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Ethics & Politics at Christmas Time, by Alison Caddick

We can see again an implicit framework that the major parties share, albeit from different sides … for at least many of the younger generations it is surely a danse macabre, of figures of an old world that retain only slight purchase on the key issues and forms of the present.

Despite the Australian newspaper’s ecstatic celebration of Tony Abbott as a leader upon the world stage at the recent G20, the paper’s pundits have begun to ask questions about Abbott’s capacity to lead in government, his approval rating now lower than Julia Gillard’s at its worst. It is too much, too soon, to hope for such a sweet Christmas present as Abbott’s demise, but in any case with Scott Morrison a possible successor—he’s considered one of the government’s few ‘winners’—it’s hard to be joyous at all. In this ‘festive season’, when some hope for a more serious consideration of the moral and ethical issues so often eclipsed in the pursuit of political ends, we can expect nothing of the sort from this government. One has the sense that the members and leaders of this most conservative Christian government will be asking their God not what is good, but rather to strengthen their arm as border protectors, crusaders in the Middle East and neoliberal managers who face the tough decisions on our behalf—on growth, on unemployment, on universities, on social benefits, on Aboriginal communities. We are familiar with this sense of the imperative in the Abbott government’s self-view, so often in the form of the simply negative (the neoliberal ‘no’ to a feminised ‘nannyism’) but also in its positive promotion of ‘emergency’ (budgetary, not climate) and tendency to authoritarian closure, as well its construction of conditions for profit-making wherever, globally, at whatever social cost at home.

In Victoria there has been some joy, not disconnected from Abbott’s performance nationally. The Daniel Andrews Labor government is in power, tossing out a Liberal-National Party government after just one term. Andrews, latterly converted to the need to dump the East-West Tunnel and therefore, so many hope, to major public transport solutions (what about an extensive underground for Melbourne?), focused immediately in his victory speech on employment and training. This socially concerned rather than punitive approach to the unemployed—towards youth and those recently or soon to be made redundant as Abbott’s trade policies bite—cannot be underestimated as a counterpoint to the Abbott approach. Yet Andrews was in the same mouthful happy to describe himself as an infrastructure Premier. He also referred several times to ‘our movement’, mysterious for many, I would have thought. At the least this reference to the labour movement seemed in-turned; I wondered if Victorians realised they were voting for a Socialist Left premier.

So, while Victorians certainly have a better chance of policies that will attend to a range of social needs and promote fairness in workplaces—the hope Labor voters carry for the now relatively more popular Bill Shorten nationally—the same old non-division between the major parties on fundamental questions of vision largely passed the commentators by. Although for different social purposes than Abbott’s ‘infrastructure prime ministership’ (and sending a message to the feds that Victorians still want their ‘tunnel’ money), Andrews’ emphasis on infrastructure at base underlines the sine qua non of growth to which both major parties are committed, and to what that implicit commitment says of people’s hopes and dreams for the future: more of the same, only better; or perhaps today, as larger fears insinuate themselves, at least, definitely ‘not worse’. Similarly, while such a professed identification of a Premier with the labour movement is honest and to be admired where it signifies a history of common spirit and collective will to improve ordinary people’s lot, we can see again an implicit framework that the major parties share, albeit from different sides. Now arguably delusional, and sometimes dishonestly drawn upon, especially in right-wing scaremongering about the power of the unions, for at least many of the younger generations it is surely a danse macabre, of figures of an old world that retain only slight purchase on the key issues and forms of the present. However Andrews came across as a decent guy, there was no stated vision for anything like how we might live or need to in the twenty-first century, only a dependence on an outlook we are meant to take as read, referring us implicitly to traditions and struggles of economic-class politics, the classes it seems still hunkered down within an essentially unchanging capitalist system.

One of several moments of high comedy during the G20 was the Australian’s commentary on Barack Obama’s climate change speech at the University of Queensland. Ink was copiously spilt and pages taken up with the supposed insult delivered to Australia and to Campbell Newman in Obama’s encouragement to the young to save the Barrier Reef, as a symbol, I took it, of the larger forces threatening the planet and the natural world we say we cherish. Insult upon insult was actually heaped upon Obama—he was vain, dishonest, merely a lame duck, ignorant—with the coup de grace being that he was also, and far worse, ungrateful for everything we’ve ever done for him (i.e. they only had to ask and we were happy to fight in their wars). Greg Sheridan wondered whether on shuffling off from his impotent presidency Obama would attempt to become a new and improved version of Al Gore. The childish taunts were ridiculous (delusional); the insults an expression of the incredibly partisan politics practised by the Australian. They are likely also a sign of just plain incomprehension of the extraordinary nature of climate change that sets it apart as no mere policy issue and for which a little prophetic intervention, breaking ranks with the planned and expected, seems highly appropriate. Let a few more seeds of dissent be sown among the young—they are the ones inheriting the earth that zombie politicians continue to bequeath them.

As has been pointed out, science when it comes in the guise of product development, techno-scientific novelties, health diagnoses or economic modelling is valued by our neoliberal leaders, with scientists honoured as specialists, often as dedicated humanists, and certainly as the intellectual powerhouse of the new economy. Yet climate change predictions, like many assessments of environmental degradation, are swept aside as necessarily tainted politically. Of course, this is not to suggest that science anywhere should be left unquestioned about its intentions and assumptions—science is no longer an uncontested route to knowledge, and ‘knowledge’ itself as a reflection of a simply given state is a contested category. This must be so in an age where science is radically reconstitutive, bestowing new meanings and values through the reality of its new constructions, many of them living biological entities. Yet it is clear that unlike those uncritically valued examples of productive science today, climate change science and environmentalism set a distinct range of defences going. They not only trespass upon the practical interests of capitalists, developers and managers of industry and resources by implying limits and restrictions on the exploitation of land and nature; they also cut deep into the key assumptions of the modern political paradigm. Certainly this means undermining the terms of that contest between those on right and left who might manage ‘resources’ for different social ends. If there is a limit to attend to, that basic assumption of growth being the only way to satisfy human need, shared across party-political lines, is put in question. But the more challenging still of one’s categories and identifications may be that a dimension of the aesthetic, and of care and even of love for what gives us life, may be introduced into this most hard-edged of political-economic arenas.

One young Green also entered the lower house in Victoria, Ellen Sandell, in the seat of Melbourne, and Greens did very well in many electorates. Interviewed briefly on election night, Sandell at least had something to say about climate change, indeed it was front and centre, when neither of the major-party representatives said a word about it. As we know, talking about climate change isn’t in itself a guide to any necessarily profound program for shifting the terms of politics or of social life. Many environmentalists and others believe that ‘sustainability’ is possible and desirable within the terms of the present. Yet the notion of a greening of politics holds out hope of a different vision and an opening to perspectives that go deeper than the left and right divisions of modernity, potentially placing the human person and community in a fundamentally different relation to what is life giving and sustaining, altering our personal priorities and the cultural-political imperatives of high-tech capitalism and its executive in neoliberal governance.

While Left and Right not so long ago thought they had the only options covered in their complementary understanding of the economic and social, that is clearly not the case any longer. Whether it is climate change, refugee flows from the south to the north, the issues forced to the surface in the biotech revolution or the turn to religion in its many guises, the certainties as to what to fight for, on what basis and with what guidance have been sundered. These are overwhelming issues for which we do not have practical answers yet, climate change and global refugee flows alike two defining manifestations of the contradictions of our shared, globalised world. In this issue of Arena Magazine, while Spencer Zifcak outlines the Abbott government’s disproportionate response in its counter terrorism laws and Guy Rundle elaborates the exhaustion of the American political dream, several other pieces come at the question of the inadequacies of contemporary politics through an opening to religious thinking and to the experience of refugees and other damaged persons. In an article by Matthew Sharpe we have a survey of the ways in which the critical ‘left’ has itself, in the ‘post-post-modern humanities’, turned to religion (if without God) for possible leads into both the new and abiding issues which the modern political framework no longer help us with. In a review of James Boyce’s Born Bad, Stephen Ames examines Boyce’s thesis on Original Sin and how it might be connected all the way down to the neoliberal present. In our feature essay Kirsty Sangster writes about the importance of witness and recognition, of embodied narrative─of an ethical opening to the suffering of others, so often shut out of political discourse as another inconvenient truth.

Facing the contradictions that shape new forms of the social, but also the fundamental environmental crises and distinct forms of dispossession of the contemporary world, rather than simply assuming the contradictions of the past, Arena Magazine has always questioned the taken-for-granteds of Left and Right. It values ethical insights from any quarter that might loosen the grip of our given categories of political thinking and our understanding of how to be in and of the natural-cultural world. Insights that emerge from suppressed or remnant social forms, from non-mainstream traditions, from counter traditions and emerging new thought are all welcome here.

Happy Christmas … Happy Bodhi … Happy Kwanzaa … Happy Hanukkah!