Australia shame

It’s nearly half a century since Humphrey McQueen published A New Britannia, his groundbreaking, transformative study of the complex entanglements of Australian nationalism and leftism over the course of a century — and of the way in which historians had conveyed them.

The book has many parts, and is a joy to read, but it has a simple core argument. The Australian left, including the Australian radical left, had for decades been drawing on a myth: that Australia was at heart a socialist and democratic polity, formed in the epic struggles of the last part of the 19th century, and that any departure from that — at the time, the gradual entry of American capital to local markets — was a fall, if not a Fall, away from our ideal state.

For McQueen, such conception of what was simply a capitalist state with distinct local features within a world system, condemned Australian leftism to a permanent state of nostalgia and mourning, and thus rendered a conservative and restorative movement. It was the overvaluing of a mythical past that made effective present action more difficult.

About a decade ago, leftist nostalgia appeared to be the least of our problems. The forgetting of any sort of history at all was the main issue, as cultural and identity politics began to come to the centre of what actually existing leftism was. But now something else has happened, and I think it’s time to remind ourselves of McQueen’s major point.

What’s happened is that this cultural/identity politics has fused with an overarching idea of Australia that has some features of the “New Britannia” model in calling on a mythical Australia to damn the present one. This is the chorus of people telling anyone who will listen that they are ashamed of their country, that Australia is a uniquely evil, racist nation, abolish the national day, they don’t deserve it, and so on. This in turn becomes a target for the right, and their kitsch about “western civilisation”, and then we get into what one might call the “Blainey calculus”, in which we keep a balance sheet of Aussie pros and cons: stump-jump plough, +5 points; Tasmanian genocide, -4 points, etc.

There is much being done by the Australian state and Australian agents to feel, for a moment, shame and disgust with, to be sure. For many of us, 40 and over, Australia today represents a fall away from a period — from the 1940s into the 1990s — when the general lean of the country was in a progressive, liberal and humane direction, whatever point it might have been starting from. As I’ve noted before, this phenomenon, across the world, was a long liberal arc, stemming from the collective struggle against radical evil that World War II had become, and continued by an alliance of a rising working class with a liberal section of the middle class on their way to becoming the knowledge class.

[This grinning racism doesn’t reflect ‘Australia’]

Yes, we are not that country now. Even if many institutions are more liberal now than they were then, they are so because of that process, and keeping them that way involves us in ceaseless defence tactics. In many other ways, we are cutting the other way. If Manus or Nauru had been tried in the way they are — the meting out of slow death and psychic torture — 30, 40 years ago, my God. There would be a union-wide ban on everything to do with it, marches in the streets, uproar in the government party, the works. If Channel Nine had bought Melbourne’s Gatwick Private Hotel after the residents had been turfed, and used it for a TV show, the Builders Labourers Federation would have green banned it, and done a concrete pour through the open window of the executive producer’s Mercedes, and the bastard would have deserved it. But these things wouldn’t have been tried — their grotesquery would have ruled them out.

The wearing away of that progressivism has been an effect of world shift — the atomisation via technology and a revived neoliberalism. But in Australia it has connected with elements that were already here, as part of a settler capitalist heritage. Thus we are no longer turning a blind eye to the “hunting party” massacres of Indigenous Australians that went into the 1930s — but our indifference to the disastrous gap in Indigenous and non-Indigenous health cuts with that grain. More money would ameliorate a lot of these problems in a trice. When remote-area white people got sick we invented the Royal Flying Doctor Service — how expensive was a goddamn house call in a plane? When black people get renal failure we can’t state-fund mobile dialysis. That is a racism of process pure and simple.

But to rend one’s garments over this and a hundred other things, and construct them as authored acts of evil is, perversely, to play the same game as the right — to construct an imaginary Australia of the “fair go”, uninfected by the real world, that we have fallen away from. Who are we worse than? European nations authoring total genocides within living memory? Sweden, inventor of biological racism? The US, which executes teen criminals? The UK, whose ruling class destroyed its cities to destroy working class politics? New Zealand — ok, we’re worse than New Zealand.

This has now become a counterproductive gotcha game in which white progressives outbid themselves in damning the place in a way that not only exaggerates malign political processes, but gives an entirely distorted picture of how they fit into larger world trends. To point that out is then held to be special pleading.

Quite aside from giving an incorrect picture of the world, the “shame” position — held programmatically, beyond momentary sentiment — is not one that can be sustained for long. The ego, whether individual or collective, must, to survive, reassert its autonomy, and that creates a reactive narcissism. That is exactly what has been happening on the Australian right now, and it would eventually happen on the progressive side, albeit in a different way.

Shame is an invitation to withdraw from collective national life altogether, into a class/group narcissism. The energy that would flow into politics is then reflowed into art, private life, self-cultivation. I suspect we have already seen the beginnings of this, and it explains various disjunctive events: many thousands of people marching down from their million dollar homes in Northcote and Brunswick to a January 26 abolish Australia Day rally, and cheering someone calling to “burn Australia down”, before going off to a $30 breakfast and a film at the Nova, would be an example.

The failure of “New Britannia” in the 19th century led a group of radicals to decamp for Paraguay and create “New Australia”. That is where many progressives are today; their own private Paraguay, taking their disengagement from their own nation as both a necessary and sufficient political act; an expression of virtue.

It ain’t, and Australia ain’t a uniquely evil place either — how many people, I wonder, have tweeted such sentiments from bloody Berlin, Melbourne North? We work with the progressive currents of our history, against its particular failings, make small advances where we can, and seize what opportunities for big initiatives come along. In pursuing that in a clear-eyed and reflexive fashion, the last thing we can afford is the luxury and self-flattery of shame.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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