“Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?”
William S. Burroughs
Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ended his political year by declaring that Bill Shorten was not fit to be prime minister because of his “shameless lies”, a move welcomed by the gerontariat at The Australian as demonstrating Turnbull was finally “a convert to a powerful negative assault on the contemporary Labor Party”. That the Prime Minister had donned his predecessor’s boxing trunks and taken to swinging haymakers at a punching bag adorned with the face of his Labor opponent was a fitting symbol of both his ever more Abbottesque prime ministership, and of 2016.
Where to start with this shocking year of so-called post-truth politics?
In Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs relates the cautionary tale of a man who teaches his arsehole to speak, initially as a “novelty ventriloquist act”, but things turn grim as the orifice first learns to speak on its own, then develops teeth to “eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights”, before the man’s mouth seals over and he is rendered mute while his arsehole yells at the world.
“For a while you could see the silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out, and there was no more feeling in them than a crab’s eyes on the end of a stalk.”
It’s an apt tale for an annus horribilis.
Something that’s become ever more apparent since the victory of market economics in the West is that the individualism and materialism at the heart of neoliberalism isn’t enough for most people. For all the criticism of “neoliberalism”, as variously misinterpreted by the left, few critics have been perspicacious enough — my colleague Mr Rundle is one such — to see its crucial flaw: that however much economic benefit might flow from rejecting communitarian economic policies in favour of individualism and an unfettered market, some form of binding social and cultural glue is still needed beyond material wealth — perhaps needed more than ever. And particularly needed when the economic system stops delivering growing material wealth to most citizens.
Traditionally for the right, that glue, the communal value set, has been a tribal loathing of the Other. It’s sometimes wrapped up in the flag and military fetishism, but often more overtly targeted. Even in a country like Australia that has more pursued neoliberal economics more successfully than nearly any other country, a tribalist demonisation of the Other has been a persistent social and cultural theme from the right. And that theme was the driving force of the events of 2016, in a way not seen for many decades in the West.
The Other can take many forms, of course, but uncontrolled immigration, or immigration seen as uncontrolled, delivers a ready-made target. In Australia, asylum seekers have served as Other with distinction, but since the Abbott government Stopped The Boats and dumped refugees in open-air Pacific rape camps, Australia’s Muslim communities have also done yeoman service as a fill-in threat to Aussie families. Ditto, and more so, elsewhere: Muslims and Mexican illegal immigrants served the same purpose for Donald Trump (along with the more nebulous economic threat of the People’s Republic of Gina), while in the UK, EU immigration — and fears that the great tide of illegal immigration from Africa entering Europe poses a threat to the UK — have served a similar purpose.
Nor is the tactic by any means confined to the right: historically, unions and the ALP have not been fond of high immigration or refugees either, from an employment and wages perspective, and the ALP marked 2016 with its own successful campaigns against 457 visas (itself a reheat of a less successful 2013 effort, when Julia Gillard took up the battle cry of “they take our jerbs”). But the right tends to extend xenophobia beyond merely economic concerns to fears of interracial sex. Mexicans are rapists, Trump famously said; British women would be subject to “mass sex attacks” by migrants if the UK stayed in the EU, said UKIP leader and time traveler from a Carry On film Nigel Farage, drawing on the mass sexual assaults on women by refugees in Cologne at the start of the year (to which some on the left could only respond by worrying that the right was “stealing feminism” by exploiting the attacks). And in 2016, the right more effectively exploited immigration in the UK, the US and Australia to leverage political success of varying kinds: Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US (both cases of elite establishment figures effectively exploiting racism to tap into economic resentment) and the re-emergence of an openly racist political party in Australia, one that is likely to see greater political success before it fragments again.
But despite the triumphant electoral march of the right this year, we also saw the problem in all this. The right has relied on tribal demonisation ever more in recent years, either in order to delegitimise progressive political opponents (e.g. Obama, Gillard) or for the more traditional reason that they themselves have not been able to deliver economically for the great bulk of the population. And the more the right has relied on this tactic, the more atrophied its capacity to govern has become — the more it has become only about attacking the Other. The tactic has become the strategy, and then a goal unto itself.
We saw this in three different ways in 2016.
First, the reliance on demonisation and delegitimisation has emboldened and normalised the lunatic fringe of right-wing politics. Hate speech and wingnuttery are now (re-)established in political discourse in Australia: anti-Semitism, homophobia and Islamophobia are routinely peddled within Parliament, and conspiracy theories are touted as fact. Even the Abbott years of “ditch the witch” never saw the like: Sandy Hook truthers given the run of Parliament House to warn of climate change conspiracies, Muslims routinely vilified, flat Earther legal theories solemnly debated. So emboldened is the far right of the Coalition that some are talking of splitting off and forming their own Party For Straight White Males, who are portrayed as downtrodden victims of (yet another) conspiracy of Political Correctness Gone Mad, in a world where 18C is the most crucial issue confronting the nation.
Second, the right’s capacity to communicate anything other than demonisation and delegitimisation has almost vanished through underuse. Tony Abbott was a superb example of this: brilliantly negative in opposition, he proved unable to communicate a positive message in government and when under pressure reflexively defaulted to attacking Labor rather than leading the country. Donald Trump, similarly, offered virtually no policy detail of any kind during his election campaign beyond the threat to all those deemed Other that they were about to get their comeuppance. Similarly, the hapless government of Theresa May has proven unable to offer a coherent policy agenda other than attacks on foreign workers — and remember May is only there because Boris Johnon was so inept at communicating anything other than an avuncular vilification of the EU and immigration that he realised his own party wouldn’t have a bar of him.
The same condition has struck Turnbull, too, producing a genuine political tragedy. Once Australia’s most eloquent political communicator, who spoke to voters like they were thinking adults, a man who aimed high when talking to the electorate rather than a lowest common denominator of talking points, Turnbull has undergone the same devolution that struck Julia Gillard on her ascension to the prime ministership. He’s lost a once-feared ability to cut through and present a clear argument – making him synonymous with waffling, peculiar slogans and a dithering indecisiveness, leaving us clueless as to where exactly Turnbull wants to lead Australia. Leather-jacketed Moderate Malcolm has long since disappeared, but far more problematically, the brilliant former barrister and Australia’s most quotable political figure has vanished with him.
Thirdly, the actual process of governing has proven far more difficult than anticipated for the right. When you are focused on demonisation and delegitimisation, facts are a trivial aside, if not a hindrance. But governing effectively relies on accepting and then working with facts. And it has proven difficult to seamlessly shift from denialism and delusion back to evidence-based policy. The May government in the UK, for example, has struggled to even work out exactly how it is going to exit the EU, let alone what will happen once it has completed that process. And the Turnbull government has proven almost as comically inept as its predecessor, with a string of debacles across the year: the state income tax proposal proudly unveiled and then euthanased within 36 hours, the Senate reform process and double dissolution strategy that yielded an even more hostile crossbench and the return of One Nation, the ongoing NBN debacle; the much-vaunted ABCC turned into a protectionism regulator, Scott Morrison being kept in the dark about the date of his own budget, the climate action review that was nobbled within hours of being announced. That’s far from a complete list, and it omits the serial disasters of George Brandis, a figure torn from the pages of a limp 1991 Fast Forward sketch and sent careering Mr Magoo-like through an already chaotic government.
The government’s economic performance, in particular, has been plagued by stubborn facts: the government continues to run massive deficits despite taxing at a much higher level than Labor ever did, because it is spending at a sustained level well above that managed by Labor (all of which is Labor’s fault, somehow). But despite this resolute Keynesianism, the economic has struggled to reach trend growth and actually went backwards for the first time in years in 2016. Worse, the government has presided over an extended period of wage stagnation that provides a tangible sign to voters that the economy is no long delivering the kind of gains in material wealth that are the chief promise of neoliberalism.
The result in Australia is this bizarre creature, the Turnbull government, in office but not in power as Tony Abbott observed (as always, devastating when playing negative) — incapable of articulating a coherent agenda or economic vision, much less addressing major challenges like the budget deficit, housing affordability and climate change. But it does have Burroughs’ talking arsehole, one that screams out for equal rights for straight white men — 18C reform, vilification of Muslims, denunciations of climate change conspiracies, abuse of LGBTI people.
This is the consequence of what is incorrectly called “post-truth” politics — something Turnbull, hilariously, railed at recently, as though he hasn’t been an enthusiastic post-truther himself when deemed necessary. But one can no more be post-truth than post-existence. Not merely does reality prove stubbornly resistant to denial but denialism, in all its forms, is corrosive of reason and judgment, rusting away one’s capacity to think rationally, degrading one’s ability to absorb information, undermining one’s faculty for fruitful debate. And such are the necessary, though not sufficient, mechanisms for governing competently.
Worse, constant demonisation hasn’t proved consistently successful. The Coalition felt it also had to steal the left’s economic communitarianism, embracing protectionism and xenophobic investment policies. This cleverly links with the program of demonisation by privileging the demographic group that demonisation is intended to appeal to, working class white voters and especially working class white males, but it renders the government’s economic agenda entirely incoherent. The government is for free trade and free investment but also for industrial protectionism and a white Australia foreign investment policy. As with Trump, who has preached protectionism but is staffing his administration with hardline neoliberals, this theft of the left’s economic irrational fantasies is more fig leaf than substance — but it is an extraordinarily expensive fig leaf. Tens of billions of dollars are to be wasted on a local 2800-job submarine project — almost as if the Coalition hoped to outdo in gross inefficiency Labor’s automotive protectionism policy.
But this, too, will fail. The days of the manufacturing sector employing 20% of the workforce are moving beyond living memory; it currently employs less than 8%. Australia is increasingly a successful services economy and white working-class males will have to adjust to it; no level of government interventionism can send us back to 1970, however much trade unions, South Australians and political populists wish it. All that will do is make us poorer — except for those clever enough to latch onto the public teat.
And despite the success of the right this year, none of this augurs well for 2017: an incompetent, denialist Trump administration is likely to emerge, while an incapable, listless Turnbull government obsesses about obscure issues and tries to delegitimise Labor, presiding over tepid economic growth and a fiscal problem that keeps stubbornly getting worse. There is no reason to think that we will see anything but a further vicious circle of demonisation, incompetence and resentment. And sometimes, if you’re looking closely, you’ll see something at the Prime Minister’s press conferences. Blink and you’ll miss it, but once in while you can see that “silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes” of a government that taught its arsehole to talk.