Someone might be able to make a bit of cash by putting together an Australian songbook for Reclaim Australia — 18 great misunderstood and wilfully misinterpreted Australian classics, from Friday on My Mind — a song registering increasing disquiet about the prevalence of the Muslim holy day — to When the War Is Over [and Islam is defeated], to Wake Up Jeff, and by Jeff I mean, of course, Straya. What a pity Mixed-Up Confusion is a Dylan number.

The playing of Redgum’s I Was Only Nineteen at the rally on the Gold Coast last weekend was a surprise, but given Reclaim Australia is so deeply confused, it shouldn’t be. You’d think that anyone wanting to drum up a sense of national duty and global conflict would steer clear of a song that portrayed such wars as meaninglessness and incomprehensible, but what was wanted from the song was a sense, above all, of self-pity.

I Was Only Nineteen gains its power from the absence of the self-pity — the narrator is trying to make sense of his world using a consciousness that has itself been shattered. That process necessarily foregrounds scepticism about the whole tawdry national parade with which the song begins. When you take loyalty to that as given, the lyrics become whinier than the violin on the original. “I was only 19” is really saying “I still am — pounded by a world I don’t understand”. Had they been really honest they would have played What About Me?.

There is no right-wing populist setlist that is not a document of a failed revolution. In the 1940s, the Communist Party of Australia developed a national culture strategy, drawing on notions of mateship and de facto egalitarianism to suggest that the Australian worker was “a natural Communist”. This involved the repopularisation of bush ballads, which had been largely shunned, and their introduction to school teaching — hey, don’t thank us! — the adoption of the Eureka flag, and much more. When the movement split along Soviet and Chinese lines in the ’60s, the Maoists took the nationalism with them and founded the Australian Independence Movement. Redgum itself came out of a project for the “politics and art” course of the Maoisante philosopher Brian Medlin. Hard to know whether Reclaim Australia would be more shocked by that or by the fact that John Schumann ended up working for the Democrats. The Maoists went full-bore for Australian nationalism, setting up a chain of “Kalkadoon bookshops” with Eureka stubby holders, Ned Kelly condoms and the writings of Mao, etc. They were stores run on firm Marxist-Leninist principles, letting you in only on the proviso you wouldn’t buy anything and closing immediately if you tried to.

When the radical Marxist tide that had flowed strongly in the organised working class began to ebb, the nationalist culture remained, like a marooned shipwreck. It was inevitable that it would be taken over by a new movement that has no systemic politics to speak of, simply a set of interlocking obsessions, as Shakira Hussein’s brilliant report illustrated. There was no chance such a movement would tap into the prevailing neocon narrative, with its elite commitment to globalised capital and free-market liberalism; nor could they create a Tea Party-style movement that draws on folk American traditions of “last best hope of man”, manifest destiny, etc. Trying to find some way to refloat themselves, they can’t help but be attracted by the most surging sense of national selfhood, which is indigenous self-determination in whatever addled way they understand it.

Without the infusion of movement for class power, it’s inevitable that such a movement will become a mess of fetishes, obsessions and magical thinking. Indeed that was part of an earlier appropriation by the Right of national symbols — in the ’30s and ’40s, when the “bush legend” movement became the “Australia First” movement, dissenting from joining the Second World War, and allied with the Jindyworobak poetry movement, which sought to connect modernist political writing to Aboriginal song cycles (many of which they recorded and preserved); eventually some of the Jindies began to believe that they could take on the telepathy they believed Aboriginal people possessed. Australia First was crushed by being interned (not before they tried to blow up some rail lines during WWII), and the Left took over the folk-nationalist franchise.

“Reclaim Australia is a distant echo from the Keating restructuring of the early ’90s, when a section of the old Anglo working class were dismissed as surplus to requirements.”

Now a section of the Right has got it again. It is organised around opposition to Islam because it needs to construct a strong adversary to gain an identity from. A generation ago, it was east Asians who were the threat because of their cultural otherness and alleged ant-like conformity, while Islam was an Abrahamic religious culture with shared norms. Now the batshit crazy notion of Islam as some unique force outside all other human meaning has been revived. That’s a worldwide thing, but like all such movements, particular obsessions are put forward. The halal thing has become obsessive in a way that it isn’t anywhere else. It is a purity obsession, of course — a ghost fear of contamination attaching to an object, atavistic in form. To a degree it’s a repurposing of general concerns around food safety, contamination, healthiness, etc, taking another form. Obsessive stories about what’s good and bad for us get a political makeover. None of this is done consciously, of course.

But, above all, it is concrete, the Right’s great initial strength and its ultimate weakness. Simple stories and symbolic objects give them things to coalesce around — look at their design style, and its habit of piling more upon more, because four Eureka-painted skulls must be better than three, if you can cram them among all the centred Zapf Chancery around the burning Sydney Opera House. Trouble is, without an underlying consistent argument the movement can only propagate with more objects, more magic. Should it try to become mainstream it loses its allure for many. Should it stick with the magical thinking it inevitably goes through a series of splits, as 9/11 trutherism and chemtrails become too much for some. Active politics involves an end to self-pity; for many, that is all that holds their selfhood, and a meaningful world together. Projecting power and self is too risky.

That doesn’t mean one should be quiescent about Reclaim Australia, but it does suggest a strategy against them — one also suggested by dealing with similar movements such as the now largely dissipated English Defence League:

1) Matching them on the street is good and necessary; giving them a reflected sense of purpose and unity isn’t. They can only gain a unity from what opposes them. Ridicule, parody and piss-taking is an important part of undermining that incipient sense of identity. Refusing recognition keeps them permanently in suspension.

2) Don’t try to restrict their free speech with state laws, but use the full force of the law against violent or threatening acts. Counter-demonstrations are legitimate, as is a degree of forcefulness in denying public space. Using 18C or other laws to try to get their marches cancelled simply extends the state into the public sphere, and it legitimates such. But any violent or threatening acts should be pinged, reported and prosecuted, dividing the movement between its violent and non-violent groupings. Criminal prosecution doesn’t create martyrs — it just isolates and segments an already atomised movement.

3) Separating the leaders from the led. The movement obviously has leaders, who have largely constituted the movement from leftovers. They will emerge as public figures. They tend to be split types, intelligent but also thought-disordered who simultaneously believe and don’t believe the myths they’re peddling. Desperate for fame and recognition, they will respond to temptation and ultimately become separate from, and suspected, by the people they initially energised.

4) Check their backgrounds. Most such leaders are entrepreneurial chancers for whom political populism is the latest go. Demonstrating the separation between the leaders and their more sincere, if befuddled and sometime pernicious rank-and-file decomposes the relationship. Such movements will tolerate success for a while, but what they really crave is disappointment and betrayal, and a sense that the world is stacked against them. Which in turn allows for a return to self-pity, and a sense that they have preserved their identity, in a fallen world.

Ultimately, Reclaim Australia is a distant echo from the Keating restructuring of the early ’90s, when a section of the old Anglo working class were dismissed as surplus to requirements. As their fortunes fell, those of a stream of migrants rose, their tighter social networks and capital networks allowing for steady social advancement, which the more atomised social networks of other groups could not match. Nothing real about this process can be admitted, which is why Reclaim Australia pays relatively little attention to real social problems that do exist in their rhetoric — fraying of social cohesion within multicultural societies, the real rise of ethnic-branded gang crime and the like. To talk of such would be to admit that there are both social problems and social solutions. What they want is a transcendental enemy, omnipresent Islam, coming in via halal through our very pores.

Once the movement has been broken down and the pernicious separated from the pathetic or the merely pliant, the latter can be spoken to in different terms, appealing to the better side of themselves. In terms befitting a group of people who can’t understand I Was Only Nineteen.