The dust has hardly settled after its fateful election choices and Australia finds itself taken over by narratives, and practical possibilities, that are terrifying.
We are engulfed in a security emergency, both local and global. Australia is being drawn into patrolling some of the most dangerous waters in the Middle East, while there are strong suggestions that US missiles, directed at China, could be situated in northern Australia. To add to the sense of a war environment, there are discussions about satisfying oil-reserve needs by drawing on the US reserve—a sign of a war partnership. While the Hong Kong population strikes out against an all-powerful China, India moves to take over Kashmir. In many parts of the Western world, including the United Kingdom, comedians have been taking the reins of power. Immediately after publication of the only book that truly grapples with the human devastation caused by Chernobyl, Australia is again toying with the nuclear option.
With the iron-ore price deflating and the ‘trade war’ deepening, what are Australia’s prospects?
All emergent situations arise out of pre-existing circumstances, but each one has a novel element. Putting to one side the deeper social processes that have been unfolding for the last fifty years, one element of politics that has changed and is evident today is voters’ deep desire to sidestep conventional politics. This is clear enough in the popularity of comedians with little political knowledge running for political office. Another example, somewhat closer to home after the recent election, is the willingness to throw aside old assumptions and embrace the joining of practical politics with evangelical religion. The orientation towards comedians can be seen as a nihilistic turning against politics, which, in the present circumstances, is understandable. On the other hand, the attraction of evangelism suggests a practical orientation that takes politics in a radically new direction, one that is even more concerning. It is a shift that requires some careful thought.
In the main, in Australia politicians’ religious beliefs have remained largely their private affair. But Scott Morrison presented a rather different orientation in the election, allowing the media, and the people, into his performance of evangelical religious ritual. This certainly helped him to present himself in a new light at a time when there was a felt need in voter land: the political class is despised in many quarters. But apart from generating an immediate politics, was this any more than a gloss?
We have seen one glaring development over recent weeks. Donald Trump has embraced Morrison and has made clear moves to draw him closer. Trump’s political movement is firmly based around alliances of evangelical groupings in the United States. While all individual evangelical followers cannot be tarred with the same brush, evangelical religions are also a social phenomenon. In the United States they have changed over time. As Michael S. Northcott has shown in his An Angel Directs the Storm, they have transformed since the decline of rural communities in the United States. In their more recent expressions they have become less stable. In particular, they are more ready to embrace the biblical End of Times in the here and now, regarding chaos as a positive force that gives entry to the ‘promised land’.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former US Army officer and head of the CIA, is an evangelical devotee who speaks of politics and the Rapture—the realm that gives expression to the End of Times—in the same sentence. Vice-President Mike Pence is also a devoted evangelist, among other things to the struggle between good and evil over Israel—key to Trump’s present ‘peace’ strategy in the Middle East (financed by the Saudis), which combines recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with denial that Palestinians have any rights to their homelands.
The other element typical of evangelical religions is their relative disconnect with, and hence their incapacity to empathise with, the broader community. Relatively withdrawn, they display a strong tendency towards seeing things in simplistic, indeed black and white, terms. This is typical of fundamentalist orientations; when related to practical political power it has basic implications, especially in times of upheaval and distress.
Imagining how these deep commitments will work out over time is deeply worrying. Trump’s government is an evolving structure. It should not be assumed that he knows where it is headed. Well known for his erratic nature and for engaging in bold moves that shake up his opponents, he combines these tendencies with the appointment of extreme neo-conservatives, such as the hawk John Bolton. Trump has been constrained by historical institutions, but his government could fly out of control at any moment. His regime is deeply dysfunctional on most accounts and pursues institutional practices around race and immigration that are gross and dehumanising. His trade war with China, as Martin Wolf and others have argued, is not merely a trade war. Rather, it is an epiphenomenon of a deeper distrust of ‘non-Caucasian’ powers—an attitude now said to be increasingly taken up by much of the US public. Given this, Trump is playing with the media and the public when he suggests that a trade deal may be around the corner. He is now pursuing these matters as an election strategy. The likely consequences may be found in history. To say the least, a degenerative road beckons.
While the Trump administration is evolving, the development of the ‘new’ Liberal Party under Morrison has hardly begun. Its starting point is an unexpected and novel election win, but the party remains a rabble. Its policy drawer is empty, beyond handing tax back to voters, dogmatically pursuing a budget surplus, maintaining appalling conditions for refugees and the long-term unemployed, and putting out the notion of ‘quiet Australians’, who, Morrison says, will make the decisions. Surely this is a recipe for disaster.
With such an empty agenda it is not surprising to find security standing in in place of policies. Immediately after the election, Peter Dutton returned to the fray, throwing off the low generated by his failed bid to become prime minister. As long as he finds a way to give Morrison his due—it was Morrison’s electoral miracle—Dutton is likely to make hay as minister for home affairs. Morrison’s need is greater—just as Trump needs a state of emergency to hold his ground in the United States, so too Morrison will take advantage of a deteriorating situation.
The security environment, then, is hot, and getting hotter. There is mounting evidence of this almost every day. The shameful pursuit of former intelligence officer ‘witness K’ and his solicitor Bernard Collaery continues. A consequence of a rare act of conscience related to the bugging by Australian intelligence of discussions in East Timor over oil rights, it is likely to result in years of jail for both. And now reporters, including from the ABC, face investigation by the Australian Federal Police if they investigate, let alone report, criminal behaviour by Australia’s armed forces. There is no room for conscience here, and there is a very much reduced space for freedom of the press in this emerging environment. And then Morrison commits another $3 billion to the SAS.
What can be said about this situation? These are aspects of a general shift, and this is increasingly evidenced in mounting panic over China and the economy.
The banning of Huawei from 5G technology in Australia is one example, closely linked to pressure from the United States and its growing hostility towards China. The United States may well agree with Andrew Hastie, who views China as another Nazi Germany. But this is childish history. It is the rise of Germany as a contending power before the First World War that is the appropriate comparison. Emerging powers present complex problems for existing powers: compromises are made, or we go to war. Have we learnt from that earlier tragedy? Contrary to Hastie, it was the foolish peace treaty in conclusion of the First World War that set the conditions for the rise of German Nazism.
Connected to this shift in attitude towards China is a global economy that calls out increasing tension. Despite unprecedented injections of money into economies via ‘quantitative easing’ (printing money), the economy continues with the same tendencies towards contraction evidenced ever since the Global Financial Crisis. Interest rates are imploding, a sign typical of the deflation associated with economic depression; central banks are losing control; and Western political leaders—especially in Australia—chorus their ignorance of what this means.
All the same, these economic eruptions are not at base economic phenomena, nor do they arise from a familiar form of capitalism. They have emerged over time from a shift in how we take hold of nature today given the epochal revolution and radically expanded powers of the techno-sciences. When this intellectual revolution fatefully joins and reshapes capitalism, waves of transformation unfold, undermining most social assumptions. Relatively stable social relations and communities are unmoored. And nature itself reels under the assault of techno-capitalism, so much so that many assumptions—like the categories male and female, taken up by the universal religions—are set in motion, surely a footnote to the religious-freedom question. And when nature fights back, as with climate change, an unfamiliar world becomes very dangerous.
Globalised economy, displacing place and local economies, is one of the effects, but the unravelling of the social worlds of ordinary people is the true support of new leaders of the Western world Trump, Morrison and Boris Johnson. Trump is not predominantly the product of manipulated data effected by Cambridge Analytica. Rather, he is a product of a profound disaffection arising out of the loss of depth, continuity and predictability in the everyday affairs of ordinary people. Scott Morrison, no Donald Trump, is nevertheless grounded in the same upheavals. Clearly attracted by the glow of recognition of the powers, and needing them for his survival, Morrison is losing any capacity he had to resist alliances that can only be disastrous for the future of Australia.