It is permissible for politics to speak of 'rights', in so far as these apply to 'minorities'. Gay rights, women's rights, and even animal rights are part of mainstream political discourse, despite occupying a marginalised place. Australia's Liberal/National Coalition, for instance, will never allow such a thing as 'gay marriage', and have, in fact, done everything legislatively possible to oppose it. The very discussion of this 'right', however, is at least given a seat at the debating table. Political discourse on 'rights' has been co-opted by all sides of politics - popular history has erased the pre-emptive 'self-defence' rationale for the Iraq War, and replaced it with a sermon on good 'Westerners' dispensing 'rights' to the less fortunate.
A word less frequently admitted into the debate is 'exploitation'. If this latter notion is not barred from politics, we might see that which has been suppressed from all this discussion on 'rights'. We might be tempted to reignite the embers of what is called 'class warfare'. It is noteworthy that even the so-called Labor Party, even the purportedly left-wing Greens Party, avoid explicit discussion of class in their agenda.
My purpose here, of course, is not to disparage the various movements campaigning for various 'rights' - that these movements have made significant progress is beyond doubt. Nonetheless, the much less gentrified topic of 'exploitation', its implications for socioeconomic class, and its possible remedies, has not enjoyed similar 'progress'.
With that in mind, it was fortuitous that today I should have been reading an essay from one of my favourite hirsute Slovenians, Slavoj Žižek, in this excellent book, and on the same day, encountered the vile ramblings of Australia's most notorious political racist, Pauline Hanson. Hanson became famous in Australia's lower house, winning a rural Queensland seat that was previously safe Labor territory. The same year (1996), she warned that Australia was being 'swamped' with Asian immigrants, earning infamy around the country, (and the Asian region). Aborigines, among numerous others, were also the object of her scorn.
After various disgraces, and a stint on a reality television dancing show, she appears to be re-entering politics, with the aim of having a tilt at a Senate seat. Her new party is ironically titled 'Pauline's United Australia Party', and she explained her current foray into politics:
Sounds like so many Australians out there are so disillusioned with both
the major political parties. I feel they're not listening to the concerns of the
Australian people and I want to get back into the Parliament, hopefully in the
Senate, and question the whole system. Look at the legislation they're putting
If Hanson's comments were restricted to the above, I should have some sympathy with her cause. It is difficult to take seriously the Parliamentary game-playing that currently typifies our 'democracy', and Hanson is right to attack it. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse in her policy agenda:
There's also the immigration, I think we need to have a look at our
immigration levels and I'd like to put a moratorium on any more Muslims coming
into Australia. I think we need to look at getting out of the 1951 Convention of
Refugees and not being forced into taking refugees in the country that bring in
diseases, who are incompatible with our lifestyle. I'd also like to get
manufacturing and industry going again in Australia instead of bringing in these
cheap imports and put tariffs back on to protect our own industry.
And I don't trust either political parties with the WorkChoices agreement
and I think they're headed down the track of bringing in cheap labour.
Hanson is routinely described as a right-wing 'populist', but this belies her capacity to wedge the Right on any number of issues. She is not exactly Libertarian in her belief system, and hardly neoliberal, and free-market friendly in her economic outlook. Furthermore, we see once again her characteristic linking of racial and cultural issues with the economic - the 'problems' identified by Hanson concern 'our lifestyle', 'cheap imports', 'cheap labour' - in this, her diagnosis may be partially correct. Her solution, of course, is what makes her a right-wing 'populist' - opposition to allegedly disease-ridden immigrants.
Naturally, there is a good deal of imbecility and paranoia thrown into her statements, as one would expect from somebody of her political position. She claims that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an enormous problem in Australia, yet seems unaware that, not only is the practice criminalised, it is also an offence to subject young women to FGM in any country, with a view to returning to young woman to Australia. In addition - and I speak from a Victorian perspective here, with some knowledge of Melbourne's African communities, policing, child protection and social support systems - the incidence of FGM is exceedingly rare. But such distortions are part of the Hanson package.
Yet, despite the idiotic solutions she proposes, Hanson unwittingly stumbles upon many legitimate problems. Among these are the 'privatisation of water', an issue for a country experiencing chronic drought. And this is where Hanson departs company from her dog-whistling fellow-travellers - she has a clear anti-capitalist agenda, that is apparent in an inverted, xenophobic form. Hanson herself made this explicit as early as 2001:
The lowering of tariffs, this globalisation, the take over of the banks in
this country. This privatisation of our essential services, I think they're very
important. And that's where you've got to have someone else who will put up
different policies, different ideas, different objectives. Because we've got -
the only way you will get good government is to have good opposition. And we
haven't had that for a long time. And the parties are so closely aligned in
their policies and in their directions, the only difference is the way it's
We have a number of motifs here that are foremost in the minds of many of Australia's politically dispossessed, most of whom come from the Left. Anger at globalisation, and privatisation, disillusionment with two-party politics, economic insecurity: Hanson is espousing, in its racist right-wing guise, a form of class warfare. I would not go so far as to expect Hanson to protest at the impending APEC summit, but the anti-globalisation attitude, and (legitimate) fear of working class exploitation is clearly evident.
What are we to make of all this? In an essay entitled 'A Leninist Gesture Today: Against the Populist Temptation', Žižek addresses this very point:
One should be attentive here to how even those elements that appear as pure
rightist racism are effectively a displaced version of workers' protests. Of
course there is racism in demanding the end to immigration of foreign
workers who pose a threat to "our jobs". However, one should bear in mind the
simple fact that the influx of immigrant workers...is not the consequence of
some multiculturalist tolerance - it effectively is part of the
strategy of capital to hold in check the workers' demands. [457 visas, and
Workchoices, anyone? - THR]. This is why, in the United States, Bush did
more for the legalisation of the status of Mexican illegal immigrants than the
Democrats caught in trade union pressures. So, ironically, rightist, racist
populism is today the best argument that the class struggle, far from being
obsolete, goes on. The lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should
not commit the error symmetrical to that of the populist, racist
mystification of displacement of hatred onto foreigners. (pp.
Notions of class struggle, and the discourse of exploitation, have been banished from mainstream Australian politics, repressed, if you will, only to return, in the ugly and symptomatic form of Hansonist hysteria. The implicit, but always missed targets of this hysteria, are the true elites - the elites of politics and business. The ostensible targets, sadly, are immigrant workers trying to make a buck for their families, whose exploitation makes others' exploitation more likely. Hanson seems, at times, almost to come close to an attack on our exploitative economic conditions. For instance, she pillories the 'meat market' view of women, but does not take the step of acknowledging the fact that sexuality, like most everything else, has been reduced to a neoliberal, consumerist commodity. Here, as everywhere, for Hanson, the blame is laid at the feet of immigrants. Unable to articulate a genuinely anti-capitalist vision, which, for Hanson, would be strictly unthinkable, she is left with few other options.
So there you have it. Barred from polite Parliamentary company, where even trade union connections are seen as a liability, class-based politics nonetheless returns, in a particularly virulent, and inegalitarian strain. It is the task of non-rightist politics to reclaim this class politics, eradicating the displaced, racist elements, and traversing the rightists' paranoid fantasies, so that everyday exploitation is not 'resolved' by imbecilic, xenophobic gestures. The alternative is the slide towards fascism, the beginnings of which we saw in Cronulla, in 2005. The solution will not be found in this years' Federal election.