Militant care in a time of atrocity

In his landmark book The Nazi Doctors, the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton carefully and precisely describes the process of psychological ‘doubling’ that facilitates the ‘psychic numbing and denial’ necessary for someone to occasionally behave altruistically while still being the perpetrator or enabler of atrocity. It was doubling enabled the doctors in Auschwitz to ‘bring forth a self that could adapt to killing without feeling oneself a murderer.’ It was doubling that made possible the appearance of what Lifton chillingly calls ‘the Auschwitz self’ and the ‘atrocity-producing self’, – a self that could sincerely believe itself to be ‘good’ even as it furthered Nazi genocide.

The ‘good’ Nazi who saves Jews is a consistent theme in Lifton’s book and one to which he gives a great deal of attention. In his interviews with surviving Auschwitz doctors, Lifton spoke to several who claimed, truthfully, to have saved the lives of Jews in the camp. He also interviewed camp survivors who thought of those doctors as their saviours. But, as he is at pains to show, one could save the lives of a few Jews and still be a dedicated Nazi, wholly committed to the policies of extermination and Nazi ‘applied biology’, still take part in the selections of those arriving on the trains and send adults and children straight to the gas chambers.

I’ve never routinely turned to psychiatrists for an understanding of the politics of care and brutality, but in a 2016 paper for the journal Australasian Psychiatry, ‘Helping professionals and Border Force secrecy’, that examined what he calls the ‘calculated cruelty’ of Australian immigration detention, another psychiatrist, Michael Dudley, wrote:

The Nazi doctors arguably embody the worst state-based abuses by medical professionals. It is tempting to distance Australia from that murderous history, citing for example post-Nazi ethical codes and Australia’s ‘peace-time’ democracy. Yet various modern states have ‘protected’ citizens by identifying security threats, targeting ‘undesirables’ and eliminating public scrutiny…Nazi helping professionals were usually ordinary people, not psychopaths or villains. Peer and situational pressures, careerism and ideological commitments motivated them. Euphemism, bureaucratic routines and missionary zeal facilitated psychic numbing and denial.

‘White Australia mutates into callousness,’ Dudley concludes. That is because it has traditionally been a nation of people saturated in psychic numbing and denial – people who occasionally behave in ways that could be called altruistic, but are otherwise happy to enable the project of white domination. And still are. For white Australians, the very borders of our subjectivity are the borders established by white supremacy. And borders are now desperately, paranoidly significant in the white Australian project.

The doubling, psychic numbing and denial of violence that both Lifton and Dudley describe have become lauded virtues in Australian life. It’s a perverse variation on the strategy of the purloined letter: Where better to hide these traits than in a nation that has practiced them for over two centuries. They create and enable a fantastic logic, that structures capitalism and makes problematic the ‘dialogue’ that white liberals like to invoke as solutions to racist violence. As the Black scholar Frank Wilderson III said, ‘The most ridiculous question a Black person can ask a cop is, ‘Why did you shoot me?’…‘I shot you because you are Black; you are Black because I shot you.’

Anyone who has experienced a bushfire knows of the phenomenon of ‘ember attack’ where an advancing fire front throws out vast quantities of flaming debris before it, sometimes for kilometres, that rain down and start new fires. Australia’s very public expressions of denial and invitations to psychic numbing continually raining down from career politicians, the arts, popular culture and traditional and social media are like ember attacks. They start fires it is true – outbreaks of racist violence for example – but they can also leave dead spots in one’s subjectivity, in one’s capacity to think. And when it becomes hard to think, it becomes hard to resist and easier to look for other solutions to anxiety. Paranoid solutions that don’t involve thinking. Paranoia tends to breed panoramic utopian answers, political Disneylands built on practices of demonisation. Paranoia alleviates anxiety, doubt and guilt. It is community-building. Whatever white supremacist variations it plays on – vilification, imprisonment, murder – paranoia gifts vast daydreams of power. Under the relentless assault of capitalism’s punitive phantasmagorical descriptions of existence, paranoia makes it easier to succumb to the calling forth of white Australia’s ‘atrocity-producing self’.


In the prologue to the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s novel Explosion in a Cathedral, an unnamed narrator, journeying to the New World, watches the erection of a guillotine in the bows of the ship on which he is a passenger. The guillotine frames the constellations of the night sky, a doorway from which will emerge the genocidal civilisations of the Europeans. I immediately thought of James Cook, coasting and naming the shores of not-yet-existent-Australia, the myriad nations of its Indigenous peoples. The image of the telescope came to my mind. An eye watching sovereign lands. An eye that is not merely passively looking, but is already engaged in an act of possession.

A telescope said to belong to Cook is kept in the NSW State library, fitted in its original case like a holy relic, and in Sydney’s Hyde Park the giant bronze statue of Cook towers above the mortals below, one arm raised above his head as though acknowledging the cheers of the crowd or giving a fascist salute, the other clutching his telescope like a club. When the statue was unveiled, in 1879, 60,000 white Australians turned up to watch.

In everything capitalism gives and demands of us are found all its bloody antecedents, barely concealed – a lineage of extreme violence whose parameters are hard for the mind to comprehend. In the histories of victory are hidden the persecutions and the oppression; in the conditions that made possible the creation of the poems and novels are secreted the genocides and the slavery. Everything we know and are comforted by has been made possible by capitalism’s unparalleled devouring of flesh and blood, its stratification of humanity and its relentless obliteration of the natural world. Emerging from doubling, denial and psychic numbing is like discovering that one’s parents dine on cooked babies, the house in which we live and play is built of human bones, and the very things we love and have taken into ourselves – everything we thought was ludic and joyous and tender – were in reality merely the illusions created in order to distract us from the murders in the torture chambers downstairs.

In an interview about her book In Defence of Looting, the white activist and writer Vicky Osterweil described the US uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd as acts of caring:

You care for one another by getting rid of the thing that makes that impossible, which is the police and property. You attack the thing that makes caring impossible in order to have things for free, to share pleasure on the street. Obviously, riots are not the revolution in and of themselves. But they gesture toward the world to come, where the streets are spaces where we are free to be happy, and be with each other, and care for each other.

Or, as one anonymous Black activist in Atlanta more succinctly put it, after the murder of Rayshard Brooks: ‘The love and unity that went into burning that motherfucking Wendy’s down was incredible’.

If caring is insurrectionary, and insurrection is a multiplicity of interrelated acts of care, it follows that insurrection is built out of care itself and an understanding of its revolutionary and transgressive potential. Care is therefore always militant.

The problems of care have pre-occupied me all my life, both personally and what is termed ‘professionally’. I wouldn’t say I have any answers, but I think that if caring isn’t fun, transgressive, situational and marginal, and doesn’t involve a lot of setting fire to things and saying ‘fuck you’ to those who consider themselves to be cops, it’s not really worth the trouble. Without the trouble, it’s just the invention of care as a form of compliance. 

I’ve been trying to think it through like this.

Two thirds of my working life has been spent in the company of very young children. These days, my main gig is observing the play of preschool children in difficulty. It’s an incredible activity to become absorbed in, and I often emerge from it with something changed within me. For young children the distance between their emotional lives and their outer lives is very small. You can see their inner lives playing out before you in a way that is much more difficult to recognise in adults. Capitalism shapes its subjects early – you can’t make a Border Force cop overnight – but children can resist and maintain hope for a long time, often in disruptive ways that adults don’t like. As Vicky Osterweil pointed out, in a slightly different context, play is ‘autonomous, chaotic, queer, and anti-hierarchical’ and therefore implicitly opposed to ‘systems of profit, work, and exploitation.’ Young children can have quite revolutionary thoughts, and speaking with them through their play, or creating a place where that is possible – possibilities rapidly decreasing to almost nothing in the arid neoliberalised regime that is Australian early childhood education – can help them say revolutionary things.

Years ago, in a different life of thinking about play, I helped C, an infant girl, fall asleep. As I left the room where she slept, I was confronted by B, a five-year-old girl. ‘Stephen!’ she demanded – finger cocked at me like a revolver, the other hand on her hip – ‘Don’t forget to keep C’s mind in your mind OK? Don’t forget!’

It seemed to me that B had profoundly understood something about what minds are for, and what it means to think of someone and indeed about what it means to care. In his 1897 memoir of life in Japan, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, Lafcadio Hearn describes hearing a very young child explain the same idea to her younger sibling:

Without help one person cannot live in this world; but by getting help and giving help everyone can live. If nobody helped anybody, all people would fall down and die.

Apparently even young children, separated by a century and radically different cultural backgrounds, are quite capable of understanding the concepts of mutual aid and solidarity, and describe what they look like in practice. Capitalist subjectivities tell them the opposite: You are alone. Nobody really helps anybody unless they want something from them, and this is in fact the natural, right and proper order of things. Therefore, accumulate power.

This toxic schema can only be maintained by unrelenting violence, atrocity and ruthless exploitation. Eventually we will ‘all fall down and die’, having been turned, or turned others, into objects in which it has become mandatory to invest our hidden terrors and weird poisonous desires. One can see this at work in the uprisings in the US where it immediately became obvious that the white bourgeoisie regard cars, statues, fast food franchises and consumer goods as having feelings and personality, and Black human beings as true objects that have no feelings at all, or even any humanity.

The daily work of learning how to keep others in your mind within this nightmare can be hard yakka. I’m the carer of an adult family member with disabilities. That kind of care doesn’t describe the whole ambit of caring by any stretch, but it encompasses a number of the markers that capitalism uses to degrade human dignity. I’ve learned a lot from being a carer, but it is amazing how clunky and inept I seem to have been at it. It’s almost – I say to myself, ruefully – as if I didn’t really know what caring was. Caring in this way, without condescension or distance, for someone who is labouring under oppressions you are not, in a way that gives them maximum respect and agency is not easy. For a long time I thought, I’ve given it everything I have, and yet …

But, a little while ago, I saw an interview with the actor Aaron Pedersen. Pedersen is an Arrernte and Arabana man, well known to Australian audiences for his memorable portrayal of the moody, laconic, haunted police detective Jay Swan in the slow-burning Mystery Road series of films and TV shows, and the raffish two-fisted bookies minder Cam Delray in the Jack Irish series. Pedersen is the carer of his disabled younger brother, Vinnie, and in the interview about his life as a carer said some things that have come to mean a lot to me. ‘The job of a carer is insurmountable’, he said, and continued with penetrating insight, ‘If I’m getting frustrated [with Vinnie] it’s because I’m asking too much of him’.

Caring never ends, and one of the unique aspects of being the carer of a disabled adult is that it is obvious it isn’t going to end. Being a carer can make you very tired. It’s unbelievable how tired you can get. As one of my favourite fictional characters once remarked, ‘I’m as tired as the man who ran from Marathon to Athens would have been if he hadn’t fallen down dead, the creature.’ Caring, the work of caring goes, on and on. But I don’t think that’s why it seems insurmountable. I’m not tired because I’m a carer. I’m tired because I’m a carer under capitalism. And in many ways, I’m a ‘carer’ because of capitalism. In other words: it’s not really the caring that makes me tired.

When Aaron Pedersen spoke of recognising ‘frustration’ and that recognition being both a marker of the kind of care a person needs and the change oneself needs to make, it seemed to me that he was talking about being able to recognise one’s own terrors and anxieties, one’s feelings of unease and discomfort and powerlessness and not act on them or use them to construct pathologising and delusional systems of ideology, control, violence and fear as per capitalism’s instructions. In essence, you tell capitalism to fuck off, and do something else that the capitalist order can’t understand and is terrified of: establish solidarity with another. But when you live within white Australian capitalism’s continual boosting of terror, punishment, sadism, amnesia and contempt, remaining within the difficult space of solidarity and basic well-being that Pedersen is referencing can become insanely hard. The pull toward doubling and psychic numbing is relentless. And that’s the problem: in the provincial, criminal enterprise of landlords and cops that is so-called Australia there is no political or cultural framework for caring. Caring is grimy, low-grade, and frightening to those who never do it. It’s racialised and misogynised. It’s the work of women or of people of colour, therefore a somewhat contemptible enterprise, not worth shit. Punishment, exploitation, murder and cruelty – they are the things to get really excited about.

‘There’s no better job than caring for other human beings,’ Aaron Pedersen said at the end of his interview on being a carer. In other words, it’s the real work of being a human being. It is what makes you a human being and you can’t really become one otherwise. And if we are not deeply engaged with the politics of caring, recognising the white supremacist call to an ‘atrocity-producing self’ and freeing ourselves of the ‘good Nazi’ mindset, we are just colluding with the narcissism so abundantly curated by capitalism – a narcissism exemplified in the US uprisings by the calls of white liberals for ‘healing’ and ‘peace’. Revolutions are not started by unrevolutionary people. Revolutionary uprisings are acts of care, and being able to care is what makes revolutionary uprisings and the imagining of new worlds possible.


Image: Edvard Munch, ‘The sick child’ (1885)

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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