In Chile, Catalonia, Hong Kong and Lebanon and beyond, and across the western world, millions of citizens have increasingly taken to the streets to protest racist policies and policing, inequality, draconian laws, punitive fare / cost-of-living increases and environmental catastrophe that are the manifestations of the pathologies of our times.
In each country, the flashpoints are different, but they’re ‘bright flashes in a dark sky’. Across the world, citizens are taking risks to make a stand for power and for change. In some countries they risk life, limb and freedom, and in the west they mainly risk comfort and security, but people are reacting to complacent, complicit and sometimes corrupt governments in unprecedented protests of scale.
An Associated Press article ‘We’re talking ‘bout a global revolution’ suggests the international wave of dissent ‘raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order with free elections and markets, can still deliver on its promises’. The United Nations Secretary General Antònio Guterres said in a press briefing last week that across the unique situations prompting mass demonstrations, there are common underlying factors which constitute “rising threats to the social contract” between citizens and the political class. And that these show a growing deficit of trust between citizens and rulers across the world.
Indeed, the deficit of trust ratcheted forward on the cynicism meter here in New Zealand among those on the environmental left and the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in climate change marches in recent times. The capitulation of the Prime Minister and the current government to the agriculture sector in the compromise that sees farming given an extended free pass on paying for its greenhouse gas emissions, disappointed many.
Rather than standing with middle New Zealand, who took to the streets in their thousands, Jacinda Ardern stood with the Dairy Board in her announcement that in addition to the 95% dispensation on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions agreed with New Zealand First as part of the Government Coalition Agreement, the remaining 5% obligation is deferred for five years, beyond this Government and the next. The fact that it had the support of the Greens, New Zealand First, Labour, and foreshadowed a National Party position, shows the concentration of political views to the ‘extreme centre’, to adopt journalist Tafiq Ali’s characterisation of the neo-liberal consensus where both the Centre-left and the Centre-right collude to preserve the status quo – a dictatorship of capital that “has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead’.
No doubt the tribalist supporters of Jacinda Ardern who have suspended their capacity for critical reason, will argue that the compromise to New Zealand First and agriculture is the best we could have got. In that case, not only has Jacinda been outsmarted by Winston Peters and New Zealand First but she’s also been outplayed by capital. Because agriculture is not alone with its concessions – note the Stuff report this weekend that ‘free carbon credits worth billions of dollars will continue to be granted to other industries for decades’. The exemptions from paying for 90% of emissions provided to ‘Emissions Intensive, Trade Exposed’ companies such as the huge wealthy multinationals BlueScope Steel (for Glenbrook steel mill), Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter and Methanex, and New Zealand’s Fletcher Building’s Cement plant will continue for almost a lifetime, with phase outs of only 1% to 3% out until 2040, distorting the emissions trading market and costing huge subsidies to New Zealand while subverting (making a farce of) zero-carbon goals. There’s no real evidence that pollution trading is an incentive to emission reduction, but this makes the myth of the efficient invisible hand of the market even more of a mockery. As a political strategy it’s certainly not meeting the David Lange standard of a principled stand in the face of monolithic giants. It makes grand statements on the international stage look like just more cynical politician talk. The deficit of trust comes closer to home.
Rightly, in mass protests, people around the world are showing they have little faith in the capacity of political institutions to deliver much needed reforms. Realpolitik Coalition compromises in New Zealand on this and so many issues show there’s limited capacity, not enough will. Tariq Ali says we need to ‘shed all illusions about the capacity of the rulers of the world to reform”. But maybe also in ‘progressive’ democracies, protests – even massive events such as the climate strikes, have become so routineised that they ‘fail to create a sense of urgency or crisis’ according to social scientist Mathew Clement talking to Al Jazeera’s Inside Story. The climate movement is ‘just another protest movement’, and political complacency about the demands and concerns of whole generations of New Zealanders are given less weight, and have less power, than those of the dairy sector and big industrial polluters, who are too big to pay; and too big for the government to call their bluff.
While the gambling empire Sky City’s subsidised ‘International Convention Centre’ has been aflame billowing black smoke across our CBD, exposing low paid workers to risk as well as the injustices they face, the Prime Minister has been keen to confirm the 2021 meeting of world APEC leaders will still proceed. When we think about the growing inequality, the disparate wealth and living standards, the desperation and frustration of APEC’s citizens, the environmental ruin from capitalist expansion, the ongoing neo-liberal and austerity measures that are now the norm for the extreme centre that are expressed in so many APEC nations including our own, (Budget Responsibility Rules anyone?), it’s clear indeed that ‘the liberal international order’ with its limited electoral choice, narrow political scope, and subservience to markets, and indeed this Government, are ‘failing to deliver on their promises’ at least to their people. Earnest politicians fail or are unable to deliver, and in this mature democracy seem complacent about mass protest.
The APEC forum meeting here must be a focus of action as we exercise our cosmopolitan responsibility as citizens of the world and stewards of the future. In the 1990s when the APEC forum last met in New Zealand, I was sitting after politics and philosophy exams as black suited secret service agents patrolled in Albert Park. You’ll find no prairie fire here boys, but you’ll find a spark.