Sunday, June 26, 2011

the end(s) of certainty

[An older post kept in storage but may as well let it out of the deep freeze].

I'm publishing a few posts from the last few years here which focus on the central place of Paul Kelly's 1992 The End of Certainty in any understanding of the long Labor Decade. Kelly's 'story of the 1980s', as his book was subtitled, acts as both the hegemonic means into thinking about this period (one of almost national-epic governmental change) and as itself a text of a considerable force through which the long decade becomes narrativised and thereby available for making meaning and legitimating political projects. In other words, my interest in this 'history' is dual: as a text through which to periodise; and as a text which performs a particular type of periodisation.

The post immediately below is a relatively short one, and attempts to analyse the narrating position Kelly adopts at certain points in the narrative. From where and when can Kelly as narrator know, with an Olympian and magisterial certainty, that a critical political decision was pragmatic and yet inadequate to what the times demanded? The tentative answere here is that if we consider that Kelly is employing conventions from the Bildungsroman, we can use the extensive critical apparatus that has formed around discussion of this form to unpack how, and perhaps why, this narrating position is adopted. Indeed, Joseph Slaughter's notion of the Bildungsroman narrator employing a future-anterior form, or a tautological teleology, is very helpful in explaining how The end of certainty makes this key move. But why? Some answers proferred here.


The ‘banana republic’ was a dose of shock therapy for the nation which for a while left a legacy of crisis which Labor could have utilised to impose far tougher policies on the nation. The opposition gave labor plenty of room. Howard called for a freeze of wages and public spending; the New Right was mugging unions from Robe River to Mudginberri. Keating’s authority was as potent as Hawke’s popularity. The prime minister declared the crisis the equivalent of war. The historical judgement in terms of the public mood and the depth of the problem is that the Hawke-Keating team failed to seize the full magnitude of the moment. Labor could have gone further but lacked the courage and imagination.

Labor felt it was heroic enough – its decisions were draconian by orthodox standards and its advisers were pleased. Labor was also frightened by the demons of revolt from its base and a community backlash. Hawke and Keating depicted themselves as bold warriors. But history will record that the times demanded more and would have given more.

Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty, 1992, p227.

To many Australian of my age (born in the 1960s), who were forming into adults in the 1980s, this quote from the end of a critical chapter in journalist Paul Kelly’s epic bildungsroman of the Australian Labor Party’s modernisation of the Australian economy, will trigger memories of a set of key events, narrative sequences and political dramatis personae. The ‘banana republic’ referred to here is a dystopian warning that treasurer Paul Keating dispatched, speaking on the phone to the king of talk-back radio in Australia at the time, John Laws, in 1986. Having instituted a ‘clean float’ of the Australian currency on the international exchange markets in late 1983, Australia’s integration into global finance markets now provided a moment by moment measurement of the nation’s economic performance and worth: the price of the $A. Combined with those stubbornly residual national accounts measures, which the Keynesian era had provided, such as the balance of trade, the current and capital accounts, foreign debt, Keating in 1986 judged the signs of national economic prospects to be quickly darkening. The storm warning transmitted on a nationally syndicated morning radio show in 1986, predicted landfall at Argentina if the ship of state wasn’t decisively and quickly steered away from that regressive land.

The notion of a banana republic, a nation-state prone to military dictatorships and juntas, surviving, for the few, on precarious agricultural production, forever in debt to the developed world, was the dystopian destination coiled in the storm warning Keating employed to legitimate how and where the ship of state must now be steered: into rougher, but ultimately more prosperous, international waters. If Australia, and we are talking about Australia, was not to be a banana republic, what then was it to be?

Kelly makes it clear that history itself found that the efforts made to steer away from this dystopia didn’t meet its demands. That, instead of ultimately averting the banana republic the possibility, unfortunately, lingers (in 1992).

These are understandable yet odd claims made by Paul Kelly, who has become highly influential as a political commentator, working both in the production of extended historical narratives like The end of certainty, and more tightly as editor-at-large for Rupert Murdoch’s national broadsheet The Australian. It is understandable that Kelly would make such grand claims about a history which he knows in so much as his historiography is political in very specific ways. Kelly, in the passage cited above, is actually asserting that it is the times, anthropomorphised here as that ‘subject’ (collective or singular, we aren’t told) which made a demand which wasn’t fully supplied, or complied with.

How can Kelly claim to know not only what History will record but what the times demanded? It’s instructive to turn back a few pages in this chapter to find the figure of this position from which such a judgement is made: it is the jury of the international markets – an anthropomorphised collective subjectivity that makes judgements like a judicial operative. That the markets are to be figured as subjective is one astonishing trope, but that a market (which is itself a moment in which the commodity form exists – that moment at which demand and supply come to terms and perform an exchange) is not an army, a general giving orders, a bureaucrat administering statutory regulations, but a jury is a key trope in what Kelly is performing in his political narrative (political both in subject and purpose). For to ascribe the clear, eye and ear of a jury to what the times demanded, and further, to what the times demanded as being that which history will record, is to suggest that the markets are a jury: comprised of regular, ordinary citizens, who will adjudge the evidence, and hear testimony and argument, who will be directed by judges, and who will reach either a majority or unanimous verdict. When Kelly writes that the times demanded more, he infers that the markets demanded more . . . that, indeed, what the ‘markets’ demanded was more deregulation (particularly of the labour market), less public spending. What was demanded was undersupplied – that is why History is able to record a deficit in political will and action; a surplus of Labourism’s sentimental traditionalism.

Kelly’s narrative may seem reasonable from out perspective, after 10 years of neo-conservative governance: a neo-conservatism that has its own Australian aspects. But it might be useful to ask not only from where Kelly’s narrative/ historical writing voices its certainty (one of the unintentional ironies, surely, here is the paradox of an age of uncertainty, so certainly described and above all judged by history’s magisterial, almost moral, eyes and ears) but more importantly from when (in other words is there a type of temporal structure – a chronotope?). And here’s the clue: Kelly writes that ‘the times demanded more’. This is an odd anthropomorphism when analysed as a clause. However, the concept that distinct times make distinct demands, even at a national, or even international, level is a commonplace notion: it is a notion that forms a fundamental operation in political rhetoric, and it is also an emblem of a narrative genre: the coming of age genre – the Bildungsroman. For to meet the demands of the times, or of an age, is effectively to come of age – to become integrated into the age, and in so making this accommodation, to accept ‘reality’, or to develop realism.

Kelly’s bildungsroman (of course, The end of certainty, is more than this) is classical in the two ways of the progenitor of the genre (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship): the self forms a mature identity both through self integration and through integration with the world. In Kelly’s Bildungsroman Keating plays out the role of Wilhelm, but we are stuck in the transition phase, and Keating’s time at the helm is not yet secured. Kelly, perhaps, is speaking from the Tower Society, The end of certainty the book of Keating’s life – the instruction manual necessary to complete the formation. But alongside Keating is the nation itself – the body politic – which is to be reformed, modernised, to grow out of both its previous generation (the Menzies generation which is like the ancien regime: lethargic, rigidified, sclerotic, closed, old, no longer flexible and efficient, protean and creative, confident and outward looking), and also its youthful, adolescent phase (the Whitlam era: crazy mad, rushing, self-indulgent, experimental, idealist).

As mentioned above Kelly can’t write a classical(and thereby closed) Bildungsroman as his central subjects – Keating & Australia – are still being re-formed/ developed, modernised. The economic realism, which Kelly has made his peace with, has formed him as an individual. His writing, his textuality, his rhetoric is a performance of his maturity – he has integrated politics with economics and found a realism from which to articulate the zeitgeist (the times) as that which the jury of the international markets had judged Australia’s political elite and found that its demands were not fully met! Writing in 1992 the nationl re-formation (the necessary breaking of the Australian settlement) is a becoming that has a telos, a set of destinations. These end points, as Meaghan Morris following Annie Cot argues, are utopian – endless economic growth, that doesn’t so much move towards filling, or closing, a lack, but rather creates and exacerbates the lack in the performance of a neo-conservative discourse. It is Grunge literature that captures some of this movement: rather than a dystopia, it is an atopia that emerges in the thematics of Australian grunge literature as that lack which neo-conservative discourse fuels. In grunge lit, rather than coming-of-age as individual subjects the transition from youth/ adolescence/ teenage to adulthood/ maturity is not only thwarted, it is instead refused, negated, caught in a feedback loop, stuck – the metamorphosis (itself a trope of re-generation) fails, becomes diseased and dies.

A significant strand in Kelly’s historical narrative is the notion, itself a key convention of the Bildungsroman, that political leaders rise into executive power due to the mis/fit between some innate personality trait and the character of the times: that the mixture of contingent circumstances combined with the ‘philosophies’ of the party leaders and challengers, must also align with a personality that fits the times, the party, the mood, the necessities and the constituencies (including business, international forces etc). Another way to put this is to say that a successful stateswoman or statesman will have a biography that maps not only the personal traits 'called-out' by the times, but that they will be able to persuade a majority to alter with the times. It’s no surprise then that Meaghan Morris, in her essay 'Ecstasy and economics', considers theories of immantentism and the aestheticisation of politics, largely through reference to Kelly’s previous portraits of Keating in The Hawke Ascendancy.

For what is subtextual in The end of certainty is the call of the times for a charismatic leader: a leader whose personality enables them to successfully lead (essentially to orchestrate a viable hegeharmonics, themselves), and whose individual formation has been tempered by a productive accommodation with global, post-Keynesian economic realism. Morris rejects Kelly's demand for a leader to suit the times, but not without first praising Kelly's skill in mise en scene, in religious allusion, and in portraiture. I add a skill in employing conventions in the Bildungsroman.