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People, Energy, Technology: Social and Economic Acceleration in Victoria, 1851-1914

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posted on 2022-12-05, 03:23 authored by Rodney Maxwell Buckton

This thesis contributes to Australian social, economic and environmental history through research into social and economic change, institutional response, and its consequences, in the colony and State of Victoria 1851-1914, situated within its broader imperial and global settings. This period was the peak phase of global colonial expansion, migration, and militarisation, under both mercantilist and industrial capitalist impulses. The economic growth and wealth creation propagated by gold discoveries was offset by large-scale consumption and degradation of natural resource endowments. The thesis builds upon world histories charting transformative and accelerative global change in the nineteenth-century, by Osterhammel, and Bayly, and is an explicit example of Belich’s, ‘Settler Revolution.’ Through a deep reading of the state archives as the primary source, I quantitatively and qualitatively assess accelerative and decelerative change in Victoria, testing the applicability of Harmunt Rosa’s theory of social acceleration, which, while addressing our recent past of unfettered acceleration in production and consumption, draws its intellectual inspiration from observations of similar phenomena accompanying the onset of nineteenth-century modernity. Rosa proposes that the processes connecting growth with acceleration are structurally grounded within economic, cultural, and socio-structural, or institutional settings. The economic motor is primarily driven by increasing energy supply and technological advance. The intersections of people, energy and technology in Victoria are a major theme binding this thesis. This transformative period encompassed the ‘second industrial revolution’ based on chemicals and electricity from 1870-1914, and the near coterminous fin de siècle, a period of unprecedented intellectual advance, and cultural change. Little emphasis has been placed to date by historians on Victoria’s adaptive and reactive responses to modernity, in its transition from agrarian settler society to a democratic, industrialised state. This was a transformation achieved through exploitation and depletion of natural resources, driving increasing rates of production, consumption, and circulation. Victoria’s distinctive hybridised variant of British liberalism propelled by expanding and omnipresent state institutions, with policies often at odds with the Imperial core and its neighbouring colonies. The question is, how, and why, and for whose benefit was acceleration in Victoria shaped by its location and physical endowments, or adaptive to the constraints of British suzerainty? And what were the dominant ideas and circumstances promulgating rapid institutional formation and an accelerative state? I argue that Victoria’s successful social, economic, and political developments, within imperial legal and economic restraints, promoted unfettered progress while steering the formation of its distinctive settler polity, one increasingly at variance with British free-trade liberalism, but in the vanguard of emancipatory democratising states. The incremental governmentalisation of power relations under state institutions, a nineteenth-century condition observed by Foucault, forged economic and social formations and cultural alignments meeting state objectives. After the dislocations of the gold rushes, Victoria regained control during a long period 1860-1890, of industrialisation and urbanisation, becoming protectionist through an awareness of Victoria’s finite and depleting resource endowments, and the impacts on a small colony of powerful global forces harnessing capital, technology, communications, and organised through a new industrial managerialism.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Situating the thesis -- Chapter 2 – Acceleration in Victoria: a political narrative of progress -- Chapter 3 – Population and acceleration -- Chapter 4 – Natural resources, natural accelerants -- Chapter 5 – The State as acceleration -- Chapter 6 – Increasing entropy: energy as acceleration -- Chapter 7 – Technology and information flows: critical accelerants -- Chapter 8 – Industrialisation and work as acceleration -- Chapter 9 – Conclusion – Bibliography


For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Department of History and Archaeology, Faculty of Arts, Macquarie University

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Mark Hearn


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




Victoria Australia


506 pages

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