No Break from ‘All That’?

Goodbye to All That? The new collection of essays edited by Robert Manne and David McKnight and published by Black Inc. is marked by a strange paradox. The whole text is presented within the looming prospect of what both editors refer to as catastrophic climate change. Neither editor doubts that this is an unprecedented challenge to the future of humankind. Yet neither has anything at all to say as to how self-destructive ways of living, which in the past have led to the destruction of particular cultures, now return as a general threat to the whole of humanity.

In the last section of the book, entitled ‘Climate Change: The Urgent Challenge’, essays by Ian Lowe and Guy Pearse do begin to address growth, limits to growth or the particular modes of consumption and production of energy resources that lead to atmospheric and climate degradation. Yet even there, the particular sources of today’s unprecedented reconstitution of production together with its vast expansion of globalising processes are not directly related to climate change. The way of living that produces climate change is still taken to be another variant of the capitalist process. The possibility that this way of living may only be one aspect of a far more deep-seated transformation is not entertained.

Is the absence of a sufficiently developed theoretical framework that can begin to address the actual sources of the new found conjunction of the more abstracted technosciences with capital a source of this failure?

Is the challenge this presents to what we take to be the foundations of our being the actual source of the denial and passivity of our response to the prospect of environmental disaster?

The actual response to changing circumstances among the remaining contributors to this volume is a slewing away from any line of enquiry which considers more basic issues. Instead they offer a focus on the global financial crisis and the way in which the discrediting of ‘market fundamentalism’ and the excessive greed and individualism integral with the neo-liberal ideology opens the way for a return to a social democratic polity. Even given that redirection to the active regulation of capital, there is an astonishing absence of any explicit discussion of just how more favourable conditions for tackling climate change might prevail within a social democratic order. Perhaps one should assume that Manne, McKnight, Rudd or Quiggin simply take this for granted. As if in backhanded confirmation of his own ethical assumptions, Robert Manne deplores ‘the destructive role played by neo-liberalism in inhibiting an effective response to climate change’.

While the new post-capitalist conjunctionof capitalism with the technosciencesmay be seen as radically deepening a climate crisis, there is little reason to believe that a simple renewal of social democratic concern for the common good can provide an effective answer. This is by no means to dismiss the genuine significance of that concern. Rather it is to suggest that a social democratic polity is not, by itself, a likely source of the necessary level of resolve.

One main reason for that conclusion is that the history of the ethical resolve to democratically regulate capitalism ‘from within’ is one of failure. As a system it both out-produced and made its own limited ideological contribution to the self-destruction of the revolutionary socialist alternative. Social democracy, at least in its beginnings, was the parliamentary path to much the same concern for the common good as revolutionaries pursued: that of ending capitalism. Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, social democracy retained its name but changed its objective. The Keynesian answer to the capitalist cycle of growth and collapse was not to reject capitalism but to regulate it. Finally, the neo-liberal period of unprecedented growth produced the certitude that no further crisis could eventuate  open-ended growth and the prescriptions of supply-side economics were held to provide a final solution. Nevertheless the crash occurred and any effective answer must surely move beyond ‘more of the same’: a return to social democracy.

A democratic answer now may be slow in the making, but first and foremost it must generate a practical response that begins to move beyond the far too limited response of regulating capital. That practical engagement depends first of all upon renewed movement among those same intellectually related groupings who have been drawn into a conjunction with capital. Would anyone deny that their engagement and support has been a necessary condition for the surge of productivity and the individualist enchantments that have defined the recent period of neo-liberal ascendancy?

The practical movement to which I am referring is grounded in a relatively basic, as if spontaneously given, form of social interchange. It expresses a sensibility which begins to become more explicit in many contexts: in politics most readily seen in the Green movement. It is practical first of all in the sense that seemingly spontaneous acts are often experienced as if they do not have conscious intent. They appear to be grounded in a taken-for-granted sense of the relative permanence of our being in its relation to the natural world. That sense of permanence can readily feed into a rejection of changes that undermine our basic sense of being. It can begin to prompt an alternative to the mainstream impetus to half-blindly enter a process of transformation that introduces a break in the continuity of the human condition.

Given its intellectually related formation, the challenge to continuity presented by the technosciences can more readily ground a reflective awareness among those who more actively enter the practice of reconstitution: those same intellectually related groupings which, for the present, are in thrall to capitalist ‘growth’. Among them some begin to articulate a response that recognises that the significance of growth, of progress as well, if pursued blindly in the name of individualised freedom, begins to pass beyond the limits of what most people still take to be the relative permanence of the human condition. Set now within the conjunction of a capitalism and a relation to reality which breaks with these still prevailing assumptions of relative permanence, a reconstitutive practice can work towards a different order of being.

That particular sense of the natural order of being has been ‘contained’, as it were, even for millennia. Throughout the history of class societies the more abstracted powers of the intellectually related practices have elaborated interpretations of ultimate meanings which often legitimated domination by those whose privileges depend upon the labour of others.

Interpretation has been the primary activity of intellectuals; that is, until the intellectually related practices also began to play a major role in the reconstruction of labour as such. First, that is, in its rationalised mechanisation under industrial capitalism and then in the actuality of the transformational break mediated by the reconstitutive practices of the technosciences.

* * *

There is no space in this short comment to cover ground already traversed in earlier articles in Arena Magazine concerning the distinctive form of life of the intellectually related grouping. However, it is of some interest to note that, in some implicit register, the project of social democratic renewal may itself be displaying hints of a break from the limitations of its own commitment to capitalist continuity.

In their introduction to this volume, editors Manne and McKnight join Rudd and several other contributors in their over-endorsement of the role of ideas, of political ideologies especially, in the formation of social realities. The reconstitutive transformation we are facing now cuts deeper than ‘ideas’ alone can encompass. At least at the level of apprehension, Rudd himself suggests a certain discomfort with the strictures of the continuity which his own ideology imposes. Listen to the portentous ring of his opening passage as reprinted here, following its first publication in the recently declared social democratic organ The Monthly!

From time to time in human history there occur events of truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place.

This is the language of discontinuity, not that of regulating yet one more convulsion within capitalism, or even one more reversion to well-intentioned attempts to reform or regulate it in the name of the common good.

So, by way of an endnote, are we actually saying Goodbye to All That?
The history of this title hardly encourages optimism.

Only a few among the present generation would recognise that these words previously served as the title chosen by the English poet Robert Graves as he worked towards personal regeneration following the immersion of his own generation in the slaughterhouse of World War I. At least in an historical sense it was a distinctly temporary departure. It was no more than an au revoir to All That. Maynard Keynes recognised that the Treaty of Versailles, which marked the end of the war, also sowed the seeds for the renewal of conflict in the conflagration which commenced in 1939.

That war ended in 1945 at Hiroshima in an event which, as mediated by intellectual practices, reconstituted war making. It replaced the mechanised conflict of armed men by deploying the product of a physics laboratory. Was it also of truly seismic significance—a ‘turning point between one epoch and the next’, of far more general significance than even this particular event of nuclear war could encompass? Was it a portent of a shift towards the possibility of a reconstituted reality? That is, a reality in which nuclear power is only conceivable as integral with that more abstracted mode of engagement typifying the intellectually practices.

The front cover of Goodbye to All That? symbolises the great financial crash of neo-liberal capitalism by depicting a jet aircraft standing on its nose while displaying only the slightest denting. It certainly looks as if it could fly again!

At least in the immediate sense nothing said about the limitations of this collection of essays should deflect recognition of the reality that no sudden break from post-capitalism is possible. The post-capitalist process has now so worked its way through every institution that even the institutions of intellectual formation have lost much of their once quasi-independent status. Drawn into the role of direct support to the powers, their instrumentally rational expression in the technosciences becomes the main source of a post-human trajectory. Within that trajectory climate change may be seen again as only one among its potential consequences for the human condition.

If ‘some rough beast now slouches towards Bethlehem’ its present course can be redirected. In a major degree that prospect depends on an enhanced understanding among the intellectually related groupings. Their distinctive and more abstracted mode of engagement with reality co-exists with their openness to that same spontaneous sense of erosion of their own basic humanity that affects their peers. For them, most radically, it also allows a critical reflection upon the present dominant trajectory. That power of reflection above all requires them to form a new and far more active constituency within a ‘social democracy’ which helps to draw its now shortsighted forerunner into the practice of actually constituting a more viable way of living. In their distinctiveness they must stand up more vigorously than ever before; in the name of an enlarged sense of the common good, they must break the bonds of dedicated service to the existing powers.

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Hi Geoff,
have been reading your technoscience and climate change two parter from some old Arenas, and finding them useful.
This is about how big a frame of reference people are capable of having, of how willing they are to contextualise their paradigms and all that Kuhnian stuff. And most people want firm ground to stand on, even if they (ought to) know that it’s a mirage (or “chimera” as the malapropism would have it.)

My friend Marc Roberts drew a cartoon about this, called “Imagine My Surprise”. Hope you enjoy it!

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