I was born in 1960, at the very start of that decade of change. I am part of what is sometimes called Generation Jones, essentially a Boomer, but too young to have dropped acid in the 1960s, and too old to be part of Generation X. I am therefore one of those people whose ’60s were really the ’70s, and for most of my life I have thought this meant I got the worst of both worlds. It was common, among my cohort, to feel that we had missed the good stuff. There was a sense something incredible had passed and that we would never see anything like it again.
Now, I’m not so sure. Andy Beckett argues in When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies that ‘for many politicised Britons, the decade was not the hangover after the Sixties; it was the point when the great Sixties party actually started’. Historian Michelle Arrow makes a similar point in her book about ’70s Australia, The Seventies. She says it was a time when ‘movements reshaped our social norms and our political culture, even if their impact was partial and uneven’.
The truth is, even amid the disappointment we felt, we lived with a sense of achievement. We were part of a generation that had, pre-eminently and incredibly, gone to the moon, not because it was easy but because it was hard. There was an unspoken expectation that, year in and year out, life would get better, the world would become saner, less violent, more equal; that the moral arc of the universe, as Martin Luther King insisted, would bend towards justice. That isn’t a bad legacy to have under your belt, and I am going to lean into it.
What follows, then, is a brief cultural and social overview of the last 50 years; but it is also a love letter to the next 50. I tell the story from my own point of view, but I am not trying to universalise that orientation (white, male, middle class). I am instead using it as a point of reference for the bigger story, a star to navigate by.
This is an autopsy of how we slid from the hope of the ’60s into the despair of the coronavirus world and climate change, and a proposal for how we might reconnect. As in any good story, there is a villain, and here that villain is known as neoliberalism. This hustler came to town in the late 1970s and early 1980s, wearing a shiny suit and a shit-eating grin and promised us the world.
Like any good hustler, this one was seductive: charismatic, powerful. How else does the bad guy win us over? This is key. We need to treat our protagonist, neoliberalism, not simply as a theory of economics, but as a set of moral and spiritual axioms. Its genius was that it sold us the promise of freedom tied to consumption and choice, and without the seductiveness of that social and moral dimension it could never have remade the world in the way it has.
The transition from the ’60s and ’70s of hippiedom to the neoliberalism of the next 50 years was made possible because the political class—either the elites in government or those who influence government—were able to dismiss the ’60s as an aberration, and in so doing foreclose on the possibility of the ideas and values that the ’60s animated. As two of my favourite chroniclers of the period—Greil Marcus and Ellen Willis—wrote in an exchange of letters in the early 1970s:
We promoted and got across a myth of the ’60s and now we’re paying for it—having it thrown back on us as some sort of strange aberration that we all caught a disease from—that is, it wasn’t a real era, wherein real things happened, it was some giant anomaly.
Neoliberalism’s greatest triumph was to make us cynical about all things ’60s, and I think we have not only to resist this but also to fight back and provide an alternative view. In confronting how we might fix what neoliberalism has broken—and that is the task I have set myself—I am increasingly persuaded that we need to articulate a set of values rather than concentrate solely on a particular policy program. Both are important, but for now, my eye is on the former, on the moral and yes, even the spiritual dimension of progressive politics.
I want to ask: even as we fight to transform the world through the hard slog of activism and political argument, is it necessary for progressives to recognise a purpose, or a motivation, that extends beyond the immediate? A set of values that scales to the infinite? I am not for a moment suggesting a leftist embrace of conventional religion, but I am asking, in the absence of formal religion, what might those values look like? What have they looked like?
I want to draw out the lines of intellectual and religious thought that go into making up a set of values, the values on which all politics ultimately rests. I want to look at the work of some contemporary thinkers and consider them as a movement yet to be named, one that is waiting to be born.
I think progressives rightly shy away from this sort of engagement, but as we live through a pandemic, and as the reality of climate change becomes undeniable even to denialists, I don’t think we can get away from thinking spiritually about our relationship with this small blue planet and all the life upon it. The year 2060, a century after the counterculture took us closer than we realised to the possibility of liberation, seems a worthy date to set as a light on the hill.
• • •
My family were cultural Catholics, not particularly observant or orthodox, but there was a way in which this casual Catholicism informed the founding strands of my intellectual makeup. In some ways, Catholicism blended seamlessly with the message of peace and love coming from the hippy generation, and you can think of the Second Vatican Council of 1965 as Catholicism’s Woodstock. These words, from Gaudium et Spes (‘The Church in the Modern World’), could have been recited by any number of earnest lead singers on stages from the Isle of Wight to Festival Hall:
[T]he equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace.
Catholicism, of course, always had a strain of the callous and the corrupt in it, and I could regale you with stories about the way in which our teachers hit us with the cane or inflicted other cruelties on us at the slightest provocation, not to mention the sexual abuse that turns out to have been rampant. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: such savagery is foundational. As writer and Catholic Flannery O’Connor has noted, people ‘think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross’.
I can trace my break with the Catholicism I grew up with to a moment in primary school. Sister C had herded our class to the playground. She had us kneel on the bitumen to say decades of the Rosary. There was nothing unusual in this, but this was the first time I noticed a number of my classmates, without prompting, creating mounds of gravel, spiced with the odd up-turned bottle cap, and kneeling on those. I looked to Sister C to gauge her reaction, and I could see she approved. ‘Offer your suffering up to the Lord,’ she said.
It wasn’t as if I had some sort of revelatory conversion at that moment, but something shifted. By the time I finished school in 1977, nearly a decade later, I had, to all intents and purposes, abandoned any sort of affiliation with the church.
Occasionally we were encouraged to think that we might have a vocation to be either a Brother or a priest, but I am positive my school produced more atheists than it did clergy. It certainly produced—despite many families being politically conservative—a lot of left-wing progressives, and I would eventually count myself among them.
We were very much in the post–Vatican II mould, and the issues raised in concert with that period—from free love to gender equality, civil rights and gay rights, from the peace movement and environmentalism to the general questioning of authority—were simply part of the air that we breathed. It didn’t matter we were too young to participate in ‘the ’60s’, it still shaped us, and it blended with, and fought against, our Catholicism.
You can see how easy it would be to take and retain the particular sort of goodness the church preached, and decide you didn’t need the institutional trappings of formal religion to go with it. And in dispensing with that, also forgo the institution’s views on gender, abortion, homosexuality and colonialism. You could honour the religion of your community and be a hippy.
Generosity, community, cooperation, helping those worse off than ourselves were basal. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe in individual freedom or that we were opposed to people living a comfortable material life, as the anti-communist right would constantly declare. It was that we recognised, on however nascent a level, that individual freedom arose from a functioning society, that it wasn’t something you simply willed into existence independent of the people around you. This was precisely the link that the agents of neoliberalism set out to destroy.
The neoliberal project sought to replace sentiments of community and belonging with the alternative values of individuality and a personal ‘freedom’ embedded in market choice rather than communal life. The fierceness with which the right, with which capital, fought against ‘hippy values’ is testament to how close major transformation was. The intellectuals and politicians who championed what we now call neoliberalism—often called supply-side economics and, in Australia, economic rationalism—were acutely aware of the need to do this.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, is the best distillation of this idea and the clearest example of how overt such moralising was to the entire neoliberal project. Thatcher’s and Reagan’s primary goal was to replace the communalism of the hippies with a generation of people more concerned with property-owning individualism, and this is what I mean when I say that neoliberalism is more a moral program than it is an economic one.
The link between capitalism and morality was also explicitly embedded in the economics of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, the godfathers of our market society. Both made the link between market choice and moral choice, and used it as a way of arguing against government involvement and regulation. ‘The sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual,’ Hayek preached.
Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of American conservatism, in a 1970 speech called ‘Urban Civilization and Its Discontents’, said that the US Founding Fathers saw democracy as a ‘spiritual order’ where the ‘good democratic citizen’ was willing to ‘transcend the habitual pursuit of self-interest and devote himself directly and disinterestedly to the common good’. That Kristol, and the conservative movement of which he was part, could fail to see that the protesters they abhorred, out on the streets in the name of an anti-war movement and civil rights, were exactly those citizens seems incredible. However, to say that they ‘failed to see’ this spiritual order is too generous. They were actively hostile to such recognition. To acknowledge such depth, and decency, in your enemy was already anathema to this new breed of proto-neoliberals.
This hostility to compromise ultimately created the conditions for the rise of a right wing in our own time that is closer to fascism than it is to democracy. But we are not quite there yet.
As I say, we were slightly too young to be swept up in the hippy generation, let alone the Beat Generation, but some of the fascination with alternative forms of spirituality and religious observance typical of those movements, especially their appropriation of Eastern religions and practices, seeped into our consciousness.
In particular, the idea that there was some common thread to all religions, a link that connected everything from Catholicism to Buddhism to the Sufis, was more or less taken for granted. Allowing ourselves to recognise this was a gentle pat on the back for our own sense of tolerance and acceptance, evidence that we had risen above the worst aspects of exclusivism and superiority we thought were part and parcel of most mainstream religions.
The source for a lot of this thinking, directly or indirectly, was probably The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, published in 1945, which drew on a tradition of thought that went back to at least the Renaissance, that is, centuries before the Beats and the hippies. Huxley’s basic contention was that there were many paths up the mountain, but whatever path you took—Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism—you eventually arrived at the same ‘god’. This appealed.
He argued that you needed ‘a minimum working hypothesis’, which he saw as superior to the dogma of mainstream religions, superior also to the wishy-washiness of humanism and what he called the ‘nature-worshippers’. This is a circle I want to square too, as we head towards 2060.
How do we find a way to live in the material progress we associate with certain sorts of work, consumption and technology, but without entirely destroying the planet? How do we manage that in such a way that the non-human planet can thrive, allowing us humans to be part of that thriving? Is there a way to hold both things in our hands: a comfortable material life and an intact ecosystem? Is there a way to balance our needs without becoming Huxley’s wishy-washy nature worshippers? Can we get back to the garden and keep the city?
As ever, we push up against the barriers, rhetorical and actual, between science and fiction, the rational and the spiritual. But let us understand the nature of that clash. As Paul Virilio tells us in Pure War, ‘Science and technology develop the unknown, not knowledge. Science develops what is not rational. That’s what fiction is.’ You have to dream it before you can do it. To do that, we most vitally have to confront the centrality of work in our societies.
In many ways, work has assumed the role, for both the left and the right, of godhead, a source of meaning and purpose in a secular world. Few things unite the conventional left and right more strongly than the commandment to get a job. The reasons for this are complex but explicable.
The Protestant work ethic, as it arose in the eighteenth century, was a reaction, or an alternative, to various doctrines of the Catholic Church, those to do with poverty and caring for the least well off. Such an ethic of work jibed very well with the increasingly capitalist organisation of Western societies and economies.
As Max Weber argued, capitalism—a market-based economy driven by profit—is only possible when work exists in the public sphere and when it is rationally organised. He draws the two things together, saying ‘the development of economic rationalism is partly dependent on rational technique and law [but] at the same time determined by the ability and disposition of men to adopt certain types of practical rational conduct’. The trouble is, the sort of profit-driven economics demanded by capitalism—the rational conduct he mentions—is inhibited by various moral and religious teachings.
Weber notes that ‘the development of rational economic conduct … met serious inner resistance [from] magical and religious forces …’ Catholicism in particular was seen as hostile to capitalist profit-seeking, which it associated with greed, a sin. It was within the new Protestant movement, brought forth by the Reformation, that there arose the chance of an accommodation between rational capitalism and spiritual morality. For Weber, ‘any inner relationship between … the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture is to be found … not in its … materialistic or … anti-ascetic joy of living, but in its purely religious characteristics’.
Benjamin Franklin, whom Weber quotes, argues in favour of profit-making conducted in a way that nonetheless values thrift, trustworthiness and industriousness. ‘Time is money,’ Franklin famously said, and ‘he that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day … ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really … thrown away, five shillings besides …’
By projecting most of our sense of self-worth onto the having of a job, we have paved the way for a form of Christianity that has inculcated a sort of sanctified selfishness as its core value. Various forms of prosperity theology provide a sheen of religiosity to a secular world. They absorb the worst sort of neoliberal, libertarian and meritocratic self-serving rituals of late capitalism and sell it (literally) back to us as a form of pious self-fulfilment.
Prosperity gospel and evangelicalism, as well as Dominionism, speak of god and reward in the life hereafter, but have lost a sense of personal humility, of something bigger than individual wish fulfilment. They encourage consumption, dominion over the natural earth. They reignite the exclusivism that the liberal separation of church and state presumed was necessary for a functioning society. They allow you to go through the rituals of spirituality—chanting, singing, waving your arms, speaking in tongues and declaring yourself a believer in miracles—while asking no more of you than that you become wealthy enough to be able to tithe.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison can tell us he has cried on his knees and prayed about the plight of asylum seekers, while legislating the very laws that cause that plight. It is a marketised version of religion, a hollowed-out system of beliefs that also sees life on earth as purely transactional. It traps us in an eternal present that bypasses any concern with the future and replaces it with a promise of the hereafter, a telos it shares with more traditional forms of Christianity.
Doctrines such as prosperity theology tie in perfectly with the notion of a Protestant work ethic, and certainly with the neoliberal understanding of ‘freedom’. They take it one step further by severing any sense that you owe anyone other than yourself and your immediate ‘tribe’ your concern. They trade on the inherent respect we tend to give to almost anything titled a religion—Islam excepted—perverting, through some wicked logic, doctrines of care for the most vulnerable into a glorification of our own righteousness by virtue of our material success.
Work, prescriptively defined as a paying job, sits at the centre of this theology. This deification of work is why progressivism can never be entirely sought via labour politics, and this can be a source of conflict on the left. Human freedom and fulfilment have to be about more than work. Labour parties and unions can fulfil the important role of making sure the workplace is a site of freedom rather than oppression, and such workplace democracy is vital. But so is the freedom not to work, to have time to oneself, to pursue other things, to do nothing. Work alone cannot fulfil our needs, no matter how much we ‘love our work’. In theory, labour politics can accommodate this: in practice, it must presume the centrality of work.
Once you accept having a job as the defining characteristic of being a good citizen, you open yourself up to the worst excess of the neoliberal individualist theology, and its hostility to those on welfare. Labor politics is caught in an endless spiral of trying to improve things for working people while not being seen to be ‘soft’ on those who can’t work.
Labour parties, therefore, go along with many of the worst excesses of right-wing policy (cutting JobKeeper, for instance, or supporting so-called ‘mutual obligations’) while insisting, sotto voce, that they don’t really believe in such things. The pixie dust that allows them to square this circle is political realism, the constant assertion—and you see earnest political operatives on social media running this line—that we have to be seen to support this or that right-wing policy, otherwise the ‘sensible centre’ will never vote for us; always with the promise that once elected, they will fix things, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Labor’s failure to be elected—since 1975, Labor has been in power for 19 years, against the LNP’s 26—is seen as evidence that they weren’t hard-headed enough, weren’t realistic enough, and the failure is always presented as having conceded too much to the left of the party.
Union power has collapsed and workplace power has tipped inexorably towards capital. Wages have stagnated, work has become more precarious (even among white-collar workers), conditions of employment have diminished, and technology has meant that the line between work and home, between on and off, is obliterated, meaning that workers themselves are under constant surveillance in the form of cameras and apps that track everything from keystrokes to toilet breaks.
There has even arisen a class of workers that Ivor Southwood (author of Non-Stop Inertia) has called ‘career jobseekers’, those forced into endless hoop-jumping to justify their existence, and who do little else than look for work that doesn’t exist:
Now, rather than proclaiming his jobless status the career jobseeker hides it, like something obscene, behind a screen of training courses and voluntary work and expressions of rictus positivity, and he becomes ever more complicit with this concealment in proportion to his desperation. The jobseeker must have an alibi ready to explain away every gap in his employment history …
Until ‘having a job’ is decentred in labour politics—and work is redefined more broadly as participation that can be remunerated in, but also outside, conventional labour markets—progressive politics risks being constantly sucked into the right-wing game of nominating worthy and unworthy recipients of welfare, the endless game of leaners and lifters.
• • •
Western religious values, mired as they are in colonialism, in might makes right, in patriarchy, in child abuse and, increasingly, in the doctrine of greed is good, are no longer fit for purpose. They are positively harmful. We need to be open to another language to speak progressive values in.
We might well ask at this stage: is a spiritual dimension to progressive politics really necessary? I think it is, because the rational is such an unreliable guide. The apprentice atheist, almost by necessity, turns to rationalism as the bedrock of their world view. Science tells stories that can rival those of the Bible, with the added benefit of a testable, explanatory power. Technology provides the miracles. As ever, I’m reminded of the Arthur C. Clarke quote: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
Indeed, the idea of progress presumes the ability to build a better world, to consciously construct, through deliberation, argument and reasoning, the sorts of institutions that will support the values of secular equality. The trouble is, left unrestrained, such rationalism leads almost inevitably to the sort of technocratic problem-solving that has given us everything from the click-click-like surveillance capitalism of Silicon Valley to the death camps of Nazi Germany.
Rationalism needs to be leavened with some sense of higher purpose, some notion of goodness that goes beyond what can be laid on a spreadsheet or conjured up in a policy think tank. Even at the rhetorical level, we can see the danger of rational hubris, the so-called New Atheists being a case in point.
This movement, associated chiefly with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, appeared on the scene when I lived in the United States in the early 2000s, when I was deeply involved in online discussions and blogging about US foreign policy in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. The New Atheism can’t be separated from the rise of sacred terror (as authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon called it) associated with various branches of Islam. Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith had an effect on me and others at the time and I acknowledge its importance. But these proponents of New Atheism ultimately betrayed their cause by becoming the intolerant, narrow-minded ideologues they were warning us against, a reminder that even those with the best intentions risk becoming what they hate.
Atheism, adopted wholeheartedly, is a necessary option for those of us who can no longer stomach the hypocrisy and repressiveness of organised religion, but as the New Atheists show, it is no guarantee of something better. Progressivism has constantly to guard against the lure of the easy answer. So where else can the pragmatic, progressive atheist find a sufficiently satisfying notion of meaning and value that doesn’t rely on either a godhead or a hierarchical institutionalisation, let alone on work and the market place? One that doesn’t simply turn into another form of intolerance? Increasingly the answer seems to be within the values and lifeworld of various Indigenous groups, especially as they relate to environmentalism.
For many progressives, there has been an attempt to nurture ideas around the commons, using that as the key element in the more generous, connected and human-scale world they want to bring into existence. There has been a revival of interest in the work of economist Elinor Ostrom, who saw the commons for the shared space it is, rescuing it from eugenicist Garrett Hardin and his view of the commons as a tragedy waiting to happen. My own book The Future of Everything has a chapter dedicated to the commons, and I am not alone in tapping into this Zeitgeist: Lizzie O’Shea, Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva and Guy Standing, to name a few, have used the concept to help redefine democratic, social and environmental engagement.
But few books, in Australia at least, have had the impact of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. It is chiefly an attempt to rescue Aboriginal history from the hunter-gatherer/terra nullius fiction imposed by the invading West. As Pascoe says of his primary sources, the journals and other records of the early colonisers, ‘The importance of examining this material is to dissuade a common Australian perception that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people built nothing more complex than a piece of bark leaning on a stick.’
What else becomes apparent in Pascoe’s book is the baked-in Indigenous relationship with land and how their idea of ‘a commons’ predates Western discussion by millennia: ‘Aboriginal Australian law insisted that the land was held in common and that people were the mere temporal custodians … The system in operation could be considered a jigsawed mutualism.’
Increasingly, progressives are alive to the possibilities of the wisdom available in various Indigenous approaches to life, lives lived in harmony and as part of the natural world rather than seeking to control it. This inclination is not entirely new, of course, but in a time of pandemic and climate change it has gained a certain urgency.
In his book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta explicates Aboriginal thinking in a way specifically designed to ‘save the world’, and progressives should read it with an open heart. But we need to hear such words without appropriation. Sand Talk is a painstaking translation of something more than language, of almost incommensurable world views:
In this way of knowing, there is no difference between you, a stone, a tree or a traffic light. All contain knowledge, story, pattern. To sit with this story, to discern the pattern, we need to begin by examining rocks. It would be unhelpful to say, ‘Granite is an igneous crystalline mix of quartz, mica and feldspar.’ It would also be unhelpful to waft around in a tie-dyed shirt hugging the rocks and asking them to divulge their secrets by communing with us through our navel piercings.
But again, we have to be careful not to think we have found the answer. Progressives, however well meaning, can’t allow a quest for Indigenous knowledge to become just another weight upon black shoulders, one that ultimately pushes black people aside.
Their knowledge must be brought front and centre at both a structural and epistemological level. Universities, parliaments, public services, think tanks, the mainstream media and corporations all need to commit not just to hiring more Indigenous people, but allowing them to bring their world view to all subjects, whether it be politics, the economy or the environment. They can’t just bring them in on special projects, ‘black’ topics, as this only serves to marginalise further.
We must, in other words, rebuild our institutions so that they foreground non-white systems of knowledge. As Nicholas Gruen has said, ‘the system’ has claimed ‘that it wants greater Indigenous agency in its programs for ages’. But government programs ‘are so dominated by that same system’s routines and perspectives that Indigenous agency barely gets a look-in’. Instead, Gruen continues, that agency is ‘reduced to things that are legible to the system—such as Indigenous ethics codes and certified cultural sensitivity’. Consequently the Uluru Statement from the Heart is rejected, and in its place the government produces a Productivity Commission report that opens the Overton Window, let alone the window on inclusivity, not one inch.
Even in choosing Pascoe’s and Yunkaporta’s books to represent the sort of knowledge I am speaking of here—to make First Peoples knowledge legible to those I presume to be my readers—I am making choices that Indigenous groups may see as perverse or misguided. The act of choosing is itself an example of the sort of appropriation I am cautioning against. Progressives can’t simply appropriate the spiritual and environmental knowledge of First Peoples, though they can certainly learn from it. Ultimately, we must reach inside ourselves to find what we need, not look for shortcuts outside.
One cognate approach might be the ‘vital materialism’ put forward by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter. Bennett draws on a range of Western philosophers to posit a ‘commons’ approach to politics and the environment that extends respect and meaning beyond humans, beyond even the animal world, to the world of things. She speaks for a sort of transcendent energy that exists in everything from rocks and trees to electricity and fatty acids, and that, once recognised, allows us flatten the hierarchies of control that place humans at the top of a pyramid of power and worth. Her approach is the opposite of Dominionism but it has a family resemblance to the knowledge of First Peoples. Bennett’s goal is to take our awareness outside ourselves and our usual needs, to move us past the ‘habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings)’, and recognise an interconnection that might just save us.
She argues that ‘encounters with lively matter can chasten … fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.’
Such thinking could be part of a progressive armoury against the neoliberal morality that still infects most of our institutions. Still, there are things to guard against here too, and material vitalism raises issues to do with human agency. Kate Soper, for instance, warns (in Post-Growth Living) that the risk with the sort of thing-equality Bennett proposes is that it doesn’t so much put us on a more equal footing with the natural world as rob us of the ability to fix the mess we have made. She writes, ‘if human forms of consciousness and agency are on a par with those of the rest of nature, then no special responsibility for ecological collapse can be attributed to humans’, so that ‘the belief that humans occupy no special place in nature is likely to confound rather than advance the ecological cause’.
Despite these misgivings, I am going to hold out for vital materialism as a possible way forward, something to animate a counterculture of 2060.
• • •
Neoliberalism, with its ideology of individualism, consumption and growth, has brought us to the precipice of environmental collapse. The way back from that edge does not lie in any particular political program, no set of rules or policies, but in coming to terms with the underlying values that guide the creation of such policies in the first place.
Democracy isn’t just a system of rules. It relies on a sense of common purpose, and that common purpose can only be a commitment to future generations not to do anything in our time that damages the spiritual and physical means of survival for those who are to follow.
Anyone born in 2001—so anyone who is 19 years old as I write—was born into the death throes of neoliberalism and its associated global politics. They were born in the year of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, attacks that launched a war in the Middle East and a destabilisation that is yet to play out. They were six years old when the world economy collapsed under the weight of the global financial crisis in 2007, a crisis built entirely on the greed and delusion of the so-called 1 per cent, the self-nominated masters of the universe.
They probably celebrated their 19th birthday in isolation somewhere, in lockdown, trying to hide from a global pandemic that exposed every fracture of class, race, gender and age in our late-capitalist societies. As they hear the generation before them, and before that, talk about ‘snapping back’ to normal once the pandemic has passed, you could forgive them for scoffing loudly, knowing full well that the unaddressed matter of global warming is still there lurking, threatening a future those older generations will never have to live through, having already sucked the marrow out of the earth during their (our) brief tenure here.
Sorry is not enough. It is incumbent on my generation, people like me who were born into the promise of the 1960s, to at least try to offer something better, a way through, a new reverence for the world in which we live. To get there, we have to be grounded and transcendent, focused on the present, but alive to the infinite. We have to do the hard work of activism and policy design, but we have to be clear about underlying values too.
Hope is not enough. As environmentalist Derrick Jensen wrote in an essay for Orion Magazine, ‘hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line’. Or as Georgina Woods told me in a podcast interview, explaining why she has devoted her life to activism: you don’t dive into the river to rescue someone from drowning in the hope that you will save them. You do it anyway. You do it out of love, and maybe that is what this all comes down to.
I told you I was going to lean into the message of the 1960s. We need a sense of the intuitive, the transcendent, with the courage to let our hearts follow a path our minds cannot see. We need love. By all means apply reason, but reason alone will not get us where we need to be. •
Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Melbourne. His latest book is The Future of Everything.