‘Climate Emergency’, COVID-19 and the Australian capitalist state

covid-19-4926456_1920Now is the hour of our collective discontent. In order to pursue the agenda set out for this blog post series, namely: ‘to precisely identify the strategic, structural/epochal, or more contingent factors involved in the emergence of particular state–capital hybrids, as well as the specific institutional, organizational, and legal forms that facilitate such emergence’ (Alami & Dixon, 2019) my contribution examines the Australian state over the summer of 2019-20, into the COVID-19 pandemic. I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the instability and amenability to capital of our present conjuncture in ways that the bushfire crisis did not. Further, the pandemic renders our present conjuncture potentially far less stable and amenable to capital than declaration of a national ‘climate emergency’ could have, and therefore the left should consider how to force deep reorientations of state-led action (and therefore form and function) while it can.

The need for an adequate state theory

Existing scholarship on neo-Marxian theories of the state are the foundations of an appropriate diagnosis of this moment, though in the heart of an historic conjuncture is not the time to attempt a full synthesis or unified theory. Instead we should begin by using our compounding crises to work through our existing analyses and critiques. In keeping with this research agenda, I will begin with a Poulantzean reading of the state – not the blunt Althusserian structuralism of his earlier work, but his later and more nuanced work on the state theorised as an ever-contingent social relation. The state is thus conceived of as a material condensate of the balance of class struggle, meaning it is possible to isolate points of rupture and work upon and through them to alter the balance of power.

Without a reconfiguration of political and economic power, the crises we face will not resolve, but escalate by orders of magnitude. A neo-Marxian theorisation of the state reframes this political moment with a materialist analysis of the issues confronting our societies. The points of possible rupture have now become more apparent and should guide leftist strategy into and through the COVID-19 pandemic.

From ‘climate emergency’ to global pandemic (from theory to praxis)

Over the 2019-20 summer, Australia burned. Vast swathes of the country were covered in marauding fires; communities were evacuated; homes were destroyed; irreplaceable heritage landscapes were lost forever and millions of animals perished. Those physically distant from the fires were nonetheless impacted by the resulting cloaks of particulate matter draped across the country at levels ‘unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent’ in Australia’s recent memory.

Much of the resulting political jousting focused on whether or not funding had been cut for core services that would have ameliorated the situation. Over the course of the summer, communities mobilised to meet the relentless blazes, with numerous online fundraising campaigns set up to try and resource volunteer fire services. Rolling demonstrations and protests were held across the country, demanding action from state and federal governments.

In its original form, this blog post critiqued appeals for declaration of ‘climate emergency’ as under-theorised calls for the concentration of extraordinary power in the hands of the executive government. It argued that the existing capital-state relational forms in Australia prior to any declaration of a climate emergency should act as a deterrent to calls for further concentration of unchecked power, as the suspension of democratic checks and balances would simply clear the path for new frontiers of accumulation based on militarisation of the state, namely on the borders and the expansion of police powers. The existence of not only nascent but well-developed forms of such policy in the forms of offshore refugee processing on Nauru, the ongoing disgrace of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody, and the recent developments in police powers (e.g. stop and frisk in NSW; the introduction of anti-protest laws) should act as cautionary tales to those who envisage the state acting in the interests of citizens.

In other words, the earlier post argued that a call for ‘climate emergency’ from the present capital-state formations in Australia could swiftly amount to the hastened arrival of full-scale ecofascism rather than a reconfiguration of the political economy to empower and resource communities in adapting to a climate-changed world.

We have since moved from theory to praxis. The development of a global pandemic necessitating the declaration of emergency is a material change not only in its own right, but will most likely over-determine future developments in the forms and functions of the state. This analysis will therefore take a similar pivot and consider how COVID-19 may present opportunities for state-led political economic reconfigurations.

Australia’s response to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic can be observed not only as a rapidly disseminated virus but as ongoing and mutually amplifying crises of accumulation and social reproduction. The steady sacrifice of our conditions of production (namely those things necessary to social reproduction, including the social relations of production) has been necessary to ensure the prolonged period of accumulation for the Australian economy. This has left little to no public or private security net for many people as the economy has, inevitably, sputtered. The present, devastating, accumulation crisis is demonstrating just how tenuous living conditions have become and how close many people are to the edge.

To date, economistic measures including austerity policies and reliance on free-market mechanisms such as interest rates cuts and quantitative easing have been the state’s chosen tonic for our ailments. These measures have utterly failed to address the underlying causes of a sluggish economy, instead encouraging accumulation via speculative investments such as property inflation and share buy-backs. These have worked to reduce effective demand, and increased pressure to contain and reduce wages.

Most obviously and immediately following the arrival of COVID-19 tenuousness has presented in the spheres of work and housing. Employees are caught in the crosshairs created by years of capital strategically moulding employment legislation to its interests (with, at times, the assistance of the union movement). Workers face many structural obstacles to fair treatment at this time, from the legislative restraints on unions including punitive striking rules, to the day-to-day issues resulting from the individualisation of workers’ employment contracts, such as increased casualisation of work and the consequent weakening of workers’ protections.

With the economy in freefall and jobs being cut to try and staunch the bleeding, renters face the double bind of being out of work and still required to pay rent. Landlords have been swift to inform their tenants to cough up or face eviction, though the Prime Minister has made some comment about the need for landlords to take some of the economic hit in months to come.

Mobilising the state to the ends of whom?

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the contradictions that the slow-moving climate change crisis has thus far presented only in fractured, loosely connected forms. Where the issue of climate change has been successfully deflected or turned to divisive purposes by capital, COVID-19 will affect everyone in material and immediate ways, be these direct or indirect. Everyone will require a solution as a matter of priority. The Australian state has reacted slowly to the unfurling COVID-19 crisis, but it will have to act in ways that the bushfires did not force, horrific though they were.

The promise of a moment such as this is that the horizon of change is no longer necessarily demarcated as capitalist. This moment of crisis could present opportunities that earlier calls for declaration of climate emergency constitutively could not. Crisis on this scale (both in terms of depth and breadth of impact) cannot be relegated to the margins. Conversely, there are no guarantees that such a moment does lead to emancipatory changes in the state form and function. The current crystallisation of interests in charge of delivering the government’s response is not on the side of workers.

We can be sure that capital will fight tooth and nail (from a position of hegemonic power) to prevent changes that deny them the maintenance or expansion of accumulation. Capital will look to restore the circulation of capital while avoiding the burden of paying for restoration of the conditions of production (landlords’ collective response thus far is an early indication of this; similarly the announcement that workers ‘in financial distress’ will be granted early access to their superannuation funds rather than receive direct relief from the government).

The economistic measures outlined above will certainly be the starting point for state-led resuscitation of Australia’s economy. They won’t be enough. Concessions will have to be made.  Initial murmurings gesture toward mass-bailouts of industry; debt relief for businesses for the duration of the crisis; and finally a UBI-type policy intended to plug the gaps left by lay-offs.

Poulantzas’ difficult balancing act between revolutionary transformation and social democratic reforms designed to reify the existing political economic configurations and grease the wheels of capitalism is directly pertinent in this moment. Instead of allowing a UBI to simply restore the circulation of money throughout the economy, leaving ownership of life-supporting industry and fixed capital unmoved, the state must be pressed to enact radical changes. The immediate life-saving measures must not be allowed to pass for medium- and long-term life-saving measures like guaranteed, decommodified housing, democratic control over the distribution of food, water and medicines, and the option to take up meaningful work for fair recompense.

Class struggle traverses the state from top to bottom and importantly extends beyond its relational form. While this will not be the moment that a new society spontaneously emerges, this conjuncture presents a moment for the left to develop strategies for reconfiguring the state in ways that could facilitate the emergence of more revolutionary forms over time. At the least, this has to be a moment of consciousness raising and building forms of mutual aid capable of standing against future rounds of crisis-driven deprivation rather than an immediate restoration of the conditions for capitalist accumulation.

Strategy

In the interests of shifting from theory to praxis, the following are presented as immediately useful in the fight to come. These first steps, or something like them, will be crucial to successfully navigating this conjuncture in Australia and inflecting the state form in ways amenable to the left:

  1. Consciously working to align workers with small to medium business (SMEs) as part of the inevitable fiscal strategy. These will be the first groups to be wiped by this crisis of accumulation – SMEs can be successfully positioned as part of the leftist coalition if the aim is to reinvigorate local economies and not simply clear the decks of SMEs in order to make way for monopoly capital.
  2. Equally, it will be vital to consciously foster potential alliances between worker movements and those social movements that are formed in the struggle to secure the conditions and integrity of social reproduction. These will be many and varied but most obviously will have to include groups and movements advocating for the rights of First Nations communities, women, LGBTQI+ groups, the disabled community, and the environment and non-human nature.
  3. Demand nationalisation of sunset industries that are rapidly being decimated by the tanking economy, e.g. mining and air travel. This is an opportunity to kickstart the massive programmes of redirected labour that a Green New Deal-type programme demands, while paying a tiny fraction of the former capitalised value of sunset industries.  
  4. Mirroring the ‘building capacity’ logic of the above point – burgeoning mutual aid efforts should form the skeleton of future permanent state-resourced collective provisioning, and remain directed by the local communities from which they sprung. Ongoing work by groups such as the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) will be vital to consolidating collective provisioning frameworks that embody the needs of people who have been structurally relegated to the margins of society for decades, rather than technocratic managerial approaches.

Note: The argument and ideas in this post have sprung from on-going collaborative work with Natasha Heenan, my fellow PhD candidate in the Political Economy Department at Sydney University and have benefitted from the commentary of my supervisor, Stuart Rosewarne.

Anna Sturman is a PhD candidate in the Political Economy Department at the University of Sydney, and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research examines the political economy of climate change, theories of value and ‘nature’, and the state. She tweets at @anna_sturman.

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