What ‘Democracy’ Occludes

In September 2013 we celebrate fifty years of Arena. The first Arena quarterly was published in September 1963. To mark this anniversary the Arena editors, together with the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne, are sponsoring a one-day symposium on 15 November. It should be a relaxed day of presentations and discussion, with some of our past writers and contributors, together with the editors and others, charting Arena’s course though the heady days of the Cold War and the rise of the New Left to the dismaying scene today where the most pressing social, cultural and environmental issues are effectively out of bounds to real programmatic intervention, much less serious critical thought. The symposium is called ‘From Cold War to Hot Planet’, and along the way we will be discussing the key issues of succeeding decades—the social movements, Whitlam, changes in the universities, the challenge of theory, the rise of new media and techno-science, popular culture, globalisation, climate change, the new world order and of course ubiquitous neoliberalism.

As the election campaigns of the two major parties tick over, or perhaps tick all the wholly predictable boxes of what a contemporary election campaign is, the fire and hope associated with many of the elections of the past five decades is entirely absent. Consensus neoliberalism, a degree of fear about the future, if hardly consciously or adequately expressed by or for the people, and active participation by both Labor and the Liberals in strategies to appease significant reactionary tendencies in our fearful world, add up to a mealy-mouthed, boring and ethically suspect set of performances from both sides of the mainstream.

From a left-wing, feminist and environmental point of view, it is important to ‘keep Abbott out’. It is a rejection of a continuation of the Howard years, potentially revved up further to ‘liberalise’, read commercialise, everything—a feat we have only begun to realise is yet to come to actual fruition despite years already of the marketisation of social goods and culture, the privatisation of state institutions and functions, financial liberalisation and financial collapse. Keeping Abbott out is a recognition of the tendencies in his party and his opposition ministry to extreme positions on many issues, and a sadistic element in the demeanours and statements of some would-be ministers that suggest the disposability of certain populations within and on the borders of ‘our great Australian nation’.

I am not just talking about refugees and asylum seekers in this regard. If we are to follow the trajectory of the deepening neoliberalisation of other Western societies, and indeed to press on with trends already apparent yet somehow repressed in the Australian consciousness (where are the media in this regard?), social disposability, whether of refugees or of marginal groups within, is a problem everyone should fear. In this issue of Arena Magazine a young British social scientist, Naaz Rashid, rakes over the meanings of the 2011 UK riots, the subject of an editorial in these pages (‘Fire on the Water’, Arena Magazine no. 113), and emerges with an alarming thesis about the British ‘underclass’. It is a more general thesis about causes and reactions than racism, for it is about the internal logic of neoliberal capitalism and how those who ‘do not make it’ in the societies it shapes will be punished and permanently excluded. This is a a determination and consequence of ‘new’ tendencies in contemporary capitalism. In an article by Henry Giroux, commencing with the murder of Trayvon Martin in a US gated community by a self-important community security guard, we similarly find an example of where we could be headed: an increasingly marked division between those who are in and those who are out, often with a racist inflection, but founded in a larger trajectory that creates and then places certain groups beyond the pale. The ‘warehousing’ (that is, not merely punishing) of black men in US prisons is one example—an example of what to do with a surplus population that has no practical function to a society understood merely as an economy. The relegation of many on the streets to a life in the grip of mental illness or drugs is another example, and not unconnected to the anxiety of the working poor in Australia, as elsewhere, associated with precarious work and the threat of social exclusion.

Of course the Abbott forces speak the language of increasing the economic pie for benefits for all, but the evidence is against this being the consequence of neoliberal policy and governance, which have led to massive disparities in access to resources, status and security in general, and even more massively so under conditions of economic collapse in many countries, brought on by destructive forms of financialisation, but which continue to serve the elites well. Labor does offer something of a bulwark against the unfettered neoliberalism of the Coalition, with Labor’s special connection to the labour movement directing attention to working people’s needs and rights, and its social programs still potentially making a difference in relation to where the line of social exclusion will be drawn. But as it has been argued in these pages before, Labor is itself utterly mired in neoliberal assumptions. It has done at least as much as the Coalition, if with some different emphases, to reshape politics, economy, work and life in general in the pursuit of consensus imperatives around Growth and its foundation in techno-globalised trade, finance and culture.

There are problems with understanding notions like the underclass, social disposability and social exclusion, and neither of the mainstream parties are naturally kind to the groups implied in those terms. Labor comes from a tradition that once put the social first. Philosophically speaking, that was methodological collectivism—the individual emerges from the social relation—rather than the other way round—the individual founds social life—the basic starting point of liberals, both conservative and libertarian. But Labor’s social idea coalesced around the productive process, and male workers, and, as classically in Left terms, the outcast were only to figure as worthy social subjects if integrated into the productive machine (which included the welfare state). Both the ‘lumpenproletariat’ and any other ‘unproductive’ sector (like women) occupied, to say the least, an ambiguous moral position in what otherwise looked like a scientific explanation of society as a complex of structures and interests. Liberals, by contrast, openly embraced a fully moral explanation for dependency, criminality and destitution. The individual is the source of social strength, and it is his capacity for rationality, self-regard and independence that is to be fostered as the moral foundation of a society enlivened by entrepreneurial activity. The outcast is naturally available to both our mainstream parties as reprehensible social object to be disciplined, and perhaps permanently expelled, for although the outcast can be made to do good work as moral sign, s/he is not actually foundational to processes of production or entrepreneurial activity: s/he is, theoretically, disposable.

Many counter currents worked against this logical point, however, and the post-war welfare state, supported by both labour and by social liberals, proffered more complex possibilities for ‘welfare recipients’, who came to have ‘entitlements’ and ‘social rights’. The problem today is that the theoretical inclination to objectify and cast out has come together again with powerful global forces, and in neoliberalism the outcast takes on new meanings and characteristics. Where in the 1960s and ’70s in Australia the discourse was about the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, by the 1980s, the discourse had begun to shift to terms that indicated the much more stringent nature of neoliberalism and the ‘open society’ it promised. The Third Way in Britain gave us the contrast ‘social exclusion’/‘social inclusion’, terms meant to signal compassionate programs adapted to the times. Yet quite plainly these were much more existential notions, much more profoundly related to a person’s sources of identity, than the idea of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, which typically referred to poverty and access to resources.

Sure enough, the openness of a globalised world in which difference and personal fulfilment would flourish atop new sources of wealth had an underside: exclusion of certain groupings or inadequate subjective types, and new, perhaps cruder and more baldly cruel forms of punishment/exclusion. As radicals argued for recognition and inclusion of maligned status groups like gays and women, and the mainstream was forced to take those significant groups into respectable society, politics and economy, a new dividing line was being set down around the autonomous self: the self as entrepreneur, the self even as culture-buster, versus those who could not achieve such a radical individualist stance. For Thatcherites (read also the Australian Liberal Party) the ‘losers’ (the non-creative, the dependent) in this tough new world would simply not be tolerated: the welfare state should not be there for them. For New Labour (read also the Australian Labor Party), recognising some of the social implications of the global system they were now facilitating, they would technically manage the problem through ‘welfare’ programs that would themselves be reshaped around values of entrepreneurship and self-responsibility. Here self-responsibility would come increasingly to be set against ‘compliance’, another nasty little notion that is everywhere today in common parlance, the ultimate behavioural demarcation when self-dependence fails and management must step in.

It is an irony that, riding the wave of techno-globalised development, the policies of neoliberalism destroy forms of security—individual and collective, personal and cultural—yet this very process opens people to a fearfulness that does not know its source but which, because of this, is all the more prone to incitement by neoliberal ideologues. The reported fear in western Sydney that boat people will take people’s jobs, which may somewhere involve a legitimate fear about the future of work for ordinary Australians in general, is a case in point (similarly, arguments about climate change and ‘the cost’ of the carbon tax in terms of jobs and businesses). On such fear about potential social exclusion can be built an elaborate set of apparently moral appeals: to national sovereignty—already so substantially put in question by neoliberalism and its management of the global economy—and ‘queue jumping’—when so many of our boat arrivals are fleeing the aftermath of nasty little wars started by the leaner, meaner and increasingly energy-desperate West of the neoliberal period.

The idea of queue jumping, and the ‘no advantage’ principle for boat arrivals—scrutinised by Lorenzo Veracini in this issue of Arena Magazine—is quite like the logic of ‘mutual obligation’ introduced by John Howard as the principle on which unemployment benefit, or rather ‘Newstart’, would be granted. Both work on totally spurious notions of equality. We are told that all refugees sit equally in relation to and within equal reach of the global agencies that decide refugee status; that specific local, individual and historical characteristics of different refugees are irrelevant; and that the process of adjudication can be wholly rational on the basis of this assumed equality. In the case of mutual obligation—what could be a fairer or more balanced idea?—the poor, the unemployed and underemployed are said to occupy a relation of equality with all those other Australians on whose tax contributions they will depend and with the state, which is granted power on behalf of all those who contribute.

A strong connection can be made between the management of both our internal and external borders. The people of Australia should be told this: that their fate in their ordinary lives shares many of the features of that of refugees. That neoliberalism, far from being able to ensure a secure future for all of us on any front — jobs, climate, health, domestic life — works by way of a deeply competitive, amoral and exclusionary logic that puts us all in jeopardy. The people of Australia should be told that ‘sovereignty’ has already been ceded, though not so much to foreign forces as to processes and their global agents about which our democratic leaders have barely uttered a word in complaint, and whose long-term consequences have never been opened to serious democratic debate.

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