Reflection on a Time

The arena magazine editors had hoped to bring you, our readers, a more relaxed issue than usual, with summer and holidays approaching: more reviews, more writing on arts and culture, drawings and cartoons, and entertaining postcards. We have partly done that, with our energetic new review editors on deck and some new and old contributors writing on fiction, contributing drawings and telling unique travel tales. But as deadlines approached we saw soon enough that we had, as usual, many other serious matters to discuss, and a serious quantity of material demanding to be published. The idea of going monthly comes up at points like that, and wouldn’t it be useful if we could, we think. Indeed, we’d have the interest of writers and thinkers and readers and activists who want a place for the voicing of ideas, engagement with complex problems and leads on where we might head in these turbulent, opaque times.

Whether it is same sex marriage or drones over Pakistan; what food is or art should be; selling uranium to India or the slow implosion of the United States; the fate of the countryside or the fate of Europe; the meaning of meat or the meat-axe approach of our national newspaper to its opponents, full and definite answers about why things are as they are simply donot pre-exist, to be pulled from some old kit bag.Liberalism, laborism, Marxism―it sounds like a Tom Lehrer song, but no genuflecting in any of those directions is likely to ultimately help in the present, even if their various proponents are making a play for their relevance around particular issues and crises today.

The Greens have announced they are more liberal than the Liberal party, and one version of liberalism is certainly the philosophy of choice for gay marriage proponents. It’s not long since the invasion of Iraq was justified as the spreading of the liberal idea, while the Northern Territory emergency was promoted, relatedly, as a humanitarian intervention, all the various non-sequiturs notwithstanding.

Marxism, too, has swung back into the picture, more or less articulate, and competing with serious anarchism in many places: in Greece and Spain and Britain and the United States, and Australia too. How would it not, one is inclined to say, as a chronic capitalist crisis grinds on and may at any moment throw the world into deeper crisis, whilethe owning and leisure classes only harden in their sense of entitlement, as work dries up and the welfare state continues to be neo-liberalised.

And then there’s laborism, which still has currency in this country at least. While the Labor Party struggles at times with more social democratic possibilities, much of its hardheaded neoliberalism is gunned into action by a masculinisteconomism. It’s an outlook that shapes the government’s dealings with the region, its economic policy, its climate policy and a good deal of its social policy, and leads the Labor Party  still to consider the idea that it has something like a natural constituency, if only it could pitch its message appropriately.

So much of this mixed and conflicting ideological legacy is nineteenth century in origin and flavour. Of course there were crucially insightful developments within these traditions in the twentieth century as new conditions spurred ideological conflicts and adaptations; there is no one liberalism and there is no one Marxism; even labourism has turned more than one trick.

In this issue of Arena Magazineyou will find a useful comparison of competing forms of liberalism around the question of how to argue democratically for or against same sex marriage. Marxist insights make reading and thinking about the place of mining in the Australian economy a whole lot more comprehensible. Marxist and anarchist informed protest, whether on the streets of New York or Melbourne, as reported in this issue, are a sign of an inevitable fightback against neoliberal orthodoxy and the capitalist part of its still deep-rooted hegemony.

Arena Magazine sees itself as indeed playing a role at this point of recognition of multiple conflicts of view within its broadly ‘left’ constituency,as in turn those competing standpoints project out to the sites and sources of larger powers and forces. The ‘left’ stands if nothing else as a symbolic counter to what goes unquestioned in the mainstream and is thus available as fodder for the powers. In this light we have several pieces in this issue of the magazine focused on the pressing question of how to reinvigorate democratic discourse―not the hunkering down into winner takes all positions (see Mick Leahy on liberalism), or worse, a kind of psychotic doublespeak that shuts out opposition and difference (see Justin Clemens on The Australian).

But it might be observed that this also means not only the reinvigoration of discourse in its colloquial meaning of discussion and disputation, but also in the ‘discourses’ that have shaped our commonsense, even those that in the modern period were in conflict with the norms and assumptions of the mainstream. For the arena editors, this is a pressing task that disputation alone simply cannot achieve. This is the view that the particular opacity of the present period requires radical new thinking: a decided break from our nineteenth century debt; the possibility of seeing anew the key complexes and shaping contradictions at the heart of an emerging new order andmode of life.

Of course late capitalism, or postmodernity, depending on your theorist of choice,has spawned distinctly new ideologies. But while postmodernism, poststructuralism and queer theory, as three related examples, are a critical disruption of the ideologies of that period, how far they are a critical commentary on the conditions of the present remains to be seen.

This is not to say that they are without real-world power or that they do not influence the mainstream political parties. Some representatives of, and certainly researchers feeding both the Labor Party and the Greens, will have been deeply shaped by just these frameworks of understanding. Yet it remains the old ideologies of the political sphere proper that must carry the burden of the new into action, as if the political mainstream can’t make a significant break onto the terrain of the new world that has produced them.

By way of example, the liberal Greens, and the middleclass Labor Party, claim aspects of classical liberalism to justify and do the work of their radical social policies. Same sex marriage is thus presented as a problem of liberal choice and right, or equality, rather than as a queer or postmodern demand given body by the powers of contemporary science and technology. If there are claims to marriage equality, there will certainly be claims to equality and rights to have babies. These claims could take different forms; with different justifications for gay parenthood and new configurations of familial groups; but the chances are that the loudest proponents will make abstract rights the core of their program and the new technologies and marketised ‘surrogacy’ essential elements of their demands; or they will be the creeping, flow-on effects of unthought-through attachments to populist liberal notions.

But it may be because these unspoken influences―both the new theories and the new circumstances―in fact haven’t yet been adequately interpreted. If new thinking hasn’t found a political representative in the public-political sphere, and the Greens don’t register the nature of the social groundthat has produced them and their disparate claims, it is because we don’t yet see the full implications of our postmodern condition. Can the Greens explain their commitment to the environment in liberal terms? On what basis could one be for the living earth and for same sex marriage? What is an articulate political philosophy in the present period?

The point here is not to say that the old social theories and philosophies aren’t still useful for thinking through where we are and how we should act. Of course they are. And it is not to say that the new theories, which shelter in old political philosophies, don’t point up crucial aspects of the oppressions and inequalities of modernity. They do. But it is a question of coming to grips with what constitutes the new terrain in which a new politics might properly be played out, and thus the choices that need to be made, if we are not simply to follow either outdated notions of the good (or ethical) life, or conspire with unannounced cultural-political imperatives embedded ina ‘spontaneous’ social order we have not chosen.

The Greens better than any other political party are situated on that new political terrain and perforce have broken with many of the basic tenets of the old ideologies. The threat to the earth and its human and non-human populations,of necessity, announces that cultural-political terrain. The true test for all of us, however, will be how to build new political discourses that face up to the full range of implications of post-modern culture under globalised capitalism.

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