Geoffrey Blainey (1930 - ) has over 30 books to his credit, including one titled The Rush That Never Ended on the mining industry. In 1984 he became the most controversial historian in the country when the metropolitan press broadcast some of his comments on the rate of migration, especially from Asia, and its impact on traditional Australian communities. Anyone who attempted to explore this issue was likely to be shouted down with charges of "racist" and Blainey suffered the treatment with both barrels. This outburst of generally misdirected spleen and the rejoinder from Blainey and associates is the so-called "fuss". This book is the product of a seminar convened at the State Library of Victoria in the year 2000 to consider Blainey's work and career. Ostensibly this was a gesture of reconciliation from the profession which is dominated by people who disagree with Blainey's views on a great many issues including multiculturalism, Aboriginal land rights and the republic.
In the course of a recent speech in Sydney, Geoffrey Blainey commented on a change that came over the history profession during the 1980s. Previously people wrote various kinds of history, and some might find fault with others, even strenuously, without the implication that only one kind of history is really proper and acceptable. Much the same has been said by others on the rise of leftwing ideology in sociology and anthropology.
This situation can be seen as the outcome of several factors. First, the explosive growth of the universities from the late 1950s. Second, the ethos of the "swinging sixties", the decade when the baby boomers started to turn up at the universities. Third, the Vietnam debate and the debacle of conscription for the war effort. These were the big three factors, and they operated in a synergistic manner so that the cumulative impact was a great deal more than the sum of each one. Other factors played minor parts (again, acting synergistically); film coverage of the Vietnam war, the relaxation of parental authority and respect for authority generally, the decline of orthodox religion, the affluence and mobility of young people.
On the travails of scholarship and the life of the mind in the universities, Jacques Barzun wrote four outstanding books, starting with Teacher in America (1945, 1983), moving on to The House of Intellect (1958) and Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1960). The American University (1968) described in some detail the loss of purpose and focus in the American universities during the very rapid growth that occurred after World War 2. He was well qualified for this task because he combined the roles of scholar, teacher and senior administrator at Columbia University. It seemed that the high (low) point of the decay of the academies was reached in the year of publication when the students of some of the most famous universities in the world started setting their campuses on fire. The process which Barzun described in the 40s and 50s was repeated in Australia a decade or so later. Sandstone Gothic by Andrew Reimer provides a micro-analysis in English studies at the University of Sydney. The point is that the tradition of genuine scholarship and imaginative criticism was too thin to cope with the rapid influx of new students, almost all of them the first in their families to proceed to the end of secondary school, let alone beyond. Real learning begins with an apprentice working at the elbow of a master craftsman, but there were not enough scholarly elbows to go around as the numbers swelled.
Civility, if not standards, might have survived the explosion in numbers and also the ethos of rebellion in the swinging sixties but it could not survive the debate over the Vietnam war. This debate was handed to the radicals on a platter by the governments of the US and Australia when they introduced the draft. Conscription to fight for freedom! Prior to this, politics and politicians of all shades were regarded as something of a joke in avant garde student circles but the spectre of the draft introduced a more deadly element into the debate and student politicians rapidly shifted away from a fairly even Lib/Lab balance (probably leaning in the Liberal directon if anything, given the background of most students at the time). Marxist Leninism, apparently buried as a credible force in the free world by the Russian tanks in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, rose from the dead and the majority of politically engaged students turned their backs on the conservative side of politics, in most cases for life. In a stroke the leadership of Australia and the US destroyed both their intellectual and moral credibility. The seismic shift in the political allegiance of the educated middle class has been noticed but the main reason has seldom been acknowledged on the non-Labour side of politics, or among the radicals who have been too busy politicising every nook and cranny of civil society to reflect on the cause of their incredible good fortune.
One of the results was the drain of political energy and talent from the non-Labor side of politics, as reflected at the Federal level during the 1970s and 80s and in the state Liberal parties across the nation. That debacle of leadership during the 1960s reflected the near-death of classical, non-socialist or minimum state liberalism in favour of the kind of rigid, authoritarian, economically illiterate and often philistine form of conservatism exemplified by Malcolm Fraser. For the rise of proper liberalism, see Joyhn Hyde's account in his book Dry: In Defence of Economic Freedom.
The events of the sixties and seventies resulted in a situation where the universities of the nation, prima facie the most likely places to find tolerant if critical discussion of all shades of opinion, became arguably the most dangerous public venues for politically incorrect speakers. By the 1980s the currents of opinion in the social sciences and the humanities were running strongly in politically correct channels, thus prompting Blainey’s comment on the diminution of diversity in historical studies.
The Fuss That Never Ended contains 13 chapters based on papers delivered at the Melbourne seminar, not including a contribution from the man himself. An additional chapter contains four meditations on The Melbourne School of History which were not delivered at the seminar. A helpful bibliography lists Blainey’s publications from 1954 to 2001.
There are signs of olive branches being waved, especially by StuartMacintyre who made a strong move to occupy the middle ground, dismissing as absurd the view that 'Blainey's views seem almost to run in a straight line from Mount Lyell to the Warrnambool Rotary Club' while in the same breath denying the counter-claim by "mischevious commentators such as Peter Ryan" that Blainey was silenced by jealous and small-minded colleagues. Macintyre’s recently released The History Wars contains an account of the events in the History Department at Melbourne University and Peter Ryan’s comments on this could make interesting reading.
Macintyre’s introductory paper in this book provides a generous overview of Blainey’s achievements and positions himself in relation to the “fuss”.
“I disagree with views he has expressed on Asian immigration, the High Court, Canberra, the republic, land rights, compulsory voting, and much else besides. But I cannot agree that his expression of these views is improper…we should distinguish partisan polemic from academic appraisal. Criticism should not be confused with anathema. The discipline of history can scarcely afford to dispense with its mavericks.”
A chapter by Graeme Davidson addresses Blainey on determinism and the mechanics of history. He describes Blainey as “half a determinist”, though he might be better described as “half an Austrian”. Davidson reports that in Blainey’s last year Arthur Burns, recently returned from the London School of Economics, ran a course on Theory and Method , including the Popper-Hempel model of scientific explanation. Blainey regarded this as rarefied and pretentious stuff and Burns allowed him to skip the lectures and pursue his own reading of the great historians. This was a shrewd move for a young fellow. The outstanding philosopher-scientists Pierre Duhem advised young scientists to read the works of the great scientists, not the philosophers.
As it happens, Blainey could have read Popper with relative impunity. By the time he reached the last chapter of The Open Society he had shelved the “nomological deductive” model in favour of “situational analysis”, an approach similar to Collingwood’s imaginative reconstruction of events, seeking an objective analysis of the salient features of the situation. This would usually include the plans, intentions and perceptions of the actors, also their errors and the unforseen consequences of their actions. This method of analysis can be described as “Austrian”, not as a tribute to Popper but to Carl Menger (1840-1921) and the school of Austrian economists (notably Mises and Hayek) who have been the major carriers of the method. [Favourable references to the Austrians had to be removed before Paddy MacGuiness would accept a short form of this piece in Quadrant].
Carl Menger (1840 – 1921) and his followers (notably Mises and Hayek) are best known as “the Austrian school of economist” (if at all) though their approach is eminently suited to the human sciences at large. Austrian economics practically disappeared under the Keynesian onslaught in the 1930s, until a spirited revival started in the 1970s. A short-lived local branch of the movement, the radical free enterprise think tank Centre 2000, maintained an excellent stock of Austrian texts in a small bookshop in the Sydney CBD during the mid 1980s. The most distinctive features of the Austrian approach include emphasis on the role of competition in free markets, the dispersed and incomplete knowledge of social actors, the importance of advances in scientific knowledge and technology, the subjective theory of value, the essential role of the entrepreneur and the way that everyone is entrepreneurial to a greater or lesser extent in finding and exploiting the opportunities and incentives of their situation. Recent additions to the Austrian approach, especially under the influence of Hayek, include the importance of the rule of law sustained by strong but limited government, and the synergism of markets and sound moral principles including honesty, thrift and enterprise. All of this is entirely consistent with cultural conservatism of the evolutionary or discriminating kind.
Clearly, the Austrian approach fits like a glove with Blainey’s narratives, and not only the ones most obviously concerned with the activities of corporate movers, shakers and mining magnates. Even the footsoldiers of industry and commerce are entrepreneurs in a small way and Blainey has celebrated the energy and fortitude of productive workers of all kinds. As Bridget Griffen-Foley wrote in her paper “The Steven Seagal Factor: The Corporate Histories”, “he was a historian of what society [actually people] made of material circumstances”. Like the man who found he had been speaking prose all his life, Blainey has been taking an Austrian approach all his career, at least in methodology, though on economic policy he expressed serious reservations about the initial impact of the program of deregulation in the 1980s.
Many of the papers pay tribute to Blainey's industry and the pioneering value of his work, though some of the complimentary pieces manage to insert a sting in the tail. For example Deborah Gare in her paper titled "White Ghost of Empire" suggested that "he has not yet realised that Australia is now living in the ashes of empire...Blainey has yet to decide how to deal with his long-term respect for empire in a twenty-first century in which it is nolonger relevant". This is a rather mean view of the more valuable and impressive legacies of British influence around the world, such as therailway systems of India and Argentina, and, more important, the institutions of Westminster democracy, freedom of speech, trade andassociation, the independent judiciary and the rule of law. These remain a living force in Australia, unlike the situation in South Africa and Zimbabwe, indeed almost all of Africa, where the people either never enjoyed those benefits or are really living in the ashes of those traditions and institutions, by courtesy of Marxist thugs helped into power by the progressive western intelligentsia.
There are criticisms from various special interest groups; the radical feminist (not enough about women), the black armband historian (no sensitivity to the indigenes), the labour historian (no interest in the conditions of work), the environmentalist (not Green enough). Tim Rowse, in his paper “Triumph of the Colonists” wrote:
“In A Land Half Won, Our Side of the Country, The Blainey View, and A Shorter History of Australia, Blainey’s omissions make plain how little he is interested in ‘the welfare state’. He has chosen not write about the ways that Australians have sought to deal with those who the nation has left superfluous or found dysfunctional: the poor, the mad, the sick, the Indigenous…It seems he finds such lives distasteful”.
This is a perverse criticism, even a historian as versatile as Blainey cannot be expected to write about every topic that other people regard as important. It is clear from his concerns about the initial impact of deregulation that he has not lacked concern for people under pressure. Rowse charges Blainey with “indifference to one of the principal themes of our history – the rise of Australian institutions of social administration”. However when a revisionist history is written by someone who is not an apologist for the welfare state it may demonstrate that health and welfare services could have been provided more effectively by private and charitable means, given the same amount of expenditure. This kind of history will also look harshly on the centralised wage fixing system. As Blainey noted in his speech at the first seminar of the H R Nicholls Society, launching Arbitration in Contempt:
“The book looks also at some of the important economic decisions made by governments and tribunals [among them] the Northern Territory Cattle Industry Case of 1965, which Sir Richard Kirby, president of the Arbitration Commission, sensed was his Commission's "greatest contribution" to Australian society. By raising the wages of Aboriginal pastoral workers, the Commission evicted large numbers of them from that industry which was their only stronghold in the outback. The Commission had predicted that there would be "welfare problems" amongst unemployed Aboriginals but noted that those problems "will be dealt with by those most competent to deal with them". Unfortunately we have not proved competent to deal with them. Citizens might well ask how the massive unemployment in so many Aboriginal districts could possibly come from an arbitration system that wished them well.”
Charlie Fox in his paper “My Lord the Workingman” was especially exasperated that Blainey became aligned with the H R Nicholls Society and he described Blainey’s refusal to recognise the concept of class as a serious defect. In reply, it must be asked what the divisive notion of the class war has contributed to the sum of human happiness. In addition to the countless millions of people who were murdered in the name of the class war, there is also the melancholy record of militant trade unionism. As Blainey hinted, the trade unions could have evolved as self-help organizations like the old friendly societies. Instead they developed the “strike threat system” as a weapon in the class war. The British classical economist W H Hutt, described in The Strike Threat System how the major exploiters of the poor and the weak over the last two centuries have not been the factory owners or the capitalist system but the better paid and more organised members of the trade union movement, using the threat of violence on the picket line (and beyond) to maintain their own benefits at the expense of everyone else. This lawless activity peaked in the communist-dominated unions – the wharfies and the building industry - which Santamaria and his groupers did not manage to clean up before they were disabled by Dr Evatt.
Moving on from the immediate fuss generated by Blainey's 1984 comments, a decade or so later some more rocks started to come through the roof of the progressive intelligentsia. First Pauline Hanson, then Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians, then Keith Windschuttle and most recently David Flint The Twilight of the Elites.
The appearance of these contributors to the national dialogue, especially Pauline Hanson, had a remarkably cathartic effect in revealing the full extent of the selective vision and double standards of her most strident critics, not to mention the thugs who preyed on the people who attended her public meetings. It has been said that the rudeness and prejudice of some of the much maligned rednecks can be attributed to the fact that they are unintelligent, uneducated, zenophobic hillbillies, living culturally impoverished lives in out of the way places. Faced with the spectre of Pauline Hanson, what is the explanation for the equally rude and prejudiced behaviour of progressive commentators who appear to be intelligent, highly educated, well travelled, well informed, cosmopolitan and culturally alert? Perhaps more research is required on the mindset of these harbingers of sweetness and light. Where are the Frankfort School and Professor Bob Connell when we need them?
Phillip Adams, in conversation with Robert Dessaix in a series of interviews with public intellectuals (all left-leaning, for some strange reason) described himself waking up after the 1996 election to find that he was living in a country that he did not recognise, a country of racism, xenophobia, uninterested in reconciliation, intolerant of ethnic minorities etc etc. This is pure fantasy, the country did not change overnight, certainly not for the worse, it is just that that Phillip Adams and his colleagues cannot accept that anyone can be “fair dinkum” in favour of tolerance, reconciliation and the like without sharing their own socialist and collectivist view of the world. This situation is illuminated by the one almost comprehensible essay in the collection by Meaghan Morris, The Pirate’s Fiance, on the mindset and the lifestyle of leftwing political activists. She noted their unwillingness or incapacity to engage in any kind of imaginative reflection; the tendency to groupthink reinforced by enduring networks of friends, spouses, lovers and other fellow travellers; any urge to rethink frustrated by the urgency of the next demo, meeting or press release. She might have added a lack of humour regarding their own foibles and the use of dehumanising satire against opponents, notably John Howard who was the current Prime Minister. The freemasonry of the left is identified not by a special handshake but by the curled lip and hardened eyes at the mention of the hated name.
The organisers of the Melbourne conference on the work of Geoffrey Blainey are to be congratulated to the extent that their purpose was reconciliation and enlightenment. The papers are the usual mix of good, bad and indifferent that one expects on such an occasion. They do not permit any conclusion about the state of the debate stirred up two decades ago, though they provide a cross-section of views for the benefit of people who were unborn, in short pants or looking the other way during the 1980s. As for the bigger picture, the jury is still out on the question of whether the history profession, the universities and our intellectual life at large can recover from the ashes of civility and rational debate which were victims of the Vietnam era of confrontation and bad faith. We are still reaping the whirlwind of that tragic and catastrophic error on conscription that was perpetuated by the government of the day. The "fuss that never ended" is just one of the consequences.