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Two Worlds

John Hinkson discusses the implications of two worlds developing on the cultural stage

The packed hall gathered to hear Tim Jackson—a leading UK researcher on sustainable economies—on the question of ‘Prosperity without Growth’ (also the title of his recent book). His lively presentation and general grasp of the issues enthralled an expectant audience. It is hard to convey what seemed a deep emotional need among audience members, as reflected in their questions, concerns and statements on the night. When joined with the fact that an earlier talk was booked out some days in advance, this seems to be evidence that Jackson is engaging a profound need for at least some publics. Can one reasonably see in this a gathering momentum related to a crisis of the most fundamental kind in our social institutions, related to how we live?

Tim Jackson asks, through a critique of the core commitments of society to economic growth, how it might be possible to build a sustainable economy that can avoid climate catastrophe. Among a large range of concerns, he pursues this question by asking how we might come to radically different concepts of ‘flourishing’ for individuals and communities, notions of flourishing that contrast with those offered by the apparently limitless consumption lifestyles of contemporary global social institutions. His portrayal of the utter disaster that awaits us if we proceed down the road of what is now called ‘Recovery’ is comprehensive and disturbing. He knows any answer will take time and emerge out of practical endeavour, but a visceral need to commence a process urgently is in the foreground of his thinking. For those who attended, this is where it is at.

In Perth in the same week our leading mineral entrepreneurs led demonstrations against a resource tax proposed by Kevin Rudd, a tax that would be used to help reduce government deficits resulting from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and related stimulus programs introduced to ensure Recovery. Neither the entrepreneurs nor any of our political leaders—other than Bob Brown—would seem to be on the same planet as Jackson’s Melbourne audience. At the centre of their political and entrepreneurial concerns is the pursuit of economic growth and profit—and more generally the core assumption that expansion is good—the same way of life that Tim Jackson convincingly tells us is doomed and can have no medium-term future. Rather, the official political debate in Australia, excitedly promoted by the media, is a stoush between combatants over the distribution of the spoils from toxic economic expansion. What might be sustainable over time could not be further from their thoughts.

The tunnel vision that characterises mainstream Australia takes a different form in Europe and the United States, where Recovery is far from certain. In Australia the dependence on China, and to a lesser extent India, is stark and anxiety provoking, but for the time being makes Australia look ordered and relatively prosperous. In Europe and the United States the levels of state indebtedness has flown out of control. Arguably such indebtedness can be managed over time with a regime of economic growth. But in our times at best this could only be a solution at great cost. The powerful states of the capitalist heartlands stand vulnerable and could not sustain themselves in the face of another shock. But we have entered an era where shocks are the order of the day.

The shock of debt crisis in Greece in past months is one kind of experience. The Greek government was forced by the institutions of the EU and the IMF to slash welfare, public spending and workers conditions generally to reduce deficits and maintain EU membership. This association of Greece and the EU had mostly generated positive consumption benefits until the crash. Suddenly in the aftermath of the GFC expansion and consumption growth had inverted into debt, unemployment and the collapse of social security. The resulting turmoil on the streets made headlines around the world. But one would be hard put to portray these events as those of a public seeking to live another way. No doubt there are sectors of the Greek polity that would take up this concern. And there are other features of the situation in Greece that are quite specific. Nevertheless expressions of consumer frustration were to the fore in these events.

Where people have been drawn into the world of the consumer oriented to commodities and have lost their sense of mutuality with others—or think mutuality can be found on Facebook—they respond in ways consistent with that hyper-individual formation. We can expect similar responses over the coming period in many a city in the West. As Mark Lilla argues in The New York Review of Books (May–June 2010) in a discussion of the rise of the ‘Tea Party Jacobins’, there is a new populism at large. Quite unlike the populisms of the past, it is based in the new individualism which is constituted in the experience of the consumption lifestyle.

But the loss of mutuality is more complex than this. ‘Facebook mutuality’ is real but it cannot distinguish between technologically facilitated presence and presence based in place, the senses and tangibility. And this distinction lies at the core of the emerging ‘two worlds’. For the importance of locality, regional economy, generational knowledge of others, together with the critique of the global transport of people and commodities, compose some core elements of the emerging critique of global development. To see this as an advocacy of a return to forms of domination and hierarchy embedded in history—a return, say, to an aristocratic conservatism—is to misunderstand the nature of the contradiction that now faces us, one that has been discussed for many years in Arena Magazine and Arena Journal.

On the other side of the world another drama is shockingly underlining the contradictions of our times—the massive eruption of oil 1500 metres below the surface of the ocean off the coast of Louisiana. Far larger than the Exxon-Valdez spill and still not controlled, it will foul the fisheries and the coastline of the immediate East Coast—possibly much of the East Coast—of the United States. Ways of life and pristine environment will be ruined on a monumental scale. Various causes have been identified: corruption and cost-saving inside the corporations, poor technology and inadequate regulation. But most parties, and especially the media, ignore the dependence of the global economy and way of life intimately, in endless detail on oil—from transport to food, from packaging to building. If high tech frames the global Behemoth, oil plays a central role in its growth. For at least ten years it has been known that our world of cheap energy is coming to an end. Dogmatic deniers aside, those who have investigated its future availability come up with the same answer: it has no future. Heedless, a way of life desperate to maintain itself nevertheless launches into dangerous exploration in the deep sea, with what many see as predictable outcomes. One scientific commentator, feeling compelled perhaps to step outside his disciplinary strictures, declared we have opened mythological doors and that nature is now releasing its dark, uncontrollable underside. This is by no means the only underside of the global juggernaut.

While President Obama is signalling (unconvincingly) that the oil spill marks the end of US dependence on fossil fuels, barely believably but illustrative of the social divisions that are emerging, others in the eastern states of the United States are seeking to put aside the temporary ban on off-shore oil drilling because it is causing unemployment in the industry.

Two social worlds are forming. There are many spectators for the time being, but enough people now know that global development is calling into being the stuff of collective nightmares.

Capitalism has encountered a number of social and cultural movements that sought to block its general development. There was Romanticism in the early and mid 19th century, socialism in the mid and late 19th century through well into the 20th century, fascism and Nazism in the early 20th century, and the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s. It adds little to say that they all failed, but all have nevertheless had effects and continue to influence social thought. They all have to be learnt from in one way or another.

In these instances there would have been no movements of substance without a ferment developing in the universities and institutions of learning. Leading through broad debates about cultural choices, the universities made a crucial contribution to practical transformation. Are there signs of a ferment in the universities emerging today?

The first thing to say is that Tim Jackson is himself a sign of an emerging challenge within the institutions. That he bridges the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences is important. But, to be precise, he comes out of the ecological sciences, where a ferment that has been developing over decades. This gathering ferment in the first instance is not especially socially oriented. Rather it expresses profound dismay at the implications of what has been discovered about the environment and climate change under the impact of growth-oriented Homo sapiens.

The second thing to say is that while this could support a more general ferment in the arts, humanities and social sciences, it has not done so as yet. It may be bubbling away and could well suddenly take form. One can readily advocate such because it is hard to see how there will be a sufficiently challenging social movement without such a development responding to the rising concerns of the general population.

The third thing to say is that our universities have changed compared to the past and that this change is almost certainly at the centre of contemporary quietism in the face of fundamental challenges. (In this issue of Arena Magazine see Rod Beecham and Simon Cooper for a discussion of some of the issues.) During the upheavals of the 1960s, especially in the United States, the humanities and social sciences were outspoken while in the background the hard sciences—or, more accurately, their practical derivative the techno-sciences—together with university authorities were quietly developing relations with industry and government—with capital. This relationship was founded in the new cornucopia that was promised in and emerging from the techno-scientific revolution. Two generations on, it is this relationship that typifies the university. In other words the university as institution has become a central player with capital in the practical development of the global economy and culture—to the point where capitalism per se is no longer an adequate description of contemporary society. The endless cornucopia of material goods and individual lifestyles that lies at the heart of the contemporary crisis is, unlike any earlier social crisis, closely interwoven with the university, and with this shift there has been an inversion of institutional traditions and relations of power and influence.

Every academic working in a university today knows in intimate detail what this has meant for the institution and how it impacts on them as thinkers. It does not mean that they are necessarily contained as individuals by this development but practically speaking, to this time, this has been the collective effect. Tim Jackson will testify to the way this has worked to encourage silence. Until there is a ferment that begins to target this core developmental relationship it will be especially difficult to agitate for a different cultural and economic course into the future.

If there are signs of two worlds developing on the cultural stage, they have not yet taken a mature form within the universities. The need could hardly be more pressing.

John Hinkson