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.