Democratic Eco-Socialism in Australia

Bushfire smoke over the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge on 29 December. Photograph Source: Nick-D – CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps democratic eco-socialism starts with a need to solve the climate crisis and related crises. This requires a radical socio-ecological revolution that transcends capitalism through the non-violent dismantling of capitalism. It replaces capitalism with an alternative system based upon social justice, deep democracy, environmental sustainability, and a safe climate, both worldwide and in specific countries, such as, for example, Australia. Today, many have accepted the fact that global capitalism has had adverse impacts on large sections of humanity and a fragile ecosystem.

Australia’s fragile ecosystem has been under serious threats in recent years. For example, 2019 constituted the hottest year on record in Australia. Globally, 20 of the 21 hottest years on record have occurred during the 21st century. We are barely twenty-one years into this century.

Furthermore, 2019 to 2020 also saw the most extensive bushfires on record impacting on 80% of Australians. In an almost classical calamity, Australia’s neoliberal prime minister – Scott Morrison – undertook a secret holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires until it was uncovered. It became known as the Hawaiian shirt escape.

Set against the impending ecocide, is the concept of democratic eco-socialism which proses – next to Karl Marx’s primary contradiction of labour vs. capital – a second contradiction to be solved: endless accumulation based on environmental degradation vs. a sustainable future. On this, one might outline four ingredients for democratic eco-socialism. These are:

1) an economy oriented towards meeting basic social and economical needs for everyone (food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, dignified work, etc.);

2) democratic eco-socialism should be based on a high degree of social and economic equality;

3) it should be based on public ownership of the means of production. One might suggest public ownership which does not necessarily mean state socialism but can very well mean anarchism’s community and collectives;

4) environmental sustainability and a safe climate remain imperatives for democratic eco-socialism.

This means an anarcho-socialist alternative that must embody inspirational ideals while also offering down-to-earth proposals for dealing with the problems of contemporary Australian capitalism – well, not only Australian but global capitalism. With this, the concept of democratic eco-socialism is not far off from what, for example, Michael Albert’s recent book suggesting a future without bosses.

One of the reasons to arrive at democratic eco-socialism is found in removing the present economic and political systems – often suggested in the writing of Noam Chomsky. Worse, Chomsky once said that the United States has a one party system, namely the Business Party with two factions, the Republicans and the Democrats.

One might argue that Australia also has a Business Party, with the neoliberal Coalition and the Australian Labor Party being its factions. Beyond that and largely excluded from influencing environmental laws are the three climate movements in Australia:

+ the mainstream layer, e.g. the Climate Council;

+ environmental NGOs such as, for example, Greenpeace; and

+ grass-roots and action groups such as Rising Tide, Lock the Gate, Stop Adani, School Strike 4 Climate, and Extinction Rebels.

Beyond that, one might like to suggest to move from the environmental pathologies of contemporary capitalism – more capitalocene than anthropocene – towards democratic eco-socialism. This suggestion is based on his decades of research on global warming and a conviction that Wallace-Wells was not too much off the mark when writing about, The Uninhabitable Earth.

On the top of that, global warming has three interlinked dimensions: there is an undeniable link between global warming and capitalism; secondly, there is the Jevons Paradox which states that technological improvements in energy efficiency lead not to decreased but increased utilisation of natural resources, and thereby contribute to environmental degradations; finally, capitalism means the destruction of carbon sinks. A carbon sink is pretty much anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

As a rather inconsequential precursor of that is going to come in decades ahead, can be seen in the recent impact of global warming in Australia. Australia suffered a so-called Millennium Drought between 1997 and 2009 in which the year 2003 alone destroyed nearly two million hectares of nature.

This was followed up by the Victorian bushfires of 2009 that proved to be the most devastating bushfires on record up to that time in Australia’s history. Of course, all this continued with the so-called Angry Summer of 2012-2013 which included the hottest day, week, month, and year.

It got worse with the 2019-2020 mega fire as ‘Prime Minister Scott Morrison jumped ship with his family for a holiday in Hawaii – his “Hawaiian Shirt Holiday”. Upon his return, Morrison, including his media entourage and a bag of cookies to be handed over for a good public relations photo tried to make up for this PR disaster by visiting people whose houses had burned down only to be rebuffed with the typical-Aussie “F*** off!”, while seeking to enforce handshakes. Much of this has something to do with the political power of Australia’s industry.

Australia may well be a client state of an international capital as most of its resource industry is foreign-owned. This has resulted in four common features:

1) extremely high levels of foreign corporations that operate in Australia;
2) a substantial in- and outflow of capital;
3) a strong import-export orientation in which Australia exports raw material and imports consumer goods resulting in the piling up of empty containers, for example, in Sydney’s Botany Bay; and,
4) a resulting reliance on imports of industrial equipment.

For ordinary Australians, this means that taxes and royalties paid by all mining companies to all levels of government account for less then 5% of government revenue. The Queensland government earns more from speeding fines and car registrations than it does from the coal industry. Queensland is one of Australia’s prime mining states. In other words, foreign capital pays virtually no taxes while Australians foot the bill. This is the beauty of neoliberal capitalism and politics.

Of course to keep the show on the road, capitalism needs two things: firstly, it needs the best politicians that money can buy and indeed – one of the two business parties in Australia receives 2.6 times the money than the other.

As a consequence of its overwhelming electoral power, most of the time – the Liberal party is in government. Secondly, one needs a propaganda machine telling Australians how wonderful it all is. This is the job assigned to Rupert Murdoch’s formidable media machine. Murdoch’s media operates with a media concentration second only to North Korea.

As a result of years of neoliberal rule, Australia has a failed infrastructure and transport policy. Perhaps, it is better to say, that it has no policy at all, as the neoliberal belief system demands to leave it up to the free market. As a consequence, 85% of transport emission comes from road transport and over 60% from automobiles and light commercial vehicles. Sydney, for example, is a car city. Sydney has no underground comparable to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.

To make matters worse, globally, Australia is distinct in that it has been the only country that adopted and then abandoned some form of carbon pricing when Labor party (2012) put it in and Australia’s Liberal party eliminated it (2014). The latter is a party also pushing strongly against the Kyoto Protocol. Eventually, Labor’s Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 to the enduring annoyance of Australia’s Liberal Party.

For most of the time, Australia is governed by the neoliberal Liberal Party which is greatly supported by Murdoch’s media empire which remains the principal media conduit for dissemination of climate denialism to ordinary Australians. Murdoch’s most ideological flagship is a newspaper called “the Australian”.

Unsurprisingly, an analysis of 880 articles between January 2004 and April 2011, found that some 700 of them opposed climate change action. A good example of how propaganda works remains global warming denier Lord Monkton’s visit to Australia at a time when NASA’s global warming expert, James Hansen, also came.

Not only did Australia’s right-wing press give Lord Monkton a high favourable platform, James Hansen remained largely ignored. In short, not only coalmining companies have the government wrapped around their fingers but, so do Australia’s conservative corporate media.

On top of that, Australia’s free-marketeers still pay enormous subsidies to polluters. Those $50bn in subsidies would build new subways. This free market ideology provides good smokescreen to keep the public in the belief that “the free market will do it”. In reality however, Australia’s Liberal Party pays handsomely to corporations.

And indeed, those lost $50bn would build subways and undergrounds. In just six years, all of Australia’s state capitals would have a good public transport system. Yet, Australia’s Liberal party remains ideologically opposed to that. Pushing the coal industry’s agenda is relatively easy to do as the Murdoch’s empire controls the messaging.

Set against much of what has been outlined above is the proposal for democratic eco-socialism. To transition from environmental destructive neoliberal capitalism to democratic eco-socialism, one might suggest no less than twelve points starting with:

+ the creation of a new kind of progressive political party;

+ implementing greenhouse emissions at sites of production;

+ increasing public ownership;

+ expanding social and economic equality within and between states and achieving a sustainable population size;

+ creating a workers’ democracy;

+ achieving meaningful work while reducing shorter working times;

+ accomplishing a net zero growth economy;

+ adopting energy efficiency, creating renewable energy sources, and moving towards green jobs;

+ expanding public transport while reducing our reliance on motor vehicles and air travel;

+ converting our corporate culture of over-consumption towards sustainable consumption;

+ switching from free trade to sustainable trade; and

+ building sustainable settlement patterns and local communities.

Having outlined the political programme of democratic eco-socialism, a review of democratic eco-socialism, one is tempted to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, eco-socialism or eco-dystopia which, of course, dates back to Rosa Luxemburg’s “Sozialismus oder Barbarei” – “Socialism or Barbarism”.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s lifetime, it was a pressing issue until barbarity won the day and Luxemburg was murdered in 1919. Barely a year later barbarity raised its ugly head again with the right-wing Kapp Putsch. This sort of barbarity continued until 1993 when barbarity completely won giving the world, a global war, concentration camps, Babi Yar and death camps like Auschwitz.

Today, we again face a stark choice between global ecocide – today’s barbarity and democratic eco-socialism as outlined by Hans A. Baer. The choice is ours to make.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.