One argument I made in my earlier post about Mr Abbott’s relaunch of the Culture Wars is that he won’t have noticed that civil society is stronger than it was in the Howard years. It’s not just “clicktivism” – there is a real resurgence in and around social media, which funnels real changes in culture and social opinion into the political process. It can be expected that those thousand points of light will converge more readily now that there is an LNP government.
Tony Abbott, despite the liberalism his party proclaims (and what sort of liberal party makes it an offense for consumers to share information about products and companies?), is at heart an echo of an overwhelmingly Statist polity. To the degree that civil society strengthens, we can expect to see a shift in the power balance away from dependence on the state which has been central to Australia’s political culture for so long. There is no reason to celebrate a Coalition government, but that shift, if it’s nurtured, would be a democratic advance.
I’m thinking of all this as news breaks of the success of the project to fund the Climate Council, a non-governmental replacement for the Climate Commission the Abbott government disbanded last week, simultaneously sacking Tim Flannery and his colleagues.
Perhaps this is one reason (with the Labor leadership contest being another) that progressives are not all caught up in post-election gloom. The left is not over because Labor has been defeated (and Labor is not finished because it has been defeated).
In the context of debate in progressive and left circles around the reboot of the culture wars, I thought Ben Eltham put it nicely in New Matilda:
Some on the left have decried the new outbreak of the culture wars, claiming that it distracts from the real issues. Writing in The Guardian, for instance, Jeff Sparrow argued last week that the storm of controversy over Abbott’s blokey cabinet choices played into conservative hands. “If the left doesn’t understand the logic of culture wars,” Sparrow wrote, “we are doomed to be defeated in them.”
A glance at the way the right sees the coming culture wars shows how wrong Sparrow is. Quite apart from the fact that the gender make-up of the key decision-making body of the land is more than a symbolic issue, the very idea that the symbolic content of politics can somehow be divorced from the material aspects seems mistaken, almost quaint.
The right understands that symbols are every bit as important as policy details – much more important, in fact. That’s why the Abbott Government and its right-wing cheerleaders are pursuing the climate scientists with such vigour. The right knows that our disintegrating global environment is the largest challenge to the hegemony of capital since Marx. Climate change questions the very fundamentals of neoliberal ideology, including the centrality of economic growth and the idea – explicit in the tenets of monotheistic religions like Christianity – that the natural environment is a resource that exists for the beneficial exploitation of humans.
Like it or not, the next three years will see bitter battles over culture, the humanities and science. If the left decides not to fight them, they are battles that will be certainly be lost.
As it turns out, I think the left will fight. Indeed, the next three years are likely to see a much wider and more effective mobilisation of progressive sentiment than Tony Abbott and the tacticians at Crosby Textor may have bargained for.
In that respect, this morning’s announcement of the rebirth of the Climate Commission as the crowd-funded and independent Climate Council is a straw in the wind. Only days after its abolition, Flannery and his colleagues at the Commission have reconstituted themselves with the help of a groundswell of community support. As independent analysts, they loom as far more effective critics of Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott’s risible Direct Action policy than they would have been while still formally part of the government.
The rebirth of the Climate Council could not have occurred with anything like this speed and flexibility in the Howard years. It is a sign that the tools for community opposition to Tony Abbott’s agenda are effective and potentially highly disruptive. Like many a general before him, Abbott may soon realise that getting into a culture war is much easier than getting out.