“Meltdown” seems an appropriate metaphor for the week in which the world’s markets crashed then rose then crashed then … and in which Ross Garnaut handed over his final climate change report. The first should hardly have been surprising, and nor should the weakness of the second. If we are living in a global speculative economy founded on bad debt, then sooner or later something has to give. In effect the markets are holding people to ransom. If we don’t feed the beast by bailing them out, then they will ruin us.

And if the government is pandering to business on all matters environmental, as satirised on Wednesday night’s wonderfully apt and timely episode of The Hollowmen, then a weak-kneed stance on climate change (25 per cent reductions at best), with anything stronger, or even that, being denounced by the usual suspects, is to be expected. Meltdown indeed.

Meanwhile, commentators just as John Quiggin and Mark Bahnisch at LP have been talking about ‘the end of neoliberalism’, with varying degrees of skepticism. It’s a nice idea, but underestimates just how deeply embedded neoliberal ideas are in the global finance system. My sense is that the bail-out, now passed by the US senate and to be revoted on in Congress tomorrow, will happen, even if it won’t necessarily work because there’s more to this than simply lancing a boil. Regulatory noises are being made and some tightening will take place. But the system will stay relatively unchanged because too much depends on it and because money and power have little respect, in the end, for principle.

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Ideally, what we should see as the result of the past few weeks is a wide-ranging debate about just where we are and how we got here. A debate that took into account the history of radical conservative ideas, and their ultimate unsustainability, not merely on environmental grounds, but because ’shareholder value capitalism’, based on speculation and short-termism, doesn’t work especially well for non-finance business either. It’s up to us to start that debate, and that’s the hard bit.

Getup are giving it a go (and combining both economic and environmental issues), but right now people are thinking about the short-term future of their homes, interest rates, their superannuation, and the lines of credit they need to run their businesses. Meanwhile, in the wake of the financial tremors, global warming has dropped down people’s list of concerns.

And who can blame them? What was it that Bertolt Brecht once said? ‘Grub first, then ethics.’

Mark Davis is author of The Land Of Plenty: Australia In The 2000s

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