Friday, December 28, 2007

Deconstructing the Culture Wars - a personal aide memoire

Note to readers. This post is very much a personal perspective. At the end I have added a short personal note so that my own biases are clear.

I read John Quiggin's post The Culture War - Time to Mop Up and the 91 or so comments it attracted with mild interest, but also with a degree of confusion.

I suppose that one of my problems here is that I have rarely read the commentators on either side of the apparent debate. I just haven't been very interested in what appeared to be almost theological discussions. Where I have become involved in discussions linked to the culture wars, there has usually been some form of direct personal interest in the topics under discussion. Further, my focus has tended to be on what I saw as longer term trends and issues.

The post that follows is an attempt to disentangle some of the threads as I see them in the culture wars and to put them into a context. I am sure that I will get things wrong, so the post should really be read as an aide memoire to myself, things for further thought.

Dr Quiggin's War Fronts

Dr Quiggin suggests that there have been two fronts to the culture wars, US/international and domestic.

On the US side, Dr Quiggin wrote:

The first is the global battle of US Republicans, supported by an international ‘coalition of the willing’, against just about everyone else in the world, on just about every topic. The battle starts with the premise that the values and beliefs of the US ‘heartland’ are superior to all others, and should be imposed upon everyone else. The big battlefronts recently have included climate change, the Iraq war, gay marriage, pro-rich (but not particularly pro-market) economic policies, and creationism (aka intelligent design).

He goes on:

From the end of the Cold War to 9/11 and the early days of the Bush Administration, the Republican culture warriors were convinced that they held the Mandate of Heaven. (For the ideological shock-troops, largely ex-Trotskyists, this was a simple shift from one form of dogmatic historicism to another). But, ever since the wheels came off the Iraq venture, they’ve been losing ground on one front after another. On climate change and a whole range of scientific issues, they’ve fought reality and lost. The alliance of fundamentalist Christianity and pro-Mammon economic policy is fracturing. And the spectacular incompetence of the Bush Administration has undermined faith across the board.

Dr Quiggin clearly has serious reservations about the Republican Party in general and the Bush administration in particular! He goes on:

The second front is domestic and reflects the hangovers from disputes that took place late last century. The biggest source of fuel was Paul Keating’s brief and opportunistic embrace of a range of ‘progressive’ causes between 1993 and 1996, which only succeeded in attaching his immense personal unpopularity, derived from the ‘recession we had to have’, to these causes, including proposals for a republic and for reconciliation with indigenous Australians.

For the real hardcore, this is wrapped up with a range of resentments going back decades. In its final term, the Howard Cabinet put a lot of energy into ‘voluntary student unionism’, which essentially amounted to settling scores its members had racked up as student politicians in the 1970s...

This post is not an attack on Dr Quiggin or his views. However, his two fronts do provide a useful entry point for our discussion because he is, I think, representative of one side of the war.

Changing Views on Government and the Role of Public Administration

In considering Dr Quiggin's comments on the US, I think it helpful to clearly distinguish between two things: the nature of the ideas involved and the very particular approach of the Bush administration. The two are connected, but still very different.

Back in March 2006, I started consolidating my various posts on changing approaches to public administration. I realise that I have still to finish this, but you can find the entry post here.

I mention these posts for a number of reasons.

To begin with, if you look at both sides of the culture wars and especially those on the right, you will see that ideas about the role of the state, about public policy and economics form one key element in the argument. I was going to say discussion, but at times there has been precious little discussion in the midst of the argument. You will also see that there were global changes in thought, of which the US was just an element.

The 1970s were, I think, the critical decade. Faced by international economic turmoil, this was a decade in which previously dominant paradigms (welfare state, Keynsian economics) collapsed to be replaced by others (dominance of neo-classical economics, power of the market, international competition and economic restructuring, limitations on state activism, Thatcherism and the New Zealand model etc).

These were international movements, whose form varied to some degree from country to country. The primary US intellectual influence lay, at least as I see it, in economics, in Friedman, monetarism and, to a lesser degree outside the US, supply side economics.

This US intellectual influence in economics reached Australia during the seventies and found a home, especially in the Commonwealth Treasury. Then, during the second half of the eighties, we had the progressive importation of approaches to new public administration linked to the New Zealand model.

Some of these developments were internalised, becoming for better and worse, the new status quo in Government and politics. Others created a divide, a divide that formed part of the base for the culture wars. Here the Whitlam period (1972-1975) was very important.

I will talk a little later about other elements of the Whitlam period. So far as public policy is concerned, the Whitlam Government was both sometimes chaotic and, to a degree, schizophrenic in that it combined economic reform with old fashioned ideas out of Labor's past. The combination acted to reinforce both distrust about the role of Government and a desire for reform. The subsequent Fraser Government (1975-1983) reinforced this because it was seen by many as old-fashioned, resistant to change.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that many who were to become right wing warriors were involved during this period as economics advisers (John Stone, Des Moore in Treasury, Alan Moran in Trade and then Industry and Commerce), as commentators (Paddy McGuinness) or in student politics (Tony Abbott).

This group had a natural empathy for the new models of public administration. Again, it is no surprise that it should be the Liberal Premiers Griener (NSW) or Kennett (Victoria) who first tried to put the ideas into practice. However, it was industrial relations that provided a key catalyst to the formation and extension of right wing positions.

The new Hawke Government (1983) was a reformist Government that was to make enormous progress in reforming the economy. However, it was also a Government that worked in close liaison with the Trade Union Movement. Progress was simply too slow for those wishing to make radical reform, especially in the industrial relations arena.

I do not want to go through the whole history here. Instead, I will take just one event, the formation of the H R Nicholls Society at the end of 1985 to campaign for changes to the industrial relations system. Those involved were John Stone, former Secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury; one Peter Costello, a Melbourne barrister, Barrie Purvis, the Director of the Australian Wool Selling Brokers' Employers' Federation; and Ray Evans, Executive Officer at Western Mining Corporation Limited.

The new society became a key vehicle around which right wing reformers gathered, one attacked by those on the other side of politics.

The 1993 Federal election was the clearest expression of the conflict in ideas in that Liberal Leader John Hewson fought and lost the apparently unloosable contest on a radical reform platform.

The key point I am trying to make in this brief history is that the wars of the Howard period, including the culture wars, were a natural extension of a change process dating back at least to the 1970s, not simply a US importation from the recent past.

The Role of Religion

It is clear from Dr Quiggin's post, and especially the comments on that post, that religion is seen as a key element in the culture wars. I really struggle with this one.

Put aside, for the moment, US developments and look at Australian history since the Second World War. I have debated with Neil Whitfield the question as to whether Australia was ever a Christian country. Put this aside too and look just at the Christian Churches in Australia.

Growing up, I attended Methodist Sunday School and the Methodist Church. I went to an Anglican school and on holidays I stayed with a friend whose Dad was an Anglican minister. At University I was a member of the Student Christian Movement, Methodist Youth Fellowship and also attended Evangelical Union functions.

I make this point only because the issues that the Christian Churches of all types discuss today seem to me to be very similar to those discussed in the past. What has changed is the responses of society. Society has shifted around the Churches. Again, the 1970s appear to be the shift decade.

In all this, I struggle to see a distinctively US influence as compared to local responses to local changes. I feel, I may be wrong, that the real significance of the religious issue so far as the culture wars are concerned is the fact that it has acquired special symbolic importance to one side of the debate.

The Pressures of Change

One thing that I think that Dr Quiggin misses in his comment on the culture wars is the way in which they became a symbolic response to broader economic, social and cultural change. This cannot simply be dismissed as a response to Paul Keating, although he rubbed a raw nerve.

I have written a fair bit about this and will no doubt write more. At this point I would only note that Mr Howard's stated intent to restore stability, his appeal to the past, resonated far more broadly than Dr Quiggin appears to allow. I think that part of the reason that he went down at the end lay in his breach of his own stated intent.

Influence of the US - and end of the right wing warriors?

To my mind, both sides of the culture wars are fighting past battles, battles whose roots lie back in the sixties and especially the seventies. What, then, is the US influence in the Australian wars?

I think that we can look at this at two levels, the actual transmission of ideas and the local response to those ideas. Again to my mind, the second was far more important than the first. In simple terms, US politics and ideas came to play a domestic role independent of the ideas themselves.

I suspect that, looking back, 9/11 will become the defining event. In saying this, I am not talking about the broader significance of 9/11, but the Australian response.

I think that to Mr Howard 9/11 was not something that happened in another country, even a close friend and ally. It was something that happened to him because he was in Washington at the time.

We will have a better feel for this later when the archives are released. My view is that the events of the time generated a personal response that came to dictate later policy and especially the Howard/Bush relationship. In turn, this fed into the culture wars.

Can the right wing warriors survive as a source of influence now that Mr Rudd has been elected and the debate is moving on?

I would have said no, but now I am not sure. Here I think that the desire of those on the other side to continue, to press home the perceived advantage, to restore old agenda items, is likely to keep things bubbling on quite nicely.

Postscript: my own biases

Just to make my own position clear.

An economist and historian, I am not a right wing warrior, nor do I support the other side. I describe my own political tradition as Country Party or New England populist. This makes me very much a minority in political terms.

I worked in the Commonwealth Treasury until 1980 before moving to the Department of Industry and Commerce as their principal economist. From 1987 to 1996 I managed a consulting practice with a major public policy focus. So I was around for some of the events I have been talking about. However, my view remains partial, incomplete.


Lexcen said...

I had to race to Wikipedia only to confirm what I had suspected, and I quote "The culture war (or culture wars) in American usage is a metaphor used to claim that political conflict is based on sets of conflicting values. The term frequently implies a conflict between values considered traditional or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. The "culture war" is sometimes traced to the 1960s and has taken various forms since then."
So in fact it is an issue about traditional vs progressive thinking within a political framework. I don't like the Americanism "culture war" because it is misleading. Religion certainly does seem to have a much more significant influence in the lobby section of American politics than in Australia. I have no doubt that American values transfer to Australia very easily in that both societies measure wellbeing in terms of material wealth. On the other hand I doubt whether American conservatism does resonate with Australian values.

Jim Belshaw said...

I found this a very interesting comment, Lexcen, although it left me feeling further confused. Not, I hasten to add, because of any lack of clarity in your comment, but in the issues you raised.

I did some more web surfing after your comment arrived. From this, I get the very strong impression that the particular usage of the term "culture wars" in the way we are talking about is in fact largely unique to Australia and the US.

I further get the impresssion that the US and Australian "culture wars" are very different and that, measured by quantity of references by country, the total in Australia is very high compared to anywhere else, US included.

Not just high, overwhelming! Of the first 18 references on Google dealing with culture wars, 4 were US, 14 Australian! I am forced to the conclusion that the Australian "culture wars" have little to do with the US, everything to do with local issues.

I also suspect, and to check this I need to find the first uses of the term in Australia, that it was imported into local debate as a pejorative device.

All very interesting, because it fundamentally changes the social analysis.

Ronnie Ann said...

I found this post fascinating. Thanks! There are, of course, culture wars based on gender, religious, class, ethnic, etc. differences going on all over the world, but I never knew that the term itself seems to be most resonant in the U.S. and Australia.

Please know the culture wars are alive and well here in the U.S. where the rift is quite deep - with national polling since 2000 showing us split almost down the middle between the Republican and Democratic parties. In fact, the elections that brought the world Republican George W. Bush were extremely close on the popular vote. And, while their shenanigans at the polls may have actually turned the elections, the Republicans true genius was in pointing the national debate at these "values"-driven issues.

Some states were won by raising the fear of gay marriage and reminders about the "sin" of abortion and the dreaded belief in evolution that they claimed was a threat to religious life. The religious groups most electrified by these craftily-publicized issues turned out in droves. And thus,
the election went to the side that played most successfully on the fears of the people. Although the average American probably has views that encompass some of both parties, fear of the other is big here.

But the other cultural divide here is embodied in a less-government, more-for-me-and-mine (while you fend for yourself) philosophy championed by a corporate strangle-hold on lobbying (and therefore Congress) versus those of us who believe in a more "rational" capitalism that includes incentive and opportunity as well as the concern for very basic needs like food, housing, health care, and a safe environment for all.

So while those religion-based cultural divisions were the red flags used to get people to the polls, the real cultural divide here is between those who like to raise the specter of fear to keep control in the hands of a corporate-controlled oligarchy versus those of us who just want some honest discussions and policies that make sense for the country as a whole in the long run. Made more ironic by our public stance of democracy for all - at least when looking to nations we see as essential to our way of economic life - including those that will generate new open markets for us. Or so I see it.

While on the surface a lot of what's going on here appears theological in basis, I assure you money and visions of economic well-being are still at the root of the conflict - and this battle, while cloaked in past differences, is very much one of the present. At least that's how I see it.

Thanks for letting me add my two cents (which, thanks to our "conservative" Republican government, is now worth a whole lot less compared to other currencies!) And thanks again for your thought-provoking post, Jim. I appreciate learning about some of what is happening in your country, made more poignant to me by our "collaboration" in Iraq as well as your recent election.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for this very thoughtful contribution, Ronnie. And, by the way, I hope that you do not feel the need to give up blogging entirely!

If we put the religious issue aside, as indicated I think that this plays out differently in Australia, similar issues over the role of the state did play out in Australia. However, there is something interesting here.

The US and Australian discussions in this area actually form part of a broader global trend at least in Western countries. This something I tried to trace through in my discussions on changing approaches to public administration and their impact on public policy. We can actually see it in France at the present time.

You can see something similar in other areas like debate over migration, multiculturism etc.

If I am right here, and if I am right that the "culture wars" debate was really a US and Australian thing, then why? Am I also right in thinking that they were in fact two very different debates in Australia and the US, a difference concealed by the use of a common term?

More broadly, Australia and the US have always sat at different points on the individualist-collectivist spectrum. This one is interesting because this is one of the most common measures used to assess differences between cultures.

I think that both countries have moved further towards the individualist end, but the relative difference remains the same because the starting points were different.

Australians are fascinated by US politics. My whole family are west wing tragics! Part of the fascination lies in a world that is familiar yet so very different.

At some point, I must try to tease this out a little.

Hopefully in both countries we are seeing something of resurgence of collective care.