Julia Gillard’s shameful surrender on refugees who arrive by boat and the restoration of the “Pacific solution” probably did not come as a shock to most people, writes Tess Lee Ack in Socialist Alternative. After all, her government has embraced one right wing agenda after another. However, those attempting to understand why Labor has capitulated to racism almost invariably blame it on fear of losing the votes of the “rednecks” – by which they mean workers, and especially “ignorant” or “uneducated” blue collar workers.
Curtin detention centre in remote Western Australia, 2011.
This is to turn reality on its head – and it lets the real culprits off the hook. Racism towards refugees (and others) does exist among the working class. But the question is: where does that racism come from? The dominant idea that racism is driven from the bottom of society is fundamentally flawed. In an era of neoliberal attacks, the idea that the working class is able to impose its will on society is absurd. Poll after poll shows that most workers oppose privatisation and cuts and want better health, education, social services and public transport – but none of this finds expression in government policy; quite the reverse. A sizeable majority supports same-sex marriage rights, yet Gillard maintains her homophobic opposition.
Karl Marx argued, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Those who control the wealth and the institutions of our society (such as the state, the education system and the mass media) naturally use their power to foster and promote ideas that work in their class interests: the pursuit of profit, the maintenance of exploitation and the protection of the interests of their “own” capitalists who are in competition with those of other countries.
Racism is one of their key weapons, serving to divide workers against each other and obscuring who their real enemies are. The promotion of an ever more strident nationalism – of which racism is an inevitable by-product – seeks to create a false unity based on convincing workers that they share a common interest with their rulers.
Commenting on the hostility of English workers towards the Irish, Marx identified this as “the secret of the impotence of the English working class”, creating a situation in which “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life…feels himself as a member of the ruling nation, and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” He noted how this hostility was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class”, so that this antagonism was also “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.” [Emphasis added.]
So while racism directly serves the material interests of the ruling class, it is inimical to the material interests of the working class. Those at the top of society have every reason to promote racism by diverting workers’ discontent onto the chosen scapegoats of the day, as well as inciting hostility towards their international competitors. They understand all too well that when workers accept racist ideas, it undermines class solidarity and unity. Workers on the other hand have every reason to reject the racist divisions that seriously weaken their capacity to resist exploitation.
In Australia today, it is people like Daniel Grollo, who wants to smash the construction union, and Gina Rinehart, who thinks we should be happy to work for $2 a day, who threaten workers’ lives and livelihoods – not the unfortunate Afghans fleeing from the appalling conditions created by the Australian government’s invasion of their country.
Racism is a product of capitalism, consciously developed in the first instance to justify the slave trade, with the willing assistance of scientists and intellectuals who developed elaborate theories “proving” that Africans and other non-white races were inherently inferior. These ideas were also used to justify European colonialism, as imperialist states went about subjugating indigenous peoples: disrupting their societies, stealing their land, destroying their culture and plundering their resources.
So racism has always been driven by the ruling class, the only section of society which benefits from it. The promotion of racist ideas is assisted by their middle class supporters, especially those in the media and academia, whose position gives them substantial influence over the shaping of public opinion.
The mass media are neither independent nor impartial. They are capitalist enterprises whose proprietors are motivated by the same concerns as the rest of the ruling class: the drive to make profits and the maintenance of the status quo in terms of the social order.
There are all too many targets of racism in Australia today. But the racism towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, mainly from the Middle East, has dominated Australian politics in recent times.
Since 9/11 there has been a relentless campaign by Western ruling classes to demonise Muslims as the greatest threat to humanity and civilisation as we know it. But this was not simply a morally wrong response to the attack on the World Trade Centre. The US ruling class had for some time been seeking a pretext to intervene in and assert control over the Middle East and its oil resources.
Fomenting hostility towards Muslims was a calculated strategy. It provided a justification for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the trashing of civil liberties with new “anti-terror” laws that strengthened the state’s repressive apparatus. On the one hand, Islamophobia was an attempt to unite the population behind the War on Terror and the US Alliance; on the other it created divisions which could only benefit the ruling class, by diverting attention away from the government’s neoliberal economic policies.
Given the onslaught of racist propaganda vilifying Muslims – not just from the right, but from respectable liberal commentators – and the almost total absence from mainstream discourse of anti-racist voices, it is hardly surprising that Islamophobia took such a grip on society. Many who pride themselves on their progressive views not only swallowed the ruling class line but argued for it – for example the middle class feminists who vocally supported the invasion of Afghanistan on the basis that it would “liberate women”.
The anti-Muslim hysteria deliberately promoted by the Howard government and sections of the media, and tacitly supported by Labor and the liberal intelligentsia, went a long way towards creating and legitimising racism towards refugees. Key events in this process include the Tampa incident, when the Howard government refused to allow a Norwegian ship that had rescued asylum seekers to land; and the “children overboard” scandal, when government ministers falsely claimed that asylum seekers had threatened to throw their children out of their boat.
In Cronulla in 2005, a racist mob went on a violent rampage, draping themselves in Australian flags as they attacked anyone of “Middle Eastern appearance”. The riot was to a large extent instigated and facilitated by right wing radio shock jocks like the quintessentially Establishment figure Alan Jones. Similarly, calls to “ban the burqa” and opposition to the building of mosques and Islamic schools have been led by politicians and respectable middle class figures. All of this fuelled and legitimised racism. A respondent’s comment in an SBS-Ipsos Report on Immigration said it all:
“The Tampa incident really legitimised racism in this country. From that time it’s been okay to speak out against other races. Before that people might have had an opinion about other races, but you kept it in your back pocket. Now it’s almost okay to be racist: it’s like the government’s given you permission.”
Racism towards refugees is a bipartisan affair. It is worth remembering that it was Labor that introduced mandatory detention in 1992. The indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers, including children, has continued under Labor – indeed there are more children in detention now than there were under Howard. Gillard has engaged in a race to the bottom with Liberal leader Tony Abbott, as they canvassed ever more brutal strategies for “stopping the boats”, culminating in the recent revival of the Pacific solution.
Many prominent liberals and one-time refugee advocates like Paris Aristotle and Marion Le, along with all the mass media, hailed Gillard’s capitulation. Media commentators like the ABC’s Jon Faine castigated the Greens for refusing to abandon their principled opposition to offshore processing and fall into line.
This rotten consensus around the issue of how to deal with refugees has been manufactured and driven from the top of society, not just because politicians and their corporate masters are racists (though many are), but because they would rather workers’ attention was focused on the supposed threat posed by a few thousand refugees than on the very real threat posed by their neoliberal agenda
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Why is there so much racism towards refugees? Via: En Passant » #Auspol