Proudly plebeian, Australia has no need to apologise for its egalitarianism and should celebrate its achievements more self-consciously, writes Jens Schroeder.
For Europeans, as the Swiss banker father of a friend of mine once said, Australians are the plebeians of the Western world.
The cliches were presented by the editor-in-chief of the German broadsheet Die Welt, Thomas Schmid, last year in an editorial. He argued that Australia lacks civilisation, everyone is dressed informally, there is a lack of social differentiation and the only thing setting the upper class apart from the middle is its higher income.
It is an empty place with nothing in the middle – in geography nor identity. These are prejudices Australians have had to deal with almost since the arrival of the First Fleet, a fate they shared with other New World societies such as the United States.
One reason was that while on the political spectrum undemocratic Old World societies constituted one end of the scale and democratic New World societies the other, it was the other way round on the cultural spectrum, which ranged from the distinguished, educated European gentleman to the materialistic, uncouth philistines in the colonies.
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the aristocratic Frenchman lamented that the United States – the first and worst example of democratic excess – lacked an aristocratic elite which made great art and literature possible. He found a “depraved taste for equality which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level” .
In the second half of the 19th century, Australia started looking into matters of a distinctive national identity. It found the bushman, a myth which neatly fitted into the 19th-century intellectual landscape.
It was closely connected to the notion of the “coming man”, a reaction against the social snobbery the English middle-class exhibited against the colonials and amplified by Australia’s foundation population.
In contrast to this larger and socially inferior group, the colonial gentry did not regard Australia as “home” but kept close and respectable connections to England, and therefore left the creation of a distinctive Australian identity to the less powerful but numerous “lower orders”.
The ritual of egalitarianism helped to shape the new order. It is always what people believe that matters, yet while the idealism of the bush hardly claimed more than sentimental commitment, Australia’s democracy had a real basis. It was an “egalitarianism of manners”.
A highly efficient economy together with a shortage of labour after the discontinuation of the assisted migration scheme produced high standards of living for male workers. They became more independent and self-confident.
They found dignity and did not have to be humble before their “betters”. There was no need for “improvement”.
The manners of public life were direct, open and non-deferential. In this egalitarianism lie the deeper reasons for the condescending view upon Australia – it devalued the cultural capital of the average European intellectual.
In contrast to mass culture, the consumption of high culture implies certain competencies. We need to be able to decode a piece of art, the ability for which is conveyed by education. This helps social groups to set themselves apart from others which lack these capabilities. Everyone understands mass culture; it does not serve any form of status. Matters are different, however, with “restricted” culture; by a conspicuous refusal of other tastes, a class tries to depict its own lifestyle as something superior.
As a result, in Europe cultural distinctions functioned as social distinctions. Aversions to different lifestyles became one of the strongest barriers between the classes.
In Australia, ordinary men enjoyed “cultural dignity”. Claiming to be better than the rest because one could competently talk about art did not suit a society of “common man”. Tastes were often shared. Everyone met at the races. This did not mean art was not appreciated; it meant the exchange rate of cultural capital into power was less favourable than in Europe.
The “holy men of culture” and their inimitable nuances of manners and behaviour were confronted by Australia’s democracy. This annoyed them to no end. Australia was not only the end of the world, it also became the end of civilisation and of any worthy cultural endeavour.
Take the Englishman John Pringle, for example. In his classic book, Australian Accent, he complains about art being just “part and parcel of the general background of entertainment and recreation”.
That was exactly the problem. There was culture in Australia, however it did not not serve a political economy of power as existent in Europe. Artists were just like other people, they even lived in suburbia. Accordingly, they and their work had to be inferior. Australia became the victim of an international version of class discrimination.
It should not pay attention to the knockers. Offended European capital and the cringe should not stand in the way of recognition of its achievements. It should celebrate its achievements more self-consciously, be they culturally, socially or economic.
It survived the global crisis relatively unscathed. It is a vibrant nation in a booming region. It has more to offer than beach, beer and (alleged) crassness.
Australia enjoys culture and democracy in more equal parts. In short, it has every reason to be taken seriously, especially by a tired Europe which increasingly loses meaning on the world stage and faces almost insuperable demographic problems.
Jens Schroeder is a sociologist at the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television Arts in Germany. This is an edited extract of tonight’s lecture to the Centre for Independent Studies.