Dole-bludgers, Job-stealers and Queue-jumpers: the Political Tyranny of “Hard Work”
Osman Faruqi’s post on Junkee today made a very important move. By argung that the debate is about economic security not race, it brought the focus onto people who don’t want refugees here, rather than talking about refugees themselves. Because of this change of focus, Faruqi’s “is it race or is it class” argument highlights something very important about the anti-refugee consensus: we don’t really know who votes for it or why. Sure we have opinion polls, SES data for individual electorates, and decades of voting statistics. At the moment of observation, we can say with some degree of certainty — like Faruqi does — where these voters come from, how much they earn, and how they describe their racial background or party affiliations, but that’s about it. This apparently powerful voting bloc is a spectre, with boundaries and membership that shift moment to moment, made up of individuals with hundreds of thousands of infinitesimally granular reasons for wanting the borders closed. Democracies, and crowds, are pluralist and diverse. If we’re going to render invisible offshore detention politically unthinkable, we have to find a new tactic other than the blanket labelling of liberal voters as racist.
Flipping the question on its head reveals much about the ways we imagine the political communities we belong to. How we choose to think about the electorate, the public, the demos, the mob or the crowd, really matters. It’s not a settled question. Theorists of ‘the crowd’ or ‘the mob’ have struggled to explain how people behave in groups. Le Bon’s (in)famous study of the Crowd understood individuals as rational beings, but over time they become immersed in and hypnotised by the mob’s mentality, losign their capacity for rational political action. It reminds me of something my dad used to be fond of saying: “The IQ of a crowd is equal to the lowest IQ in the crowd, divided byt he number of people in the crowd”.
On the other hand, Kant, via Habermas, understood ‘the Public’ — perhaps the most important democratic crowd — as the very engine of reason itself . Far from public assembly curtailing the capacity for rational discourse, members of the enlightened public made each other better political beings. If enough people engaged in public discourse on a given idea, the idea would be scrubbed clean of irrational imperfection by the caustic power of communicative reason, and the most rational outcome would inevitably emerge. Le Bon gave us the lowest common denominator policy approach, Habermas the highest common demonimator policy approach. The Voter as falling angel, The Voter as rising ape.
Progressive opinion-havers who oppose the Pacific Solution flit between these two positions. We are incensed that our political opponents are taking advantage of the stupidity of the crowd, and simultaneously frustrated at the public because they seem impervious to facts. We get angry that Border Security seems to have so much political traction, angry that the apparently rational body politic can’t see the hypocrisies and logical flaws in Dutton et. al.’s arguments, angry that the nation and electorate we are part of is so damn racist. These approaches to imagining the electorate leave us with one really serious political consequence: hate. The reason the Asylum Seeker debate keeps getting described as “toxic” is because everyone is so angry about it, all the time. But we don’t really know who these people are or what they want. We’re just making them up as grist to our political mill. We conjure the in the moment of speech, labelling them “liberal voters” or some similar catch-all. We imagine them, name them, and hate them, all in one sentence.
This is what Ernest Laclau in On Populism called ‘establishing an internal frontier”. The populist, he argues, excludes their political opponents from the political community, and in the act of exclusion, rhetorically establishes who ‘the people’ are. When Karl Stefanovic said that Peter Dutton’s remarks were “Un-Australian,” he was rhetorically excluding Dutton from the political community, and in that exclusion, establishing Australians as pro-migration. It’s eerily similar to the project of nation-building implicit in Australian “Border Protection” — you figure out who’s in by keeping people out. In election times, these are statements of hope, not statements of fact. They are ways of imagining the political communities we want to belong to, not talking about the ones we are in fact part of.
When Dutton jumps from immigrants-as-dole-bludgers to immigrants-as-job-stealers, that tells us nothing about what Australians want — it just tells us what is politically imaginable. And what it tells us, apparently, is that we cannot stand hypocrisy. But everyone is a hypocrite, all the time. As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott admitted in public that he often told lies and it didn’t dent his popularity; in fact he won the very next election. Hypocrisy has zero political potential. The utility of political narratives does not lie in their veracity.
Both of Dutton’s interpretations of refugees tell us something about the language of entitlement that’s everywhere in the Asylum Seeker debate. Both dole bludgers and job stealers (and for that matter, queue jumpers) are trying to get something (money, a job, citizenship) without working for it, while other people have to work to get it. This is a completely unexceptional position to hold in contemporary Australia. Need a house? Work hard and pay for it, said that smarmy 23-year-old Brisbane kid who bought a house recently. The ridiculous furore over the shortage of chefs used a distaste for ‘hard work’ to cut young people out of the political community in the same way as Andrew Bolt wants to keep asylum seekers out of the country.
The point that Faruqi’s economic stability argument so deftly pulled into focus is this: this toxic debate is not, and will never be, about refugees. The refugees who show up in the stream of bile that emanates from Alan Jones/Ray Hadley/Andrew Bolt or the Daily Telegraph/Courier-Mail/Herald Sun are caricatures desiged to produce by their exclusion an imagined Australian public of diligent, orderly, “hard workers” who only have to hold on a little while longer for trickle-down economics to kick in and their mortgage stress to ease. The problem here isn’t racism, or class, it’s the bullshit idea that hard work entitles you to anything, at all. The only way out of this rhetorical bind is to find a way to say that the world is not a fair or just place without also saying that hard work is not viruous. The task facing the intellectual opposition in Australia is not to make refugees palatable to an imagined racist body politic, it’s to pander to aggreived entitlement in such a way that “hard workers” and asylum seekers become political allies in a way that excludes the possibility of Liberal governance. What an unpalatable task.