John Docker, Arena Magazine, February-March, 1993, pp. 21-24.
How to explain the continuing influence, not least in figures like Paddy McGuinness in his regular column of opinion in the Australian, of Andersonianism, a phenomenon that perhaps has always struck those outside Sydney as curious. Who were the Andersonians, and is there anything at all of value and interest in the strand they represent of Sydney intellectual tradition?
John Anderson, trained in Scotland, journeyed to the antipodes to become Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University from 1927 to 1958. He succeeded another Scotsman and Anderson, Francis, who had taught philosophy at Sydney University from the 1880s. We have to explore these Andersons, for their relations involve and signify wider and longer cultural histories.
Francis Anderson was associated with the spread and development in Australia of the philosophical movement so powerful in Britain in and from the latter nineteenth century variously known as New Liberalism, corporate liberalism, Christian Idealism and Neo-Hegelianism. New Liberalism was a response to the perceived inadequacy of earlier laissez-faire liberal doctrine, which had prized notions of competition, individualism, a minimal state, and the internationalism and cosmopolitanism of free trade. In the late nineteenth century, British society appeared to be falling apart, in recession and depression, poverty and slums (the fear of ever-widening “two nations”), with dangerous beliefs abroad like socialism and anarchism, a labour movement wishing to provide distinctive political leadership, and agnosticism and atheism threatening the primacy of faith, that quivering Victorian obsession.
New Liberalism was a philosophical attempt to restore social cohesion. The state should be looked to to initiate reforms and establish social justice, for the state transcended all sectional interests. It represented, in Hegelian spirit, the idea of rational freedom, history’s telos, in a universe of order ultimately congruent with God’s will. For earlier liberals, people were hedonistic; their true nature and desire involved maximising self-calculation. For New Liberals, individuals realised their true nature, social and altruistic, by serving society, conceived of now as the nation-state, with a protected economy. The New Liberals would formulate a common good, ethical, cultural, intellectual, for the rest of society to follow.
New Liberalism was associated with names in Britain like T.H. Green, Edward Caird, Sir Henry Jones, and J.H. Muirhead. In Australia it profoundly affected intellectual, political, literary, and religious life with its transcendental sense of possible harmony in human relations; society was in a parlous state of disrepair, but the ideal citizen for the contemporary world, New Liberal Man, was being forged in philosophy and by philosophers, responsible citizens inspired by teleological confidence, helping to make universal that which humanity truly needed: reason, equality, social justice, faith in the future, shared goals. In Sydney intellectual history, New Liberalism influenced not only Francis Anderson but those he taught: Elkin, Portus, Bland, Bishop Burgmann. In Melbourne intellectual history, New Liberalism influenced Murdoch, Strong, Eggleston, Higgins, O’Dowd, and left a potent legacy, which I tried to evoke in Australian Cultural Elites (1974), that intellectuals are important to society, central to that process of value-formation which will guide and shape a national consciousness: what was good for Melbourne intellectuals was good for Australia.
New Liberalism was important in the development of sociology and anthropology in Australian universities, and in the history of the Workers’ Educational Association. Through Portus and Richard Boyer, it contributed to the development of an influential ethos in the ABC — that the organisation represented the common good in broadcasting, an ideal mode, informative, instructive, enlightening, crucial in building up a democracy of enlightened citizens, citizens who, while largely ignorant now, could be raised to the requisite higher level. The heritage of New Liberalism has also been important in the philosophy of state regulation of commercial television, a realm apparently always in need of guidance, instruction, improvement, supervision and, if need be, discipline and correction. Commercial television and broadcasting in general were perceived as the inferior other to the ABC, a view our national broadcaster was hardly averse to, and indeed such a sense of inevitable superiority is still a heritage it struggles with.
New Liberalism has been a great and fertile tradition, rich in discourse, but it has not gone historically uncontested.
In the struggle that is intellectual history, John Anderson in the latter 1920s began jousting with a host of forces. As well as training generations of philosophers at Sydney University, he was not infrequently in the centre of various public controversies. He opposed censorship in the 1930s at the very time it worsened spectacularly. Against religion and Christianity he asserted the need for independent inquiry, the spirit of freethought that would be sceptical of all superstition, all claims to guaranteed truths. Against New Liberal Christian Idealist Neo-Hegelian philosophy he insisted on deflationary empiricism, a kind of positivism that stressed the logic of facts, the truth of propositions. Politically, in the Depression years Anderson came close the Communist Party; later in the decade he moved amongst Trotskyists; in the 1940s he and his philosopher-lieutenants, J.A. Passmore and P.H. Partridge, formulated a body of pluralist social theory. In the 1950s Anderson, hardly unusual for an ex-Trotskyist, went Cold War, helping to inspire the New Right of the time, in figures like Peter Coleman, James McAuley, John Kerr, and the young Donald Horne. Some of Horne’s Cold War announcements in the right-Andersonian Observer (of the late 1950s) are still memorable, for example that the Russians in their bases in the Antarctic might somehow hideously alter Australia’s weather. Right-Andersonians distinguished themselves in the 1960s in supporting the Vietnam War, and on 11 November 1975 one of their number performed a notorious act in relation to Whitlam.
A split in the Sydney University Freethought Society in 1951 produced an Andersonian left wing, the Libertarians, who developed the Andersonian interest in pluralism in the direction of anarchism, along with an inner-urban bohemian lifestyle prizing sexual freedom. The Libertarians took up and developed Anderson’s feeling in his war-time essay “The Servile State” that liberty and inquiry could be maintained only by a “resistant minority”. Anderson had argued that history is the scene of perpetual struggle, that the situation of liberty is always perilous, and that freedom as a morality and way of life would never be a majority concern in society. Hence it was useless to be end-oriented: what mattered was intellectual contestation itself, not any goal. The Libertarians agreed. History revealed immutable laws, the circulation of élites and the “law of oligarchy”; there would always be authoritarian élites and leaders, only the personnel would change. The proper response to history was “permanent protest” or “permanent opposition”. Libertarians carefully distinguished their “pessmistic anarchism”, or “anarchism without ends” from what they saw as utopian anarchist theory, which suggested that social unity and lack of conflict in future classless and stateless society was possible. For the Libertarians, oppositional activity should stress being free now, rather than being always future-directed like social reformers or Leninist revolutionaries.
The Libertarians were an active, influential strand of Sydney University life in the 1950s and early 1960s, with a busy off-campus life in downtown pubs and cafes. Libertarianism also influenced Australian literature in Frank Moorhouse and (perhaps) Michael Wilding, and anti-censorship activists like Wendy Bacon. Libertarians’ pessimistic anarchism was not that surprising a phenomenon, given how much Sydney literary and cultural traditions have perceived intellectuals as marginal to Australian society.
History and Memory
Andersonianism and its offshoot, Libertarianism, suffered in attractiveness and persuasiveness in the latter 1960s and into the 1970s, during the Vietnam War and the rise of the counter-culture and the new movements, black liberation, women’s liberation, gay liberation. The 1970s, 1980s, and now the fin de siécle have seen a revival of Marxism in Althusser, then “post-Marxism” in Foucault, Derrida, poststructuralism, postmodernism. The Andersonians and Libertarians have all but been forgotten.
Such forgetting is a matter of regret. I don’t at all wish to suggest in this swish through intellectual history that Andersonianism is merely superseded. On the contrary, it might be time for at least a minor Anderson Revival. When I originally read through their material for the writing of Australian Cultural Elites, I found myself much attracted to the pluralist social theory the Andersonians were developing in the 1940s, the Andersonian Middle Period. The Andersonians opposed the notion of the common good, which they saw as committing the errors of “solidarism” and “meliorism”: a special vocabulary was developed, perhaps always a little opaque beyond certain Sydney circles. Society was permanent witness to conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable opinions, groups, movements, interests, tendencies, activities, so that it was impossible for any one group to formulate the so-called needs of all. Furthermore, social planning based on the phantom notion of the common good can never be rational, since it always has unintended consequences. It follows that that state cannot represent all interests, but will legislate on behalf of some and in opposition to others; the state represents at any one time a temporary adjustment of competing interests.
The Andersonians were not opposed to state activity as such, for example in helping counteract the political and economic inequalities which arise in capitalist and class societies, or in providing free education. But increasing central authority, especially that which was happening in the 1940s under the stimulus of war and plans for post-war reconstruction, was a danger to democracy, to people pursuing forms of “self-government”. A special danger was that as the state became more centralised, ministers would take to using “experts” who would gain the real power of government, becoming a new privileged group of professional administrators and managers. Such experts sheltered behind an inaccessible central political authority, inevitably becoming self-interested bureaucrats intent on preserving their continued existence and influence.
Middle Period Andersonianism appreciated those parts of Marxism stressing history as a struggle, and the notion of ideology as groups in society trying to put forward their particular interests as universal. But they felt that a collectivist, classless society would be impossible, because there would always be conflicting interests. To render society stable and unified, as in the socialist dream, would be to create a servile society. Also, Marxism reduced society to a single conflict, between labour and capital, whereas we can, in a pluralist perspective, see individuals as belonging to many different institutions and movements, that conflicting interests may even be operative in the one person. The aim of a desired plural democracy would be maximising participation, “self-government”, and also social diversity, including the right of cultural minorities, “racial, political, or religious”, to retain their independence. In relation to debates about the White Australia Policy and post-war immigration, Andersonians opposed in a spirit of internationalism the notion of assimilation.
Curiously, many of these 1940s ideas echo in later theory, if almost certainly unbeknownst to the theorists, who if they knew Andersonianism at all, would have gazed at it only in its strident Cold War forms. The New Left and the new movements drew ideas and energy from pluralism (and the general history of anarchism and libertarianism): in the notions of self-government and participatory democracy; dislike of centralised power and hierarchical organisation (whether in governments, university administrations, trade unions, or Old Left political parties); and opposition to Australian society conceived as uniform. It was such uniformity which was concealing the extent of oppression of blacks, women, gays, ethnic minorities, Australia’s dreadful history of colonialism and racism. Further, the stress on achievement of freedoms now, rather than waiting for an impossible future, was precisely a motif of the new movements.
In the latter 1960s and early 1970s, in student radicalism, in the new movements, in the counter-culture, there was a remarkable confidence about the possibilities of social and ideological change and the spread of a new alternative consciousness. Such confidence has not lasted, and at least one strand of postmodern political theory, that we associate with Lyotard in his conflict with Habermas, might now remind us not only of Libertarian notions of “pessimistic anarchism”, but also of Middle Period Andersonianism conceptions of the desirability of intellectual struggle, of not arriving at consensus. In Anderson’s terms in “The Servile State” it is the “movement, not the end, that matters”. (Lyotard himself has emerged from the libertarian-influenced Socialisme ou Barbarie group.) Anderson’s attack on the notion of history journeying towards a goal of planned progress, of triumphant reason, might remind us of Lyotard and a general postmodernist critique of Marxism as centring history on a binary opposition of capital and labour, along with the dispersing of personality amongst various possibly conflicting identities, certainly anticipates postmodernism. Were Middle Period Andersonians postmodern postmarxists avant la lettre?
A key difference, nonetheless, lies in Andersonian empiricism, the belief in a positive language of fact. Contrast this with poststructuralism’s less than warm feelings towards any transparency of representation, its interest in truth as ever deferred, that we only know history as texts, and such textuality is ever ambiguous, finally undecidable.
In the critiques I’ve engaged over the last few years about Australian Content regulations for commercial television, I’ve found Middle Period Andersonianism of great use, particularly the warning that the greatest danger to democracy, and the easiest way to ensure a servile society, lies in submission to experts, groups of professional administrators who shelter behind an inaccessible state authority and try to impose their own particular values onto society. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal itself, which administers the regulations, is, I argue, an exemplary case study for such fears, trying to impose a particular notion of broadcasting derived from the ABC (and ultimately from the BBC) onto popular television. When earlier this year the now disbanded children’s programme committee of the Tribunal refused a C classification to some “Skippy” programmes, I wrote an article, “Cultural Engineers Have to Go,” for the Sydney Morning Herald (18 March 1992), applying Andersonian theory to the committee, supposed experts happily inscribing on our screens their own prescriptive fantasies of proper children’s television, their own notion of a broadcasting common good, a telos to end cultural difference.
That, That, That McGuinness
Now we come to he who signs his columns in the Australian Padraic P. McGuinness, accompanied by a photo of a portly bearded man in heavy black-rimmed glasses. It is not difficult to suspect that McGuinness is reviled by the contemporary heirs of the New Liberal tradition, as brutally economic rationalist, right-wing, conservative, perversely dismissive of every progressive movement of the last twenty years, from feminism to the Greens. A large round monster in atavistic spectacles. Is this portrait fair?
McGuinness, an economist by training at Sydney University in the 1950s, is heir to the Sydney freethought tradition and its Libertarianism offshoot. If we “read” McGuinness columns for Middle Andersonian traces, we find them in abundance. His desire is to maximise competition and contestation of interests and opinion in Australian society. In such terms, he distrusts trade unions, because in a time-honoured ideological way they are always claiming their special interests and viewpoint as the common interest of Australian society (Australian, 8 July 1992). He attacks large companies like BHP for being too cosy with the trade union movement and the present government, hence not permitting the degree of competition that is healthy for society, and also because as a government-favoured monopoly they lumber along with gross inefficiencies. He refers to the tariff protection behind which BHP has “skulked for so many years” (8-9 August 1992). McGuinness here would appear to be heir not only to Andersonian internationalism but to Sydney’s history as a free-trade port city, and beyond Australia to nineteenth-century liberalism. He is alert to what he considers is the politicisation of the public service in Australia, for example in the way the bureaucrats of Mrs Kelly’s department (in the fiasco of disowned environmental education kit for schools) were acting as “proponents of currently environmental orthodoxy, working with advocacy groups rather than keeping at arms length from them” (30-31 May 1992).
He feels that media institutions like the ABC are also imbued with set pat attitudes, particularly environmentalism, to the point where other viewpoints are considered inconceivable (30-31 May 1992). McGuinness, indeed, is not the ABC’s usual friend, breathlessly admiring, grateful, obsequious. On the occasion of the ABC’s sixtieth birthday, when the organisation itself went into self-congratulatory frenzy, McGuinness wrote that it had become intellectually smug and stagnant, indeed prematurely senile, captured by the “generation of baby-boomers and kindergarten Marxists” who joined it in the 1960s and 1970s, and now form an ageing “orthodoxy” that continues to recruit in its own image. The ABC is so sure of its correctness that it cannot entertain the “notion that there might be any justice in criticism”. It is an ethos, he feels, that is general in the organisation, and that pervades even programmes of undeniable merit like the “Science Show” (on radio). McGuinness agrees there is a role for publicly sponsored and financed broadcasting, but recommends that the ABC, “this gigantic multi-media monolith, gobbling up half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money every year”, be dismembered, split into “competing organisations”; unfortunately he provides no further details for this interesting if enigmatic idea (1 July 1992).
McGuinness continues the Andersonian admiration of the free circulation of ideas, and dislike of censorship; he was delighted when the High Court not only threw out the Labor Government ban on political advertising, but also the section of the Industrial Relations Act (inherited from the old Arbitration Act) which made it an offence to criticise the Industrial Relations Commission or any of its members. McGuinness suggests that such bans are an outrage against democracy and free speech (29-30 August 1992).
Any Doubts At All?
It has to be said that the tone of McGuinness’s writing is less than attractive. His columns foreground certainty, a discourse of impersonal omniscience about everything they come across. Environmentalists are, it appears, but “eco-fascists” (30-31 May 1992). Theories of the Left are dismissed as “the discredited kindergarten Marxism of the 60s and 70s” (13-14 June 1992). Intellectuals are characterised as the “chattering classes” (1 July 1992). I think McGuinness is referring to poststructuralist and postmodernist theories when he obscurely calls talks in one column of “philosophical obscurantism” and “meaningless aesthetic rhetoric” (15 July 1992). The health concerns of the last twenty years are “health fascism” (1-2 August 1992). This is violent language, lacking play, give, sympathy and empathy with the positions it opposes, and devaluing terms like “Fascism”.
Such language of blanket repudiation is all the more strange given it is clear that McGuinness has been affected by the debates of the last couple of decades, that he is concerned for the environment, that he is gruffly pro-feminist and will use “he and she”, that he is concerned by the effect of unemployment on the unemployed — he is not an economic-rationalist iceman.
The discourse of certainty perhaps follows on from Andersonian positivism, as well as the male domination of Libertarian intellectual production. An unthinking positivism, an innocent language of fact and truth, also reigns in daily journalism. And perhaps an assertive mode of address is required by the genre, the column of opinion. Whatever. But the effect is that McGuinness’s writing is highly male-aggressive, relentlessly coming at you, a kind of brutespeak, largely untouched by self-parody, by irreverence about his own positions and narrative voice. He sounds like the kind of know-it-all he himself dislikes in the ABC. McGuinness says that ABC programmes like the “Science Show” cannot for a moment entertain the notion that there might be any justice in criticism of ideas. Might the same be suspected of Padraic P. McGuinness?
McGuinness can also occasionally be spotted smuggling back in his own notions of the common good, of supposed true needs in Australian society, as in his thoughts on the possible introduction of pay television. McGuinness tells us that at the very time when we have immense problems with export performance, investment in new capital equipment, and unemployment, we talk about spending hundreds of millions of dollars establishing an industry “we do not need” (6-7 June 1992). Pay television is but “icing on the cake which can better be left to more luxurious times”. McGuinness is addressing us in the voice of Utilitarian or Economic Man, decreeing certain activities as of fundamental value, as basic needs, the common good, whereas other activities, which he refers to as “trashy entertainment, whether soap opera or sport”, are less important, of the surface of life. Have we an echo here of that discredited kindegarten Marxist notion of base and superstructure?
It is clear that McGuinness has a traditional modernist contempt for popular culture and sport. But he is translating his preference into what Australia, the rest of the community, truly needs, in a time-honoured, ideological “solidarist” way. He objects, for example, to the presence of sports broadcasting on the ABS, not only because he has no personal interest in sport, but because it “has no social value”, unlike science programmes (1 July 1992). Isn’t this another solidarist argument, asserting some activities are of general common good to the society, and hence should be supported over other activities? Isn’t McGuinness’s demand that the ABS abandon sport the commercial stations a call to censorship?
What to think? The way McGuinness keeps reintroducing notions of the common good might show that we have to have such a concept, even while we relentlessly inspect every argument for it for ideology, for putting forward particular interests and values as universal. We are all ideological; there is no pure point beyond. Truly did Derrida not in “Structure, Sign and Play” that we “can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest”. The argument between the New Liberal and the Andersonian traditions over the value and necessity of the notion of the common good remains unresolved.
McGuinness’s writing reveals a level of venom against what he repetitively calls “the discredited kindegarten Marxism of the 60s and 70s” more intense that seems entirely warranted by his own positions. Might this venom, this strange intensity of rejection, relate to a feeling that the generation of the 1960 and 1970s displaced his own as an intellectual and cultural avant-garde?
For all the enemies Padraic P. McGuinness sees about him, his own worst enemy is far closer to hand — himself, his own brutal tone. I don’t think McGuinness is a right-wing monster; I think his columns repay careful reading, that his opinions are not easily dismissable. But how many people can finish his columns? How many people stay around to be clubbed into submission?
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