ARTICLE ON WEB DIARY
Some too kind words from Margo over at Web Diary
, but I should correct the record a little. The article she published was a joint effort by Rob Schaap
and me and while I really think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (how's that for a non-neo-liberal concept?), people should note that most of the heavy lifting was done by Rob, and he provided the backbone material for the piece.
It was good of Margo, too, to mention this blog and I've alredy had a heap of hits thanks to the plug. Feel free to write
. On that note, I should also apologise for the use of the word "synergy". I don't know what came over me. Still, I'm keen to link and be linked with the vague left of bloggerland and to get some "synergy" happening. As I said to Margo, blogs seem to be dominated by the right (and blokes, or is that just my imagination?) and they are using them extremely intelligently as a way of building up networks of discussion and support. It's a good thing, but the left, I think, needs a bit more of a presence. So I was pleased to see Jack Robertson
take up the offer and put in a few kinds words. And Rob's is up and running and that promises to be a powerhouse once time permits him to get at it a bit more. Maybe we can all start to be a bit of a resource for each other, providing good material for those interested in our take on the arguments of the day.
Still, I don't want it to become a preach-to-the-coverted left ghetto (there are enough of those on the left already) so let's keep our eyes open for thoughtful stuff from all along the political gamut. One site that fits this bill is Graham Young's OnLineOpinions
, a great portal for a range of Australian writing. Check it out.
Anyway, here's the piece Rob and I did: comments always welcome.
OF RACISM AND GLOBALISATION
AND TRYING TO FIND THE COMPLICATED TRUTH
IN A SEA OF BLAME
by Rob Schaap and Tim Dunlop
We have an unprovable and unpopular theory arguing that when John Howard announced in the lead up to the 2001 Federal election that ‘we will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come’ that people responded less out of any actual racist antipathy to 'dangerous foreigners' than out of a sense of relief that someone had at last said something that put the country first.
After nearly thirty years of being told that due to the 'forces of globalisation' we had to privatise government services, sell off public assets, deregulate banking and every other industry, reduce worker entitlements in order to remain 'competitive', integrate ourselves into international institutions like the WTO
which by their nature undermine our own control over economic and social policy--in other words, having lived through a generation of neo-liberal reforms that were constantly presented to people as not only desirable¾ despite the obvious pain they caused--but also as 'inevitable' and for which they was 'no alternative', people were hanging out for someone to say, hey, what happens in our country matters and what's more, I'm going to act as if it did.
Howard's famous catch-cry fitted the bill nicely.
Of course, it is unfortunate that it did in fact tap into some of the nastier elements of racism present in Australia (elements present in any country you care to name), but to read it entirely as some sort of racist backlash and a harking back to 'White Australia' is a pathetic oversimplification. In fact it is a case of presuming the existence of the very thing you are seeking to explain.
More importantly, it lets the rabid 'globalisation' touts off the hook way too lightly, and stops us looking at the underlying causes of discontent. And that’s what we’d like to do here.
We can present only limited evidence for this of course, though we think that once you start to give it some thought, there is some logical force to it.
Anyway, what made us think of all this again was an e-mail Tim got from his sister-in-law, which should be vaguely encouraging for all those, like Hilary McPhee
, who are in serious hand-wringing mode about the ‘state of the country’. The e-mail included this passing comment:
’I went to Circus Oz last night, at the Town Hall. It was as it always is. The interesting thing is that, at the end, one of the performers invited the audience to put money in a bucket for refugee support groups. A cheer went up and - honestly – the people holding buckets were mobbed. Instead of rushing out the door, the audience headed straight for the collectors - they pushed and shoved to put their money in a bucket. I've never seen anything like it. Remarkable.’
The tone of surprise in her voice is really interesting but completely understandable, fed as we are on the belief that ‘ordinary Australians’ are irredeemably racist and that election 2001 was White Australia regnant. We voted for Howard so we must be racist, right? What this anecdote suggests is that the usual image is more complex than we are led to believe and perhaps offers some support for our little hypothesis.
We can put it into a bit more context by analysing it from economic point of view.
The economic is, always and everywhere, dependent on the non- or extra-economic sphere. Liberals and conservatives are coming to recognise this, as evinced by their recent idyllic invocations of 'civil society' (a host of 'third wayers', 'communitarians' and 'social capital' types come to mind). Since the outrage of September 11 2001, some are even mentioning The State again!
The trouble is, says British sociologist, Bob Jessop
, the old Market/Civil Society/State trinity is being rather painfully reconfigured just now.
We citizens have watched our state apparatus 'deregulate', 'liberalise' and privatise us out of our sense of democratic relevance, of national identity, and of our understanding of our place in both present and future (see Manuel Castells'
trilogy fr’instance). An ideology focused on supply side economic policy has dominated our media for nearly thirty years, and has driven the state for nearly twenty. It has simply displaced a sense of democracy as 'of, by and for' the people. In fact, under Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictate, there was no ‘the people’; there was no such thing as society.
In addition, we're mad at the state because we didn't so much watch it succumb to some irresistible external force as deliberately and methodically give away what looked like our birthright (Karl Polanyi, EP Thompson and Alex Callinicos argue/d thus). It didn't matter what we thought about it and it didn't matter who we put into government. We were told it was inevitable and to hang on.
Thus the huge disillusion throughout the western democracies with the political process, culminating not just in the fall off of actual voters in Britain and America, for example, (who can barely get 50% of those eligible to vote), but also in Australia where, as voting is compulsory, dissatisfaction has been expressed through the rise of alternative parties and independents. It is also reflected in the rise of populist right wing parties who at least purport to take ‘the people’ seriously.
We have watched the state abandon us as citizens. Jessop talks about
- the State being ‘denationalised’ with state power moving 'upwards, downwards, and sideways as state managers on different territorial scales try to enhance their respective operational autonomies and strategic capacities'
- our political system 'destatised' with the shift from 'government' to 'governance' - from a state apparatus we saw as responsive to ideological contests transformed into a bunch of technocratic managers, and
- the usurping of the citizen as the subject and object of policy by some amorphous and bemusing plethora of transnational entities like the WTO, NATO and even the UN.
These tendencies are as apparent in the policy prescriptions of the third way left as they are in the new right, and both converge on a core of economic liberalism.
We're not even allowed to take our own reservations seriously, because everything is economics now, and most of us don't have doctorates in that. We saw this sort of attitude expressed recently on these pages by Aaron Oakley
. There is always going be someone out there gunning for anybody who dares to speak on economic matters without what ‘they’ consider to be the requisite economic training.
The anti-democratic nature of such a position should be obvious, and it all serves to hobble the entire idea of democracy as participatory self-rule. Under such circumstances, expertise becomes not the helpful specialisation of knowledge in the service of the common good, but a weapon used to stifle dissent and popular participation in social debates. Experts, who in fact disagree amongst themselves, present themselves not as important contributors to national debate but as the last word to whom we should all defer.
Given that ultimately what they are dealing with are social outcomes, things we are all meant to have a say in, it is hardly surprising that the lay public gets its nose out of joint and is willing to dismiss all expertise as the self-interested ravings of a plugged-in elite.
It is less predictable, though nonetheless apparent, that this provides a perfect opportunity for the right sort of populist politician to then cast all opposition as the ravings of a selfish elite and to usurp any influence they might have had by a crude appeal to the innate goodness and common sense of ordinary people. Again, in Australia, the Johnny-on-the-spot in this regard has been our clever Prime Minister who has built up a considerable rhetorical arsenal built on the phoney distinctions between the ‘battlers’ and the ‘elites’ or ‘ordinary Australians’ and the ‘progressives’.
This in turn licenses the disenfranchised ‘elites’, the ‘progressives’ to disown the majority of their fellow citizens as ignorant rednecks, which of course also includes the charge of racism. So when the events around immigration emerged at the time of the 2001 election, it not only provided an opportunity for a populist like Howard (who was smart enough and desperate enough to seize it) but it provided confirmation of the low opinion the progressives held of ‘ordinary Australians’ and encouraged them to ignore all the other forces that were crystallised in the call of ‘we will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come’.
So we're talking about an Australian populace (and the same forces are apparent in the UK and France and Austria and Netherlands and even the USA) in great need of being assured that their state is still there, that it still matters, that its ruling class (the true elites) recognise its existence and importance, and that it can still wield some clout on behalf of its ordinary citizens. Oh, and we're shit-scared for our jobs, shit-scared of worldviews that further threaten the stability of our sense of self-in-world, and generally shit-scared of a world that suddenly looks like The Great Unknown, with weird foreigners flying planes into tall buildings.
It is this shit-scaredness that is held in contempt by most of those who endlessly endorse the ‘new world order’ of ‘lifetime education’, endless personal mobility, and the phoney freedoms of a wired world of self-employed contractors. Dare to challenge this mantra and you are likely to vilified as a backward-looking weakling who just can’t cut it in the online world. That this contempt is as likely to come from the left as the right is a matter of some regret and another cause of the irrelevance of voices from the left. (Who outside the world of the middle-class intelligentsia is even remotely inspired, let alone comforted, by the onset on anything called ‘The Third Way’? Surely not the ‘aspirationals’ at whom it is aimed?)
Too much ‘progressive’ commentary has overlooked the economic angle and highlighted the race angle. This plays right into the conservative's hands, something the self-righteous left fails to grasp. Yes, Australia’s history does warrant a black armband, but, no, things aren’t as bad as they might seem to the fervent anti-racism types among us.
wrote the other day that we’re still the same nation Hancock
wrote about in the 1930s – that we’re still a huddle of nervous, fiercely xenophobic whites stuck on an island fortress, both physically and psychically (our apologies to indigenous Australians, but that’s the picture as it was drawn).
But doesn’t this ignore the little matter of the transformative half-century that has elapsed since the war? First of all, the white non-English-speaking foreigners by the hundreds of thousands.
Then--and we think this is something too easily forgotten--came the South East Asians. In the 1970s, under a conservative liberal prime-minister, ‘Australia resettled more refugees per head of population than any country on earth,’ as Scott Burchell reminds us.
The Australia that did this thing was a much more culturally homogenous entity than it is now – and logic would suggest we would have been a less tolerant, more scared bunch, too (we’d been warring in SE Asia for nearly a decade). Not only that, but the people coming to our shores were of the very ethnic groups against whom we’d traditionally set ourselves.
Yet, as Burchell says, ‘Australia earned a well deserved reputation during the Fraser years for resettling a very large number of Indo-Chinese refugees.’
As the likes of Don Watson and Hilary McPhee wring their hands at Australia's 'move to the right' and the lost 'moment' of multicultural tolerance, we should remember that very few from the left ever gave Australians credit for the way they got on with it during the seventies and eighties.
In other words, having never conceded any progress in these matters when in fact we were living through it, they now, in hindsight, seek to claim that recent past as some sort of 'golden age' from which we have strayed. So having never acknowledged it at the time, they now back-construct that period in order to use it as a weapon with which to hit Australians over the head and so continue with the usual game of superior disdain for yer 'average Australian'. Neat trick.
We might add that a newly formed party, dedicated to the emancipation of the refugees, is hardly made up of typical lefties (John Singleton and John Newcombe are two salient members). All those famous old heads are heads of the seventies, the product of a time when many on the mainstream right of Australian politics were as willing to try multiculturalism as anyone on the left.
Why? Because one big difference (and we suspect it to be the decisive difference) is that we were not as globalised then as we are now. We are suggesting, then, that nationalist xenophobia is precisely a function of that which purports to bring us all together.
There has been, quite appropriately in our view, a lot of talk about Australia’s obligations under Article 31 of UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. The trouble with the UN Convention is that it was drafted in 1951, and half a century is a long time in political economy.
Core economies needed labourers in 1951, and while this economic fact may not have written Article 31, it certainly encouraged it. Western polities were competing with the Communist Bloc for the hearts and souls of the non-aligned in 1951, too.
There is no polar distinction in the Convention between ‘economic’ migrants and ‘political refugees’ and in Article 31 there is the express understanding that refugees are often obliged to employ technically illegal means and criminal agents if they’re to escape at all.
And it is precisely upon the fulcrum of criminality that the whole argument now turns. The adjective ‘illegal’ is crammed in everywhere. ‘Trafficking’ is a big problem in Europe (to be trafficked is to be exploited and without the decisive burden of guilt) but here the problem is deemed overwhelmingly one of ‘smuggling’ (and the smuggled party IS a guilty party). We are encouraged by the government to forget the simple truth that refugees can’t escape without transport, without paying people, and without circumventing barriers. Minister Ruddock loves the term ‘queue-jumpers’, for instance. He doesn’t say where an Afghan peasant or Iraqi villager might find this queue – he just besmirches them for doing what a refugee needs to do. It’s like he never saw Schindler’s List….
We see this messing about with language a lot.
speaks of the elision of the distinctions that so obviously pertain between three distinct elements of Australian policy: ‘border control’, immigration policy, & treatment of refugees:
‘All require quite different thinking, and all require separate solutions, and yet somehow our political masters have managed to run these problems together and use the ugliest bits from each.’
And, together in all their ugliness, they are reduced to but one notion: ‘border control’.
Australians heard it again and again from their prime-minister during the election campaign:
"We will determine who comes into our country and in what circumstances."
But consider: if a State is trying to garner brownie points, it’s a good idea to spend its (well, our) money at home rather than abroad. Again, that ‘smuggling’ notion comes in handy – if ‘smuggling’ is the designated problem, then ‘border control’ is the appropriate strategy, and that means precisely that The State spends the money here, where we get to see it spent.
We DO matter! We ARE a nation and we ARE a State again! For do we not see The State investing in us, The Nation, again?
So the State seems directly to have addressed our fear and indignation – it has secured our jobs (for so long have we been lectured by the neo-liberals that the notion of a Keynesian multiplier is all but dead), kept scary world views away, and made us feel like our place in the order of things has been, at least in part, restored.
The government burns $300 million a year on processing and housing refugees, and a few hundred million more on interception and interdiction. And our aid budget to the countries whence these refugees come amounts to all of $14.4 million. The State is doing National stuff in and for the Nation again. And a measure of comfort is temporarily restored.
Howard's genius at the outset of the latest nonsense was not in obeying the pollsters, but in grasping the moment before the numbers were there to be reported - sensing all of the above and giving it the focus through which it could cathartically express itself to his advantage. The irony is almost too delicious: the person who has more than any other advocated the very economic policies that created the sense of loss in the first place--and who even stood up in the US Congress the other day and waxed hysterical
about the primacy of the individual--is now the prime beneficiary of this new-found desire to protect the collectivity, the state itself.
Howard had a lot of bad luck in the past (the Joh-for-Canberra saga comes to mind, and that racist nonsense on immigration policy back in '88 hadn't worked for him), but he'd never lost his eye for the main chance. Having contributed to an enduring social malaise (as neo-liberal technocrats must), he saw the salving potential in the near coincidence of 9-11 and Tampa before anyone else did (and let’s give Reith some credit too: he was very quick to connect the dots for us).
In the wake of this, we could all feel looked after again, feel a nation again, feel potently relevant again: and Howard gets another three years, all at the expense of a few thousand nobodies who can't get near a phone, never mind a polling booth.
Kim Beazley, so intent on making himself and his party a ‘small target’, literally missed the boat. So spooked were they that rather than offer a viable alternative, they meekly fell in line with a hideous policy prescription, a decision that continues to haunt them.
Our 'racism' wouldn't last a minute if we were confronted with what we're doing and the real people to whom we're doing it, but if our betters spend enough of our dollars on keeping our eyes and ears away from our actions and victims, that's entirely manageable.
So the Howard Government has an express policy (confirmed in Senate Committee) of preventing the ‘humanisation’ of those locked away in the desert or banished to the client satellite statelets of the ‘Pacific Solution’.
The infamous footage from the Curtin Detention Camp, of people in obvious despair and in various stages of mental breakdown, is part of a gradual but inevitable humanisation. You see, we don’t think the situation is such that a decisive proportion of Australians can’t be turned.
Sure, at the moment ours is the ignorance in which racism grows. And, sure, by the definition of racism held by The International Council on Human Rights Policy (IHCRP), our State apparatus is being racist (for it is most definitely "nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life," on the basis of "national or ethnic origin").
But we do not think this obscenity need be read as a definitive symptom of an unchanging political culture, nor a particularly reliable indicator of how we might behave in the future.
As intimated before, we do not think Howard won the election on ‘border protection’ alone. Labor enjoys neither the moral nor logical clout to carry that argument. They did not afford the electorate an alternative on this issue and, of course, no opposition can convincingly match a party in government that is prepared to embark on a budget-busting $23-billion-pork-orgy.
So whatever the suspicions of some, the re-election of a Howard government has little to tell us about any enduringly profound xenophobia.
A change in government might changes things--remember Paul Keating’s parting words at the national Press Club: ‘when the government changes, the country changes’--and the gradual and inevitable promulgation of more gut-wrenching footage and shock-horror disclosures of what our betters have been getting up to would help. Whether these alone would be decisive, we daren't say. But if such developments were accompanied by an expansion (and, yes, complication) of the globalisation discussions to include a democratically entrenched recognition of, and central role for, the citizen - such that subjects feel less like betrayed and impotent objects - well, then an Australia once again secure in its capacity democratically to affect and manage inevitably changing circumstances (for let's not forget the times have always been achanging, and Australia ever with them) would show an altogether different face.
Like helpless bods clinging to a leaky wreck somewhere between Indonesia and Australia, we were willing to grasp any straw floating past, as drowning people are wont to do. We deserve condemnation for the form that straw took, but those who jump to hasty conclusions about ingrained racism need to at least recognise that many ‘ordinary Australians’ did feel they were drowning in a sea of uncertainty set swelling by a neo-liberal juggernaut over which they felt they had no control. Any account that doesn’t at least factor this into the equation is incomplete.