Wednesday, 22 August 2007
Friday, 17 August 2007
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.
Sunday, 12 August 2007
To what extent, if at all, can the mainstream media's (MSM) output be considered 'propaganda'? Particularly in a democracy, with a supposedly 'free' press?
As Chomsky notes, countries such as America, or Australia, are not totalitarian states. Journalists are formally permitted to write as they please. Although this writing must account for commercial pressures, libel laws, and now, in Australia, sedition laws, nobody is compelled, with a gun at their head, so to speak, to write any particular thing.
In spite of this apparent 'freedom', however, we have some recent counter-examples. One that comes to mind has been the recent 'spin' placed on polls for Australia's 2007 election. The Liberal Party, liberal in name only, has been in power for 11 years. This year, the unthinkable has happened, and we have seen about 6 months worth of consistently strong poll results for the opposition, Labor.
In the face of these poor poll results, The Australian newspaper, Murdoch's mouthpiece, has been using its political 'analysis' to paint the polls in a favourable light for the Liberal Party. As has been pointed out on the Australian blogosphere, this has led to political chief of the newspaper, Dennis Shanahan, churning out a series of quite ridiculous statements, earning him comparisons with this guy:
This drew the ire of The Australian, who subsequently wrote this (fairly innocuous, as it turns out) blogger a letter, threatening to attack him in the newspaper's editorial. This duly occurred the following day, but was publicised widely on the Australian political blogosphere. In the end, any 'propaganda' value that Shanahan at which Shanahan may have been aiming was lost. He and his newspaper were reduced to a laughing stock among the politerati.
The strategy of personal attack, particularly by Australia's Murdoch media (and doubtless elsewhere), is not without precedent. In 2003, Andrew Wilkie, of an the Office of National Assessments (ONA, an Australian intelligence agency), resigned in protest at the Government's fabricated claims that Iraq had WMD's. This attracted considerable publicity at the time, for, even with a credulous press eagerly reporting the Government's claims, the Iraq War was never popular.
Enter Andrew Bolt, columnist for Melbourne's Herald Sun, and leading attack dog of the Murdoch press. Bolt appears to enjoy a 'special relationship' with Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who has given Bolt access to DFAT meetings, and has twice flown Bolt to Iraq, so that he may return to Australia and share as 'opinion' the official Government line.
In response, Downer and DFAT leaked to Bolt a 'confidential' report about Wilkie, so that Bolt could make 'misleading use of its contents to ridicule his analytical credentials was part of a concerted campaign to neutralise his criticisms of the government over the invasion of Iraq'. Nobody was ever charged for this apparent breach of State secrecy, though two of Bolt's stablemates, whose leaked material was not pro-Government, were prosecuted. Bolt was subject to a degree of condemnation, and cynicism over the Iraq was sufficient to allow us to suggest that this particular piece of propaganda was thwarted.
A third example comes to mind, also concerning reporting of the Iraq War. We know that it is to the benefit of the Governments of Australia and the US to portray this unpopular war as a war on 'terror', and, to that end, demonise the recipients of the Coalition's 'liberation'. Furthermore, the ongoing occupation is justified in public discourse with the notion that, if Coalition forces were to leave, 'Al Qaeda' would take over. A piece at Salon put paid to this fiction:
It's a curious thing that, over the past 10 - 12 days, the news from Iraq
refers to the combatants there as "al-Qaida" fighters. When did that happen?
Until a few days ago, the combatants in Iraq were "insurgents" or they were
referred to as "Sunni" or "Shia'a" fighters in the Iraq Civil War. Suddenly,
without evidence, without proof, without any semblance of fact, the US
command is referring to these combatants as "al-Qaida".
latest in Iraq propaganda. That the Bush administration, and
military commanders, decided to begin using the term "Al
Qaeda" to designate
"anyone and everyone we fight against or kill in Iraq"
is obvious. All of a
sudden, every time one of the top military commanders
describes our latest
operations or quantifies how many we killed, the enemy
is referred to, almost
exclusively now, as "Al Qaeda."
This propaganda has been more or less successful, as the equation 'Insurgency=Al Qaeda' appears to be taken seriously, except in the margins of public discourse, and policy debate.
Finally, we have numerous examples of the phenomenon of 'astroturfing', whereby select individuals are used to feign grassroots support for something. This reportedly occurs on talkback radio, with some callers delivering what sounds very much like a scripted response to a particular topic. A more brazen example can be found in the US, when a number of identical letters, purporting to be from US soldiers in Iraq, and highly supportive of the ongoing occupation, were sent to various newspapers.
We have here a number of examples of Governments influencing and manipulating, either directly or indirectly, media coverage of political events. In some cases, this manipulation has reached extraordinary levels of sophistication and planning, and has come at a cost to those opposing it.
With this in mind, let us return to Chomsky's discussion of media influence:
It's a complex subject, but the little in-depth research carried out in this
field suggests that, in fact, the media exert greater influence over the
highly educated fraction of the population. Mass public opinion seems
influenced by the line adopted by the media.
of a war against Iran. Three-quarters of Americans think the
should stop its military threats and concentrate on reaching
diplomatic means. Surveys carried out by western pollsters
suggest that public
opinion in Iran and the US is also moving closer on some
aspects of the nuclear
issue. The vast majority of the population of both
countries think that the area
from Israel to Iran should be completely clear
of nuclear weapons, including
those held by US forces operating in the
region. But you would have to search
long and hard to find this kind of
information in the media.
main political parties in either
country do not defend this view either. If Iran
and the US were true
democracies, in which the majority really decided public
policy, they would
undoubtedly have already solved the current nuclear
disagreement. And there
are other similar instances. Look at the US federal
budget. Most Americans
want less military spending and more welfare expenditure,
credits for the
United Nations, and economic and international humanitarian aid.
want to cancel the tax reductions decided by President George Bush for
benefit of the biggest taxpayers.
On all these topics, White
policy is completely at odds with what public opinion wants. But the media
rarely publish the polls that highlight this persistent public opposition.
only are citizens excluded from political power, they are also kept in a
of ignorance as to the true state of public opinion. There is growing
international concern about the massive US double deficit affecting trade
the budget. But both are closely linked to a third deficit, the
deficit that is constantly growing, not only in the US but also
all over the western
It is one of the big differences between
the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies
go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state
decides the official line and everyone must then comply. Democratic societies
operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This
involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty. Even the passionate
debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit
rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views.
The 'democratic' means of spreading propaganda tends, by its nature, to be more sophisticated than that found in totalitarian regimes. In one of Žižek's books, he cites an example of propaganda from Stalinist Russia. The State has provided a number of citizens with 'official' encyclopaedias, containing the official history of the Revolution, its heroes, enemies, and so on. During the period of the show trials, one former hero has been denounced as a traitor, and eventually executed. This leaves the authorities with a public relations problems, as this former hero has a glowing reference contained in his encyclopaedia entry. The solution? The authorities send out an alternative page, re-writing the history of this revolutionary-turned-villain, and ask those who own the encyclopaedia to replace the old page with this re-written history. In short, this clumsy attempt at propaganda does not even bother to hide the fact that its contents are bullshit. It even presumes that individuals will accept the bullshit, but go along anyway. In a democracy, nobody is ever told so overtly that what their Government is preaching is bullshit.
It is essential that the propaganda be sufficiently convincing, that it be assimilated to a broader discourse of less controversial assumptions. Yet, as Chomsky points out, even this propaganda is failing. Others, such as those at Larvatus, have pointed to the growing disconnect between the commentariat, and the public to whom the attempt to peddle their shoddy wares.
Clearly, as we have seen above, part of the role of the MSM is propagandist. Paradoxically, however, the propaganda does not entirely succeed. This raises the question of whether 'true' democracy may emerge through the cracks of a decaying media.
As we have seen the tactics of newspapers such as The Australian (known unaffectionately as The Government Gazette), have at times been so crude as to almost resemble the methods adopted by totalitarian states. Yet even the more subtle and sophisticated methods have also been failing. Polls are still showing strong support for the Labor Party, in spite of the overwhelming opposition to Labor by the Murdoch media (though, perhaps sniffing Liberal blood, this support has waned of late).
I contend that much of the utter irrelevance of the MSM is, far from merely being a manipulative influence, is actually an accurate reflection of our democracy at this time. The press mostly contains editorial lines that are completely removed from the concerns of ordinary people; however, the political process itself is largely conducted along similar lines.
Take, for example, the incessant debates about 'economic growth', a topic about which most Australians could not give a flying, and over which even fewer have any real input.
Or look at the faux 'debate' over 'union bosses'. The Liberal Party, and the media, depict a situation whereby, should Labor win power later this year, Australia will rapidly deteriorate into something resembling Zimbabwe. The 'union bosses' themselves are portrayed as working-class, thuggish individuals, and both parties, as well as the media, take this 'debate' seriously. This is in spite of the fact that most Australians would never have had any negative experience in relation to a so-called 'union boss', or the fact that Australia has not seen any major industrial action for some years, despite the Labor Party controlling every State and Territory. In this instance, as in many others, the media is only (more or less) accurately depicting the absurd preoccupations of our Parliament, with its stage managed press conferences, game-playing, and 'wedges', none of which have anything to do with the experiences of Australian people.
So, contemptible and propagandist as our media may be, it is just the symptom of the illness, not its cause. The media may be manipulative and deceitful; it may harp on about faux 'issues' that are worlds away from ordinary people's concerns; it may be a mouthpiece for an elite political and corporate class: but it is not only these things. It is also the mirror of our 'democracy'. Or, to put it slightly differently, our media is Dorian Gray, our democracy, his portrait.
After all, democracy is a Greek word (δημοκρατία), meaning 'the rule of the people'. When the people have no control of their politicians' agendas, over the unpopular wars in which their country is involved, over the economic, industrial, and social service policies that are presented to Parliament, when their political cynicism and disengagement are not merely provoked, but actively encouraged, it is only fitting that the media should capture this profound disconnect between 'the people', and 'the rule'.
This is what is meant as a 'free press'. Its influence is not as great as its proprietors would like. This is heartening - only a truly sinister and comprehensive propaganda machine could depict the gulf between people and politics, at the same time as persuading 'the people' that this gulf does not exist. As I said earlier, there a cracks in the facade - we shall see if the light gets in.
Thursday, 9 August 2007
I'm sure the self-appointed moral guardians will be loudly trumpeting the importance of these stories, passing us by in news this week:
A soldier convicted of rape and murder in an attack on an Iraqi teenager
and her family was sentenced to 110 years in prison, with the possibility of
parole after 10 years.
During their courts-martial, [accused soldiers] Barker and Cortez testified they
took turns raping the girl while Green shot and killed her mother, father and
younger sister. Green shot the girl in the head after raping her, they
The girl's body was set on fire with kerosene to destroy the evidence,
according to previous testimony. (IHT)
More collateral damage caused by occupation? 10 years for gang-rape and mass-murder?
Speaking of terror:
A former Australian Army sergeant has admitted to stockpiling a
$700,000 arsenal of stolen weapons and explosives including machine-guns and
Read, who was head of the Puckapunyal army base's school of artillery, kept
the stolen weapons loaded and combat-ready. He said he stockpiled the weapons
because he was a patriot and wanted to be ready to defend Australia if there was
But police said newspaper clippings on the Hoddle Street
shootings, the Port Arthur massacre and US sniper attacks found on Read's
properties suggested a different motive. (SMH)
Nothing to see here. Please move along.
Since World War II, wars of aggression have brought an odour of ill-repute to their perpetrators, since such wars are the crystallisation of all of the crimes wrought by the 20th Century's fascist regimes.
To that end, it is heartening to see, (in today's Age), that at least some people can think through the false distinctions between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Typically, the former is seen as the 'bad' war, a disaster, more or less, whilst the latter is 'good', and praised as a legitimate war of liberation. As I've argued elsewhere, the historical facts do not bear out this thesis, but this has not stopped the myth from circulating all the same. Simon Jenkins' article begins to question (all too gently, in my view), the standard propaganda:
Iraq is post-imperialism for fast learners, Afghanistan for slow ones.
While the concept of a benign outcome in Iraq is strictly for armchair crazies,
such an outcome remains received wisdom in Afghanistan. The British ambassador,
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, is building himself an embassy to compare with
America's in Baghdad and has forecast a British military presence in the country
for 30 years. Brigadier John Lorimer in Helmand says he can suppress insurgency
in 10 years but will need "longer than 30" to establish good governance. Such
things were being said in Iraq until two years ago, when the body bags began to
A number of other interesting articles have emerged in recent days. In an article that provides a reasonably succinct beginner's introduction to modern US foreign policy, Der Spiegel reports that, last week, Washington officials announced a deal to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Saudi Arabians. This was met with consternation on the part of the much-maligned Europeans, such as German official, Karsten Voigt. 'The Islamic kingdom might be a US ally in name, but it wasn't "particularly democratic," said Voigt, and its oppressive family regime continued to be a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.' He added: 'The region is not suffering from a lack of arms, but from a lack of stability'. Who'd have thought?
Also on the receiving end of US military savoir-faire were those other bulwarks of Middle Eastern democracy, Egypt and Israel. In fairness, Israel is a legitimate democracy for the citizens under its aegis, at least, as long as those citizens are not Arabic Israelis, or, worse still, Arab Palestinians.
Naturally, these proponents of American capitalism, and sowers of peace and stability have good reasons for selling all these weapons, as:
[S]uch arms deals have a long tradition in Washington. "The enemy of my
enemy is my friend" was a maxim of several US governments during the Cold War.
Washington's foreign policy often sanctioned selling weapons to questionable
regimes promising to help contain the communist threat regardless of the
potential consequences... US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the
latest string of weapons deals during her recent diplomatic tour of the Middle
East. "We are determined to maintain the balances -- the military and strategic
balances -- within the region," she said.
It is refreshingly honest on Rice's part to drop any pretences of 'democracy-spreading' in her apologia. Obviously, the 'balance' of which Rice speaks is one tilted rather heavily in the direction of Washington's 'strategic' interests. On this form, the much-demonised Hugo Chavez (among others) is only behaving rationally when he attempts to increase his arms spending, and seek allies. History points to his people (among others) being liberated via bombs, or being massacred and mutilated by some new Contras.
Over in Iraq, the Coalition of the Drilling continues to win 'hearts and minds', by exerting direct influence (and indirect influence, by way of the Vichy-esque regime installed in the country) over Iraq's oil. Two-thirds of Iraqis, across religious, ethnic, and sectarian lines, want to see Iraq's oil retained under Iraqi control, and not 'opened up' on the ironically-titled 'free market' of the Western world. According to John Hilary, (inter alia) the Coalition itself has drafted the oil laws of Iraq, and the Iraqi government has been complicit in this 'democratic' takeover of its country's resources, by banning trade unions from participating in any debate over the laws. So there we have it - Iraq's future prosperity sacrificed at the altar of global (or in this instance, Western) capital, and the influence of unions completely shut down.
Of course, there remain those stragglers, those last few, degenerate imbeciles who have their doubts as to why 'the left' opposed the invasion of Iraq, and who continue to block their eyes and ears, and shout apologias for bloodshed. Surely, by now, ignorance can no longer be an excuse for the scales upon their eyes.
With that theme in mind, I was interested to read this piece by Neil Clark, calling for a reckoning of the pro-war 'liberal interventionists' and 'neoconservatives'. He writes from a UK perspective:
Both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition supported the Iraq war.
So too did their front benches. Tony Blair may have gone, but warmongers still
abound in the Palace of Westminster, with Iran next in their line of fire. And
in the media, pro-war commentators such as Nick Cohen, Niall Ferguson and
Melanie Phillips continue to impart their "wisdom" on international affairs as
if the humanitarian
catastrophe in Iraq had never happened.
The lesson for Australians should not be lost, as our 'opposition' and media differ from the British only in degree, rather than type. The humanitarian disaster of Iraq, with levels of bloodshed that nobody (other than vilified medicos) even bothers to count, with malnutrition at epidemic levels, and with infrastructure collapsed, are all obvious and entirely predictable consequences of war. This fact is ignored, as ever, by the likes of Sheridan and Bolt, for whom the invasion was a raving 'success'. One wonders what degree of annihilation would constitute failure for this cheersquad of brutality.
It ought to have been obvious, really, that war is a bloody thing, leading to many of the 'unintended consequences' that so-called conservatives like to warn us about. The occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is portrayed almost as nothing more than affable nightclub bouncers, tossing out the riff raff on behalf of patrons. If one were to take this delusional view of occupation and apply it, say, to Russia's involvement in Chechnya, or to China's in Tibet, one would shunned as a dribbling idiot. Our victims are unnamed, and unnumbered, and to compare their suffering to that experienced by invaded, occupied peoples elsewhere in the world is to invite allegations of 'moral relativism'.
Perhaps Fukuyama, (always more idiot than savant), was right after all, and we have reached a kind of Hegelian 'end of history'. Everything is 'relative', even as regards death and destruction. The 'sublated' exception, of course, is the Coalition, which has apparently evolved through the various stages of spirit, and whose will and dictates now constitute das Absolut.