Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Manne's conservative moment?

Most Australians would know Professor Robert Manne as a left-wing academic and political commentator. He wasn't always associated, though, with the left. Back in the 1980s, he was thought of on campus as a right-wing anti-communist.

As late as 1998, he was still not easily categorised as a leftist. I was looking through some old files and I found a newspaper column he wrote in that year. Given some of his more recent, politically correct forays into politics, I was surprised by its contents.

His column is titled "Why Australia's cultural orthodoxy must be resisted" (The Age, 25/05/1998). The orthodoxy he wanted resisted was the liberal one:

Since the 1960s all Western societies have been caught up in one of history's most profound revolutions - the progressive liberation of the individual from those age-old social obligations to family and community, which once put severe limits on individual freedom and autonomy.

No one has captured the essence of this cultural revolution more deftly, than the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn in his Age Of Extremes. This revolution, he writes, is "best understood as the triumph of the individual over society or, rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past have woven human beings into social textures ... the world was now passively assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by their pursuit of individual desire.

Both Arndt and Ackland belong to the generation that fought for, observed the triumph of and experienced the benefits of the '60s cultural revolution of modernity. Concerning this revolution, this generation - my generation - is now beginning to divide.

One part still looks on the progressive emancipation of the individual from the ties of family and community obligation, and from all restraints on the gratification of individual desire, as an unambiguous good. Their instinct is to close their eyes to the mounting evidence of consequent social disintegration and harm. Yet another part is beginning to feel anxious about certain unexpected or unintended consequences of the revolution in which they once invested their energies and hopes.

Professor Manne sets out the basic "first tier" point of contention in politics very clearly. I don't think he's right, though, in claiming that the "profound revolution" began in the 1960s - it goes back much further in time. Nor did his generation end up dividing between those who supported this revolution as an unambiguous good and those who felt anxious about its unintended consequences. A few public intellectuals have put up some moderate opposition, but overall Manne's generation have continued to go along with things. Manne himself has fallen into line.

It's really up to a new generation to make a more decisive break with the liberal orthodoxy.

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