At the time of writing much of Australia seems to be in a self-congratulatory mood. We have a new prime minister embodying what some regard as a return to the political centre, and this comes off the back of a decision by the old one to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees—a decision that was met with public and media approval. When Tony Wright of Fairfax Media observed in relation to the refugee decision that Tony Abbott had ‘acted as a Prime Minister’ and that ‘cynics should take a rest day’ he merely captured this sensibility: that Australia helps out in times of disaster and that we are inherently generous. Elsewhere tabloids like the Herald Sun tapped into this goodwill with front-page calls to ‘let them in’. Little more than a week before this, such sentiments would have been unthinkable.
If various inquiries into offshore detention confirmed the culture of living death that awaits those who attempt arrival by boat into this country, they failed to challenge the cruelty that governed our refugee policy. Nor did the crackdown on whistle-blowers—doctors and other staff who report such horrific conditions—stir those normally exercised by the need for free speech. Few questioned the figure of 12,000, even though it was smaller than the average refugee intake over the last thirty years. If photos of a drowned boy allowed this welling up of emotion, they also obscured a range of inconvenient facts.
In his final week as prime minister Abbott made one of his more bizarre gaffes: declaring Daesh were more evil than the Nazi regime because they suffered no shame and made their atrocities explicit. Putting aside the absurdity of such a comparison, it granted an insight into how our political compass is governed by the question of visibility. The inhumanity of Australia’s response to refugees has been hidden; ‘operational matters’, offshore camps and outsourced security, and scrutiny has been suppressed, even criminalised. Hence one might welcome the power of an image to soften Australia’s response. But it is not so simple.
While the idea that the photos of drowned boy Aylan Kurdi ‘changed everything’ (according to NSW premier Mike Baird) does not bear examination, there is little doubt that this repeatedly circulated image catalysed public sentiment. We could now convince ourselves of our humanity through hashtag campaigns, candlelight vigils and the like. While there have also been longstanding refugee advocates involved in these latest campaigns, it does not account for the sudden prominence of pro-refugee support. Was it something to do with the composition of the actual images?
The broken form of the small boy at first face down on the shore, then in the arms of a lone adult, and the absence of any other refugees in the images produced a response that was at first aesthetic—other images of the dead have failed to stir us—then joined to a latent morality. But in doing so, the photos and their response did not change much. To say this is not to belittle the lives saved when refugees are resettled. But it is worth asking how it is that our culture can suddenly acquire intense compassion about an issue where it has been sadly lacking—a compassion that simultaneously ignores the fate of others left to rot in detention centres.
Beginning with the death of Princess Diana, through to social-media campaigns like Kony 2012 and more recent causes such as je suis Charlie it possible to see our culture as governed by a surplus of free-floating affect, driven largely by the flow of media and information that attaches itself to various images, causes and campaigns. Our image economy is driven by the demand for attention—for anything that can capture a wandering eyeball, generate clickbait or produce an audience. It has long been this way, but the ubiquity of screen culture has ramped up the process so that as virtual citizens we participate via a series of affective responses that are intense but fleeting. Post or tweet on social media, like or dislike on Facebook, sign this online petition: we are constantly invited to make superficial micro-judgements. Occasionally something punches through the general noise of information to capture mass attention, but the same reactive impulse tends to frame the event. In such cases there is a sudden moral imperative (you must act!) that discourages discussion and analysis (‘cynics should take a rest day’) in favour of action—even if the action is largely symbolic. Emotive morality is privileged over analysis in a politics-free environment.
This is not to say that politicians are unable to exploit this emotive economy—Tony Blair’s popularity escalated after he eulogised the ‘people’s princess’, ushering in third-way neoliberalism, while more recently we witnessed political leaders publicly marching for Charlie Hebdo. The heightened emotion of that campaign, where many in the West joined together to show solidarity for a magazine they had never heard of, merged all too easily with other emotions—fear, prejudice—that allowed for the ramping up of anti-terror laws and the criminalisation of dissent. The consequence of life within this empire of affect is all too often the capture of moral feeling and the restriction of political possibility as citizens feel more noble and more fearful at the same time.
In a variation of this theme and with a new leader, the Liberal National Party is likely to rebrand itself as a party where culture and compassion coexist with neoliberal capitalism. The surge in approval for Malcolm Turnbull evidenced by early polls provides another confirmation of the politics of affect—certainly nothing he has said so far indicates any radical departure from LNP policy on issues that matter. The leadership change has allowed the government to avoid scrutiny over the bombing of Syria, and it’s likely some egregious elements of the party will be marginalised—including Peter Dutton after his snide remarks on sea levels and the fate of Pacific Islanders. Yet with the latter remaining minister despite his poor judgement and the Syria decision subsumed under a veil of humanitarian sentiment, this indicates a central problem with the politics of the image: the inability to grasp the underlying conditions that cause such disasters.
That every single intervention in the Arab world has made the conditions worse is lost on those who again advocate humanitarian bombing. Even senior military strategists seem unable to make a case for the aerial bombing of Syria, and the fact that Daesh thrive in an environment of chaos and destruction weakens any strategic argument—the inevitable deaths of civilians, the corpses we don’t see, and the greater exodus of refugees notwithstanding.
The recently deposed prime minister’s remark that the degree of evil is related to its visibility was risible on many levels, but its most serious omission lay in the fact that a greater source of evil today—if we must use that category for the sake of argument—is less easy to depict via YouTube or newspaper photos. Rather, it is a consequence of the structures and historical decisions that have created the crisis in the Arab world (and elsewhere)—misguided attempts at regime change, strategic decisions governed by the desire to control energy supply, or the linking of humanitarianism with military power.
It is worth asking how it is that our culture can suddenly acquire intense compassion about an issue where it has been sadly lacking—a compassion that simultaneously ignores the fate of others left to rot in detention centres.
Beyond this are conditions that hint at larger crises to come. The UNHCR reported that in 2013, 22 million people were displaced by disasters brought on by natural hazard events and predict far worse unless global warming is addressed. That most of those affected by such changes are from the world’s poor regions means that the flux of refugees in the future are likely to dwarf anything coming out of Syria. Such scenarios are unlikely to find similar levels of hospitality to those we are witnessing today.
The global market that underpins the conditions for current warming is a source of massive disruption. Outside of wars and violence, mass migration is already endemic to global capitalism as cheap mobile labour floods into parts of the industrialised world. Those who worry that the influx of refugees weakens cultural or national identity ought to consider how global free trade enacts a dismantling of the very settings that anchor identity. As John Hinkson observed in the last issue of Arena Magazine, ‘a counterpart of the weakening of the state and a “cousin” of “work choices”…global markets and free trade trigger processes that progressively take institutions apart: generational relations in families, communities, farms, small businesses, work practices’. That Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership challenge was launched by a passionate advocacy for free trade is not encouraging—what stands for the political centre these days is itself inherently destructive.
In Europe the backlash against Angela Merkel’s call for an orderly redistribution of refugees across EU nations may have some basis in reaction and racism, but part of it lies in the understandable fear of those who have already lost in the global economy—the poorer nations of the Union—feeling they have even more to lose. Intolerance does not occur in a vacuum. One consequence of Germany insisting others swallow the austerity pill so neoliberal markets can prevail is that the EU leadership’s political capital is squandered, the calls for openness and generosity sitting uneasily alongside the erosion of local economies by market policy.
The images of displaced peoples across European landscapes has brought inevitable comparisons with the Second World War. Whatever shaky parallels can be made, it is worth remembering that modern racialism abruptly met its end in the West with the revelations of the Holocaust and the destruction of the atomic bomb. It was no longer possible for casual assumptions of racial superiority to be held. If multiculturalism is one consequence of this attitudinal shift, it arises more generally as a consequence of global markets—free trade and the mobility of labour. In this sense, whatever benefits of cultural openness and tolerance presently exist may be undermined by the larger dynamics of neoliberalism that made multiculturalism possible in its current form.
Such dynamics threaten something darker: massive numbers of ‘disposable people’ displaced by cheap mobile labour or high-tech redundancy. Under such conditions reaction and intolerance beckon, and not far behind images of middle Europeans holding signs welcoming refugees lie darker elements of Western culture that form a counterpoint to the openness advocated by Europe’s more prosperous leaders. Meanwhile in Australia, the call for Syrian Christian refugees to be prioritised sounds the dog whistle for ‘no Muslim males’ and Islamaphobia more generally, suggesting the precarious nature of our newly emerged moral feeling. If the underlying causes of disruption—military, economic and climate—are not addressed and we remain trapped by the fleeting morality of the image and the market form that drives it, then a new form of barbarism looms on the horizon, exhausting our compassion, and much else besides.
Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.