Climate change became an unavoidable reality for much of the Australian community this summer. By January 2020, record drought and heatwaves had dried, baked and burned forests and grasslands from Western Australia to Gippsland in the south east. This was caused by human made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions heating the Earth’s atmosphere to dangerous levels. Fossil fuels literally feed the engines of modern industrial society, and when burnt they release lots of the GHG carbon dioxide (CO2) which is effectively toxic waste from this process. Similar processes are at work in agricultural production, with each farm animal itself a micro-engine producing GHG pollution in the form of methane.
A key part of the problem of doing something proper serious about climate change is that GHG emissions are de-territorialised – they adhere to no national or other boundary, real or imaginary. This is massively problematic because it makes it all too easy from a political-economic perspective to externalise the negative impacts of emissions and very difficult to internalise the benefits of GHG abatement and mitigation. And if liberal economics tells us one thing, it’s that rational actors will always seek to minimise costs and maximise benefit. Contemporary politics, it turns out, is not so different from this either.
The Mac is back, baby!
Australia’s Machiavellian moment announced itself in the wake of the hyper-catastrophic bushfire season when post-conservative climate change denialists in the Liberal and National Parties and the Murdoch media pulled off an almost seamless about-face whilst seemingly standing still on the spot. Although there remains a few voices clinging to the old mantras of direct denial, many have stopped denying humans have caused climate change or that this significantly increased the severity of bushfires. Now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others are saying: yes, climate change is here; and, yes, we need to act on it; and – the best bit – here is how we are all going to do it.
By choosing the formula ‘climate action now’, Morrison has appropriated a key motif of the existing, generally progressive, pro-climate action movement. Centred around decarbonising national and global economies, the existing climate action movement comprises ‘green left’, social democratic, moderate liberal and traditional conservative elements, and enjoys widespread support in Australia and globally. Nonetheless, this political manoeuvre has put the post-conservatives in the driver’s seat, gaining the momentum in the contest for climate hearts and minds.
This apparent road to Damascus moment, however, came after a good amount of standing back and ignoring the myriad warnings from diverse stakeholders about the destructive impacts global warming was going wreak via Australia’s bushfires. Alack! for these predictions came to be. And the disastrous failure of leadership from Morrison and his cabinet suggests either deep incompetence, or alternatively something a whole lot more Machiavellian.
Indeed, the prima facie evidences suggest there was no conversion, and Morrison in fact stealthily struck out on the road to Riyadh. Searching for the mirage of technological solutions to the climate crisis, traversed a path blazed by NSW Liberal Party colleague, Environment minister Matt Kean, who in December 2019, confusingly fantasised about NSW’s bright future as the Saudi Arabia of solar while his state was burning.
Over the course of the tragic 2019-20 fires, post-conservative rhetoric has moved from denial and intransigence to faux-serious action on climate change, led by flustered proactive acceptance involving repetitive inculcation of a new-found need for ‘adaptation’ and ‘resilience’. They are now controlling the conversation and appropriating the language of climate change to close their opponents out of the conversation and dress up environmental destruction as positive action.
Post-conservative elements have taken control of the moment; they are now dictating what ‘climate action’ looks like. They saw a strategic opportunity for a paradigm shift, and the direction of that shift is clear: more extensive and intensive exploitation and expropriation of land, labour and resources. This means more neoliberal capitalism for a continent and a planet that are literally being chocked by neoliberal capitalism.
Unfortunately, so to speak, this Morrison is not on a Machiavellian frolic of his own. The insidious phenomenon of populist ‘illiberalism’ is tightening its grip in places like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Narendra Modi’s India. The presidents of Brazil and the Philippines openly advocate extrajudicial murder by police and other paramilitary elements. Authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere are consolidating their grip on power in various and sometimes frighteningly innovative ways. Internally, security and surveillance have become hallmarks of the contemporary state. Various manifestations of hybrid warfare, including cyberwarfare and political interference campaigns, are the new normal in international relations.
In the United States, Donald Trump is charging forth at the vanguard of the Anglosphere, blending neoliberalism with a strong whiff of third world dictatorialism and a decent dose of good ol’ homegrown draft brewed up by the far right ‘Tea Party’ faction of the Republican Party. Across the pond, Boris ‘Britain Trump’ Johnson’s latest flip in favour of climate action shouldn’t come completely as a surprise. Despite Johnson’s best-actor-in-a-supporting-role performance in the post-conservative political circus, traditional conservatism still has a strong following in the United Kingdom, not least within the Conservative Party itself.
Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, routinely if unfondly referred to as ‘Scotty-from-marketing’, has strong ties to the evangelical movement in the US, and has applied his ‘marketing’ skills, such as they are, to furthering a post-conservative vision for his own country. A key strategy has been to increasingly contest social and cultural issues in the Australian community, which has a number of important effects.
First, it signals strongly to conservative segments of the electorate that civil and other human rights issues with moral and religious dimensions are politically live issues that need to be mobilised against. Second, reopening settled issues, trying to wind back progressive gains and hindering progress all diverts political attention and energy away from sectors like the economy and the environment. Third, the rights and wellbeing of Australians are being eroded, which is not only in itself a bad thing, but also weakens the community’s capacity for political action to both resist and to make progress on political and social equality and justice.
Let us not forget that when Australia was burning, Morrison and Co were engaging in ‘lawfare’. In late 2019, the Liberal National government introduced legislation sanctioning a wide range of discriminatory behaviour by ‘religious’ entities and individuals and an anti-union bill restricting the rights of employees to organise collectively. On top of this was the repeal of legislated access to medical care for refugees and asylum seekers in horrific conditions in offshore detention – an object lesson in the art of political expediency as ever were.
These measures were aimed at taking away fundamentally important human rights from diverse sections of the community, whose political status is being relegated to either political opponents or political instruments. By opening up new fronts and broadening out the culture wars, an effective political opposition on critical issues like climate change, environmental destruction and social and economic rights (such as housing and work) becomes increasingly difficult.
Where art human values?
How did this Machiavellian moment come to be? One way of looking at it is that modern industrial capitalism has prospered on the erosion human values, allowing increased subjugation of human and natural worlds to Sisyphean cycles of production, consumption, and reproduction.
The decline of religion and the move toward secularism was arguably a precondition of the growth of scientific rationality as the dominant discourse of power in modernity. Indeed, it is debatable whether a rational theory of ethics or morality can be coherently derived without a creator God issuing a ‘divine command’. There is, at any rate, something to this, as it has proven exceedingly difficult to develop binding ethical frameworks merely on the basis of self-confirming logical arguments.
As a commoner in late medieval Europe, Niccolò Machiavelli, architect of early modern realpolitik, would presumably have entered the employ of any prince(ling) who he thought would heed his advice. His career with the Medici banker-princes of Florence, then, was a salient fact. Themselves commoners, they married into nobility to bolster claims to social status and political legitimacy, as was standard practice at the time. Money lending with interest was widely considered usury in Christianity and therefore a sin, adding a further dimension to the struggle for socio-economic freedom against the traditional norms of the warrior and religious classes.
Political and economic liberalism have always been closely entwined, eventually fusing into two sides of the neoliberal coin.
In the centuries following the Italian renaissance, the exigencies of war making by European ‘nobility’ would lead to the creation of the bureaucratic taxation state, requiring increasing numbers of administrators and tax farmers. While varying across the realms that comprised Christendom, broadly this offered ample opportunity for wealthy, educated commoners to rise through the social strata. This was particularly the case in France, where the sale of official position and noble rank also provided much needed funding for the royal coffers.
By the seventeenth century, Europe’s centre of cultural gravity had shifted from the Italian city states to the burgeoning nation-states of western Europe. Absolutism was effectively exported from centres of power like France into other parts of Europe, much as feudalism had been in the middle ages. A keen adopter was Scotland, and the House of Stuart’s attempts to impose absolute monarchy on England led to the Civil Wars and the birth of liberalism.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ushered in constitutional government, making parliament sovereign and severely limiting the prerogatives of the crown. The liberal compromise was also effected a century later, again after bloody conflict, in the American colonies, giving rise to the US federal republic. Back in Europe, however, the French aristocracy ground down society until popular discontent erupted in the catastrophic events following from 1789, which nonetheless gave rise to incredibly influential collective visions of human rights and social democracy.
Liberalism was essentially a ‘middle class’ political ideology promoting individual autonomy and rights, originating in the struggle for a share of political power by socially elite commoners (merchants and professionals) against hereditary aristocracy and absolutist monarchy. This engendered the development of constitutional systems of government that restrained state power and ultimately provided for representative democracy. Over time, liberalism broadened its scope to increasingly include equality of women, people of colour and other socio-political out-groups.
These early modern merchants and professionals were opposed to royal monopolies, charters and other instruments that created economic privileges which excluded them from opportunities to acquire wealth and social status. In its political-economic guise, liberalism relies on the social science of economics, despite many of its epistemological claims being contestable. Perhaps most importantly, liberal economics predicts wealth can be maximised through minimisation of state intervention in commerce. This, it is claimed, would allow markets to organically optimise distribution of resources and maximise value for producers and consumers.
The inherent logical of liberalism thus lies in freedom from restraint. It is essentially a philosophy of maximalism. And without values based on ethical, moral or religious constraints, there will be no ‘self-regulation’ of greed, but rather maximisation through continual growth in production and consumption. For liberalism ultimately cannot restrain itself: at some level, any source of constraint is an anathema to its fundamental principles.
In its early history, liberalism was naturally restrained by the push-back of very same social forces it aimed to overcome, the nobility and the clergy. As liberalism achieved more of its goals, the less external restraints remained to dampen its progress. However, it took hundreds of years for the restraining effects of Christian religion and the inertia tradition to erode to the point we are at now. These deep societal changes occurred by virtue of a mutual feedback loops between secularisation and the development of capitalism, which drove further erosion of tradition allowing faster capitalist growth and so on.
A long chain of historical processes was involved in this outcome. One might kick off with the Crusades and Islam’s Golden Age, leading to Europe’s rediscovery of classical learning and the cultural florescence of the Renaissance. These were backed economically by the spice trade, monetisation of feudal Europe and the rise of international banking. The arrival of gunpowder, navigational and printing technologies from China during this period was a world-historical game changer. All this leads to the voyages of ‘discovery’, colonialism, the Reformation, the wars of religion, Protestantism, the Scientific Revolution, liberalism, the European Enlightenment, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and capitalism.
Hyper-catastrophic events such as the Black Death and endemic total warfare in the early seventeenth century led to massive depopulation, disrupting social organisation and folkways, creating mobility and driving innovation. War was a key incubator for technological and social change, providing mechanisms for innovation to occur and spread, and creating feedback loops that accelerated change. Each step in this dance further weakened the bonds of custom and tradition, promoting increased dynamism in European society, eventually resulting in the twentieth century in global war, genocide and dangerous climate change.
The loosening of the bonds embedding us in communities and the environment allowed for the spectacular rise of reason, liberalism and capital. The tearing away of edifices of hierarchical state and religious authority freed the spirit of intellect and enterprise in western Europe, but it also uprooted people, and peoples, from their place in the world, physically, socially and spiritually.
To varying degrees, this led to the dissolution of the corporative state characteristic of the ancien régime in Europe. This system narrowly triangulated each individual’s place in the world through non-optional membership of a range of socio-political entities of various shapes, sizes and levels of institutionalisation, creating complex and often overlapping hierarchies of privileges and obligations.
The core of this system were the estates, the three classes or castes of nobles, clergy and commoners. Social control of the general population was thus bifurcated along two dimensions. The first was temporal, with state aligned groupings – from the family, through guilds, to the royal prerogative itself – functioning to bind the person through law and force. The second was spiritual, through which the church claimed complete dominion over the soul.
Along with the belonging this created, each of these identities also acted as a bind or fetter on individual freedom of choice, closely defining parameters of social roles in a world of limited mobility. As the entirety of western Christian society was ordered this way, with few exceptions an individual could not simply reinvent themselves and start a new life somewhere.
Of poppies, tall, and wounds, self-inflicted
This, however, is precisely the promise that modernity continues to hold out to unsuspecting citizens. In the contemporary west, we are generally given to believe that our identity and place in the world is not determined by parentage or place of birth, but by our own individual ability to make and remake ourselves and the world around us in the image of our own desire. Hence the myth of the self-made man at the heart of the American dream. Anglosphere societies in particular have become highly resistant to political restraints on their ‘lifestyle’ choices, even when the actual probabilities of realising these aspirations are reasonably low.
However, this response to the intersection of politics and culture has proven to be extremely vulnerable to manipulation. Resistance generally only holds so far as it conforms with mainstream sensibilities. If any particular minority’s pursuit of happiness is construed to violate certain mores or values that can be linked to tradition, religion or authority, they become potential targets for cultural warfare from post-conservative elites who benefit from existing power structures. In present day Australia, this latter group predominantly comprises those who derive benefits, directly or indirectly, from continued colonial occupation and extraction of natural resources.
As a trope in Australian social commentary, ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is so well worn that it’s hanging by a thread. In my view, however, it doesn’t go far enough anyway. I would instead characterise Australia’s contemporary socio-political culture as more akin to ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’. While certainly not in good taste, this metaphor is perhaps not unduly macabre. It seems a substantial proportion of Australians would rather do themselves collective injury rather than see the success, wellbeing or prosperity of others. This is particularly, but not exclusively, the case for anyone considered ‘undeserving’, which fundamentally comes down to anyone who is different, or ultimately just to anyone who is not me or mine.
Culture heroes, on the other hand, are placed on pedestals; exempt from judgement they become vessels fit only for praise and emulation. In Australia, this generally includes (usually white and most often male) elite sportspeople, military personnel, and the wealthy – in fact, the wealthier the better. In most cases, it actually doesn’t matter what these people do, how they conduct themselves, what contributions they make, or how they made their money. What matters is that they embody the values that the common people can aspire too: power, status, masculinity. These values are propagated by elite controlled institutions, such as schools and the media, to ensure continued functioning of the neoliberal state.
At some stage, this starts to look like a collective, nation-wide manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. A few examples should suffice to illustrate.
In the lead up to the 2019 federal election, when the Labor Party announced policy targets for electric vehicle (EV) sales, Scott Morrison instantly attacked it from a cultural angle, accusing then Labor leader Bill Shorten of wanting to ‘end the weekend’. In the same election, the Liberal Party instrumentalised Senate committee processes to create a narrative that painted Labor’s franking credit policy as a frontal assault on well-deserving self-funded retirees, severely damaging Labor’s campaign. The truth is refundable tax credits for share dividends on which no tax is being paid is simply bad public policy, economically and socially. Its only purpose is for upward redistribution of wealth.
Labor had previously come up against this type of politics under Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, when the good intentions of a progressive, reformist government were thwarted by the financial and cultural power of the mining and resources industry and associated allies in political and media circles. While basically a good idea, policy design of the Mineral Resources Rent Tax (MRRT) was fatally compromised under pressure from extraordinarily wealthy corporations and individuals, especially the Mineral Council of Australia’s hugely successful $20 million anti-tax advertising campaign.
Several years later, Australia has been described as ‘giving away’ its mineral wealth through a woefully inadequate tax and royalty regime. Clearly, claims by major political parties about their national economic management credentials need to be approached with considerable caution. Tax avoidance by multinational corporations has become endemic and widespread, especially at the top end and in the resources sector, with various legal and accounting loopholes used to send profits offshore and out of pockets of Australians.
The Gillard government’s ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ might have been successful if it had been implemented earlier. Riding the international groundswell of pro-climate action in 2011, this hybrid tax and emissions trading policy was actually welcomed by business community, but came up against fierce opposition from the Liberal Party led by the staunchly negative Tony Abbott.
The push to wind back effective climate policy was co-opted into a protracted and vicious campaign of misogynistic attacks on Australia’s first female prime minister, culminating in Gillard’s replacement by former prime minister Kevin Rudd. Labor’s subsequent loss at the 2013 election led to the repeal of the carbon tax and spelt the end of any serious climate policy in Australia, which is now one of the world’s highest per capita domestic GHG polluters as well as a top three exporter of fossil fuels.
Don’t tread on me
Incredibly problematically, the liberalisation of politics has led (inexorably, in hindsight) to the marketisation of politics, and now appears to be heading towards market totalitarianism. Liberalism arose in opposition to absolute monarchy: ideologically speaking, there was no place for partial, limited freedom in that contest. That is, if the fight was to be won.
But in practice, of course, that is exactly what happened: at the time a series of compromises and settlements both progressed the cause and raised new platforms on which further achievements could be sustained across a number of generations. During this phase, liberalism was subject to dual constraints. First, so long as liberalism fought the progressive fight against the oppression and exploitation inherent in the class system, there was natural pushback from aristocratic and religious elites protecting their turf. Second, the very nature of tradition and religion is conservative, requiring protection and sanctification of the past to legitimise present inequalities and continuing injustices.
Each hard fought victory of the rising middle class against the status quo power of state and church hierarchies eroded these restraints. These political and ideological successes ultimately not only weakened and, in some cases, severed the restraints on commerce, they also frayed the ethical/moral constraints on the practice of politics in liberal democratic societies. In its contemporary and most potent form, neoliberalism has eroded public space and public institutions, undermined social values and acted against common interests of community and society, paving the way for a post-conservative politics run on an ideological economy of deceit and manipulation.
At the heart of the Machiavellian worldview is unconditional freedom from any self-imposed restraint that could get in the way of expedient political action. It is, for all intents and purposes, the political manifestation of the free market principle in economics. In the latter, government or the state is seen as an unwelcome and counterproductive intruder, whereas in the former the role of alleged spoiler is played by traditional values, ethics and religion. In both the political and economic modes of liberalism, its internal logic excludes these balancing forces as inherently incompatible with its fundamental aims and identity.
We can see this in the ‘exportation of democracy’ by the US. As it turns out, parliamentary style democracy without the support of a strong civil society underpinned by liberal values facilitates corruptibility. This is in clear contrast with classic strong arm dictators who are usually either with you or against you in toto. And if one or other form of government, dictatorial or democratic, is not working in the interests of empire, then regime change comes into the picture.
The ideological influence of neoliberal economics on contemporary political culture is also evident in ‘performance legitimacy’, a mode of governance favoured by authoritarians. Regimes garner social support to based on delivery of material and social benefits which are politically directed to elites or other groups with aim of getting maximum bang for the ruling party’s buck. This comes at expense of people who may be identified as politically unnecessary, as well as other maleficiaries such as animals, the natural environment and people living in other countries (think climate change and global production chains). However, the short term utilitarianism inherent in this approach ignores a society’s long term political health and erodes the social contract. Rebellion or revolution can result if legitimacy is sufficiently undermined.
Neoliberalism’s fusion of political and economic rationality also manifests in the increasing quantification of politics. Polling has become an independent source of legitimacy in the context of a ‘24 hour media cycle’. This, for instance, led to the frantic changing of political ‘leaders’ based on internal or external polling, creating severe instability in the both Rudd/Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison federal governments. The fetish for enumerating the human world has also infected knowledge production, with the growing dominance of quantitative political science in our research institutions.
We are not alone
It should be clear that this way of thinking about politics has led, and continues to lead, us down the garden path of wilful ignorance to the destruction of society and the environment. But if a change in political and social values is needed, where would we find them?
In many ways, the counter-culture tide of the 1960s and 1970s represents the historical height of progressive politics globally. By opposing bad governance and bad policy, and by offering a vision of a more equal, more caring and freer society, these movements delivered significant social, cultural and economic gains for large sections of western society.
Underpinning this paradigm were values deriving in part from non-European religious and philosophical traditions, including Native American shamanism and Buddhism. These ideas often emphasised holistic interconnectedness, harmony and sustainability. This filtered into mainstream western culture through the New Age lifestyle movement in the 1980s, relying on simpler concepts like peace, love and oneness.
While ideas and values like these are vitally important, they can’t be just embedded in the national or global social psyche overnight. Moreover, over the past three generations, these strands of contemporary international culture have been co-opted wholesale by neoliberal market forces seeking to commodify anything and everything in the pursuit of profit.
Consider the timescale involved in the slow unwinding of millennia of tradition and belief over the last five centuries since the Reformation heralded the beginnings of the modern age in Europe. While history is full of new religious movements embodied in charismatic leaders arising at times of instability and strife, they are only very occasional successful in changing the world. And I don’t think anyone is suggesting we should be waiting around for a Messiah either.
On the other hand, science fiction is full of technological transformations leading to many more moments of totalitarianism than to emancipation. These two paradigms of religion and totalitarianism share an aspiration to impose impossible standards of perfection on individual members of society – and we have more than enough experience to reasonably fear both.
The failures of ‘Communism’ (Marxist-Leninist socialism) amply demonstrate that coercive utopian approaches are even more flawed than liberal capitalism with its freedom-plus-manipulation-of-fear-and-desire apparatus of social control. At the same time, a key theme in Marxist thought is our alienation from the world in the context of dehumanisation and immiseration wrought by modernity. Deprived of the fruits of our labour, we become detached from the flows of the world we live in, allowing us to be commodified and integrated into the capitalist industrial machine.
This strongly suggests the need for reintegration into the world, engagement with place, environment and the natural world. In turn, this would require cultivation of values that help us to see ourselves as interdependent with each other and the rest of this living planet, the only one we’ve got. These values, for example, would likely include cooperation and harmony instead of competition and conflict. But why some values and not others? Without an external lawgiver, divine or otherwise, how can humanity come to agree on any set of values or beliefs?
Judith Butler insightfully points to the precariousness of individual human lives as our binding commonality. Human existence involves an immediate existential interdependence on others within human society, as well as a profound dependence on the natural world. The reality is we literally need each other to survive.
Realistically, only the ‘wolf-child’ and its ilk brought up by wild animals can survive in something like a ‘state of nature’. And this is the exception that proves the rule, as the very traits that enable the wolf-child’s survival outside of human society prevent it from functioning as a member of the human family. A lack of language and manners prevents engagement in public or family life, challenging what being human means. Without the enculturation and socialisation of childhood and beyond, during much of which we are simply unable to care for ourselves, we would not survive in either the human nor the natural world without constant support.
Crucially, as Butler has shown, the boundaries between humans and other forms of animal and plant life are not only arbitrary, but they are also empirically false when viewed in terms of individual survival:
There is no life without the conditions of life that that variably sustain life, and those conditions are pervasively social, establishing not the discrete ontology of the person, but rather the interdependency of persons, involving reproducible and sustainable social relations, and relations to the environment and to non-human forms of life, broadly considered.
To survive as humans we need each other, and, equally, we need the ecosystems that make up the Earth’s biosphere.
Anthropogenic climate change has demonstrated on a global level the reality that we hold each other’s survival in all of our hands. Deterritorialised GHGs emitted from sites extending throughout global supply chains implicate practically every living human being in the accelerating precarity of the human condition in the climate crisis. And this reality will only become more apparent as our world becomes more adverse to human flourishing. When the land is all desert, and the oceans are all dead, what will being human mean to those that survive?
Image: Kevin Poh
 Amy Remeikis, ‘“Shorten wants to end the weekend”: Morrison attacks Labor’s electric vehicle policy’, Guardian, 7 April 2019, Australia edition, accessed 23 February 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/apr/07/shorten-wants-to-end-the-weekend-morrison-attacks-labors-electric-vehicle-policy
 Alexandra Kirk, ‘Miners launch new anti-tax ad campaign’, ABC News, updated, 13 April 2012, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-04-13/miners-launch-ads-amid-fear-of-losing-tax-concessions/3947588
 Charis Chang, ‘Tax and royalty systems for Australia’s gas and oil industries need reform, experts argue’, News.com.au, 22 November 2019, accessed 23 February 2020, https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/mining/tax-and-royalty-systems-for-australias-gas-and-oil-industries-need-reform-experts-argue/news-story/a900c328f1a01bf4e3aee8b867138262
 Michael West, ‘Top miners pay no tax’, Saturday Paper, 1-7 February 2020, no. 286, accessed 24 February 2020, https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/economy/2020/02/01/top-miners-pay-no-tax/15804756009335
 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, London: Verso, 2009
 Butler, Frames of War, 19