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.


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