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Birth of the sophisticates

Fifty years ago, The Lucky Country helped create a whole new breed of Australian

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

When Bob Dylan released The Times they are A-Changin’ in 1964, Donald Horne was putting the finishing touches to his own seditious work, The Lucky Country. Dylan’s recalcitrant ‘senators and congressmen’ appear as Robert Menzies and Arthur Calwell, a prime minister and opposition leader who are ‘exiles in their own century… images of obsolescence…’ Time they made way for ‘the New Generation, the men who see Australia in more sophisticated terms,’ wrote Horne. ‘What is advocated is a radical overthrow and destruction of the prevailing attitudes of… the nation’s masters.’

The triumph of Horne’s ‘New Generation’ was a watershed in post-war history that changed sections of Australia beyond recognition. It explains why the ABC now broadcasts from a parallel universe, why our universities teach what they teach and why Labor is no longer the party of the workers. It explains why government grew so large, how the bureaucracy was allowed to take charge and why debt and deficit may become Australia’s permanent condition.

That’s what happens when the sophisticates take charge. The technocrats and intellectuals Horne admired, a group that ‘understands the demands of the age better and sees life in more complicated terms,’ now dominate public life.

The Lucky Country is more than a repudiation of a mono-cultural, monotone and monotonous Australia. Horne, like Dylan, was voicing an urge for change that led to the counter-cultural revolt of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the birth of modern progressivism. The need for revolution seemed obvious to Horne.

Yet Horne’s arguments for rejecting the old ways and handing affairs over to an expert class are weak. His portrait of Australia as an antediluvian backwater ‘weak in matters of High Intellect’ bristles with pomposity. Horne declares that Australia is ‘one of the oddest countries in the world’ because it lacks public intellectuals. ‘Australians tend to shelter from the major challenges and ideas of the 20th century,’ he asserts. ‘It is usually not possible to conduct in Australia the kind of conversation that would be immediately successful in Europe, or New York.’

It is a classic case of ‘cultural cringe’, as described by Arthur Angel Phillips six years earlier. The cringe ‘mostly appears as a tendency to make needless comparisons’ and … to ask ‘Yes, but what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?’

Horne’s exasperation with Menzies clouds his judgment; Australia may have been socially conservative, culturally isolated and perhaps a little dull in 1964, but it was changing, gradually, for the better. The expansion of the universities was underway, something to which Horne pays curiously little attention. The number of students enrolled in higher education had tripled and would almost double again before Whitlam won power. Five new universities had opened their doors and five more were in the offing. Yet Horne cries out for deeper intellectual conversations without acknowledging that Menzies’s passion for higher learning might be breeding the thinking companions he craves.

Horne takes a dim view of his fellow Australians. ‘Cleverness can be considered un-Australian,’ he wrote. ‘Australia… has exploited the innovations and originality of others and much of its boasting is that of a parasite.’

Yet, as I said in The Lucky Culture:

The ability to innovate and adapt was a precondition for settlement in Australia long before Europeans arrived. Australia’s luck did not fall from the sky, it had to be torn from the earth in a triumph of mind over muscle.

In the 19th century, Australia became a world leader in wool production not through chance but by enterprise. In the space of 60 years our ancestors turned scraggy merinos that produced a scant kilogram of rough wool into mighty fibre-extrusion machines turning out five kilograms or more of the finest wool. We invented mechanical sheering and led the development of the frozen meat transportation which ended malnutrition in Britain. We grew wheat on an industrial scale despite the tyranny of climate, soil and distance. None of this is of any regard to Horne who concedes only that Australians ‘delight in improvisation’ and ‘manage to scrape through’. His vision of a clever country is essentially that of a technocracy, a society run by experts in a scientific manner, administered from the centre. Individual enterprise, flourishing in a free market in which liberty is sacrosanct and risk is rewarded, plays no part in his utopia. He writes:

It does not seem likely that in this new age material progress can continue at the highest rate unless society jumps into a new life with higher standards of training, with an increasing proportion of scientists, technologists and technicians, with a greater emphasis on administrative and managerial capacity and an absorption of the technocratic ways of thinking.

Horne singles out one city for praise, a place where scientific management and administration is better understood; a shining example of modernity.

‘Brisbane falls backwards, Sydney falls apart, Melbourne moves forward to stay where it is, Adelaide moves ahead,’ writes Horne. ‘Adelaide has moved into the technological age.’ If South Australia was the test bed for the new technocracy, as Horne believed, we must assume the experiment has failed. In the most recent Comsec report on the state of the states, South Australia is in sixth to eighth position on the key indicators.

Australia might have done better by ignoring Horne’s revolutionary cry and stuck to the everyday common sense which had served the country so well.

Mussolini once told his followers: ‘We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.’ The inevitable result of surrendering responsibility to the expert class is to ossify a ruling elite and erode personal liberty. Which is why, in his love letter to the technocrats, Horne was fundamentally wrong.

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