After Progress? The Four Questions of Global Politics

First Act

Midway through one of Barry Cohen’s earlier, funnier books he reminisces on a bizarre, fruitless issue that consumed the Whitlam Government at one time: whether or not to put some money into a failing historical theme park known as Old Sydney Town. Cohen says the debate over the tiny, otherworldly village consumed much of a Cabinet meeting on one particular morning — and that morning was, of course, 11 November 1975.

One is tempted to feel that a similar misperception of scale is now widespread across the anglophone western world, although it seems at its worst in Australia. Theme park inhabitants, lilliputians, sleepwalkers: the metaphors for a comprehensive failure to appreciate the dimensions of a series of global predicaments fly thick and fast.
Four clear problems are not being grasped at the level at which they exist: as universal human problems that take us beyond the existing frameworks that we have used to hitherto interpret politics. The first and by definition most encompassing is the threat of global warming, the single greatest act — albeit unintended — by humanity upon nature. The evidence for this now appears to be overwhelming. James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, has modelled scenarios which suggest that global warming, if not rapidly curbed, could be an irreversible trajectory, in which the warming of the atmosphere may go beyond the feasible capacity of human technology to reverse it. This threshold — after which Gaia/Earth would break free of stabilising tendencies and heat indefinitely to a point where human life becomes unsustainable — could be reached within thirty years.

The second and related problem is that levels of consumption and wealth between North and South are widening at the same time as a new global media makes over the values and aspirations of the latter in terms of the former. Those areas — chiefly Africa — immiserated by global debt and slipping further behind are less important than regions such as China and India, which have both a rising middle and industrial working class, and sufficient scale to challenge the economic power and diktat of the US and Europe. This will certainly come to a head within the next several decades in the form of disputes over markets, currency domains, freshwater supplies, industry protection, and population movement. Its ultimate and most blundering expression would be a global war caused by a collapse of trust between regions; its best result a new and less unjust global economic settlement. Whatever the result, the economies of the West will have little or no chance of maintaining their global share, both in wage rates and cost of living.

Paradoxically, the third problem is the reverse of this and will occur simultaneously, and that is the cultural and
psychological attentuation of everyday life in a world where personal exchange and interrelation is dominated by the commodity and the image, and, increasingly, the two fused together. The need for reciprocal community, for the abiding presence of others, for place, is the ground upon which not only individual selfhood but social meaning exists. It can be expressed in an indefinite number of particular cultural ‘styles’ or ways of life, but the basic categories and forms it takes cannot be bypassed — as they increasingly are in contemporary life — without beginning to hear the platforms of social life and selfhood creak and fracture. We have seen only the first signs of this registering, in a culture in which existence is increasingly understood as atomised, and connection to others as contractual and subject to psychological cost-benefit analysis. The effect of this is expiated in a culture increasingly governed, as Boris Frankel has noted, by sadism and the erotics of power (from the workplace to the sex industry to Tarantino) and by a complementary difficulty of selfhood, manifested variously as ADHD, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, ‘social phobia’, Japanese suicide cults and so on. Several unreflected-upon decades of this would give us a culture as categorically unrecognisable as a world of sarin gas cults and Michael Jackson would be to the Edwardians. Certainly such a world would be thrilling in a Nietzschean sort of way, but it would also be psychologically uninhabitable.

The fourth and most long-range problem is that of a bioscience that has become autonomous from any social or ethical form of limits. Using the late medieval repression of the scientific revolution as a rhetorical device for arguing against the limiting of ‘knowledge’, the post-human science push can successfully convince the general public to regard their own profound misgivings, revulsion and horror at, for example, the creation of a hybrid rabbit-human embryo for research purposes (as recently suggested by Alan Trounson) as mere ‘fear of the future’. Anyone feeling a concern at the wholesale transformation of given nature into a raw material manipulable at the genetic level finds themselves cast in the role of a sixteenth-century Pope.

Much of the non-religious opposition to the autonomy of post-human science has come from an awareness that the error rate of such manufacture is a lot higher than natural mutation — one has to create many clones before a fair copy is successfully created. But the problem is more that the technology could become widespread at some point, and that the material effect on what it is to be a human being — an end in itself, a ‘givenness’ with an equal status to other humans — would be undermined by the manufacture of designer post-human beings. Leaving aside the physical risks — widespread crop wipeout due to the exposure of monocultural GM grains for example — the potential cultural effect is catastrophic, since it would demolish any material basis for being human. One could suggest that such a situation is as distant in the future as the Holocaust was from the rise of particular notions of nationalism and ‘purity’ in the eighteenth century, but one could also observe that history has not only velocity but acceleration.

Nested like a Russian doll, these are the real questions and dilemmas that confront us as a species increasingly bound up in global interdependence.


Yet, there is a gap between not only our political situation and our institutions but also our fundamental ways of thinking. The scale of contemporary existence dwarfs people to such an unprecedented degree — the horizon of our social life is not merely the village, or the parish, or country, but the billions-peopled world — that it is precisely the dilemmas of a global society that turn people back towards the private, the immediate, the contingent. Such a global cultural condition seems to shape the life-cycle into one as fixed and beautifully useless as any butterfly. Children emerge into adolescence which is increasingly governed by self-formation within subcultural groups and progress either to an overly idealistic and encompassing sense of responsibility for the entire world, or into a knowingly cynical and ironic privacy. With the progress of the years, the majority of the former group join the latter — after a standardised rite de passage known as ‘burn out’. These times suit conservative parties founded on individualism (so long as they can attract sufficient corporate donations to run themselves without a genuine grassroots); they are less kind to left and progressive movements that offer the betterment of a class or society in general through sustained collective action.

Both the ALP and the Greens have so far failed to appreciate the cultural and political climate in which they must act. Following the most recent defeat, Mark Latham continues to fall far short of the promise he showed, even on his own limited terms, on the backbench and in the early months of the leadership. Initially committed to presenting a vision of the social, both pre- and post-election he has lapsed into the sort of pathetic biddability that characterised both the Beazley and Crean leaderships. The obsession with a campaign based on values and personal narrative and wrenched from the very different ‘cultural context’ of US politics, together with the policy scattergun consistency of a mobile phone sales rep closing a deal, communicated only fragmentation and lack of dependability. Post-election, little seems to have changed, with simple reactive gestures towards particular policies being substituted for the gradual rebuilding of a solid and alternative account of society and its future. Latham is the first Labor leader to grow up in the midst of a ‘postmodern’ media society. Anyone of this generation faces a greater challenge than hitherto in disciplining their self-regard into the confident projection of authority, and Latham is failing at it. His ‘Green Valley’ narrative — unlike Clinton’s ‘the Man from Hope’ — is the story of an unfinished man who must keep telling his story to maintain his existence — Oliver Twist by Oliver Sacks. Bob Hawke could get away with serial weeping on camera because he had so firmly established an aura of wholeness that emotionality could only add to it. Latham’s on-camera reaction to the inevitable digging into his family background came across as plaintive and whining.

In the wake of the defeat, the Left got the usual blame, occasioned in part by some arguments by Barry Jones and Phillip Adams that revealed they had still not understood that the old Whitlamite coalition was no longer viable, and the degree to which left–liberal causes were alien and repellant to many suburban voters. But for the most part the left had been extremely disciplined in advancing causes that must be advanced if we are to be basically decent, such as mandatory detention and the conditions of life for Indigenous Australians. It was Latham and his inner circle who went against all they had correctly argued about the problems of presenting such policies, particularly on forests, in the years previous. Polling, margins and spins — politics in market form, as the achievement of marginal utility — has so come to dominate that they cannot think outside of it, or understand how it structures the appearance of reality. It is easier by far to blame the Greens, apparently for unequivocally advancing their own position.

Yet the Greens must be held to account too. It is true that they were calumnied by a Murdoch press determined to scare off potential protest and swing voters, and it is also true that they made further impressive gains that have been unfairly gainsayed by the press. Yet, quite aside from organisational problems in various state branches, the Greens also maintain an unreflected-upon dedication to a simple-minded notion of socialist libertarianism. Their economic policies continue to place too much emphasis on tax gathering — as opposed to other means of mobilising capital for social development — and some of their social policies seem to be framed without any acknowledgment that there is a widespread feeling that a libertarian approach to many issues has been shown to have grevious social limits. They have not yet made the leap from the politics of the New Left to one that addresses contemporary society, and may well include elements of conservatism and liberalism in coming to an understanding of the new dimension of problems faced by societies and humanity.


The dilemmas outlined above stretch far beyond the bounds of the contemporary political framework, and every one of its institutions — from parliamentary forms to the three-year term, single seats, winner-take-all government — designed for a period, that of ‘modernity’, whose dominant conditions have now passed. Party parliamentarianism reproduces social and political life particularly by excluding the problems indicative of an emergent, truly global society. Thus, the insane rearguard against the evidence of global warming as a last-ditch attempt to obscure the systemic and interrelated nature of the economy and the market; thus the attempt to shoehorn the utterly new question of post-human technologies as some sort of continued debate between liberals and conservatives. If there is a bridge here between the traditional concerns of left and progressive parties and these new dilemmas, it is that such parties can only live up to the genuine spirit of progress if they make connections, paint big pictures and advance argument and interpretation about the whole of social life. The events of the wider world will soon overtake the make-believe of New Sydney Town — by failing to expand their thinking, the progressive parties are failing in their duty to provide political leadership towards the hard times ahead and the era when politics will take a different form.

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