Border openings, vaccine illusions and a log jam of proposals

Even before a Covid-19 vaccine arrives Coalition politicians, limited by their assumption there is no alternative to capitalism, are recommending the resurrection of Reagan and Thatcher policies to treat everyone and everything as a commodity.

This cruelty is compounded by the fossil fuel industry being encouraged to stage a polluting gas led recovery.

Across the globe, emergency measures have protected citizens from the worst effects of unemployment, but those measures are not expected to be permanent. In Australia, an aggregate of emergency interventions -Job Keeper, Job Seeker, temporary free childcare, pandemic leave subsidies- do not represent a blueprint for the future. Such policies respond to the destruction from a tsunami but are not considering how to prevent carnage from future disasters.

In current proposals about post Covid futures, two issues arise: how to judge a log jam of ideas, how to confront a previously neglected responsibility to prevent abusive uses of power.

The Log Jam

Alternatives to neo-liberal ways of thinking and behaving may be hindered by the number of proposals to protect people and planet. People need to know what exactly is being designed. Without clarity and coherence, the promotion of diverse utopias creates confusion.

From the Naomi Klein stable we are offered The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, a warning about capitalism’s response to previous crises by crushing trade unionists and opposition leaders. Her No Is Not Enough is a response to Trump racism and authoritarianism, then comes This Changes Everything and On Fire which make the case for a Green New Deal and associated ways to protect the planet.

Canadian groups have produced their Leap Manifesto, acombined effort from advocates for Indigenous rights, for food security and social justice, from members of faith based and labour movements who each believe that climate change is a crime against humanity. Their objectives have much in common with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project Draw Down is modestly described as the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Running parallel is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which gives scientific assessments of ways to mitigate pollution of the atmosphere.

The marketplace of ideas about social and economic policies is also congested. Australia’s Commission for the Future has offered Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century. David McNight recommends Populism Now, The Case for Progressive Populism and then there’sKate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist.

Editors of the Australian Journal of Political Economy have responded to the corona virus crisis with twenty-seven insightful, constructive articles, and in Arena, Richard Hilhas crafted a forensic appraisal of ways ‘to re-boot Australia’s neo-liberal order.’

Given that a criticism of capitalism is its promotion of growth, accumulation and consumption, there’s an irony in this parade of recommendations. Presented with a smorgasbord on a groaning table, even guests who consider themselves reformers may be unsure what to taste, or what they are likely to find the most nutritious. With so much on offer they may feel confused, though unlike Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, they may avoid consuming too much and will not explode.

Abusive Power

In tandem with critiques of neo liberal economics and the consequent persistence of massive social and economic inequalities, abuses of power must also be addressed. Even if the jam of reformist ideas is unblocked, even if an effective vaccine is made available, even if there is free movement of people and goods across borders, states’ abuse of human rights and their collusion in repression remain a key issue.

The top down use of power which demands only citizen obedience, must end. For centuries, states’ violent use of power has exacted cruelty on vulnerable women and children, on Indigenous citizens, asylum seekers, refugees, people of colour. Australian citizens have witnessed work for the dole, robot debt recovery, neglect of the elderly, of people with a disability and a fascination with war.

Such criticism applies to democracies as well as to dictatorships, to the Morrison government’s love of secrecy and bolstering of police powers, to Belarus brutalities or the thuggery that passes for government in Russia.

Social and economic policies included in the treaties listed above, will fall on stony ground unless they are linked to a literacy about non-destructive, life enhancing exercise of power. That means enthusiasm for the philosophy and practice of non-violence and for a re-energized defence of democracy.

In Democracy in Chains Nancy McClean taught that societies could not have unfettered capitalism and democracy. A choice must be made.

In Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt proposed that instead of governments’ preoccupation with individual consumption and returns to shareholders, visions of a common good demanded answers to questions, are policies fair, do they contribute to equity, to redistribution, to justice?

No-one should be fearful, not least the Australian Labor Party, of talking about the ideals of socialism, to encourage public ownership of services, community fellowship and a dispersal of power.

In a forthcoming book, Cruelty or Humanity, I have highlighted a language for humanity which speaks of an interdependence of peoples and policies, emphasizes the significance of courage in public life, of caring and sharing, of altruism not egoism.

Familiarity with the values carried by that language should prepare people to answer invective from Murdoch media outlets which is a probable response to any criticism of privatization, state secrecy, corruption, or greed.

Even if a vaccine for Covid 19 arrives and 80% of the population are inoculated, even if state borders are opened, the challenge remains to build a socially just society, protect the planet and leave an optimistic legacy for future generations.

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Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”, Bristol: Policy Press. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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