Labour camps: the election lines on the left

A huge part of the post-election (if we can even call it that yet) narrative was the apparent swing to the left in safe Liberal seats. A strange but parallel phenomenon occurred in left-wing circles: some kind of centripetal force pushed many from the margins to the mainstream. As a result, the Greens lost their footing in the senate (recording their worst performance since 1998) and failed to exceed the 10% threshold in the Lower House.

The movement towards the centre is no shock if you’ve been following Australian politics in the last 15 years. What is confusing is the willingness of left-wingers to get behind Labor without a scrap of shame. The ‘principled’ left, those who’ve long identified with strict positions on climate change and social progress, seem all too happy to indulge in the carnivalesque of electoral gasbagging. Prominent leftists like McKenzie Wark openly endorsed Labor (from the safety of his private Facebook page), declaiming the Greens’ inability to form a functional, cohesive platform.

When these political questions of cohesion and function outweigh the measured and moral positions of a votership, dastardly consequences are likely to follow. Many moral issues can find themselves on the chopping block when the ‘tough decisions’ of politics need to be made. But there are some problems that aren’t simply recurring symptoms to be cured by turning the other way. Some go to the very heart of political organisation itself.

One of these is mandatory detention. Refugees have often been pawned by political parties happy to ‘otherise’ in the pursuit of a popular mandate. The abject cruelty at work in offshore detention, however, has been one issue that the left have traditionally refused to give ground on. This unwavering commitment seems to have faded from sight, as even the leader of the Greens has suggested willingness to negotiate the issue with major parties.

‘So what?’ the astute commentator might chime – all’s fair in times of love and preferences. But what separates detention policy from other progressive platforms is not necessarily its severity (worse treatment of civilians occurred during the Iraq War) or urgency (who can compete with climate change on this one?). The real problem is the ideological underpinnings that the acceptance of mandatory detention presupposes.

It’s a little trite to trot out the similarities between Manus, Nauru and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and it has been trotted out before. But the reason for worrying about this connection lies in every Australian’s relationship to the existence of the camps. The German-Jewish philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno has been referred to as the great thinker of the ‘Post-Auschwitz’ world. In his view, the creation of the concentration camps and the widespread production of corpses posed a new moral fact for the twentieth-century world. This fact demands that people ‘arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen’.

It seems easy enough to do. Identify the evil of the camp where you see it, and oppose it until those in power are forced to destroy it. But it isn’t that simple at all. Camps like Manus and Nauru still exist. People on the left, even those familiar with the urgency of Adorno’s position, still allow themselves to vote for a party who fail to act decisively on the issue. Beyond this, they vote for the very party who instituted mandatory detention in the 1990s.

How could this possibly happen? If we return to the Holocaust motif, we have another resource at our disposal. Hannah Arendt, one of the most astute thinkers of the mid-century, fled, like Adorno, from Germany to America during the Second World War. In 1962, she travelled to Jerusalem to report for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Final Solution. Her findings were troubling. Eichmann believed himself to be operating according to the guidance of an Höheren Sinnesträger, or a ‘higher bearer of meaning’. While the religious underpinnings of this are in evidence, it was the military hierarchy to which Eichmann was beholden. He operated according to the idea that everything functions better when we simply carry out orders. This allowed him to find moral justification for the heinous reality of his plan’s execution.

We don’t have such a stark burden of responsibility resting on our shoulders. Eichmann, unlike the majority of us, occupied a position of power in the machinery of state. Yet Arendt’s observations on this problem weren’t restricted to those in office. Her piece ‘Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship‘ (forgive the orientation of the PDF) reminded us that any action in pursuit of the ends of an immoral institution is in itself immoral.

That’s fairly intuitive. Still, in 2016 we allow ourselves to keep calm and lock up refugees. This is because we have learned to accept a certain set of justifications from our own Höheren Sinnesträge. What qualifies something as a political good in Australia is not what it is, but how it works. Politics is routinely reduced to ‘practice’. We believe that the outcome of apparently evil decisions is justified by the need for a smooth and cohesive political system. The metaphor that paints the economy as a moral system allows people to distance themselves from real responsibility. This mentality replaces the idea of politics as ‘praxis’, where self-consistent theories are played out on the political stage. Any doctrine of praxis commits itself to certain moral principles it holds to be incorrigible. In their absence, we have nothing more than pure function.

In the case of Eichmann, he admitted that he struggled with German because his native language was ‘Officialise (Amtssprache). Has Officialise become the lingua franca of politics in Australia?

It’s not a simple matter of historical contingency that we consistently repeat the example of Auschwitz. The acceptance of the utilitarian frame of ‘practical’ politics means that a new logic operates in post-war democracy. The logic of the camp itself.

This isn’t a novel thought. It’s one held by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian political theorist and coveter of controversy. He tells us that the justificatory framework that allows the creation of concentration camps lies in the structure of the state itself. Where a state accepts human beings as functionaries, as purely economic agents, it is easy to devalue their existence as the objects of moral concern. If we accept this, we can see that technocratic empires like the EU are no buffer against fascism. So long as they accept a definition of humanity dictated by trade and productivity, they are incapable of presenting a moral justification for refugee intake and the salvation of struggling economies. We shouldn’t see the rise of the far right in Europe as an opposition to the EU, so much as an extension of its own principles.

Similarly, Donald Trump appeals to Americans who want to see the country ‘run like a business’. If everyone’s place in a country is reducible to the role they play therein (as in a corporation), the argument for authoritarianism and fascism writes itself. You don’t pull your weight, you’re out. This logic finds itself repeated through the surly mouths of people like Pauline Hanson on our own golden soils.

Everywhere we see the state furthering the camp agenda it should be opposed. In Australia, the voices of opposition do not necessarily come from predictable places. Among them are those who traditionally refuse to accept the reduction of human worth to function. Catholic nonnas in the Melbourne seat of Batman came out in force to support The Greens because of their horror at Manus and Nauru. Where prominent left-wingers supported mandatory detention, traditional Catholics voted for alternative parties. But this isn’t all absurdity. There is a binding thread, and it can be followed. It amounts to this: so long as we accept the utilitarian argument, we condemn ourselves to cruelty. The walls of the camp are already enclosing the country.

Image: lithograph by Leo Haas, a Holocaust artist.

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Giacomo Bianchino

Giacomo Bianchino is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the City University of New York. He has written for the Saturday Paper, New Matilda and Overland, as well as publishing academically in books and journals.

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  1. How can we in Australia agree with Adorno’s argument that the death camps of the Holocaust presented a “new” moral problem in the 20th century? Germany had its first run at bureaucratised slaughter in Namibia. Britaina and the other European maritime powers started even earlier with exterminatory colonialism and the slave ships. Part of the shock of the Holocaust was the extension of this bureaucratised brutality to Europeans. The much longer history of the camp mentality must be acknowledged – out of basic decency!

    1. This is absolutely true TIanjara. I don’t mean to explicitly endorse Adorno in all of his particulars, and should have included more about the colonial brutality in our own history. Thanks for your comment.

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