I noted that McAuley, as a younger independent leftist in the 1940s, had given up on a traditional nationalism, like other intellectuals of that era.
McAuley actually advocated adding Papua New Guinea to Australia, and complained that the scheme was unlikely to go ahead because of the “narrow ethnocentrism” of Australian nationalism.
A reader, Shane, asked in the comments if McAuley retained this view when his politics moved rightward after WWII. As it happens, the answer to this question does appear later in the biography.
The first thing to note, though, is that McAuley did recognise liberalism as a problem besetting Western societies.
The second half of the biography has many quotes from McAuley which clearly identify liberalism as a weakness in Western cultural life. Consider the following summaries or direct quotes of McAuley’s views:
the heirs of the Englightenment – liberal-progressive humanists – were ... unable “to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and lies, sense and nonsense, honour and dishonour.”
he felt that liberal intellectuals were so readily deceived about communism because of “the ideological complicities, the wavering rootlessness, the superficiality and inexperience, the personal vanity and the secret tendency to worship power which are the ordinary marks of the Western intellectual.”
Since the thirties, he wrote, liberal intellectuals had become no more than “camp followers” of socialism … Liberal intellectuals were wrong-headed in their view that man was perfectible by some rearrangement of circumstances.
Papua New Guinea
So McAuley was a rare voice criticising liberalism. However, being anti-liberal did not necessarily translate into a consistent conservatism. Even as late as 1960, long after his shift rightward, he was no conservative nationalist.
The biography states that at this time he had only reluctantly abandoned his view that Papua and New Guinea could become an Australian state. He now supported John Kerr’s proposal that the best option was a Melanesian Federation.
The Melanesian option is the conservative one. It would have meant bringing together the territories sharing at least some aspects of a common ethnicity into a united nation. John Kerr also sensibly advocated fostering an intellectual and cultural elite in Papua and New Guinea.
McAuley’s views were not so sensible. In an essay titled “My New Guinea” he suggested that white women were to blame for the failure of Australian efforts in colonial New Guinea. Why?
Well, if white women had stayed home, and only men had gone to New Guinea, then the men would have interacted socially and sexually with the natives and it would have become a mulatto society,
“a slatternly, but more colourful and easy-going society, with the minor vices of concubinage and sloth, rather than the major respectable vices of cold-heartedness and hypocrisy.”
McAuley’s advocacy of a colourful mulatto New Guinea reminds me of those who admire Brazil today. I’ve written previously, for example, about Ryan Heath who admires “crazy and colourful” and “non-white” cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Why would intellectuals like McAuley and Heath advocate creating such melting-pots, even when they recognise the negative traits associated with them (such as being more slothful, or slatternly, or out of control)?
Perhaps it’s for the following reason (though I’m speculating). If you’re a white person, and you’re confronted with an inequality of condition between your own society and a third world country, how do you react?
Is it possible that some whites, brought up on ideas of social justice, wish to solve this problem of unequal condition through dissolution? That they want to merge the white population into the “other” population, blending them together, and thereby equalising them? And that they wish to “dissolve” the qualities which bring advantage to their own society – namely, habits of being law-abiding, hard-working, sober and self-disciplined – to bring social levels closer together?
This last point would explain why seemingly negative qualities of being slothful, or slatternly or out of control would be presented so positively – they are positive, for a social justice egalitarian, in the sense of cutting away at one’s own advantage.
The human person
I don’t want to be too hard on McAuley. He recognised intellectually the failings of liberal modernism, which is further than most other intellectuals of his time ever got.
But he didn’t quite get far enough. The American traditionalist, Jim Kalb, wrote recently that the problem of liberalism goes very deep, into the very way we conceive the nature of the individual.
Kalb suggests that the liberal individual is the same as the Cartesian ego, “a disembodied subject with no qualities at all other than the free-floating ability to have experiences and make choices.” One consequence of understanding the individual this way is that,
The Cartesian ego isn’t really part of the world of experience. How, after all, could something with no qualities be embodied? So perhaps there’s a feeling that it’s more legitimate for Third World types, who don’t seem to be free floating Cartesian egos, to be embodied and thus part of the world of experience.
As it happens, McAuley outlines his own view of the individual in his essay on New Guinea. It is certainly not a radical leftist view, as it makes mention of moral responsibility, dignity, obligations and order. However, it still seems to be liberal in the terms set out by Jim Kalb: it presents what seems to me to be a disembodied view of the individual.
McAuley was “tormented” by the following question:
How were the New Guinea people going to step out of a decayed primitive culture, and embrace and make their own, in knowledge and habit, in inward acceptance and institutional result, those things that seem to be essential: for example, the acceptance of the notion of the human “person” with its structure of intellect and free will and moral responsibility, its intrinsic and inalienable dignity and obligations and rights, its need to find the freedom of self-fulfilment through order and love? … What wisdom would build this house, and furnish and decorate it, and maintain it?
This is McAuley writing in a more credible vein. Even so, his human “person” remains too much the Cartesian ego of intellect and free will, with the proviso of “moral responsibility” and an abstracted dignity, order and love added on.
I don’t think a liberal modernist would blink at this way of presenting the nature of the individual. But what if we “embodied” this individual, placing him in the world, with his natural loyalties and identities and with his more particular social responsibilities and obligations?
McAuley might, for instance, have written about men and women, rather than about “persons”. He might have written about paternal responsibilities, about marital love or maternal love, about ethnic loyalties or about masculine pride and dignity.
As an orthodox Catholic, he might also have written about the structure of the individual not only in terms of intellect and free will, but of the human soul.
It is in conceiving the nature of individuals in this way, in a way unacceptable to the free floating Cartesian ego, that we break most decisively with liberalism.
That’s why I don’t think an intellectual anti-liberalism will necessarily produce a consistent conservatism. We have inherited a liberal understanding of the individual which, as Jim Kalb puts it, is a ‘fundamental conceptual thing’ and “invisible to people’.
As long as we operate within this concept of the individual, we will tend to think in some ways in liberal terms, even if we have begun to recognise the failings of liberal modernity.