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New Arena Rising…, by Alison Caddick

A new Arena for dangerous times: responding to world events and cultural trajectories—participating in the emerging debates

Published: 13 Dec 2019

Nearly thirty years ago Arena Publications put out the first Arena Magazine. With the present issue, no. 163, that series is coming to an end, with a new quarterly, named simply Arena, to be published from March 2020.

There are several reasons for this change, but the main one is a sense that the seismic shifts in culture and society that brought the magazine into being originally are working their way through to new manifestations of that shift, especially new, or newly explosive, cultural-political divisions. Everywhere turmoil is the order of the day, whether in present uprisings in the Middle East, in a wholly conflicted US democratic system, in Brexit Britain, in Macron’s yellow-jacket France, in the strength of an increasingly authoritarian China, and Australia’s relations with it, in a South American continent reverting to models of government that strike fear into the hearts of democrats of all kinds. Not only are international relations on so many fronts febrile but also, within nations, once good-enough political mechanisms, including stable divisions between parties and social constituencies, and trust in core institutions such as the rule of law, in key ways have been or are being sundered. Societies are riven along new lines, precarious life the consequence of neoliberal governmentality and new-economy imperatives; individuals deeply refashioned through their seduction by consumption and the promises of high tech, and prone to all kinds of personal instabilities.

Far from the peaceful utopia of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, current at much the same time this magazine first appeared, the last thirty years have been a convulsion of deep-set change at every level. After the supposed triumph of Western liberal democracy, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Reagan’s slaying of communism, George Bush carried out the first Iraq war as a high-tech televisual spectacle we all watched nightly, and emerged after it to announce a New World Order. In this unipolar world of US beneficence, peace would be the natural consequence of a rational system guided by democracy dedicated to the pursuit of prosperity. It was the period of the height of celebration of and submission to that mystical force that grown men believed in: the hidden hand of the free market that would, ineluctably, guide capitalism to the greater good. Capitalism should be left alone, we were told, to do what it does best, with minimal state intervention and certainly without counterclaims from any possible dissident groupings: grow economies; advance civilisation.

While some commentators now talk about a thirty-year war in the Middle East, a region so central to the West’s requirement of oil and compliance in its civilising mission, the ‘war’ at home was the tamping down of neoliberal forms of governance that would help to produce a new stratification of haves and have-nots and introduce mechanisms that would control those who, surprisingly, weren’t integrated into the system. Arena editors wrote at the time about emerging forms of ‘social redundancy’, later to be named as the more experiential ‘precarity’. Those measures of control, and belief in their necessity, would, some while after, form the basics of what Melinda Hinkson and Thalia Anthony reference in their article in this issue of Arena Magazine on the police shooting of Kumanjayi Walker in the Northern Territory—a radically heightened apparatus for the controlling and patrolling of internal and external borders. This new punitivism would necessitate in turn a growing carceral complex for the warehousing of, largely, underclass and black souls, here and elsewhere. These trends today so evident, and only entrenched further in the militarisation of police forces across the world, would be the answer to a range of political-governmental problems that would emerge given the rising tide of refugees, real and flagrantly imagined attacks on the ‘Western way of life’ and, later, in a rising consciousness about the system’s contradictions, in protests against austerity measures following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). If ‘communism’ as we had known it died in 1989, and Terror replaced it twelve years later as a galvanising force across and inside Western societies, the GFC planted the seeds for a more general, more broadly popular, potential criticism of the system.

This had not been possible in the period of the exuberant rise of new capitalism and the consensus of erstwhile left and right parliamentary parties around its administration. But the fallout now, politically, is everywhere to be seen, as anti-globalisation nationalisms ever more brazenly challenge (aspects of) global capitalism, and the terms of the new distinctions are increasingly confidently outlined in the division ‘right-wing populists’ versus ‘liberals’. Liberal democracy makes a reappearance, well after Fukuyama and the beginnings of the current round of US/UK/Australian civilisational interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere, not as the figurehead of happy sailing towards some liberal-democratic telos but as embattled bulwark against proto-fascism.

Arena has been at pains to point to what we see as the contradictory undergirding of the various emergences of these past decades, indeed to illuminate the forms of political consciousness associated with them as hardly cognisant of the social form—of which they may be seen to be an expression—that has moved into place in that period. Politics is not an autonomous realm of conscious action; new forms of political subjectivity have roots in the forms of social-cultural relations that a new system instantiates.

In the final issue of Arena Magazine various Arena writers bring this kind of viewpoint to bear. Thirty years has seen the transformation of the university into a business enterprise dedicated to the renovation of capitalism. This preeminent institution of a high-tech economy is the backdrop to Simon Cooper’s commentary on an example of the new punitivism finding its way into the treatment of academics, who may still misunderstand that ‘academic freedom’ bears no integral relationship to the new university. John Hinkson focuses on the social form of the activities of intellectuals, and especially scientists, as linked to the anthropogenic changes that now threaten the planet in runaway climate change and more broadly may be seen in the sciences’ typical treatment of any given ‘natural’ as a horizon for instrumental change. As noted, Melinda Hinkson with Thalia Anthony finds a new carceral complex in the background of the Kumanjayi Walker case (as does John Lawrence), delivered with the assent of small-‘l’ liberal Australia, in part in the civilising intervention of John Howard’s 2007 ‘Emergency Response’ and more broadly symptomatic of the need in contemporary capitalism to hold a fragmenting social structure in place by means of force. Guy Rundle examines the ‘Australian narrative’ in its various instances in Australian cultural and political writing over these thirty years and finds the old Australia’s experiences and insecurities replaced in the state’s cultural management of elements of life no longer acceptable to a rising class with specific interests and identifications in the information economy. Tim Ström points out a common basis across that political divide of ‘liberal-democrats’/‘proto-fascists’ in Trump and Clinton’s shared abject vision of data-driven democracy. I discuss how new feminisms that project the ‘communism’ of a genderless world deny the utter revolution of the techno-sciences and the role they play in a distinctive mode of cultural existence. Mark Furlong shows us once again how the mores of the radical individualism and atomisation of self carried in the new context affect our capacity to relate and to share.

One of the signs in this complex moment is the emergence of a number of ‘new’ movements and new publications, largely outside Australia, whose provenance is explicitly left wing and socialist. Corbyn’s Labour in Britain, Bernie Sanders in the United States, in very different national-historical contexts, are attempting a revivification of the social state and to break with neoliberalism. This is occurring at the point of rise of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, yet, perhaps more profoundly, a potentially rising Left offers bruising critiques of its own captured parties. Extreme inequality, precarious work regimes, austerity and collapsed welfare systems are shafted home to the neoliberal consensus and are key concerns in their new/old ‘social-democratic’ outlooks. Thus, rather surprisingly, ‘class’ is making a comeback in the mainstream as a key organising concept, in turn suggesting a different orientation towards governmental style and the practice of democracy:  representation rather than Third Way management of ‘social inclusion’, for instance. For new, and successful, publications such as Jacobin in the United States, with a strong remit in supporting Sanders, class appears to be a primary unit of analysis, ‘socialism’ is an explicit goal, and the ‘working class’ provides the agency towards a more just society. Of course older publications of the Left have continued to be published through this period, but a respectable face is now being put on what has been largely out in the cold for the last long period. Neither marginal nor academic, this ‘new’ sense of purpose and vision offers an apparent answer to what are felt as implacable, overwhelmingly economic circumstances (poverty, precariousness, the view from the outside of the ostentatious wealth of the winners in this system).

But as the comments above on the various contributions by Arena writers in this last issue of Arena Magazine make clear, our view has been that class offers only a chink of light into the complex of forces at play in today’s capitalism, and into the life-worlds of those across the new political divides, many of whom have been set adrift by the shifts described here. In fact, the relations of capitalism, of property and possession, of labour and the distribution of the social product accordingly, of a social state that might overcome poverty and ‘alienation’, can no longer be considered the fundamental point of entry into an understanding of how we live, or how to change it. We see instead a more general emergence and embedding of an abstracted form of life, especially through the characteristic outlook and action of the agents of techno-science, that begin to sap deep meaning and substance from our relationships to others and to our object world that are the sources of belonging and of pleasure, including our relationship to our planet and to nature. Whatever the advantages and gains that might be delivered by the techno-sciences, the general trajectory is the key for a politics that might take up these broader concerns, and indeed to understand the powers of techno-capitalism. The new Arena intends to continue to explore the new context and this trajectory, but very much more pointedly to enter into the emerging debates that appear to be on the rise, and out of which we might hope yet to garner greater clarity of purpose and trace possibilities for change.

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Arena Magazine couldn’t have come out at all but for the contributions of its many writers, artists, our dear poets, and the anchor people behind the scenes over so many years. As the present editors, Valerie Krips, Grazyna Zajdow, Jon Altman and I wish to thank Sarah Bailey for her huge contribution as assisting editor and copy editor extraordinaire; Mal Oram likewise for his professionalism and tremendous patience in typesetting and layout; Matt Bissett-Johnson for his always-availability and quirky take on the articles we send him for cartooning; our readers, subscribers and donors; the consulting editors, Arena Friends and Editorial Board members; and all past editors and editorial teams.

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