Federation and All That

No one seemed to be very surprised when the New Year’s Federation celebrations turned out to be something of a fizzer — an underwhelming gathering of besuited worthies attended by small numbers of the general public. Everything about the event seemed destined to bring about disappointment. Despite strenuous attempts to foreground the cultural and popular side of the Federation process, to make visible the fact that it was a political achievement rather than a foregone conclusion, the audience has remained sceptical.

That it was a political achievement is undeniable, and the event has been useful as a point at which to uncover the buried history of national debates, especially around issues of free trade and protection. But it wasn’t an achievement of the political imagination in the same way as the American or French revolutions were, or any occasion of independence in which nationhood was wrested from an oppressor, or brought together by a fusion of demands and possibilities, of the real and the ideal. To unite six colonies founded by the same imperial power on a single continent does not begin to compete with the Bastille or the Long March, and people are well aware of the fact.

The event itself was the least disruptive sort of independence possible — the declaration of limited dominion status, with continued domination by Westminster on matters of trade policy and foreign affairs, and the persistence of the Privy Council as a final court of appeal. Even the timing of the event — the first day of a new century — makes it look more like an exercise in book-keeping rather than nation-making. What was widely understood at the time to be an act of continuity with the British Empire is being retroactively redefined as the first in a chain of events whose logical conclusion is the declaration of a republic.

The ‘Federalists’ are trying to revive a sense of nationhood in the political dimension, by reminding people that part of their identity is a politically constituted one. As global neoliberalism proceeds apace — to the point where it has taken on the neutralised term of ‘globalisation’ — and party politics flows towards a unitary centre, the realm of nationhood has been driven back into the purely symbolic, and attached primarily to sport. The double whammy — the retreat of national political and economic independence, and the expansion of purely symbolic nationalism to fill the vacuum — is far from uniform. The success of One Nation — and its potential rebirth — is indicative that there are social groups for whom a sense of national identity exists in the old style, as a concrete myth fusing political history and symbols in a continuous narrative. Yet their appeal has been largely confined to a rural white population, and they have had little success in gaining a base in the industrial working class (though this will change if there is an economic downturn of any seriousness later in the year).

The ‘branding’ of Australia began in earnest in the 1970s, as a correlate to multiculturalism and the dissolution of an anglo-Celtic hegemonic culture. As other commentators here and elsewhere have noted, the ‘branding’ form of nationalism drew on a number of alleged national traits — an easygoing character, an enthusiasm for the ‘fair go’, a familiarity with striking nature — rather than on an internalised and widely shared national story. In the last decade or so it has been fused with the tourism industry for the sake of international ad campaigns, and played up as a contrast to the revived nationalisms and ethnic myths of the post-Cold war era.

Australia is, in this account, the post-national nation, a respite from the world, a place where people can relate to each other with total transparency, having rid themselves of the baggage of their ethnicity, retaining only that which is pleasantly different, such as cuisine and customs. This sense of the place as a new world destination which — unlike the US — does not impose a history of its own was behind the giddy suggestion that Sydney become the permanent venue for the Olympics, Australia as a place where the world comes to get away from itself. It was an image that was achieved only by a marginalisation of the most concrete and tragic narrative of all, that of Indigenous Australians — the masterstroke of which was the faux-naif ‘wonderland’ style of the opening ceremony.

The world as Alice, fallen into the South, where everything is upside-down and nations mock and satirise their own history at triumphal occasions — it is this sort of thing that Don Watson dubbed the ‘post-modern republic’ during his tenure as eminence brune for Paul Keating. Watson called for an ‘aleatoric, bebop’ republic, an improvised and open-ended form of national self-understanding. Such a nation would go beyond the US in identifying its character with a liberal polity — unlike the US it would not seek to impose a specific type of liberalism on individual citizens, but would foreground pluralism and respect for diverse and divergent cultural ways. The ‘Federalists’ have added a political theme to that vision which, at its most exuberant, amounts to the identification of an ‘Australian genius’ for peaceful nation-making.

Alas, Minerva’s wombat forages at night. The achievement of a post-modern nationalism occurs by the grace of a historical process which dismantles the foundations of the Nation — and the best and worst it can offer — in a fashion more comprehensive than the new nationalists realise. The global neoliberal order and its flows of capital, labour and images intersects with the self in a way that makes possible the post-modern national citizen, someone who understands their particular culture as no more than one way of being human, the equivalent of a preference for strawberry over chocolate. Yet at the same time it creates a different form of relationship between person, society, culture and nation, one in which groundedness plays less of a role.

By ‘groundedness’ of course we mean the material nature of community, not the ideal myths of Nation or Race. Social interdependence, limits to mobility and the particular nature of the locality have historically been key sources of cultural meaning and social being. Crude myths of Nation have always been ‘reverse engineered’ — a unified community invented to legitimise an existing polity. The attempt to create a non-National nation from a fusion of actually existing cultural attributes and pluralist liberal hopes is a worthier project, but one more likely to be defeated by its own paradoxes.

The cultural space within which the new nationalists seek to build can no longer be seen as a ‘wedding-cake’ structure in which a local cultural ground is overlaid with external mediated influences, be they British or American. Many core elements of social and cultural development — mass culture, curriculum, consumption — are now oriented to the development of the person as pre-globalised. Particular national identity comes as a mediated form — one’s flavour — but the core psychological structures are general and universal, the necessary hardware for global mobility and flexible work patterns. Real access to global options may vary, but the principle itself dominates aspirations, meanings and values. In fact those who gain the greatest class mobility from the process — working class children who gain a professional education — are the least likely to have any attachment to particular origins, at least in the first part of their adulthood.

This process of social development yields many paradoxical results. Those most likely to politically sympathise with the aspirations of indigenous people are those least likely to have a real and incommutable relationship to country. Those most opposed to indigenous struggles are more likely to have a — comparatively vestigial — sense of place. The desire for a grounded culture throws up absurdities, such as the search for an ‘Australian’ cuisine, in the absence of bounded cultural practices which bring cuisines into being.

On the ground, the downside of such a process is becoming increasingly visible — the combination of social-economic redundancy and cultural-psychological dysfunction. Politically, it presents us with multiple possibilities and few probabilities. As many have observed, our federal system is a fluid and open-ended form, which could be conducive to the most imaginative political developments. Currently much attention is focused on union with New Zealand — a clear mark that the relationship between culture and politics remains little understood. But there is no reason why other possibilities — the creation of new states to promote a renewed focus on regional and local economies, for example — could not come into play.

Yet there is little chance that they will. The Australian political framework resembles a cicada. The popular enthusiasm that made a constitution have now died away, leaving a constitution resistant to change, ruling a population whose identity is by and large not defined within politics. Thus Australians will stir themselves to reject an elitist model of a republic, but no subsequent positive campaign for an independently elected president takes root.

The hopes that the centenary of Federation would provide a springboard for political renewal are overwhelmingly the hopes of those who still work and think within a mindset that sees politics and history as occupying the same space. That does not mean that campaigns to re-extend the reduced scope of democracy within Australian life will not have some successes. But the causes that will move a mass of people to politics will not only be different to those of a hundred years ago — they will be of a fundamentally different form.

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