never walk away

Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!

Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.

There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.

Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.

Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.

Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.

While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.

The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.

Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.

If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.


The White Queen & the Black Prince

Whatever we might think of the Quarterly Essay as a publishing/political enterprise (Not very much in my case ) we should welcome the appearance of David Marr’s The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race (QE 65), a powerful examination of the racism underlying mainstream Australian politics. Yet, there are real problems with Marr’s analysis, with his treatment of Howard’s role in the recent politics of race and with some of the language he uses.

Before I get to these issues, let me comment briefly on the QE enterprise. QE claims to present, in the words of the back cover, ‘significant contributions to the general debate’ in the form of single essays of about 25,000 words. ‘it aims to present the widest range of political, intellectual and cultural opinion’. (QE’s website is hardly more informative.) ‘Widest range’ in just four essays a year is a huge, not to say pretentious ambition, leaving us to wonder who gets to choose which issues just have to be covered this year and which can be left to another day – and, of course, who gets to write at length about them?
There are two major villains in Marr’s story. One is Ms (a title she would likely reject) Hanson, the White Queen of his Essay’s title. Marr quotes her definition of a racist as “A person who believes their race to be superior to another’s”. In this sense, she’s not a racist, although it should not be difficult to persuade a detached observer that much of her conduct rests on an implicit racism – except for the fact that the careful textual analysis required to do so has no place in Australian political discourse. Marr treats Hanson’s anti-Muslim tirades and the more general Australian targeting of Muslims as clearly racist. Many of us would agree and many others would not. Since she makes no reference to Muslim and non-Muslim races, her conduct is not racist in her own terms. I would take Marr’s point a little further here and say that the political enterprise of preventing or containing radicalisation is racist through and through. It simply ramps a conventional anti-muslim prejudice up to another level. When ‘radicalised’ and related terms are used without qualification today, they invariably target Muslims, although, to be fair, the language of radicalisation was also used in America to target the radical Black Panthers and the left-wing student movement, the weather underground in the late 1960s and ’70s. Still, ‘radicalisation’ is talked about in Australia today as something that happens exclusively to Muslims, not to once-moderate reactionaries like Malcolm Turnbull or to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. It is telling that Australia has a bipartisan consensus on radicalisation and the need to combat it. This, too, is an important aspect of the Australian politics of race. Towards the end of his essay, Marr cites Anne Aly – herself a Muslim and a rare voice of moderation in the counter-radicalisation business – as an authority but, as he complains often enough about Howard, without calling this deplorable business out on its racism.

The other, more substantial, villain, call him the Black Prince, is John Howard. Marr accuses Howard of several things. One is simply refusing to call out Hanson’s racism when she first appeared on the national stage in the 1990s. Howard’s own reflections on this refusal in his 2010 book Lazarus Rising are worth quoting:

“Could the impact of Hanson have been less if I had attacked her… immediately after her maiden speech….[It] would have…gratuitously alienated [her supporters] from me – and for what purpose, other than the political benefit of the Labor party” (quoted by Marr, pp.38-9)

Worse, Howard chose to defend Hanson’s supporters from the charge of racism. Rather, he said, they were “a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that in different ways they had been passed over.” Howard, in effect, aimed to appease Hanson’s supporters in the hope of winning their votes or, at least, their preferences. “Something grubby”, Marr observes (p.39), “entered national life at this point.” Howard, we are told, ”shattered the twenty year truce [between the Coalition and Labor] on multiracial immigration.” (p.25) In practice, Labor also chose to appease or, at least, not to offend Hanson’s supporters. Marr maintains that the bipartisan appeasement of a racist minority “tainted Australian politics” (p2)

“Tainted”, “grubby”. These are terms of moral condemnation, not dispassionate analysis. Its not difficult to see what Marr is passionate about here and many, perhaps most, of his readers would agree with him. Even so, it is worth pausing to consider what this condemnation adds to our understanding of the Australian politics of race. Let me begin with the twenty year truce that Howard is alleged to have repudiated. Experienced diplomats know that, even when an agreed text is written and duly signed, the parties to an agreement are likely to take away different understandings of what has been agreed between them. In the case of unwritten agreements, the parties are even less likely to take the same view of what they have agreed. Marr understands the ‘truce’ as an agreement between Labor and the Coalition not to pursue racist votes, This understanding clearly points to Howard as the villain. Yet, a slightly different understanding yields another view. Suppose we understand the truce as an agreement to keep race out of politics. On this view, the truce was decisively broken in 1995 by Labor’s Racial Hatred Act, which amends another Labor (Whitlam) Government’s Racial Discrimination Act by adding the controversial Section 18C and by Keating’s Redfern Speech a few years earlier. Labor, on this view, repudiated the truce by not leaving racist dogs in peace.

This minor variation on Marr’s story hardly lets Howard off the hook but it does knock him off the Black Prince’s perch, leaving him simply as one of the more successful Dark Knights of Australian politics. As for Marr’s ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’, the particular contamination he addresses came in once the dogs had been aroused. Yet we should recognise that, far from being squeaky-clean, Australian politics was already tainted by an underlying racism and grubby enough before Howard arrived on the Dark Side. Nor does the ALP come out of this revised story very well. True, it remained largely on the decent non-racist side – but Labor never found the courage to do much about it.

One final observation: if ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’ are terms of moral condemnation, the same is true of ‘dog-whistle’. All suggest that the writer is morally superior to the people under discussion, in the dog-whistle case, Hanson’s & Howard’s white working class supporters. Marr notes that Australian right-wing talk of elites and their attitudes towards bulk of the population has been imported directly from the discourse of the American Right, along with the curious idea that Islam is not a religion. I agree, but, once we examine the conduct of the Australian Left, it becomes clear that the Right’s complaints about left-wing elites are not entirely without foundation. We might also note that the application of the pejorative term ‘dog-whistle’ to political analysis may also have been imported from America – at least, according to some commentators.

Marr describes John Howard (p.5) as “the great dog-whistler, the politician who could send a signal to the bush that went almost unheard in town.” The term draws on the image of the dog-whistle, once commonly used in sheep herding and also known as the ‘silent’ whistle. It was designed, to sound at a frequency, 20,000Hz or more, that would be inaudible to human ears but would be noticed by most dogs whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for the odd headache, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly. Skilled dog-whistlers like Howard knew what they were doing while the dogs – Hanson/Howard’s working class supporters – could be expected to react without thinking.

In fact, the difference between bush and town does not fit the Australian Left’s usage of the term, which is more concerned with distinguishing between the political conduct of Hanson’s, and Howard’s, racist supporters who, Marr tells us, were as likely to be found in the cities as in the bush, and one’s own, more sophisticated conduct. While it appears to be an analytic concept, I have argued elsewhere that ‘dog-whistle’ functions as little more than a means of asserting the speaker’s ethical superiority over the ‘dogs’ who hear the whistle and act accordingly. [“whistling the dog” in John Uhr & Ryan Walter (eds) 2014 Studies in Australian Political Rhetoric, Canberra: ANU Press, free download at the ANU Press website] To his credit, Marr makes little use of this concept in the body of his discussion.

Debating Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act

“You black bastard” Is this offensive, friendly banter, somewhere in between or both?

The Australian Racial Discrimination Act was introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1975 to embody the spirit of the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which the Act ratified, and particularly its insistence that “there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere.” Along with SBS, the RDA is one of the few Whitlam legacies to have survived more or less unscathed into the 21st century, although it was, in fact, strengthened by the 1995 Racial Hatred Act which laid down procedures for dealing with allegations of racial discrimination and added sections 18C & D, the latter specifying a number of exemptions to the provisions of the former. Both as a Whitlam Act, albeit slightly modified, and one with links to the UN – not to mention its threat to disrupt the minor everyday pleasures of many white Australians – it has been disputed by the Australian Right, who have focused overwhelmingly on the wording of section 18C which they see as impeding free speech – their main complaint against 18C from the beginning (McNamara & Solomon 1996). There has also been some dispute over the procedures to be followed in dealing with allegations of racial discrimination.

The disputed passage of 18C refers to acts that are “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” specifically when “the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.” Critics of the Act on the Right of the Liberal Party, who seem to have never recovered from the shock of the Whitlam years, object to the terms ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ on the grounds that they are subjective (offense, for example, is said to be in the mind of the offended, an observation that is taken to mean that there can be no reliable legal test); insufficiently precise (although we should note that Australian Courts have found no difficulty in convicting many indigenous people of using offensive language against police officers (who can be trusted to recognise offensive language, particularly when they hear it directed against them); and that, notwithstanding the exemptions listed in section 18D, they serve to limit free speech thereby inviting the critics’ opponents to ask what they wanted people to be able to say that they cannot say now.

In a nicely symbolic act of discrimination – no complaint was lodged with the AHRC – the Chair of the Senate Committee considering options for reform denied a request by the ACT/NSW Aboriginal Legal Service that its representative be allowed to speak to the Committee. The Government finally opted to replace ‘offend insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’ and to introduce procedural changes, while insisting that the original 18C had been discredited and, further, that this change in wording made the Act stronger by making it clearer – only to have its revisions rejected by the Senate.

Several features of the 18C debate are worth noting. First, for all this interest in terminology, in the meanings of words and what people do with them, critical discussion of section 18C barely touched on two absolutely central terms, discrimination and race – nor, of course, did it touch on the derivative terms, ‘racial’, ‘racism’ and ‘racist’.

Starting with discrimination, we can note that its meanings range from the simple act of recognising difference – between, say, moths and butterflies, indigenous and other Australians or wasps and bees – through the capacity to recognise such differences to action towards others that is unjust or prejudicial. The RDA targets only discrimination in this last sense, which is also the most recent: the earliest English-language use of the term in this sense noted by the OED was in 1819, while discrimination in the first sense appeared as early as 1621.

Discrimination against others in the prejudicial sense clearly depends on the act of discrimination in the sense of recognition of difference. Yet, we should not imagine that prejudicial discrimination is entirely negative in its effects. We often find references to positive discrimination, discrimination that favours disadvantaged groups, for example, through quotas in schools or universities, many introduced as gestures towards rectifying earlier discrimination against them. There is also a second important sense in which discrimination can be positive, essentially because it always cuts both ways. Just as some are victims of unjust and prejudicial actions, many others, who are not victims, experience a no less unjust and prejudicial discrimination in their favour. Discrimination against indigenous Australians is also discrimination in favour of non-indigenous Australians.

Notice finally that, like the RDA itself, the debate treats racial discrimination, as basically a matter of some people or organisations doing something unpleasant to one or more others because of ‘their race, etc…’. This raises three points, two of which I return to later: first, both the RDA and the recent 18C debate take it for granted that races exist; second, treating racism as resulting from prejudice suggests that the problem rests primarily in the minds of individuals. Thirdly, widespread inequities result not only from the prejudicial conduct of one or more individuals but also from the conduct of state agencies and the collective behaviour of banks and other other organisations.

Perhaps the clearest example of the latter is redlining, which led to the de facto segregation of many US cities outside the South. The term itself comes from American investigative journalism in the 1960’s: it refers to the practice of restricting services – whether by not providing clinics, hospitals, schools and supermarkets, pr locating them in places that some find hard to access or by selectively adjusting prices for insurance and mortgages – to residents of certain areas according to the racial or ethnic composition of those areas. Redlining is a clear case of discrimination that is difficult to blame on the bias of any single individual or group.

As to the inequities enacted by state agencies, we need only think of the ongoing scandal of Aboriginal deaths in custody and disproportionate rates of indigenous incarceration, Australian Governments’ cavalier treatment of native title or of the quality of the services provided to Australia’s indigenous peoples by agencies operating at various levels of Australian government. The net result of their actions amounts to massive discrimination against indigenous people and in favour of the non-indigenous population. In December 2007 the Council of Australian Governments recognised the seriousness of the issue, agreeing that steps must be taken at all levels of government to address gross inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the areas of health, education and employment. To this end, reports on progress are presented every year to the Australian parliament and they have so far been uniformly and predictably disappointing, a fact that is no less predictably deplored by politicians and media outlets before the rest of Australia gets on with other business

We might also think of the Australian practice of immigration detention. The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, generally regarded as the basis of the White Australia Policy, aimed to prevent or severely limit the immigration of non-Europeans. It prohibited the immigration of various classes of people, with the result that they could not migrate legally to Australia, and provided for illegal immigrants, other than those of European descent, to be held in detention before they were deported. While the Immigration Restriction Act was finally replaced by the 1958 Migration Act, immigration detention has continued in various forms. Under the current regime of offshore detention, which operates in spite of Australia’s obligation as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention not to penalise migrants seeking asylum, hundreds of refugees are incarcerated on Manus Island in PNG, which PNG courts have declared illegal, and Nauru. While White Australia openly discriminated in favour of Europeans, today’s offshore detention regime does so covertly by incarcerating non-Europeans. So few refugees of European descent arrive in Australia by boat that the question of making special provision for them simply does not arise. We can only imagine what might happen if boatloads of English-speaking whites, displaced, say, from South Africa, Kenya or Zimbabwe, were to arrive on Australian shores

Compared to unjust or prejudicial treatment, discrimination in the earlier sense of recognition of difference might seem to be relatively innocuous. Unfortunately, consideration of discrimination on the basis of race will show that this harmless appearance may be deceptive. Some authors (eg, Fields & Fields, 2014) have argued that the making or perception of racial distinctions should be seen as racist.

As for race itself, 18C renders discrimination illegal whenever “the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person.” Here the RDA clearly assumes that racial differences exist, along with differences in colour and national or ethnic origin. There have been too many accounts of race for me to even attempt to examine them here. (but see Bethencourt 2013, Fields & Fields, 2014, Hund & Lentin 2016, Wolfe 2016) So cutting a long and complex story short, we can note, first, that races have generally been understood as populations distinguished from other races by their common inheritance, this last being variously understood in terms of blood, descent from one or a few common ancestors or genes. In nineteenth century Europe and America racial differences were often treated as natters of scientific inquiry. Alongside the resulting ‘scientific’ discussions of race there were others drawing in part on versions of ‘scientific’ race theory, with some also drawing on tendentious readings of the Biblical Old Testament. Second, while races were perceived as objects of study, racial discrimination, was widely experienced as an intractable social reality – a social fact in the Durkheimian sense of a societal feature that exercises an external constraint on individuals – something that could not be wished away and that simply had to be negotiated.

If racial discrimination is a social fact, so too are the races it distinguishes. The coexistence of the social fact of race and talk about different races raises many issues requiring further clarification, only a few of which can be touched on here. First, is there a causal relationship between talk about races and the social fact of racial discrimination? This would suggest the comforting view, at least for many intellectuals, that the rigorous examination of various accounts of races (which I have not attempted here) which would certainly result in discrediting most of them, would be a practical way of undermining racial discrimination as a social fact. Appealing to some as this view might be, it is hardly plausible. In medieval Europe, populations were distinguished ostensibly on the basis of descent but without reference to any concept of race, with Jews, Moors, Roma (Gypsies) all being identified as outsiders. Yet, if racial difference can appear as social fact in the absence of talk about races, it hardly makes sense to treat it as caused by such talk. If anything, the relationship works in the contrary direction ‘Scientific’ racism and other accounts of racial difference can be seen as serially unsuccessful attempts to make sense of the social fact.

Following this last point, we should not expect too much from critical discussion of influential accounts of racial differences. This is not to say that critiquing these accounts is a waste of time, only that it will not bring about the short-term results that some might hope for. We should not expect even the most powerful critiques to bring the whole edifice of racial discrimination crashing down. In fact, as with many complex social phenomena, there is little point in trying to identify a singular cause of racial discrimination. The more important question for us today is how does racial discrimination continue, or how is it reproduced, and here, I suggest, ‘scientific’ and other accounts of racial difference do play an important part.

Consider, for example, the vexed issue of race and intelligence. Around the end of the nineteenth century anthropologists and psychologists began to seek scientific evidence for and explanations of the superior mental capacities of Europeans – a truth which, for the most part, they simply took for granted. To this end, they compared brain sizes, skull shapes and sizes and adapted the recently developed techniques of intelligence testing. (I leave aside the contentious issue of whether the intelligence of individuals is amenable to testing in a culturally-neutral fashion.) By the mid-1930s psychologists had settled on the view that environmental and cultural factors were more significant determinants of intelligence than inheritance and this has since remained the majority view.

In a striking precursor to recent debates around global warming, a minority of specialists continued to hold out against this consensus – For the consensus view see the 1996 report prepared for the American Psychological Association by Ulrich Neisser and for stand-outs see, for example, Arthur Jensen (1969) and Hans Eysenck (1971)). Eysenck also held out against the medical consensus that there was a link between smoking and lung cancer – thereby providing excuses for an influential kind of denialism that still informs American education policies and political debates about positive discrimination in colleges and universities. (For example in Hernstein & Murray’s disturbingly popular The Bell Curve (1994) (cf Stephen Jay Gould’s 1996 powerful response) and the academic Journals Mankind Quarterly & Intelligence)

What happens in this denialism is that the perception of Black and White as different – which might seem to be no more than a matter of discrimination in the first sense noted above and thus innocuous (But cf Fields & Fields, 2014) – comes together with a problematic psychological measure to justify racial discrimination, in the prejudicial sense, thereby reinforcing & reproducing existing prejudicial regimes.

Finally, what of the individualism of the RDA and the debate around 18C? I noted earlier that both the Act and the 18C debate understood discrimination as a matter of one or more persons or organisations doing something unpleasant to one or more others. There is no doubt that this happens, but I also noted that this focus on individual misconduct tends to discount discrimination by government agencies and other organisations. While the Act does not deny that there may be discrimination by government agencies, section 6 insists that “nothing in this Act renders the Crown liable to be prosecuted for an offence.” Thus, if Australian State or Commonwealth Governments were tempted to indulge in racial discrimination, as I have insisted they are, the RDA offers no protection.

Yet, ignoring government agencies is not the only significant limitation of the Act’s individualistic focus. This focus suggests that the main problem of discrimination is a matter of prejudiced individuals. Suppose that we come up with a reliable explanation of individual prejudice, where would that leave us? In February 2017, the Australian broadcasting network, SBS broadcast a series under the heading “Is Australia Racist?” In practice, the programs in this series interpreted this question as meaning “Are Australians Racist?” and it turned out, to nobody’s great surprise, that many were and way too many others experienced racial prejudice in their daily lives.

SBS drew on the work of psychologists and sociologists, the latter investigating the extent of racist behaviour by or towards Australians and the former providing an account of this racism as a kind of prejudice based on fear of “people who don’t look like we do”, and suggesting that this fear was hard-wired into our brains but that we could change it, if we so desired, with a bit of effort

Unfortunately, even if we were to accept the idea of hard-wiring in the soft tissues of our nervous systems, this account of racism would be seriously incomplete. We all grow up with people who don’t look like ourselves and members of our immediate family and, over time, we learn not to be afraid of many of them. So, we fear, or are prejudiced against, some people who don’t look like we do and we don’t fear as much, or are less prejudiced against, others who also don’t look like we do. What distinguishes the two groups is not that people in one look like we do and those in the other do not, since neither of them look like we do. So, there must be something else going on, something that is not captured by consideration of whether they look like we do.

I have picked on the SBS series here, not to damn the network but rather to bring out the limits of treating racism as a kind of individual prejudice: no account of prejudice as a psychic process can tell us which people are targeted, why these are and those not. Nor is my observation that SBS sought the assistance of psychologists and sociologists intended to undermine the value of these disciplines. My point is simply that, in this case, their assistance did not get us far. Perhaps SBS was just unlucky or asked its hired psychologists the wrong questions.

Yet, if accounts of discrimination as a matter of individual prejudice cannot explain who the discrimination targets, perhaps we should, once again, turn the issue around and consider the possibility that prejudice is turned against populations because they have been and often still are targeted by states, powerful groups or organisations.

To conclude, if racial discrimination is a social fact, then so, too, will be the races it distinguishes. However, these races should be understood as populations identified by the fact of being targeted by racial discrimination, not as the entities specified by accounts of races that focus on heritable features that are allegedly shared by their members. This last point deserves more consideration than I can offer here for if only because, first, colonial territories and their successor states often contain distinct and differentially targeted populations (Wolfe 2017) and, second, racial discrimination and the races it identifies cut across national boundaries. Races as targeted populations are all too real, but races as populations unified by shared genetic traits are no more than dangerous fictions: they are not the products of distinct creations, whether by God, geography or evolution, nor populations descended from Ham, Japhet & Seth, the sons of Noah, as a literal reading of the Book of Genesis might suggest. Again, if races are targeted populations, and therefore social constructs, there are no rational grounds for supposing that any one of the races currently identified is superior to any of the others. Thus, returning to the Preamble of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (which Australia ratified by passing the Whitlam Government’s RDA): “there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere” and certainly not in Australia.


Francisco Bethencourt (2013) Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century Princeton: Princeton University Press
Eysenck, H. J. (1971). Race, intelligence and education. London: Temple Smith. [US title: The IQ argument].
Karen E. Fields & Barbara J. Fields (2014) Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, London: Verso

Stephen Jay Gould (1996) The Mismeasure of Man . New York: Norton

Richard J. Hernstein & CharlesMurray (1994), The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Glencoe, NJ: The Free Press

Wulf Hund & Alana Lentin (eds.) 2016 Racism and Sociology. Berlin: Lit
Jensen, Arthur R (1969). “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?”. Harvard Educational Review. 39: 1–123.
Ulric Neisser et al (1996) “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns”. American Psychologist. 51:77–101.
Patrick Wolfe (2016) Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso

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.