Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sataurday Morning Musings - end of the culture wars

Photo: I am indebted to Gordon Smith for this photo of the dogwood in flower. For an indication of scale, look at the mosquito top right. I have included the photo as a reminder to myself of the beauty in small things.

Interesting post during the week from John Quiggin, What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

I agree with him on some points. I think that the Australian electorate has moved on. I agree with his opinions on some of the right wing commentators. However, I also felt that there was an element of condescension, even triumphalism, in his comments that irritated me. For that reason, I wanted to put something of a counter view.

The difficulty to my mind with the so-called culture wars including the associated history wars is that they mixed together very different things.

Economic and Social Change

Just focusing on Australia, the 1970's, 80's and 90's were a period of great social, cultural and economic change.

In 1970, the welfare state and the Australian social contract were still in place. 4% was seen as a high unemployment rate. Employment was still seen in lifetime terms.

Even though change had already begun, the Australian economy still operated within a web of controls with a dual economic structure: on one side, an export oriented mining and agricultural sector, on the other inward looking manufacturing and service sectors.

All this vanished over the next thirty years in a long wave of fundamental structural change, a wave that created a differential pattern of winners and losers. Economists tend to talk in terms of aggregates and averages. Yet you can only really understand change when you look at the impact on the ground.

To illustrate with just one example. The spread of IT combined with new managerial approaches led to massive organisational restructuring. The benefits that this might offer in aggregate terms through greater productivity is small consolation to a regional community that has seen the loss of its telecoms jobs, its banks, its Government offices, its local electricity authority.

Shorter term fluctuations moved around this long wave. Each decade saw a period of economic downturn, adding to the individual woes of many. Many experienced great emotional and financial hardship.

As an example, I worked briefly as an outplacement consultant after we first moved to Sydney. One case that stands out in my mind is the sixty year old upper middle management bank worker who had worked with the one bank since leaving school. Retrenched, he was struggling to put his life back together again in the middle of a still tough labour market.

Economic change combined with social and cultural change. As part of this, a growing gap opened up between what we can loosely call "official" views and those of many in the Australian community. I do not want to get sidetracked here. My only point is that, as I see it, there was a growing gap.

Ideological Wars

All this provided a fertile Australian field for ideological wars. Looking at these as a social commentator, I have some difficulty in disentangling four very different if interlinked threads.

The first is changing views on management, including the importation of those ideas into the public sector. This is an area I have written a fair bit about, so will not repeat the arguments. The key thing from my present viewpoint is that, among other things, this has influenced the language of public debate as well as the frame in which the debate has been held.

The second is changing views on the role of the state and of the relationship between state and individual. Again I have written a fair bit about this. Without wanting to parody the views of the right wing commentators too much, they have argued that Government must get out of people's lives and activities, leaving as much as possible to the private sector. They also tend to be great exponents of the adoption of private sector and market principles in the public sector.

Paradoxically, the period of dominance of their ideas has been marked by a great expansion in state control and authoritianism. The reason for this is that the "right" in fact contains a number of very different idea streams: cold war warriors jostle with those whose focus is on state reduction and reform, libertarians jostle with social conservatives and with populists. Just as the left has fragmented, so has the right.

The third thread is changing attitudes towards work and society. Business and Government have told people that they must be responsible for themselves, the social contract has changed. The problem both now face is that we have taken them at their word. We have to look out for ourselves.

The final thread, perhaps the most complex one, is the way in which particular things have become symbols in the debate and conflict of ideas. This where the culture and history wars fit in. The culture wars have little to do with culture, the history wars little to do with history. Rather, they have become symbols around which a whole series of conflicting ideas swirl.

End of the Culture Wars

In the midst of all this, the Australian people have moved on, to the sometimes distress of both left and right. Key to this is the fact that we have had a long period of sustained economic growth.

Mr Howard won his first election because he correctly judged the changing mood of the Australian people, including the distress felt by many about change. He will lose this election because he, and especially the ideologues surrounding the Government, are out of touch and now appear old-fashioned and irrelevant.

To my mind, Mr Howard's greatest success lay in the fact that he brought Australia time, allowing previous divisions to heal. This is an area where I think that Dr Quiggan and I would be on opposite sides of the fence. He and some of his commentators appear to think that One Nation was an unrepresentative aberration, instead of a lightning rod for a far wider view.

For their part, many Labor supporters are looking forward to a Rudd victory, but worry about the conservatism of the party and of the electorate. To some degree, they have a right to worry. To my mind, the Australian electorate has moved decisively to the right.

At the same time, the electorate has put aside many (most?) of the issues that have dominated the previous period. They no longer matter.

For my part, I welcome this. I am so bored with topics like the culture wars. I am really looking forward to something new.


Anonymous said...

This post is more than mere musings. Throughout you maintained a fact-based, balanced and subtle argument. Two points which resonate are the observations regarding the movement of the electorate to the right; and the paradox that a Canberra Liberal party government has increased state control and authoritianism.

Thank you.

Your secret admirer

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, SA. I really appreciate this comment.

I do struggle with the fact that on every dimension the standard tests show that I have moved to the left.In some areas I have - no one should remain static - but in most areas I have not. The electorate has shifted around me.

I also struggle with state control and authoritarianism. It's not just the Liberal-NP government. They have carried it forward. But I see it every day in my ordinary working life.

I am about to put a short post up on this.