In the aftermath of the Aboriginal tent embassy rally, Bob Carr shared his thoughts on protests:
Here’s the truth of it. Demonstrations hurt the demonstrators. On the electronic media they sound extreme, bitter, angry. The faces of the protestors are contorted with what looks like hatred. […]
As a Premier I never saw a demonstration that didn’t hurt the side that mounted it. And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.
Now, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Australian history knows how tremendously silly this is. Actually, demonstrations played a crucial role in every social reform for the last two hundred years, from the campaign for the eight hour day to the ongoing struggle for same sex marriage.
Indeed, in the wake of the tumultuous seventies, the street protest was accepted in most liberal nations as a crucial part of the democratic project, an accepted avenue for citizens to voice their opinions.
Yet that tolerance now seems to be over. In the last year or so, a succession of pretty minor demonstrations (the tent embassy, the protests about the Islamophobic film, the CFMEU picket lines in Melbourne, the Occupy events) have all sparked moral panics out of all proportion to what actually occurred.
Consider this piece, taken from the ABC website: ‘Text messages and terror connections inflame Muslim protests.’
Gosh, that sounds bad, doesn’t it! Here’s the strap: ‘A protest in Sydney against an online video that mocks the Prophet Mohammed may have become violent thanks to a trail of text messages and the influence of known extremists, some with terrorist connections.’
Let’s look first at the ‘terror connections’. The allegation comes courtesy one Neil Fergus, the former ‘intelligence director’ from the Sydney Olympics: ‘I recognised a couple of people from the footage who are people who back when we were preparing for the Sydney Olympics, a couple of these people were persons of interest then and have been involved – some of them in some of the terrorist-related investigations that have taken place in Australia in the intervening 12 years.’
That’s the basis of the terrorism claims: a retired security consultant says he recognised unnamed people who may have been ‘persons of interest’ (whatever that means) or played an unspecified role in ‘terrorist-related investigations’ (whatever those might be). It’s pretty thin stuff, so it’s tricked out with the observations of ‘online editor and journalist Jamila Rizvi’, who explains: ‘Something like this [the protest] gives them someone to channel their anger and that’s incredibly dangerous.’
Yet the implication that Rizvi’s providing sort of an expert analysis becomes somewhat diminished when we learn she’s an online editor not for a national security journal but for a lifestyle website.
What’s most remarkable about the article is how text messages about the protest are somehow innately sinister.
For what do these dangerous messages actually say?
Here’s the first:
Stop everything, cancel all your plans. Tomorrow town hall 1pm is your calling to rise up and speak up against intentional and deliberate attempts to humiliate the Muslims …
Here’s the second:
They have mocked him in pictures and no they’re mocking him in a movie. Why are we allowing this? Why are we silenced? No, I will not accept this. We must defend his honour. Tomorrow at Town Hall Station, 1pm. We must act now!
Now, on any fair-minded interpretation, these are simply invitations to a protest, nothing more, nothing less.
The third text runs like this:
Allah Akbar. Well done my brothers and sisters that were at the protest. This is a form of jihad. We voiced our opinion and insha’Allah they will finally get the message. We the young and real followers of Muhammad rose up against the enemies of Islam.
Again, what does this actually say? It’s a demonstrator congratulating other demonstrators, not for violence or hooliganism, but for voicing their opinions! Again, how does this become an innate piece of criminality, unless you think protests themselves are innately problematic?
But that sentiment – the belief that protests are themselves the problem – seems increasingly taken for granted. Here’s another ABC piece: ‘A Muslim leader says text messages are circulating in Melbourne calling for another protest against the anti-Islamic film that has prompted violent demonstrations around the world.’
Once more, the implication seems to be that a protest against an anti-Islamic film is inherently troubling.
In part, what we’ve seen since 9/11 is an increasing normalisation of anti-terror laws, tactics and attitudes. Thus, when the Occupy Melbourne protesters were violently dispersed, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle justified the violence by asking ‘how do these protesters explain the knives, hammers, bricks, bottles and flammable liquids that we found in their illegal tent city? What were they for?’ The obvious answer ‘camping’ is not the response he sought. The explicit claim was that the occupiers were, as he put it, ‘professionals’, preparing for violent mayhem, and thus deserved to be treated as terrorists.
That was not an isolated episode.The various police forces have far more anti-protest equipment before and they’re increasingly willing to use it – witness the deployment of capsicum spray at the CFMEU picket.
But there’s more going on than that.
In a previous piece about the tent embassy protest (which I’m now going to cannibalise shamelessly), I contrasted the hysteria about that event, with a vignette about Bob Menzies electioneering in 1955.
This is an account from a newspaper of the time:
Boos, abuse and hysterical enthusiasm drowned most of Mr. Menzies’ remarks when he addressed 2,000 in Dr. Evatt’s stronghold of Hurstville tonight. It was the Prime Minister’s first excursion into the Labor leader’s electorate of Barton, and the noisiest meeting of his campaign. Organised groups counted him out seven times and the barrage of interjections was the heaviest in the memory of seasoned campaigners. At one stage a man marched to the dais, shook his fist and shouted abuse at Mr. Menzies till women in the front seats pushed him aside. […] His first words were drowned by screams of “You dirty mug” and “Sit down; you dirty liar.”
“It will be the last opportunity you Communists will have here because Dr.Evatt will be defeated in December 10,” he flung back.
Here was the PM in front of 2000 people, including communists he regarded as a national security threat, with hecklers shaking their fists in his face. Yet no-one considered the episode particularly scandalous. Raucous mass assemblies were part and parcel of electioneering; hecklers – and even the occasional tossed tomato – were simply another peril of the campaign trail.
Compare the reaction to the tent embassy protest on Australia Day. The hysterical denunciation of a small but noisy demonstration, from which Julia Gillard was (as she herself made clear) in no danger whatsoever, represents, on one hand, a shift in attitudes fostered by 9/11. But it also illustrates how unscripted interventions by ordinary people are now seen not as manifestations of democracy but as an attack upon it.
In Australia, neoliberalism is understood largely as an economic model, characterised by the sweeping privatisations that Carr championed in NSW. But, actually, it’s more than that. Neoliberalism differs from a classical free market orientation precisely because it extends beyond the economy to embrace the entire social world, which it then recasts on market lines. The neoliberal project doesn’t just assign to the market those roles previously understood as quintessentially responsibilities of government (such as, say, the provision of utilities); rather, it recasts governance itself as an entrepreneurial project, with productivity and profit increasingly normalised as the criteria to judge success and failure.
In other words, neoliberalism effects a thoroughgoing depoliticisation. Most obviously, this manifests itself in a belief, now shared by almost all mainstream politicians, that government should not intervene in the market. This conviction – a consensus about the role of politicians as simply economic caretakers – already renders out of bounds most of the policies that previous generations of social democrats would have taken for granted.
More importantly, neoliberalism also recasts governance and the democratic process in market terms. The resulting political culture casts citizens as autonomous economic agents, relating to each other and to the state as individual entrepreneurs. The politician no longer appeals to party members, unionists, religious believers or specific communities; instead, he or she addresses individual consumers, touting for their business in much the same way as any other corporation.
In the neoliberal polity, it makes no more sense for citizens to rally than in does for, say, users of Apple computers to hold a march. In both cases, their role is simply to consume, with the ballot box understood as an extension of the cash register. If the latest iPhone is a dud, buy an Android; if the Labor Party’s been in power too long, vote Liberal.
Because democracy is understood as a market, rallies, protests, demonstrations and strikes seem, to the neoliberal, not as expressions of the popular will but as outrageous assaults on the democratic system.
To be clear, we’re not seeing the end of the right to protest, so much as its hollowing out. In the neoliberal era, tightly-controlled top-down events are still considered legitimate – witness the staged spectacles at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions in the US.
But had Menzies’ speech been delivered in 2012, the fist-shaking hecklers would have encountered anti-terror police and the papers would have breathlessly reported the ‘Hurstville riot’.