Racism, Civility and the 'War on Terror'

Ben Hoh c/o Dr Woooo submitted the following paper, presented at the National Union of Students Education Conference, July 2002, in Australia:

We Are All Barbarians
Racism, Civility and the "War on Terror"

by Ben Hoh

What the hell is actually going on with the "war on terror", and how do we come to grips with the situation? Consider an article by Guy Rundle that appeared in Melbourne’s progressive weekly The Paper, in January 2002. Rundle argues for an effectively liberal defense against the Australian Government’s impending antiterrorism legislation, claiming that

[d]efending the liberal political sphere – or such as exists – is now our most urgent priority… This seems to me to be a time that demands a popular front and common cause with left-liberals and even the libertarian right in an urgent mobilisation against the infinite extension of the national Security State.
[Rundle 2002]

Rundle warns, in portentous tones, that

we have seen the beginnings of the shutdown of the liberal political sphere and the final consequences of that are unknowable – the darkest possibility being that some of us will end up in prison sooner rather than later.

[Rundle 2002]

Where does this kind of thinking lead us? I don’t doubt his commitment to a free society, but as Angela Mitropoulos and Steve Wright have noted in a reply to Rundle, some of us are already in prison – namely, in concentration camps as "illegal immigrants". Mitropoulos and Wright contend that our liberal democratic concepts of justice are already founded on the ability of the nation-state to create such states of exception and naked control, and that any struggle to defend ourselves against the State must have a qualitatively different orientation.

Nowhere in his assessment of the "terror laws" does Rundle even consider that particular, raced communities – Arabs and/or Muslims especially – will no doubt bear the brunt of measures like increased ASIO powers or the creation of "terrorist guilt by association". Under the current regime and in the months following the World Trade Centre attack, Arab and Muslim homes in Sydney’s southwest were raided indiscriminately by ASIO. Doors were smashed down. Breastfeeding women were held at gunpoint by officers of the State. People were simply targeted because of their religion or ethnic background. Peter Reith made rhetorical links between Middle Eastern refugees and terrorism. A Muslim man from Sydney, Mamdouh Habib, is currently interned without charge in the US Military’s maximum security Camp X-Ray, where inmates are blindfolded for months on end, while the Australian Government does nothing about his situation, preferring to assume that he is guilty of unknown "terrorist" crimes. (And that’s just direct, State sponsored violence; within the Australian body politic, there has been a marked upsurge in racist violence since 11 September: Muslim women have been attacked in the streets, mosques have been firebombed, and media hysteria abounds.)

Arab communities around the world, from Sydney to Jenin, are familiar with this kind of racial profiling; to the authorities, they are terrorists: uncivilised, fanatical, prone to violence. And just prior to the World Trade Center attack, Australia was living in an ecology of heightened fear about communities who had been basically transformed in public discourse into "Lebanese gang rapists". These are the communities that "antiterrorist" laws will attempt to repress. But rather than calling to join the self-defense of communities under State-led attack, Guy Rundle instead emphasises the defense of "our liberal traditions". He fetishises concepts and institutions whose universalising impulses have not only been hollow but individualising, always erasing the social. Let’s be in no doubt that our rights granted under the State mean something. And yes, the disappearance of these rights is even more telling. But at best, they signify the partial gains of more radical struggles – struggles that have a racialised, social specificity. Seeing these aspects of the State as worth fighting for in themselves is to mistake the forest for the trees, to orient oneself, in a really basic manner, away from acknowledging the particularities of racist power, away from the tasks of building solidarity with those under racist State repression, and to reinforce, in the long term, the system that enacts that repression.

The struggle around the "terror laws" is one of several antagonisms that can demonstrate the complex ways in which racism now operates, and what this says about the world in general. Take the bombing of Afghanistan, for example. While the people there were counting the cost of Operation Enduring Freedom, liberals in the West who were opposed to the bombing were struggling to be heard in the language of "reason". Why? Despite real, decent impulses for justice amongst some, it may simply be the case that there’s no longer any room left for opposition within liberalism’s "reasonable" rhetoric. Most liberals take bankrupt US aggression as a given, even if it’s distasteful. The progressive pole of liberal thought seems to have gotten really lame. What does this mean?

It’s a pity that in practical terms the Left usually conceives of liberalism as effectively being a lack of radicalism, rather having any actual political qualities of its own – that we only have to inject a bit of "lefty serum" into a liberal framework to heighten its radicality. But what are the geopolitics of the liberal tradition? Take a few words from John Stuart Mill, the granddaddy of liberalism:

The word Civilization is a word of double meaning. It sometimes stands for human improvement in general, and sometimes for certain kinds of improvement in particular... which [distinguish] a wealthy and powerful nation from savages or barbarians.
[Mill 1875, p160]

And on the subject of British imperialism in India. Mill writes:

There are... conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization.

Liberal thought has always invested in violent narratives of white supremacy that are not necessarily based on crass xenophobia or fixed, biological theories of race, but on the cultural power of "Western civilisation" as an enlightening and progressive force. This isn’t an historical aberration that we’ve somehow "progressed" from – the popularity of Samuel Huntington’s recent "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, against the backdrop of the "war on terror", is testament to its currency. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe this in their book Empire as a "new racism" – a "racism without race", following Etienne Balibar’s formulation. But it’s not new; rather, its configuration has changed somewhat: where xenophobia and biological racism are now less able to flourish, we can still say hello to newly buffed notions of "progressive" white cultural superiority that have always been with us, informing everything from French colonialism (which continued in the spirit of "liberty, equality, fraternity") to Australian multiculturalism.

"Our" "civilised" Western liberal democratic identity has always been, from the beginning, constituted in opposition to those who are simultaneously defined as "uncivilised". And we all know that any repressive construction of an identity is never complete, and is always manic, especially when it encounters any reminders of this fact. For example, "Islam" has long been a major symbol of all that "the West" has constructed itself against – it is Western capitalism’s "constitutive outside". In its encounter with the spectre of "Islam", liberal democracy is manically incapable of tolerating calls for "sanity" in the face of war, and such calls will begin to lack meaning or weight, even though the nominally progressive aspects of liberalism would seem to demand this. This isn’t because liberal anti-war commentators are liars or that they’re simply "not radical enough", but because they can’t face the fundamental chauvinism and hysteria of liberal democracy and its racist geopolitics. And in the face of the tragedies of the last year, that’s scary.

This whole situation complicates the usual idea, so common in the Left, that "racism is a bunch of lies used by the capitalists to divide the working class". Repeating such mantras can provide an alibi for the imperatives of power through which racism operates. It’s as reductive and instrumentalist as saying "sexism is a bunch of lies used by the capitalists to divide the working class". Racism isn’t simply an imaginary ideology used to justify certain economic factors in a narrow and mechanical sense. Rather, we must recognise that irrational urges happen on the material, economic level of geopolitics – that we can’t abstract what we call our "ideological justifications" from the "economy". Power and desire may be given an ideological investment, an attempt at rationalisation on the level of ideas, but they’re not necessarily ideological in themselves.

Back in the 80s, the activist and philosopher Felix Guattari recognised this complexity in the rise of Le Pen and National Front in France, which is so relevant now given Le Pen’s recent popularity in the French Presidential elections. Guattari writes:

If you think that Le Pen is only a simple resurgence, or some flaky throw-back, you’re dead wrong! … Le Pen is also a collective passion looking for an outlet, a hateful pleasure machine that fascinates even those that it nauseates. … Really, one can immediately think of the imagery of the National Front, and forget that Le Pen is also fed by the conservatism of the left, by trade union corporatism, by a beastly refusal to address questions of immigration or the systematic disenfranchisement of the youth, etc. … Let’s face it, the economy of collective desire goes both ways, in the direction of transformation and liberation, and in the direction of paranoiac wills to power.
[Guattari 1995, p14-15]

Guattari sees racist violence as desire gone cancerous, and that it is vital to engage on this terrain. He thus addresses the problem of leftist appeals to liberalism in anti-racist work:

[I]t is clear that the left, and the Socialists above all, have understood nothing. Look at what they did with the movement ‘SOS Racism’: they think that they’ve changed something with their million buttons, but they didn’t even consider talking to the people at stake. Has this publicity campaign changed anything in social practice, in the neighbourhoods or in the factories? I know some Algerian-French people who have been rubbed the wrong way by this new kind of paternalism-fraternalism. I don’t deny the positive aspects of that campaign, but it’s so far off the mark!

[Guattari 1995, p15]

Guattari raises questions as to what a real, antagonistic engagement with racism is all about. A recognition of its impulses in the social fabric, and a commitment to working with those affected by it rather than towards self-congratulating displays of liberal tolerance. It means effectively making a challenge to the racist foundations of the entire system of nationalist immigration control. Actually breaking the borders. It means mixing physical resistance with a cultural politics, the creation of meanings – what we usually reduce to a mere, empty "symbolism". Because now more than ever, a politics of race is a politics of culture. Not as something we can crudely use, but as something that we do. If we ignore these tasks, we run the risk of reinscribing the culture under which fascism can breed, and of leaving non-Anglo communities to live with the mundane, everyday experience of that fascism.

This also has an immediate impact on the whole issue of formulating "demands". An effective anti-racism movement shouldn’t just be talking about tying everything down to demands that both liberals and radicals can agree upon. If we don’t question liberal "tolerance", we’re in danger of falling into the vacuum that yawns just beyond the demands to "FREE THE REFUGEES", or to "DEFEND OUR CIVIL LIBERTIES", or whatever. That vacuum obscures a bigger question: what kind of society do we really want to live in? Do we just want to make the current nation-building system of multiculturalism more coherent? A system that reinforces white culture’s centrality as the tolerant controller and consumer of domesticated "diversity"? Really, what kind of society created our concentration camps in the first place? One managed by a Federal Labor Government – let’s never ever forget that – a government that at the time was creating extensive rhetoric about a sophisticated, postmodern and multicultural republic with an "openness to Asia". But those coloured people who can’t quite fit into your enlightened plans for economic progress, you punish. There’s no contradiction. Whether it’s illegal immigrants or "uncontrollable" Arab kids who wear their baseball caps backwards, it’s always policing. Multiculturalism has always been about social engineering for market systems. In the world of the commodity, "ethnically tolerant" markets and concentration camps go hand in hand.

+ + +

One very big question remains: why have these problems of "civilising liberal power" and racism come to a head so forcefully in the current juncture? One could say "capitalist globalisation", but that’s almost a truism with little descriptive power. Yes, the contours of repression inevitably recalibrate along with the globalisation of capital, and this volatility makes the friendly supremacist powers of the West such a tempting form of crisis management.

But there’s a more precise factor within this general picture that could be forcing the issue in a much more specific way, and that’s Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s idea that civil society is withering. As they define it, civil society consisted of the institutions that mediated between the State and the population. In order to co-opt (rather than directly bludgeon) society into a capitalist consensus, the State used those voluntary institutions that weren’t technically part itself, such as the media, unions, churches, etc., as vessels to indirectly convey its authority. This always suggested a certain amount of ambivalence – because they weren’t State institutions, the institutions of civil society are a battleground on which different forces struggled for hegemony. Thus, there was a space, a cushion for left-liberal ideas about fairness to flourish within certain sectors of society.

But Negri and Hardt argue that these days, capitalist social relations are now produced everywhere in society – that all of society is now a social factory. We’re faced with the spectre of endocolonialism: the logic of colonialism applied to every space inside a society – capital setting up ultraexploitative and ultrahierarchicalising occupations of untapped and vulnerable spaces within what we’ve always called "First World". As an example, the tertiary education sector could be said to be undergoing endocolonisation as it moves into an era of mass commodification, market gearings and corporate profit, which is cheap for everyone except those who are the producers and the product of the system: students, who have to buy the education, put the effort into making themselves disciplined workers with it, and then internalise a simultaneously exploited and consumerist relationship as a given condition of their presence in the system. Suffice to say that with this kind of penetration happening generally in society, those mediating institutions of civil society can do little but go through the motions. Official spaces of negotiation become simulations when the rug has been effectively pulled from under all of us, and those institutions cease being mediating ones that can deliver gains or cushion a progressive intelligentsia, and become ones that either just tread water or act as repressive watchdogs for the State. Hence the idea that civil society has effectively withered, even if all those institutions still technically exist.

Now this situation actually has a lot to do with specific things like extreme anti-Arab racism and anti-Islamic racialisation. "Oriental" societies, and Islam in particular, have always been characterised in Western supremacist discourse as having a propensity for violence and despotism, and this is sometimes specifically explained – often by both the Left and the Right – as an absence of civil society. (For example, for Marx, "oriental despotism" was a characteristic of the Asiatic mode of production — a unique arrangement that was effectively outside the narrative of historical progress.) But whether or not the term "civil society" is technically used, the general idea, which I think we can all recognise, is that such a social layer provides a mediating and liberal ambivalence that acts as a marker for a "free society" – a marker for progress, civilisation itself, and hence white cultural supremacy. The absence of civil society, conversely, is marks a tendency towards various kinds of social stagnation on one hand, and the breeding of irrational violence on the other. Hence "the Middle East".

This may sound reductive, but I think this fetishisation of "civil society vs oriental despotism" has always actually been a defensive projection of Western capitalism’s uncertainties about insurgent class struggle, which is that which needs to be "mediated" in the first place, and the spectre of "oriental despotism" is just the return of the Western capitalism’s repressed despotism. The Australian sociologist Bryan Turner recognises this:

[B]ourgeois individualism... was challenged by the mob, the mass and the working class which was excluded from citizenship by a franchise based on property... The orientalist discourse on the absence of the civil society in Islam was a reflection of basic political anxieties about the state of political freedom in the West. In this sense, the problem of orientalism was not the Orient but the Occident. These problems and anxieties were consequently transferred onto the Orient which became, not a representation of the East, but a caricature of the West. Oriental despotism was simply Western monarchy writ large. The crises and contradictions of contemporary orientalism are, therefore, to be seen as part of a continuing crisis of Western society transferred to a global context.

[Turner 1994, p34]

This kind of racialisation as a defensive and displacing measure against the motor of class struggle can clearly be seen in 19th Century pseudoscientific attempts to physiognomise the relative "negritude" of Northern English and Celtic working class communities [c.f. Young 1995].

So what about the current context? If civil society has effectively collapsed and is merely being simulated, perhaps there’s a double dose of racist reaction within Western capitalism: first, there’s hysterical Islamophobia as the repressed recognition of everybody’s loss of civil society, which is the loss of the Western badge of cultural superiority – under endocolonial capital, we are all despotic barbarians now! Secondly, this manic surge of racism is left unchecked by any notions of fair justice, because any of the vaguely tempering effects of liberalism no longer have a layer in society in which to flourish. It’s a feedback loop that will continually amplify unless we intervene. Unless we interfere. Unless we commit sabotage. And any real attempt to disrupt the manic spiral of violence that has been compensating for a lost "civility" cannot, by definition, be about reconsolidating any kind of civility.

What does this mean? It means that liberalism is no longer structurally capable of delivering any progressive gains, so making appeals to liberals, or their ideas of "enlightened progress", is like chasing a phantom while everything gets worse around us. It means that we can’t rely on a liberal intelligentsia for anything. We can’t reinflate the liberal public sphere, because it has burst like a balloon. We can’t rely on our mediating institutions, our leaders, our representatives. This sounds all quite obvious, but when trying to formulate a radical course of anti-racist action that is also accessible, it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into these kinds of implicit or explicit appeals. We’ve got to break out of the bind between "crazy ultraleftism" and blind populism, and work towards qualitatively radical orientations that are accessible to all.

Our situation isn’t cause for despair. It only re-emphasises our priority: grass-roots community defense. We’ve got to build spaces of resistance amongst different people, not necessarily based on extending ideological similarities, but on an sympathetic or parallel kind of mutual orientation and respect that builds counter-power to the State and communicates struggle, linking different spaces to form an altogether different kind of public sphere. Rather than getting "political mileage" out of any situation, we’ve simply got to work together against the system, in real ways, and hence build radical situations from which new ideas can then arise.

It’s very easy to say "NO TO RACISM" at a rally. What we’ve got to do – non-Anglos, whiteys, indigenous peoples – is go the hard yards and actually create those alliances between social forces that can actually resist, rather than building brand names. Whether we’re part of particular besieged communities or not, we’ve got to let go of preconceived programmes and look to resistance that people have already put into play that might be implicitly political, that might be explicitly communicating resistance, that might be a great machine of wildfire struggle. A great frustration of mine within the antiwar movement last year was hearing that the local Afghan community was organising shift-based physical self-defense of mosques in Western Sydney, but that Left was by and large not very interested in such activity, preferring to say "NO TO RACISM" at rallies. This isn’t a flip condemnation – it’s really hard to make those links, to build that solidarity. And because racism is much deeper than just an instrumentalist lie that divides us, I think it’s really simplistic to say "black and white unite and fight", as if the scales will fall from our eyes overnight and we’ll be able to join each other a new kind of homogenisation.

Meanwhile, the newly intensified experience of endocolonial policing could mean that we might gain lateral inspiration from experiences of imperialist military occupation. The tasks ahead could involve the formation of neighbourhood action committees in communities under siege, following the example of the first Intifada in occupied Palestine, to deal with the everyday experience of State repression – to speak back, organise legal defense, train in physical self-defense, act as information hubs, plan "civil" disobedience. On a longer term basis, we need to weave new and resilient social fabrics via a flowering of cultural politics. Underground schools flourished under the noses of the authorities during the first Intifada. Derry in Northern Ireland has a history of public art projects that can’t be instrumentalised for simple propaganda value – they have an organic kind of community autonomy – but which inextricably remain as everyday focal points for public political struggle.

Of course, we run the danger of fetishising these anti-imperialist struggles, which are radically different from our current situation in Australia, but the real task is to reconfigure whatever they have to offer for redeployment in our context, in which occupation means different things. But it’s also useful to remember that "our" context does not have a monopoly on being subtle, porous or hybrid – as if Palestine or Northern Ireland are starker, simpler and affairs whose concepts of struggle cannot be made mobile. The everyday experience of resisting racist policing around the world must always contend with complexity.

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Warning: don’t take this critique as an advertisement for an adrenaline-pumping kind of negation that regards liberalism as "wussy". Because that’s not why political liberalism is bad. Along with many of us (especially the prisoners ) who were at Woomera earlier this year, I cried during our contact at the fences. People on both sides of the fence were confronted with that which was almost indescribable. We crying together. What we must do is feel and act our pain and sympathy in a manner that doesn’t create narratives of sentimentality, of sainthood and martyrdom, or which reinforce our ability to patronise or condescend.

We need radical sympathy. An acting together. Here I want to draw on some of the other, non-sentimental meanings of "sympathy", some of which may be dodgy and New Age, but which I think are of conceptual use. First there is "sympathy pain", which you can experience if you’re attuned to someone else’s bodily state. Then there’s "sympathetic magic", which you might experience, if you believe such things, when someone pushes pins into a voodoo doll that represents your body. But most of all, there’s the physical phenomenon of "sympathetic vibration", which is what happens when you put two tuning forks close together – they both start humming, and louder, because each reinforces the other. So rather than a sentimental sympathy that reinforces liberal individualist statehood, I think what happened across the fences at Woomera was that people were vibrating in sympathy. Acting together. Resonating.

What does this mean for the hard work of building solidarity on a planetary scale? Given the global scale of Empire now, and the endocolonial realities that are always before us in every pore of society, I guess all questions of race and class, while not able to be universalised, have a global significance that we can be attuned to, wherever we are. The fact that our global market depends on enslaved workers of colour who are often punished like dogs when they try to escape their lot, or exterminated like cockroaches when they fight back, and the fact that this doesn’t matter in the scheme of things because they’re not white, is perhaps one of the most important thing facing the planet today, and it can be felt everywhere.

I fully believe that engaging with the differences generated under globalisation also means tuning into those ripples of planetary significance. I’m tempted to say that the significance of the racist exploitation boiling underneath the "global market" can be "generalised", but that isn’t exactly what I mean. Rather, we can tune into a significance which is neither particular nor general – the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls this "whatever", which he figures as the key to the impossible project of "community". That is where we must go.


Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993

Felix Guattari, "So What", Chaosophy, Semiotext[e], New York, 1995

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, "Postmodern Law and the Withering of Civil Society", The Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-form, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994

John Stuart Mill, "Civilization", Dissertations and Discussions, Volume I, London, 1859-75

Angela Mitropoulos & Steve Wright, "The State and the Liberal Political Sphere", Arena 57, 2002

Guy Rundle, "The 8-step guide to a happy left", The Paper 25, 2002

Bryan Turner, "Orientalism and the problem of civil society in Islam", Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism, Routledge, London, 1994

Robert Young, "Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race", Routledge, London, 1995