Oct 03, 2022 Last Updated 2:22 AM, Sep 25, 2022

Essay: Eco-socialist visions, how Indonesia could inspire Australia

Published: Apr 16, 2022

Gerry van Klinken

In the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, Leonardo di Caprio is an astronomer who sees a ‘planet-killer’ comet hurtling towards earth that will hit in the six months’ time. But when he and his doctoral student Jennifer Lawrence try to persuade politicians and big business to do something about it, they get laughed off the television talk shows. The killer comet is science fiction. But the looming climate crisis is real, and just as dangerous. Like Di Caprio’s astronomer, today’s climate scientists cannot get a serious hearing. They can see the climate breakdown killing numerous species, including the Homo Sapiens that created the crisis. But the television talk shows are not interested. Not even one climate scientist is in the top level of government in Indonesia. Nor in Australia, nor in most other countries. UN Secretary General António Guterres told the Glasgow climate conference last November: ‘Recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around. This is an illusion.’ 

Is escape from this suicidal trajectory possible? Is a new world thinkable beyond the abyss towards which Indonesia and its forever-neighbour Australia are hurtling, along with the rest of the planet? I think the answer is Yes. I will go further, and say there are good reasons for imagining Indonesia as a pioneer on the road towards that wholesome new world. Indonesia can help Australia to go there too.

The reasons may sound crazy. Most television talk shows in Indonesia are as frothy as those in Don’t Look Up. But hear me out.

Yes, the scale of the social transformation that is required boggles the mind. It involves an entirely new politics, beginning with the complete removal of all fossil fuels from the economy. Not in 2050, but now, this decade. All the coalmines in Kalimantan and in Central Queensland are to be shut down; all the oil wells; all the gas fields of Natuna and off Western Australia. Car-choked cities like Jakarta and Sydney must be revitalised so they are for people, not for cars. Agriculture must be localised, so that Kalimantan’s forests are not cut down for palm oil to make European shampoo, and Australian air is not polluted with methane for Korea’s beef. All modes of production, of work, and of consumption must be made sustainable. Instead of rewarding waste and endless growth, new economic rules must reward zero growth, recycling, and building stuff that lasts a long time. Not just technology must change, but the way in which humans are part of technology. Every worker must have a fair income, especially if they have to learn new green technologies. Everyone must have full health care in the hostile world of heat waves, floods, and pandemics of the future.

Above all, politics must become far more democratic than they are today. Big corporations must no longer be able to buy the major political parties as they do now. They can no longer own newspapers, social media, and television stations. They can no longer push governments to start wars over scarce resources – politics must be demilitarised.

This may sound like a lot, and it is. But nothing less will do. All these transformations are necessary to create a world in which humans no longer destroy life in order to have cheap flights and plastic everywhere, but in which we enhance life – our own and that of the biosphere. 

So, what makes me think it is possible? Three things. Here’s one. Ordinary people everywhere are already more concerned about the urgency of effective climate action than their most powerful elites are. And Indonesians might be more concerned than Australians. A 2015 global survey found that 82 per cent in Indonesia considered global warming a ‘very’ serious problem, while only 52 per cent of Australians thought the same. Asked if their governments were doing enough to try to tackle global warming, 85 per cent of Indonesians said ‘no,’ while only 67 per cent of Australian respondents thought the same. (Admittedly this is not the last word. Another survey showed that most people – including Indonesians and Australians - considered climate change less threatening than other crises such as poverty or terrorism.)

People want change, but they face a huge challenge. Governments in both countries are in the pockets of fossil fuel corporations. Greenpeace showed in its 15-minute 2020 documentary Dirty Power how closely the coal lobby is interwoven with the Australian government. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison came to power in 2018 after industry complained that his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was threatening to slow down coal extraction. Dandhy Laksono and Suparta Arz explored similar connections in Indonesia with their 90-minute 2019 documentary Sexy Killers (reviewed here). Jakarta´s corporate interests dominate the public sphere so effectively that the Indonesian Greens, Partai Hijau Indonesia, is not even eligible to participate in elections. Australia’s first-past-the-post system meanwhile leaves the Australian Greens with only a balance-of-power hope for influence.

Sukarno

These are all deeply depressing signs of political failure. But here's the second thing. I am hopeful that Indonesians can pioneer change because they have bucked their ruling powers once before. Over the years before World War II, leading Indonesian opinion-makers grew convinced that the problem to overcome was not their own cultural backwardness, but global capitalism. What shifted them was reading Lenin’s book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, of 1917. This said that the western nations became colonial powers, not so they could bring higher civilisation to Africa and Asia, but to get some return on the superfluous finance their ever-expanding monopoly capitalist industries were generating. Surplus value was supposed to flow from the periphery (Indonesia) to the core (the Netherlands). Exploitation in the peripheries was the result. Anti-colonialism became a struggle for justice.

Official Portrait of Sukarno c 1949 / KITLV

When Sukarno read his defence speech in a Bandung court in 1930, much of it came directly out of Lenin. He focused on land use, not manufacture. Profits of Dutch plantations in Indonesia went to the Netherlands (‘drainage’), leaving Indonesians impoverished. ‘All world history is the story of human peoples or nations trying to escape misfortune,’ he said to thunderous applause.

The Revolution of 1945-1950 was precisely such a struggle for justice. At tremendous cost, Indonesians created a democratic republic, free from the kind of politicised ethnicity the colonial Dutch had used to divide and rule them. ‘Socialism’ was the goal on everyone’s lips, whether religious or secular.

Little of that had become a reality by the time Suharto and his generals took over after a bloody coup and anti-communist purge in 1965. Yet justice and socialism remain potent ideals in Indonesian public discourse to the present day, in a way one rarely hears in Australia. Social equality is written into the constitution. Even the retired general Prabowo campaigned on ‘the people´s economy’ when he sought the presidency in 2014. Aussies hugely admired Indonesians in 1945. They were themselves involved in socialist experiments under the Labor Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley, but never as radically as the Indonesians.

Marx

Indonesia today is a comfortable middle-income country. Socialist utopias have lost their shine for most people, and the appetite for revolution seems confined to a few groups of activists. The ‘PKI’ is regularly invoked by establishment influencers as an eternal threat to the unitary nation-state. Many climate activists for that reason avoid the historically loaded term ‘socialism’ and speak more generally of a ‘sustainable future.’ However, they do this at the risk of obscuring the gravity of the situation. If even the American business magazine Forbes declares climate change ’humanity´s greatest challenge,’ there must be space for clear speaking.

In many ways the challenges Indonesians face in the 2020s are once again like those they faced in the 1930s, but with an added dimension. Then, capitalism was seen to damage societies by exploiting labour and alienating human beings from each other. That is once again true today. Gig economies in Indonesia and especially Australia, for example, have massively undermined the protections workers had won only a few years before. But capitalism is today also seen to damage nature, of which we are a part and upon which we depend completely. It is becoming ever clearer that capitalist ventures bent on never-ending, unfettered growth are destroying forests and rivers, coastlines, reefs, even entire oceans. Capitalism kills because it sees nature as a free resource, ready to be privatised for profit. Then, as now, these interests are highly politicised and well-connected. They do not give up easily.

Climate justice

Back then, Sukarno saw that all the social problems around him were linked together. They demanded a complete rethink of everything he had been taught. Today’s ecological activists, too, are synthesising a large number of issues into one new over-arching narrative, that of global climate justice. Like Sukarno, today’s activists have a clear moral focus that creates a unifying vision out of those multiple causes.

The eco-socialist scholar John Bellamy Foster has described what that moral focus is:

‘Marx once wrote that human beings don’t own the earth, that we simply use it and have to conserve and maintain it together for future generations. I think of this as the basic moral principle underlying all questions of sustainability—a universal guidepost for any society that believes that future generations should have an equal chance to our own…. The environmental movement needs to face up to the fact that its goals run directly up against a highly intransigent opposition that is rooted in the power structures of capitalist society. Ultimately, achieving environmental sustainability will require us to transform those structures of power and not simply alter their minor manifestations.’

Joel Kovel, the academic who once ran for the Senate with the Green Party of the United States, wrote: 

'capital must go if we are to survive as a civilization and, indeed, a species; and all partial measures and reforms should be taken in the spirit of bringing about capital's downfall. Nothing could seem more daunting than this, indeed, in the current balance of forces, it seems inconceivable. Therefore, the first job must be to conceive it as a possibility, and not to succumb passively to the given situation. Capital expresses no law of nature; it has been the result of choice, and there is no essential reason to assume it cannot be un-chosen. Conceiving things this way is scarcely sufficient. But it is necessary, in both a moral and a practical sense.’

There was a time when achieving this goal seemed impossible. The literary critic Fredric Jameson observed darkly as recently as 1994: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ But here’s the third thing. COVID-19 changed all that. Governments in Indonesia and Australia introduced new subsidies to poor families and to small and medium businesses to tide them over the disruption caused by the disease. Presumably afraid of unrest, they defied their own neoliberal ideologies to do so. If a medical emergency can force governments around the world to temporarily abandon their marketist ideology, why shouldn’t a global climate emergency bring about the complete demise of capitalism?

Revolutionary poster in Jakarta / https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/digdeeper/sukarno

We want a world that stops making war on nature, that learns to live in harmony with every creature. Such an enlightened world will come, of that I am convinced. But no country can do it alone. No government will do it without pressure from below. This is a moment calling for global solidarity and revolutionary change. We must think what we can do now to take the rest of us there, in the face of all the odds.

Ecological activists in Indonesia and Australia should begin now to collaborate on imagining an eco-socialist utopia after the apocalypse. They can perhaps make a start on this as part of the AUD$200 million climate and infrastructure partnership the Australian Labor Party will offer Jakarta if it wins power in May 2022. Together, we need to learn what that friendlier and more sustainable world beyond capitalism looks like in all its facets. We need to flesh out this ‘concrete utopia,’ as Ernst Bloch once called such practical future-oriented ideas. When we do meet, we should be as resolute and unafraid in the 2020s as Indonesians were in 1945.

Gerry van Klinken (klinken@kitlv.nl) is honorary professor at the University of Queensland, the University of Amsterdam, and KITLV.

Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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