When the time comes for a truth and reconciliation commission into what the Abbott government did to the country, the gutting of the Renewable Energy Target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will surely be one of the most prominent issues. To placate and persuade a bunch of brown and old energy providers, the government is willing to reach into such bodies, rip out their funding, direct them away from successful programs into speculative ones, and attempt to destroy an entire sector with deliberately introduced uncertainty.
There’s a lot of weird cultural stuff going on too — all this nonsense about how ugly half-a-dozen wind turbines are, occupying 10 degrees of a 180-degree vista. In their own right, turbines are elegant. Compared to pylons marching across the landscape — which attracted no criticism — and open-cut mines, they’re aesthetic masterpieces. But the right are so desperate to do them down that they will use arguments that used to be associated with “deep ecology” Green positions.
Thus, when Joe Hockey and Daniel Andrews met in the ABC studios foyer in Melbourne last week, it was Hockey who complained that a few turbines were disturbing the vista of Lake George. Why? Because a landscape devoid of human markings is preferable to a hybrid one? Isn’t that Green paganism? Turbines are beautiful, not merely physically, but because they’re a visible reminder that we are exiting the fossil fuel era.
Which is why many on the right find them so repellent. Because they’re from the future, not the past, announcing a way of life in which we live with the planet rather than having to dominate, extract and despoil it to live prosperous lives. Gerard Henderson, doing his sad clown act on the Insiders couch, gave the game away: “I grew up in Victoria, which was made by brown coal, I love it. It made the state”, to which Fran Kelly shot back “yes, last century”. If all the right have in their kick to argue for brown energy is nostalgia for a time when the Earth was the domain of humanity given by God, etc, etc, then they’re in deep trouble.
They know it, too. The rise of things like household solar presage far greater shifts than alternative energy models and competition to existing supply; such new forms of power undermine the very form of value on which a high-profit energy sector is based. The plain fact is that the spread of household solar and the advance of a two-way grid is not merely an expansion of private competition — it is the beginning of a socialisation of the grid, and of the production of energy in society. And much more beyond that.
This radical effect has crept up on people because the only prior model of socialisation we have known is state-nationalised enterprises, a la the old State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Such statist social democracy arose in the 20th century, for a variety of political and economic reasons. In the ’80s, it was unbuckled into privatisation — which produced some efficiencies and investment through profit and competition, which were quickly swamped by higher energy prices and underinvestment as take-away profit margins were widened.
Thus we became accustomed to the idea that a “socialist” form of managing energy was the old, bad way, and private capitalist methods were superior. So few, least of all Big Energy, saw coming the technological revolution, which would make a form of energy supply possible that was socialised, while being independent of the state. Rooftop solar is 2% of the energy supply. One way or another it will start to grow exponentially. Once it passes a critical point, the grid will be neither a private nor a state entity, but a social one. As other technologies grow and proliferate — such as the CSIRO’s printable solar cells — establishment and repair costs will plummet. Sooner rather than later, in new build, roofs will be cells, and the distinction will collapse entirely. With the advancing revolution in battery storage, the “grid” will cease to exist in its current form. The “grid” will be a network of shared abundant power, the production/consumption division collapsed.
That’s a ways away — though closer than you think — but what terrifies Big Energy is the transition to it, which is a long slide zone of unknowable investment and profit effects, headed only one way. Headed only one way, without the intervention of a capitalist state, that is. Where at one stage of national development the capitalist/social democratic state saw its role as connecting science, technology and production together, the neoliberal Australian state now sees its role as decoupling them.
Why? Because all that capitalism now has on its side is the maintenance of scarcity. That becomes all the more urgent as technological development, driven in various areas by the exponential advances governed by Moore’s law, swamps existing scarcity so comprehensively as to destabilise basic rates of profit. Property and the market were once forces of innovation — now, with so any committed to spontaneous tech development, open-source sharing and hybrid involvement/investment models, there is a faster mode of co-operation and innovation. So capital must put the brakes on. On everything. Which is why a government like Abbott’s now gives the appearance of being a gangsterish bunch of rent-seeking enforcers. Their only job is to hold innovation back. They abolished the minister of science position, because science itself is now their enemy.
Why isn’t there anyone in the Labor Party who can speak to this, with some form of vision, tying amazing technical developments to families in the burbs having easier, more prosperous, cleaner, greener lives? Quite aside from Labor paralysis, there is labour paralysis too. The labour movement doesn’t know what to do about these rapid shifts, even if it recognises them occurring. The Labor/Labour complex needs to come up with a comprehensive answer to the imminent crisis of jobs and work about to envelope half a dozen industries, including energy. If they stay isolated and simply defend increasingly low value — and often boring, dangerous and unpleasant — jobs as they are, without any sort of transition plan, then they will find their only ally is Old Capital, which makes its money by exploiting them.
They won’t even have the rest of the working- and working-middle class with them — since people will be itching to convert to self-funding solar and half-a-dozen other new technologies, and will eventually resent the obstruction of things that will improve their lives. As these technologies challenge the basis of capital itself, so too will they challenge the fundamental divisions of class. If Labor doesn’t get ahead of this, the Greens will — and in a decade this broad, high-tech working-middle class will become their class, and Richard Di Natale’s forecast of a 20% vote will look modest in retrospect. Labor in the 21st century is on the way to following the fate of the British Liberal Party in the 20th — a once mighty progressive force, reduced in a short passage of time to a rump, victim of a refusal to tackle the contradictions inherent in its program.
What should Labor or the Greens do about rooftop solar? Be audacious. Instead of copping this RET nobbling sweet, advance the idea that basic rooftop solar should be given away free. It is, by one measure, the app, of which new energy is the output — and who pays for Google, or Adobe PDF? Move us forward, beyond rent-seeking, to the new material economy. Help people bootstrap themselves, and the country, to a radical cost reduction. Yes, it will be attacked — pink batts and all of that.
But Labor or the Greens need to have the argument, and make it part of the wider argument about the radical changes engulfing us. That’s a Keating style of politics, but the degree of change is greater than anything Keating had to deal with. He was simply ordo-liberalising a labourist social democracy. Australia’s whole economy, its rate and process of accumulation, employment and output, is being colonised by the advance of post-capitalism. None of the equations that the dim kids who do commerce were taught in their textbooks are going to work anymore. With every passing year, they will be less accurate about reality than they were the year before.
We may be slow to do this, but others won’t be. China in particular. For a decade or so, China was held up in the West as a message to the greenies, etc, about what a really muscular capitalist society was doing. Trouble is, it wasn’t a capitalist society — it was a big capitalist sector inside a dirigiste socialist society, with five-year plans, state industries and the works. Having used brown power to generate two decades of 10% growth per annum, it is now using state direction to make a fast transition to renewables. Why? Not purely, or even primarily because of global warming or pollution, but for what China has been seeking since Western powers occupied it in the 1830s: a return of self-determination and national autarchy, i.e. total self-sufficiency. The delusional belief — contrary to all appearances — that China is not racing to a point where it can eliminate all imports, brown coal included, is delusional. Ultimately, it is a last surviving example of a magical belief in white-skin privilege. The brown people will always need our brown coal. Not soon they won’t.
This is what makes the conduct of Abbott and Co. so genuinely traitorous, rather than simply slack, decadent, etc, etc. Because the advanced areas of the world — such as northern Europe and China — are well on the road to post-capitalism. They’re pioneering multi-levelled, multi-dimensional economies of interlinked social-market-national enterprises. Crucially, they’re dependent on transforming import sectors, such as energy and materials (i.e. for construction), into homegrown zero marginal cost outputs, which reinforce each other (your solar-powered 3D printer in your 3D-printed home prints out your new solar cells). This stuff ain’t coming. This is here. Any nation that wants to retain its independence in this new world better develop this stuff fast.
Conversely, any nation that doesn’t, will commit itself to a form of backward dependency reminiscent of the underdevelopment of the third world in the post-WWII era — dependent on global markets of steadily decreasing value, and caught in an under-accumulation trap. That is not only where we’re heading, it is where we are being driven by this government, the rent-seeking sectors that donate to its parties, the unions that will not think ahead, the Labor leaders drawn from those unions, the dimwitted “experts” of the financial pages, the delusional nostalgists of the IPA, etc.
I’m against the death penalty — but when the truth and reconciliation commission comes for a government that has trashed everything from the CSIRO on down, I may be willing to make an exception.