Essays 2009-2010

Magritte, Ceci n'est pas une pipe

This page is to provide an overview of and easier access to eighteen more general essays published on this blog in 2009 and 2010. The essays are arranged chronologically from later to earlier date of publication. For additional images, go to the original posts in the Archives using the month/year given below in square brackets.

1. The Jackbootprint [12/10]
2. Democracy and/or Voluntary Slavery [11/10]
3. The Continuing Charm of Marx [11/10]
4. That Deadly ‘We’ [10/10]
5. A Dialogue on the War on Terror [10/10]
6. Fifty Theses on the ‘War on Terrorism’ [9/10]
7. The Politics of Masks and Shadows [6/10]
8. Converging Crises, or: On Owning Banks [5/10]
9. On Political Poetry [5/10]
10. The Familiar Stranger [5/10]
11. The Lessons of August 1914 [4/10]
12. Green Lifestyles Don’t Make It [4/10]
13. A Bit of History [2/10]
14. Capital and Climate [1/10]
15. The Great Matrix of Inter-Being [12/09]
16. Political Myths We Live By [12/09]
17. Light Needs Dark. On Jakob Boehme [11/09]
18. Doomed to Consciousness [11/09]


1. The Jackbootprint

It is by now perhaps almost a truism that humankind has crossed some kind of an historical threshold. The perhaps most obvious dimension of this threshold is the quantitative one.

Global population has more than doubled in my life time, increasing from 2.5 billion (1950) to around 6.5 billion. As we humans have grown in numbers and influence, the planet has shrunk. The shrinkage is first and foremost to be taken quite literally in the sense of loss in numbers of other species. The scandal of this is a double one. Firstly, there is the extent of the loss itself that merits the description of a veritable ‘species holocaust’ (or ‘ecocide’ or the largest die-off in 65 million years or the ‘sixth great mass extinction’ in the long history of planetary life).

Secondly, there is the widespread lack of emotional and ethical response to this loss. Within the Australian context, the long recognised fact that one third of the world’s extinct mammals since 1600 have been Australian and that this is a record ‘unparalleled in any other component of Australia’s biodiversity, or anywhere else in the world’ (as the Federal Government’s 2002 National Land and Water Resources Audit notes), leaves not a ripple in popular consciousness.[1] The fact that by the beginning of the 21st century two out of five species on the planet that have been assessed by scientists face extinction[2] is not a fact that is cast in two inch letters on page one of the tabloids or given first mention in any nightly news broadcast. If mentioned at all, it is hidden away as a small obscure item in the back pages of middle class newspapers. Even if the news were to feature prominently, it is safe to assume that it would not have people turning off their TVs and running screaming from their houses.

The other dimension to this loss in sheer numbers (and perhaps partly explaining the widespread lack of emotional response) is that there is no more ‘wilderness’ in the strict sense, no more clearly defined external Other (‘Nature’) against which we (or ‘Culture’) could define ourselves. When one can no longer be sure if that rabbit in the meadow is a wild one or one that has been genetically tampered with, then, as Bill McKibben probably first pointed out, ‘nature’ has ‘died’ in the sense that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ have fused.[3] This ‘death of nature’ seems to be another critical threshold that humankind has crossed.

Given that we have historically defined ourselves against this ‘other’ both as individuals and as cultures, the death and disappearance of this non-human other holds untold psychological and cultural ramifications for our very identities as human beings. If ‘I’ can no longer be easily defined against ‘not-I’, ‘we’ against ‘not-us’ and ‘culture’ against ‘nature’ because the former seems to have somehow absorbed the latter, identity-formation will become increasingly difficult or impossible unless new boundaries and ‘others’ are found with which to define identities.

Alternatively and more probably, our identities may become even further locked into a hyper-narcissism that only sees itself mirrored in a world now almost totally of its own making. This hyper-narcissism, already prevalent in our social psychologies and mass culture, would mirror (or internalise) the structural economic ‘narcissism’ of Capital which, as capital, self-accumulating money and quantitative exchange value (price), is inherently disconnected from nature, collective social needs and individual qualities. Capital, qua capital, cannot be interested in any qualities or values (i.e. ‘nature’) but only in the potential ‘value’ of things and people (natural and human ‘resources’) in quantitative dollar terms. Capital has now created a world after its own image (Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’) and constantly admires itself in this dazzling image, even as the ignored and denied natural life support systems that undergird the artificial spectacle of its urban mega-conglomerations unravel and collapse.

Under the compulsive expansionism of Capital, we 6 billion humans and the infrastructural ‘second nature’ (or ‘technosphere’) our masters have constructed to support us are thus rapidly becoming co-extensive with the planet itself. One critical metaphor for this radical fusing or over-layering is known as our ‘ecological footprint’. The global figures almost say it all.[4] Humanity now has direct influence on 83% of the planet, 98% in global agricultural areas. Of an estimated 10-30 million species, only one – our own two-legged species – consumes more than 40% of the green plant life photosynthesized each year. We consume 35% of the oceanic life on the continental shelves and 60% of all freshwater runoff.

And of course this ‘we’ is in fact quite fictive because it glosses over the fact of extreme national and class disparities in the per capita consumption of natural resources and production of entropy (wastes, pollution, global warming). The obvious fact is that the poor do not consume as much of the planet as the rich and affluent. A poor African child will consume perhaps a hundredth of the resources that an affluent western child will consume in its lifetime. Despite Hollywood and News Corp, the ‘American (Australian) Dream’ of affluence can thus not be generalized to the whole planet. If all 6.5 billion consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant, four or five planets would be needed to meet demand. Collectively, as a species, we have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity by at least 25%. In the technical jargon of general systems theory, the over-consumption of humankind (or more correctly, the global middle classes in particular) is in serious ‘overshoot’.

However, given the now increasingly visible, albeit still widely denied, real limits to global carrying capacity (e.g. climate chaos, peak oil, water shortages), the enormous ‘jackbootprint’ that our middle class affluence stamps on the planet may be a very temporary phenomenon when looked at on a wider historical scale. In 1980, founding year of the German Green Party, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (still)[5] had a pithy summary in a poem called ‘Short History of the Bourgeoisie'[6] :

This was the moment that we,
without noticing, were immeasurably wealthy
for five minutes, generous,
and electric, cooled in July,
or if it was November,
the wood flown in from Finland
glowed in the Renaissance fireplace. Funny,
everything was there, flew in
by itself so to speak. Elegant
we were, no one liked us.
We threw solo concerts, chips,
cellophane-wrapped orchids about us. Clouds
that said ‘I’. Unique!

Flights to everywhere. Even our sighs
were credited to our cards. Like street sparrows
we argued loudly. Everyone
had their own misfortune stowed under their seat,
ready to be grabbed. Actually, it’s a pity.
It was all so practical. Water
Flowed from the taps like nobody’s business.
Do you all remember? Simply anesthetized
by our minute little feelings,
we ate little. If only we had guessed
that everything would be over
in five minutes, the ‘Roast Beef Wellington’
would have tasted different, quite different.

The material items in Enzensberger’s poem already hint at the essential economic dimension of such historical levels of planetary consumption. If traditional Marxists lacked an interest in environmental realities and limits, then contemporary middle class environmentalists conversely tend to display an extreme lack of interest in socio-economic realities.

Economically naïve environmentalism, for example, often talks of ‘our’ or ‘human’ impacts on the environment as if all humans had equal impacts. This ignores or denies the economic realities of capitalist systems and class societies on both national and international levels. Some social groups and classes definitely have greater ecological impacts than others. Obviously Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, Bill Gates and Al Gore have an immeasurably greater ecological footprint than I do and, equally obviously, I have an immeasurably greater ecological footprint than the average inhabitant of the poor Majority World. The now planetary consumer or middle class I and readers of this article belong to and whose material consumption (or ‘foot-‘ or ‘bootprint’) is so obviously overshooting the ecological limits of the ecosphere, is a comparatively recent product of an increasingly globalised, differentiated and integrated economic system.

The very early beginnings of this global system may perhaps be assumed when early humans first left Africa for Eurasia about 1 million years ago, and then in the first expansionist civilisations and ancient patriarchal empires of the bronze and iron ages. However, it was really not until the mercantile beginnings of European capitalism and the concomitant drive for overseas trade from the fifteenth century onwards that previously separate continents were brought into contact and capitalist globalisation can be said to have begun in earnest. In the nineteenth century heyday of liberal capitalism and free trade, steam powered rail and shipping systems, the telegraph and telephone then exponentially increased international trade and commerce.

After about three decades of setbacks with the two world wars, capitalist breakdown in the Great Depression and the beginnings of the isolationist state-capitalist experiments in Russia and (later) China, globalisation rebounded with a vengeance after 1945. In an era of massive overproduction, cheap oil, Cold War anti-communism and Keynesian compromise (welfare state), the capitalist system found new de-politicised, technocratic and popular ideologies of legitimation in the theory and practice of ‘development’ and ‘consumerism’. The boom cycle of post-war affluence, the ‘social wage’ of the welfare state, near full employment and union power brought rising real wages and material standards of living for all classes in most western countries. Class struggle in affluent societies waned.

‘Development’ intended the globalisation of consumerism (or ‘The American Dream’) and is thus another word for what became known as ‘globalisation’ itself in the 1990s. Until the late sixties, development and consumerism were mainly focussed on the industrialised countries themselves. With signs of market saturation and overproduction in these countries and the end of the post-war boom cycle in the late sixties and early seventies, capital increasingly turned to development – i.e. the cutting of costs and the creation of emerging new middle class markets and profits – in newly industrialising countries, especially in Asia.

The economic agents and drivers of this development were of course the trans-national corporations which increased from about 7,000 in 1970 to an estimated 53,600 (with some 449,000 foreign subsidiaries) in 1998. Over the same period, foreign direct investment similarly increased from $44 billion to $644 billion, and capital flows to developing countries grew 11-fold from $21 billion to $227 billion. While the global economy expanded sixfold between 1950 and 1998, world trade as exports increased 17-fold from $311 billion to $5.4 trillion.[7]

When these abstract yet gigantic economic growth figures are translated into the equally gigantic and very material realities of increased ship, truck and air transport movements (passenger-kilometres increasing 100-fold from 28 billion to 2.6 trillion and freight ton-kilometres increasing from 730 million to 99 billion between 1950 and 1998), factory/office/retail/agribiz creation, air and water pollution, waste disposal etc., some indication of the huge ecological impacts can be intuited.

These are not impacts some fictive ‘we’ or ‘humanity’ have collectively and rationally decided upon nor created on the basis of some purely psychological syndrome like ‘our greed’. Although the global population level is doubtlessly a key variable, such figures as those above are also not primarily the result of increasing populations in under-industrialised countries. These are primarily systemic impacts, i.e. impacts or ‘footprints’ which an economic system totally driven by the blind drive for capital accumulation has produced and is producing.

So why is capitalism (including ‘green capitalism’) inherently unsustainable? One summative way of approaching this question is through the very definition of ‘capital’ itself. Capital is a modern form of money that must grow or go under. If capital does not accumulate, it is just ‘money’, it is no longer ‘capital’. The critical focus of much environmentalism, ‘economic growth’ (i.e. capital accumulation), is thus not some mere idée fixe that can be changed by some kind of magic, idealistic change in so-called ‘political will’. Capitalism is structurally (systemically, inherently) expansionist, and this inherent expansionism and nature’s inherent ecological limits are, ultimately, mutually incompatible. One or the other must give way. At the moment it is nature that is ‘giving way’, i.e. declining, degrading, teetering, collapsing. Its final collapse or ‘tipping point’, for example, as runaway climate chaos, would also be the collapse not only of capitalism but of humane civilisation itself.

Thus the logic of this argument regarding the ‘overshoot’ of our industrial-consumerist ‘jackboot’ would be that the saving both of what is left of nature and humane civilisation now demands the abolition of capitalist economics. More specifically, it demands the contraction of over-developed economies, the reduction of global middle class resource consumption and a concomitant increase in poor people’s basic consumption in the less developed countries. Last but certainly not least, it demands the introduction of a sustainable economic, social and political system based not on the accumulation of money and capital but on democratic decision-making on the equitable fulfilment of basic human needs within the limits of ecological carrying capacity on local, regional and global levels.

Thus ecological sustainability and justice, social justice and a decentralised radical democracy that controls the economy (i.e. some form of ‘socialism’) have now, necessarily, become one. What once may have been a matter of human ethics is now a matter of humane survival.

The above is obviously not the only way of coherently framing our general situation. However, unless there are grave errors in this argument, something like this would seem to be the general ‘logic’ of our unsustainable and unjust collective situation at this point in history. Given current (and almost total) capitalist hegemony over mainstream channels of communication, given continuing relative affluence and widespread collective exhaustion, collusion or de-politicisation, this logic is not one that would be generally acceptable (or even comprehensible) in mainstream discourse. Although the numbers are increasing (cf. alternative global justice movement), very few people as yet share such a general perspective. The increasingly ‘objective’ need for both collective material sacrifices on the part of us global middle classes and for wide sweeping, democratic, non-violent power struggles against the corporate and political decision makers of ecocide (and imperial mass murder) are still, overwhelmingly, taboo.

[1] J. Woodford, ‘In a ravaged land, 1600 species at risk’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23/4/2003, p. 1.The figures of the Australian national audit given are: 22 mammals already extinct and about 1,683 species (consisting of 346 vertebrates, 8 invertebrates, 1,241 plant species), and almost 3,000 ecosystems are now deemed threatened. Of Australia’s 384 bioregions, only 8 had no recorded threatened species. Sydney’s Cumberland Plain, which adjoins our Wingecarribee bioregion to the north, is considered one of the continent’s most endangered ecosystems, with only 13% of native vegetation remaining, 90% of the riparian vegetation gone and 85 species listed as endangered or vulnerable. According to R. Gittins, in just ten years (between 1993 and 2003), the number of bird and mammal species listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable in Australia rose from 120 to 169 (‘Economy tells only part of the story’, Sydney Morning Herald, , 31/5/2006, p. 13). The greatest threats to ecosystems ands species in Australia continues to be wholesale land clearing followed by fragmentation of remnant vegetation, grazing pressures, salinity, altered fire regimes, introduced weeds and animals, and now: climate change. A temperature rise of just 1-2 degrees could wipe out, for example, the habitat for 88% of butterfly species and all the acacias in the south-west, while up to 50% of eucalypt species may soon be exposed to climates they may not be able to adapt to (W. Frew, ‘Too hot to handle: climate of change endangering 1683 natives’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7/9/2006, p. 6.) In a mere seven years between 1998 and 2005, 639,930 hectares of native vegetation were legally cleared in NSW creating an ‘extinction debt’ of an estimated 11 million mammals, 13 million birds and 80 million reptiles (W. Frew, ‘Revealed: legal land clearing’s savage toll’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28/2/2007, p. 3.

[2] D. Graham-Rowe, ‘From the poles to the deserts, more and more animals face extinction’, New Scientist, 6/5/2006, p. 10, and D. Graham-Rowe, ‘Last chance to stop plant catastrophe’, New Scientist, 16/9/2006, p. 8. According to these two sources, the global figures are: 16,119 animal and plant species face extinction, including 1 in 3 amphibian species, 1 in 4 mammals and 1 in 8 birds. Biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down. 1 in 4 of the planet’s 40,000 classified plant species is threatened, and as habitats under global warming change faster than plants can adapt to, half of Europe’s plant species could be lost within 80 years. As half the land suitable for potatoes, peanuts and cowpea cultivation disappears, these cultivars could be extinct within 50 years, with potentially huge human impacts. In 2007 another 180 species were added to the global ranks of the endangered and vulnerable animal and plant species. (A. Benjamin, ‘One of the lucky ones’, Guardian Weekly, 21/9/2007, p. 30).
[3] B. McKibben 1990, The End of Nature.
[4] The figures following are from: D. Smith, ‘Human footprint is all over the planet’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28/10/2002, p. 5. A 2007 study by German and Austrian scientists put the percentage of photosynthetic energy used by humans at 24% (C.C. Leung, ‘Human greed tales lion’s share of solar energy’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/7/2007, p. 3.)
[5] Like quite a few of the old New Left, he later seemed to have lost a lot of his capacity for critical thinking and regressed to conformist, pre-critical and pre-systemic positions. Like Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, he seems to have supported the obviously selective demonisation of the West’s erstwhile favoured thug Saddam Hussein and the concomitant US bombings of Iraq in 1991. This wholesale regression of consciousness attained its perhaps most abysmal level in the development of the German Greens from a grassroots-derived radical alternative calling for the abolition of both NATO and Warsaw Pact into a pro-NATO-imperialist (Kosovo, Afghanistan) and economically neo-liberal party (to the right of the social democrats, and at times, of the Christian democrats) during the 80s and 90s. The rationalising ideology backing this imperial volte face was of course termed ‘humanitarian intervention’.
[6] In H.M. Enzensberger, Die Furie des Verschwindens, p. 30 (Own translation, PL-N).
[7] Figures are from H. French, Vanishing Borders, (Chapter 1 excerpt available at in 2000).

[originally written 2007]


2. Democracy and/or Voluntary Slavery. Twenty Five Theses

1. It should be a truism that democracy, the rule of the people, cannot exist without the actual people, not their supposed representatives, ruling.

2. The ability to (self-) rule is not predicated on skills or knowledge but on character.

3. The people cannot rule without being people who are of independent mind and behaviour, inwardly free and self-active, i.e. people who refuse to be mere followers.

4. Voluntary slavery, the blind belief in leaders, is inversely proportional to independence of mind and behaviour, i.e. strength of character.

5. Strength of character, or lack of it, is often developed in response to the traumatic experience of abuse, disconfirmation or non-validation, especially in the character-forming stages of infancy and early childhood.

6. The potentials for voluntary slavery and strength of character are both equally present in human nature across time, genders, classes and cultures.

7. Even a slave can be inwardly free while a formally free person can inwardly be a slave.

8. Although external conditions have a determining influence on which of these two human potentials will be the dominant one on a cultural level, the individual is always, in principle, free to choose between the two no matter what the external conditions.

9. Leaders need followers and followers need leaders: they mutually reinforce each other in stultifying positive feedback loops that can never lead to freedom.

10. The only ‘good’ leaders are those anti-authoritarian ones who work to get rid of themselves by helping facilitate the emergence of inner freedom and self-activity in their fellow citizens.

11. The evolution of human psycho-history can be read as a spiralling double movement of progression and regression in which there is continual conflict within and between people between the forces of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism, voluntary slavery and freedom, infantile dependence and adult independence.

12. In the broadest of brush strokes, the evolutionary spiral of human psycho-history can be read as a double movement of individuation and globalisation developing from pre-modern, tribal ‘collective self’ through modern, industrial, competitive ‘ego’ to post-modern ‘self-in-relationship’.

13. Each of these stages is neither ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ but both necessary and inherently ambivalent: tribal self is both warm and supportive and narrow and xenophobic; modern ego is both independent and inner-directed and competitive and alienated; post-modern self-in-relationship is both relational and flexible and narcissistic and other-directed.

14. The majority of the world’s people now adhere to the pre-modern (collective self) and modern (competitive ego) stages of individuation.

15. The positive side of post-modern ‘self-in-relationship’ is the emerging potential overcoming of the great historical separations between self and other: individual and collective, tribe and stranger, humanity and nature, city and country, male and female, secular and sacred, ego and Self.

16. ‘Self-in-relationship’ is inherently self-active, non-hierarchical and democratic since it is the same communication of, and with, difference within the individual that pertains externally within the workings of a truly democratic society.

17. At the present historical moment majorities in most countries seem to be clinging, or restricting themselves, to their narrow self-definitions as voluntary slaves and passive consumers of political, military and economic spectacles made by and for the ruling elites.

18. At the same time, disillusionment with the alienating spectacle of representative democracy has reached all time highs in many countries and international surveys have found people generally becoming more critical of hierarchical organizations and less accepting of authority in all areas including family, workplace and politics.

19. The dominant (both social democratic and neoliberal) discourse of the ruling elites and their media seeks to maintain their hegemony and keep people in their place as voluntary slaves by distracting from or blocking their listening to their own internal and free potential. The two chief means used here are the stick of fear and the carrot of bread-and-circuses.

20. Like the switch from the 1950s to the 1960s in the West, or from the 1980s to 1990s in Eastern Europe, this hegemony can change at the drop of a historical hat when complex objective and subjective conditions shift into the configuration of a new zeitgeist of radical dissent, disobedience and democratisation.

21. Grassroots, direct democracy is learned by doing it, often in fighting for one’s perceived interests and/or in resistance to perceived moral failures of the ruling elites.

22. The ruling elites have morally failed on all fronts and our own survival interests are now manifestly threatened by them on all fronts.

23. The power of the ruling elites over us is largely a function of our continuing belief in, and obedience to, them, i.e. our own voluntary slavery.

24. Mass consent and legitimacy make up the ruling elites’ Achilles Heel.

25. Reality is inherently surprising. Stay tuned.


3. The Continuing Charm of Marx

The Historical Context

One of the redeeming features of critical Marxism is the possibility of applying its own tenets to itself. It would thus be thoroughly ‘un-Marxist’ not to attempt to briefly historically contextualise any discussion of the possible continuing relevance of Marx in the 21st century.

Following Marx himself (‘je ne suis pas Marxiste’), it is first necessary to distinguish between Marx and ‘Marxism’. The latter, as an ‘ideology’ in the Marxian sense (cf. below ‘Ideology’), is well nigh dead. One seeming reason is of course the obvious fact of the global victory of privately organised capitalism since the peaceful collapse of the defunct state capitalism of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. However, Marxism was dead long before that collapse and for very good and deserved reasons.

The legacy of both Marx and Marxism (and indeed of socialism) had for too long been monopolised by ‘orthodox Marxism’ in its various irksome guises. From a strictly Marxist perspective, the latter was the ideology of a new ‘proletarian’ ruling class in industrialising catch-up countries (especially Germany and Russia) that lacked a politically powerful bourgeoisie, the ‘classic’ agent of capitalist industrialisation. (The ideology was of course also shared by the various sympathisers with this Soviet ruling class in other countries). From this rigorous Marxist perspective, ‘orthodox Marxism’ was thus essentially a primitive bourgeois ideology that historically expressed and legitimised the interests of a new ruling class of ‘proletarian’ administrators and managers in pursuing industrial ‘primary accumulation’ (capital development via the disappropriation and proletarianisation of the peasant and small artisan classes) and the accompanying totalitarian terror while legitimising itself as a form of ‘socialism’. Finally codified by Stalin under the heading of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, it was initially developed by Lenin out of the orthodox Marxism of the 2nd Internationale (late Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov). Being an ideology of a neo-bourgeois ruling class, all of its main characteristics were thus also those of the bourgeois 19th century: a pseudo-religious scientistic dogmatism, a crudely materialist positivism, a bourgeois economism and a Jacobinist statism and emphasis on merely political revolution.

In what may, for want of a better term, be called ‘Western Marxism’ in the widest sense of the phrase, there ensued a form of radical dissent from this orthodox Marxism of both Socialdemocratic and Bolshevik persuasion (‘Soviet Marxism’). In contrast to the latter, this revolutionary current of thought expressed the socio-cultural situation in the more developed industrialised countries, the brief revolutionary upswing in Western Europe after 1918 and the wholesale defeat of the working class movements thereafter. The key representatives [1] of this (self-)critical and dissenting form of Marxism were the early George Lukács, Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, and, continuing in the tradition much later, Guy Debord. This Western Marxism was much based on the early ‘philosophical’ Marx, on the Hegelian legacy, on the commodity fetishism chapter of Das Kapital, on the subversive implications of literary and artistic modernism and, in the case of Marcuse and Adorno, on the important contributions of Freudian psychoanalysis. Much of the following is indebted to this critical and dissenting tradition.

The Ambivalence of Marx

There is no straight line from Marx to either orthodox or Western Marxism. Both orthodox and Western Marxism deviated from and were already contained in Marx himself. Like most phenomena in the known universe, Marx was ambivalent, both as a personality and within his theoretical work. His theoretical ambivalences of course also express, from a Marxian perspective, the real ambivalences of Marx’ own historical period at the industrial transition point between pre-modernity and modernity. (In a parallel way, our own ambivalences may perhaps express our historical transition point between industrial modernity and post-industrial ‘post-modernity’…).

Marx as a person was apparently a heady mixture of authoritarian Robespierre and libertarian Bakunin, of poetically expansive Whitman, moral Moses and systemic absolutist Hegel. The conflicts within, and eventual demise of, the 1st Internationale predominantly centred on Marx’ undoubtedly authoritarian political style and thought.[2] Anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin accurately and presciently warned of the authoritarian, state socialist or ‘Prussian’ dangers contained in Marx and his political thought. Such analyses were later developed more thoroughly by representatives of the anti-authoritarian left like Rudolf Rocker and Karl Korsch who both succinctly analysed these bourgeois ‘absolutist’ and Jacobin statist elements in the thought of Marx.[3] We remember that Marx and Engels were also apologists for British imperialist repression and exploitation in India which their linear evolutionary determinism viewed as ‘inevitable progress’ in the Hegelian vein. The brutalising, authoritarian and hierarchical factory system was seen as a magic educational system of social cooperation and solidarity. In later texts a certain dreary (and bourgeois) economism would seem to often win out over the revolutionary and ‘romantic’ humanism of Marx’ early work. In all such less than admirable features it is possible to see the latent orthodox Marxism or ‘Leninism’ in Marx himself.

However, Marx is not reducible to any one side of his ambivalence. The mature Marx also wrote The Civil War in France that saw the libertarian Parisian Commune of 1871 as the new direct-democratic model for a future socialism and, looking at some his dour adherents, noted that he himself was definitely not a ‘Marxist’. To restrict oneself to a focus on the obsolete and authoritarian elements in Marx would be to fall into the (psychologically ‘adolescent’) error of throwing out the baby of Marx himself with the bathwater of orthodox Marxism. Rather it would seem that a (‘mature’) sifting out of the obsolete and the still useful is called for, i.e. a dialectical integration of Marx into contemporary radical thought ‘on a higher level’. There are many core elements in Marx that are of continuing relevance.

The Continuing Relevance of Marx

Despite all the well known lacunae of Marxism that cannot concern us here, I would argue that a range of at least five key Marxian notions are still of great heuristic usefulness today to anyone concerned with radical social change: his revolutionary humanism and notion of ‘alienation’, the centrality of class, his analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’, his concept of ‘ideology’, and his systemic dialectics and historicism.

(1) Revolutionary Humanism and ‘Alienation’

From its highpoint in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of ‘alienation’ has to a large extent fallen into disuse. This may be no coincidence. The more total alienation is actually becoming in late capitalism, the less concepts seem available to understand, and thus potentially change, this fact. A revival of Marx’ concept of alienation and its revolutionary overcoming would thus still seem to be of great relevance for understanding and overcoming the ubiquitous mystifications and complex oppressions of late capitalism.

The concept of alienation was central to the whole Marxian project of human liberation. Marx was a ‘humanist’ in the sense of a kind of thinker who put humanity and its ongoing socio-cultural self-creation throughout history at the centre of his philosophy of history rather than any metaphysical beings or dimensions. His thought lies thoroughly within this secular Renaissance and Enlightenment tradition of humanism. Although it subtly defines all his works, his explicit humanism may be more clearly seen in his earlier (pre-1848) texts, especially the famous Paris Manuscripts of 1844, first published only in 1932. Strongly influenced by both the dialectical idealist Hegel and the contemporary materialist Feuerbach, Marx’ thought here revolves around his core notion of ‘human alienation’ (Entfremdung).

In the Paris Manuscripts, man is a being alienated from himself, others, nature and his true (species) being (Gattungswesen). This is a result not of any ‘original sin’ or any posited anthropological and immutable ‘human condition’ (as in Heidegger’s existential ‘thrown-ess’: Geworfenheit), but is rather the result of specific historical processes: the wage labour and the alienated working conditions introduced by capitalism. The economic means of human material reproduction have been inverted into ends. Dead labour (Capital) now rules over living labour and sucks it dry in order to grow vampire-like at the worker’s expense. The economy rules society. As later further developed in Das Kapital, human social and productive relations have been separated from any natural and cultural embedding and taken on the form of things like the commodity, money and capital. Emerson well expressed this Marxian notion of socio-economic alienation and reification (Verdinglichung) in his famous dictum ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind’. The tail is wagging the dog. The worker has become a powerless appendage of the factory machine, the inhuman, brutalising forms and rhythms of which are exclusively dictated not by human needs but by the inherent need of Capital to make profits and self-accumulate.

However, being historical and social in nature, this alienation can thus also be overcome by conscious historical and collective social action, i.e. by a process of social revolution that overturns the disempowerment and de-humanisation occasioned by capitalism. The revolutionary ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ thus becomes the inversion of the original capitalist inversion that was based on the wholesale disappropriation of the common people of their alternative means of livelihood (land and tools). Inverting the rule of the economy (Capital) over society, social revolution is the liberating process in which society finally gains control of the run-away economy. If, in Emerson’s dictum, things are in the saddle and ride mankind, social revolution in the Marxian sense is the process of putting mankind back into the saddle and making the economy subservient to human needs.

Marx’ original concept of revolution is thus not a power-hungry, merely political change in the state and at the top (as in bourgeois political revolutions and their continuation in socialdemocratic Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Maoism), but a deep social and empowering change in the relations of production and, flowing from there, in the human relationship to self, others, nature and polity. The goal of this social revolution is human liberation from capitalist alienation and domination in an ‘association of free producers’ democratically producing for human needs. At least for the young Marx (as for Adorno, Marcuse and Bloch), this social utopia of ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ would also be an ecological one: it would end human alienation from nature, finally realising a true reconciliation with nature, conceived not as some primitive neo-tribalist regression but as the civilisational ‘humanisation of nature’ and ‘naturalisation of humanity’.

(2) The Centrality of Class

For both good and bad reasons, the concept of class has moved away from its central place in much dissenting and radical thought. The good reasons are that traditional Marxist notions of class and class struggle seem at best antiquated and at worst simplistic, wrong or obfuscating. Many or most concrete social phenomena and problems seem to slip through the simple broad meshes of ‘class analysis’. To broadly ascribe certain forms of consciousness to specific individuals based on their supposed class is to commit a fatal ‘category error’ (that of simply identifying the two very different categories of ‘individual’ and ‘class’). To continue to make the diminishing class of manual industrial workers into the prime or one-and-only so-called ‘revolutionary subject’ of deep social change seems regressively nostalgic at best, self-debilitatingly laughable at worst. In addition, both globally and within industrialised societies, class compositions, relationships and struggles have of course also very much changed and differentiated since Marx’ times. Marx’ simple base duality or binary of ‘bourgeoisie’/ruling class and the ‘proletariat’/working class would have to undergo both considerable differentiation and expansion to survive as useful tools for deep social change.

On the other hand, any radical theory that completely gives up on the notion of ruling and subservient classes (however modified) does so at its own peril. Contrary to various still prevalent ‘end of ideology’ ideologies, classes and class struggle did not suddenly and magically end around 1945-50. Never, one could in fact well argue, has there been such a clear socio-economic polarisation on such a global scale. Given the present immense concentrations and centralisations of wealth in the hands of a global ruling class and the generalisation of wage labour (i.e. ‘proletarianisation’) among billions of people, perhaps there are now really only ‘200 pharaohs and five billion slaves’ (Adrian Peacock[4]). Consider merely the staggering 1998 statistics of the United Nations: the three richest people in the world had assets that exceeded the combined wealth of the 48 least developed countries; the world’s richest 225 people had a combined wealth of more than $1.7 trillion which was equal to the annual income of the poorest 2.5 billion people or 47% of the world population; Microsoft owner Bill Gates, who possessed more than the combined wealth of USA’s poorest 100 million people ($ 84.7 billion), could alone afford the mere $68 billion needed to achieve and maintain universal access to basic education and health care, safe water and basic sanitation.[5]

From a Marxian perspective, such UN figures are in fact not only stating a key facet of the general ethical indecency of the capitalist system that motivates leftwing activism but also that ‘communism’ is now, at least objectively, possible. As predicted and lauded in the Communist Manifesto (1848), capitalism has now accumulated so much incredible wealth that the fulfilment of basic material needs for all the world’s people is now possible without the necessity of wage labour (i.e. ‘communism’). A Guaranteed Minimum Income not tied to work could now be provided for all, for example. Without the structural coercion of ‘work or starve’, without the material need for wage labour, capitalism could not function as before and a key material pre-requisite for the dissolution of classes would be given. ‘All’ it would need to realise this old utopian dream of humanity would be the radical redistribution of this wealth for the common good, i.e. a power struggle by the overwhelming majority to dissolve the power of the minority over the means of production and in the process to dissolve class society, i.e. a social revolution. At this stage, however, the world’s majority ‘proletariat’ would seem far from such awareness.

One cogent argument against a facile or reductionist emphasis on class alone, however, has also been frequently made by the various adherents of ‘identity politics’. The importance of non-class factors like gender, ethnicity, culture and sexual orientation for understanding and changing socially oppressive structures has been a radical given since the 60s and 70s, and doubtless an over-focus on class can often obfuscate, distract from or gloss over such factors and their various forms of oppression. At times, such factors can undoubtedly override class factors.

However, for social change activists to throw the baby of class and class struggle out with the bathwater of dogmatic ‘workerism’ or simplistic ‘class analysis’ comes at the great price of likely delusion. Beyond all theoretical argument, the sheer empirical facts would now seem to confirm the social (and thus heuristic) ‘ultimate’ predominance of class over all other factors underpinning ‘identity politics’.

Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell and a plethora of black CEOs in the US may be taken as cases in point: neither being a female nor being black need now necessarily preclude one from becoming a member of the imperial ruling classes (nor, despite the froth of Christian fundamentalist backlash, would it any longer really matter if either of them were gay). Empirically, a black middle and upper class is no different in its material interests and prevailing aggregate consciousness to any other middle or upper class. A greater degree of civil rights for oppressed minorities as achieved in the US or South Africa will not change the class realities manifest in South Central LA or Soweto. A Nelson Mandela in power might well enable a new black bourgeoisie and middle class but will not touch the wealth and power base of the ruling classes and will symbolically bestow the highest national honours on a kleptocrat and genocidal dictator like Indonesia’s Soeharto. Unlike many a white liberal, a white steel worker might in all likelihood not be surprised at any of this. He may also have a different, since openly class-based, view of collective shame or guilt about the historical legacy of black slavery:

I got no use for the black militant who’s gonna scream three hundred years of slavery to me while I’m busting my ass. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) I have one answer for that guy: go see Rockefeller. See Harriman. Don’t bother me. We’re in the same cotton field. So don’t just bug me. (Laughs.)[6]

Similarly, mainstream feminism’s systemically naïve, class-neutral fixation on ‘gender equality’ within prevailing capitalist institutions has ‘succeeded’ to the extent that most corporate PR spokespeople are now women (perhaps because we somehow still tend to view women as more ‘sincere’) and the ubiquitous advertising image of a successful CEO now also tends to be that of a woman, preferably even of non-European background. The ‘feminism’ even within Chinese Stalinism has enabled China’s richest billionaire to be a woman, Zhang Yin, a paper recycling capitalist. Western feminism has also ‘succeeded’ to the extent that the torture and atrocities in US-occupied Iraq involved women in the immediate chain of command: from Rice at the top to Major General Barbara Fast (top intelligence officer responsible for reviewing detainee condition before release) to General Janis Karpinski (director of Abu Ghraib prison) down to the three women Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman of the seven soldiers actually made to carry the can and be charged with abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.[7] Thus, the defining criterion of ‘success’ within contemporary capitalism is not gender or race or sexual orientation but to achieve the ‘equality’ of thoroughly espousing ruling class values and mind sets.

Thus from a critical Marxist perspective, in the ‘post-modern’ age of intensified globalisation and cultural McDonaldisation, Capital has now manifestly become what it inherently always was: a powerful cosmopolitan levelling force that knows neither nation, gender nor race as a barrier to its drive to self-accumulate. As the Communist Manifesto so forcefully argued, Capital is an inherently revolutionary force that sweeps all before it, all non-monetary qualities, quirks, responses, institutions and identities are but grist for its all-levelling mill of expansion and accumulation.

The price of ignoring class and systems dominated by ruling classes can also be seen in the contradictions and weaknesses of much mainstream environmentalism. Most environmentalists, being mostly middle or upper class themselves, tend to ignore class realities. Given middle and upper class over-consumption of the planet, these might become a little embarrassing if fully acknowledged. Wealthy people’s ecological footprints are immeasurably heavier than those of the poor. Ignoring class, wealth and power, environmentalist ideology usually constructs capitalist eco-destruction not as the necessary workings of an inherently growth-oriented, unsustainable and class-based economic system but as a mere function of corporate lack of knowledge, weak state regulation, inadequate laws, a mysterious lack of ‘political will’ on the part of politicians, over-population (usually of the poor, not of the rich) or else of some nebulously anthropological or essentialist notion of ‘human greed’. Lacking any systemic and class perspective, it then becomes a mysterious puzzle (or subjectivist ‘betrayal’) as to why so-called ‘green’ politicians, even when they manage to achieve a measure of political power (like vice-president Al Gore or foreign minister Joseph Fischer in Germany), neither effect nor even seek to effect any real change whatsoever to the corporate momentum of systemic ecocide.

In this class-free ‘night in which all cows are black’ (Hegel), the agent of ecocide then usually becomes a mystically unified ‘we’. ‘We’ are destroying the planet. The powerless order-takers are suddenly as much responsible for global ecocide as are the wealthy order-givers. The unemployed mobile home dweller, factory worker or social welfare recipient is as much responsible for global destruction as is the CEO of Big Business and Big Finance. It then also becomes a puzzle as to why low-income people should seem to show such little environmental concern, eat at McDonalds, drive their proverbial old gas guzzlers and not vote Green. For the Al Gore type of environmentalist, the working poor might be advised to buy a ‘clean and green’ hybrid car or shares in a wind farm company, stick a few photovoltaic panels on the roof, buy expensive organic food and maybe take a ‘carbon neutral eco-holiday’ trekking in Nepal to view the glaciers while they are still there. Ignoring class is inevitably linked to the associated technocratic ideology of ‘technical fixes’ to socio-ecological problems. (Cf. below Ideology) Marx can provide a cogent conceptual antidote to all these short-sighted, single issue and naively non-systemic ‘green’ ideologies which provide a fashionable ‘greenwash’ for the ecocide of capitalist business-as-usual.

(3) Commodity Fetishism: demystifying Capitalism

Marx’ most lasting contribution perhaps is his brilliant demystification of the core dynamic of capitalism. Orthodox Marxism often conveniently ‘forgets’ that Marx did not create a new (‘Marxist’ or ‘socialist’) economic system or theory but engaged in a radical ‘critique of political economy’ that sought to help overthrow the oppressive primacy of ‘the economy’, the rule of ‘the market’, over almost all human affairs in bourgeois industrial society. This central aspect of Marx’ critique would seem to be of immense current relevance as ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ immeasurably extends and intensifies its control of all societies, people, psyches and nature both ex- and internal.

Mainstream economics, as hammered into general consciousness by the corporate media and politicians of all persuasions, always portrays the movements of Capital as abstract, i.e. as socially and politically de-contextualised. Our attention is strictly focussed on the rise and fall of abstract numbers and things (share prices, interest rates, investment figures, foreign debt, trade balances, currency exchange and employment rates, GDP etc). Class interests and power relationships are completely absent from all mainstream media discourse on ‘the economy’.

The whole thrust of Marx’ critique of political economy in Das Kapital was to deconstruct and destroy this bourgeois ideology that today seems almost total. The ‘reified’ surface appearance of ‘capital’ as an abstract economic ‘thing’ seemingly acting of its own accord was demystified as being in essence a social relationship of alienation, oppression, ‘power-over’ and exploitation between capital and labor, the bourgeoisie and working class, the order-giving owners and managers of the means of production and the order-taking employees.

In a similar way, the defining object of capitalist society, the commodity, was also demystified. Marx analysed the strange ‘sensuous abstraction’ of the ‘commodity fetish’ as a ‘coagulated’ form of ‘abstract’ (wage) labour undertaken under the new historical conditions of generalised commodity production, i.e. conditions in which anonymous, isolated and competitive strangers exchanged their products or services according not to their concrete and qualitative ‘use values’ (human needs and qualities) but according to their abstract and quantitative (monetary) ‘exchange values’.

Capital is now seeking to even further expand its realm of abstract exchange values: its inherent project of commodifying of all life is now proceeding exponentially by expropriating the last vestiges of the global commons (water, air, seeds), by genetically engineering, cloning and patenting life forms. All of nature and its complex ecological and aesthetic qualities are viewed as nothing but abstract, quantifiable and marketable ‘natural resources’. At the same time, many ‘cool’ and hyper-modern ‘market personalities’ (Erich Fromm) have totally internalised Capital’s values by thinking and talking its pervasive language of money and markets, by closely identifying with the brands of commodities they wear or use or by seeing aspects of their own ‘personalities’ as sellable commodities on the generalised ‘labour market’.

The cold, inhuman and reified non-relationships of totalised wage labour, market relations and the commodity now reign supreme both in the world and in many minds. Marx’ unsurpassed analysis can provide the proverbial axe that helps break that mental ice of conformity.

(4) Ideology

Marx’ concept of ideology is also of continuing relevance as it differs from the now prevalent neutral definition of the term as simply denoting any belief system whatsoever. Marx’ use of the word is socially critical and situated within the larger tradition of the critique of ‘idolatry’. This tradition reaches from Moses to Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620) and his delineation of the various ‘idols’ that hinder men from seeing truth or undistorted reality. Focussed on the radical critique of political economy and its reifications as Marx is, the term ‘ideology’ takes on the precise general meaning of ‘socially necessary false consciousness’.

Bourgeois economics, for example, is undoubtedly the core ideology of modern capitalist societies from New York and London to Beijing and Moscow. All ruling elites of whatever political persuasion, the corporate media and increasing numbers of ‘market personalities’ in the general populace now exclusively live and think in its terms. The ideology of economics is false because it abstracts from and further reifies social class relations of power/powerlessness’. At the same time this ideology is historically ‘necessary’ in two senses. Firstly, the class interest of the bourgeoisie power elite prevents it from conceiving ‘the economy’ or ‘markets’ in any other way. Secondly, this ideology also unconsciously expresses a historical reality or truth: social relations really are ‘abstract’ (geared not to human needs but to the realisation of monetary values), reified and almost totally dominated by ‘the economy’ and ‘market’ (Capital).

The prevalent technocratic ideology of fetishizing technology and technical fixes to socio-economic problems (popular in a green version among many or most environmentalists) can be similarly deconstructed as both false and necessary. It is false because, like economics, it abstracts from any social or class context or interest. The whole point of technical fixes is to leave (capitalist) power relationships and ‘business as usual’ intact within the economic and political spheres. An exclusive focus, for example, on ‘clean coal’, nuclear, large-scale renewable technologies or individual energy-saving measures as ‘solutions’ to climate chaos can deflect from any uncomfortable social questions about equity and power, e.g. the exorbitant, inequitable and unsustainable energy use of the wealthy or the social control of centralised energy systems by powerful elites and corporate carbon emissions in general. At the same time the technocratic ideology unconsciously expresses the truth of a historical reality in which Capital in the material form of its hyper-industrial ‘megamachine’ (Lewis Mumford) really has become all-dominant and seemingly overpowering.

(5) Systemic Dialectics, Historicism and the Potential for Liberation

For minds made passive, confused and lost in the ‘spectacle’ (Guy Debord), – i.e. the fragmented, de-contextualised and thus meaningless world as ubiquitously constructed by Capital and its advertising and media -, an exposure to Marxist dialectical texts can help see things from a different and liberating perspective. Here we come across the important legacy of Hegel and the philosophically sublimated results of the great bourgeois revolutionary epoch of the 1770s-90s. Reading ‘Hegelo-Marxist’ texts like Das Kapital, Grundrisse, T.W. Adorno or Guy Debord, we engage with the primacy of dialectical process over static substance and structure. We experience a revolutionary fluidizing of things and categories, a de-reifying of the solidified. Like the life it mirrors, dialectical thought never rests in any final conclusion or result. The truth is not in the end but in the process or proverbial journey itself, a truth-in-process. Thus it is actually impossible to make reified and dead comments about ‘dialectics’ as such, i.e. as something separate from the actual process of dialectical thinking and analysis (as the ontological ‘dialectical materialism’ of Marxism-Leninism attempted, even purporting to find an ‘objective dialectic’ in nature divorced from human perception and construction). The following remarks are thus little more than abstract hints as to certain general aspects of its nature.

Like the historical evolution of society in Marxian perspective (‘all history is the history of class struggles’), the process of dialectical thought in the Hegelo-Marxist tradition is movement driven forward by conflict, paradox, ambivalence, self-contradiction. Within this process there is a double movement of self-alienation and eventual or temporary self-reconciliation or ‘supercession’ (Aufhebung: integration). Supercession or transcending is not an ‘abstract negation’, not a ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Rather, it is ‘concrete negation’ in the threefold, seemingly paradoxical sense of the German Aufhebung in which the old is simultaneously negated, kept and superseded or ‘lifted up’ onto a higher level of integration. Thus for example, a post-capitalist society in the Marxian sense will not simply regress from or throw out (‘abstractly negate’) all the considerable historical achievements of capitalism and bourgeois society, but will seek to ‘lift them up’ and integrate them into a higher unity.

This whole dialectical movement of Aufhebung is, however, more than the dead mechanics suggested by the often cited phrase ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’. It may perhaps be best exemplified by the threefold subjective work of ‘identifying-disidentifying-integrating’ (Ken Wilber[8]) as ideally happens in psychological development, individuation and maturation. Thus, as children we build identity by unconsciously introjecting and identifying with our parents (as immature citizens still do with their leaders); then as adolescents we often continue to build identity by abruptly cutting off, reacting against and consciously dis-identifying with them, while as we mature we are at some point called on to overcome and somehow resolve these two previous developmental stages. Ideally this happens neither by regressively re-identifying with one’s parents (becoming conformist), nor by maintaining the cut-off (becoming compulsively ‘anti-conformist’), but rather by maturely and ‘dialectically’ sifting through, discarding and integrating our various parental influences and hang ups.

A similar dialectical approach can be taken towards Marx himself. It is possible to first completely and dogmatically identify with him as a ‘Marxist’, then to equally dogmatically dis-identify with (or ‘abstractly negate’) him as an ‘anti-Marxist’ (like many ‘renegades’ a la Horowitz or Kristol or Glucksman etc.) Finally, it is possible to engage in the mature work of ‘dialectical integration’: i.e. to analyse and discard, or else keep and integrate those elements of Marx that would seem to continue to be true and useful.

Furthermore, in dialectical thought everything is dialectically ‘mediated’ (vermittelt). That is, there is nothing simply and dogmatically given as an isolated ‘fact’, there is nothing simply ‘im-mediate’ (unmittelbar, i.e. un-mediated), as in the empiricism, positivism and scientism dominant in global mainstream thought. Rather, everything is considered mediated with other things, contextual, in relationship, in communication with the other (vermitteln also means ‘to get across’ or ‘communicate’). Moreover, this mediation is not an external and mechanical relationship extraneous to the object being considered but rather an internal and inherent one. The mediation, the relatedness, is a constitutive part of the object itself. As the whole is made up of or mediated by parts, so also is the whole contained or mediated within the parts themselves. And this whole is ‘holistic’: as in ecology and systems science, things are always seen not in isolation but systemically, as part of a ‘concrete totality’. Thus Marx in the three volumes of Das Kapital famously develops the successive categories of his analysis of the totality of capitalist economy dialectically out of the one basal category of the commodity.

In addition, this totality is not abstract and a-temporal (as in the positivism of general systems theory) but inherently concrete and historical. In the ‘historical materialism’ of Marx, nothing can be really understood outside its historical genesis or context. The concept of ‘capital’, for example, cannot be understood without analysing its historical origins in the social and cultural terrors of ‘primary capital accumulation’ (enclosures, slave trade, absolutism, child labour, pauperisation etc). In contrast, the prevalent positivism, structuralism and scientism of mainstream academia and the media tend to take things as simply ‘given’, as structures, systems, data, ‘information’ or fragmented ‘facts’ divorced from historical context and origins. This is of course not accidental. Where everything is simply a-historically ‘given’, it becomes ‘naturalised’ and eternalised, and thus legitimised. As in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘TINA’ (‘there is no alternative’) axiom, a concept of any systemic alternative and different future can then no longer arise. Without history, without a sense of the past and the future, reality has been flattened into a repressive eternal Now, i.e. the Nietzschean ‘eternal repetition of the same’, the very image of capital accumulation itself. For Capital, as for Henry Ford, ‘history is bunk’.

In contrast, where things have an origin and an evolution, they can also change and be changed. Past and present contain differing potential futures that are created by collective human action and meaning-making. This would seem to be Marx’ most lasting contribution to the ongoing project of human liberation from social alienation, the core of his continuing charm. With Marx, another world is indeed possible.

[1] My choice of key representatives differs from Perry Anderson’s (Considerations On Western Marxism, London: NLB, 1976) and J.G. Merquior’s (Western Marxism, London: Paladin Books, 1986) notions of Western Marxism. Since the anti-authoritarian or libertarian notion of ‘Western Marxism’ being used in this essay hinges on the latter’s radical divergence from the orthodox and social-democratic Marxism of which Leninism and Marxism-Leninism are but continuations, I am including the Situationist Guy Debord and not Communist party adherents like Gramsci, Sartre, Althusser, Goldmann and Colletti under this heading. Due to the both stylistic and substantial originality of his work, my inclusion of Ernst Bloch occurs despite his Leninism and even Stalinist apologetics during the thirties.
[2] Cf. from a guild-socialist perspective: G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought Vol. 2: Marxism And Anarchism 1850-1890, pp. 197-202; and from a syndicalist perspective: F. Brupbacher, Marx und Bakunin. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Internationalen Arbeiterassoziation, Munich: G. Birk & Co., 1922.
[3] K. Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie, Frankfurt a.M.: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1966; R.Rocker, Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus, Darmstadt: Verlag Die Freie Gesellschaft, n.d..
[4] Adrian Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, London: ellipsis, 2002.
[5] ‘Super-rich trio worth more than 48 countries’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 1998, p. 3.
[6] Studs Terkel, Working, New York: Pantheon Books, 1974, p. xxxv.
[7] As feminist Barbara Ehrenreich hopes: “A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib.” (B. Ehrenreich, ‘Feminism’s Assumptions Upended’, Los Angeles Times, 16 May 2004, available at May 2004).
[8] Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996, p. 144.


4. That Deadly ‘We’, or: Where’s the Class War when you need it?

I have noticed that not only the usual liberal and right-wing pundits but many environmentalists and progressives in Australia and elsewhere tend to automatically use the first person plural pronoun when discussing national and international issues. ‘We’ have to get out of Afghanistan, for example, not the troops sent by the Australian or US government. Another version of this is to use the abstraction ‘Australia’ or ‘the US’ (‘Australia/the US’ should send more/less/no troops…’) as if some mystic entity called Australia or the US actually walked around on two legs and could make decisions over life and death.

So what’s the problem with that, aren’t they just linguistic shortcuts? No they’re not. The problem is that the ‘we’, the implied ‘one nation’, always has the automatic effect of surreptitiously identifying the common people, the order-takers, with the powerful in business and government, the actual order-givers. This particular ‘we’ thus implies equal responsibility for an issue although some in the one nation are powerful and rich and make or influence the key investment decisions, while most are powerless and some are poor.

It is the powerful who most frequently use and benefit from the ‘we’ and ‘Australia/the US’ because it seems to legitimise their own decisions. Naïve progressives like the Australian Greens leader Bob Brown, a strong nationalist and populist, also frequently use it. When the powerless order-takers blindly use the ‘we’ – instead of using the factual ‘they’ – they are consciously or unconsciously identifying with the powerful order-givers and thus legitimising and cementing their power. From the abstract perspective of the planet, ‘we’ may indeed all be in ‘one (human) boat’, but we all know there’s a huge difference between the upper deck and steerage and ‘we’ are certainly not steering this huge vessel of industrial capitalism at all.

Thus it is also said, quite correctly up to a point, that ‘we’ have to reduce our carbon emissions and general impact on the environment. The average Australian ecological footprint, for example, is one of the highest in the world and completely unsustainable. It is more than double the current global average and very many times the average of developing nations. As a nation, Australians are thus consuming many times their ‘fair earth share’ (usually measured as the amount of direct and indirect land-use and/or carbon emissions sustainably available per person at current global population levels if these amounts were divided up equally). This is a global injustice that shall be addressed sooner or later, in one way or the other, voluntarily or involuntarily.

However, we should remember that these national footprints are roughly estimated averages. Averages always mask huge discrepancies in actual individual and class footprints. In always using the nationalist ‘we’ in debates about reducing ecological footprints, environmentalists help obfuscate the class realities of consumption. It is well known that rich Sydney suburbs like Mosman or Woollahra have about double the average national eco-footprints and very much higher eco-footprints than poorer suburbs despite the usual middle-class environmentalist focus on the plasma TVs and McMansions of western Sydney or overpopulation. (I have yet to hear many environmentalists express equal disdain for their own frequent-flying holiday habits).

We can even get quite specific here. What’s a plasma TV and even a few cars compared to, say, just one Australian billionaire James Packer’s multi-storeyed harbour-side mansion and his transport fleet? He has a jet the size of a commercial airliner, an Aston Martin and various Range Rovers, a 12 seat Sikorsky helicopter used to ferry his wife and kids to visit grandparents in the country, a super-yacht and a luxury cruise ship which takes 500,000 litres of fuel to fill its tanks. To cross the continent for a few days winter holidays in the tropics by jet and super-yacht costs Packer a mere $500,000 in annual fuel bills.[1] (Many of the super yachts of the mega-rich can consume between 750 and 3,400 litres of fuel per hour.)

Multiply all that by the similar lifestyles of all the other Australian billionaires, CEOs and Mosman-Woollahra-Toorak coupon clippers (as well as many senior bureaucrats and politicians), and you’ll get quite an eco-footprint very many times the already unsustainable national average. Internationally, we might recall that there were about 800 billionaires in 2005 (up from 140 twenty years earlier), and that the income of just the world’s richest 500 people exceeded that of the world’s half billion poorest.
As for population growth and climate change, perhaps a few figures may help focus minds on the real correlations.[2] For a start, about a billion people, a sixth of the world’s population whose growth rate is likely to be the highest, are so poor that they produce no significant emissions at all.

Over-industrialised countries like the US and Australia have at least twenty times more carbon emissions per capita than least developed countries. About two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions have come just from the US and Western Europe while a whole continent of 840 million people like Africa has accounted for less than 3 % of these emissions since 1900.[3] Even there, just the gas flaring by multinationals exporting oil from Nigeria to industrial countries has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. Between 1980 and 2005 the latter area produced 18.5% of global population growth but only 2.4% of growth in CO2 emissions, while North America’s population increased by only 4% but produced 14% of the extra emissions. In general, while there is a very weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there is a very strong correlation between global warming and wealth.

Thus to focus on population growth as one of the main drivers of climate chaos rather than the excesses and inequitable overconsumption of the rich (like James Lovelock or Sir David Attenborough and other environmentalists) is thus both factually incorrect and a paternalistic and blatantly ideological diversionary tactic. As Guardian journalist George Monbiot notes:

I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich. […] So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against the super-yachts and private jets? Where’s the Class War when you need it? [4]

In sum, as Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf has also noted, ‘the rich are destroying the earth’, and the rich, from the point of view of the planet, are predominantly both the top power elites and hyper-rich and the roughly 500 million people, like myself and most of my readers, who make up the over-consuming global middle class.[5]

Of course, even such exorbitant luxury and obscene fossil fuel wastage by the rich and powerful is, in the end, not the core issue in terms of ecocide and climate chaos. The core issue is one of power and decision making. The core issue is the whole energy-intensive industrial system itself which their own investment and political decisions have created and maintained for centuries for their own profit and power maintenance and at the expense of planet and people. The core issue is their power to continue making those profit-oriented decisions and our own lack of willingness to name, delegitimize, confront and democratically dismantle that power for the well-being of all people and the planet. In Kempf’s words:

We must […] understand that the ecological crisis and the social crisis are two faces of the same disaster. And this disaster is implemented by a system of power that has no other objective than to maintain the privileges of the ruling classes.[6]

That deadly ‘we’ so many use in conversation and discussions would align us fairly and squarely with those ruling classes. It’s definitely what they want. Is it what ‘we’ want?

[1] ‘Pastimes paid for by the planet’, SMH 12-13/6/2010, p. 20.
[2] Most of the figures in this paragraph taken from George Monbiot, ‘The poor will not destroy the planet’, The Guardian Weekly, 9/10/09, p. 19.
[3] A. Revkin, ‘Poor left in lurch if world overheats’, AFP/NYT/SMH 2/4/09, p. 9.
[4] Monbiot, op.cit.
[5] H. Kempf, How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, p. 74.
[6] Ibid., p. 25.


[Wrote the following about three months after the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Republished to contribute to re-contextualising the current Afghan war and its disastrous covert extension into Pakistan by Obama via US drone attacks (over 1100 civilian dead since 2008). A contribution to cutting through the official propaganda and double standards as daily reproduced in the corporate media.]

5. A Dialogue on the ‘War Against Terror’ (January 2002)

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
– Martin Luther King

How do you view the events of September 11 in the USA ?

As a terrorist attack. Like all terrorist attacks, it was a crime against humanity.

When you say “terrorist”, what do you mean precisely ?

My attempt at a dictionary definition of ‘terrorism’ would be ‘the use of violence or coercion against civilians for political or economic purposes’.

You stress civilians. Why ?

Because I think that distinguishes ‘terrorism’ from ‘terror’.

That sounds like an intellectual’s nit-picking. Please explain.

In the ‘good old days’ when warfare was mainly restricted to soldiers fighting each other (i.e. up to about 1918), the military could and did use terror against each other, e.g. starvation, torture, gas, but this could not be called ‘terrorism’ without losing all clarity of definition. Classic warfare is ‘terror’, but not ‘terrorism’.

Does that mean that you are restricting ‘terrorism’ to non-state or non-military attacks?

Not at all. Quite the contrary in fact. From a quantitative perspective I would agree with Chomsky and many others that state terrorism (what Chomsky aptly calls the “terrorism of the strong”) has been responsible for infinitely more deaths and suffering of civilians than has the non-state (“weak”) terrorism to which the corporate and state media usually restrict the term for obvious reasons.

Have you got any figures to back up that sweeping assertion ?

It is an interesting, albeit quite logical (within the ruling imperial value systems) fact, that military deaths are usually much more accurately calculated than are civilian ones. And of course civilian coercion and suffering cannot, and probably should not, be quantified at all. Nevertheless, there are scholarly figures available based on a variety of mostly official sources. Chomsky and Herman have attempted extensive compilations (especially in Washington and Third World Fascism and Deterring Democracy). According to them, the civilian deaths due to state terrorism since the 1930s go into the millions. The Stalinist state in the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million of its own citizens (mostly as a result of famines that again were mainly a result of Stalinist social and agricultural ideologies). The Stalinist Khmer Rouge (which was actively supported by the US and the West long after its massacres) were responsible for the deaths of about 2 million of its own citizens. After the first mass bombings of civilians by the US and UK in Europe and Japan during World War 2, US military interventions in Korea, Vietnam , Cambodia and Laos alone killed more than 4 million civilians. Mao’s Stalinism is responsible for the deaths of over 20 million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward (mainly, like under Stalin, as a result of policy-induced famine) and Cultural Revolution periods. US-supported client states in the ‘third world’ are notorious for killing or ‘disappearing’ hundreds of thousands of their citizens in the noble causes of anti-communism and free foreign investment. For example, Washington’s ex-thug in Jakarta, General Suharto, was responsible for the massacre of 500 000 to 1 million civilians deemed ‘leftists’ during his coup in 1965. He was also responsible for the genocidal elimination of a third of the East Timorese population (about 200 000) from 1975 to 1999. His invasion of East Timor was condoned by Washington and various Liberal and Labor governments in Australia. Washington’s various right-wing pro-consuls and military dictators (whose henchmen were often directly trained in torture and repression in the USA) in Latin America killed or ‘disappeared’ hundreds of thousands of civilians deemed ‘leftists’ in their ‘dirty wars’ in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
So we are talking about many millions of civilian victims of state terrorism, both direct Stalinist and US state terrorism or SU- and US-supported state terrorism. The figures from non-state terrorism in the same time frame (e.g. from groups like the IRA, ETA, Al Fatah, Hamas, Baader-Meinhof, Al Qaida) would pale into quantitative insignificance in comparison. Which is not to say that they are insignificant or in any way justifiable. No civilian death is insignificant or justifiable. Which is precisely what distinguishes us from the so-called ‘war on terror’.

I beg your pardon? How can you say that? Isn’t the war on terrorism meant to prevent further attacks on innocent civilians? Are you saying that America should have just turned the other cheek after the horrendous attacks of September 11? Are you morally equating President Bush and Osama Bin Laden? Are you anti-American like bin Laden?

I can see you seem to be getting a little hot under the collar right now. You’re asking me a whole bunch of questions here. Let’s take them one by one. Is the ‘war on terror’ not meant to prevent further attacks on innocent civilians? Well, yes and no. You probably noticed that I just used the epithet ‘so-called’ when qualifying the ‘war on terror’. Yes, I do think that part of the aim of this war is the one overtly and officially proclaimed: to prevent further attacks by Al Qaida on US targets by destroying its bases and sheltering Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, at the same time I am also querying three things: namely, 1. whether that can be achieved by those means, 2. whether those means are legitimate, and 3. whether there are other aims to the ‘war on terror’ than those initially proclaimed.

But haven’t the limited military aims already been largely achieved (as of February 2002)? There is a new government in Kabul and the Taliban and Al Qaida have been largely eliminated in Afghanistan.

It’s early days. Yes, a new pro-western government has been installed in Kabul. We do know that the human rights record of many of its warlord members (who continue to control the whole country outside Kabul) in the warring tribes period after the withdrawal of the soviets was so abysmal that the citizens of Kabul warmly welcomed the Taliban as liberators in 1996. Internal insecurity and Pashtun resentment against the Tajik, Hasara and Uzbek warlord militias from the north and west would seem to be growing again. The Taliban and Al Qaida would definitely seem to have been mostly vanquished militarily, at least within Afghanistan and for the time being. Whether this spells peace and no more terrorist attacks abroad is, however, highly unlikely. Al Qaida obviously still exists outside Afghanistan and those remnants, including Taliban, that still exist within or near the country have obviously simply withdrawn and transformed into guerrilla mode, possibly with the aid and sympathy of Pashtun tribes in remote areas. Any familiarity with the past achievements of the latter mode of armed struggle in different countries will preclude the disinterested observer from writing off Al Qaida at this stage.

But by almost eliminating and decisively weakening the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan hasn’t the risk of terrorist attacks abroad also been considerably weakened?

Short term, perhaps. Mid-term, I doubt it. Remember two initial purported aims of the US military intervention – to “smoke them out of their holes” and “bring them to justice” – have not as yet been achieved in regard to the leaders Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Both have not been found. Whatever happens in the future, in my view bin Laden has, in ‘defeat’, already won. If he survives underground somewhere he can continue his attacks and if he is captured or killed he becomes a martyr to the cause. Either way his attraction as the militant underdog will grow for disaffected or impoverished Muslim young men and allied groups. In that sense Bush and his client deputy sheriffs Blair, Schroeder, Howard etc have done precisely what bin Laden might have wished for. They have thus not decreased but actually increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks on US and western targets in the future. The so-called ‘war on terrorism’ has increased the likelihood of terrorism. It thus has not even achieved its overt, official aims within its own terms of reference. Moreover, this has been done using morally illegitimate and/or terrorist means in the sense of our definition of terrorism at the start of this dialogue.

But surely Washington and London are fighting a war against terrorism in Afghanistan, not “using violence and coercion against civilians for their own political or economic ends”?

That’s where I beg to differ. They are, in my view, fighting an unjustifiable war that is in fact using violence and coercion against civilians for their own political and economic ends.

You’re making very sweeping assertions again. Have you got anything to back them up with?

I think I have. First, the unjustifiable war. This also links up with your earlier question about whether ‘America’ should have just done nothing after September 11. The answer to that is simple: no. ‘America’ (to use your popular, albeit dangerous, personification) was of course perfectly justified in responding strongly to those unjustifiable and criminal attacks. However, to use Howard Zinn’s useful distinction, it had a justifiable cause for strong action, but not for war. This war against Afghanistan is as unjustifiable as the attacks themselves. The latter – let’s be quite clear on this – were criminal terrorist acts, not acts of war committed by a sovereign state. Thus, by international law, there was NO right of military, self-defensive retaliation against another state like Afghanistan whose government was not implicated in planning the attacks. The legitimate strong responses under international law which the US could have pursued included coordinated, international police work (including limited and proportionate use of some targeted military means – preferably under UN auspices – where necessary) in order to bring the perpetrators to justice before the law. This route was not chosen by the US elite because, as I’ll try to outline later on, it would not have fitted in with the other (main and unofficial) reasons for the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. The war option against Afghanistan (and possibly other states) was immediately chosen, blatantly contravening international law. To perhaps better understand the latter point: just imagine the international reaction if Britain had declared war on the Republic of Ireland and the USA after IRA terrorist attacks in London because IRA members are known to be often based in Eire and financially supported by many Irish in Boston. Or if Cuba had declared war on the USA because it harbours anti-Cuban terrorists in Florida. Such wars against other states are simply unjustifiable in international law.

OK, maybe the war in Afghanistan is not legitimate in some narrow legalistic sense. That still doesn’t make it a form of terrorism.

I think it does if we accept my original definition of terrorism. And, by the way, I am always a little bemused when supporters of ‘our’ wars so quickly brush aside law issues when it is, officially, precisely the civilised ‘rule of law’ that ‘our’ wars – in marked contrast to ‘theirs’ – are purportedly defending against some form or other of lawless tyranny and oppression….But that’s another issue…

Yeah, OK. Now get to the point will you.

Certainly, pardon the facetious digression. The war in Afghanistan is, I would again venture, indeed ‘using violence and coercion against civilians for political and economic ends’. US planes have been dropping carpet and cluster bombs on Afghan towns and villages non-stop since October 7, as well as on purely military Al Qaida and Taliban targets. Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire, basing his research on international news sources, calculated the civilian death toll in Afghanistan at the beginning of December 2001 at, conservatively, 3,767 (‘A Dossier on Civilian Victims of Untied States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting’, published at December 2001). If these figures are correct, the death toll may now (January 2002) be over 4,000. That’s about a thousand more innocent civilian dead than died in the USA on September 11.

How can you compare the two at all! The Al Qaida attacks on September 11 intended to kill innocent civilians to make a political point. They were applauded by the perpetrators. The civilian victims in Afghanistan are not intended, they are accidental and regretted.

That’s true, they are accidental, or ‘collateral damage’ as the military technocrats chillingly call it. In some particularly flagrant cases they may also be officially regretted. In most cases however they are either denied outright or framed as somehow excusable ‘collateral damage’ within a ‘just war on terrorism’. Be that as it may, several points can be made in regard to the question of ‘intentions’. Firstly, from the point of view of the victims, there is no difference. They understandably have little interest in the killers’ so-called ‘intentions’, be they a ‘just war on terrorism’ or a ‘just war on the Satan America’. My ethical key assumption is that the point of view of the victims is always morally superior to that of the perpetrators of whatever persuasion. Secondly, if inherently anti-civilian weaponry like carpet and cluster bombs are being used, how can one truthfully say that there is no ‘intention’ to kill civilians? Thirdly, from the mens rea point of view in civil criminal law, ‘intention’ does not exculpate from criminal responsibility. If you blow up a train carrying both passengers and a valuable painting in order to collect the insurance on the painting, you are still committing murder. The same reasoning applies if you blow up civilians in order to eliminate terrorists. Fourthly, the Geneva war conventions ban the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against civilian populations even when they are thought to be harbouring enemy forces. On all counts, therefore, I would maintain that the Al Qaida 9/11 and the US Afghan attacks are in many ways indeed comparable. In both cases the civilian victims have been callously identified with something unilaterally defined as evil by people with weapons who are not at all interested in making any distinctions and who have political ends of their own. (The last sentence is another variant of our basic definition of terrorism). And to say the two sets of attacks are ‘comparable’ is not to say that they are identical. There are also many differences, of course.

Well, finally. So what are the differences?

In the political ends connected with the attacks, obviously, but also with the sheer scale of the actual and potential level of death and suffering in the civilian populations.

Meaning what?

I’ve already mentioned the probable higher death toll in Afghanistan compared with the WTC/Pentagon attacks. That’s the direct deaths resulting from long-distance, zero-perpetrator-risk, hi-tech bombing including anti-personnel cluster bombs each containing 300 parachute bomblets the colour of food parcels that lethally shred or maim any people that touch them on the ground. The indirect toll in civilian deaths and suffering, however, could be potentially much higher. Hunger, malnutrition and diseases preying on weakened bodies can kill as efficiently as bombs can.

You’re not seriously suggesting that Washington and London are deliberately starving out the Afghan people, are you? What about the effects of 20 years of war and long-term drought?

Yes, of course, Afghanistan is an already devastated country. And, no, I am not suggesting that. The west of course has been involved in that kind of strategy in the region: its food and medicine sanctions against Iraq over the last decade since the Gulf War. According to UN figures, over a million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of those sanctions, half of those being children under five. (Another example of my definition of terrorism that we might come back to). However, I am not suggesting the same applies in the current situation in Afghanistan. The point here is rather that Washington and London have consciously and callously risked the lives of millions of hungry Afghans – most of them women and children of course – by conducting their war in such a manner that all food aid agencies were officially prevented from delivering food supplies right up to at least the fall of Kabul and despite a rapidly approaching winter. Aid agencies like Oxfam and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights protested to no avail. Civilians were held hostage by Western military forces for their own aims, civilians who had nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaida or the Taliban regime. The number of them acutely threatened with starvation and dependent on food aid that was quoted at the time was at least 3 million people. So let’s get that straight: 3 million lives were consciously put at acute risk in the pursuit of political ends. Thankfully, the news as of the end of December was that food aid had again massively resumed and the food situation had been considerably ameliorated. However, this amelioration has not been because of any conscious western policy. At this point in time (early January 2002) the bombing continues, as do the deaths of innocent civilians. The latter – when members of the poor world – have never been particularly ‘newsworthy’ in our media and they aren’t now. The usually implicit, although sometimes even explicit, assumption is that the deaths of (‘their’) innocent civilians are perhaps unfortunate but really just part of the inevitable cost of achieving ‘our’ legitimate and laudable political ends.

I think that is a malicious assumption that you are now making. When, as you assert, was such a cynical assumption ever made explicit?

For example, on the 12th of May 1996 by the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

She is actually supposed to have said that the deaths of innocent civilians were part of the ‘cost’ of some politics? Come on now!

Innocent children, actually, yes. The interviewer Lesley Stahl of the US TV show 60 Minutes stated that western sanctions had caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, that figure being more than had died in Hiroshima. He then added: “And…you know, is the price worth it?”. Her answer was, and I quote: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price…we think the price is worth it” (quoted, amongst others, by Professor Edward Herman in his commentary ‘The Price is Worth It’ available at the zmag website September 27, 2001). I know of no more succinct expression of terrorism, as defined above. (The purported ‘hardness’ of the choice notwithstanding. How our democratic rulers must agonize over the mountains of corpses their freedom-loving policies occasion in other countries!) And for those many citizens who still have ‘leftish’ social-democrat/liberal/pop-feminist delusions, it should be pointed out that Ms Albright is a woman who served under Democrat President Clinton. Let’s remind ourselves of our dictionary definition of terrorism: ‘the use of violence or coercion against civilians to achieve political or economic ends’. In the light of this definition we here have the rare occasion of a political representative of the ruling class in a formal democracy admitting with admirable, unusual candour that this class is engaged in explicit terrorism: half a million dead children achieved through the unspectacular (and thus non-newsworthy) violence of food and medicine sanctions are a ‘worthy price’ for the political (and ultimately economic/oil) benefit that class sees thereby gained in weakening or pressuring Saddam Hussein. To my knowledge this terrorist statement by Albright was of course not picked up by the mainstream media and did not cause any cries of outrage. (However, just as an aside, I sometimes wonder whether it would have even if it had been more widely published or known among the broadsheet-reading middle class and intellectuals. I think our rulers’ double standards, selective indignation and ‘reasonable’ utter immorality have actually become quite broadly internalized).

Well, as you say, it did not become widely known and so the point is hypothetical. I must confess, however, that, if true, the quote would appear to be quite damning. I must also admit that I still find it quite difficult to view Ms Albright or Clinton, Bush, Blair or Howard as terrorists rather than as, shall we say, democratic politicians of, granted, perhaps sometimes Machiavellian bent who are just engaged in realpolitik, i.e. in securing what they perceive as their national interests.

I would agree with your view of them. It’s just that, as I have tried to indicate, this democratic foreign policy or ‘realpolitik’ has always included measures that are im- and/or explicitly terrorist. ‘Democratic’ terrorism may be, like ‘democratic imperialism’, an oxymoron but it is the reality, usually carefully shielded from the distracted democratic public. The latter sees well-groomed, softly spoken, reasonably arguing politicians, people like you and me, and that’s not what terrorists look like of course. Terrorists are supposed to carry AK47s, rant and have a fanatical glint in the eye. They often wear beards and never wear suits until they get into power and become the new ruling class. But let’s perhaps also remember that Adolf Eichmann didn’t look like a terrorist either. He was also well groomed, had a soft voice and argued very ‘reasonably’ at his trial in Jerusalem, by the way. He also only had the ‘national interest’ (and lean administrative efficiency) at heart.

OK, OK. We’re really getting absurdly polemical and off the track here. You’ve now outlined your views on why the present ‘war on terror’ is both inherently self-defeating and morally unjustifiable but you have yet to spell out what you think the so-called ‘real’ political and/or economic aims behind this war are. No doubt some sort of dark conspiracy theory I assume.

You assume wrongly. If I had to try and compress my hypothesis into a simplifying sentence I would say that in my view the so-called ‘war on terror’ is a welcome pretext for the US ruling elite to extend its hegemony and control both domestically and internationally. There is, systemically, no ‘conspiracy’ needed to do this. 9/11 was an opportunity it grabbed, probably on the model of Hitler’s use of the Reichstag fire. Whether or not, however, some core sections of the elite and/or ‘intelligence community’ were to some degree at least aware of this upcoming tantalising opportunity provided by its own former Islamic fundamentalist protégés remains to be seen. In contrast to dogmatic anti-conspiracy theory positions, I think one should keep an open mind on such an issue until all the facts are fully known (after all one does remember the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for example). Until they are, however, over-simplistic or downright wacky conspiracy theories are unnecessarily distracting from the very obvious and dangerous agenda being pursued since 9/11). But that’s the topic of another dialogue…


[Now that Obama has begun the draw-down of direct combat troops in Iraq (of course leaving troops and military bases), now that around a million Iraqi civilians (on top of the million or so killed by the Gulf War 1990/91 and western sanctions up to 2003) and over four thousand US troops have died since the 2003 invasion, it seems an article I wrote in 2002 long before the invasion may still bear re-visiting. Here it is. I’d hardly change anything.]

6. 50 Theses on the ‘War against Terrorism’ and the Current World Crisis (2002)

To see the false as the false is in itself enough, for that very perception frees the mind from the false.
– J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living – 2nd Series (1959), p. 239

1. The current world crisis presents, like all crises, great dangers and great opportunities.

2. Which of the two are ultimately realized is not inevitable but a matter of the degree of generalized critical awareness, resistance, solidarity and action. (These theses are intended as a modest contribution to the development of such resistance).

3. The dangers are related to the current dynamics of the US Empire that dominates the increasingly globalized world system economically, militarily and culturally.

4. The opportunities are related to the ongoing development of critical awareness of, practical disaffiliation from and resistance to these imperial and global dynamics on the part of a certain ‘critical mass’ of people on the planet.

5. The current dynamics of the US empire and corporate globalisation have since September 11 2001 taken on a more radically right-wing (often euphemistically ornithologised as ‘hawkish’), potentially very dangerous, but also very much clearer, form.

6. The Bush administration’s so-called ‘war on terrorism’ after September 11 is enabling the US elite to extend its imperial hegemony both internationally and domestically. This is its primary function. The ‘war on terrorism’ is a pretext.

7. In this sense, the ‘war on terrorism’ is now, under historically very different conditions, fulfilling similar systemic (political and economic) functions for this elite to that performed by the Cold War in the bipolar world of 1945-1991. Both forms of war strengthen their power.

8. Domestically, it is allowing the continuation of both the radical neo-liberal economic agenda and of ‘military Keynesianism’ (deficit spending for the military and weapons industry rather than for consumers).

9. Wealth can continue to be redistributed upwards to the elite (tax cuts to the rich, corporate bailouts, subsidies to industries etc) and towards the ongoing economic mainstay of the empire, the resurgent military-industrial complex (11% increase of Pentagon budget).

10. After September 11 the stocks of US arms manufacturers General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon rose steeply. Arms manufacturers need wars like umbrella-makers need rain.

11. As a delectable aside: through ex-President Bush Senior’s ties to United Defense and the Carlyle group – the eleventh largest US defence contractor –, President George W. Bush’s own family will be making huge sums from his administration’s ‘enduring war’ policies. As Carlyle rep Bush Senior was of course also entertained during the 90s by the construction company-owning bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia.

12. The other domestic functions of the ‘war on terrorism’ are a manifold further strengthening of executive state power and a corresponding further weakening of US civil society, democracy and dissent.

13. The perennial manipulative technique of the powerful – stimulate fear, a paranoid siege mentality and state patriotism (a form of protection racket going back to tribal chiefs and feudal warlords) – has been massively and successfully employed since 9/11 in various ways.

14. Some of these ways include: repeated attack alerts, demonisation and hyperbole, ‘us-and-them’ tribalism, patriotic mass rituals etc. Police and secret service powers have been increased and centralized in the guise of so-called ‘Homeland Security’ (‘Heimat’ and ‘Sicherheit’ were two key words of Nazism, by the way). Hard won civil liberties have been curtailed, the rule of law softened up, general surveillance expanded and racial profiling introduced. The cultivated emergency atmosphere (Nazis also continually spoke of ‘Notstand’) of paranoia, manipulated anger and grief and flag-waving jingoism has weakened criticism and dissent. Attention has been adroitly deflected from Bush’s own electoral illegitimacy, the wholesale failure of the intelligence services in regard to 9/11 and the home-grown anthrax scares, earlier US outright support for both Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein and widespread US corporate corruption and collapses. As always, demonizing an external enemy helps focus attention outwards, away from any potentially dangerous internal issues and dissent. Works like a charm every time.

15. Internationally, 9/11 has given the US elite the welcome opportunity to greatly extend its military geo-strategic reach into areas of Central Asia that were former Soviet territory and that are of significance both in regard to its imperial rivals China (the next nascent empire) and Russia and to greater influence over and ultimate control of the oil and gas fields both of the Caspian Basin and of the Middle East. The neutralizing and/or control of the three largest oil producers – Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia – and OPEC is also an important aspect of these developments.

16. The US ruling elite is very well aware of the looming end of the era of cheap and plentiful oil and the beginning of ‘capacity limitations’. A 2001 energy report commissioned for the Bush administration five months before 9/11 projected exploding energy prices, recession, heightened vulnerability to disruption of fuel supply and social unrest, unless ‘answers’ were found. (With only 4.6% of the world population the US consumes 25.3% of global energy and now relies on imports for 52% of its net oil requirements).

17. Part of these ‘answers’ included military intervention where necessary, the speeding up of supplies from the Caspian Basin, and the need to expand Iraqi production as soon as possible to meet projected oil shortages and keep the oil price low. The report repeatedly defined oil as a ‘security imperative’ for the US.

18. Both the war on Afghanistan and the threatened war on Iraq – as supposed elements of the unlimited so-called ‘war on terrorism’ – can be plausibly seen within the context of such a perceived ‘security imperative’, i.e. as good old imperialist resource wars in an age of ecological contraction. 9/11 has provided the ideal pretext.

19. The US elite is thus positioning itself to monopolize control of shrinking oil resources, both securing its own short-term supplies and greatly enhancing its imperial hegemonic power.

20. After all, as another vulgar-Marxist aside, Bush, Cheney, Rice and other key staffers are all ex-oil men and women. The installed US puppet in Kabul, Karzai, was a consultant for the US oil company Unocal in the US. The new Afghani Bush special envoy to Kabul, Khalilzad, was also on its payroll when it was negotiating a pipeline through Afghanistan with the recalcitrant Taliban regime, a project that can now, theoretically, go ahead.

21. The price of oil is expected to fall if the US wages a successful war against Iraq. A US attack that ousted Saddam would also probably mean a bonanza for US oil companies long banished from Iraq, especially if a US puppet government were installed as in Afghanistan. US and foreign (French, Russian) oil companies have already started manoeuvring for a stake in the post-war spoils: the largest oil reserves in the world outside Saudi Arabia. A US puppet in Baghdad could speed up Iraqi oil production, giving a Saudi-like capacity to control the market and wrecking OPEC’S power to control prices.

22. Another report by a right-wing think tank to key present Bush staffers Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in September 2000 (just before Bush illegitimately took power) spells out the intention to militarily intervene in the Gulf region and sheds some light on the current war planning: ‘While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.’ No mention of Saddam’s trampling of human rights or alleged weapons of mass destruction here, one may note with interest.

23. This report is also most candid about the imperial necessity for global domination, supporting a ‘blueprint for maintaining global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests’. The latter ‘shaping’ is another way of very succinctly summarizing the real motives behind the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.

24. Bush himself is equally candid. His National Security Strategy one year after 9/11 closely echoes the above report. Cold War ‘defence’ and ‘containment’ are abandoned in favour of an openly aggressive, neo-militarist foreign policy of pre-emptive attacks on imperial enemies unfettered by international law, treaty or moral concern: ‘The US will not hesitate to strike pre-emptively against its enemies, even if it faces international opposition, and will never again allow its military supremacy to be threatened.’ Refreshingly candid and arrogant, no need for any social democratic (a la Blair, Fischer, Clinton) hogwash about ‘humanitarian intervention’, democracy and social progress in this administration.

25. The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack contradicts the key Article 51 of the UN Charter allowing pre-emptive self-defence only if an armed attack is actually immanent. Like the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ itself, it thus consciously undermines international law and the UN and opens the door to potential international chaos as authoritarian states may claim the right to attack any country they simply declare a ‘threat’, possibly even with nuclear weapons. We are back to the pre-UN (possibly even pre-1648 Treaty of Westphalia) imperial law of the jungle, last used by Hitler in Poland and the Japanese in Pearl Harbor. An imperial invasion of Iraq is also likely to further encourage other countries (e.g. North Korea, Iran) to develop weapons of mass destruction as the only perceived protection against blatant US hegemony and aggressive interventionism.

26. Both Afghan Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam – the current demonised enemies (they shift like the wind) – were important US allies in the Reagan/Bush era who were both financially and militarily supported against the Soviet Union and Iran. After Saddam’s gassing of over 3000 Kurdish civilians in 1988, attempts by some American congressmen to denounce Iraq and apply sanctions were bitterly opposed by the Reagan administration. President Bush Snr (and Britain) authorized loan guarantees and sales of technologies with clear applications for chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to Saddam right up to his Kuwait invasion in 1990. Right after the Gulf War Bush Sr. then effectively authorized Saddam to crush a Shiite rebellion in the interest of preserving geo-strategic ‘stability’.

27. Every US war has resulted in the addition of more US military bases in foreign countries. The US is currently present in over 130 countries. The war on Afghanistan resulted in many new US bases in the oil/gas-rich ex-Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin. US bases now completely surround its main rival China. A new war against Iraq will result in new bases there from which pressure can be brought to bear both on Saudi Arabia and the other member of the designated ‘axis of evil’, Iran. Maximum control over the major world sources of oil is the obvious aim.

28. All this has been familiar US foreign policy since 1945. Since then the US executive has attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments and to crush more than 30 populist movements. In the process it has bombed about 25 countries, killing several million people and causing a life of suffering and despair for many millions more.

29. Western sanctions since 1991 against Iraq – which the Australian navy has helped to enforce – have already cost the lives of over a million Iraqis and over 500 000 children under five according to UNESCO. The Australian government is thus directly implicated in mass killings.

30. Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright openly considered these deaths a ‘price worth paying’ for applying pressure on Saddam. US and British bombing also massively targeted Iraqi infrastructure. Now the Anglo-Saxon, democratic ‘rogue states’ of Bush, Blair and Howard wish to bomb the remaining infrastructure and destitute Iraqi survivors of their sanctions in order to remove their old thug Saddam and directly install their own puppet.

31. Some 270 tonnes of depleted uranium have been spread over Iraq and the Balkans since the Gulf War, mostly by US forces using tank-piercing shells. The rate of congenital birth defects has skyrocketed in southern Iraq. Children playing in the contaminated soil are at grave risk of getting cancer and kidney damage.

32. Threatening or destroying civilians to achieve political/economic ends is the generally accepted definition of terrorism. On that basis, it is hard to see why successive US administrations and their obedient vassals in the UK and Australia should not be tried for war crimes in the World Court in The Hague or the new International Criminal Court (ICC). No doubt this is why the US executive is actively against the ICC and the rule of international law and has pressured the feckless EU into giving US citizens immunity from ICC prosecution.

33. The true price of oil is not only climate chaos and pollution. It is also imperial destruction and terror. Our cars also run on the blood of untold numbers of victims in the Middle East. Consumers in rich countries and corporations have long turned a blind eye to the civilian and ecological destruction at the source of many of their imported cheap resources and consumer goods. This is democratic affluence’s dirty little secret that is now out in the open, at least for those who can still manage to allow themselves to see the obvious.

34. The ‘war on terrorism’ against al-Qaida has failed, even within its own, official, terms of reference. No significant top ranking leader has been captured. The war on Afghanistan dispersed al-Qaida into Pakistan and overseas. As the FBI and CIA have recognised, it has thus become more internationalised and thus much harder to combat. Democracy has not been established in Afghanistan. Women are still oppressed and obliged to wear the burkha. 2002 has seen the country’s biggest opium poppy harvest, allowing Afghanistan to resume its place as the source of 75% of the world’s heroin. Outside Kabul insecurity and brutal feudal warlords hold total sway.

35. Similarly, an invasion of Iraq could in fact worsen the terrorist threat by actually dispersing any weapons stockpiles and scientists into the terrorist underground and increasing terrorists’ willingness to use them. It will also increase resentment towards the western aggressors, their hypocritical double standards and thus fuel more terrorism.

36. The open-ended so-called ‘war on terrorism’ will increase terrorism. It is like pouring oil on a fire. This increase will be met by our leaders (unless we stop them) with more war which will lead to more terrorism and so on, in a vicious, collusive and downward spiral of violence, escalating suffering of innocent people, international chaos, state militarisation, the weakening of liberal democracy and freedoms and more blood-profits for the expanding arms and ‘security’ industries.

37. In this process, liberal democracy will be undermined as public paranoia takes over, the law of the jungle increasingly reigns and security becomes everyone’s main concern. Many – as is probably intended – will cry out for the strong state and the reduction of civil liberties. As peace feeds on peace and democracy on more democracy, so terror feeds on terror, violence on violence, fear on fear. Such a response is exactly what terrorists like bin Laden, reactionary politicians and authoritarian right-wingers may hope for. Our leaders and the terrorists are locked in a collusive spiral in which more and more of us may become victims. The greatest threats to liberal democracy and security are now our own leaders. Some form of post-liberal ‘friendly fascism’ (Bertram Gross) is on the cards.

38. The only sensible, non-terrorist response to terrorism would be a combination of action via internationally coordinated intelligence/police operations, non-participation in state terror and imperialism and an addressing of the social causes of terrorism/fundamentalism.

39. This would mean far-reaching changes in the economic and political conditions of poverty and unemployment, dispossession (e.g. of the Palestinians and Kurds), state oppression and corruption (e.g. in most Arab states), hopelessness and despair – particularly in the Middle East – that provide the social and psychological matrix for the development of reactionary fundamentalism and terrorism.

40. Such changes, however, would also mean radical changes in the western attitudes, energy, economic, aid and foreign policies that have contributed, often in major ways, to such conditions and repressive regimes since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. (We remember that in 1921 and 1923 the British imperial ruling class – including an explicitly racist Winston Churchill – first bombed Iraqi civilians and drew up the artificial borders between Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to facilitate the control of the region’s oil supplies and the dividing up of Iraqi oil between Royal Dutch-Shell, BP, a US and a French company ).

41. These changes can not be expected from our political and corporate leaders since they have a vested interest in the realpolitik of geopolitics, empire, ‘free trade’, oil control and cheap resources which largely maintain repressive conditions in resource-rich non-western countries.

42. These changes can thus only be brought about from below and internationally. We need new forms of international solidarity and cooperation to create the lasting conditions of international peace, social justice and ecological sustainability. This entails understanding that, in the candid words of well-known Washington apologist Thomas Friedman, ‘the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps’.

43. We need a globalisation from below, as is already slowly beginning to happen, e.g. in the hitherto misnamed anti-globalisation and World Social Forum movement. As transnational capital expands and intensifies its reach, it thus also brings forth the slow birth of its own transnational negation. As the US Empire, the current military guarantor of the global capitalist system, aggressively expands and intensifies its global reach, it also brings forth its own negation. It’s now more than ever: One World or None.

44. As the movement for globalisation from below expands and increases its awareness of its tasks, it will, learning from 20th century history, need to clearly define itself against a double opponent: both against the capitalist/imperialist system (which of course includes McStalinism like China) and all reactionary, anti-modern, totalitarian and fascist forms of so-called ‘anti-imperialism’ and terrorism (even, where not instigated by state agents provocateurs, sometimes from within its own ranks).

45. The movement’s universal appeal will be based on those modern secular western values of civil society which have, spiritually but not yet factually, spread throughout the world over the last two hundred years: democracy, human rights, international law, social justice, ecological sustainability, tolerance and pluralism – all of which are now under siege by our ruling classes and terrorists alike. Resisting the US Empire does certainly not mean embracing a Chinese, Russian, European or Islamic Empire but resisting all empires, current and nascent.

46. The current crisis provides another opportunity to come to a greater critical understanding of such global dynamics and move towards the practical resistance, dissent and solidarity that such an understanding entails. The global peace and alternative globalisation movement is the social expression of this developing understanding and praxis. Another World Is Possible.

47. The central challenges for the global middle classes to which most of us belong would seem to be the necessary dis-identification from national and imperial leaders who are now, among other things, outright security risks to ourselves as well as to innocent civilians overseas, massive resistance to the US Empire’s latest imperial wars and the obsequious collusion of ‘our’ leaders and media in these wars.

48. This challenge also includes a painful ongoing questioning of our own over-developed, unsustainable consumption levels (particularly of oil) and the development of practical forms of solidarity with the have-nots at home and abroad.

49. These issues would seem to be particularly challenging ones in Australia with its high level of car/oil dependence, cultural hyper-individualism, long-term Australian-American alliance (i.e. perceived incapacity to defend itself) and high traditional levels of fixation on national politics, the state and its leaders.

50. These collective challenges, personal reflections and critical questionings are the opportunity provided by the current world crisis occasioned by the current dynamic of the US Empire since September 2001. They are as much ultimately spiritual in nature as they are political and economic: Why are we here? How can a good life be created for all the beings on the planet? How can we act compassionately out of an awareness of our total interdependence on each other and the natural world? How can we learn to extend our sense of self to the hitherto ‘other’? How can we work to remain centred in a world that occasions so much suffering, grief and anger? How can we dismantle the structures of violence, exploitation and injustice without creating new structures of this kind? How can we accelerate the evolutionary move towards One Human Family on One Planet?


7. The Politics of Masks and Shadows

Masks and Shadows

We don’t have to be Jungians or Freudians to acknowledge that we all to some extent have public personas or wear social masks that differ from our more private selves. These personas seem quite necessary protective devices against possible social attack or impingement. It can be a cold, rough world out there.

We can also acknowledge that we all have ‘shadows’, i.e. unwelcome, mostly unconscious aspects of ourselves that we are reluctant to admit even to ourselves because they seem painful and so different to who we would like to think we are or present to the world. These shadows or shadow personalities usually derive from painful infant and childhood experiences that we have repressed and not worked through. We are all Dr Jeckels and Mr Hydes to some extent. Often our only contact with our inner Mr Hydes will be in our dreams and nightmares, in states of inebriation, in sudden slips of the tongue or seemingly irrational outbursts of strong feelings where we say we ‘lost it’ or acted ‘out of character’ or ‘don’t know what came over us’. What ‘came over us’ was most likely our shadow self clamouring for attention. Like St Paul, we may often find ourselves not doing the good we would like to do and doing the evil we would not like to do.

However, we also can intuit that a great price has to be paid when we spend the greater part of our lives living behind masks as mere social personas without contact to our authentic, real sense of ourselves or to our shadows. Our celebrity-oriented consumer culture of advanced capitalism does not help here. Its inherent me-first narcissism and possessive individualism reinforces this tendency to live as personas, as ‘personalities’, as character masks, as one-dimensional, smiley-face constructions on Facebook. The cultivation of the ego-centric, narcissistic consumer is of course systemic: it is needed for planned obsolescence, rapid turnover and profit making.

The price of ongoing disconnection from one’s true sense of self and shadow is at least twofold. First, we will inevitably be filled with a pervasive and deepening sense of meaninglessness, unauthenticity, emptiness, creative atrophication, passivity, loss of energy and direction. We feel outer- rather than inner-directed. Often this will be denied and distracted from in attempted escape to even more consumerism or other addictions, including spiritual ones. One of the addictions can also be that to power, especially those still seen as culturally legitimate: corporate, bureaucratic, military or political power.

Secondly, when denied, our shadow personalities will grow ever more dangerously large and even more unconscious. At times Mr Hyde may tend to begin overwhelming Dr Jekyll, with usually unpleasant and painful results for all concerned. This is especially the case where the shadows belong to people with power over others.

Vice versa, the task of contacting one’s authentic sense of self is also linked to the difficult and humbling task of acknowledging one’s shadow, listening to its often extremely useful wisdom without becoming swamped by it and attempting to integrate it into one’s whole sense of self. Jungians see this as the central growth task of midlife and old age after the more necessarily role- and persona-oriented phases of youth and young adulthood in which work and family are the usual centres of activity and self-definition. Where this task – often taking the form of a ‘mid-life crisis’ – is avoided or postponed, the self will remain stuck in obsolete masks and dangerously unconscious shadows.

Politicians and their Shadows

The danger of political and other forms of social power is that they may actually facilitate the avoidance of these tasks of individuation and keep politicians and other leaders or ‘gurus’ stuck at immature levels of psychic development. In a reciprocal process of collusion, these will then both mirror and reinforce the average levels of immature development in the public at large. As media celebrities, politicians, like other entertainers, constantly live not as themselves but as carefully crafted masks and fakes, i.e. as PR creations and ‘media personalities’ where image is everything and substance nothing. Media commentary, polls and elections reinforce the whole empty spectacle by giving, albeit transient, rewards to those politicians most successful in faking it. They are usually trapped in (‘youthful’) frenetic hyper-activity that mainly serves the purpose of being seen to be doing something and ‘in control’ rather than actually doing anything substantial. (There are of course systemic reasons for this factual lack of political power that have to do with the primacy of corporate power over political power within capitalist systems).

Unacknowledged, politicians’ personal ‘baggage’, their shadow selves, can become dangerous indeed. Instead of openly recognising their own childhood wounds and their compensating neurotic needs for a sense of power and control, politicians will publicly rationalise this need and convincingly lie to themselves and others that they are not in it for themselves but for some greater public good. Hitler and Stalin were of course not compensating their painful childhood sense of abuse, loss, rage and powerlessness with totalitarian displays of state power; they convinced themselves and others that they were ‘securing the future of the fatherland’ or ‘building socialism’.

Similarly, as they send their soldiers to death and civilian-destroying bombers over Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq or Afghanistan, democratic politicians and bureaucrats will dutifully intone their rationalising mantras of ‘national security’ or ‘liberation from tyranny’. Opponents, often previous allies and ‘good guys’, will be routinely demonised into fascist ‘bad guys’ that become the projection screens of leaders’ and collective shadows. Rogue politicians who condone torture and wars of aggression will see ‘rogue states’ and terrorists everywhere. Thus will our smiling media performers suddenly manifest their own grim shadows, unconsciously of course. Our Dr Jekylls will suddenly reveal their Mr Hydes.
These revelations will occur again and again in differing situations. Their Dr Jekylls will attempt to wipe out booze and sex and rock and roll at their student homes while their Mr Hydes will be found drunk at a strip club in New York. Their Dr Jekylls will call climate change the greatest moral challenge of the age and their Mr Hydes will willingly, openly and miserably fail that challenge. Their Dr Jekylls will proclaim they are staunch Christian conservatives offended at artistic images of pubescent girls while their Mr Hydes will indulge in liberal use of the charming term ‘to ratfuck’ when describing Chinese diplomats’ behaviour at Copenhagen.

They will be Green pacifists one day, Green ‘bellicists’ demanding military interventions the next. They will fight for the immediate shutting down of atomic power stations one day, then as ministers grant thirty year run-out leases on them the next. They will reject foreign military bases as part of nuclear first strike capabilities one day, see them as necessary for ‘national security’ the next. They will fight uranium mining and old growth forest destruction one day, pass new uranium mines and pulp mills – all ‘world’s best practice’ of course – the next. They will enter mainstream politics – undemocratically parachuted in from head office – purporting to be wanting to finally ‘make a difference’ and then as ministers find themselves incapable of even banning plastic bags or defecating on Uluru.

Other politicians or evangelists and spiritual leaders will proclaim their abhorrence of adultery or homosexuality and then be found to be adulterous or gay. Revered priests will be revealed as closet paedophiles, Buddhist and other gurus as serial womanisers. Meditation, spiritual teachings and hierarchical groupthink will be used to conveniently bypass the uncomfortable psychological work needed to come to terms with one’s childhood wounds and shadows.

Politicians as Parvenus

Such manifestations of unacknowledged psychic wounds and shadow personalities are often closely intertwined with broader issues of social mobility and class. In many countries the democratic politician is often a member of the lower middle classes or ‘aspirational’ working classes aspiring to higher status and financial security. Recent prominent examples of leaders that spring to mind in this regard are Thatcher, Reagan, Keating, Joshka Fischer, Clinton, Howard, Rudd. Becoming elected often means certain public recognition, immediate financial rewards for little real work and, after a time, generous financial benefits from the taxpayer for life after politics. In addition, for ex-ministers and senior bureaucrats there is often the prospect of extremely lucrative consulting and lobbying work for big business.

This objective situation will automatically attract the social personality type known as the parvenu, the ‘little’ man or woman aspiring to become a ‘big’ one. Many working class men and a few women have traditionally made such careers in the bureaucracies of the unions, social democratic and communist parties. Modern day yuppies will now also enter newer, once ‘alternative’ parties like the Greens which can be seen sociologically as the rising lobby for new Green capital interests (green consultancy, green and ethical investment services, carbon and offset traders, renewable energy entrepreneurs etc). The character type can also be found in sectarian, ‘revolutionary’ groups, although here, given their lack of power and financial rewards, it is more often associated with some level of personal ‘charisma’ than in socially powerful institutions.

The conformist persona needed in the parvenu is one of extreme moral flexibility and opportunism (euphemisms: ‘pragmatism’, ‘realism’), a willingness to ingratiate oneself with the powerful (‘team playing’, ‘party unity’) and a readiness to mercilessly attack or out-compete where necessary. All the while, the powerful feeling driving the parvenu towards the perceived achievement of ‘bigness’, namely his or her own personal sense of powerlessness and ‘littleness’, is suppressed or denied. It becomes his unconscious shadow, something to hide, i.e. his Mr Hyde.

(In some cases the personal sense of smallness is of course literal, thus conscious and hardly hidden. French president Sarkozy, 165 cm, manages his sense of inferiority or Napoleon complex by having his wife wear flat shoes, banning tall bodyguards, wearing specially designed stacked shoes and standing on tip-toes or boxes at global leader photo opportunities.)

From such conformist personas with such unconscious shadows of inferiority are party dictatorships, communism, fascism also made. Democracy in its authentic sense of critical thinking and debate and the self-activity of the citoyen is incompatible with a predominance of conformist parvenus whether as leaders or as public. Democracy needs strong, anti-authoritarian personalities who have, to some basic extent at least, acknowledged their own childhood wounds and shadows and are thus less likely to unconsciously project them onto others.

Without this essential feature of an authentic living democracy, the eternal cycle of neurotic leaders and sheeplike followers seems inevitable, both feeding off each others’ shadows and both projecting them outwards onto various demonised bogymen, ‘bad guys’, bad others. That way means paranoid xenophobia, siege and fortress mentalities, and, ultimately, war. Can we attempt to break this fatal historical cycle at this critical time in human history? Good question.


8. Converging Crises, or: Which Is The Greater Crime: Robbing A Bank Or Owning One?


The question in the title of this essay, so currently appropriate in the global financial meltdown, was famously asked by German playwright Bertold Brecht. But then again he was a Marxist, wasn’t he, and Marxists would, wouldn’t they?

Problem is, we are all Marxists now. As the global financial system melts on the 160th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, the Archbishop of Canterbury finds Marx’ theory (of ‘commodity fetishism’) convincing, i.e. that capitalism ascribes human agency to lifeless economic entities; the German Finance Minister Steinbrück is quoted as saying: ‘In general one would have to say that certain parts of Marxist theory aren’t so wrong after all.’[1] An Australian journalist in London reports from Highgate cemetery: ‘…interest in his grave has never been greater – and now, much of Western Europe seems to be singing to the tune of Marx. The Times, in an editorial this week, mused that the philosopher had become as ‘fashionable as this season’s colour on the catwalk.’ [2]

And if we aren’t quite Marxists yet, fashionable or not, then at least we are back pre-1973 with President Nixon: ‘we are all Keynesians now’, which of course amounts to almost the same thing from the perspective of hitherto economic orthodoxy, neo-liberalism and the globalized ‘disaster capitalism’ (Naomi Klein) known as the Washington Consensus. As neo-liberalism finally sinks under the 30 year weight of its own suicidal contradictions, the big neo-liberal doctrinal no-no, pro-capitalist state intervention, is officially back in vogue. As the ironies deliciously accumulate as fast as the debt on a collateralised debt obligation, the overriding PR task for the ruling elites and their media now becomes to make the egg on a lot of faces look like a spray tan.

Let the markets decide! Let managers manage! Cut Red Tape for Business! Governments Can’t Pick Winners! Big Government is the problem! There Is No Alternative (to Thatcherism)! All the tired mantras of the Chicago School-inspired ‘reforms’ introduced by neo-liberal radicals (aka ‘conservatives’) Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan – and faithfully followed by social democrats and the corporate media everywhere – are in tatters.

Angry Republicans and the US conservative Club For Growth scream ‘socialism!’ and ‘un-American!’ and have to be brought kicking and screaming back into line by their über-disaster capitalist Vice-President Cheney (ex-Halliburton) as his ex-oil CEO President, defensively jocular and furrow-browed as usual, fearfully warns that ‘this sucker could go down!’ (Or, as one might also say, ‘mission accomplished’ George W.). His Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman Sachs tycoon Henry Paulson literally gets down on his knees to beg for almost a trillion taxpayer dollars from Democrat Congress speaker Nancy Pelosi to buy up the toxic debts of the big financial institutions (including of Goldman Sachs of course, which received $10 billion).

Other hitherto neo-liberal-to-the-boot-straps politicians are scrambling to change their tune. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain’s George Brown and Australia’s Kevin ‘I’m-a-fiscal-conservative’ Rudd rush to save capitalism by magically distinguishing a ‘good’ (‘entrepreneurial’) from a ‘bad’ (‘speculative’, ‘extreme’, ‘greedy’) capitalism. (A binary ploy wedging of industrial and financial capital much used by the Nazis, by the way, only in the latter case with the added anti-Semitic refinement of equating ‘Jewish’ with speculative and ‘Nordic’ with entrepreneurial). The final social democratic prayer is for a miraculous new spirit of trust, integrity, fairness, perspicacity, equality and kindness to descend upon a renovated capitalism magically driven by greed lite as it were:

From the current turmoil, more regulation is likely, and with any luck, more perspicacious company boards, greater equality, les greed and greater kindness towards the unemployed will help keep capitalism safe for another 160 years.[3]

De-Masking: The Crisis as Opportunity for Insight into Basic Realities

Whatever the fate of the capitalist world economy, all is not doom and gloom, at least not from a radically democratic perspective. No nasty Marxists, but the capitalist system has de-masked itself and de-mystified capitalist religious beliefs in ‘free markets’.[4] The global financial crisis is as much a credibility crisis for the political elites as it is for the economic ones. Not only individual ‘masters of the universe’ have been shown to be corrupt, stupid or wanting, but the whole (non-)regulatory political system has been shown up to be such. It is thus also a great opportunity for democracy, since it starkly reveals the core undemocratic realities on which democratically constituted societies are actually based and which are usually concealed behind layers of ideologies, media obfuscation and PR spin. The spotlight of crisis has been switched on and, at least for a short period, the glittering emperor of democratic capitalism well and truly has no clothes, at least for those still capable and willing to look.

I would argue that the basic general realities revealed in the crisis are the following. (Note: these working hypotheses flow from a Marxian, not a Marxist perspective. Like Marx, I am not a Marxist.)

1. This may be a historical watershed. Not only the latest neo-liberal phase of modern capitalism, but the American Imperial Era is essentially over and the Chinese-Indian Imperial Era is beginning.

In times like these it pays to read the main section less and the Business section more. John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald:

For 60 years the US has shaped the global financial system and occasionally made threats to get what it wants. In August a new era began.

Now China stands between the US and national bankruptcy. […] The overriding comfort for the world is that it makes no sense for China to abandon its US government investments. [5]

A small example of where real power now lies: when the People’s Bank of China told the US Treasury they expected it to ‘do whatever is necessary’ to protect China’s investments in troubled US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae ($US 400-600 billion), the US Treasury promptly gave guarantees to China and the agency bond holders that had lent to Freddie and Fannie, while allowing shareholders to lose everything.[6]

Through its recent bailouts the US government has lifted its national debt from $US 10.615 trillion to $US 11.315 trillion. It is already in deep hock to China. China has accumulated more than $ 3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Experts estimate that 70% of China’s foreign assets are held in the form of loans to the US government and its agencies., meaning US debt to the Chinese government is worth about 10% of US GDP and 40% of China’s GDP, or more than twice as much as the combined value of all the companies on the Australian stock exchange.[7]

Despite lag times, military might will always follow economic might in the end. Symbolically, the Beijing ruling class displays its historical ascent at the Olympic Games and by having a man walk in space at the same time as the US economy seems to be in its first death throes. (Some possible jokers in the evolving pack of imperial succession, however, are whether a tottering US empire will be tempted to militarily over-compensate and lash out at some new weaker victim like Iran or whether a new Chinese empire and global hegemony can be run without cheap and abundant oil and with an internally collapsed ecology.)

It is the all too familiar historical trajectory of imperial hubris, over-expansion and ultimate collapse long traced by historians from Arnold Toynbee to Jared Diamond. US commentator Gary Younge sums up: ‘Add the credit crisis to defeat in Iraq and problems in Afghanistan and what you are left with is a sub-prime nation – overextended both militarily and economically, living large and beyond its means.’[8] In other words, borrowing the jargon of the neo-cons, the US is not only a ‘rogue state’ engaging in wars of aggression and war crimes but now also a ‘failed state’ desperately in need of some sort of ‘regime change’. (The latter a phrase now apparently used by US Federal Reserve officials themselves to characterise their state intervention in the financial sector [9]).

Let us leave the last word on this to a neo-con expert. Right wing former presidential candidate and one-time advisor to Reagan, Pat Buchanan noted about the financial crisis: ‘it was a Katrina-like failure of government, of our political class, and of democracy itself. The party’s over. What we are witnessing today is how empires end.’ [10]

2. The many chickens of industrial capitalism are coming home to roost. Multiple debts are being called in and the post-war affluence party is almost over.

The US and Australian economies and rising living standards have long been founded on rising levels of both government and household debt. America’s number one export is now debt. The US current account deficit increased from $ 114 billion in 1995 to $ 731 billion in 2007. The enormous US government debt exploded with the super-militarist deficit spending and corporate tax cuts that began in the Reagan era. The debt legacy of the arms race spending competition that helped bring down the Soviet Union is now also about to impact on the US itself. For real economic stabilisation, both the US government and households, like the Australian ones, would need to stop living on credit and borrowing so much. That would mean more saving and less spending and consuming. Common sense and this dirty little secret are of course absolutely taboo in mainstream politics: ‘Can you imagine McCain or Obama going around saying he wants to reduce your standard of living?’[11] So deckchairs on the Titanic are re-arranged and the myriad distractions, PR and spin-doctoring go on till the Titanic finally sinks.

Equally taboo in mainstream politics is the need to vigorously confront the even more serious climate, energy and ecological chickens now also coming home to roost. These mounting debts to the biosphere are also the result of democratically uncontrolled industrial capitalism, whether of market- or state- driven form. They also necessitate reductions in over-developed standards of living.

Climate change can be viewed as simply another collective debt that is being called, the debt to the atmosphere. Two centuries of fossil fuel pollution by industrial capitalism have now reached their critical limits. If humanity crosses this threshold (the common scientific estimate being plus 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels), the risk of tipping over into uncontrollable and irreversible climate chaos and high levels of planetary destruction is immeasurably increased to almost certainty. So far, the ruling elites are more than happy to blithely cross this threshold, even in their concerned economic sections (Stern, Garnaut).

Another and related ‘chicken’ is Peak Oil, the outstripping of diminishing oil supply by increasing demand, which will inevitably mean the end of the cheap oil era, thus energy-intensive consumerism and affluence and thus modern capitalism as we know it.[12] The various debts of industrial agriculture’s ‘green revolutions’ are also being called in the form of escalating genetic erosion and vulnerability, price explosions due to cost increases in all fossil fuel inputs and food-for-fuel substitution, mounting food insecurity and food riots in affected countries. The scientific head of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri thinks that the financial crisis, although ‘a major distraction’ from climate change, might ultimately be helpful: ‘I think unbridled capitalism without any regulation, without some control, is something people are not going to accept now.’ [13]

Corollary: leaving the ‘solutions’ to these unprecedented historical challenges to the ‘markets’ (carbon trading and sequestration, energy-intensive alternative fuels, genetic and geo-engineering etc) will ultimately have similar results to corporate and financial ‘self-regulation’: global collapse.

3. Capital rules, not politicians. Politicians watch. (And then try to pick up the pieces.)

The crisis has starkly displayed where Marxists have always maintained the real power lies: in the economy. Despite repeated and ignored warnings, politicians just watched as markets plummeted. Then they belatedly attempted to respond with a variety of (probably largely ineffective, if not exacerbating) measures to the sudden change in economic realities. The US presidential campaign between Obama and McCain became less relevant, not more, with both ‘at the mercy of events and the market’ and neither of them at all knowing what to do.[14]

As the crisis first hit in September in the US, the irrelevance of President Bush and the centrality of ex-Goldman Sachs Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson became very evident and suddenly it was revealed where real power lies. It is only when a PR pep talk to the nation is needed that the President is then shown to have had crash emergency lessons in the economy while having in fact long been ‘asleep at the wheel’ :

Watching television in the past two weeks, a visitor to the US would have been excused for thinking Henry Paulson, not George Bush, was leader of the country.

It has been the Treasury secretary’s face that has appeared nightly on TV, warning […]

But on Wednesday night Bush was forced to come out of the shadows and make a sales pitch to the nation, as it became clear that Paulson was struggling to convince an angry public and equally angry legislators of the value of his plan.

In the past fortnight, the President has made only a couple of short statements on the crisis. He has not held a news conference. […]

Bush gave Americans an economics lesson on how things had gone so awry. It sounded as if he had just learnt the lesson himself.

The speechwriters had tried hard to skirt around the obvious conclusion that the man delivering the speech had been deeply asleep at the wheel. [15]

A similar relationship of powerless spectatorship towards the economy has been more comically revealed in the Rudd government’s various ‘watches’. Grocery and fuel prices skyrocket? Set up grocery and fuel ‘watches’. To do what exactly? Well, to watch. Mass obesity and diabetes crisis due to market saturation with industrially processed junk foods? No problem: don’t intervene in junk food production and marketing, just provide citizens with tape measures to measure and watch their waistlines. What the government will not do is intervene for the common good in the corporate prerogative of determining investments, products and prices. That would amount to ‘socialism’. The result is that democratic governments are thus ever voyeurs to the non-consenting relationships that go on in the economy. Capital calls the tune, governments dance.

Corollary: whoever you vote for, the government gets in. We live in one-party states where the one corporate party has two wings (Gore Vidal). Elections, however important occasionally for selecting the least worse wing of the one party, are as irrelevant in terms of introducing real changes to the economic system and power structures as in any totalitarian system.

3. Deregulation + Privatisation = Casino Capitalism + Gated Economies of the Super-Rich + Class Warfare From Above

Since neo-liberal deregulation and privatisation from the mid-late seventies onwards, global capital has developed a vast, private, secretive, completely self-regulated economy of its own that is outside the official economy still open to some state influence and taxation.

Private hedge funds of the super-rich gamble trillions in completely speculative financial instruments like derivatives, futures trading and short selling. They may place bets on currency movements, credit risks or falling stock or mortgage prices. They accounted for about 40% of all market activity at the peak of the speculative boom. [16] The amount of money in speculative financial derivatives dwarfs those in all areas of the productive real economy by far. Due to systemic over-accumulation (i.e. under-consumption), much capital has been ‘financialised’, i.e. increasingly shifted from the productive to the financial sphere, from investment to speculation. [17] Thus much of capitalism has become ‘casino capitalism’. While the value of all the companies listed on Wall Street was $ 25 trillion, the amount invested just in speculative ‘credit default swaps’ alone was $55 trillion ($55,000 billion); while the total value of all goods and services produced globally in 2007 was $ 54 trillion, the amount nominally invested in speculative derivatives in December 2007 was an incomprehensible $ 596 trillion ($596,000 billion), more than ten times as much! [18]

With this sort of astronomical wealth, hedge fund speculators can blackmail or bring down governments and wreck whole national economies by currency speculation and capital flight. Their activities are completely unregulated. Being private companies, disclosure is minimal. Nobody knows any details about these funds. Their undisclosed profits can thus also be easily stored in secret accounts and tax havens.

According to research by John Christensen, a development economist and ex-advisor of the tax haven of Jersey, rich individuals have parked at least $11.5 trillion in secret accounts offshore, thereby avoiding around $250 billion in national taxes each year.[19] According to the World Bank, cross-border flows of the proceeds of tax evasion, criminal activities and corruption lie between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion per year, with commercial tax evasion making up $ 700 billion to $ 1 trillion of that figure. Tax havens lie at the heart of global financial markets, with over $ 2 trillion flowing through them each day.

Former Goldman Sachs CEO and state rescuer of the system Treasury Secretary Paulson himself negotiated a special exemption from tax when he took the government job.[20]

All this consciously avoids and undermines state regulation and tax systems. It is supposed to. The net social result has been to shift the tax burden downwards:

Across the world the tax charge has been shifted from those who can afford it, powerful companies and rich people, to workers and consumers; the inevitable outcome has been less job creation, greater inequality and rising poverty rates. [21]

Financial deregulation has also enabled many charming ‘financial products’ and speculative practices that sit around like time bombs waiting to blow up the whole system. In 2003 über-investor and second richest US citizen Warren Buffet warned (like fellow speculator George Soros before him) that derivatives were ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’. Nobody had been ‘overseeing the complex derivatives market, which has been allowed to swell in value to more than $US 60 trillion – more than the value of all the physical assets in the US.’ [22]

As just one absurd criminal example among many, Wall Street banks were able to borrow ‘30 or 40 times their available capital to place bets that home buyers would pay off mortgages 10 times the size of their annual pay checks’.[23] All this helped inflate their profits and justify CEOs’ astronomical remuneration packages (e.g. collapsed Lehman Brothers boss Richard Fuld pocketed $US 466 million between 1993-2007, and $66 million just before the collapse). Another example is the arcane practice of ‘short selling’. This practice – blamed for creating volatility undermining the prices of banks and other financial stocks – consists of ‘speculators selling shares they do not own in the hope of buying the stock back later at a lower price to create a profit.’ [24] In a lucrative self-fulfilling prophecy, short selling can thus help actually drive down share prices. A potential destroyer of the system is not banned but can actually be rewarded.

Economic analyst Ian Verrender asks the obvious question about the causes of the financial meltdown and provides the obvious answer:

Could all this have been avoided? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Lax regulation standards in the US failed to curb the appetite and ambitions of those running Wall Street’s biggest finance houses. Bank shareholders around the world demanded ever greater earnings and profits. As competition increased, profit margins on traditional loans were squeezed and the institutions created new products to sell to an unsuspecting public. By the time the regulators caught up with these products, it was too late.

Neo-liberalism is not just about economic deregulation, privatisation, globalisation, tax evasion and tax cuts for the rich. Socially, it is a form of class warfare from above and has immensely benefited the super-rich. Neo-liberal ‘trickle down’ theory is a cover for real world ‘trickle up’. According to independent Senator Bernie Sanders, while the US working class is suffering and the middle class has collapsed under President Bush, the top 0.1% of Americans now earn more money than the whole bottom 50% and the top 1% own more wealth than the whole bottom 90%; the richest 400 people saw their official wealth increase by $670 billion under Bush. [26] Salaries of $27-36 million per annum are now the norm for the CEOs in Wall Street and London’s City. Meanwhile, 2.3 million, mostly black, Americans are in prison and almost a third of the population is functionally illiterate.

In the past the ruling classes in crisis have usually managed to deflect popular anger against themselves and their system towards internal scapegoats and/or other nations by using fear and appealing to the authoritarian craving for strong authorities and temporary certainty provided by such traditional top-down bonding devices as nation, religion or race. Nationalist xenophobia is already a potent force in many countries like Australia under Howard, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Britain, Denmark, Norway.[27]

Corollary: if inequality and discontent are to be held even within the limits needed for relatively stable social systems, the state is caught in a systemic dilemma. It will have to radically intervene on many levels, including in the private economy itself; at the same time it cannot do so and still remain the corporate state. The only other option it has is the authoritarian police-state one. The infrastructure for the latter is already in place in many democracies (elimination of habeas corpus, anti-terrorism laws and hotlines, rendition, surveillance states etc).

4. The ‘invisible hand’ of free market theory is invisible because it does not exist.

In capitalism there is no body representing the public interest. People are supposed to stick to their narrow economic roles of consumers/workers and occasional passive voters, not act as engaged citoyens debating, forming and implementing their own (public) interest. Parliaments are powerless rubber stamps for the executive. Democratically constituted governments are corporate states representing minority economic interests. They do not express the majority will of the people except where convenient. Majority against the invasion of Iraq? Go ahead anyway. The current financial crisis is another example.

At the time of the raising of the first US $700 billion rescue package, a Rasmussen polls indicated that around 65% of US citizens were against government bailouts of Wall Street speculators, with only 7% supporting the plan. [28] Congress at first rejected the plan. Even after the usual corporate media attempts to then massage public opinion and manufacture consent, a Pell poll found that a majority of Americans still opposed or were unsure about the government bailing out financial institutions, 60% were angry at the government plan, 44% said they were worried about government ‘becoming too involved in financial markets’ and nearly three quarters expressed concern at the thought that ‘those who are responsible for causing the crisis will be let off the hook.’ [29]

When the majority will is convenient it is called ‘community standards’ or ‘the overwhelming pressure of public opinion’. When it is to be ignored it is called ‘populism’, or even ‘ignorance’. In this case it was of course mere populism and ignorance that had to be ignored in favour of the ‘real leadership’ needed to ‘restore confidence in markets’. Such is the burdensome duty of the managers of ‘the national interest’ under capitalism. Democracy only when convenient.

The tight nexus between political and economic elites works on many levels. Corporate party campaign funding, ongoing intensive lobbying and the lucrative revolving doors between corporate government and big business are all long-standing feature of our systems. Public bureaucrats and politicians of all persuasions become business people or lobbyists peddling their influence with their old political networks, while business people become politicians. The ruling elites of the political and the business classes make up one class. State regulators and the corporate regulated are often the same people at different points in their careers. Sometimes the corporate regulated even write the policies that benefit them for the state regulators themselves (e.g. Howard and Bush governments’ pro-carbon and -nuclear energy policies [30]). The US rescue package for financial capital is being implemented by the very same people from Wall Street firms that caused the problems in the first place and for the benefit of those very same firms, at least those still remaining.

The main function of democratically constituted governments – of whatever persuasion – is not to express the will of the people or secure their welfare, or even survival, but to maintain ‘confidence’ in the system, i.e. the capitalist economy, wealth distribution and power relations no matter what. When necessary, this may entail the state intervening to save the system from itself.

Corollary: there can be no real political democracy when the major driving segment of society itself, the economy, is autocratic and quarantined from democracy. A truly democratic society needs a democratically run economy.

5. The democratic capitalist system has always meant ‘socialism’ (state welfare, bailouts) for the rich and capitalism (labour market and ‘external costs’) for the poor.

The ‘free market’ is a neo-liberal myth. This is not only revealed by government bailouts of failed financial institutions. Even in non-crisis times capital could not accumulate without constant state help and intervention. Indirectly, the state provides the education of the labour force, the transport infrastructure and picks up the many downstream welfare costs of the capitalist system in terms of poverty, homelessness, physical and mental ill health and suffering.

The billions of direct taxpayer subsidies to industries are legion. Globally, governments annually subsidise corporate destruction: according to Professor Norman Meyers in 2006, the fossil fuel and nuclear industries were subsidised to the tune of $71 billion, farmers $362 billion, $25 billion to destroy the earth’s fisheries, $14 billion to wreck the forests and an immense $ 1.1 trillion to climate-destroying road transport.[31] According to the neo-liberal Cato Institute, the US government in 2006 directly subsidised corporations like Boeing, GE and IBM to the tune of $ 92 billion, gave $21 billion to agribiz companies and even subsidised CEO salaries via tax rules to the tune of $20 billion. [32]

The driver and core of the US economy has not been a ‘free market’ system but a state-sponsored military-industrial complex for around seventy years. Wars and military interventions are its health. By the reckoning of ex-World bank economist Joseph Stiglitz, the war in Iraq to 2006 had, on ‘very conservative’ estimates cost the US a total of between $ 1 and $ 2 trillion. [33]

In Australia, the government first privatised the public water commons by creating a water market: they over-allocated river water entitlements and handed them out to farmers virtually for free. Locked into a ‘free market’ paradigm, it now sees itself as needing to spend billions to belatedly ‘buy them back’ in a belated and desperate attempt to stop the Murray-Darling system from collapsing completely. The ‘free market’ is a purely ideological construct needed to disguise the economic reality of a state capitalism for the benefit of private capital.

‘Free markets’ can also be translated to actually mean that while profits are always privatised, costs and losses are routinely socialized. This is not only the case in financial crises. When, as in NSW, governments sign over public road rights to private companies, for example, they then have to pay them millions in compensation should car traffic (and carbon emissions) be reduced; the government then has a direct material interest in increasing car numbers and greenhouse gas emissions. The social and environmental costs of big business and capital accumulation (suffering, pollution, ecocide) are always ‘externalised’, i.e. handed on to powerless others: workers, poor people, plants and animals, embryos, future generations. The fact that they can routinely do this is an expression of their complete social power and is a form of ‘structural violence’ (Johan Galtung). The violence is usually invisible and unquestioned because it is part of the power relations embedded in the impersonal economic structure itself. It is ‘normality’ within this system. If, in contrast, these ‘external costs’ foisted onto the socially powerless were instead ‘internalised’ (i.e. if the true costs of products were paid by producers and consumers), the system would collapse. Thus to ‘internalise’ these costs would only be possible by some form of social revolution.

The trillions now being spent on rescuing mega-rich financial speculators from their own reckless gambling debts simply mean the transfer of their toxic debts onto the powerless public. This in turn means severe potential stress on national budgets, debt ratios, credit ratings and public spending plans. People, having lost their own property (houses, superannuation savings), will sooner or later also suffer from future government spending cut-backs in social welfare and infrastructure programs. If the credit crunch really impacts on the productive economy, a severe global recession or even depression with years of mass unemployment and suffering will result.

6. Justice is inversely proportional to wealth and power.

There is not one law for all, but one for the poor and a different one (or none) for the rich. The larger the crime, the less chance of punishment (and vice versa). White collar crime – even when recognised – is never considered as significant as blue collar crime although it may hurt infinitely more victims. ‘Dole bludgers’ are universally execrated, corporate bludgers are rescued at taxpayers’ expense. They can continue their reckless and irresponsible schemes because they know the state will always bail them out. A bank robber goes behind bars. Bank owners are rewarded for robbing low income home owners via ‘sub-prime’ mortgages and selling on the debt in complex nifty ‘packages’ that then bring down the whole financial system when the credit-fuelled housing bubble deflates. The big end of town is simply ‘too big to fail’.

The law is for the little suckers. When it comes to making money, the wealthy and powerful always know how to situate themselves outside the law where necessary:

Money markets […] have flown neatly under the radar when it comes to regulation. The exclusive domain of the big end of town due to their sheer size and complexity, they are a law unto themselves.

Of course this is business as usual within democratic capitalism. A backyard polluter burning tyres will be fined a hefty sum. A company emitting tons of heavy metals, dioxins or radio-active toxics that pollute people for millennia will be left to ‘self-regulate’ and considered a good corporate citizen because they provide those needed jobs and profits. All they have to do is continue to pay their own (‘independent’) consultants to write those excellent emissions reports.

The double standards in law and morality are similar to those pertaining in democratic foreign policy and wars. The little guys are the patsies for the ‘credible deniability’ of the big guys. For foot soldiers to shoot women, children and old people at 500 paces, as at My Lai, is, when found out and however reluctantly acknowledged, a war crime. To kill them by dropping artillery shells, cluster bombs or napalm on them from 50,000 feet, however, is considered utterly normal or even heroic, as are those ordering these wars and mass bombing strategies back in the bunkers and offices of state. The lower rank wardens who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq were put on trial while the President, Attorney General and Secretary of Defence who ordered or consented to such criminal policies enjoy their retirement and may even get a monument or two.

Corollary: judicial justice and social justice are indelibly linked. One cannot exist without the other. Democracy, justice, non-aggressive foreign policy, ethical self-respect and legitimacy can all only work without double standards.

7. The ‘opportunity cost’ of capitalism is human survival.

The opportunity costs of the state bailouts and guarantees are huge. The trillions of taxpayers’ money spent to prop up the wealthy and powerful have been lost for eradicating poverty, remediating the environment and securing the low carbon infrastructure desperately needed to survive the overwhelming twin challenges of climate change and peak oil. While irreversible climate tipping points loom ever nearer, governments pour the trillions of our money needed for transitioning to a low energy future into saving the institutions of casino capitalism that have greedily gambled and foolishly lost. Billions of taxpayer dollars are pumped into the economy in a vain attempt to keep alive the growth and consumerism that are destroying the planet. For corporate governments the choice is clear: if the choice is between saving the world and saving banks, the banks will win out every time. In trying to save the economic system and ignoring the environment upon which all ultimately depends they will inevitably provoke the collapse of both.

Governments are always saying that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is too expensive for ‘our economy’ and in general there is never enough money to spend on health, education, public transport, renewable energy etc. At the same time world governments as of mid October 2008 have magically found countless trillions to bail out financial institutions, guarantee deposits, artificially stimulate economies (about $US 6.4 trillion in direct bailout assistance in the US alone from August to October 2008 [35] ). With state coffers depleted by these redistributive actions for the wealthy and economies in recession or worse, the political and economic elites will now argue that all efforts to avert climate change have become secondary or luxuries ‘we’ can no longer afford.

Corollary: if we want to save the world and ourselves from climate chaos, global environmental collapse and further immense suffering, we had better think of how to radically change the capitalist system that is locking us into this path over the abyss. After all, both the global financial and climate crises have again starkly revealed that it has neither a rational nor a moral leg to stand on.

(October 2008)


[1] Interview in Der Spiegel No. 40, 29/9/08, p. 34 (translated from the German, P. L-N).
[2] P. Totaro, ‘Marx shines as a man for grave times’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25-26/10/08, p.44.
[3] A. Horin, ‘The keepers of capitalism Marx never saw coming’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18-19/10/08, p. 31. In a similar vein: W. Hutton, ‘Only integrity can save us’, The Guardian Weekly, 3/10/08, p. 18.
[4] ‘Pleite der letzten Utopie’, Die Zeit No. 40, 25/9/08, p. 63.
[5] J. Garnaut, ‘American era ends – China calls the tune’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13/10/08, p. 19-20.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] G. Younge, ‘Old ideas can’t cure America’s new woes’, The Guardian Weekly, 3/10/08, pp. 18-19.
[9] E. Andrews & M. Landler, ‘US expands its arsenal in battle to end turmoil’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11-12/10/08, p. 42.
[10] P. Hartcher, ‘End of the American Century?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4-5/10/08, p. 25.
[11] J. Fox, ‘America’s No. 1 Export’, Time Magazine, 6/10/08, p.19.
[12] Cf. R. Heinberg, The Party’s Over. Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (East Sussex: Clairview House, 2005).
[13] M. Wilkinson, ‘It’s not too late to save the planet, says UN climate chief’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24/10/08, p. 9.
[14] G. Younge, op.cit., p. 19.
[15] A. Davies, ‘Outsiders may wonder who is really in charge of the US’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26/9/08, p. 10.
[16] M. Maiden, ‘It’s a crash, but not as we know it’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11-12/10/08, p. 40.
[17] W. Bello, ‘Wall Street Meltdown Primer’, Foreign Policy Focus, 26/9/08, at the Common Dreams website. Bello also sees globalisation and neo-liberal restructuring as the two other means capital has used to deal with its systemic problem of over-production and over-accumulation.
[18] IMF figures in Der Spiegel No. 40, 29/9/08, p. 28. Nobody can really imagine figures like this. One help might be to just take the US October bailout figure of $US 700 billion and realise that if it takes about 37 years to count to out one billion one dollar pieces (taking one second to say each number), it would take 25,900 years to count out 700 billion.
[19] J. Christensen, ‘Can pay…won’t pay!’, in New Internationalist 416, October 2008, pp. 9-11. All tax statistics are taken from this article.
[20] W. Hutton, ‘Only integrity can save us’, op.cit., p. 19.
[21] J. Christensen, op.cit., p. 11.
[22] A. Davies, ‘Fixing a broken system’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20-21/9/08, p. 44.
[23] D. Von Drehle, ‘The Financial Crisis: Who Can Lead Us Out Of This Mess?’ Time Magazine, 6/10/08, p. 17.
[24] E. Johnston, ‘ASIC in total ban on short selling’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22/9/08, p. 19.
[25] I. Verrender, ‘Go ahead, blame the banks, says one who knows too well’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9-10/8/08, p. 41.
[26] A. Davies, ‘The glum old USA’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4-5/10/08, p. 26.
[27] W. Aly, ‘Beneath the financial crisis waits a nastier beast’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13/10/08, p. 11.
[28] A. Davies, ‘Fixing a broken system’, op.cit.
[29] A. Davies, ‘The glum old USA’, op.cit.
[30] Cf. G. Pearse, High and Dry. (Camberwell Vic: Penguin Group, 2007).
[31] G. Monbiot, ‘costing climate change’, in New Internationalist No. 396, December 2006, p. 31.
[32] G. Monbiot, ‘The free market preachers have long practised state welfare for the rich’, The Guardian Weekly, 30/9/08.
[33] G. Monbiot, ‘costing climate change’, op.cit.
[34] I. Verrender, ‘Global finance: no one’s in charge’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10/10/08, p. 2.
[35] Der Spiegel No. 40, 29/9/2008, p. 21.


9. On Political Poetry

Two Heads, Two Hearts

Speaking for many of his generation in Europe, Polish ‘political’ and yet ‘minimalist’ and ‘anti-poet’ Tadeusz Różewicz (b. 1921) once remarked that his situation from the European post-apocalyptic devastations of ‘year zero’ 1945 onwards had been one of having a constant internal dialogue between ‘two heads’ or ‘two hearts’. One head/heart belonged to the writer/poet, the other counselled him to not bother writing in this time which had ‘no parallel in history’ and to ‘throw everything away’, to not ‘play at literature’ as a mere littérateur: ‘on the one hand the history of art, on the other, everything’s shit.’[1] And, speaking for a whole generation after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, he stated:

I cannot understand that poetry should survive when the men who created that poetry are dead. One of the premises and incentives for my poetry is a disgust with poetry. What I revolted against was that it had survived the end of the world, as though nothing had happened.
Bertolt Brecht (1891-1956) famously summed up his earlier generation’s very similar internal conflict in his ‘Bad Time For Poetry’, the tension in the poem’s final image not between history/politics and art but between history/politics and nature:

In my poetry a rhyme
Would seem to me almost insolent.

Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to the desk.
Even after the end of modernism’s high watermark and the totalitarian ‘Age Of Extremes’ (Eric Hobsbawm) of Rozewicz’ and Brecht’s generations, who would not have felt such an internal tension between the need for poetry and the need for social, ecological or political engagement? It would seem that this tension may be (temporarily?) resolved in various ways. One may stop writing poetry at all like Rimbaud or like Frankfurt School philosopher T.W. Adorno notoriously counselled vis-à-vis the death of western civilisation, culture and language in Auschwitz (‘Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch’: ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’). One may concentrate all the harder on oneself, immediate experience, language and the never-ending process of absorption in perfecting one’s poetic craft. Or one may attempt to bring together ‘poetry’ and ‘engagement’ and write ‘political poetry’. (Or one may oscillate between all of the above.)

A Pox On Both Your Houses

Am I alone in having on occasion experienced a double distaste, namely with regard to both ‘engaged’ (or ‘political’) and ‘disengaged’ poetry? Unsuccessful versions of the former (which include many poems of my own) have inevitably recalled German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn’s dictum of ‘art being the opposite of the well-intentioned’ (Kunst ist das Gegenteil von gut gemeint). They have inevitably fallen victim to all the usual political temptations of simple-minded obviousness and cliché, preaching to the saved, lack of formal grace, tension, contradiction, surprise, metaphorical expansion or density etc.

At the same time, who has not – in a world of imperial torture and terrors, post-liberal slides to friendly fascisms and police states, structurally imposed hunger, industrial ecocide – at times sympathised with ‘political poet’ Denise Levertov’s disgust with the disengaged narcissism of so much contemporary poetry, the ‘cherished worms’ of ‘dispassion’, the ‘pallid ironies’, the ‘jovial, murderous,/wry-humoured balanced judgement’ and equally wished to bid it adieu?

Genial poets, pink-faced
earnest wits –
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak
and Cherries Jubilee.
Goodbye, goodbye,
I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.

Such divisions would at times seem set in concrete. One important theme of modern literary and critical discourse since around the mid-nineteenth century has been the supposed duality and strict division between ‘engaged’ or ‘political’ literature/poetry (poésie engagée )and ‘pure’ literature/poetry (poésie pure). This duality echoes its way through often related polarities such as ‘realism’ versus ‘symbolism’, ‘content-orientation’ versus ‘formalism’, ‘popular’ versus ‘avantgarde’, ‘agitprop’ versus ‘ivory tower’, Leavisite and Marxist criticism versus New Criticism/Structuralism. To a degree it may even be present in possible current tensions between the written and spoken word/performance poetry. However, as German ‘engaged’ poet H.M. Enzensberger already remarked in the early sixties, this opposition has not done poetry itself any service: arguments between the two camps often seem like the pointless pursuits of two caged mice on a treadmill.[5] How can this unproductive polarisation be overcome?

Is ‘Political Poetry’ An Oxymoron?

One way to start chiselling away at this rigid polarisation might be by asking an obvious question: is not the very term ‘political poetry’ something of an oxymoron? My answer would be: well, yes and no.

Yes: poetry and ‘politics’ in the usual narrow sense of parliaments, parties and propaganda are just as mutually exclusive as are music or art and propaganda. A. Alvarez sums up the familiar case:

The problem is not that the twain can never meet but that they can do so only at a great cost. The complexity, tension and precision of modern poetry simply doesn’t [sic] go with the language of politics, with its vague rhetoric and dependence on clichés. [This argument] amounts to the belief that political poetry as poetry, must be relatively but debilitatingly simple-minded. This means that, although it may on occasion be effective, it can’t be defined as ‘good’, since our criteria of excellence are defined by qualities more inturned and subtly discriminating than politics leaves room for. [6]

For examples, one need look no further than to the painful homilies and infamous clichés of both political right and left, of ‘fascist or socialist realism’: (Stackhonovite hero meets tractor, the Great Leader explaining the Five Year Plan to a rapt peasant family in their lowly, but recently electrified hut…). Those days are of course now almost ancient history, yet, closer to home, even great contemporary poets may at times lapse into political propaganda at its most ludicrous.

Les Murray’s Hansonite Darville-Demidenko doggerel, for example, predictable chip firmly planted on ‘redneck’ shoulder, dares to first patronisingly allow the reader a certain amount of grief over the Holocaust in order to then nicely ‘balance out’ the latter with the Gulag Terror and make the notorious poseur Darville-Demidenko (of The Hand That Wrote The Letter fame) a heroic martyr-victim of those hegemonial chardonnay-Bolshie elites and their wretched multiculturalism:

The Six Million are worth full grief:
it isn’t enough to be stunned –
but showing up your elders’ multiculture
so easily is what got you shunned… .

(This is almost as bad as the late poet laureate Ted Hughes’ embarrassing basilikos logos pap regarding the British royal wedding.)

In contrast, however, both ‘higher’ forms of propaganda or at least ‘didacticism’ (with regard to a strongly held belief system) may obviously be even great poetry. Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost, are of course Christian theodicies ‘justifying the ways of God to man’, and ‘political’ in that sense. (In a more mystic sense, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a personal favourite of mine, may also be possibly read as such). The powerful anti-war poems of Sassoon and Owen have become schoolroom classics of their genre. The political thirties produced not only the Stalinist doggerel and agitprop of Soviet poets and Communist fellow-travellers but also possibly enduring political poetry by Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Brecht, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (e.g. Autumn Journal). In the fifties and sixties and later Yehuda Amichai, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa, Tadeusz Różewicz, Denise Levertov, Adrian Mitchell, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, H.M. Enzensberger, Zbigniew Herbert, even Beat poets like Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg’s Howl may spring to mind. In the seventies and eighties feminism’s ‘personal-as-political’ stance generated much memorable poetry by woman poets that re-defined the poetics of gender, creatively blurring and transcending the tired old ‘private’ and ‘engaged’ compartments of poetic genre.[8]

The Politics of Poetry As An Alternative Epistemology

Thus even the term ‘political poetry’ in the overt, explicitly engaged sense, need not be an oxymoron. Beyond that, it may depend a lot on how you define ‘politics’. Defined widely enough, ‘politics’ can also refer to a whole way of life and correlative way of seeing (an epistemology) based on usually tacit understandings of what constitute public and private concerns, ‘power’, ‘value’ and ‘meaning’. In that sense poetry and politics are not only very compatible, rather one could argue that ‘political poetry’ is not only not an oxymoron but perhaps indeed something of a pleonasm.

This is especially so from the perspective of the radical aesthetic tradition of the western avant-garde. In contrast to content-oriented, politically engaged, populist and predominantly realist schools of aesthetic thought, the post-romantic tradition of aesthetics (and its radical heirs in French surrealism and Frankfurt School theorists like T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse) posits art and poetry as INHERENTLY subversive, not as specific ‘political’ content but qua the form of art/poetry itself.

In this view, a Rimbaud, Rilke, Celan, Eliot, Joyce or Beckett, for example, are perhaps more subversive than much of the poetry that explicitly sees itself as ‘politically engaged’. Seen dialectically, the often disengaged symbolism and apparent hermeticism of l’art pour l’art can in fact contain radical implications of fundamental dissent. ‘The most ethereally suspended text by Arp or Eluard is already poésie engagée by the mere fact of it being poetry: opposition to, not confirmation of business as usual.’[9] (In the same way, a Francis Bacon or Mark Rothko painting may be more ‘engaged art’ than a revolutionary poster, or Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘All Along The Watchtower’ more poésie engagée than ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’). How is this at first sight perhaps implausible proposition to be understood?

In this radical tradition, poetry and aesthetic form is conceived as an alternative way of seeing, or anti-epistemology to that of bourgeois society. In contrast to both popular and engaged poetry, avantgarde modernist poetry in the post-romantic, symbolist tradition has, from its beginnings, attempted to withdraw the poem from the logic of the market and make the poem the ‘absolute anti-commodity’.[10] In this view ‘true’ poetry refuses to be instrumentalised or to pander to anything extraneous to itself, i.e. to any expectation, power, cause or ‘market’, economic or political. In H.M. Enzensberger’s view:

The poem’s political mission is to reject any political mission and to speak for all even there where it speaks of no one, speaks of a tree, a stone, of that which is not. This mission is the most difficult. None is easier to forget. No one is there to demand accountability; quite the contrary: they who betray it in the interest of those in power are rewarded. [11]

According to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse), the prevalent epistemology of bourgeois society – from science to everyday consciousness – is quite the opposite. It is defined by the commodity and its pragmatic, utilitarian ‘instrumental reason’. Everything is viewed from the implicit (capitalist) perspective of ‘usefulness’ and social or tradable ‘value’ as narrowly defined by market society.

Since its modern origins in seventeenth century rationalism and scientific empiricism, this predominant form of reason has also been inherently and necessarily dissociative. Like the commodity’s split between its use value and exchange (market) value, instrumental reason splits everything into observing or manipulating subjects (Descartes’ res cogitans or ‘thinking things’) and dead objects (Descartes’ res extensa or ‘extended things’). These splits and their many correlates (mind and body, male and female, man and nature etc.) are usually hierarchically arranged, with the former supposedly having power over the latter. Under the notorious patriarchal premises of Baconian and Newtonian science and technology, nature is a woman to be phallically ‘known’ by the power of conquest, fragmentation, dissection, reduction. Instrumental reason thus looks at things and people from the viewpoint of ‘power-over’, i.e. from the outside, at a distance and as manipulable for some, extrinsic, ulterior purpose.

Towards that end, language itself becomes just another pragmatic, manipulative tool in its technological box: it is mainly there as either a series of prosaic ‘speech acts’ to maximise ‘persuasion’ or ‘communication’, to ‘process information’, to ‘get things done’ in the ‘real world’ or else as the slick pseudo-poetry of advertising and PR to ‘sell a message’ and/or commodity. Means and ends, form and content are as separated, isolated and reified as ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’, ‘seller’ and buyer’, ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, ‘medium’ and ‘message’.

Modern poetry, art and music work from a very different epistemology. Whatever their content or subject matter, they are necessarily concerned with their own formal features and materials (whether as traditional continuation, exploration, development, subversion or abandonment) and are ‘useless’ in any immediate practical sense. The stereotypical philistine is quite right in asking what the ‘message’ or what ‘the good’ of all this avant-garde cultural stuff is supposed to be. The answer is of course: no ‘good’ or ‘message’ at all.

Poetry and the arts eschew the exclusively extrinsic, distanced, objectivist viewpoint of science, media and the everyday, working (in the main) ‘intrinsically’ or ‘from the inside out’. Poetry knows no simple linear causalities or the simple ‘messages’ of ‘facts’ or ‘information’. Even when dissonant, despairing or ‘dark’ (perhaps especially then), art, music and poetry can be experienced as healing of personal and social dissociations. Their ‘use’ thus lies in their very uselessness as market commodities. As ‘useless’ as love, clouds, moonlight or the proverbial red wheelbarrow in the rain. In that wider sense, they are inherently subversive of instrumental reason and the increasingly totalitarian logic of the market. And thus eminently ‘political’.

Another World Is Possible: Poetry As Inherently Utopian

This alternative ‘way of seeing’ inherent in poetry, art and music thus also (and necessarily) contains an ‘utopian’ element, and one working ‘politically’ in both temporal directions, backwards and forwards. On the one hand, in its forms, rhythms and metaphors poetry harks backwards to the very origins of human consciousness, to a pre-bourgeois time before the instrumental reason of money and markets ruled consciousness. It harks back even further to a pre-rational ‘dreamtime’ of myths, animism, shamanism. It harks back to a both personal and collective ‘pre-egoic’ (Ken Wilber) time of ‘body-mind’ before the development of differentiated egos, intellects and abstract thought.

In all modern art forms, the intellect and its self-reflexivity – as Hegel may have been the first to realise two hundred years ago – have been increasingly and necessarily added to the original holistic mind-body mix. However, I would argue, without some level of basic grounding in our pre-rational origins, these aesthetic forms are always in danger of losing all vitality, movement and ‘oomph’. For personal and aesthetic wholeness or integrity, the human neo-cortex (or ‘consciousness’) would seem to need to communicate freely with, and be transparent toward, the mammalian limbic and reptilian base stem parts of the brain (or ‘the unconscious’) ‘on top’ of which it sits.[12]

On the other hand, it is one of the many paradoxes of the arts that in their very ‘conservatism’ also lies their revolutionary potential. It is precisely in conserving a memory, however distant, of pre-bourgeois and pre-egoic origins, of this alternative epistemology, that they at the same time conserve a promise of a utopian, post-bourgeois future. For Stendhal and Nietzsche, all beauty embodied ‘une promesse de bonheur’; for Marxist and mystic philosopher Ernst Bloch, art and beauty communicate a ‘premonition of future freedom’. For H.M. Enzensberger, poetry passes on the future and reminds us of the self-evident which remains historically unrealised and of which we have been socially deprived [13]:

Francis Ponge has remarked: his poems are written as if on the day after the successful revolution. That is the case for all poetry. Poetry is anticipation, if need be as doubt, refusal, negation. Not that it speaks of the future, but rather as if a future were possible, as if the unfree could speak freely, as if there were not alienation and speechlessness (since speechlessness cannot speak itself, alienation cannot communicate). Such anticipating would become a lie if it were not at the same time critique; such critique would be powerless were it not in the same breath anticipation.

The complex beauties of poetry, music, art can serve to remind the attentive audience or immersed reader that, as the politics of the contemporary alternative globalisation movement would have it, ‘another world is indeed possible’. The separations, alienations and reifications of market society and the egoic power-over principle can be overcome. The instrumental reason that characterises the obsessive-compulsive drivenness of capitalist technology, innovation, growth, productivity can be transcended. In Marcuse’s view, poetry and art are a form of cultural ‘permanent revolution’, a struggle

against reification by giving voice to frozen humans and things – by letting them sing, perhaps dance…This permanent revolution does not seek ever better productivity, ever more exertion, ever more efficient exploitation of nature. This revolution seeks the cessation of the will to power, pacification in the enjoyment of what is, the abolition of inhuman labour, the beauty of the life-world. [15]

This kind of sensibility characterised much of the cultural and counter-cultural avant-garde in Europe and the US during the sixties and early seventies, symbolically perhaps culminating in the poetic and social ‘utopian’ events of Paris in May 1968. (These events not accidentally so heavily influenced by the radical ex-artists of the post-surrealist Situationist movement).

According to this kind of both post-romantic and critical dialectical thought, this transcending of the bourgeois ‘will to power’ that permeates our industrial market societies would, however, not be a reactionary, romantic regression to the pre-bourgeois, pre-modern and pre-egoic. That way may lie the even worse ‘will to power’ that is some atavistic form of fascism. Rather, this transcending would rather take the form of a forward movement to the post-bourgeois, post-modern and post-egoic that dialectically integrates both modern and pre-modern. Both psyches and society could then be structured like the ‘free order’ or non-violent, holistic ‘anarchy’ that characterises the great poem, piece of music or work of art (or, indeed, natural ecosystems): the whole that is not an enforced pseudo-unity from above but that is itself nothing but the free, unimpeded, democratic inter-communication of the parts. This is the utopian ‘politics’ inherent both in the successful poem or work of art and in the poetic (and musical, artistic) way of seeing and responding to the world and self.

Utopia is bread and roses for all. From this perspective, the alternative ‘politics’ inherent in poetic form can become a reality informing a culture and society. Meanwhile, however:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

– William Carlos Williams (Asphodel, that Greeny Flower) [16]


[1] In: D. Weissbort (ed.), The Poetry Of Survival. Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 349-350.
[2] In: M. Hamburger, The Truth Of Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 273-274.
[3] D. Weissbort, op.cit., p. 31.
[4] Denise Levertov, ‘Goodbye to Tolerance’, in the freeing of the dust (New York: New Directions Books, 1975), p. 39.
[5] H.M. Enzensberger, ‘Weltsprache der modernen Poesie’, in Einzelheiten II – Poesie und Politik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1976), p. 23.
[6] A. Alvarez, Introduction to the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, in Zbigniew Herbert, Selected Poems (Penguin Modern European Poets, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 9.
[7] Les Murray, ‘For Helen Darville’ in Subhuman Redneck Poems (Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996), p. 95. Murray’s poem in the same volume ‘A Stage in Gentrification’ (p. 65) continues the predictable hate polemics against the chardonnay Bolshie ‘elites’ whose Commie cultural bag is deemed to include a psychologically interesting mix of Murraysian obsessions: ‘sex’, ‘media careers’, ‘the Australian republic’, ‘recruited depression’, ‘scorn of God’ ‘self-abasement studies’ and ‘funding’s addictive smelling-rag.’ In a daringly ludicrous moral equation, the cultural ‘atmosphere’ of ‘nag and bully’ apparently set by this Bolshie elite in Australia is even identified with the same spirit that propelled Stalin’s police to murder ‘eighty million’. Murray seems to have a bad time with funding bodies. ‘The Beneficiaries’ (p. 27) even finds it odd that ‘Western intellectuals’ (a social category to which Murray obviously does not see himself as belonging) ‘never praise Auschwitz’ since ‘they claim it’s what finally/won them their centuries-/long war against God.’ Despite having patronisingly assured us that the Six Million are ‘worth full grief’, Murray obviously finds nothing wrong with playing petty point scoring games with the highly charged term ‘Auschwitz’ and the victims of the Holocaust.
[8] A fine example is the anthology: Marge Piercy (ed.), Early Ripening. American Women’s Poetry Now. London: Pandora Press, 1987.
[9] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 24. (I have translated Enzenberger’s Bestehende as ‘business as usual’. It literally means ‘the existing’ or ‘things as they are’.) Enzensberger adds that the pre-modern classics are ‘au fond no less obnoxious than modern authors. Their poetry is also dissent. But this obnoxiousness must not be admitted.’ (p. 25)
[10] Ibid., p. 23.
[11] H.M. Enzensberger, ‘Poesie und Politik’ in Einzelheiten II, op.cit., p. 136 (own translation, P.L-N.)
[12] J.C. Pearce sums up MacLean’s theory of the ‘triune brain’ in Evolution’s End (New York: HarperSanFrancisco), pp. 42-51.
[13] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 25.
[14] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 136 (own translation, P.L-N.)
[15] In: C. L. Nibbrig (ed.), Ästhetik. Materialien zu ihrer Geschichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978) p. 238. (own translation, P.L-N.)
[16] Quoted in P. Lach-Newinsky & M. Seletzsky, Working With Poetry (Bochum: Kamp Verlag, 1986), p. 40.


10. The Familiar Stranger, or: The Eternal Witness

When I think myself back into memories of childhood, I become aware of a strange phenomenon. If I focus on remembering not the actual external events but the nature, texture, quality of my internal configuration of feelings at the time, the specific way my awareness ‘watched’ or ‘looked out’ onto these events and inner feelings from somewhere ‘behind my eyes’, I realise, with a slight sense of shock and delight, that there is no difference whatsoever between then and now.

It could be argued that this is merely a trick of memory, that I am merely projecting back my current consciousness onto that of my childhood. However, I am absolutely certain that this is not the case. I know, deeply, that despite all my many external and mental changes, exactly the same kind of ‘feeling-awareness’ was present then as it is now. Both the content of consciousness and the trappings of my social masks or personalities may have changed radically, but the ‘how’, the specific feeling-quality of the space or ‘container’ of this consciousness, within which this content and these personalities happen, has not. This core ‘feeling-identity’ has remained the same throughout all the developmental changes of ageing. What looked out of the eyes of that little boy sitting alone in the playground in kindergarten is the same ‘something’, or rather quality of feeling, that is looking out of my eyes now. In all its simplicity and matter-of-factness, this is a startling observation, for if it has not changed over time, it is, logically, beyond time, eternal. This seems an empirical observation; there is no need for any metaphysical speculation or religious belief.

So what are we to make of this eternally watching one inside, this one who always remains calm whatever is happening to or in oneself? This watcher deep behind the eyes, this unchanging one, this most basic stream of awareness or ‘self-feeling’, already there in the earliest childhood we can remember? Thankfully, despite the general cloak of silence around this phenomenon in our modern cultures, evidence for the experience and existence of this eternal witness is manifold throughout our human transcultural history from the earliest written texts to contemporary poetry and science.

The Indian Upanishads (800 BCE), in characterising the Spirit or Self (Atman) –identical with Brahman or God – ‘concealed in the heart of all beings […] smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the greatest spaces’, speak of it as being an immortal inner driver, guard and witness watching but never involved in the events, feelings and behaviour of these beings.[i] It is the inner essence and driver of your breath and thinking, but your breath and thinking cannot know it. The same Svetasvatara Upanishad also uses the symbol of the human personality as the tree of life; in this tree sit the two birds of soul and Spirit, ‘two sweet friends’: the one eats the fruits thereof, and the other looks on in silence. The first is the human soul who, resting on that tree, though active, feels sad in his unwisdom. But on beholding the power and the glory of the higher Spirit, he becomes free from sorrow. [ii]

Contemporary spiritual author James Thornton, similarly stresses the detached nature of this witnessing entity but calls it ‘soul’ and likens it to a deep untroubled stream always there underneath the turbulent surface of events.

A time comes when, if we allow it, the soul takes over all aspects of our lives. At this point, no matter what our difficulties may be, we recognize that there is a deep and untroubled stream flowing below all surface troubles and that we are one substance with that stream. The soul knows no difficulties.[iii]

The implication of this metaphor is that, as daily wrestlers with surface troubles and the deeper untroubled stream, we are both observers and observed, speakers and that which remains silent, we seem to be ‘both in this world but not of it’.

Although not always in this metaphysical and positive form, many writers and poets seem to have known this silent, immortal, witnessing other well. Such very different modern writers and poets as Vladimir Nabokov, Juan Ramon Jimenez, H-M Enzensberger, Gwen Harwood and Walt Whitman have found very similar words for the experience of the inner witness.

Near the beginning of Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister (1945/46) there is a scene where the protagonist Krug finds himself sobbing while walking towards a bridge in a fog.[iv] Then there is a split, a ‘dualism’ arises as he ‘discriminates’ in wonted fashion, the ‘I’ doubles, and ‘the one that looked on’ appears:

Tried clearing his throat but it merely led to another gasping sob. He was sorry now he had yielded to that temptation for he could not stop yielding and the throbbing man in him was soaked. As usual he discriminated between the throbbing one and the one that looked on: looked on with concern, with sympathy, with a sigh, or with bland surprise. This was the last stronghold of the dualism he abhorred. The square root of I is I.

The narrative then shifts into the first person. This other, both stranger and familiar, is always aloof and watches. He can teach hard lessons about emotions, identity, presumption, sex. He is both saviour and witness:

The stranger quietly watching the torrents of local grief from an abstract bank. A familiar figure, albeit anonymous and aloof. He saw me crying when I was ten and led me to a looking glass in an unused room (with an empty parrot cage in the corner) so that I might study my dissolving face. He has listened to me with raised eyebrows when I said things which I had no business to say. In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes. Even at the very moment when I was rocked by the convulsion men value most. My saviour. My witness.

Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez’ version (1916/17) of the witness is remarkably similar to that of Krug/Nabokov. Here he is also a wise, compassionate guide for the ego, a definite ‘saviour’ of sorts, sometimes forgotten and yet eternal.

I am not I.
I am he
who walks at my side without my seeing him;
whom, at times, I go to see
and whom, at times, I forget.
He, who, composed, is silent when I speak,
he who, gentle, forgives when I hate,
he who walks where about where I am not,
he who will stand up straight when I die.[v]

Contemporary German poet H.M. Enzensberger’s early poem ‘the other’ is almost identical to the features of the other that Jimenez lists, even down to the denotation as ‘not I’.

one laughs
is worried
under the sky exposes my face and my hair
makes words roll out of my mouth
one who has money and fears and a passport
one who quarrels and loves
one moves
one struggles
but not i
i am the other
who does not laugh
who has no face to expose to the sky
and no words in his mouth
who is unacquainted with me with himself
not i: the other: always the other
who neither wins nor loses
who is not worried
who does not move
the other
indifferent to himself
of whom I know nothing
of whom nobody knows who he is
who does not move me
that’s who I am

Australian poet Gwen Harwood ‘Alter Ego’ also contains echoes of such an invisible, omniscient, unnameable, indifferent, unmoved, eternal Other:

Who stands beside me still,
nameless, indifferent
to any lost or ill
motion of mind or will,
whose pulse is mine, who goes
sleepless and is not spent?
And this one, whom I greet
yet cannot name, or see
save as light’s sidelong shift,
who will not answer me,
knows what I was, will be,
and all I am: beyond
time’s desolating drift.

Walt Whitman’s ‘Me myself’ is both within and without self and world, totally immersed in the game and totally outside it. This Witness integrates all the necessary oppositions with all the ease of enlightened paradox:

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful
News, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am.
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

In contrast, other literary references to there being a definite someone or ‘other’ inside, some unknown being almost parasitically living one’s life, can also seem somewhat seem less benign and have occurred in literature at least since early 19th century romanticism. A sense of dissociation and alienation from this internal other often prevails. There is German romanticism’s Doppelgänger motif. There is Rimbaud’s famous On me pense (‘I am being thought’) and Je est un autre (‘I is an other’). Pirandello’s 1933-34 diary entry may perhaps also be classed in this category: ‘There is someone who is living my life. And I know nothing about him.’[ix]

So can this interior witnessing entity perhaps be pathologically interpreted as a ‘schizoid’ version of the ‘ego’, an internalised ‘critical parent’ or ‘super-ego’ or is it rather a ‘true self’, a saviour and deep source of sanity? Is it the psychic dissociation of the modern alienated ego or our original immortal identity, neurotic defence mechanism or innermost source of being? Or, as with many dualisms, could this be a case of not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’? Could these be but different versions of the same phenomenon merely seen from different angles, under differing historical, social or psychological conditions?

Like Fernando Pessoa’s various invented ‘heteronyms’ who wrote his various books, Argentinean writer Juan Luis Borges’ witnessing other is more ‘literary’, more complexly imagined. His other would seem to be an originally imagined character or Borges’ authorial voice/persona. His parable ‘Borges and I’ begins with: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ There is similarity and difference between the two, there is tension, critique, even hostility and this other is, unlike that of the Upanishads, Jimenez or Harwood, definitely mortal:

I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. [x]

The other’s relationship to Borges is both within, inextricably confused with and yet quite separate from Borges:

Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. (…) I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him (…) Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I do not know which of us has written this page. [xi]

For psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, we are also inherently double, we are made of twins, Dioscuri, similar to the two birds on the tree of life in the Svetasvatara Upanishad. Although we would ‘prefer to be always ‘I’ and nothing else’, our mortal soul has an immortal inner friend who is always present and ‘into whom Nature herself would like to change us – that other person who we also are and yet can never attain to completely.’[xii] He adds that one need not be insane to hear this other’s voice, to engage in dialogue with it, this being, on the contrary, ‘the simplest and most natural thing imaginable.’

Ernest Hilgard of Stanford University has scientifically studied what he calls the ‘hidden observer’ for years.[xiii] This is an aspect of self that is always alert, aware of and responsive to everything no matter what our conscious ego state – even sleeping, drugged, anaesthetized, hypnotized. Even in such states it can respond with physical movements. This may be a so-called ‘causal’ system beyond the physical body observing actions of ‘subtle-physical’ systems, an unemotional, detached intelligence, more cohesive than the ego-personality. Based on work with near-death and comatose clients, post-Jungian process psychotherapist Arnold Mindell even distinguishes three further bodies interacting with and enveloping the physical body: the Dreambody, the archetypal Mythbody and the etheric Immortal Body or ‘Self’.[xiv] Countless documented near-death experiences often seem to include the experience of very dispassionately witnessing one’s own dead body and relations:

I could see my own body all tangled up in the car amongst all the people who had gathered around, but, you know, I had no feelings for it whatsoever. It was like it was a completely different human, or maybe even just an object. […]
It was like all relations were cut…Everything was just so – technical.[xv]

Perhaps this witnessing Self is also identical to that which ‘breathes’ the Tai Chi practitioner or the archer in Zen practice, moving the body without conscious or intentional control of the muscular system. According to Ernest Hilgard’s theory, we are mostly one with this hidden observer till about age seven, then the intellect splits off and we identify with the social world. Re-union with it may be a major part of true adult maturation. ‘As living creatures, we are all Maya. As witnessing selves we are all that witness.’[xvi]

However this latter construction seems a little ‘romantic’ in the sentimental sense, an example of what philosopher Ken Wilber has aptly called the ‘pre/trans fallacy’, the cognitive error of equating an earlier pre-developmental state with one that has gone through considerable development and transcended it.[xvii] Pace romantic poet William Wordsworth (‘trailing clouds of glory do I come…’), for most people childhood is certainly no simple and unalloyed state of union and grace till the age of six or seven. Ongoing and blind regression to a purported earlier stage is never a healthy option anyway; from a psychoanalytical perspective it is, rather, a defence mechanism against further development rather than a mark of maturation, individuation or enlightenment.

It perhaps needs to be stressed that despite New Age pop spirituality, the ‘intellect’ or the ‘ego’ are not an adult ‘enemy’ to be somehow magically liquidated or regressed behind but rather very necessary aspects of human development that are, in the course of human development and individuation, to be ‘lifted up’ or integrated into some form of higher unity that includes them. The subtle witness is there through all stages of psychological and spiritual development, eternally present, not something we somehow tragically lose after childhood and thus have to regress back to in order to regain. As we age and ‘the world is too much with us’ (Wordsworth) we may indeed often seem to ‘lose’ that familiar stranger, the witnessing one. But it, possibly unless we go totally and irremediably insane, never loses us.

[i] J. Mascaro (ed.), The Upanishads (Penguin Classics), p. 90 and H. Zimmer, Philosophie und Religion Indiens, pp. 329-330.
[ii] Mascaro, p. 91.
[iii] James Thornton, A Field Guide to The Soul, p. 44.
[iv] Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister, p. 17.
[v] Jimenez’ poem ‘Yo no soy yo’ is from his Eternidades of 1916/17, quoted in M. Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry, p. 124.
[vi] Poems of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, p. 57 (Penguin Modern European Poets, 1968).
[vii] ‘Alter Ego’ in Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems, (revised edition 1986), p. 3.
[viii] From ‘Song of Myself’ (end of verse 4) in Leaves of Grass (1855).
[ix] Cited in Frederick May’s introduction to Six Characters In Search of An Author, p. vii.
[x] J.L. Borges, ‘Borges and I’, in Labyrinths, p. 282.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 282-283.
[xii] C.G. Jung, ‘Concerning Rebirth’, in Four Archetypes, p. 65.
[xiii] J.C. Pearce, Evolution’s End, p. 91.
[xiv] A. Mindell, Coma. Key to Awakening, pp. 87-96.
[xv] Ibid., p. 83.
[xvi] J.C. Pearce, op.cit., p. 95.
[xvii] K. Wilber, ‘The Pre/Trans Fallacy’, in Eye To Eye, pp. 198-243.


11. The Lessons of August 1914

On Anzac Day 2010, is there anything that can learned from August 1914?

Mass War Enthusiasm and the Collapse of Socialist Internationalism

Growing inter-imperialist rivalry and attendant increasing arms expenditures, militarism and bellicose imperial nationalism on the part of national ruling classes were key features of the European context in the lead-up to 1914. What is less well known is that in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War hundreds of thousands of working class people in Germany and elsewhere had participated in socialist anti-militarist rallies. In accordance with the principle of socialist internationalism, European socialist parties and trade unions had cooperated across national boundaries to diffuse ruling class foreign policy crises like the Fashoda conflict between England and France, the Morocco crisis between Germany and France, the Trieste crisis between Italy and Austria and the Swedish intention to invade Norway. The Stuttgart Resolution of the Socialist Second Internationale of August 1907 had even boldly declared:

Wars are furthered by the people-to-people prejudices systematically inculcated in the interest of the ruling classes in order to thereby deflect the mass of the proletariat from its own class tasks and from the requirements of international solidarity.
Wars are thus inherent in capitalism; they will only cease when the capitalist economic order has been eliminated… […]
Thus the working class – which has to predominantly provide the soldiers and most of the material sacrifices – is a natural enemy of war; since war also stands in opposition to its own goal: the creation of an economic order based on socialism and which realises the international solidarity of all peoples. [1]

The same resolution further noted the duty of socialist parliamentarians to refuse to grant any state budgetary contributions to arms purchases, to help educate working class youth in the spirit of international fraternity and socialism, to use all means necessary to prevent the outbreak of a war or to work for the swift ending of one that has broken out and use the subsequent economic and political crisis to mobilise the people and thereby accelerate the elimination of capitalist class domination.

Again, a mere two years before the war and flanked by anti-war demonstrations throughout Europe numbering hundreds of thousands, the European Socialist Congress meeting in Basel ended with a manifesto that equally boldly declared:

Governments ought not to forget – given the current state of Europe and the mood of the working class – that they cannot declare war without danger to themselves […] Proletarians feel it is a crime to shoot at each other for the benefit of capitalists’ profits, dynastic ambition or the high honour of secret diplomatic treaties. [2]

In August 1914, however, despite such internationalist propaganda and firm resolutions by their mass parties, all European working classes and their social-democrat mass parties at once, and in fact extremely enthusiastically, heeded their imperial masters’ calls and headed off for the trenches to slaughter the very fellow-proletarians against whom their own socialist representatives had previously sworn never again to wage war.

In the last days of July and the early days of August there were deliriously jingoistic crowd scenes, sometimes of hundreds of thousands of people all euphorically clamouring for war all over Europe, in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London. According to Modris Eksteins, there is even evidence that these scenes may have also ‘pushed the political and military leadership of Europe toward confrontation’.[3] Interestingly, the last significant anti-war rallies in Germany had been just days before, on July (The Berlin police commissioner in fact described the working class attendance at these social-democrat protest rallies as ‘extremely strong’ and explained the necessity of using firearms to prevent the crowds from entering the central business district.)[4]

Only a few days later, confronted by the Russian mobilisation and the jingoistic crowds, the German Social Democratic Party – the by far largest political party in the Reichstag, the largest socialist organization in the world and the leader of the Socialist Internationale – fully accepted the nationalist war cause (of course, as usual, defined as a war for the ‘defence of the nation’ particularly against the usual demonic monster, this time of ‘barbaric Russian despotism’). On August 4th, the parliamentary party unanimously voted as a faction for the granting of the government’s request for the taking up of war loans.[5] As SPD president and future chancellor Friedrich Ebert explained to his party colleagues:

We are showing that we are not unpatriotic folk [vaterlandslose Gesellen: literally ‘folk without country’, the derisive phrase used by the Kaiser to characterise the Social Democrats]. This is about the good of the whole nation. We must not abandon the Fatherland when it is in trouble. This is about protecting women and children […][6]

Founding SPD-father August Bebel’s proud dictum about the SPD being a ‘pre-school for militarism’ had again been confirmed.[7]

The popular enthusiasm for war, of course, did not last long. Mass disillusion and disgust and even mass strikes (e.g. in Germany) apparently started frequently appearing on the ‘home fronts’ after about 1916 and paved the way for the pan-European social radicalisation that was to follow. At the western battle fronts themselves, however, despite some mutinies in the French army and increasing levels of insubordination elsewhere, ‘among British and German troops there was, with the exception of some relatively minor incidents, almost absolute loyalty to the very end’ as millions of soldiers, all initial notions of ‘adventure’ or ‘higher values’ gone, horror-hypnotised and numbed of all thought and feeling, doggedly continued to let themselves be led to slaughter, i.e. ‘do their duty’, ‘play the game’ and ‘comport themselves correctly’ in the usual patriotic spirit of ‘our country, right or wrong’[8]. As lambs to slaughter, right to the bitter end.

German libertarian socialist and émigré economist Paul Mattick acidly summarises the self-defeat of the European working class movement in World War One and what it revealed about this movement:

In the First World War the working class movement revealed itself to be a part of bourgeois society. Its different organisations in every nation proved that they had neither the intention nor the means of opposing capitalism and that they were mainly interested in securing their own existence within a capitalist social structure. [9]

On this reading, the European working class movement ‘secured its own existence within capitalism’ at the cost of not only symbolically, morally and organisationally destroying itself as a viable social alternative to capitalism, but also of literally destroying a great part of itself by colluding in the mass slaughter of millions. In slaughtering their fellow workers, they thus fell, hook line and sinker – despite years of socialist insights, conference resolutions and anti-militarist propaganda – for the classic ‘safety valve’ strategy that war has always had for the ruling classes:

Hence the sense of joyous release that so often has accompanied the outbreak of war, when the daily chains were removed and the maimed and dead to come were still to be counted. […] Respect for property gave way to wanton destruction and robbery; sexual repression to officially encouraged rape; popular hatred for the ruling classes was cleverly diverted into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.
In short, the oppressor and the oppressed, instead of fighting it out within the city, directed their aggression toward a common goal – an attack on a rival city. Thus the greater the tensions and the harsher the daily repressions of civilization, the more useful war became as a safety valve. [1

One may wonder whether it would it be any different in our day and age if, within the context of increasing and multi-layered social and ecological crises, inter-imperial rivalries (e.g. between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan) again led national ruling elites to open the safety valve and call on their perennial war option. Have enough people learned from history?
[1] The text is a translation of mine from the German of the resolution reprinted in the German non-dogmatic socialist periodical links (1977).
[2] Cited in B. Engelmann, Wir Untertanen, p. 115. (Own translation, P. L-N).
[3] Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, p. 56. Of course, not only the working man and woman, but all classes were gripped by the nationalist ‘war fever’ of 1914. Eksteins points out how this was in fact ‘the first middle-class war in history’ (p. 177), not only in its predominant values of ‘duty’ and ‘getting the job done’ but even in the sense that members of the professions and lower middle classes enlisted the most in Britain and suffered the most casualties in France (p. 190). In Germany liberal academics like Max Weber and Friedrich Naumann, artists like Franz Marc and writers and poets like Ernst Toller, Rainer Maria Rilke and Hermann Hesse were all initially enthusiastic. Even anarchist patriarch Peter Kropotkin supported the Entente side from his exile in England. Sixties hippy guru Hermann Hesse at the time confessed that ‘I esteem the moral values of war on the whole rather highly’ and, an apparently very common feeling among men of the time, praised the war’s quasi-therapeutic effect of being ‘torn out of a dull capitalistic peace’ (p. 94). In England, poets like Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and Rupert Brooke all wrote enthused war poems. Brooke’s sonnet sequence 1914 characteristically echoes Hesse’s praise of war as an adventuresome youthful leap out of the ennui of dreary middle class daily life in a seemingly moribund capitalism: Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,/ And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,/ With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,/ To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,/ Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,/ Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,/ And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,/ And all the little emptiness of love! (quoted in: T. Barker (ed.), The Long March of Everyman 1750-1960, p. 172).
[4] B. Engelmann, op.cit., p. 320.
[5] A few days later only two MPs, the left wing (soon to be murdered) Karl Liebknecht and (later libertarian council-communist) Otto Rühle, broke ranks with their party and dissented from their vote.
[6] B. Engelmann, op.cit., p. 321 (own translation, P. L-N).
[7] Bebel’s statement was made in parliament after the fall of Bismarck as a response to Chancellor Caprivi’s recognition of the enthusiasm demonstrated by Social Democrat soldiers in the army. The remark is worth quoting in full (own translation, P.L-N.): ‘That does not surprise me at all and only proves that the gentlemen of the right and of the government have quite erroneous opinions about the work ethic of Social Democrats. I even believe that the readiness with which my party comrades submitted to the discipline expected of them is an expression of the discipline which life teaches them. Social Democracy is thus a pre-school for militarism, as it were.’ (cited in R. Rocker, Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus, p. 45). Engels and Lenin had similar authoritarian opinions about the wonderful disciplinary effects of the capitalist factory system.
[8] M. Eksteins, op.cit., pp. 175-189.
[9] P. Mattick, ‘Otto Rühle und die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung’ (1945), in Spontaneität und Organisation, p. 10 (own translation, P. L-N).
[10] L. Mumford, The Myth of the Machine Vol. 1: Technics and Human Development, pp. 225-226.


12. Green Lifestyles Don’t Make It

Saving energy and water may make us feel good and they can have some positive effects on local ecosystems. My wife and I have been doing a lot of it over the years: we have 28 photovoltaic panels, an expensive reedbed greywater recycling system, solar hot water, a passive solar house, wood-fired hydronic heating, energy-efficient appliances etc. However the objective fact is that all these efforts can change very little in terms of our central socio-ecological challenges of preventing climate chaos and further land degradation, adapting to peak oil and increasing water scarcity.

Too much community and individual effort focussed on conservation efforts and promoting a ‘green lifestyle’ can in fact serve as a welcome distraction for the powers-that-be. While we are busy recycling, energy auditing and having corporate-sponsored turn-off-the-lights ‘Earth Hours’, the power elites can continue with their profitable business-as-usual of making all the important economic and political decisions that are leading us into ecological and social catastrophe.

Too much focussing on personal efforts at ‘green lifestyles’ just fritters away precious time and energy and distracts from the collective efforts that are really needed to achieve sustainability: efforts to change the economic and political system of profits, oligarchic power and blind markets that is inherently geared to unsustainable production, consumption and growth. This system needs to be replaced with one that is ecologically sustainable, radically democratic and socially just. In the One World we now live in, this new system will have to be both globally interconnected and re-localised. To change the present unsustainable system will mean collective social action in addressing and overcoming the deep disparities of wealth, consumption and power that characterise our industrial capitalist economies in the affluent countries.

Apart from its distracting functions, why can a primary focus on reducing personal energy and water use not really help save the planet? The answer is a quantitative one. The facts speak for themselves. Consider the case in Australia.


Never mind just changing your light bulbs. If you went to the extreme trouble of cutting ALL your electricity and gas use, you would still miss 81% of your personal emissions-related carbon footprint. [1]

Never mind just buying a Prius or driving less. If you went to the extreme trouble of cutting ALLl your electricity use and no longer travelling AT ALL, you would still miss 65% of your personal emissions-related carbon footprint. [2]

This perhaps surprising fact is because you only have direct ‘control’ over about a third of the energy you use, and the corresponding emissions you produce. (In absolute terms: over 7.7 t CO2-e of the 21.9 t Co2-e the average Australian emits every year). [3]

The other two thirds of your total personal emissions (14.2 t CO2-e) are indirect, i.e. derive from the energy embodied in the products and services you buy. [4] The big items here are food from industrial agriculture (especially meat, dairy, cereals) and energy-intensive everyday goods and services. Think of all the vast amounts of energy needed to produce, transport, process, package, cool and retail that supermarket steak, breakfast cereal, can of coke, mobile phone. Even from a purely energetic perspective, industrial agribiz and mega-retailing are unsustainable; Peak Oil and attendant skyrocketing energy prices will very soon demonstrate that for all to see.

To personally reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, it thus makes much more sense to look at your consumption of energy-intensive processed foods, supermarket products and gadgets than it does to change your light bulbs or even drive less.

However, even that would make little difference to the national emissions. The fact is that individual household savings make very little difference to overall national emissions.

Even if EVERY household in Australia stopped using ALL direct fossil-fuel energy and stopped travelling AT ALL, overall emissions in Australia would only be reduced by 7-8%! [5]

If, heroically, indirect energy use were also totally cut by ALL households (i.e. no more purchase of any food and services as well), national emissions in Australia would only be reduced by 20-25%.

This is because 75-80% of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia are not produced by households but by power stations, industries, agriculture and mining. [6] Of course there is some degree of overlap here, as power stations produce electricity that is also consumed in homes. Taken by themselves, residential emissions are about a quarter of those produced by power stations alone, less than half those produced by manufacturing and mining taken together and just over a third of those produced by the primary industries. [7]

Whatever the precise figures are when households’ and power stations’ emissions are disentangled from one another (I have found no statistics that do that), it is clear who are by far the largest national emitters of greenhouse gases. It is certainly not households. While households can play their part, in order to achieve any real contribution towards reducing global carbon emissions to 350 ppm as soon as possible it is clear where the biggest Australian reductions are going to have to come from: power stations, industries, mining and agriculture. Household savings per se can make only a small difference.


Interestingly, the situation here is very similar to that of energy use. Individual households can do very little directly to affect the completely unsustainable level of water use in Australia. Even if EVERY household in Australia stopped consuming any mains water AT ALL, there would only be a drop of about 9% (2,182 GL, 2000-2001) in national consumption. [8]

This is because households directly consume only that percentage of water in Australia. Power stations and manufacturing together also consume only about 10% (2,554 GL). Over two thirds of water (67%, 16,660 GL) in Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is consumed by industrial agriculture. Particularly water-intensive agricultural products are beef (particularly from feedlots), dairy products, irrigated vegetables and fruit, cotton, rice, sugar.

Again, with regard to individuals and households, the embodied (or ‘virtual’) water in your indirect consumption is thus of much greater overall significance than your direct water use. Growing more of your own food and eating less beef and supermarket food will have much more of a quantitative effect on your personal water footprint than will fitting water-saving showerheads and gadgets at home. (The latter will of course still have a positive effect on levels in urban storage reservoirs).

However, until rivers and wetlands are re-naturalised and the anti-ecological, market-driven, industrial system of producing food is changed into an ecologically sustainable one (organic, diversified, locally adapted, ‘perennialised’, soil and water-conserving), there will be no significant change in overall water (and soil) degradation and depletion in Australia. The great Murray-Darling system, Australia’s food bowl, will continue to collapse from the triple whammies of deforestation, over-regulation/over-irrigation and climate change.

The above are facts not often, or ever, focussed on in the corporate media, or even by environmentalists and the transition town movement. Most focus on individual consumption and the false panacea of ‘green’ technologies. If green technologies are high-tech (photovoltaics, wind farms etc), their productive life cycles from mining to decommissioning need huge quantities of fossil fuel or nuclear energy, and often water, and thus also pollution. They are a form of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Someone else has to pay their real ecological costs. Perhaps we need to look at another ‘inconvenient truth’ not mentioned by the corporate carbon trader Al Gore: there is no real alternative to collective action for social change and democratising the economy, more equitable sharing of increasingly scarce resources and living better with less.


[1] Information from the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group at
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid.
[5] Based on the figures from The Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group’s 35% direct personal energy use figure above and the 20-25% residential contribution to greenhouse gases given by implication in the 2006 national sectoral distribution of greenhouse gases provided at
[6] National sectoral table for 2006 at
[7] CO2 emissions 2005 per sector: Australian Greenhouse Office (2007) National Inventory by Economic Sector, cited in the Ascent Fact Sheet ‘Eco-Friendly Diet’ at
[8] All water figures (2000-2001) here from the NSW State Government’s State of the Environment report 2006 at


13. A Bit of History


I am sixty years old. As a now so-called ‘elder’, it would seem I could still be of use by doing what traditional elders do best: preserving a sense of history, of collective memory, and its possible lessons for younger generations. I was politicised in my twenties in the German student movement of the late 60s and 70s and have been socio-ecologically active since the mid-70s, the first oil crisis and the first wave of socio-ecological concern. The second wave, focussed on climate change, arose in the late 80s. (Some of the seminal Anglophone publications of these waves are listed below). The present wave is the third. If the first wave already proposed the then abstract limits of industrial growth, these limits have now become concretely visible in the phenomena of ongoing climate change (droughts, arctic and permafrost melting, food and water shortages, accelerated species shifts and losses etc) and the first signs of oil depletion.

This third wave of concern and activism could be the last under relatively benign conditions. It seems to be crunch time. If there is no radical change to capitalist business-as-usual and industrial growth in the over-developed countries, if there is no realisation of climate justice (equitable and sustainable resource consumption between the rich and poor within and between nations) and transition to post-fossil fuel economies, then it is most probable that the horrendous ecological and social catastrophes associated with outright climate collapse will eventuate. Never before has human civilisation’s fate been linked to the actions, or lack thereof, of a critical mass of people on the planet within the next five years, the timeframe within which global greenhouse gas emissions must start peaking in order to have a chance of staying under the probable critical threshold of 350 ppm.

It is by now a truism that we are running out of time. This overview intends to help clarify why we are now under such insane time pressure: forty years of opportunities have been missed mainly because of the conscious politics of denial, delaying and shifting the costs on the part of our ruling corporate and government elites. They had been repeatedly warned. They knew. The great industrial, capitalist, consumerist party is over and the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.

The First Wave: 1965-1987 (Highpoint 1972-3)

(Precursors: In the late 19th century Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius showed that CO2 released from fossil fuels could lead to climate change. In the 1930s British engineer Guy Callendar had compiled empirical evidence that this effect was already discernible. A few early publications were already warning of ecological catastrophe, especially in regard to soil degradation and destruction: Paul B. Sears, Deserts on the March 1935; Elyne Mitchell, Soil and Civilisation 1946; F. Osborn, Our Plundered Planet 1948; W. Vogt, Road to Survival 1948; E. Hyams, Soil and Civilisation 1952)

1962: Social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin raises question of greenhouse effect in his book Our Synthetic Environment. In the early 1960s US scientist C.D. Keeling demonstrates conclusively that global atmospheric levels of CO2 have been rising (based on measurements at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii).

1965: President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warns: ‘By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in our atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur.’ Johnson recognises this in a speech to Congress: ‘This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.’

1966: The US National Academy of Sciences Panel on Weather and Climate Modification concludes that increased carbon dioxide might lead to ‘inadvertent weather modification.’ In Amsterdam the anarchist Provos (and, later, Kabouters) declare war on cars, initiate the first free (white) bike plans and a ‘white chimney plan’ (This plan ‘accentuates fresh air as collective property and resists exploiting this collective property by big industry and automobilism. And these provocations are only the beginning; or should the provos accept without resistance the pollution of their food, of their soil and water?’)

1968 ff: The global radical movements of students and young workers practically and theoretically raise the question of the limits to the various alienations of industrial society; they begin exploring the new cultural forms and sensibilities of a post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-imperialist society. Against Californian Governor Reagan’s use of armoured tanks and helicopters spraying tear gas, 35,000 demonstrate in Berkeley in 1969 against development and for a People’s Park. Empty houses are increasingly occupied by radical squatting movements in several countries. The US and European counter-culture gradually spawns a drop-out and back-to-the land movement based on renewable energies and ecological principles. In response to such radical questioning from below, advanced Italian ruling elites and the Ford Foundation form the Club of Rome in order to, for the first time, research the global trajectory of economic growth in industrial societies.

1970: Building on and attempting to co-opt the counter-cultural impetus, the first top-down official Earth Day in the US. Corporations are on the back foot. Due to the grassroots wave of dissent, protest and pressure that began with the civil rights and radical youth/student movements, in the period 1969-71 US business ‘experienced a series of political setbacks without parallel in the post-war period. In the space of only four years, Congress enacted a significant tax-reform bill, four major environmental laws, an occupational safety and health act, and a series of additional consumer-protection statutes.’ Global ruling elite gatherings like the Trilateral Commission start talking about the general threat of ‘ungovernability’. G.R. Taylor publishes The Doomsday Book. Mankind Can Survive! R. Disch (ed), The Ecological Conscience. Values for Survival. B. Weisberg, Beyond Repair. The Ecology of Capitalism (1971).

1972: The First UN Conference in Stockholm on the global environment. International direct action and environmental lobby groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are formed. The Club of Rome publishes The Limits to Growth based on the first computer world models of systems scientist Jay Forrester. All model scenarios point to global collapse within decades unless industrial growth is abandoned. The corporate media furiously attack the study as complete nonsense, politicians ignore it. However some like Sicco Mansholt, then President of the EEC, suggests ‘Gross National Quality of Life’ replace GNP, a shift to ‘clean and recycled goods’ (CCR) in Europe and tariffs on non-CCR imports. He also recognises that ‘these tasks will not be achievable within existing society based on capitalism and profit-making.’ E. Goldsmith and the British Ecologist group publish a similar study in Britain, A Blueprint for Survival, advocating a radically decentralised conserver society based on ecological principles. The counter-culturally spawned alternative technology and society movement takes off, especially in the US (The New Alchemist Institute, The Whole Earth Catalogue) and Britain (Undercurrents, Centre for Alternative Technology): wind rotors, solar energy, simpler living, food growing etc. The back-to-the land movement also begins in Australia (Nimbin). Ecologist R.F. Dasmann publishes Planet in Peril?

1973: first oil crisis after OPEC embargo. Global recession, end of post-war long economic boom. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger consider invading Middle Eastern oil fields to eliminate OPEC and directly control oil flows. Economist E.F. Schumacher of the Intermediate Technology Group publishes the influential Small is Beautiful. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich publishes The End of Affluence (1974).

1975 ff: German anti-nuclear movement begins with farmers’/wine growers’ occupation of a proposed reactor site; urban green ‘citizens’ initiatives’ engage in many local direct actions all over Germany, often successfully. Also spawned by the student movement and counter-culture (e.g. La Geule Ouverte, Le Sauvage), the French grassroots green movement begins with the occupation of a proposed military site in Le Larzac and uses it for cooperative goat cheese production. First founding of local electoral ‘Greens’ movement (Les Verts) in France. Wilson Clark’s book Energy for Survival. The Alternative to Extinction outlines the limits to energy growth and renewable energy options (strongly praised by Senator Edward Kennedy and Ralph Nader). D. Morris and K. Hess publish Neighbourhood Power. The New Localism. E. Callenbach publishes his utopian novel Ecotopia (set on US west coast in 1999).

1976: CSIRO discusses issue of carbon dioxide and greenhouse effect. Researchers stress need for more data, also on feedback effects like melting polar ice caps (Ecos No.7). It also shows that Australia could produce half its requirements for liquid fuels by 2000 from renewable sources wood ethanol, plant waste pyrolysis, bacterial methane fermentation (Ecos No. 9). Newly elected President Jimmy Carter calls for a national effort at energy saving (‘the moral equivalent of war’); it is ignored. First local electoral green groups in Germany. Australian ecologist Charles Birch publishes Confronting the Future. P. Harper and G. Boyle (eds) publish a primer on local renewable technologies, Radical Technology .

1977: 50 US scientists begin planning research program on the CO2 issue at meeting organised by US government Energy Research and Development Administration. Amory B. Lovins publishes his seminal anti-nuclear book Soft Energy Paths. Towards a Durable Peace. Denis Hayes of the US Worldwatch Institute publishes Rays of Hope. The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World.

1978: R.M. White, the first administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns: ‘We now understand that industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society.’ Holmgren and Mollison publish Permaculture One, the first ecological and holistic design system for sustainable food growing, housing and settlement patterns, based on energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energies. Permaculture movement is born among ‘creatives’, hippies, drop-outs, ‘early adopters’. US Friends of the Earth publish Sun! A Handbook for the Solar Decade. J. Robertson, The Sane Alternative. R. Higgins, The Seventh Enemy. The Human Factor in the Global Crisis.

1979: The Jason Committee, a reclusive group of top-rank scientists that annually gathers to advise the US government, warns that atmospheric carbon dioxide might double by 2035, resulting in mean global temperature increases of 2-3 degrees Celsius and 10-12 degrees at the poles. An official report to President Carter concludes that humanity ‘is setting in motion a series of events that seem certain to cause significant warming of world climates over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately. […] Enlightened policies in the management of fossil fuels and forests can delay or avoid these changes but the time for implementing the policies is fast passing.’ The second OPEC oil crisis and skyrocketing oil prices: the ‘end of the (energy-intensive) American Dream’ looms in the US with queues and conflict at petrol stations, truckers’ strikes and protests, government limits on air-conditioning and heating settings, inflation and high unemployment: all lead to political crisis, calls for US invasion of Middle Eastern oil fields and President Carter’s crash in popularity (from 67% on election to 26%). Three Mile Island nuclear near-meltdown stimulates the forming of a powerful US anti-nuclear movement. German Green Party forms on the back of the anti-nuclear, local green electoral groups and direct action citizens’ initiatives movements. The party initially advocates immediately closing down nuclear reactors, a switch to renewable energy, direct democracy, social justice, non-violence and the dissolution of both NATO and Warsaw Pact. Hefty debates about whether to enter parliament or remain integrated within direct-action grassroots movement, later throughout 80s between left ‘fundies’ and neo-liberal ‘realos’ (with victory of the latter after exclusive parliamentary focus). US Friends of the Earth publish their empirical study of an alternative soft energy path for the US in Pathways to Energy Sufficiency. The 2050 Study (achievable 64% reduction from 1975 per capita energy use in the US by 2050 without fall in living standards). K. Hess publishes Community Technology.

1980s: emergence of global computer modelling which begins predicting unprecedented global warming in the decades to come. The five hottest years in recorded history are noted. The neo-liberal Reagan administration hugely cuts funding for energy efficiency and renewables and taxes on the rich and hugely increases military spending and corporate deregulation. The neo-liberal era of ‘greed is good’, sinking real incomes, rising inequality and renewed energy profligacy begins.

1981: President Reagan’s new Department of Energy, headed by a crony and former dentist, rejects a proposal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a comprehensive climate change study. Lester R. Brown, publishes Building a Sustainable Society; I. Pausacker and J. Andrews, Living Better with Less.

1983: The neo-liberal ALP Hawke government reneges on its pre-electoral anti-uranium mining stance and allows three uranium mines to operate in Australia. Deudney and Flavin of the US Worldwatch Institute publish a detailed plan of possible sustainable energy policy action: Renewable Energy. The Power to Choose. Ted Trainer publishes Abandon Affluence (1985).

1986: After years of grassroots resistance to nuclear power in many countries, the Chernobyl melt-down disaster sinks any global expansion of nuclear power and viable uranium mining for the time being and sets the stage for the demise of the Soviet empire. Large areas of western, southern and eastern Europe are contaminated.

1987: CSIRO reports on consolidation of evidence pointing to a general global warming trend (‘Prepare now for climate change, scientists warn’, Ecos No. 53). The UN Brundtland Report Our Common Future advocates the new buzzword of ‘sustainable development’ but still sees this as compatible with economic growth; it also notes: ‘We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations.’

The Second Wave: 1988-97 (Highpoint 1992)

1988: An international scientists’ conference in Toronto speaks of effects ‘second only to nuclear war’ if humankind does not mobilize to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The UN thus sets up the IPCC of global experts to advise world leaders on climate change. The CSIRO and ABC hold the first public meetings in Australia on the greenhouse effect. Senior officials in the Department of Primary Industry and Energy remove a chapter on greenhouse policy from the Hawke government’s draft national energy policy. Amid heat waves, drought and forest fires, the greenhouse effect emerges from academia to become part of popular culture in the US and elsewhere. Economist Hazel Henderson publishes The Politics of the Solar Age.

1989: Senator Al Gore discovers that the new Bush administration falsified NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony on global warming to a Senate Committee hearing so as to water down his conclusions. The Greenhouse Effect Conference with climate scientist Ann Henderson-Sellers (The Greenhouse Effect. Living in a Warmer Australia. NSWU Press) at Sutton Forest leads to the formation of local action group Canopy Southern Highlands committed to ‘thinking globally, acting locally’, fighting against energy-intensive, unsustainable development and for local ecologically sustainable development. Publications: Ian Lowe, Living in the Greenhouse (Scribe). J. Falk & A. Brownlow, The Greenhouse Challenge. What’s To Be Done? (Penguin Australia). F. Pearce, Turning Up the Heat.

1990: The IPCC’s first report on climate change: ‘We are certain that emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases…These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the earth’s surface.’ Threatened, the corporate world hits back: ‘scientific faddism’, unreliability of ‘global warming models of various agency bureaucrats’, ‘we hope the President hangs tough on this one’ (Wall Street Journal). Oil, coal, gas, mining, auto, aluminium, cement and other energy-intensive corporations begin their massive covert funding of climate-denial think tanks, lobbying and public disinformation campaigns focussed on purported economic costs and the old PR tactic of fostering the impression of severe doubt among experts. The Australian Federal and State Governments commit to general motherhood statement on the new buzzword: ‘ecologically sustainable development.’ For electoral purposes even the Peacock Liberal Party ‘commits’ to reducing greenhouse emissions by 20% by 2000. The US Bush administration leads a massive bombing war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (200,000 dead Iraqis) after the latter invades Kuweit and then betrays Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against the regime. Publications: J. Leggett (ed), Global Warming. The Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press). S. Schneider, Global Warming. Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century? (Vintage). D. Suzuki & A. Gordon, It’s a Matter of Survival (Allen & Unwin). E. Goldsmith et al, 5000 Days Left to Save the Planet. J. Porritt, Save the Earth (1991).

1992: The second UN Conference on the Global Environment in Rio is organised and hijacked by Maurice Stone and the Business Roundtable on the Environment. The ‘Global Climate Coalition’, a front group of 50 major oil, coal, auto and chemical corporations successfully lobbies Washington to ensure no mandatory targets are included in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change passed at this conference. Industrialised countries, including Australia, make totally non-binding pledges to ‘stabilize’ emissions at 1990 levels. Discussion on mandatory emissions reductions, global ecological and social justice and questioning capitalism and consumerism are avoided and environmental activists deflected into Local Agenda 21, the powerless attempt to work on limited sustainability projects merely on a local government level.

1995: The IPCC issues a landmark statement representing a level of consensus not previously achieved on global warming: ‘the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’ and climatic instability is likely to cause ‘widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century.’ The CSIRO predicts that NSW may be between 1 and 5 degrees warmer by 2070 and this will cause havoc. Gavin Gilchrist publishes The Big Switch. Clean Energy for the twenty-first century. (Allen & Unwin Australia 1994). Brian J. Fleay publishes The Decline of the Age of Oil. Petrol Politics: Australia’s Road Ahead. (Pluto Press), the first Peak Oil study in Australia.

1996: Australian Government report warns that only 14 years of oil supplies left in Australia. NSW government launches inquiry into State’s transport needs prompted by Campbell and Laherrere’s assessment of world’s oil resources slowing from 2000. Scientists note that northern hemisphere spring is arriving a week earlier and plants growing 20-40% more. In order to delay government action, the ‘Global Climate Coalition’ fossil fuel lobby continues to sow doubt about climate change in multi-million advertising campaigns although their own scientific and technical experts advise them that the science of global warming cannot be refuted. Ted Trainer publishes Towards a Sustainable Economy.

1997: Kyoto Protocol. US representative Vice-President Gore threatens to walk away unless the Protocol includes considerably reduced mandatory emissions reductions and a business-friendly, market-based carbon trading/offset system. (The Howard government had also made the inclusion of carbon trading a pre-condition to Australia considering the Kyoto Protocol). Industry groups like Enron, an energy trader, view Kyoto as their victory promising ‘immediate business opportunities’ when such a system is included. Most nations ‘commit’ to reducing their carbon emissions by 5-8% below 1990 levels. Senator Hill negotiates an allowed rise in emissions for Australia of 8% (the only industrialised nation beside Iceland granted a rise) and is applauded by the Howard cabinet on his return. (Ten years later Kyoto had produced no demonstrable reduction in global emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.) The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network lobbyists (the ‘greenhouse mafia’ as they call themselves, the country’s biggest polluters), frequently former Federal bureaucrats and ministerial staffers, embed themselves in Howard government committees, departments, ABARE and CSIRO, and even write ministerial cabinet submissions and briefings on energy and climate change issues in their own commercial interests over the next decade or so.

1999: The ‘alternative globalisation’ movement is born on the streets of Seattle in massive demonstrations against the WTO conference. It manages to redefine the parameters of the public debate about capitalist globalisation, ‘free markets’ and global justice (and thus, by implication, climate justice).

2000: Oilman George W. Bush narrowly and controversially beats nascent carbon trader Al Gore to be elected as President heading an administration made up directly of many oil and energy industry executives. The next year Bush refuses to endorse the Kyoto Protocol. Gore soon sets up his own multi-billion dollar carbon trading company. Bush’s ‘neo-cons’ prepare plans to invade resource-rich and geo-strategically important Iraq and await a suitable pretext.

2001: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and against the provisions of the UN Charter and international law, UN-sanctioned and US-led bombing, invasion and occupation of Afghanistan on the pretext of eliminating terrorist Al Qaida and Bin Laden (not found until 2011). US puppet and ex-oilman Karzai is made President, ruling government in alliance with various criminal warlords and opium growers. First direct US military foothold in resource-rich Central Asia/Middle East bordering Russian and Chinese imperial rivals.

2002: PM Howard publicly backs the climate change sceptics.

2003: Again against UN Charter and international law, US-led bombing, invasion and occupation of Iraq on pretext of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. By 2006 over a million Iraqis dead due to war of aggression and sanctions since first US-NATO Iraq War of 1990/91. No WMDs are found. The pretext is retrospectively changed to ‘removing Saddam’ and ‘democratisation’.

2004: Howard’s Energy White Paper effectively achieves ‘almost all of the items on the greenhouse mafia’s wish-list: no Kyoto ratification, no targets contemplated post-Kyoto, no emissions trading in Australia ahead of effective global action, generous subsidies for fossil fuel companies for research and development.’

The Third Wave: from 2006 to present

2006: The combination of prolonged drought, water restrictions, Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and Nicolas Stern’s economic report on Climate Change produce a second wave of popular concern about climate change in Australia. Neo-liberal Greens senator Milne urges Howard government to introduce a carbon trading scheme. Howard appoints a taskforce stacked with big polluters to examine an emissions trading system; his own department seconds the head of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network. Four Corners reports on the ‘greenhouse mafia’s’ connections with the Howard government and the repeated gagging and censoring of senior greenhouse scientists at the CSIRO.

2007-08: Howard toys with nuclear power and also promises to introduce a market-based carbon trading system. Rudd Labor uses climate issue in PR campaign to sideline the Liberal Howard government in the election campaign by promising to sign the Kyoto protocol, avoid nuclear power, push for ‘clean coal’ and introduce a ‘cap-and-trade’ scheme. Thousands of industry lobbyists plead for and get billions of dollars of public subsidies for carbon polluting industries and ‘clean coal’ research within the Rudd emissions trading scheme. The dirtier the industry, the higher the compensation promised: some would get 60%, some 90% of their pollution permits free. Taxpayers and consumers would be footing the bill for big Business. The purchase of ‘offsets’ in poorer countries allows actual emissions in Australia to rise into the future. Instead of the needed 25-40%, the scheme promises only a unilateral 5% cut of national emissions by 2020 on 2005 levels. In Rudd’s first budget, for every dollar spent on greenhouse programs, fifteen dollars are spent on subsiding fossil fuels.

2009: 2,340 industry lobbyists work in Washington with a majority of them pushing to weaken environmental controls on business. The Obama administration’s proposed carbon emissions trading act is so weak that US companies could avoid actually reducing emissions until 2026. Scores of cowboy ‘carbon traders’ descend on Papua New Guinea and Indonesia trying to sign up landowners to not yet agreed ‘forest offset’ schemes trading in phantom ‘avoided emissions’ and allowing major industrial polluters to continue to pollute: allegations of corruption and fraud already surface. As of September 75% of ‘offset credits’ being traded have nothing to do with actual CO2 reductions. Emissions continue to rise as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has seen no overall reductions in greenhouse gases or a restructuring of energy-intensive industries; what it has seen is business-as-usual and vast windfall profits for some of Europe’s most carbon-intensive industries. Grassroots direct action campaigns succeed in gaining de facto moratoria on new coal power stations in the US and UK. The UN Copenhagen Conference on climate change, the successor to Kyoto, ends in complete failure to come to a binding agreement on emissions reductions; a non-mandatory ‘accord’ negotiated only between five nations (the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa) locks out the majority of poor countries from discussions and locks in emissions growth and a global temperature rise of at least 3-4 degrees by 2050 (i.e. the certainty of tipping points and climate chaos, collapse and the ongoing death and displacement of millions). The, at least more democratic and legally binding, UN and Kyoto processes are effectively ditched by the powerful states, including the EU and Australia. The neo-liberal Australian Greens continue to urge the Rudd government to introduce carbon trading. Australian and global carbom emissions continue to skyrocket.

[Main sources: ‘Der Traum von Freiheit wird zum Alptraum’, Der Spiegel No. 25, 1979; N. Oreskes, ‘The Long Consensus on Climate Change’, Washington Post 1/2/2007; ‘Welcome to Copenhagen. The Great Climate Sale’, New Internationalist No. 428, December 2009; A.C. Revkin, ‘Industry ignored its scientists on climate’, The New York Times 24/4/2009; T. Dick, ‘Scientific love-in on climate does not prove a pointy-head job’, SMH 17-18/10/2009; M. England, ‘Still spinning wheels after three decades’, SMH 4/12/2009; S.H. Schneider, Global Warming. Vintage Books 1990; S. Beder, Global Spin. Scribe Publications 2000; C. Hamilton, Scorcher. Black Inc. Agenda 2007; G. Pearse, High and Dry. Viking/Penguin 2007; G. Pearse, ‘Quarry Vision’. Quarterly Essay Issue 33, 2009]


14. Capital and Climate. The Elephant in the Room

Most public discussion of climate change and environmental issues takes place in an antiseptic, power-free realm of well-intentioned, pragmatic politicians, international conferences, emissions targets and technologies. In this realm, as in that of the dominating realm of ‘the economy’ and its abstract cosmos of statistics, nobody seems to have any vital material or systemic interests to defend. These interests have been ‘disappeared’, as it were, behind a complicated, shifting veil of conferences, personalities, reports, sound bites and ‘facts and stats’.

This is not a matter of simplistic conspiracies. This abstract pseudo-realm (often equated with ‘realism’) is of course a total creation of the corporate media operating within its inherent structural constraints. Here, under the economic pressures of the media themselves, every day a new headline displaces the one yesterday that is already forgotten anyway. Telegenic images, rapidly obsolescent ‘stories’ and fragments of painstakingly crafted PR-nonsense known as ‘sound bites’ (and now ‘tweets’) rule. Any possibility of developing some sense of connections, of the whole – also known as ‘meaning’ – is thus as effectively amputated as are speaking and thinking in complex sentences. (According to David Orr in Conservation Biology August 1999, the working vocabulary of an average American fourteen year-old in 1950 was 25,000 words; in 1999 it was 10,000 words.)

Similarly, any sense of historical context is completely missing. There is almost no continuity of discourse and it is as if history itself is supposed to have stopped. The media have to a large extent realised capital’s dream, as expressed by some of its representatives like Henry Ford: ‘History is bunk.’ Like some enlightened being or god in some celestial paradise, the news media and its distracted consumers live in an eternal now of stories and entertainment. Scandal, amusement, a politician’s crafted sound bite or staged ‘event’, blood and violence, outrage for two seconds, then an ad. The spectacle, Capital become an image (Guy Debord), rules supreme.

Meanwhile, and that is probably the point of all this, it is business-as-usual for business and politics as we all speed merrily towards the abyss of climate chaos and the collapse of civilisation as we know it. We are truly ‘amusing ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman) within a medial and political flatland without memory and continuity, without context and depth. A generalised amnesia reigns. As information proliferates and overwhelms, knowledge and understanding seem to diminish in many areas. Without any guiding framework within which to place and relate single items of information, the world and society are portrayed and felt as chaotic, complex, noisy, fragmented, meaningless. Uncritical, affirmative forms of intellectual ‘post-modernism’ cater to this mindset of Capital and its spectacle. Thus nobody rules, power has been magically ‘de-centred’, and there’s nothing to be done. Everything is too ‘complex’. Intervention and change are pointless. It is clear whom this view benefits.

There is an alternative viewpoint. Although not taught in schools or influencing the ephemeral ‘stories’ of the mass media, broad socio-historical change and evolution can be most coherently interpreted, I would argue, using the sociological framework of historical materialism. Cutting through much ideological rationalisation and obfuscation, this perspective has the advantage of centring on observable (albeit interpretable) material conflicts of interest between major social groups or classes. These conflicts are mainly over access to resources and, thus, wealth and power.

Today such a perspective risks courting the charge of heresy when one asserts that, despite appearances and propaganda machines assiduously maintained to suggest the contrary, social evolution and class struggle over access to resources did NOT magically stop in 1945. The post-war welfare-warfare state and the affluent consumerism of late capitalism are not the conflict-free ‘end of history’ (a metaphysical ploy that the masters’ pet ideologues from Hegel to Fukuyama have of course always tried to assert).

Within this framework it could be argued that the global climate and biosphere crisis that now endangers civilisation itself can also be best understood as, ultimately, a reflection – both an effect and co-determining cause – of the inherent, structural need for capital to grow (i.e. capitalists and their bureaucrats to make profits and accumulate money) and the corresponding social struggle around resource access and power. The climate and environmental crisis is at root a social crisis, a crisis about economic power and wealth distribution.

The usual environmentalist paradigm does not see it that way. It will often say: but what about overpopulation? What about fossil fuel dependency? What about over-development and over-consumption? What about growth of GDP? What about the proverbial lack of ‘political will’? All are undoubtedly very important factors in the general historical crisis we face. All have major social and ecological effects.

However, all can also be understood as linked strands in a complex web that has been, for the last five hundred years or so, driven mainly by capital accumulation (which has determined the nature of technological change and settlement patterns) and social conflict over resource access and decision-making power. Population explosions in these centuries at least have often been linked to early stages of economic growth and urbanisation in modernising societies. Fossil fuels enabled industrial forms of capital accumulation, urbanisation and imperialism. Economic growth and consumerism are also ways of temporarily lessening both the systemic pressures of unplanned overproduction as well as social conflict over more equal distribution of power and resources. Political will is lacking because the democratic political system itself is almost wholly subservient to the dictates of the economic system and its powerful ruling oligarchies.

Thus the main reason this social power framework cannot be accepted by ruling elites and their media is that it questions the very basis of their economic and political system and their power. In contrast to the beliefs of most environmentalists, this total crisis cannot be really solved within the same logic of the system that caused it, within capitalism.

One succinct way of elucidating this heretical thought is by using capital’s own language of ‘costs’. Even cursory thinking about this crisis soon leads one to the notion that the climate and environmental crisis can be seen as capitalism’s inherent ‘externalisation of social costs’ now writ large on a global level. Capital can ‘externalise’ or socialise costs because, aided by its corporate state and media, it has the power to do so. This ‘externalisation’ in fact constitutes the essence of its very power and structure. Nature and we are its ‘dump’, its ‘outside’, its ‘externality’. (Note that the economy is here not seen as embedded in nature/society but as a separate sphere that has nature/humanity as its ‘environment’. Mainstream economics expresses the social truth of alienation and the reign of things in an affirmative, ideological way, the tail is seen as rightfully wagging the dog.)

To reverse this process, to completely ‘internalise’ all these gigantic social and ecological costs, i.e. to have the power to force capital to monetarily, morally and politically pay not only for pollution but for all its horrific costs past and present, would of course mean a collapse of the system, some form of revolution.

After the first waves of ecological resistance in the 1960s/70s and late 80s/early 90s, we are currently within a third wave of popular concern and struggle around energy and ecological issues. I would argue that if the ruling elites, now with the blind help of socially naïve environmentalism, are again allowed to maintain their vested interests against the common interest of a healthy biosphere and functioning democratic civilisation, the next wave (if there still is one) may have to take place in sharply deteriorated conditions of global barbarism and general environmental collapse.

If this is a plausible reading of our current historical context, it is thus necessary to raise the too seldom articulated question of responsibility, culpability, guilt and criminal justice. Some would argue that to ‘blame’ anyone or to focus on ‘them’, the powerful and wealthy decision-makers, merely serves to deflect attention from one’s own middle class culpability; that things are infinitely complex, that there is no more ‘them and us’ and that we are all culpable.

I would of course agree that the issues are complex and that all who live in affluent societies share varying levels of culpability with regard to ecologically unsustainable rates of resource consumption. However, I would argue that it is ethically and intellectually dishonest and obfuscating to thus make no more ethical distinctions between the masses of powerless consumers, workers and decision-takers on the one hand and the powerful and wealthy decision-makers of capitalist business-as-usual on the other. The neo-liberal ideology of ‘choice’ is a nefarious one when used in this way.

For a start, the impoverished are locked out of most ‘choices’ provided by the market. In terms of direct ecological impact, it is an obvious truism that poor people in both poor and affluent societies have almost none when compared to the jet-setting middle classes and the global elites of economic and political decision makers. Many of us, however, may be able to choose between holidaying nearby or jetting to Bali or Phuket; it is equally obvious that we cannot choose between building more rail services and bike facilities or more airports, cars, freeways, coal and nuclear power stations and military weapons. We can change our light bulbs and some of our eating habits but we can’t change the economic decision-making structures that lead to the production of ever more obscene luxuries, planned obsolescence and energy-intensive junk in an energy-constrained, impoverished and hungry world.

Can the ruling elites not plead ignorance? Did they perhaps not know about fossil fuel use, global heating and climate change? Just like the tobacco executives knew about tobacco and the asbestos executives knew about asbestos, they knew. They knew for over forty years. However, they could see that climate change and its threat to the continuance of fossil fuel use and economic growth potentially threatened both their short-term profits and their whole economic system. They fought for their own material interests, rates of profit, positions of power and for the stability of the capitalist system as a whole. They invested millions in hiring their PR consultants, lobbyists, think tanks and spin doctors. They distracted from, denied, obfuscated, delayed and then coopted the taking of any real measures to combat global heating in commodifying, privatising, loopholed, unverifiable, ineffective and unjust emissions trading schemes.

An early and effective global response to the catastrophe of potential climate chaos (e.g. by the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels) was thus prevented. If decisive action had been taken forty years ago, the world could have almost certainly avoided climate catastrophe. Given looming tipping points (melting permafrost, marine acidification, polar melting etc), this is now becoming ever more unlikely unless a considerable minority of the world’s people can massively organise themselves in time to change the economic and political system that has led to this planetary crisis.

In 2008-09 the ruling elites, using trillions of taxpayer dollars and without any significant resistance, bailed out the banks and financial speculators who caused a global near-depression. They did not bail out the biosphere. Nor did they even promise to do so at the UN Copenhagen Conference on climate change in December 2009. This public money given to the banks has transferred private, speculative and toxic debt to public debt, with grave downstream public spending and saving ramifications. It is now also lost for implementing the desperately needed and difficult transition to low-carbon infrastructure and settlement patterns.

Carbon Trade Watch researcher Oscar Reyes summarises the political consequences:

But policy changes alone will not be enough. Above all, we need to get organized politically. To roll back the advance of the nouveau-green chief executives there are no short cuts, because the struggle against climate change is part of a much larger fight: for a more just, democratic and equal world.


15. The Great Matrix of Inter-Being

There is no such thing as society.
– British PM Margaret Thatcher, early 1980s

As anti-psychiatrist Ronnie Lang remarked at the Dialectics of Liberation symposium in London in 1967, the most difficult thing to see is the obvious. Obvious to many may be German poet Goethe’s remark that we simply can’t, as parts of the universe, by definition, fall out of a universe that IS precisely nothing but its parts. However, perhaps less obvious, albeit equally fundamental to sanity and bone-deep faith, is the fact that not only is there not (in Margaret Thatcher’s immortal phrase) ‘no such thing as society’, but that there is in a sense nothing but ‘society’ in the universe.

Each one of us, for example, is biologically an immensely complex ‘society’ of organs, organisms, bacteria. All these are themselves made up of immensely complex ‘societies’ of cells which are also made up of immensely complex ‘societies’ of chromosomes, nucleic acids etc. Thich Nath Hanh’s pithy engaged-Buddhist summarization of this ‘obvious’ reality is that we all ‘inter-are’. He demonstrates this by holding up a sheet of paper and asking people to think why there is also a rain cloud in that sheet. Obvious.

As in our relationship with ourselves, this is all so very close to us that we may not easily be able to see it: there is a Great Upholding, a Great Matrix that is the universe itself, and thus us. The metaphor is, of course, inescapably maternal. We are contained, held, even as we contain and hold. We are under-stood, ground-ed in the womb of Emptiness, the Void, the Buddhist sunyata, the tao, just like the huge Black Hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, just like shining galaxies making up the 5% visible universe are contained in the immeasurable and utterly unknown 95% that our physicists honestly and helplessly call Dark Energy.

We know that ecologically an invisible Great Fungal-Bacterial Net in the soil symbiotically upholds most vegetation and thus most life on this planet. It is the true World Wide Web which the cybernetic one merely mimics. We know that our shiny (mostly male-run) formal economies are but the tip of a huge submerged, unacknowledged iceberg of (mostly female-run) informal, upholding and ‘black’ economies without the often under- or unpaid services of which they would collapse. We also know that anthropologically the Great Genetic Net of our ancestors stretches away into the mists of time, running through our bodies like interwoven necklaces of eternal jewels regulating our deepest somatic and psychic functions.

In regard to the latter, we also know that our very individual identity-feeling or ‘psyche’ – that ongoing cohesive awareness of our many-facetted, constantly fluctuating feelings, memories and thoughts – that all this is upheld by and securely contained within a mysterious universe of Dark Energy we call the Body and the Unconscious, both personal and collective. As we mature, we can thus choose to widen our identity from ‘psyche’ or ‘ego’ to that of the ‘self’ (or ‘Self’) understood as an expression intended to encompass this Dark Energy, embracing the totality of both the conscious and unconscious psyche. If we do so, then (as C.G. Jung stresses [1]) the self must necessarily remain a transcendent ‘borderline concept’ like Kant’s famous ‘thing-in-itself’ (Ding an sich): a reality which we can assume and posit but about which we can rationally know and say nothing. While the totality, The Matrix, can define the part, the part cannot, by definition, define the totality. The tip of the iceberg can know nothing of the immensity of itself beneath the surface. The tip is an expression of the immensity, not the other way round. Thus, in so far as the Dark Energy, the unconscious, exists, nothing can, by definition, be said about its limits or contents except for those parts that surface into consciousness (and these surfacings, while interacting or ‘constellating’ with consciousness, are not decided by consciousness itself). And if this is so, then it also follows ‘it would be wildly arbitrary and therefore unscientific to restrict the self to the limits of the individual psyche (…)’.[2] In that sense, one may speak of an illimitable ‘objective unconscious’, a collective unconscious, of which the empirical eruptions and manifestations in dreams and symbols, art works and diseases thus also bear all the marks of the numinous and transcendent, ‘all the marks of something illimitable, something not determined by space and time.’[3]

In our individual existence before our birth we physically and psychologically swim (if we are fortunate) securely contained within our mothers, who in turn are, ideally, supported and contained by the social matrix of a loving husband, family, midwives, community. Constantly in dialogue with her, we learn our first deep shapes. Post-natally (if we are fortunate), we further inter-bond with her warm containment, her secure holding, responsiveness and loving acceptance, thus forming our own secure Basal Pattern or psycho-behavioural matrix for our adult life and shaping our very voice, our Mother Tongue.

From this biological, ancestral and maternal basis of love and security, social cooperation and security may then unfold, the invisible division of labour, competition, mutual aid and symbiosis that under-gird our material and spiritual existence. The global Great Social and Economic Network is as spiritual as the Great Fungal-Bacterial Net, the Great Genetic Net, the Collective Unconscious, the Great Matrix of the universe itself. On the social and economic level, Dark Energy takes the form of the countless acts of – in all hierarchical, caste- or class-based systems like the present capitalist one – mostly made invisible, unrecognized, un-honoured labour that keeps the whole industrial machine running. This upholding labour has long been global in scope. And since the end of hunting and gathering society, it has always been in the form of caste- and class-based oppression, exploitation and servitude. And yet it is the ‘Necessary Work’, the ‘one breathing body’ that is the Great Matrix.

The Necessary Work

6.45 cold mountain air breathing
down from the Gib first life swelling
dream-webbed lungs again
this commuter walks to the station

along Boolwey Street greet the chief town planner
often disagreed with returning
from the newsagent with his big hairy
third-of-a-frosty-night kind of a dog

greet the Council street sweeper
contemplative pipe and congruent smile
cleaning up what the anarchist currawongs
on Corbett have liberated from the bins

a friendly glance to the contract window cleaner
at the Health Insurance, Charcoal Chicken shop
attacking his panes with the force
and precision of a Zen archer
a Hercules in shorts and Reebocks
dreaming of Olympian gold

or the woman in Janek’s
peeling avocadoes simply
peeling avocadoes

the station-master in his glass fortress
for whom I’m Return Concession Central
and on whom all my sly propaganda
falls like a hot lead balloon sinking
slowly ripple-free in some indifferent sea

suddenly, there It was
as simple and real
as the silver coffee tables
perfectly arranged by the fountain
hit by the early morning light

brothers, sisters, relationship, river
love absolutely alone and one
wholly free and bound in one
breathing body of the Necessary Work
as necessary as the currawongs on Corbett


The Holding
There is no such thing as society
– Margaret Thatcher

a mother strokes the hair
of her asthmatic child at 3 am
her nerves are screaming out
pain, love and bone-deep exhaustion
to a pale indifferent moon

a rain-soaked father turns
moth-soft eyes
and a smile of welcome
to his nine year old
dragging his slow defeated boots
back towards him through
the football field’s slow sucking mud

a circle of twenty women
from under-funded welfare agencies
in a dingy church hall
with triumphant missionary
posters on the walls
quietly report on business
holding lives together
on shrinking budgets
holding each other up
with soft voices
that weave silent nets of holding

the two men I greet
each early morning
carefully sweeping Corbett and Bong Bong
among the bin-marauding currawongs
the men that build our houses
drive our community bus
fix our cars, fight our fires
repair our roofs and dunnies:
the invisible heavy work
the strong soil of the community tree

Penrose community hall, packed
to the rafters. Anti-mega-dump.
Sweaty words, pollies eeling their way out
concerned residents fearfully
half-opening to a new threshold:
active citizenship. The snail
pulls in its feelers again
and democracy is back in its shell
until the next tide

the environmentalists, the social activists
standing forlornly among rushing consumers
handing out little leaflets no one reads
the public tree planters
that are the willing tools
of our common future’s mighty trees,
crystal air and sweet birdsong
breathing through our children’s
children’s drawings and dreams

(For the public launch of the philanthropic Wingecarribee Community Foundation, Bowral Memorial Hall)

Interestingly, the word ‘therapist’ or ‘therapeut’ derives from the Greek word for servant, the one who supports, serves, the one who upholds. The working people of our nation and the world are thus our unacknowledged ‘upholders’, our ‘therapeuts’ that have been made invisible. How therapeutic it would indeed be for all – including the ‘therapeuts’ – if they were lifted into the light of conscious day, if the Dark Energy of this labour (as that of the fungal-bacterial net and the great photosynthetic proletariat we derive all our food from) were acknowledged and honoured as central to all existence. Of course this would be near impossible to do authentically within a capitalist system that is necessarily based on treating workers and everything else as market commodities, as things. To really deeply honour our collective debt to our past and present invisible ‘therapeuts’ would entail a spiritual revolution of sorts. And we never know where those kinds of things could lead, do we?

Meanwhile, we can only write poems.

The Therapeuts of Inter-Being

To the Compassionate Ones
the Great Proletariat we busy ones ignore
the blue collar Boddhisattvas of the factories
the green collar photosynthetic factories that feed us all
the dark moist world wide web of invisible fungi
(the collective unconscious of planetary life)
the sleepless mothers rocking babies in the night
the volunteers that woman the pumps, canteens and fire-hoses
the fathers whose big hands bring home the bacon
and nurse window-stunned magpies back into flight
the men who haul away corpses and garbage
the nurses and doctors and cleaners in the hospital machine
the men and women who start non-violent revolutions
by speaking bone-marrow truth,
not getting up in buses
or taking salt from the common sea

To the man, the woman, the child, the weed and worm
that sing the dance of life that inter-is
with moon and snail and chainsaw
all subtly enfolded in this white poetic sheet
(now faintly trembling in your ancient hand
in-formed by claw, paw and non-opposing thumb)
that contains the gentle sky raining mercy
upon our parched and waiting fields
we sing praise


[1] C.G. Jung, ‘Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy’ (1952), in Dreams, p. 256.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.


16. Political Myths We Live By

Whenever most conversations I have these days move around to matters political I often find myself in a quandary. I have the choice of either accepting the tacit assumptions behind the other person’s remarks or questions, or else remaining largely silent and trying to change the topic. This is because I don’t share the tacit assumptions. I would call most of these usually unexamined assumptions social democratic. In my view they are prevalent myths that do not hold up to rational scrutiny. Here is my attempt to list fifteen of them and briefly comment on them from the viewpoint of critical political science.

1. This is a democratic system (The Democratic Fallacy).

If ‘democracy’ means ‘rule by the people’, it isn’t. It is an oligarchic system of elected political elites tightly enmeshed with the unelected economic elites in industry, state bureaucracy and the media. These elites together make up the ruling class.

2. Democratic parties are run democratically (The Party Fallacy).

Just like any communist party, when it comes to the crunch, the major parties are all run top down from head office. Power group and faction deals done outside the party meetings decide on key positions. Party apparatchiks hold great internal power. Candidates chosen by the local rank and file can be replaced by those chosen by head office when necessary.

3. Elections are very important and provide real alternatives between parties (The Election Fallacy).

This reduces the core political notion of freedom to the freedom to choose between the two wings of the one pro-capitalist and neo-liberal party. We live in a de facto one party state. We are left with the freedom to choose which current faction of the ruling political elite will probably be less disastrous.

The key investment decisions are not made by politicians and thus elections are only of secondary importance. (The next four points are simply corollaries of this fallacy.)

4. The key decisions are made in cabinet and parliament after rational debate and in the interest of the common good. (The Parliament Fallacy).

Key investment decisions are made behind closed doors by the corporate bureaucrats of big business. Key political decisions are made by the top levels of the political executive in close consultation with unelected top bureaucrats and business lobbyists. Parliaments merely rubber stamp these decisions along party lines.

5. The differing personalities of politicians are important things to consider. (The Personalist Fallacy 1).

Personalities may set up differing cultural atmospheres and political priorities in non-core areas. However, personalities make as little difference to the core power/class relations as do gender or race.

6. When politicians lie and deceive, it is a personal failing. (The Personalist Fallacy 2)

Politicians may be personally honest or dishonest to varying degrees. However, all are systemically caught between meeting popular demands (election time, polls) and meeting big business and state-systemic demands (post-election time). When they ‘betray’ their popular election promises and their ‘idealism’ becomes ‘pragmatic’, they are in fact simply meeting the demands of the system.

7. The planet can be saved by pressuring politicians into developing ‘political will’. (The Lobbying Fallacy)

Persistent and massive grass roots direct action (demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience etc) and lobbying may change politicians’ ‘will’ in many non-core areas. When lessened, this ‘will’ will usually quickly weaken or backtrack. If focussed exclusively on politicians (instead of on big business power and constructive self-activity), this lobbying activity will, by definition, not change the system and thus not save the planet.

8. Public opinion is made by the public. (The Public Opinion Fallacy)

It isn’t. It is made for the public by a process of selective filtering and re-framing on the part of the owners, managers and employed commentators of the corporate media. Corporate think tanks and PR machines may also play important public opinion-forming roles, often behind the scenes. The important ideological work of all these ‘pundits’ is to keep public discourse within the tight parameters and limited concepts of allowed official discourse. The purpose is to manufacture consent for the decisions and policies of the ruling elites.

9. This might not be a perfect system but there is no alternative (Margaret Thatcher: ‘TINA’). Democracy and capitalism necessarily go together. Socialism has failed spectacularly. (The TINA Fallacy)

Capitalism and terror states are quite compatible (fascism, third world dictatorships). ‘Socialism’ has never been tried anywhere. The Soviet and Chinese systems were/are authoritarian forms of state capitalism. The alternative is a radically democratic, both decentralised and globalized society in which economic and local community self-management is maximised.

10. Economically, this is a Free Market Society. (The Free Market Fallacy)

There is no free market and never has been, even under the rule of the deregulating, neo-liberal state. A completely free market system would self-destruct in no time. Because it can, by definition, only care for its individual vested interests and not for the good of the whole system, capitalism needs constant saving from itself by the state. The capitalist state has always been there to massively support, gently oversee, subsidize and bail out the capitalist economy in countless ways, not only in times of crisis. Corporate welfare is actually its main game. It also provides the physical infrastructure, educational development of the ‘human capital’ and picks up the social and health costs of the latter’s wreckage. All this happens whether the state is more neo-liberal or social democratic (Keynesian) in nature.

11. Wars of aggression and military humanitarian interventions are foreign policy mistakes or blunders. (The Mistaken Foreign Policy Fallacy)

They are not mistakes. Official humanitarian aims are pretexts. Initially, they are planned military interventions for geo-strategic, financial, ideological gain or (in Australia’s case) as mercenary payments in alliance insurance policies. The so-called ‘mistakes’ or ‘blunders’ are usually military and financial over-reaches and misjudgements of popular resistance. Millions of innocent civilians and mostly duped soldiers die in the process.

12. World peace is possible without world social justice. (The Peace Fallacy)

When the rich 20% of the world lay claim to about 80% of the world’s resources, leaving the poor 80% with 20% of the resources and billions in poverty, there can be no lasting peace until this exploitative imbalance and historical injustice are redressed.

13. Capitalism can function without growing infinitely. (The Natural Capitalism Fallacy)

When capital ceases growing, it ceases being capital and reverts to being mere money. Capital must expand to survive. Nothing like this exists in nature.

14. There can be infinite growth within a finite world. (The Growth Fallacy)

A fallacy obvious to any pre-schooler but not to economists, politicians and their media pundits.

15. Capitalism and this planet are compatible. (The Business as Usual Fallacy)

I rest my case.


17. Light Needs the Dark.
The Dialectical Mysticism of Jakob Böhme, the Cobbler from Görlitz

Augustine maintains that we are born in the face of death. Seen quite literally, we are indeed born between the organs of sex and excrement, waste and procreation. We enter between two exits, as it were. The child emerges from the womb like light emerging from darkness. We emerge into a light that will in due course reveal its own gradations of grey, at times its own inner darkness. To individuate into this light, the child then needs an upholding matrix, a mother, a family, a community, all of which necessarily contain their own shades of grey. Light needs the dark to fully be light.

One day in 1600, the latter simple but overwhelming fact struck one Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), a twenty five year old cobbler and later philosophus teutonicus from Görlitz on the river Neisse, as he chanced to look up from his work and catch a beam of sunlight glancing off a dark pewter dish hanging on the wall.

At that moment he was re-born into light. This was Böhme’s literal moment of illumination, of enlightenment. Light issuing from the dark. The light needs the dark to be, the yes needs the no, the hope needs the despair, nothing can come into being without its ‘objectionable’ (widerwärtig, as he termed it) opposite. All the dualities of life and spirit were both antagonistic AND inherently interdependent, dialectically complementary. Apart from Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) and his coincidentia oppositorum, this was the first philosophy of ‘objective dialectics’ since pre-Socratic Heraclites two thousand years before.[1]

Böhme’s insight was the fruit of a process of questioning that also seems to occasionally move some of us as we move into old age. How do we come to terms with ageing and winter, with darkness and death? What possible ‘meaning’ can there be in the negative, in trauma, suffering, abandonment, loss, in wrongdoing and evil? The questions may lie at the root of all philosophy, possibly of thinking itself. For a believer and theist, it is the question motivating all theodicies: how to explain evil in a God-created universe if God is both Omnipotence and the All-Good?

Böhme’s way of answering this question is – in the plebeian radical Reformation tradition – not by consulting authorities and books but by reading in the book of himself, as it were, by introspection and contemplation. For, being made in the image of God, we are – in Böhme’s Hermetic interpretation – microcosms that reflect the macrocosm. We contain heaven and earth and all beings and God within ourselves. Thus deep within us lies our source, our beginning, and that of all things. And we can discover this through sinking down into ourselves, as it were, and touching these wild origins. [2]

There in the Primal Ground (Urgrund) Böhme finds no ethereal New Age harmony but rather dualistic contradiction and conflict, he finds – in Ernst Bloch’s Böhmian and alchemical paraphrase – ‘an inter-being, a cross-fermenting, a self-contradicting, a boiling, a struggling, a wrestling of two elements opposing each other.’[3] Thus looking inwards, and being a radically egalitarian Christian, Böhme finds both God and the Devil and corresponding choices and alienating compulsions defining lives: ‘Every person is his own God and his own Devil. Whichever pain he is disposed towards and gives himself to will drive and lead him and he will become its journeyman.’[4] He also finds in himself three worlds: the spiritual dual worlds of divine heaven (the world of eternal light and joy) and dark hell (the world of eternal darkness, fire and fear) as well as the external material world, and all three are dialectically interlinked.[5]

For Böhme, the inner conflict of God and Devil, heaven and hell, light and dark is not rigidly and statically antagonistic and one-sided as in Manichean Gnosticism and orthodox monotheisms, but rather fluid and dialectical. Thus, for example,

the power in light is God’s fire of love, and the power in darkness is God’s fire of wrath, and both are but one fire that divides itself into two principles, in order that each become apparent within the other: for the flame of wrath is the revelation of great love. Thus it must be understood that the evil and good angels live close to each other, and yet at the greatest immeasurable distance. For Heaven is within Hell and Hell within Heaven, and neither is visible to the other. [6]

The German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch further paraphrases the essence of Böhme’s ‘objective dialectics’ as follows. [7] The Urgrund, the Primal Source, has the Ungrund, the ‘Non-Source’, the Negative, within itself. The Divine thus contains the Diabolical within itself, the latter being its other face. In fact, without this oppositional dark negativity there would be no movement, no emergence, no revelation of Light, no appearing of the Good. The Negative (the ‘diabolical’ or ‘Luciferian’) force that drives this emergence is – and here Böhme seems surprisingly ‘psychological’ – egoic will, the drive to separate, to be an other, to become independent, and this is also a dense contracting or withdrawing into oneself. In Böhme’s words: ‘everywhere one thing is against the other, not so that they become enemies but that it be moved and reveal itself.’

And the basis of the Negative is (very much as in Buddhism and Schopenhauer, only here given a very necessary and positive function) desire (Begierde), emotional egoic will, and this desiring will in turn is born of hunger, of a keen sense of absence or want. Hunger and the will are (using modern terminology) autistic or narcissistic, for they have nothing but themselves, nothing but the drive to be filled. Will, seeking itself, can find nothing but the quality of hunger or neediness which it itself is. Will draws hunger, wanting, into itself, i.e. it draws itself into itself. This withdrawing into itself is a process of contraction or ‘coagulation’ (an alchemical term), a dense ‘bitterness’ and out of this process nature itself emerges within God.

Thus both the hungry, desiring Negative principle and the pure loving Positivity of the One God share a similar dilemma: alone, without self-contradiction, without their opposite, they cannot know themselves. No self without an other. Only opposition and contradiction provide the momentum for emergence and development.

Positively, on the one hand, the One or Complete Unity wants (for) nothing. Here Böhme’s depiction of God is very much within the Neo-Platonist tradition, echoing Plotinus’ ‘One’:

One cannot say of God that He contains differences within Himself; for He is nature-less as well as affect-less and creature-less within Himself. He has no bent towards anything, for there is nothing before Him to which He could bend, whether Evil or Good. He is the Non-Ground (der Ungrund) within Himself. He has no suffering within Himself ; He is the One Being. He is the Void and the All and a unified Will. He is neither light nor darkness, neither love nor wrath, He is the Eternal One.

Thus, wanting nothing, on the other hand, God also lacks wanting because there is nothing outside Himself, no other He could want. Lacking an Other, it cannot ‘feel itself’. The problem thus becomes one of the necessity of an opposing Other, and thus of relationship, in order for a being to know itself and thus be able to return to itself. The ‘Yes’ needs a ‘No’ to know itself. In Böhme’s own words:

The reader should know that all things – whether divine, diabolical or earthly – exist within Yes and No. The One as the Yes is strength and love and is the truth of God and God Himself. God would be unknowable to Himself, and in Him would be no joy or majesty or sensitivity without the No. The No is a counter to the Yes or the Truth in order that the Truth be revealed and realized, so there be a contrariness within it, an eternal Love creating, wanting, feeling. For the One has nothing within it that can want unless it duplicate itself and become two. It cannot feel itself within its unity, but it can do so within duality…Nothing can become revealed to itself without its opposite, for if it has nothing that resists itself it always remains within itself and cannot return into itself. And if it does not return into itself again as into that from which it originally departed it will know nothing of its Original State. [9]

To know our deepest ultimate selves, we need to leave ourselves, to want (in both senses) and form a loving relationship with the opposing, contrary, conflicting ‘other’ in ourselves, and thus – having left – be able return to our original selves. This ‘necessary suffering’ would seem to be a spiritual-therapeutic program both for inner work and external marriage or, indeed, any deeper human relationship. As within, so without: to find the without one must go within, to find the within one must go out of oneself. No finding without leaving, no Self without Other, no life without death, no unity without severance. In fact, the finding needs the leaving, the unity needs the severance, the light needs the dark so that it may, finally, know itself and truly, joyously shine.

[1] E. Bloch, Zwischenwelten in der Philosophiegeschichte, p. 230.
[2] Ibid., p. 233.
[3] Ibid., p. 234 (Own translation, PL-N)
[4] Cited in Bloch, op. cit., p. 233. (Own translation, PL-N)
[5] J. Böhme, ‘Einige Sätze aus den Theosophischen Sendbriefen’ (1618-24), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 70. (Own translation, PL-N)
[6] J. Böhme, ‘Mysterium Magnum’ (1622-23), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 71. (Own translation, PL-N). Apart from the poetically religious imagery, the Hegelian quality of this dialectical and paradoxical passage is striking.
[7] E. Bloch, op. cit., p. 235.
[8] J. Böhme, ‘Der Weg zu Christo’ (1623-24), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 78. (Own translation, PL-N).
[9] J. Böhme, ‘Sechs theosophische Punkte’ (1620), quoted in E. Bloch, op. cit., p. 241. (Own translation, P. L-N).


18. Doomed to Consciousness. 13 Mildly Millennial Theses on Climate Chaos

It is man’s earth now. One wonders what obligations may accompany this infinite possession.
– Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1948, p. 66

There is no way that we who have been caught in the meshes of the global economic web can go back to ‘primitive’ ways. We no longer have the possibility of developing unconscious behaviour patterns that will lead to a restored and sustainable relationship with nature. The religious props have been removed, the sociocultural reinforcement of appropriate behaviour no longer exists. From here on we are doomed to consciousness. We must know, understand, be aware of, comprehend our relationships with the total biosphere on which our future depends.
– Raymond Dasmann, ‘Toward a Biosphere Consciousness’, in D. Worster (ed.), The Ends of the Earth. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988, p. 279, italics added P. L-N).

I am not an optimist because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is the feeling that life and work have meaning. And you can have that regardless of the state of the world around you.
– Vaclav Havel (Czech dissident and later President)

1. Limits

The phenomenon commonly euphemised as ‘climate change’ is the latest and most severe manifestation of the planetary limits of human expansion.

Corollary: Either the expansion is voluntarily halted or the limits are broken, resulting in systemic collapse and great suffering. [1]

2. Population, Energy, Consumption, Forests

In purely material terms, the key drivers of this expansion are growth in population, (fossil fuel) energy, per capita resource consumption and deforestation.

Corollary: Population growth, fossil fuel use, per capita resource consumption and deforestation must be curtailed if we are to avoid systemic collapse.

3. Peak Everything

Both population growth and oil use are already peaking and will then decline.

Corollary: Societies must now adapt by comprehensively planning for and implementing a lower population and post-oil future (‘gentle energy descent’, ‘transition towns’, ‘re-localisation’, urban farming, decentralised renewable energy etc.)

4. Coal, Consumption and Deforestation

Coal mining, per capita resource consumption and deforestation are currently not peaking and declining but expanding.

Corollary: We must organise to keep coal in the ground, reduce per capita resource consumption in the affluent nations and classes, stop deforestation and begin massive reforestation. The world’s poor must be helped to increase their per capita consumption and leapfrog into the solar age without further going through a fossil fuel-nuclear-deforestation stage.

5. ‘Green’ Business As Usual

Big Business and their client governments will attempt to continue their ecocidal business-as-usual with the aid of their (a) bandaid hi-tech fixes (nuclear, CCS, geo-engineering etc.) and (b) loopholed ‘market’ fixes (‘carbon trading’ and ‘offsetting’, green consumerism etc.). These serve to distract from regulation and systemic solutions, do not radically reduce emissions, guarantee catastrophic climate chaos and prolong the agony of the transition to a decentralised, low energy society.

Corollary: We must seek (if we have the energy) to educate about, counter and prevent the disastrous ‘technical fixes’ and ‘market solutions’ pursued by the powers-that-be in their own economic interests and at all our grave expense.

6. Economic Growth

In socio-economic terms, the key driver of social and material expansion beyond planetary limits is the phenomenon euphemised as ‘economic growth and development’ (i.e. capital accumulation).

Corollary: Capitalism and sustainability are incompatible. Capital accumulation must be curtailed and shrink (and/or be socially forced to ‘internalise’ its now lethal ecological and social ‘external costs’).

7. Class Struggle

In affluent societies, post-war capital accumulation, social struggle and attendant welfare states have enabled the weakening or suspension of the perennial social conflict (class struggle) over social control and distribution of the immense wealth and productive forces that have been produced.

Corollary: Unless deflected from above (e.g. into war, jingoism or fascist xenophobia and scapegoating), the curtailing and shrinking of capital accumulation will necessarily involve the resurgence of social conflict within and between all societies over the control and distribution of shrinking resources, wealth and the social costs of energy descent.

8. Power Struggle

To socially curtail and control capital accumulation (investment decisions) for the benefit of the biosphere and human majorities on the planet is to challenge the very basis of industrial capitalism (‘free market’) itself and thus necessarily entails some form of popular power struggle against its main global beneficiaries and ruling elites.

Corollary: The first step in this power struggle is to break through the enforced cognitive taboo and realise the all-determining role of economic power,[2] its anti-democratic stranglehold on investment decisions, mainstream politics and the direction of social development and its central role in causing climate chaos, ecocide, global inequalities, imperial control and militarism, social inequality and powerlessness.

9. http://www.Movement Self-Consciousness

This popular power struggle against the ecocidal powers-that-be is already occurring as a ‘world wide web’ of many complex and diverse levels all over the planet but its complex synergy needs to become even more globally networked, focussed and conscious of itself as a social, ecological, cultural and spiritual movement for the deep restructuring of local, national and international economies.

Corollary: The planetary movement for global justice and decarbonised re-localisation can conceive of itself as a complex, diverse, fluctuating, self-networking and totally new social phenomenon of resistance and transformation simply by radically reflecting both on the many forms of social and cultural practice that it is already engaged in and on those that are now possible.

10. Role of the State

The role of the state in this grassroots process of gaining control over and reshaping economies can be helpful or hindering: the democratic state can work together with grassroots initiatives to implement post-carbon economies but if systemic collapse ensues or is imminent because of lack of popular awareness and timely self-organisation, an authoritarian Emergency State is quite likely (wholesale bans, rationing, bellicose nationalist fortresses, multifarious controls, total surveillance and further loss of freedoms).

Corollary: Globally people need to increase awareness of democratic solutions and massively self-organise from bottom-up, both to implement democratic social alternatives, put pressure on their governments and avoid the top-down pseudo-solution of some form of authoritarian Emergency State.

11. Urgency

The need for social, cultural and economic change is now extremely urgent since there are new material thresholds (e.g. 2 degrees plus or 400 ppm CO2, melting of poles) and temporal thresholds (e.g. the window of opportunity of the next 5-10 years) or catastrophic and irreversible tipping points as determined or conjectured by scientific analysis of the biosphere.

Corollary: To avoid systemic collapse and/or an Emergency State, we urgently need to act NOW in all possible and diverse ways that express the principles we are fighting for: ecological sustainability, social justice and empowerment, solidarity, mutual aid and interdependence, democratic freedom and human rights, cultural diversity and non-violence.

12. The Great General Strike for Life

The diverse movements for global justice and survival could find a much needed focus in a specific practical proposal: a democratic mobilising process for an active and global Great General Strike for Life.

Corollary: The purposes of a global Active and General Strike at a time and for a period to be determined could be to: (a) withdraw obedience, taxes or popular energy from the blind machinery of the ecocidal system, (b) creatively occupy places of production, consumption and democracy (town halls/parliaments) and (c) there begin the bottom-up, society-wide Great Dialogue about, and planned transition to, an ecologically sustainable, de-carbonised, globally re-localised, democratically self-managed and socially just economic and social system.

13. The Leap

The planetary process of deep social change needed to prevent run-away climate chaos and adapt to now inevitable climate change amounts to a deep cultural and spiritual revolution in the human psyche itself and thus a qualitative leap in human evolution toward One World Consciousness. This is the obvious ‘utopian’ trajectory of human evolution that now needs to be urgently and consciously liberated from within its mostly unconscious carriers: the individuals that make up the world wide web of social and cultural movements of resistance and change. We are evolution’s first hesitant attempts at ‘universal individuals’. It is ‘our earth’ now. We had better start practising.

Corollary: Meditate. Inform. Organize. Network. Build alternatives. Enjoy.

(‘Gundungurra’ Bundanoon,
la Ninja Summer 2007-08)

[1] Historical overviews of such previous civilizational collapses are provided in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Camberwell Victoria: Allen Lane Penguin, 2005.
[2] According to UN estimates in 2001, there were around 65,000 transnational companies with 850,000 affiliates around the globe together making sales of $18,500,000,000,000 ($18.5 trillion or $ 18,500 billion) or about half gross world product, with the largest 100 corporations alone making over a quarter of those sales (S. George, Another world is possible if…, London: Verso, p. 73). The wealthiest 200-300 individuals in the world now possess more wealth than almost half of humanity. Such figures are the abstract lineaments of unheard levels both of social power and potential common wealth that are almost never mentioned in mainstream public discourse.

2 Responses to “Essays 2009-2010”

  1. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blog is great, thanks!

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