Recently I have spent some time reflecting on Australia’s foray into multiculturalism, one that began, it could be argued, with the post-war Attlee government in Great Britain and the British Nationality Act of 1948. Then firmly in the shadow of the motherland, Australia followed suit, though slowly at first. It is difficult now to see how White Australia lasted as long as it did.
Underpinning this thinking was the firm belief that differences between nations were responsible for conflicts among them; and how logical a view, following the nationalist bent of the first half of the last century and the wars then carried on in the name of blood and soil. Thus, the thinking followed, if all those differences were dispelled, we might enter a new age wherein nation-state conflict was dispensed with. That this has not worked out ought to escape no sage observer; we have merely added to the conflicts within nation-states, without reducing the casus belli that exist between them. Such is our fear of these freshly minted internal contradictions that we have all but banned discussion of them, in anything but the rosiest of deluded terms.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Adjacent to this conviction was the desire to create a new sort of citizen, a citizen who thinks less in terms of time or place, but instead is oriented around ephemeral values, values that can be inculcated on a scale unimaginable to previous generations; the “global citizen”, if you like the appropriately corporate-sounding term. Never before have we possessed the tools for top-down social engineering as have increasingly multiplied in the past seventy-five years, tools well suited to the job at hand. The low-trust, low-competence, atomised and tribal form multiculturalism incubates needs little further comment, and those who cannot see it never will, blindness in some cases being eyes wilfully clamped shut. Instead, it is the creation of this new sort of citizen—out of old stock and new—that is of interest to me.
Certainly, there’s no unscrambling an egg. Once you’ve become multicultural, you’re multicultural for the long haul. You must live with your sins. Much ink has been spilled, on the conservative side of the fence, when it comes to the pitfalls of this project, a project foisted on a population and brute-forced in the face of apathy at best and resentment at worst. From the beginning it was an elite project, motivated in part by economic and neo-liberal priorities, but also driven by a deep ideational desire, spewing from the increasingly establishment Left, to break from the past, to create a sense of the nation entirely propositional. To convinced constructivists, the cultivation of a new kind of citizen, with a new kind of value-set, ought to be no more difficult than any of the other great top-down programs envisioned in the past few decades; if we can build great swathes of urban infrastructure, why not ideational infrastructure, too?
Again, it is no good to talk about ending multiculturalism; the time to do that passed decades ago. Yet I cannot help but note that what multiculturalism has created is less a hodgepodge of ghettos—though they still can be found in the larger metropolitan centres—or enclaves of ethnic success or failure, as the case might be. What has emerged is a general deculturalisation instead, among old and new Australians. We spent a lot of time and energy fretting that new immigrants wouldn’t “become Australian”, whatever that ill-defined term now means. Our values have changed so much that what makes a recognisable Australian in 2023 might as well be a different beast compared to, say, 1990, let alone any earlier. Increasingly it seems we worried about the wrong thing. We were worried about them, but we should have been worried about ourselves.
This is the part nobody mentions when they decide all modern nations are propositional, that written in the fine print is a clause declaring that the proposition is subject to change at any time. Rapid, wholly positive, and seemingly implacable change. Change inherent in the whig version of history that we have come to believe in unhesitatingly, like some Hegelian force that acts of its own volition. Who are you to oppose History? Our values now are equality, diversity and inclusivity, as any human resources department, slick ABC production or university charter will tell you. Ad nauseam. Values are subject to power. Read the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s 2012 speech on “Australian Identity” if you don’t believe me. It could have been delivered yesterday. We have been on this course for a while; the rule of change, in some quarters, is better likened to a rule of acceleration.
All that energy spent worrying about Australia turning into a latter-day Balkans seems to have come to nought. We shrugged our shoulders and decided to make the best of it, of Big Australia; there seemed little that could be done electorally, anyway. Fortifying the majority for this journey, undertaken without much enthusiasm, was the fact that there are many immigrants who have done rather well, who serve the nation in various capacities, who have added to the general pool of Australian talent, who have unironically enriched the country; and upon whom no decent person would wish any ill. Equally, there are others. Of those we need say little. There is no need to overemphasise the reality of those internal contradictions, experienced first-hand by those who must live where different worlds collide. Nonetheless, the worst doomsayers of the 2000s, who predicted a hopelessly fractured country, appear to have been proven wrong—certainly so according to the commentariat generally. Or have they?
Fracturing is unnecessary if a thing has devolved to the point of having almost no fortitude. Fracturing suggests there is a level of sternness, a redoubt of strength I find difficult to believe exists in contemporary Australia. A thing that can be fractured is a thing that is hardy to begin with. And if being Australian is now reductionist to the point of meat pies, sport, and wonderfully diverse advertising campaigns camouflaged as the root-point of national character, hardy is not the term that springs to mind. Those things are supposed to be the properties of a specific substance, not the substance itself. One is more inclined to think of rotten edifices awaiting the boot.
I am sure, at dinner parties, the pub, those quiet moments with trusted company, you have reflected that something seems very wrong in the bones of the country. The symptoms of osteoporosis are everywhere, hiding in plain sight, even if the causes of the ailment can be put down to a medley of maladies, depending on a viewer’s disposition. “This isn’t the country I used to know.” That’s because it isn’t. If it’s any comfort, nowhere is the country it used to be. It’s that whig history thing; we just can’t say no to progress. This sense of dislocation and decline is in part multiculturalism’s gift to us, along with butter chicken. What has happened is more dissolution than fracture, but what did we expect would happen, if through deliberate policy we gutted everything that was, for what we thought might be better?
Thomas Sowell wrote that all liberal policy following the post-war period has been the swapping of what worked for what sounded good. I hope it is uncontroversial to claim that the wholesale dismantling of everything prior is the fundamental modern project, qualified as “good” by its draughtsmen, animated by vast economic and technological progress over the past couple of centuries. The desire to do the same to our social and political structures was a temptation too strong to resist. If antibiotics can cure the body, then the social sciences can cure the body politic; to the mind captured by the modern moment, both are subject to human application, to human design and preparation, in place of natural forces. Social constructivism, being a prescriptive sort of viewpoint, is today’s Babel tower, and merely nominalism in new clothes. To the enthusiastic architects of modernity—in both the literal and figurative sense—what was natural is now unnatural, to be fought tooth-and-nail, with streaming banners elevating the whims of man, alone, heavenward. In the rhetoric of the multiculturalists, I hear the echo of Denis Diderot, clamouring to hang the last king by the last priest’s entrails. The animating spirit is the same, though the language has softened. It is hubris, obviously; and hubris is hard to rate as sounding good, let alone being good. But losing sight of the Good appears to have been the goal of much philosophy since 1945.
The problem emerges when your very flesh and blood make you part of the old order, an order hated and despised by the new order, as representing something they fear might, indeed, have been better; an order rooted in something that isn’t just a proposition, more than mere shifting sands. That the modern world was built by European minds is immaterial; all must now be universal, and embracing the particular, except where it is convenient in leveraging power, is to our current disposition anathema.
It is an impossible bind for most conservatives, because within modern conservatives is a liberal halfway out. Their instincts, leavened by decades of uncritical Enlightenment dogma, push towards propositional nationhood, towards civic nationalism, towards egalitarianism, even if they won’t admit it—towards Rawls, if they are honest. You start at Burke and end at Rawls, perhaps without even realising; that is the extent of the journey for most conservatives. They recognise the half-measures but cannot see a clear way forward, without veering into territory considered verboten. Thus, their efforts strengthen the enemy’s hand. Every generation, that liberal within gets a little stronger, because the conservative imagination is too limited, and too fearful, to think outside liberal paradigms. That is how pervasive the modern moment has become.
Today, the modern moment is about destroying the natural foundations of what a polis is, and replacing it with engineered fabrications that radiate downwards from every once-friendly institution, successfully captured by our ideological enemies almost without notice. The breaking down of historical solidarity is easy to do; our technological progress has made the past seem ever more a foreign country. Where interest or loyalty remains, it is remade into a litany of sins. Where you can’t do it ideationally, you do it materially. Knock down statues; rename landmarks; make old works, or unsavoury ones, impossible to acquire in a digitised world. Censorship and propaganda work hand-in-hand. Out with the old. In with the new. Popular culture and the news media walk in tandem, whether Murdoch or Fairfax, it increasingly seems. All are rusted on to this great liberal project, merely to varying degrees, and the classical liberal refrains of many conservative publications sound increasingly tinny in a world far removed from nineteenth-century intellectual gentility.
And there is plenty of human material unsullied by the pretensions of the past available for immediate import, for whom this unlearning is unnecessary. That it means cheaper labour, lower wages and increased consumption; what better boon to salve the conscience of the halfway-out liberal who still believes in Austrian economics? Recent behaviour by multinational corporations should be egg on the face to anyone who believed that market forces would be a sufficient cure to our social ills; that we could imagine people as nothing more than digits on spreadsheets responding purely to Maslow. After all, the merchant has no country. To quote Churchill, we are spirits, not animals, and only a very peculiar person thinks in economic terms alone. It is a double blessing that this new Australian, who has never heard of Banjo Paterson, the Eureka Stockade, or Suvla Bay, and knows the date of Federation only to pass an exam, is the perfect material from which to cultivate a new polis. Even should he turn “conservative”, it will only be on liberal terms, because there can be no genuine connection to what is prior. It will be the conservatism produced by modernity—again, something closer to Rawls than Burke. The rootless conservative can only agitate for propositional things, because he is part of a propositional project, often without his own recognition. More likely, he will fill the role of vote-client to the progressive patrons who made his advancement possible. His children almost certainly will.
It is virtually impossible to create a genuine traditionalist out of modern-day materials, even among those who can talk about the First Fleet without wringing their hands. The most instinctively conservative individual—for, as Roger Scruton pointed out, conservatism is ultimately an instinct—will be dulled by twelve years of what passes for universal education. Are your children at school? Even a nice private school? They are receiving the modern schema, in the form of milk before solid food, as soon as they are able to walk. I have little desire to dwell on what this does to the weltanschauung of anyone who passes through it, and the horrors of higher education I will leave unmentioned.
We exist within the greatest propaganda machine that has ever existed, so well-oiled and effective that the harder edges history is replete with are largely unnecessary. A cancellation on Twitter, by fanatical if unpaid commissars, is generally sufficient. Repression rises to meet the measure of resistance, and resistance, in our comfortable, Netflix-addled lives, is difficult to muster. It all takes too much energy. If there is one thing the Right needs, it is energy. Expect to go broke betting on finding it among run-of-the-mill conservatives, though this was not always the case.
Perhaps I have been hard on Burke. It is not his fault that those who followed in the Anglo-American tradition, with the notable exceptions of Carlyle and Chesterton among others, largely drifted one way: as the saying goes, Cthulhu may swim slowly, but he only swims left. Burke was correct that society is a compact between the dead, the living, and those yet to come. A prevailing feature of this modern project is an overwhelming sense of presentism, of disconnection from anything that is not the moment at hand. Unfortunately, moments remain connected in linear fashion. If anything differentiates a proper traditionalist from an unreflective conservative, it is that he does not operate within the confines of the mere present alone.
Nonetheless, a people can be stubborn in unlearning; the Trump election demonstrated this, and the frustration of the regime—until they decided it wasn’t funny any more and took off the gloves—was very amusing. To avoid such unpleasantries in the future, import a new electorate. That’s the short-term read of this modern project, because life in a system such as ours leans towards being understood in chronologies of democratic terms. The architects of this project don’t like you—and very often, themselves—because of who you are and what you represent; that bridge to a different world. Hence the rapid and wholesale promotion of those who are not you wherever possible. It takes time, but it is effective.
Someone wrote a clever book that talked about “somewhere” and “anywhere” in terms of where we call home. We might add “nowhere” to that list, too. Many a modern person is so removed from anything prior to him, so enmeshed in the simulacra of eternal presentism, that he might as well be nowhere. A society of nowheres is what we risk creating, a world of universals with nothing particular, without a distinct stake in time or place. A country without a past is a country without a future, and the multicultural experience, along with the contemporary representative democratic experience in general, is one without a great deal of forethought. Where this will go is anybody’s guess. Nobody appears to have thought that far ahead, beyond the next election.
Perhaps the multicultural endgame is win-win for the other side. They get the one future they want; a deracinated world of nowheres, of people disconnected from anything except the present, atomised and seeking meaning in never-ending, increasingly dystopian forms of hyper-individualism, like a man dying of thirst seeking salt, largely facilitated through consumer choices masquerading as the deeper parts of life. How things can get worse than routine genital mutilation remains to be seen, but there appears to be a great deal of ruin in the spiritually disembodied person desperately seeking self-actualisation at any cost. The past melts away, no more relevant than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we march into a perpetually trivial year zero. A bizarre meeting point between New Soviet Man and New Liberal Man is reached, and the country becomes a mere economic zone in Kant’s world republic, as featureless as Tolkien’s “blasted provincial suburb”. This is the monoculture we can look forward to.
It is probably not as bad as all that; there will still be families, there will still be small communities, little Alamos here and there, but all will be besieged by an eternally transient and shifting moment that attacks through whatever cracks it can find. All the guardrails, carefully erected by past generations, will be finally removed, and with them go the parts of life that make it most worth living. Generations are further cleft from one another, vertically and horizontally. Chesterton was right about fences, and maybe Fukuyama was right about the End of History.
Or they get the other future they want, ethnic rivalry reasserts itself and becomes the norm, and those differences now within nations, rather than merely between them, become irreconcilable. A sense of something lost, of truth realised too late, sets in. The strong gods return, and a vanguard movement arises to channel this popular and illiberal sentiment. The other side serve at last as midwives delivering the enemy they’ve been seeking to birth for such a long time. And people do horrible things. Everybody loves to hate Nazis, but when you love creating them more than you profess to hate them, more than a little cognitive dissonance is at work. They need those they call Nazis, to complete their messianic vision of themselves, and characters like Thomas Sewell make for entertaining copies of the true form. Imagine what they would do with the thing proper! The legislation would make the most progressive Victorian parliamentarian blush. But the game is dangerous for them. Backs to the wall, there is no knowing what the average Saxon might do, when he begins to hate.
For those who feel any sense of loyalty to what came before them, defeat or villainy appear to be the only ways forward; and to most, defeat seems more palatable. There might be a third way, and perhaps the reappearance of great-power politics might create a national revival, might slow the madness, and halt the appetite for endless whiggery. But Western militarism feels today like that of the French Third Republic, all materiel and no mettle. We are back to considering rotten edifices.
Those conservative thinkers who wish to walk the fine line, to push back against this project, must reassess how they do so. The very language they use to make their points is couched in the liberal project; they are defeated before they begin. Talking in economic terms is a waste of time, as a significant proportion of the country is pleased by rising property prices and Uber Eats, even as real economic distress mounts. “Jobs and growth” had its time. This battle is ideational before it is material, and the conservative who wishes to be properly oriented against this must deeply assess his own moral and mental bearings before he begins. He must identify that halfway-out liberal within him and recognise that the modern project has not merely been about combustion engines and medical breakthroughs and material computations. There have been costs to progress—rather severe ones, the accounts of which are presently being drawn up—and an attachment to progress, which is what institutional conservatism remains about, even if it cannot articulate as much, needs to be reconsidered.
In short, we worried about the wrong things when it came to multiculturalism. We worried that they wouldn’t change to become like us, but all the while, it was we who were changing, becoming absorbed into a new monoculturalism that appeared to arrive by stealth. Many of us have become nowheres. And a country that is nowhere is no country at all; just another potential tourist destination, a mere denotation on a map. This process was not automatic, nor a spontaneous outgrowth of modernity; we could have had nice things without gender identity politics, relentless migration and endless diversity initiatives. They wanted to unmake you, and they have largely succeeded. It is yet to be seen if enough will remains to unmake the unmaking.
Christopher Joliffe is a freelance writer and editor. He wrote “Why I Will Not Acknowledge Country” in the March issue