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Refugees and the ideological imperatives of late capitalism in Australia

Max Lane - August 3, 2013

As from July, 2013, the Australian government has a new policy as regards refugees arriving in Australian territory by boat, "without a visa". The Australian government will no longer accept them as potential residents of Australia. They are to be shipped to detention camps in Papua New Guinea and, if recognized as 'legitimate' refugees, will be settled in PNG, not Australia – unless they can find another country somewhere else.

This harsh and mean decision towards people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka who enter Australia arriving on a boat from Indonesia is one of a series of decisions in the same vein that began in its most serious form in 1992 when mandatory detention was legislated for all "unauthorized entries". This was complimented by policies such as turning some boats back on the high seas, detaining people in camps, in Australia and off-shore, with worse and worse conditions, and providing only temporary visas condemning people to an indeterminate insecure future. In 2013, the Australian government and parliament legislated to also place the whole of Australian territory outside of Australia's immigration zone denying people arriving by boat legal rights if they arrived by boat "without a visa".

This sustained 21 year long escalation of harsh harassment and denial of legal rights to refugees arriving by boat between 1992 and 2013 points to the existence of a persistent attitude by the Australian ruling class. This approach has been implemented by governments run by both of the two big established parties, has been advocated by all the privately owned (by big business) media and supported by the various associations representating big business. What drives this approach? What is behind it?

One easy explanation is that this policy reflects a racist hegemony in Australia. The professional political commentariat, working for both the private and the state-owned media, mostly unquestioningly accept that this policy is aimed at winning electoral support from racist layers in Australian society, especially the outer suburbs of Sydney. If this explanation has any truth, it is only superficial and does not explain why the media owners and business in general support this policy – they don't have to win votes. It is superficial because it does not pose the question – and therefore neither attempts an answer of course – as to why no elements of the political elite (in particular the ALP) even consider trying to change the thinking of any racist-oriented layers in Australian society. Is the racism in the outer suburbs of contemporary society so deep, that it cannot be changed? I don't think so although it would bring those countering racist thinking up against the media and business.

Any analysis of the politics of these policies must also recognize that there is neither an actual ruling class in principle opposition to either migration in general, or the acceptance of refugees. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics between 1976 and 1981 just over 2,000 people arrived, mainly from Vietnam; between 1989 and 1998 almost 3,100 people arrived, mainly from Cambodia, Vietnam and Southern China and between 1999 and 2001 almost 12,200 people arrived, mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq. Another 26,000 plus have arrived between 2001 and 2012, almost all of whom have been settled in Australia. The refugees have mainly come from Burma, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and several African countries.

The contradiction between the inhumane policy attack on people arriving on boats and the actual reality of the practice of accepting and settling refugees (although by no means enough) has been starkly underlined by many people who point out that refugees who arrive by plane, mostly on 'tourist visas', who then apply for asylum are not at all the subject of the same collective punishment policies of mandatory detention, denial of legal rights and so on. (Although there are some cases of people who arrived this way being unjustly denied refugee status.) It is sometimes argued that the rationale for the difference is that those flying in have visas whereas those coming on boats do not. First, of course, this has no legal relevance: international law grants the right to seek asylum to everybody, whatever formal papers they hold on arrival. In any case, even those coming in on plane have – formally speaking – sought visas under "false pretence", claiming to be tourists, while actually coming to seek asylum. Government visa practices around the world force such methods on refugees.

The intensity of the propaganda hype that has targeted "boat people" and "illegal arrivals", as the agitators call them, ranging from Howard's false accusation of throwing babies into the water to the general condemnation under the label "queue jumpers" can only reflect the fact of there being some special importance of this policy for the ruling class. Even today, in August 2013, the PNG solution (or the Nauru solution or the "tow them back" solution) are constant topics of propaganda activity in the media. If the importance of this does not lie in an actual opposition to migration or to having refugees in Australia, where does it lie.

As I argued above, a simple explanation such as "it is aimed at winning racist votes in swinging seats" – the 'votes, votes, votes' explanation – is only superficially correct. It implies that a majority of the people whose votes might currently be won with such policies cannot be convinced to change their thinking through a sustained campaign advocating a different approach, especially backed by the resources of a major institution such as the ALP or the small "l" wing of the conservatives. A more convincing version of a similar argument is that neither the ALP nor small "l" liberal, conservatives want to confront the (privately-owned) media. Conservative, anti-refugee sentiment is maintained and strengthened in the community (i.e. among the working class) precisely by the constant campaigning and advocacy through the media. As both the ALP and small "l" liberal conservatives are, in the end, pro-status quo parties when it comes to the pro-business political and economic arrangements of society, it is not surprising that they neither have the courage nor even the interest in confronting the media on this issue.

The ideological imperative for 'meanness' and austerity in the age of abundance

But why are the media, and business, and indeed almost all hard-headed conservatives so enthused by the campaign to systematize cruelty against this particular section of refugees, "irregular maritime arrivals"? I do not think the answer to this question can be found in an analysis of refugee policy itself. In most of its practical effects in Australian society, the settling of 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50,000 or even more refugees as part of a migration policy that accepts around 200,000 people a year is a non-issue. This is clearly the case, especially given the reality that Australia could absorb even more than 200,000 people if it seriously organized to do so.

We must seek the answer rather in an analysis of the contribution that the anti-"boat people" campaign makes to the general ideological atmosphere. Here, it is clear that its main role is the strengthening of meanness, as a strong and legitimate social value, counter-posed to generosity and solidarity. I think this is a more important ideological aspect of the campaign than, for example, any role it might be seen to play in strengthening 'national cohesion'. Its implicit, and sometimes explicit, racism can be more an anti-cohesion factor. The cohesion it fosters is amongst those who feel their prosperity – at whatever level they have obtained it – as being not a result of 'queue jumping'. The meanness and callousness that is generated by legitimating of the current policies feeds into a mentality opposed to solidarity and social or public or state generosity.

Capitalist ruling classes (and other ruling classes before them) have, of course, never been keen on solidarity and social generosity. However, the obsessiveness and the extent to which the ruling class is willing to go on this otherwise non-issue, points to the desperation for this kind of policy and ideology to be on top of the agenda. It is the ideological spearhead to help create an atmosphere that will allow them to win acceptance for what is a general desperation that they have at the moment: the need for austerity, an end to "spending, spending, spending", and end to social solidarity and generosity manifested in state policy. They have a specific ideological problem in winning social (i.e. working class) acceptance for austerity in Australia. Australia is a rich country, with a per capita income of around $40,000, and with plenty of food, space and facilities. In the end, there is no basis for any argument against there being big programs of social solidarity and generosity in all spheres. The steady downward push on welfare, working hours and real wages creates a sense of precariousness among some workers, for which the anti-refugee, anti-solidarity propaganda tries to provide a scapegoat outlet.

Austerity is required in Australia by the capitalist class not because society is getting poorer, not because the total value of goods and services produced in the economy is dropping seriously, and especially not because there is a weakening of the potential to be even more productive. Declining rates of profit require a private sector monopoly on access to credit, cheaper and cheaper labor and lower costs on all factors of production and the security blanket of massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. This means a smaller and smaller public sector and social services, lower wages, worse working conditions but in the midst of abundance, as the wealthy wallow in their wealth.

Such a condition cannot win legitimacy without also winning legitimacy for the idea that prosperity is only for the entrepreneurially clever or cunning or for those who are willing to over-work (slave) for their employers. Such an idea can't be presented honestly. There has to be another means to install these values: namely, find a target that can be depicted as alien, people of different look and language, tell lies about them and make them the embodiment of anybody who 'queue jumps', i.e. expects a good life without slaving and suffering first. No 'queue jumping' thank you very much: work your guts out, do what you are told, don't expect solidarity or generosity.

Refugees and the ideological imperative for social progress

There appear to be 24,000 refugees and people seeking asylum currently in Indonesia. This is obviously a major burden on a society with a per capita income of only $3,000 (despite the salivations of business people and Indonesianist academics eyeing the prospects of the 10% of Indonesians who have significant disposable incomes.) All of these 24,000 people come from countries ravaged by either repression or war and the consequent social and economic disaster. In almost all cases, the repressive governments and the wars have been supported by the Australian government, news media and ruling class.

Any social and political movement wanting a society based on human solidarity must utterly reject the opportunistic, cynical, cruel and callous demonizing and manipulation of people seeking asylum arriving by boats by a self-interested elite wanting to create a society based on elite self-interest and crushing solidarity and generosity. The cries of concern when boats capsize and people die from these self-interested elites and their politicians are so transparently lies. There is an easy way to prevent this.

The obvious immediate policy that is required is the organisation of the settlement of the 24,000 people currently in Indonesia in Australia: they are all seeking asylum or settlement in Australia. They are all either fleeing persecution, or the disaster of war and upheaval. All have the moral right to flee such conditions. Bring them all down as soon as possible. Then, there would be the need to look at Malaysia's situation, which hosts 100,000 refugees (mostly from Burma).

Because what is at stake is not simply the acceptance of refugees in Australia – that is in fact more-or-less accepted – but rather the legitimacy of the values of solidarity and generosity in society in general, there must be no compromise: Bring them down all now!

Max Lane’s Blog – Commentary and analysis on the history, contemporary politics and culture of Indonesian and its relationships with Australia and the world.

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