A central belief of Australia’s mainstream Left of recent times is that the Right in its various guises – the Coalition parties, extremists like Pauline Hanson, and shock jocks like Alan Jones – has dominated because of its ability to tap into an irrational politics of fear.
Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr has been a keen critic of this trend, having co-written the definitive account of the 2001 ‘Tampa election’, Dark Victory, as well a more recent book on the Bill Henson scandal. His latest book, a collection of old and new essays, is called Panic. In it he shows that the manipulation of fear is a central tool in the modern political process, and that its effect has been unambiguously corrosive.
Marr describes a series of instances where fear and panic were used to build political capital. He starts with Hansonism and Howard’s early attacks on Indigenous rights, before veering into several essays on the scapegoating of asylum seekers. He also takes aim at the perennial ‘war on drugs’, summarises the Henson affair, attacks the draconian ‘anti-Terror’ security legislation and examines the continued strength of homophobia. Refreshingly, he is unafraid to point to the ALP’s complicity in fomenting panic.
Most of Marr’s essays are punchy, but sometimes the sheer volume of forensic detail left me wanting to come up for air. This resort to detail reflects a key weakness in Marr’s approach, which on the surface appears under-theorised but in fact rests on a series of questionable assumptions.
Marr implies there is some kind of primal, irrational human (or at least Australian) nature that the political class taps into. He argues, ‘Panic has been with us from the start. It’s so Australian.’ To underline the irrationality of this he notes that, ‘This golden country, so prosperous, so intelligent, so safe and orderly, is afraid of refugees arriving in fishing boats … Every time refugee boats appear on the horizon in any numbers, we panic. Facts then count for little. Hearts are hardened.’
Thus, Marr’s suggested antidotes consist of either a conscious choice by politicians to desist from misusing fear, or the unelected state machine saving us from ourselves via the beneficence of judges or the imposition of better laws. This is why Marr spends so much time on factual detail – not because he thinks he will convince the fearful masses, but because he is speaking directly to the political class. Indeed, despite his disdain for politicians’ self-interested mobilisation of fear, his real contempt is for ordinary people themselves. Thus he sees the High Court’s support for draconian measures against refugees as an example of where a ‘court that is supposed to save us from the fears and enthusiasms of the mob buckled in the face of national panic about boat people’. When describing Howard’s actions around the Tampa, he writes:
So why did it take Canberra so long to pursue this sure-fire vote winner? My guess is that good people in politics and the bureaucracy were simply appalled at the prospect of violating Australia’s obligations to vulnerable people, to the refugee conventions, to the UN …
This is an odd reading of Australian history, in which government emerged from a brutal, militarised penal state, which then constructed capitalism on the basis of dispossession of the Indigenous population, and which happily broke strikes, joined imperial wars and banned all non-white immigration.
Notably, Marr doesn’t directly refer to the four decades of debate about moral panics and cultures of fear. The vast bulk of the research illuminates how panics are elite-driven with the aim of moral regulation, and strengthening the state’s coercive powers to that end. The intrusion of the state is not protective but a central part of the problem.
He fails to differentiate between classic moral panics (eg over individual drug use) – designed to regulate behaviour and mobilise state authority against ‘folk devils’ – and the mobilisation of fear as part of wider political projects. Thus, Howard’s Wik response was not primarily about creating political advantage – it was part of a strategy to defend the property rights of powerful business interests. Marr is also unable to clarify the difference between panics that win social consensus against their targets and culture wars where contesting claims are made around representations of threat.
The most important gap in Marr’s argument is why fear can be so readily mobilised when we live in ‘this golden country’. Chas Critcher notes there is widespread agreement that the politics of fear has risen dramatically in prominence over the last 30–40 years, and Marr implies this also. But, unlike Critcher, Marr doesn’t register that this maps onto the period following the end of the long post-Second World War boom and the turn to ‘neoliberal’ politics: the winding back of universal welfare, frontal attacks on trade unions, and ideological foregrounding of market individualism. Critcher contends that we have to understand the growth in moral panics in this political economic context. The mobilisation of insecurities, with its attendant call for state regulation of individual behaviour, inserts itself in the space created by the breakdown of social solidarities. Yet the state’s inability to resolve the social problems that underpin insecurity means that panics often have less traction and durability than in times past.
If panics are classically concerned with moral regulation of the lower orders, then the problem with David Marr’s book is that he has no difficulty with the fact of elite rule – he’d just like it to be of a kinder, more rational and progressive kind. The stories he recounts are a useful reminder of how far the political class will go to shore itself up, but his framework is not much use in combating them.