Blame the politicians, not the voters

You can understand why Corinne Grant, as a long time campaigner for refugees, feels frustrated at the latest ghastly developments in asylum policy. But the approach she takes in her Hoopla column today is, I think, quite mistaken.
She writes:

We just want the government to spin us some line that will vindicate us wilfully and knowingly abandoning desperate people asking for our help.
We’re not angry Scott Morrison isn’t telling us anything, we’re angry he isn’t assuaging our guilt.
So now we’re giving Sri Lanka two fancy military boats with all the bells and whistles necessary to help them keep the people they are persecuting within their clutches.
Big deal. Most Australians will agree with the decision.
We’ll give ourselves a little pat on the back and say, ‘It will stop the boats! Aren’t we good, kind humanitarians? We are stopping people from drowning’.
We are a country of hypocrites and it’s time we owned up to it.
We are bigger bull-shitters than the government has ever been.
That’s why we vote for people on both sides of politics that persecute asylum seekers. If we genuinely cared about the welfare of these people, we’d care about them being beaten and shot in Sri Lanka as well. […]
We are a nasty, cruel, petty little people who injure and damage those who are weaker than us because it makes us feel powerful. We are a country of bullies.

Presumably, Grant intends the piece as a wake-up call, a slap in the face to a somnolent and self-satisfied Australia.

But it’s wrong and deeply disorienting to understand Abbott’s policies as driven by some groundswell of public enthusiasm for anti-refugee cruelty.

What do Australians think about refugees? If you look at the useful Monash Uni page collating surveys on asylum policy, the situation’s far more complex than the ‘Australians are racist idiots’ approach suggests.

As Andrew Markus notes:

[T]here is a large measure of confusion. As many as one in five respondents report uncertainty in a number of surveys. In such a context, minor change in the wording of questions can produce significant change in responses.

In other words, the results that pollsters get on this issue (as on so many others) depends on the question they present. If people think they are being asked, ‘Do you believe foreign terrorists should come and take our jobs?’, they will respond differently to if they hear, ‘Should we save people from torture?’.

Perhaps more importantly, the data simply does not support the image of a populace demanding a crackdown on refugees. Look at the Essential Report from 29 July 2013. When people were asked, ‘How important is the asylum seeker issue in deciding which party you will vote for in the Federal election?’, only 7 per cent listed it as ‘the most important issue’ and only 28 percent as ‘one of the most important issues’. The comparison with the campaign is revealing – ‘stopping the boats’ was, it seems, far more important a slogan for the politicians than the punters.

Of course, we might complain that voters should have made asylum seekers a major priority, that they should have voted against the party promising more cruelty.

But, actually, lots of the people on the Left are prepared to overlook anti-refugee policies. Think of the post-election rehabilitation of Gillard, the ‘thank Julia’ meetings in which the former PM’s appalling refugee stance was dismissed as a minor blemish on a successful administration. Why, then, should we think it peculiar that ordinary people went to the polls more worried about jobs or housing or similar matters than about refugees, especially during a campaign in which both parties touted their credentials as ‘close the border’ zealots?

It was, after all, Kevin Rudd who implemented the PNG solution; it was Julia Gillard who excised the entire continent from the migration zone. With Bob Carr popping up today to laud Abbott’s ‘sound policy’ on Sri Lanka and reveal that Labor, too, considered supplying Sri Lanka with boats, can we really be certain that the situation today would have been different had the ALP won?

Certainly, it’s true that the major parties and many pundits obsess about border security. But it’s far from obvious that ordinary Australians do.

Indeed, isn’t that precisely the logic behind Scott Morrison’s crackdown on information on boat arrivals? The Liberals know that, actually, refugees aren’t responsible for clogging the roads or taking hospital beds, that, in fact, they barely impinge on the lives of suburban Australians. Thus, if the boats aren’t in the news, many voters are quite likely to forget about them. The Morrison silence is predicated on a tacit acknowledgement that the border security hysteria is media-driven, and thus can be dampened down by cutting off the flow of stories.

Sure, there’s a degree of xenophobic hostility out there. Markus suggests that those ‘who hold strong negative views on asylum seekers outnumber the strong positive, probably by at least two to one’. But that result also means there is a sizeable body of people who, despite all the propaganda and despite the best efforts of the entire political class, are still prepared to voice strongly positive views about refugees.

An approach that begins by writing off the entire population as hopelessly racist amounts to an acceptance of defeat.

You don’t convince people by abusing them. You convince them by offering them a real alternative. And that’s what we haven’t done.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. While I broadly agree with some of this, the theme on the left that most Australians aren’t racist is getting a little old. I have argued extensively against the individualising explanation of racism as a question of personal attitude. However, to fully understand racism, the white left needs to move from its interpretation of it as ideology – something that can be wielded by the government or the media – and towards an account of it as systemic so that we can begin to understand how (white) citizens benefit from keeping racialised hierarchies in place. This doesn’t mean that everyone understands this implicitly and is acting on their white privilege, but this is nonetheless why race continues to have such a hold over public political culture. It is more extreme in australia because of its status as a settler colony, that cannot be divorced from any analysis. We need more complexities accounts of why racism ‘works’, one that stays clear of either ‘all Australians are racist’ or ‘most Australians aren’t’ – these dichotomies are not very good.

  2. Is it getting old? I would have thought the far more common theme is that Australians are inveterate racists (as well as mindless consumers, dupes of the media and all the rest of it).
    As to the idea we need a systemic account of racism, well, yes, I agree. But I don’t really apologise for not providing it here — as I said on Twitter, this was just a very quick response to the Hoopla piece, not a theoretical intervention.
    In any case, the point wasn’t to suggest that there’s no racism in Australia (cos that would be just silly) so much as to suggest that responses to asylum seekers are far more complicated than is generally allowed. And the data bears that out. On the surveys Markus presents anti-refugee racism wasn’t nearly as significant as most in the media made out.

    • Then why is it OK for you to write off the *entire* political class as holding negative views on refugees? [“…despite the best efforts of the entire political class”]… But it’s unacceptable to be “writing off the entire population as hopelessly racist”. (Which is — typically — an exaggeration of what Grant was doing, by the way).
      I fail to see much difference in what you’re expounding; similar generalizations. Yes, more nuance would be preferable.

  3. I meant that on the left it is old, not in general perhaps. I also object to the idea that you need to do theorising to show how racism is systemic. Ask any person of colour to explain it. They don’t need a phd. I understand what you want to do with this article but I just wish the debate as more nuanced.

  4. If the article were to be expanded or revised, I would suggest that ‘Blame the Politicians, the Mainstream media, AND the voters’ Might be a fitting title.

  5. Corinne is right. I’ve heard her comment on many issues and she’s never been wrong yet. The comedians are always right, actually. Australians are a nation of bullies. Look at the situation in the schools where bullying is endemic and the teachers just pretend it isn’t happening. Look at the bullying that goes on in the workplace, sometimes driving its victims to suicide. I’ve experienced bullying myself and I’m strong enough not to be damaged by it, but everyone is not so fortunate. Loretta Napoleoni in ‘Rogue Economics’ puts the view that globalization strips away all enlightened ideas, empathy and altruism and leaves only tribalism. What has gone on and is going on with the question of refugees would seem to be a classic example of what she’s talking about. Conservative politicians always thrive on tribalism and encourage it in its basest form in the usual divide and conquer strategy they use to get workers (the majority by a long way) to vote against their own interests. The last election was a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face by the electorate, with the added chilling dimension of complete silence from the media which never asked Abbott a single question on his policies and his costings for the duration of the campaign while the Australian ran front pages depicting the ALP as Nazis and Russian dictators courtesy of Col Pot. There’s plenty of blame to go around but the lion’s share for the situation we’re in has to go to the voters and the media in equal measure. After all, Abbott didn’t elect himself.

  6. Some polite acknowledgement of the survey evidence that Jeff presented seems in order.

    But let’s suppose, despite the absence of counter-evidence, that the Australian population is thoroughly suffused with racism,

    Corinne Grant and her co-thinkers would still need to show how such popular attitudes impose any kind of constraint on elite policy formation, such that the prime minister or Immigration Department is obliged or disposed to do this or that thing (e.g. stepped-up military collaboration with the Sri Lankan government),

    By what institutional device (periodic parliamentary elections, regular opinion polls?) does the wishes of the citizenry exercise independent influence on the actions undertaken by Gillard, Rudd or Abbott?

    How exactly, for example, did Alana’s “white privilege” affect the recommendations made by Angus Houston’s “expert panel” on asylum seekers?

    Meanwhile, perhaps some sociologist of knowledge could explore how humanities academics and media commentators on the soi-disant white left themselves act on their privilege. Pinning the blame for the state of “public political culture”.on the ruled rather than the rulers seems a reliable path to professional success: appear subversive and even radical, while being utterly harmless,

    • The question in my fourth paragraph seems idiotic. I meant to say: how do the wishes of the citizenry independently the policies of etc.

    • Pinning the blame for the state of “public political culture”.on the ruled rather than the rulers seems a reliable path to professional success: appear subversive and even radical, while being utterly harmless

      Not only that I suspect it makes a self-appointed elite who harbour the delusion that they could never possible be racist feel superior to the mass of the population..

  7. Pinning the blame for the state of “public political culture”.on the ruled rather than the rulers seems a reliable path to professional success: appear subversive and even radical, while being utterly harmless

    Exactly. “What could I do? They drove up to my house with a truckload of racist opinion polling!”

    Pundits who are willing to blame half our issues on a deficit of democracy shouldn’t try to blame the other half of them on an excess of it.

  8. Some friends and I made up this fictional policy announcement as an experiment in imagining what an alternative might look like. As a first iteration, it is riddled with various political and aesthetic problems. Sometimes it feels perverse given how bad things are going. But for us the central value of the exercise was in attempting to break out of the repetitive and reactive cycle that seems to mark ‘the left’s’ pattern of response on this issue.

    For instance, discussions framed around compassion, human rights, legal obligations etc. are clearly not having any impact, and in a sense tend to both reflect and instigate a feeling of impotence. This might explain to some extent why people reach out to simplistic (classist) ideas of racism. That’s not to say in any way that racism isn’t at play, but I’d agree with the general sentiment here that the analysis of the role of racism is often at best simplistic and at worst self-serving.

    What strikes me about this issue is that its seems to evade our ‘grip’ in a way that others don’t. It feel almost entirely in the hands of the political class. Its scary to imagine how things could get worse because our worst expectations are being exceeded. There is an accelerating slide into depravity that we seem to have no agency to effect. There are various causes for this, some of which lies beyond Australia itself. But I think its worth remembering the extent to which our sense of what is normal and possible is very much a part of the construction of our impotence. It also makes it a territory of resistance, which is what our project has attempted to engage.

  9. “How exactly, for example, did Alana’s “white privilege” affect the recommendations made by Angus Houston’s “expert panel” on asylum seekers?”

    Wow – Alana’s “white privilege”? What is that supposed to mean. Is she making it up?

    Anyway – before I was gobsmacked by that comment I was going to say: I assumed what Alana was getting at is that there is certainly a way of saying that asylum seeker policies are not actually driven by, or a response to, a groundswell of racist public opinion without saying that most Australians are racist or aren’t, a not very useful discussion that always ends up with someone saying that talking about racism is elitist or classist (wow – it already happened). But the left as it presents itself here tends to prefer an account that focuses on racism as an ideology wielded by government, not something enacted in pretty real ways (I think described well by Maxine in a comment on Kate’s bike piece) by the ordinary “citizenry” (or not) and experienced by the ordinary citizenry (or not) – yes, even the workers, on both sides. I don’t think Grant’s approach is particularly useful or reflective of reality. But admitting racism is not just a nasty ideology of government is not admitting defeat- it is admitting the reality that the overwhelming majority of non-white people in this country experience. It is materialist. It is a commitment to understanding, in order to change, that reality. I would simply offer that commentators here really need to think about what they are doing when they describe acknowledging how pervasive racism is in Australia as defeatist or classist. Opinion polls on attitudes to refugees certainly tell us some things. Screwdrivers in the heads of Indian international students tell us other things.

    • Somehow, this seems to have turned into one of those arguments where everyone talks past each other, addressing what they assume are the real points lurking behind what’s actually being said.
      For the record, nowhere did I suggest that racism didn’t exist in Australia. My claim was that the data that exists on attitudes to refugees suggests a complexity missed from the ‘you are all racist’ tropes. As I said, surveys are not necessarily the best way to examine ideas about race, for the same reason that they’re not the best way to examine ideas about sexuality (ie the questions determine the answers, and people say what they think they’re supposed to say). Nonetheless, they are one source of data — and, as I argued in the piece, they simply don’t support the notion that anti-refugee policy is a matter of hapless politicians giving in to a slavering, bigoted mob. You could, in fact, make an interesting comparison between attitudes to war in Afghanistan or privatisation of utilities, two areas where there has been an almost overwhelming public consensus (and one that politicians have ignored).
      Now Markus says (and I quoted him) that there is a polarisation on refugees, and the proportion of people strongly opposed to them is greater than those strongly in support of them. But the existence of a section of the population that’s already strongly supportive of refugees seems to me no small matter.

      • Fair enough; then I guess the drop in the GREENS vote at the last Fed election (by 3.1%), says more about that party’s marketing/publicity/leadership capacity to appeal as a popular choice rather than a reflection of the fact [non-racist] Australian people were, after all, *not* seeking an alternative to the bipartisan anti-refugee stance of the two major parties / ‘political class’… The VOTERS did have an alternative, from what I could see. Yep, it’s complex.

    • Liz, you can’t be wholly astonished to hear that ‘white privilege’ – while thrown about to great effect on countless left-liberal blogs and in honours theses – is a not-obviously-useful concept for most of the social sciences and has never been unanimously favoured by left-wing political theorists, currents and organizations.

      So come on: questioning its use doesn’t place one outside the bounds of reason, good taste or civilized discourse.

      P.S. While I agree with Jeff that no-one has suggested that many ordinary folks aren’t racist, I question your concluding remark about ‘screwdrivers in the heads of Indian international students’. I assume you’re talking about the series of attacks in Melbourne in 2009-10. As far as I know, no evidence ever emerged to support the hasty inference, encouraged by the media, that these were hate crimes.

  10. You didn’t pay much attention then, as plenty of evidence emerged, largely in the testimony of victims, but also in the reporting of a few people who paid a little bit of attention and didn’t focus all their efforts on denial in support of a political project of proving how racist Australia isn’t. I spent that period working for a whole bunch of Indian students who were victims of hate crimes. If you cared to read about it, which I suspect you don’t, you could consult the enormous bibliography attached to this unwieldy piece I contributed to about that period. Its called: “Public policy is class war pursued by other means: struggle and restructuring as international education” economy.http://www.interfacejournal.net/2011/05/interface-volume-3-issue-1-repression-and-social-movements/

    • You didn’t pay much attention then… If you cared to read about it, which I suspect you don’t, you could consult

      Why make such uncharitable assumptions (racism denial, intransigence, perhaps low mental capacity) about someone who disagrees with you? Such an attitude says more about your own narrow epistemic horizons than mine.

      I looked (okay, rather quickly) through your bibliography and found little besides the sources (mostly newspaper reports) that had dissatisfied me at the time.

      If you think that makes me someone trying to ‘prove how racist Australia isn’t’, rather than someone simply trying to follow the evidence on this topic, then go ahead.

      But if you write off as a genuine interlocutor everyone who disagrees with you about some group shibboleth (e.g. use of the term ‘white privilege’), you will end up talking only to yourself or to like-minded .people.

  11. racism, sexism? often symptomatic of a lack of education, so unthinkingly ism-istic; if perpetrated and encouraged by educated classes, then it is class warfare

  12. Thanks Jeff for this timely and well-argued piece.

    In her comment, Alana Lentin makes the fair point that racist ideas have to have some basis in material reality (i.e. in systemic phenomena). The problem is that she leaps to presuming that this material basis needs to confer material “benefits” on white citizens. This is a crude view of how ideology is formed through social structures and practices, one that assumes that ideas line up more or less uncomplicatedly with interests or privileges. It also doesn’t help us explain how relatively well-off white academics and pundits manage to overcome the material pull of their apparently high level of benefits from racial oppression when those lower down the class pecking order cling so tenaciously to theirs. Typical answers given to this conundrum tend to be elitist and moralistic, resting on the idealist notion that some of us whiteys (you know, the pleasant anti-racist ones) simply know better and need to lecture, er, “educate” others.

    In my view the material social relations of the capitalist mode of production, both Australian and global, understood in their economic, political and ideological unity, and including both relations of exploitation and oppression, explain the persistence of both racism and its opposite (anti-racism) in dynamic tension. Most importantly, because social relations are not just inert things but the product of collective human activity, then conscious intervention can structure and shape a multitude of different potentials in either direction present in a society at a given time.

    Therefore the way to transform a situation where racism is deeply embedded in our society requires both a project of undermining and (eventually) destroying the social relations in which it has the potential to take shape, and an intervention into politics to shift the balance of forces against those who are seeking to use the contradictions of capitalist society to intensify racism’s grip and effect.

    Notions of white privilege, apart from being quite empirically unconvincing when examined in relation to the social totality, serve to disorient our battle against the political forces and state which really do benefit from maintaining and extending racial oppression.

    • Thanks for the piece Jeff, and good comments Tad.

      Tad gets at it, and I think we need to look at racism in a global context, and of class in a global context. The pervasive nationalism/racism in core capitalist countries such as Australia is not ‘false consciousness’ or indoctrination and ignorance. Rather, this bigotry is a ‘concentrated expression of the major social strata of the core capitalist nations’ shared economic interests in the exploitation and repression of dependent nations’ (From Divided World, Divided Class – Cope)

      This may not provide all the answers, but it shifts the view away from the left liberal elite ‘ignorance’ hypothesis and also away from the domestic economic perspective which Tad shows is a complete dead end.

  13. Tad, notions of white privilege serve to recognise the very real, material divisions in the global working class. And sorry – what’s the social totality? Is that where we average everything out so nobody notices the high level of violence against certain racial groups as opposed to others, who dies earliest, who dies most violently, at the hands of whom? I’m not sure I understand your argument about white academics, so I’m not sure how to respond to it. I don’t think most people who use white privilege as a way of understanding their material reality are much interested in lectures from well-meaning white people. I think you need to get out more.
    White privilege is pretty empirically convincing if you are not white and have to live with everything that entails. Not just in terms of wage differentials, but things like life expectancy, the likelihood you might die a violent death at the hands of state security services, etc, etc. I’m not sure how your argument about how to change society is at all at odds with a recognition that white people materially benefit from racism. Unless of course, its like that dull argument we used to have in the ISO about whether men REALLY benefit from women’s oppression. We’re not still at that point, are we??

    “Therefore the way to transform a situation where racism is deeply embedded in our society requires both a project of undermining and (eventually) destroying the social relations in which it has the potential to take shape, and an intervention into politics to shift the balance of forces against those who are seeking to use the contradictions of capitalist society to intensify racism’s grip and effect.”

    Yes, fine. So then, explain how a recognition of the real material benefits that accrue to the pastiest amongst us disorient attempts to change the world we are in? Why would a recognition of material reality disorient you?

    • Insofar as we have data on this issue, it seems to pretty consistently show that voters were not nearly as obsessed about boat arrivals as politicians are (which, um, is the main point of my piece above).
      Compare this Essential Report (ht Tad). http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollbludger/files/2013/07/Essential-Report_130723.pdf
      Look at the bit where people were asked what issue they rated most significant.
      ‘45% of people surveyed rated management of the economy as one of their three most important issues, followed by 42% ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system, 39% Australian jobs and protection of local industries and 25% ensuring a quality education for all children. There has been little change since this question was asked last month – Australian jobs and protection of local industries is up 5 points to 39% and
      treatment of asylum seekers is up 3 points (and up 8 points since February) to 14%.’
      So, despite months and months and months of being told that Australia was being flooded by refugees, etc, most voters were far more concerned about other issues — primarily jobs, health, education etc.
      Now that doesn’t mean that those voters didn’t have racist ideas or wouldn’t, in other contexts, express support for securing the borders or whatever.
      But it’s a quite different picture than the sense (argued in the Grant piece and since defended here and on twitter) that Australian voters were frothing on the mouth demanding that politicians cracked down on refugees. Insofar as we have evidence, that picture simply does not hold up.
      So shouldn’t we take that seriously? On the available stats — as partial and as limited as they are — it seems that, actually, there would have been a constituency for an anti-racist argument about the economy, health, education, etc.
      Isn’t this something that the Left should investigate, rather than simply repeated the media’s line that all Australians are redneck morons?

    • Liz, clearly some men REALLY do benefit from women’s oppression, but I’m not really interested in reopening that here.

      We can both agree there is some kind of racial hierarchy (or gradation of levels of race-based oppression) within capitalist societies. We can also agree that there are material social relations in our current society that make racism be more than “false consciousness” or illusion or whatever.

      But beyond that you make a stronger claim, which I think is similar to Alana’s, that this means there are positive privileges/benefits/advantages accruing to those further up the hierarchy, and implicitly (but correct me if I’ve got this wrong, and it’s not central to my point) that they are accrued from the removal of such privileges from those further down.

      I think your position can only be sustained by not treating capitalist society as a totality, and hence ontologically separating different oppressions as essentially internally logical (but of course interacting) systems. Thus, through this move, it stops being incumbent on you to explain racism and hierarchies of racial oppression as having an inner connection to modern capitalist society as it really exists, and instead pose race oppression as having a relationship of exteriority to (economic) capitalist social relations, albeit within the one social formation. I instead view class exploitation and various oppressions as all being part of the same capitalist social relations, although of course paying attention to the correct mediations and levels of analysis to understand their inner connections.

      In more empirical terms you keep suggesting that it should be obvious that white workers materially benefit from racism. Actually, while this is how it may appear to some people, and not just people on the receiving end of racism (hence my comment about well-meaning white anti-racist academics), you have not been able to substantiate that this is actually what is going on.

      I would say that it is actually incumbent on you to make an argument as to how (subaltern) white people materially benefit from racism rather than simply suffering from less oppression than those lower down the racial hierarchy. Unless “relative lack of oppression and lesser exploitation” suddenly become markers of positive material benefits, which I think is a pretty hollow argument.

  14. Dr Tad “Notions of white privilege, apart from being quite empirically unconvincing when examined in relation to the social totality, serve to disorient our battle against the political forces and state which really do benefit from maintaining and extending racial oppression.”

    Wow, I am so busy peeling back the layers of white privilege in this comment I can’t decide quite how to explain how it makes me feel.

  15. I think Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach is helpful in thinking through the political implications of this debate:

    “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men [sic] and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

    “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”


  16. Who educates the educator of the educator? I imagine racism pre-dated the rise of capitalism, and should capitalism wither away in the classic marxian sense, would racism necessarily do likewise?

    • There’s actually a serious historical debate on whether racism as it is understood today predated the rise of capitalism. Women’s oppression certainly predates the rise of capitalism and the most convincing Marxist theories of gender oppression I’ve seen explicitly not only explain how that is, but how oppression has different social bases and practical expressions in different modes of production.

      The “withering away” thing is a bit of a red herring, in my view. It refers in Marx’s writings to the withering away of the state and not of capitalist social relations. Marx makes clear that he is talking about the task of the workers’ state (the one that replaces the capitalist state, which is not fit for purpose) to actively and consciously dismantle capitalist social relations, thereby undermining the material basis for the continued existence of that state.

      If one accepts (as I do) that racial oppression is part of capitalist social relations, an analogous active and conscious struggle would have to be waged against its structural bases and ideological hold. The difference, and therefore the advantage, in such a situation is that this is part of a process in which there is no longer a capitalist state to reinforce capitalist social relations more generally (quite the opposite).

      • Good points. However, not only women exchanged for goods but also slave labour in economies predating capitalism (as well as postdating it, of course) suggest earlier forms of sexism and racism, superiorities and inferiorities stemming from the acceptance / rejection of physical bodies, depending on use value within social relations and economic exchange. I take the point too about the differences between simply eliminating state / capitalism, and the dismantling of particular forms of social relations under capitalism, so issuing in different economies and social relations all together.

        • In “ancient” societies where slavery was the central form of exploitation, race had nothing to do with it. Greek slave-owners had Greek (and other) slaves, etc. It’s not to say that these societies were somehow “better” as a result of the absence of racism — it would seem that on most dimensions they were worse than capitalism. But there is a case to be made, a la Marx, of seeing different types of society (“modes of production”) as discontinuous in their central social dynamics even though they might adapt various forms of social interchange or oppression from previous societies. Because those kinds of earlier slave societies didn’t impose slavery on people on the basis of “racial” characteristics, racist ideology would have no logical reason to exist because it would not be useful as part of oppressive practices.

          A useful more general point to think about is why and how ruling elites in different modes of production take hold of some differential human characteristic (gender, skin colour, sexuality, etc.) and centre oppressive practices on it. These practices are not an add-on to class rule, but central to it, and hence there is a fair criticism to be made of those on the Left who think that the struggle against forms of oppression is simply an add-on to the some kind of narrowly-defined (“economic”, “workplace”, etc.) form of class struggle.

          I think the debate on this comments thread is one about how oppression should be understood in relation to the other social relations of domination; although refracted through a consideration of how this plays out concretely in terms of strategic intervention into politics.

    • OMG! Imagine the horror of someone having to read an explanation of oppression THAT SHE DIDN’T AGREE WITH! MY GOD! I hope she’s OK!

  17. Epistemologically speaking, I haven’t a clue as to how we know what we presume to know about social relations under such different modes of production as primitive communities and slave states (and feudal states for that matter), so I have trouble going along with the notion that primitive communities and slave states are historically and dialectically unproblematic when it comes to considerations of racism and sexism. For example, I read recently a challenge to the cliché of the caveman brutally banging a woman over the head and dragging her off to his cave to have sex, the counter proposition being that women engaged happily in group sex, and their men waited patiently and peacefully in queue for their turn. Similarly, there are those who see “ancient” Greek states as fascist because motivated by racial purity, which makes me wonder who the slaves were and to which race they belonged, further suggesting that slavery may have been based in perceived inferior racial and physical characteristics. I agree though that racial and sexual oppression based in differential human characteristics is central to class rule, and not an add-on practice, but am not able to draw a line through the arguments of the comments thread, which to me is way out of whack with the central proposition of the article proper.

  18. Excellent piece Jeff. The only thing I would add is why I think the political class are obsessed with asylum seekers. For the right it is, as they say, how they understand the broader problem of sovereignty.

    For Labor, asylum seekers is how they have understood their eroding social base for the last decade. It is a variant on the left’s view that their failure comes from the burden of having to deal with a public that are racist scum, a view so well expressed by some comments on this thread. It shows a contempt for the public by some in the “left” that I am pleased to report is so thoroughly and fully reciprocated.

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