‘The Activist’, they called it. Recruit half a dozen social justice campaigners and save the planet–type people and make them compete against each other in a reality TV format for US media conglomerate CBS. ‘The activists will compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action now,’ reads the pitch. Run around inside this televised hamster wheel for a season, trying to get people to care about arms sales to Saudi Arabia or whatever while a panel of celebrities judges your social media engagement and probably your weight.
Just kidding—nobody working on the arms trade is going to get a second of screentime. But I digress: at the end of each episode the person campaigning in the least charismatic way gets thrown off the island; by the end of the season there’s only one activist left, Hunger Games style. They’ve won the opportunity to rub shoulders with oligarchs and war criminals at the G20, shaking their desperate little tin and ‘demanding action now’.
A wave of mockery and condemnation from real activists rolled across social media channels. The media giant swiftly sent some people out to walk it back, but for some reason I can’t unsee it. We’ve reached a kind of null point. This team of well-paid and presumably well-meaning creatives thought they’d found a way to commodify dissent itself; package it and sell it like a new brand of anti-dandruff shampoo.
This isn’t new. Who could forget Kendall Jenner disarming a wall of riot cops with a cold Pepsi? A billion copies of Che Guevara’s face on sweatshop T-shirts remind us just how slippery and adaptive this thing can be, adeptly gentrifying radical impulses and selling them back to us as simulation. But what is ‘this thing’ exactly, working to shrink-wrap defiance into 50-minute episodes even as the world shudders deeper into a mass extinction? ‘What we’re talking about here is the kind of collective psychic infrastructure, I’d say—a kind of diffuse ideological atmosphere,’ writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher told an interviewer in 2011. He settled on calling it capitalist realism: ‘The widespread sense that not only is capital- ism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.’
It’s only got harder, and weirder, since the long-distant days of 2011. Far from imagining a coherent alternative, even respectful attempts to modernise the industries that are plunging us into a violent new geological age have been resisted at every turn. Out here in the colonies, a successful initiative to make fossil fuel corporations pay a small ‘market price’ for their pollution in 2011—hardly a mortal strike against capitalism—was met with shrieks of hostility from the Australian business lobby; principally its prime movers in the coal and gas sectors. Remember that? Ditch the Witch? Bob Brown’s Bitch? These malignant hyperventilations were backed by an influence campaign worth tens of millions of dollars, sufficient to blow up the carbon price, break the spine of the ALP and implant the fossil lobby directly into the prime minister’s office where they remain to this day. Malcolm Turnbull’s far more modest attempts met the same fate at the hands of the same people, and then so did he, evicted from the dismal reality TV series of Australian politics just like Gillard and Rudd before him.
Maybe things are going better across the Pacific with our great and powerful friends in the United States?
Check the timeline: the world’s richest man has just blown himself into space for a few minutes on a rocket designed to look like a penis. He, like a handful of other billionaires, seems to be saving up for a ticket off this doomed rock. It really has come to this: we’re down here clambering over each other for zero-hours contracts in the gig economy while a tiny sliver of the investor class blasts off in penis rockets to watch the place burn from orbit.
Okay, close the timeline. Defiance comes in many forms, but surely the common thread is a refusal to accept that there is no alternative. That resolve opens space for something new to bloom.
I wish Mark Fisher were still here to help figure this thing out—not just because coherent alternatives are finally taking shape, but because people everywhere are fighting for them, have been from the beginning. Capitalist realism touched down here in 1788, setting off a pandemic of smallpox and gunfire, but also a rebellion that never stopped. There are no memorials for them on Anzac Parade in Canberra but we can learn their names: Jandamarra; Windradyne; Pemulwuy; Yagan. They’re still fighting today: Uncle Kevin Buzzacott; Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine; Adrian Burragubba; Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. Defiance is alive on this sacred ground and all of us, whether we know their names or not, are benefiting.
Adani wanted to be shipping coal out of the Galilee by 2014; seven years later they’re in deep financial jeopardy with no exports, no railway line and no insurance; reduced to changing their name and trying to destroy activists through the courts. John Howard’s vision for the Kakadu World Heritage Area as a sacrifice zone for the uranium industry was beaten by a national campaign backing Yvonne Margarula, a Traditional Owner who was arrested for trespassing on her own land. An August 2021 report by the Indigenous Environmental Network in North America established that ‘Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions’.
It’s not just on the frontlines that fossil capital is copping it. Annual general meetings used to be where company directors impressed shareholders with the size of their big swinging dividends and then everyone would vote in favour of a pay rise. Now there’s furniture being overturned; activist shareholders and their advisers have started to convince their peers that there are no dividends on a dead planet, and they’re winning resolutions. As many as 55 per cent of AGL’s shareholders just voted to demand Australia’s largest domestic polluter get in line with real-world Paris targets. In 2020 more than half of Woodside’s shareholders—a company solely dedicated to making global warming worse—demanded the directors urgently come up with a plan for not doing that anymore.
Defiant children have organised a three-year global strike wave in which more than 7 million people took part, and so the climate conversation is now permanently framed as an intergenerational justice issue. Grandparents glued themselves to Chevron headquarters in Perth as part of the unpredictable self-organising phenomenon of the Extinction Rebellion. This fascinating hybrid of art and resistance is flaring from London to Uganda, Bega to the Amazon.
Sometimes it’s about big numbers: thousands in the streets or the kind of simmering popular support that sustains the astonishing resistance to the dictatorship in Myanmar. Sometimes change comes without massed demonstrations—a handful of people can stick a spanner into the guts of the machine and the capitalist realists get their pants pulled down in public. Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks colleagues set off a flashbulb right in the heart of empire’s filing cabinet: an act of defiance echoing a sentiment sometimes misattributed to George Orwell: ‘in an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’. It is costing them dearly; what we do with the truths they disclosed is now up to us.
Universal deceit is a good place to pause for a hot minute. Back in the 1970s, the world’s largest private oil and gas companies and their colleagues in the coal industry established beyond doubt that burning their product in sufficient quantities would eventually heat up the atmosphere and ocean. A lot. Like locking a dog in a car with the windows up; the heat can get in, but now it can’t get out. They engaged some of the best scientists in the world to make sure. Exxon and Shell and BP and the coal industry associations all knew, more than 40 years ago, that if we kept burning coal, oil and gas, by the early twenty-first century we’d be facing a hotter and more violent climate.
So they buried the research. Wound the car windows up and left the fucking dog in there. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding a specialised ecosystem of independent-looking think tanks, industry associations, compliant scientists and out-right grifters to sow confusion and doubt everywhere from the New York Times op-ed pages to talkback radio and town hall meetings. The objective isn’t persuasion so much as disorientation, unmooring people’s sense of reality. This provided political cover for the politicians they were buying at the same time: people like George Bush and Donald Trump and Joe Biden and Tony Abbott and Anthony Albanese. If you write cheques to ‘both sides’ it reduces the risk of democracy breaking out come election time. Calling it corruption feels much too shallow; this is state capture, practised by people who understood, long before any of the school strikers were born, that what they were doing could eventually get millions of us killed.
Malice on this scale is hard to comprehend. It’s worth sitting with for a moment, just as long as it takes to feel a spark of pure rage. Kindle that. Help others to find it.
State capture has turned ‘Australia’ into the world’s largest source of export coal, and the world’s largest exporter of fossil gas. Every ton of this stuff we can keep below the surface, every angry little tentacle we bankrupt, tips the balance away from the nightmare planet they are burning us into. Big things: demonstrations, occupations, shareholder riots and carnivals of dissent. Small things: stickers and spray paint, stencils and envelopes under doors of friendly media outlets. There’s no rulebook: radical ceramics, street art, debt strikes, monkey- wrenching and fun stuff with bicycles, I don’t know—experiment. They will try to buy us off with consultations and concessions. We’ll suddenly start hearing a lot about offsets and glide paths and shit that’s meant to happen in 2050. All of those messages are being seeded by the same disinformation machine that has been lying to our faces since the 1970s.
They will pepper spray us and jail us for chalking the pavement—put that on the reality TV show! In their ‘Last Line of Defence’ study, Global Witness reported that 2020 was the deadliest year for environmental activists since they started keeping records in 2012. More than four people a week were killed in defence of the living world, a number they acknowledge is certainly an undercount. One-third of these attacks occurred in Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines, and more than one-third of the slain were indigenous people. ‘The Global South is suffering the most immediate consequences of global warming on all fronts,’ write the authors of the study, ‘and in 2020 all but one of the 227 recorded killings of defenders took place in the countries of the Global South.’
Touch one, touch all: these are attacks on all of us. But from the blockade to the boardroom, resistance to the resources sector and the banks is not the same thing as developing a program, the coherent alternative that Fisher was after. Some of it works only because it plays directly into the fear/greed cycle of capital accumulation. But rebellions do more than just buy time: each of these flashpoints is a reminder that the bastards never hold all the cards. It took a matter of hours for an online backlash to put a huge US media conglomerate on the defensive and cancel their excruciating show. Defiance works.
The outlines of ‘something different’ are taking shape too; they are a little clearer by the day. In the Amazon they call it Luta pela Vida: the Struggle for Life. Its foundations are as deep as our species’ history on this planet: regenerative, radically demo- cratic, decolonised. In written form you’ll find some of the blueprints taking shape at progressive international, an emerging alliance of activists, thinkers and practitioners from every corner of the planet. One vivid through-line is a dramatic reorientation of how we think about money, and debt in particular. The outlines of a genuinely post-capitalist world, arising from the global grassroots, just exactly when we need it the most.
Defiance at the ballot box means never again voting for people sponsored by Woodside or Whitehaven. Fortunately there are plenty of people of good heart to cam- paign for, as long as we can agree on that basic principle. But elections are a long way apart, and electoral machines have long been a plaything of state capture. What’s upon us will demand more of us than just a vote. What’s demanded of us now is a wild mix of creativity and rebellion; way more fun when practised with others.
Take rest when you need to, ask for help when you need to, but never give up. Love and rage: we owe this extinction machine nothing but defiance.
Scott Ludlam was a senator from 2008 to 2017 for the Australian Greens. He has worked as an anti-nuclear campaigner, filmmaker, artist and troublemaker. His first book, Full Circle, was published in 2021.