While the wider world moves towards catastrophe, the world of politics in Australia has imploded towards the small and petty. In the face of momentous possibilities, and in the absence of practical thinking able to interpret and face those possibilities, politics has turned to small talk. The rapidity of the decline is stunning. The Rudd administration has backed away from any claim to being a government prepared to take on the big problems honestly from the point of view of concern for the common good. Indeed, its contribution to the wellbeing of the nation appears to have been exhausted with the removal of the Howard government. Now all issues tend to be reduced to what is administratively possible – what ‘good’ administration can fix.
This may seem unfair in relation to climate change. Rudd has set in place a developmental process focusing on significant goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases and processes of emission control. But even in relation to climate change it has developed a policy that amounts to nothing more than an administrative tool. Formed in the campaign to defeat Howard, and influenced by opinion polls that in no way reflect the reality of the on-the-ground costs of responding to climate change, it attends to the global threat as merely an aspect of normal governance.
The political effort is to normalise climate change: both in terms of policy and in the minds of voters. Whether our way of life might contribute to climate change, and what might count as a serious response at this level of thinking and action is marginalised because administration looks after an assumed way of life. The Garnaut Report is already being placed in cotton wool. Garnaut has made it clear that his investigations require responses more radical than ever before contemplated. Rudd now responds that Garnaut will merely be one of the sources government will consider.
The Limits of the Administered State
But what if the responses required go far beyond normal administration? The current debate on oil pricing is perhaps a guide as to how this will be handled.
All of the main elements of the oil price crisis have been coming to the surface for years. The four elements are: background problems associated with producing a finite resource (recent reports argue that in 2007 oil exports actually fell); destabilisation of states and regions that produce oil, usually caused by Western pressures and assumptions; the rise of developing states and their rapidly expanding consumption needs; and profligate consumption by the West to satisfy grossly excessive ways of living and producing. The only new aspect – a fifth element affecting prices – is speculation; but rather than march speculators around in handcuffs we should ask what else could be expected given the first four fundamentals of this volatile situation. Rather than begin a process of debate and education that addresses these elements forthrightly as fundamental questions about life expectations, the Rudd government settles for an utterly limp set of childish proposals: a fair market price scheme; a threat to pull OPEC into line by means of the blow-torch, and contradictory appeals to OPEC to consider our car drivers.
Administrative strategies that suggest all is well, except for a few hiccups, are matched in other areas of government. The neo-assimilationist assumptions of the Northern Territory intervention into Aboriginal communities, instigated by John Howard, retain a surprising degree of appeal for the Rudd administration. It seems to fit its general approach to political affairs. In this view sexual abuse, the distribution of pornography and drugs, individual health and problems of everyday life are matters calling for good administration. They certainly call out a ‘moral’ reaction, often populist and lazy, but administration remains the answer – an attempt to go beyond Left and Right, in the limited sense of bi-partisan strategy. The intervention appears to be gaining momentum and may even be generalised outside of Indigenous issues, once again encouraged by newspaper campaigns. If children are not being properly cared for or, more generally, if there appears to be a moral hazard (as the market economists would call it), government must intervene. Will this prove the claim that the Northern Territory intervention is not racist?
At first glance these new interventions seem similar to previous forms of welfare (the Leviathan state concerned for its citizens), but there is a new momentum at work, one certainly not uncovered by any newspaper campaign.
The administrative approach to climate change, to the politics of oil and to interventions in the remnants of communal life have two things in common: they all are ‘beyond Left and Right’; they all take contemporary society and its way of life for granted. We don’t have to refer to the ‘good old times’ of a familiar capitalism to recognise that economy and society have been fundamentally transformed. The old adage that capitalism always changes allows us to avoid the reality that neo-liberal globalisation is not simply ‘capitalism’; and that this emergent form brings with it problems never before faced by human communities. In particular, the high technologies amplify and transform aspects of life once protected from the market. Today, inflated expectations of the self, even the denial that there is a self, the new role of the university, the assault upon nature, the market in its global form, the possibilities of techno-embodiment, the infinite wants of the consumer, all appear to confirm that the possibilities are limitless. High-tech processes amplify our world and draw us away from any notion that it might be finite.
In respect of families, and what Rudd has begun to call ‘little children’, we can see the effects of high-technologies in the thinning out of the social fabric. The multi-faceted media that accompany the globalisation of social life radically undermine community-based and generation-based settings. Relatively rich face-to-face local and neighbourhood social relations are thinned out and displaced by technological mediums, putting in their place conditions that underpin both moral panics and interventions. These moral panics do not simply arise out of media campaigns. They have a basis in the new social order now administered in the name of a politics beyond Left and Right.
Ignoring these processes of social transformation allows the question of how we should live also to be avoided. Gradually new circumstances of life have been set in place that undermine community settings. Problems of community and family can then be taken up simply as empirical realities needing an administrative response. The same can be said for the problem of oil prices as well as climate change. But taken simply as an empirical fact, the anger in the community about oil pricing can have only one ‘rational’ outcome: growing conflict potentially leading to neo-imperial ‘adventures’. Indeed new sites of international conflict could be said to be the only likely outcome unless the fundamental issues can be properly addressed.
To treat oil pricing as an empirical or technical problem ignores how neo-liberal globalisation affects the felt needs of individuals. As it breaks apart the social world of local communities and sets them in motion as global social connections without limit, excessive consumption demands are naturalised. Crucially, finite oil symbolises to us how neo-liberal globalisation demands a world of infinite need and striving, one embodied in global trade and ever-expanding demands on global transport, a world that will never be satisfied. And what can be said about oil can be multiplied many times over in relation to climate change. Market-based emission schemes seek to protect and conceal the society they implicitly support. They seek to shift production into more acceptable directions while preserving the world of economic growth and global free trade, the very world that will eternally call into being excessive demand and must itself be restructured.
Neo-liberal globalisation is now encountering a world that it believes should not exist: the finite world. The strategy of turning all problems into administrative problems conceals from view the need to reconstruct societies across the board by re-invigorating regionalised production and distribution, as well as regional communities. Rudd is fond of claiming that we must face the costs of emission controls now rather than later. But it is the many questions implicit in this more basic restructuring that has to be addressed, now.
John Hinkson is an Arena publications editor.