Does Australia Have Revolutionary Potential?

Bread, circuses, horse races, and car races are in abundant supply.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott vie to be Australia's next PM.

Trying to live a normal life in an abnormal world is ever more demanding. As the perils facing the planet continue to multiply, the industries of spin, distraction, sport, shopping and porn thrust themselves into our psychic space. Hell, we still want to have fun, even as the ocean turns into an oily soup. As the last person on Earth who got around to seeing the movie Twilight, I was strangely thrilled. While wars rage and ecosystems degrade, it is easy to understand the attraction of dating a vampire with cosmic powers who lives forever and avoids imbibing human blood. What a perfect partner for a turbulent future, whether it’s a revolution, a return to basics, or a systemic collapse.

A hint of the “end game” percolates the atmosphere. Since 9/11 major nations, including Australia, have shown scant respect for the rules of law, war, habeas corpus and fair play. Secrecy is paramount, surveillance is constant, torture continues and drone assassinations are applauded. You know all this. While millions are shocked by the moral decline of the West, there are millions more who regard the denial of justice as necessary. On this issue, and many other issues, there is a Great Divide.

Climate Crisis? While top scientists repeat their warnings, backed up with data, the sceptics still fume. The leader of Australia’s opposition, Tony Abbot, calls climate change “crap”. Similar divisiveness surrounds the prospect of peak oil, peak soil, peak water, peak phosphate, peak everything. The fissures in these Great Divides split deeper and wider. Political dialogue is unlikely to achieve a consensus. Exasperation mounts on both sides of the stockade.

Because many of us have become accustomed to watching, rather than doing, and yapping rather than acting, it is hard to imagine a mighty torch-lit insurrection erupting in the streets of Sydney. This could change. As with the G-20 in Toronto, international talk fests now attract agitators with murky intentions, whose goal is more focused on shattering windows than shifting paradigms. Swiftly dubbed anarchists, they could be agent provocateurs. These days cops are wired up for trouble. When Sydney hosted an APEC conference in 2007, attended by George Bush, the city was disfigured with barricades and “no go” zones, and the police were granted extraordinary powers, including the suspension of habeas corpus. Activists on blacklists were banned from entering the city. Despite an orderly march of protestors led by the fire brigade, and the preponderance of placards featuring Mahatma Ghandi, the cops were abusive and paranoid.

As signs of a possible collapse continue to escalate, whether heralded by food shortages, water wars or drought, the attitude of citizens are prone to volatility. Today Sydney’s business district throbs with shopping platoons. In the 19th century these same streets buzzed with immigrants freshly arrived from far and wide, many imbued with enlightenment ideals and stirred by the goals of the French Revolution. Some of the newcomers had participated in the doomed yet valiant defence of the 1871 Paris Commune, which aimed to create a model republic based on principles of social justice. This rich cultural mix of former convicts and communards, budding trade unionists, socialists, pamphleteers, explorers, ratbags and fervent democrats, were determined to prevent Sydney from replicating the bloody minded cruelties and rigid class divisions of Britain, which had so long kept the working class on its knees. To this end numerous street battles erupted, with the aim of advancing an egalitarian agenda and subduing the meddling of police, who acted as agents of the ruling class. Setting cop shops on fire was a popular sport.

Another upsurge of radicalism erupted in the 1960s and early seventies, when students rebelled against idiotic censorship laws, the mistreatment of aboriginals and the country’s participation in the Vietnam War. In the early 80s huge battles were fought in Tasmania to prevent the construction of a dam on the serene Franklin River, with rallies attracting 20,000 supporters. This campaign contributed to the collapse of the Federal Government, created a new political party – the Greens – and projected environmental issues into the mainstream. So what of today?

To put it bluntly, I’d say we’re asleep at the screen. We watch the news, read the books, applaud green sentiments, go to the beach, attach the iPod and bury our heads in the sand. In his recent book, Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton asks why we resist the awful truth about the implacable degradation of the planet. Is it because consumption has become inseparable from our personal identity, as he suggests? Hamilton blames the lilly-livered response to global warming on the exercise of political power by corporations, who stand to lose by restrictions on emissions. “If anyone deserves to be cast in the eternal flames of Hell,” he writes, “it is the executives of companies like Exxon Mobil, Rio Tinto, General Motors, Peabody and E.ON, along with their lobbyists and PR operatives.” When I quoted these fighting words to a conference of miners, the audience was puzzled and shocked.

Major industries see themselves as the good guys, creating loads of jobs, adding to the wealth of all Australians with tax payouts, as well as shovelling resources to developing nations to brighten up the people’s prospects. What’s so bad about that? It is a debate that’s been simmering for decades and the stakes keep climbing. Half a century ago that wiley French Situationist, Guy Debord, proclaimed the agenda of capitalism was the annihilation of nature. It’s a sharp observation, but nature still seems abundant in Australia, if you don’t count the rapid extinction of species. Despite the frustrations of those all too aware of the ecosystems’ fragility, the majority of our citizens are not yet inclined to stiffen their sinews and march on Parliament. That time may come but it will take a major incident to arouse the slumbering rank and file, like a massive oil spill on the Barrier Reef.

The majority of Australians do not regard the mining companies as villains, as former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discovered when he tried to up the industry’s tax rate. All hell broke loose. Rudd vanished overnight in a shower of tears, dumped by his own party.

At this point in time, we’ve got it pretty good. The global financial collapse skirted our shores. The stupid wars abroad have not attracted rage. Bread, circuses, sport, festivals, theatre, opera, horse races, car races and boat races are in abundant supply. Our flood gets ever more refined, plastic surgeons are on a roll and our fossil fuelled cities pump out emissions like there’s no tomorrow. What’s not to like? Nothing, apart from a ridiculous suspicion that we’re dancing like mad on the deck of the Titanic.

Richard Neville is an author, social commentator and professional futurist who lives in Sydney. Richardneville.com