A couple of weeks back, I went to hear Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, two right-wing nationalist speakers who recently finished a tour of Australia and New Zealand, speak at Sydney’s International Convention Centre. My attendance was part study, part curiosity about their audience and influence.
The first thing I really noticed when I arrived, following my long drive from Canberra, was the number of people of colour working at the venue – it was an unexpected sight at a far-right (and anti-immigration) gathering.
I arrived an hour early, anticipating large protests – in Melbourne over 200 people had rallied outside the event, and similar actions were planned for Brisbane. In Sydney, there were no protesters. Instead, around 100 police officers stood outside the centre, while bemused passers-by stopped to ask what was going on.
I entered with little fuss, chatting as much as I could with the staff, attempting to make clear that I wasn’t there in support of the ideas being presented that night. I took a seat in the back of the theatre, opening my notepad with the intention of jotting down as much as I could. When the lights dimmed however, I suddenly couldn’t see a thing, so instead live tweeted the event as a public record of what took place.
To put the event in context, Molyneux and Southern are just the latest international far right figures to have made a splash in Australia. Before them was Jordan Peterson’s tour, and before him, Milo Yiannapolous; now it looks like Steven Bannon may be coming in November to talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (jointly run by The Ethics Centre and UNSW’s Centre for Ideas).
These popular figures of the far right have been gaining significant attention here, in most cases far more than their Australian counterparts. Take Cory Bernadi and Mark Latham, for example: they may gain steam every now and then, but mostly seem to be dinosaurs. Others, such as the United Patriots Front’s Blair Cottrell does not, despite a recent appearance on Sky News, have the same following of those from overseas.
So I went to Molyneux and Southern’s event thinking, what is the appeal of these foreign imports? While I came out of the event with more questions than answers, I think there are some lessons from what’s happened since this event.
First, let’s look at the actual content of Molyneux’s and Southern’s speeches.
The two spoke to a big crowd, which almost filled a hall that seated 750 people. The audience was energised and boisterous throughout the entire thing, with people yelling out in support, cheering and laughing as the two did their bit. Every time one of the speakers brought up a public figure the crowd didn’t like – say, Malcolm Turnbull – someone would yell ‘he’s a cunt’, something that became a bit of a running joke. The reaction unnerved me a little: I had been expecting something more subdued.
Molyneux spoke first, to big cheers from the crowd. While Southern has gotten the vast majority of the media attention, he was clearly the figure attendees were there to see. After some rants about the mainstream media, he turned to the substance of his presentation: ‘Aboriginal culture’.
In his rant, Molyneux said that Aboriginal ‘religion’ is the most conservative in the world, creating a culture that refuses to learn and grow. This culture is, he said, inherently violent – his sources went unmentioned, but he spent a good chunk of his talk discussing practices of rape, murder and infanticide pre-colonisation. At one point, Molyneux claimed that Aboriginal people used to punish young girls by putting their fingers in the nests of bull ants, to which one attendee yelled out, ‘stop it, you’re getting me aroused’.
All of this, of course, was making the case for colonisation, which Molyneux argued was an act of mercy: ‘they say that your ancestors tried to steal the land. I say they were trying to stop infanticide and mass rape.’ He largely denied the history of the massacres of Aboriginal people during the Frontier Wars. Molyneux pointed to a study (I’m not sure which) that argues that the numbers of Aboriginal people who died at the hands of white massacres ‘ranged between 1 and 1,000’. This he compared to the ‘Islamic takeover’ of India, in which he said 80 million Indians were killed. White people, therefore, have nothing to feel guilty about (this has been a trend in Molyneux’s videos as well). ‘The Aborigines had Australia for 40,000 years. You have had it for a tiny fraction of that time. And look at what you have done. And you are supposed to feel guilty about this?’
Southern took a more muted approach, taking aim less at individual cultures and more at the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ itself. She focused on the Australian government’s statement about ‘multiculturalism’, in which Malcolm Turnbull speaks about Australia’s core ‘values’ such as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’.
‘But aren’t values based on culture?’ Southern asked, stating the values espoused by the government were rooted in western culture. Southern argued that multiculturalism is inherently contradictory, arguing that we cannot incorporate cultures that are opposed to western values. ‘What about the cultures that do not agree with western freedoms,’ she asked. ‘What about cultures that want to destroy other cultures?’
Southern’s framing was, in many ways, stronger than Molyneux’s, even though she was not as charismatic, nor as popular with the crowd. She argued that globalisation had raised a range of challenges, particularly centred on mass migration. Multiculturalism was one response to this challenge, but, she argued, a response that had become akin in many ways to a religion that could not be questioned. ‘The first rule of multiculturalism is that you cannot talk about multiculturalism,’ she said. The problem, Southern argued, was not individual cultures per se (although if you look at previous material of hers you can find a strong thread that disagrees with this position), but rather the idea that different cultures can integrate successfully.
As I left the event my mind was running so fast that a staff member had to remind me to collect my bag from the coat check before I left. Having only driven up for the night, I hopped back in my car and headed back to Canberra. My head was full of questions, ones that I am still wrestling with.
The first is: how big are these movements and the ideas that underpin them in Australia? One of the things that has struck me is how, in Australia, it is largely figures from overseas who are able to attract the sort of attention that followed Molyneux and Southern. More interesting was how the two dove into local issues as a way to create controversy. Southern made a big deal over her visit to the so-called ‘no go zone’ of Lakemba, while Molyneux spent his entire talk engaging in the Australian history wars (a la Quadrant, Windschuttle and Blainey).
While important, I could not help but think that these were issues that were largely outside of mainstream political discourse (unless of course you a producer on SkyNews). Even though many of the ideas espoused by Molyneux and Southern have also emerged among the political class – for example, Peter Dutton’s advocacy for white South African farmers – I can’t help but ask, are they really resulting in a following on the ground? Are we actually seeing the rise of a mass, organised far-right movement, or is this instead the fancy of a small wing of ultra-conservatives who are excited about some new energy being breathed into old cultural battles?
My inclination is to lean to the latter explanation. I see Molyneux and Southern simply as that: new energy that may excite some on the right, but isn’t likely to result in an organised, militant far right (unlike in various parts of Europe and the US). This reading is supported by, for example, the outrage over Cottrell being given media airtime, and by the small numbers of the far right who turn up to rallies; they may be aspiring fascists, but they’re still very much fringe ideas and figures here. And if this is the case, it opens up a range of questions about how the broader left should respond to these sorts of events, and to the leaders of these movements.
Protests from antifa, socialist and anarchist groups have followed the likes of Molyneux and Southern on their talks, primarily in the US, but increasingly in Australia as well. As Jason Wilson has argued, in the US this has played a role in halting the spread of white nationalist movements, who after a flurry of attention in the lead-up to and following the Charlottesville protests, are now being suffocated by a lack of oxygen. Protests therefore certainly have their value, at least in potentially stopping these ideas before they can take real purchase among people.
Yet, at the same time, I think the left, in particular the mainstream liberal left, need to do more. One of the most interesting moments on the night I attended was when Southern spoke about globalisation and the impact it has had on people’s sense of identity, as well as their economic and social security. Molyneux and Southern both spoke about concerns of growing house prices, increasing congestion and economic insecurity, tapping into, I believe, real fears and anxieties about the changing nature of the world. These fears do have increasing mainstream resonance – they are, at least in part, the sorts of fears that led to the election of Donald Trump and to the Brexit vote. Taking a step back, I could see how an argument against multiculturalism could counter these fears.
This leads me to think that perhaps we on the left are failing in matters of discourse. A standard response in my Twitter feed was to label everybody who attended this event a bigot or a racist. While we can go back and forth in debates over labels, for me this is not enough: it does not explain why these ideas are taking root. It puts an end to the conversation – about why ideas on the far right have appeal – characterises people as deplorable, and doesn’t allow for any possibility that people can be genuinely alienated, and that their ideas about the cause of this alienation (for example, racism) can change.
The reality is that the fears many people have about our world are real: the future does look uncertain, many people are really struggling, and most people feel atomised; explanations as to why people feel like this are not really available in the mainstream discourse. Where Molyneux and Southern succeed is in having an answer to these fears. They fill a void, one that is largely being ignored by mainstream politicians, the press, and yes, many parts of the left. While the answer they provide is racist, that does not mean that the fears themselves inherently are.
This is the opportunity, strangely enough, that this moment brings. If we want to defeat these ideas then we need to both work to understand them, and to fill the void with something else – in other words, a proper, structural, anti-capitalist movement that counters oppressive structures, and has answers for how we increase economic security, and eliminate the racism that still runs deep in our society.
For inspiration, we can look to groups around the world that are working to get people out of the radical right and to eliminate their appeal. Organisations such as EXIT in Sweden and Germany recognise that the drive to these groups is through social isolation. As Michael Kimmel has argued, the solution is not to attack the ideology but to provide people with somewhere else to land. We need to increase bonds of community, solidarity and collective empathy as a way to defeat these ideas.
Driving back to Canberra late that night, I found myself thinking that what we need more than anything right now is a political response that is similar – we need to focus on recognising the core causes behind racist radicalisation and finding solutions to those causes. In many ways, such an approach is lacking from our current political response to the re-emergence of the far right.
This is part of a series on responses to the far right in Australia. See also:
- ‘Why the alt-right want to call Australia home’ – Chris di Pasquale
- ‘On the fear of a “foreign invasion”’ – Jeff Sparrow