What I’m reading
“Vision Splendid: A Social And Cultural History of Rural Australia” (Richard Waterhouse) A valuable work in the Raymond Williams cultural tradition, notably free of any desire to interrogate boundaries or supply transgressive hermeneutics, but still capable of challenging some of my preconceptions. I’ve written a review which is over the fold. It’s aimed at my local economics journal, Economic Analysis and Policy, hence the somewhat idiosyncratic focus.
The Vision Splendid: A Social and Cultural History of Rural Australia
The relationship between economics and culture has been much debated, but, until fairly recently, mainstream economists have largely ignored the issue, or dealt with it in asides and ad hoc remarks. This neglect is gradually being redressed, with the rise of particular fields of study such as economic sociology and the economic analysis of cultural industries, and, more generally, with a resurgence of interest in the role of institutions.
The relationship between economic outcomes and cultural structures is complex, but much discussion of the topic can be seen as a dispute between two polar opposite views. Economic determinists, particularly those influenced by Marxism, seek to explain specific features of culture in terms of the economic structures that produced them. By contrast, writers in the cultural studies tradition tend to see cultural institutions as primary and autonomous, and to dismiss or distrust economic analysis.
The tensions between, and within, these schools of thought, can be seen in debates over the analysis of the Australian rural sector. Given the history of the Australian frontier, the central role of economic motives in European expansion and the subsequent consolidation of the agricultural sector is undeniable. On the other hand, the centrality of ‘The Bush’ to Australia’s cultural self-image is equally undeniable, and has played an important role in determining the economic policies that continue to shape rural and regional Australia.
The classic work on the topic, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (Ward 1958) presented an analysis that, while far from mechanical reductionism, was primarily in the economic determinist tradition. Ward argued that conditions on the goldfields, and later in the shearing sheds and other rural industries promoted the development of a specifically Australian set of cultural attitudes, centred on egalitarianism and mateship, and embodied primarily by (male) bush workers. In this account, the crucial period was that of the 1890s, and particularly the great shearing strikes, the defeat of which led to the foundation of the Labor party.
Ward’s analysis has been criticised by Davison (1978) who argued that the idea of the egalitarian bush worker was an invention of urban intellectuals like Henry Lawson and JF Archibald, whose magazine The Bulletin disseminated a myth based on ideas drawn from the English radical tradition going back to Tom Paine. Of course, this is true in part, as Ward’s own title indicates: legends requires mythmakers. Nevertheless, the immense popularity of The Bulletin among the very bush workers whose lives it depicted and idealised makes it clear that this particular legend struck a chord in rural Australia.
In The Vision Splendid, Richard Waterhouse provides a nicely balanced account, pointing out that there were at least two competing cultural legends. While workers and some small farmers embraced The Bulletin’s views, the squatters and others largely saw themselves as hardy Anglo-Saxon pioneers. As mechanisation reduced rural employment, the latter view came to dominate.
In all of these accounts, the main line of causation runs from economic circumstances to cultural representations. But the influence of culture on economic outcomes has been equally important, most notably in relation to the issue of closer settlement. Waterhouse’s excellent treatment of this issue is probably the most interesting feature of his book, at least for economists.
From the beginning of responsible government in the Australian colonies until at least the 1960s, a central theme of agricultural policy was the desirability of promoting closer settlement through expansion in the number of small farms. A variety of arguments were used to support this policy but a continuing central theme was the cultural desirability of establishing a class of independent small farmers, seen as embodying a variety of virtues from the sturdy yeomen of British constitutional legend to the Catholic peasantry envisaged by BA Santamaria.
The first large-scale attempts to implement these policies were the Selection Acts introduced by the various colonial governments, allowing anyone to select up to 640 acres of land for farming. The squatters, who already occupied most of the best land used practices such as ‘dummying’ (hiring people to buy land on the squatter’s behalf) and ‘peacocking’ (selecting crucial pieces of land such as river flats) to defeat the intention of the laws. But even where small farmers succeeded in obtaining selections, they experienced a high rate of failure.
In part, the failures of selection arose from attempts to undertake cropping on land better suited to low-intensity pastoralism. In addition, many selectors lacked farm experience and adequate capital. A more fundamental problem was the inadequate size of the standard selection, a natural, but unfortunate, outcome of policy driven by an idealised image of the small farm rather than by an assessment of economic realities.
The policy of soldier settlement, embraced after World War I, repeated the errors of the Selection Acts and produced an even higher failure rate. It was not until the aftermath World War II that settlement policy took as its starting point the need for a sustainable farm area, and by this time the scope for expansion of agricultural land area was very limited.
Paradoxically, market forces have now produced an outcome very similar, in important respects, to the goals of the free selection movement. The squatter class, consisting of landowners with a substantial hired labour force, has largely disappeared, taking with it the associated social division between farmers and graziers.
The standard model of broad-acre agriculture today is that of the family farm, relying on family members for most labour, with few if any full-time employees. Although farm sizes far exceed the 640 acres envisaged in the selection acts, and farm numbers have declined accordingly, today’s farmers, in economic terms, correspond closely to the yeoman class of old. Nevertheless, as Waterhouse has observed, the survivors have been those who have viewed farming as a business rather than (primarily) a way of life.
Among other themes covered in the book, the most interesting is the experience of Aboriginal Australians. The problem of finding a sustainable economic basis for Aboriginal society in the context of a market economy is one economists should do more to address.
Of course, there is much more to life than economics, and Waterhouse covers a range of topics from horse-racing to the cinema, in an engaging and informative fashion. Overall, a book well worth reading.