What If We Just Didn’t?

‘None of this is real’. That’s what I kept thinking: as the urns piled up in Wuhan and mass graves appeared in Iran and New York, as the ice rink in Madrid became a morgue. Not the virus itself – from the Black Death to SARS, infectious disease has always been a part of life; it’s only recently a privileged caste has been able to sustain a deluded belief in its own immunity. Rather, the sense of unreality came from observing the panicked rearrangement of social relations. Suddenly money could be conjured from thin air. Remote work, long sought by the disabled and decried by bosses as impractical, became not only viable but advised. In the space of a fortnight, politicians went from bragging about going to the footy and closing every second pokie in the casino to deploying militarised police to harass people sitting in the park. All that is air becomes solid; all that is solid melts into air.
‘The economy’ is not a fact the way that physics is a fact. Though both are inscribed in terms of mathematics, one reflects real and fixed constraints on who we are and how we live, while the other is an expression of power and relationships, individual and collective. It has changed in the past and it can change again. Though in our day-to-day lives the priorities of bosses, capital and the state are presented as immutable truths, they are not. Nor do they supersede the realities of biology and disease transmission, no matter what contradictory fictions we are asked to accept by authorities charged with defining what constitutes adequate ‘distancing’. Being less than two metres away from somebody is risky, unless you’re a hairdresser. You shouldn’t leave your house, but for some reason JB Hi-Fi is still open. White, wealthy cruise ship passengers comprise no risk except when they do; low wage and coloured workers on that same ship are a different story. Which work is ‘essential’? – all of it, apparently. Your employer gets to choose.   
These aren’t rules developed purely on the basis of stopping a disease. Work must go on – not because it is necessary for human flourishing, but because it reflects the priorities of business, of capital, which are never less and always more. A pandemic is a crisis which capital is deeply unsuited to handling – sans vaccine, the best means of controlling the spread is to stop, to do less, to shut things down. Yet this is not in the interests of a system premised on ever-increasing production and accumulation, whose public avatars are busy calculating how many grandparents they would trade for a 1.5 percent bump in GDP.
The production of goods is a physical imperative for us to live. Yet it is possible to feed people, to keep them safe outside of notoriously wasteful capitalist systems. Doing this too well, however, risks undermining the relations of hierarchy and dependence on which the employing class depends. Josh Frydenberg nearly made this explicit when explaining why the JobKeeper allowance will be paid via bosses – to keep employees ‘attached’ to their employers, so that they will be ‘ready to go’ once the pandemic is over. The differential allowances for job ‘seekers’ and job ‘keepers’ is, of course, all the better to maintain the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Never mind that even before the virus there weren’t enough jobs for everyone – or that many jobs are actively harmful to our social wellbeing.
Nonetheless, capital is taking a hit in lockdown just like the rest of us. While initially reluctant to act, authorities did jump into gear once they could get sick, as well; also, mass death is bad for the economy. Dead people don’t work and don’t buy stuff. So here we are: pubs and gyms closed, offices sent home.
Seeing less happening in real time has been illustrative. For my whole adult life it’s been known that we have to cut emissions, that failure to do will be catastrophic. Yet for all the talk of ‘green growth’, of ‘decoupling’ and ‘transition’, emissions keep rising, minor reductions achieved through technology wiped out by expansion in industrial production and the burning of fossil fuels. The cuts we are seeing now are unprecedented, their effects immediate and dramatic. What was needed, it seems, was a willingness to just stop: to simply turn off vast swathes of the industrial machine.
In this as in the other apocalypse, less rather than more is what we need to preserve our lives.
I’m not against green energy. It is a necessary condition to mitigate climate change, a phenomenon I would prefer not to kill me and others. But it is not a sufficient condition. Fundamentally, installing green energy does not cut emissions. Removing fossil fuels cuts emissions. One of these things is in line with the priorities of capital. The other is not.
In September 2019 NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean pledged his commitment to coal, both in terms of ‘securing the supply’ for local power stations and as an export commodity. “Coal is absolutely here to stay for decades to come,” Kean explained on 2GB, a noxious radio platform known for inciting hate campaigns against Muslims and women of colour. “The people of NSW want to protect the environment, but not at any cost to their hip pocket.”
In January 2020, Kean’s government agreed to add another 70 petajoules of gas supply per year, even as the fuel was discovered to have ‘far worse climate impact than we thought.’  
In March 2020 Kean announced his climate plan to ‘lead the country’ to net zero emissions by 2050. This was hailed in the media as a model for ‘how you do climate’.
The specifics outlined in the NSW plan are far from exhaustive, but they are exhausting. There are subsidies for business – including cement, steel and aluminium manufacturers, three of the world’s highest polluting industries – to install ‘cleaner’ technology. This is the face of evidence that efficiency improvements get wiped out by the expansions in production inevitably demanded by profit-seeking investors. There are various nodes of ‘consumer choice’, including giving motorists the choice to ‘offset’ some emissions. Offsets are, for the most part, an accounting trick; they are also a deflection from business to individuals who get blame-educated on the size of their own ‘carbon footprint’. This concept was first popularised by mega-polluter British Petroleum, former conduit of colonial extractivism in Iran, which has now rebranded as BP and changed its logo to a flower.
Perhaps most egregious part is the ‘Coal Innovation Fund’, identified as a ‘priority program for bilateral funding’. The fund will seek technological means to reduce fugitive emissions – whilst providing a new revenue stream to ‘increase productivity’ at coal mines. Such technology was apparently just around the corner in 1993 and in 2012; in the interim, the impact of these emissions has grown to match that of the global aviation and shipping industries combined. But hey, that was before NSW government got in on the game. Matt Kean versus physics, who you gonna choose?
The NSW plan also contains regulatory changes and investment in infrastructure to support renewable energy. While positive, this fails to address how renewables’ growth has historically been accompanied by growth in emissions unless backed by suppressive steps against polluting industry. That is not what is happening. Cuts from the much-vaunted growth of renewables have been utterly overwhelmed by increases in industrial pollution – and in any case, these cuts were smaller in size than those ‘achieved’ via the deaths of livestock in climate-exacerbated floods and drought. Indeed, green energy is used to financially support and even to directly power the extraction of fossil fuels – as in the farce of Santos, a company responsible for more emissions than Ethiopia, powering oil wells through solar panels publicly funded via the national renewables agency, ARENA.

It’s an arresting image, a strikingly literal illustration of how ‘transformative’ technologies get absorbed in a destructive system. Here’s the thing: there is no part of Kean’s plan which levels a cost against greenhouse emissions. It’s all more and no less: all having one’s cake and eating it too, to borrow words from a jackass who thumbed his nose at nature before hilari-tragically discovering that he’s a part of it, too. Indeed, the only shadow of a consequence apparent in the plan is a ‘forecast’ 35 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. It’s that thing about maths all over again. The target is interpreted as factual because it is a number. Yet it is undergirded by no criminal, legal or financial penalties should it fail to be achieved, other than the government continuing to ‘monitor and report’. Presumably this will be scrutinised via the same regulators who oversaw major rises in emissions under the last such fund. Or the same media who, in applauding Kean’s ‘getting it done’ re climate, seemed unable to recall his commitment to fossil fuels made just two months before.

Who, under Kean’s plan, will own the new investments? Is it workers? Communities? To use the technical term: LOL, jokes. Just as Qantas, joint recipient of a $715 million Covid-rescue package, stood down 20,000 staff while forcing crew to work in virally-exposed conditions, so too will subsidies under the NSW plan be delivered to businesses and owners. Corporations who profited from trashing the climate now get to profit from the so-called ‘solutions’. Get paid to pollute, get paid not to pollute. Or at least to install some new tech to throw up a scrim of deniability; enough so your victims, overburdened with information, with responsibility, shrug their shoulders and move on.
I could drown you in examples, in data, but what’s the point? We all know what’s happening. That’s why Greta Thunberg got so memeified when she made that speech, the one about ‘fairytales of eternal economic growth’. It was cathartic, wasn’t it, watching a young girl tell the truth and weep. Easier to get high off a child’s commodified pain than to do something about it.
Electoral democracy is sometimes offered up as a countervailing force to the imperatives of capital. Vote in better leaders, and they will save us. Observation reveals this as a sorely failing strategy. Failure to cut emissions in Australia is ongoing and bipartisan. Even as a billion animals burned, the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed climate concerns as the ravings of ‘inner city lunatics’ while the Leader of the Opposition pledged his commitment to keep exporting coal.
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the revolving door between industry and government, the normalised conflation of mining and national interest which reached its apotheosis with the appointment of a mining executive to chair the national committee for Covid-response. Although perhaps that apotheosis was reached earlier with the anointment of Ross Garnaut, former chairman of the vastly destructive Ok Tedi mine, as mandarin of Labor carbon policy. Less visible but no less pernicious are the structural ways in which capital embeds in the organs of the state. Australia’s ‘independent’ energy planning body, AEMO, draws 40 percent of its voting membership from corporate entities: profit-seeking entities that buy and sell electricity. There is, of course, no representation for environmental or scientific research bodies, or for Indigenous communities, none of whom are permitted to become members under current legislation.
One might be forgiven for thinking there is no such thing as Australia. There never was. It is three mining executives in a trenchcoat.
The term ‘regulatory capture’ is sometimes used, but I think this obscures more than it illuminates. It implies some sort of hostile takeover when really, the state and the market are not in opposition, they are co-constitutive. Politicians failing on climate are not a deviation, they are the predictable and incentivised result. Perhaps the greatest structural failure is the bordered and citizen-based electoral system – a fundamental deficit in accountability when the harms of emissions do not stop at national bounds. What can ‘democracy’ mean when Chennai, a city of ten million, risks running out of water because of drought fuelled by Australian coal?
It’s said by some clean energy advocates that fossil fuels will naturally vanish once ‘the economics stacks up’, i.e., once the cost of renewables falls enough to displace them via the unfettered workings of the market. I mean, good luck. I’d like for it to work, as well. Such advocates purport to know the interests of capital better than the capitalists themselves. Shell, for instance, touts its green investment wing while continuing to fund new fossil fuel exploration, as do all the major Australian banks.
Apart from elided distinctions between firm and non-firm energy sources, new and existing assets, between the cost of individual plant and surrounding infrastructure, and the environmental costs of renewables themselves – the idea ‘normal’ market forces do not include support for fading industry flies in defiance of experience and sense. Look at Kean’s energy plan. Business will be financially rewarded for installing (some) green tech, without obligations in terms of cutting back on their actual emissions. It is a flare in the dark, letting the owners of capital know they can continue to pollute without being punished, that they will in fact be paid. Just as in the last great ‘energy transition’, when the British government paid millions of pounds in compensation to former slaveholders and none to the enslaved.
‘Protest’ and ‘resistance’ are different things. To ‘protest’ is to register symbolic disagreement. ‘Resisting’ is inhibiting the processes which cause an injustice to occur. ‘Protesting’ the treatment of refugees is holding up a candle; it is drawing a sign saying, ‘Not In My Name’. ‘Resisting’ is withdrawing finance from the border-industrial complex, it is physically blocking a deportation, it is refusing to fly a human being to danger.
I think most people intuitively grasp the inefficacy of protest unbacked by material disruption. How else to explain the mismatch between rhetoric and reality for the so-called Climate ‘Strike’? A term for the sometimes militant withholding of labour, pasted over a boss-and-cop sanctioned stroll from A to B.
Not that these modes can’t co-exist. I’m not trying to diss people: God knows I’ve been there, and I probably will again. One of the saddest things about institutionalised progressivism is watching hope eat its own tail. Compromise and rationalisation circling in on themselves, a self-reinforcing loop. Ideals absorbed and dissipated, talent dispersed in a shower of formless sparks.
What I’m saying is: don’t expect to fix this through your job. Jobs – in the private sector, government, wherever – reflect the goals of capital. You may do some good insofar as it aligns with those goals. You will not begin to address the underlying problems.
This isn’t a secret. They are practically yelling it at us, at this stage: the goals of capital are not the same as the priorities of life.
To successfully stage a strike requires critical mass. From poet Wendy Trevino: “Have you ever danced in the streets? It’s better not to do it by yourself.”
One of the saddest things about the current crisis is how isolated we have become. The power of direct action lies in how a few people can materially and often physically disrupt the process of oppression, as in the ACT UP protests against government inaction in the AIDS epidemic. Creative workarounds notwithstanding, physical distancing requirements under Covid-19 make this very hard. We feel fragmented and alone, because we are.
In this we have something in common with the labour movement, also increasingly fragmented between categories of casual and permanent, employee and freelancer, documented and undocumented. Visions of workers united on the shop floor grow less and less reflective of the reality of modern, post-industrial employment. Capital can outsource and offshore, playing different kinds of workers and governments off against each other. In collaboration with the state, it creates its own legal and financial borders, further undermining workers. Hard to walk away from an abusive or underpaid job when you have no medical care, or when that risks detention and deportation. The capacity to oppress flows on to locals, too. As long as capital can move freely across borders and workers can’t, the injustice will persist.  
What is desirable and what is possible aren’t always the same thing. Successful organising requires attentiveness to both. But in a time of crisis, for better and for worse, the bounds of what is possible are changing by the day. The constraints of physics, of disease, of human need are real and immutable. The constraints of capital and its concomitant social relations are not.
Let us, then, push back against the ever-foreclosing window of the possible:
Paid work should not the foundation of one’s value as an individual, nor one’s right to live and flourish. In place of tiered hierarchies between ‘job seekers’ and ‘job keepers’, let there be a Universal Basic and/or Guaranteed Minimum Income, set at an adequate rate, for everyone regardless of employment or migration status. At a time when so much ‘work’ is inessential or actively destructive, let there be no false distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor. ‘No-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living’ – why does this even need to be said?
Under these conditions, let Coles and JB Hi-fi decide if it is really ‘essential’ for cashiers to expose themselves to viral risk without, at the very least, protective equipment and generous hazard pay. While they’re at it, let’s think about the logistical need to supply and distribute food during a pandemic – whether and to what extent this can be managed without the intermediary of a grocery chain at all. And, insofar as personnel are still required, how the risk this work entails can be shared between all of us as opposed to displaced onto low waged and often migrant workers.
Let there be no bailouts without ownership. Fuck Qantas. There should be a public stake in all ‘rescued’ firms, with worker representation on boards. Better yet, let them be worker cooperatives. Also, while you’re at it, fuck state-sponsored greenwashing. Make the polluters pay, not people. Let every single person in an ex-mining community get a cheque, or a series of cheques, and let them use it to work or not work as they please so long as that work does not comprise industrialised destruction. Bribery, you say? I don’t care. I’d rather bribe them than Santos.
Let whatever new plant or intellectual property is created through so-called ‘green energy’ funds be owned by communities and workers, not investors.  
Let the ‘carbon limit’ set by our needs as beings in the natural world be understood as the hard constraint on emissions, not finance or electoral strategy. This will entail major cuts to energy use and industrial production. So be it. I want all of us to live. And let this be backed by whatever instruments – political, financial, legal, extralegal – are necessary and at hand, to impose a material consequence on those who would despoil our only biosphere.
Crises can be transformative, as the full horror of unjust and unsustainable systems becomes apparent and people become galvanised to seek change. Crises can also be leveraged to advance racism, environmental destruction, and/or fascist ideology and practice. Nothing is inevitable and many things are possible.
One thing brings hope: across workplaces, industries, supply chains and borders, we are sharing an experience of not doing. One fifth of the world’s population is now under some kind of lockdown, undergoing what is not an identical experience, but one with common characteristics. We are learning the difference between work that is ‘essential’ and that which is useless and gratuitous, work which enhances our collective wellbeing and work which does not. We are learning we exist as part of nature, that the constraints of the physical world are as ‘real’ as so-called economic laws are mutable. And we are learning that by acting together, largely voluntarily, we can preserve our communities and lives.
It is possible to stop. We can just not. Our collective survival may depend on it.

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