Reflections on the Revolution in our Universities:
A Modest Polemic
by Rob Schaap
It's no good talking about how to fund universities until we've all had a talk about what we want from our universities, and it's no good talking about what they might be worth to us until we've all had a talk about how such worth should be measured. Sadly, our society confers and withholds its resources without asking these questions. And the more we consign such decisions to the vagaries of 'the market', the less we're inclined to ask them. And if we're not economists, we're reminded we really shouldn't be sticking our untutored noses in where they don't belong. All of which should make us concerned if not downright indignant.
According to the Education Act of 1989, the university is at least one patch in our institutional fabric where the freedom is extended to informed citizens, staff and students alike, "to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinion".
Noam Chomsky, questioner and controversialist par excellence, agrees: "Universities have a purpose. They are supposed to be pressing the boundaries of knowledge and inspiring student questioning, they are basically supposed to be subversive. That is their role in a healthy society."
Societies, you see, are always in flux and, as Rousseau once lamented, what was true yesterday may not be so tomorrow. That means societies would be well advised to use every resource at their disposal to question the premises upon which they rest, to interrogate the way their institutions and beliefs guide and constrain change, and to make sure they've citizenries capable of doing, and free to do, such things. It is not ours just to manage change (as if change comes autonomously from without), it is ours to have a hand in directing it. We are, in other words, as much the subject of our history as its object.
The purpose of the university is therefore not only to represent the world in its natural timelessness and its remorseless inevitabilities, or even to hone techniques in the manipulation of nature. The university is there to ask whether aspects of our world are in fact natural or timeless, whether our techniques serve desirable ends, and whether the very focus on technique itself constitutes a problem for society and the articulation of its aspirations. 'The market' is, I suspect, an attractive notion simply because it appears to take care of all these difficult questions for us. Adam Smith's 'hidden hand' (the price mechanism) is comforting in its insistent claim to natural timelessness, its portrayal of itself as both means and end, and its guarantee that it will determine the common good. Professor Jane Kelsey complains that, "the underlying belief in the rationality of market forces, which operate according to the laws of economic science, implies a closed approach to knowledge and ideas. There are no rational alternatives. Education can therefore offer refinements, variations on the theme, and can train people to apply and enhance the relevant techniques. But there is no need for, no legitimacy in, a contest of ideas." Kelsey is describing a scenario in which society is wholly embedded within the economic sphere. This is an important point, because, as Polanyi argued, the legitimating ideal of liberal democracy is premised precisely on the economic being embedded within the social.
And it's not as if 'economics' or 'the market' proffer the reliably stable context, either for society in general or universities in particular, that we might expect.
Consider the 'economics' of a mere life-time ago: the world in which the very man who gave modern economics so many of its premises and principles, the mathematician Alfred Marshall, still considered his economic models positivistic simplifications - useful to guide reform, but certainly not a representation of reality as a whole. Marshall, erstwhile Cambridge Professor of the 'Moral Sciences' that he was, recognised the inevitable role of the normative in human affairs. He had not forgotten that the founder of economics, the moral philosopher Adam Smith, had taught not only that competition between individuals can better the lot of society as a whole, but that our essence is that of the social beings we demonstrably are. The human species has not been forged by the forces of competition alone. Indeed, it might be argued (Stephen Jay Gould and Peter Singer come to mind) that cooperation was precisely the way humanity competed!
Anyway, what was true of economics - and, consequently, what was true of 'the market' - in 1924 is no longer true today (I could strengthen my point with reference to a certain great depression and several ensuing decades of Keynesian 'truth', but the word-limit presses). It may be true for the untutored likes of you and me, but it is not true for those who would refashion our education system in their ahistorical, amoral, technocratic and inhumane image. It is not true for those in whom we so blithely trust.
The inconveniently socialistic side of Smith's philosophy has been forgotten. Today's market economists preach the virtues of competition, yet forget that Smith warned competition would require vigilant regulation if its virtues were to be ensured, and that the world within which they actually live exhibits ever less of them. Though they have forgotten the limitations of their positivistic models, we forgive them every outrageously wrong prediction, every demand for austerity. They can incorporate the normative and the essential only as matters for the individual as she determines her preferences in light of the scarcity of her resources.
We should defend our universities not on the grounds that we are somehow above and beyond the vagaries of society, for we are most definitely not. We are in and of society. And each society challenges its universities anew each day. The challenge for today is, I submit, that of refuting and resisting the arrogant strictures of our philosopher-kings. Their self-appointed task is, in the words of their treasured organ, The Economist, to do away with externalities; those irksome moments when the consequences of a transaction are not confined to the individuals party to that transaction. To the economist, an externality is a bad thing, not least because it undermines the all-important price mechanism. Well, scholars (teachers and students alike) are paid by society, and we are accountable to society. But we are no more accountable to the dim bulb who believes that the costs and benefits of the university experience can be confined to the individual than we are to those who see universities as places where social capital is enhanced.
It is indeed our market economist who places himself above and beyond society. He forgets, as we are invited to forget, that the timeless truths he bequeaths owe their perlocutionary force to a discipline that is actually itself constantly in flux. He forgets, as we are invited to forget, that the economically embedded society is one where it is he who has become unaccountable. And to agree with this economist is to cast society itself as an externality (indeed Margaret Thatcher once echoed her advisors in saying there was 'no such thing as society'). Thankfully, to almost everybody else, society happens to be the word we use for what we are.
So, as we swoon further into the embrace of these 'market forces', let us remember that there is nothing natural and timeless about this 'market' and 'its' forces - that definitions and prescriptions are always in contention, and each timeless truth ever on notice. It has ever been thus. And perhaps ever should be. But to allow the market of today to determine who teaches what to whom is precisely to confer decisive power to the truly unaccountable, to the naturalisers of the contingent, to the circumscribers of thought, to the wielders of interminable patents, to the keepers of secrets, to the monopolistic bulwarks against competition, and to the narrow seekers (to pinch a line from Thoreau) of improved means to unimproved ends. Whither then the right and obligation "to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinion"?
It is well to close so apparently bolshie a polemic (for it would not have been considered so a couple of short decades ago) with the supportive words of a famous conservative ideological sceptic. Quoth that formidable Tory, Michael Oakeshott:
Learning to make something of ourselves in no context in particular is an impossibility; and the context appears not only in what is learned but also in the conditions of direction and restraint which belong to any education ... Greed, or the desire to appear abreast of the times, have often supervened to destroy both judgement and proper inquiry, and the shape of a university education has suffered some ill-considered and some destructive changes.
Amen to that, Comrade Oakeshott …
Turkey! Sitting here in my little shed in New South Wales, tapping away at the usual computer, sipping the usual after-dinner coffee, dragging at my usual after-dinner cigarette, and listening to the possums noisily following their usual route across the tin roof, it strikes me as odd that I should so quickly have formed so close, and so enduring, an attachment to a place so unusual to me.
All the odder for the fact I knew so little about Turkey when a conference took me there in April. I'd hear of Istanbul of course, but the only other place I could name was a little place on the Dardanelles called Gallipoli. And Gallipoli, at least as Australian eyes had apprehended it some 86 years earlier, remains the narrow portal through which most of us still see Turkey and its people today. The land itself, we have been assured, is nought but cliffs and 'a tangled, deeply folded country almost entirely covered with dark, knee- or waist-deep holly oak scrub'. The people ('Johnny Turk') appear only as stubborn wily warriors, lying in wait atop the cliffs or amongst those tangled folds.
So much, then, for 800 thousand square kilometres, sixty million people, eighty years of national history and tens of millennia of cultural history ...
But jet-lag is no match for novelty, and ignorance none for the chaotic conviviality of teeming Istanbul. Eyes that had been unfocussing red slits amidst the interminable airport queues of seven o'clock, were wide open before the incongruous grandeur, cobbled thoroughfares and time-twisted roofs of Sultanahmet at eight o'clock. Ears blocked by a day and a half in aircraft, were summarily cleared by that first cacophony of contending calls to prayer (never have I felt more like an awestruck child abroad than at that moment). And limbs numbed by hours of inertia were called back to life in a greedy frenzy of shameless rubber-necking (the Cistern, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Beyazit markets all in one voluptuous day).
And when night came, so did seas of Raki, fusillades of cigarettes, steaming bowls of yahni stew and mutancana lamb, more Raki, triumphal accounts of Galatasary's heroic feats in Europe, animated arguments about economics (which the Turk, unlike the Australian, recognizes as the province of politics) and, er, more Raki. I did submit to the inevitable eventually, crawling into my bed well after midnight, smug in the knowledge that any prospect of jet-lag had been thwarted in an orgy of conviviality and experience.
No matter how tired the first-time visitor to Istanbul, and no matter how much raki he may have imbibed, it takes some time to slow the mind such that the sandman may catch it. A little snug musing on the day may suffice.
The seven million people who live in Istanbul, I found I could classify into five overlapping sub-groups:
- the coffee-sipping smokers (sartorially drab, convivial, luxuriously slow of movement, loquaciously quick of mind, and full of the fortunes of Galatasary in the European Cup and the misfortunes of Turkey in the global rat-race);
- the drivers (bad cases of temporary insanity in 1600cc Renaults with only the thickness of an 'Allah korusun' [God protect me] sticker between them and the next world);
- the carpet salesmen (sharp youths in leatherjackets, each possessing the uncanny knack of identifying the punter's cultural origins at a hundred metres, speaking their language perfectly, and charming them into the uncle's shop, every one of which is the best and cheapest in all Turkey);
- the urgent communicators (that Turkish Telecom is perpetually threatened by bankruptcy is a monument to institutional corruption, as Turks wear mobile phones the way the rest of the world wears ear-rings);
- and cops (extremely numerous, opulently uniformed, armed to the teeth, and full of practiced authority).
Only then did it hit me that a vast cohort was missing from my neat little taxonomy. Sultanhmet, the public Sultanahmet at least, is almost devoid of women. Some tourists, sure, and a few young shop attendants on the road to Beyazit, but few local women could I remember on those expansive teeming avenues or those vast green parklands. I discovered the following day, on an excursion across the bridge that separates the minarets of Sultanahmet from the Genoese fort of Galata, that Turkey does in fact produce women, all of them apparently young, all dressed very much in the western fashion, and all given to walking much faster than would seem appropriate in old Sultanahmet.
I'm no architect, but then no great expertise seems required for a few salient observations concerning the way Turks build things. Function and economics very much determine form in the matter of housing, and there acres of enormous, standardized and featureless apartment blocks predominate. The suburban quarter-acre block of the Australian dream seems to have no place in Istanbul, nor anywhere else I was to stray.
But in the matter of public buildings there is nothing in existence to match the variety, grandeur, solemn beauty and stunning incongruence of Istanbul. In the middle of Sultan Ahmet, an old aqueduct pillar stands over the Roman cistern, where columns - Ionic, Doric and Roman; upside-down, right way up and toppled flat - join forces to keep the roof up. Outside it's all shoppers and Efes pilsener, but two minutes walk takes you to the grand old Topkapi Palace, where Jesus, Constantine and Justinian share the walls and ceilings with huge Islamic insignia. That's the architectural secret of Turkey, I think. Everywhere, substantial traces of half a dozen old civilizations persist, melded together or simply planted atop each other. And all meld into the present. Here, history is neither effaced nor roped off from life; not turned into a decontextualized spectacle, not classified into neat stages, not dated into stasis, not pasteurized into abstraction and not commoditized into inauthenticity.
History here is lived in and it's been lived in by all manner of peoples for a millennium and a half; each leaving its own stamp on the cityscape, and making do with whatever the last physical or social upheaval left them. In Ankara, the old castle walls provide the best example of a thousand examples. At the base lies the roughly hewn stone put there by Hittites or Greeks (I'm no historian either). Above that, a series of neatly beheaded Greek or Roman deities, laid end-to-end, serve as giant bricks. And above that, the finer stone work of Byzantine or Ottoman times. You are at once invited to feel the history of it and feel your part in that history. In an Australian, trained to embrace 'the gales of creative destruction' - single-mindedly to pursue the new and carelessly to abandon the old - this last sensibility has been starved into a feeble and stunted thing, and to have it nourished so is thrilling therapy indeed. In Turkey, all that is solid has not yet melted into air, and all that was holy has not yet been profaned.
Alas, economic crises have a way of fixing such oversights …
Anyway, having formed my initial sociological, architectural and historical impressions, I duly enlisted the aid of young Turkish lass (g'day Rachel!) to teach me the tourist's basics of the Turkish language (I'd loved the sound of it ever since that first 'lutfen dikkat' on the Turkish Airbus, but I was never to make a meaningful shape out of the language, and was obliged to get by with a hundred words and the apparently limitless patience of my Turkish interlocutors). I'd need the numbers, of course; given some ghastly political and economic trials, the Turkish Lira has been floating much in the manner of a brick, and one needs a lot of numbers at one's disposal for the simplest of transactions. An Australian dollar and forty cents makes you a millionaire, after all. And I'd need a few basic pleasantries. One thing I love about Turks is their linguistically entrenched egalitarianism. Everyone is an 'arkadas'. Another thing I learned from my gratifyingly grueling raki-soaked, tobacco-stained encounters with assorted locals is what a politically astute and articulate people they are. Politics remains an oral culture here, and an apparently ordinary media are not nearly the powerful hegemonic force regarding issues of the day they are in Australia. And opinions in Turkey are not lightly held, often quite sectarian (probably because the politics is so communal), almost universally link Turkey's woes to transnational developments (everyone distrusts the IMF and, as in Australia, a kind word for a politician is never heard), and usually - left or right - betray a proud nationalistic streak (Ataturk the nation-builder is memorialized in every town square and seems to have pride of place in very nearly every Turkish heart).
As Eric Hobsbawm tells us, 'tis the state that makes the nation, and one day in a Turkish city is enough to tell Anglo-Saxon eyes that the state is present in every moment and fibre of the Turk's being. Tooled-up cops and soldiers at every corner; the television stations helpfully drawing red circles around the faces of particularly enthusiastic demonstrators, so that citizens (the cops call you 'citizen') may be aided in the execution of their duty; Article 312 of the penal code on every journalist's lips (that's the one that applies the consideration of 'social responsibility' to that of free speech on pain of gaol - a moot notion about to be imposed on Turkish netheads now); many a government monopoly; huge case-insensitive agricultural subsidies; a banking system imploding under decades of insider-favours betwixt senior bureaucrats and businessmen (I mean, how does a public bank with which the whole public sector must invest its allocations and revenues come to having to borrow at outrageous interest rates just to keep its operational reserves somewhere near statutory requirements?); ministers constantly under scrutiny
for corrupt tendering practices; thousands of half-completed government-funded and standardized apartment towers; many a business dependent on government contracts; nationalistic spots on the telly that are almost indistinguishable from those thundering anthem-flag-blood-and-Stakhanov routines so redolent of Soviet media; joyfully overbuilt scaffolds holding conurbations of grand old buildings up, and briskly busy government service shop fronts in each provincial town.
Such then was the political culture within which the continuing crisis of the noughties began to unfold. People without the benefit of foreign bank accounts or share-holdings had lost their nest-eggs, their faith in government had been shaken, their fear of another military coup was on many a lip, and often there were demonstrators in the streets and armed police at the intersections. To indulge in animated political discussion in such an environment would, I'd sadly concluded, be foolhardy.
But not a bit of it! Turks seem capable of sustained argument against categorically opposed others without the slightest hint of imminent violence. I can only suppose this is how so sociable a people must learn to relate if they be as tightly packed as they are in Istanbul or Ankara, and speculate, too, that theirs is a less individualistic culture than mine. As one local told us, Turks are slow to anger, but ferocious when angered. I can vouch for the former proposition, and was heartily glad of it. My fondest memories of the fond memory that is Turkey, are of those loud smoky sessions. I loved every full minute of being among them - the culture struck me as the very human equivalent of bathing in a warm bubble bath with the jets on full. Any politically or philosophically inclined animal with a formidable tobacco tolerance, a taste for argument, and a streak of convivial hedonism in them ('keyf' I think they call this) would be at home, I submit. I was. Australians need keyf.
I could wax lyrical, too, about our jaunt up the Silk Road, about the impossible things, the wonderful people and the stunning variety one sees in the space of one day's driving past the likes of the citadel of Uchisar, the underground churches of Goreme, the fairy chimneys of Zelve, the dovecotes of the Uzengi valley, the underground city at Derinkuyu and the sheer beauty of the Ihlara valley. I could try to express the awe with which one confronts the unexpected sight of the giant volcanoes, Erciyes, Hasandag and Gullandag rising from the tuffa plains. And then scribble on of our few days in gorgeous Urgup and the constantly entertaining resourcefulness of her carpet sellers. But, lest my enthusiastic ravings strain the credulity of the experienced reader of cheap travel brochures, I'd best put a stop to it here.
Oh, and I never did make it to Galipoli ...
HOW 'GLOBALISATION' BROUGHT US 'DETENTION CENTRES' AND 'THE PACIFIC SOLUTION'
By Rob Schaap
These are the notes I used in a talk I gave at a Canberra conference the other day. I've not formally written it up yet (and there's only a partial bibliography at this stage), but I'm putting the thing up in the hope of some comment from blog surfers. The talk covers a lot of territory:
- from some introductory notes on the contradictions apparent in 'globalisation' du jour (it's a very partial process, consequently wreaking fragmenting havoc just as it seeks to integrate the globe into some functional dream-world);
- to a commentary on the reconfiguration of The State within this process,;
- to discussing the role of Australia's policy on refugees in this context;
- and finally, to the question that exercises the minds and pens of many cultural commentators and social psychology pundits in Australia at the moment: just what does all this say about us?
Tendentiously narrow definition of ‘globalism’
Erstwhile World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz represents, indeed rhetorically leads and legitimates (to the ill-disguised fury of some of his old colleagues), the dissenting wing of the mainstream 'debate' concerning ‘globalisation’. And more strength to his arm. But to my mind he gets something very wrong at the premise level:
"I think that globalization -- which is nothing more than the closer integration of the countries of the world, as a result of lowering transportation costs, communication costs, the elimination of artificial barriers -- is something that's going to be with us. As this integration occurs, as we become more interdependent, we need to have rules and regulations. So if anything, today we need international institutions more than ever. The problem is that confidence in these institutions is lower than ever. "
I suggest part of the reason for this lapse in confidence is to do with such sanguinely simplistic definitions of the dynamic in whose thrall we find our world. Surely, today's enthusiastic globalisers are only telling us part of the truth? Maybe this is because an MBA or a degree in neo-liberal economics only lets you see part, I don't know, but I am going to argue that the ascendance of such a narrowly technocratic view has consequences - for everything from democracy to our environment.
And for the world's refugees ...
As Georg Simmel once said, there is such a thing as a forest, in all its objective wholeness. But a logger does not see what a tourist sees, and she does not see what an environmentalist sees, and neither sees what an administrator sees. To each of us, only part of the whole is given.
Stiglitz notes that international institutions, those which operate at precisely the level at which globalisation might best be enabled, regulated and monitored, have lost the confidence of the public. Whereas some see in, for instance, the World Trade Organisation, a chance to cut needless trade costs and a multilateral response to bilateral power differences, others see an institutionalised subordination of the political to the economic. The two are quite tenably part of the same whole, but the 'debate' is generally about which one is right. And suits with degrees tend to win arguments like that.
By way of elaborating on this example, let's speculate as to how the WTO, a bevy of finance and trade ministers (and their corporate 'emerald pass' guests - such as met at Seattle) are likely to perceive the issues they arrogate unto themselves.
Would they see labour issues as the International Labour Organisation would see them? Nope. To financiers and economic managers, labour is but a factor of production, and thus merely a significant cost centre. So the WTO cannot do what the ILO could (if states worked as hard at promoting the ILO as they do the WTO - which they don't).
Would the WTO see environmental concerns as environmentalists see them?
Nope. The environmentalists were successful in establishing an environmental working group within the WTO, only to watch it slowly transform into a body whose focus was the allocated cost of environmental protection rather than that of a stuffed environment. As Lori Wallach of the American 'Citizens Watch' says, it has been much like "putting the Endangered Species Act in the middle of the bankruptcy code." As London's Observer noted, "The WTO does not recognise the 'precautionary principle', and overrules all other international agreements. This, together with the perceived agenda-setting of the talks by big business, is what mostly concerned the environmentalists and labour groups protesting at Seattle."
Would the WTO see technology transfer (the only way LDCs are really going to come right, in my view) as an LDC would see it? Nope. For a start, most LDC delegates to the WTO were locked out of the important wheeling'n'dealing sessions (which, I submit, had more to do with Seattle coming a cropper than just about anything else. 'No one combs our hair in our absence,' said one furious Ugandan delegate). More importantly, the
WTO is about seeing all as trade, hence seeing all as commodities - which, in the case of technology (information), means securing price advantages by way of a strongly enforced intellectual property regime. Information economists have never convincingly come up with a model by which true technology transfer might take place (and, remember, some of this information is from and about LDC people, but patented in the 'north'). I submit it *can't* take place. Firms, competitiors and monopolists alike, are not in the business of 'free trade' in this sense, and the WTO is precisely about restricting free trade in this sense.
Would they see culture as a member of a particular culture might see it? Nope. Much of culture is 'done' through audio-visual communications, and these, too, are seen as commodities. Every Australian producer knows, for instance, that, although Ozzies love high-quality local product, imported stuff costs about a tenth of what it would cost to produce locally (usually the import has already made its money in the American market, so its export/syndication is all cream). Subsidies or quotas are a no-no. Which all makes absolute economic sense, of course. Just not cultural sense.
I shan't bore you with more of the same. But I hope I've clarified what I'm on about: the subversion of the democratic by a particular take on the economic.
There's stuff a WTO-type body simply can't do. Sure, its proponents would argue it's only on about trade issues. But where are the institutions through which the world's people get to determine what are, and are not, purely issues in trade?
To quote Martin Khor of the Third World Network: "The democratic system is not working. It's bust. It needs more than WTO reform." To that, I'd add that democracy needs articulating and institutionalising BEFORE it can be pre-empted by the ubiquitous tendrils of an effectively world-defining WTO. To the degree that the WTO's issues are urgent, all the more so is rejuvenating democracy - globally where possible, nationally where necessary.
Some of us do not see democracy, health, education, regional services and culture as trade issues, do not want them seen as such, and consequently feel rudely spat out by their polity.
That's how our bipartisan neo-liberalism produces the kind of institutional legitimacy crisis poor Joseph Stiglitz bewails - just as it produces its Hansons, Buchanans, lePens, and Fortuyns.
Them, and an awful lot of desperate refugees (of which more later).
Anyway, we hear the same blithely tendentious definitions at the top of Australia’s establishment. I thank Don Arthur (2002) for noticing that more than once PM John Howard has summed up ‘globalisation’ thus:
"in 1960, South Korea's per capita GDP was the same as Algeria's, and its third largest export was wigs! Today, even after the Asian crisis, South Korea is the world's thirteenth largest economy and its third largest export is computers, earning its citizens more than $US 7.2 billion per year." (Howard 2001)
Tadzio Mueller (Sussex Uni) sums up the narrow one-sidedness of these grasps at current reality nicely, when he argues that:
"When the media and other elites tell us about the brave new world of globalisation, they usually fail to mention this important fact: What is globalised is not the people, is not civil society, it's capital."
Whilst capital, as currency and as social relation, "can roam the globe, most of the world's people cannot. The borders remain closed to them." (Jorquera 2000)
"Globalisation is a particular narrow theory of a particular form of internationalism. There are dozens of ways of being international. This just happens to be a rather silly, naive, late 19th century economic theory, that we were a bunch of dogs who were going
to be led around by an invisible hand. Of course it couldn't last that long. Inevitably it was going to make a fool of itself." (Saul 2002)
The Other Side of Globalisation
Castells famous ‘Information Age’ trilogy (following Karl Polanyi's famous thesis in The Great Transformation) argues that economic globalisation 'was made possible, and, by and large induced, by deliberate government policies. The global economy was not created by markets, but by the interaction between markets and governments and international financial institutions acting on behalf of markets - or of their notion of what markets ought to be.'
In short, just as The State was the agent that forced the enclosures on an unwilling majority in the period leading up to the Industrial revolution, so it has been The State which has imposed ‘globalisation’. The State is the subject of the process, not merely a helpless object. The market does not spontaneously produce the transformations it requires at all.
So Capital definitively needs The State, and globalisation is being politically constituted, not economically evolved.
Anyway, Castells points out that the foundations of globalisation were set by deregulation, trade liberalisation and privatisation, and that "western governments, acting through agencies such as the IMF and the WTO, seek to remove national boundaries to neo-liberal policies." (Callinicos 2002)
The likes of Habermas and Offe discern a nasty dynamic in this. The Welfare State puts the government of the day very obviously at the top of a large and apparently ever expanding plethora of institutions of production of goods and services. As complexity mounts correspondingly, things start to go wrong, and it becomes an attractive idea for those in government to divest themselves of such direct and dangerous responsibility.
And thus, given the quasi-Keynesian crisis of the seventies, did we get deregulation, trade liberalisation and privatisation.
Critical Sociologist Bob Jessop neatly summarises the consequences for The State in terms of three trends.
We’ve been watching:
- The State denationalised (Jessop talks about state power moving 'upwards, downwards, and sideways as state managers on different territorial scales try to enhance their respective operational autonomies and strategic capacities');
- our political system 'destatised' (the shift from 'government' to 'governance' - from a state apparatus we saw as responsive to ideological contests transformed into a bunch of technocratic managers), and
- the usurping of the citizen as subject and object of policy by some amorphous and bemusing plethora of transnational entities.
We're not even allowed to take our own reservations seriously, because everything is economics now, and most of us don't have doctorates in that. Neil Postman would argue that this is symptomatic of Technocracy – experts mistaking means for ends and discourse confined to the qualified elite. Pierre Bourdieu might dub this neoliberal technocracy ‘the autonomy of the economic’, I suggest …
So we're talking about an Australian populace (and Danish and French and Austrian and Dutch – even American) in great need of being assured that it's still there, that it still matters, that our suits-in-charge recognise our existence and importance, and that we can still wield some clout. After all, what’s a State for if not to do the right thing by the Nation?
I’m reminded of EP Thompson’s great history of the Luddite uprisings and the public celebrations when PM Perceval was killed – there, too, The State had abandoned the ‘moral economy’ of the day, and the Nation – erstwhile legitimator of The State - had risen up against that very State … you might remember, too, that by 1824 Francis Place was pleading with the PM to restore paternalistic legislation and drop the Combination Acts … could a PM as promptly oblige today, I wonder …
Anyway, thus is globalisation experienced by a decisive number of people in nation states like Australia.
But, globalisation’s immanent contradictions don’t stop there. Globalisation is not only the response of The State to a legitimacy crisis, it is also the route to a new, and worse, legitimacy crisis.
The weakening nation state (at least insofar as its capacity to balance class interests, allow the citizenship some democratic agency, proffer quieting safety nets etc) promotes the proliferation and growth of a new form: Reflecting bits of Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells, Le Monde Diplomatique tells us that:
"By weakening nation states, devaluing politics and dismantling regulation, globalisation has favoured the growth of soft-structured, non-hierarchical, non-vertical, networked organisations. Both global corporations and NGOs have used this framework to expand their operations. But parasitic organisations have also proliferated in the same conditions, taking advantage of the chaotic emergence of these spaces: mafias, crime networks, gangsters, sects and terrorist groups."
So these come into being against an institution not all that well positioned to oppose them: The Nation State. And the State, which now enjoys less flexibility in promoting its hegemonic power than Welfarism had allowed it, must turn elsewhere if it is to rise to the new challenge. Its first response is to turn precisely where it turned as the Great Bourgeois Revolution blew through Europe in the early to mid 19th century: to its stand-by legitimating myth: Nation (see Marx's 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or Hobsbawm's The Invention of Tradition).
Uncertain times make for uncertain peoples, and – uncertain peoples tend to reach for a reassuring identity (see Manuel Castells' The Power of Indentity).
From Abstraction to the Concrete Specific:
Refugees and Australia today
Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees is a good place to start if we're to insert Woomera or 'The Pacific Solution' in the political economic picture I've been trying to draw.
The trouble with the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees is that it was drafted in 1951, and half a century is a long time in political economy.
Core economies needed labourers in 1951, and whilst this economic fact may not have written Article 31, it certainly encouraged it. Western polities were competing with the Communist Bloc for the hearts and souls of the non-aligned in 1951, too.
We find no polar distinction in the Convention between ‘economic’ migrants and ‘political refugees’ and in Article 31 we find the express understanding that refugees are often obliged to employ technically illegal means and criminal agents if they’re to escape at all.
If 'nation' is construction of the 'other', at least we were 'othering' differently in the chastened atmosphere of 1951. For one thing, neo-liberal technocracy has occasioned a popular change of sentiment much along the lines identified by Shivanandan (2000):
"Globalisation reduces all human activity to the binary of buying and selling, and commercialises human relationships. So that we judge our duties and responsibilities to others not by what is owed to them, but by what it costs us. "
But it goes a lot further than that.
It is not upon mere perceived economic cost that the refugees debate now turns, but upon criminality. The adjective ‘illegal’ is crammed in everywhere. ‘Trafficking’ is a big problem in Europe (to be trafficked is to be exploited and without the decisive burden of guilt) but here the problem is deemed overwhelmingly one of ‘smuggling’ (and the smuggled party IS a guilty party). We have forgotten the simple truth that refugees can’t escape without transport, without paying people, and without circumventing barriers. Minister Ruddock loves the term ‘queue-jumpers’, for instance. He doesn’t say where an Afghan peasant or Iraqi villager might find this queue, nor assure us that they would eventually have gotten anywhere had they managed to find said queue – he just besmirches them for doing what a refugee needs to do. It’s like he never saw Schindler’s List …
We see this messing about with language a lot. As the government can hardly complain about cost (it spends a relative fortune on its detention and interception programmes), it has to push the criminality option, and this it does to the most ridiculous extent.
Julian Burnside (2002) speaks of the elision of the distinctions that so obviously pertain between three distinct elements of Australian policy: ‘border control’, immigration policy, & treatment of refugees:
"All require quite different thinking, and all require separate solutions, and yet somehow our political masters have managed to run these problems together and use the ugliest bits from each."
And, together in all their ugliness, they are reduced to but one notion: ‘border control’.
Australians heard it again and again from their prime-minister during the election campaign:
"We will determine who comes into
our country and in what circumstances."
And, whilst the massive allocation to ‘defence’ in the May budget did include the mandatory subsidisation of the US military-industrial complex, most of it was not to do with defence at all, but with ‘border protection’.
Now, if a State is trying to garner hegemonic brownie points, it’s a good idea to spend its (well, our) money at home rather than abroad. Again, that ‘smuggling’ notion comes in handy – if ‘smuggling’ is the designated problem, then ‘border control is the appropriate strategy, and that means precisely that The State spends the money here, where we get to see it spent.
We DO matter! We ARE a nation and we ARE a State again! For do we not see The State investing in us, The Nation, again? The neo-liberal State has deprived us of our sense of agency and relevance (of our ‘estate’ in EP Thompson’s terms) and has subverted what Thompson called ‘the moral economy’, but it has enough left in its legitimating appeal to 'nation' to provide us with an 'evil' other in opposition to which we can reassuringly define ourselves.
So the State seems directly to have addressed our fear and indignation – it has secured our jobs (for so long have we been lectured by the neo-liberals that the notion of a Keynesian multiplier is all but dead), allowed us to feel ourselves a special estate again, and it has much more obviously become our protector.
The government burns $300 million a year on processing and housing refugees, and a few hundred million more on interception and interdiction. And our aid budget to the countries whence these refugees come amounts to all of $14.4 million. The State is doing National stuff in and for the Nation again. And a measure of comfort is temporarily restored.
Whatever else one might think of John Howard - and the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith, who instantly made the connection for us between these desperate souls and those who dropped the World Trade Centre - I suggest we are obliged to recognise their ability to spot a potent confluence of political opportunities before anybody else. Not only a chance to salve the wounds of an uneasy and indignantly forlorn populace, but also a chance to enhance The State’s strategic stocks. S11, an act of terror clearly aimed at the salient symbols of US financial and military power, were instantly framed not only as an act of war, but an act of war against us, the Australian nation!
Shorn of much of its cohering and stabilising welfarist capacity, the State is able to make up in enhanced coercive apparatus what it now lacks in the ideological options Keynesianism had afforded it. The government used the patriotic fervour that attended the Sydney Olympics to push through legislation to allow the Australian Army to open fire on Australian citizens should the prime-minister see fit. After S11, Australia's internal security agencies are being given new surveillance, arrest and detention powers, and these they may employ without apparent accountability. All just what a post-'globalisation' state would want, and all at the expense of a few thousand nobodies who can’t even get near a phone, never mind a polling booth!
And very few nobodies they are, too. McMaster points out that the government is eloquently selective about what constitutes so criminal an entry into the country that it warrants such great effort, expense and barbarity. The 50 000 mainly western-educated, mainly English-speaking, mainly middle class illegal aliens who arrive by plane every year are apparently not nearly the problem than is represented by, say, the 4000 people who arrived by boat in the year of 2000. (McMaster 2001). That most of the former group have not qualified as refugees, whilst nearly 80% of the latter cohort have is also not of particular significant to our policy makers.
To highlight just how overblown the government rhetoric has been, allow me to quote Burnside again:
"Contrary to the government's alarmist rhetoric, there are very few refugees in Australia at present. They are people who have been accepted into the country after months or years of detention. By comparison with other countries, the total number of refugees we have accepted is pathetically small. Asia has 8 million; Africa has 5.5 million; Europe has 5.6 million; North America has 1 million. Australian and New Zelanad together have only 76,000.
We have about 2,500 in detention presently seeking to be accepted as
refugees. They have committed no crime, unless it be a crime to flee persecution in a pitiable attempt to give their children and themselves a chance of a life worth living. They are not "illegals": they are human beings. There are about 4000 informal arrivals each year. It is a tiny number. These people do not pose a risk to our national sovereignty.
They are being held in gaol. It is hypocrisy to call it detention."
So how racist are we?
Well, I’m not as strong on this point as much of the indignant Australian left has been. Too often, I think, do self-styled ‘progressives’ confine their public pronouncements to admonishing the rest of us for our moral shortcomings. Yes, Australia’s history does warrant, amongst others, a black armband, but, no, things aren’t as bad as they might seem to those who tell us we are irredeemably racist.
I read a column (I think it was by Robert Manne) the other day that argued we’re still the same nation Hancock wrote about in the 1930s – that we’re still a huddle of nervous, fiercely xenophobic whites stuck on an island fortress, both physically and psychically (my apologies to indigenous Australians, but that’s the picture as it was drawn).
I think this ignores the little matter of the transformative half-century that has elapsed since the war. First of all, came my lot. White non-English-speaking foreigners by the hundreds of thousands. We copped a little bashing at school for a couple of years (at least, we did in Adelaide, where most foreigners tended to be British), but it all blew over fairly quickly (I was to cop much harsher treatment for my foreigness as a schoolboy in South Africa and Britain).
Then, and I think this is something we forget too easily, came the South East Asians. In the 1970s, under a conservative prime-minister, "Australia resettled more refugees per head of population than any country on earth." (Burchell 2001)
The Australia that did this thing was a much more culturally homogenous entity than it is now – and logic would suggest we would have been a less tolerant, more scared bunch, too (we’d been warring in SE Asia for nearly a decade). Not only that, but the people coming to our shores were of the very ethnic groups against whom we’d traditionally set ourselves. But for a few isolated events around the time of WW1, we’d never bothered to worry about western or southern Asians. It was always the Eastern Asian that had concerned us – the Peril had always been Yellow. We weren’t too discerning or specific, but I’m obliged to guess that meant everyone east of somewhere around Burma.
Yet, as Burchell reminds us, Australia earned a well deserved reputation, not so long ago, for its resettlement programmes and a bipartisan and institutionalised multiculturalist ideal.
As the likes of Don Watson and Hilary McPhee wring their hands at Australia's 'move to the right' and the lost 'moment' of multicultural tolerance, we should remember that very few from the left ever gave Australians credit for the way they got on with it during the seventies and eighties (Al Grassby comes to mind as one noble exception). Tim Dunlop is critical indeed on this point:
" … having never conceded any progress in these matters when in fact we were living through such progress, they now, in hindsight, seek to claim, say, the early eighties to the early nineties as some sort of 'golden age' from which we have strayed. So having never acknowledged it at the time, they now back-construct that period in order to use it as a weapon with which to hit Australians over the head and so continue with the usual game of superior disdain for yer 'average Australian'. Neat trick." (Dunlop 2002)
I might add that a newly formed party, dedicated to the emancipation of the refugees, is hardly made up of typical bleeding-heart lefties (John Singleton and John Newcombe are two salient members). All those famous old heads are heads of the seventies, the product of a time when many on the mainstream right of Australian politics was as willing to try multiculturalism as anyone on the left.
Why? Because one big difference (I suspect it to be the decisive difference) between now and then is that we were not as globalised then as we are now. On this reading, nationalist xenophobia is precisely a function of that which purports to bring us all together!
It is the contradiction at the heart of globalisation du jour. It exposes the lie at the heart of the project. Tom Mcphail, a big name in International Communication scholarship circles, writes of ‘McPhail’s Paradox’ – whereby increasing global standardisation is attended by increasing fragmentation.
Well, I subscribe to the notion, and see this little talk as a rushed attempt at explaining it.
Anyway, Dunlop closes with this anecdotal morsel;
" I went to Circus Oz last night, at the Town Hall. It was as it always is. The interesting thing is that, at the end, one of the performers invited the audience to put money in a bucket for refugee support groups. A cheer went up and - honestly – the people holding buckets were mobbed. Instead of rushing out the door, the audience headed straight for the collectors - they pushed and shoved to put their money in a bucket. I've never seen anything like it. Remarkable."
The Australian government has an express policy (confirmed in Senate Committee) of preventing the ‘humanisation’ of those locked away in the desert or banished to the client satellite statelets of the ‘Pacific Solution’ (I doubt anyone with an historical sensitivity would call any policy open to charges of racist differentiation a ‘Solution’ of any type …)
The infamous footage from the Curtin Detention Camp, of people in obvious despair and in various stages of mental breakdown, is part of a gradual but inevitable humanisation. You see, I don’t think the situation is such that a decisive proportion of Australians can’t be turned.
Sure, at the moment ours is the ignorance in which racism grows. And, sure, by the definition of racism held by The International Council on Human Rights Policy (IHCRP), our State apparatus is being racist (for it is most definitely "nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life," on the basis of "national or ethnic origin").
But I do not think this obscenity need be read as a definitive symptom of an unchanging political culture, nor a particularly reliable indicator of how we might behave in the future.
As I intimated before, I do not think Howard won the election on ‘border protection’ alone. Labor enjoys neither the moral nor logical clout to carry that argument. They did not afford the electorate an alternative on this issue (the notorious ‘small target’ ‘strategy’) - and, of course, no opposition can convincingly match a party in government that is prepared to embark on a budget-busting $23-billion-pork-orgy ...
So whatever the suspicions of some, the re-election of a Howard government has little to tell us about any enduringly profound xenophobia. "Tis all the contradictions of that imposed and tendentiously partial process we call ‘globalisation’, you see.
And remember, the refugees
- had to be discursively framed for us by powerful opportunists (ie. our ignorance has been deliberately produced) in the absence of argument by the only other political party capable of matching their illocutionary and perlocutionary force;
- had to have the misfortune to attempt their escape in the age of neo-liberal turbo-globalisation rather than in 1976, and
- had be hidden from our eyes and ears (ie. our ignorance is being deliberately maintained).
A survey is reported in today's Daily Telegraph (Everywhere Different: A Geography of
Racism in Australia) that pronounces our racism 'cyclical'. We used to be hard on continental European immigrants before we got better, then we were tough on South-East Asian immigrants before we got better, and now we're being nasty to Middle-Eastern would-be immigrants. And we're not better yet.
Now, looking at the three-part list above, I'd suggest items one and three are fragile things. A change in government might, and the gradual and inevitable promulgation of more gut-wrenching footage and shock-horror disclosures of what our betters have been getting up to would, undo those. Whether these alone would be decisive, I daren't say. But if such developments were accompanied by an expansion (and, yes, complication) of the globalist discourse to include a democratically entrenched recognition of, and agentic role for, the citizen - such that subjects feel less like betrayed and impotent objects - well, then an Australia once again secure in its capacity democratically to affect and manage inevitably changing circumstances (for let's not forget the times have always been achanging, and Australia ever with them) would show an altogether different face. The seventies presents strong evidence that Australians have thought very differently in the recent past, and that it may realistically be hoped that they may think very differently in the near future.
This is no less true of The Netherlands and a host of other small to middle-sized liberal polities upon whom the economic rationalist's myth of 'globalisation' has wrought such widespread alienation. Well, the rationalists can't explain World Bank data that belie their blue-sky predicitions, don't try to explain S11, and rudely belittle the myriads who dare complain ('protectionists', 'economically illiterate', 'vested interests' etc), but, as the oft-prescient John Ralston Saul has already announced:
"Globalisation, the sort of rational theory of globalisation, is dead, it's gone now. We're just trying to figure out how to come around the corner and do something else." (Saul 2002)
Things change – and are changing ever faster.
And in bad times, that’s a good thought ...
Burnside, Julian (2002). `Just and Fair Asylum'. Sydney 11 June 2002.
Burchell, Scott (2001). Interview with Mark Colvin. ABC News Radio Transcript Posted on 2001- -08-29
Castells, Manuel (1997). The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell
Dunlop, Tim (2002), ‘Busking’ Web Log
Howard, John (2001). ‘AUSTRALIA'S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS -
READY FOR THE FUTURE ‘ Address to the Menzies Research Centre
Canberra 22 August 2001
[Saul Eslake, from whom Howard probably got this, cites his source as Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge, A Future Perfect (Crown Business, New York, 2000), p. 48. – see http://donarthur.blogspot.com/]
Jorquera, Jorge (2000). ‘The Choice is Clear: Globalization for Capital, or for People’
The Age September 11, 2000
Le Monde Diplomatique (2001)
Manne, Robert (2002). ‘Unthinkable Brutality? Who cares . . . ‘ ,
The Age, 29 April 2002.
McMaster, Don (2001). Asylum Seekers: Australia's Response to Refugees.
Refugee focus doesn't match the facts: expert 2 July 2001
Morrison, John (2000). ‘How anti-trafficking initiatives criminalise refugees’ (CARF 61, April/May 2001)
Mueller, Tadzio (2001). Globalisation, Poverty, and International Financial Institutions: An Introduction
Polanyi, Karl (1946). The Great Transformation.
Saul, John Ralston (2002). Transcript of interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Kerry O'Brien 30/5/2002.
Shivanandan, A. (2000). 'Refugees from globalism' (CARF 57, August / September 2000) http://www.carf.demon.co.uk/feat44.html
Stiglitz, Joseph (2002). Salon. 3 July 2002.
Thompson, Edward (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin