Joanne Knight

December 20, 2009

Political Climate

As Tony Abbot weighs in to the Climate Change debate with the predictable neocon line, its time to examine why this political philosophy is so dangerous.

The election of Tony Abbot to the leadership of the Liberal Party signals a resurgence of the neocons. The self-flagellation, blame-apportioning and purging have finished, the neocons have regrouped and outflanked the liberals in the party. This is a dangerous time for Australian politics as the agenda which dragged us into the quagmire of the War on Terror and the disaster of Iraq has returned in the form of Tony Abbott. So why are the neocons dangerous? In combination with neoliberal globalisation, it has created a hollowing out of democracy, a swelling of Executive authority and a penchant for ethnic violence.

Neoliberal political rationality represents a business approach to governing. The Emission Trading approach to climate change is one example of this approach, as are privatized child care and skeletal emergency services which cannot cope with emergencies, like the Victorian bushfires in February. The saturation of the state, political culture, and the social with market rationality effectively strips commitments to democracy from governance concerns and political culture.

Abbott’s approach to climate change also prioritises business over reducing carbon emissions. He articulates it as prioritizing ‘the economy’ but all that really means is that we don’t do anything to annoy big business or big agriculture. The position of the National Farmers Federation is that the battle against climate change is lost. We need ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ strategies.

Neoconservatism is characterised by moralized state power and animated by angst about the crumbling status of morality within the West. It identifies the state, including law, with the task of setting the moral-religious compass for society. Through the political mobilization of religious discourse, neoconservative governance models state authority on church authority, a pastoral relation of the state to its flock requiring submission to truth and to the authority that speaks or wields it. This attribution of moral authority to the state is at odds with liberalism.

There isn’t really a religious-moral aspect to climate change. Not in the way that neocons think about morality: as a good vs evil dichotomy. There is no enemy or humanity as a whole is the enemy. Fundamentalist thinking requires the destruction or punishment of the enemy as in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq for the War on Terror. This type of fundamentalism has led the neocons into the position of climate change denial and brought the world to the brink of climate disaster.

The uncertainty created by climate change creates a feeling of insecurity, adding to the trepidation already faced by people confronted by global economic uncertainty, terrorism, continuous war, and global movements of refugees. Existing networks of social knowledge are eroded by rumour, terror and an everchanging technological environment. One response to social uncertainty is violence which can create a macabre form of security and a means for ensuring suspicion between ‘us’ from ‘them’. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan came as a response to the uncertainty created by the September 11 attacks but also in response to the erosion of social knowledge which has occurred under neoliberal globalisation. The erosion of liberal democratic principles which had formed the social bonds in Western democracies until hollowed out by principles of neoliberalism. Neoconservatism attempts to recreate such social bonds by calling on forms of identity politics at odds with liberal democracy.

Identity politics does not just play out as the demonization of other ethnic identities; it also plays out as rural versus urban identities, ‘climate change denier’ becomes associated with the bush ethic. Neocons in Australia are particularly skilled at mobilizing the bush identity as part of identity politics. Just as ‘stolen generation denier’ and ‘native title denier’ also form a consistent part of the neoconservative philosophy. It plays into an already existing social identity which has existed politically since Australia was colonised. Climate change denier becomes a righteous identity, the expression of a moral (not just a political) position.

This position was illustrated well by the debate between Ian Plimer and George Monbiot on Late Line. Both sides maintained condescending moral positions, both sides accusing the other of fraud, misrepresenting data, lying, etc. These are moral positions, not a rational debate on the merits of climate change science. The climate change debate remains frozen in competing moral positions framed by identity politics and undermined by political maneuvering. Meanwhile the ice caps continue to melt, Greenland sink holes expand…

Neoconservatives draw on identity politics through emphasis on particular moral codes and modes of behaviour. Neoconservatism polices cultural and national borders, the sacred, and the singular through discourses of patriotism, religiosity, and the West. It is clear that neoconservatives oppose the creation of global solutions to climate change and mobilise identity politics to undermine the creation of international agreements. However what is also clear is that, without such agreements, we cannot deal with this problem. If we sit behind our national borders, playing realist politics, reality will soon catch up with us.


December 4, 2009

A Little Bird told me

Twitter breaks the Jakarta bombing and provides first-hand accounts on the ground, protesters in Iran get their side of the story out to the world via Facebook and You Tube.

It seems the most up-to-date news is to be found on Twitter, a social networking site. When the standard news services must compete with this sort of immediacy (news presented in 140-characters or less), one begins to worry about the quality of journalism and the future of the media. Journalism is generally perceived to have been deteriorating since the advent of television. (Jurgen Habermas put it somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century.) Movies such as Broadcast News, Wag the Dog and the wonderfully satirical ABC show, Frontline, have explored the commercialization of the media and its attack on the ideal of journalism devoted to accuracy.

The impact of the internet has been blamed for deteriorating social relations, isolation, superficiality and suicide. With no quality control on the information, of course, there remains a great deal of misinformation (intentional or otherwise), a great deal of celebrity and sports commentary and hoaxes which can always find someone who hasn’t seen it before. One movement which seems to be bucking the trend is the Free Software Movement. Its conscious culture of collaboration has led to a number of permutations such as Indymedia and the, now ubiquitous, social networking sites which build on this model of participation.

Indymedia formed in 1999 in response to the ‘Battle for Seattle’, the protests against the World Trade Organisation negotiations. The software was developed in Australia. It was the first internet site which allowed users to post their own content. Its slogan was ‘Don’t hate the media, be the media.’ Later came You Tube (the seeming Internet equivalent of Funniest Home Videos) but which is used by people to share a great deal of content which is important to various social identities thus encouraging diversity. This tool is extremely creative for those who wish to post there own video work, and is even used for mini documentaries.

The use of these sites to post copyrighted content represents a serious challenge to corporate control of information. The idea of a contributing community which freely distributes what they create confronts business control of copyright law.

In recent years, major U.S. and EU copyright industry rightsholder groups, such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, have sought stronger powers to enforce intellectual property rights across the world by negotiating an agreement, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). In 2006, Japan and the United States launched the idea of a new plurilateral treaty to help in the fight against counterfeiting and piracy. The aim of the initiative was to negotiate an agreement that enhances international co-operation and contains effective international standards for enforcing intellectual property rights.

These efforts have been underway in a number of international fora, including the World Trade Organization, the World Customs Organization, at the G8 summit, at the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Advisory Committee on Enforcement, and at the Intellectual Property Experts’ Group at the Asia Pacific Economic Coalition. The World Copyright Summit in July furthered these negotiations.

The agreement potentially represents attempts to restrict the sharing of information, including music, movies and software. Among the suggested measures is enforcement of such laws without waiting for complaints from rights holders; the seizure and destruction of ‘goods and equipment’ involved in infringement, both internally and at a country’s borders; searches at the request of a single party, and the disclosure of supposed infringers to rights holders.

Groups such as the Australian Digital Alliance are concerned that many of these measures represent an erosion of basic civil liberties, such as the right to a fair hearing. The US-based Free Software Foundation is critical that ACTA-inspired laws may be enforced by people with limited knowledge. Using free software and free formats or even a non-standard piece of hardware, such as a non-iPod music player could conceivably cause trouble for you, especially when going through a signatory country’s customs.

After the conviction of the Pirate Bay creators in Sweden, Nick McDonald from law firm Brown Jacobson, warns that sites like Google, eBay and other sites containing user- generated content may also be criminally liable. Pirate Bay is a well-known Swedish file sharing site, which uses BitTorrent technology to allow its users to share and download content. On 31 January 2008, charges were filed by Swedish prosecutors against four individuals, Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm and Carl Lundstrom, for ‘promoting other people’s infringements of copyright laws’. On 17 April 2009 the four men were convicted and each sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay a total of 30 million SEK (3.6 million USD). This draconian enforcement seems completely out of proportion to the activity being conducted and seems to smack of corporate influence.

Given that the vast majority of artists and writers receive such pitiful remuneration for their work, the arguments of megacorporations that free downloading is stealing from the artists themselves seem rather hollow. The only ones making money out of music and other artistic content are large corporations at the expense of the creators of content. The Free Software Movement represents the attempt to break corporate control of computer software and some branches defend the free exchange of content in defiance of copyright law. This movement potentially represents a resistance to the superficiality and immediacy which the internet can create. If Twitter is the future of news reporting, then the Free Software Movement represents a counter direction.

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