Feb 20, 2014

Razer’s class warfare: people are terrible, but blame those in power

Stop declaring the violence in Manus Island is "not in your name" or due to Australians' antipathy, because it's really not you. It's the government and the power structures we have put in place.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

People, as we know, are a rotten affair who can tend to bad taste and malice. But then again, they do tend to get some bad press. Several of the week’s most popular analyses have held people to account for much of the heartbreak in the world. Perhaps it is time to rethink people’s culpability. Perhaps, people are not always to blame. A very common reaction to the horror of Manus Island is despair. But the despair seems to be aimed less at the rationalised violence and policies of a government demonstrably responsible for this horror than at people. Even, and it seems now especially, from those disposed to a more structural view of violence, we hear that it is people who are to blame. The commentator Jeff Sparrow, who has previously enjoined us to lay blame with the political class, has shifted his focus to people. Of the violence on Manus, he says: "The only limit is that which we’re prepared to bear." His has become a more refined iteration of the "Not In My Name" protests favoured by anyone who has an interest in displacing the violence produced by the whole -- or in this case, very much by the Australian government -- onto people. Not In My Name, or the Greens’ Not With My Vote, is a bromide that shifts responsibility for death and injury from policy that has ordered it. Whether it is caution from normally useful left-wing thinkers that we must be more caring or surveys that "prove" Australian people just don’t care, the account is the same: people are no damn good. This is an entirely understandable emotional reaction. It is just a really shitty intellectual one. If we continue to blame individuals and their no-good ways for all the bad stuff, we are no longer able to describe structural inequality. We just continue to blame our neighbours. A popular piece by Julia Baird on "trolls" this past weekend produced a more sophisticated confusion of people with structures. Which is to say, she showed us how the structure of sexism was upheld by people -- in this case, trolls. Of course, sexism is a structure that, unlike mandatory detention, does require the complicity of people. Leaving aside for the minute the idea that a structure like sexism depends on an unconscious and not, as Baird would have it, a conscious complicity in its powerful nonsense, she just sort of got it wrong. Trolls are not powerful silencers of women. They are, as data indicated last week, a small group of unstable idiots. They are horrible and they can, for the moment, do damage to others with a force previously unobtainable to individuals. But we can be fairly sure that their anonymity -- unfortunately, the same anonymity that allowed extraordinary things like WikiLeaks and citizen journalism to unfold -- will be disabled by legal means. In fact, Baird says she favours that course of action. But what she doesn’t favour is an account of the world where power is either top-down or diffuse. And power is, of course, both of these things. The power in the case of detention is entirely in the hands of the Australian government. It is their rationalising and not our lack of concern that produced death and heartbreak on Manus Island. The power in the case of sexism is in such diluted quantities in trolls, it really doesn’t merit public discussion. Except, of course, now it does. Because individualism has become a dominant account for all power. It Starts With Me. Not In My Name. The Power of One. Look. The personal may be occasionally political, but it is, more often than not, just a boring and impotent way to describe what it means to live in a society that produces such complicated, systematic horror. It is not people who need redemption. It is the systems they consciously and unconsciously built.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

8 thoughts on “Razer’s class warfare: people are terrible, but blame those in power

  1. Holly Murphy

    Your point that blaming “people” for problems like Manus Island means we often fail to see the structures that created it in the first place is a great one. I also wonder if blaming yourself, and getting yourself worked up into feeling quite guilty, as a good bleeding heart does, then allows people to absolve themselves of any need to think about what action to take to reform those systems.

  2. Matt Hardin

    I think you have nailed it , Holly.

  3. Venise Alstergren

    Systems worked to death by our political appointees.

  4. AR

    People are the real problem no dictator is 10mts tall using a telephone pole as a bludgeon. Ugly policies need ugly people not just to legislate but to implement, all those pathetic Jobsworths, to misquote Hannah Arendt “the evil of banality”, venal people upon whom most would not micturate were they ablaze.

  5. linda

    Hang on, both ALP & Coalition went to last election with a deliberate policy of making things as bad as possible for refugees (in the name of deterrence). They did this because they knew it would be electorally popular, as apparently it was. “people” developed the policies, “people” voted for them & “people” carry them out. All of the people had the option of not doing so. Yes there are structural, institutionalised reasons why people have done what they have, but I think you are getting overly abstract here. People who think its wrong need to keep making as much noise as we can and try to make other people change their minds. Its not a question of guilt, its a question of responsibility.

  6. Corban Hicks

    Helen’s read her Z. Bauman.

  7. Polly Valentine

    And three years on…

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details