Choking on the path to freedom: Australia’s political possibilities in the new decade

White Australia’s appeal has always been in ‘the good life’. Scratch beneath the surface of any tourism ad, beneath kangaroos, beaches and Uluru, the message is of Europe without Europe – whiteness with warm weather. More than is the case for the nations that we modelled ourselves after, there’s an unspoken social pact that governments draw their legitimacy from being able to provide this good life – a few good days at the beach, a month of quality cricket and, more recently, Instagrammable meals at a trendy bar or café. British political legitimacy is hardly contingent upon the United Kingdom being ‘pleasant’. In Australia, delivering on this middle-class consensus is vital.

Australia’s peculiar middle-class liberalism was diagnosed over a century ago by an unlikely but keen observer – Vladimir Lenin – in a still prescient 1913 excerpt:

What a peculiar capitalist country is this in which Labour predominates in the Upper House and recently predominated in the Lower House and yet the capitalist system does not suffer any danger! … The Australian Labour Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact it is a liberal-bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.

[I]n Australia, the Labour Party represents purely the non-socialist trade unionist workers. The leaders of the Australian Labour Party are trade union officials, an element which everywhere represents a most moderate and “capital serving” element, and in Australia it is altogether peaceful, and purely liberal.

While Lenin predicted that a new, socialist Labor party would develop once Australian capitalism had more fully developed, instead we’ve seen the incredible lasting power of the liberal husk, as Australian labour as a class has never transformed its political formation from liberal reformism into a social democratic, let alone radical-socialist, direction. So, to understand class struggle in Australia, it pays to keep one’s eyes peeled, focused at the corners and interstices of mundane, everyday life, to focus on where the purported good life is failing to deliver on its promise.

Successive crises over the last year have done much to raise doubts about how good our quality of life really is in the twenty-first century. This was apparent back in August 2019, when Australia’s literally crumbling real-estate was emblematic of a broader rot at the heart of our economy, one which the political class would look away from at their own costs. Little could any of us have predicted how quaint this would appear in retrospect. From a crumbling castle to self-immolation in the smoke-drenched cities of Canberra and Sydney to apocalypse-movie-quality panic over toilet paper, it seems that if we’re not buried by our apartment blocks that we’ll choke on smoke or get into a fistfight over domestic necessities.

Yet, as seismic as the changes have been to Australian public life over this last year, the lack of any corresponding political transformation is puzzling, even for our politically complacent nation. We find ourselves like the Rugby and AFL players forced to continue playing for empty stadiums – at one point coining the beautiful term NRL Island – forced to simulate normality in a rapidly emptying environment.  Even our economic stimulus – designed for an impending recession studiously blamed on the coronavirus rather than any underlying economic rot – has been designed to prop up the system as it is. Rather than take advantage of a crisis to undertake some badly needed reforms, we are taking economic booster shots to keep up appearances, until the drug wears off and the next crisis begins.

We are continuing to play the parts in a script which ran out of pages several years ago. Living in 2020 has been actually living through the apocalyptic crises that we were warned about. And although we continue to adapt and play our parts, there’s the uneasy concern that we’re about to run into still another crisis. Hence the perpetual anxiety: ‘Is this over yet? I hope it is … But what’s next?’ It’s profoundly unsettling to realise that all the yardsticks and political truths we inherited from our parents are entirely insufficient for today. They were just the relic of an historically peculiar post-WWII era. So long stability, welcome back chaos.

In 2016, the OG of ‘bad years’, Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe argued that the age of humanism is ending:

Inequalities will keep growing worldwide. But far from fuelling a renewed cycle of class struggles, social conflicts will increasingly take the form of racism, ultra-nationalism, sexism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other deadly passions.

… None of the above is accidental. If anything, it is a symptom of structural shifts, which will become ever more apparent as the new century unfolds. The world as we knew it since the end of World War II, the long years of decolonisation, the Cold War and the defeat of communism has ended.

Another long and deadlier game has started. The main clash of the first half of the 21st century will not oppose religions or civilisations. It will oppose liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, the rule of finance and the rule of the people, humanism and nihilism.

Liberal humanism may have a future, but it is no longer the default ideology. Any new vision for socialism, anti-imperialism or global solidarity is going to have to contend with increasingly authoritarian and technocratic ideologies. The stormy, centuries-long affair between capitalism and democracy is coming to an end. The success of East-Asian authoritarian capitalism has become openly admired by neoliberal technocrats, to the extent that Brexit Britain has attempted to market itself as ‘Singapore on Thames’.

So where did the ‘democracy’ in ‘capitalist democracy’ go? The currency of liberal parliamentarianism, has been foundering across the globe ever since its last crisis, in 2008. There is a slow erosion even among Western European parliamentary systems in their ability to form workable coalitions, while elsewhere former strongholds of the left in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South America are returning to conservative or military governments. Militaristic nationalism, not parliamentary democracy, let alone democratic socialism, has increasingly become the dominant political force in a world without a global left bulwark.

In Australia, which has both led in front of and dragged behind history, we’re slowly catching up to this collapse of parliamentarianism. Australians’ faith in democracy is at an all-time low, with the last three out of four elections producing knife-edge results in Parliament. While Australians broadly have faith in democratic values, they are increasingly dissatisfied with and distrustful of their messengers in the major political parties. As Tim Hollo, writing in The Guardian, expands:

Even worse, the extreme right capitalises on this by identifying the disenfranchisement and misdirecting public anger away from the real causes and towards some scary “other”. They give people the cathartic option of kicking out, punching down, messing stuff up for the sake of it. The populist “anti-politics” frame is constructed by the right in this context to further undermine faith in democracy and lead to autocratic answers

It’s not like people don’t care about where the world is headed, but this good faith is not currently being rewarded by our political institutions. Any re-articulation of democratic political norms will have to fight to establish itself as against an increasingly nihilistic world.

These implications should be very clear: there is no hope of a purely parliamentary reversal of what Australia is currently undergoing. Even while there are convincing cases that Global North countries will continue to develop more radical politics – despite the loss of Jeremy Corbyn and the winding up of Bernie Sanders’ campaign – this seems like a far cry in Australia, where the left’s failure to take power or really even offer a popular alternative is a source of public lament.

But lament is not enough. We are spending far too much time documenting the cultural meme of ‘living in dark times’ instead of actually organising an alternative to Howard Era 2.0, Trump, etc. For the left – who have long been trying to surpass the limitations of liberal capitalism – it’s somewhat disingenuous to go along with this ‘dark times’ charade and pretend that the collapse of the bourgeois world order isn’t entirely desirable. Even if it looks like it’s being replaced with barbarism rather than a new socialism, did we seriously think that the neoliberal hellscape of 2015 was really capable of addressing global climate change? Wouldn’t we naturally expect the vultures of the right to pick at the same, self-combusted remains? Wasn’t capitalism always going to collapse in on itself? To be uncomfortable with living – and really being – in the present moment indicates a latent attachment to an era which certainly cared little for us. The coronavirus is making a mockery of any idea that the neoliberal world order was ever capable of addressing any social crisis.

The social and political response to the pandemic has actually been highly productive. Unlike the bushfires, which – while natural – were too obviously the product of white Australia’s settler-colonial land management and climate change policies, the amorphous nature and external origin of the virus have defied the usual political categorisation. Once it transitioned from racist punchline into an actual social problem confronting Australians, people’s response to the pandemic has become increasingly, and perhaps surprisingly, rational.

To compare: while people’s personal responses to the bushfires were well-meaning, they were largely charitable and individualistic, with a minimal collective response. In contrast, while there has been deep panic in people’s individual response to COVID-19, the collective and institutional response has been comprehensive and systematic. This has involved huge institutional changes – work from home becoming an increasing norm, Spain and Italy re-nationalising key industries, New Zealand launching a proportionately enormous stimulus package, and supermarkets slowly accommodating elderly and consumers with disabilities – as well as mass individual responses – from the steady uptake of social distancing to the spontaneous development of mutual aid groups across the country. There is widespread recognition that this virus is a social problem that cannot be resolved without mass social action. The commodity model cannot solve a pandemic.

There are huge still risks we face: Coronavirus could well speed up neoliberalism’s handover of power to the far-right, entrenching the state’s capacity to determine migrants as ‘pure or impure’. The ensuing lockdowns and quarantines could well undermine collective politics, making us too atomised to create meaningful political change. Taking social action doesn’t create socialism, but it is an important first step out of the atomised, privatised environment in which most of us exist.

We have spent so long as perfect neoliberal subjects who have become creatures of consumption, whose desires are projected onto the blank canvas of their lives, that the idea that our individual choices actually have implications for another person is quite foreign. The idea that we would actually not go out, because there’s a chance it might spread an infection which we personally may not suffer from, is a concept so far removed from Western culture that it’s staggering how quickly things have transformed. We are quite rapidly realising that the only rights we have in society are those which we socially create and uphold.

This isn’t to put our hopes in a devastating virus, but to reflect on the kind of spirit that any future political project is going to have to tap into. Reviving our democratic values requires us to rebuild a ‘common sense’ of coming together. Our role today is to actually shape what that ‘common sense’ is. Will it be one where middle-class Australians pillage supermarkets for basic essentials and business owners expose their casual staff to infection? Or will it be one where care work is rightfully valued, where profit is subordinate to people’s wellbeing, where, regarding the bushfires, Indigenous decision making is central to our approach to country?

To rewrite our political sociality from the bottom-up, reminding people that they actually have a lot more in common with each other than they think, we have to use these moments where people come together and draw out what society might look like if we acted like this every day. If there’s not much chance of ‘the good life’ left in Australia in 2020, there might still be the possibility of creating a better one.


Image: Flickr

Angus Isador

Angus Isador is a writer from Sydney

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