An uncomfortable time to be in politics (or anywhere with a ‘climate’)

Colin Long writes (Australian Politics 12 December 2019) about the rising illegitimacy of the political system in the eyes Australian citizens, and this should come as no surprise. As the nation burns the political class are beginning to panic. Restlessness is building and some are even starting to call for a new and democratic political system not under the control of corporations. The political class is responding to its declining legitimacy by increasing repression.

It is an uncomfortable time to be part of the Australian political establishment. Externally, labelled as “a regressive force” on climate. Internally, harangued on all sides by its citizens on the frontline of bushfires and hazardous smoke – over its total reluctance to address the causes.

Even without the rise of groups like Extinction Rebellion, the climate crisis that is growing ever-more severe across the world is posing serious challenges to political systems that have seldom experienced such far-reaching and difficult problems. In modern liberal democracies, does the failure to act on climate change undermine the legitimacy of particular governments, or of the system itself?

Liberal democracies have, until recently, been remarkably stable because the legitimacy of the system was never threatened by discontent with particular governments. The two most important reasons for this are the right to vote and the often unspoken, but generally understood principle that the system must, at least in some general sense, take into account the basic welfare of people – the protection of life, liberty and happiness.

Given the scale of the threat, and the evidence of the risks to human wellbeing that are already manifesting in more serious storms, droughts and bushfires, there can be no doubt that governments such as Australia’s Scott Morrison’s can be accused of having abandoned one of the fundamental sources of legitimacy – the commitment to ensuring the protection of citizens’ lives and wellbeing.

In its handbook, This is Not a Drill, Extinction Rebellion is explicit:

“When government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection of and security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right but our sacred duty to rebel. We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void; the government has rendered them invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately.”

Photo by Joe Montero: Rebels blockade of Princes Bridge in Melbourne last September

The issue, though, is bigger than the failures of the current Australian government. That it is acting against the basic interests of the citizenry in order to protect its own political interests, and the economic and power interests of its supporters, is now beyond dispute.

Morrison’s refusal to acknowledge the role that Australia’s carbon emissions play in exacerbating the bushfires that have seared the nation this Spring, and his determination to mobilise the full repressive power of the state to advance the interests of fossil fuel companies, makes this very clear.

The bigger question is whether the loss of legitimacy that this entails is limited to the current government or extends to the system more broadly.

The failure of the ALP, and most other governments of all political stripes around the world, to come up with adequate policy responses suggests that the legitimacy problem caused by the climate crisis is not confined to particular governments: it is systemic.

This should not surprise us. Precisely because climate change requires “unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society”, as the IPCC says, it calls into question the structure of the system itself.

A large part of the problem of failing political legitimacy within contemporary capitalist liberal democracies has to do with the way the concept of the ‘public interest’ is managed.

The market has come to determine all economic and social outcomes and those who have the most market power (money) win. In market-dominated societies, such as ours, that is considered to be reasonable.

But it is not an outcome that would have been accepted even 30 years ago, when it was recognised that markets needed to be at least managed to provide better and fairer outcomes, and in which the concept of a broader public interest had not been completely lost.

The other major problem for systemic legitimacy is the growing challenge to economic growth.

The idea of economic growth at any cost is being challenged by mounting evidence of the harm it is causing. Climate change is just one example, but resource depletion and uncontrolled waste build-ups are others.

As awareness increases of this tension between economic growth and global ecosystem sustainability, so those wealthy businesses and their political supporters who have most benefited from unchecked capitalism start to feel threatened.

So how are governments responding? Typically, when their legitimacy comes into question, by increasing repression – witness the responses of the Queensland and Federal Governments to the Extinction Rebellion and Blockade IMARC protests. Indeed, the fact that repression increases in proportion to the loss of political legitimacy demonstrates how the climate emergency is so threatening for the status quo.

Because what that says is if the system itself has lost legitimacy, no government constituted under that system can be legitimate.

No wonder politicians are feeling uncomfortable.

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