From memory the section we read was exploring the damaging affect of post modern conservatism and the actions of “neoliberals” through a list of fairly irrelevant facts like decline in church attendance etc. Everyone in the room was fairly confused about just what the intention of the piece was.
Boucher and Sharpe’s argument is confused, but the intention is clear: to find any fact or argument that can be used to discredit ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘postmodern’ conservatism.
The point of mentioning declining church attendance, along with declining political party membership, lower levels of institutional trust, and rising divorce is to argue that there has been a decline in social capital, which Boucher and Sharpe hope to pin on ‘neoliberalism’.
In their discussion of social capital, they draw on Robert Putnam, and his book Bowling Alone. On p.169 our authors tell us that:
For Putnam, this [decline in social capital] cannot be solely attributed to the rise of neoliberalism since since 1973. [italics added]
Actually, Putnam thinks that hardly any of social capital’s decline is due to market economics. He dismisses its role in two pages of Bowling Alone (pp.282-83), conceding only a loss of civic leadership as small town businesses are replaced with giant corporations. His main objection is that America has been a market society for centuries, during which social capital has gone up and down. ‘A constant can’t explain a variable’, he says.
Even I thought that this was a bit quick, but Putnam’s later work is even more unhelpful for Boucher and Sharpe. He finds that ethnic diversity reduces trust. Andrew Leigh has found similar results for language diversity here. This is evidence in favour of a social capital argument for the ‘monocultural assimilation’ Boucher and Sharpe attribute to conservatives.
Their unfamiliarity with the social capital literature means that the authors miss (or perhaps found and ignored) other material that complicates their argument. While fewer people are involved in some of the older political, religious and social organisations, volunteering increased during the Howard years. As noted on this blog, marriage and divorce rates are improving, from a family/social capital perspective. If ‘neoliberalism’ caused the previous deterioration in these statistics, is it also responsible for the subsequent improvement?
The point about declining church attendance is correct (the never attend rate increased from 38% to 42% during the Howard years, according to the AES), but it hinders Postmodern Conservatism‘s argument as much as it helps it. If as Boucher and Sharpe claim the right is trying to foster religion it clearly isn’t working. And if it is not working, do we need to worry about it? (For similar reasons, the right probably should not worry so much about ‘black armband’ history, which has left pride in Australia very high and coincided with record ANZAC day attendances.) And if we do need to worry about declining church attendance, would the right have a point if they wanted to boost religion?
Some of the intellectual untidiness in this book is probably because the two authors wrote different parts of the book, which don’t always fit smoothly together. That the project was over-ambitious did not help either: nothing in the academic background of either – mostly continental philosophy – suggests preparation for the task of analysing either right-wing thought or complex social science issues. But the sadder problem, from would-be academics, is that they show little sign of even being genuinely interested in their subject matter. They came to condemn, not to understand.