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What I’m reading

June 26th, 2005

“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.





Review:

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.

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  1. Harry Clarke
    June 26th, 2005 at 17:34 | #1

    John

    I strongly recommend Bruce Davidson’s “European Farming in Australia” for an analysis of the bad economics of the various settlement schemes. In fact, in my humble view, one of the more important writings on the Australian economy across all fields, bar none. The failures of intensive agriculture in Australia are linked to a dreamlike obsession with conditions in Europe and the self-interest of the landed aristocracy. Amazingly perceptive observations for trends in modern Australian agriculture and a great practical application of sound economic principals to a troubled economic sector.

  2. jquiggin
    June 26th, 2005 at 17:44 | #2

    Agreed. This is included in Waterhouse’s bibliography, though Davidson is not in the index – maybe quoted in the endnotes. Australia Wet or Dry is also an important contribution.

  3. June 26th, 2005 at 20:52 | #3

    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 workers whose lives it depicted and idealised makes it clear that this particular legend was

    One of the sentences just died. What happened to it?

  4. jquiggin
    June 26th, 2005 at 21:40 | #4

    Thanks for catching this one. Fixed now, I hope.

  5. June 27th, 2005 at 00:13 | #5

    It’s a long while since I read Russell Ward’s book, but I’ll hazard an amendment in the nuance. My memory says that his work did not so much presume a culture determined by economics, but explored how far the material economic circumstances could explain the culture, with some success, albeit not the full story. This was/is more a methodology and a field of study than an assumed sequence of economic determination, I think I could argue. Certainly the presumption of the causal flow (economics=behaviour) is less strong in Ward than in, for example, the typical case of contemporary neo-classical economics. Rats in economic traps all the same, I suppose, but in Ward’s case creative, amending rats, for whom we might still be a little grateful came this way. The irreverent bushman may be lost somewhere in an Australian attic that never really existed, but it’s hard to throw him out altogether.

  6. jquiggin
    June 27th, 2005 at 07:57 | #6

    Thanks for this, Chris. I’ve made a small amendment to cover this. It’s not quite satisfactory, so if anyone wants to rewrite the sentence for me, they’re welcome.

  7. Paul Norton
    June 27th, 2005 at 12:47 | #7

    I forget where I saw it, but apparently attempts are being made to attack the credibility of The Da Vinci Code on the basis that it refers to newly installed metal detectors at the entrance to Westminster Abbey, and that at the present time there are not, nor that there been, metal detectors at Westminster Abbey.

    I finished The Da Vinci Code over the weekend. Whilst no specific date is provided for when the putative events in the book take place, it can be deduced, from biographical information about one of the main characters and from the known date of actual events which, we are told, occurred during that character’s childhood, that the story is set some time between 2008 and 2012 inclusive. There is therefore no contradiction between the absence of metal detectors at Westminster Abbey in 2005 (or in 2003 when the book was published) and the reference in the book to metal detectors which might be installed any time from three to seven years from now. Without giving too much away, the metal detectors are necessitated by an element of the plot.

  8. Paul Norton
    June 27th, 2005 at 12:48 | #8

    “at the present time there are not, nor that there been, metal detectors at Westminster Abbey”

    should read:

    at the present time there are not, nor have there been, metal detectors at Westminster Abbey”.

  9. June 27th, 2005 at 13:11 | #9

    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.

    Cultural studies usually explain native culture only in terms of cultural factors. Culture becomes a self-causing system with little room for exongenous factors, apart from emulation or subjugation by foreign cultures. In that respect cultural studies suffer from the problem infinitely regressive explanations.

    The artificial debate between economists and culturalists is typical of the methodological squabbles that obscure more than clarify. It is clear that an industrial system is part of a broader cultural system – hence the term agriculture.

    The truth is that all social systems are evolutionary systems where ecological nature, sociological nurture and technological culture conjoin in a seamless web of interractions. Investigators can assign causal primacy to this or that (embodied) variable, but this depends on ones choice of (environed) frame.

    Natural endowments deal us our cards, but it is cultural environments that regulate our play. Culture – in the Australian rural context – has played the major part conditioning material industrialization and organization, not vice-versa. The Aborigines (for 40,000 years) had the same material circumstances as the Anglo settlers (for the past two centuries) but their organizational and indutrial culture was nomadic rather than settled. The more developed an economy, the more its organization and industrialization will reflect culture ie knowledge economies.

    But nature can also condition culture, as men the world over know when they deal with women and their ways.

    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. …Russel Ward… presented an analysis that, while far from mechanical reductionism, was primarily in the economic determinist tradition. Ward argued that conditions ..promoted the development of a specifically Australian set of cultural attitudes, centred on egalitarianism and mateship, and embodied primarily by (male) bush workers.

    The orginal Anglo Australian economy was fundamentally conditioned by the low labour-to-land ratio, which is an economic factor. This is what gave convicts option of becoming freedmen, it is what allowed the miners to negotiate a better licesing deal from the colonies and it is what provided the basis for trade unions stronger bargaining power. The White Australia policy was a kind of ethnic cartel to improve the labor to land ratio. In that sense Australia’s insulationist racism was a handmaiden to its progressive statism.

    Paradoxically, market forces have now produced an outcome very similar, in important respects, to the goals of the free selection movement… 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.

    Rural & regional Aborigines, to the extent that they will rely on native title for income, will become a rentier and recreational class (or caste). They will draw income from the lease of mineral and pastoral lands and use that money to go huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’.

    Paradoxically the rural Aborigines are adopting an industrial culture similar to the Anglo squatters that orginally displaced them. Urban Aborigines show a high rate of exogamy to Caucasians and are slowly integrating into mainstream city life.

  10. June 28th, 2005 at 16:21 | #10

    “…in economic terms, correspond closely to the yeoman class of old.”

    No they don’t. The squatter economic role was displaced by corporate structures, but that didn’t create a “yeoman class”. The family structures supply a non-corporate economic alternative, but it is engaged with a wider cash economy and did not result in an analogue of that – the key point being, a social not an economic relationship, not aimed at optimising outputs measured in cash terms but – like French agriculture – the output of a self-sustaining peasant population. It’s precisely the fact that they are integrated with a wider economy and (comparatively) better off for that that thwarts it; a less efficient mode with more people integrated in the system would be necessary instead.

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