Subscriberthon guest post: Mark Bahnisch on the era of magical thinking

Mark Bahnisch is the person (or at least one of them) behind Larvatus Prodeo, the biggest and most lively Left-leaning blog in Australia. Here he contributes a guest post on Australia’s years of magical thinking.

Politics, under the sign of postmodernity, increasingly resembles an ethereal realm, floating free of any grounding. It’s become almost trite to remark that symbol trumps substance; that the arts of campaigning and governing are now inextricably linked. The former is a constant, and the latter is the realm of a machine of policy wonkdom which seems to have only a tenuous and occasional relation to the sphere of the demos.

But the symbolism characteristic of political discourse in the twenty-first century, the mediated messaging and the mellifluous mendacity, is only a part of the story.

Gone are the days when even the illusion of a democratic public sphere could be maintained.

The fracturing of communications and audiences, the sundering of the political from the social; these are both signs and causes of the new crafts of state – the ability to call into being multiple publics around diverse and shifting coalitions of interest, harnessing varying affects and ressentiments.

The narrative is all.

It’s this sort of world where magical thinking is the dominant style.

And, while this sort of thought was highlighted first in the imperial politics of the Bush era, it’s around the crisis of climate change that it’s now most evident.

As the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference opens with a Hollywood movie-let, allegations are made that Russian hackers were paid to produce the raw data for the confected Climategate attack on data, and Tony Abbott promotes his Christmas magic pudding, harassed by Malcolm Turnbull tweeting his latest blog post.

If the machinic creation of a mediated ‘public opinion’ masquerading as the Liberal base proves one thing, it is that the processes of research and the discourses of rationality are both poorly understood, and inseparable themselves from affect and politics.

Herein lies the rub for those who wish to see a rational policy response to global climate crisis.

The French sociologist Bruno Latour proclaims ‘we have never been modern’; a phrase by which he means multiple things. My take on it is that the whole project of modernity was always an imposition on the chaos of the social, a cultural style which formed its own discourses of authority. For a range of reasons, the knowledges and differentiated subcultures of technocratic modernity have been in the process of dissolution for decades now. We forget all too easily that an understanding of correlation and cause is a sophisticated form of thought which must be learnt.

It doesn’t come naturally.

We’re much more inclined in our everyday lives to indulge in magical thinking of one sort or another.

The political and scientific projects of modernity worked because they could create emotional resonances with everyday lives, even while disclaiming this aim. It’s now the left which seems to have forgotten that all politics is cultural; a Gramscian lesson which the postmodern right has learnt very well indeed.

The problem with appeals to science is twofold.

First, as I’ve already suggested, for almost all of us, science must be taken on authority. Here, the Enlightenment proves its own gravedigger. Those not labouring in the scientific vineyards are inclined to see scientific truth in much the way the philosophes saw it – as a certainty. The Richard Dawkinses of the world don’t help here. We have something of a Protestant approach to knowledge; at once resolutely sceptical and incapable of seeing ‘consensus’ as a process not a fixed and revealed text.

So it’s not difficult for the culture warriors of the right to poke imaginary holes in the science, if no one really understands what science is.

Secondly, the Green movement has a problem. Only a small minority see ecologism as a lifestyle choice. The great political cleavages of modernity were imbricated in the everyday. It might well be that the Labor party is but a poor shadow of a class vehicle, but it’s still possible to frame a political question around whether one is a boss or a worker. John Howard knew this – hence the appeal to imagine oneself as neither – as an aspirational entrepreneur. This appeal to transcend the inflexible divisions of class was only partially successful – WorkChoices was its epitaph, for a whole range of reasons, but in part because the union movement is still genuinely a social movement grounded in identifications which make sense in a society where work is one of the key signifiers.

There’s a bit of a nature/culture divide going on here. It’s harder than one might think to politicise nature. It’s hard to organise a politics where the object of one’s discourse is not another social grouping but the world itself. Al Gore’s movies might come and go, but for most urbanised and airconditioned Australian subjects, the weather is just the weather, and disasters explicable as something akin to the proverbial acts of God. Graphs can obfuscate as well as enlighten.

So business as usual is popular, with the odd twist that it’s now the political right who oppose market solutions. But Tony Abbott may be onto something; he’s playing to the politics of a vague desire that ‘something be done’. Install a solar panel, and forget about it – the state will sort it out. It won’t happen, but it has an appeal above and beyond market solutions which by necessity create winners and losers, and precisely the uncertainty and fear that most would rather wish away.

So there are two challenges for those who would wish to put magical thinking in its proper place when it comes to climate crisis.

The first is to recognise that intoning ‘it’s the science, stupid’ will not work. Science is a political object in this contretemps, and it may as well be recognised as such. The second is to find a genuine point of connection between culture and nature, which can be leveraged to found and refound a politics.

Neither will be easy, but both are necessary.

If we don’t want magical thinking to be the putative saviour of the planet, it’s well past time we started recognising what needs to be done.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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