EVAN JONES.- Fires. Are they Australia’s Potemkin Moment?

The French economist and social critic Frédéric Lordon recently penned an article on his blog at Le Monde Diplomatique titled “The Potemkin Moment”.

Lordon explains :‘How to trigger a mutiny? As with all uprisings, by the abuse of power. On the Battleship Potemkin, the arrogance of the officers, their aristocratic contempt and their brutality still don’t succeed to set off the sailors. It’s the meat that does the trick. Or rather the maggots. The meat is so infested that it can take to the railings by itself. One reaches the tipping point, but the superior officer hasn’t woken up. He thinks simply to be able to re-establish order in barking commands as per usual. The ship’s doctor comes to impose his scientific authority in certifying that the meat is perfect – thus will everything return to normal. Close-up of the meat: it’s swarming. The doctor: these are not maggots.

‘Édouard Philippe [Prime Minister, on 12 December praising the hugely controversial proposed one-size-fits-all retirement system ‘reform’ over which the whole country is on strike]: “The ambition pursued by this government is that of social justice … and above all, the only thing that counts, it is justice”.

‘The ship’s doctor: this meat is very good, so there’s nothing to talk about.

‘Édouard Philippe: “Women will be the major beneficiaries of our universal retirement system … the guarantees given justify that the strikes should be called off”.

‘When it reaches a critical point, a political order holds symbolically only by a hair, or by a word. After which, of course, it relies on the police. …

‘There is, however, a sentiment, a particular mark of this power [the Macron Presidency], which arises not from an innocent or merry insult nor even a shameful lie but something else, infinitely more breathtaking: the Potemkin words – the words “these are not maggots” and “this meat is excellent”, with the maggots and the meat under one’s nose. One says the Potemkin words but these words are Orwellian.

‘Édouard Philippe: “We propose a new pact between generations, a pact faithful in spirit to that which the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) devised and put in place after the war.” [The CNR is sacred to all but neoliberal-driven French elites, so this claim is effectively blasphemy.]

‘At this level of the perversion of words, it is to shit on things. When Édouard Philippe wraps himself in the CNR, when he coolly destroys all the CNR’s social gains, he shits on the political history of the Resistance. Here is ultimately the measure of this government: it is a government of desecrators. … Buzyn [Agnès, Minister of Solidarity and Health] closes hospital beds “to improve the quality of care” – shits on the sick. … Pénicaud [Muriel, Minister of Labour] destroys the labour code “to protect the workforce” – shits on the workers.’ [And so on.]

Does all this sound familiar?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, declining to raise the pitiful Newstart allowance: “The best form of welfare is a job.”

Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes, to expert lawyer critics (they are “disrespectful”, using “media slogans”) of the government’s robodebt hoovering pillage from the most disadvantaged: “I’m just wondering if you understand, or if you understand now, how the income compliance system works under the [the new system] and if you’re aware of how those debts are generated”.

Morrison again, with the South-eastern States burning on an unprecedented scale: “There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues, right now it’s important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help.”

Barnaby Joyce, sometime Deputy Prime Minister and would-be rural mastermind, on the same occasion: “I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party, so I’m not going to start attacking them.”

Michael McCormack, current Deputy Prime Minister and, by construction, the country’s head rural brain: “[Rural people] don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies / raving inner city lunatics at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes …”.

The deeply philosophical Joyce again, in his Christmas message to the unenlightened: “You don’t have to convince me that the climate’s not changing; it is changing. My problem’s always been whether you believe that new taxes are going to change it back. But I just don’t want the government anymore in my life; I’m sick of the government being in my life. And the other thing we gotta acknowledge – there is a higher authority that’s beyond our comprehension. Right up there in the sky. Unless you understand, that’s got to be respected, we’re just fools, we’re going to get nailed.”

Meanwhile Morrison secretly slips away with his family for a well-deserved holiday in Hawaii from all that exertion repealing the Medevac Bill and pushing the anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill, the country still burning. And this for a man whose electorate office is just up from the beach.

Forced to return home after public censure, Morrison aligns his priorities directly from coal to cricket on the pristine lawns of Kirribilli House on New Year’s Day:

‘The fires do rage on. It is a time of great challenge for Australia. Whether they’re started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be, our firefighters and all of those who have come behind them to support them, whether they’re volunteering in the front line or behind the scenes in a great volunteer effort, it is something that will happen against the back drop of this Test match.

‘But at the same time, Australians will be gathering, whether it’s at the SCG or around television sets all around the country, and they’ll be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers from both sides of the Tasman and I think they’ll be encouraged by the spirit shown by Australians and the way that people have gone about remembering the terrible things that other Australians are dealing with at the moment.’

Oblivious to the censure of Morrison, the NSW Minister for Emergency Services, David Elliott, hightails it to Europe on holiday. As a Liberal colleague noted: “Why do we even have an Emergency Services Minister if he is not going to be here in an emergency.”

Also in London on holiday, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, by construction the State’s head rural brain, provided crucial critical perspective from the distant metropolis on the crisis engulfing his constituency.

Truly this is an Australian Potemkin moment.

Lordon concludes his article: “Then the sailors threw the officers overboard and collectively took command of the boat.”

What a great idea!

Evan Jones is an Honorary in the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney. He has degrees from Melbourne University and Michigan State University. From 1973, he lectured in Economics then Political Economy until retiring in 2006. Previous research and publications have covered post-World War II Australian economic policy, corporate predation against small business, and critiques of mainstream economics methodology. His current writing interests include the Australian banking sector, especially its proclivities to corruption, and French politics.


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11 Responses to EVAN JONES.- Fires. Are they Australia’s Potemkin Moment?

  1. Chris Borthwick says:

    The Potemkin’s officers weren’t elected by the ratings. Ours were. Yes, the government is lying, incompetent, out of ideas, and run by Murdoch, but we knew all that before the election. Scott may go down, but that’s not Potemkin; that’s Casablanca, with the electorate saying “I’m shocked – Shocked! – to discover climate denial taking place.”
    We want reality not to be true, and so will only vote for liars.

  2. Rob Stewart says:

    Love it Evan. The Potemkin Moment. Great to have this as a term of reference to that particularly despicable form of political behaviour. Morrison has been so indescribably woeful on just about everything, until now – he’s just one drawn out slow motion Potemkin Moment. On the current fire tragedies he has just about said it all. I am just waiting for him to add one final nail by saying something along the lines of ‘of course I accept climate change is real, but you can’t attribute the cause of any of the current 598 or so fires incinerating Australia, specifically to climate change….’

  3. Peter Small says:

    No one gets it do they? Its not Co2, Its not our politicians, its us, all of us for our inane arrogance that we, those of us of European decent, know best. Its our failure to learn from the indigenous Australians who understood that Australia was subject to long periods of extended droughts and that we had sometimes long and sometimes short periods of wet and dry, (What we call cycles). And that caring for country,- flora and fauna required judicious skill and the use of fire. Continuously!

  4. Allan Kessing says:

    Meanwhile SmoKofromMarketting retreats to the Potemkin village of Canberra – currently world #1 in smoke polluted air … Oi, Oi Oh! we’s winners again! -, no doubt grateful to be back in his beloved Bubble where at least the a/c will ensure that he can draw breath to tell us that things are just fine.
    As he claimed on ABC NewsRadio yesterday, “these arms have done a lot of hugging in the last few months… the people of Cobargo were relieved (!?) to see me, the first senior political leader to visit them.” So they should be grateful!
    He then went on to recite an impressive laundry list of all the wonderful things he’d done, even before the fires took hold – his prescience apparently knows no bounds which is why he didn’t need to meet with fire chiefs in march.
    Turns out he was reading from the script of a slickly produced new ad, complete with finger snappy, upbeat muzak.
    “Our climate policy is fine, those aren’t fires” indeed.

  5. Show me any politician worth listening to.
    Go on: what are you waiting for ?

  6. Greg Bailey says:

    The “quiet Australian” is reactive rather than pro-active. A Potemkin moment implies a combination of both of these. A fully sustained reaction will require millions of letters and emails to be sent to politicians, and countless phone calls, all demanding the recognition of climate change and adaptive policies to be put in place. This also implies a concern with the long-term, not just the immediate. And, I fear this is where any sustained process could wither on the rocks.

    The commercial televisions news reports have been focussing on human interest stories–as they did in their coverage of the Black Saturday fires–and not on the long term causes or the conditions which have made these fires so much worse than others. In turn this reinforces the failure in the minds of most people to look only at the symptoms rather than the causes.

    I suspect there may be some possibility of food shortages in some areas rising from these fires, given the huge stock losses. Farm incomes will certainly be hit and there might be a more general depressive effect on the economy, especially in view of the lunacy in maintaining a surplus in times like this.

    We can only hope this will be a Potemkin moment and that it will endure.

  7. Peter Small says:

    It is not very smart at this moment to have cheep esoteric shots at our PM and his Coalition members. A team who are clearly inept at responding as this crisis unfolds. Our entire political class too is incompetent in being able to respond. And who could be?
    A disaster, waiting to happen and steadily building since white man first set foot in Australia in the 1700’s.
    We have ignored the experience of 60,000 years of the indigenous Australians in caring for country. In our blind ignorance driven by arm chair environmentalist in our city electorates, we have built a death trap for our people and our native flora and fauna and our nations wealth creating agricultural industries.
    This disaster is of all our makings, ( and CO2 may only be a small part of it) The question is are we going to try and do better in the future or is it to be more of the same?
    Suggested reading for all: “The Biggest Estate on Earth” How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage.

  8. Wayne McMillan says:

    Thanks Evan excellent article, reminding us that those in power who want to remain in power will do anything to stay there including telling porkies and creating diversions.

  9. Philip Ludington says:

    In our case the officers are the maggots – gorging themselves on the corpse of a once decent country.

  10. Evan Hadkins says:

    Unfortunately we need to have replacement officers available.

    None of the candidates are taking the crisis seriously.

    Almost the whole of the political class is saying that the meat is fine.

    • Jocelyn Pixley says:

      Yes, Evan Hadkins, although the Potemkin moment is more about the citizens saying the meat is maggot-ridden. Thanks for the terrific analogy to the Macron Government, Evan Jones. And the surprising turn on apparent trivia.
      What is happening in Australia is widespread disgust that no leader takes the extent of the fires seriously, except for Dan Andrews calling the ADF immediately. How majestically the RAN conducted its huge evacuation and supply help.
      The Labor opposition leader is included in climate heating denial. But there is a possibility of Commonwealth Labor and Greens MPs allying, if the usual culprits faced their Potemkin moment (Albanese and the LNP NSW government as well). NSW’s Labor leader Jodi McKay is in step with NSW Greens. Both LNP governments are on wafer thin majorities. Berejiklian may be more adept at spin than Morrison, but look at the NSW LNP record of wrecking.

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