There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Stalin, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution. Sent south to put a bit of steel into the backbones of some local anarchists the Bolsheviks were in temporary alliance with. He breezes into their office and says, “right, how many priests have you shot?”. When he hears the answer “none”, he says, “oh, you people aren’t serious at all!”. Nor is there any doubt he meant it, by that time.

Ruthlessness, see. It is a quality not easily achieved, the indifference to the fate of the other. The Bolsheviks cultivated it. Humanists and intellectuals, they realised that their habitual pose was questioning, reflective, at worst diffident. To do what they felt they must, they became their own opposite.

The liberal tradition, as defined by Tim Wilson, our latest rights bureaucrat, is a universal commitment. The rights spring from the nature of the human being, any human being, as purposive, loving, conscious of death, meaning-making. But the Right is not only liberal, it is conservative too. And conservatism is anti-liberal. Against the abstract notion of the “human”, it opposes given and self-identified societies, and refuses all obligation to those outside them. Generosity, maybe, if conditions permit. But generosity as the gift bestowed, not the duty to another fulfilled.

That conservatism is what both major parties draw on in prosecuting our lethal mandatory detention policy. At its most confident, that sort of conservatism ascends to a total indifference to the people over the hill, beyond the shore, across the border. Ruthlessness — parochial ruthlessness — is grounded in that indifference. It sees reciprocity as a fixed quantity, to be extended to family first, then community. Nationalism mimics that sense of affinity, tries to generalise it, to give a sense of commonality to everyone from Broome to Bicheno, and to then direct it outwards, against the others.

But of course that’s self-cutting against the grain. The border, even for the world’s only continent-island-nation-state, is now a fictional one via trade, media, travel and all those other things that liberals enthusiastically spruik. You can’t help but deal with the others on their own terms, which is why refugee policy for two decades has been determined by the desperate search for some notion of “fairness” that can be applied to it — a justification for ruthlessness, not in conservative terms, but in liberal ones. These people didn’t queue, we’re punishing the people smugglers, legitimate migrants want family reunions, etc. The desperate search for an abstract reason to impose the sternest measures.

But the need for such universalism imposes strict limits. By invoking notions such as fairness, you have already ceased to be “indifferent” to the others, since you have differentiated them. Honest migrants from queue jumpers, huddled masses from people smugglers, the persecuted from opportunists and so on. Having failed to be systematically, one might say courageously, ruthless, any sudden lurch into it looks merely grotesque — witness Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s sniggering remarks on Insiders about the Indian student who committed suicide after being detained for overstaying his visa. Could Morrison order someone killed for overstaying their visa? Not in a million years. So the tough guy stance directed at someone brought to fatal despair sounds more hyena than human. It is the expression of someone willing to do let circumstance do their dirty work for them, a type of lethal passivity. Ruthlessness is hard won, an achievement.

The politics of Australia is uniquely soft. The people who talk of being “hard men”, etc, are simply those who have won some tedious factional battle in some union somewhere, or one wacko young Lib faction having stacked another wacko faction’s branch. Ditto the wider culture. The utter disdain for the other that can be released or revived in other cultures, with lethal results, simply isn’t present. Instead it is, for the most part, channelled into sports and talkback radio. That it then determines politics doesn’t mean that it can be lived up to. Though the death of asylum seekers by drowning has been the justification for the new harsh regimes and leapfrog “solutions” — once again, a measure of just how liberal the arguments must be — the notion of a border was sufficient for many people to preserve just enough indifference to not ask whether our navy had done all it could to save such people.

“Having had an economy seemingly running on auto-pilot for so long, we now seem to be willing to choose our governments solely on their capacity to manage our collective anxieties.”

But shooting people dead, in an Australian-run camp, in a situation where security guards appear to be much of the cause of violence, cruelty and chaos, is something else again. It’s an event that can’t help but disorder the whole regime. Any number of people can commit suicide in a detention camp, and that too can be sheeted back to them. But kill someone and there’s two choices: you either abandon any idea of law altogether, or you have to own the process in some way. The first option is simply impossible. The latter means that the dead guy or guys will be around forever — and will exist as persons in the system far more visibly than they did when they were alive. Ruthlessness. When you start a process, you better be ready to finish it.

Of course there is no way of finishing it.

Once you open a concentration camp on a far-flung island, you better be willing to go all the way with it. Since a concentration camp reduces any inmate to nothing, to a mere unit, sooner or later people will reclaim their humanity by resisting, on any terms. At that point, you can either respond with absolute ruthless force, or you’ve already started to lose. The camp is the starting point of a process whose end is extermination, either exemplary or mass. If you’re not prepared to go that far, then, when you started it, you weren’t being serious at all.

That is the point the Coalition are at now. They were pitched into this part of the Pacific solution by the Rudd government, and now they own it. We don’t know whether the latest lethal chaos was started by protesting inmates who were then set upon by G4S guards, or local police or Manus Islanders or all three. But at some point it seems clear the locals took things into their own hands. There is something tragically ironic about this, because while Australians play at being hard, PNGers are the real deal — a nation-state grouping together multitudes of parochial societies, most of whom see violence as part and parcel of everyday life, of honour and respect. This was always the most bizarre part of the idea of refugees being permanently “settled” in PNG — the suggestion that people could simply move into a kinship society, maybe get a condo in some up-and-coming part of Moresby, when the whole country is criss-crossed with lines of affiliation and belonging. Madness on stilts, literally in this case.

The lesson one draws from this, in organising against it, is not that Australians are currently a brutal people hiding behind a sunny veneer, but that they aren’t — and that the Coalition doesn’t believe they are either. Why attack the veracity of the “burnt hands” story if that were not the case? Why not simply, smirkingly, say the navy got a little creative, or some-such? The Coalition knows that many of the people who support the bipartisan line on boat arrivals are either humane or squeamish, depending on your angle. They know for that reason that what the mass of the population wanted was not a harsh policy per se, but for the refugee problem to be invisible. No boats is one way of it being so, riots in camps is very much not.

Though taking a harsh line on boat arrivals is held to be a political necessity for both major parties, the Coalition knows there is a paradoxical effect contained within (one that also applies to a range of other social issues such as the environment). A policy that makes refugees invisible will gain broad support. But one that taps into a conservative indifference to the suffering of others, or even a degree of forthrightness/bastardry, is more likely to win slices of support in socially conservative Labor seats where the Libs don’t have a chance, and lose support in some marginal Liberal seats, where Labor has a very real chance. In a tight election — such as forecast by this week’s Essential poll — that pattern would make or break the Coalition’s chances.

Indeed, Australia now has a very strange and interesting politics. Having had an economy seemingly running on auto-pilot for so long, we now seem to be willing to choose our governments solely on their capacity to manage our collective anxieties. I’m not sure any other polity in the world is quite so committed to this political-psychological form at the moment, though it has echoes of Salazar’s clerico-military Portugal of the grand old days. Simultaneously lethal and yet not serious, not serious at all, it is far more vulnerable to a call for common humanity and collective values than it looks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey