The Great White Fleet Returns: AUKUS, culture, ‘mega-race’ and the new world blocs

Politically, the AUKUS arrangement arose from the ‘politics-first’ approach of the Morrison Coalition government, to wrong-foot a Labor opposition it knew to have some internal dissent on the US alliance. It has now been adopted and extended by the Albanese leadership, both as a way of establishing its factional leadership within the party and to emphasise its unity and the Coalition’s disarray. It has been adopted in the belief that the decades-long plan may be subject to multiple revisions, so why modify it now or propose a genuine long-term defence plan that could establish Australia’s independent capacity while remaining in the alliances we need? It also proposes that military hardware development in Australia will serve as the core for new, homegrown industrial development, putting death rather than life at the centre of Labor’s industrial renewal.

Much of what is going on is thus politics and sham, serving to encourage a disengaging cynicism from many potential critics on the Left, and an avoidance of hard questions. But whatever the motives that have occasioned its creation, AUKUS is real, and will determine our direction for decades to come.

What is it essential to understand about AUKUS, from a critical and radical perspective? Three points seem uppermost. Firstly, the proposed integration of Australian capabilities with US command represents a qualitatively new transformation of Australian sovereignty, although it is being represented as a mere change of degree. Secondly, AUKUS employs historical notions of an Anglosphere that represents the liberal realisation of human social and political evolution in a rules-based order to justify this sovereign surrender as merely an extension of the existing alliance, even if the ethnic composition of such societies has changed over recent decades. Finally, the universalist moral-political arguments proposed for AUKUS as part of an extension of US claims to total global presence and force could never be sufficient to ground its legitimacy in the long term. Nor are they believed by the realpolitik defence establishment. Instead, AUKUS presumes the division of the world into two great blocs centred on the United States and China which both targets China as a unique and isolated ‘bad actor’ in global geopolitics and presumes that this great division will eventually become grounded in race, and a fundamental racial division between East Asian people and Caucasians, with a still-developing Africa continuing to be a site of struggle for influence.

That assertion may seem paradoxical in light of the proximate issues that serve as either cause or pretext for the AUKUS alliance: China’s assertion of claimed rights in the South China sea, and Beijing’s regard for Taiwan as a part of China currently claiming an illegitimate independence. But a moment’s thought would suggest that if mere geopolitical interest were regarded as sufficient glue for an anti-China alliance then our interests would be best served by an alliance with Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, with India and the United States as more distant partners. No one is proposing this as a cornerstone alliance. It is clear that the ‘Quad’—Australia, the United States, India and Japan—is secondary and provisional to AUKUS. Alliances with other nations barely exist. Whatever skirmishes or even wars there are in the offing over the next few decades, the deep assumption is clearly that if our high-tech, globalised, interconnected world is to decompose, it is more likely to decompose into vast blocs in which the full nature of race—its mix of physical and cultural affinity—will undergird alliances based on strategy and interest, and guarantee the public support necessary for the ever-greater levels of national integration judged essential to match the equal integration being pursued by the others.

The end-point of this is the possibility of a genuine third world war, in which, as in the First and Second World Wars but on a vaster scale, great destruction will be accompanied by strategic restraint in certain areas. The First World War belligerents limited bombing raids, but used gas; in the Second World War in Europe, urban bombing was annihilatory, but combining it with gas—as the United Kingdom could have done to kill millions in Germany—was held back from. In the final months, Germany’s V2 rocket was capable of supersonic flight and causing instant mass death in distant cities; the never-built V3 and V4 would have approached a destructive capacity that would have given Nazi Germany the potential to turn the final part of the war into mutually assured social destruction. As Thomas Pynchon made clear in Gravity’s Rainbow, published fifty years ago, the contemporary era—the world as integrated circuits of death created by contesting great powers—was first traced in the soundless arc of Werner Von Braun’s V2.

Yet it was only in the last year of the Pacific War that total war became annihilatory, in one direction only. Japan had lost its capacity to strike at the United States, and was thus experimenting, with no great success, with biological warfare and exotic ‘death rays’; the United States, meanwhile, had inaugurated the firestorm bombings of Tokyo and other cities, which would be succeeded—both in continuation and as a clear break—by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This final stage of the war had been prepared for by years of virulently racist propaganda, necessary to convert the Japanese from their earlier status as honorary Europeans to that of a sinister and subhuman race whose mass killing would be no more than the extermination of vermin. This cut with the grain of the race-based culture that dominated European and American thinking from the 1870s to the end of the Second World War.

That the mobilisation of race is arguably essential to AUKUS’s role as a cornerstone alliance is something that none of its supporters will admit to, for obvious reasons. But it is also something that many of its critics are wary of speaking of for fear of reviving the legitimacy of notions of ‘mega-race’—the Caucasian/East Asian division—as opposed to critical notions of race as more specific, provisional and culturally constructed fluidities in multicultural societies. This is at the root of another paradox of the present. What currently has the title of ‘the Left’—a political formation of a certain social composition, oriented overwhelmingly to cultural questions and to the rendering of social questions as culturally constructed by autonomous choice—appears to have very little to say about AUKUS, even though it amounts to the most comprehensive imposition of hegemonic whiteness currently on offer.

AUKUS’s naturalisation of the Anglo link across two vast oceans, and its priority with regard to other alliances, would appear to dwarf anything that Sky News or Andrew Bolt could do from their shrinking old-media redoubts. It is occurring even though all three members of AUKUS (with Canada, which recently declared potential interest in joining) have transformed themselves into multicultural societies to varying degrees over past decades—one with an Indian-born Hindu, Rishi Sunak, as prime minister. The process by which AUKUS may remobilise the persisting Anglo character of such nations, still present in their institutions, histories and cultures, is certainly complex. By its very mode of operation, it has a submarine quality, moving permanently below the surface but shaping responses.

The rhetoric of its coming into being redefines us as a white settler nation, Anglo by origin and institution, thus limiting and containing both First Nations and multicultural constructions of Australia. Surely it can be seen that signing a treaty of the AUKUS type, prior to Treaty, makes a mockery of any genuine commitment to reconstructing the constituted meaning of this nation? This is buttressed by the assertion, as regards the Voice, that questions of national sovereignty and defence will not form part of the Voice’s specific remit for advice that must be received and considered by either parliament or the executive. Yet our commitment to a nuclear submarine fleet, and the nuclear apparatus to go with it, quite aside from reconstructing the whole country as a nuclear state, will create nuclear waste—a unique poison that must be stored on one First Nation’s land or another. It might be said that any genuine commitment to real recognition would acknowledge that no international treaty can be made as anything other than provisional until Treaty is made on this continent. The sweeping commitment to AUKUS without that shows that the Albanese government, and a great part of the establishment, sees reconciliation and recognition as a symbolic act without content rather than a commitment to conducting real and complex negotiations based on less abstracted and more entangled social relations between First Nations and settler groups.

By contrast, ‘mega-race’ is relied upon, implicitly, to undergird the notion of AUKUS as a ‘natural’ and inevitable alliance. That moment brings to bear questions that almost no one wants to think about in a globalised, postmodern liberal era, and in a society that now has three thoroughly multiculturalised major cities and numerous such regions. But the question must be talked about because it can only generate the solidarity required for commitment to it by (eventually) drawing on the mobilisation of questions of physical difference, and a solidarity of physical identification, that have lain at the root of the entry of systematic and pseudo-scientific genocide into the world in the nineteenth century. This process was a core process at the centre of modernity, drawing on people’s deepest, most embodied sense of ‘the other’ to licence their total annihilation—a process continuous from the Belgian Congo to the hi-tech war on Vietnam. Its centrality to world history has been somewhat shifted by the focus on the Holocaust, in which notions of ‘mega-race’ were rolled back onto European Jews, and the attention paid to that event’s unique characteristics. But the revival of a global Anglo alliance such as AUKUS oriented against China re-establishes the historical centrality of constituting the ‘wholly other’. The cry ‘exterminate the brutes’ does not require, in its literal form, specifying who exactly the brutes are.

There is no desire to talk about the way in which AUKUS is already, at the level of the social unconscious, mobilising ‘mega-race’ as a form of fundamental solidarity and division, because this would mean acknowledging that the creation of harmonious multiracial societies and global interchange is a hard-won achievement of reflexive, abstracted interchange, which has over decades worked against both the mobilised racialism of the nineteenth century, and a deeper human orientation of trust and affinity with like and against the other. The pseudo-scientific racialism of the nineteenth century only began to appear when the dominance of less abstract kinship relations, which asserted highly immediate notions of ‘like’, had started to be dissolved by urbanisation and capitalist modernity. It is not the most ideological and superficial forms of racialism that are the only concern; it is deeper-seated notions of otherness that cannot not be mobilised by an Anglo-centred cornerstone alliance that we should be concerned by.

That is precisely because both the pro-AUKUS liberal Right and the culturalist Left will conspire to claim that such historically deep-going notions of difference anchored in, but not limited to, physicality are simply either contingent historical inheritances that can be abolished by rationality (the liberal Right’s answer) or mobilisations of an imaginary and constructed difference, always serving an ideological purpose (the Left’s answer). For example, in recent years, a new version of the ‘noble savage’/Fall myth has become current, in which Indigenous societies are held not only to be without xenophobia but also without fundamental gender divisions: ‘Gender arrived with the first fleet’, as one slogan in Australia has it. This retrojection of an idealised hypermodern fluid-affirmative identity society into historical existence means that a cultural Left has no capacity to mount a real critical challenge to AUKUS’s drawing on the deeper and nastier energies that lie within the human condition.

That is why we must talk about these things, and make visible the energies that AUKUS is mobilising—because its proponents are playing with possibilities such as the fusion of mega-race potential antagonism with autonomous high technology, which we can call, drawing on the deepest cultural expression of such, Satanic in its capacity to deliver the annihilation of part or all of the planet through a process driven by an utter lack of reflection, reflexive thinking and critical prudence as regards the potentially chaotic process of human action.

Indeed, this treaty is tilting this country towards recrudesced forms of racial solidarity by dissolving our historically constituted sovereignty in favour of a national identity found within an incorporated racial alliance. Although our sovereignty path was begun as an expression of racialism with the White Australia policy, the past seven decades have seen such sovereignty redefined by a journey towards a multiracial republic (yet to be achieved), with a structural acknowledgement of First Nations-settler difference within a reconciled whole. Such a sovereignty process cannot be merely symbolic; it must be defined by real institutions.

Given that it was inaugurated by Curtin’s detaching of Australian military imperatives from British imperial priorities, it can surely be seen that this process is intended to conclude with our total integration into US command. This endgame is being disguised both by the notion that we have had force interoperability for decades and by obscuring the crucial divide that the new technologies of communication and command take us across: of instantaneous event and AI-steered action.

In committing to this de facto grand racial alliance, integrated through hi-tech and grounded by summoning veiled solidarities we do not wish to acknowledge, Australia is trading an achievable security that foregrounds genuine and legitimate defence within our close region for an involvement in US ‘forward defence’—really, hegemonic omnipresence—capable of drawing us into wars we need have no part of. Clinton Fernandes in this issue argues that this country can have a viable and effective independent defence, maintained within multiple and specific alliance relations. This possibility will get no airing in the mainstream because the narrow limits of our defence policy possibilities are dictated by a ‘permanent defence establishment’ (the armed forces leadership, their war and strategic colleges, the Defence permanent public service, defence contractors and lobby shops including think-tanks such as ASPI (which they fund), ASIO and ASIS, the Coalition, and the Right of Labor working as a single ‘war’ party, with News Corp and now the core of Nine, outdoing themselves in a pathetic pursuit of ‘insider’ status). The strength of the permanent defence establishment has served, over decades, to choke off any mainstream suggestion of an alternative. But it is important not to exaggerate the role of politics in this shift. There was a time when one part of the Australian Left could call on notions of ‘armed neutrality’ against an Australian Left still working off notions of international working-class alliances against all wars. That latter notion is now threadbare in a high-tech world in which command and control is so consolidated and the possibility of full neutrality has possibly been put out of range for the time being. But it is surely possible, when equipped with a specific account of our needs for actual defence, to advance from the Left a doctrine of independent defence that does not require our nuclear conversion.

Let’s be clear about the more atrocious possibilities of a society that has been largely unreflexively building a multiracial society over decades suddenly deciding to select a Schmittian enemy in China and constituting its identity at least in part around that. We know that throughout modernity, in multiracial societies every other form of social division will be sidelined in the recrudescence of racial conflict, and every other form of social connection can be abolished and regrouped as racial solidarity. The surge of hostility directed towards Chinese Australians when COVID appeared was an indication of this kind of cultural switch-throw. We have navigated national interests by the exercise of one political expediency after another. At every stage in modernity, when such outbreaks have occurred they have done so in societies where people have believed they ‘could not happen again’. But it is precisely the way in which socially abstracting modernity, supercharged by capitalism, technology and hyper-individualist culture, dissolves real connections between people that makes recrudesced racial solidarity and xenophobia all the more likely to reappear in times of collective existential crisis. The constitution of China as the global enemy has already reconstituted the position of Chinese Australians within our society as potential boundary-crossers, under permanent suspicion as to loyalty and affinity. The AUKUS process will exacerbate this, in a vicious circle, degrading the social trust that all multicultural, multi-origin societies must consciously and explicitly reproduce over time. The Albanese government, representing modern Labor’s long divorce from anything that resembles sociological reasoning, appears to have no conception of the fragile and provisional nature of modern social consensus. It is playing with fire, in our own house, and the easy complicity it has won in social life must be challenged as the highest priority. That includes challenging a cultural Left to turn its attention to such matters, rather than avoiding the debate through excuses about being anti-nationalist and the like, and by turning its attention to the endless minutiae of minor race and culture debates within marginal avant-garde culture.

One trigger point for a breakdown of some darker possibilities could well be war with China over Taiwan into which we were conscripted—willingly by our pro-AUKUS masters—and which went badly for AUKUS, as it seems likely it would. Amazingly, many progressives, identifying with Taiwan as a boutique, LGBTQ+-friendly small island nation, are soft or even equivocal about us becoming involved in China’s possible military reclamation of an ethnic Chinese island—a repeat of our involvement in Vietnam, and on the same logic. This is the decay of a progressivism that does not want to think about questions of national defence, or the possibility of an independent defence.

Such an independent defence would still be in a reflexive relationship with the United States, but distanced from any integration with it that would remove our capacity for independent operational decision-making at the level of ‘the mission’. It would re-orient us to material sovereignty—to the rebuilding of a high-tech and industrial base wantonly destroyed by a neoliberalism given a free ride, in part, by the Left’s anti-nationalism. This would be the necessary material framework in which transforming sovereignty through Truth, Treaty, Voice and co-Sovereignty could occur, for without a material base, or the commitment to such, reconciliation is not much at all: merely the symbolic sharing of a sovereignty we have already given away.

There is very little capacity at the moment for a social movement of any size around the concept of ‘independent defence’. The Greens, who might have offered such, are increasingly riven by internal divisions along radical cultural and identity lines, which would make any consistent independent defence policy difficult to assert. And the concept requires its own reflexive handling against the other possibilities that a nationalism associated with such a stance could produce. But all we can do at this stage is clearly and vocally raise the possibility and viability of such a path, and challenge those who have deep misgivings about the voyage we are presently setting out on to understand the possibility of, and advocate for, a change of course. This question will be with us for decades. Unless it blows us out of the water in a matter of years.

Rainbow Gunboat: Progressivism in the service of Western geopolitics

Simon Cooper, Jun 2023

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About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #14


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