Tamson provoked me with this recent 14-min video from the IPA.
Bella: If you were starting a new society, how would you do it? How would you decide the government you wanted, the type of legal system you wanted to put in place and how to create wealth in your new society? The early Australian colonists of the late eighteenth century faced all these questions. They came to this land and found a completely blank slate upon which they could implant any structure they wanted.
Indigenous HISTORIAN: Except it wasn’t a blank slate was it?
Indigenous HISTORIAN: Well, there were already societies here, weren’t there, with systems of governance, law, and economics.
British HISTORIAN: And while we’re at it, I guess there were also the systems of governance, law, and economics that the colonists were in fact a part of in coming here – I mean, they weren’t “Australians” then were they? They were British people extending eighteenth-century British structures of politics and so on…
Bella: So, a totally blank slate ready for free choice. Thankfully, these early Australian colonists didn’t have to go it alone; they brought books with them, books that revealed that Britons had been debating issues of governance, law, and economics for centuries.
Indigenous HISTORIAN: Not millenia, then.
Bella: These debates culminated in the great period called the Enlightenment. What, then, was the Enlightenment?
Eminent historian of the Enlightenment, John Gascoigne: The Enlightenment was a movement of ideas, not a set of precepts.
Bella: There we have it! The Enlightenment gave us the foundations of modern society: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the pre-eminence of property in all things, the sublime miracle of free enterprise, and a certain kind of democracy.
Social HISTORIAN: [Snort]
Social HISTORIAN: I mean, “a certain kind of democracy.” I dig your biting satire, Bella, with nimble allusions to the exclusion of women and most non-British migrants from partaking in democratic processes until at least a hundred years after the period under discussion, due in fact mainly to, as you say, the “pre-eminence” of property and the “miracle” of laissez faire. I had not pegged you as such a wit …
Bella: [Mental note never to interview social historians ever again]. John, you were saying the Enlightenment gave us our foundations….?
Gascoigne: Oh, actually… Well, I mainly just wanted to explain that … [delete foregoing] The Enlightenment derived from the Scientific Revolution and the religious wars of the seventeenth century. It was thus all about how to find a basis other than religion to develop institutions.
Bella: It had a due reverence for the place of traditional pillars like the church then in earthly affairs?
Gascoigne: Wait, what … [cut, deleted, never invited back to the IPA].
Bella: So let’s dig into the rich legacy of the Enlightenment by analysing the work of five men. Fortunately, we can go right to the actual books the colonists read because they are preserved in the State Library of NSW!
Public HISTORIAN: Yes, an amazing institution, functional only because of state funding rather than the market…. (in a good year, that is – 2018 saw a cut of 18%) [deleted]
Bella: First up Adam Smith. Who WAS Smith?
Economic HISTORIAN: Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776. It argued that wealth was more likely to spread to all if via free trade rather than protectionist plunder.
Bella: Ah ha! Proof that the free market is the single source of goodness and truth!
Political HISTORIAN: Actually, no. Loads of Smith’s own students and peers worried about this. Smith himself even voiced concerns about the potential of commercial society to erode the classical values of courage, curiosity, and the “heroic spirit.”
Indigenous HISTORIAN: And he was kind of really into ordering societies into hierarchies from savage to pastoral to agricultural to commercial. He explicitly said that Indigenous people were the current embodiment of savagery, the lowest rank in the hierarchy. Smith’s influence helped Europeans drive their dispossession of Indigenous lands, which when you think about it looks a lot more like plunder than trade….
Bella: [eyeroll, eyeroll]. Here we go with the “PC” version of history, completely unmoored from any empirical facts….
Indigenous HISTORIAN: “First of Occupation,” December 24, 1762, para. 33 in Adam Smith, Lectures On Jurisprudence, ed. R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael and P. G. Stein, vol. V (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982).
Bella: So. Locke. He wrote the Two Treatises. What were they about?
Intellectual HISTORIAN: Well, the first argued against this guy called Filmer who advocated for the traditional power of governors – Filmer had said that governors (kings) derived their power from Adam (but not the Scottish one! Ha! Intellectual historian humour!) and thus was divinely given. Locke’s second treatise was all about how to find a rational rather than divine basis for government, one founded instead on a contract between the governors and the governed.
Bella: So Locke invented the social contract! We owe this idea completely to him!
Intellectual HISTORIAN: No. [deleted]
Bella: Next up, David Hume …
Popular Culture HISTORIAN: “… could out-consume / Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel / and Wittgenstein was a beery swine / Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel!” [cut and killed]
Bella: What did David Hume do?
HISTORIOGRAPHER: He wrote an unbelievably large amount. Like: LOADS. [Sigh]. He wrote six volumes just on the history of England and he didn’t even make it to 1700. He hated Locke, said that his work was “despicable, both in style and matter.”
HISTORIOGRAPHER: Oh yeah! Did NOT buy in. At all. Said the social contract was bunk. Said the English constitution proved in fact that it was bunk because it evolved over eons and had not been contractually defined. Said that rationalism was a hiding to nothing. I mean, this guy…
Bella: OK. Let’s move on then to Burke. He damned the French Revolution! He feared the mob as much as state over-reach…
Indigenous HISTORIAN: Which mob?
Popular Culture HISTORIAN, back from the dead: Lol.
Bella: And Burke supported the American Revolution!
Imperial HISTORIAN: I think “support” is a strong word. He conceded with a heavy heart that Britain should allow the American colonists to separate. He so wanted to preserve the dispossessive and slaving elements of the British empire that he was prepared to release the dispossessive and slaving Americans rather than risk complete imperial implosion. Turned out to be a shrewd move: American citizens not only started trading with the British again after separation but even increased their trade into the 1790s. Goes to show that Smith’s invisible-handed market preferred its own kind even more than did a protectionist imperial racket! Or something…
British HISTORIAN: It’s also entirely congruent that Burke would condone the American Revolution but hate the French one. He condoned the American one in order to preserve a set of now ageing structures. He hated the French one because he saw that it wanted to remake those structures overnight (as well as abolish slavery and other stuff). Which is wild, right, since you wanted this doco to be about how great it was to remake society! I mean, the ironies of history is why I’m in this business. You too?
Bella: Moving on, finally, to Blackstone. He wrote about English common law in such a readable way that this is why the colonists decided to choose that system over all the others on offer.
Legal HISTORIAN: What other systems were there? What else were they gonna choose?!
Bella: He was so accessible!
Legal HISTORIAN [smolders with a bitter deathstare]: Mmm…. Like this completely randomly-chosen tract taken from Book The First, Chapter the Seventh: “It is a maxim of the Englifh law, as we have feen from Bracton, that ‘rex debet effe fub lege, quia lex facit regem:’ the imperial law will tell us, that ‘in omnibus, imperatoris excipitur fortuna: cui ipfas leges Deus fubjecit’”….
Bella: The fact that Australia today has any freedoms at all owes to men like Smith, Locke, Hume, Burke, and Blackstone.
Second social HISTORIAN [uninvited]: Probably really to the rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries who prompted these guys to think of ways to manage bids for influence, liberty and recognition from the masses….These ordinary people so questioned and challenged British systems of governance, law, and economics throughout the 17th and 18th centuries via insurrection, pamphleteering, and assembly that elites were forced to amend – some might say shore up – the …..
Bella: It is important that we know all about the Enlightenment so that we understand our origins as Australians.
One thought on “If the IPA video on Enlightenment in Australia had included more historians”
This is brilliant!