Neo-conservatism’s implosion

In his speech to the National Press Club on Australia Day eve last year, Prime Minister John Howard reflected on what he called the ‘irony’ of people wanting to become Australians in citizenship ceremonies when there is no agreed-upon definition of ‘Australianness’. In Mr Howard’s words, ‘no institution or code lays down a test of Australianness. Such is the nature of our free society’.

This aversion to defining Australianness has been a theme of Mr Howard’s prime ministership. In his 1997 Australia Day speech, for example, Howard criticised national navel-gazing as an arrogant past-time of an out of touch elite:

The symbols we hold dear as Australians and the beliefs that we have about what it is to be an Australian are not things that can ever be imposed from above by political leaders of any persuasion. They are not things that can be generated by [a] self-appointed cultural elite who seek to tell us what our identity ought to be. Rather they are feelings and attitudes that grow out of the spirit of the people.

The recently proposed citizenship test, suggests a change of heart on the part of the prime minister. Freedom, it seems, can go hang. Having spent more than ten years on the prime ministerial throne, Mr Howard now seems to think that he has our measure sufficiently as to decree what it means to be Australian on our behalf.

Up to a point, anyhow. If the recent Australia Day speeches are any indication, the prime minister is having some trouble finding a suitably uplifting and inspiring idea of what it means to be Australian. His 2007 speeches read like someone at a barbeque holding forth on the greatness of their country, admitting that it has flaws, but then, lest anyone with an informed view ask about those flaws, rushing on to say that the bad bits are massively outweighed by the good bits, and are immaterial anyhow.

To wit:

We believe very strongly in a free press. There are some of us on occasions who feel a little uncomfortable about the way in which certain ways in which that freedom is expressed, but we wouldn’t have it otherwise because it is fundamental to our democratic way of life.

History came in for similar treatment. ‘We can debate our history, as we should,’ counselled Mr Howard, but then quickly qualified his worthy gesture towards frank and open discussion about our past by adding:

…but fundamentally the verdict of history is that Australia has been a remarkable success and we have built in this country a great nation, an outward looking nation, a very generous nation and a nation that holds tenaciously to the view that we should play our part as a good international citizen.

And, as if channelling Tom Baker’s comic paeans to the greatness of Britain at the beginning of Little Britain, Howard closed with: ‘It’s a wonderful nation, it’s the greatest on the earth, we think we’re pretty good and we are’.

There is more than a hint of desperation in Mr Howard’s newfound eagerness to get into the business of defining the national identity. To some extent, this is a reflection of conservative’s discomfit at speaking the nation. Beyond clichés, conservatives are not well equipped to talk about — much less forge — a sense national identity. For conservatives, national identity is an organic artefact, something that emerges through a mysterious process of nature, which for the most part it is best not to investigate too deeply. Consciously talking about national identity is to be studiously avoided, since it might bring to light the fact that national identity and nations aren’t facts of nature but continually have to be created and re-created. To use Howard’s words, quoted above, national identity is constituted through the ‘feelings and attitudes that grow out of the spirit of the people’.

But even taking into account the innate aversion of conservatives to talking about the nation, Howard’s clumsy foray into the discussion of national identity points to a deeper problem with his particular brand of conservatism — neo-conservatism — namely, an inability to articulate, much less deal with, the contradictions of holding together a socially conservative world view with the neo-liberal project. While national identity comes apart at the seams, transfigured by the global market, the idea of the nation welling up organically from the hearts and minds of Australians takes on an aura of unreality.

The desperateness that suffuses Howard’s entry into the debate about national identity illustrates the poverty of language and ideas that is one consequence of the attempt to weld social conservatism to the neo-liberal project. The merging of the neo-liberal project with social conservativism, neo-conservatism has cannibalised the animating concepts that gave life to the traditions it seeks to blend.

For the most part, neo-conservatives have been able to avoid the poverty of their politics through a strategy of diversion: narrowing politics down to the questions of consumption, seen for example through the real estate and commodity boom and, more ominously, into time-worn forms of fear-mongering, exemplified by such tactics as playing on fears, encouraging xenophobia and projecting problems into the cultural sphere — hence the culture and history wars.

A clutch of new issues and problems have exhausted that strategy, exposing the inability of neo-conservative language and philosophical equipment to confront contemporary realities.

The environmental crisis is one example. Howard, it might be recalled, began 2006 as a sceptic of global warming, and as late as early February 2007 was claiming that the jury was still out on the link between human activities and global warming — a statement he later retracted, more because of its political unsustainability than a change in his belief. More recently, federal finance minister Nick Minchin tried to place scepticism about human-induced global warming at the centre of Australian identity with his claim that ‘scepticism is one of the all-time great Australian attributes’. At this rate, it won’t be long before concern about global warming is being derided as un-Australian.

In the past, conservatives had recourse to notions of ‘stewardship’ and ‘conservation’ to address environmental concerns. While often shot through with class privilege, such notions nevertheless offered a means by which to speak and think about human impacts on the human world. Neo-conservative’s marriage of social conservatism with the neo-liberal project put a stop to that, as seen, for example, in the unwillingness of both the Howard Government and the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to consider cuts to carbon emissions that might alter our present lifestyle.

In a similar way, traditional liberal ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘individual rights’ have been trashed to preserve the image of Howard as an upholder of law and order. The threadbare arguments and desperate, tortuous phrasing extends to the justification for war in Iraq to the absurd arguments defending the continued incarceration of Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks, who, according to the US military prosecutors, does not need to be bought before a court of law to prove his guilt. In a return to pre-liberal notions of justice, the fact that Hicks was captured in Afghanistan by US forces is, apparently, sufficient proof of his guilt.

While it may be too early to bury neo-conservatism, the signs are that it is imploding as it eats away at its own foundations. The question is what comes next and how much will have to be salvaged and re-built when the implosion is complete. If the challenges of the global climate crisis and the war in Iraq are to be addressed, not to mention facing up to the truths of our history, it will have to be something more and something better than the inane self-congratulation expressed in Howard’s ‘we think we’re pretty good and we are’.

Christopher Scanlon is co-editor of Arena Magazine.

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