‘Tis the season for a new security push in Australia and across the world. This time, it’s in the name of anti-extremism. In the past 48 hours, the NSW government has announced details of its schools package, aimed at anti-radicalisation. Details have leaked of a similar program to be trialed by Victoria in January. And the lead page of The Australian today breathlessly relates how FBI agents from Quantico (fancy!) have been briefing the AFP for the past fortnight about how to encourage people to report friends and acquaintances who might be displaying “extremist” views and behaviour.

These initiatives, in the works for months, have been brought forward following the fatal shooting of police accountant Curtis Cheng by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar last month. They have been driven by government’s over-riding priority in such situations — the need to look busy and active in the face of imagined or relatively minor threats, surrounded by the obsessive imagination of them.

The New South Wales program is the most elaborated of these. A $47 million program entitled “Countering Violent Extremism in NSW” is heavily focused on intervention at the schools level — $6 million will be put into the school counselling program to “to ensure that they have the skills necessary to identify and help vulnerable young people access support programs”. While a more comprehensive $15 million will be put into five specialist school “flying squads” to:

“… respond to challenges relating to violent extremism in those schools, and respond to crisis events if they occur. The teams will include psychologists and student support workers, and will link in with the efforts of community leaders, to ensure schools have any ongoing support they require.”

Some of it is simple upgrading dressed up as a new initative (“expand the incident reporting system to ensure all NSW schools are reporting incidents of violent extremist behaviour”). And a degree of it lies somewhere in the territory between Utopia and The Thick Of It (“establish a Community Cohesion Ambassadors’ Program to …” well, you can probably hum the rest of that one yourself).

There are fewer details of the Victorian program coming in January — they have decided to look busy in a studious and considered fashion and will spend $32 million on five pilot programs, four of them aimed at Muslim radicalisation, and one at neo-Nazism. This appears to be a more complex and considered approach than an earlier one, heavily focused on compulsion — much in tune with the Andrews’ government apparent ambition to become the most behaviourally coercive government in Australia — and on internet recruitment, all of which was much criticised by experts.

There is a huge philosophical and political problem with these programs, to which I’ll return below, but one key point to observe about the overall “deradicalisation” approach is that there is no great evidence that it works. Just as with the rapid response to domestic/partner/family violence, we are prioritising a certain type of action — behavioural/psychological/cultural intervention by an intersecting network of state and quasi-state authorities — with no critically tested model of how it does what it does. Worse, such processes ignore the very well documented impact of the “backlash effect” — that if you try and assign people an identity using state-prescriptive processes, you crowd out any capacity to establish an autonomous social and cultural, except by negation. You increase the likelihood that, for a larger pool of people than would otherwise be the case, a wholly negating identity will be one they’re drawn to. What could fit the bill better than IS? The outfit is simply al-Qaeda meets punk.

So why are whole governments mobilising with an untested process that may have counter-productive results? Because while everyone, as a citizen, parent, child, partner, friend etc, wants to see terror incidents minimised — especially any larger-scale ones — everyone involved in the chain of state action is simply enacting their state role. This is the state-form of our era, its agencies so extended into behavioural control and reshaping as a primary function that such functions come to determine the mindset and manner of other parts of the state, such as the education system and policing.

This is not the banality of evil; it is the banality of banality. It is made up of interlocking parts of ideological wilfulness in the face of evidence, behavioural frontline practitioners who haven’t been trained to think critically about their practice, and a lot of people in the middle ranges of implementation who are simply shrugging their shoulders and implementing the latest fad. “Resilience” was all the rage a couple of years ago. Now it’s “cohesion”. If you’re a public servant caught in the middle of this, you simply implement implement, until sweet early retirement descends. Thus is social policy made.

Interestingly, there seem to be a number of particularly Australian wrinkles to this thing. When you start to treat a social and political phenomenon on a public health model — the spread of the radicalisation “disease” — then eventually the discourse starts to be taken over by other ways of turning a series of intentional acts and beliefs into objective processes. Thus, when one reads about anti-radicalisation flying squads being formed to attend crisis situations, it occurs that the obvious antecedent, in Australia, is bushfires and firefighting.

When one reads that NSW is to “undertake a comprehensive mapping exercise of relevant services and referral points” as part of this thing, one is reminded of Don Watson’s devastating account of the Black Saturday inquiry, and the evidence of the hopeless, overpromoted boobies in the CFA who talked about “populating the map with incidents” — those incidents being the horrific fiery deaths of whole families together. Thus, in Australia, the distinctive state-form we have developed — a state weak in some of its core aspects, such as pushing back against inequality and social exclusion — has become vast in its extended capacity to reach into people’s lives, as a near-autonomous process. It’s like a mutant crab, all claws and grabbers and no body to speak of. All the agencies are unified at a central core, but nothing you would call a brain is present there.

That whole complex of processes — behaviour/ideology/culture modification as the state’s first and automatic response to crisis — has a deeper structure, too, which is a profound lack of faith in the principles of the secular Western society that it simultaneously trumpets as so obviously superior that anyone who doubts its values and virtues must be in the grip of some disease. It is surely obvious that the program that current deradicalisation approaches have most in common with is Eastern-bloc psychiatry during the Cold War. Dissidents then were treated as mentally ill — because how could anyone rational oppose the general direction of a socialist society? — and we are trying to negate violent Islamism in the same way. Furthermore we are doing this by bringing to bear our own unquestioned ideologies of inherent superiority, in particular a multiculturalism tied to a secular market society.

The revival of multiculturalism as part of the chain of discipline and coercion is one of the most fascinating aspects of this extended political process. Remember when the right were going hammer and tongs against multiculturalism at the height of the Howard era? They’ve shut up about that now, preferring to see in multiculturalism as a policy, what has always been at its core — a device for cultural and ideological control and shaping. Thus the NSW program:

“… includes the Multicultural NSW COMPACT — a $4 million community partnership program that has been co-designed in consultation with the community and academic experts … [and the program will] establish a Community Cohesion Ambassadors’ Program for community leaders to work with students in schools.”

The worst aspect of multicultural policy is to grant state recognition to the idea of “communities” within a community, that somehow have a greater reality than the other networks and affiliations by which people live. Whatever useful role this played in the great post-war migration era, it has long since been superseded. It survives simply for purposes of political clientalism — so that leaders of both parties can scarf up votes, branch members, etc, by a “one-stop shop” process, with whatever distinguished man (usually a man)/activist/shameless shonk has set himself up as head of the Biddleonian-Australian foundation or whatever.

As a “materialist” leftist I’ve always abhorred multicultural policy of that type (which is quite distinct to the practice and policy of immigration per se), and been disappointed that my fellow materialist leftists (i.e. Marxists who are still catching up) have been so little willing to make a thorough critique of it, out of a mix of coalition-building and simple cowardice. If you’re not alarmed by racial discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane linking Eric Abetz’s archaic and uninformed use of the term “negro” to the “material hurt” of racist abuse, and then to multicultural policy more widely, you’re not paying attention. Now it should be obvious how easily multiculturalism can be “culturally weaponised” as a device of social control. It will be counter-productive of course, but it will allow politicians to break bread with community leaders and inflate their self-importance ahead of the next election.

The obvious point about using multiculturalism in this form of social control is that it works against its stated aim, which is the founding of common values that situate national citizenship as primary (which is a separate question in itself). How can you simultaneously funnel money and prestige to multicultural community leaders and then squawk when a bunch of devout Shia children decide that it is their religious duty not to be present for the national anthem, because of a ban on joyful song during a certain religious period (a ban that would be shared by some orthodox Jews and pentecostalist/dominionist Christians by the way)? The program seems to be some sort of demented recipe to create a sense of ethnic communities as a “real” category, and then, via the backlash effect of “cohesion/resilience” education, make a certain subgroup feel that they must express their cohesion and resilience by a dissident fidelity to such a cause. This is a work of anti-genius.

It is also profoundly illiberal and anti-pluralist. The whole notion that “radicalism” and “radicalisation” are processes by which a person who would otherwise have the values of a secular market society — which is to say, no strong values at all, other than a few framing political liberal ones — is somehow “infected” with a virus, is not only self-defeating but undermines the pluralism necessary to a complex society.

“Deradicalisation” assumes that radicalism has no content, intent, that it is not based on interpretation and debate of world events and the character of the society that surrounds one. To some degree it is reasonable to acknowledge that teenagers can be caught up in simplistic movements, which offer what teenagers desperately crave in an alienating and unequal society — meaningful action, recognition, assertion — and that the process is not a fully autonomous one. But none of them are becoming Moonies or Raelians. They are being drawn to movements that respond to decades of foreign occupation and domination of lands and peoples they’re connected to. For a process to not acknowledge that — that it is a process of conscious and knowing affiliation — makes the state, in the words of the old TV program, dumber than a 16-year-old.

The autonomous character of such affiliation is not being acknowledged because that would mean granting recognition to its foreign policy proposals. To a degree, the whole practice of treating “radicalisation” with a state-behaviourist response is aimed at denying the truth of two decades and more of disastrous imperialist intervention in Muslim lands. The least dangerous thing to do would be acknowledge that and affirm that we cannot have a pluralist secular society without a line between enforcement of laws against violent behaviour or the planning of such, and a certain sphere of privacy and socially free debate, in which no non-radical “centre” is proposed.

In this space, ideas fight it out. You would think outfits like the IPA and Senator David Leyonhjelm would be saying this loudly and as a top priority. But aside from a focus on direct surveillance, they’re unwilling to focus on the deep structure of illiberalism that lies at the heart of a national security state, convened for a vastly exaggerated threat profile — the IPA because it is an establishment outfit, and Leyonhjelm because he is too busy worrying about the tyrannical effects of a five-cent charge on plastic bags. The duty falls on those of us who want a genuinely free society — which must begin by acknowledging the corrosive and unfree effects of inequality, marginalisation and exclusion from opportunity. That means many on the left have to think hard about what they sign up to when they support the behaviour-management state or parrot the mantras of multiculturalism.

Peter Fray

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