It’s hard to feel sure that the avant-garde of Australian politics is located in a handful of postcodes in the central east and north of Melbourne, which is Adam Bandt’s electorate. It’s hard to see it as the avant-garde at all given the 3 per cent swing against the Greens nationally and general turn to the Right. It is also no doubt so that a lot of inner-Melbourne Liberal Party voters, whose candidate was never going to win, were happier putting 1 beside Bandt than the Labor candidate. But it may be thatBandtdid win because of a definite social consciousness of the most pressing environmental and humanitarian issues facing us, and that that had something to do with the composition of his electorate. Why would they be more likelyon average than voters in other electorates to face up to the centrality of these questions?
Perhaps the most effective Greens slogan popping up on billboards in Melbourne was ‘I’mStanding Up for What Matters’. At one level it is an appeal to values, with a very long pedigree; it is a call to put yourself on the line given that values matter more than other possible orientations. If values count, then your parochial or immediate self-interests (more whitegoods, higher pay, more overseas trips, better education for your children, promised by both mainstream parties) should come second. At another level of this sign and signal, we all ‘know’ what really matters; our ethical sense is usually deeply connected with the things we value close in our lives: our families, friends, homes, pets, meaningful work, some register of beauty or the spiritual in our lives, which might include the natural environment, music, sport. If these are denied to others, as in the case of refugees, or they are put under extreme threat, as in climate change and mega-development, what is deeply felt individually can come together with more abstract ethical principles in powerful ways. It fuelsat least acertain level of dissent andsuggests a first level of identification with a party professing a values-based politics.
This certainly doesnot mean that present Greens voters necessarily have the practical environmental, climate change or refugee and social policy answers. And it doesn’t mean that all Greens votersnecessarily agreed with all the elements of the party’s platform. This fits neatly with the idea of a Greens ‘protest’ vote. ‘Standing up for what matters’ neatly touches the history of protestation in the West: in the face of all the contrary trends and unfortunate commitments of ourbrothers and sisters, it is beholden upon ‘us’ to take a stand. Whatever the consequences, protesters believe there is a higher value to be put. If protest and dissent are valued in democracies, and remain protected by the legal systems of those democracies even today, it is because there is an ethical and historical knowledge somewhere still of how social and political life is not static and that power maycorrupt.A perhaps increasingly residual notion today under technocratic governance and neoliberalism’s corporate model of the nation, protections for protesters and dissenters nevertheless remainfundamental to the democratic traditions.
Of course few if any political parties are simply or wholly values based. To have any reach a party has to have both a ‘story to tell’ and an analysis. The former is intended to build identification with the party and the issues as it sees them; the latter is the attempt at producing serious evidence about the state of the world and an interpretation of it. In politics, knowledge and ethics have traditionally connected, and still do for those who seethemselves more or less as active citizens concerned about the ‘good life’, in the proper sense of how it is that we should live. Values, in turn, are informed by assessment of the state of the world; the need for justice where it is shown to be lacking, for example.Stories have been the preserve of political rhetoric: the need to convince the voter of the party’s position, often through an appeal to the voter as a certain kind of person, through identification with a particular social segment perhaps, as in Robert Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’, or simply as human beings who might identify with others even on the other side of the world, say, as targets of our wars.
Unfortunately, the balance between analysis, ethics and storytelling has been radically altered, and each of the components of political discourse has itself come under tremendous strain under conditions of high-tech capitalism and neoliberalism. Today the balance seems to have radically shifted towards storytelling, or the promotion of identification, no longer the preserve of the brilliant political orator speaking to a constituency but rather of the hired advertising company and communications professionals constructing one. The connection between ethics and politics is undermined in this context where first neoliberalism’s self-interested individual is said to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and democracy is seen by many as people voting for what they want; where even more worryingly, post-modern capitalismin fact creates individuals in a much more autonomous form than individuals atany previous time.
In turn analysis, even where taken deadly seriously as by technocratic Labor, even for genuine social ends, must suffer where the central game has become one of projecting and countermanding the projections of who voters are. We only have to think about climate change, read John Wiseman’s article in this issue of Arena Magazine, to know its political representation was debased and completely instrumentalised for election purposes.Labor’s carbon tax became ‘un-Australian’; if you were a ‘battler’ you were against it. Read Russell Marks, also in this issue of Arena Magazine, on the construction of Tony Abbott’s ‘alternate reality’, or think back to the miners’ ads that so effectively killed Rudd.
This allpoints to one of the clear advantages of a values-based message like ‘I’m standing up for what matters’. It cuts through what is recognised by some, and perhaps felt by others still constrained to actually vote Green, as an utterly debased political process. If the system itself denies and obfuscates what matters, those who can must raise their voices. But this in itself is an unstable basis for ongoing political identification and certainly for welding a larger mass of people to an alternative vision of the future, one of the great hopes placed in the Greens by at least some of their constituency.
For Bandt’s success to be more than a victory by protest vote, the critical analytical and interpretive aspects of political formation becomecrucial. If the Greens’ appeal to the good missed its mark in the other electorates, then the values it hoped to call out may notbe self-evident. Of course values aren’t enough in any case, and Bandt and others in his party would not think they were. Policy has to be formulated; issues are complex; values per se can’t tell you all of what you need to do in a structured or programmatic sense. On the one hand many voters know this and, typifying the Greens as values driven, reject them as naïve. On the other, of course, if you don’t know where your values come from, or simply assume they are accessible as some essential good carried in human hearts, one’s reflective capacity is dimmed, and the chance to connect with others reduced. More,if they are not coherently drawn together in a larger vision, they are unlikely to be enough to speak to people’s experience: the immediacy of how people feel, what their hopes and fears are, their sense of the world about them, what they value. Ethical protest is crucial, but especially today when our values are so actively being reshaped by dominant discourses and processes, andwhere fear dulls deep-set values for many, the big question is how to connect with that experience and translate one’s analysis—of climate change, of neoliberalism, of the ‘loss of values’ so many on all sides of politics speak of—into first a convincing explanation, and second an enlivening vision of something other.
Why Adam Bandt’s electorate is different is that his part of Melbourne is a ‘university town’. For good and for ill, the young, the students, the baby boomer professionals arguably have a structured capacity—a capacity given in the conditions of their specific social formation—that allows them to ‘step outside’ many of the mundane concerns and assumptions that other social strata cannot so easily do; certainly not as characteristic of them as a group. They are more willing to take on the message of climate change and its horrific meaning for all of the society, thinking the unthinkable. They may be more willing to bear witness because of a certain purview their education has afforded.
But the issue remains most crucially whether any such privileged viewpoint can translate into an understanding that will generate a commonality of purpose across social groupings. It is a continuing question, one deeply perplexing to many environmental thinkers and campaigners, as to what might convince the mass of voters that climate change heralds disaster. Or that environmental degradation, once again so fully on the agenda of developers in urban and rural Australia, will undermine the very things we take for granted as a solid ground of meaning in our lives.
It raises the question of how climate change and environment, as the Greens’ primary point of entry into the range of contemporary questions, can be made to resonate through a more generalised critique and interpretation of the many strands of lived experience and strained conditions that join all the people as subjects of the same historic shifts embedded in globalising techno-capitalism. It might be pointed out that democracy is nothing if the university is not seen as a central site of interpretation in and for the social life of the whole, rather than as engine of the new economy and unsustainable growth, for which both our productivist mainstream parties celebrate it. Perhaps more difficult for those who presently support the Greens will be recognising thatscience itself, while so crucial to understanding climate change and promoting a vision of ecological interdependence, is divided and implicated in the very climate and environment disaster scenarios that animate this avant-garde.