Victoria: Australia’s COVID-19 state of exception

At the change of one’s expression, they rise in the air, soaring up and then perching in a flock. [The Master] said,
The hen pheasant by the mountain bridge,
What timeliness! What timeliness!
Zilu bowed towards them, but with three sniffs, they flew off.

Confucius, Analects

Seven months have now passed since a state of emergency was declared in Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state. Except for a month around June, when easing of restrictions preempted a second wave of COVID-19, the residents of Melbourne have been under varying degrees of ‘lockdown’.

Our rights to freedom of movement, association and commerce have been severely curtailed in a largely successful effort to stop the spread of SARS-COV-2. This was no doubt the right thing to do at the time.

The evidence for this is in the drastically reduced case numbers over this period, down from days of over 700 recorded cases in July and August to less than 10 by mid-October. Nonetheless, over 800 Victorians have lost their lives from COVID-19, with the national death total at 904.

The question, then, is whether this remains the right policy course at this time. The current target for next step toward what the Victorian government is calling ‘COVID Normal’ requires a two week rolling average of five new cases a day or less – it now stands at nine. To be clear about this, we are talking about one person in a million.

Born free and equal

In his influential work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), social theorist Giorgio Agamben makes use of a distinction between bios and zo­e as different types of life. The ancient Greeks saw humans, animals and plants on a continuum of life, but to be human was to be an animal with the faculty of reason. Bios is a mode of life only available to humans, who by virtue of their ability to reason, reflect and deliberate can participate in the political life of a community.

All other life then, is zo­e, or ‘bare life’. But under certain circumstances, people can be relegated from their status as fully human members of the community, to the conditions of bare life. An example is the outlaw, who is deemed to be outside the equal protection of the law. This is homo sacer.

What it means to be a fully human animal in this sense is to some degree dependent on the society we live in, but there seem to be core elements. Very importantly these include our relationships with others in our social networks, especially our families and friends. Another is our personal identity, which is constructed through a complex interplay of self knowledge and interpersonal interactions over our lifetimes.

While keeping people socially isolated is no doubt the worst dimension of the lockdown, the lack of access to hairdressing services, for example, also has the potential to erode our self image as members of a human society. Not because hairstyles are necessary in a bare existential sense, but because they are important in shaping the persona we present to others, and thus to our identities as social beings.

By restricting our social and commercial activities to little more than the essentials of physical survival – food, clothing, medicine, and the odd picnic in the park – Victoria’s regime to suppress COVID-19 has reduced Melbourne’s residents to conditions resembling those of bare life, of zoe. In our ‘state of exception’, we are all homo sacer.

A Victorian state of exception

States of emergency creates states of exception by suspending normal processes governing the rule of law. States of exception have been widely used to understand the actions of the United States government during the so called ‘war on terror’ in places like Guantanamo Bay. Deprived of fundamental legal rights of habeas corpus, hundreds of people were subject to indefinite detention and repeated physical and psychological abuse intended to ‘break’ an individual by creating a condition of ‘learned helplessness’.

The horrors of Guantanamo Bay, though, are a world away from the probably very necessary lockdown of Melbourne during a viral pandemic that has claimed the lives of over a million people globally. Such that any comparison is worse than meaningless – surely? Well, troublingly, it is really a matter of degree rather than kind.

Rather than producing a legal blackhole, states of exception such as Guantanamo Bay or Melbourne fill this newly evacuated regulatory space with novel rules imposed by the executive branch of government, through its unrepresentative and often unaccountable agents in the bureaucracy. And in doing this, the traditional roles of the legislature and judiciary so fundamental to modern democracy are at best sidelined, and at worst usurped.

Under Victoria’s state of emergency, ‘stay at home’ and other legal directives at the core of the ad hoc regime of restrictions on personal freedoms are signed into existence by the Chief Health Officer or their delegate, themselves appointees of appointees of the executive. These instruments create statutory powers for wide ranging and highly discretionary police enforcement of lockdown rules, without need for approval by parliament.

Not only are we subject to extensive and intensive controls on our daily lives (while the nightly curfew has been lifted this still includes a five kilometre limit on movement which is being challenged in the High Court), we are also forbidden from leaving Melbourne, let alone Victoria, without the state’s express permission. And if we could, the federal government has, momentarily, bound us to the shores of this erstwhile penal colony we call Australia.

Shame, shame, shame

Culture is almost a dirty word in Australian public life. And it’s not just about culture wars.

Some people think Australia’s problem is a lack of culture – as if culture is always, or at least mostly, positive. All human and many other animal societies have culture. It’s the form, the topography if you will, of Australia’s mainstream culture that presents us with problems.

A telling fact is a city of five million people needing to be coerced to stay in their homes for most of the day and wear face coverings when they do go out in order to avoid community transmission of COVID-19. By and large, Australians aren’t good at respecting other people’s personal space. Or their right to not be involuntarily inflicted with pollutants, including in this case bodily fluids that could carry a deadly virus.

It may be that Australian society ordinarily operates not so far above the line between zoe and bios; closer to bare life than to the full human existence envisaged by the ancient Greeks who bequeathed us our democratic culture – as we were reminded in a timely tweet by Victoria’s health minister who since resigned over the mishandling of the crisis.

This invidious idea is certainly suggested by our national obsession with endless reality TV series revolving around the basic elements of human life: food and housing in particular. It is also suggested by the almost complete absence of civic consciousness, all the way from our local communities to national politics.

As a rule, we hew far closer to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society’, than to the ‘Asian values’ espoused by her Singaporean counterpart Lee Kuan Yew, which place collective socioeconomic wellbeing above individual rights. But perhaps there’s a thing or two we could learn from the successes of East Asian societies in stemming the spread of COVID-19.

For me, the most salient of these lessons is that, at the end of the day, mainstream Australia lacks any robust sense of social shame.

We are simply either too afraid or too conditioned to call out antisocial behaviour. Indeed, we are probably more likely to report such activities to the police than to directly engage with our fellow citizens.

Arguably, it is this lack of shame in the public sphere that has landed Melbournians in this shameful situation.

And what an ignominious state we are in. Our city’s vibrant arts, entertainment and sporting life is all but crushed. We mostly cannot see our friends or family. We are not free to make plans and work toward our goals and dreams. We can’t take to the streets to protest social and environmental injustices. We can’t even get a haircut.

Are we not barbarians inside the city’s locked gate?

Pressure is rising as Melbourne’s lockdown tightens

The pandemic induced chokehold on Melbourne’s population is starting to bite. Just one month into the second metropolitan-wide CoViD-19 lockdown and the pressure on people’s day to day lives is starting to show, tempers are beginning to fray.

Right from the beginning of the lockdown regimes there were consistent, credible and widespread reports of extremely concerning and dramatic increases in domestic or family violence, predominantly affecting women. This is a clear indication that stresses and anxieties related to the pandemic are in many instances manifesting as modes of ‘lateral violence’.

Under the lockdown regime to date, outdoor activity has been strongly curtailed, with running the only activity with a blanket face mask exemption. Under these conditions, rising early and walking in the cool morning air is a good way to get some relatively relaxed exercise. Sunglasses – essential for the Australian climate – and face masks don’t mix well, and there’s also less people about to dodge.

So I was unpleasantly surprised this morning on my way back from walking along the creek. Before 9am on a Sunday I was being threatened with having my jaw smashed and my phone taken, as I fumbled to call the police in an attempt to deter the source of these threats.

Only seconds earlier, a menacing man with a hard-as-nails look got out of his oddly shaped car, replete with bling and low-profile tyres. My transgression had been refusing to cross in front of him as he stopped in the middle of the street in an otherwise deserted light industrial estate, barely a few hundred metres from the local high school.

I couldn’t immediately remember the number as he moved in my direction. ‘911’ came into my head; I got as far as the ‘9’ before realising my error. Luckily by then the ploy had worked. Later I recalled I’d been reading about the beginnings of the global ‘war on terror’ the previous evening, which may have contributed to the moment.

Real and present threat of grievous bodily harm is, if nothing else, an interesting experience to be unexpectedly faced with. A genuine fear of his return slowly dissolved wave by wave into lingering anxiety about random acts of violence projected onto an imaginary future as I walked away from the scene. It was a violent and unwelcome intrusion into my white, urban, middle-class and male privilege (WUMP).

Winter of our discontent

Beyond the unsettling subjective experience itself, this reinforced for me concerns about the sustainability of the current lockdown approach as the isolation and frustration faced by millions of Victorian residents threatens to grind on for months to come.

Winter is not the most enjoyable season in this city at the edge of the Southern Ocean. But prevailing climatic conditions are usually mitigated by an immense depth and diversity of cultural production and reproduction. Centred around the ubiquitous ‘footy’, even the lives of non-acolytes become tuned to the league calendar, with Grand Final festivities heralding spring and its open-ended promise of the possible.

States of emergency are not a common experience for the vast majority of Australians. We are mostly not used to having our lives restricted much at all, even in such a relatively mild and benevolent mode. The national novelty of the crisis was demonstrated by early and aggressive panic buying, with Australia topping the world in a ‘panic index’.

Until the impacts of climate change were catastrophically thrust into centre-stage by the 2019-20 spring/summer of the mega-fires, most Australians have not lived with constant or recurrent concern or fear arising from threats inherent in their communities or natural environment. Apart from the monsoonal northern tropics, extreme weather has not been a concern, and its effects are generally mitigated by the quality and amount of infrastructure and aggregate wealth.

Simply put, the Victorian community was neither conditioned nor prepared for any substantial duration of continuous adverse conditions disrupting or limiting daily activity. But the answer to this problem is not to simply ‘be resilient’. Rather some sensitivity is needed to take this fragility into account when designing, developing and implementing policy responses to the CoViD-19 pandemic.

A key lesson of this crisis is that long term political and financial erosion of community and public sector institutions and infrastructure makes modern advanced industrial societies susceptible to systemic failures when faced with external or internal shocks. However, it is much too soon for post-mortems yet.

It is time, though, for a rethink of how the situation is being managed, and how it could be managed better. What is clear is that a state-based, top down approach has so far not worked to contain Melbourne’s ‘second wave’ coronavirus epidemic. SARS-CoV-2 is not only spreading locally, with 626 more cases taking the Victorian total to 11,557, but also being transmitted to other states.

This afternoon, 2 August 2020, premier Daniel Andrews announced a ‘state of disaster’ from 6pm. New ‘stage 4’ lockdowns will be in place for the next six weeks until mid-September. People are required to remain within five kilometres of their place of residence and will be under a general curfew from 8pm to 5am, with exemptions for work and personal care. Only one person per household allowed out once a day for shopping, with one hour of exercise permitted each day.

While details are yet be released on how this will be policed and how the potentially devastating effects impacts on business will be mitigated, no one is in doubt of the magnitude of the task involved in turning the tide of community transmission. If their current track record is anything to go by, however, government agencies will need to really pick up their game to make a go of doubling down on lockdown.

Unrealised potentialities

Under these circumstances, consideration should urgently be given to devolving on-the-ground aspects of response to more agile and flexible levels and forms of governance. Being able to tailor responses to specific local and regional conditions and being more responsive to a rapidly changing epidemiological realities can provide more effective interventions driving better outcomes.

Supported by appropriate and adequate central coordination, devolved governance can improve the ability to pro-actively engage and consult communities, to develop more effective communication, and to nurture trust and openness through genuine two-way relationships. This leads to enhanced problem solving environments better suited to targeting support and other activities where, when and in the manner required to achieve intended results.

This type of approach is especially relevant to cultural and linguistically diverse segments of the community, as well as other socially excluded or vulnerable groups, many of whom have found themselves at the centre of Melbourne’s CoViD-19 ‘hotspots’. After all, the knowledge of what is happening on the ground, what is working and is not working, and what could work better is invested in the very people the state is trying to help.

Instead of further concentrating power to fight the pandemic in state medical and policing authorities as facilitated by a state of emergency, residents should be genuinely empowered and meaningfully supported to manage, individually and collectively, their own risks and requirements. Perhaps it is time for everyone to ‘become our own experts’? It is surely time knowledge about health and medicine was promoted widely and thoroughly in the community, as a public good and human right.

But, tragically for the victims of this crisis, the hollowed-out neoliberal state’s capacity to adopt a more human, more organic, more dynamic approach is at best borderline in my assessment. This was heartbreakingly evident in the failures of the aged care system to protect elderly people in residential accommodation from CoViD-19, and this despite clear lessons from other countries’ painful experiences.

Yet, Australians have time and time again exercised their democratic rights to endorse at the ballot box the continued erosion and marketisation of the public sector and civil society, which underpin the very fabric of our collective existences.

We have also allowed our commercial and public mass media to be unduly influenced by very few and very narrow interests. And we have decried from the sidelines as our educational institutions – those quintessential shapers of values, moulders of young minds, producers of compliant citizens – were cast as political footballs in ideologically-driven culture wars.

More than merely accepting this diabolical deal, we repeatedly put out our aspirational hands, myopically thinking only about what we can have now, conditioned to be more concerned that someone else might get a better deal, and willfully ignorant of the impact on the future. That future is now – and it’s not looking too bright.

CoViD-19 and the neoliberal chokehold on Australian politics

Unsettling scenes and stories emerged from Melbourne’s inner west as nine public housing towers, home to around 3,000 residents, were placed under ‘hard lockdown’ on 4 July 2020, ‘effective immediately’. And the New South Wales-Victoria border was abruptly closed on 8 July for the first time since the last major pandemic a century ago, with both police and military resources deployed. But without a permit system in place the measure led to fear, ‘anger and confusion’, with reports of terminal cancer patients cancelling cross-border medical appointments.

Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, has told us ‘this is going to be with us for a very long time’. For Andrews and his advisors, this apparently means ‘until there is a vaccine or a drug or a cure, there is no such thing as “normal”’. Yet leading infectious disease experts have sounded clarion calls warning against this type of thinking, unequivocally advising there may never be an effective vaccine or cure.

However, rather than being a ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic as such, I see this as the dance sequence playing out from the ‘hammer and the dance’, predicted in March as a likely outcome in many countries. This means a genuine plan is needed to manage the CoViD-19 public health crisis for the long run.

Right now, a key concern in Victoria will be the remaining winter months, which are comparatively cold by Australian standards. Melbourne is also normally a city that voraciously consumes culture in all seasons, be it sport, performance, or a myriad of other events and spaces. And then there’s Melbourne’s diverse and vibrant multicultural population, with home gatherings constituting a key mode of social interaction.

But it’s not obvious if there is a strategy to ride this out in a socially sustainable way. At some level, even the capability to develop and implement an effective medium-term approach in the foreseeable future should probably be questioned. The current police focussed response is unnecessary, ineffective and victimises the most vulnerable people in our community, and still leaves them unreasonably exposed to risk of infection. Be that as it may, the ideological strictures of neoliberalism ensure coercive styles of governance are widely accepted as both reasonable and necessary.

A tale of two states

The post-Second World War welfare state, and elements of the traditional liberal-conservative state, are being radically stripped back in search of ever more sources of wealth for upwards ‘redistribution’ or outwards transfers – public to private, onshore to offshore – to sociopolitical elites and multinational corporations (MNCs). As a result, the public goods and services that create the conditions for a reasonably functional liberal democracy are critically eroded.

In modern western societies this leads to increased disadvantage, exclusion and vilification of already marginalised social groups. This in turn drives behaviour that, rather than being seen as a predictable function of social and economic policy that increases rather than decreases inequality, is seen as antisocial and therefore warrants and requires a police response.

Something like this has played out in Victoria over recent years. There has been a doubling of the prison population in Victoria in the last decade. Aboriginal people, women and people with mental illness are unjustly over-represented, a situation that has only worsened with this increase. And since the 2015 ‘crime wave’ was brought under control by expanding police resourcing and operations, the Andrew’s Labor government has significantly boosted police funding.

This included new initiatives to the tune of $2 billion in 2018, adding over 3,000 new personnel to the force. Since introduction on the urban rail system in 2012, there has been incremental increases in the roles, powers and numbers of Public Safety Officers (PSOs), effectively state-employed, armed security guards for public places. This kind of scope and function creep was readily predictable from the get-go, and is now being officially described [pdf] as an ‘Expansion of PSO mobility and flexibility’.

However, using policing, security or corrections policy to address unmistakably socioeconomic problems in the sprawling metropolis of Melbourne acts like a smokescreen for lack of investment in fundamental public goods and services that prevent crime, build community trust in institutions, and generally enhance social cohesion and wellbeing – the types of programs that would have supported a much more equitable and effective response to the present crisis.

As was the case before the pandemic, what the people in postcodes most affected by CoViD-19 need is better social policy, not more policing.

An unnecessary show of force

It didn’t have to be this way. Victoria didn’t need to respond with an overwhelming police presence. First, from 2 July areas of Melbourne with higher than background rates of community transition were placed under stricter stay-at-home directions, bringing them back under a ‘lockdown’ situation. These ‘hot zone’ postcodes were mostly outer suburban and traditionally working class areas, all of them facing some level of socioeconomic disadvantage, many with relatively high proportions of migrants.

But rather than social workers, health care teams and interpreters, the best trained and equipped police in the state patrolled their streets. The Critical Incident Response Team deployed to enforce emergency directives in these suburbs is classified in Australia as a police tactical group. This is the highest non-military capability and broadly equivalent of a United States style ‘SWAT team’, with core roles including rapid response to active shooter and armed hostage taking situations.

Next, the residents of nine public housing towers in the city’s inner west were placed under ‘detention orders’ issued by the state’s deputy chief health officer. Effectively in police custody, initially around 500 police were deployed, one for every six residents. Many of the residents are from migrant communities, including refugees, and some have language requirements that aren’t being met in this public health crisis. Reports from residents and advocates indicate appropriate support mechanisms were severely lacking, and what was provided in terms of food, disinfecting public spaces and access to medicine was woefully inadequate.

Meanwhile, as an approach to stemming the resurgence of community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the targeting of specific postcodes has failed, and a ‘soft’ lockdown has been expanded across all metropolitan Melbourne. All but one tower are now on the same footing as the rest of their suburbs, with police maintaining hard lockdown on the remaining tower in North Melbourne close to the central business district.

The timing of the second phase of lockdowns in Melbourne coincided with a change at the top at Victoria Police. Shane Patton, who has a background in counterterrorism, was sworn in as the state’s Chief Commissioner of Police just five days prior on 27 June. For 2019-20, budgeted operational resourcing [pdf] for ‘Policing and Crime Prevention’ in Victoria was $3.6 billion, up 6.3% on the previous year. As at December 2019, there were more than 15,000 full time equivalent sworn police and almost 1,500 PSOs.

Every country has handled the CoViD-19 pandemic differently, with more or less success, depending as always on the criteria for success. Yes, Australia has done very well by international comparison in controlling and mitigating the impacts, even bettering New Zealand’s valiant effort on some measures. But pointing to deep sociopolitical dysfunction in the US or Brazil (both, incidentally, with comparatively high rates of endemic societal violence) is one of the least compelling arguments that can be made in this context.

Despite the securitised approach to managing the situation in Melbourne, it is hardly under control seen from the Australian context. Victoria is now sustaining concerning rates of community transmission, recording 273 new cases on Sunday 12 July. This compares to five new cases in NSW for the same period. Nonetheless, that state’s premier Gladys Berejiklian warned of going ‘down the path of Victoria’, after identification of a ‘cluster’ in Sydney’s lower socioeconomic status south-west.

From hostage taking …

The neoliberal mode has rarefied the social science of economics into a surgical implement for hoovering up as much ‘value’ from whomever it can whenever it can. On this playing field, cowboys and carpetbaggers pass themselves off as ‘free marketeers’ and ‘economic rationalists’. Snake-oil sales pitches delivered through legitimising vehicles of management consulting firms offer public sector solutions that promise the unachievable.

All human societies of any complexity require inequality. In fact, inequality is the engine of social dynamics, providing a matrix in which friction and striving for superior and avoiding inferior social status drives innovation and expands horizons, physical and mental. But an unequal society is also one always pit against itself, one that will always have winners and losers.

In unequal societies, the logic is simple: those on the top want to stay on the top; those on the bottom don’t want to be there. Social mobility is the ultimate enemy of inequality – which is why education is so politically contested.

Add in a middle class, as emerged in western Europe following the sixteenth century Christian Reformation, and it gets more complicated and more interesting. The elite can now align its interests, instrumentally of course, with the middle class or the lower class. To the middle classes they hold out the possibility of elite club access, in return for support and expertise, and on the understanding it is a limited and conditional arrangement.

And to the lower classes they offer the magic dust of dreams; of princesses and fairy tales; of riches, hedonism, and vainglorious violence. In return they seek legitimacy through the popular will of the demos. Still, going along with the fantasy is enforced by the coercive apparatus of the state, backed always by the threat of violence – European history is littered with tragic tales of those who opposed crown or church.

The elite’s status is traditionally legitimised by virtue of aristocratic merits, differing from society to society from caste and class to occupation (e.g. priests), bloodline and beyond. But once members of the aristocracy, there is no requirement for continuing legitimisation, and any opposition is seen as treason against the body politic, a cancer that needs to be eradicated post-haste.

Middle class power ultimately derives from technical capabilities, providing the clerks, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors and other professionals required to run even a moderately complex state. The technocracy by necessity operates on performance legitimacy, although the professions have flourished due successful use of closed occupations evolving from medieval guilds. Thus, they are ultimately accountable to, and therefore disposable by either or both the elite and the lower classes.

The lower classes have no real social power that requires legitimation. To avoid being seen as disposable by elites and the middle classes, they need to be able to provide various levels of in-demand labour, skilled and unskilled, regardless of education or experience. And in something of a double bind, it is also expected they not be too bolshie in demanding more wealth or status.

… to hagiography making

In reality, sociopolitical elites are dependent on both the brains of the middle class and the brawn of the working class – without them the state collapses.

The effect of removing the former was seen in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the broader public sector was purged of Ba’athists. But as Ba’ath Party membership was one of the few avenues for middle class ‘success’ in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the result was the functional annihilation of the public sector. And this at least aided and abetted the consequent sociopolitical collapse into sectarianism and violence, if not causing it.

We know the working classes are absolutely essential. After all, who else is going to grow food and make clothing and shelter for everyone? And we have been shown the truth of this in stark terms with the economic onslaught of the CoViD-19 pandemic. Like a miracle too good to be true, essential workers became valued – for a moment. Until prime minister Scott Morrison, echoing wartimes past, made a pronouncement that ‘Every single job … is essential’.

Next, ‘tradies’ were valourised as the driving force behind our do-or-die economic recovery. In neoliberal terms, that’s effectively the same as saying they’re heroes of our nation. And the rhetoric is backed by the $688 million Homebuilder program providing rebates for high-end home renovations. A new brand of hero was called on to help rally people to the flag in this time of radical social uncertainty.

Australia’s nation-building, world-war mythologising is now over 100 years old, far from the radars of today’s young people: digital natives whose lives were already mediated through technology well prior to the pandemic. And tradespeople, ironically the original core of the labour and trade union movements, had already been politicised during the deeply influential prime-ministership of conservative John Winston Howard. A new equestrian class emerged, with their steely tools and trusty ‘utes’ as steeds.

Co-opted and mobilised on the electoral battlefields of western Sydney, they became the new generation of ‘Aussie battlers’ – but rather than struggling to make ends meet, i.e. to literally put food on the table, some were raking in the cashola and investing in rental properties like there was no tomorrow. Many had become socioeconomically middle class, but remained conservative on political and cultural fronts. They came to symbolise the ‘aspirational’ voter.

What this actually meant is they were post-consumers. Unlike earlier liberal ideals aspiring to privileged status of ‘noble’ classes, for whom conspicuous consumption of luxury goods was the order of the day, the aspirational Australian basked happily but modestly in the banal realms of material production and social reproduction – food, houses, babies.

Australia’s first gen-X prime minister, salesman turned politician Scott Morrison, inherited the Liberal Party’s all-time-legend mantle from Howard with his stunning 2019 election win. He has not wasted the opportunity presented by CoViD-19 to raise the erstwhile artisan’s once humble way of life yet another step up the ladder of the Australian national pantheon, from beatification to canonisation, so to speak.

Neoliberalism’s many lives

A key element in the success of neoliberalism has been its ability, like a veteran recording artist with decades of hits, to continue to reinvent itself. It has repeatedly defied Marxian-inspired predictions that again saw the sure signs the contradictions deriving from capitalism’s ‘internal logic’ would bring it down from the inside. Neoliberalism is the creed of ultramodernity, the Kim Kardashian of political economy.

There have even been those, both right and left, who thought it would be a neat idea to be able to ‘accelerate’ the process of capital accumulation by exploiting the cybernetic properties of the neoliberal supersystem. This has now been adopted as an ideological prop by internet and social media based neo-nazi elements in the US, and featured heavily in the ‘manifesto’ of the Australian perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

As the beast becomes more desperate to feed on the economic lifeblood of society it becomes more vicious, and it becomes more and more an all-in, negative-sum game. Indeed, the neoliberal stripping back of the state has been particularly savage post-GFC, with atrocities masquerading under ‘austerity’, a euphemism for pillaging public assets and impoverishing citizens.

As economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has outlined, capital accumulation under neoliberalism has been achieved through several waves or tranches of increasingly extractive economic policies.[1] First was the relatively high inflation of 1970s, which provided for wage growth at the same time as allowing ample rent seeking, thus kicking the can of political-economic reckoning down the road.

The second wave in the 1980s, now considered classic neoliberalism, involved public asset stripping through ‘privatisation’ of utilities and divestment of property, and deregulation to reduce internalities and therefore increase the cost of externalities borne by the public or individuals. Facilitating increased economic outflows from the public to private sector entities and individuals, including through tax ‘reforms’, thereby undermining the fiscal foundations of the welfare state.

Taxes, by definition progressive when people earning or consuming more pay a higher proportion of that value, are a primary means of stemming upward flows of resources in democratic capitalist societies. With public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratios skyrocketing, the next turn in the neoliberal story saw promotion of high levels of private debt in the 1990s into the 2000s. In Australia, this has resulted in one of the highest levels of household debt in the world, and triggered a housing boom that landed substantial capital gains for anyone already in the market.

At the same time a whole generation of younger, first time, potential home owners were effectively frozen out in favour of rent seekers buying ‘investment properties’ – anyone for a game of Monopoly? We all know how this chapter in the neoliberal experience ends with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). But still they were accused of squandering their modest incomes on ‘smashed avocado’ brunches, of all things.

Political-economic Stockholm syndrome

Our elites need to continually accumulate more capital, for that is what it is to be upper class under capitalist social ordering. Everything else they do is just part of a strategy or a tactic for achieving this end. Whether they or anyone else are cognisant of this reality.

The infernal engine cannot be stopped from the inside – that, if anything, is the true internal logic of capitalism. While this characteristic is inherent to liberalism, the neoliberal rebuild around Hayekian market totalitarianism pushes it to the next level. Unprecedented levels of global inequality, embodied in the rise of the ‘billionaire’ class, bear grotesque witness to this appalling reality.

The fourth wave of neoliberalism has taken aim directly at the state apparatus itself. The state’s ability to wield policy levers has been dramatically reduced by the evangelising of ‘fiscal conservatism’ as a new orthodoxy, enforced by global and regional economic multilateral institutions. This was promoted by asserting the absurd macroeconomic fiction that the federal government’s financial operations were just like a household budget – and any galah knows you can’t spend more than you earn or you’ll have to put it on the credit card!

Politicians’ and the media’s obsession with ‘debt and deficit’ and ‘balancing the budget’ narrowly framed the conversation, closing out other voices of reason. In this climate, expenditure couldn’t go up, so provision of public goods and government services became a game of swings and roundabouts. However, this didn’t stop both major parties in Australia from continuing to offer ‘generous’ tax cuts at election time. The lower revenue base was then used as a pretext and/or justification for further defunding of essential public services in a politically motivated race to the bottom.

At the same time, we have seen increased subsidies to commercial interests, including for fossil fuels contributing to hypercatastrophic climate change, and private individuals. Prime examples of the latter are superannuation tax concessions that overwhelmingly benefit higher income earners, and the refundable tax credits for ‘franked dividends’ that the ALP so badly miscalculated, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2019 election.

Another factor in the erosion of public finances has been the normalisation of tax avoidance by MNCs, which continues rampant despite the damning revelations of the Panama Papers in 2016. Possibly even more of a concern is the ability for MNCs to trump state sovereignty through opaque investor-state dispute settlement ‘tribunals’. These ‘arbitrations’ can have profound impacts on poorer countries when they go the way of global capital and against the interests of citizens.

A house in order or a house of cards?

This all results in a positive feedback loop accelerating erosion of public services, requiring more reliance on private resources and networks, leading to increased inequality. It also leaves a public sector under-resourced and lacking adequate capabilities to meet a major global crisis (even if predictable except for the timing). Institutional know-how and networks had built up over decades and longer, working reasonably well in the scheme of things. But under successive waves of neoliberal public sector reform they have been broken, left to wither, or captured by private interests.

The expansion of policing and carceral dimensions of the state in the Anglophone west is inextricably linked to what philosopher John Gray calls the ‘permanent revolution of unfettered market processes’.[2] As the public sector has become dangerously undermined by the hollowing out of the state, the conditions that made the neoliberal social order possible in the first place are fundamentally jeopardised.

If we allow the loss of jobs and publicly funded social supports that ensure those who cannot provide for themselves in an open market can live a dignified and meaningful life, then when calamity strikes there is little resilience left among the most vulnerable in our communities. Like the thread held too tight, there is no elasticity to absorb the shock of a crisis like a ‘novel’ pandemic. In these conditions, reactance to a heavy regulatory burden imposed without consultation or consent is entirely predictable and arguably avoidable.

A well-worn slogan from the Howard era was ‘welfare to work’. Borrowed from Tony Blair’s spin-heavy ‘New Labour’ in the United Kingdom, it was actually about getting people off welfare so the freed-up funds could be redistributed upwards and outwards. Disturbingly, confusion between the appropriate roles of policing and social policy in neoliberalism’s current iteration may end up with ‘work to custody’ as its calling card.

Image: Nick Carson

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The crises of democratic capitalism’, in How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a failing system (London: Verso, 2016).

[2] John Gray, ‘The undoing of conservatism’, in Enlightenment’s Wake (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1995), 132.

Animals – Australia’s forgotten people

In a groundbreaking thought experiment delving into the nature of human knowledge, French Enlightenment philosopher Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, endows his hypothetical ‘statue’ with the faculty of memory. For without memory, experience is a mere flux of sensations, continually different but all equally meaningless and ephemeral.

A once widespread myth in the Anglosphere told us goldfish have extremely short memory spans – apparently justifying their condemnation to a life sentence swimming around a glass bowl the size of my little finger. As alternative-punk-rock icon Kurt Cobain ironically sang: ‘it’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings’.

But like many other received beliefs and cultural baggage about the mental capacities of animals, those about memory have turned out to be utterly false. For example, as has become widely known in recent decades, elephants have very long memories – which is handy for an animal like the African elephant that lives up to 70 years in the wild.

In fact, it is us humans who are the forgetful ones. While other animals may have varying levels of control over forgetting and remembering, the human animal has made forgetting a key strategy for survival, power and domination.

Our collective memories are as much manipulated by what we are encouraged to remember, as what is suppressed or made taboo. The collective act of intentional forgetting is chillingly encapsulated by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Those fickle tricks of memory were even more critical when the killing of the workers was brought up. Every time that Aureliano mentioned the matter, not only the proprietress but some people older than she would repudiate the myth of the workers hemmed in at the station and the train with two hundred cars loaded with dead people, and they would even insist that, after all, everything had been set forth in judicial documents and in primary-school textbooks: that the banana company had never existed.

As the political and economic opportunists frenzy feed amongst the crises occasioned by CoViD-19, our attention is being drawn away from both ongoing, endemic problems plaguing our societies, and more recent and acute crises.

The more these memories are attenuated, the easier it is to forget both the fact of and the deleterious effects wrought by shameful acts of collective self-harm.

Perhaps most poignantly, this includes systemic and institutionalised abuse of vulnerable community members. At the human level, this is playing out in Australia with the cruel failures of restorative justice left undone by the National Redress Scheme for victims of institutional child sexual abuse.

And in the aftermath of the hyper-catastrophic, climate-change-fuelled fires that ravaged the Australian continent in 2019-20, we are being induced to forget the manifest failures of our politicians and institutions to protect both human and animal lives, as well as the ecological systems that support us all.

The plight of Australia’s animals

It might seem obvious that there is a fundamental link between language and thought, and this important insight into the human condition is encapsulated by the cool-sounding Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It thus speaks volumes to me that around the world many cultures provide rich linguistic resources for the denigration of fellow humans by means of negative comparison with animals – dogs, pigs, sheep, for example.

This phenomenon also covers all the familiar types of systemic social oppression, including, of course, misogynist and racist vilification. The commonality of such linguistic assaults are both a cause and symptom of a profound alienation from our interspecies relatives that is prevalent in modern western societies.

Among Anglophone settler cultures, however, this alienation is elevated to a new level in the Australian colonial experience. Strange landscapes with stranger animals inconveniently inhabited by unfamiliar people speaking old languages. A deep dislocation further distorted and perverted by the immense weight of cultural baggage laid down on top of it in pursuit of control and exploitation.

And the animals of the ‘great south land’ have been devastatingly impacted on an incomprehensible scale. This shockingly includes the world’s highest rate of vertebrate mammal extinction – an ignominious record for any aspiring nation.

The Ecological Society of Australia cites 100 animal extinctions since the British invasion in 1788, with a further 1,790 species ‘threatened with extinction’ in 2019. The situation so dire there is even a Senate inquiry into ‘Australia’s faunal extinction crisis’ currently underway; but proceedings have been delayed due to the CoViD-19 pandemic.

While the protection of ‘wild’ or ‘native’ animals is a public issue in Australia, the rates of incidence of animal cruelty in domestic and agricultural settings don’t make headline police and crime statistics. Nor do they often make for sensationalist mainstream media content, unless they are unspeakably vile.

Yet the very existence of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in this country bears witness to these sometimes heinous abuses of asymmetrical power relations. The RSPCA reported 58,487 complaints of animal cruelty in the 2018-19 financial year, with 362 successful prosecutions. Tragically, however, this is just the visible tip of a very chilling proverbial iceberg indeed.

There are also numerous venues that provide the setting for institutionalised animal abuse in Australia. A 2018 report estimated that the horse racing industry is worth $9 billion to the Australian economy each year. Another report found 122 horses died on Australian racing track in the year to July 2019, concluding that when deaths occurring after removal from the track are included, ‘there is no doubt that the incidence of death is much higher’.

There is also a deeply negative impact on the human side of the equation. Various forms of horse as well as greyhound racing are key components of a machine enabling a rampant gambling culture responsible for immiserating a great many people in the Australian community. And for bringing untold pain and suffering to those around them.

And all this is before we even touch on the cruel conditions prevalent in mainstream industrial ‘production’ of meat and other animal products. A particularly perfidious practice is the use of sow stalls that closely confine pigs, one of the most intelligent non-primate animals – conditions that are beyond cruel and degrading and that would unequivocally be described as torture if humans were the subjects thereof.

As a child I was struck by the sheer number of agricultural animals in the New England region of New South Wales. Road signs welcome travellers to Walcha Shire proudly boasting its cattle and sheep populations running into the tens and hundreds of thousands respectively, alongside a human population of mere thousands. This was against a bleak background of severe environmental depredation in form of excessive land clearing and overgrazing.

In my memory this is epitomised by the graveyard of dead trees haunting empty grey hills at Bergen-op-zoom Creek, named after a prominent Dutch fortress town featuring in the brutal, bloody and incessant warfare of early modern Europe.

It is highly questionable why as a society we’ve persisted so long in continuing to breed millions of head of European forms of livestock on Earth’s driest inhabited continent. As at end June 2019, Australia’s official count included a combined total of over 90 million sheep, cattle and pigs, and 137 million chickens.

Many Australian sheep end up subjected to the horrors of ‘live export’. Each year, over one million of these poor creatures are packed 70,000 at a time onto ships, often spending weeks at sea in hot, humid and unsanitary conditions that have barely changed since the 1970s. In 2018, 2,400 sheep died on one of these death ships alone, and there were 2,700 reported sheep deaths in 2019 – a fatality rate two and half times that for cattle. Yet despite the track record of massive scandals, this terrible trade in animal lives goes on more or less unabated.

Yet these agricultural practices, and by extension the lifestyles they support – be it farmer, merchant, or meat-eater – now appear utterly unsustainable. Catastrophic climate change trends experienced in the last decade have resulted in the drying out of the continent’s southeast, culminating in the loss of the once mighty Murray-Darling river system and the ‘savage summer’ of the 2019-20 fire season.

Despite over a decade of policy development and political haggling among the Australian fractious federation over the appropriate management regime for the island-continent’s major inland river system, it only became a mainstream issue when hundreds of thousands of fish literally turned up dead in the lake systems of outback NSW. Then the issue was promptly pushed out of the picture in the wake the bushfires followed immediately by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ongoing and expanding extraction of water for large scale agriculture of water-hungry crops like cotton, citrus and nut trees has left river ecosystems with little to no chance of surviving the climate change-induced drought conditions. Yet the ownership and trading of water usage licences has created a $5 billion market, trading over seven trillion litres in 2018-19.

Excessive water often leads to rot. Then add truckloads of money. And the stink of ‘mismanagement and corruption’ lingers long after the odour of dead fish departs.

From fiery furnaces …

Australia’s aquatic ecosystems suffered another major onslaught in the aftermath of the summer’s bushfires. In a bittersweet blow, the heavy rain that finally extinguished the remaining firegrounds also caused masses of ash and charcoal to wash into streams and rivers, killing large numbers fish and other denizens of the capillary-like creek systems fanning out like fractals over the landscape.

An unusual riparian victim of habitat destruction is the platypus. One of the world’s most unique animals, the ‘duck-billed’, egg-laying mammal (once thought to be a scientific hoax by white men in Europe who knew better) is now facing extinction.

It might have been a small mercy that numbers of agricultural animal had already been reduced due to worsening drought conditions in an increasingly hot and dry climate. However, hundreds of thousands of farm animals died gruesome deaths (video) in the fires. Among the farm animals that perished were those whose owners euthanised them by gunshot, and those buried en masse in unmarked graves by the Australian Defence Force as part of its civil assistance role.

These traumatic scenes were mirrored and amplified in the forests and national parks, where disturbingly large numbers of wild animals were incinerated, followed by the tragedy of the survivors starving for lack of food in the ashen aftermath. Beekeepers tending their bees in the forest have had to seek counselling after hearing the screaming of animals and witnessing the carnage.

At the time, I knew many people who were deeply affected by this dark dimension of the fires’ impact, coming as it did on top of everything else – the fear; the concern; the anger at those responsible for letting it happen.

I suspect people mentally stopped counting the animal once the estimated death toll of native animals from the fires reached over one billion – even though there were higher estimates floating around well before all the major fires were extinguished.

And this was just for creatures we immediately consider ‘animals’: mammals, birds and reptiles. Also destroyed were literally countless amphibians, reptiles and insects; ‘creepie-crawlies’ too far below our dignity to usually even warrant a mention.

The deep disconnect between the devastation wrought by the fires and most people’s desire for life to proceed as close to ‘normal’ as possible was highlighted by the loss of a large portion of Kangaroo Island. Lying off the South Australian coast, it is home to significant and biologically unique flora and fauna.

It also hosts Australia’s only chlamydia free koala population, half of whom were killed by the bushfires. Yet during the height of the devastating fires resulting in the loss of over half the island’s habitat, we were presented the bizarre and jarring scene of Australia’s prime minister, the Liberal Party’s Scott Morrison, telling the world that even though ‘a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two thirds of it is open and ready for business’.

In the mainland’s southeast corner apocalyptic scenes since overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic played out with the drama of a bona fide humanitarian disaster, with the Royal Australian Navy evacuating residents from the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria’s remote east Gippsland region.

And in the aftermath of the fires, absurdly macabre scenes of animal genocide emerged as our feathered friends washed up and lay lifeless on the sand – like the charred and discarded carcasses of miniature, mythical sea creatures.

… to human pestilence

At that point, it really dd seem that the situation could not have gotten any worse. Yet not only did Australia’s animals bear the massively disproportional brunt of the fires as their homes were consumed by ferocious mega-fires, but environmental policy responses in most jurisdictions were arguably somewhere between deeply negligent and downright punitive.

Then the logging resumed, even as fires were still burning elsewhere. First it was in the burnt forests, against the advice from leading forest scientists that so called ‘salvage logging’ would compound the impact of the fires on wildlife and ecosystem recovery. In Victoria, the timber industry and the rural and regional based National Party used ‘safety’ as a pretext to call for clearing in burnt areas.

Then there was the resumption of logging in scarce remaining unburnt habitat. This left surviving forest animals little room to manoeuvre in search of food and shelter. Koalas had been one of the first casualties of the climate induced mega-fires, with vast areas of key habitat on NSW’s mid-north coast burning out and killing an estimated 30% of the resident koalas. The conditions now exist for koalas to become extinct in NSW.

On the NSW south coast, the region hardest hit by the fires, a development approval granted prior to the fires that would have destroyed half of the 20 hectares of unburnt forest left at Manyana. This home to refugee koalas and other marsupials, was only given a temporary reprieve at the eleventh hour due to community pressure.

Yet despite the shocking loss of habitat, koalas are simply not getting the protection they need. Or even the protection they are nominally afforded by the law, as demonstrated in a most grisly way by the massacre of dozens of koalas in southwestern Victoria in March of this year.

After the unforeseen loss of a significant, and unevenly distributed portion, of their stock, any competent farmer or a merchant would seriously and urgently review their business planning. But native or wild animals are not stock and, perversely, do not merit the same consideration as the commodified version under the brutal calculus of neoliberal ‘economic rationalism’ (the latter should no longer be called ‘domesticated’ animals, but rather industrialised animals).

To add insult to injury, what modest activities were in train to protect and rehabilitate surviving native animals were often stymied, directly or indirectly, by political and social responses to the CoViD-19 pandemic that hit Australian shores in the southern autumn of 2020.

For instance, social distancing rules were used to prevent scientists from continuing bushfire recovery work. Surely an exemption could have been allowed, given that it was pretty low risk situation all told. After all we are talking about small numbers of highly trained scientists conducting fieldwork in a burnt-out forest – I wouldn’t think the most likely scenario for an outbreak.

Maybe more would have been done to protect the animals if there was more of a care factor among our politicians and bureaucrats. But if that had been the case then the situation wouldn’t have got so bad in the first place. And more would have been done to prevent the immediate cause of the problem – that is, serious climate action and appropriately prepared emergency response capabilities.

On the home front, vets were receiving alarming requests to perform euthanasia on pets to reduce the owner’s risk of contracting CoViD-19. And due to excessive acquisition of pets such as dogs as a response to the isolation of the lockdowns, it is now a genuine concern that a return to pre-covid normalcy would see many of these vulnerable creatures abandoned like unwanted, unconscious and unfeeling toys.

Nor is pandemic-driven animal abuse confined to maltreatment of domestic pets. Bats around the world have become targets of violence fuelled by fear, ignorance and misinformation about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes CoViD-19. In the southern Australian state of Victoria, there have been deadly attacks on the large fruit-eating bats known as ‘flying foxes’. These much misunderstood mammals have also suffered mass deaths in recent years with tens of thousands at a time dying due to rising temperatures linked to climate change.

Sadly, of course, malicious killings of native animals, is not isolated to misguided cross-species bigotry fomented in a climate of fear. In 2018, a farm worker in eastern Victoria was sentenced to 14 days jail and fined $2,500 for intentionally killing over 400 wedge-tail eagles, Australia’s largest raptor, and his boss received 100 hours of community service and $25,000 of financial penalties.

Consider this: the cold calculus of the court’s decision deemed the life of each of these majestic birds was worth one measly hour of one human lifespan plus $67.73.

Of origins and anthropocentric order

The path to modernity in the west involved the transformation of our sociopolitical order and institutions from the complex and conservative corporative landscapes of medieval Christendom to hi-tech, secular, neoliberal post-democracies.

In the process, the theological and philosophical mythologies that set animals apart from and inferior to humans was translated by liberal ideology into the politics of exclusion. Despite the significant gains in animal welfare in some parts of the world, there has been no genuine ‘liberation’ of our interspecies sisters and brothers.

In western societies, alienation from our animal heritage is deeply rooted in both Greek and Judeo-Christian cultural patrimonies. While Aristotle saw a continuity between humans, animals and plants, he also thought of animals as lacking reason. Matthew Calarco of California State University tells us that this scion of the pagan Greek philosophical tradition considered animals as ‘being ultimately (if not entirely) placed in the service of human beings’.

While broadly similar in practice, the Christian conceit that God put animals on earth solely for human use, even if as instruments for us to carry out ‘His’ plan, it goes further along this trajectory. The Old Testament’s creation mythology tells us God said:

Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Genesis 1:26

Both these prejudicial views are predicated on a fundamental and ultimately unbridgeable difference between human and animals, in which humans and their god(s) are at the centre and moral apex of the entire universe.

An important figure in the western history of misunderstanding animals is René Descartes, whose status as the ‘father’ of early modern European philosophy has been challenged by modern scholarship. Descartes held the metaphysical position of dualism, in which we have material bodies and spiritual souls and never the twain shall truly meet.

As non-humans, animals could not have Christian souls, therefore they were mere bodies – flesh and blood without minds. Called ‘automatons’ in the parlance of the time due a prevailing mechanistic view of the physical world, today this way of thinking about animals more closely resembles the zombies of contemporary pop culture.

Confoundingly, this empirically and phenomenologically ungrounded mythology reproduced itself in mainstream western scientific culture at least until the emergence of the animal liberation movement in the 1970s. The Skinnerian behaviourism that dominated post-Second World War psychological sciences was a particularly insidious, late florescence of this self-serving and incredibly damaging perspective on animals and their place in the world.

This attitude is confronted by Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In a post-nuclear-holocaust 1990s, where most animals are extinct, bounty hunter of rogue androids Rick Deckard desperately wants to own a living animal as a status symbol:

He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another.

In the real world, tragically, the status of animals is more often than not reduced to animal shaped meat bags without consciousness or awareness. The contemporary scientific paradigm, at any rate, retains this modus operandi in the study of animal behaviour.

Incapable of being ends in themselves, animal existences are relegated to being merely means, thus morally accessible for the instrumental use of others, which by default is us, humans. This is a double problem for Kant’s categorical imperative, for example, which not only requires that individuals be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means, but also ethical rules must be universalisable – in other words, what’s good for the goose is necessarily good for the gander.

One important implication is that seen as automatons or zombies, animals cannot be moral agents. By denying that animals experience an inner life of the mind, they are deprived of agency. Denied agency, they are a priori excluded from any possible social contract. Animals are thus logically excluded from enjoying civil and political rights in the mainstream western liberal conception of political ordering.

It’s time for reflection, conversation, action

At the end of the day, the human relationship with animals is perhaps the most complex we have, possibly even more than any among our own species, as there is a deep ambiguity at play. Not only have we developed into anthropologically modern humans in a state both dependent on and fearful of ‘wild’ animals, we have undergone a substantial degree of social co-evolution with our domestic companions and food sources.

We generally relate to animals as a necessary other, but we do not reciprocate. We need them, but we deny them our due care and responsibility. On the whole, it is a codependent, unequal, and abusive relationship causing untold suffering to its victims. It also poisons our cultures and societies by facilitating pervasive and preventable violence and death in our very midst.

In the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to forget that on 4 January 2020 Australia’s federal electoral battleground of Sydney’s western suburbs became the ‘hottest place on earth’ when Penrith reached 49oC. As the Australian continent continues to dry out and heat up, making environmental living conditions progressively worse for humans and animals, we should be thinking long and hard about this relationship.

We need to think about and engage in public discussion and debate on how we will continue to cohabit with other species as the event horizon of environmental degradation and climate change rushes toward us while we can’t slow down. In particular, how we can improve our understanding of and empathy for all our furry, feathered and finned friends.

And let’s not forget the creepie-crawlies; for God surely loves all her creatures great and small. At any rate, without the bees and other insects for crop pollination and as food sources the entire food production chain will collapse, catastrophically affecting all animals, both humans and the wilder kind. Yet toxic chemicals contributing to the bee genocide continue to be manufactured and used on an industrial scale in food production.

Ultimately, as the argument goes however, we should probably stop eating them or otherwise using their ‘products’. After all, one cannot simply conjure up human reason to dispel the real and painful subjective experiences of animals – let alone suffering that is directly and unequivocally caused to animals by our use of them as instruments for our own ends. But, for better or worse, an end to the consumption and exploitation of animal bodies is not likely to happen until there are none left.

In the meantime, there are still much, much, much better ways of doing things in the inevitable face of sociocultural reality. A good start to resetting the relationship would be the adoption of ‘humane’ animal husbandry methods – such as those practised by our wiser forebears and by indigenous peoples today – that don’t use horrendous torture in the procurement of food for our pots and tables.

Image: Andrew Mercer

What happens after liberation?

If liberation describes a genuine change of state for a sentient being, human or animal, or a group of such entities, then what is the individual’s status in the post-liberation condition?

The question of ‘What is it to be liberated?’ has two primary meanings. One, as a verb, asks what the process or event of liberation actually entails. The second, in its adjectival reading, seeks knowledge pertaining to the state of the liberated being.

The state of being before liberation is implied by potential fact of liberation itself (whatever the latter is or isn’t). Something can only be liberated if it is in a state that allows of liberation – that is, the absence or impairment of liberty, such as being oppressed, confined, incarcerated, dominated, controlled etc. On this interpretation, the post-liberation state is one where these conditions no longer prevail.

Can the post hoc state of liberty, then, be defined only by the absence of certain objective conditions? If so, what are those objective conditions? This does not seem like a question with an easy answer.

Alternatively, we can see as ‘unnatural’ those external conditions that liberation removes, insofar as they are imposed by other actors (moral agents?). In this case, liberation is actually a return to an original, or at least prior, ‘state of nature’. Whilst inverting the received political wisdom that the past is better than the future, this anti-golden-age perspective on which modern political theory is founded still attempts to justify action in the present in terms of the not-past.

All the ahistorical theorising about existential states misses the key point: in the real world, animals – including humans – have never been ‘free’ of external constraints on every single thought and action. We are, always have been, and always will be, embodied in the world.

A strong theme in Christian religious culture is that the body itself is some type of cage incarcerating the spirit within the flesh. The problem is not whether this is, or could be, true or untrue; but that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from it within that tradition.

Rather than accepting the transcendental reality of our embodiment as self-aware biological entities, the western intellectual tradition deriving from Christianity has sought to deny this unavoidable and unchangeable precondition of our very existence. Instead, it has sought the chimera of liberation or emancipation as a categorical experience.

Liberation from the world of evil. Liberation from the prison of the flesh. Liberation from slavery and serfdom. Liberation from capitalist exploitation. Women’s liberation. National liberation. Sexual liberation. Animal liberation.

The drive for liberation is widespread among human cultures. While it may not be universal, at the very least it is certainly not restricted to those cultures deriving from Abrahamic religions or western intellectual traditions. And some other religions fare not much better, if anything, in this respect.

In Buddhism, a human can (with immense difficulty) become liberated (moksha) from samsara, the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. However, this appears to be a notional concept only. Nirvana means ‘extinguishing’ (e.g. of a flame) and can only ever be described negatively – it is a non-state. And it is only with the death of the body that the fully enlightened being is finally liberated, and the non-state of mahaparinirvana (‘great-beyond-nirvana’) is, well, not attained.

China’s indigenous, mystical Daoist tradition seeks liberation in a diametrically opposed, life-affirming direction – that of immortality. But the iron laws of physical nature cannot be subverted by alchemy, as was no doubt discovered too late by those who, in search of liberation from earthly mortality, imbibed toxic substances such as mercury sulfide (red in appearance and known as dan in Chinese and as cinnabar by the ancient Greeks).

The solutions to our problems are not usually found in running away from them, as strong as that urge can be at the individual or collective level. For some, such as refugees from war zones or animals fleeing forest fires, it may be the best of a bunch of very unattractive options. But flight is not the same as liberation – as the refugees Australia has inhumanly abused in appalling conditions on Manus Island and Nauru know only too well.

In contemporary politics, calls for ‘liberation’ are shibboleths distracting from the reality of the human condition. They serve to conjure illusions of the obtainability in the near-future of states of affairs in which we or some other group of beings are no longer ‘unliberated’.

Deeply problematically, these liberation mythologies promote the idea that once we are liberated our problems will magically evaporate in the sunshine of our emancipation.

There never has been and will never be a point in history upon which we are ‘liberated’, a time when we can leave all our troubles behind us. This is the thinking of the desperate, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised. But there will be no inheritance, earthly or otherwise.

What we need now in this time of global general crisis are not flights of febrile fantasy, but hard-nosed political realism grounded in the cold, dry facts of the objective situation. We need to accept as unchangeable the reality that we will always need to struggle against oppression, push back against exploitation, and resist power in all its pervasive and pernicious forms.

Our future wellbeing lies not in utopian dreams of freedom, but in sober, practical and politically feasible solutions, based on sound understandings of how our societies really work, and building on the hard-earned experience of those who went before.