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Editorial – Issue 39/40

Geoff Sharp introduces the Issue

“The general thrust of the contributions to this issue of Arena Journal is transformation. These articles suggest that the organisation and conduct of social life is now changing in ways that unsettle the basic assumptions that have underpinned the whole epoch of modernity…”

In this Issue

The general thrust of the contributions to this issue of Arena Journal is transformation. These articles suggest that the organisation and conduct of social life is now changing in ways that unsettle the basic assumptions that have underpinned the whole epoch of modernity.

One such general assumption has been the dominance of the Western nation-states, including their settler-colonial offshoots, which include Australia as well as the United States. It is a dominance that, notwithstanding conflicts internal to the West, has related to their interchange with the whole of the ‘underdeveloped’ world. A related assumption has been that the nations of the West have developed, in the contemporary form of the democratic polity, a mode of governance where the whole people — via the universal franchise — share equal rights, if not equal opportunities, to achieve an improved experience of well-being.

Irrespective of any conflict between the parties engaged in democratic politics, this whole mode of modern governance in the West has depended upon economic growth, growth that in turn has depended upon access to the resources of the natural world. The whole way of life in the West depends upon the continuing avail- ability of those resources, resources that have hitherto depended upon domination of the ‘undeveloped’ world.

A group of essays in this issue explores the implications of the direct challenges to the dominant role of the West — those posed by China’s economically grounded emergence from ‘underdevelopment’, and by Al Qaeda’s religiously framed direct assault which led to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.

In his article in this issue, Michael Harland notes that ‘Bush and his cabinet argued that the rise of democracy across the Arab Middle East  represented  the  most  effective  way  to  win  the  ideological struggle of the age’. Harland terms this approach ‘democratic van- guardism’. He recounts the way it draws upon Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 work ‘The End of History and the Last Man’. It was a source of democratic inspiration which entirely ignored Fukuyama’s quite explicit reservations concerning the ‘breezy optimism’ which marked the approach to the invasion of Iraq.

For countries like Australia or New Zealand which are both junior players in the orientation of the West towards the ‘undeveloped’ world, the rise of China presents an especially acute dilemma. Their geographical location in proximity to Asia — and in Australia’s case its natural resources — underpin a trading dependency that is potentially compromised by its provision of access to northern land bases to US military and naval forces.

In the course of his Whitlam Oration, as published in this issue of Arena Journal, Malcolm Fraser ranges across issues around which there has been a convergence in Australian politics. He notes that while such issues as immigration policy and land rights once divided the political parties, today that is no longer the case. In advocating a more independent foreign policy, he notes, however, that, ‘In the last twenty years we seem more than ever to be locked into the United States’ purposes and objectives’. While he does not specifically refer to the Bush doctrine of the installation, by force or otherwise, of democratic politics, he does note how Australia followed the United States into ‘Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan’, before observing that:

There are too many who believe if we support the United States and go to war when they want us to, they will in turn support us on issues which we regard as fundamental to our own security … History strongly suggests that the real determinants of the actions of great powers are their own interests. We should not expect anything else.

On the issue of the relation of the place of the United States, within the general relation of the West to the emergence of China from an underdeveloped status, Fraser remarks; ‘If the United States wishes to maintain a position of primacy over all others, that will not be acceptable to China’. Nor, in an opposite case of Chinese policy would that ‘be acceptable to the United States’.

The tensions inseparable from the changing economic and political structure of the US–China relationship are vividly obvious in the armed presence of the United States on China’s doorstep. In his article in this issue Gavan McCormack refers to China’s ‘long- term aim (by 2050 or thereabouts) of extending naval operational capacity to the “far seas”’. McCormack refers to his 2007 publication Client State — Japan in the American Embrace, and how using the term ‘client state’ at that time was a ‘shocking deviation from mainstream Western and academic writing’. In it he emphasizes the subjection of Japanese foreign policy to US-based pressures. McCormack notes that three-quarters of US military installations in Japan are concentrated on the offshore prefecture of Okinawa. Almost all Okinawans resent the national government’s insistence that ‘the prefecture’s primary raison d’être be the source of US military ends’. Observing a real or potential parallel with Australia’s situation, McCormack comments that ‘the nature of the US–Japan relationship and the Okinawa experience are matters worthy of careful attention’.

One striking confirmation of the limits of democratic discussion, not only as conducted in Australia but across the whole of the West, is the discussion of potential for conflict between major powers only as if it entailed ‘normal warfare’. In short, the prospect that any full- blown conflict between nuclear-armed states might take the form of a universal holocaust is not at the forefront of discussion.

Years ago, when the Cold War between the Western and Eastern powers, led respectively by the then Soviet Union and the United States, was intense, some spoke of its potential for ‘exterminism’. At that time there was a more developed awareness within significant and influential sections of the populations of democratic states that nuclear energy and its close association with nuclear weapons might present the prospect of devastation for whole populations.

Since then, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the whole range of armed conflicts in Africa, in the Middle East and in the Western Pacific, conflict has taken the form of relatively ‘normal warfare’. While the prospect of nuclear war has receded to the margins of public awareness, as a group of articles in this issue demonstrate, it remains at the forefront of the strategic planning of the nuclear-armed states.

A major article, by Richard Tanter, points to the strategic role of the ‘Joint Facilities’ at Pine Gap. In outlining the dedicated work of Desmond Ball in telling his fellow Australians the story of the significance of these installations, Tanter suggests that Ball’s work ‘is unparalleled in Australian intellectual and political life’.

The limits of democratic governance in informing its constituents of their involvement in defence against, as well as in the conduct of, nuclear war are clearly illustrated in Tanter ’s discussion of Ball’s work. He records that in overall balance, Ball was in favour of the Pine Gap installation because of its capacity to monitor satellite communications. His view would have been similar to former Minister for Defence Kim Beazley who, after leaving office recorded that ‘we accepted that the joint facilities were probably targets, but we accepted the risk of that for what we saw as the benefits of global stability’. According to Paul Dibb, the United States had helped Australia to identify locations in Australia likely to be targeted in the event of nuclear war. It was concluded that a strike on Sydney, for instance, ‘was capable of inflicting one million instant deaths and 750,000 radiation deaths’.

Tanter observes that in office Beazley said nothing ‘remotely comparable, alerting Australian citizens to the dangers, and providing sufficient information to the Australian citizenry to allow a process of democratic will formation as to whether they agreed with the Faustian bargain made on their behalf’. Hiroshima had receded into the background of public awareness and, given the scale of devastation of nuclear assault, it is quite conceivable that, at least in the shorter run, any democratic government could be ‘lost for words’, almost totally unprepared to face the scale of the disaster.

Even while the threat of nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States is no longer at the forefront of international affairs, a fundamental challenge for democratic government remains. In the context of nuclear confrontation the issue, for the longer future, may present itself again, given that Australian and US defence establishments do consider China ‘a serious nuclear threat’. Even more pointedly, it has been claimed that a ‘secret appendix’ to the 2009 Australian Defence Paper notes that ‘defence thinking is that in the event of a nuclear conflict with the United States, China would attempt to destroy Pine Gap’.

In a more generally oriented article, complementary to Richard Tanter ’s work, Alan Roberts, one of Australia’s foremost scholars concerned  with  the  significance  of  nuclear  power,  stresses  the ready bridge that nuclear power installations provide for states intending to produce nuclear weapons. Roberts emphasizes the way the reality of nuclear stockpiles remains even though ‘our interest in them has happened to wane’. He notes the problem they present for democratic interchange, as if in a literal sense the issue borders on the ‘unspeakable’. At most summit conferences, he observes, ‘the assembled world leaders seem to follow an unspoken rule or gentlemen’s agreement: no one is to mention the radioactive elephant sitting with them — the threat to destroy civilization within minutes, that the nuclear stockpiles unarguably pose’.

Roberts’ discussion of the possibilities of nuclear proliferation is supplemented by Aiden Warren’s article, which argues that in US policy there has been a break from the period of the George Bush presidency, which sought to banish the word ‘disarmament’ and to ‘push vigorously for an expanded role for nuclear weapons’. Nevertheless, ‘while the Obama administration has presented optimistic rhetoric on disarmament, it has in essence pursued a policy of maintaining the nuclear balance while taking only incremental steps towards disarmament’. Warren refers to Obama’s speech in Prague in which he aimed at the sky, but in surveying actual developments Warren concludes that, ‘the vision of nuclear transformation [is] all but dead on the ground’.

*   *   *

An approach to the urgent but neglected issue of why the possibility of nuclear conflagration is not central to widespread public discussion is, arguably, implied even if not directly discussed in another two articles in this issue of Arena Journal.

Paul James and Peter Mandaville record that ‘participation in religious institutions on the global level is higher than at any other time in human history’. One may be readily reminded of the terms in which George Bush launched the ‘war against terror ’, and which can be taken to exemplify James and Mandaville’s opening claim: ‘Religion lies not far beneath the surface of many of our globalizing practices, from globalizing warfare and the Olympic Games to internet communications …’ Its actual, even if for many counter- intuitive, increased prominence, ‘needs to be understood in the context of a globalizing world in which given meanings have become radically destabilized and old ontological securities have been shaken to the core’. The implication seems to be that one way of responding to transformations that shake the verities of otherworldly creation of the natural world is to become a crusader.

Matthew Sharpe endorses that aspect of James and Mandaville’s approach, stressing destabilization more pointedly than they do, when he notes that the ‘advent of nuclear warfare answers to terrifying biblical visions of the end of the natural world with “fire and brimstone falling from the sky …”’

This single theme, even if not taken literally as the major source of limits to discussion of a prospect variously described as ‘beyond imagination’, ‘unthinkable’ and even ‘unspeakable’, does at least point towards the commonly shared assumption that the natural world frames the human sense of being. Sharpe quotes Bush as revealing to Abbas that ‘God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he told me strike at Saddam, which I did’. While too ‘way out’ a suggestion by far for any public and avowedly demo- cratic forum, claims such as these do suggest comparisons with the dedicated inspiration of the ‘suicide bomber ’.

In seeking the beginnings of an answer to the relative absence of an effective public response to the limits of our current form of democracy when confronted by the prospect of a post-naturally framed world, I will briefly turn to two final articles in this issue of Arena Journal, one by John Hinkson, the other by Simon Cooper.

Hinkson’s article is directly concerned with interpreting the Global Financial Crisis. In a quite basic way it grounds that interpretation within a far wider critical universe than economics itself can offer. Quite early in his exposition he suggests that something fundamental is at stake, ‘that we must now come to terms with a crisis which goes to the heart of who we are — a crisis that will require a significant redirection of social life’.

Any shift in the sense of ‘who we are’ has, as Hinkson’s analysis suggests, long remained dormant within the field of economics. Within that field, one major, if still insufficient, step towards recognizing a shift that touches the roots of our sense of being, is Marx’s emphasis on commodity exchange as itself an abstracted mode of social interchange. While of fundamental significance, that insight remains insufficient under contemporary conditions. As Hinkson’s argument asks us to acknowledge, it is one expression only of the growing consolidation of a general shift in the relation of humankind to its natural world.

In what many may take to be fundamentally challenging, Hinkson exemplifies this general shift as integral with a changed relation of the intellectual practices to the whole of the social world. Noting that a prime ‘technical and practical expression of this changing social world is that of nuclear power and nuclear weapons’, Hinkson illustrates how this broad-ranging change encompasses the human body in ways that ‘could be said to signify the birth of a new epoch’.

While this general framing of Hinkson’s article deserves further debate, the present state of the universities limits their capacity to contribute. Simon Cooper, in his article on the latest development in the new university, MOOCS, notes that ‘the university is on the verge of being destroyed by the fusion of knowledge with the market’ and concludes with the observation that ‘the university once again needs to stand apart and assert its role as a source of critique and cultural interpretation’.

For the present this is a remote possibility. While the general framing of Hinkson’s article is the contemporary social trans- formation, its specific focus is the prevailing incapacity of economic theory to contribute to understanding that process. That incapacity is close to the heart of the general prevailing unreadiness to actively address who we are and what we might become. The article concludes that the global economy, a unique construction of various elements of intellectual practices, has indeed, after thirty years of growth, entered a massive ‘process of economic deflation’ for the foreseeable future (which includes the likelihood of a depression). This also bears upon the strategic re-directions discussed in the first half of this issue: in particular, extended warfare in our region and also the terrifying prospect of nuclear war. As such, the orientation towards growth and transformation will have come full circle, requiring an urgent ‘re-direction of social life’.

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