Listening to the desert


The Tanami is a secretive desert. To the passing traveller it appears nondescript, its spinifex and wattle-scrub plains punctuated by low blue escarpments that materialise on the horizon, then disappear again. An observant eye might notice that this low-lying country has particular features - clustered eucalypts or huge termite mounds, indicating that there were once vast, slow-moving bodies of water here.

It also seems a place almost devoid of people: a couple of roadhouses, a mining settlement, the occasional homestead. In fact, the Tanami is dense with overlapping stories. A small Abori ginal community of about 160 people holds ancestral jurisdiction here over a desert wetland of international significance. This is where I come every year to work with the traditional owners on a project to monitor and manage their unique environment.

A hot wind belts against the western wall of the building in which I'm working with several female elders, sending tin cans and plastic bottles racketing across the dusty ground. Ngawurr ngawurr, they tell me, "big rain coming behind the wind. This morning we been see snake track behind your house, cheeky one." Cheeky in this context means poisonous. It's the beginning of the season the local Walmajarri people call Yirrirriny, when hot winds alternate with the oppressive build-up of storm clouds that may or may not bring the relief of rain. The reptile populations become active; the aggressive king brown snake seeks out the dampness around leaking lawn sprinklers. The pythons and goannas that are old food staples are also active, but with summer temperatures creeping towards 50° Celsius, local people stay in their air-conditioned houses these days and watch TV rather than go hunting. After the wet, when the country is alive with new growth, people will hunt and gather again, though for recreation rather than survival.

The first thunderstorm of the season surges in from the west, rolling over the community and drenching it in the space of half an hour with 40 millimetres of rain. In the morning the roads are reflective strips of orange water, and for several days the major access route is cut. It is an indi cator that soon the non-indigenous population of teachers and administrators will decamp for their annual holidays, and the provisional influence of the white world that funds and manages these outposts will be at its most tenuous.

Remote communities are a contradictory mixture of old values and modern aspirations. In the Tanami, this is never more evident than at this time of year, as the Christian Christmas and the wet season approach. Most people are nominally Catholic, a legacy of the mission days, but the spiritual culture is a curious melding of church ritual with ancestral law. Younger people are choosing to marry in Christian ceremonies, and kinship rules that regulate marriage are breaking down. Television has displaced the storytelling of earlier times, and among the remaining elders there is a growing sense of urgency to overcome customary prohibitions and have their secret knowledge and lore recorded.

I, too, will leave before the storms trap me for the summer. It is possible that someone in my team of elders will die before I return. If that happens, another precious fragment of desert consciousness will be lost from the Tanami, probably for ever.

Kim Mahood won the Age Book of the Year non-fiction prize for "Craft for a Dry Lake" (2000), published by Anchor Australia

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times