It’s been a big few years in so-called Australia. Devastating bushfires. A global pandemic. Catastrophic flooding. Intensifying powers of policing and state control. A crisis in housing affordability. A rise in overt white supremacy and fascism. Impending climate apocalypse on the doorstep.
With ‘back to normal’ rhetoric proliferating even as Covid infection rates remain stubbornly high, it’s a timely opportunity to look back at the past few years and the conjuncture of these compounding crises. How have common-sense ideas about crises evolved over the past three years? What does the insistence that crises can be understood as though they are just unfortunate coincidences mean for how these situations are addressed and explained? And how do common-sense ideas about crisis—that emergencies require emergency responses; that there are different rules at play in moments like these; or that sometimes we just need to kick in together and make some sacrifices to get through the tough times—function collectively to mask the deeper animating logics that produce and sustain these moments of crisis?
Here, I take a quick look at the political history and representation of emergency measures and crisis responses in so-called Australia. I argue that the work of managing and obscuring compounding crises is not exceptional but omnipresent: it is the everyday labour of colonial racial governance.
Compounding, not just coinciding
During the first waves of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, my partner and I (and a lot of others, apparently) found ourselves drawn to stories about people and places in crisis. Climate disaster novels. Speculative fiction on nuclear war. Zombie apocalypse films. Pandemic series. Surviving-alone-in-the-forest documentaries. Books about economic collapse. And extremely occasionally, a troubling and prescient texts in which all these disastrous dynamics combined.
As the government orchestrated and justified their piecemeal responses to the crises we were living through—from big-stick-small-carrot emergency measures to ensure compliance with Covid-19 lockdowns, to sending in the military for photoshoots in flood-destroyed towns—we joked that we were living through the introductory sequence of all of the apocalypse texts at once. Each week, a new emergency would replace the last one. The news headlines and political responses only ever seeming to reflect the crisis of the day, a montage of disaster footage and heroics that never seemed to explain how each new crisis related to the others.
It’s a useful story-telling device, the montage. Whether in an apocalypse film or news report, you can set up the conditions of the crisis without wasting precious time explaining exactly how it came into being. It helps to build an idea of the crisis as the product of a set of circumstances, but also severs it from those contingencies. To borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey in their eerily prescient conversation Interpreting the Crisis, the montage sets up a ‘conjuncture … during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape.’ More importantly, it also makes it seem natural and inevitable that the crisis exists in its current iteration: that now, there’s nothing to be done but live with the world that the montage creates.
As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci puts it, this process is about producing a common-sense idea about crisis: ‘a bundle of assumed certainties that structure the basic landscapes within which individuals are socialised and chart their individual life courses.’ This common-sense knowledge, says Gramsci, ‘creates the folklore of the future.’ Common sense ideas about how things are and whose lives matter determine the conditions on which political decisions are made, and the terms of reference on which politicians are held accountable. But they also encourage everyday people to understand their own experiences in ways that legitimise and authorise those state responses.
This recruitment is made possible because the common-sense approach to moments of crisis is to treat them as unique, unprecedented, and separable events: as though the conjuncture of a major global pandemic, intensifying climate disasters, repressive policing practices, and the global rise of white supremacy and fascism is merely a coincidence, and that the real work is coming together to get through this tough time and back to business as usual (at least until the next disaster, of course).
These ideas of exceptionalism and emergency are incredibly powerful political tools. Pretty early in the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the federal government tried to convince people to download an app that would enable contact tracing, and help ‘ease restrictions’ sooner. When asked about the CovidSafe App, which was wracked with problems, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said:
I’ll be calling on Australians to do it frankly as a matter of national service. In the same way that people used to buy war bonds back in the war times, to come together to support the effort. I know this would be something they mightn’t do at an ordinary time, but this is not an ordinary time.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert explained that although using the app would be voluntary, this was:
a big team Australia moment … We really need every Australian to download it and to run it, so that if indeed your family, you, come into contact with somebody with the virus, you can rest assured that health officials will rapidly contact you and seek to provide the best care possible to you.
These comments foreshadowed a broader pattern in how the Covid-19 pandemic came to represented. Politicians across the political spectrum yoked together ideas of (white) nationalism and identity (Team Australia) with discourses of emergency and exceptionalism to paper over the vast inequalities that the compounding crises of health, housing, and habitat revealed. This rhetoric served to mask the material relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic and other intersecting crises: in one of the crudest examples, the fact that much of Australia’s supply of face masks had been used up before the beginning of the pandemic in response to the summer of disastrous bushfires that preceded it.
The common-sense view of the pandemic as an exceptional emergency has, of course, been rigorously challenged, particularly by First Nations scholars, writers, artists and organisers. Writing at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gomeroi poet and theorist Alison Whittaker was one of the first to rupture this common sense, writing:
None of this is unprecedented. Not the presence of a new disease. Not the enforced social measures that fragment how we interact, and who with. Not the laying to waste of the environment. Not the strategies of triage, and stratified disposability of human lives. … For mob, these events are precedented—horrifically, recently, and at a scale that those who casually compare home isolation to ‘prison’ could not even comprehend.
Whittaker argued that it was only by understanding each compounding crisis in its broader political and historical context that we could gain access to the vast archive of ‘resilience, resistance and resurgence’ by First Nations peoples—an archive that could provide the architecture for radical, intersectional responses to these compounding crises that began with a centring of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty. To build such radical responses, however, requires fundamentally rupturing the common-sense ideas about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the colonising settler state that continue to proliferate as explanatory devices for compounding crises: ideas of the dying race (Watego) always already disappearing from their sovereign lands; and of the benevolent colonising state, acting only as generous and responsible ‘protectors.’
Crucial to the work of rupturing colonial common sense is a commitment to beginning from the beginning. As Gunai / Kurnai and Gunditjmara theorist and writer Nayuka Gorrie suggests: ‘the apocalypse isn’t just one thing. It’s always kind of present… Colonisation was our apocalypse, and we are already living in a dystopian future. … We are ahead of the game.’ Mununjahli and South Sea Islander theorist Chelsea Watego agrees, emphasising that the question isn’t so much how to resolve these ‘crises’ to get back to ‘normal’, but: ‘how do we make the most of this opportunity? That’s what Blackfullas can teach other people here; we’ve always had to find the opportunities in crisis in order to survive.’
Policing the crisis
While common-sense ideas of ‘Team Australia’ reached absurd proportions during the pandemic, the underlying logics aren’t new. They reinvigorate much older common-sense discourses of settler colonial nationalism: triumph over adversity, unity in crisis, national identity forged in war time. And like most common-sense ideas, they function to paper over the foundational contradictions that produce and sustain contemporary crises.
Tanganekald Professor Irene Watson argues that ‘the foundation of the Australian colonial project lies within an originary violence … Inequalities and iniquities are maintained for the purpose of sustaining the life and continuity of the state.’ Absolutely central to this work is the expansion, intensification, and legitimation of state power that occurs in moments of ‘crisis.’ As Robin DG Kelly puts it: ‘crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, and racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation and gross misrepresentation.’ In a settler colonial context like Australia, these projects of what Kelly uncomfortably describes as ‘human management’ often have their origins in the colonial state’s management of Indigenous people’s sustained resistance to colonisation.
This is a time-honoured dynamic. Fingerprinting, for example, began as a system of bureaucratic administration under British colonial rule in India, justified as an emergency response to the risk of anti-colonial rebellion. Passports were introduced in Australia under the guise of war-time necessity. Data retention, digital surveillance and biometric tracking measures have all been introduced globally under the rubric of the global ‘war on terror’. Manufactured and racialised ‘crime’ crises operate to legitimise extensions to urban surveillance systems like CCTV camera networks, as well as supporting accelerated policing of particular (often racialised) communities (a process exacerbated during other moments of ‘crisis’).
The history of ‘emergency measures’ is thus interesting because it reflects how crises produce political responses that persist long beyond the promised ‘end’ of the emergency. In the present, this is critical to understanding how ‘emergency measures’ of policing, control, and surveillance are both extended and laundered in times of emergency. Measures that are often introduced under the guise of health, safety and emergency end up becoming everyday practices of governance—held in place, in part, by their association with these ideas of protection and care.
This reflects a much older dynamic of colonial governance. Colonialism persists through the incorporation and recruitment of (particularly middle class and white) settlers into the work of sustaining, expanding, and normalising the colonial state’s violence: encouraging some of us to understand our safety and security as conditional on accepting intensifying state power, control, surveillance, and violence.
Fast-forward to 2020, and many of the Covid-19 emergency response measures actively called on these historical processes of recruitment: calling on everyday people to report on imagined breaches of the oft-changing and unclear health regulations in the name of ‘community safety’. These mechanisms (like the Covid Hotline or the various online reporting sites) helped to normalise and legitimise the dog act of dobbing on your friends or neighbours by cloaking them in ideas of duty, responsibility, and care for ‘vulnerable populations’—in some cases, explicitly naming elderly people, immuno-compromised people and people with chronic diseases as the imagined beneficiaries of neighbourhood dobbing.
This process served to enlist and incorporate people into maintaining, defending and extending the colonial carceral state by looping together punitive mechanisms of enforcement with discourses of benevolent protection and care. And like much of the work of surveilling and assessing ‘suspicious’ or ‘risky’ activity, little attention was paid to who exactly was seen as suspicious and under what circumstances. By never really interrogating what constitutes ‘suspicious activity’ and for whom, it is possible to sustain the idea that some behaviour just is suspicious, and that it’s obvious to everyone why that is.
This common-sense knowledge is a product of long-standing racist and colonial logics, but it also functions to hide and obscure its own origins. Think, for example, of the role of discourses of suspicion and risk in justifying the persecution of phenotypically East Asian people in Australia since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Or the ongoing ‘anti-terrorism’ campaigns across Australia that have seen Muslims (and other People of Colour) reported for everything from speaking in Arabic on the phone to wearing head coverings in public. Or the rise in racism racist hyperventilations around ‘African Gangs’ in Melbourne. Or the disproportionate targeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people under ‘preventative policing’ regimes like the Suspect Target Management Program (STMP) in NSW (which saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (and other young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds) disproportionately targeted for additional and pre-emptive police surveillance because they were suspected of being likely future offenders.
Racism in so-called Australia has always conflated race with risk in order to legitimise the state’s strategy of criminalising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other People of Colour. In most jurisdictions in Australia, police officers have the power to stop and question anyone for ‘suspicious’ activity. During the pandemic, that was expanded to include anyone they suspect to be in breach of the (confusing and poorly-explained) Covid-19 public health regulations. As David Singh puts it, in colonial contexts, ‘racial violence … is not so much exceptional as inevitable’: the conflation of race with suspicion and risk serves to constantly endorse and enable both criminalisation and dispossession. These common-sense ideas of suspicion and risk operate in direct response to assertions of Indigenous sovereignty and the persistent refusal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to acquiesce to the colonising settler state. This has produced a racialised imaginary that Amy McQuire refers to as ‘imaginary spears’: the tendency to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as armed and dangerous regardless of their actual behaviour.
In moments of crisis, these common-sense colonial ideas of risk and suspicion calcify: they become more entrenched, but also more susceptible to fracture. It was supremely unsurprising to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and communities with a high proportion of People of Colour, were disproportionately targeted for Covid-19 health regulation enforcement. But it has also been interesting to witness the responses to Covid-19 regulations by people who are unused to having state power enacted on them, rather than enacted on others for their (imagined) benefit. The push toward increasingly ludicrous explanations and conspiracies about the nature of this state control reflects a profound lack of understanding of how normal it is for the state to exercise control and surveillance in these ways—an acceptance of the state’s own claims to exceptionalism and emergency that has made it challenging for people to connect their (temporary) experiences to much older dynamics.
After the crisis
The history of emergency measures in so-called Australia is a history of the present. Most of the currently acceptable regimes of policing and state control were introduced initially in moments of crisis. But understanding why this matters goes beyond merely recognising that emergency measures don’t get rolled back after the ‘emergency’ ends. Instead, it’s about understanding why those measures so rarely end up being dismantled.
Perhaps the most expansive recent example of draconian emergency measures ending up as ‘ordinary’ and neutralised practices of governance is the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (NTNERA). The Northern Territory Intervention was triggered by the Little Children Are Sacred report, which detailed (apparently) high rates of domestic and family violence in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The Intervention included a swathe of emergency measures, implemented to address this imagined ‘crisis’ in Aboriginal communities. These measures were implemented in particular ‘prescribed areas’—all of which were Aboriginal communities. They included alcohol and pornography bans, intensive surveillance of computer usage, intrusive health surveillance of young people, compulsory income management for welfare recipients through the introduction of the Basics Card, and the acquisition of Aboriginal land under federal government leases.
As Sarah Keenan notes, the NTNERA had to be exempt from Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975, because all of the measures clearly discriminated on the basis of race. Yet despite their controversy at the time, few of the measures implemented during the Intervention have been rolled back in the years since they were introduced. The Intervention itself continues (now under the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory 2012 Act). Far from being restricted to the period of the ‘crisis’, measures like income quarantining have actually been extended since the Intervention to other marginalised communities across so-called Australia. As Alissa Macoun notes, the Intervention is a useful point of reference for the present moment because it shows the political work that crises (real or manufactured) can do, particularly in normalising and legitimising particular extensions of state power.
But beyond the reminder that emergency measures are here to stay, the NT intervention also offers a prominent reminder of the absolute necessity of understanding crises as constituted by and compounding the political conditions in which they emerge. The acquisition of Aboriginal lands under the NT Intervention has prevented some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from vetoing proposed developments on their lands, including ecologically disastrous extractive mining projects that are already producing terrifying impacts on communities. During the pandemic, income quarantining exacerbated existing challenges, leaving people who were required to quarantine in remote communities literally unable to buy food or other necessities without breaching health regulations. The extensions in policing powers under the NT Intervention, themselves a product of deeper colonial logics of criminalisation, led to the dramatic over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated in prisons in so-called Australia: sites of intensified risk and violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Untangling these connections means refusing the common-sense idea that the overlaps in these crises are mere coincidences, and recognising how the responses to each emergency co-produce the next. This pattern is visible in other contexts too. In the US, an emergency management coalition introduced after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 has subsequently been used to quash Indigenous- and Black-led uprisings throughout the nation. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (‘join forces and help one another … whenever disaster strikes!’) was initially proposed as a means of providing ‘mutual aid’ between states in response to natural disasters. In practice, as detailed by Lakota historian Nick Estes, it was used to bring together 96 law enforcement agencies to ‘join forces’ against the Indigenous-led #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock in 2016. A year prior in 2015, EMAC was used when the Governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency in response to the Baltimore Uprising, during which Black communities protested the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers and continuing, institutionalised racism.
The new normal
Walter Benjamin famously argued that ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ In the context of continuing colonialism, this means recognising crises as foundational, rather than exceptional.
As climate crises and the threat of global conflict come to overtake the Covid-19 pandemic as the Crisis of the Day in our nightly news montage, we are left with the question of what kinds of political relations have been normalised in this particular conjunctural moment, and how we might collectively challenge them. As the Covid-19 pandemic slips out of the language of ‘crisis’ and back into the language of everyday management (despite the continued labour of disability justice advocates and their comrades in emphasising that the pandemic is far from over), the politicians who sought re-election on May 21 increasingly promised a return to normal.
We have to wonder, as Chelsea Watego puts it, ‘where is that place?’ Colonialism, capitalism, racism, heteropatriarchy: the foundational structures on which the colonising settler state is built all tend towards crisis. Constant work is required to paper over and manage the contradictions in these systems—to make their maintenance seem like common sense. Divesting from this maintenance work is hard and ongoing, particularly in moments of crisis. But it is also absolutely essential. If we want to take up the radical political possibilities that emerge in moments of crisis, we have to begin, as Angela Davis reminds us, by ‘grasping the problem from its roots.’
Image by Adrien Delforge