Australian Civilization (1962) revisited

Last week in the Spectator Peter Coleman commented on a piece by Frank Bongiorno about a collection of essays that Peter Coleman edited 50 years ago. In addition to Coleman who wrote the Introduction the contributors were the historian A G L Shaw, Douglas McCallum on the state of liberty, Max Harris on manners and morals, Robin Boyd on the Australian ugliness, Manning Clark on Faith, Vincent Buckley on intellectuals, A A Phillips (of the cultural cringe) on the schools, James McAuley on art and literature, Robert Hughes on art, K S Inglis on the daily papers, Donald Horne on businessmen, Ronald Taft on migrants, Sol Encel on Power and Hugo Wolfsohn on foreign policy. It is a great shame that Brian Penton, the standout public intellectual of the century was gone because he could have written well on any and all of the above.

Coleman’s Introduction combined a mixture of optimism and wariness of what the future held. He saw signs of maturity in the growing willingness to criticise Australian life frankly and firmly. He was himself at war with the antiquated laws on censorship. But all was not well, far too much was left to government initiatives and Encel’s chapter focussed on the growing centralization of decision-making in Australian political life. The “new maturity” came with unhelpful attachments.

As several conributors point out, Australianism has always had authoritarian undertones. Fidel Castro says his dictarorship is as Cuban as a palm-tree; an Australian dictatorship would readily claim to be as Australian as a gum-tree.

Bongiorno wrote with the wisdom of hindsight:

Australian Civilization, for all of its admirable qualities, sometimes reads like a book based on an understandable series of misapprehensions about the world opening up in the 1960s. Its editor and star-studded cast of authors were able to shine light in this or that dark corner, often with great flair. But the situation at home and abroad was too fluid, too uncertain, to generate the kinds of insights into the direction of Australian society that would survive the earthquakes of the later 1960s and 70s. Australian Civilization is, rather, a product of the almost-forgotten early 1960s – the rational, liberal and measured idealism stimulated by John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, Martin Luther King’s dream of fellowship between the children of slaves and slave-owners, and Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” blowing through Africa.

Bongiorno pointed out that the winds of change in Australia ended up supporting Whitlam and the new socialism that is entrenched in Canberra and the managerial class (that is not quite the way he put it). In defence, Coleman replied that his collection may have looked further ahead “and waved the flag of liberal resistance to the coming ascendency of the New Class”.

Interesting to note in Bongiorno’s piece that the CIA did not only fund non-left anti-communist magazines like Quadrant but also the leftwing anti-commmunist magazine Dissent. Strange that so little was made of that when the funding issue emerged to create trouble for Encounter and Quadrant.

This is the Introduction to the collection.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Australian Civilization (1962) revisited

  1. stackja

    Australian Civilization seemed to be uncivilised and dream-time. I have never heard of it. Again never being to uni. Manning Clark? When did he get his Lenin Medal? With Robin Boyd ugliness it seems is in the eye of the beholder.
    The New Class arrived in 1966 we told. She is still here.

  2. Jim Rose

    the winds of change in Australia ended up supporting Whitlam and the new socialism that is entrenched in Canberra and the managerial class

    Australia has had one left-wing government since 1949.

    The studies starting from Peltzman showed that governments grew in the 20th century in line with the growth in the size and homogeneity of the middle class that was organised and politically articulate enough to implement Director’s law.

    Once a country becomes rich because of capitalism, politicians looked for ways to redistribute more of this new found wealth to the middle class.

    Government spending grew in the 20th century because of demographic shifts, more efficient taxes, more efficient spending, a shift in the political power from the taxed to the subsidized, shifts in political power among taxed groups, and shifts in political power among subsidized groups and in particular to the elderly.

    The post-1980 economic and fiscal reforms are an example of a political system converging onto more efficient modes of income redistributions demanded by the middle-of-the-road voter as deadweight losses of taxes and regulation grew.

    Improvements in the efficiency of taxes, regulation and spending reduce political pressure to suppress the growth of government and thus increased or prevented cuts to both total tax revenue and spending. Economic regulation lessened after 1980 but social regulation grew unabated.

    The post-1980 economic reforms saved the welfare state.

  3. Rafe

    Yes there is a fascinating paper about the Keynesian consensus after WW2.

    It was not only ALP supporters who were captivated by the siren song of Keynes. Much the same happened to the intellectual leaders of the non-Labor forces, chief among them the remarkable mover and shaker, Herbert Gepp, who formed the Institute for Public Affairs and charged C D Kemp with the task of producing a program for it. This work turned out to be a major source of ideas for the new Liberal Party under Robert Menzies (Prime Minister for an unprecedented 15 years).

    “By the late 1930s Gepp, like Coombs, had discovered Keynes, and begun to propound a version of neo-Keynesian economic planning. Unlike Coombs, however, he drew the line at anything that looked like collectivism”.

    The point of Walter’s story, which is supported by Kemp’s account of the same period, is that the Keynesian synthesis of private ownership and state planning provided a framework of ideas that the social engineers and the business community could share, even while they disagreed on details. This framework included a highly interventionist function for the state, and neglected the microeconomic foundations of productivity. It should be noted that much of the institutional framework had been put in place by the first Federal Government at the turn of the century with tariff protection for industry and central wage fixing. With ascent of Keynesian ideas the slow poison of inflation was injected into the economy which was already debilitated by the wage fixing system and the bipartisan acceptance of tariff protection.

    Under these circumstances the revival of classical liberalism, or “radical liberalism” as Kemp calls it, is something of a mystery and perhaps even a miracle. Kemp records many key players and institutions that featured in the revival, including Alf Ratigan of the Industries Assistance Commission, Bert Kelly (the honest local member) and The Centre for Independent Studies. Clearly more work is required to trace the intellectual currents, the books, the groups and the personal linkages that enabled a robust form of liberal thought to survive through the Keynesian dark ages.

  4. Jim Rose

    captivated by the siren song of Keynes”

    it should be remembered how few people enrolled in university before 1950.

    most inter-war professors of economics were the first or second to hold their chair in economics at their university or even in their country.

    there were just too few economists to be covert en mass. most learnt Keynes as innocent undergraduates in macro101.

    in 1921, 7500 uni students in total in Oz
    1950, 31,000
    1960, 54,000
    1970, 116,000

    HT; alison booth using ABS yearbook

  5. Jim Rose

    rafe, People have been captivated by the siren song of Keynes and his many forbears for several centuries every time their is a recession.

    Thomas Humphrey wrote an excellent 250 year long literature survey of the rules versus discretion debate in the 1998 Richmond Fed Quarterly.

    He wanted to know if macroeconomics was a progressive science in the sense that superior new ideas relentlessly supplanted inferior old ones.

    Humphrey found that:
    • Keynesian ideas about a lack of demand and their many antecedents gain currency when unemployment was the main concern.
    • Monetarist ideas tended to reign when price stability was the main problem.

    The policy debate keeps recycling because
    1. people forget the lessons of the past and
    2. For better or worse, politicians and the public have tended to believe that central banks, the focus of his studies, have the power to boost output, employment, and growth permanently.

    Humphrey showed that policy rules are popular in good times to contain inflation, and when unemployment was rising, discretionary policies returned to vogue. much of what passes for novelty and originality in monetary theory and policy is ancient teachings dressed up in modern guises.

    Haberler, Robertson, Pigou and Frank Knight also all pointed out in their reviews of the General Theory that it lacked originality, and presented old ideas often incorrectly in confusing new vocabularies that made the book difficult to read.

  6. Mk50 of Brisbane

    What an utter, absolute and steaming pile of pig-dung.

    Bongiorno is mindlessly mouthing the sad old trope the left has been mindlessly repeating for decades now: that Australian history REALLY started in the 1960s.

    With them.

    It’s an appal to the brainless, a preening statement that ‘Australian nationalism only really started with the [soft knob-gobbling] left of the 1960s’.

    It was then and remains now a weapon to devalue the entire Imperial phase of Australian history.

    Do not believe me?

    Do a survey of PhD’s in history, then. Compare the rationalist view of history of the period up to the 1960s and how Australian Imperial history was woven into it. Afterwards, it was non-PC, not trendy compared to the contribution to Australian culture of Wymmins studies, the plight of surfie lesbians, studies of transcendant aboriginality, how fudgepacking transformed the lives and sphincters of left-handed homosexual red-heads at No.6 Erskine street paddington and all that worthless drivel.

    So for 50 years actual Australian history has been one big lacunae with only a handful of the Donald MacKenzie Schurman School out here and a hard core of military historians working in the wasteland of trendy social tripe.

    More good Australian national history has been done in the UK than here – see John Darwin’s wonderful work on teh development of the Dominion concept and the Dominions.

  7. Jim Rose

    historians are the worst sort of public intellectual. Posner observed that tenured academics have little incentive to get on with their colleagues or anyone else.

    Schumpeter explained that it is “the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs” that distinguishes the academic intellectual from others “who wield the power of the spoken and the written word.”

    Schumpeter and Nozick argued that intellectuals were bitter that the skills so rewarded at school and university with top grades were less well rewarded in the market. For Schumpeter, in the intellectual’s main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value.

  8. dover_beach

    Isn’t Posner both an academic and judge? Positions which both enjoy tenure.

Comments are closed.