Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Land of Plenty

* This is not a review, but a series of reflections and questions based around Davis's previous writings and some of the comparisons that (early) promotion of The Land of Plenty makes with Donald Horne's The Lucky Country. It also looks at what I tend to think is the dominant and most influential 'history' of the 1980s: Paul Kelly's The End of Certainty and the now commonplace account of the 'dismantling' of the Australian Settlement that Kelly's tome introduced into Australian political culture. *

Mark Davis wrote one of the more interesting cultural studies of the 1990s with his Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism. This book was part-polemic and part-analysis and forensic detective work in tracking the discourse of generationalism in Australian political culture (and cultural politics). In this work Davis made the tentacles of what he calls liberal-literary establishment coteries visible: the who (yes he names names) and how of the circulation and consecration of novels, memoirs and essays, for example. Davis's thesis is that the gatekeepers of cultural power in Australia are not so much old (read Baby Boomers) as fostering an echo chamber within which only 'old' ideas and technologies circulate. The effect of this gatekeeping is a blanket lockdown that privileges new conservatism (largely imported from the 1980s US Culture Wars) and White middle class liberalism over other identity groups, knowledges, social formations and over other forms of culture, like hip hop and Grunge fiction.

Davis is an engaging and persuasive essayist, who is able to explain and sketch complex ideas like postmodernism quickly and clearly. His new work is about to be released and according to the Melbourne University Press website that hosts a multi-media promotion-blog-education portal for the book - The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s - this work aims to be The Lucky Country of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Whether or not Davis's new book performs the same sort of role as Donald Horne's critical expose of a wasteful, lethargic, privileged Australia of the 1950s and 1960s remains to be seen. Davis's is one of the most engaging public intellectual voices of the 1990s and the book's release should see discussion and conversations revolve around it. If Gangland is anything to go by TLoP should be informative and engaging, and sure to ignite some serious stoushes amongst the intelligentsia: from the early reviews and from what I've heard on the academic grapevine there is a forensic 'genealogy' of the production, circulation and consecration of New Right and neoliberal commonsense about market rationalities and the links between freedom and enterprise in the book. This is needed although I would expect to see some attention also paid to the articulation of such neoliberal rationalities and forms of governmentality to Labourist and so-called Left formations, otherwise these debates are a form of Left melancholy which position the 'Right' as the receptacle and source of all that is evil (and thereby assume that the Left is valued by default). Although written from an American standpoint Wendy Brown's work on Left Melancholy and Mourning is a useful antidote to the sort of left populism that can sometimes fixate on the evils of a homogeneous Right, thereby avoiding the working through that the loss of even Liberalism itself might require. Again this is an American debate with some resonances into Australian politial culture and also Brown's writing needs to be contextualised against the post-September 11 and Iraq invasion triumphalism of the neo conservative project.

I think Davis is right that something profound in the Australian ethos was lost in the 1980s-90s, and that Left-progressive politics was unable to revitalise this ethos (the egalitarian ethos) or propose a new version of it. That said, as these debates around definitions of neoliberalism increasingly circulate the Foucauldian understanding of neoliberalism as a political rationality, as a set of techniques for the conduct of the self (self as entrepreneurial and self as an enterprise) needs to be heard amongst what is really a debate over the Liberal conception of the relationship between the State and civil society/rights-bearing individuals. In other words calls for a 'return' to a more regulative and interventionist state to intercede with protections and opportunity-building capacities between teh market and individuals is really an intra-Liberal debate: effectively rehearsing the Nineteenth Century debates between the New Liberalism (in Australia a.k.a Social Liberalism) and Classical Liberalism.

Obviously these debates are needed,and surely they are tapping into and forming a dialogue with another tradition:the Labourist tradition in Australia, a tradition to which, I would argue, the Social Liberal one was articulated in the form of the centrality of the Arbitration Court and in particular the long post-Federation consensus over the Living (White Male) Wage as the cornerstone of social citizenship in Australia. That consensus started to come apart for a variety of reasons in the period that Horne's book surveys, but its egalitarian ethos remains a residual cultural memory which was seen in the importance of the Unions' campaign against the Howard Government's anti-egalitarian WorkChoices legislation.

I hope, however, that debates over the issues that Davis's book is bound to raise involve a more critical look at what has become the commonsense use of Paul Kelly's notion of the 1980s being the decade in which the Australian Settlement was dismantled. My main critique of this notion is that it is embedded in Kelly's teleological story of the modernisation of the Social-Liberal-Labourist consensus and is effected through a national coming-of-age narrative structure: how Australia matures, leaves home, opens it self to the world, revitalises, grows up . . . .

The problem is that this generic structure issues its narrative perspective from a future anterior: a beforeness which already knows what the shape of the future is. This temporality can also be called a teleological tautology: pretending that the End of a story is not known while shaping the narrative towards it. Kelly's narrative of the Hawke-Keating Government as the terminal demolition point of the exhausted (read inward, childlike, scared) Deakinite Settlement is also an insertion of the End-point of national governance firmly into the perspective of the so-called global financial markets. What I mean is that amongst the detailed insider political details that fill The End of Certainty there is a Bildungsroman narrating device used with which Kelly's authoritative evaluative author-persona slides into the author-persona of 'the markets' which will already have known what government should've done. So, in Rudd-ese How do we know Australia came of age in the 1980s? We know because the markets made the judgement from the position of . . .
And there lies the rub because financial capital markets have strange, complex temporalities. Not simple teleological ones. More like a perpetual youthfulness than any permanent transition. Settlements are struck constantly, Kelly ignores the post-War Keynesian welfare state settlement and that the social movements of Feminism, Indigenous rights, GLBT and the ecological movement achieved some articulation to Labourism from the 1960s onwards.

If Davis is right that we need a popular critique of market conservatism then surely we also need positive narratives and projects that provide linguistic ecologies in which to live: ones that subsume Kelly's dry continent would be a good start. Or as Boris Frankel put it at the beginning of the long-boom From the Prophets Deserts Come (1992).

*An issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science (39.1 2004) devoted itself to taking Kelly's heuristic to task. The first missive in this Australian Settlement Symposium was from Geoffrey Stokes here. Other critiques can be found sprinkled around the place: James Walter in his Tunnel Vision: the Failure of Political Imagination (1996), Tim Rowse in his essay ”The Social Democratic Critique of the Australian Settlement” in the It's Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor (2003) collection, Peter Beilharz's review of The End of Certainty in ABR 148 (February-March 1993).

Some of Davis' more recent writing on the Australian Literary Field are linked to at the sidebar of this blog.

No comments: