Race and racism have come to dominate political debate in Australia in recent times. However, as Senator Ian McDonald assured us earlier this year, racism does not exist in Australia! The Liberal Party have declared themselves a racist free zone, although the Sudanese community in Melbourne might see Dutton’s statements that they are nothing more than a collection of crime gangs a little inflammatory. There is no racism in the ALP, although Shorten has claimed that foreign workers are responsible for a rise in unemployment. Both parties share policies that effectively criminalise asylum-seekers. The Greens are not racist, but there has been an appreciable rise in anti-Chinese racism following Greens leader Cassie O’Connor’s outbursts. Nobody is a racist and yet racism is on the rise.
A survey, conducted by the University of Western Sydney, pointed to some disquieting statistics. Almost a third of respondents had ‘negative’ feelings toward Moslems. Thirty six percent believed that the rate of immigration was ‘too high’ and over 20 per cent felt that African refugees increased the crime rate in Australia. The survey results included a range of other statistics and none of them make good reading. It came as no surprise that 32 per cent reported experiencing racism either at work or in an educational institution, on public transport or in shopping centres.
The obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that racism in this country is not only alive and well, but that it is growing. Mainstream political parties of all stripes, while not expressly advancing racially-motivated agendas are facilitating racist sentiments or – to put it crudely, are pimping for racists. This raises questions that are not being seriously addressed. Why is there a rise in racist sentiment? Why is it being mirrored in all developed economies? Why do well-educated, essentially decent men and women of the political class in all countries, allow themselves to become the facilitators of racially motivated politics.
The nearest we get to a response to these questions is the, ‘it’s a populist backlash’ response. While this is doubtless the case, it needs a little unravelling. Other issues, such as a significant crisis in capitalist economies across the globe, need to be factored in. Life is becoming intensely difficult. Wages are stagnating, austerity programs have become the norm, inequality is growing, the old verities are no more. Political institutions are being seen by many to have lost a sense of legitimacy. The people, in all countries, have reacted to this. They know what they are against but there can be no return to a past. The days of security within national economic borders, untouched by global events, or by the winds of global economic uncertainty, are long gone.
Here we come face to face with the single greatest contradiction and dilemma for governments and their various political establishments. On the one hand is the inevitable move to an ever-greater global integration of capitalism. This has been happening ever since capitalism emerged. It cannot be reversed. On the other hand, is the geographical, political, physical and emotional claim that the nation-state exerts. What do governments do? What can they do? What is their ultimate purpose? It is by no means cynical to suggest that a primary aim of the state and government is to maintain a sense of stability. Governments are forced to juggle the demands of supporting an economic system that is no longer subject to national boundaries, with the demands of maintaining state structures and keeping the populace well and, if at all possible, content. After all the people live in national communities. Nationalist sentiments and the symbols of nationalism are increasingly promoted to maintain a sense of unity, even where there can be no actual basis for unity. Inexorably, the contradiction between globalisation and nationalism becomes greater as global and national economies act and interact.
What is happening and will continue to happen in such a scenario is that constraints upon states will worsen. The negative aspects of life in the 21st century – growing insecurity, and inequality, will continue to grow and the people, wherever they live, will seek someone to blame. Traditionally this has taken the form of the mysterious ‘other’ who has ‘taken my job’ or who has manipulated the banks or any number of crimes. Disengagement with the political class that has lost legitimacy, coupled with a crisis of the economy, presents fertile ground for animosity and fear to grow.
Populists and populism flourish under such conditions. Governments of whatever colour may rail against the populist demagoguery, but economic crisis and an inability to resolve the irresolvable problems of globalisation and the nation-state nourish the very soil in which populism grows.
Senator McDonald’s optimistic claim that there is no racism in Australia is absurd. Committed, ideologically driven racists have always existed. Their numbers are probably pretty much static. However, their message, under conditions that now exist and will increasingly exist, is reaching a broader audience who is being denied any real leadership. Rather than taking the time and effort to explain, to educate and to lead, our parliamentary representatives, like those across the world, facilitate the racist sentiments. Whether they are unwilling or unable to address these issues is another question but, as the 19th century French political figure Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin is alleged to have said, “there go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” No, the Liberals are not racist. No, the ALP is not racist. No, the Greens are not racist … but!
William Briggs recently completed a PhD at Deakin University. His special interests and expertise lies in area of International Relations, Global Political Economy and Political Theory. He lives and works in Hobart.