Friday morning I woke to three emails, ranging in degrees of anger, about Christos Tsiolkas’ piece in The Monthly. I had glimpsed other responses that were more favourable, and it took me a while to get around to reading it in full. But finish I did, in part because I was curious about why it had been received in such vastly different ways. Having now read it a second time, let me put it like this: είναι ντροπή σου.
As an apparent prompt for writing the article, Christos cites Kon Karapanagiotidis:
We are going to have to fight harder, push harder. We are going to have to become even more outspoken. We are going to have to go out there and be as fearless as we can.
That would have been wonderful! Except that it never happened. What we have, instead, is a vast display of ignorance about how politics and economics works coupled with dross about states and markets that I’m still amazed anyone takes seriously. Both of these are served up with self-absorbed reminiscences and a bit of exotic tourism directed to the most conformist of ends. I do not think there is any integrity in trading on one’s own experiences of racism, or indeed those of anyone else, in order to rationalise one’s embrace of its premises or policies. Nor do I think any amount of eloquence can distract from the ultimate aim of the article: which is to spend time leveraging compassion and suffering plausibly enough to deflect criticism from the advocacy of indentured labor schemes and the embrace of border policing. Shame on Tsiolkas, The Monthly, and I would not support the ASRC if this is their position.
Tellingly, the article does not offer an answer to the question, “Why have we failed?” – assuming, of course, that this question is synonymous with “Why has Australian politics been engaged in a race to the bottom?” Tsiolkas’ article is not an explanation or analysis of that trajectory. On the contrary, it is an almost perfect illustration of it. As Brynn O’Brien astutely remarked, “Tsiolkas’ piece calls out Australia’s racism as a problem, but then suggests ‘solutions’ for the imagined ‘problem’ of asylum seekers.” That literary skill and erudition can be harnessed to the task of plausible deniability is nothing new. What may be new is the extent to which someone presumably capable of logical thought can persuade themselves that they are being fearless and outspokenly challenging the race to the bottom while doing nothing more than making a case for it.
It’s not a manoeuvre that is difficult to spot. It is a logical, political and empirical fallacy that “Australia hates asylum seekers.” It would be true to say that the Australian political system is predicated on racism. But to say that would lead to conclusions very different to those which Tsiolkas suggests.
To accept that a country, a nation-state, is capable of having an emotional response to anything is not just the very definition of ‘cartoonish.’ Conflating nation-states with biological entities capable of having feelings—let alone a feeling—is the first bounce down the rabbit-hole of racist fantasy. From this, only self-delusion and lies can follow. True, Tsiolkas notes at one point and in passing there is not one nation—but that moment of insight beyond the affective purchase of nationalism is drowned out by the title, the staging of a ‘we’ being shown around how ‘they’ live or are treated poorly, by the acceptance of the juxtaposition of ‘nationalism’ and ‘globalisation,’ and by the risible policy conclusions offered—with the Howard-eseque flourish of ‘we need to have a conversation’—toward the end.
Undoubtedly, the election of a Liberal-National government, and the Rudd government’s turn to the Right was not—and will not be—without consequence. But to present the outcomes of the affective and mathematical dynamics of electoral machinery as evidence of what all (or even a majority of people) in a country feel or think proves nothing more than an inability to do social research of any depth or skill. Claims to represent the nation are a result of that electoral machinery, they do not exist prior to or outside it. Often enough, and increasingly so, who takes government is the result of decisions by a few thousand voters or less in some marginal electorates who are capable of being moved to align with whomever is seen to hate ‘those foreigners’ more. Tsiolkas admits as much by citing Karapanagiotidis on the elections—and then what? Back down the rabbit-hole.
Even granting the limits of electoralism, it would have been less odious had Tsiolkas suggested electoral reform. It would also have been more accurate to say that the binary system of political representation has broken down in Australia, and that this is perhaps not something to be lamented, irrespective of the Liberal Party (which has never I think governed without the National Party) running a fear campaign about the “instability” of no major party gaining government in its own right.
But, no. For the most part, Tsiolkas spins a bedtime story, in broad strokes and in the detail. It is extraordinary that he insists that you “can’t rewrite … recent history” of Australian politics, and yet does exactly that!
Here are some of those details, all of which lend dubious credence to a thankfully fading political and economic imaginary—which I’ll come back to.
Firstly, it has not been fifteen years of bipartisan agreement around multiculturalism that, with the emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, started to unravel.
It has been over twenty years since the introduction of the mandatory and non-reviewable detention of undocumented migrants. Those who have insisted on the former tale are none other than the Labor Party and the remaining social democrat nostalgia brigade. The Labor Party introduced that policy under pressure from, among others, Martin Ferguson, then in the ACTU. Congratulations to Tsiolkas for being so fearless and outspoken that he cannot point out where responsibility lies or, for that matter, where credit might be due.
Second, and as to who might be given credit for what has been better: the adherence of politicians from the Labor and Liberal Parties to multiculturalism was not the consequence of some bipartisan benevolence and virtue on the part of, say, Malcolm Fraser (who also happens to be on the Board of the ASCR). It was driven by fears of migrants organising outside the scope of the major parties. The nightmare moment, particularly for the Labor Party, was the wildcat strike at Ford in the early 1970s. I learnt this while doing my honours thesis long ago, and I’ve found no evidence since that would suggest otherwise. To pretend that is not the case is to imagine that political agency does not extend much beyond Spring Street and Canberra—notwithstanding some scattered narrative devices about ‘ordinary people’ that are mostly used as props and projections, depending on convenience.
More importantly, and thirdly, I think one of the strongest markers of clueless (and implicitly racist) political commentary on issues to do with migration is the reluctance to accord migrants themselves with political agency. Tsiolkas’ essay pays homage to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, but no one else. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for people who do a lot of work trying to make a difference in this. Yet for the ASRC to be given respect requires I think that they respectfully acknowledge they have been neither alone in this nor, for the most part, much of a challenge to established policy or its trajectory.
Perhaps a focus on the ASRC is to be expected since Tsiolkas is listed as an ambassador for that organisation. But an exclusive focus is not really credible or laudable, and more importantly, it involves a dubious theory of causation. When someone claims to be offering a political analysis of serious issues and effectively erases much of the recent history around this in so doing, I am pretty sure they are expecting to trade on the continued ignorance of their readers. It could be that perusers of The Monthly may not know this history. Maybe Tsiolkas doesn’t either. If he does, he has engaged in dissembling. If he does not, then he may want to get out more and read more widely than he obviously has.
But I do know that one of the longest-running debates of some twenty years has been around the extent to which undocumented migrants are used by politicians of various stripes to peddle their agendas. To the extent that the only game that counts for politicians involves the claim that they can best represent the national interest, they will almost invariably give solace to nationalist fantasies of one kind or another. But, thankfully, politicians are not the only ones invested with political agency, despite the structurally-induced narcissism that leads them to often believe they are the only players in town. It is in part because of this dilemma of representational politics that Rise emerged, an organisation wholly run by asylum seekers and refugees. By contrast, the ASRC is an organisation run by people for whom asylum seekers and refugees are—despite some notable reminiscences—other people. And it is this contradiction, this palpable existence of the border in our very sense of who ‘we’ are that, during the convergence toward Woomera in 2002, many worked long and hard to confront.
Tsiolkas erases this history to his discredit and for the worst kind of effect. Yet it is precisely this distance between representation and reality that nurtures progressive change. It is this distance that will always surprise politicians, whether in the form of the emergence of protest movements outside of parliamentary politics or the increasing turn to independents and Greens within it. The world Tsiolkas describes makes no space for these dynamics at all, which is why it mostly reads as angry melancholia for a lost time of social democratic anti-racism that never really existed.
In any event, it is an insistence on seeing asylum seekers as other people that explains why a specific political approach to anti-racism will always fail. Let me put it like this: you cannot be a nationalist and complain about how terrible xenophobia is. It might make you feel better to pretend that you can do both, but is this really about you?
Finally, and as to what has failed when asking the question “Why have we failed?”
Put simply, the political and economic paradigm Tsiolkas both repeats and laments as if it has failed “now” was never much good to begin with. It is not an explanation of what has happened but an obstacle to doing much about what has occurred in reality. To be honest, I bore myself having to repeat things I’ve written about a lot before, so I apologise for both the brevity and the frustration, so to put it as simply as I can:
There is no analytical, empirical or historical evidence for a categorical distinction between states and markets. None. There are many ways to prove this, but—for reasons which I’ll come to it always needs to be repeated that—the biggest proof is in the recent history of migration policy, and the nonsense around concepts of ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism.’ During the period commentators and lazy academics refer to as ‘globalisation’ and (more recently) ‘neoliberalism,’ the empirical reality is that some of the controls relating to trade and financial movements were eased while, at the same time, the controls on the movements of people to places such as Australia, the US and Europe became increasingly restrictive—in Australia’s case, remarkably so. This is the reality that Tsiolkas’ article conveniently tries to hide when talking about “fifteen years” rather than over twenty.
More generally, it is a nonsensical to talk about states and markets as distinct. Money is fiat money (notwithstanding the complexities of bitcoin). Legal currency is nation-state money. The creation of a market in anything, including a labour market, requires laws and not just money. The nation-state system was always an inter-national system, despite weird chronologies from people who are still waging the Cold War and who want to pretend they understand the history of the welfare or Keynesian state. The dynamics of capitalism have always involved both territorialisation and de-territorialisation, expansion and enclosure, capture and release. Etc. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant or a fool, or deliberately trying to fool you.
Logic (or its absence) of course, does not explain why so many are capable or desirous of being fooled, as it were. Or why one trajectory of Australian politics in recent times has been a rapid downward spiral toward the embrace of racism as an organising principle of politics. There is a materiality and affective purchase to the border that is not reducible to the stories either nostalgic social democrats or liberals relate, but which both have played a large part in constructing. I could begin by unpacking that in Ancient Greece, as I have elsewhere, but I’m told that people find this long-range history somewhat difficult. I could begin with the decline of Bretton Woods and the end of the Cold War, as I have elsewhere. But perhaps that is also a bit obscure. So, let me begin with where many of us find ourselves now, with the declining public infrastructures of liveable cities and towns, and in the wake of the policies of privatisation and welfare spending.
The reality of public expenditure and debt, and not what either Labor or Liberal Parties tend to admit to, is that it has not declined in magnitude but that, on the contrary, it has become increasingly directed in larger amounts toward the subsidy of both private industries (including in the form of subcontracting) and a smaller range of normative and relatively well-off households. John Howard was a big spender. Household debt increased. Privatisation did not just mean that public services and state-owned utilities became private property. It also meant that an increasing proportion of the work of aged care, childcare and health care was shifted to the unpaid work within private households. Household mortgages became the means to afford a whole range of things from education to aged care, a form of insurance. Interest rates and property prices became the exemplary middle-class obsession, the very material condition of selfishness that has been discerned as a decline in compassion. Etc.
If you require a concise definition of what has happened economically over the last thirty years, it is that debt and risk (in its manifold senses, including the risk of ill-health, old age, unemployment and so on) was shifted from the state to households. This is not some bedtime story about people thinking ‘globalisation’ went too far too fast. This is politicians pursuing economic policies which resulted in a situation where material interest and the range of emotional attachments were deliberately narrowed to households and the affective registers of ‘looking after one’s own family.’
From that point on, it takes some political machination, but not very much, to sling concepts of family together with nation and race in the context of electoral politics and building constituencies based on ‘looking after one’s own.’ (As for social democracy, I’m happy for any remaining Laborite protectionists to be shown the door to to the Australian Protectionist Party. They have never protected anyone but powerful white men, really.)
With the demise of Gillard, the election was definitively set to be an explicit contest between white fathers parading their grandfatherly credentials, as if sexual reproduction could and should be a neat depiction of the promise of national productivity. Undoubtedly, the apparently naturalised aura of ‘family’ lends credence to the nation as a biological entity. And, if you believe Tsiolkas, it is something that, as with other biological entitities, is capable of having feelings; even though both what a family and nation are have always been questions of law rather than given in nature. Economics, today more than ever before, is oikonomia.
I expect the next few years this will become more pronounced, since Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey began repeating Margaret Thatcher’s analogy between national and household budgets these last few weeks. But while markets and states have never been distinct processes, it is false that households and states are analogous. Within that analogy, a normative definition of households might afford the state with a conveniently racial form of bonding, but I’ve never come across a household that can print its own money.
In any event, it would be a mistake to assume that part of this debate has nothing to do tensions within and beyond a particular generation of migrants from one city. My affection for Melbourne involves many things, and it has a lot to do with its history of migration, the chronologies and geographies that shaped an anti-assimilationist sensibility and which, among other things, exposed the juxtaposition between ‘cafe latte cosmopolitans’ and ‘ordinary people’ for the anglocentric nonsense it always was. It is this sensibility that precipitated and sustained the wildcat strike at the Ford factory in the early 1970s against the pressure of Labor Party and trade union officials, and that made it possible for many protesters against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000 to so clearly buck the characterisation of the anti-summit protests as ‘anti-globalisation’ by organising a convergence two years later at the internment camp in Woomera.
It has been this disinclination to buy into a bleached and homogeneous definition of the Australian body politic that has also, I think, made it possible for the Greens to win the seat of Melbourne and, not entirely but noticeably, for the independent Cathy McGowan to be within reach of winning the seat of Indi as I write. I may not agree with either the Greens’ or McGowan’s politics, but these are some of the notably expansive moments within Australian politics that run against the grain of the fearful melancholia Tsiolkas indulges for the sake of arguing for a shift to the Right.
But it has been this refusal to accept the claim that Australia is an entity that either can or should have one emotional response to anything that has made Melbourne and Victorian politics far less amenable to racism. And it is why I woke to angry emails about Tsiolkas’ article. There is, to put it another way, a sense of betrayal. I think there were always differences. They have become starker as migration has moved beyond its Southern European and Jewish genealogies and as there are greater (funding?) incentives to fall in line with a perceived lurch to the Right among politicians (if not of most people). As I said, I still have a great deal of affection for that lineage. How could I not? But both during the noborder campaigns of a decade ago as now I would like to think of my role as someone who cleared the path for others to cross borders rather than as someone who justified their fortification against those who were still on the move.
Which is another way of saying that it is important not to confuse working against racism and xenophobia with the inclination to mute (by claiming to help) those situated on the other side of the symbolic or actual boundaries of citizenship. There are, of course, rewards for conforming, for helping that homogeneous drive of political machinery seem far more inclusive than it was or can be—but I suspect that this way lies cognitive dissonance or, worse, derangement. It hasn’t really turned out so well for Cathy Mirabella. Shame on her. Shame too on Jaymes Diaz in Sydney, but at least part of his brain was working well enough to sabotage his involvement in the campaign to ‘stop the boats.’ To Christos, and the ASRC for whatever part they played in this sleight-of-hand in which greater controls on migration have been offered as solutions to the problem of racism in Australian politics, shame on you.
Fortunately, that’s more a problem for them than it is for anyone else. They can mourn, or refuse to mourn, something I think never existed. But I am astounded by the ways in which the story Tsiolkas tells is so determined to close off by erasing from view all of the political openings of the last two decades that contradict his pessimism, including those in more recent times. This isn’t to say that I would counsel optimism. It’s that both seem to me manipulative ways of approaching much of anything, particularly something as serious as this.
Instead of encouraging a “conversation” about which racist policies to adopt or, alternately, wondering how to leverage people’s disaffection with the Australian government’s policies to one’s own advantage, it might actually be an idea to have a conversation about how—particularly given the bipartisanship around the border, which Tsiolkas now has joined—the policies and business model of the internment camps can be opposed, brought to a standstill, or just not allowed to function as smoothly as they might.
It’s not as if some of that, however modest and nevertheless with more courage, knowledge and focus than Tsiolkas seems able to gather, has not already been occurring.
* I am sure that no one, least of all Christos, would misunderstand the ‘slap’ in the title of this post, but perhaps I should explictly state that it is here, as it is in his book, a figurative but nevertheless provocative one.