The last post (I hope) on postmodern conservatism

On Friday Postmodern Conservatism in Australia co-author Matthew Sharpe left in the comments thread a large number of responses to my original post on his book. My responses on the main issue of how to characterise recent Australian conservatism:

On whether we have “postmodern” conservatism:

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.’

When conservatives criticise ‘relativism’ they are usually attacking the idea that all cultures are equal. A better description of the conservative argument here would be ‘particularist’ – the idea that our culture has value at least partly because it is ours, because of our historical experience. It is consistent with – and usually implies or expressly states – the idea that our culture is better than other cultures, which is not a ‘relativist’ notion. All conservatives have a particularist element to their thought (though as I noted in a slightly different context, complicated when the particular culture they are preserving has universal elements to them, liberalism and Christianity being the two most important in the West). So I am not convinced that calling contemporary conservatives ‘postmodern’ clarifies their thinking or distinguishes them from past Australian conservatives.

On religion:

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…

You give a few examples of greater use of religious institutions to achieve government goals. In none of these cases was there any restriction to Christians or Jews. In the major examples – private schools and the Job Network – secular institutions could also participate. Even in the case of the school chaplain program (a daft idea, I agree) schools could employ secular support workers if no chaplain could be employed.

the 2007 citizenship tests explicitly asks new Australians to identify our culture as built on the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ heritage,

On this, you fell (as I did originally) for a News Ltd concoction. The actual questions are not disclosed so far as I am aware, but the guide book for the test says, in the context of a list of liberal values, that Judeo-Christian ethics are one of the influences on them, a plausible historical claim that does not remotely lead to the conclusion that the state is promoting more religion or favouring any particular religion or religions.

On nationalism:

You would be hard pressed to deny that nationalism was a key tenet of Howard’s government, down to that notorious tracksuit of his.

Patriotism, yes there was quite a lot of that. Unpatriotic conservatism is rare. And if you are serious about integrating forces in society (as conservatives are) it is hard to go past it. Love of country has been one of the most powerful uniting sentiments observed in history, one that in practice has helped transcend differences and division in society. In Australia, patriotic sentiment is strong among both those born here and those born overseas. I think you are right that Howard saw this as threatened by some aspects of multiculturalism and ‘black armband’ history, but wrong to interpret this as making

membership of the Australian community dependent on a shared definition of the good life. (p.177)

What is the stronger evidence on this point? An imaginative reading between the lines of culture wars rhetoric, or a huge and very diverse migration program, support for religious schools of every variety, and the absence of any laws limiting cultural diversity?
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Overall, I think you and your co-author relied too heavily on conventional left interpretations of the Howard years, and over-used foreign compared to local conservative texts in trying to create an intellectual framework. This is understandable – our local conservatives are not generally deep or systematic thinkers. But because conservatism is particularistic, local differences can matter a lot. The United States is a far more religious country than Australia, and its conservatism reflects that and misled you. A closer examination of the evidence may have pointed to other conclusions, or at least a more nuanced account.

14 thoughts on “The last post (I hope) on postmodern conservatism

  1. Charles — at least for academic stuff, you are better off having people read/criticize your work that not. I believe the median book that gets churned out from university presses (let alone Australian ones) is probably more beneficial as a fire starter than anything else (the median number of times a scientific article is cited, for example, I believe is zero — I’m not sure if similar stats exist for books). So if people read your book it’s good, and if they like it, well, that’s just icing on the cake. This was pretty obvious in the days when library books got stamped — it was common to borrow books published a decade ago but notice that there would only be a single stamp on them (and that was presumably the person that ordered it, who didn’t necessarily read it).

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  2. Paul Krugman wins the Nobel!!!! That is just about the death knell for the Republicans!!! Its unfortunate, but his academic work will give weight to his politics. And he has just about been the loudest critic of the Bush administration as well as disparaging the McCain Campaign. Its a very interesting choice by the Nobel committee given that Krugman is relatively young and they could of waited to give it to him in a less politically sensitive year. But on the other hand, it speaks volumes about how far the economics profession has come from the market fundamentalism ushered in by Friedman and the Chicago boys. Conservatives the world over have a massive struggle to regain credibility!!! Good on ya Paul!!!!

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  3. simmo – While the timing is raising some eyebrows, as you suggest, I doubt many free marketeers would dispute the idea that Krugman is a worthy recipient. I liked his stuff on trade and globalisation a lot in the 1990s, and the guys at Marginal Revolution (who know the technical economics much better than I do) are pretty positive, as is Jason Soon at Catallaxy, and also Will Wilkinson.

    I think Krugman has put far too much effort into Bush-hate newspaper articles in recent years, given the near unlimited supply of such columns from people who have much lower intellectual opportunity costs than Krugman. But that doesn’t diminish the quality of the academic work he has done.

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  4. Mind you, these guys are hardly conservatives. Krugman is only one of a number of highly qualified potential winners. At the margin the decision to award him the prize must have political – that’s fine; it is their prize to award. Yet the Swedes need to explain why a man can win on political grounds but a woman (Joan Robinson) cannot.

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  5. Simmo

    Google Paul Krugman’s piece for Slate ‘In praise of cheap labour’ if you think that his win is somehow a rebuff for free market economics (I put in a link in a comment but it got swallowed by the spaminator). Yes he is regarded as a Bush hater but in Australia he could easily fit into the Liberal party.

    People who are in mainstream economics regardless of their political affilitations have generally reacted positively to the Krugman win. The Austrians that Sinkers cites are an exception but then they are cultists.

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  6. Conservatives the world over have a massive struggle to regain credibility!!! Good on ya Paul!!!!

    sorry Simmo, but your shallow analysis doesn’t hold the bait.

    UK to go conservative
    Same with NZ
    Canada about to go conservative
    Sweden right of Centre
    Austria gone conservative
    France: conservative
    Germany: conservative.
    Italy: conservative

    Australia: states heading conservative.

    According to you simmo, a US election that looks like is pretty close despite an unpopular prez with lots of problems is suddenly changing the face of the world is about as delusional as it comes.

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  7. Jason, I didn’t say that Krugman was anti-market. I said he wasn’t a free market fundamentalist. there’s a difference between recognising that the markets can and often do fail and milton’s friedman’s notion that the market can never fail. You rightly stated that Krugman is for capitalism and free markets – but he understands that the government is required to intervene in certain circumstances.

    @ jc

    Your analysis is bogus…. right of centre in Europe is still to the left of even the labour party in Australia – particularly in places like Germany, France and Sweden. All these countries still tax very high and provide a large welfare state for their citizens, even under slightly more conservative rule. Sarkozy may be outspoken, but there’s a limit to what he can get away with in the realm of policy. And in Sweden not even the conservatives would dream of significantly dismantling the welfare state – ditto Germany. So perhaps you need to take a closer look at the big taxing big spending big welfare state policies of the so-called conservative governments in Western Europe.

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  8. Jason, I don’t think you could fit Krugman into the Liberal party. For one, he holds high praise for trade unions who he gives a lot of the credit for the “Great Compression” (or the New Deal) – read his book Conscience of Liberal. That would fit him firmly in Labor I would of thought. Perhaps he’s in line with Liberal Party thinking on matters of trade, but remember that it was the Labor Party that liberalised trade in the 80s. Free trade is not inconsistent with the Labor Party. In fact it is the Nationals who are the most in favour of protectionism. Also, read his columns in the times. He is passionate about universal health care – which the Liberals would like to see dismantled except for that it would be political suicide in Australia. So on balance I’d have to say that he would be more in favour of Labour than Liberal.

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  9. jc, socialism, as i understand it, is where the govt owns the means of production. that’s not western europe and that’s not australia. Not even social democratic parties in europe are fully socialist. So its just silly to even insinuate that i was advocating socialism. Even the Liberal Party advocates a welfare state to some extent – in fact to a much greater extent than the GOP ever would. But you’re right about the GOP. They despise the welfare state. they despise the advances of the New Deal. And, like you, they label anyone who isn’t all for dismantling the welfare state a socialist. C’mon, get real mate.

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  10. @jc – ??? you brought up socialism and the GOP and the Liberals. You pick the topic and we can debate it. btw you haven’t proved anything as yet…

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  11. “When conservatives criticise ‘relativism’ they are usually attacking the idea that all cultures are equal. ”

    Now I understand why Rafe talks about the ‘dead forest’ of the left. He’s mistaken the straw men for trees.

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