The current political climate has been recast from the dimension of production to that of consumption. Production, and all that is implied within it – cooperation, contribution, participation – has long ceased to be the mode by which politics occurs. On the one hand, there is us; you, me, the everyday people who criticise, chide and circulate the content of our opinions online. On the other hand, distant both physically and psychologically, are a class of professional politicians who make the decisions which impact our lives, whether we approve of them or not.
Rather than production, it is consumption which forms the basis of contemporary politics. We are not called to participate in the making of policies, often we are barred from entry to the places where this participation takes place. The ideal citizen is one who engages in his individual pursuits and gets what he is given by the state, whether he asked for it or not.
Modern politics is not about decision but assent. To decide is to participate in a discussion where your opinions carry weight, despite how light that weight may be. Decisions, when dealing with public life, occur with others. But modern politics precludes both these things – participation and cooperation – within its consumer mode. It is not a matter of deciding but assenting. As J.M Coetzee notes in his Diary of a Bad Year
Faced with a choice between A and B, given the kind of A and the kind of B who usually make it onto the ballot paper, most people ‘ordinary’ people, are in the heads inclined to choose neither. But that is only an inclination and the state does not deal in inclinations…the state shakes its head. ‘You have to choose’, says the state: A or B.
You do not decide A or B. You are given the choice and no matter which you choose, A or B, you will assent to the decision made before you, made without you, made in your stead.
Producing, cooperating, contributing, participating – there is a further value tied up in all of these activities: responsibility. By acting in the world, you become responsible for your actions. The inverse of this is that if you do not act, or, you act but you see no power in your actions, or you see your actions as entirely inconsequential, then feelings of responsibility wither away.
It is hard to imagine the citizen feelings responsible for anything which happens in his name. His entire capacity for action becomes exhausted as soon as he casts his ballot paper once every 3 or 4 years. It is done with an expression of assent rather than participation, all the while watching, each night, what will become of his individual assent. Hospitals to be defunded? Schools shutting down? This is not at all what the voter imagined would come of his assent. All he can do now is wait another few years to cast a vote in protest, a blip in the screen, sure to go unnoticed by the data miners in the political parties. The citizen, when reduced to an individual consumer, cannot help be anything but powerless, and cannot help but not feel responsible.
The reduction of the responsibility of citizenship to casting a vote is not just the diminution of the citizen. It simultaneously allows the politician to function without constraint. The citizen who withdraws from politics and has their power reduced to casting a ballot every three years is the perfect rejoinder to the rise of the demagogue (Trump?) who promises to work out public issues by himself, freeing citizens of any responsibility to govern their own lives; requiring no serious political activity, merely outbursts of emotional reaction.
The poor no longer scare us anymore. In the past, the elites had to court the poor. The two were bound, not by choice but by necessity, to work together. Today, however, elites are under no such obligation. They make their money, not in the industrial factory, but in the global space of financial flows. The factory/office/worksite need not be in one place and if it is, not for too long. Unions? Strikes? Too bad, we will move the factory overseas. In this position, the poor will not speak up. Why would they? They have lost their voice.
In politics, the focus on women, on quotas, on equality and identity more generally highlight a point that becomes obvious by its very negation: nobody is representing the poor! There is not a single person in politics who claims to be there to defend and stand for the poor. There is a focus on everything but class and the poor are without a voice, without a narrative, and without representation.
The poor are nothing to us. We sidestep them physically on the street, economically with harsh anti-trade union laws, psychologically by denying them cultural space, and politically by denying them representation. Now, we believe, we can simply do away with them. This was not the case before.
One cannot even call them poor because ‘poor’ implies that, to some extent, they still engage in the social dialectics of power relations between labour and capital. We need a new word for them: they are the excluded, the debris, the junk of our society; a refuse to be treated as such. We may talk about them occasionally but we do not want them around. In this new social configuration of total exclusion, they are, to recall a memorable phrase by Jean Baudrillard, ‘without a shadow’. They are the blank space on the other side of the equation, denied a reality of their own. They become real to us only by their absence in the equation, unable to exert any force on reality.
Like a man who makes quite the show over his biceps, it is likely that we make such a song and dance over the election because we have very little else to offer. It is not a strained observation that there is a manifest impotence of available instruments of collective political engagement and action, along with a resulting diminution of the stakes that once, made political action so viable and attractive. With very little in the way of collective action, and dwindling anticipation of the result of that action, the focus on the election is not a sign of our democratic strength, but a masquerade we play to obfuscate our democratic weakness.
An interesting quote by Ivan Krastev,
Unsurprisingly, studies show that the advantages enjoyed by incumbents in Europe are disappearing. Governments are collapsing more quickly than before, and they are being re-elected less often. ‘No one is truly elected anymore’, the French political thinker Pierre Rosanvallon argues. ‘Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of the voters; they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors.
We tend to see our politicians defined not so much by their power but by their impotence. Voting fails to capture the imagination of the voters because the citizenry no longer believes those in government are actually doing the governing. Once we voted for someone with the impression, however tenuous, that their promises would be fulfilled. Now, they rarely are. Excusing this, politicians explain to the beguiled voter that ‘macro-economic pressures’ preclude them from acting, or the ‘reality of the present financial situation’ make those action difficult, or even ‘the opposition stopped us from achieving our goals’. Governments prefer to trumpet the impotence rather than their power, donning the guise of the innocent fool.
Due to their impotence, politicians have very little in the way to offer in terms of actual policy. They prefer to manage the system and keep the gears turning for at least, this, they may be able to do. Alongside this is another, completely unrelated phenomena in our society, the television, which has given the news all day every day into the room of every Australian. However, television is a sensory stimulating piece of technology. The politician who has nothing to offer and the television – two separate occurrences – converge to produce the mediagenic politician.
It is wrong to call this politician the personality-politician, as so many do because it is the very negation of personality. Every handshake is choreographed, every photo opportunity crafted, every speech pre-written. It is an art form of the image, an exercise in acting.
Politicians are impotent and instead, revel in their ability to entertain us as actors. The citizen, unable and now uninterested in political participation, settles for the role of spectator. They may boo or hiss, applaud or turn off the television, but the influence is not there; they consume, passively, for there is no other way to consume.
The political struggle has turned into the competition of personalities. Consider Morrison’s bleating of ‘fair dinkum power’, and achieving records ‘in a canter’. The method to win votes is to appear more genuine and sincere, whether or not this is the case is quite beside the point. Just take Morrison’s ‘daggy dad’ marketing routine.
Emptied of any substance, political commentary must turn on the superficial or the banal. Because political struggle has been rendered vacuous and vapid, political commentary must also. Commentary consists of whether this or that speech worked as political theatre or whether voters were convinced, but not whether or not it was good policy or whether voters are being convinced by poor arguments.
It is all quite holistic. Politicians are no longer concerned with politics proper. The media establishment is happy to trade in sound bites and entertainment. The citizen has stepped away from politics, firstly because he feels disappointed at unfulfilled promises and through this, secondly, he sees his representatives as essentially incapable and impotent. The instruments of the democratic state appear to be faltering, a fact that the carnivalesque focus on the importance of the election will try to hide, but will only ever reinforce.
All people, whether they be philosophers or sages; playwrights or physicists; Nobel Prize winners or everyday people; each has heard, read, or spoken the adage of ‘the difference between appearances and reality’, or perhaps more poignantly, some reworking of ‘we can never know reality, only appearances’.
Yet, if appearances are all we can ever know, experience and live according to, do these not constitute reality? And if ‘reality’ is something we can never really know and is something which, therefore, is purely speculative, does this not make reality itself un-real? A mere spectre, phantom or chimera?
To repeat, if we can only live in, and know of, appearances, then the appearances themselves are what constitutes reality. There ceases to be a Kantian ‘thing in of itself’ separate from our observation of it. All we know is appearances, which becomes reality through perspective. Reality itself, something above and beyond the world of appearance, is mere speculation, and therefore, not even real according to its own definition.
One of the seminal effects of our culture has been a transformation in the nature of happiness. In a way, we are no longer concerned with the ‘attainment’ of happiness, but rather, its ‘pursuit’. As the lifetime of commodities continually shrinks, and the time before their use-by-date gets increasingly slim, happiness shifts from purchasing commodities to the very act of shopping. Shopping, the active pursuit of commodities, is now the true fountain of happiness.
Commodities wear out, they lose their lustre, and they become unfashionable. They cannot be trusted as the foundation for individual happiness. The once-secure state of happiness has been found to be elusive, fickle and unstable; it is only the chase of that stubbornly elusive happiness that can keep us happy. The finish line disappears, the track itself becomes the goal. Chasing after commodities is the only source of consolation for a lost happiness. What was once the means has become the end.
By shifting the vision of happiness from a gratifying life to the search for a means for that gratifying life, markets have seen to it that the pursuit can never finish. The targeted commodities replace each other with dizzying speeds: new phones, new shoes, new homes, new clues left by the coaches and guides of consumer culture to help us in our quest for full realisation. But, the pursued targets must quickly fall out of fashion, lose their ‘cool’, attraction and power, only soon to be abandoned and replaced; many times over, in a never-ending process of increasing speed and intensity. The vision of happiness shifts from the after-purchase joy of a new commodity, to the act of shopping that precedes it. It is the chase of anticipated happiness, constantly pursuing a goal which recedes perpetually like the horizon.
There is a vast chasm between the description and the described. Although the cold dead language politicians’ use does indeed reflect the cold deadening reality facing refugees, the descriptions of ‘detention centres’, ‘refugee camps’, and ‘transition camps’ fails to capture the truth.
Each description – detention, camp, transition – utilises the wrong modal form. These words imply movement. Detention is about a break from the normal order, implying a soon return to it. Camp is an organisational structure that is made to be put up and pulled down with little notice to ensure continuous travel. Transition is about moving from here to there, standing for a finite process between two points in space and time. However, ironically, these are the exact attributes denied to refugees who seek to come to Australia. The camps, detention centres, gulags or whatever one wishes to call them, are no longer breaks along the way, pit-stops, or road-inns. They are the final station, the last point on the train line, where the map ends and movement stops.
People are born and die in camps, visiting no other places in their life. They see nothing, hear nothing, and know nothing of life outside the camp. They are told that they will never leave the camps. The sick and dying have little to no chance of being rescued and leaving the camps.
The centres exude finality. Not the finality of having reached a destination, but of the process of transition calcified into a state of permanence.
Transition, detention, camp, detainment, etc. – these are all oxymoronic, conveniently selected by power-holders to give an air of possibility to an otherwise impossible situation. Refugee centres are not about having somewhere to go, they are the consequence of everywhere else being cast as off-limits.
Refugee camps are not about being insiders within the camps but about being outsiders from the world. They have been evicted from humanity, exiled from a world of nation-states.
It is more of the same thing with refugees ‘displaced’ by war. ‘Displaced’ implies that there was a place to which these people belong but also that there is a place to which they can yet again fit. Kurds exiled from Turkey and hunted by the state are ‘displaced’ people, Rohingya Muslims are displaced too. Displaced turns into no-place.
Nation states and the heavily militarised borders that characterise them are not places for others. The laws and protections granted to their citizens are not the laws and protections of man, but of the particular citizens of that nation-state. To be displaced is to have no place, no border, no law and no protection.
To become displaced, a refugee or an asylum seeker is to be evicted from the world shared by the rest of humanity. Eviction, the state of permanent exile is the sole constituent of the identity of the refugee. They are nameless, depicted as an amorphous mass, their only statement of identity being that they do not belong. That they ‘do not belong’ teases out the central point, that the issues with refugees is not where from, but where to. It is the prohibition of alternatives and the impossibility of arriving anywhere that sets these exiles apart from the rest of humanity.
They are the refuse of the world, unwanted by their own nations and unacceptable to others. These superfluous people lack the one crucial trait which would make them worthy of participation in the concert of nations: wealth. The wealthy Indonesian who flies first class to invest in real estate is a welcome visitor who will bolster Australia’s GDP. Of course, the poor Indonesian fleeing terror and military police at home, who hops on a leaky boat to find security and safety in the wealthiest democracy in South-East Asia, will find no such warm embrace. He will be thrown into permanent transition. The state must separate the useful from the wasteful products, and ensure the waste is marked for transportation to the tip. Once there, the walls of militarised police will ensure the decomposition will do its work.
Imagine a scene from a dystopian move depicting our society in the near future. Walking towards the sports stadium you weave between rows of concrete blocks and upon entering the stadium you must navigate huge wire fences and armed guards patrolling the entrances using facial recognition scanning to filter through a database where the names and identifications of everyone are listed. If you are suspected of doing anything suspicious – a world appropriately vague – you are thrown into detention for 14 days, no lawyer, no nothing.
This is no scene from a dystopian move but an act from today. At the national security summit to be held this week in Canberra, ministers will discuss using ID scanning to sweep crowds, including facial recognition technology. This comes only a day after Malcolm Turnbull implemented strong new anti-terrorism laws which will give police the powers to detain “suspects” for 14 days without charge. Turnbull’s justification goes as follows:
SABRA LANE: Why aren’t existing laws sufficient?
MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, they just aren’t. There’s not the, you need, you also need very clear, clear laws. It’s, it’s important to make sure that you give the police a very clear offence that makes, so that there’s no ambiguity or grey area.
Turnbull clearly offers a very convincing argument. But even if we are not swayed by Turnbull’s eloquent defence of these new security measures, we must consider that these measures come after a mass shooting in the United States, which, in a very real way, has to do with their lax gun laws. Another problem in another state is hardly a sufficient reason to change our laws. Even so, there is a problem with defending civilisation by giving police more powers and whittling away the freedoms and rights to privacy of everyday citizens. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton articulated the deadlock in which critics of religion find themselves,
Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.
At the very least, even if these measures are entirely fruitless, they guarantee that we will destroy our own liberties before the terrorists ever get a chance. Our leaders are so eager to fight terrorism they end up sacrificing freedom and democracy just so they may fight it. Slavoj Zizek notes,
If the ‘terrorists’ are ready to wreck this world for love of another, our warriors against terror are ready to wreck democracy out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it. It’s an inversion of the process by which fanatical defenders of religion start out by attacking contemporary secular culture and end up sacrificing their own religious credentials in their eagerness to eradicate the aspects of secularism they hate.
But these laws are not the source of our problems and nor are the terrorists which they are meant to defend against. The true culprits are the coordinates of global capitalism and the punishing state. It’s a public secret that the invasion of Iraq was not for the plight of oppressed peoples but for oil; it is equally unsurprising that the number of terrorist acts has increased exponentially every year that we have continued bombing and pillaging the Middle East. We have become blinded by our obsession with defeating ‘the enemy’. Terror exists to rob us of our freedom and security. Rather than fighting terrorism by voluntarily robbing people of freedom and security, perhaps consider another path. If you want to stop terrorism, stop participating in it. For that, I am sure the people in Iraq and Afghanistan will be very grateful; and so will Australians who will be able to attend a sports match without having to pass through a surveillance system reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia.
The racism of Western liberal democracies is an insipid and dangerous form of racism. Disguised under the banner of reason and rationality, the racism perpetrated by Australia is all the more racist because it pretends not to be. Beneath the vague sentimentality, and charity parading as justice is a deep undercurrent of hatred. Like the superego in Freudian psychoanalysis, we have tried to suppress this side of ourselves and as a result, it manifests in obscene, cruel, and cynical forms which it would not have originally taken.
Refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are victims of the pathology of reason. Refugees, under the claim of ‘stopping the boats’, are taken offshore to ‘detention centres’ where they languish, gulag-style, enjoying the deep-burns of the local Phosphorous mines, or the equally deep burns of 40-degree sun. Stories of rape, assault, and self-harm abound. All this is done under the pretence of ‘stopping the boats’ and some other patriotic rhetoric like ‘protecting Australian jobs’. The Age recently reported how refugees which have come to Australia for medical aid have been threatened to have all their assistance cut off, meaning they will have to find work, food, and shelter in Australia within 2 weeks or be sent back to the detention centres. When asked why these refugees were being cut off from the system, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton replied that it was, again, ‘to stop the boats’. The line of reasoning becomes mildly absurd when considering that the boats have stopped coming for a long time. And even then, why must innocent refugees suffer when all they are guilty of is trying to flee persecution?
Our treatment of refugees brings to mind an event from September 20th, 2007, when 7 Tunisian fishermen were put on trial, potentially facing 15 years each for saving 44 African migrants from drowning. All observers agree that the point of the trial was to dissuade others from trying to help ‘boat-people’. Much like how our treatment of refugees is supposed to act as a deterrent to people-smugglers. Refugees occupy a position between states and are thus not entitled to the rights of a state, meaning human rights become the rights of the state. The refusal to extend human rights to refugees is pretty ironic considering Australia is a self-proclaimed democracy.
Our racism does not manifest itself in brutal torture covered by the media, or by mocking refugees. Rather, the racism is institutionalised in the form of a rational system where refugees are taken, logged, and placed in detention overseas in a very disinterested and rational way. The officers who put innocent people in prisons feel justified by telling themselves ‘they are only doing their jobs’ and it is the system itself which is to blame. Yes, the system becomes the manifestation of our authoritarianism and racism. Blaming the system is like blaming the gun for the murder. Our treatment of the refugees is distanced and institutionalised by a criminal justice system, where it is properly contrasted with the reckless slaughter of innocents by the USA. The formula for our reasonable racism owes itself to Robert Brasillach, 1938
We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz…we don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organise any pogrom. But we think the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-Semitism is to organise a reasonable anti-Semitism.
Is this not the same logic our government employs when dealing with disposable populations of colour? The government will reject the extreme views of Pauline Hanson, but they will vindicate them by waging war in the Middle East. The government will condemn the slaughter of innocents overseas when done in the name of the Caliphate but justifies its own slaughter in the name of sovereign borders. Think of the recent round of ads which featured an Indian doctor, Chinese physiotherapist, Egyptian dentist, or Armenian journalist. We congratulate ourselves on our diversity, my God, aren’t we told every day that we are a multicultural country? You would think that constantly saying it would be compensating for something, wouldn’t you?
Our government’s deal with the immigrant threat by rejecting the absurdly racist and extreme proposals and then settling for a far more ‘reasonable’ solution. We don’t want to kill the Indonesians, Syrians, Iranians and others who come here. We just want to keep them at arms-length, in institutions over the border. We like the idea of them but dislike the smell.
Rather than venting the emotion in its pure form, the government waters it down, settling for reasonable racism. Diet racism, delicious. Enjoy the video:
The calendar stares back at me balefully, each blank box testifying to another day passed in mourning. The calendar is coated in black sharpie strokes that, against a white background, make it look like prison clothing. It’s a fitting metaphor. The events on my calendar are not trapped by time rather, time is trapped by these events. Two years now and finally, the American election trudges on to the final days. Since I can remember, innocent people are still being tortured and dehumanised on our overseas detention centres and even though I try to forget, our politicians are still a sack of potatoes. Each sharpie stroke, like a pin into a voodoo doll, is a pain unseen but felt. “Let’s do something better than count dead days”, my Sharpie tells me. “Let me write up a shopping list, or draw a house with a happy family in it, instead of marking the loathsome emptiness of this calendar. We move on but that emptiness remains”. My sharpie is a nihilist, can you blame him? I place Sharpie down and he almost rolls off the edge. No, not today Sharpie, you and I are in this together.
I understand why Sharpie would rather drop off the edge. Slash-slash for the day that Tony Abbot said taxpayers shouldn’t fund Indigenous lifestyle choices. Slash-slash for the day Peter Dutton said people set themselves on fire to get to Australia. Slash-slash for the day George Brandis didn’t know what meta-data was. Slash-slash for the day that the chameleon Hillary Clinton was caught laundering money through her foundation. Slash-slash for the day that a potential leader of the free world spoke about abusing women and laughed. In the words of Hamlet, “I could live life in a nutshell and still count myself the king of infinite space”, but only if you keep the shell closed, I don’t want to go outside.
I don’t think I can.
Should I talk about Hillary Clinton? Her support for trade deals that see corporations with more power than national courts? What about her Iraq war vote? Her Patriot Act vote? The drone killings she supported? Maybe I should speak about her few hundred thousand dollar speaking fees provided to select business conferences and then funnelled into the Clinton foundation? Or perhaps the highly illegal use of a private server to hide information that could potentially send her to jail? Should I speak about her personal ties with Wall Street, her hawkishness which saw the destruction of the Libyan state? Should I just talk about how she sits on the dark side of trade, war, freedom and economics?
Nope, I won’t.
Should I talk about her equally maniacal and self-obsessed counterpart in the American Carnivale? Should I talk about the man who claims the system is rigged but then abuses tax loopholes to save money? Should I talk about his bad business practices that has seen him go bankrupt more than a few times? Should I talk about how running a democracy like a business is potentially dangerous to human freedom? Should I talk about how he who has no name has disintegrated reality by relishing in lies and using fact and fiction wherever convenient? Should I talk about how he thinks it is pure banter, just locker room talk, to denigrate and sexually abuse women?
No, not doing it.
Should I come back to our side of the world and talk about our own government? Should I talk about a Prime Minister who, when opinion polls slump, begins fear mongering about refugees? Should I talk about his ministers who use tax-payer money to buy airline tickets for their pets? Should I speak about how the Coalition thinks equality is something which you must fight for? Because you’re definitely not born with it. Maybe I should talk about the incarceration of innocent civilians in the Malaysian archipelago which is only worsened by the murder of innocents in the Middle East? I believe the body count for Iraqi civilians sits at over 400,000 dead. Maybe I should just talk about how the government finally recognises that Climate change exists. They are hardly taking steps to do anything about it, but they acknowledge that it’s there. It’s all about baby steps.
I am quite tired of seeing us stepping backwards. The fundamental rights and freedoms that were fought for so hard in the later part of the 20th century are slipping away. Right wing, borderline fascist parties are rising in Europe. Donald trump wants to build a gigantic wall across the Mexican border and monitor Mosques. Hillary Clinton wants to continue carpet bombing the Middle East, except more intensively. Malcolm Turnbull is trying to ensure anybody that tries to come to Australia by boat is permanently banned. Pauline Hanson wants all Muslim immigration stopped. Gay people are still not afforded basic civil rights. All this is against a backdrop of market-driven human rights abuses that see the minimum wage drop, work security weakened, taxes increased, people dying because they cannot afford healthcare and a system which reduces the beauty of human experience to the experience of a being cog in the machine. As usual, animals and nature are abused the most and forgotten the easiest.
To quote another familiar passage in Hamlet, he says,
“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer.
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep”.
In the current state of the system, I see myself with two choices: to suffer this outrageous fortune, or to oppose and try to end it. On the one hand, I could tolerate it, pull out my trusted sharpie, and keep counting the days. On the other hand, I could try to fight against the rancid stupidity of our political discourse. But, such a fight, as Hamlet knew, is like swinging a sword at a tidal wave. A poxed democracy, vexatious media and pretentious liberal class have failed us. It is a fight I know I cannot do on my own, but my Sharpie has dried out. I place the cap back on and put him away, rest easy old friend.