Thursday, October 28, 2004

Responding to a 4th term of Howard

Ok, so the election result wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for. At least the Labor party didn’t get elected. But that is some small consolation given that the Liberal coalition did – with effective control of the senate to boot. The public contest, as usual, was basically substanceless – crisp, crunchy soundbites of nothingness. But what else can you expect when there is a fundamental consensus between the major parties? In reality the differences are superficial – so it is not surprising that this is reflected in the public debate.

That’s not entirely fair I hear people saying. Labor probably would have ratified Kyoto, their Tassie forest package was slightly better, and the mandatory renewable energy target would have been increased by 1%. Whoopie. Did Labor clearly oppose the invasion of Iraq? Do Labor have a humane position on refugees? Do Labor have any alternatives to trade liberalization and an economic model that is killing the planet? Hardly.

The Right has effectively defined the boundaries of allowable political discourse. Both major political parties have adopted the neoliberal economic model in its entirety (known in Australia as ‘economic rationalism’) – elevating the pathological nonsense of ‘economic growth’, regardless of social or ecological realities, to be the most worthy objective of government. Vandana Shiva uses the term ‘monocultures of the mind’ to describe the colonization of our imagination by a reductionist, economically rationalist, industrial world view. Welcome to the world of mainstream Australian politics and economics.

The internal logic of the system is so compelling that it closes down any possibilities of imagining anything different. We are destined to tinker with the arrangement of the deckchairs on the vast, expansive deck of the titanic of neoliberal economics. An occasional tug of war decides who gets to direct the arranging of the chairs for the next 3 year period. The point is, regardless of who is in power, the ship is still going in exactly the wrong direction and is still picking up speed. While there are a small number of passengers starting to revolt - and we should duly celebrate the increase in the Green vote from 5% to 7% - we should also cut the crap and start asking the real questions.

Why is it that only 7% of Australians voted for the only party that is actually sane and life affirming? Given everything we know about the ecological crisis, we should be in the situation where we are asking why 7% of people didn’t vote for the Greens rather than the ludicrous situation where 7% did. So I don’t want to discuss why the Greens didn’t get 10% as they might have hoped, or why there was a swing against Labor. I’ll leave these questions for others. I am interested in why the Greens (or at least the values that the Greens stand for) didn’t attract the other 93% of the vote – and what we need to do about it. I’m also interested in how we can make sure the Greens don’t also adopt the hubris of economic rationalism in an attept to be seen to be ‘credible’ and ‘realistic’ – but I’ll save this discussion for another article.

Do we think that most Australians are mean spirited, selfish people who don’t care about the environment, don’t care about social justice or the plight of the majority of the people on this planet who suffer at the hands of the global economy? Is that really our experience of the people in our communities? I would argue not. If you ask most people what is important to them, they’ll tell you things like: family, community, a clean environment, jobs etc. A lot of these values play a central role in how Australians have seen themselves for most of the last century – particularly the ethic of ‘a fair go for all’. I’m not saying that we haven’t got a long way to go in terms of a values shift that will enable us to live in harmony on and with this planet, but over the past decades, our movements for justice and sustainability have created a considerable shift in awareness and in values – albeit against a strong current of economic rationalism.

The problem is that these values and assumptions are not reflected in the choices that people make – either on polling day or in other parts of their lives. These shifts have not been harnessed into building political or institutional change. The people have moved but are not a ‘movement’. Many whose life has been changed by coming into contact with some part of progressive movements through single issue campaigns have not made the connections with other issues and are, for whatever reason, not part of a broader movement for change.

To bring people with us, our movements need to stop focusing on only the details and must deepen their message by more effectively articulating the values crisis that underlies and creates the problems (or symptoms). Unless the details of our campaigns articulate a broader vision, they are just more background noise in our information saturated culture. Our campaigns and actions must tell inclusive, provocative stories that create more and more space for people to see themselves in the story. We must tell the story of values crisis. Our stories must make people take sides – are you part of the sickness or are you part of the healing? Are you part of the life affirming future or are you part of the doomsday economy? We must lay claim to life-affirming, common sense values and expose one of the most blatant truths of the modern era: the corporate rule system rooted in sacrificing human dignity and planetary health for elite profit is out of alignment with common sense values.

This is the domain of post-issue activism - the recognition that the roots of the emerging crisis lie in the fundamental flaws of the modern order and that our movements for change need to talk about re-designing the whole global system — now. Post-issue activism is a dramatic divergence from the slow progression of single-issue politics, narrow constituencies and band-aid solutions. Post-issue activism will not replace single-issue politics – the worst excesses of the corporate industrial system need to be challenged immediately - but rather it allows us to strengthen ongoing struggles by providing a larger social change context.

Post-issue activism - articulating the values crisis

So how do we move beyond (rather than abandon) single issue poltics? Post-issue activism is the struggle to address the holistic nature of the crisis and it demands new frameworks, new alliances and new strategies. We must find ways to articulate the connections between all the issues by revealing the pathological nature of the corporate system. We have to learn to talk about values, deepen our analysis without sacrificing accessibility and direct more social change resources into creating political space for a truly transformative arena of social change.

To articulate the pathology of the corporate system we must avoid debating on the system’s terms. As the classic organizer’s tenet says “We have to organize people where they are at.” In other words, if we tell people our truths in a way that that connects with their experience, they will understand them. It is our job as activists to clarify the choice by revealing the nature of the system and articulating the alternatives. Will it be democracy or global corporate rule? Will we be subsumed into a fossil fuel addicted global economy or build vibrant sustainable local economies? Which will win out - ecological sanity or pathological capitalism? Will it be the corporate globalization of economics and control or a people’s globalization of ideas, creativity and autonomy? Democracy versus corporate rule. Ecology versus pollution. Life versus the doomsday economy. Hope versus extinction.

When we say a better world is possible – we mean it. We want a world that reflects basic life centered values. We’ve got the vision and the big ideas and the other side doesn’t. We’ve got biocentrism, organic food production, direct democracy, renewable energy, diversity, people’s globalization and justice. What have they got? Styrofoam? Neo-liberalism? Eating disorders? Designer jeans, manic depression and global warming?

Decolonising our imagination

The system we are fighting is not merely structural it’s also inside us - through the internalization of oppressive cultural norms that define our worldview. In many ways, our movements have become complicit with a cynical mass media that makes fundamental social change unimaginable.

As a consequence activists frequently ghettoize themselves by self-identifying through protest and fail to belive that our movements that can actually change power relations. We somehow allow ourselves to be portrayed as anti-social radicals - as dissent is de-legitimized to be unpatriotic, impractical, naïve or even insane. The reality is that the neoliberal policy makers and corporate executives who think the world can continue on with unlimited economic growth in a finite biological system are insane, not us. We are not the fringe.

The corporate/government elite are basically driving a political and economic agenda which is a radical departure from what most people think is acceptable moral, human behaviour. We can and must re-frame the debate. The values of the Greens, the environmental and global justice movements are basically values that most Australians relate to. The values of the Howard government are mean spirited, selfish and pathological – hardly the stuff that most people feel affinity with once they are laid bare. In fact neither of the major parties can talk about values. After the last 20 years of economic rationalism (led most ably by Keating and now Howard) they can no longer talk about our hopes and aspirations. All that remains is to mobilize our fears and our vices – will it be refugees, xenophobia or interest rates?

When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, he captured the imagination of American public and helped to catapult the civil rights movement into history. He didn’t stand up and say “I have a nightmare” – which would have been instantly forgettable but is roughly the equivalent of what we in the environmental/justice movements typically do today. We need to stand confidently behind, and clearly articulate our positive values and our vision – and bring the majority of the Australian public who share our values with us. We need to stop believing that we are marginal and we need to stop limiting what we aim for.

A great example of this shift in thinking in the context of the climate change debate is the New Apollo Project ( It aims to create 3 million new energy jobs and free the USA from foreign oil dependency in 10 years. It is a bold and radical attempt to reframe the climate change campaign in a way that is value based and that breaks out of the single issue mold – it is about a positive new vision for economic, social, technological and environmental transformation. Anything less is unrealistic if we’re actually going to achieve the changes that are required.

Building grassroots power

All too often we project our own sense of powerlessness by mistaking militancy for radicalism and mobilization for movement building. Or even worse - we invest in dead end reforms that actually leave the fundamental power relations in society strengthened rather than weakened.

Getting tens of thousands of people to take joint action (as in the anti war marches in 2003) is not an end in itself, rather only the first step in catalyzing deeper shifts in the dominant culture. It was a serious failure of the leadership of the Australian peace movement that less than two weeks after the huge March 20 rallies, most people felt disempowered and felt as though the movement had failed. The reality was that the decision to go to war had already been made. But we failed to build on the incredible groundswell of opposition to the war and as a consequence we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

At the rally in Sydney, it was estimated that there were around 500,000 people. I was at the rally for about 4 hours but not once did I see a collection bucket and I wasn’t given any information about how I could get involved in future activities. Contrast this to a recent rally in Washington DC in which an estimated 750,000 people rallied around issues of womens choice. Every person at the march was given an “I’ve been counted” sticker along with a leaflet about how they could get involved in the ongoing campaign. They were asked to make a donation and their email address was collected. After the rally, each of the member groups of the coalition that organized the rally had built their electronic mailing lists (and potential supporter base) by over half a million new people.

Another world is possible, but it isn’t going to happen by osmosis. It takes planning, high levels of organisation, and conscious strategies to build power. It also requires that we learn the lessons of history. The US Right is probably the best contemporary example of how to do it well (and we’re all paying the price for their success). After the failed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Right got serious about obtaining power. They organized for the long term. They established think tanks, they trained leaders, they developed a sophisticated media and messaging machine (check out the recent book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank) and they built power. They created a literal army of community leaders who could clearly articulate the ideology of the right in a way that everyday Americans could relate to. They gained a virtual monopoly on ‘family values’. The opposition remains a shambles. Even when in power, the Democratic Party agenda is radically shaped by the Republicans who have successfully managed to define the boundaries of allowable political discourse - much the same as here in Australia.

The beginning

So how do we get to the situation where the Liberals and Labor are squabbling over 7% of the vote?

We remove the pathological ideology of economic rationalism from Australian universities and replace it with a people and earth centred economics. We banish the entire cadre of neoliberal acolytes (of whatever political party) from the corridors of power. We create a new political imperative that is rooted in the values and the challenges of social justice and environmental sustainability. We create the equivalent of a ‘wartime economy’ to fastrack the changes we need to transition to an ecological economy.

We think big. We frame our issues as part of a broader values crisis. We recast our definitions of ‘environment’ and ‘social justice’ and see our hitherto separate struggles as one and the same. We build new alliances. We start training people in campaign strategy, building grassroots power and direct action. We build new organisations to do this training and capacity building of the global justice/environmental movement. We create new think tanks. We develop bold visions and strategies that are commensurate with the size of the problem – and that capture the public imagination. We create powerful Meme’s and messages that touch people’s lives. We clearly articulate a positive vision for the future. We communicate with people where they are today. We get out of the ghetto and onto the streets. We take direct action. We work as though our lives depend on it – because they do. We believe that we can win because we have to…because what we are doing now isn’t working… because we have the only realistic vision of how to live on this planet… because we need to be able to look our children in the eye… because David actually did beat Goliath.

by John Hepburn

(Acknowledgement: Key ideas and some sections of text on post issue activism have been adapted from “Decolonising the revolutionary imagination”, by Patrick Reinsborough, which is printed in full in “Globalise Liberation – How to uproot the system and build a better world” (edited by David Solmit) and is also available from the Smartmeme Project - a movement training and strategy organisation based in San Francisco)