In many parts of Melbourne, volunteers have been helping various organisations provide food and financial assistance to workers on short-term visas who have lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of their visa status, these workers – many of them asylum seekers – have no entitlement to JobKeeper, JobSeeker, or other government payments. Without the assistance of charities, mutual aid organisations and some State Government help, these workers and their families would be destitute.
In the recent public discussions about the future of Federal Government pandemic assistance – especially JobKeeper – little consideration has been given to the truly staggering figure of 700,000 workers on temporary visas losing their jobs. Even less recognition has been given to the fact that this was in fact the goal of the Morrison Government.
The JobKeeper scheme was designed in a way that ensured employers would sack workers on visas. Say I am an employer with ten staff, five of whom are on short-term visas. My turnover has decreased by half. Five of my staff will be eligible for JobKeeper, so I will keep them on to do the work that I have remaining. The other five, on short-term visas, I will sack. Given the number of job losses among short-term visa holders, it is clear that this is what has happened on a wide-scale. Given it is obvious that this would be the result, and many people warned at the time of JobKeeper’s introduction that it would happen, it is clearly the government’s intention. It is the central plank of a strategy to purge the workforce of non-citizens.
The purging of ‘foreign elements’ from the workforce is part of a considered and frightening long-term approach by the Coalition – far too often supported by the ALP – to undermine universal concepts of human rights, politicise citizenship and redefine the meaning of national sovereignty. It puts the Morrison Government squarely in the same mould as the right-wing nativist regimes blighting Poland and Hungary.
Attacks by the Australian government on human rights and citizenship have a long history, mostly associated with the egregious and murderous treatment of refugees.
‘The Refugee throws into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty,’ wrote Giorgio Agamben, drawing on Hannah Arendt’s short work from 1943,’We Refugees’, and larger works on totalitarianism and human rights. Agamben and Arendt argued that the figure of the refugee – the person devoid of citizenship – brought into sharp relief the fact that ‘the rights of man’ – human rights – are not ‘eternal, metajuridical values that bind legislators to respect them’ (Agamben) but in fact disappeared the moment that individuals were stripped to their bare humanity, unprotected by citizenship. ‘In the nation-state system’, Agamben wrote,
the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man prove to be completely unprotected at the very moment it is no longer possible to characterize them as rights of the citizens of a state.
The treatment of refugees makes it clear that it is only the state, acting for the nation, that has the power to bestow human rights. Those who are denied citizenship, who remain outside the nation (stateless), are deprived of the human rights that we who exist within the nation claim to be ‘universal’. The very fact of their denial to refugees demonstrates the hollowness of this claim of universality.
In 2016, the Coalition Federal government passed laws designed to strip Australians with dual citizenship of their Australian citizenship rights if they were found guilty of terrorist offences, putting it firmly in the tradition of states like East Germany, which regularly expelled citizens for ‘anti-socialist activity’. In this view, citizenship is something bestowed by a government as a reward for good behaviour, rather than a right accruing to a person as a result of his or her membership of a democratic polity, or, more precisely, as a result of his or her birth (as Agamben points out, birth and nation – from the Latin natio, born – are semantically related).
In both the instance of the terrorist deprived of citizenship and the refugee refused the rights accruing to the citizen, the state attempts to preserve or strengthen its sovereignty – by acting firmly to exclude some from citizenship, it reinforces the sense of itself as the final arbiter of citizenship, and thus of sovereignty. As well as stripping citizenship from those considered unworthy of it, this process strips away, in Agamben’s words, ‘naïve notions of the citizen and a people’ – let no-one think that they are entitled to citizenship. Citizenship is something that can be taken away if behaviour is ‘unacceptable’.
If the fiction of sovereignty – that the ‘natural man’ is the basis of the nation, and thus that Human Rights are elemental to it – has been exposed, then it has not been replaced by what Agamben would want, namely the calling ‘into question the very principle of the inscription of nativity and the trinity of state/nation/territory which is based on it’. Instead, the nation is no longer somehow the creation of its people – defined either narrowly (the nation as coterminous with a dominant ethnic group – European or many Asian states) or broadly (as a voluntarist construct of many peoples, perhaps brought together through migration and united by constructed institutions – as in the ‘new world’ states like the US or Australia) – but is now identified with the state structure, which is controlled by a political elite empowered to bestow or remove citizenship rights as it sees fit.
This state structure can be either unitary, as in the case of a country like Australia, or multinational, as in the case of the EU. In either case, it is those who control the state (the political class) who define who is in or out, rather than people defining the state. Thus, the state is no longer the institutional structure that evolves from the nation, but one that comes to stand in for the nation. In this circumstance, it can be no surprise that, at the same time as we have witnessed this development, we have also experienced the comprehensive increase in surveillance powers over the citizenry. The state no longer belongs to its citizens; instead, the state regards any citizen as potentially suspect – an enemy, even.
There are three primary reasons why political elites want to politicise citizenship, and in particular to deliberately exclude refugees and asylum-seekers from citizenship rights as much as possible.
Firstly, neoliberalism has sought for decades to undermine the nation-state’s economic and political autonomy (In fact nation-states could still exercise much of this sovereignty if the neoliberals had not engineered political and economic institutions in a way that obscures this fact.) The result is that many ordinary people do feel a loss of their democratic voice in the face of a relentless and ruthless globalisation. Hence the recurring trope of ‘invasion’ used to describe migrant and refugee flows and exploit this sentiment, while the forces that really undermine sovereignty – free trade agreements, the power of transnational corporations – continue to operate undisturbed.
Secondly, provoking divisions over the constitution of the national community (who is in and who is out) is designed to avoid discussions about the distribution of wealth within the national community. The exclusion of asylum-seekers from JobKeeper naturally preceded a program of tax changes that massively favours the well-off and, through destruction of most of the remaining vestiges of its progressivity, will exacerbate inequality. (Although why any Australian government would want to advance further down the US road of inequality and resulting national breakdown is hard to understand.)
Finally, as Richard Kaiser has so succinctly said,
Blacks in the US, immigrants in Europe, Indigenous peoples, the homeless: modern capitalism, together with contemporary nationalism, has altered our definitions of citizens and rights, and created widely accepted categories of disposable people whose lives can be erased by the state.
The Covid-19 death toll in the US, where authoritarian market nativism has operated at its most malignant and powerful, demonstrates just how brutal this political philosophy is. But Australians watching the US political horror-show should not be complacent: the deliberate immiseration of hundreds of thousands of short-term visa holders shows that Australia’s national government may have got its virus response much better, but – in its brutal determination to control who belongs and who doesn’t to the Australian community – it belongs firmly in the realm of far-right regimes like Trump’s, Modi’s and Orban’s.