Together, or not at all: An interview with Scott Ludlam

Together, or not at all: An interview with Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam is a former Greens Senator (2008 to 2017) and served as deputy leader of the Australian Greens. He has also worked as a filmmaker, artist and graphic designer. Green Agenda’s co-editor Felicity Gray spoke with Scott about his recently published book, Full Circle, and how our understandings of security must change if we are to transcend the violence of war and climate change. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Felicity Gray: Thank you for talking with Green Agenda about the book, Scott.

Scott Ludlam: Oh, my pleasure.

FG: I’ve read your book, and it’s incredibly ambitious. I’m curious about how you’ve been describing it to people?

SL: How I’ve been describing it to people… Well, it depends how long I’ve got. I still don’t feel like I’ve perfected a 10 second elevator pitch, apart from that it’s about the art and science of social movements, and it’s about what kind of world that we get next. The world that comes next if we are successful. But then, of course, there’s just a variety of different rabbit holes to go down. And I don’t think I’ve really nailed the succinct summary of what it is yet.

FG: That’s quite a good succinct summary.

SL: Alright, well we’ll go with that.

FG: You have a chapter in the book called “The Wall” that I think is particularly prescient in light of the war on Palestinians, and also in relation to the theme of this edition, which is security. The chapter talks about one of the many border walls that have been erected by Israel. Can you talk about what you see as the function of those walls? And what was your experience of them when you were in Israel and Palestine? And also, I guess, more broadly. I know you traveled a lot for the book.

SL: Yeah, well the first impression is that the security situation is much simpler than I realised it was, but the geography is vastly more complex than I had imagined it would be. It’s not like there’s one single wall. There are dozens of walls, and it kind of folds backwards and forwards across the landscape, and completely bisects neighbourhoods. In parts it’s these enormous concrete walls with these dystopian watch towers. You can tell some of them have just been battlegrounds, some of them are sprayed with a lot of graffiti. There are a couple of particularly famous sections that are almost iconic, with, you know, famous artists work on them. A lot of it isn’t, you know, not to give you the sense that there’s any kind of glamour to it, it’s thoroughly dystopian, and it completely smashes up these ancient neighbourhoods. The reason, I guess that there is such a strong focus on walls and borders and boundaries in the book is partly, this sort of underlying metaphor of the book leads you there naturally, that’s looking at the sort of continuities of structures that human societies have inherited from much older ecological origins, of which boundaries and borders is one. But also, in the more clearly relevant sense is that we need to take a good hard look at what our present system, not just of nation state borders, but of all the sub-national borders, how those are going to respond in an age of climate change, how they’re already responding in an age of climate change.

FG: And how did people in Palestine describe their experience of that kind of containment to you when you were interviewing them for the book?

SL: The containment is part of a larger project, I guess, of colonial occupation of gradually squeezing people and erasing people from ancestral lands and ancestral homes. So the walls are the most visible part of a much larger and deeper infrastructure of what is finally being more broadly acknowledged as a structure of apartheid. The way people describe it is in terms of just a thousand daily abuses, insults and violences of life in these occupied territories. That it’s a complex of checkpoints and gateways and guys with guns, people can be arbitrarily detained, people can be arrested, or people are simply prevented from moving from one side of a neighbourhood to another because they’re forced to stand in the queue for hours at a time or be searched, or had to pass through metal detectors. Now, of course, I’m a tourist, I’m carrying a foreign passport. And I’m not immediately subjected to those kinds of arbitrary barriers, but you can see that they shape every aspect of lives of Palestinians in in that part of the world.

FG: I guess, definitely, we’re seeing the implications of a lot of that continuing with the violence that’s being committed in Gaza and elsewhere.

SL: Well, what a lot of people are saying is what we’re witnessing at the moment in East Jerusalem is simply continuity. It’s like being live tweeted and it feels very present for people on the outside at the moment, but this has been happening since 1948. And it represents pure continuity. It just happens to be this one particular area that has caught on because so much of it is being broadcast through social media networks, despite the best efforts of the Zionist lobby to have stuff ripped down and blocked. It’s impossible to ignore. But I guess the thing that is maybe hard for people on the outside to get their heads around is that this has been happening every single day, for decades.

FG: I think perhaps, if there is a heartening thing about the most recent iteration of that continuity, is to see how different social movements around the world are connecting with freedom for Palestine and connecting that to their own experiences of oppression and their own social movement campaigns. Did you have some thoughts on those connections?

SL: I’ve been noticing it here, particularly in Australia, where First Nations people have very bitter experiences of occupation, they know exactly what people there are going through. The demonstrations that I’ve been to and the way that it’s being projected in Australian progressive circles, at least, is that there is solidarity from this colony to that, because the processes, although they’re somewhat out of step in terms of the timeline are brutal and symmetrical and legible. And people can tell that that’s what is happening at the moment in East Jerusalem, and in Gaza, is what happened here and is what’s continuing to happen here.

FG: Yeah, absolutely. In the book, you also describe walking through Jerusalem, and a young soldier that you observe, I’ll quote from the book: “A young woman is perched on the edge of a bench in Zion Square, scrolling through her phone, cradling an assault rifle in her lap, that looks as though it weighs more than she does.” And then when you describe that to an activist Israeli friend, Sahar, she says that “we don’t see that anymore. It’s transparent to us.” She says that it’s “daily life” to her, and that, in that context, you stop seeing weapons as threatening. How do you think those kinds of observations about security are playing out more globally? That in the face of so much violence, are we all becoming desensitised in the way that she’s talking about?

SL: I think that’s a very, very real concern. So Sahar is an Israeli conscientious objector who had been served prison time from her late teens for refusing to serve in the IDF. So now she works helping other Jewish kids who are also objecting to the conscription that they all have to do. And I feel like it is a really valuable observation. So in Australia, we’ve become desensitised to the forced dispossession of Aboriginal people, we’ve become desensitised to offshore island prisons for people fleeing war and violence. Although there’s obviously still a very vibrant movement for freeing refugees for overturning decades of bipartisan policy, and the Greens are a really important part of that, a large part of population has just come to accept that as normal. The major parties make this calculation that a lot of Australians either don’t see the point, or don’t care. In Australia, we’ve become desensitised to indefinite detention, so that we’re just imprisoning people who haven’t committed any form of crime. We’re detaining them, in some cases until they kill themselves, we refuse them medical care, accept that they will be ill, and that some of them are going to be in there for the rest of their lives. That’s the kind of desensitisation that terrifies me about the present world system, that’s going to respond with these really punitive infrastructures, when larger numbers of people are on the move than already are, through instability provoked by climate change. We have to get in front of that. And we have to see that coming, and we have to continue to refuse within the Green movement, within broader progressive movements, to never accept that as normal, or as something that should continue into the future.

FG: You’ve given a couple of examples of that clear disconnection that people seem to have between their own life or their own political position and the facts of what is actually happening. I think we’re seeing that in the context of the current events in Palestine, you know, countries like the US and Australia who are backing Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and on Palestinians very overtly and without any mention of the kind of violence and death that those attacks create. I’m wondering how can we encourage a reconnection between ideas and actions of security, and the suffering that it creates for people on the ground? People don’t seem to be able to make that connection, as you’ve said.

SL: I think that movements that are active at the moment, like if you look at (and I know, this is a very narrow window into the world), but at the moment if you look through the social media feeds of groups, like Extinction Rebellion here in Australia, or the school strikers, or the Greens, aren’t traditionally narrowly campaigning in solidarity with Palestinians but their social media feeds are full of solidarity messages, and rebroadcasting events, and showing their followers who to follow ,who’s got the news, who’s got useful information. There’s no silver lining to the carnage that’s happening in Gaza or East Jerusalem at the moment, there’s none. But at the moment I think it’s useful to notice that those networks of solidarity are clearly stronger than they were in 2014, or the last time that that really serious violence was inflicted on Palestinian people in a way that was capturing headlines. And I think it’s also becoming harder for the Zionist lobby to control the message. So there’s still this, this kind of bullshit, both sides rhetoric coming out in the New York Times and major mastheads, but I think across a lot of the media ecosystem, people are seeing this for what it is.

FG: The Greens hold peace and nonviolence as a core principle of their platform, and advocate for nonviolent direct action and other kinds of nonviolent approaches you talk about in the book. Is it possible to address the violence of the state like Israel with nonviolent action? Or, even more broadly, some of the other kind of big structural violences that we’ve spoken about – is it possible to address those with nonviolence?

SL: I think it is in the broad sweep. I mean, I’m not gonna sit here 1000s of kilometres away, dictating what tactics should or should not be used by people who are on the front line and who are being murdered day after day. I would notice though that the establishment, including the Australian Government, or the supporters of the Israeli state, are just as fiercely opposed to some of the nonviolent tactics as they are to rocket and fire from Hamas. So, you know, the extraordinary establishment pushback against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, that clearly are all nonviolent acts, these are choosing not to support certain corporations and to call out industries that are exploiting Palestinian labour or exploiting the dispossession of people in the Occupied Territories. There’s this fierce resistance to the idea of the BDS movement catching on, and we know that it’s actually caused difficulty in the past within the Greens as well in terms of whether that’s a legitimate tactic that should be supported or whether it’s misdirected. I think it would be really fraught to be dictating what kind of tactics people on the ground are using. I would just observe, though, that for the most part, the resistance is nonviolent, and the demonstrations that have been occurring worldwide have been extremely peaceful, given the carnage that’s being inflicted on the ground. I think for the most part, the tactics have been nonviolent. The hope for me is that we’ll see an expansion of movements like BDS and other unorthodox but I think quite prospective ideas for shutting down the arms industry, for example, preventing military exports from places like Australia. There have been hints of labour movement action, people refusing to load ships with weapons bound for the IDF, and potentially broader potential for nonviolent strike action. So I think that the toolbox is absolutely wide open at the moment.

FG: At the end of the wall chapter, where you’ve been reflecting on Palestine, you ask an important question, you say, “how exactly is it set up like this going to operate when the oceans rise?” Do you have an answer yet?

SL: I feel like we’ve got a straight answer because we can already see it in motion. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that really heavily militarised borders, apartheid states, or some form of global apartheid, that we’re not so far from, and we’re seeing it play out at the moment, in terms of the way that COVID vaccines are being provisioned or not. I think there’s a straight-line trajectory, which just says the rich world is going to wall itself in, it’s going to install tons of solar panels, it’s going to eat more organic food, and it’s going to be shooting at people who try to cross the Mediterranean or the Torres Strait to try and get into the rich world. That’s how these borders are going to react. And it’s going to be an absolute catastrophe. Ultimately, as Jared Diamond says, in his book Collapse, the rich world ends up buying itself the privilege to be the last ones to starve. That’s not what my book is concerned with. I feel like let’s look that straight line trajectory right in the face. Let’s name it for what it is. And then let’s reject it with absolutely everything we’ve got. An alternate way in which the world system could react as the oceans begin to rise is that we transcend the nation state, that we organise through networks of mutual aid solidarity, across borders. That we start paying attention to the movements that are already trying to do that, and we do everything that we can to weld them together and make them stronger. There’s absolutely no green nationalism solution to something like climate change. It’s the worst kind of dead end. The only way we get through this is by transcending these borders, many of them relatively recently inscribed. We have to get through this together, or not at all.

FG: I think that’s a great place to end this conversation. Thank you, Scott.

SL: You are welcome.