The Sense of an Ending?, by Alison Caddick

We seem to be experiencing a shift to a more generalised acceptance that human-induced climate change is real. In Australia, Liberals, and liberal-progressives, are suddenly standing against the Liberal Party on climate (and refugee) grounds; the required ‘balance’ of denialist voices in mainstream media reporting seems no longer necessary, perhaps impossible to entertain;  the level of activism and some common acclimatisation to, if not embracing of ‘sustainable’ agendas is noticeably broadened, if not deepened. Has some threshold been crossed? Is the sense of an ending pushing us towards new possibilities?

One sense of an ending, of catastrophic changes to climate and environment, with unknown yet increasingly anticipated consequences for ordinary life, is the absolute one of an end to the basic conditions of continuity of human being—of us as a social species, of the relationships that constitute our meaningful lives. That the threat is carried in apocalyptic visions of us forced into a state of bare life—mere survival—is deeply shocking to us because it is an image of life shredded of the care, and love, the regularity and meaningfulness of what we have taken for granted. Perhaps it is, in Australia, the fire season, but this year, too, other undeniable social-environmental calamities like the Murray-Darling collapse and Queensland flooding are bringing the consequences of climate change home to everyone, and thus, too, to all parties to the democratic political formation. 

But how will the political parties respond? Of course there will be a mix of competing climate-change emission, environment and energy policies, which will come further into view as the election approaches. But what kind of world will these party policies aim for? What relations will they privilege? What kind of people will they assume? What vision of place and nature will they herald? And what ‘work’ might they require of us?

These are questions that begin to intimate another conceivable ending. Just how will our liberal-democratic institutions—the institutions of the modern polity—deliver an answer to the fears people entertain? What have those institutions delivered so far? Do they have the capacity to rise to this most profound of challenges? For various commentators, climate change points not only to an incapacity to any longer come up with ‘answers’ but to the culpability of these institutions themselves in the creation of the precarity of existence so widely felt across social groups and realms of life, extending to the fate of the planet. What greater precarity is there than a foreboding that the natural life-systems on which we all depend are broken, and that we are only waiting for their unravelling, our fate possibly entirely out of our hands? Is this merely a problem of who holds office, a problem of representation, or has the scope of ‘the political’ as bequeathed to us ceased to be of any use, especially when the threat is existential?

There have already been answers to this question that push the boundaries of liberal democracy, if not in relation to climate change then in relation to the connected experience of the social redundancy of large numbers of people, and the precarious terms of life and employment of vast numbers of others. In this light Trump, Brexit in different ways intimate just such an ending, one that opens the received field of political activity to very different possibilities: witting and unwitting acquiescence to authoritarianism as an answer to ‘false news’ about the sources of one’s precarious life; the drawing of boundaries and gathering-in of who and what one values in fear of losing everything; attempted reversions to older socialist traditions; new forms of social organisation practically and cooperatively instantiated in real life; and possibly more.

A Marxist would always have warned that liberal democracy is first and foremost a formation for the representation of property interests, and that the state is a set of institutions established to carry the biases of that system through into law and programmatic detail: the rights of capital. The bourgeois individual, and male, was always the model of the participant in the public sphere, and the jousting of parliament. Ownership meant the means of production (whether land or slaves or looms). Little has changed in regard to this basic fact of modern power and popular representation being locked into a system of interests focused on the rights of ownership as the backdrop of profit. Various elaborations historically have seen liberal democracy take on a more social role through the representation of more diverse individuals (women’s voting rights, welfare for the disadvantaged) and via the organs of other sectional interests (labour parties), and yet the rewards to ordinary people have been mystified as the chance to conform to the image and the values of that original ‘citizen’, and nothing by way of social claims upon the system have ever basically altered the relations at the heart of capitalism. Liberal democracy in fact has had a new lease on life since the collapse of the postwar social compact, in, of course, representing old and new players within neoliberalism, or the globalised market, once thought, in taking liberal democracy to the world, to herald the end of ideology.

If liberal democracy today understands itself as simply in continuity with its early roots—think the American polity particularly—and the social challenges to capitalism of an earlier time changed nothing at capitalism’s core, what have changed radically are today’s technologies of production and communication, the nature of the individual they address and the culture they promote. The technologies bring vast opportunities, and the desiring subject new cultural imperatives, to a market that offers radical freedoms and endless growth, and commits us to consumption. Liberal democracy, as putatively a merely representative, and essentially ethical formation, appears to simply expand its neutral conception of the individual, yet ushers in a whole system of relations and objectifications that recognise no limit on the natural world. We are a far cry from the rational individual of the classical conception in the desiring individual of our period. From this point of view liberal democracy is a core institution of growth and expansion, of a limitless world based on an always voracious subject, with minimal scope for the control of any of the larger agents of the social form and economic system.

For many people there is now an undercurrent that accompanies ordinary life—an underlying apprehension and a sense of impotence in the face of climate change; but also dismay and disbelief that democracy has come to this. There are many other examples of the Janus face of liberal democracy and its promise of freedom (Iraq, Venezuela), but for the moment here, with our concern with the political institutions and existential threat, we can observe that it is no surprise that protests of various kinds have erupted in the metropolitan centres and their rust-belt hinterlands, and that sorting out just what they mean, and who the historical players really are, is a task for thinking, as two articles in this issue of Arena Magazine highlight on the question of Brexit.

On the ground, despite a creeping apprehension, perhaps some positives are emerging. Circumstances, and sorting them through, may bring us now to a much clearer knowledge of the sources of human precariousness. We might increasingly understand that there are things we implicitly value but barely see in everyday life because so deeply ‘given’ as human relating. We might see the care, love, regularity and meaningfulness of what we have taken for granted as actually constituted, which is to say an interlocking at many levels of being of an implicit history of shared practices, places, institutions and experiences, the intertwining of which has been achieved in socio-cultural ‘work’. The technocratic solutions to climate change that will be offered by the political parties of liberal democracy will typically ask little work of us: science will save the day; technology is a miracle. But it is exactly the work together, in political campaigns but most importantly in everyday community, that the bonds that challenge precarity will be instantiated. If the options in a new political field are opening out, forms of on-the-ground cooperation around life-ways within a new conception of nature and environment will be a core part of the answer.

*  *  *

In this issue of Arena Magazine we dedicate a special section to the memory of Alan Roberts, a contributor to and friend of Arena over many decades. Alan was a physicist and campaigner against nuclear energy and arms, a radical scientist, then, and someone with an equally comprehensive grasp of alternative traditions of social interpretation, with a view always to changing the world. In this special section John Hinkson’s article on the nuclearisation of post–Second World War society provides a further backdrop to the themes taken up in this editorial: the normalisation of a frame of existential threat within which individual freedom and consumption meet as, apparently, the great compensations. A framework for the freedom of the Free World is guaranteed by techno-science—whether the Bomb or more generally in the collapse of institutional science (and the university) into economy. David Spratt’s article takes a different tack: the underestimating by the peak scientific body of the real contours of the existential threat of climate change. The picture seems at odds with the previous article. Here the scientists are reported as reticent, as scholarly, as given to conservative appraisals. But the point is to reveal an attitude that coincides with the requirements of neoliberal government not to upset the containment of threat in hoped-for solutions that will maintain growth, when what we actually face is a runaway problem, unless the truth is told. In the final article, Hugh Saddler brings together climate change—emissions contributions empirically broken down and practically elaborated—with energy policies facing the realities as they are. These are the sorts of materials that we will need in the building of the alternatives that Alan would have wished to see flower.

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

More articles by Alison Caddick

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.


“A Marxist would always have warned that liberal democracy IS FIRST AND FOREMOST [My emphasis – IM] a formation for the representation of property interests…” [ADD ‘and can therefore be regarded as a sham.’]

Historically, feudalism took hold as what was a protection racket based on land ownership, and a cornering of land and of primary-products markets, all backed up by armed force. As long as people knew that time, if nothing else, would possibly move them upwards at whatever speed in the ranks of the hierarchy, or else not require them to, they found their reasons to stray quiet and not revolt. The people who favoured liberalism included those who wanted freedom to express ideas and to think outside the (religious) paradigm of the time along with those who saw it also in terms of freedom to buy and sell in an open market place. And so, the market places of ideas and tradeable commodities became inseparable. There can be no freedom of thought for long without also free exchange of goods (eg of books on or off the Papal Index) and services (eg of teaching and learning.) So on the basis of that, I would suggest that the above “Marxist” would be woefully short-sighted. Even worse, that “Marxist” would be saying that the idea of socialism is far more liberating than the idea of liberal democracy; and thus superior to it. And so, that “Marxist” would start a dreary trudge towards Stalinism.

Marx himself would likely have been appalled. But then again, maybe not.

Any transition, revolution or whatever to any social structure worth living in has to start with and from a base of liberal democracy. Even post-colonial regimes have to, if they are to avoid that spiral down into eventual fascism.

“Liberal democracy in fact has had a new lease on life since the collapse of the postwar social compact, in, of course, representing old and new players within neoliberalism, or the globalised market, once thought, in taking liberal democracy to the world, to herald the end of ideology. …. The technologies bring vast opportunities, and the desiring subject new cultural imperatives, to a market that offers radical freedoms and endless growth, and COMMITS US TO CONSUMPTION [My emphasis – IM]. Liberal democracy… appears to simply expand its neutral conception of the individual, yet ushers in a whole system of relations and objectifications that recognise no limit on the natural world.”

Well, a cow grazing in a field is ‘committed to consumption’, and pretty well endlessly. (She has to pass about 100 kg of biomass in the form of chewed-up grass and herbage through her digestive system in order to extract about 1 kg of stuff that is actually nutritious.) And the only limit is that she has to know is when her first stomach is full.

But though advertising executives struggle against it, there are limits to consumption, if only on what can be packed into the optimally-sized suburban house. People perceive their own needs in the light of their interests, and decide accordingly in the marketplace of goods and services. And there is a division of thought and knowledge in the modern world that arises out of the fact that no one human head can contain all the information of the sciences and the humanities. Thus we have academic specialists, like say, Alison herself. And we have a division of labour, producing internationally competitive commodities. Liberalism in regard to the exchange of ideas and of exchangeable products (‘commodities’ in the Marxist sense) go naturally together. No consumer has to buy everything on offer in the marketplace, nor anything even approaching it. Nor do many (any?) desire to. To that extent, we are all minimalists. We are none of us ‘committed to consumption’ beyond what we each find necessary, and that is far from infinite. There is no imperative for keeping up with the Joneses. Most people I know do not aspire to more than two cars per household, and can get about Australian cities quite adequately on that basis, at least till petroleum supply, traffic gridlock and climate-change imperatives force a mass re-think. Cycle paths are an excellent idea, but they have their limits, particularly in Sydney.

It is also true that there is no apparent limit at this stage to what can be found out about the natural world. And while there are ‘limits to growth’ in the Club of Rome sense, there do not appear to be any on the number of times any given quantity of matter (as a package of atoms and molecules) can be transformed and recycled, as long as energy is available. Iron ore to steel to scrap to steel to scrap…. Grass to bovine tissue to human tissue to respiratory products to…

Even given the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Comments closed