The history of the future is written in its past, aka our present, just as the history of the past is written in its future. So the sin of presentism definitely applies to this wee essay. But I can start with some things that are known knowns (thanks to Donald Rumsfeld for such clarity).
It’s 30 years since I last published in Meanjin, and more than 50 since my father did (Miller, 1967). So nothing Oedipal there. His contribution was part of a critical celebration of the magazine’s first quarter-century. Occurring just after his return to Australia, it was a moment of cultural nationalism that became associated with two prime ministers: John Gorton and Gough Whitlam. Assertions were readily made of the nation’s distinctiveness or otherwise from Britain and the United States (its putative cultural, political and military affines) but generally in ways that excluded key aspects of difference—language, migration, religion, indigeneity and gender. The real demography of the country was subordinated to a masculinity that was more aware of class and national distinctions.
Several times a migrant, including to Australia, I haven’t lived in the country for almost three decades, so don’t feel qualified to write about its present or future. Instead, I’ll speculate more generally. My remarks are inevitably coloured by dual, interrelated crises: COVID-19 and climate. Pandemics and the environment have been overdetermined in the popular imaginary by European imperialism, the Depression, two world wars and their cold successor. Not so much now.
For we really do stand at an epic moment in history, akin to the transformations brought about by plague, slavery, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, war, decolonisation, revolution, emancipation, human and civil rights, and feminism. The pandemic and climate crisis bring into sharp relief the fault lines of inequality that divide the world both between and within sovereign states, compelling near-universal fear and suffering. COVID-19 is a limit case, an emergency of cosmic proportions that can alert us to the limitations and failings of this conjuncture, specifically in the elemental field of health. Meanwhile, raging fires, stormy winds, lashing torrents, desperate droughts and record temperatures are similarly dramatic events in the yet more elemental field of human survival into the indefinite future.
How should we reconstruct our societies, environments, cultures and economies in the anticipated wake of COVID-19—a world ‘after’ it? How can we make our way in the world in an ecologically conscious manner? To find an answer, we need to examine the dominant discourse of public policy, the philosophical underpinnings to the Anthropocene, and alternatives to them.
As World War II began, with the Depression still wreaking havoc on everyday life, industrialised democratic states effectively said the following to young proletarian men: ‘We are asking you to get yourselves killed, but we promise you that when you have done this, you will keep your jobs until the end of your lives’ (Foucault 2008, p. 216). From 1945 to 1973, Keynesian reconstruction developed the welfare state across the Global North, alongside expanded unions, wages and civil rights. The state maintained demand and manipulated interest rates to keep economies buoyant. Full employment was a mantra, and wealth was redistributed downwards.
On the cultural left, the 1970s began as a moment when the previous decade’s spirited rebellions of spectacle might find fulfilment. Instead, music rapidly became more corporate, fashion more flared, drugs more ruinous, sexual hypocrisy more blatant—and the underlying economic basis in cheap oil exposed and compromised.
It was a terrible time to be young and to have imagined oneself as the next generation of change; instead, the shift was from Swinging London to decrepit decay, while more genuinely disruptive social movements, such as feminism and black and gay power, suffered white-male intransigence and economic chaos. This was also the time just after Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez (announced early in 1968), and hence a certain recognition of a dream (and tyranny) that had faded and failed. It marked Britain’s begrudging acceptance of middle-power status, in keeping with the disasters of Suez, Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus. Australia worried away at whether Britain joining the then European Economic Community and US anxieties over Vietnam and Watergate presaged a threat to its white alliances and immigration patterns.
The economic stability enjoyed by these nations had long been predicated on a seemingly endless and cheap supply of energy. Once oil prices leapt following cartel action in the Global South in 1973, unemployment and inflation soared across the Global North. Capitalists took this as an opportunity for governmental action to control wage increases and redistribute wealth upwards. It has been thus ever since.
For example, mid-1970s Britain was laden with a sense of endless rain, an unremitting damp that indexed a consistently dull yet fundamentally untrustworthy world. For those of us studying during a three-day week, with darkness folding in by four in the afternoon, reading and writing via gaslight, TV broadcasts ending early, shivering temperatures, misery abounding, Piccadilly thrown into darkness, collieries closed, politics a shamble, toilet paper scarce, and teeth cleaned without light, 1973 marked the fifth state of emergency declared in three years. The currency was soon devalued and the International Monetary Fund invited to assist. Meanwhile, a racialised law-and-order discourse grew in strength. And so did a discourse that wiped away as much as possible of the postwar settlement. It spread rapidly across the Anglo world and Latin America, then elsewhere.
For five decades since, neoliberalism has underpinned government economic policy in most of the world, stimulated not only by those oil shocks but also as a consequence of the waning of state socialism in Europe from 1989 and the emergence of a massive reserve army of labour in China since 2000.
Neoliberalism has defined and measured its successes as counters to the achievements of Keynesianism. That said, the idea that neoliberalism represents a return to a state of nature, where markets adjudicate life by seeking a mystical equilibrium, is misleading. It attempts to create an enterprise society through the pretence that the latter is an organic (if never-achieved) state of affairs, even as competition is imposed as a framework for regulating everyday life via a subtly comprehensive statism. Neoliberalism pleads for particular investments in human capital while deriding government-led social engineering; it calls for the generation of more and more markets by the state yet insists on fewer and fewer democratic controls; and it hails freedom as a natural basis for life—provided it can still employ the heavy hand of government policing to administer property relations.
Coin-operated think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute became the movement’s intellectual hand-servants, vocalists of a ‘permanent criticism of government policy’ (Foucault 2008, p. 247). The lust for market conduct extended to a passion for comprehending and opining on everything, from birth rates to divorce, from suicide to abortion, from performance-enhancing drugs to altruism. In short, neoliberalism sought to govern all things while opposing democratic control of them. The idea was to manufacture ratiocinative liberal actors. The competitive market was a privileged ‘interface of government and the individual’, the latter internalising market criteria as a constellation of habits, choices, disgusts, delights and judgements expressed as characteristics of personal identity (Foucault 2008, p. 253).
Neoliberalism stands rhetorically against elitism (for populism); against subvention (for markets); and against public service (for philanthropy). Its core ideological elements are individualism, consumerism, property rights, opposition to organised labour, reduced tariffs and minimal democratic regulation of industries. Neoliberalism holds that comparative advantage in global competition must inform economic policies, based on countries’ particular factor endowments of climate, terrain, finance and workforce. Its key prescription for economic and social development in the Global South has been export-oriented industrialisation in place of the previously popular import-substitution industrialisation: sell your coffee and avocados overseas; don’t set up your own automobile company. The recipe is ‘licensing capital, leashing labour, demonising the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom’ (Brown 2019, p. 12). As each element of demand management has unravelled in the name of this heady recipe, the unfurling paradox has been that neoliberalism revealed itself both to be at the heart of state projects as much as it was their severest critic.
The 2008 financial crisis rocked this discourse, because deregulated financial sectors collapsed along with the low-interest, highly geared personal and housing loans that had given the illusion of comfort to workers in place of wage rises commensurate with their advances in productivity. But neoliberalism survived, so great were the investments in it by intellectuals, corporations, states and international agencies. The crisis was resolved via a familiar formula: socialism for the wealthy and capitalism for the poor. Huge bailouts of major capitalist enterprises by states—something supposedly antithetical to neoliberalism—restored the system while it plunged governments into huge debt, legitimised additional reductions in social services, and levied increased taxes on ordinary people. Bankers were bankrolled, homeowners evicted. I lived in California, where it all began. I was fortunate that I just had a furlough that cut 15 per cent from my salary.
Yet elements of socialism for all remain, despite neoliberalism’s triumphs—pesky, insistent monuments to sharing risk and cost in the collective interest. So education from kindergarten to year 12 remains a free right. Railway termini, post offices, telephone exchanges, freeways and electricity stations stand alongside public schools as physical and intellectual monuments to socialism. Unemployment and disability are compensated. Retirement and health are deemed shared responsibilities of the individual and the collective.
We can build on that imperfect, incomplete heritage of care to forge a brighter future. And public health, which is both at the cutting edge of struggling with COVID-19 and the latest and most universal index of neoliberalism’s failure, offers a way forward.
Health care varies massively, expensively and conflictually across nation-states, regions and the globe. Numerous major players are jostling for position to deal with COVID-19. The People’s Republic of China, the United States, and the European Union have large populations, immense economic power, international ambitions and vested interests, notably those of large pharmaceutical corporations.
In terms of understanding the prevailing geopolitical conjuncture, two forms of thought suggest themselves. One is the realist theory of international relations, which proposes that most key struggles in world politics are decided by the wealthiest and most militarily powerful actors. In its political-economic iteration, this theory has veered away from the world of states to focus on how governments tend to follow the needs of powerful multinational corporations headquartered within their boundaries as well as of domestic and foreign oligarchs and oligopolies.
It is possible to blend the two approaches dialectically in order to understand our conjuncture. But that can lead to a functionalist account that leaves out the many micro- and macro-conflicts we are experiencing and will continue to encounter. The ongoing struggle for trading and political hegemony between the China and the United States, and the impact of that conflict across the globe, exerts a massive influence and has coloured the pandemic and climate crises, especially with the ongoing tendency to refuse the legitimacy of international organisations, most notably the World Health Organization.
As the spread of COVID-19 has gathered pace, struggles between these massive actors and others have intensified. In particular, debates are evolving over how to allocate existing and future medical devices and medicines, from protective equipment for health workers through to anti-viral treatments and vaccines.
In a certain sense we are returning to the complex debates that ensued at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. At that time, activists called for new forms of clinical trials to hasten a cure and ensure equitable treatment for all. Conversely, many scientists and states sought to maintain established protocols. Corporations opposed any loosening of proprietary ownership of treatment in order to benefit from the drugs they helped develop. International organisations lobbied for pricing that would not discriminate against poor individuals or regions.
All those issues in turn touched on debates that began after the war with the discrediting of eugenics, the emergence of international human rights and a discourse of informed consent to medical procedures, as embodied in the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki and Doha Declarations. As is the fate of much endeavour in the field of human rights, these norms have never held the full force of law internationally or nationally, but they are of increasing importance as guidelines and sources of political argument.
This conjuncture is generating discussions over when a given state of exception should commence and cease (something Colombians have lived with for most of the last 80 years, but which is new to residents of Michigan, St Kilda and Islington) and at what cost; how we should calculate the binary choices presented between public health and economic health; and what kinds of societies might we hope for and seek to shape in the next conjuncture.
Individualistic ideas about responsibility and costs and benefits are the dominant discourse of professional bioethics and neoliberal policy formation in general. Such matters engage both the collectivities that form the core of societies and individualist models of informed consent, responsibility and decision-making. So they involve sociological and anthropological questions of religion, housing, education, race, gender, age, class, incarceration, migration, refugee and conflict status, sexuality, criminality and so on, in addition to the more abstract, imaginary concerns of analytic philosophy and neoclassical economics. Cultural norms are as important as science and political economy.
Neoliberalism is brought into question through social research and engagement with non-government organisations, which draw on different ways of thinking that are about justice and solidarity; hence increased interest in the doctrine of One Health and its application to the present crisis, versus the risks of immunoprivilege (anyone who watched The Last Ship [TNT, 2014–18] will have seen these issues take dramatic form). And hence so many scientists rallying behind the Lancet’s call to decolonise the disease, eminent public figures favouring a people’s vaccine, and endless reports by climate scientists explaining the peril we face in the short, medium and long terms. Putting neoliberalism to the test through empirical information is crucial to undermining it.
Many of these issues gain sharp contours in the experiences of immensely underprivileged but economically very active people, mostly living and working in the Global South. This vast group, which numbers in the hundreds of millions, works in the informal sector. Informality sees people generally neither contributing to nor benefiting from taxation. Rarely the targets or recipients of public policies, informal workers are largely outside purportedly prevailing norms of housing, health care and education in particular. This leaves such populations particularly vulnerable at times of crisis such as this one. The problem with many logics applied to the environment and COVID-19 is their failure to address these huge populations as starting points, as opposed to topics and peoples who are added on to the rational calculator beloved of theories of public choice—a creature imagined, realised and built upon in citadels of the Global North.
Ironically, the same issues arise with people labouring in the most formal sector of the economy—prisons. Incarcerated folks are dominated by governments in their economic activity, but they, too, generally suffer in terms of the three key domains listed above: their housing is formal but appalling; their health care compromised by the same issues that apply to their living conditions; and their educational attainment and opportunities are severely limited.
Our dominant systems of health care have proved inadequate in planning for, providing against and dealing with the current crises. They must change, but so must public policy in general, to ensure we elude the awkward nexus of disadvantage, inequality, climate change and illness. Ironically, as per the 1973 oil shocks, 2020 is a chance for wholesale political transformation. It is a limit case, where neoliberalism can be found wanting and displaced en route to 2100.
Environmentally, we stand over an abyss. Its contours and depth are life-threatening. They hold destinations and horrors that we can only approximate through scientific prediction and fantastical thinking, as past and present industrial processes expose the planet to potentially irrevocable harm.
Our climate is changing in ways that imperil us, our fellow animals, other forms of life and Earth itself. We have entered what the world’s scientific community declared in 2016 to be the Anthropocene—an epoch characterised by major geological and ecological changes wreaked by human activity. Many people are forced to leave the very ‘land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it inhabitable’ (Nixon 2011, p. 19).
• • •
I want to conclude by looking at the philosophical heritage that both underpins and will undermine anthropocentric ideas, that is, those that put people at the privileged centre of the world. Because here, too, I see positive elements after a long period—much longer ago than the 1973 oil crisis, older even than Meanjin and its editor.
The so-called Western tradition is animated by many and varied tendencies, but one is the all-too-prevalent sense of superiority over other life forms, dating back hundreds of years. Francis Bacon avowed that ‘commerce between the mind of man and the nature of things … is more precious than anything on earth’ (1620). Descartes argued that ‘reason or good sense … exists whole and complete in each of us’ and is ‘the only thing that makes us men and distinguishes us from the lower animals’ (2007). Kant regarded people as uniquely valuable because they were conscious of themselves and their place in the world: ‘through rank and dignity’ human beings were ‘an entirely different being from things, such as irrational animals, with which one can do as one likes’ (2000, 2006 and 2011). Hegel exalted in a world dominated by our physical and symbolic mastery, avowing that ‘man’ could put his ‘will into everything’ such that an object or place ‘becomes mine’ (1954, pp. 242–43, 248–50; and 1988, pp. 50, 154, 61).
They reasoned that because people are unique in their desire and capacity to conserve objects and represent them via semiosis, a strange dialectical process affords humanity a special right to destroy as well. Willpower is independent of simple survival, and sets humanity apart from other living things. According to Kant, the capacity to transcend our ‘spontaneity and natural constitution’ supposedly distinguishes us from other animals. That transcendence permits the destructive use of power—what Hegel called ‘the right of absolute proprietorship’. The necessary relationship between people and nature asserts itself at the core of human consciousness as a struggle to achieve freedom from risk and want. This is akin to William James (1909) noting that ‘nature is but a name for excess’; it must be tamed and transcended.
When semiotic abilities were mobilised by civilisations intent on transformation rather than stasis, they licensed colonial and imperial adventurism over indigenous rights: ‘sacred respect for … unused land cannot be guaranteed’, argued Hegel. Nature’s ‘tedious chronicle’, in which there was ‘nothing new under the sun’, was rightly and righteously disrespected and disobeyed by colonialism’s drive towards progress (Hegel, 1988). The complex contradictions of development included a heartfelt desire for the transformation of enslaved nations, whether for religious or liberal reasons. Consider the cultural policies of Spain’s conquista de América, Portugal’s missão civilizadora, and France’s mission civilisatrice. Britain’s you know all too well.
In short, anthropocentric discourse embodies two baleful certainties: human sovereignty over the world and a paradoxical implication that its exercise will not fundamentally challenge the basis of life other than in positive ways, including the transformation of indigenous peoples as incarnations of nature. That discourse has legitimised the suzerainty of what we now know as the Global North through the classic phase of imperialism followed by capitalism. Today it endows other civilisations and philosophical heritages with a similar entitlement. The elements of indigenous philosophy that accord a primacy to nature have been overdetermined by the mimetic discourse of development.
Of course, such anthropocentric positions have been challenged, not least because nature can be so comprehensively altered by technology and labour that, paradoxically, it eludes human control. Bacon, Descartes, Hegel and their kind do not rule even the putative Western philosophical roost.
Plato referred approvingly to the power of natural disasters to unmake ‘crafty devices’. When these ‘tools were destroyed’, new inventions and a pacific society, based on restraint rather than excess, could emerge. For all his privileging of consciousness, Kant gave an impassioned account of the natural world as equally beautiful and sublime, aesthetic and awesome. That paradoxical amalgam forced him to confront a space beyond both nature and human semiosis alike—a terrifying place he described as ‘the shadows of the boundless void into the abyss before me’. This raised a horrifying spectre: an apocalyptic vision that one day we may realise there is nothing left, nothing else, nothing beyond. Such anxieties obliged Kant to recognise that the objects of natural science had a history; and hence, perhaps, a limited future. He remained anthropocentric, convinced that ‘the human being … deserves to be called knowledge of the world, even though he constitutes only one part of the creatures on earth’; but his terror in the face of the abyss helped inspire this essay.
Hume questioned the dominant anthropocentric perspective, maintaining that animals, like people, ‘learn many things from experience’, developing ‘knowledge of the nature of fire, water, earth, stones, heights, depths, etc.’ in addition to processing instructions as part of their domestication. Rather than being merely sensate, some of our fellow creatures apply logic through inference—what Hume called ‘the reason of animals’. More simplistically, if empathetically, Bentham asked of our duty of care to animals: ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’. And even Kant acknowledged animals’ capacity for reflection.
It took Engels to recognise environmentalism’s fundamental truth: ‘nature does not just exist, but comes into being and passes away’. He noted anthropocentrism’s peculiar faith in ‘the absolute immutability of nature’; that however ‘nature itself might have come into being, once present it remained as it was as long as it continued to exist’. As Engels poignantly put it, the emergence of human beings marks the evolutionary point where ‘nature attains consciousness of itself’. Although this was a debt to Kant and Hegel, he realised that people therefore had the ability and responsibility to observe and speak for those without voices, and to protect those without power. For while our fellow animals can transform their living conditions, they do so without an evident, deliberate and elaborated codification of what this achieves or means. But that does not make us and our interests superordinate: with special capacities come additional expectations.
The lesson is clear. Nature’s duality—that it is simultaneously self-generating and sustaining, yet its survival is contingent on human rhetoric and despoliation—makes it vulnerable. Its reaction to our interference will strike back, sooner or later, in mutually assured destruction. Without nature there can be no humanity; changes in the material world caused by people and their tools compromise the survival of the planet’s most skilful and wilful, productive and destructive inhabitant.
While early modernity was dedicated to producing and distributing goods in a struggle for the most effective and efficient forms of industrialisation, with devil take the hindmost and no thought for the environment, today’s risk society necessitates enumerating, euphemising and managing those dangers. In recognition of that reality, over the last two decades environmental Marxism has emerged, connecting nature to capital and labour as constitutive variables of analysis and favouring regulation of business and work to ensure they comply with ecological principles. The 1970s did not only see the triumph of neoliberalism. It also incarnated the formation of increasingly vibrant social movements dedicated to protecting the environment.
A science-laden, technologised society such as our own must come to terms with the ‘unintended consequences’ of modernity, not only via technocrats seeking solutions to problems created by their own kind, but also via transparent decision-making systems that encourage public debate, rather than operating in secret or deriding public perceptions as ipso facto erroneous (Merton, 1936). Whereas initial modernisation was primarily concerned with establishing national power and accumulating and distributing wealth, developed modernity produces new trans-territorial risks, beyond the scope of traditional governmental guarantees of collective security and affluence. Populations face crises brought on by deliberate policies, such as nuclear energy, genocidal weaponry, biotechnology, trans-continental disease and industrial pollution, on vivid display in attempts to bend the unborn to the tastes of the present, to intervene so that the people of the future have fast-twitch muscle fibres, blue eyes or religious fantasies.
The year 2100 may see a lot of those people. Good luck to them and their parents, driven as they will be by vicarious desires for success. For them to lead fulfilling lives, the disasters wrought by neoliberalism and anthropocentrism must be contested—here and now. Or what’s a future for?
Toby Miller is Stuart Hall Professor of Cultural Studies, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana—Cuajimalpa and Sir Walter Murdoch Distinguished Collaborator, Murdoch University. His latest book is The Persistence of Violence.
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