What will be the future of Oceania? Part II

The first part of this post considered a range of visions for Oceania that would likely result in deepening our vulnerability and dependencies. Part 2 picks up from there and considers whether there any scenarios that will enable a viable future for Oceania without undermining its autonomy and exploiting its human and natural resources.  I am tempted here to paraphrase Alain Badiou when he was asked about alternatives to capitalism – at the moment I’m far from believing that one can change the aid dependency and vulnerability of the Pacific, but I’m convinced that we must change it! 

I should mention that there are several alternate visions for Oceania that have been put forward that are more favourable to the region than those mentioned in Part 1.  Arnie Saiki’s Ecological-Economic Accounts: Towards Intemerate Valuesand Dr. Andrew Merrie’s Oceans Back from the Brink are two that are as innovative as they are empowering. The Pacific Theological College has also produce a publication on post-COVID visions for the Pacific which is worth looking to for inspiration.

However, the key point I wish to make in Part 2 of this post is that an all too often overlooked consideration when constructing visions of the future are the political and economic structures that would be required to achieve them. For example, the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) provide a set of compelling visions yet adopting them means one also silently accepting the continuation of free market capitalism underpinning,  and in fact it undermining, them. To paraphrase Slavoj Zizek,  the true utopians here are not those who believe the SDG are achievable but rather those who believe they can be achieved through the continuation of global capitalism. Global capitalism is a system whose purpose is to maximise profits and growth while money and power are increasingly concentrated in a small group of elites (the “1%” as the Occupy movement named them). Ignoring this political-economic dimension condemns us to simply reinforce the very systems responsible for the ongoing threats to our regional autonomy and fragility.  Therefore questions about the distribution of resources and power in Pacific societies, the region and across the globe are crucial to understanding how future scenarios might play out.

Fredric Jameson once observed that for most of us its easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. Yet, today we find ourselves in a unique situation where both the end of capitalism and the threats to our survival posed by climate change appear ever more present and therefore are placing pressure on the ways we organise politically and economically.  However, while Marx was right to insist on the self-destructive logic of capitalism, there is no emancipatory subject ready and waiting to  bring an alternative system to replace it (including a colonial or post-colonial Pacific subject – a topic for another post). Therefore we cannot avoid questions of how the region, and indeed the world, will organise itself politically and economically to deal with these dual crises in order to achieve the vision we have for Oceania. If we do, then our future will certainly be determined by others.

There are two notable pieces of work that help us to think through what political-economic system may emerge as a result of this double crisis of capitalism and climate change. In Climate Leviathan, Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann identify four different social formations that might emerge based on combinations of two oppositions: (1) capitalist vs non-capitalist; and (2) planetary sovereignty vs anti-planetary sovereignty (see table below).

Planetary Sovereignty

Anti-Planetary Sovereignty


Climate Leviathan

Climate Behemoth


Climate Mao

Climate X

Here, planetary sovereignty refers to the presence of some form of global sovereign power “who can decide on the exception, declare an emergency, and decide who may emit carbon and who cannot”¹.  Therefore, the four social formations identified by the authors reflect either the presence of absence of this sovereign power as well as whether climate action will be driven by the market and profit-making or not. Climate Leviathan would be a capitalist driven attempt to address climate change backed by a global sovereign power (perhaps a UNFCCC COP with more teeth?), whereas Climate Mao is an anticapitalist global sovereign with a more authoritarian power. Climate Behemoth reflects a withdrawal into some form of reactionary capitalist nationalism, and Climate X  is an attempt to break out of both capitalist solutions and the seemingly endless international meetings that repeatedly fail to achieve anything significant. Nonetheless, the key point made by the authors is not to predict which political-economic formation will occur, but rather to highlight that the future will consist of hegemonic struggles between each of them.  

In Four Futures Peter Frase conducts a thought experiment on what awaits us after the imminent demise of global neoliberal capitalism, driven by the dual crises facing capitalism today of climate change and automation. Similar to Wainwright and Mann , Frase identifies four scenarios based upon combinations of two oppositions: (1) resource abundance vs. scarcity, and (2) egalitarianism vs. hierarchy (see table below).









Based on these combinations, Frase argues that the future will be driven by two key questions. The first, regards resource scarcity and “the ability to find cheap sources of energy, to extract or recycle raw materials, and generally to depend on the Earth’s capacity to provide a high material standard of living to all”². The second key question is whether we want a society in which all people are treated as free and equal beings, with an equal right to share in society’s wealth, or a hierarchical order in which an elite dominates and controls the masses and their access to social resources³. Again, such scenarios are not predictions but rather possibilities that may exist in a constant struggle to assert themselves.

Together, these two works provide inspiration  and a framework for thinking through the possible and desired forms of political and economic organisation required to secure the future of Oceania in a context where the dual crises of capitalism and climate change will impact not only on our dependency and vulnerability, but our very existence. It is clear that free market capitalism has failed to provide for the wellbeing of the people and environment of Oceania, while forms of political organisation at both national and regional levels have only served to exploit this failure for greater dependency on financial aid, thereby reinforcing the system itself and the class relations it produces. To borrow from Albert Wendt, our task today must be towards a new Oceania not prefigured by any model including a simple return to culture. Rather the new Oceania will be determined through our struggles within, against and beyond the violent hegemony of global capitalism cast over the region today.

What this means is nothing short of a pan-Pacific political movement that connects the transnational underprivileged classes of the Pacific against the transnational elites. Most immediately this means supporting a shift in political consciousness across the region while organizing spaces of collective political action, thinking and solidarity. The current COVID crisis may provide some opportunities here. For example, hundreds of Pacific Islanders have lost jobs and returned to their villages as a necessary source of resilience. But rather than simply celebrating this as a return to traditional ways of living perhaps one should seek to identify, if not help propagate, new forms of solidarity between precarious workers, the unemployed and rural village communities. Building new political forms and subjectivities also means building on and connecting with existing efforts, such as movements against climate change or deep sea mining. However, we also should not shy away from taking state power and redeploying it in a manner that is more egalitarian, transparent and protects the ecological integrity of Oceania. 

Footnotes 1. Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, ‘Climate Leviathan’, Antipode, 45 (2012, pp. 1-22). 2. Peter Frase, ‘Four Futures’, Jacobin, 13 December 2011, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures 3. Ibid.