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After the Climate Protests in Australia

On January 10, tens of thousands took to the streets around Australia to voice their indignation at Scott Morrison’s desultory handling of the bushfires crisis. How to channel this rage into a transformative agenda is the challenge we now face.

Protesters march through the Melbourne CBD on January 10, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. Robert Cianflone / Getty

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, is famous for his asinine smirk and the lump of coal he brandished in parliament. His insincere and fumbling response to the bushfires crisis has given him cause to regret both — and it may have sealed his political fate.

By contrast, a wave of demonstrations on January 10, 2020, responded powerfully. In Melbourne, an estimated 30,000 people marched in heavy rain, disregarding the deterrence issued by the Victorian Police and Australian Labor Party (ALP) premier Daniel Andrews, who suggested that while “Climate change is real . . . now is not the time.”

In Sydney, the numbers were closer to 50,000. Thousands more gathered in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, and in regional centers. These protests pointed the finger not only at the establishment parties but also at the capitalist imperatives they defend. They called for Scott Morrison to step down, for volunteer firefighters to be paid, and for real relief and aid for affected communities. Moreover, there were calls for an immediate and just transition away from fossil fuels, as well as for the recognition of indigenous sovereignty, and with it the contribution that Aboriginal land and water management practices can make to protecting the environment.

At Melbourne’s rally, Victorian Socialists candidate Jerome Small expressed the mood when he argued that “It’s not a case of forgive them, they know not what they do . . . The most powerful people in the country, the most powerful people in the world — they know what they’re doing, and they’ve been doing it for decades. What they’re doing is stacking up the cash while the country burns.” As Small emphasized, six or seven of the country’s biggest enterprises are fossil fuel and mining companies. It’s no surprise, then, that both sides of the political establishment have been inadequate in their positions on climate policy.

From Anger to Impasse

Although encouraging, the January 10 demonstrations also highlight the cul-de-sac in which the Australian left finds itself. If we can’t break this impasse, these fires may be remembered one step down the path of the sixth mass extinction.

For decades, the Liberal-National Coalition and the ALP have alternated government, each implementing a fundamentally neoliberal outlook, together forming what Tariq Ali has termed the “extreme center.” For decades, this bipolar hegemony has worked to neutralize popular discontent, either ignoring dissent or channeling it elsewhere. Strikingly, and in Australia especially, labor movements have been constricted by anti-union laws.

The center-left ALP is as much responsible as the Coalition. Unlike in the UK and United States, neoliberalism in Australia was inaugurated by Bob Hawke’s Labor government, brought to power by many former radicals and activists of the 1960s and ’70s. When some unions resisted, the ALP did not hesitate to punish them, fighting to restrain striking nurses in 1986 while simultaneously deregistering the Builders Labourers Federation and then sending in the Royal Australian Air Force against striking pilots in 1989.

The most politically conscious activists abandoned the Labor Party, creating new openings. The Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) and the New Left Party both represented a step toward a “broad left” party. Both eventually foundered under the pressure of conflicting factions. Eventually, the Australian Greens enjoyed some success, but without the radical energies of the earlier formations. Like so many of their sister parties, they have drifted away from activism and increasingly toward a left-liberal technocracy.

Ultimately, the two-party system reasserted itself. Boosted by a mining boom, Australia avoided the global impact of the 2008 crash, which elsewhere helped to propel the reemergence of a radical left (Spain, Greece, France) and right (France, Northern Europe).

In the case of Australia, we’ve experienced a hollowing out of politics like no other Anglophone country, as well as a deepening sense of cynicism. The revolving door of ALP and Coalition prime ministers, removed in a series of “palace coups,” is representative of this. It would not be surprising if 2020 saw Scott Morrison join Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard on the list of prime ministers sacked while in power.

Our Challenge

This is the context for the strategic dilemma we face. Although popular consciousness in Australia is often progressive, the Left has for decades been unable to harness or shape this energy. The result is a vicious cycle: in the absence of political institutions that can organize outrage into lasting opposition, protest marches become our only refuge — necessary but insufficient to our needs.

Movements have followed a similar pattern. Initial mass demonstrations give way to smaller and less frequent actions and, finally, demoralization. (The follow up rallies held on January 18th, although respectable, were significantly smaller than those held a week prior.) This pattern was visible as early as 2003, which saw more than 500,000 Australians rally in cities and towns across the country against the invasion of Iraq. While the antiwar movement continued for some years, in the absence of left institutions, nothing lasting was built. Experience and talent were squandered as activist generations came and went.

This dead end is in part the intended product of policies from both sides of the political establishment. During the 1990s and 2000s, John Howard attacked trade unions with redoubled ferocity, crippling student unions and universities, public services, and other historic social or cultural bases of the Left. As a consequence, in twenty-first-century Australia, division between tiny activist and socialist groups — with their accumulated wisdom, knowledge, and theory — and the wider “movement” has rarely been greater.

It is becoming urgent that we break out of the margins. If the spectacular student strikes of 2019 and the overnight rise of Extinction Rebellion are much to go by, we may be at the cusp of a new environmental movement. Irrespective of whatever limits protest movements have, these are important developments. No lasting social change is possible without significant street mobilization. Yet without organizational anchors and political focus, recent history suggests that their potential and power will remain untapped.

A Strategic Response

In the context of the climate catastrophe that now confronts us, where is the Australian movement for a Green New Deal that is finding voice elsewhere? Hundreds of thousands of people see and feel the need for a radical alternative, yet a concrete political platform that can rally progressives is so far lacking.

Most socialists can agree that a new party is the goal, but the path to that end remains elusive. In order to chart a way out of this cul-de-sac, we need to think in terms of medium-term political institutions — groups, organizations, collectives, alliances, and parties — through which we can develop a left hegemony and an alternative worldview complete with priorities, values, and political demands.

The life cycle of protest movements gives us a clue how: at the outset of a movement, the “subjective moment” comes to the fore as we feel the urgency of this rally, or that protest, and we affirm that, above all, we must have more demonstrations. When exhausted, we fall back on waiting for a brighter day when the “objective conditions” will swing in our favor.

By contrast, medium-term strategic thinking helps navigate this dualism. In order to measure the objective results of our subjective efforts, we must think not in terms of an urgent now or an unknown future, but in terms of a few years or a decade.

The form and content of our medium-term goals will doubtless change, depending on the context. These might include proto-party formations or coalitions (such as the Victorian Socialists), as well as united-front movement committees, alliances of left trade unions, radical student groups, artist collectives, publications, and others. Rebuilding the Left will likely involve a diverse organizational ecology. Uni Students for Climate Justice is a very new group, and its political composition and membership are not yet clear. Even so, it was able to call the rallies around the nation. This is precisely the type of development needed.

All this will ultimately require long and painstaking work. But the alternative is unimaginably worse. Recall the photograph of a young kangaroo that died while trying to pass through a wire fence — it looked a plaster cast of a Roman killed at Pompeii, caught forever in a final moment. It’s perhaps the most devastating photograph to emerge from the crisis so far. But this kangaroo was just one of an estimated billion or more animals killed in the megafires. Some species are already likely extinct, entire ecosystems destroyed.

The size, anger, and determination of the January 10 demonstrations made it clear. The political will to fight against this apocalyptic future exists. The question remains: Will the socialist left find a strategic path that allows us to channel this anger and determination into lasting, systemic change?