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

Jan 4, 2020

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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