Words by Dr. Aron Paul
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott built his reputation and his path to power upon two bases of conservative support—as an Anglophile monarchist and as a Catholic. So if the Australian prime minister had a conscience and followed world events, it would have been a challenging week.
The week began with Queen Elizabeth II leading celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Britain’s ‘Great Charter’ that established the rule of law and the notion of legal rights against the arbitrary excesses of executive power. At the same time, Tony Abbott's government was trashing Westminster traditions, continuing its campaign against the Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, as well as signalling it was willing to break the law to reach its own ends—‘by hook or by crook’.
Then came the Papal Encyclical. At the same time as the Abbott government slashes foreign aid, the Pope raises the banner of social justice, reminding Christians that their religion is supposed to be one founded in the notion of universal equality. At the same time as Abbott's government declares war on windmills and native forests, continuing its denial of global warming science, the Pope declares a crusade against pollution and environmental destruction of God’s ‘creation’.
Abbott At Odds With Conservatism
What are we to make of these contradictions between our prime minister’s professed beliefs and deeds, and why, moreover, should we care that Abbott finds himself at odds with the heads of two of the world’s most enduring conservative institutions—the British Crown and the Catholic Church?
The contradiction is important for what it reveals about the true nature of the current day leaders who have captured ‘conservative’ politics. It reveals that they are not, in fact, conservative and that no conservative should support them.
Common Path for Conservatives, Progressives
These contradictions also matter because our nation and the world are at risk of being led down a path of destruction by wolves in sheep’s clothing—and never was the Christian metaphor more appropriate. To save our nations and the world, people who think of themselves as conservatives and progressives must realise they share a common cause. They must unite, throwing off the labels of Left and Right which the political classes use to divide and rule them, and together steer the course of our collective history back to safety and balance, both politically and ecologically.
It isn’t only conservatives who have to abandon the leaders who have conned their way into power. Progressives must be willing to embrace and transform the symbols of conservatism, in the same way that they have embraced and transformed the symbolism of marriage under the Marriage Equality movement. In this, I include the Monarchy and the Church.
Progressive Case for Embracing Monarchy
Let us start with the Monarchy. One of the fundamental principles of monarchy, for which it is often criticised, is inheritance. At its worst, inheritance can mean class privilege. But it also represents continuity between generations and the acknowledgement of heritage. One of the fundamental bases of neo-liberal economics is that there is no such thing as inheritance, in the same way that there is no such thing as society. It is not only economic fundamentalists who are blind to the privileges of class.
The economic life-cycle curve in its idealised form promotes a cycle of consumption that begins and ends at zero resources—from an individual’s birth to death. Everything a man makes in life, he consumes. Nothing is left over for his children. This is neoliberal perfection: the maximisation of consumption, and the minimisation of responsibility beyond the ambit of one’s own individual life. Some call it freedom, others damnation.
Such a pattern runs against the symbolism of a monarchy, inherited by a family, who must pass on the realm from one generation to the next. In a constitutional monarchy, the royal family should act as custodians and in the interests of the whole nation whose heritage they share. The symbolism of monarchy calls for imagination beyond the cycle of one election or of one generation.
Progressive Case for Embracing Religion
Let us now turn to the Church. The meaning of ‘religion’ is from the Latin, ‘to bind’. One of its ancient functions is not merely to bind together societies, but to connect us to the world in which we live, to realise as William Blake declared, that ‘everything that lives is holy’. Religion opens up a world of passion and imagination as old as humanity itself.
Once, conservative leaders moderated the selfish impulse of economics through notions such as charity and self-sacrifice. Those are things we can see so-called conservative governments have long since abandoned as they appeal only to what Christians denounce as Mammon—the god of money. On his altar the whole world is now being sacrificed, from the breathing Amazon to hallowed Greece.
Symbols of Conservatism, Abandoned by ‘Conservatives’
Civilisation has been blessed with a long history and the independent institutions that have grown out of that history. For all their imperfections, past and present, the Papacy and the Monarchy today represent something valuable, symbolic counterweights to the nihilism of the neo-liberal anarchists who would destroy all history and all institutions for the sake of their own tunnel vision of their own individual freedom—a freedom based upon the continued abuse of power and the wanton pillaging of the planet.
So it’s time to throw all the political labels you cherish out the door. Stop calling Tony Abbott a Tory. The truth is that he is an anarchist and a radical. The greens have become the actual conservatives of politics.
Fighting the Selfish, Short-term, Immoral Leadership
Tony Abbott climbed the ladder of power, claiming to be a Christian and a monarchist. Once in power, he has revealed that he could not care less about either his Pope or his Queen. Instead, these venerable age old institutions provided nothing more than a deceptive cloak of moral fortitude for the nihilism that lay beneath, in the actual soul of the man. It is a nihilism—a moral vacuum—that he and his companions seek to fill with the material objects of the moment, with money and power today with little care for what is good or lasting.
Vaclav Havel, when he wrote the great essay against communist totalitarianism, ‘the Power of the Powerless’ in 1978, argued that the greatest weapon the victims of these so-called people’s dictatorships had at their disposal was the truth, and that the truth was revealed by holding the dictatorships to account for the values they claimed to profess. The strength of the people’s dictatorships lay in their claim to act in the interests of the people.
In the same way, dissidents today should hold our new would-be totalitarian governments to account by holding them to the values they have assumed in order to maintain their power. Without these cloaks of virtue, the truth of their power is unmasked. The people may see them for what they truly are: wolves ready to consume us all in their quest for their individual wealth and power without limits or responsibility.
In their hysteria against green politics, commentators in Abbott's corner sometimes scream that environmentalism is a ‘new religion’, thus exposing their own nihilist anxiety. This is their most fundamental fear—that the friends of this world may yet discover the fervour and fearlessness of a faith that everything that lives is holy. The truth is that conservatives and environmentalists are at their core desiring the same thing—not to change the world they love, but to save it from the destroyers.
It can be progressive to love the royal baby, and conservative to love the planet. But neither can afford to tolerate Tony Abbott and his henchmen if they value anything in this world worth loving.
Dr. Aron Paul is a Melbourne-based writer and historian.