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Reflections on the Current Condition

The Arena publications respond to the current crisis. By Geoff Sharp, Nonie Sharp, John Hinkson, Paul James, Alison Caddick, Simon Cooper

Where do we go from here, what does our future hold? Now, eighty years or so after the Great Depression, are we in the early stages of what may be a far greater crisis? Is it a cyclic crisis, potentially a significant enlargement of the more recent ‘recession we had to have’, as stage-managed by Paul Keating? Or is it a prelude to something of a quite different order? That would be to suggest that the present economic crisis is also the sign of a far more encompassing transformation of our ways of living; a far more deep-rooted change in the composition of social life than can be understood in economic terms alone.

For the present, only a few seriously entertain the second possibility, even though their numbers are steadily increasing. Many more only sense the emergence of a period of farreaching change. While this sense of a future is typically expressed through a wide range of activities within the green range of possibilities, they are frequently given more focus today by the prospect of climate change. For the most part they are framed by the notion of sustainability — the maintenance of basically normal expectations but by different means. Again, there is a small minority who, as they sense the emergence of changes, which could be overwhelming, respond in a geo-political register.

The recent public statement by Malcolm Fraser, Generals Gration and Sanderson, Barry Jones too — figures with different political and professional histories — fall into the latter category. Along with a wider group of prominent Australians, they have responded to the mortal danger of nuclear proliferation. Aware that nuclear weapons have been in the forefront of fundamental changes in relations between nation-states, they recognise that the further proliferation of nuclear weapons now is set within changing circumstances. The conjunction of climate change and the latent conflicts stirred or amplified by extreme economic stress might precipitate scarcely imaginable devastation.

It is by no means evident that Fraser and co-authors of the statement see nuclear energy itself as inherently problematical. Even if they were to agree that it is one more example of a profound shift in the way we conduct our interchange with the natural world, it is probable that most of this group would still view it as contributing to economic growth, with the added qualification that it calls for rigorous control.

Nevertheless, this public statement on this particular issue is significant — a small sign of a growing awareness that the scope and reconstititive power of the technosciences now strike at the heart of the prospects of living beings on planet earth.

It is of special interest that this group of prominent Australians was responding to Obama’s turnaround, not only on proliferation but also on the need to eliminate the vast stockpiles of nuclear weaponry. Could it beings then that he is aware, as the end of the short American century approaches, that a global redistribution of levels of consumption is likely to gather pace? Quite apart from climate change and economic crisis, that shift alone is likely to alter the lines of political and cultural division that we have too readily come to take for granted.

When, close in the wake of Prime Minister Rudd’s call for a ban on all nuclear weapons, Obama’s initiative became the context in which Malcolm Fraser and others issued their statement, we can assume that one of their objectives was to emphasise that this issue should be seen as beyond any narrowness of party politics. But that did not ensure that their words gained any lasting public attention. Indeed, as the issue of climate change so clearly illustrates, even when the public is far ahead of government in their willingness to act upon fundamental ethical issues, that by no means guarantees that their voices can prevail in circles of government. Increasingly, our forms of government, our mainstream media as well, stand in the way of effective representation.

Unlike climate change the issue of nuclear proliferation is far from the centre of contemporary public awareness. Forty years ago, when the memory of Hiroshima was still vivid and the confrontation of rival systems raised the prospect of mutually assured destruction, the situation was very different. At that time just one single expression of the new-found engagement of the technosciences with the natural world could raise the spectre of what E. P. Thompson termed ‘exterminism’, the process of the self-destruction of a species.

There is no reason to believe that Fraser and others were raising the more general issue of the technoscientific reconstitution of the world when they spoke out on the particular issue of nuclear proliferation. It is unlikely that more than one or two among their number had given any sustained attention to the obvious reality that a whole series of technosciences now deliver the power to terminate the distinctive form of life of our species.

The basic issue cannot be represented by nuclear weapons alone. It entails technoscientific powers more generally, as they proliferate within political systems, which offer no effective representation of how their significance should be interpreted. If we are to speak of a transition to a different epoch it is this issue — the process of reconstituting our mode of interchange with the natural world — which should be the main focus of attention.

Nuclear technology offers powers of reconstituting the physical world; genetic technology offers the same in relation to living beings; digital technology offers to dissolve knowledge in data or information. All of these powers might well be celebrated if their significance could be more effectively interpreted, but for the present they are instruments. They feed into an orientation towards growth and, with that, contribute to a pervasive myopia: a conviction that assumes that we are still engaged in the conquest of nature and progressively casting aside limitations to our freedom. Is it possible that this is an illusion and that for the present the technosciences facilitate our being overwhelmed by markets which, rather than contributing to these ends, carry us towards the dissolution of life-settings.

Certainly a historical movement is gradually emerging that senses and moves towards a different order of living. But sensing is not comprehending. Nevertheless, for the present and in spite of that limitation, the movements at the grassroots are ahead of any mass public stand by the intellectual and professional groupings.

Half a Step with Kevin Rudd
Perhaps Kevin Rudd was sensing, rather than seriously entertaining, a more far-reaching transformation than even an unprecedented, but ‘merely economic’, crisis could convey when he opened his recent essay in The Monthly in a portentous vein.

From time to time in human history there occur events of truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place.

It was as if, in invoking the language of the passage of epochs, Rudd the politician was about to reposition himself as the philosopher statesman and was actually contemplating the prospect of historical transformation. Instead, he came up with a damp squib. An epoch in Rudd’s dictionary is a period of thirty years or so, and in any case it does not relate to comprehensive change but just to a major economic hiccup: one, this time around, building up into a full-bodied neoliberal belch.

Basically Rudd’s answer is more of the same, a return to rapid growth only, under Labor, with more active regulation of the economy. Of course, within the limits of contemporary politics, Kevin Rudd does impress his public as morally serious to an unusual degree, as wishing to be a man of his word. The issue we are raising relates far less to his character than it does to his understanding. And given the pressures and expediencies of political life that includes any honesty of purpose, as at the time of his election, being undermined by the logic of events (one thinks not only of climate change, but also of guarantees apparently given to unions on their right to protect working conditions).

No Way for a Third Way?
In the mainstream media, understanding the meltdown is ceasing to be a contentious issue. Certainly a hard core of resistance is maintained within the Murdoch regime, but otherwise the doctrine of minimal government and ‘let the market rule’ is off the agenda. Social democracy and the ‘third way’ is back, but with a difference. Now the boundaries have closed in. There is no longer a middle way as if between capitalism and socialism, rather only within the terms of two versions of capitalist dominance: between ‘let the market rule’ with minimum regulation and the recognition that regulation is indispensable. Within the mainstream it is clear that the latter has prevailed.

The picture is different among the more searching print periodicals (still mainly based in Victoria), as it is among their online counterparts, with the exception of The Monthly which, even if its editorial inclination included major reservations, has at the time of writing temporally gagged itself by editorial board chairman Robert Manne’s surprisingly supportive endorsement of most of the basic positions of Kevin Rudd’s manifesto. Latterly, it should be added, a series of international figures have commented on the Prime Minister’s article. Without exception they respond within the general frame of economic regulation and recovery.

Otherwise the print periodicals — we have in mind mainly Overland, Dissent and their editors — while actively critical of Rudd’s inertness on basic issues relating to climate change, give few hints that we may be passing into a period of genuinely epochal transformation. While key contributions to these publications are especially critical of the Rudd government’s inertness on climate change, it is as if they lack access to any critical standpoint that might frame a perspective that actually breaks out of the limits of the ‘third way’. Their contributions do not discuss the way the neo-liberal surge of growth was empowered by a radically newfound conjunction: the historically new level of technological capability feeding into the continuing commitment to economic growth. Unlike Malcolm Fraser and co-authors, they do not even tiptoe towards the prospect that unprecedented technological changes may have far more to do with the future of our species than the recent oscillations of the capitalist market.

Hence, while the contributors to these periodicals respond to public dissatisfaction across a whole range of particular issues, they present no effective demand for a basic policy shift. The sense of a future is still shuttered within both old and new ‘third way’ prescriptions. That is, prescriptions that seek to combine a moral concern for the public good — expressed especially in dedication to public control of basic infrastructure — but these same objectives are short-circuited by an inability to confront the privatising impulse of open-ended growth.

Kenneth Davidson, as well as being a long-standing senior writer with The Age is also an editor of the quarterly Dissent. As a long-standing Keynesian, Davidson has maintained a critique of the excesses of neo-liberal privatisation for many years. In more recent years, far from simply accepting the social democratic compromises within official Labor, he has maintained an energetic critique. It has focused on Victorian State Government policies, especially on transport and climate change. In the latter context water policy has been a specialty. In creative and well-informed articles he has frequently had the state government ‘on the back foot’. Nevertheless, the general import of his arguments is to make capitalism sustainable. As an independent thinker and activist he is a maverick of the ‘third way’, one who has done much to draw public attention to the prospect that in Victoria ‘third way’ ‘commitment’ to the common good may include the full privatisation of water supplies! As the co-editor of Dissent, Davidson is not one who sees the contemporary meltdown as the harbinger of an historical transformation reaching far beyond the limits of any economic crisis of capitalism. Before that could occur Davidson, like so many others, would need to move beyond the limitations imposed by the philosophical orientations of both classical and neo-classical economics: an undertaking of quite pivotal importance for the politics of an emerging crisis of existence, as distinct from the more limited crises of conventional politics or economics.

Much the same general picture holds for the long-standing quarterly Overland, which, for more than half a century has been a distinctive voice of the independent cultural Left in Australia. The current issue carries two major articles responding to the economic crisis: a lead article by Bob Ellis — a speech writer for Bob Hawke and many others — followed by a more generally framed contribution by Raewyn Connell that moves toward the general observation that in Australia no group or force ‘has worked out how to gain a major purchase in the neo-liberal state or the neo-liberal economy’. Connell goes on to ask how in the unique situation of this particular crisis ‘we can compose a strategy of social change that is workable, can find popular support and that has the prospect of changing institutional structures’. Unfortunately, Connell’s far more searching article is in the shadow of the Bob Ellis piece, which, while vigorously muscular in tone, is decidedly timid in its resort to the ‘third way’ of the 1970s. While Ellis is an engaging writer with an ear remarkably sensitive to public disappointment and able to stir readers again on issues such as the ‘unstoppable anorexia of the universities’, he does not engage with the underlying issues of the present. As is so often the case, he concentrates on critique of neo-liberal policy. Given that straightjacket, welcome and urgent as this critique may be, he fills the gap by vigorously beating the drum on climate change.

Connell is far closer to the underlying preoccupations of this essay when, in concluding remarks, she notes: ‘the crisis behind the crisis, the issues that surround the meltdown, are as dire as those faced by the generation that met depression, fascism and global war’. A totally acceptable general conclusion, but what more, specifically, is that more basic crisis behind the economic meltdown? While seeking a new vision Connell is acutely aware of the difficulties facing that undertaking.

Many readers will recall that in his book Beyond Right and Left another active contributor to ‘third way’ political discussion, David McKnight, seeks to provide just the vision that might respond to such a crisis. Yet far from acknowledging the emergence of an historical transformation, which will break the continuity of the traditions of the capitalist era, McKnight seeks to combine the perspectives grounded in liberalism, socialism and conservatism with the impetus of new social movements. In a broad sense of a ‘third way’ (which distances his standpoint from any glib identification with Blairite policies) McKnight regards the capitalist market as an inescapable attribute of any contemporary economy. Locked into that attitude he too sees climate change as the rallying point around which the new-liberal recommitment to ‘let the market rule’ may be regulated by a state which has moved ‘beyond Right and Left’.

Beyond the Limits of Economic Crisis
McKnight is relatively accommodating to Rudd’s version of the ‘third way’ and that attitude has become more fixed following government responses to the meltdown. His attitude of market inevitability guarantees that his hopes of moving ‘beyond Right and Left’ remain within ‘third way’ perspectives. This pacifying phrase indeed is a distinct misnomer since the capitalist dynamic, which it purports to regulate, is by far the more important influence upon any middle way. Nevertheless our purpose here is not to simply dismiss a regulated capitalism. The key issue is to ask whether the objective of that regulation is to direct the capitalist impulse so that it contributes to the emergence of a different order of social life. It is our belief that any re-direction for regulation so that it contributes to a basic transition is inconceivable unless the framework of discussion and practical effort moves out beyond any exclusive concern with the current economic crisis. It needs to answer questions about how the surge of the last thirty years or so radically accelerated the more modest growth process that prevailed in the decades prior to the leap towards full-blooded globalisation. Complementing that, it needs to ask questions about just how this surge gripped imagination and aspiration. If masses of people willingly locked on to market-imposed shackles, just how did what was taken to be open-ended development become a given fact of social reality that tended to exclude serious consideration of alternatives? In past issues of this magazine we have suggested that answers to questions such as these will not be found by any too narrow a focus on the economy. On the contrary, the key is the historical transformation of our relation to that world so that open-ended growth no longer points towards the end of our species.

Climate change is widely taken to be the general underlying cause of our present dilemmas. It is not. While crucially significant, it is nevertheless one particular consequence of our radically altered mode of interchange with the natural world, and too narrow a focus on it alone can mask the more basic shift in the conditions of our relation to that world.

As a looming consequence of a more general historical transformation, of which both the surge in growth and the widespread neo-liberal delusions integral with it are symptoms, climate change is only the first among a series of crises likely to emerge if we cannot bring ourselves to change our present way of taking hold. Most importantly, just as climate directly impinges on our bodies and our senses, it also directly affects the elementary means of life. Quite inescapably, it stirs recognition of the way the uninhibited growth of the market can reach a point where it ceases to contribute to public well-being. Whatever its status as a consequence of more basic processes, the experience of climate change is the most significant current point of entry to passage beyond the ‘third way’. And clearly the more enquiring branches of the ‘third way’ approaches can bring pressure to bear on governments. They can begin to press them to direct market impulses towards institutional reconstruction.

How then, in the most general terms, should we characterise the shift that, with its radically different possible outcomes, is drawing us into the process of transformation? Beyond that, how in an equally general way might we illustrate it in terms that, once stated, can scarcely be denied? And finally, what might be the broad contours of an approach that begins to chart and to practise the work of transition?

Reconstituting the World?
Half of the evidence of this shift is all about us: the facts. The technological revolution, the knowledge society, the age of information. The other half — their critical interpretation — is nowhere to be seen. It is excluded from mainstream consideration by the momentum of change and the short-term exclusion of alternatives that it promotes. Yet that momentum too relates to another fact: the shifting of the ground upon which all of the just mentioned ‘undeniable facts’ operate.

All of the undeniable facts — and it is important to recognise the comprehensiveness of their claims — operate within a profoundly taken-for-granted relation to the natural world. It is a relation that assumes its utility for us and is often picked up in the catch phrase ‘the conquest of nature’. Utility, use for, conquest: all these terms now demand reassessment.

Prior to a gradual movement to reinterpret our relation to the natural world, which began to take definite shape in the scientific revolution of the 16th century, we dwelt in a given world of Nature, which, in its eternal cycles, sustained our being. The scientific revolution of the 16th century, as it fed into a more general sense of enlightenment, began to change all that. By way of the rational interpretation of what was devoutly seen as the imprint of the Hand of God in nature, Galileo de-centred the earth as the eternal setting of our being. While he gained home imprisonment as his reward, from those who were so secure in their faith that they already knew the truth, Isaac Newton, who explained the given tendency of things to move downwards by the law of gravity, became Master of the Royal Mint.

A prophetic appointment, one might say, as the rational power to know the world differently joined with the practical movement to relate to it differently. Interpretive rationality, mainly in the form of a religious expression of the impulse to place humankind in an intelligible reality, was crossing over; rationality, which had once fired the questionings of Galileo and Newton, was crossing over to constitute the fixed end of human activity. It was no longer enough to acknowledge the bounties and perils of the natural world as the frame of our being. The point now was to acknowledge a different truth: to exploit and conquer the earth as a resource. A different truth: the object now for instrumental rationality was expressed by trade, by mercantile activity, by enclosures in the name of profit and productivity, by colonisation.

But does this series include globalisation as well, is there an ambiguity emerging so that the answer is both yes and no?

Whatever the answer to that final question, we may readily assert that in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, emergent capitalism took hold of our changing relations to the natural world. Rational reconstruction of the division of labour and tools of labour fed into the encompassing expectation of a progress being integrally associated with growth. Up until now.

Trajectories of Transformation
In all the foregoing we have sought to lead up to the gradual disclosure, within the flux of contemporary reality, of a fundamental issue. The financial meltdown is an actuality, so too is the more basic process of economic crisis, yet both of them are symptomatic.

They are consequences, from the standpoint of this statement, of an ongoing transformation wherein the primacy of direct labour (including its mechanised modes) in our interchange with the natural world is being superseded by the primacy of technoscientifically mediated processes. Just because this is an epochal transformation it is not readily comprehended by governments. Indeed, its initial effect is radically to supercharge the conquest of the natural world. From that there follows on consumerist euphoria wherein conquest can appear as open ended and the pursuit of individual interest the consummation of freedom.

That is, until this overall process encounters a natural limit, as well as a limit of our species type — a biosocial limit. Gradually then a contradiction emerges, not between Right and Left, but even as that distinction changes, across a more fundamental division between those who are hell-bent to maintain the trajectory of the conquest of nature and those who recognise that via a whole series of potential crises that trajectory, unless it is radically qualified, points toward the end of human being.

A contradiction of this scope reaches into the roots of our culture. It is not a class contradiction, although it is integrally related to class interests: it is better described as a cultural contradiction or, for those who prefer a different terminology, as an ontological contradiction. It is not one that calls for a revolution but rather for a revolutionary transformation conducted across a protracted period by way of a transitional practice. That is a practice of deeds, complemented by an ethic of the common good, rather than by the fixations of growth. It is a practice, inseparable from an ethic, which now, within the contradictory social framework emerging from modernity, is increasingly aware of its multiple roots in the social forms of successive modes of engagement with the natural world. To implement and to state that emergent ethic now entails a bridging between two modes of practical life in their constitutive engagement with the natural world. To forge a unity between the quasi-spontaneous response of a whole spectrum of green movements with a more abstracted intellectual culture cannot be other than a difficult and protracted process. Especially among the intellectually related groupings, it calls for a reorientation. That is, a reversal that restores the priority of interpretation: a break out from its present subjection within the takenfor- granted perspectives directing the technosciences.

Deeds, practices, commitment to the common good. This conjunction, pursued with the unswerving certainty of those who know the truth, led directly to the moral ignominy of ‘actually existing socialism’. Ideals grounded within the limitations of existing theories of life and society were not enough. Now, certainty lives on but within a different order of deeds as the institutional order of the market sustains the certitudes of growth and consumption. The forgoing pages, couched as they are in general terms, are both a statement of future policy and a resolution. They seek to spell out some of the parameters within which, in future publications the editors hope to explore and contribute to the emergence of a transitional practice. That is, a practice of social life which, moving beyond the fetishes of growth and consumption, seeks to build an institutional frame work that sustains human life within an ethic of equality and the common good.

arena publications editors Geoff Sharp, Nonie Sharp, John Hinkson, Paul James, Alison Caddick, Simon Cooper

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