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John Passant

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Why is there so much racism towards refugees?

Julia Gillard’s shameful surrender on refugees who arrive by boat and the restoration of the “Pacific solution” probably did not come as a shock to most people, writes Tess Lee Ack in Socialist Alternative. After all, her government has embraced one right wing agenda after another. However, those attempting to understand why Labor has capitulated to racism almost invariably blame it on fear of losing the votes of the “rednecks” – by which they mean workers, and especially “ignorant” or “uneducated” blue collar workers.

Curtin detention centre in remote Western Australia, 2011.

Curtin detention centre in remote Western Australia, 2011.

This is to turn reality on its head – and it lets the real culprits off the hook. Racism towards refugees (and others) does exist among the working class. But the question is: where does that racism come from? The dominant idea that racism is driven from the bottom of society is fundamentally flawed. In an era of neoliberal attacks, the idea that the working class is able to impose its will on society is absurd. Poll after poll shows that most workers oppose privatisation and cuts and want better health, education, social services and public transport – but none of this finds expression in government policy; quite the reverse. A sizeable majority supports same-sex marriage rights, yet Gillard maintains her homophobic opposition.

Karl Marx argued, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Those who control the wealth and the institutions of our society (such as the state, the education system and the mass media) naturally use their power to foster and promote ideas that work in their class interests: the pursuit of profit, the maintenance of exploitation and the protection of the interests of their “own” capitalists who are in competition with those of other countries.

Racism is one of their key weapons, serving to divide workers against each other and obscuring who their real enemies are. The promotion of an ever more strident nationalism – of which racism is an inevitable by-product – seeks to create a false unity based on convincing workers that they share a common interest with their rulers.

Commenting on the hostility of English workers towards the Irish, Marx identified this as “the secret of the impotence of the English working class”, creating a situation in which “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life…feels himself as a member of the ruling nation, and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” He noted how this hostility was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class”, so that this antagonism was also “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.” [Emphasis added.]

So while racism directly serves the material interests of the ruling class, it is inimical to the material interests of the working class. Those at the top of society have every reason to promote racism by diverting workers’ discontent onto the chosen scapegoats of the day, as well as inciting hostility towards their international competitors. They understand all too well that when workers accept racist ideas, it undermines class solidarity and unity. Workers on the other hand have every reason to reject the racist divisions that seriously weaken their capacity to resist exploitation.

In Australia today, it is people like Daniel Grollo, who wants to smash the construction union, and Gina Rinehart, who thinks we should be happy to work for $2 a day, who threaten workers’ lives and livelihoods – not the unfortunate Afghans fleeing from the appalling conditions created by the Australian government’s invasion of their country.

Racism is a product of capitalism, consciously developed in the first instance to justify the slave trade, with the willing assistance of scientists and intellectuals who developed elaborate theories “proving” that Africans and other non-white races were inherently inferior. These ideas were also used to justify European colonialism, as imperialist states went about subjugating indigenous peoples: disrupting their societies, stealing their land, destroying their culture and plundering their resources.

So racism has always been driven by the ruling class, the only section of society which benefits from it. The promotion of racist ideas is assisted by their middle class supporters, especially those in the media and academia, whose position gives them substantial influence over the shaping of public opinion.

The mass media are neither independent nor impartial. They are capitalist enterprises whose proprietors are motivated by the same concerns as the rest of the ruling class: the drive to make profits and the maintenance of the status quo in terms of the social order.

There are all too many targets of racism in Australia today. But the racism towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, mainly from the Middle East, has dominated Australian politics in recent times.

Since 9/11 there has been a relentless campaign by Western ruling classes to demonise Muslims as the greatest threat to humanity and civilisation as we know it. But this was not simply a morally wrong response to the attack on the World Trade Centre. The US ruling class had for some time been seeking a pretext to intervene in and assert control over the Middle East and its oil resources.

Fomenting hostility towards Muslims was a calculated strategy. It provided a justification for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the trashing of civil liberties with new “anti-terror” laws that strengthened the state’s repressive apparatus. On the one hand, Islamophobia was an attempt to unite the population behind the War on Terror and the US Alliance; on the other it created divisions which could only benefit the ruling class, by diverting attention away from the government’s neoliberal economic policies.

Given the onslaught of racist propaganda vilifying Muslims – not just from the right, but from respectable liberal commentators – and the almost total absence from mainstream discourse of anti-racist voices, it is hardly surprising that Islamophobia took such a grip on society. Many who pride themselves on their progressive views not only swallowed the ruling class line but argued for it – for example the middle class feminists who vocally supported the invasion of Afghanistan on the basis that it would “liberate women”.

The anti-Muslim hysteria deliberately promoted by the Howard government and sections of the media, and tacitly supported by Labor and the liberal intelligentsia, went a long way towards creating and legitimising racism towards refugees. Key events in this process include the Tampa incident, when the Howard government refused to allow a Norwegian ship that had rescued asylum seekers to land; and the “children overboard” scandal, when government ministers falsely claimed that asylum seekers had threatened to throw their children out of their boat.

In Cronulla in 2005, a racist mob went on a violent rampage, draping themselves in Australian flags as they attacked anyone of “Middle Eastern appearance”. The riot was to a large extent instigated and facilitated by right wing radio shock jocks like the quintessentially Establishment figure Alan Jones. Similarly, calls to “ban the burqa” and opposition to the building of mosques and Islamic schools have been led by politicians and respectable middle class figures. All of this fuelled and legitimised racism. A respondent’s comment in an SBS-Ipsos Report on Immigration said it all:

“The Tampa incident really legitimised racism in this country. From that time it’s been okay to speak out against other races. Before that people might have had an opinion about other races, but you kept it in your back pocket. Now it’s almost okay to be racist: it’s like the government’s given you permission.”

Racism towards refugees is a bipartisan affair. It is worth remembering that it was Labor that introduced mandatory detention in 1992. The indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers, including children, has continued under Labor – indeed there are more children in detention now than there were under Howard. Gillard has engaged in a race to the bottom with Liberal leader Tony Abbott, as they canvassed ever more brutal strategies for “stopping the boats”, culminating in the recent revival of the Pacific solution.

Many prominent liberals and one-time refugee advocates like Paris Aristotle and Marion Le, along with all the mass media, hailed Gillard’s capitulation. Media commentators like the ABC’s Jon Faine castigated the Greens for refusing to abandon their principled opposition to offshore processing and fall into line.

This rotten consensus around the issue of how to deal with refugees has been manufactured and driven from the top of society, not just because politicians and their corporate masters are racists (though many are), but because they would rather workers’ attention was focused on the supposed threat posed by a few thousand refugees than on the very real threat posed by their neoliberal agenda



Comment from Chek
Time September 13, 2012 at 9:06 am

Great effort John.

But one vital facet you could have considered is whether the opportunistic politicisation of racism in the hands of Tony Abbott has given the government no choice, if it is to govern. In this regard it seems that the population is now so addicted to the gladiatorial spectacle first crafted through the Tampa and children overboard political manipulations that Tony Abbott’s one-man pugilistic extravaganza could only but attract barracking.

When the mores of a society are weak, governance is nigh impossible.

Julia Gillard has not been the white knight in shining armour that the Labor Party had hoped for. But she did inherit a poisoned chalice. Not only that, Tony Abbott started his bullying from day one, unhindered by the populace and egged on by the Murdoch empire and its allies on the radio, smarting from his failure to convince the independents to hand him the top job after the last elections. What choice has Gillard but to go along with the Houston boat people solution, in part probably to prove that Nauru will not work, since it was clear that the bluff was off once most of those sent to Nauru eventually ended up in Oz or Kiwiland.

Howard’s tactic of putting money in the voter’s pocket gave us the handout mentality, the long spending on the never never party, a housing market beyond the reach of the young.

What will Abbott give us? It looks like an even greater disparity between the rich and the rest, whilst all the time giving the populace his cultural productions – surf life save, volunteer in Aboriginal communities – which blind us to his by hook or by crook ascent to his god-given destiny which his mother, very early on, and various mentors in the priesthood, later, had confirmed.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time September 13, 2012 at 10:57 am

I think when Australians see their jobs being taken by foreign workers, a shortage of housing, poor access to medical treatment, along with a growing queue of unemployed people, we have a recipe for racism and religionism which is second to none.

This will eventually give the Greens ammunition to wipe out both race and religion, and reduce us all to the lowest living standards using their corporate carbon religion, which I’m fairly sure will occur once Tony Abbott and Coalition Premiers have decimated the living standards of the poor.

In the meantime, the government is responding to the white hot rage of its citizens and offshore processing is a comparatively easy source of appeasement, while they continue to work on the main game, which is to allow bankers to take over housing, education, health and hospitals.

I don’t think it will be long before the UN dictates that offshore processing is completely banned, leaving the field wide open to money hungry bankers to house, educate and heal legions of people.

Since Coalition and Labor/Greens are working to the same basic agenda, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is helping out by slashing jobs. Most of his better budget commitments are seriously undermined by the high level of redundancies and terminations.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time September 13, 2012 at 11:01 am

Because Julia Gillard does not support same-sex marriage is insufficient reason to call her names such as “homophobic”. She is entitled to her opinion without vilification, since we are at least supposed to be living in a democracy.

Comment from John
Time September 13, 2012 at 11:13 am

It is not vilification to correctly describe someone. Gillard is pandering to hompohobic sentiment. That makes her a homophobe; just as she is a racist through her refugee and Intervention policies. Telling the truth is not a crime. Oh hang on, it is. Just ask Julian Assange. Or Bradley Manning. Or the Max Brenner 16, according to the police.

Comment from John
Time September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am

I think you are being too kind to Labor, who after all under Paul Keating began locking people up in detention centres, and who have agreed with the Liberals’ racist refugee policies in principle all the way. They are not locked in by Abbot or in the past by Howard. They are leading the charge against asylum seekers. The could repudiate all of this racist nonsense by proclaiming that asylum seekers are welcome, will be processed onshore and to reduce the risk of having to travel by boats will be either speedily processed by Australian officials in Indonesia and Malaysia or bought here by plane or navy vessel for processing while in the community.

Comment from Gypsy
Time September 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

The age old saying is ‘Divide and Conquer’, that is exactly the agenda which is occurring today.

Regardless of what many may think we are no longer free men and women, we are now subjected to live under a rule of Tyranny, which is lawful slavery.

Hardly a week passes when more of our rights and freedoms are removed from us the people and substituted with statute laws created by Parliaments.

I am not a racist but I do have concerns when I see the numbers of refugees arriving in our country Australia when we do not have the sustainability to accept the numbers arriving both lawfully or unlawfully as many of the boat are doing.

Australians are currently losing their jobs of employment in mass numbers of redundancies.

Many Australian people are homeless and many more are facing homelessness and this is partly the result of privatization.

We have become a nation divided by the haves and the have not’s which opens the doors to divide and conquer.

Unless the people of Australia wake up and UNITE as one we are DOOMED.

We elect Governments to SERVE us, NOT ENSLAVE us as they are doing, Why do we let them do it?

Are we a nation founded on the basic principals of Christianity or do we want to see muselim sharia law dominate us? The choice is yours.

Pingback from Why is there so much racism towards refugees? Via: En Passant » #Auspol | The Left Hack
Time September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm

[…] by a few thousand refugees than on the very real threat posed by their neoliberal agenda via Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

Comment from Lorikeet
Time September 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Support for the traditional family should not result in anyone being called names. I’m fairly sure Julia Gillard is not afraid of people of her own gender.

I certainly have no love of Paul Keating or Gough Whitlam. In a bygone era, they would have been executed for treason, along with many other PMs, including those from the Coalition.

Comment from philip
Time September 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Gypsy – You are right there, people too quickly throw out the RACIST comment when it suites them. What they fail to realize is if thousands of American or English or anyone came and were expecting to be supported by the tax payer I would want them STOPPED. Previous statistics showing 85% still on welfare after 5 years any practical person would want that STOPPED.

Comment from John
Time September 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Ha. How many white visa over stayers are there in Australia? Where is the massive campaign against them. Nah, they are white, speak English and haven’t been traumatised by years of Western imposed war and butchery from Western supported dictators. of course there’s no racism whatsoever in singling out a few thousand brown people fleeing for their lives and persecuting them, but doing nothing about the many white people who overstay. Estimates are that there up to 5000 US overstayers and more than 3000 Brits.

As to the 85% figure you cite, as I have pointed out before this is because most humanitarian entrants are in education – learning English and/or a trade. The study you refer to says: Of the migration streams represented in this survey, Humanitarian entrants are most likely to be unemployed, even after five years of settlement. Conversely, Humanitarian entrants display a higher involvement in further education activities. Most Humanitarian entrants are strongly focused on creating a new life and studying for a qualification in Australia is an important step in this journey.

This reflects the background of traumatised people fleeing war, genocide, rape and persecution. It takes time to fit people into the workplace who are learning the language from scratch and are traumatised. As a Christian country it is our duty to help those in need.

I tell you what. When you lead a successful campaign to send the 5000 Americans and 3000 British overstayers to Nauru, then I might accept you aren’t a racist and the establishment isn’t racist. Good luck with that campaign.

Comment from John
Time September 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Hitler supported the traditional family. So too did Stalin. Are they too exempt from being called names? It is not that Gillard supports the ‘traditional’ family – it is that that is discrimination and demonisation of gays and lesbians. Homophobia is not just the people who shout abuse at gays and lesbians; its the leaders who adopt policies that create those conditions.

By the way, when did this ‘traditional’ family become traditional?

Comment from philip
Time September 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Quote “As a Christian country it is our duty to help those in need” – At what point do you say enough is enough, after 20,000 have arrived and Australia is $300 Billion in debt. ( before you jump up and down I am not saying they are responsible for the whole debt).
Quote “5000 Americans and 3000 British overstayers” They are not on welfare so what is your point? No comparison.

Comment from John
Time September 13, 2012 at 11:49 pm

OK, so you won’t campaign against white overstayers. Looking forward to your dole bludger campaign erupting soon. Wow, how much do 5000 refugees cost Australia? Really? Long term they improve Australia and its income. Do you mean a cost compared to the tax breaks for big business? And hang on – $300 billion in debt. Isn’t that business and personal debt. maybe BHP is responsible for that? ANZ? Gee, maybe we should be turning our anger on them. Looking forward to you leading the campaign against private debt. Government won’t have any debt by the end of 2012/13 will it?. Oh but why not throw $300 billion in when it bears no relevance to the discussion to confuse some dumb schmuck and continue the racism under the guise of saving money. Well if you really want to save money close down the onshore and offshore concentration camps. Bring the troops home. There’s a total of about $5 bn a year saved. The guard is tired. This continued discussion of your nonsense is finished. Post elsewhere. I am sure there are some good sites where people will accept and believe everything you say.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time September 14, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I don’t think we can compare Julia Gillard with Hitler or Stalin, no matter how much we may not agree with her politics. This seems a bit extreme to me.

A lack of support for a particular policy does not necessarily equate to demonisation, just as a lack of agreement does not equate to a lack of understanding.

To my knowledge, the traditional family has been the basic building block of the Age Pyramid ever since human beings walked the Earth.

Comment from John
Time September 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm

The ‘traditional’ family is a recent construction of capitalism. I wasn’t comparing Gillard to Hitler or Stalin, merely mentioning that they too like Gillard were supporters of traditional marriage and that there is more to life than being a defender of ‘traditional’ marriage. Criticising Hitler or Stalin iss perfectly eliminate despite the fact they support traditional marriage, just as it is perfectly legitimate (contrary to your assertions) to criticise Gillard even though she too is a supporter of traditional marriage.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time September 14, 2012 at 10:03 pm

I’m afraid I still cannot agree. Julia Gillard can support (or not support) anything she chooses. This is democracy in action.