behind on a 40 degree day if you are a sadist.

    Look! I know Boucher and he should maybe have written about Landeryou as a postmodern conservative, there is enough material there for a new school of psychoanalysis.
    I agree that a lot of what the left/right/swinging homegrown academics write is piffle often published by their mate’s publishing company that is a tax loss/ real estate rag posing as leftiste (see Black Inc).

    The problem is that the Brits, Jews, Nazis and Yanks etc that are often brought in to boife up/lead academic departments are even worse than the locals. They are the rotters that no one wants in their respective homelands. Like some of the crazy doctors who end up in Australia’s regional areas, eg. the Russian psychiatrist who carried a handgun in his case, fed depressed people steroids and had a fake degree that worked in far North Queensland until he got a better offer. Although, compared to the deep sleep therapy doctor (murdered several dozen) who was Australian and Sydney based he might seem rather tame and innovative. No wonder the Liberals are in tatters if these are the doctors who keep on returning them to the frontline after electoral shellshock.

    For example the head of media research at UniMelb, Sean Cubitt, has not actually produced a testable thesis himself. I met the crew who gave him his PhD without thesis (so that he could migrate) and one did not have a PhD herself, the other was a skinhead who received his PhD from Sean..
    And this is passed off to the fee paying idiots of private and selective high schools as quality. I tried to warn McIntyre but he went smart and ate his breakfast.. Blah..

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  3. Menzies was too deluded to be anything let alone conservative.. He was born in Australia but claimed to British up to his garterbelt.

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  4. I actually had the opportunity to read part of this book in the presence of Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher, during a meeting and discussion of the Deakin University Philosophical Society (I’m an undergraduate at Deakin).

    From memory the section we read was exploring the damaging affect of post modern conservatism and the actions of “neo tliberals” through a list of fairly irrelevant facts like decline in church attendance ect. Everyone in the room was fairly confused about just what the intention of the piece was. The impression I have got from Mathew Sharpe (who I think must be a fairly young academic) is that he still has the university activist quality to him and I expect his writing is likely to be equally as ideologically driven with little substance as the green-left publication that come out here.

    In all fairness though who am I to argue. As a science and technology student I spent most of the meeting trying to sort my way through the humanities jargon.

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  5. Dear Andrew,

    Thanks for your comments on the book. We do not expect to please or convince everyone, as we say at the very beginning. And nor should a book on politics. But the book is intended to be more than a polemic, and neither Geoff nor I are ‘student activists’ (Geoff was, long ago, but is no longer), as one of your respondents suggests.

    One thing I was disappointed that you might have mentioned, in fact, is the ‘polemic’ against the postmodernist Left that is a constant element throughout the whole book. We might have agreed on this much.

    I’ll submit in sequence responses to your criticisms, for you and your readers to assess. Thanks again,

    Matthew

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  6. 1. “There isn’t very much direct quotation from Australian conservatives, and most of what is there is from John Howard.”

    Well, that is something of a misrepresentation. Alongside Howard, there are also quotations from Costello, Abbott, Sheridan, Hewson, Deakin, Menzies, Henderson, Kelly, a still-Quadranted Manne, the Australian oped, Switzer, and Ungerer & Jones. (Not to mention one Andrew Norton, whose piece on big government conservatism is a pivotal part of our argument at chapter 2’s end, recurred to again in chapter 3).

    Then there is a section on Valder, a larger section on Puplick, and a large section on Menzies (all in chapter 2). But yes, Howard is quoted most, for the reason you go on to add: his pre-eminence over the last two decades.

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  7. 2. “There is no substitute for a lot of reading and sorting, trying to work out the key themes and arguments, what is common enough to be classed as a core belief of Australian conservatives, and what is just the idiosyncrasy of one or a small number of people.”

    Absolutely. That is the force of ‘postmodern’ conservatism, as against its modern forebears. The book is about the changes in Australian conservatism since the dismissal. To set up the idiosyncrasies of the Howard era, there is a section in chapter 2 on the history of the liberal Party, starting from the Fusion days with Deakin’s struggle against Reid. In it, we raise the ideas of Mill and T.H. Green, in order to set up the two major changes of the 80s (economic rationalism of the Dries) and the 90s (embrace of neo-conservatism). These are ‘idiosyncrasies’ against the background of those ‘terrible eighty years’ of the modern Australian settlement (o, ‘terrible eighty years’ is also a quote from C. Kemp, another Australian conservative of some note).

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  8. 3. “I can’t claim to have done a careful study either, though I’m sure I have read a lot more from conservative writers than Boucher and Sharpe”.

    Well, I don’t think anyone thinks this is a reading contest, but in the political philosophy syllabus at Deakin, we teach Burke, Oak shott, Kirk, Hayek, Schmitt, Bell, Kristol, and Strauss. One of our criticisms of people on the Left is that they do not read these authors, and so don’t understand what the Right thinks. If you are interested, you might look at the academic pieces we’ve published on neoconservative authors, and hit the footnotes to track our footsteps.

    4. “This book does not discuss federalism, but I would put the Howard government’s centralism in the idiosyncrasy category, with negligible support among conservatives generally”

    This is alas lamentably too true. Howard’s ‘aspirational nationalism’ is briefly touched on in the Preface, where we cite another conservative, John Stone, and the Conclusion. In part, this is because the ‘aspirational nationalism’ appeared in 2007, late in the day, in terms of publication deadlines. The controversial centralism of Workchoices, though, is discussed explicitly in chapter 4, you’ll recall. Howard’s ironic proximity with Whitlam is also a constant thread.

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  9. 5. re: the question of conservatism and religion. “But is this right?:

    The Right has been attempting to make a substantive worldview based on renewed religious faith and national belonging into the unquestioned core of the national community. (p.147, italics added)
    How many Australian conservatives have been arguing that renewed religious faith should be part of a political agenda? While even atheists can argue that religion may have personal and social utility, very few people in the West think of promoting religious belief as a political project, something Western politics gave up on long ago. “

    Taken in abstraction from the wider argument, no, the quote is not right, at least about religion. You would be hard pressed to deny that nationalism was a key tenet of Howard’s government, down to that notorious tracksuit of his. We have an entire section on this in chapter 3. Our argument is that the moral decline the culture warriors lament leads them towards an emphasis on ‘the things that unite us’ (Howard), principally the family and the nation, especially our sporting and military histories.

    On religion, our argument is that a renewed religiosity (preferably Christian or Jewish, but more or less denominationally blind between Catholics and Protestants etc.) did emerge as important in the Howard years, as Marion Maddox’s *God Under Howard* documents at greater length than we were able to. Witness Rudd’s rush to show his piety in late 2006, a key feature of his ‘me tooism’. It is true that the Howard government’s Job Network did involve ‘outsourcing’ welfare, increasingly to the Churches, whose low overheads gave them a competitive advantage (noted by Costello) in the Job Network tendering. It is also true that the 2007 citizenship tests explicitly asks new Australians to identify our culture as built on the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ heritage, as we cite. It is also true that the Howard government outsourced abortion counselling to a religious ‘provider’, and promoted the presence of Priests as counsellors in school

    As for no one promoting religion for politics in the West, I am not sure you can really mean this regarding America. In whom do they trust, then? There is the entire corpus of Leo Strauss’ influential works (especially his work on Islamic and Jewish thinkers), also Bell’s stuff, and Kristol’s remarkably frank essays from the 90s about the need for the Republicans to ‘embrace the religious’.

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  10. 6. “they note the worry from Daniel Bell and others in the 1970s that consumerism would undermine this ethic, but not how spectacularly wrong this concern turned out to be; by the 1990s cultural critics had switched from worrying about a too-weak work ethic to worrying about a too-strong work ethic”

    Yes, we are citing Bell and the neoconservative understanding. And we agree that it is wrong as a diagnosis, since we are not neoconservatives, as the entire book shows. It is true that people like Clive Hamilton have started arguing about a too-strong work ethic, although I am not sure that you and Hamilton would agree on this. We touch on overwork in chapter 6, but *Affluenza* is the place to look for a summary of the statistics.

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  11. 7. “And what about this?:

    Howard’s conservative Liberals and supporting media have jettisoned their belief in the liberal institutions and democratic ideals that founded modern Australia. The idea is that people of different private and religious persuasions cannot live together in one country under one set of commonly binding law…postmodern conservatives judge the existence of different faiths or cultures in Australian society a threat to community (p.12)”

    Chapter 4 is the place where we show how the Anti-Terrorism legislation violates the rule of law sacred to liberals like Hayek (see the central chapters in *Constitution of Liberty*, and how the public sector reforms, the growth of ministerial staffers (another Whitlamism ‘grown’ under Howard) and Workchoices all enshrined larger discretionary powers to the executive. We note that it is strange that the liberal fear of a big state seems to stop at expanded defence and intelligence spending—why? Is it the case that the small state idea is not really believed in, or only means small in some, economic matters? We hope not.

    If the Howard government was not worried about the insufficiency of the rule of law in binding people, why did it promote citizenship tests which emphasised “social integration” and our “way of life”? For liberalism, these are private matters, as you know. There is a distinction between legality (the state’s business) and morality (the citizen’s way of life and lifestyle choices). If the News Limited media were not worried about social cohesion, why do they write with such repetitive angst about multiculturalism (see the editorials following Cronulla for instance, December 7-10 2005)?

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  12. 8. (On the ecumenism of the Howard ministry, see above comment regarding religiosity versus one denomination. On Howard’s proMoslem spending on schools. Yes, but it would need to be balanced against a lot of other evidence. It is well documented that many Australian Moslems felt that the Howard years, post-911, were ushering in a new discrimination against them. And again, it is worth emphasising that the book is as much about the New Right-thinking media, esp. in the tabloids, as solely about Howard. (On this, see the section ‘Why it’s not all about Howard’ in the Introduction.

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  13. 9. What will probably attract most attention is The Times Will Suit Them’s claim that Australia’s conservatives are ‘postmodern conservatives’; given of course the regular swipes at postmodernism coming from those same conservatives. The main arguments for this description seem to be that postmodernists and conservatives have:

    “a shared scepticism towards the modern idea that people can make the world a better through planned political action (p.33)

    And, further on:

    “As I read the conservative objection to postmodernism (or at least what they take postmodernism to be) it is to the relativist idea that all cultures and cultural artefacts are equal; that studying soap operas is as good as studying Shakespeare etc. In this sense Australian conservatives are certainly not postmodernists.”

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  14. 9. re: “… the claim that Australia’s conservatives are ‘postmodern conservatives’; given of course the regular swipes at postmodernism coming from those same conservatives. The main arguments for this description seem to be that postmodernists and conservatives have:

    “a shared scepticism towards the modern idea that people can make the world a better through planned political action (p.33)

    And, further on:

    “As I read the conservative objection to postmodernism (or at least what they take postmodernism to be) it is to the relativist idea that all cultures and cultural artefacts are equal; that studying soap operas is as good as studying Shakespeare etc. In this sense Australian conservatives are certainly not postmodernists.”

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  15. response now to 9: This is the weakest point of your response, and hardly fair. The line sited about ‘shared political action’ is not the key point, as I’m sure you must know.
    It is true that many conservatives don’t believe that studying Shakespeare is as good as studying soap operas. (And good on them. This for the record is why I’d say I am in some ways a cultural conservative who supports a return to the canonical texts of our culture).
    But let’s get to the main point. In chapter 6, there are two sections (pp. 157-160) entitled ‘Postmodernism of the Right’, and the section ‘Beyond the postmodern clash of cultures’ in chapter 7 (pp. 185-188). Why not cite the ideas from there, or the summary in the Intro or Preface even? The main claim is that Howard’s appeal to ‘our values’, the ‘mainstream’ is relativist. It relies on the idea that ‘our values’ ‘are not ours because they are just, but just because they are ours.’ And we cite both Abbott and Costello using this logic.

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  16. response to 9 continued:

    elites in the ABC, unis, etc. have engendered so much social division and cultural confusion, they can’t conserve this ‘mainstream’. They have to construct it—social constructivism being a key postmodernist idea. We adduce as cases, in policy, the preferential treatment in the Family Tax benefits for single income families, funding for schools which fly the flag. The emblematic case we cite is poor old Dana Vale’s suggestion that we build a kind of Gallipoli theme park on the Mornington peninsula: as if even a sacred site for our nation could be constructed like a Disneyland setting.

    (O, the other part of the argument just brings to a wider audience the argument long made within the academic literature by people like Eagleton and Jameson that postmodernism is the culture of recent neoliberal capitalism, with the unprecedented development of the new media and exponential growth in advertising. This is clear in the section on Hayek in chapter 2, and Workchoices and the new management stuff in chapter 4, for the record.)

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  17. 10. “This book is a polemic rather than a scholarly account, but other than the therapeutic value in letting off steam about people you don’t like I can’t see much point in such misdirected polemics. A previous book by Boucher was called Traversing the Fantasy. He could have given this one the same name.”

    Well, that’s all not meant to be nice, I’m sure, although I am glad you have read Geoff’s other book. I am unsure what you make of the 19 full pages of footnotes if *The Times …” is only a polemic.

    Cheers,

    Matthew Sharpe

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