Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Lucky Culture

The Lucky Culture And The Rise Of An Australian Ruling Class
by Nick Cater

Nick Cater is rightly concerned that some people on the left in Australia allow their disagreements with ideologies to become dislikes of people who hold those ideologies. The only problem is that Nick Cater also dislikes these people he disagrees with.

This is a profoundly un-selfconscious book. Cater seems genuine in his concern about the changing country, but he has only one big causal factor (university education has caused the raft of social changes since the 1970s in Australia), which even if under-discussed in other tales, never adequately explains the raft of changes which Nick rails against.

Add to this a romanticised, but self-contradictory view of pre-1980s Australia (both celebrating larrikinism while wishing for more respect for captains of industry) and a general vague desire to blame change on the left, without ever presenting an argument on the merits of change and you are left wondering what the author actually believes.

The biggest problem with the Lucky Culture is that Cater’s one big idea doesn’t add up. He never has the courage to say so expressly, but his concern is the rise of Green party values in Australia, and he blames this on the introduction of university education. Yet while 25% of the Australian population have degrees, only 12% vote Green. So tertiary education is clearly not everything for determining political values. And Cater seems to recognise this. In a notable passage early on, Cater says academics are not propagandists, that students are not mere receptacles, and that they’re not really ruling this country.

Wait what? Yes, Cater in the book flat out disagrees with the Cater on the books cover. This is the profound contradiction of the book. Many changes are blamed on the left (such as the rise of consumer-service attitudes amongst students) that the left are just as critical of as cater is. Meanwhile atheism and utilitarianism are celebrated as core colonial era Australian values, but then turned into “souless” radical ideas when held by middle class types in 21st century Sydney.

Most of this book reads as a somewhat sympathetic tale of change and concern over change in Australia. There is an earnest, reasonable style to much of this prose as hard questions are asked about a period of change that has largely (and perhaps rightly) been celebrated in texts such as Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty or George Megalogenis’ The Australia Moment, but only interrogated critically in far left or far right publications.

Unfortunately it’s hard to get at this without noticing the 10% of the book, predominately in the introduction and the mid-chapter on the Whitlam govt which is a tired, unrelated conservative polemic. This is the part that has excited popular media attention, but I feel sorry for Nick if these sections are seen as the legacy of his efforts. There’s more heart and sense in the text than these sections convey. But with the choice to ask the leader of the Australian Liberal Party to help review and launch the book, obviously the political was more important than the cultural focus Cater otherwise seems to desire.

There’s something to Cater’s thesis. He’s not an unsymapthetic guide, and indeed the early chapter on Australia as a home to innovation and ambition is a worthy antidote to the pessimism that too often pervades our national discussions of history. But all too often, Cater seems to engaged in the same type of dislike rather than disagreement he pins on his opponents, while never quite having the courage to say what he thinks of the changes Australia has witnessed since his arrival. Maybe the marketing people have done a profound disservice to the authors’ vision, but you can’t help but think Cater has at least been a willing victim. Willing to accept his earnest concerns distorted in the service of more book sales, and greater partisanship. Which is just the sort of thing he seems to have set out to warn this nation against when he began writing.

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