Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Alternative histories

A review in the New York Times of a new 'mockumentary' based on the assumption that the South won the American civil war. The review is not very favourable, but it made me think about the shortage of this 'alternative history' genre in Australia. Perhaps because Australian history seems fairly placid and predictable (even when not placid) there have not been very many efforts at this genre. There was a war on the frontier between settlers and aboriginals but here was never any doubt about who was going to win.
In recent political history there are some examples however. What if Labor had won in 1961, would the modernising politics of JFK or Harold Wilson had come to Australia a decade early, would Labor had won the electoral reward of the economic recovery, would the DLP have collapsed a decade earlier as it finally did when Labor did take office? On the other hand the 1957-60 New Zealand Labor government made little impact. The great unanswered question in Australian political history is what would have happened if Lang had refused to accept his dismissal in May 1932, was civil war a possibility? What would have the role of paramilitary conservative forces such as the Old Guard and it’s more populist and neo-fascist rival the new Guard. There have been American cases at the state level of rival administrations after disputed elections, but they have never been in the context of mass political polarisation, and they have been no more than comic opera standoffs. Andrew Moore's The Secret Army and the Premier is an outstanding book on the paramilitary right in NSW in 1930-32, but he is reductionist in downplaying the significance of the New Guard on the grounds it lacked the support of monopoly capital, the same was true of Hitler, German big business distrusted the Nazis (as argued by Henry Turner with apologetic intent), but the Nazi’s popular support swept aside big capital's preferred political allies. What if the New Guard had called on Lang's opponents to come out onto the streets? What if the north coast and Riverina has declared their support for the conservatives (shades of West Virginia’s secession). Any overt conflict would have initiated a process of radicalisation with uncertain consequences. Who would have predicted the Yugolslav horrors of the 1990s earlier? Thoughts on 1975 later.


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