The ascension of Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Liberal Party was perhaps more to be expected than many thought. If we couldn’t quite get why they would install a strident social conservative, someone, many felt sure, who would alienate large parts of the electorate, what we really missed was the utterly bifurcated nature of the Liberal Party.
Sure, the departure of Howard had left the Liberal Party bereft of a leader who, unlike Turnbull, could listen to his backbenchers and still take the strong stance, aggressively welding his team together (the success of his wedge politics creating a cast of near-acolytes). But what might have seemed some kind of rudderless chaos for a while after the election was only the beginning of a much larger fracturing. Turnbull has gone down not merely exposing the cracks but forcing the ugly duckling out through them and into the bright light of day.
As the immediate politics of the situation played out, there were in fact few choices. Even though Joe Hockey’s idea of repackaging climate change policy as a matter of conscience seemed to fit the political mood—faith-based policy, policy on the basis of belief, not ‘rationality’ or pragmatism—it was a sign of policy weakness, as well as possibly meaning defeat for the conservative push. With the dandyish Kevin Andrews having warmed up the audience, the ‘hairy-chested’ Howard-man-man Abbott was the true heir apparent. Addicted to getting their way, impassioned about the role of markets yet hunkering down round some notion of a base culture that would provide the ‘values’ by which to live, galvanised, still, around a border politics fuelled by and fuelling fear, the conservatives recognised their man and best bet for market differentiation vis-a-vis Rudd’s moderated neo-liberalism.
Around half the parliamentary Liberal Party now looks to Abbott to aggressively pursue their climate change scepticism, a stance taken seriously nowhere in the world except the fundamentalist Bible Belt of the United States and Australia. What the other half of the Liberal Party will do is not clear. Playing politics around such a basic division, winning the numbers just either side of a fifty-fifty split on ‘matters of belief’ seems impossible for a party needing to set stable policy directions. One can’t see the party being purged of its conservatives by its liberals: the latter aren’t as good at the politics as the party Right; they were, after all, seduced by Howard, losing any moral high ground they might have occupied, and they may no longer have any ‘pull’ in the community anyway around any residual Deakinite individualism which some might wish to resuscitate. Howard and the neo-liberal market effectively trashed that tradition, but also, the electorate may be unable to understand the difference implied by this image of the true liberal or be unlikely to take it seriously as either ethical or very different from the on-the-ground individualism offered by Rudd. Whatever the liberal critique of corporatist forms of government and their suppression of strong individual moralities, which has to be given some credence in history, the guiding concern in the outlook of all the major political currents remains the individual’s relation to the market, and in the present context most people live that as the power they feel when they make an individual consumer choice.
George Monbiot is pretty effectively arguing in the Copenhagen context that the political world will split in future between the ‘restrainers’ and the ‘enlargers’; another death knell for left and right social and terminological divisions hailing from the 19th century. But the question goes also to an understanding of the individual and the nature of the social: why restrain? On what basis might we restrain? What benefits and pleasures might ‘restraining’ bring? It is not ‘just’ a question of possibly saving the planet, but of how and why our ‘humanity’ requires whatever it is the notion ‘restraint’ might be straining to signify. Is it really just ‘restraint’ that we should be aiming for? Certainly its justification should not be mere survival, nor should it signify mere sustainability. Let’s hope it doesn’t suggest a social technology to make us behave better environmentally. Let’s hope, rather, that it involves a better knowledge of ourselves qua human beings: a better knowledge of the relation we need to constitute vis-a-vis the natural world and ‘others’ of all kinds if we are to remain within the bounds of what we define as necessary to our humanity. Unfortunately, ‘restraint’ remains within the orbit of a market-dominated paradigm—where what we must give up is what we might otherwise want, or be called to want. The point is to get to that place where not only do we not want it, but it is no longer a question because a fullness of living and being emanates from elsewhere.
This is to move way too quickly beyond the woes of the Liberal Party, but the enormous gulf represented even in these few paragraphs on the politics of reaction, on the one hand, and a possible opening to something very new, on the other, only underlines the moment we have arrived at. As the small island nations are making clear at Copenhagen, as the demonstrators led by Mary Robinson have been impressing, as the science has been making clear for a long time, fundamental choices are at stake. The Liberals’ conniptions, and ultimately reactionary choice of leader and orientation, point to the significant dangers that accompany periods of social threat, even when the lineaments of change have been evident for decades; even when it has been pointed out many times that it is neo-liberalism and the market under post modern conditions that have sown the seeds of destruction of the very social practices their loudest proponents wish to protect.
Eric Hobsbawn, in Age of Extremes, describes a fundamental shift that took place between the first and second world wars. While the First World War was the first modern war—total and technologised—it was as if no one really understood the powers that fed it. Leaders, and the people, still believed that an end to war would mean a return to what had been before. At war’s end the relative peace of the previous near century, remarkable prosperity and relatively settled social arrangements were what people harked back to; world war was an aberration, never to happen again. Yet radical cultural change had been filtering into pre-consciousness through the prescient art movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as science and industry were merging in novel ways in the first flowering of the techno-scientific paradigm (the successes of industrial chemistry and the German laboratory system). The period harked back to during the war had already been in flux. Abstract society, predicated upon a new sense of ungroundedness and a culture much less restrained by natural limits, had been felt, sometimes celebrated, certainly artistically and scientifically explored, just as fantasies of stability and rational achievement seemed to promise a return, rather than allow that the conditions of existence had actually shifted under the feet of the classes, bourgeois and working alike.
It would take another twenty years after the First World War, twenty years of preparation for war, worldwide depression, and war against Nazi reaction, for a shift in perspective facing towards the future rather than the past. For Hobsbawn, this ‘post-war consensus’ around Keynesian economics and the welfare state (broadly understood), seems to have been a period of realignment, of system catch-up, so that a more thorough, and perhaps more self-conscious modernity might emerge cognisant of the profound changes not only wrought by war but by the social and technological forces that had shaped it.
Of course, that consensus was exactly what neo-liberalism rose up against later in the century, just as the second surge of techno-scientific success supercharged the economy and produced unheard of material prosperity both in the West and beyond. We also know now that the forces and politics of material abundance, and more recently decadence, depended on environmental conditions and resources that make the ‘necessity’ of modernity and its heirs (‘necessity’ as understood in all the varieties of modernist Progress-based social theory, including Marxism) highly questionable. Taken to the brink by the latest techno-scientific surge, carried in the subject form of the hyper-individuated consumer, on the one hand, and the networked agent, on the other, the world is in fact in a very different circumstance than that described by Hobsbawn as the thirty year 20th-century war period. The need to face up to the conditions both of our humanity and a future no longer dependent on the rape of the earth presents a far greater challenge. But just as Hobsbawn outlines, with considerable delicacy, the commitments and hopes of the different groupings influential at that time, we face a period of system mismatch and cultural misunderstanding, of disorientation as the forces in play work their way through social life, and the possibility of grasping their meaning remains, as always, difficult—only to be realised within a protracted process of transformation.