Bushfires: we need a more oppositional political culture

New Matilda, 7 January 2020, under the title ‘Two Sides, Same Coin: It’s Not About Labor Or Liberal Anymore. It’s Too Late For That Now’. Original here.

Amidst the bushfire devastation, it’s natural to hope that one saving grace pulled from the ashes might be greater public resolve to convert the desire for climate action into policy.

It’d certainly be reassuring to believe, as some have claimed, that now that people have experienced the consequences of global heating directly – and on such a massive scale – the political necessity of a zero-carbon future would just be ‘common sense’.

But trauma isn’t always conducive to clarity, and experiencing the effects of climate change personally doesn’t necessarily induce a green epiphany. Lost houses, uprooted families and the panic of a ruined environment are likely to produce widespread uncertainty about who’s really responsible and what should be done.

The web of interests we call the ‘coal lobby’ will lose no time exploiting public disorientation. They and their political puppets will make gargantuan efforts to stymie action and prevent threats to their income-streams. Indeed, they’ve already started.

Their job will be facilitated by the fact that Australia going zero-carbon is only one component of the overall global action that’s needed to maybe – maybe – avert global heating’s most dangerous effects. So you simply can’t promise people that shutting down mines in Australia means a reduction in the ferocity of droughts and fires: the relation of cause to effect isn’t linear, but conditional on how much the rest of the world does the same.

That argument will be relayed ad infinitum by the sclerotic, coal-obsessed Australian ruling class. It is a formidable enemy, commanding massive influence. Against it, there’s only one conceivable counter-power: society as a whole, taking action into its own hands in an authentic political impulse rooted in people’s actual lives.

Only a bottom-up movement of this kind, ‘owned’ by everyone who identifies with it, can embed the demand for change in people’s day-to-day existence, and give them the confidence and sense of legitimacy they need to stand up to the huge power of the fossil-fuel lobby and its pyromaniac lackeys in the media and politics.

Given the staggering dereliction of the political establishment, anyone to whom that sounds radical or utopian needs a reality-check. To change things seriously in Australia, we need serious oppositional action – strikes, direct action, mass protests – and all the community infrastructure that enables it – local committees, support networks, union groups. That will only come from the community, not political parties, and it requires everyone who agrees that climate matters to take responsibility for it happening.

You can’t spirit that out of nothing, but, as the huge climate demonstrations around the country last year show, a base for this kind of democratic grassroots movement thankfully already exists.

People are rational, and there are many whom the fires will galvanize into climate action. With over a third of the population affected, the perception that politics-as-usual cannot go on has become commonplace.

But if many commentators have declared the need for change, fewer are clear about what abandoning politics-as-usual actually means. Real climate action demands far more than just voting the Liberals out or trying to force proper climate policies onto a servile ALP still unconscionably committed to coal.

We need more than a changing of the guard in the existing parties, more than a new generation of leaders.

To implement the reset we need nothing less than a different relation to politics itself.

Australia lacks the overtly oppositional political culture of many other countries. We’re inclined to be indulgent to politicians and their parties, give them the benefit of the doubt. We call them by their first names –Tony, Bill, Tanya – or by familiar nicknames – Scomo, Scotty, Albo – like we do our friends.

We often attribute policies with which we disagree to political leaders’ ‘incompetence’, or ‘lack of intelligence’, as though all they need to come over to our point of view is a patient and cooperative explanation of the facts.

An urgent dose of oppositional consciousness is needed. Australians could learn a lesson from the Arab world and Latin America, where the power of collective movements has toppled dictators and successfully pressed the demands for social justice. We need to accept that the major parties – both of them committed to the corporate-driven system by which they have been shaped and to which their representatives are beholden – are simply not on our side.

People who consider themselves progressive can’t afford more complacency, whether out of loyalty, timidity, or political ‘common sense’ or ‘sophistication’, towards the ALP or pro-coal voices elsewhere. These forces are blocking a just transition to a zero-carbon economy, and thereby contributing to the suicidal status quo. Their lectures about the need for ‘pragmatic’ or ‘realistic’ public policy should be rejected out of hand: those words are just excuses for not doing what’s needed.

Given the circumstances, distinctions between wet and dry, hard and soft, right and left in the ALP are ridiculous hair-splitting. Of course, there are ‘good people’ in the Labor Party. But they are no match for the careerist opportunists, apparatchiks-in-waiting, and nostalgists who will stick with the party regardless of what it actually stands for.

With its fixation on coal, which shows no sign of wavering even now, Labor has demonstrated that it cannot be a vehicle for real climate progress. It does not deserve any further support or concessions, no matter how reluctant.

Its ‘good people’ need to be part of a political project that might actually realise their ideals. Once freed of ties to their reactionary party apparatus, they would have much to contribute.

These fires could last for months, but when it comes to forging a new politics, we don’t have the luxury of time. A shift of seismic proportions is needed. Ordinary people have to stop being spectators to politics, and become its collective actors.

That starts with making the representatives of the bipartisan political consensus accountable for their inaction.

It’s not just Morrison who should be shamed out of town, they all should.

Friday’s national demonstrations will demand Morrison’s removal. That’s nowhere near enough, but it’s a start.

If there’s a protest where you live, you should be there.

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