Ode to joy, the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, buoys the spirits of G20 leaders as they gather with groupies, minders and hangers-on, Friday, in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a glittering crystal palace soaring high above its brick foundation, once the base of an old cocoa warehouse. The building is a triumphal monument to high culture towering over the hoi polloi swarming Germany’s busiest port below.
“It’s a hymn to humanity, peace and international understanding,” purrs G20 host German Chancellor Angela “Mutti” (mother) Merkel, explaining why she chose Beethoven’s last major work at a time of unprecedented international conflict and brutality. The choice of venue, a sanctuary for a privileged elite speaks for itself.
As host, Germany also sets the agenda. No-one is looking to the US for leadership. The G20 is now the G19.
Keen to move delegates beyond their habitual GDP fetish, Merkel inserts health into the G19+1 agenda. The only leader to have attended all twelve gabfests, she knows what will work. Perhaps she recalls Australia’s failure.
Who can forget the embarrassment of watching Tony Abbott in 2014 as he bizarrely sought to recruit world leaders’ into his local political challenge of imposing a GP co-payment? Was he winging it? His retreat into domestic politics perplexed leaders as much as Hockey’s call for 2% plus growth with no idea how to get there.
Australian media have already set their own agenda, of course, with our ABC hyping “military action” on North Korea endlessly before the G20. Effortlessly it recycles clichés of “rogue state”, “hermit state” and now “client state” in its mission to support a Turnbull government reduced to echoing or second-guessing US foreign policy.
It’s a crisis. No-one, including its president seems to knows what US has planned for North Korea but acting PM Barnaby, Kamikaze, Joyce says we’ll back any trade sanctions which it may impose on China, a posture Julie Bishop affirms on her return from the US. North Korea may nuke North Australia, any moment, Barnaby assures us.
Incredibly, cool hand Luke, David Johnston, Defence’s chief of joint operations, disagrees. The likelihood Pyongyang would even target Australia is “low”. Even if they had the means. Media outlets, naturally, ignore him. Who could pass up an excuse to screen images of goose-stepping troops? Shots of rockets belching flames?
We are unlikely to be on North Korea’s hit list, confirms University of Tasmania missile systems expert James Dwyer on ABC Radio and later on Sunday’s TV news in a rare and commendable correction to Joyce’s hysteria.
“The more that a person feels dependent, powerless and vulnerable, at the mercy of a system over which they have no control, the more terrifying it is to think that the system is deeply flawed.”
In a post truth, Trumpocene era, moreover, truth is losing its value as society’s reserve currency while legitimate scepticism is yielding place to pernicious relativism warns The Guardian’s Matthew D’Ancona.
“Emotional resonance”, he adds, or gut feeling – a narrative that gives visceral meaning – increasingly means more than fact or evidence. The vibe. Certainly there’s a vibe to Ode to Joy, a revolutionary anthem.
Ode to Joy forms a touching counterpoint to the cries of protesters as they rise above the sirens of Hamburg Police’s tank-like police water cannons rumbling far below. Plumes of acrid smoke arise from cars set alight.
Almost all of the 100,000 who are in Hamburg to protest are non-violent. The same cannot be said of the societies represented around the G20 conference table. Or the state-sponsored violence. Everyday lives in US, Russia or Saudi Arabia are among the world’s least peaceful according to The Global Peace Index 2017.
Violence may cost 12.6% of world GDP in 2016 or $14.4 trillion in purchasing power parity.
Even harder to measure is the violence done to those suffering austerity budgeting such as Greece which has been forced by its lenders such as the European Central Bank to agree to further spending cuts, pension reductions and tax rises in order to unlock emergency funds. The bank is a key G20 player, safe inside the towering concert hall.
Formed in 2008 to fix the GFC, the G20 pursues something called stable and resilient economic growth, a task which consists mainly of putting on a talk show. No-one except MSM which hypes a Putin-Trump showdown and a North Korean slapdown and, of course, the odd grand-standing politician expects it do anything more.
The European Central Bank, in its 2014 study, for example, concludes the annual group of twenty meeting has no effect on anything much. Merkel is hopeful in adding a health ministers’ discussion. Or shrewdly courting votes.
Those who dismiss the G20 as international capitalism talking to itself in public should, however, look beyond the windy free market rhetoric and neoliberal truisms, to its role as political theatre. This year the drama is vastly enriched by a reality TV presidency who adds all the bullying, bitching and backstabbing banality of Celebrity Apprentice or in the Putin-Trump kiss and tell feature segment, a good dollop of Farmer Takes a Wife.
Yet there are rules and expectations. Much tut-tutting is heard, for example, when soi-disant feminist, Ivanka Trump, deputises for her father when Donald has to duck out unexpectedly of a Saturday meeting for some undisclosed one on one discussion. Perhaps his attention-span is playing up again.
No biggie. Unless you want to get picky about the Trump family firm’s teamwork. Or nepotism. Or where the Presidency involves the national interest rather than Trump Inc business. Or Ivanka’s potential benefit.
A White House spokesman opaquely explains:
“… the topic involved areas such as African development, areas that will benefit from the facility just announced by the World Bank.” The White House adds that other leaders had their seats filled by others. But not by family.
There’s clearly more to the G20 show than just a lot of hot air. It’s a ritual re-enactment of how international capitalism, hopelessly diseased by neoliberal faith, helps the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Austerity budgeting or slashing public spending or balancing budgets with maximum suffering is part of its reason for being.
Whilst Germany’s Chancellor may be a neoliberal pin-up abroad, not everyone’s a fan at home. In the eyes of many Europeans, Merkel rivals IMF MD Christine LaGarde as fiscal austerity’s door-bitch.
“The policies of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaeuble have no doubt contributed to the deep crises in the European Union since 2008, to the isolation of a dominant German government and, through a relentless insistence on austerity, to high unemployment outside Germany,” Vice Chancellor Gabriel argues.
The G20 takes place amid galloping global inequality caused by globalisation. Just eight men now own the same wealth as half the world, Oxfam reminds us in its January 2017 report Economy for the ninety-nine per cent. One in ten people survive on less than $2 per day. There are huge inequalities within societies such as pay for women.
On present trends, it will take 170 years before women are paid the same as men.
Big business and the super-rich fuel our inequality crisis by dodging taxes, driving down wages and using their power to influence politics. Oxfam, doubtless, along with many protesters in Hamburg seek a fundamental change in the way we manage our economies so that they work for all people, and not just a fortunate few.
Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy, says Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International.
“Across the world, people are being left behind. Their wages are stagnating yet corporate bosses take home million dollar bonuses; their health and education services are cut while corporations and the super-rich dodge their taxes; their voices are ignored as governments sing to the tune of big business and a wealthy elite.”
The sparkling new high rise concert hall, however, insulates delegates beautifully from tens of thousands who protest far below. As it is, a police lockdown causes five guests, including Malcolm Turnbull to miss the start.
Turnbull doubtless has time to take in the word from the street of Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now.
“The model itself is broken.” We need a new model to undermine the racism and thuggery of Trump and his ilk—one that values human life before the profits of the superrich.”
20,000 well-equipped police use pepper spray, water cannon as well as underwater and aerial drones to protect 38 square kilometre designated ‘no protest zone’. 74 police officers and several protesters are reported hurt.
Outlawing protest would meet with Malcolm Turnbull’s approval. The “no protest zone” in Hamburg parallels initiatives taken by Australian federal and state governments to curb dissent, erode protest rights and press freedom in order increase state power and ensure vested business interests are protected.
Turnbull could swap stories with Merkel about changes to laws in NSW which make it harder to protest about mining. Police were given new powers to stop, search and detain protesters and seize property. Peaceful protests could be shut down on the grounds that they obstruct traffic. The offence of “interfering” with a mine, is expanded to cover coal seam gas exploration and extraction sites. It carries a seven year jail penalty.
The Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, follows similar laws targeting Tasmanian anti-logging protesters and Western Australian environmentalists. The bill confers expanded powers on police and increases penalties for protesters.
Australia’s G20 mission, however, seems to be couched in terms of echoing The White House’s spin of the moment on North Korea, along with our usual rhubarb about freeing up trade and investment. Climate is talked up and there are always opportunities to repeat the furphy that we are world leaders in re-settling refugees.
Sky News lets us know of a leader-level discussion behind closed doors on terrorism, Friday, where Mr Turnbull calls for cyberspace to be treated “just as seriously as the battlefield” in countering Islamic State. It’s all part of the fertile war footing and anti-terror alarmism that helps our government increase surveillance, discourage dissent and curtail human rights, including indefinite detention much to the horror of Human Rights Watch .
Such moves, especially detention were likely to radicalise potential terrorists HRW protested in its submission to government last October. Yet “cyber”, as it is now called, by dangerous Dan Tehan, is a great distractor and a wonderful way to convey the illusion that a government that has trouble keeping Medicare numbers private or getting its Robocall debt recovery right, is somehow hard at work protecting every hard-working Australian.
Dan is also careful to tell us that cyber is not all defence. In some unspecified way, we are to wage cyber war as well. How our first hack capability will be implemented is unsaid. What’s certain is the IT industry will be happy. IBM will be delighted to atone for its census fail.
Dan tells us, deathlessly, that “The Defence Signals Directorate will be given legal authority to expand offensive cyber operations from a military role to civilian targets overseas. It’s breathtaking stuff – even if it does look like a tactical diversion from a government which is bitterly divided and poorly led.
‘As of tomorrow, Australia will have an information warfare division within Defence. This is a result of the changing character of contemporary conflict,’ Tehan declares. It’s so innovative and hush-hush nobody knows any details.
Clearly Australia is at war. The subtext is that of our ongoing war on Islam, a conflict which is conflated with the War on Terror, an epic invention of George Bush, along with WMD, lies which were somehow meant to help find and punish those responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre and which led us into war in Afghanistan.
Now, however, Trump’s advisers want us to know that we are all at war with Jihadist Islamic fascism.
In a rare show of lucidity, US tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump reads a speech in Poland as a type of prelude to the G20 – an off G20 show. It’s an amazing success. Authorities bus in hundreds of spectators from the countryside to ensure the President is shown in a square which seems packed with cheering fans. The Donald is deliriously happy.
The speech itself, however is pure Steve Bannon, Trump’s new chief strategist, who argues that the West is in “the very beginning stages of a brutal and bloody conflict . . . against jihadist Islamic fascism,” while KT McFarland, his new deputy national security advisor, argues that we are engaged in a “long war” against radical Islam. The idea is endorsed by former national security adviser and lobbyist for the Turkish government Michael Flynn.
Trump’s address and the rants of his ratbag minders owe much to Harvard academic the late Samuel P Huntington, who decries the clash of civilizations, American decline, and sees a West encircled by enemies. Immigration is hugely bad too.
It’s a text both for our times and for our politicians. It proposes a beguilingly simple, albeit paranoid and unrealistic, theory to explain a complex world. The downside is that it provides nothing to guide any policy. Beyond that it is reductive, distorts reality and misrepresents the complex causation of warfare.
Will our US vassal government take up the Donald’s vision of the clash of civilisations? Highly likely. Already, there is more than a hint, in the PM’s warnings that terrorists hate our way of life and despise our values, spurious, dangerous, notions that probably also inspire our new citizenship test and oath of allegiance if we allowed a peep.
At the end of the G20, however, the ABC is reduced to applauding our PM for having hitched a ride in French President Macron’s car, a brilliant move which is seen as endorsing the incredible submarine deal with DCNS in which we are contracting to spend $50 billion on a completely untried design on a concept of retro-fitting nuclear power plants that experts doubt is even possible. All for a firm that won’t keep its promise of local work.
Our media gives us the score on the G20. Sky says it ends “divided” on climate and free trade. What Sky means is that all delegates agreed except Donald Trump, a president so challenged, intellectually and morally that he cannot comprehend the crisis of global warming, let alone the imperative take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not that he’s alone. Back at home while the cat’s away, Mouseketeer Abbott is leading his insurrection.
In the end, the truth is more prosaic. The US under Trump has failed to exercise global leadership on climate and trade. The world enters uncharted territory with China and Germany and Russia all keen to muscle in on the US act. Yet as Turnbull notes, the US has a role from which it is impossible to abdicate, given its size and power.
The G20 cheer squad for international capitalism has met yet again to further its own interests, in a Hamburg crystal palace high above the masses below.
Deaf to all entreaties, heedless of the suffering caused by their Neoliberal nostrums, their austerity budgeting, tax cuts for the rich and trickle down economics, the G20 represents an abdication of humanity which the unassailable optimist, Beethoven, inspired by the liberty equality and fraternity of The French revolution would be sorely troubled by.