Section 49 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 49

Commerce and culture

Throughout this “political” digression, I have been concerned with the fact that the development of culture in Australia, as a “thing-in-itself,” a dynamic contribution to world culture originating in this place, will not become a real possibility until Australia is emancipated from the economic and political domination of Europe, and of European thought. The mental orientation towards Europe has arisen from our economic orientation in that far north-westerly direction. With Britain, particularly, we have had a workable economic arrangement whereby we supplied raw materials and received manufactured goods in exchange. But in Europe, and even in Britain, the clear-sighted are now raising the flag of economic nationalism.

British farmers and cattle-breeders complain of the “competition” of Australian beef and dairy products. British exporters insist on two-ways trade with Denmark, the Argentine, and other “competitors” of Australia. The old automatic arrangement under which Australia was a primary-producing country, sparsely populated, a source of raw materials and foodstuffs, is drawing to an end. The growth of Australian manufacturing expedites the decease of “Empire trade.”

Entering a new economic phase, Australians suddenly realise that, if “economic nationalism” is to be the watchword, this continent is one of the best-equipped for such a policy of autarchy. If not a ship came to these shores for a hundred years, Australians would not on that account perish: nor would it be necessary for the Australian standard of living to decline; for we have everything in this Commonwealth that human beings may require, and in abundance. While adhering to international trade, our standards of living on this island can vary downwards as the standards of other countries vary, and as their purchasing power declines. But if autarchy is to be the watchword, if we are to be driven back entirely upon our own resources, we should grow fat, living upon the fat of this land. A future of economic nationalism, of economic self-sufficiency, we could face without fear.

This is the new world-phase which appears to be approaching, and we must prepare for it. For forty years past we have lived in dependence upon our export trade. We have “humoured the customer,” namely Britain — even to the extent (unfortunately for Australian self-respect) of toadying somewhat to the British. We have had the anxiety of a tradesman with a very full shop anxious to please his best customer.

Well now! Our “best customer” is going elsewhere to purchase his butter, eggs, bacon, and beef! We must naturally lose a certain amount of respect for anyone who treats us like that. Noting that our former best customer is going to other shops, we must attract new customers into our own. Such is the growing Australian commercial sentiment in regard to Britain: and with this new sentiment comes an attitude of mind very much removed from that of the small shopkeeper anxious to please a customer, or of the person who has borrowed money anxious to placate the moneylender. As we become independent of British trade and of British loans (by finding other customers and by paying off the loans) — so in Australia we must progress from an economic independence to a political independence — and thus, along commercial channels, we progress towards cultural independence.

For forty years past, Australia’s commercial policy has been not towards independence of Britain as a customer, but towards a greater and greater dependence of Australia commercially upon the Mother Country. It is only very recently that the gospel of permanent Australian commercial dependence upon Britain has been, to a certain extent, discarded by Australian businessmen. A whole generation of grovellers to Britain is now being replaced by a generation with more respect for themselves than to grovel to anybody. This new commercial generation in Australia may foster Australian culture and seek, in intellectual self-respect, an expression of the sense of power which arises from the growing commercial autonomy of Australia.

The passing generation, the generation which for forty years has grovelled to Britain commercially, spurning Australian literature, Australian art, Australian sentiment, Australian culture, is obsolescent if not yet obsolete. Time will extinguish this generation more effectively than arguments such as those of the present thesis. This obsolescent generation of alleged “Australians” has found its highest arcanum of desire in receiving Knighthoods from London and having its daughters presented at Court in London.

Sydney (even more than Bristol of the war-profiteering epoch) has become “A City of Dreadful Knights.” Australia’s modern “Bunyip Aristocracy,” bearers of the almost-noble titles of ancient European chivalry, embody the antithesis of Australian democratic, modern, and egalitarian ideals. Few of these “Knights” could sit upon a horse or even a donkey or go to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Most of them, like Knights of the Chessboard, can, in fact, move only crookedly: and have so moved, to secure their titles. The insignia of Knighthood in Australia, even more so than in Britain, has become a badge of Commercial Success, crude and undisguised. The comparatively few exceptions — Australian Knights who have won their titles by acts of learning, philanthropy, or public virtue — must occasionally blush for their compeers, the knighted grocers and graziers of this land of opportunity.

But no really self-respecting Australian could, with dignity, accept a title from the English, until such time as, under the Statute of Westminster, there is established a reciprocity between the Dominions in such courtesies. For each Knighthood conferred upon an Australian, there should, by imperial reciprocity, be an Australian title conferred upon some Englishman who, in England, has done something valuable to advance Australia’s cause in that country. The Order of the Mulga may be suggested, with the right to use the prefix of “Cobber” — the wives of persons so honoured may be entitled to the pre-name of “Mum.”

Failing such a reciprocity, the Order of Knighthood in Australia might, with an increase of dignity for Australians, be politely allowed to lapse.

The point is mentioned here solely in relation to the inter-dependence of Commerce and Culture in the modern world, and particularly in Australia during the past forty years, which has been a period rich in Imperial Commerce and poor in indigenous culture. The habit of looking to Europe for “trade” has led to the habit of regarding Europe as the fountain of all things that matter. The attitude of mind which seeks a Knighthood in Australia and sends daughters to be presented at Court, imagines that by such acts it is becoming cultured: but scarcely anyone is deceived, except the Knights and daughters in question. Knighthoods, like beauty, are only skin deep. Scratch an Australian Knight and you will find, only too frequently, a “beastly bourgeois.” Scratch away the plaister of “culture” which has been acquired by an Australian young “lady” who has been presented at Court — ask her to pronounce Cholmondeley, Cherwell, Magdalen, or Caius — and you will find how little she really “knows.” The private ribald jokes in what survives of authentic London “society” about the “contingents of colonials” presented at Court would fall like acid on the skins of Australian debs. if only they could hear what the genuine English county people really think about them. The tickets for presentation at Court which may be obtained at Australia House by any Australian gal who earnestly wants one are issued not by any means as a certificate of blue blood. They are issued as a harmless gesture of imperial expediency, more or less like Australian Knighthoods — in dozens.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 165-170

Editor’s notes:
debs. =debutants

gal = girl

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