Joe Hill, the Swedish-American folk singer and union activist, shortly before his death at the hands of a Utah firing squad in 1915, wrote to a friend: "Don't mourn. Organise!" These words became a popular rallying cry, one that I have often taken to heart myself in the struggle for social justice.
But right now these words do not seem right. Right now I cannot help but feel that if we are to organise, we must also mourn. If we are to engage in the hard work of hope we must also engage in the painful work of mourning.
Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister sounds so glib when he intones the trope of Australians' courage in the face of adversity. Courage is not in short supply on the ground. Neither is leadership. Just not from the nation's leader.
And neither is there a shortage of mourning. Deeply personal, intimate, instinctual, from the gut, where our humanity churns and our sadness pierces.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is right to call for a national day of mourning for bushfire victims and their families. This would not complete the work of mourning, but it would begin to mark the social nature of our personal pain.
There is much to mourn. The loss of life. The destruction of homes. The shattering of communities. The devastation of wildlife and the natural environment. The loss of First Nations sites of sacredness and ancient history and art.
And then there are the lies.
In The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's protagonist says: "There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies..." It is not that lies should be mourned but rather that their impact on our lives should be acknowledged, their connection with all the crushing loss as well as their role in the systematic attempt to suppress the collective yearning for a different future, a real alternative to the "new normal" the Prime Minister suggests we should get used to.
There is nothing natural about this disaster.
The "new normal", of course, is really the "old normal" left free to run its destructive trajectory. It is the normalising of powerlessness for the many in the service of unfettered growth in power for the few. It reveals itself in the way we have grown used to thinking of "the economy" as if it were a beast that must be appeased lest we suffer its wrath. It is in the interests of "the economy" that we are expected to give our assent to the decimation of the public sphere, the retrenchment of social infrastructure (including, not incidentally, the resources to fight bushfires), the loss of rights for ordinary working people, and the neoliberal wisdom that we cannot afford to address the climate emergency, that either it doesn't exist, that it's a beat-up, or that it does exist, humming away like a radio turned down low in the background but that the costs are too high to arrest its escalation.
The costs are construed as too high because of the lie that to lay a finger on certain global corporate interests would be to invite a disaster of unimaginable proportions. But now we are face to face with just such a disaster. And it did not come about because we awakened the beast, but because we let it rest easy, faced as we were with the false choice of leaving things be or individually bearing the costs of the transformation we desperately need. It is the same argument that is used to justify low wages, poverty-level social (in)security payments, unconscionable levels of unemployment, underemployment and precarity, more user-pay services and less redistribution, more "you're on your own" and less common purpose and collective achievement of hopes and aspirations through the role of good government.
Instead of crafting and shaping an economy that serves this common good, we are adjured to pay homage to the god of growth with no questions asked about where this growth should occur, how this growth is achieved, at what cost to whom, and to whose disproportionate gain. "In medicine," notes immunologist and Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty, "the only form of 'infinite growth' we recognise is called cancer. And that's ultimately finite as, when it kills its host (us) it kills itself." Says it all.
And so begins the work of organising a different future, collectively, with no small dose of anger and no small dose of hope. Not one characterised by even more of the neoliberal disease, as proposed, for example, in the idea of special economic zones of deregulation and hypermarketisation. Certainly not one defined by corporate interests that rush to ensure the future is not out of joint with the rhythm of greed. The work of organising our future is a work of democratising the economy, redistributing not only resources but hope, claiming the collective power to say no the "old normal" that has led us to where we are now, and ensuring that government does not abrogate its responsibility to act decisively for the common good.
But we must also take the time to collectively engage in the work of mourning, including our recognition and disavowal of, what was for some of us, the comforting lull of lies. It is fatuous to talk about a time of healing if we do not first acknowledge the historical depth of the social wound. There is nothing natural about this disaster. It is the cumulative effect of a deep disrespect and disregard for country and people, starting with the violence of colonisation (which actually did feature arson as a deliberate means of destroying the homes and agriculture of First Nations peoples, as Bruce Pascoe points out in Dark Emu).
As Lorena Allam, who is descended from the Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay nations of north-west NSW, has written so powerfully: "We have to help each other mourn for what we all love and are losing day by day. But it is not too late to seek solutions from First Nations people ... We know what it feels like to lose everything. And we know the rage of helplessness in the face of government indifference. Maybe this summer is the turning point, where our collective grief turns to action and we recognise the knowledge that First Nations people want to share, to make sure these horrors are never repeated."
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