Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Mike Burgess
Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Mike Burgess (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The late John le Carré once noted that the spy game was over when MI6 moved into its headquarters on the Thames — a vast pile, done in a self-parodic postmodern style with spikes and castellations, a building straight out of a Superman comic.

When the Cold War was live, he said, the agencies worked out of nondescript buildings scattered across London. The whole point was not to be seen.

The same sense of mission confusion attends the head of ASIO Mike Burgess’ announcement this week that it would drop specific labels of actual and potential violent acts as “Islamist” or “right-wing” or “left-wing”, and use instead the general descriptors of “religious” or “ideological” terrorism for the very few incidents that threaten happening Australian soil.

This shiny new people-friendly announcement was accompanied by a revelation that the Company Down Under had last year broken up a — in its breathless words — “nest of spies”, details of which could not of course be further revealed, please give us more money.

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That announcement was pleasingly old skool.

The new designations of terrorism are ridiculous. They manage to combine ostensible political correctness as regards religion-inspired violent political activism with a more shadowy reactionary purpose — of denying the close ideological relationship between the mainstream right and terrorism exponents. The new classifications are just words to obscure reality.

As far as religious terrorism, ASIO is not going to start looking for cells of Presbyterian revanchists setting pipe bombs at Uniting Church blue-skivvy-and-guitar get-togethers. (I was going to do Zoroastrians, but Greg Sheridan has already grabbed that joke.)

There’s a small but existing movement of violent Islamism. It has branches in Australia. Some targeted and limited surveillance is required of a small number of people. That should be done by an agency with more accountability than ASIO.

But the more significant move is the attempt to obscure the existence of right-wing terrorists. I don’t think that left-wing or non-white community groups should rely on police forces to guarantee their security, but ASIO’s attempt to deny that there is a very distinctive formation of right-wing terrorist across the Western world, and that, in the hands of actors such as the Australian Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant, it is oriented towards the sane sort of super-lethality as groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State deploy.

ASIO (and also Victoria Police) want to argue that in tagging “ideological” terrorism they’re being even-handed. But in doing so, they’re offering a distorted picture and pursuing bad intelligence because there is no left-wing terrorism — nor any sign that such will emerge.

That is not because the left has never used it as a tactic, but simply because those days are over. The era of left urban guerrilla struggles and “red terror” in the West was pretty brief in any case. It ran from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s and then it was pretty much done.

ASIO and other groups can probably find loose talk on websites and people rereading Marighella etc, but nothing has happened, or is likely to, on any scale, or at all. The period of red violence of that era was driven by the intensity of global struggles — the US was at the time pursuing a smidgeon of terrorism in Vietnam after all — and the idea that targeted violence might bring class struggle to a pitch that would make socialist transformation possible. The violence faded because the possibility faded.

The war was over. We lost. But left violence also fell away because, in another way, we started to win.

Though several decades of neoliberalism descended, the Western world started to become a place steadily transformed by progressive ideals.

Socialism may have looked as far off as ever, but the sense that the world must somehow be run as a finite unit, collectively and with notions of global equity, is now universal — an ethic which extends above capitalism, frames it, and promises its eventual demise.

Red guerrilla violence/terror never had much actual support on the left (though it probably had some sympathy), and now there is none of it to speak of. It’s progressivism that has accepted that politics is a slow drilling through hard timber — in part because major economic and class shifts carry progressivism with them, as the default ideology of the new world.

For the right, it’s different. The neoliberal-neocon package of movements like Thatcherism came apart some time ago. The market can now be seen to be on the attack against the traditional society it sought to uphold.

Broad-scale global movements are wearing away at what were once closed cultures. This is far too large a historical event to stop. Its sheer scale is creating a political hysteria on the right which combines paranoia — it’s all Soros — with the notion that selective atrocities such as Utoya or Christchurch must rile dormant patriots to do their duty.

ASIO, in using a generic term for political terrorism, is wilfully obscuring the fact that it’s all coming from the right now. Furthermore it obscures the right continuum, the vicious paranoid racism fostered in the “respectable” right — mostly News Corp — that gives violent right agents the belief that they’re acting on behalf of a larger body.

But of course ASIO would want to obscure that connection, because it is objectively on the political right. Its initial brief — to contest a global communist movement which was openly insurrectionary — rapidly became a broader remit of surveilling legitimate civil disobedience and positing a spurious connection between the two goals.

Its business model has always been to downplay actual right-wing terrorism — such as the Croatian Ustaše bombings across Australia in the ’70s — so as to make left-wing activism appear more of a threat.

The plain fact is that there has been no left-wing political terrorism in Australia; it’s a null set. ASIO has spent decades scaring up a spectre of it to create a demand and justification for its services. It now has real, violent movements to deal with; it needs to recognise that it comes out of the right, has roots in the mainstream part of it, and that if/when there is a right-wing terrorist event, sections of the mainstream right cannot be held above suspicion or free from investigation.

In the longer run, of course, the agency should be abolished, its functions handed over to the only mildly less problematic AFP. Doubtless it would like a scary building of its own, but it’s a Cold War relic whose self-serving actions are now distorting the true (though small) risks we face in the current era.