political talk

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What is politics? There have been times when I was confident of the answer: politics was class struggle, a view complicated at different times and in different ways by disputes over the scientific credentials of Marxism (disputes that encouraged among some participants the belief that working on Marxist theory was an important kind of political action); feminism; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; anti-racism; the Movement for Colonial Freedom and anti-imperialism. However, my interest in this blog is not in defining the term ‘politics’ or stipulating how it should be used but rather in exploring some of the ways ‘politics’ ‘political’ and related terms are used. ‘Political’ is used sometimes to commend (for example, when Western figures say they prefer a political to a military solution of the conflict in Syria) and sometimes to disparage (for example, when the then Australian Treasurer dismissed Labor and Greens criticism of his two budgets as ‘political’). The exploration of these different usages is one way in which the name of this blog ‘talking politics’ can be interpreted. Max Weber’s discussion of the various forms of social action in Economy and Society is as good a place as any from which to start. ‘Political action’, in his view, simply is the work or activity of governing a political organization, the most important example of which is the state. ‘Politically oriented action’, in contrast,
aims at exerting influence on the government of a political organization; especially at the appropriation, redistribution or allocation of the powers of government. (1978[1922], p.55)
Weber offers a different account of politics in a celebrated essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (see ‘Politically-Oriented Men’, posted below) and few people today bother with his distinction. ‘Politics’ and ‘political’ are still used in Weber’s sense to refer to the conduct of states but his ‘politically-oriented action’ is commonly called ‘political’. Electoral competition between individuals or between parties is a clear example, as is much of the work of pressure groups and social movements.

Relations between words and deeds are rarely straightforward. In a series of essays drawing in part on the work of J.L.Austin (many of them now collected in vol 1 of his Visions of Politics) Quentin Skinner advocated a new approach to the history of political thought, arguing that utterances and written texts should not always be read as merely propositional; they could also be performative.

There are cases in which deeds are performed through their affirmation. The conventional British, American or Australian marriage ceremony is the classic example. Imagine that Jennifer Smith and Stephen Jones after living together for some years ‘in sin’, as some of their relatives say, decide to step away from this particular sin by getting married. They organise a state and/or church-approved ceremony in the course of which a person authorised to do so asserts ‘I now declare you man and wife’ (or other authorised form of words to the same effect). Instantaneously, where previously there had been just two people, there is now one married couple and, unless she decides to hold on to her father’s family name, Jennifer Smith magically becomes Jennifer Jones. Of course, Stephen might choose to spare her the trouble by changing his name instead, say, to Stephen Smith, but he could not do so as part of the same ceremony.

The point of this example is that, in the case of marriage, the words are the deed: the pair are married if and only if an authorised person, in the course of a state/church-sanctioned ceremony, asserts that they are married. Legislation under consideration by the Australian parliament at the time of writing (early December 2015) seems likely to authorise a Minister to strip their citizenship from Australians who are also citizens of another state, if they are convicted (or even suspected) of committing a terrorism offence. In this case, too, the words would perform the deed unless the courts get in the way. Yet, it seems clear that the word perform the deed only if the Minister’s decision was enforceable by a complex set of institutional arrangements, including an immigration control system, police and compliant courts. A similar point, obscured by my use of the word ‘authorised’, applies to the marriage example except that the necessary institutional arrangements will be rather different. While, at first sight, it seems that the words perform the deed, they do so only within suitable institutional arrangements.

In most other cases, relations between words and deeds are more complex. Undocumented immigrants do not suddenly become law-breakers when, as often happens in Australia and the USA, some authorised person, declares him /her to be ‘illegal’. And we clearly need to consider the converse relationship between words and deeds, cases in which deeds take the place of words, cases in which, for example, police, a criminal gang, IS or the US military employ violent means to ‘send a message’ to their opponents

In the case of politics, which is my concern here, talking (and writing) are integral to its existence. At one level (Weber’s political action), Governments of independent states interact with their own populations (and with individuals and public or private organisations within them) in part by issuing instructions such as ‘No Dogs, Bikes or Skateboards’, ‘No Entry’, ‘No parking’ or ‘No right turn’. Governments issue instructions on how to apply for a driver’s licence, a passport, visa or identity card, a sickness, unemployment or other benefit, along with appropriate forms for the applicant to complete. Governments interact with the Governments of other states through diplomacy, declaring War or threatening them by asserting sovereignty over hitherto unclaimed areas of land or sea. Within their own jurisdiction, they declare States of Emergency, Public Holidays, periods of national mourning or what they describe as new policies. At another level (Weber’s politically-oriented action), active involvement in politics whether through membership of political parties or social movements, involves participating in, and even organising, meetings, having to listen to others talk and sometimes having one’s own say. Electoral competition between individuals and between parties invariably requires lots of talk.

Words are essential components of political life. Thus, ‘talking politics’ may refer either to the talking (or writing) that goes on within politics or to talking, or writing, about it. Regarding the former, while the words used are often important, we should be careful not to judge political actions by the words employed in their performance. Treaties described by Government agencies as promoting ‘free trade’ or, as Australian Government advertisements called them in late 2015, ‘Free Trade Export Agreements’, particularly those involving the USA, are often concerned less with freeing trade in general, than with enacting complex forms of protectionism, aiming to protect the ‘intellectual property’ of large chemical, IT and other businesses in return for concessions in other areas.

Why there is so little serious examination of political talk in Australia and other anglo ‘democracies’ remains an open question at this stage. My guess is that the answer has a lot to do with the widespread application of the view that thinking can be presented as entertainment – call it cogitainment – as it is, for example, in popular science broadcasts, Q&A, TED talks, the Sydney Festival of (all-too-familiar) Dangerous Ideas – ideas that are dangerous only in the sense that raptors in the film ‘Jurassic Park’ are dangerous (most members of us know that they are not likely to climb down from the screen and bite) and Writers Festivals all over the place

I noted earlier that talking about politics can be a way of doing politics or, making a slightly different point concerning the spoken word, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The Coalition’s accusation ‘A Big New Tax’ that arose whenever someone in Government or even advising it raised the possibility of pricing as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions was more than just a misleading description: it was also a powerful attack on the (Labor) Government in power.

The line ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is to be spoken by Cardinal Richelieu in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu; or The Conspiracy. It is easily read as celebrating the power of the written word and thus of the writer. Yet, even if this reading is what Bulwer-Lytton had in mind when he penned this line, it does not properly reflect Richelieu’s situation as depicted in the play. Richelieu’s words, written or spoken, were mightier than his sword only because numerous state functionaries, some of them weilding swords, were ready to act on his command. The pen is mightier than the sword only if it is wielded by an authorised person, like Richelieu himself. Few French people in Richelieu’s day or since could wield their pens to such effect.

Yet, if ‘talking about’ is sometimes a way of ‘doing’ politics it is not always effective in the manner that some of its practitioners might wish. Intellectuals may be tempted to combat racism, for example, by arguing that there is no foundation for the view that there are biologically distinct human races, each with their own distinctive levels of intelligence, industriousness, deviousness or whatever. While criticising what used to be called ‘scientific racism’ in this way may steer undergraduates and some journalists away from supporting racist arguments, its impact in other contexts is likely to be limited. Indeed, if racial difference is not a biological given but rather a social construct, we should not expect it to be particularly vulnerable to rational critique.

There are times when the usage of words in political talk is worth treating seriously. My first two posts, from November and December 2015 – both written before this ‘introductory’ one – are responses to wild talk by Australian politicians, security specialists and media commentators about something called ‘radicalisation’. ‘Against radicalisation’ is an angry rant about the concept of ‘radicalisation’, which is a seriously bad and dangerous idea. I should add that my objection is not to the idea that people may sometimes become more radical, which seems pretty obvious, but rather to the current usage of the term specifically to target muslims. I offered this piece to several Australian media outlets, both print and on-line, all of whom, with the notable exception of the AIM Network, rejected it – as indeed I should have expected. The Folk Devils paper takes up two influential concepts, ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Moral Panics’, from 1970s academic criminology to argue that, in spite of real limitations, these concepts can help us to understand the current ‘radicalisation’ scare. A third post, ‘Politically-Motivated Men’, due to appear in December 2015, examines what else might be going on when professional politicians and commentators use ‘political’ as a pejorative term in order to dismiss political views or actions other than their own. A good example is Joe Hockey’s responses to Labor and Green criticism of his two budgets which he could only disparage as ‘political’. Other posts will be aded from time to time. In some cases, rather than an excessively long post, i have posted only the title and opening paragraphs of a longer paper. in such cases the papers themselves can be found at academia.edu

Folk Devils Rise Again

Barry Hindess

My title takes the term ‘Folk Devils’ from Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (1972), part of an influential push by a group of British sociologists and criminologists (Cohen 1972; 1980; 2002; Hall et al. 1978; Young 1971) who reacted against the tendency of public debate and far too many of their colleagues to treat deviance as a matter of readily observable characteristics of behaviours and/or individuals rather than as an ascribed social category. Public debate around ‘deviant’ behaviour or persons sometimes escalated into panics about perceived threats to social order. The Moral Panic push argued that the media, police and socially credentialed experts played prominent roles in the labelling of certain individuals and behaviours as deviant and further that ‘the societal reaction may in fact increase rather than decrease or keep in check the amount of deviance’ (Cohen 2002: 8, emphasis in original)

Cohen (2002: 1) describes moral panic as a condition, episode, a person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.’

It is described more concisely in Charles Krinsky’s Introduction to The Ashgate Research Companion to Moral Panics, a useful survey of the Moral Panic literature and its critics. He tells us (2013: 1) that a moral panic may be understood ‘as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order’ While the roles of the media, law and public policy are indicated here, it would be remiss in the Australian context not to bring into the mix State and Commonwealth Governments, professional politicians and academics only too willing to market themselves as specialists on the latest generation of folk devils.

Cohen’s term ‘Folk Devils’ points to the ways in which media organisations, police and other authorities focus on deviant individuals or groups seen as embodying a new or extraordinary social threat. The image of folk ‘devils’ is a powerful one but the concept appears designed to resist clear definition (Hayle, 2013). The term ‘Devil’ evokes demonic, almost super-human, capacities for evil but these capacities are attributed to particular human individuals or groups. ‘Folk’ refers to popular perceptions of these beings, and such perceptions are notoriously difficult to pin down. Partly for this reason, moral panic studies have focused on media representations and statements by public authorities, read as if they feed directly into popular perceptions. In effect, ‘folk devils’ are popular perceptions, inferred from public representations of all too human individuals who conduct themselves in ways that can be represented as deviant. The role of public representation and ascription suggests that the threat posed by Folk Devils is socially constructed, while the term itself suggests that the threat arises from demons, who are largely imaginary but somehow associated with real persons.

While the moral panic concept is not without its difficulties, some of which I register in this discussion (Thompson 1998; McRobbie & Thornton 1995; Hall 2012). I use it here, in spite of its limitations, to throw light on the recent proliferation of Australian talk about radicalisation and of policies designed to counter or at least contain it. Moral panics have been familiar features of Australian public life, focusing variously in the years since WW2 on the threats posed by communism; immigrants, first from Eastern Europe and later from Asia; bikie gangs, who were accused of trafficking drugs, guns and sex workers; refugees; sexual abuse of children and, at another level, ‘political correctness’ and ‘postmodernism’, both of which have been presented as fads that effectively undermine academic integrity. At other levels again, we might think of the, only partly successful, political panics around indigenous land rights and the threats of economic rationalism, neoliberalism, the return of work choices and Labor’s carbon tax. While some of these panics, especially the fears of communism and Eastern Europeans, have died off, others continue to bubble away in the background.

The full paper can be found at academia.edu

the attack on McManus

When Leigh Sales interviewed Sally McManus, the recently elected Secretary of the ACTU, on ABC’s 7.30 (Wednesday March 15), she laid out an obvious trap, first asking McManus whether she believed in the rule of law and, on receiving a positive answer, inviting her to condemn the CFMEU, which she refused to do. McManus said simply that she believed in the rule of law “where the law’s fair, where the law’s right, but when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it”.

Right-wing politicians and media commentators had a field day. The PrimeMinister said Ms McManus’s comments were from ” a union leader who said the unions are above the law”.
“She believes that you only have to have to obey the law, or unions only have to obey the law, if they agree with it,”

“What she has done is defied the whole rule of law and this is the culture of thuggery and lawlessness that the CFMEU, of course is the great example of, and this is the culture of the union movement, it is the culture of the Labor party in 2017. … These are the people, these are the values or lack of values that is driving Bill Shorten – so he doesn’t care about the truth and he doesn’t believe in the law.”

Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald reported (March 17) “Unions, Labor Split over ACTU Sally McManus” and next day, The Australian followed with “Union leader Sally McManus blunders with her law-breaking stance.” Barrie Cassidy, host of the ABC Insiders show on Sunday mornings tweeted on March 15 “ There’s a difference between agitating to change laws and disobeying them. So individuals decide for themselves? There’s a word for that.” only to be reminded of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other deliberate law-breakers who are now widely regarded as heroes, and of journalists’ professional refusal to reveal their sources to the authorities. And again, a political philosopher at the University of Sydney, apparently without registering the nuanced quality of McManus’ response to Sales, published “Why Should We Obey the Law?” in The Conversation (March 19), a piece that recycled Plato’s romantic tale of Socrates choosing to accept the death penalty rather than reject his obligations to Athenian Law by fleeing the city.

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, courageously distanced himself from McManus’ response, saying that in a democracy those who felt a law was unfair should seek to have it changed.
“If you don’t like a law, if you think a law is unjust, use the democratic process to get it changed…. That’s the great thing about living in a country like Australia. That’s what democracy is about.”

What can one say: that McManus’ critics displayed world class hypocrisy, proving that Australia is still up there with the best in the fabrication of feigned outrage, not far behind North Korea, while also displaying an industrial-scale ignorance, both of the rule of law – cf. Ingrid Matthews admirable “On the dangerous dishonesty of ‘rule of law’”, IA, March 17 – and of the history of Australia and other contemporary democracies; and that Shorten & Cassidy share a starry-eyed view of the quality of Australian democracy (of which more in a moment)?

Yes, all this and more: but what I find particularly revealing about the character of political debate inAustralia is that this critical commentary displays no interest in what McManus actually said or the context in which she said it.

The context is clear: an interview on 7.30 in which Leigh Sales clearly set a trap for her guest. Rather than say nothing, McManus gave the carefully worded response quoted above. To say “when a law’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it” is not to directly advocate law-breaking, but it is to suggest that McManus would be think twice before condemning Gandhi, MLK or, more to the point, union members who take industrial action when confronted with unsafe working conditions. Nor is it, as Turnbulll stated, to deny the rule of law or promote a “ culture of thuggery and lawlessness.” However, the willingness of her critics ignore McManus’ own words in favour of tendentiously putting words in her mouth is further evidence that the European/American ‘post-truth’ syndrome has taken firm root in Australian public life. The Coalition’s ferocious attack, in parliament (Monday, March 20) on Shorten’s and Labor’s record of defending worker’s rights is another example.

Finally, what of Bill Shorten’s starry-eyed view of democracy? The term democracy, derived from ancient Greek demos (the people, mob) and kratos (rule, strength), is often understood as meaning government by the people. On this understanding, everyone in a democracy shares responsibility for its laws and other decisions. This view of shared democratic responsibility underlies Bill Shorten’s view, supported by Barrie Cassidy’s tweet quoted earlier, that if you don’t like a law in a democracy, you should not break it, but work to change it.

In practice, this simple view of popular government does not accord with everyday experience of Australia and other contemporary democracies. To understand this discrepancy, we should first recognise that Western political thought has not generally favoured democratic government, usually becauset the majority are likely to be poorly educated and ill-informed, The Western tradition of rejecting democracy ha been carefully documented in the insufficiently-appreciated Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994 ) by the classical scholar Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. Naturally, the wealthy minority have generally had an interest, as they clearly have today, in limiting the influence of popular concerns. Educated supporters of the American revolution – for example, the American authors of the Federalist Papers and the English radical Tom Paine – argued in favour of keeping the people in their collective form out of the work of government by placing this work in the hands of representatives elected by the people. Tom Paine preferred ‘representation ingrafted upon democracy’ to democracy itself.

The second thing we should recognise is that by the beginning of the twentieth century, democracy had also come to designate ‘representative government’, a complex system of government by networks of elected representatives and unelected public servants, operating through combinations of representative, vaguely consultative and hierarchical institutions. The long-standing Western fear of the people is central to this second sense of democracy, which involves institutional arrangements designed to both promote popular participation and limit its impact. When the World Bank , international development agencies, and Western political leaders favour democracy promotion, it is usually this second understanding of democracy that they have in mind.

In short, talk of democracy today reflects both the original meaning of the term and the long-standing Western fear of the people, a fear that surfaces today when professional politicians and serious commentators deplore both populism and popular public protests or demonstrations. Bill Shorten’s lame attempt to avoid the fall-out from McManus’s interview draws on the first while rabidly self-righteous Tory attacks on McManus and the Labour movement draw heavily on the second.

Is Australia racist? revised edition

Yes, of course, and its worse than you probably imagine

On Sunday February 26 Australia’s SBS TV network broadcast Ray Martin’s “Is Australia Racist?” the first program of its “Face Up to Racism (FU2racism) week”. Its a good question but it deserves a tougher answer than SBS managed to provide. Fortuitously, perhaps, this week also included the release of an inconclusive Parliamentary Report on what, if anything to do about the wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In spite of my criticisms, below, of this SBS initiative, it performs a valuable service in the face of strenuous efforts by right-wing politicians and commentators – who cannot imagine that anything they say or do might be construed as racist – to confuse free speech and racist abuse by showing that many Australians suffer significant racist abuse, Aborigines and African migrants more than others, and that while almost two out of three Australians admit to being prejudiced, four out of five feel that there is racism in Australia and that something needs to be done to counter it. My discussion focuses on SBS’s #FU2racism week, not so much to run a critique of SBS, and only incidentally to dispute its treatment of racism, but rather to raise issues about public discussion of race and racism in contemporary Australia.

The first point to notice about Ray Martin’s opening program in the series, and about SBS’s advance publicity, is that it fails to specify precisely what #FU2racism understands by racism. This is unfortunate, not least because, like many contentious terms in public discussion, ‘racism’ has several meanings, each with different implications for how we might recognise and respond to it. More seriously, #FU2racism presents its own account of racism as if it were uncontentious. Racism, in its view, is an attitude, a prejudice or its verbal or physical expression, directed “towards people who don’t look like we do” – although w are also told that race prejudice is sometimes directed towards Muslims, whatever they look like – who we tend, not always consciously, to view “as a potential threat.” The appearance of the phrase “people … like we do” early in an on-line information page on #FU2racism suggests that it is a provisional stand-in for race , that the “people who don’t look like we do” belong to a different race or races than oneself. If racism is a prejudice or the expression of a prejudice, then, to ask ‘how racist is Australia?’ is to ask how widespread is such prejudice or its expression within the Australian population. This, it seems, is what the #FU2racism week has been designed to explore. My point in questioning this approach is not to suggest that the verbal or physical expression of prejudice is not damaging, whether it happens in schools, universities and other workplaces, in the street and shopping centres, at bus stops or on public transport. “Is Australia Racist?” showed several confronting examples, suggesting that we would be better off without it. Yet, this prejudice is not the only racism that should concern Australia today.

Fortunately, the #FU2racism information page informs us, while most of us are infected by an implicit (ie. not conscious) racist bias, neuroscience has shown that this bias is not “hard-wired” into our brains. The information page even offers an online test that innocent white Australians can take to assess whether, despite their own best intentions, they harbour any racist prejudices.

This approach assumes that the most significant damage caused by racism consists in the prejudicial behaviour of individuals, moving the study of racism out of the broad domain of the social sciences – anthropology, history, political science and sociology – and into that of psychology, especially neuroscience and psychology’s speculative sub-discipline, evolutionary psychology, which purports to offer an evolutionary explanation of race prejudice.

The same information page, headed ‘Like it or not, you’re probably racist,’ tells us that our brains have evolved to look “for patterns, things are lumped together into categories….. the question boils down to: in-group or out-group? Or – “Do they look how I look?” This is the contribution of evolutionary psychology: treating our implicit fear of outsiders as an atavistic survival, first consolidated millions of years ago in the reptilian brain and now cowering in our mammalian “amygdala [which] keeps track of all the negative stereotypes perpetuated within our environment – and it programmes itself to react to them, too.” (While this evolutionary speculation is clearly set out in the ‘Like it or not, you’re probably racist’ page, I did not notice it in any of #FU2racism week’s TV broadcasts.) Fortunately, we “are able to modify our unconscious bias, we just have to get into the habit of using a different attitude” – assuming, of course, that we are aware of our implicit bias and truly wish to be rid of it. Reference to implicit bias suggests that any of us might be racist without being aware of it – which makes sense of right-wing contortions over free speech and section 18C of the RDA and of the protestation we hear often enough from public figures: “ I’m not racist, but…”

Many of us learned in our earlier years that its not good to be racist, an injunction that is too easily understood as meaning no more than don’t be seen to be racist, and that the overt expression of racism is best avoided, which suggests a different view of the “I’m not racist, but….” protestation.

The treatment of racism as prejudice “towards people who don’t look like we do” raises several questions. First, the expression “people who don’t look like we do” is more complex than it might seem. It assumes that most individuals view themselves as members of a collective, the “we” in ‘like we do’, even if many members of the collective do not, in fact, look like they do – they are of another gender, taller, shorter, leaner or bulkier, have different shaped faces, different complexions, hair texture and colour, wear different clothing, etc. Each of us grows up surrounded by people who don’t look like oneself and we get used to it. At some point, we might encounter others who also don’t look like oneself, who we consign to the outer darkness. The formula ‘Don’t look like we do’ does not distinguish one group from the other. Neither look like we do, but only in the latter case is the observable difference treated as significant. We discriminate against an out-group, not because “they don’t look like we do” but because we target them for some reason and we say tha” they don’t look like we do” because we target them. ”People who don’t look like we do” offers no explanation of race prejudice. It does not explain why we target some of those who “don’t look like we do” but not others. Yet the formulation itself is agnostic on the question of whether “people who don’t look like we do” belong to races other than one’s own.

Second, then, are “people who don’t look like we do” members of one or more different races and is it racist to view them as a potential threat? A positive answer would suggest that racism is a matter of prejudice against members of other races. Yet natural and social scientists who study race have generally concluded that there are no biologically distinct human races (see, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s admirable discussion in his The Mismeasure of Man). This would leave racism as a matter of treating people as if they belonged to biologically distinct races. The authors of Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life argued that the division of populations into races, as the final #FU2racism TV program did and as still sometimes happens in national censuses and landing cards issued on international flights, is itself racist. In this last case, it is the practice of classifying people into races that is racist, even if no prejudicial treatment follows directly. This classificatory ‘racism’ might seen relatively harmless except for the fact that it identifies readily available targets for prejudicial bias. It is perhaps best seen as a relic of times in which governments regarded race and race difference as matters of serious public concern.

Since the time of W.E.B du Bois’ pioneering ‘The Conservation of Races’ (1887, now readily available online) many sociologists have argued that race and racial difference are social constructions and this view is now rarely disputed within the discipline. To say that race is socially constructed is to say that, even though there are no grounds for regarding race as a biological phenomenon, race is nevertheless a significant social phenomenon. Alana Lentin of Western Sydney University has published important work on this issue, see, for example, her ‘Race’ in the 2017 Sage Handbook of Political Sociology

So, how might we address the question ‘how racist is Australia’ in either the classificatory or prejudicial senses just noted? It might seem that a really sophisticated survey with carefully designed questions would be the way to go. #FU2racism goes part way there with a large-scale survey examining individual experiences of race prejudice and views about the extent and impact of racism in Australia. While, as noted earlier, two out of three admitted to their own prejudice, we should bear in mind that the remaining one in three is likely to include some who are unaware of their own prejudices.

Yet, what do these findings tell us about how racist is Australia? The question is about Australia, not just the Australian people who make up an important part, but not the totality of what we think of as Australia. If, according to our imaginary survey, the average Australian turned out to be somewhat less racist than the norm for national populations of largely European descent, this would answer only part of the question about Australia. To address this, we would have to consider the extent of structural racism by looking also at Australian institutions, state and commonwealth laws and agencies, schools, colleges and Universities, churches, clubs, the RSL, political parties, movements, crowds at sporting venues and sporting codes – including cricket, which is not normally treated as just another sporting code, but it is hard not to notice that few non-whites ever make it into Australia’s international cricket teams. Recent American experience and Wednesday’s “The Truth about Racism” program suggest that,if we do not face up to structural racism, attempts to address its effects will be portrayed as privileging its victims.

If it turned out that most Australians were not particularly racist, this would tell us little about the official face of Australian racism, which is on display for all the world to see in the conduct of Customs and Border Protection and Australia’s various police forces, not to mention Australia’s treatment of its indigenous peoples, whose effects are ritually lamented every time a predictably disappointing ‘Closing the Gap’ Annual Report appears, and of the many asylum seekers, few, if any, of them white, languishing on Manus and Nauru. To repeat an earlier point, the issue in these cases concerns more than the prejudices of individual public servants and ministers working in these areas – although some of these can be problematic enough – but also government policies and the institutional protocols, departmental ethos and constraints within which they work.

If there is a need for us to face up to the racism of many Australians, the same is true of Australia’s institutions. Reforming the first will have little direct impact on the second. In asking Australians to face up to racism, it appears to be their individual prejudices that concern SBS rather than the structural racism that is built into Australian institutions. The extent of racist prejudice in Australia is certainly worth exploring but SBS’s reluctance to tackle structural racism represents a serious failure of nerve.

White Working Class Racism

“We tend to associate racist and sexist attitudes with uneducated, low-income working class people”
I was shocked to find this statement in the printed version of an LSE seminar paper by a London University Academic. I should not have been. The view it expresses has preoccupied Left commentary on the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President.
In the British case, the working class – here the “uneducated low-income working class people” – whose conduct is to be explained is normally implicitly white while, in the American case, commentators refer explicitly to the white working class. After a flurry of efforts to explain Britain’s Brexit vote and Trumps election in terms of working class disaffection from mainstream politics, and particularly from what many commentators still view as “progressive” political parties, more-informed commentators pointed out that the LEAVE victory was not simply down to the working class while others (eg Hsia-Hung-Pai openDemocracy 11 July 2016) insisted that the British working class was not entirely white.
The same paper gives a clear example of the assumption Hsia-Hung-Pai disputes, continuing that many “find it difficult to fathom … that [racist & sexist] attitudes are not only those of uneducated low-income classes, but that they are prevalent amongst the educated middle classes” before contrasting both the uneducated low-income classes and educated middle classes to ”people of colour”, thereby implying that members of the classes in question are without colour, ie.“white”.
Following my initial surprise, my first reaction, as always when I encounter the rhetorically inclusive “we”, was to wonder who they might be; was I now part of this “we” and, if not, would I want to be? No. I do not belong nor do I wish to belong to this rhetorically invoked collective, for several reasons. Before I get to these reasons, let me just ask: How is it that “we”, whoever that might be, have come to look down on the white working class?
Salt of the earth
When I first encountered socialism, in the early 1950s version of Britain’s Labour Party Young Socialists, it seemed that the working class could do no wrong. Its members were, as one visiting speaker explained in a phrase that stuck in my mind, “the salt of the earth and our hope for the future.” (Did this mean that they were not racist? At the time, I didn’t think to ask) My impression is that many on the Left have since abandoned this positive view of the working class. How, when and why has this happened? And does the “whiteness” of the working class have something to do with it?
Much of my academic work over the last 15-20 years has tried to understand the ways in which educated Europeans have contrived to imagine themselves as superior both to non-Europeans and to uneducated Europeans. The maintenance of this illusion over several centuries must surely rank among the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilisation. Where this author’s “we” view the working class as racist, I have learned to think of educated Europeans, in the past and all too often in the present, in precisely those terms. Here, just to take one example from the past, are the opening lines of a notorious footnote from David Hume’s essay “Of National Characters”, first published in 1748 and enthusiastically picked up by Immanuel Kant:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation….

It is not hard to find overtly racist sentiments in the work of other great names in the history of liberal political thought – John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, for example.
Take Stevenage…
Growing up in 1940s and ’50s England, I lived in Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London – a small town of a few thousand people and a couple of industrial employers that subsequently became one of the many New Towns, built by the postwar Labour Government to house Londoners displaced by urban planning, slum clearance and German bombs.
While the Old Town Stevenage working class was not large it was certainly racist but so too was almost everyone else – the animus being directed, most obviously, against visiting Roma and the “jew-boys” who ran the local wartime and post-war black markets. In this respect, at least, Stevenage was a microcosm of post-war Britain.
Stevenage was not much affected by migrants from South Asia or the West Indies. The immigrants who threatened to, and did in fact overwhelm our limited educational and health services were as English as we were, working class Londoners, with strange accents, curious tastes in clothing and hair-styles and a refreshingly open contempt for school uniforms – and also, so the local press informed us, a dangerous propensity for destroying cinema seats whenever Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and sometimes even Cliff Richards were performing on screen, but not, oddly enough, during ‘family’ movies like South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
These English migrants posed no threat to our housing or jobs, but only because the Stevenage Development Corporation provided them with housing and had thoughtfully encouraged several large industrial employers to move into the area. What the Corporation did not provide for the newcomers were sufficient cinemas, pubs and shops and this insufficiency became an ongoing source of tension between the original inhabitants and the newcomers.
My overall impression of Britain during this period, as it is of the USA today, is that racism could be found all over the place, overtly amongst the white working class and more discreetly elsewhere, if you knew what to look for or found yourself on the receiving end. I recall younger teachers in my secondary school trying, against the disapproval of both their seniors and our parents, to persuade us to abandon racism, but with only limited success.
The most important lesson we took away from their efforts was that the overt expression of racism was best avoided. Some years later, at a time I find difficult to pin down, racism came to be widely regarded as a bad thing, at least among English people with more than the minimum education – or perhaps it was only necessary to avoid racism’s overt expression, a condition easily confused with not being racist. I strongly suspect the latter.
The sense that one should not be racist, and certainly not do so out loud, was one of the many norms that sustained what English people understood by class, enabling those who had absorbed this lesson to feel superior to the many who had not. This gives us a provisional answer, at least in the English case, to my earlier question: “we” started to deplore working class racism around the time “we” learned that the overt expression of racism was not such a good idea. I suspect that something similar might hold in America, but without the complication of English class sensibilities and with a wider range of targets.
This last point suggests one of the two most familiar explanations for working class racism – poor education. I’ll turn to another familiar explanation in a moment. There are numerous American studies purporting to show that white males without a two-year college degree are more likely to endorse racist views, suggesting that education has a countervailing effect. The standard case for the importance of education in this regard takes a romantic view of the impact of the humanities – especially the study of literature and other languages, all of which are often thought to promote empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another.
Yet, few US two-year college degrees are humanities-based. Most college students take ostensibly vocational courses – advanced secretarial, advertising, aged-care, business communication, commerce, early childhood education, hospitality, human resource management, office administration, nursing, etc. Most such courses are less likely to increase their graduates’ empathy than to marginally improve their employment prospects. Those with two-year degrees may be less vulnerable than those without to competition for jobs from unskilled migrants.
A second explanation

This, in effect, is the second explanation: the white working class is simply responding to the perceived threat to their jobs, housing, schools and welfare provision more generally posed by Blacks, Hispanics and migrants.
Unfortunately, this view rests on the image of an ethnically and nationally homogeneous working class that, while it may appeal to the few remaining English nationalists on the Left, has never been entirely realistic. The English working class has taken in many outsiders over the years – Irish, Jews, Scots and Welsh, most obviously, but also migrants from all over Europe, freed or escaped slaves and sailors from the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, South and East Asia and the Malay archipelago who, after landing in Britain, either failed to return to their ships in time or were cynically abandoned by their employers.
Satnam Virdee’s recent Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider makes the important point that the English working class has always been a multi-ethnic formation. It has often harboured racist sentiments and sometimes a working class anti-racism. The ‘white’ working class of America, like those of other parts of Europe, has a different but no less complex formation, complicated, in particular, by America’s heritage of virulent racisms directed against Blacks, Mexicans/Hispanics and Native Americans.
To conclude, if the working class is not entirely white, the whiteness of its ‘white’ component is somewhat exaggerated and so too, I suspect, is its racism. Certainly, the English and American ‘white’ working classes harbour racist tendencies, along with anti-racist ones, but they hardly stand out in this respect from the remainder of the ‘white’ population.

Forget about modernity

A short note on why we should stop talking about Modernity
a slightly different version of this note appeared on inkl as a letter to the editor

I was surprised and more than a little shocked to find Bernard Keane’s short Crikey Weekender piece ‘The birth of Modernity’ in Saturday’s (10 December) edition of INKL. Keane has taken a break from his familiar attacks on protectionism, for which his Crikey columns are well known, to present a view of modernity, as a largely internal European development, which started with Martin Luther’s stand, in late October 1517, almost 500 years ago, against to the Catholic Church in which he insisted on the importance of each individual’s relationship with God. Keane was clearly determined to get his take on the link between modernity and Luther’s stand out there well before the anniversary commemorations take over commentary on Luther that seems likely to appear for much of next year. For Luther and the many Protestant teachers who followed, it was not enough for each individual to follow the dictates of the Church, they had also to work on themselves – a view that, on Keane’s account, would lead to the emergence of the kind of individualism that is now associated with modernity.

There is no sense in which this Eurocentric view of modernity is news or a summary of received wisdom, although Keane’s version of the story itself may be unfamiliar to many readers. If anything, it repeats an archaic academic prejudice. Not too many years ago, variations on Keane’s story would have been widely accepted in the world’s leading universities, but academic views of modernity have since moved on – some would say progressed. The Eurocentric story of modernity has been unsettled, in part by post- and de-colonial writers arguing that the beginnings of modernity are to be found, not so much in internal European developments – Keane’s story – but also in the initial European invasions of the Americas, South and South-East Asia and Africa and, of course, in the Atlantic slave trade, all of which began a little earlier than Luther’s stand – but also, of course, by Bruno Latour’s We have never been modern. Aside from Latour, whose argument questions its existence, these approaches to modernity agree roughly on the period in which it started but not on how to understand or account for it.

The most striking difference between the post- and the de-colonial camps is that one comes out of Africa and South Asia and the other out of Central and South America – although, as with many influential academic perspectives today, both are now strongly represented in the USA. Both stress the importance of Western imperialism in the development of modernity, with one insisting that Europe’s was not the only modernity and the other that modernity and coloniality – understood as occupying a subordinate position in a complex web of dependence – are interdependent, each beginning with the opening years of European imperial expansion.
To focus, as Keane does, on internal European developments is to downplay the role of imperialism in shaping the contemporary world, suggesting that, to the extent that other regions have become modern, just like Western Europe, they have done so by adapting European developments. It reflects a remarkably blinkered view of history as happening, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, “first in the West and then elsewhere.” Modernity, according to this view, started in the West, then spread like a plague – or like social media, if you prefer that image – to infect other regions.

Thus, rather than write of the birth of Modernity, Keane would have been better advised to say that the development of modernity is a complex story and that there is an important strand beginning with Luther’s stand against the Church in 1517. But there is an important reason for no longer talking about Modernity that should be mentioned here: it turns on the fact that Modernity is a temporal category closely tied to a view that different cultures or communities can sometimes be understood as representing stages of human progress. It is hard to use ‘modern’ and related terms – modernity, modernisation – without suggesting that we moderns are some way ahead of the rest of humanity and that, in contrast to us, they inhabit earlier historical periods.

To locate oneself in Modernity is thus to suggest that one is more advanced than – and, in that sense, superior to – many of one’s contemporaries. This pernicious standpoint can be seen throughout the twentieth century social sciences. It also appeared all too clearly, for example, in David Oldfield’s portrayal – in the recent SBS series “First Contact” – of Australia’s indigenous peoples as living in the Stone Age.

‘Stone Age’ is a category of twentieth-century pre-history, the first in a three-stage system, the others being the Bronze and Iron Ages, employed by archeologists in their attempts to make sense of early human development in North Africa and Europe. To say that Australia’s indigenous people belong to the Stone Age is thus to portray them as not having progressed – in fact, as unable to progress (even if this is not what one intended to say) – beyond the earliest stages of human development, a negative valuation that is neatly inverted by the Indigenous Australian claim to inhabit the worlds oldest continuous culture.

Against (the concept of) populism

A spectre is haunting contemporary democracies – the spectre of populism. The major institutions of established democracies have entered an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre, centre-left and -right parties, serious print and broadcast media, Tony Blair and Christine Lagarde. But what is populism and what do they have against it?

Populism is a concept that I have never been able to take seriously but I am happy to agree that it is widely regarded as a bad thing, although as Maxine Molyneux and Thomas Osborne note on the openDemocracy website (22 November 2016), the term can be used in a positive sense. To understand the predominantly negative connotations of the term, it is useful to go back to the treatment of democracy in the history of Western political thought. For much of this history, as Jennifer Tolbert Roberts reminds us in her insufficiently appreciated Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994) democracy has not been well regarded. Of the three forms of government distinguished in Aristotle’s Politics, by the one, the few or the many, the last was seen as most prone to distortion and thus a threat to the general interest – a view of the people that has sometimes been resisted by anarchists and Marxists, notably in Hardt & Negri ‘s celebration of the multitudeThis was because the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated people were seen as unskilled in the evaluation of argument and therefore as particularly susceptible to the unprincipled appeals of demagogues.

This generally unfavourable Western view of democracy changed over the course of the nineteenth century as the meaning of democracy itself shifted from government by the people themselves to representative government. In the late eighteenth century, the American Federalist Papers, while noting the importance of keeping the work of government out of the hands of the people in their collective form, nevertheless assumed that the people could be trusted to appoint those from a better class of person to represent them. In the same period, the English radical Tom Paine argued in favour of ‘representation ingrafted upon democracy’, which he preferred to pure democracy. Representative government offered a version of government by the many that promised to avoid the risks of corruption associated with government by the one or the few while also keeping the people ‘in their collective form’ out of the practice of government

By the beginning of the twentieth century, democracy, while still in some left-wing contexts, retaining its earlier meaning of government by the people themselves, had also come to designate ‘representative government’, a complex system of government by networks of elected representatives and unelected public servants, operating through combinations of representative, vaguely consultative and hierarchical institutions. The long-standing Western fear of the people is central to this second sense of democracy, which generally involves institutional arrangements – a free press, rule of law with a moderately independent judiciary, representative government with a system of ‘responsible’ political parties – expected to both promote popular participation and keep its impact under control. Grahame Thompson (openDemocracy, 22 November 2016) describes these ‘four institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’ as the principal targets of populist rhetoric. When the World Bank , international development agencies, and Western political leaders favour democracy promotion, it is usually this second understanding of democracy that they have in mind.

What does all this have to do with the contemporary discussion of populism? My sense in reading as much as I can bear of this discussion, is that the term ‘populism’ is used to condemn any appeal to the people that seeks to circumvent the institutional arrangements noted above, whose role is to contain the impact of the people on the actual work of government. Where Thompson identifies these institutional arrangements as the central focus of populist rhetoric, my point is almost the obverse: that political organisations or programs that attack these institutions get to be labelled populist. The condemnation of populism serves, in effect, to celebrate what we now call democracy. Populism is thus seen in: British, American and Australian attacks on the press and on what passes in these countries as an independent judiciary; Australian Governments’ efforts to undermine the Human Rights Commission and, in New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption; Donald Trump’s occasional threats during the 2016 Presidential campaign to rapidly (without due process) incarcerate or expel millions of hispanic migrants, to send his opponent to jail and not to accept the election result; the British LEAVE campaign’s pretence that a favourable referendun result could trump, no pun intended, the sovereignty of parliament; President Dutterte (Harry!) of the Philippines encouraging police to hunt down and kill drug traffickers.

All that unites these different populisms is that they are labelled as such by critics. While it is not always possible to choose the terms in which public debate is conducted, we should recognise that this labelling game is, at best, uninformative and, at worst, seriously misleading. We should not allow our dislike of many ‘populist’ attacks on parliamentary democracy, the party system, the press or the rule of law (Thompson’s four ‘institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’) to lead us into the view that there is little objectionable about these institutions as they stand today. While freedom of the press sounds good – anyone is free to start up and run a paper or journal – it has a significantly different meaning when, as in Australia and Britain, the press is dominated by a single proprietor. Or, imagine trying to explain the beauty of the rule of Law to indigenous peoples in Australasia and N. America, the many unfortunate souls trapped in Gitmo by a Republican controlled Congress or in what Australia euphemistically calls ‘immigration detention’ but not prison or, for that matter, to Chelsea Manning, condemned by the US military to solitary confinement, in effect, for trying to escape her punishment by taking her own life.

Same the whole world over

Its the same the whole world over/ Isn’t it a crying shame?
Its the rich that get the pleasure,/ Its the poor that gets the blame. (C19 english song.Also known by the unpleasant title ‘She was poor but she was honest’. Consider what the conjunction ‘but’ does here?)

Sometimes it feels as if, on top of the impact of climate change, the same problems appear ‘the whole world over’: the rich and large corporation are reaping the benefits, while the poor are paying the price and sometimes pushing back. The losers from this process have not had a good press lately. Commentators have accused them of supporting Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the occupy movement, Donald Trump & Bernie Sanders in USA, Marine le Pen in France, AfD in Germany and extreme-Right parties all over Europe. The details of the story differ from case to case but the basic structure is fairly simple. Those who have lost out from globalisation, neo-liberal economic reform, European integration and policies of free trade fundamentalism are seen as being behind a global rise in anti-political populism, protectionism, anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and xenophobia. They have supported Trump, Sanders and Corbyn, and belong to a broader movement against mainstream politics and economic liberalisation.

This last development has been deplored by a host of liberal worthies, European and American contributors to Project Syndicate, including Joschka Fischer, Christine Lagarde and Joe Stiglitz, Jochen Bittner, a political editor at Die Zeit and NYT columnist, and Timothy Garton Ash, a professional liberal internationalist based in Oxford – and, unlike the conditions against which they were reacting, cautiously welcomed by writers more clearly on the left. Most liberals agree that the impulse to populism and especially, the anti-free-trade animus should be resisted but usually without suggesting what could be done to protect those left behind by globalisation. Garton Ash goes as far as to suggest that the answer to the problems posed by economic liberalisation is more economic liberalisation, while Stiglitz notes that its too easy to confuse the effects of changes in technology on manufacturing employment with those of free-trade/globalisation and that the label ‘free-trade agreement’ often masks deals designed to favour large corporations.

This broad literature suffers from three serious and interrelated problems: first, both liberal and left commentary are tempted to generalise, one searching nostalgically for a lost anti-capitalist internationalism and the other finding its culprit in the flip-side of this romance, the utterly conventional, but insufficiently recognised, prejudice of Western political thought against the great unwashed, the untutored masses who are seen, following Aristotle, as a standing threat to the stability of any political regime. Second, we observe a careless use of evidence. Commentators have been tempted, for example, to account for Britain’s Brexit vote in terms of the reactions of depressed areas of the industrial North of England. Yet, while many in these areas voted LEAVE, the decisive weight of LEAVE votes were cast in the more prosperous South of England. There is, in other words, no reason to blame the English losers for the decision to LEAVE.

Or again, the fear of the untutored masses leads to a belief in the civilising effects of education – a view that underlies many academic defences of humanities education and the familiar observation that susceptibility or otherwise to populism is a function of education: people with less education are more likely to embrace populist politics than those with more. We are told, for example, that surveys show American professors are generally more liberal – in the American sense, that is, more likely to vote Democrat – than other Americans and that, in the current presidential campaign white males with two-year college degrees, are far less likely to support Trump than those without. This last seems entirely plausible but, far from it supporting the civilising function of education narrative, it is a stretch to count as education a degree in such intellectually demanding disciplines as commerce, counselling, marketing, office management or hospitality.The key difference between those with vocational two-year degrees and those without is less a matter of education than of labour market opportunities. In this sense those without college degrees are clearly disadvantaged. It is this rather than lack of education that leaves them open to Trump’s and Sanders’ appeals.

Third, this literature suffers from weak conceptualisation, most obviously in relation to neoliberalism and populism. The latter is widely used to account for the rise of Trump and Sanders in the US and even of Corbyn in Britain, ‘extreme’ right- or left-wing parties in parts of Europe, and the failure of British voters too follow the advice of UK suits other than Farage, Gove and Johnson. In these cases, reference to populism indicates little more than that mainstream politics is in trouble, thereby presenting tautology as explanation: mainstream politics is in trouble because mainstream politics is in trouble. As for neoliberalism, this is a notoriously difficult notion to pin down, in part, because it is a pejorative term and rarely used in a neutral or positive sense. Thus, the occupy movements in America, the growth of Syriza in Greece and the British vote for Brexit could all be read as exemplary forms of resistance against the same thing, neo-liberalism, and used as templates for interpreting developments elsewhere.

However, to argue that, climate change aside, there is no reason to believe that ‘its the same the whole world over’, is not to deny the impacts of neoliberalism, whatever that might be, rampant inequality, free-trade, globalisation and even of populism but it is to suggest that, rather than indulge in bold generalisation, their alleged impacts need be established in each individual case. ‘Populism’, to take just one example, is often used to account for the white nationalism and xenophobia of Trump’s white male supporters without two-year college degrees: they are said to feel that their own once-privileged positions are under threat at home from Blacks and Latinos and from lower-paid foreign workers through the impact of untrammelled free trade. In responding to such analyses, we should take care to distinguish between the targets of people’s anger – Blacks, Latinos, the very rich, big corporations,Wall St., free trade, foreign competition, etc – and whatever produces the conditions – technical change, poor services, mainstream political indifference, dubious ‘free trade’ deals and competition from foreign imports – to which this anger is a response.

We need to talk about China

An earlier version of this post appeared on the opendemocracy website under the title ‘The Australian Senator for Beijing’

Two points stand out from the events surrounding Senator Dastyari’s resignation from Labor’s front bench. First, while the Senator kept repeating “I made a mistake”, neither he nor his critics got round to telling us preciely what his mistake was. He had asked two chinese-owned businesses to pay bills that he did not wish to pay at the time and that at least one of these companies had links with the Chinese Government. It was generally agreed that he had broken no rules and that he had properly declared these payments as the current rules covering Senators accepting gifts require.

Second, the Senator was reported to have made comments on the South China Sea dispute that were at odds with the policies of both the Australian Government and the Opposition – perhaps this was his mistake. Commentators suggested that Dastyari had compromised himself by accepting Chinese money, while the Prime Minister said that it looked like a case of cash for comment. Yet there was no discussion of the policy issues raised by these comments. The PM’s ‘cash for comment’ comment may have been intended to head off debate by suggesting that, because it was paid for, what Dastyari said about the South China Sea was not even worth discussing.

What happens if we take the Senator’s comments seriously? He was quoted in a Chinese-language report as saying at a press conference for Chinese-language media while standing alongside one of his Chinese donors, “The South China Sea is China’s own affair [and] Australia should remain neutral and respect China on this matter.”

This did not look good for the Senator, yet, since we do not have a full transcript, it is difficult to know whether this quote accurately reflects his observations. It would not have been hard for any qualifications he may have made – about, say, China needing to negotiate with its neighbours and the conventional maritime doctrine of the freedom of the seas – to get displaced in the process of translation from his original English into Mandarin and back into English again.

Yet, even with such qualifications, the injunction to ‘remain neutral and respect China in this matter’ would have landed him in trouble. Australia’s bipartisan view is that international maritime law – in particulaly the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that China has no historical rights within the nine-dash line area of the South China Sea applies in this matter. When it is a matter of following the law or not doing so, what is there to be neutral aboui?

The most charitable interpretation of Dastyari’s remarks would be to see them as calling for an Australian effort to understand China’s views. If this was his intention, a presser for Chinese-language media might not have been the best place to make his point but it should not be dismissed out of hand. It is surely time for a serious Australian attempt to understand the geo-political concerns of its huge neighbour to the north.

Former Labor Senator and Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been reported as making similar points to Dastyari, in comments following an address by Paul Keating to the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, warning that Australia should not view “China through a Washington lens.” He also suggested that “ a lot of Australians would think in the East China Sea we should be neutral… we should move with like-minded opinion, not make a flamboyant gesture of running patrols that won’t resolve anything.”

Yet, showing no charitable inclination towards Dastyari, the PM and Treasurer both demanded that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten take action against the Senator, interpreting his apparent failure to do so as a sign of weakness. Shorten says that he counselled Dastyari without revealing any details of their conversation. (Perhaps he advised him, not unreasonably, to confine his public statements to his own portfolio area.) Neither Shorten nor Opposition spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Penny Wong publicly disowned Dastyari’s statement although he was clearly rebuked by Tony Burke, a senior Labor frontbencher.

If we wished to understand China’s views on this matter, we could begin by acknowledging several points. First, Australia’s record with regard to international law is far from impressive. It has engaged in illegal American-led military actions and, in its conflict with Timor L’este over their joint maritime boundary in the Timor Sea, it has refused to submit to dispute-resolution and openly sabotaged Timor L’este’ attempt to bring the issue before a Conciliation Commission at the Hague by preventing a crucial Australian witness from leaving the country. Moreover Australian Governments have routinely ignored crucial provisions of the UN Convention on Refugees concerning non-refoulement and the requirement that refugees should not be penalised for seeking asylum.

Second, while China was a founder member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council, the (communist) PRC government was not recognised by the UN before 1971, largely because of American opposition. This changed only after President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in 1971. As a result, the PRC government was unable to take part in formal UN discussions – on maritime law or anything else – before that time.

Third, there is little in the history of China’s relations with the West that would lead it to respect the law of the sea. In fact, it must be tempting for China to regard the most recent iteration of the law of the sea, UNCLOS, which came into force in 1994, as only the most recent in a very long line of unequal treaties imposed on China by Western imperialism. The PRC Government was able to participate in the negotiations leading up to UNCLOS. But this happened at a difficult time for the PRC Government, between 1973 and 1982 while it was just beginning to feel its way around the UN system.

China would also be aware of the extent to which international maritime law has adapted itself to US interests following America’s heavy-handed behaviour before finally agreeing to Part X1 of UNCLOS and its unilateral assertion in 1945 of its control over areas of the high seas contiguous to the US coast. America pulled off this last trick without suffering the indignity of a foreign power sending in naval patrols to show that the Gulf of Mexico and large areas of the Atlantic and Pacific were not exclusively American lakes.

Bearing these points in mind, there is no reason to expect China to be much impressed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that China had no historical rights over the South Chine Sea.

Now that the US has set itself up as the chief enforcer of international maritime law, China has reason to view America as a threat and maritime law as an important tool in its armory. Some may argue that China should take a different view but Australia’s problem is to live with China as it is, not as we might like it to be. To be neutral in this context is to remain sceptical about the application of maritime law in the South China Sea and to be cautious about supporting American efforts to enforce it.

If, as many of us believe, it was a serious mistake for Australia to join an illegal UK/US-led invasion in the Middle East, drifting into accidental war with China in the wake of provocative US naval patrols would be no better. There may still be time for the informed debate about how to manage our relations with China, our largest trading partner, and America, our most powerful ally, that Australia desperately needs.