Sound and Fury

In the last week, a bit of a controversial bombshell was dropped. Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) formally used the slogan of “Fuck Tony Abbott” as their byline. This has triggered a number of responses and all of them vitriolic. A lot of the controversy focuses on whether the message is appropriate, how the decision was made, and a raft of other issues. What seems to be emerging from this discourse is the more mainstream LGBTI communities express disaffection by the radical protest voice. The response from the radical queer groups is a complaint towards the mainstream saying they have become complicit with an oppressive regime.

I think this signals the start of a fight over which message is put into the public sphere, and who controls the message.

On Sense and Sensibility

I think it’s necessary to highlight some of these positions in order to get a full perspective. The opening salvo was fired by none other than Bryn Hutchinson, a former convener of CAAH, who attacked the by-line for being divisive and pointless. Rodney Croome added his voice, from his position in the Australian Marriage Equality (AME), saying that such dissidence will only serve to alienate any chance to communicate with the Coalition that now form the Government in seeking to persuade them in changing their minds.

In contrast, we have an interview with Cat Rose, one of the current co-convenors of CAAH, who proclaims the necessity of vigilantly opposing the government, by claiming they will inevitably be hostile to minority groups. Her position is to hold the government to account with a repertoire of contention. Another voice I would recommend on this comes from Tim Scriven, who deconstructs some these accusations, but ultimately refers to the need to agitate in a manner that is not complicit so as to effect change.

Knowing a number of people on both sides of this debate, I have heard a large range of opinions. The one thing I have observed as being consistent is the tendency for all arguments refer to a base claim on how best to achieve change. Inevitably, such arguments fall back on radical or mainstream positions, and whether to effect change through the parliamentary system, or whether change can only be achieved by imposing upon it from without. This is reflected in the articles above: both Hutchinson and Croome argue for a parliamentary method, while Rose and Scriven express suspicion of that process. From my observations there is a near-universal tendency of those taking a strong position to fall down on one side of the camp or the other (I found in critical reflection of my own position, that I am/was as much a subject of those proclivities). So I think what we are seeing here is an age-old Establishment vs counter-culture discourse.

Fundamentally, I think people’s opinions on this matter play so significantly into their political ideology that I am unconvinced that a rational approach will resolve the dispute.

Fundamentally, I think people’s opinions on this matter play so significantly into their political ideology that I am unconvinced that a rational debate will resolve the dispute. The slogan itself is merely a symptom of a deep divide between the main-streamers that have found some accommodation within the norm, and are now angry at being tarred with a radical voice, and those who have never been able to main-stream (whether by choice or capacity), and are demanding that their difference be accommodated all the same. Both sides are effectively coloured by a deep suspicion of a process that excludes them.

Having been on both sides of the fence at one point or another, I can sympathise with both sides, even while I don’t agree with every position argued. Both side make claims that either demonstrations or lobbying have been key or to shifting social attitudes on marriage equality in Australia. My issue with these claims is that they are almost universally anecdotal, and lack evidentiary rigour; and all those claims are incredibly self-justifying. I reject the notion that either group can lay claim to being the principle agent for raising consciousness on marriage equality in the Australian public.

Repertoires of Contention

This dichotomy correlates strongly with a growing body of research that has begun to identify some significant correlations to neurological states in relation to whether one elects a conservative or (little-l) liberal position. In brief, there seem to be a number of neurological conditions that predispose individuals towards either conservatism or liberalism, and this probably would carry over to the distinction between mainstream and radicalism, which are roughly similar dichotomies. Part of that research also seems to suggest that some of our predispositions become locked in based on our experiences during the formative years of early adulthood and late adolescence. For these reasons, I think that any message that seeks to bring in more people into its coalition must accommodate a plurality of predilections. This evidence shows that the Left is more successful when rallying support through positive and hopeful messages, while the Right is more effective at capitalising on messages of fear and anger.

This evidence shows that the Left is more successful when rallying support through positive and hopeful messages, while the Right is more effective at capitalising on messages of fear and anger.

There are also a number of individuals who just don’t understand the significance of the controversy, which see the attempts at disputing the message a waste of energy that should be focused on effecting change. However, a message is central to any social movement: it is a core element of any campaign, not just in terms of communication but in terms of its semiotics. That is, social movements emerge through the construction of a group identity. Symbols of the movement become important signposts used to delineate between “us” and “them”, politically speaking. An important part of coalition building is being able to successfully mediate these differences under a set of common ideals.

Whitebrook notes in Identity, Narrative, and Politics: collective identities are constructed through narrative means; Einwohner et al have elaborated upon this in Identity Work and Social Movements, noting that these collective identities are produced through joint action, negotiation, and interpretation. It is this ‘identity work’ that enables members of a social movement to construct a shared sense of identity and work together in collective action. Taylor et al have described three components of identity work in their text Feminist frontiers II :rethinking sex, gender, and society: namely boundaries, being markers of similarity and difference; consciousness, the framework through which participants struggle to describe the collective interests and identities in contrast to the dominant order; and negotiation, which refers to the various demonstrations of opposition to the status quo.

The strategies of building a collective identity are described by Bernstein in her book Sexual Orientation Policy, Protest, and the State. She notes that LGBTI activist movements differ to other social movements as one of their strategies is to emphasise sameness with the mainstream, even making tactical decisions about whether to celebrate or suppress their otherness. Of particular interest, both Harris and Meeker have highlighted instances where specific LGBTI movements sought to align themselves with church, state, and family or attempting to assimilate rather than subvert.

Collective identities for social movements require the aggregation of individual accounts of its participant members through this identity work: one of the mechanisms requires the sublimation of internal difference.

Collective identities for social movements require the aggregation of individual accounts of its participant members through this identity work: one of the mechanisms requires the sublimation of internal difference. As Lyotard has previously argued in his seminal work on The Postmodern Condition, and elaborated on by Einwohner et al, any attempt to solidify a movement’s collective identity means the collective identity must be negotiated among the participant members and towards the broader society. Bystydzienski and Schacht, in Forging Radical Alliances across Difference, state that this much necessarily be inter-sectional, arguing that identities are not discrete modules within an aggregation, but must be understood as intertwined with each other.

That is, identity work is a mediation of a group’s identity, where individual members come to internalise the symbols, values, and aesthetics of the collective identity, either by reconciling or rejecting the components of a collective narrative that are at odds with their own sense of identity. Understanding this issue is crucial to revealing the deeper issues at play around the conflicting social tensions underscoring coalitions of social movements. That CAAH has elected to use an unequivocally radical byline is one that has sent a message to the main-streamers that they are no longer part of this movement. Based on the commentary of the radical left, the impression that I get is one expressing that the mainstream have become deadwood in the fight against the Establishment.

Of Pride and Prejudice

On the question of whether the message is the right message depends on how you measure its success. As a message that is designed to garner public attention, it is incredibly successful, considering that it is a message that has been commented on by media and politicians alike. Whether it is a message that will successfully catalyse and mobilise people on the ground, I think it will probably fall short (though I am happy to be proved incorrect on this prediction).

Using the message as the byline transforms the statement from a meme to a symbol of the movement itself…

To properly respond, I would repudiate that the rudeness of message is the central issue, and actually a superficial point. However, by placing it as the by-line of the protest it is elevated from a pervasive sentiment into an ideal. Using the message as the byline transforms it from a meme to a symbol of the movement itself, a marker of inclusion or exclusion that participants must either accommodate or reject. It is a message that is incredibly polarising among the stakeholders in the marriage equality campaign, and notwithstanding the apparent contention over which group (CAAH or AME) should be the rightful custodian of the message (a debate in its own right), that these groups are openly at loggerheads hails the onset of greater divisions ahead.

Admittedly, these divisions haven’t emerged from nowhere: AME represents a powerful lobby group with a single narrow objective, and has been criticised for pandering to a privileged interest; CAAH represents a voice of marginalised groups that seek a wider reforms, and have been criticised for being divorced from the ‘real world’. The radical queer movement is likely to be increasingly empowered by this message, and angry at the mainstream for not falling in line with the rallying cry, while the mainstream LGBTI movement is likely to be increasingly disaffected by the message and become resentful of having to work to disassociate themselves from that message while trying to lobby parliament.

I think this signals the start of a fight over which message is put into the public sphere, and who controls the message. Lamentably, I think the louder more controversial message will begin to draw greater media interest. Very likely, we are going to see a set of communities divided against each other, rather than united against a government they wish to effect.

Update

Having published this article, I was subjected to some criticism. I am reproducing it here without attribution, as it was in a private forum. The criticism was one that argued that even if the above analysis is correct, then the worst case scenario is one that achieves no legislative change with the consequent of solidified a radical movement/community by ditching the “white picket-fence crowd”. Note, this confirms the position I stated earlier that the protest movement may be all to happy to dissolve their friendship with the mainstream.

To this, I disagree: the worst case scenario is one of deep alienation and division. It takes a false dilemma between the radical and mainstream and reifies that sense of division into a real division. It also shifts the emphasis on the purpose of the protests away from pitching a message to an external audience with the desire to effect change, and consolidating attitudes within an already insular group.

I think this is a bad idea, because it creates opposition when there does not need to be one. It shifts the site of contest into the middle of a group of people seeking to achieve a similar outcome, and possibly expending energies on both sides in ways that will undermine any mutual efforts.

By emphasising and endorsing the way that such a symbol excludes and others the mainstream, it reduces the political discourse down to an “us” and “them” mentality, and means the protest movement is adopting a siege mentality, depending explicitly on tactics of dissent. Such strategies mean that the social movement becomes static and inflexible, resisting any changes in the social consciousness. Worse, it entrenches dogma and makes it unassailable to criticism and possible discourse, becoming calcified. This makes the message less about communicating and more about reacting and iterating a staple of repertoires of contention.

In order for the movement to move beyond mere protest and counter-culture, the coalition building needs to incorporate and include greater diversity. A message that divides various communities into sides is a means to produce a social bubble by exclusion. It is a tactic of retreat and bulwark; albeit a reasonable tactic to survive a hostile and adversarial government.

However, the harder task of affecting change, or even changing consciousness can only be achieved by engaging with the public at large and communicating a message to them. In doing so, the message seeks to enroll a broader array of people that a movement doesn’t necessarily agree with. Historically, the instances of legislative reform on Marriage Equality were introduced under conservative governments, but because those governments were in coalition with a liberal party.

The first time it was introduced in the Netherlands occurred because Boris Dittrich (head of the liberal party in the Netherlands) demanded it as a concession to support the conservative party into government. A similar scenario was more notoriously repeated in the UK under Doug Cameron.

The Lover that Dare Not Sheath His Mien

This article is a polemic. It speaks about unprotected sex practices relevant to the gay community and for men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM). The point of this article is not to serve as an apologetic, nor to serve as a health warning, but to unpack the motivations that shape people’s sexual behavior. This article does not advocate for unsafe sex practices, but rather to address the silence on on a highly taboo subject. The longer this conversation remains unspoken, the greater the numbers who take uninformed risks.

What is being discussed here refers not just to individuals who occasionally conduct unsafe sex, but also individuals that live it as part of their lifestyle (even integrating it into their identity), whether they are HIV+ or not, and even people who actively seek HIV infection (bug-chasing). It’s a complicated subject, and the only way to speak to it is to consider the convergence of cultural, sexual, medical, and even historical influences, rather than the individuals themselves.

… there is a limited ability for the criminal system to offset risky sexual behaviours. A stronger and more effective approach would be to address the matter principally as a public health issue and one probably best supported by community development.

The Criminalisation of HIV Transmission: Global Comparisons

Across the world, there are a range of laws relevant to the transmission of HIV, which all turn around the ability to provide informed consent. For the purposes of this article, I am going to limit the exploration of this issue to Anglo-American contexts as it makes for an easier point of comparison. Generally speaking though, most jurisdictions regard an act that either deliberately or recklessly transmits HIV, and so the issue hinged on whether an individual knowingly (whether intentionally or not) contributed to transmission. There are three main contexts that I would like to compare to give a sense around how we ascribe criminality to these matters: Australia, Canada, and the UK. I choose these three nations as a comparison, because they all share a very similar judicial systems, but also because they have inherited the British colonial legacy.

Australia generally regards HIV transmission under both criminal law and public health law, but specifically in New South Wales, the intentional transmission of HIV a criminal act considered grievous bodily harm (GBH), and there are additional requirements to disclose HIV status to potential sex partners.

Canada has some similarities, though lacking any specific HIV statues. However, there are several cases that have set precedents for how these issues are ascribed. R. v. Mabior, (2012) SCC 47 attributes criminal liability to individuals for failing to disclose their serostatus, and despite being subject to significant antiretroviral therapy and despite intermittent condom use, had not transmitted HIV in that period. The ruling found that these actions constituted sexual assault, due to the lack of informed consent on the part of his partners. This, combined with earlier rulings, has established a precedent that means a combination of failing to disclose serostatus and failing to use safer sex measures constitute a sufficiently fraudulent act to vitiate the consent given, transforming the act into sexual assault.

In similar vein, the UK has seven convictions on record for HIV transmission, which pertain to the reckless infliction of grievous bodily harm. What is interesting in the UK situation is that the numerous cases provide a series of comparisons, making determinations around different thresholds of consent. The UK courts have variously found defendants guilty for reckless behaviour in situations where they knowingly were diagnoses as being HIV+ but failed to inform or take protective measures (much like in Canada and Austalia). In one of the two cases where the issue went to appeal, the judgement opined that there may be different standards of consent for those within a committed relationship, compared to those engaging in casual sex. In the other case, there was a specific distinction made between assuming some general risk with casual unprotected sex, and the informed risk relevant to the disclosure of HIV-status.

The Culpability of Desire

Since the birth of clinical medicine, medical thought has sought to produce a philosophy of the human subject and how one should live, but this internal humanism mutates through the new medical technology. This medicalisation was a rendering of natural phenomena into a medical and authoritative framework. It increases the scope of human phenomena encompassed by medicine through a paradigm of disease and treatment. Thus, medicine is discursive and empowers medical professionals as authorities and patients as dependants with little valued medical input. The consequence being the ontology of the human became increasingly produced through medical imperatives. This discourse turns upon a dichotomy of rendering issues into being either normal or pathological, which subsequently frames the issue of public health as risk management, using statistical analyses of probabilities to construct a notion of morality and health. This framework consequently is co-opted by legal thinking, which merely reinforces the issue of legal personhood as being an embodied phenomenon, which simply embeds legal responsibility onto bodily acts.

What we can see on the comparison of these issues is the significance of informed consent to risk, however the tendency to categorise the act as GBH means that consent may not qualify as a sufficient defense, even informed consent. The comparison can be made to R v Brown (Anthony), where consensual sadomasochism resulting in significant injury still constituted a criminal act that was not vitiated by the consent of the participants, nor the lack of complaints filed by the same.

Considering these are criminal matters, particularly considering that in some instances the State intervenes directly with the private conduct between individuals, it is making a determination around the management of HIV transmission as having a public interest.

What we see here is an attempt by three comparative legal systems in relation to determining culpability, or legal responsibility. On these matters, Kane Race seeks to frame how and why these judiciaries and legislatures apportion responsibility for HIV transmission. In particular he notes that despite advances in biomedical research on HIV transmission, there is an increasing tendency for these bodies to confer culpability on discrete individuals, often signified through bodily acts. Specifically, the more the virus becomes framed in the context of medical research, the more that such bodies attribute responsibility to bodies (and thus the person embodied within). That there is insufficient distinction in these matters between the legal person and the body they inhabit is a direct result of the medicalisation of this matter, and one that erodes the complex socio-cultural impetus underlying seual relations, as the primary vector for transmission.

Considering these are criminal matters, particularly considering that in some instances the State intervenes directly with the private conduct between individuals, it is making a determination around the management of HIV transmission as having a public interest. This is where it gets really complicated, because while it is easy to conceive of HIV as a public health concern, it is so intertwined with the individuals who are HIV+ and their sexual practices that the socio-cultural dimension cannot be set aside.

Of interest, Buris points to this, stating that the experience of being HIV+ is viscerally experienced, and that the criminalisation and stigmatisation of HIV are so closely aligned. Not only can being HIV+ dislocate people from their existing social networks, but that the criminalising of HIV transmission creates a strong disincentives to neither test nor disclose. In his work, he show how HIV exposure is not deterred by criminalisation: one third of high-risk sexual subjects never test, preferring not to know their status and thereby making them feel absolved of social and legal responsibilities. Many HIV+ persons fail to disclose their status to primary partners, with only one-half disclosing to casual partners.

Subcultures of Risk and Dissent

Shernoff once wrote a seminal text on the subject called Without Condoms, and in it he explored the psychology surrounding this issue. As a sexual behaviour, barebacking is contextual, to the point that it mostly describes a specific experience of unprotected sex. It is heavily taboo and mostly refers to male-to-male sex that is casual and/or anonymous.

He noted that the emergence of barebacking emerged out of a tension between gay civil rights movements embracing sexual hedonism as statement of sexual liberation, and a slow and resentful reaction to accept the reality of the health risk epidemic created by HIV. Specifically, he highlighted a number of factors that inform the desires and choices regarding barebacking. These can include aversions to condom use or other safe sex, the ‘sanctity’ of a committed relationship, alienation from mainstream gay identities that produce a desire for deviant experiences, internalised homophobia, fatalism of eventual infection, and substance use.

In building on this another scholar named Joffe, in her work ‘Intimacy and Love in Late Modern Conditions: Implications for Unsafe Sex Practices‘, identified a strong correlation between unprotected sex practices within the formulation of committed relationships between same-sex male partners. Primarily, this signified the emotional ties experienced in this transition: she cited studies that suggested that condom use signified a given act of sex act as public and impersonal, while the lack of condom use construed the act as personal and intimate. In this way, she argued that the condom has come to signify a barrier against intimacy.

Specifically, she stated that these interconnections do not describe an aversion to condom use because of a sense of boundedness or limitation, but rather a desire for the emotional tie viscerally experienced in seminal transmission, which heralds the achievement of emotional intimacy.

Specifically, she stated that these interconnections do not describe an aversion to condom use because of a sense of boundedness or limitation, but rather a desire for the emotional tie viscerally experienced in seminal transmission, which heralds the achievement of emotional intimacy. That this experience can be so highly desired, is one of the factors Joffe attributes to overriding our instinctive drive for the preservation of our own health. Moreover, she notes that attitudes towards sex inform condom use overall. Where sex signifies an expression of love and intimacy, than the discontinuing condom use signifies the establishment of trust, which transforms the relationship from the casual to the stable, while continued use undermines the sense of exclusivity and commitment.

Joffe attempts to place this issue in the context of modern society, where there are increasing levels of anonymity and environmental variations: the continuous flux of stimuli intensifies emotional states, which subsequently sanctifies our private and intimate spaces. That is, the private arena becomes authentic, and the public arena creates alienation, meaning that the establishment of authentic relationships through intimate bonds becomes a means for us of establishing mental and emotional integrity in the face of this onslaught.

The Stigmata of Faceless Men

Drawing from both Shernoff and Joffe, and moving beyond the context of relationship building, there is still a large arena where risk-taking occurs, and while some of these practices are attempts to confer intimacy on anonymous encounters, there is a much more complicated range of motivations at play. Effectively, we are talking about a large range of social and personal issues that feed into sexual appetites, which consequently over-ride preservation instincts. Some are inherently self-destructive and nihilistic, while others merely result in self-harm. Ironically, one of the greatest social pressures that intersect with these issues is the stigmatisation barebacking because of its direct association to HIV transmission.

A positive HIV status symbolical carries a loss of sexual liberty, and HIV+ people have frequently reported experiences of becoming dislocated from the mainstream community groups, and thereby find support and solidarity in other similarly stigmatised people. Consequently, this act of separation merely helps to reinforce risk-taking sexual behaviours into a sense of identity because it becomes the means of participation in groups that do accept them. However, group participation doesn’t account for individuals who have casual attitudes towards barebacking. As Shernoff notes, they include a various range of issues, including ambivalence towards the health implications, and fatalism experienced regarding STI infection.

Shernoff conducted a study of those who engaged in barebacking behaviours, and saw that even though a fairly large number of the men sampled were willing to risk infection, the actual number of those who intentionally sought to transmit the virus was infinitesimally small. Of those who deliberately sought to become positive their motivations were a complex tangle of conscious and unconscious motivations. In some circumstances, the anxiety experienced over infection was so intense as to be debilitating. To then proactively control the situation in which they become positive and to finally have concrete knowledge of their status gave them a sense of empowerment they lacked from the state of limbo created by uncertainty of status.

Of Biopolitics and Laws

A lot of ground has been covered in this article, ranging from the legal reasoning behind criminalisation of acts relating to HIV transmission. However, the legislation of a criminal act is a very binary one, either something is criminal or it is not. If the matter is unclear, the court system is required to produce a finding one way or the other and cannot leave the matter ambiguous. However, it does show that there are some complex social phenomena and interactions that the law has difficulty accommodating these nuances and thus defers to the reductive medical models. This means that currently, the law is framing the matter almost purely in terms of its interactions with bodies, rather than with people; while there is some tendency to recognise the agency available to people in their sex acts, it still frames the criminality of the act through the way it is embodied.

However, it is clear when the sociological and psychological dimensions are taken into account, that there exists a much broader ambit of motivations and interactions that are affecting the diversity of choices and encounters around sexual behaviour. More, that there is a limited ability for the criminal system to offset risky sexual behaviours. A stronger and more effective approach would be to address the matter principally as a public health issue and one probably best supported by community development.

Expatriation under Abbott

This is an open letter written by someone else, her name is Leigh, and she is an expat from the USA. I asked her permission to reproduce this letter and she consented. I believe it is worthy of your attention. It is presented without comment.

An open letter to my Australian friends who are upset over the election results

Last night, when the election results were called in favour of the Coalition, I was at a housewarming party. The news broke and people expressed their grief in a variety of ways. There was cursing. There was drinking. There were calls for revolution and collective migration to Iceland, with a range of levels of sincerity behind them.

As someone who is in the process of migrating for partially political reasons (the state of American politics has never been the only reason I came to or continue to live in Australia, but it’s always been one of the top three reasons at any given time), watching this reaction makes me feel very strange. I feel like i have insider knowledge – or, perhaps, outsider knowledge – that many lifelong Australians lack.

First of all, expatriation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, you leave behind some of the politics you abhor, and they no longer directly affect you as they did before. But you also inevitably leave behind friends and family, and as a result, you never really get to stop caring about the politics of your mother country, because they’re still affecting the people you love. Furthermore, you find yourself being affected by and caring about a whole new set of inevitably flawed politics, and for a while – possibly quite a long while – you have little to no ability to affect them in any way. It’s not a liberating feeling; you’re still carrying the same amount of weight as you once were, if not more. It’s just distributed differently.

Secondly, the Australian strain of democracy has a lot going for it. Because I cannot vote but I also cannot stop myself from caring about the political system I live under, I end up doing volunteer work for the Greens every election cycle. Partly, I support the Greens because I agree with many of their policies, but I also support them simply because they are a viable, progressive third party. I come from a system where third parties are a political impossibility; structural elements of American democracy work directly against the prospect of any third party getting a toehold. In Australia, after this recent election, nearly a quarter of your Senate is composed of minor party MPs. In the US, in my lifetime, the number of third-party senators has never risen above 2%. I personally attribute this difference to the combination of preferential and compulsory voting, which I believe allows for a more robust political dialogue and a higher baseline political engagement for the general public.

Thirdly, whilst I agree that Tony Abbott is a reprehensible, small-minded toad of a man who reminds me uncomfortably strongly of George W. Bush, I think dwelling on his flaws is the worst thing progressive Australians can possibly do at this point in time. The Australian system is set up to focus on parties, not figureheads, and to do otherwise is to buy into a detrimental political rhetoric encouraged by News Corp. et al. Focusing on how awful Abbott is – or, for that matter, how awful Rudd was, or Gillard was, or Howard was – sets up a narrow perspective on politics that feeds into an us-versus-them, get-the-bastard-out-of-office-at-all-costs, lesser-of-two-evils mindset that, frankly, is a trap designed to keep the two major political parties in power despite neither of them accurately representing the interests of the public. You don’t have to fall into that trap; your system is capable of being more open-ended and accurately representative than that.

My request to you is that, if you are not happy with the government as it currently stands, you instead focus on supporting minor parties. They don’t have to be the Greens; that’s simply my own personal preference. There are tons of other minor parties out there; if you feel like your voice isn’t being heard by the current government, find a bunch of other people who agree with you and turn yourselves into a political megaphone by collaborating. Yes, it’s unlikely that your minor party will sweep into power in a few years, but it certainly won’t happen if you treat failure as a foregone conclusion. In the meantime, there are a number of ways that supporting minor parties sends a substantial political message to the major parties, prompting them to pay more attention to your political interests even if they retain power.

Please don’t spend the next X years bemoaning Tony Abbott. Be politically affirmative instead of negative. Whenever you want to make an unhappy Facebook post about something he’s said or done, donate time, money, or energy to your chosen third party instead. Tell everyone about that. Expand the political dialogue, instead of contracting it. Work toward making things better instead of just keeping things from getting worse. Don’t get sucked down into the bog of hating the opposition, because yours is a system that doesn’t require that kind of polarised perspective, and to cave to that way of thinking is to allow yourself to succumb to the sickness instead of being part of the cure.

You don’t have to settle for the lesser of two evils, you never have had to, and things will never improve if you believe that you do.

On the Campaign Trail – Part 4

As we go into the final week of the election, I will attempt to write several shorter pieces, each relating to an aspect of ethics (and corruption) within an election. The intention is to provide a single piece each week day, they will necessarily be a little bit shorter.

Brokering the Senate

An interesting phenomenon has emerged in this federal election, which is the rise of micro-parties. That is a huge variety of special interest parties, which are all strongly competing for the final seat in various Senate States. Their presence, and the significance of not being able to put preferential votes above the line, means that there is a plethora of choice; manifest in 6 point font and a senate paper longer than a meter. Whether this huge tableau of choice will overwhelm or invigorate the average voter to exercise the full extent of their vote has yet to be seen.

However, far more insidious, we have seen a variety of preference swapping that seeks to capitalise on this issue. If you’re like me and you’ve been following the political activity, not only will you be aware that there has been an alarming concern around the choice of party preference for above the line voting. Notably, both the Wikileaks Party and the Australian Sex Party submitted preferences that placed several of the right wing micro-parties higher than any of the three major parties, including those their membership would normally consider antithetical to their party platforms.

Two of the more significant political agitators/commentators have weighed in on this. Pauline Pantsdown has been vocally critical on this issue, arguing that a bunch of these micro-parties are nothing more than fronts for groups like One Nation. She is suggesting that the confluence of preference votes was a deliberate orchestration designed to manipulate the pool of micro-party preferences all to funnel towards One Nation. Likewise, Antony Green has laid into the state of affairs, for possibly being able to produce a Senator in the form of Pauline Hanson, even if she only polled 2.5% of the primary vote.

As Green has commented elsewhere, the race for the Senate is one that typically falls two apiece in each original state to both the Coalition and the ALP. The final two are usually the more contested seats, with usually the third on either side falling to the Greens, an Independent or other minor party, such as Stephen Fielding taking the Senate on Family First’s party. In NSW, the Greens have suggested that it is a fight between putting Pauline Hanson or putting Cate Faehrmann into the Senate, while others have suggested that Hanson might actually steal the third Senate seat from the third Liberal Candidate. Likewise, in both WA and SA, both Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young are finding the prospects of their re-election brought into serious contestation. If we look at the Australian’s report on this, it shows that even they think there is going to be some serious fighting on our hands. 

Admittedly, this might seem to be a secondary electoral issue, as the fight for forming government does not occur in this arena. However, unlike many other bicameral nations, the Senate is an active legislature, serving as a house of review; acting more like the US Senate, rather than the UK’s House of Lords or the Canadian Upper House. It is one of the rare instance of American appropriation in our Westminster-esque system. As a house of review, it holds nearly equal power to the House of Representatives, and consternation ensues around where the balance of power will lie.

The Power of a Vote

Much of this conduct speaks to the transparency and authenticity of the electoral system. In order to outline my point on this, it will be necessary to cover a few of the basics relevant to the democratic process. Some of it is contestable, and I will justify my position where necessary, but I will not seek to enquire more deeply into the arguments themselves, so that I can more quickly to illustrating my points.

Australia faces something of an electoral crisis of faith. A lack of conviction with regards to the status quo of contemporary politics is prolific. Despite Australia representing one of the few nations in the world which has mandatory voting, and moreover one of the fewer nations where it is enforced through a fine (i.e. Mexico has compulsory voting, but there is no enforcement).

So yesterday I did a thing. I investigated the preferences set by my preferred party for the Senate. Lo and behold I discovered that more or less their preferences matched mine. Sufficiently enough for me to vote above the line on the Greens ticket. This is what happens when you align preferences with member expectation. You build trust with your constituency. 

Update

Here’s a quiet update because I can’t help myself run numbers.

ReachTEL Poll Primary Votes: ALP 33.7 (+1.0) L/NP 43.5 (-0.1) GRN 10.2 (+0.2) PUP 7.0 (+0.9) 

This is what I get if I run those into the Senate Election Calculator (though I assumed PUP 9.0 in Qld).

Image

On the Campaign Trail – Part 3

As we go into the final week of the Australian federal election, I will attempt to write several shorter pieces, each relating to an aspect of the election. The intention is to provide a single piece each week day, they will necessarily be a little bit shorter.

Polling the Senate

So this week, we got our pre-poll numbers from London. It’s not perfect, and this is just a piece of fluff, but I’m far too tired after running a stall to give you a proper article.

I ran the numbers through Anthony Green’s Senate Election Calculator with some amendments:

I gave 4% to PUP in each state, and 7% in Qld. I also have KAP 4% in Qld. In ACT and Tas, I left the percentage of the Greens based on last Federal election.

LNP = 37% of primary, ALP = 28% of primary, and GRN = 18% of primary.

It would produce these results:

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On the Campaign Trail – Part 2 (revised)

So I noticed an error that had significant effects on my calculations from my Hare-Clarke experiment yesterday, throwing off the entire experiment. Having corrected this, both the traditional parties of the ALP and LP have far more seats, the Greens have slightly fewer, and both the CDP and FFP are much less significant. The full break down is available in the updated link from yesterday.

Also, while I was at it, I tweaked the system to account for minor party preference flows better to produce I hope more approximate results. It’s still not enough for the ALP to hold government in their own right, dependent on the Greens to make government (the cross bench is not sufficient in their own right).

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On the Campaign Trail – Part 2

As we go into the final week of the Australian federal election, I will attempt to write several shorter pieces, each relating to an aspect of ethics (and corruption) within an election. The intention is to provide a single piece each week day, they will necessarily be a little bit shorter.

A Hare-Clarke Australia

Today’s post is something of a thought experiment. I have long wondered what an Australian House of Representatives would look like using an electoral system like the Hare-Clarke system, which is what is used in the state elections for both Tasmania and the ACT. Since it’s incredibly late for me, and I’ve spend most of my blog time crunching the numbers on this, this will be a much shorter article than normal.

My reasoning goes that the Federal system is supposed to be a large centralised polity, but one which responds to significant national issues. The fact that lower house seats are tethered to discrete geographies is something of a relic of 19th Century democracy, where the sort of direct representation was necessary in the context of poor telecommunications. However, in the 21st Century, communities are being decreasingly bound along the discrete geographic lines that the electoral divisions produce. Moreover, they are dependent on the first past the post system, which is one of the features that reinforces the dominance of the two party system.

Increasingly, we are seeing political communities wrapped around partisan lines, which transcend partly over divisional boundaries. As a population we are also increasingly mobile and better connected than we have been in our entire history. Certainly, the rise of the internet is impacting the way we configure our communities. Without being able to go into greater depth than that tonight, these reasons all allude to why I feel something similar to the Hare-Clarke system is more reflective of the types of democracies relevant to a digital and information age.

Method

The biggest challenge I encountered in trying to decide on how to create a Hare-Clarke Australia was by what system should I amalgamate the existing divisions. The current determination of zones is a complex demographic and geographic exercise beyond my skills. To that end I chose a rather artificial, but I feel elegant, solution. Namely, all divisions in Australia are categories into on of four demographics: Inner Metropolitan, Outer Metropolitan, Provincial, and Rural. According to the Australian Electoral Commission:

  • Inner metropolitan, means located in a capital city and comprising well-established, built-up suburbs.
  • Outer metropolitan, means located in capital cities and containing areas of more recent urban expansion.
  • Provincial are divisions with a majority of enrolment in major provincial cities.
  • Rural are divisions without a majority of enrolment in major provincial cities.

I believe this choice to be a sensible one, because these demarcations still represent something of the distinctive lifestyles and communities found across Australia. Though it would be erroneous to say that the concerns in Newcastle and Wollongong are identical merely because they are both provincial, they have far more in common with each other that is relevant to Federal polity, than other demographics. I felt that this demarcation would help reflect a diversity of community needs and voices.

Of course, there are some States and Territories that either lack some of these categories, or contain only one example of these categories. Of note both the ACT’s divisions are Inner Metropolitan, so I treated them as one electorate. Tasmania has five electorates, but only one of Inner Metropolitan, Outer Metropolitan, and Provincial; Western Australia has only one Provincial division; and the Northern Territory has one Inner Metropolitan and one Rural division. In these instances I just used the result from the 2010 election, because that was simpler and those divisions would effectively be a first past the post system. Finally, South Australia has no Provincial Divisions.

In terms of determining preference slows, I did a big cheat. I basically allocated preferences according to the Single Transferable Vote method, as per the Senate, but allocated all of those flows according to the Group Ticket Vote preferences for each state of that year. Naturally, in order to make an accurate picture of the Hare-Clarke system, I could use the AEC’s data on preference flows for each polling booth, but that prospect is incredibly daunting and even this method took a fair amount of time.

The Results

Hare-Clark Oz

ALP: Australian Labor Party – 65 Seats
CDP: Christian Democrat Party (Fred Nile’s Group) – 2 Seats
CLP: Country Liberal Party* – 1 Seat
FFP: Family First Party – 4 Seats
GRN: The Australian Greens – 20 Seats
IND: Independent – 2 Seats
LP: Liberal Party* – 50 Seats
NP: National Party* – 6 Seats

* Formally part of the Coalition

New South Wales

Hare-Clark NSW

NSW Inner M: ALP 7; GRN 2; LP 6
NSW Outer M: ALP 5; GRN 1; LP 5
NSW Province: ALP 3; GRN 2; LP 3
NSW Rural: ALP 5; CDP 1; GRN 1; IND 1 (Oakeshott); LP 3; NP 3

NSW Total: ALP 20; CDP 1; GRN 6; IND 1; LP 17; NP 3

The Greens gain a seat on quota in Inner Metro, the remainder are from preference flows from Labor.
CDP gains a seats from Liberal Party and other minor party preferences.

 

 

 

Victoria

Hare-Clark Vic

Vic Inner M: ALP 4; GRN 1; LP 4
Vic Outer M: ALP 8; GRN 2; LP 6
Vic Province: ALP 2; GRN 1; LP 1
Vic Rural: ALP 3; GRN 1; LP 3; NP 1

Vic Rural: ALP 17; GRN 5; LP 14; NP 1

Greens gain seats on quota in the Inner and Outer Metro areas, and the remaining on preference flows from Labor.

 

 

 

 

Queensland

Hare-Clark Qld

QLD Inner M: ALP 1; GRN 1; LP 1
QLD Outer M: ALP 4; FFP 1; GRN 1; LP 2; NP 1
QLD Province: ALP 3; FFP 1; GRN 1; LP 2
QLD Rural: ALP 4; FFP 1; GRN 1; LP 4; NP 1

QLD Total: ALP 12; FFP 3; GRN 4; LP 2; NP 2

All Family First seat are gained through Liberal-National preference flows.
All Greens seats are gained through Labor preference flows.

 

 

 

 

Western Australia

Hare-Clark WA

WA Inner M: ALP 2; CDP 1; GRN 1; LP 2;
WA Outer M: ALP 2; GRN 1; LP 2;
WA Province: ALP 1
WA Rural: ALP 2; LP 1

WA Total: ALP 7; CDP 1; GRN 2; LP 5

The Christian Democrats gain a seat through a number of minor party preference flows.

The Greens gain seats through preference flows from the Labor Party respectively.

 

South Australia

Hare-Clark SA

SA Inner M: ALP 2; GRN 1; LP 1;
SA Outer M: ALP 1; GRN 1; LP 1;
SA Rural: ALP 1; FFP 1; GRN 1; LP 1;

SA Total: ALP 4; FFP 1; GRN 1; LP 3;

All seats gained by Family First and the Greens are dependent on preference flows from the Liberal Party and Labor respectively.

 

 

Tasmania

Hare-Clark Tas

Tas IM: IND (Wilke)
Tas OM: ALP 1
Tas P: ALP 1
TAS R: ALP 1; LP 1

 

The Territories

Hare-Clark Ter

ACT: ALP 1; LP 1

ALP elected on quota, LP depend on preferences.

NT IM: CLP 1
NT R: ALP 1

On the Campaign Trail – Part 1

As we go into the final week of the Australian federal election, I will attempt to write several shorter pieces, each relating to an aspect of ethics (and corruption) within an election. The intention is to provide a single piece each week day, they will necessarily be a little bit shorter.

However, as a large portion of the population lacks the formal training to critically assess claims in the public domain, let alone separate fact from opinion, I would place the onus upon those who would seek to govern.

Defining the Ethics of our Politicians

There is no requirement in Australian electoral regulations to prevent untruthful claims (save some limitations). The article linked makes this observation, and argues that this is as it should be, as there is no way to police or enforce the truthfulness of political statements. Specifically, it makes the case that nothing should regulate the content of electoral messages, being a matter for the demos to resolve without interference.

Consider then, the current (2013) Federal election, which has seen its share of claims that are highly contestable, and where the factuality of their claims have been brought into question. Two of these relate to claims over two of the most prominent issues of concern for this election: namely the economy and asylum seekers. Certainly, the ABC Vote Compass suggested that they are (or were) the two biggest issues from their sample.

The issue of the economy is a rather useful example to examine how the different electoral campaigns frame the matter. If we examine the Coalition’s election campaign, we see a platform that seeks to discredit the ALP Government’s management of the economy. Many of the concerns highlighting the deficit and economic performance, linking this to the impact on families and jobs. However, we have a starkly contrasting view about the state of the economy by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz view is perhaps a most qualified rebuttal to the persistent anxieties about the Australian economy. The huge distinction between Stiglitz and the Coalition is significant of the difference between the political conversation around the economy, and the academic discourse on the same. An academic discourse purports to discover the truth through a method of peer review and subject to critique by expertise. Conversely the political debate is rhetorical, designed to secure a following through persuasive tools to convince the populace of a certain position.

The above is not intending to assess the validity of the claims around the economy or other issues, or even their verisimilitude. Rather, the intention is to highlight the dissonance between expertise and public opinion. This distinction is hardly a new issue, and one might draw parallels to the difference between a common sense understanding, informed by anecdote, and a critical understanding, informed by an evidenced debate.

In rejecting the claim that there need be no regulation of political statements, it is necessary first to address a particular problem: the fact-value distinction.

Fact-Value distinctions

At a most fundamental level, it should be sufficient to suggest that our society would benefit more from honest political statements, which would then benefit the public to cast more informed votes. It alludes to an issue of a type of signal-to-noise ratio within political speech, and the diminishing returns on the rigour of the political debate.

Fundamentally though, what seems to be at stake is an is-ought dilemma; or better yet, a fact-value distinction. On one hand we have a descriptive issue, which is produced through empirical research and a scientific method; on the other, we have a prescriptive problematisation of that issue through a value system. This is because the work of politics is prescriptive, in an inherently contested medium, which must take descriptions of the real world and formulate them into a political platform.

This is because the work of politics is prescriptive, in an inherently contested medium, which must take descriptions of the real world and formulate them into a political platform.

To explain better, I will refer to one of my earlier articles, where I made an argument for how the issue of environmentalism could be co-opted by two diametrically opposed economic systems. That is, let us agree momentarily with the scientific consensus that climate change is anthropogenic, the article then argues how both advocates of growth and steady-state economic have laid claim to providing the appropriate solution to the problem. The point being that we have a description of a phenomenon (anthropogenic climate change), which is then problematised (degradation of the environment, economic costs, amongst others), and based on how the problem is understood, a particular set of social values are applied to derive a solution (steady-state or growth).

The Value of Truth

To some extent, I agree with the claim (in the above-linked article) that contests that there should be any kind of regulation of political speech. I agree to the extent that the issue is incredibly fraught, and there are huge gradations of truthfulness that makes the matter rather murky. Two important issues would have to be resolved, namely, how to recognise a mistruth when it is delivered, and what the appropriate response to that matter becomes. In particular, it is very difficult to demonstrate intentionality behind statements (fraudulent), but we can more readily demonstrate when a claim is factually incorrect (erroneous).

Because of this, I would have to reject the claim that there is no limit to the content that can be produced. The type of institution that would be necessary to investigate and respond to fraudulent political statements would be one of vast apparatus. Conversely, a fact checking institution is relatively simple, which is why a number of self-appointed watch dogs have taken to informally attempt to regulate the factual content of the political claims made my politicians in this election.

…the breach of conduct relates [to] the intentional or unintentional conflation of reporting and editorialising…

A comparison on this can be made towards the recent criticism by the Australian Press Council of News Corp, for failing to differentiate news from its editorial. This seems to confirm that the breach of conduct relates not to providing a political opinion in the role of a ‘trustee’ of public opinion, but the intentional or unintentional conflation of reporting and editorialising, or from what we would expect to be information presented factually from that which is laden with a value opinion.

So fundamentally, I would argue that political commentary should be subject to some manner of scrutiny. Certainly, politicians should be entitled to put their platform forward in a contest; the proverbial “market of ideas”. Yes, I recognise that a part of that debate is not to establish a truth but contend an opinion. However, as a large portion of the population lacks the formal training to critically assess claims in the public domain, let alone separate fact from opinion, I would place the onus upon those who would seek to govern.

Beyond Binaries

Today’s article is actually a policy brief on some recent changes in the Sex Discrimination Act (Cth) in Australia. This brief has been prepared for business and other organisations, with a view to give them some grounding on the legislative changes so that they might be able to affect best practice and avoid causing both direct and indirect discrimination.

You can download the brief here:

Beyond Binaries

You are welcome to share this document, but I would prefer if you would link back to this site as the source.

Technology: the Modern Prometheus

In this article I examine the question of how intrinsically related innovation is to growth. The question is one of environmentalism because it intends to help demonstrate why we seem to consistently position issues of environmentalism through economic lenses. It’s not a perfect argument, because the approach is intended to make broad sweeping generalisations rather than a highly nuanced analysis of all the specifications.

In part, by asking this question, I am actually trying to detangle the philosophy of Prometheism from neoliberalism. As Prometheism isn’t a concept that enjoys a lot of public analysis, it is necessary to outline a few basis points. In doing so, it may seem self-evident as to why it leads to neoliberalism, and the task then becomes one to demonstrate that it is merely a necessary but not sufficient predicate.

Moreover, I wish to argue that Prometheism just as easily lends itself to economic agendas on the other side of the spectrum, including Marxism, but the end point one takes is very much an issue of one’s view on (economic) justice.

The teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.

Prometheism: Stealing Fire

The first myth of Prometheus is an Ancient Greek one, wherein a Titan stole the fire of the Olympians and gave it to Man [sic]. This is an allegory for taking the spark of innovation from the heavens. It has come to represent the idea of humanity successfully challenging the status quo set by divinity and often alludes to an element of hubris. Not so for its eponymous philosophy.

The central premise of Prometheism is one that vaunts human innovation, and does so in such a way that it predicts that human innovation will provide a solution either leading up to or as a result of any major crises we may encounter. Specifically, it often positions itself against arguments denouncing economic growth, which claim that unlimited growth will lead to a catastrophic environmental collapse. Its response is that the potential power of human ingenuity and ability to provide technological solutions far surpasses the magnitude of these issues.
One of the best ways to see this dialect is through a comparison of these following videos, first Paul Guilding’s ‘The Earth is Full’. Followed by Peter Diamandis ‘Abundance is Our Future’.

Both provide a vision of the eventual trajectory of human development, one suggesting that the only genuine way to preclude a catastrophic environmental failure is through a steady-state economic system, the other suggesting that any limits to growth will ultimately hinder humanity’s potential to discover a solution by strangling resources. In essence, the position that vaunts human innovation to provide technological solutions seems to require access to as many resources as we can provide for research.

This is a position argued strongly by such theorists like Lomborg who takes the apparently next logical step to suggest that there is no environmental crisis, “The Truth about the Environment”. A position that was iterated by other historic economists like Simon in his work, the Ultimate Resource, which places human ingenuity as a far more valuable resource than most natural resources. It was the thinking of Simon that underscored the attempts to combat ‘radical environmentalism’ articulated in Reagonomics and Thatcherism.

Technology with a big T

The reason that I consider these arguments to be falsely equivalent, that growth is inextricably linked with innovation, is because it begins with an economic premise and imposes that regime onto a technological impetus. By this I mean to allude to the way we have collectively invested some kind of agency into a shared notion of Technology and what it does for our society. That this ideal is deeply implicated, and even integrated, into almost every aspect of Western society. It is this social constructivist view of technology that makes me capitalise the word: to separate Technology as phenomenon as it interacts with society, rather than to describe an assemblage of objects and devices that humanity creates.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon. As a type of technology becomes ubiquitous its meaning is subsequently replicated throughout our society until it becomes invisible. We cease to make a conscientious connection between the two and start to unconsciously associate them. In certain extreme cases, the value we attribute to an artifact can excite and even elicit strong emotions from us, to the point where the artifact is fetishised. We need look no further than the Apple Cult for a recognisable example.

As Technology comes to represent the aggregate aspirations of human innovation, it foments an implicit teleology into the ideal it represents. Technology becomes embedded into nearly every aspect of our environment (social and physical), even serving as an intermediary for our socialisation. It begins to shape our fundamental experience of being human and lends itself to some notion of a shared manifest destiny, which is purportedly realised through humanity’s innovation.

Such notions reinforce the value of things from a humanocentric point of view (or even technocentric). Not to say that a humanist perspective is bad, but that in terms of making assessments about Technology, it comes pre-packaged with its own value system. This makes it difficult to decouple any notion of technology from a human framework. This tends to position Technology in line with human progress, and against a commonly held view of Nature. It places technology (and human capacity) in opposition to the environment, creating a crude dialectic between them. However, any conceptualisation of Nature is just as much an imaginary construct as Technology: they are both the result of humanity ascribing particular qualities onto a complex system.

The Economics of Environmentalism

I briefly mentioned how one side of the debate lent itself to Reagonomics and Thatcherism. I mention this because at the heart of this debate is how a given society responds to the systematic issues of and within the environment. Environmentalism as part of a counter-cultural movement is a decidedly Western phenomenon, positioning itself against State authority and a lack of corporate accountability. Outside the West, socio-cultural dispositions towards the environment are not politicised in the same way, and when they are they have often been a Western import.

This leads me to my next major point, being that almost entirely our sense of environmentalism is couched in economic terms. In part, this is because it is a political agenda, meaning is it a social product, and in part because it seems to be the closest type of systematic rationality we can apply to its issue. I say this, because on both sides of the debate (whether stable-state or unfettered growth), the arguments seemed to have started with an economic position, and worked their way back to the environmental system. That is, both neoliberalism and Marxism are world views of an economic nature, each predicated on a set of values. Those values can roughly be reduced to the fundamental concepts of liberty and equality respectively.

From these original positions, a kind of economical reasoning allows its relevant proponents to extrapolate a political regime of a just society and does so in such a manner as to bury the original dialectic far from sight. This was the dialect of the Cold War: iterated and reified through politics and societies; the collapse of the Soviet Union prompting the pronouncement of the victory of liberal democracy (read neoliberalism) by Fukuyama. Though hardly an original contention for student of international relations, we are now twenty years on and our retrospection of this becomes increasing removed and academic.

Let us re-examine the Western response to the environmental protests of the 60s and 70s, one that was almost Weberian in its approach. During this period we see a State treat radical environmentalism as being equivalent to the imposition of Communism, and subjected to a kind of new McCarthyism; a Green Scare if you will. The State response was much more subtle, by instating environmental ministries, by bureaucratising environmental issues, it was able to systematise the issue and placate a public demanding a response as a kind of governmentality. However, like many Western state-led environmental initiatives, the actual outcomes of any given program have often fallen far from their purported objects.

Rational Discord

If you’ve followed the monologue so far, I have attempted to demonstrate that both Technology and Nature are vulnerable to the constructivist black box. That we can interact with these things, but we cannot fundamentally know them independently of the meaning we already impose upon them. In doing so, we tend to arrive at notions of both the environment and technology with predispositions towards them.

I have also attempted to demonstrate many of the arguments and approached towards engaging with the environment are informed by underlying economic ontologies. So while on the surface the debate seems to be a contention between Technology (that human innovation is our greatest resource and therefore it should be unlimited) and Nature (that nature is a finite natural resource and therefore humanity’s impact upon it should be regulated), in reality they are built upon much more fundamental issues about how we, as societies, should organise economically: whether more towards an entirely unregulated market with an ultimate goal of prosperity (neoliberalism), or more towards a heavily regulated market that removes many individual liberties for a greater good (Communism).

Prometheism: Love Your Monsters

The second part of this article explores the other main allegory making claim to the name Promethean, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus). In her book, Dr Frankenstein uses (pseudo) science to defy the assumed natural order to revivify a dead body into an unnamed man. The scientific allegory is almost self-apparent, in a “What Has Science Done?” kind of way. Again, the parallel is one that science is humanity’s hubris against the natural order. Specifically, it is invoked in lieu of the precautionary principle.

It is to this notion that I return to one of the extrapolations of Prometheism that responds to this accusation of hubris, namely that we should love our monsters. In summary, the responding position claims that science, and all its artifacts are the consequences of human innovation; specifically that “Dr. Frankenstein’s sin was not his hubris to create life but rather his fright that led him to abandon rather than care for his creation”. In other words, it is something of an extension the original position advanced by the Prometheans. It argues that science itself provides its own solutions, and that our approach should be one of loving the works of our creation instead of abjuring them. However, there is a kind of rationality implicit in the scientific method, which doesn’t always translate into the political arena. Rather the rationality of any evidence-based position is almost always subsequently co-opted by an economic framework and it’s own particular rationality. That is, the scientific method is subsumed by rational choice theory (which means its findings are often subjected to the Tragedy of the Commons).

On Energy and Emissions

In the context of modern environmentalism, there are two core issues that are visited frequently. One reflects the source of our production (typically energy, but also acquisition of raw materials) and the other reflects the waste of our production (pollution). While there are a number of ways that these issues can be explored, the most prominent ones relate to energy, such as in renewable energy sources, and its almost directly related issue of emissions, such as in climate change. One side seeks to address what it considers to be a depletion of natural resources, and the other an impact on the environment we exist in. Rather than revisit the specifics of those debates (some of which is already alluded to in the growth vs stable-state debate above), I will instead highlight that both these debates are very frequently framed as economic issues. This is more true for energy than it is for emissions, and it is this comparison that I wish to use to help show why we tend to fall back on economic conceptualisations of the environment in order to address environmental problems.

Perhaps the most constantly visited argument relevant to energy production is its absence and our current societal dependency on a certain amount of energy production. The core issue at play is one of abundance. There is a certain amount of a resource that our society must acquire in order to produce or perform baseline functions. As the population increases, and as more of the global population modernises and industrialises, the amount of energy required increases. According to the International Energy Agency, the average energy used per person in the last decade increased by 10%, as the world population increased 27%. So the question of how much energy is available from our current sources is an important question, and one that very much aligns with some of the attendant issues with arguments for the limits of growth, viz. if there are finite energy resources then there cannot be infinite growth. Naturally, this tends to shift the burden of energy production to renewable energy sources, which are limitless (at least as far as our foreseeable future is concerned in any meaningful sense). That we are reaching a point where the production cost of solar energy (possibly our most abundant renewable energy) is able to challenge the production cost of fossil fuels. In 2008 energy power source for oil was 33.5%, coal was 26.8%, gas was 20.8% (meaning fossil fuel was a total of 81%), ‘other’ (hydro, peat, solar, wind, geothermal power, biofuels etc.) was at 12.9%, and nuclear was 5.8%. Oil and coal alone combined represented over 60% of the world energy supply in 2008.

If the production cost is the only relevant factor in changing our source of energy from a fossil fuel source, to something renewable or at least comparatively abundant and cheap like thorium and/or nuclear, or indeed the use of garbage to create fuel, those changes would be widespread. Lamentably, energy production contains other issues, including safety and emissions, which are much harder to reconcile into that equation. At this point, we naturally segue to the other half of this section: emissions.

This means that both types of initiatives [carbon pricing and emissions trading] depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first.

I won’t iterate the lengthy debates on climate change, but provide my agreement with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and very likely to be anthropogenic. Most of the major international programs that are seriously attempting to off-set climate change relate to market mechanisms, including pricing carbon or emissions trading. Both of these attempt to reconcile the externalities of emissions, by including them into the market. This means that both types of initiatives depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first. Thus, we come full circle.

Post-Scarcity

So we return to my original challenge: that is that Prometheism isn’t inherently neoliberal. The above comparison of energy and emissions politics has proved useful for the last step of this argument. Specifically, it will show how both are issues relevant to human impact upon the environment, but that there is actually a distinction between matters of allocation and distribution (how resources are applied vs. who benefits from those resources).

One of the reasons why programs turn to market-like mechanisms to help resolve energy and emission problems is because of the real costs associated with those problems, whether that’s the production cost of energy or the externalities of emissions. The prevailing system of liberal democracy in the West means that any such broad and systematic program has to somehow reconcile the private benefits that we seek to acquire as consumers versus the public goods we hope to enjoy as public citizens. However, there is a very symbiotic relationship between the market and liberal democracy. So attempting to resolve the issue of environmentalism through this framework simply reinforces the idea that the market mechanisms will provide the solutions. I say this, not because I’m about to lead to rejection of market forces (and/or capitalism), but merely to reiterate how deeply entrenched they are in almost every aspect of Western culture (I am somewhat skeptical that we can actually engage with large complex systems without filtering it through an economic lens on some level, but that’s an article for another day).

Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity.

The question remains: how would Prometheism potentially align with more socialist economic systems like Marxism? Simply put, because most of them also assume some kind of technological teleology, which will drive them towards a particular economic state. Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity. Scarcity, holds that society attempts to balance human needs against the scarcity of material resources; a technology that produces energy sufficiently cheaply would reduce its production costs to a negligible cost, meaning it would be abundant for all practical considerations: thus, achieving post-scarcity status. Albeit, post-scarcity is still a live debate, being hailed alternatively as utopia and as a pipe dream. However, both these arguments seem to be reduced to either an acceptance or a rejection of an impending Malthusian catastrophe, which is itself the core contention of growth vs stable-state economics.

In summary, the teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.