In February 2003, millions of people around the world, especially the metropolitan centres of the West, marched against the prospect of war in Iraq. Overall, 12 million people are estimated to have marched on a single day: in London over a million; in New York 400,000; in Rome 600,000; in Melbourne and Sydney 200,000 in both cities. It was for many the last public demonstration they took part in believing that protest on the streets had the power to influence policy: that it was an essential and effective democratic action.
We know the story, but it is worth reminding ourselves of it: despite huge popular anti-war feeling world-wide, profound distrust of US policy and of our own Australian government’s motivations, not to mention the illegality of the war, the United States and Britain led the way into Iraq, with Australia enthusiastically following. This war would be described as an example of liberal-democratic intervention: a clean, progressive form of precision war aimed at something called ‘regime change’, a specific target, a limited mission. It was as if the ‘new’ warfare on the ground were backed by an ethical ‘new’ form of Western mission with a humanitarian intention.
It is true, something had shifted with an earlier President Bush’s declaration of a ‘new world order’, and then son George W’s neoconservative war agenda explicitly in defiance of the Westphalian principles of nation-state sovereignty. Indeed, the ‘liberal democratic’ mission, dressed up as ‘humanitarian intervention’ by militarised means, became popular elsewhere, as in Australia’s own Emergency Intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. In what ways these interventions may have been ‘new’ is worth considering, but whatever the answer, liberal democracy in both cases showed its Janus face: our all too often fuzzy beliefs in progressive rights and freedoms going to murderous war or racist intervention to impose them on others.
Quite apart from the several possible explanations for the American pursuit of war in Iraq, including US oil interests, longstanding plans to ‘break up Iraq’ and the importance of protecting Israel by whatever means in a hostile region, protestors shared some sense of the consequences of war. It seems impossible that others do not understand, do not have any historical memory or historically shaped knowledge, that invasion and military adventure have profound human consequences in the social destruction they wreak: not only death but, once unleashed, ongoing violence in the social and political vacuum created by radical destruction, flows of refugees, human psychological destruction, blowback on the West in the form of new recruits to anti-Western feeling, and then brutal battles finally to fill the vacuum. As we now witness perhaps the final throes of the Iraq conflict commenced more than a decade ago, and/or the reconfiguration of the entire region, we know that some of the very women Western liberal feminists felt should be saved by bringing down Saddam Hussein have been held in a rape camp run by the Maliki regime installed by the Americans. There may be reasons to argue for liberal democratic values and some might argue that, correctly observed, these values may have halted the move to war in Iraq. But let us not be naive about either the uses to which liberal democratic beliefs can be put and the consequences that might flow from such use, or their inherent bias as cultural constructions of the liberal capitalist West.
Past colonial wars and their necessity were typically explained and justified to concerned publics in ethical terms: taking civilisation, or the benefits of Enlightenment, to the barbarians. The hard-heads of realist foreign policy, pursuers of territorial and resource acquisition for the good of empire or nation, synonymous with expanding capital, have for centuries gotten away with duping self-satisfied or frightened publics with ethical-sounding deceptions about their motives and intentions. Few members of the public today would see colonialist intentions on the part of the West in the Middle East, but why is a large part of the Western message to the Middle East still fundamentally the same, the West’s engagement so vehement in its assertion of its superior values? Even conservative commentators have in recent weeks been reminding readers of the history of partition and division in the Middle East by British and other powers, the lies and the promises broken, and examples of a century’s worth of funding extremist groupings and regimes in order to confound local possibilities and continue the preeminence of Western concerns (Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph in The Age, and Greg Sheridan in The Australian). (Just why these commentators are taking this history into account now is intriguing—they seem to be speaking to caution renewed Western involvement, as if it is time to cut and run, give the ‘course of history’ free rein; perhaps chaos is good for some interests; or perhaps they really just don’t know what to do next in the mess the West has in large part created.)
Yet this is not to say that there wasn’t a truth in the notion of a new world order, and something new about the humanitarian claims. They were taking shape in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, and a new level of hubris as expressed by a (short-lived) single world superpower in an era of burgeoning globalisation. The ideology of the period prior to September 11 was one of utter triumphalism: of the American system—its freedoms and values, and neoliberal economics. It was also and remains the case that a popular culture fuelled by liberal notions of individual rights and hyper-consumption capitalism was fairly readily able to be drawn in at least around a broad belief that the Arab and Muslim world is primitive. Establish this, turn it into a threat to ‘our way of life’, and not only the refugees we helped to create but whole civilisations will be punished and excoriated. Just like the NT communities targeted for forced humanitarian reform, now arguably suffering the consequences in skyrocketing Aboriginal youth suicide rates and social desperation in many communities, it could not have been possible without constructing and drawing on images of the targeted people as essentially backward. In the Australian case, Aboriginal culture in itself was held to be dysfunctional, and Indigenous men, especially, sexually deviant.
Both with the Iraq war and the Emergency Intervention into NT communities in Australia, many progressive people in the general community came to be convinced that emergencies existed, which necessitated action. This was not the group beloved of and able to be manipulated by John Howard and the Sydney shock-jocks. These were members of the ‘moral middle class’, both Lib and Lab, those comfortably off and concerned, and many younger people who likewise were shocked either by the World Trade Centre attacks or apparent revelations of Aboriginal child sexual abuse. Liberal values were everywhere assumed and called upon by politicians and the media so that voters were sent to listen to their conscience rather than to examine the actual details, historical facts, forces in play, hidden intentions, let alone get a grip of the deep-running political ideologies and colonialist histories that might have been informing political debate. Intriguingly, unlike the typical comments around budgets and elections when hip-pocket concerns are to the fore and seem to type voters as self-concerned, involve another people in a militarised action on your/their behalf and voters take up an ethical posture.
No doubt many people do take this seriously, and for them something really does seem to be at stake, but their investment of ethical identity in this process means resistance to consideration of larger or more complex historical-material issues. Of course, it is an ethics that ultimately still places the individual at its centre, either as individual conscience of the Western voter/political subject, or in the ventriloquised colonial subject imputed to have merely individual human rights. Whether in the case of the Middle East or Northern Australian Indigenous communities, ‘culture’—or collective modes of social identification that radiate out to contain and give structure to individuals in deeply lived meaning frameworks—is unrecognised or demeaned.
In other editorials in Arena Magazine we have pointed to the tendency under the freedoms of neoliberalism and high-tech consumption society to political reaction. Reaction is not merely conservative policy but a tendency to authoritarianism, or in other words, anti-democracy. The world of the person caught in the grip of reaction is of an ever-narrowing compass, typically buttressed by fear; the actions of politicians in this context are justified in terms of Emergency. Political complexity—checks and balances, and the wide range of forms of potential democratic expression—are likely to be discounted as legitimate by those in power.
In the two articles in this issue of Arena Magazineon the federal budget, Boris Frankel and John Hinkson trace the specifics of budget policy back not merely to the interests of certain groups or the visions of society that underpin it; they both suggest a crisis in the political system overall. Frankel especially points out how democratic opposition has been captured within a corporatised state form (contributed to as much by Labor as by the Coalition). In a context of political reaction, polite ‘professional’ disagreements between peak organisations representing welfare recipients or the environment, for instance, suddenly mean nothing: they will simply be disregarded by Government. This is what Abbott has done. Hinkson suggests that one way to understand the new level of blatantly broken promises in the Hockey/Abbott budget is exactly that this government believes it is faced with an Emergency. He points out how the attitudes springing from perceptions of economic emergency have had dire consequences in the past, specifically the rise of Nazism, in one case, and the American ‘security state’, in another. In Denise Varney’s article on Julia Gillard’s response to Tony Abbott’s misogyny, we are reminded of a kind of hate speech that has arisen in other periods of reaction. If it has usually been applied to marginal ethnic groups, political reaction also has an attitude towards women: after historically brief periods of liberal expansion or revolutionary equality they have typically been returned to the domestic sphere. At the least in our contemporary Australian circumstances, misogyny still finds a language prepared to speak out loud when winked at by men in power.
If the non-response to the marches against the Iraq war in 2003 confirmed a disabling political cynicism in many people, today we witness the political fruits of two decades of aggression in the Middle East and its fallout. Everywhere in the West refugees and ‘immigration’, especially by their spurious link to terrorism in the popular mind, are considered a threat worse than a denied climate change; they animate volatile political identities and set in motion a political mindset that sees threats to essential elements of our way of life or knows well how to use them when a sense of emergency is established. What remains a key question is how those who see themselves as free, liberal individuals and contented beneficiaries of consumer capitalism will understand their past roles in interventions that have contributed to a political situation here and devastation elsewhere that no longer seem quite ethical.