Like any good lefty I tuned into the ABCs Q & A program on Monday night, given that Naomi Klein, Tariq Ali and Laurie Penni were on the panel – three prominent members of what Takis Fotopoulos calls the ‘globalist left’. But rather than cheering them on from the Telly, the discussion revealed the depth of my disagreement with this kind of left, which is today hegemonic on the global scene.
I fully acknowledge the many valid and important comments made by the panelists. Klein, for example, was excellent on Australian’s horrible treatment of Asylum Seekers and correct in her criticism of ordinary Australians for failing to respond in a similar way to the immediate reaction evoked by the Border Force fiasco. Other good points were made, but I will focus here on my substantial disagreements…
Most crucially for me, as always, was the clear lack of awareness about the ecological ‘limits to growth’ predicament we are in, and the huge implications this implies for thinking about the good society and social change. This might seem like a surprising comment, given Naomi Klein is well known as a climate change activist and has received accolades for her latest book, This Changes Everything. But, in my view, neither Klein nor the others have grasped the momentous implications of phasing out fossil fuels – the indispensable engine of modern economic growth – and moving to a society run entirely on renewable energy. Nor what it would mean for us to defuse the wider ecological crisis – which is much bigger than just global warming – or, what it would take if affluent societies were to move towards something like their fair share of consumption, in a world of scarce resources.
Let me just state boldly that, according to a small but growing number of us, doing all the above would imply, among other things: phasing out globalisation, undertaking a massive contraction and reorganisation of industrial economies, and taking active steps to reduce global population numbers. We would also need to build new economies, settlements, and cultures based on intense localism, self-reliance, cooperation and participatory democracy. And though most would not believe it, many of us think, despite severe material reductions, this new socioeconomic model could actually improve quality of life. In other words, eco-justice requires a kind of ‘ecological ‘austerity’ which will, surely, be much more challenging than the ‘untenable’ neoliberal austerity Klein now protests.
To her credit, Klein correctly diagnosed the climate problem as a symptom of ‘an economic system that is built to pursue short term profit and growth at all costs…’ and that ‘the triumph of capital has systematically stood in the way of what we need to do in the face of climate change.’ But while she was crystal clear that capitalism was the problem, she was murky as mud when it came to solutions.
Historically, the alternative to capitalism, at least on the left, has been socialism. Eco-Socialist Saral Sarkar points out that ‘socialism’, has been largely about two central propositions: 1) that the productive resources of society should be mostly, if not completely, owned and controlled by society as a whole 2) that there should be deliberate (democratic) economic planning, instead of leaving the allocation of resources to market forces. Sarkar and has argued persuasively that both will be necessary if we are to make an orderly and egalitarian retreat from the greed and growth madness.
To the extent that Klein offered any concrete proposals, none of them reflected these socialist fundamentals. Instead she talked about ‘regulating corporations’ (as opposed to abolishing/dismantling/socializing them!) or investing in renewables (like any green capitalist) or putting a price/tax on carbon. On the last point, Tony Jones rightly intervened: could Klein really say she was opposed to capitalism, if she was advocating carbon taxes/prices, which implies utilizing the price mechanism of the market? Klein had no clear answer. One seriously has to question whether Klein really thinks capitalism is the problem, or just the neoliberal variety we have today…
On the subject of neoliberalism, there were further confusions – and here Klein was in good company with her co-panelists. None showed any understanding that neoliberalism is a systemic phenomenon intimately bound up the globalization process. As Takis Fotopoulos has shown, once states have opened up and liberalised their capital and commodity markets – as most have now done – neoliberal policies are more or less mandated in order to maintain competitiveness – and therefore growth and consumption – within a global economy dominated by Transnational Corporations. In other words, there is a very harsh economic logic pushing towards neoliberalism, for states integrated into the global economy.
But you wouldn’t know any of this from listening to Tariq Ali. For him, neoliberalism could be explained, simply as a perverse ideology of the ‘extreme Centre’. Not surprisingly therefore, he condemned the (very real) austerity symptoms – mass unemployment and welfare cuts in Europe etc – but was blind to the underlying globalizing process that has produced it. No wonder that he, along with the rest of the globalist left are looking to Jeromy Corrobyn as their new saviour. Oblivious, apparently to the reality that if gets elected, he will very likely be forced to make the very same reversals we have become used to seeing social democrats make in the age of globalisation – from Mitterand to Lafontaine, through to Hollande and Tsiparis!
But while globalization may be a non-issue for the globalist left, it’s certainly not for the growing numbers of low income workers, especially in Europe and, to a lesser extent, Australia. Given this left refuses to challenge globalisation, increasingly it is right wing neo-nationalist groups who are mobilizing this mass movement ‘from below’. Ali made the wholly unconvincing claim that mass anti-immigration sentiment in Europe is simply whipped up by politicians, having no basis in the genuine (racialised) fears of insecure lower-income workers. It took the establishment intellectual Tom Switzer to point out the obvious: there is now a massive populist movement in Europe ‘concerned about not just Brussels and globalisation but open borders.’
Let me confess: as an advocate of a simpler way (see above), I have no easy answers for the affluent workers of the world. The socio-ecological movements I want to see develop, while clearly anti-globalisation, cannot promise higher (material) living standards – far from it. But I get frustrated when the left – whose cause I sympathize with – is so confused about, and divorced from, the seismic battles being waged over globalisation by the very workers the Left used to represent.
It was, however, the final topic of war and conflict that really boiled by blood. On the subject of Syria, Tariq Ali repeated the mainstream narrative we have been fed since 2011. According to this view, the Syrian conflict, like the Libyan one before it, is to be understood as a mortal struggle between a ‘revolutionary’ popular movement, on the one hand, and the hated sectarian regime and its dictator, Bashar Al Assad, on the other. Ali’s co-panellists could only nod in concerned agreement. All were oblivious to the evidence that this narrative is product of systematic lies and propaganda. As Timothy Anderson has shown, there is a far more plausible narrative, which, while not denying the desire of many Syrians for reform, characterizes the military/armed conflict as ‘principally between a pluralist state and the majority of the population who support it, on the one hand, and sectarian Islamists backed by the big powers, on the other.’
Given he has bought into the propaganda, Ali could only offer a timid and uncertain critique of Australia’s plans to join the U.S, U.K, and France – the so-called FUKUS powers – in their illegal bombing of Syria, which merely constitutes the latest phase in a covert war on the Syrian government and its people. Neither did Ali expose the true aims of this and other wars of the Transnational Elite who today collectively manage (not without disagreement!) neoliberal globalization. As Fotopoulos has argued the war on Syria has nothing to do with ridding the world of ISIS, and everything to do with achieving regime change in Damascus, as part of wider project aimed at integrating the entire Middle East (and the world!) into neoliberal globalisation.
All this left the establishment academic Tom Switzer to make the following memorable observation: “It is odd….since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union….Tariq and I, in some respects, are more alike on some issues, most notably on the Middle East. Tom was more right than he knew…