Archives for posts with tag: politics


What a time it is to an historian!

Here in our corner of the world in Australia, the last few weeks have witnessed a series of social and political events that have absorbed the nation.

To my mind at least, they show that the gaping cracks long evident in the notion of citizenship and belonging (and therefore sovereignty) that underpinned 20th century Australia are now so wide as to be swallowing us whole.

This was a notion of citizenship founded on settler colonialism, racial exclusion, imperial benevolence (British or American), wage arbitration, and the gendered politics that came with it. And it is in this sense that the dual citizenship crisis engulfing parliament, the Manus Island refugee crisis still unfolding with tragic consequences, the politics of the non-binding same-sex marriage postal survey, the Liberal government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Uluru Statement’s proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament, the ongoing disaster of environmental blindness and destructive resource extraction, and the interlinked outrage of insecure work and tax avoidance are all connected.

Who gets to belong? Who gets to participate and on what (and who’s) terms? These questions underpin our political moment, not just in Australia but across the globe.

They cry out for contextualisation – no wonder the historians are out in force:

Are you an historian who has written for a wider audience? Send your #publichist pieces in for puffing!


I’ve written an abridged version of my Griffith Review piece for the USyd website at the start of the academic year. With an emphasis on universities and in particular on limitation, uncertainty and the forms of freedom it enables, the piece reads quite differently than the longer version.

I’ll be talking about these and other aspects of how our institutions – political, social and legal – both support and fail us, and what we can do about it next week (25 Feb) as part of the Sydney Ideas panel discussion: Fixing the System. All are welcome.

The limiting aspects of institutions also make them enabling

Institutions like universities are a crucial part of what makes our democratic society a robust one, writes Dr Tamson Pietsch.


So much of the way universities are talked about echoes the language of choice. Higher education is spoken of as a marketplace in which students are free to choose their courses, their course providers, and once they arrive, their subjects and their friends. But universities have long been places that foster a different kind of freedom, one much more associated with discipline and limitation. And this freedom is closely connected to their role as institutions.

The constraining features of institutions come quickly to mind, and we all chafe at the bureaucratic controls and procedural red tape that characterise state institutions and the restrictions on behaviour and abuses of trust that have come to be associated with religious, military and other institutional bodies. I don’t want to underplay these issues, but I do want us to think carefully about what it is that makes our lives meaningful, what it is to be human, and what makes our societies liveable.

Because it is the limiting aspects of institutions that also make them enabling. In the university this takes the form of disciplinary divisions, the scientific method, professional conduct, the recognition of superior expertise, personal discipline and the utilisation of resources: it’s these things that permit individual education and the advance of knowledge to take place. These conventions, and their material expression in buildings and bequests and classrooms, enable scholars and students to pass on knowledge and develop it.

The advent of digital technology, and the new economy that comes with it, has given us many choices. It has enabled employees to work from home or when travelling and at the same time has increased self-employment and outsourcing. It has brought service providers more directly to the consumer (think airlines, or services like Uber).

A lot of this is convenient, but it can also be exhausting, leaving us overstretched, time-poor, and alone in the flood of information that doesn’t meet our human needs for love and care and connection. Moreover, it puts up for sale the moral and civic goods we value most. Our society of choice is one only the strong, highly informed, wealthy, healthy and continually available can navigate. The market economy may be beneficial; but the market society is not.

Despite their many flaws, public institutions serve critical functions that bind and safeguard us as citizens and consumers. They make our society fairer by performing functions that privatised providers simply cannot. They ensure fair trade, due process and equitable access, and recognise we are all creatures that have need of material care and assistance. And because they endure through time – sitting above party politics or momentary fashion – they are a crucial part of what makes our democratic society a robust one.

They are tools that help our society survive economic hardship and reap long-term benefits from prosperity; they help us work through political tension and resolve disputes because they are not the creations of our moment only. They need continually to be reformed, but always in ways that are measured against a public good that extends beyond the interest of one generation or socio-economic group.

And more than this, institutions give us ways of not being alone. They give us congregations to join, sporting clubs to belong to, democratic practices to engage in, and associations to be a part of. And this is what makes institutions powerful agents in the world. Lobbying government, protecting our common wealth (most notably the environment), creating systems that recognise our shared needs, holding in check the power of big capital, keeping market logic where it belongs – all these things can only happen when people come together with material resources, organisation and strategy that works at the highest as well as the humblest levels.

Universities matter, not just because they open opportunity and add to our GDP, but because – like our other public institutions – they work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections, or even of individual careers.

For all their problems, they are still places that recognise the messy, uncertain and often troubling aspects of human life. Universities are founded on an acknowledgement that we are meaning-making creatures, that so much about life is uncertain, and that expertise takes years to develop. Their power lies in their relational character: it is not monetised exchange and short-term benefit that underpins their ultimate mission, but rather an encounter with ideas and with other people.

With their buildings, libraries and bequests they draw us into a form of time that stretches out beyond the life of any one of us; and with their bars and playing fields and classrooms they bring us into an engagement with one another. In doing so they equip us with thick forms of connection: knowledge, ethics of participation and relationships that give us ways to live and to flourish in the fractured and fluid world of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’.

Dr Tamson Pietsch is the ARC DECRA Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. She will appear as part of a Sydney Ideas panel discussion: Fixing the System at the Law School on 25 February.

FullSizeRenderOne of the best bits about being an historian is that “reading” features prominently in the job description. From archival letters to articles and scholarly monographs (and ok, yes, just as often twitter and random bits of the internet) words crafted by others are at the heart of my daily practice. They take me out across oceans and pull me into the intimacies of others’ longings and fears. And in doing so they bring the past and the future into my present, both slowing me down and dragging me along.

But I find that often this longer-form reading gets lost in the textual flood that is the internet and email and the administrivia of daily life. I want to keep better track of my textual meanderings and I want to be more conscious of their value in my week.

I know, I know, book lists are annoying. I can’t stand the endless “best of” inventories generated by book sellers and reviewers. The words “inspiring”, “gritty” or “hilarious” invariably appear in every single precis. They seem wholly too worthy, and usually make me itchy and impatient. Yet I love love LOVE the LRB, which is basically a big list about books written by people who live in North London. I love the conversation into which it draws me, and the unexpected connections it helps me to make.

So, in the spirit of the latter rather than the former, I hereby offer you:

Occasional dispatches from my big green reading chair #1

  • Zoe Williams, Get It Together(Hutchinson, 2015) – Zoe Williams is freaking great. A journalist for the Guardian UK, her writing combines deep awareness of people in the realities of their daily lives with incisive analysis of the structures and interests at work in our political and economic systems. This book is talking about wtf is going on in Britain now and the massive transfer of wealth that has happened since 2008 and what can be done. It has wide resonance beyond Britain because so many of these issues are present in post-industrial societies – they include the changing nature of work, housing (un)affordability, service outsourcing and much besides. The tone is one of controlled rage mixed with wry humour.
  • Tomás Irish, The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – I am writing a review on this, but I had bought it before the journal contacted me, which has got to be a good sign. It both exemplifies and contributes to a new breed of university history that is coming out of the cloister and stepping beyond its traditional institutional and national frames. I’ve got a particular interest in this book because, as well as focusing on the mobilisation of universities during the First World War, it takes up questions of expertise and the nation in the aftermath of the conflict. These latter themes are at the heart of the major ARC-funded project that I’m running, together with colleagues from the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. To get a sense of it, imagine a national version of USyd’s Beyond1914 database which collects information on graduates who served in the war. What did these soldier experts do after the conflict ended? Why is their story not more central in our accounts of nation building?
  • Alecia Simmonds, ‘Why we need a reminder about Australia’s imperialist history with Nauru’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 2016 – This is an important piece because in all the talk about refugees the history of Australia’s relationship with Nauru is too often ignored. Why has Nauru agreed to set up a detention facility? It’s because decades of Australian-led phosphate mining have stripped it of its natural assets such that 90% of the island is depleted and its people live in the narrow strip around its coast, vulnerable to rising sea levels. The failed tax-haven plan of the 1990s only left it doubly bankrupt. As Naomi Klein has so powerfully shown, on Nauru ‘the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow … play warden to the economic and war refugees of today.’ In this piece Alecia Simmonds reminds us that the border between Australia and Nauru has long been little more than a convenient fiction.
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