We Are All Barbarians:
Racism, Civility and the "War on Terror"
1. 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 Melbournes progressive weekly
The Paper, in January 2002. Rundle argues for an effectively
liberal defense against the Australian Governments impending
antiterrorism legislation, claiming that "[d]efending the liberal
political sphere or such as exists is now our most
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)
2. 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".
3. Where does this kind of thinking lead us? I dont 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.
4. 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 Sydneys 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 Militarys 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
thats 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.)
5. 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
6. Lets 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.
7. 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 as another 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 theres no longer any room left for opposition within
liberalisms "reasonable" rhetoric. Most liberals
take bankrupt US aggression as a given, even if its distasteful.
The progressive pole of liberal thought seems to have gotten really
lame. What does this mean?
8. Its 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: 160)
9. And on the subject of British colonialism 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. (Mill 1875: 160)
10. 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 isnt an historical aberration that weve
somehow "progressed" from the popularity of Samuel
Huntingtons 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 Balibars formulation.
But its 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.
11. "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 capitalisms "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 isnt
because liberal anti-war commentators are liars or that theyre
simply "not radical enough", but because they cant
face the fundamental chauvinism and hysteria of liberal democracy
and its racist geopolitics. And in the face of the tragedies of
the last year, thats scary.
12. 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.
Its as reductive and instrumentalist as saying "sexism
is a bunch of lies used by the capitalists to divide the working
class". Racism isnt 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 cant 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 theyre not necessarily ideological in themselves.
13. 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 Pens 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, youre 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.
Lets 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:
14. 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 theyve changed
something with their million buttons, but they didnt 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 dont deny the positive aspects of that campaign, but its
so far off the mark!
(Guattari 1995: 15)
15. 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
16. This also has an immediate impact on the whole issue of formulating
"demands". An effective anti-racism movement shouldnt
just be talking about tying everything down to demands that both
liberals and radicals can agree upon. If we dont question
liberal "tolerance", were 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 cultures 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 lets
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 cant quite fit into your enlightened
plans for economic progress, you punish. Theres no contradiction.
Whether its illegal immigrants or "uncontrollable"
Arab kids who wear their baseball caps backwards, its 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.
I I I I I I
17. 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 thats 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.
18. But theres a more precise factor within this general picture
that could be forcing the issue in a much more specific way, and
thats Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris 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 werent 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 werent State institutions, the institutions of civil
society were 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.
19. 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. Were 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 weve 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.
20. 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.
21. 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".
22. This may sound reductive, but I think this fetishisation of
"civil society vs oriental despotism" has always actually
been a defensive projection of Western capitalisms 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 capitalisms
repressed despotism. The Australian sociologist Bryan Turner recognises
[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:
23. This kind of racialisation as a defensive and displacing madness
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).
24. So what about the current context? If civil society has effectively
collapsed and is merely being simulated, perhaps theres a
double dose of racist reaction within Western capitalism: first,
theres hysterical Islamophobia as the repressed recognition
of everybodys 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. Its a feedback
loop that will continually amplify unless we intervene. Unless we
interfere. Unless we commit sabotage. And any real attempt to disrupt
the spiral of violence that has been compensating for a lost
"civility" cannot, by definition, be about reconsolidating
any kind of civility.
25. 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 cant rely on a liberal intelligentsia for anything.
We cant reinflate the liberal public sphere, because it
has burst like a balloon. We cant 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, its amazing how easy it is to slip
into these kinds of implicit or explicit appeals. Weve got
to break out of the bind between "crazy ultraleftism"
and blind populism, and work towards qualitatively radical orientations
that are accessible to all.
26. Our situation isnt cause for despair. It only re-emphasises
our priority: grass-roots community defense. Weve 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, weve
simply got to work together against the system, in real ways, and
hence build radical situations from which new ideas can then arise.
27. Its very easy to say "NO TO RACISM" at a rally.
What weve 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 were part of particular besieged communities
or not, weve 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 isnt a flip
condemnation its 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 its really
simplistic to say "black and white unite and fight", as
if the scales will fall from our eyes overnight and well be
able to join each other a new kind of homogenisation.
28. 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 cant be instrumentalised for simple propaganda
value they have an organic kind of community autonomy
but which inextricably remain as everyday focal points for public
29. 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 its 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.
I I I I I I
30. Warning: dont take this critique as an advertisement for
an adrenaline-pumping kind of negation that regards liberalism as
"wussy". Because thats 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 were crying together. What we
must do is feel and act our pain and sympathy in a manner that doesnt
create narratives of sentimentality, of sainthood and martyrdom,
or which reinforce our ability to patronise or condescend.
31. 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 youre attuned to someone elses
bodily state. Then theres "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,
theres 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
32. 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 doesnt matter in the
scheme of things because theyre not white, is perhaps one
of the most important thing facing the planet today, and it can
be felt everywhere.
33. I fully believe that engaging with the differences generated
under globalisation also means tuning into those ripples of planetary
significance. Im tempted to say that the significance of the
racist exploitation boiling underneath the "global market"
can be "generalised", but that isnt 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.
Ben Hoh is graphic designer and writer who is involved in Smash
Racism, a Sydney anti-racist activist network. His writing has appeared
in Xtext's Waiting In Space anthology, Collage magazine
and has been staged as part of the Multicultural Theatre Alliance's
10x6 project. His design appears on corporate websites and
on placards at various political actions. This text was orIginally
presented to the National Union of Students (NUS) Education Conference,
Agamben, Giorgio (1993) The Coming Community, University
of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Guattari, Felix (1995) "So What", Chaosophy, Semiotext[e],
Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge MA.
Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (1994) "Postmodern Law
and the Withering of Civil Society", The Labor of Dionysus:
A Critique of the State-form, University of Minnesota Press,
Mill, John Stuart (1859) "Civilization", Dissertations
and Discussions, Volume I, London.
Mitropoulos, Angela & Wright, Steve (2002) "The State and
the Liberal Political Sphere", Arena 57.
Rundle, Guy (2002) "The 8-step guide to a happy left",
Turner, Bryan (1994) "Orientalism and the problem of civil
society in Islam", Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism,
Young, Robert (1995) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture
and Race, Routledge, London.
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