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Liberal nastiness

By Russell Marks - posted Thursday, 22 May 2008

Boris Frankel, who has been known to rail desperately against just about every development in academic thought in the humanities since the 1970s, called in 1992 for a new way forward - a way that would reject both New Right economic rationalism and the new “productive culture” being pushed by both major political parties and (through the Accord) the ACTU. At the heart of his rejection of 1980’s politics was his (moral) disgust at the amoralism of it all.

But at the end of his book, From the Prophets Deserts Come, a disarming conclusion: if his “alternative visions and practices fail to emerge, then don’t despair. It is most unlikely that Australian society will collapse altogether in catastrophe or crisis. Rather,” he prophesised, “it will just become nastier, more brutish, more demoralisingly devoid of civic morality and co-operation.

He added sardonically:


Of course, nothing that a good alarm system, police force and privatised prison system can’t deal with. Or perhaps, like millions of affluent Americans, you may be able to afford to live in private “villages” or suburbs where the “unpleasantness” of public squalor is kept at bay by private police forces.

If you are fortunate enough to have a full-time paid job or enjoy life-time training in the new “productive culture”, what you have to look forward to may be loss of environmental resources, urban blight, increased poverty and homogenised “cultural difference” through numerous media outlets.

But at least there will be consolations. When you are feeling a little depressed or bored, what a relief it will be to instantaneously tune in to all the new global channels in order to be comforted by the news that exactly the same types of socio-economic and environmental problems are confronting our “global competitors”.

Written, let’s remind ourselves, in 1992. Sure, it’s a cynical extension of any anti-modernist diatribe this side of Thoreau. It’s also a staggeringly accurate prophecy of the Howard Years, from the point of view of those who were repelled by him and his “Strong Leader” style.

But others, for whom Frankel’s paragraph makes little sense, were attracted to the Liberal Party during Howard’s reign.

“It’s no secret that healthy environments attract healthy people”, declares the author of a widely-read blog on the subject of effective leadership style. The vice versa truth is implicit. “You attract the people your system invites”, warns Bruce Wasserstein, CEO of the American investment bank Lazard.

It seems clear from the past week’s events that the Victorian Liberal Party is not a healthy organisation. A couple of 20-something “Dries” for whom “Red Ted” Baillieu’s leadership is as a rag to ideological bulls get busted for their disloyal website (stupidly traceable to their own computers). These guys joined the Liberal Party during the long Howard decade. In retaliation, they try to drag as many “Wets” down with them as they can.

Professor Judith Brett provides an invaluable last-word analysis of John Howard’s political decline in Exit Right (Black Inc, 2007). Invaluable, because it contains a grid upon which to order one’s thoughts for that half of the voting population whose souls suffered through more than a decade of what they saw as increasingly nasty and unnecessarily divisive politics.


Using Graham Little’s original concept, Brett characterised Howard’s leadership style as one based on an idea of something approaching perpetual war. Always us v them (with “them” being Late Night Live-listeners, refugee-lovers, tree-huggers, gay marriage activists, humanities department academics, unions and especially Labor), Howard was the man for a crisis: batten down the hatches, loyalty at all costs to the fearless leader, disloyalty is death.

Brett correctly predicted Howard’s electoral defeat by arguing that a time comes when the crisis simply can’t be manufactured anymore. Voters saw through the spin when they couldn’t in 2001.

But if this was true in a general sense, what of those who were attracted to the Liberal Party during these years of war and victory?

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About the Author

Russell Marks is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. His thesis topic is Nationalism, Patriotism and the Australian Left: An Intellectual History.

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