Watching Professor Robert Manne on a recent episode of the ABC interview series One Plus One, I began to reflect on a class I took with him during my undergraduate degree. Since then, the ideas he introduced have taken on increasing importance in the light of current global trends and how they are manifesting in Australia. Domestic political debates are producing an increased suspicion of our core liberal-democratic institutions — parliament, the courts, universities, the media — and this has the potential to hamper both our internal stability, and our wider strategic capabilities.

Each week’s discussion in Manne’s class revolved around a key essay or book that illuminated the events and ideas that shaped the West during the twentieth century. The framework was laid out by Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, an intricate account of the dramatic upheavals during what he called “The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991.” By extremes, the historian was referring not just to the violent brutality of that era but also to the great prosperity that emerged in sections of the West following the second world war.

The forces driving the violence were identified by George Orwell in his essay “Notes on Nationalism.” Written towards the end of the war, it bears witness to the destructive effects of conformist mass movements. Orwell used the term “nationalism” in a broad sense to indicate any in-group partiality, whether to a particular ethnicity, a nation state, a political party, a religion, or an ideological orthodoxy. His concern was with “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests” and with the “self-deception” that underlies that drive.

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