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Aug 25, 2017


The full court press against Bill Shorten as the “most left-wing Labor leader in decades”, the recent ludicrous attempt to tie GetUp to the Australia-USSR Friendship Society, and finally Mathias Cormann’s announcement that a Shorten government would continue the failed experiment “of East Germany” have got people scratching their heads. Could team Turnbull be this stupid, this delusional? 

The answer surely is no, and it’s surprising that people don’t see which voters they’re targeting — older, and not-so-older voters from non-Anglo backgrounds, and either a direct or a family memory of Communism. Many of these people do believe that even the very mild social democracy Labor is proposing is a slippery slope to North Korea — and this might be especially so of Vietnamese-Australian voters and other south-east Asian groups.
There’s also a precedent for this — the “Estonian lady” ad made for the Libs by John Singleton in 1974. The Whitlam government had recognised the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic states, and Singo — who was at the time trying to turn himself a very early proto-Trump figure through an outfit called “The Workers Party” — had a middle-aged woman give this monologue (sadly, there is no copy on YouTube, or the internet, that I can find): 


I come originally from Estonia, the Baltic State. I escaped about 30 years ago when the Russians took over my country for the second time. I have lived enough under Communist regime, so I left and came to Australia. My husband and I, we worked very hard and we did well. We brought our children up so that they are well educated and they have a good living standard. Then about 16 months ago the Labor Party came to power, and I thought so, it is still a free country, but now I can see how wrong I was. Today I can see Labor is disguised socialist but for me it is disguised communist. Many Australians can’t understand, they haven’t seen it happen. I have seen it in my country, Latvia, Lithuania, East Germany and Poland, and now I can see the same thing happening here.  

The ad very effectively tied Whitlam’s leftward-moving social policies with the Baltics recognition, and it generated a howl of protest at its sleazy implications — including from many on the right, as the intro to the 1975 Quadrant article on it suggests.

Team Turnbull’s revival of such occurs at a time when many of such generation are gone to the great SBS broadcast in the sky. But it’s clearly the direction they’re pitching in, and it’s surprising how few have spotted it. Coming soon from team Turnbull, has Labor infiltrated our precious bodily fluids? 


Jun 3, 2016


“Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I-I-I-I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”
— Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Your correspondent, when in the UK, rarely misses an issue of The Spectator, one of the best-edited magazines in the world. For the same reason, he rarely reads the Spectator Australia, which is a bit of a ratty spite slum, marketed at $9.90 an issue, and, I’m told, struggling to keep weekly sales in the four figures (one is reminded that, in the 1950s, the CIA had to tell the editors of Quadrant, its Australian front publication, to be less political — pointing out that they were meant to be a cultural magazine, giving the appearance of disinterested inquiry. Plus ca change).

The Spectator‘s UK editors know that a successful magazine has to have a blend of politics and culture if it is to have any longevity. If anyone can kill off the Spectator Australia from the inside, it’s current editor Rowan Dean, former ad-man and explosion-in-a-woolstore.

But I have to admit to enjoying this week’s cover, “Attack of the Marxist Trannies“, in which a giant red-dress-wearing Bill Shorten wields hammer and sickle and terrorises a quiet suburban street far below. The article it illustrates, to judge by the strap line, is the usual: t.e.h Leftz has reached into every area of social life to reshape it, according to its dastardly whims, which appear to involve an undermining of family, flag, and everything we are alleged to hold dear.

If I’m tempted to treat myself to a copy, it would be for the same reason that some Jews in ’30s Germany were said to read Der Sturmer, the Nazi paper: because, contrary to the grim reality, it said the Jews ruled the world and dictated the course of history through their superior cunning. At this point in the course of history, it would be reassuring to find out that the left was just waiting for its moment and was running the joint.

The attempts to present a secret Marxist cabal running schools’ sex education, etc, was largely comical, as per usual. It got serious this week after Safe Schools co-ordinator Roz Ward made an ill-advised Facebook post calling the Australian flag “racist” and saying her “work would be done” when the red flag was flying over Parliament House. This played to every accusation being made: that Safe Schools was being used to advance an entirely different agenda, one of undermining the given mass social acceptance of embodied gender and heterosexuality as “the norm”, and to advocate to teenagers a view of sexuality and gender as “fluid”, in a way that most of us do not believe it really is.

The Facebook post — private but leaked — got swift retribution. Jeff Kennett threatened to pull Beyondblue— Big Depression, a powerful group — out of the Safe Schools coalition if Ward remained, and she duly resigned ahead of being pushed out. Kennett’s move was illiberal, but to be expected as part of politics — if you are a subversive Marxist, it’s kinda dumb to write Facebook posts about it (“Bolsheviki participating in Duma but have secret plan for revolutionary coup LOL” @Lenin).

Ward’s suspension from La Trobe University was something else, a direct attack on freedom of thought, and a measure of what many Australian universities have become: corrupted business adjuncts, with no real connection to a living tradition of humanism. Ward is not in a teaching role, but is in a role in which the protection of the right to hold any idea or view at all should be absolute. If La Trobe academic and other staff don’t take industrial action over this, they’ll be betraying that ideal too.

So we absolutely have to defend Ward’s right to profess any ideas whatsoever, without exception. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who are labelled with the term “Marxist” have to affirm those ideas or even cop association with them. Political solidarity isn’t a suicide pact. Nothing in the queer, intersectional politics that Ward professes strikes me as a particularly accurate view of the world, and, well, some things are true even though The Australian says they are true: from remarks made on record, Ward does seem to suggest that parts of the Safe Schools program are part of a political-cultural operation to introduce a particular view of humanity, using an anti-bullying program as cover.

Furthermore, this is claimed as a “Marxist” political initiative — that the relatively stable gender and relationship roles that the mass of society follows are not the product of deep-seated human desires (with, in the last instance, a biological component), but are imposed by a capitalist order that seeks to control such relations for the purpose of regulated production and consumption.

This is part of the wider fate of Marxism and the “left” — that, as the conditions of material economic revolution have faded, social and cultural struggles have come to the fore. As Western economies have changed and the classical industrial proletariat has largely disappeared, many of those professing Marxism now come from the culture/knowledge-producing class (including students), and those struggles that seem most immediate to them are around gender and sexuality — and above all the representation of such in texts and images.

The question of actual “socialism” — of mass control of the means of production — has become secondary. Among what has become known as “the cultural left”, the question is barely discussed. Existing work relations — the eight- to 10-hour day, the endless squeeze on wage power, conditions, the debt loading — are assumed to be a given, an eternal. That’s in part because it’s been so long since there was a mass socialist movement — but also because the consumer/knowledge class are both workers and managers, ruled and rulers, and are invested in the system, however crappy it might be.

The dominance of social and cultural themes — the fact that this has become an idea of what the left is — is doubly annoying because it is becoming clear to hundreds of millions of people that capitalism, as an all-encompassing system, is in a deep crisis. The depth of the crisis is so great that capitalists are openly talking about it. The crisis is of such magnitude because it’s not a threat by external forces to the system, but one arising from its internal contradictions.

Unrestrained by other forces, global capital has managed to shift the profit/wages ratio largely in its “favour” — hence stagnant wages for decades, and the steady decline, especially in the UK and the US, of cities, public life, etc. This has left capital without consumers with purchasing power — and, also, nowhere to invest. At the same time, the rate of automation, driven by Moore’s Law, has raced ahead, ushering in a crisis of available work.

In past crises, capital has used the state as “the board of management” of a capitalist economy, resetting wages, taxes, currency, etc, to restart demand — even if individual firms are disadvantaged. Now, however, global corporations have no state to discipline capital collectively; money is shifted around in a manner that evades any re-organisation. This is one reason why so many can now see how crisis-ridden the system is — because it is not delivering even the meagre benefits it promised.

Any attempt to regroup capital in a rational fashion — as per statist Keynesian post-war capitalism — also runs up against the simplistic Promethean ideology that many capitalists now subscribe to: that wealth comes from “genius”, “innovation” and “entrepreneurial daring”, rather than labour (manual and intellectual). Wages must be ever-lowered, tax is robbery, and when capital has the overwhelming share, the magic new product — an iPhone that gives massages and blowjobs — will emerge and save the whole system.

The ongoing crisis of capitalism has occurred at a time when an entirely new system of social organisation — the digital revolution — has emerged. Now there are millions of culture/knowledge workers who, every day, work with a system of co-ordination and steering that is implicitly post-capitalist. Instantaneous, multiple and massive, computers and the internet allow for real-time co-operation and production that is millions of times faster than the “catallactic” processes of market exchanges that Hayek identified as rendering the market indispensable. That is why, over the last two decades onwards, from Napster and the “privatised” human genome to the struggle over the academic papers market, capitalism’s role is increasingly to hold back human ingenuity — because ingenuity is racing ahead of the ability to commodify and privatise it.

As the economy becomes more technical and knowledge-based, it creates an entire class of people who understand the irrationality of capitalism, not as an abstract point, but as a real problem to deal with every day. The flip side is that many see alternative ways in which complex systems could be steered, as practical and immediate. Privatised capitalism creates the conditions under which it will be bypassed, by those with the knowledge to do it.

In this promising situation, you would want the “left” and Marxism to be identified with these possibilities — which will eventually become necessities. Marx had both specific and general theories of capitalism, and while the more specific have been superseded by events — the industrial working class did not become the agents of revolution — the more general principles hold up well. In the wake of the 1917 October revolution, Marxism came to be seen as a guide to action, audacious history-changing achievements. But it is equally a theory of determination, of longer-range processes less amenable to immediate change. Marxism has become a theory of the long arc of capitalism — of the things that the system can’t do to save itself.

Why, then, has a theory of mass material relations become something that most people see as expressed in campaigns around fluid gender identities? The answer is complex, but it depends on two problematic parts of Marx’s approach. The first is that the superstructure — all institutions and culture — of a society are dictated by the “base” economic form, whether it be capitalism, feudalism, whatever. It’s a simplistic view that doesn’t explain much in society. One institution that Marx presented as part of being determined by the “base” was marriage and the role of women — male and female being defined as “owner” and “property” in varying forms throughout history.

The second is Marx’s implication that human beings can radically liberate themselves from their natural given condition as biological beings. The idea of “communism”, where the “world that should be” meets “the world that is” is the result of that idea.

By the 1960s, it was clear that a more complex theory than base and superstructure was required to explain social life. To the rescue came ‘”structuralism”, the idea that cultural values were constructed as a series of oppositions that defined each other — male/female, night/day, ancient/modern, etc, etc. In anthropology, where it was developed, structuralism was seen as a way by which cultures organised the given features of nature into systems of meaning. The further structuralism departed from anthropology, the more the “arbitrary” nature of social meaning was emphasised.

By the time it was incorporated into Marxist politics, any form of human relation was portrayed as utterly arbitrary. When that was fused with Marx’s (perceived) disdain for the idea of a fixed human nature, then everything could be questioned. The dominance of heterosexuality could be taken as an arbitrary cultural form, rather than something determined by the biological drive to reproduce. Gender, rather than being the expression of a given, embodied form, was the arbitrary division of myriad identities into two exclusive forms. Because these things were all arbitrary, they could all be re-organised by collective human will. The path to communism was as much about liberating us from oppressive gender and sexuality notions as it was from economic oppression.

Following this reasoning is what gets you to the point where the queer theory notions contained in some of the Safe Schools material — that gender and sexuality are infinitely fluid, that they should be defined by no level of life other than the cultural and the radically free.

The obvious thing about this theory is that almost no one really believes it — and they certainly do not let it shape their lives. It’s been a half-century since the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and though the content of male and female roles has changed enormously, the external form of relations has changed barely at all. Three generations of children are or have been brought up since the ’60s brought roles and identities into question — despite that, almost no one brings up their kids as a sort of gender “open-source”.

Most people are far more tolerant of a certain fluidity of behaviour and self-styling among kids and adolescents than they were in earlier eras, but that doesn’t mean they don’t treat boy-children to understand themselves as boys, and girl-children as girls. It simply means they don’t attach narrowly prescriptive roles to those as they might once have done. Across the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney, etc, there are lefty, greeny, even Marxisty people coming out to defend Safe Schools — and simultaneously wincing as some of the content of the program is revealed. They wince not because they think it’s dangerous, but because they know it isn’t — for the most part, gender is anchored in biological givens, and no notion of fluidity or ideas of total separation of biological and cultural spheres is going to change that. It’s simply a theory that didn’t work.

Continue reading “Rundle: how radical gender theory hijacked Marxism — and why we need to get it back”


Feb 1, 2016


There’s been a spate of high-profile elections in south-east Asia and thereabouts recently that have deservedly gained plenty of attention.

Most prominently have been the spectacular victory by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Myanmar and the decisive victory by the Democratic Progressive Party in winning both the presidency (for the third time) and control of the legislature (for the first time) in Taiwan in early January.

Just as important in their own way, if less visible, has been the changing of the guard, or at least some of it, in Asia’s two “other” single-party communist dictatorships, Vietnam and Laos, during their once-every-five-year party congresses.

The political environment in Vietnam in particular is very important to Australia, both in terms of the country’s ongoing economic modernisation and growth, as well as the potential part it has to play in the developing non-Chinese defence alliance. This is anchored by the US, Japan and Australia and includes the Philippines and South Korea as well as potentially Taiwan and Vietnam and other south-east Asian nations.

With 93 million people, Vietnam is behind only Indonesia in terms of population and therefore economic potential. It is also, importantly, a founding member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

By and large, both Vietnam and Laos follow the model set out by the former Soviet Union and later adopted by China’s Communist Party. A Central Committee is selected in an opaque backroom process, which then votes for a Politburo, which effectively runs the country.

Vietnam’s system still hews much closer to the collective decision-making that Deng Xiaoping had planned for China but which that country’s latest leader, Xi Jinping, has all but thrown out as he grabbed the top three spots in China’ hierarchy: head of the party, the military and the government in one fell swoop between November 2012 and March 2013.

In Vietnam, the party secretary, premier, president and head of public security are held by different people and will continue to be so — albeit by at least two different leaders after the congress that concluded on January 28.

Surprising to some neophyte observers in the West, former premier Nguyen Tan Dung failed in his bid to be elevated to the party secretary’s job. He narrowly survived the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee’s first ever no-confidence vote in 2013. The pro-business Dung — although not necessarily pro-reform as characterised by some observers — was widely seen as corrupt by dint of his family’s accumulation of extraordinary wealth. His daughter, Nguyen Thanh Phuong, is known as The Princess (this is not a compliment), and his son-in-law gained the franchise to bring McDonald’s into Vietnam. Vietnam has princelings too, although Dung’s family are more openly rapacious than most.

Perhaps even more pointedly, Dung is from the south of the country and as yet no official from the south has yet ascended to the top job — despite it now being 50 years since Vietnam was unified following what the locals call the American War.

There are certainly some parallels between Dung and disgraced Chinese politburo member Bo Xilai; both openly campaigned for top jobs in the party, and both have been rubbed out. It is unlikely, people familiar with the way of the Vietnamese Party have suggested, that Dung will face either the party’s disciplinary system or the courts — although nothing is ever certain — but those who have clung to his coattails and profited from their connections would be felling more than a little nervous by now.

Dung’s failed big for the top has left Nguyen Phu Trong, 72. in for another term as party chief, a job he appeared to take with reluctance.

“My age is high, health is limited, knowledge is limited. I asked to step down, but because of the responsibility assigned by the party I have to perform my duty,” he said

But there is fresh blood with Nguyen Xuan Phuc — who has impressed diplomats over the years as greyer than Dung but nonetheless a solid hand — the country’s premier-in-waiting (all positions need to be ratified by the national assembly), and Tran Dai Quang, former public security minister and Vietnam’s new president. Of interest, too, is the planned appointment of Nguyen Kim Ngan as chairman of the National Assembly, the other key party position. She has the rare distinction of being the first woman in such a senior position in the country.

Overall there are few signs that Vietnam will continue on its path of steady, rather than hyper-driven, modernisation, hopefully avoiding the dreadful debt bubbles that are casting such a cloud over China’s economy. The country, while it has a deep-seated loathing of China, is also likely to continue its canny diplomatic three-step between China, Russia and, increasingly, the United States (no better way to get under Beijing’s skin).

In the meantime, there’s little doubt that Australia is alive to the increasingly complex vagaries of regional alliances. With no fanfare, Australia’s HMAS Darwin made a a “goodwill” visit to Thailand and held naval exercises with Thailand’s military junta, a group initially excoriated by the Coalition government the day it executed its coup d’etat on May 22, 2014. Since then, realpolitik has gradually taken charge. Thailand is an important cog in the US-led alliance in the Pacific and since the coup the junta has been duchessed with some fervour by Beijing in the face of continuing opprobrium by the US, which has overplayed its hand. Australia appears to be playing a useful role in settling things down.

It will be interesting to see if Canberra and its Joint Chiefs play a similar role with Vietnam, and it’s worth noting that, very much under the radar, then public security minster Quang was one of the very last international leaders to pay a visit to Tony Abbott in Australia before he was taken out by Malcolm Turnbull. The regional defence game is very much afoot.


Nov 11, 2015


The gods chose a hell of a day for a political crisis to come to a head and result in an executive coup d’etat in Australia, 40 years ago today. It was the day that the country might have erupted into political violence and open conflict had things gone differently, occurring half a century after the day that the guns had gone quiet at the end of the Great War in Europe, and a century after Ned Kelly had been hanged in Old Melbourne Gaol, outlaw or rebel or both, but a man who came to understand that, in Australia, the old imperial powers will get you in the end. It’s striking when you put it with those two dates, how much a part of modernity it is, and of our high history, our national formation. To remember it all, you have to be pushing 50. To have witnessed it as an adult, you’re on your way to your concession movie pass.

We are separated from the Dismissal by great intervening events: the abandonment of any form of democratic socialism by Labor, in the Hawke-Keating years, the collapse of old forms of class affiliation — a unionised working class, a coherent entity of “Catholic” Australia — and the rise of new ones; but above all by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the market turn of Asian Communist nations, and the rise of a world with no “other” to global capitalism. That extraordinary turn of events — which no one would have predicted in 1975 — is the missing context of the Dismissal. Looking at the old footage of the event, the solid colours and dense textures of news footage done on film, Gough on the Parliament House steps, Sir John stumbling drunkenly around Flemington, is not enough to understand what happened then, and what didn’t happen here, later, as a result.

So, for those whose parents were yet to meet in 1975, a quick recap. The ALP, led by Gough Whitlam, was elected in 1972, the first Labor government for 23 years. While waiting for a few seats to be determined (and thus to give him a caucus that would elect a ministry) Whitlam had himself and deputy Lance Barnard sworn into all 23 ministerial positions and enacted a raft of decisions and regulations, from ending conscription and recalling what was left of the army from Vietnam to eliminating sales tax on contraceptive pills. This audacious move left the right in no doubt that this was not going to be a government promising much to its base and then moving to the centre.

From the start, the Liberal-National (National Country as it was then) Party never regarded the government as legitimate — and soon came to be see it as terrifying, a government likely to implement an irreversible democratic socialist wave of reform. Determined to destroy it, they were aided by the fact that the Senate remained in control of the right (including four DLP senators), its elections having fallen out of sync with the House of Reps in the 1960s. Continued obstruction by the Senate of the reform program persuaded Whitlam to call a double-dissolution election in 1974, which he won in the house with a slim, five-seat majority. Senate control remained elusive. A cunning plan to spill an extra Senate seat had been frustrated by hard-right Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who then broke the convention of appointing replacement senators from the same party as a departing one, and filled an ALP vacancy with a man who said he would never vote Whitlam’s way.

With the Senate still in hand, new opposition leader Malcolm Fraser blocked the process of supply, which would guarantee funds for daily government, beginning a process of brinkmanship and the beginnings of a crisis. By mid-1975, with a global recession having plunged the West into stagflation (recession plus inflation), the Whitlam government began an ambitious plan to buy up Australia’s entire resources sector, much of it yet untapped. To do this, large loans were sought on the global market — from private capital, petrostates, the USSR’s Narodny Bank, and finally via a carpetbagging chancer, Tirath Khemlani, who had won the confidence of resources minister Rex Connor.

This hair-raising fundraising scheme became public at the same time as the supply block raised the possibility of the government running out of money. Whitlam was convinced that the Liberal-NCP opposition would be seen as the villain, and that party room pressure would convince Fraser to back down, or even topple him as leader. However, the loans affair tarnished the government so badly that Fraser’s resolve was stiffened, and by October, a real crisis of governance was looming. By then, unbeknownst to Whitlam, John Kerr, the new governor-general he had appointed, had been consulting chief justice of the High Court (and staunch Liberal) Garfield Barwick, as to what the “reserve powers” of the governor-general, as Australian head of state, actually were. Both Kerr and Barwick were getting advice on this from Anthony Mason, a future chief justice — all of which was against the Westminster convention that the head of state should seek advice only from the ministry (i.e. the PM, and the attorney- and solictor-general in this case).

By November, Kerr was also dealing directly with Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was demanding a commitment to a full election by 1976 as a condition of releasing supply; by early November, Whitlam determined on a strategy of getting a half-Senate election from the G-G, which would allow Labor to campaign on the issue of legitimacy. Kerr, increasingly fearful that Whitlam would sack him (Kerr had demanded two full terms, or 10 years as G-G, as a condition of accepting the job), kept all private discussions from him, and several days before November 11, had decided to dismiss Whitlam. Fraser was worded up on this — and was already at Yarralumla (the G-G’s residence) in an anteroom on November 11 when Whitlam arrived to advise Kerr to call a half-Senate-only election. Kerr then dismissed him and appointed Fraser caretaker PM. The Senate passed the supply bills in the afternoon, and the house passed a vote of no-confidence in Fraser as PM. However, Kerr refused to take any communication from the house, dissolved Parliament and issued the writs for an election in both houses. In the ensuing December election — to the surprise of most, on both sides — Labor was devastated, reduced to 36 seats in the 127-seat House of Representatives.

Much of this has been known and chewed over for decades; it’s only in the last five to 10 years that a crucial aspect of it has come to light, largely through the researches of Jenny Hocking, and, following in her wake, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. That aspect is the degree of plotting, conspiracy, deception (of Whitlam) and determination practised by John Kerr in his obsessive drive to have a situation in which Whitlam could be sacked. That Fraser had been tipped off, Barwick consulted, and Mason tangentially involved had always been “known”. In fact we knew wrong. As Kerr’s private notes, correspondence with the palace and other newly available documents discussed in The Dismissal Dossier and The Dismissal make clear, Fraser and Kerr had multiple discussions directed towards timing and conduct of the coup, and Mason was a key player, “tutoring” Kerr in a highly convenient version of the reserve powers. Barwick, we now know, was something of a cover (though he supported the dismissal) for Mason’s involvement. Indeed, Barwick and Kerr called Mason “the third man” in their communications on the matter.

These researches have been vital for our understanding of the event — Hocking deserves the lion’s share of the credit, though Kelly and Bramston have been pretty assiduous and comprehensive too — and make the description of it as an executive coup unarguable, in my opinion. That’s because this documentation of the Kerr-Barwick-Fraser-Mason collusion adds the other side to what was the crucial coup event — not the dismissal itself, but what Hocking calls the second dismissal, which was Kerr’s refusal to take the call, phone and personal, of house speaker Gordon Scholes mid-afternoon of the 11th. For obvious reasons: as soon as the Senate had passed supply, the house, having a Labor majority, voted no confidence in Fraser as PM, and made a recommendation to the head of state that Gough Whitlam be appointed prime minister.

This, as former PM William McMahon, an opponent of Fraser’s actions, had pointed out, would always be the next stage in any dismissal, a simple product of the fact that a Westminster parliament is not simply a legislative body; it is de facto quasi-executive and the place where the people believe executive power to lie. To prorogue a parliament by avoiding the communication that the appointed prime minister does not have the confidence of the house is clearly dictatorial. One can see that from a circumstance where it would not have been — if Kerr had simultaneously appointed Fraser (and a new ministry) and prorogued parliament, the sort of thing one might do in a national emergency. But Kerr needed parliament to stay in session to pass supply. Had they not, the government would have run out of money during the election campaign, and the whole point of dismissing Whitlam would have been moot.

Thus, the key anti-democratic moment of the dismissal/coup has always seemed to be that later event, with opinion divided as to whether the G-G had the authority to dismiss Whitlam in the first place — even given the communication of Fraser and Barwick with Kerr. But the revelations over the past years and now summarised in these two books blows that out of the water absolutely. The conspiracy is multiple, concerted, and complex — with Kerr, via Prince Charles, drawing the palace in — and predicated on keeping Whitlam in the dark about a vast movement of power. The pre-dismissal conspiracy and the post-dismissal proroguing together form the coup. The dismissal itself, the one element of arguable constitutionality, was essentially the front for what occurred.

That’s where Hocking and Kelly/Bramston divide, and they do so along the obvious lines, between Hocking’s critical scrupulousness and the cynicism of Kelly and Bramston. The latter aren’t in any doubt that Kerr was conspiratorial, paranoid, vengeful, lying and destructive — and so their only possible course of action to avoid an actual moral judgement on the right is to paint Whitlam as a hopeless boobie, a man so out of touch as to be criminally negligent — and thus to almost deserve the coup against him. Hocking demolishes most of the feints at this — the idea that Whitlam had switched to a half-Senate election strategy too late, that he was a pompous and self-flattering orator with no political nous, etc, etc. In the end, after 300 pages documenting how the right trashed the institutions they purported to uphold in the pursuit of power, Kelly/Bramston say this:

“Yet Whitlam’s ineptitude in his conduct of the crisis is almost beyond belief. He bears a serious share of responsibility for the dismissal.”

Whitlam’s assessment of Kerr’s (and others’) genuine commitment to the Australian Westminster system was unquestionably in error, as was his assessment of the man that John Kerr had become in the decades since he had been part of the Sydney Labor establishment. But much of what Kelly and Bramston identify as ineptitude with 20/20 hindsight was simply a series of white-knuckle strategic decisions.

Many of them are ones Kelly and Bramston don’t explore — the fact, for example, that the Liberal party room was, by the first week of November, starting to crack up, and that, at that time, the Liberal Party still had a genuinely liberal faction who were increasingly disturbed by the damage Fraser’s strategy was doing to the country. Since this faction — led at the time by Senator Alan Missen and three or four other senators, enough to undermine Fraser’s strategy — has now vanished from the Liberal makeup, Kelly/Bramston can present 1975 as if it were 2005, and Fraser’s Liberal Party was simply Howard/Abbott’s Liberal Party in cheaper suits. It wasn’t, and Whitlam was clearly relying on that in playing a little brinkmanship of his own. The idea that a combination of incorrect interpretation and unsuccessful feints make one “responsible” for someone else’s illegal state action is a true measure of those authors’ desperate desire to have an each-way bet. Pathetic.

Yet in their assessment of Whitlam’s mis-assessment of John Kerr the man, Kelly and Bramston are spot on — yet not for reasons they would admit to. Whitlam clearly saw in Kerr something of a fellow traveller on the long road through the 20th century of war, socialism, the titanic struggles of modernity. Both were Syndey barristers from the Labor establishment that Evatt had anchored, and one suspects that Whitlam — a centrist social democrat, for all his later canonisation — saw in Kerr a man who had come to the same conclusions about the importance of the liberal state to social reform. The party Whitlam joined contained men of a style and life experience rather alien to Whitlam’s, and the Don’s Party generation that he brought in were equally alien, in a way.

Whitlam missed the degree to which Kerr, a working-class boy risen to great heights, had, by the ’70s, lost all connection or empathy with the Labor tradition. What they don’t note of course is that long before that, Kerr’s “anti-Stalinism” had led him down a path familiar in the last century, into the shadowy world of official anti-communism. It is here that Kelly and Bramston simultaneously decry any notion that Kerr might have been influenced by global Cold War considerations or contact, in his actions, while noting earlier that he was a member of “the Australian Association of Cultural Freedom, a group of anti-communist intellectuals associated with the publication Quadrant”.

Anti-communist intellectuals, you don’t say. Come off it, gentlemen. The AACF was the Australian branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the global front established by the CIA to funnel money to publications and activities, all of them designed to look hands-off, and to monitor and steer intellectual activity in the West. That is a matter of public record, and no one believes that James McAuley and other AACF luminaries in the ’50s didn’t know where the money was coming from. Kerr was present at the creation of shadowy intelligence in Australia, as a member of Alf Conlon’s intelligence directorate in World War II, and through being caught up in the brutal late ’40s Sydney Communist/anti-communist labour conflicts from which US involvement in Australian labour affairs was born.

Kelly and Bramston don’t want to acknowledge this because they are desperate to obscure any notion of US involvement in the Dismissal — and their way of doing that is to discount any soft or informal forms of influence; look for a 10/11/75 telex to Yarralumla saying “The balloon goes up tomorrow, white squirrel”, find none, and thus decry any influence. In that they follow Whitlam to a degree, who could not see that Kerr was not merely no longer a Labor man, but now saw himself as part of a global power structure guarding against an insurgent global populace — people who wanted to do things like own their own resources. That was not a failure of Whitlam’s personal assessment, but of his political worldview.

Like Allende, who also appointed his (actual) executioner, Whitlam’s political error was in not being left enough in assessing how power was flowing. Kelly and Bramston do themselves and their readers a disservice with that omission. The full story is far more interesting. As we shall see. Lest we forget, as they would wish us to, how our past, and present, were made.


Oct 27, 2015


The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was this week set to hold a series of talks, book launches and photo exhibitions to mark the 50th anniversary of the anti-communist purge that killed more than half a million Indonesians in 1965-66.

But on Friday, organisers of the Balinese literary event cancelled these program items after a fortnight of pressure from local government and police.

A statement posted to the festival’s website says its operating licence, issued by the national police, could have been revoked if it didn’t heed the requests of the authorities.

“After much consideration and discussion, with deep regret the Festival has decided that it cannot jeopardise the entirety of the event at this late stage,” the statement read.

The festival, which this year focuses on the themes of peace and reconciliation, also called off the launch of several other novels that include peripheral mentions of the massacre. A screening of Joshua Oppenheimer documentary The Look of Silence had already been canned.

“They’re really digging into the program to look hard at anything that might be touching on 1965,” said Jemma Purdey, a board member of event sponsor The Herb Feith Foundation and co-editor of a book series that was to be launched.

What actually happened in 1965-66? Why is it so sensitive?

In 1965, then-Indonesian president Sukarno relied on support from both the military and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to maintain power, despite the two being hostilely opposed to one another.

On September 30 that year, a faction of the Indonesian military assassinated six army generals in what it claimed was an effort to prevent a coup against the president.

The uprising was quickly extinguished, and although the PKI claimed they had nothing to do with it, the army disagreed, saying it was a communist plot to snatch power.

The response was brutal. In the months that followed, the army slaughtered more than 500,000 Indonesian communists and communist sympathisers, including scores of ethnic Chinese. Sukarno was forced to delegate authority to the army, with its chief, Suharto, soon to seize the presidency.

A parliamentary decree in 1966 banned the PKI and the spread of communist and Marxist ideologies. Artists suspected of dissent were imprisoned, including Indonesia’s most celebrated writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Discussion of the massacre was suppressed until Suharto’s resignation 32 years later, but the decree remains in place until today.

But why cancel the festival?

Purdey says the foundation remains “in the dark” about the exact reasons for the drastic action but has heard reports claiming the events would have breached Indonesia’s anti-communism laws.

“That’s completely wrong, of course. The content of our panels included nothing about the ideology,” Purdey said.

Instead, she says the foundation’s events were to focus on the impact of 1965 on the lives of victims and their families.

But festival spokesperson Wayan Juniartha says Gianyar district police and government had other concerns, too.

“During our conversation with the local officials, the main concern was about how these panels might open old wounds or elicit unwelcome response from certain groups in society,” he said.

He said previous screenings of Oppenheimer’s film about the killings had been met with “huge opposition” from anti-communist groups.

“The Gianyar police chief and bupati [local government head] didn’t want that sort of trouble taking place in Gianyar,” Juniartha said.

But the books Purdey’s foundation were to launch are already in circulation in Indonesia. She and co-editor Katharine McGregor were instead set to unveil English translations of the texts in Ubud.

She says it is reasonable to think the English language versions might have worried Indonesian authorities about the purges receiving more international attention.

Juniartha says he hasn’t heard anything to corroborate these suspicions.

What’s the effect of banning the event?

Purdey says banning the talks could intimidate speakers from taking part in future events.

She says while the censorship has emboldened activists, who will continue to fight for the victims, the survivors and their families might not be so resilient.

“Maybe there’ll be quiet from now,” she said.

But she also sees recent events as an opportunity.

She says more people involved in the Ubud festival will now speak about 1965 at their events, and the international attention could discourage more censorship in the future.

“That’s the funny thing about [censorship], isn’t it?” Juniartha said.

The festival opens tomorrow.


Sep 1, 2015


Dammit, I miss the Kuala Lumpur LCCT — or low-cost carrier terminal, to give it its full title. The terminal for Air Asia and other no-frills airlines across the region, the KL LCCT was the last of the old hippie trail/Contiki airports — a series of interconnected sheds, with big fans moving the air around and jerry-built shops and take-aways gathered beneath. Concrete floors, tired beige offices with gormless crusties being questioned by sweaty officials, taxis roaring to a stop to disgorge panicked tourists who’d gone to the main terminal 45 minutes away … It was a place where things might happen. But now it’s gone. Closed down a year or so ago, replaced by the gleaming new KLIA2, flawless and lifeless. I’ve been through it three times now, and I’m starting to enjoy its vast marble and glass vestibule, its bar with 30 power points — EUR, US, AUS configurations — that best part of the journey, where you float slowly through four G and Ts while waiting for your connection and listen to the conversations. This group for example: a balding, sweating, heavyset Aussie bloke with a too-loud voice who seems familiar for some reason, and, oh, his 20-something Thai bride, curves like the Albert Park F1 track, discoursing loudly on the AFL: “The Sydney Swans are shitttttttt. They’re going nowhere.” Their friend, 50s, balding, less heavyset, more tentative. On his way to Bangkok. The “league teams” rundown ends, there’s a silence, then fat bald man starts. “This government, this government …”


By Bangkok, I’d caught up with the news. A bizarre Border Force/Victoria Police operation, in which Melbourne was to be the scene for a re-enactment of scenes from Casablanca — “Where are your papers?” “Rick … hide me.” The thing was a farce anyway, but it was routed by the radical spirit of Melbourne, which, whatever frustration many might feel with it at any given time, is one of the more radical cities in the world at this time. What is one to do with this ridiculous event, which appears designed to turn the most hardened “turn the boats back” enthusiast into a liberal? And beyond that, what can any satirist do with a figure like Roman Quaedvlieg? His appearance in Australian politics was like one of those moments in late ’60s movies when the action stops and everyone starts dancing to a track by the Dave Clark Five. I mean, after Sir Prince Philip, wouldn’t someone have a little circumspection about Tony Abbott’s rich ’30s MGM fantasy world? The thing about Quaedvlieg — not so much a name as a goodish Scrabble hand — is that you could say he is a version of Prince Rupert from The Prisoner of Zenda, but that would be an insult to the cool realism of Anthony Hope. In fact he resembles Prince Gerhardt, Pee-wee Herman’s star turn in 30 Rock. Watch and enjoy. This bloke is running the Border Farce.

More bizarrely, the government’s current troubles, and its looming caning in Canning, appeared to focus attention on … Joe Hockey. Joe Hockey? Why? It’s like blaming the leather chair for the fart noise you made sitting in it. No one hates Joe. No one cares about Joe. Everyone recognises that he’s the useless bloke in the office you have to work around. Their loathing is for one man alone, and that is Tony Abbott. They never liked him. They hate him now, with the bitterness of people who’ve been conned and have to live with the consequences.


Landing in Stockholm (pro tip: there are thousands of cheap seats Bangkok-Stockholm. The Swedes love Thailand, holiday there en masse. Being Swedes, in return, they have set up thousands of scholarships for Thai kids, so the traffic back and forth is monumental. Bloody Swedes, showing us all up. What’s wrong with Club Med for godssake, and a quick holiday in other people’s misery?) I pick up a paper and read that the Sweden Democrats are at 16% and the government of the shoe? Can it be shoe? Can not olandlik the vanbadhamkeit. Damn it, my Swedish is not what it was, but the gist appears to be that the new right party, the Sweden Democrats, is now the third party, behind the Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderate Party (the Swedes have a Moderate Party and a Centre Party — they’re the only country to have a split over who is more moderate). Not good, but not, as alarmist global reports suggested earlier, putting them as the first party, with 30% etc support.

The rise of such right-left populist parties in Scandinavia is not a lunge to the right; it’s both a decomposition of the left and a betrayal, by the left elite, of the implicit promise made in Scandinavian social democracy, that such countries would be “the people’s home”. Committing to the European Union and unlimited mobility in the name of multiculturalism, social democratic parties simply aligned themselves with neoliberalism. The result has not only been a pressure on the social democratic society — which relies on a limited labour supply, giving labour the power to demand a goodly share of the wages/profits split — it has undermined the great generosity that Swedes had towards political refugees over half a century. A starchy monocultural society (I once saw a professor of Australian studies in Uppsala begin a lecture by “acknowledging the original inhabitants”. Thirty blond heads turned to each other in bewilderment. They’d been there since 6000 BC. What original inhabitants? The New World man couldn’t understand what the Old World was), they opened themselves up to everyone, Greeks, Chileans, Turks. Palestinians, Somalis, Iraqis — and not least African-Americans, many of them servicemen and jazz musicians passing through. The Swedes decided that US racial relations, pre-1968, were grounds for asylum, and there is a black US-Swedish population in Malmo. The phone book is full of Allendes, Davilas, Papadopoouloses, etc. The volume was so high that by the 2000s, political refugees and the second and third generation of their kids constituted 12.5% of the population.

Olive-skinned people speaking Swedish didn’t undermine the “people’s home”; free labour flow did. Yet despite that all, social democratic civilisation survived. A vaguely Thatcherite right gained government in 1993-94, after 50 years of uninterrupted social democracy. They did some good and necessary things, but they pushed the free-market ideal too hard, and the Swedes — who had been heartily sick of the arrogance of social democrats, etc — threw them out at the first opportunity. Since then, the Moderate Party has reshaped itself and offered simply a loyal opposition version of social democracy — it was the Moderates, for example, who first offered parental leave (currently standing at about 400 days at 80% of salary, to be shared between both parents), and the Social Democrats who were then obliged to adopt it, because it was so wildly popular.

The Moderates got into power in 2006, which made me somewhat downcast. But they were chucked out in 2014 and a rather torpid Soc Dem government returned. This appeared to be the best result of all. Over two decades, Sweden’s once-famously closed social democracy — no commercial TV, no cable, all sorts of other limits — was opened up somewhat, while retaining a high-tax regime with public acceptance, and a public state. That a social democratic state can survive that suggests that the worst of neoliberalism might be over, that a more sophisticated idea of choice, freedom and social obligation can survive the blandishments of the freedom-atomised individual choice mob, and regrow, as advanced economies become post-capitalist, and the territorial state acquires a renewed importance.


Mind you, I was there for a woman. Stockholm without … meh … She’s an expert in Poulantzas, the Greek theorist of the state, who has been highly influential on the Syriza government’s strategy and beliefs, and was so optimistic about a socialist future that he committed suicide in the mid-1970s, so, y’know. The discussion of the state as interlocking ensembles versus a level of overall determination and the forms of sovereign-denominated subjectivity started at the airport and continued, via the excellent train system, all the way down the coast, towards Malmo and Copenhagen, and of course it was all about sex and commitment. The ancients tell of a time when arguments about social theory weren’t stoushes about sex and commitment, and ancillary matters like who takes tenure and who looks after the kids, but no one has any memory of it now. The last such recorded moment was at a conference on “discourse v ideology” in Boise, Idaho, in 1995, when an associate professor made an apparently unmotivated observation about how Foucauldian strategies could themselves be a meta-ideology. Since then it’s just been a proxy war between tenure-track couples about pooey nappies and oral sex ratios).

So we yelled at each other about interpellation, and whose subjectivity was more illusory — I believe Flight Centre will soon be offering this as a package deal — through a series of charming bars and small restaurants, and the slow train south, with m’companion — better give her a pseudonym; Hedda will do — trying not to go to goo at the five-month-old baby in the seat opposite, when the train came to a halt with a very unSwedish lurch. We waited 20 minutes or so, read the news, and I noted that Maurice Newman was having a go at me (and Peter Hartcher) because we had pointed out that Abbott was duchessing the hard right (on same-sex marriage), and that the hard right (Bolt, Devine, etc) had lost the ear of the public on issues like Adam Goodes, white skin privilege, etc. “These writers forget the past,” Newman thundered, going into a 750-word green-ink rave about the deficit, Greece, etc, and everything irrelevant to what we had been talking about, which seemed to confirm that the man is one of those “I Went To the University of Life” clowns who besiege editors with their useless tracts. Difference is, the Oz publishes them, to the detriment of the right. Long may Maurice reign.

Thinking all this, when the train stopped and we all lurched in our seats. Eventually an announcement told us that “the teapot was sick, had always been sick, and was reverting to the something something for grundissmentalikeit” (my translation). The mother of the baby explained that we had to swap trains with the northbound passengers because our southbound train’s engine had failed. We all rose to disembark, and something very interesting happened. Swedes have been portrayed, falsely, as collectivist and conformist. In fact a near-century of social democracy has made them entirely individualist, in action, while conformist in cultural celebration, perhaps not the best result (but more like the US than either society would like to acknowledge). The woman with the baby — kid’s name was Lars, we never got hers — got up, started to try to wrangle eight pieces of luggage with a baby in hand. We would help, we protested, she demurred, we said it was impossible for her to do this alone. She reluctantly agreed, and Hedda and I lumbered her cases down on to the platform, and then while the mum regrouped, Hedda took the baby to her chest, and all discussion of the discursive gap in differentiated being ceased for a while (in fairness, Hedda may have her own take on this).

Everyone, and a lot of people were in their 60s and 70s, was lumbering their cases down, but no one was really helping each other — except us, and a couple of Arab kids, with sharp, gangish haircuts and banlieue style, who, chirping away in mingled Swedish and Arabic, were just manhandling huge cases down the steps and onto the platform. They hadn’t hesitated; they’d just done it, because that’s what you do. We’d asked, but we’d also then insisted. We and the Arab kids were on the same side of what is to be done in such situations. The Swedes were on the other, unsure of boundaries, struggling along in a form of self-reliance that has become an individualism.

That’s interesting, because it’s a paradoxical result — explored in a 2006 book Are Svenska Manniskor? (Are the Swedish Even Human?), written by two journalists, using the full battery of psychoanalytic, Foucauldian etc theory, to pose the paradox: decades of social democracy had made the Swedes so self-reliant that a radical individualism was the dominant mode of life, and with it a form of generalised depression and isolation that had moved to the centre of psychic existence. It’s no coincidence that the greatest Swedish novel of the postwar era is called Autisterna (The Autistics), a harrowing study of how self-reliant but interconnected people had become merely self-reliant*. It was on display on that train platform, with people who wouldn’t help each other, no longer knew how to act in an interruption, a minor emergency. To me, it seemed that our — mine and Hedda’s, and the Arab kids’ — approach was the right one, that there has to be an intermeshing, otherwise, well …

But, but, but … when the journey was nearing its end, and Hedda had been persuaded to give Lars back, the mother began preparing for disembarkment 10 minutes before we came into Malmo, re-assembling the baby carriage, stowing cases within it, etc, etc. She was determined that, when she got out, she’d do it on her own, and not as someone dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who can scorn that, as a social goal, as an individual aspiration? Who cannot say that that is where equality lives? There is no easy answer to that, and any very advanced society is going to have to grapple with how people can connect and be bound together without a nostalgic return to old models — and equally without some ghastly Facebook/Tinder world, exciting for a couple of years, before the dividend becomes clear.


Ah, it does occur to me. *clears throat* Check your email, if you haven’t already today.



Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen provided some sort of answer. A city on a human scale, walkable everywhere, Copenhagen is at the heart of a society well on the way to a post-capitalist future. The Abbott government may be attracted to dissident golden boy Bjorn Lomborg, but the real story of Denmark is the opposite — how a country is becoming self-sufficient on renewable energy, and well on the way to being a “recursive” society — one where innovation adds to the social dividend, rather than subtracting from it by lowering GDP, that absurd and useless measure of human activity. In Copenhagen you can see the charging stations for the electric cars, but they’re now slightly archaic, because the cars charge themselves as they go. This is how it’s going to be, because capital, which was once dependent on physical labour, the brute exploitation of the human body, is now dependent on intellect, which successively transforms the very value-form it is part of. That is obvious to everyone except the dimwit legacy cases who write for News Corp, like Maurice Newman. The world is advancing beyond them so fast that their compromised, neurotic attachment to the old world ranks as a sort of treachery. In decades to come, we will look back on this period not merely as a wasted era, but as a sort of tragedy, in which our energies were taken up with a demented collection of fourth-raters calling themselves a government, while the global economic base shifted beneath us. Mind you, Denmark is now ruled by a centre-right coalition, in which the nativist Danish People’s Party plays a leading role. So, y’know.

That didn’t preclude a visit to the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s central amusement park, still going more than a century after its founding. Here, the postmodern world began, for it was here in 1951 that Walt Disney came for ideas on how to create a new sort of amusement park. He’d seen many in the states, but what struck him about the Tivoli — a funfair next to the Copenhagen central station, i.e. where Swanston Street or Sydney’s Chinatown are — was the totality of the environment. The Tivoli was a worker’s fairground, gone feral, a money-free fantasy zone — once you paid entrance, everything was laid on. It was an intimation of communism and how it might undermine the ego-structures of bourgeois civilisation. “Disneyland is a Club Med of the social Imaginary!” I said to Hedda, as I drove our red pedalo into a bewildered family in a blue pedalo, who did not understand the dodgem principle. “Oh shut the fuck up, I am so tired of that shit,” she replied wittily. The joke, the joke of modernity, is that Walt imported the concept to a society in which it was the exception, not the rule. Pay the exorbitant entry price to the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim or Orlando, and you are inducted into the one region of the US in which full communism has been achieved (OK, meals are extra). Labour and capital, id and ego, blend together. It’s said that, for several years in the last ’70s, Deleuze and Guattari formed two halves of a pantomime horse on Main Street, USA** . Happiness occurs when the inside matches the outside, Winnicott said. By that measure the Tivoli at the centre of Copenhagen — and clearly an inspiration for the free society of Christiania, a four-decades-old commune set up in the old Danish cavalry barracks, and still going strong, despite some hairy moments — is an affirmation of social democratic society while Disneyland instantiates the shrieking social neurosis of a fully marketised social whole. Both the Tivoli and Christiania, in turn, amplify the idea of innovation as play, as free life-activity, and so we go, and so we go.


Hedda sacked me as soon as we got back to Rome. Did not see that coming. Went back to the airport, and got a transfer out. But hey, we are all of us in transit. Why was I …?


Oh yeah, that moment at the KL departure lounge? “This government, this government … I mean, I know Abbott’s mad, but you’d think, you’d think, someone around him could control him, but there’s no one.”

“There’s no one,” agreed thinner man.

“I want a margarita, baby, a big one,” the wife said.

“You know,” said bald, fat, sweaty man, waving for the minimum-wage waiter, “I’m from Queensland. I’m a Joh man. You know Joh? OK, he and Russ, Russ Hinze, you know Russ, OK, they were a bit rough around the edges, but my god they got things done. This mob … but my god, Labor. Shorten! But you know,” he leaned in. “I have never voted Labor in my life, but I will next time.”

His wife turned to their friend

“So, Steve, what is it you like about Filipino women so much?”

And by then I had to go for my plane.

Quick note, Coalition. When you have lost the Thai John vote, it is red rover. Election, please.


And so to America! Everything will be much clearer there!

*by Stig Larrson. Not Steig Larrson, author of the The Girl Who …, etc. Confusingly, Sweden’s two greatest postwar prose authors have virtually identical names.



May 6, 2015


There has only been one moment in a month of hustings when I thought that the audience might storm the stage, or break into a fight, and it wasn’t in Glasgow, or in the North. It was in the large, modern auditorium of Croydon High School, England, when, before an audience of 300 or so stockbroker-belt folk, Jon Bigger, the black-clad candidate for Class War, stood up, sucked air through his teeth and said “Well, given the happy event coming up as far as the royal family goes, I think a compulsory sterilisation program would be in order,” and you could feel all the air leave the room.

The ultra-modern auditorium seemed to wobble a little, and I thought it might suddenly implode. Over to the left-hand side, Class War’s small base of gothish, punkish, middle-aged reprobates were applauding and feet-stamping. Everyone else was watching them, teeth clenched, fists bared. Class War had heckled and jeered their way through the proceedings, with the chair speaking to them ever more sternly from the lectern. The audience had taken it all in the British spirit, though with less-than-good grace: Bigger’s opening remarks, non-abusive, had been met with none of the applause extended to anyone else, even the Green, a huge shaggy man-beast in a borrowed suit.

But that was mere matters of politics. Now this bounder had verbally assaulted the body of the sovereign — indeed, the material body of sovereignty, the UK’s literal DNA. On the podium everyone else had gone ashen, especially those leftish with some mildly similar things to say about the NHS, education, etc. Only the Tory appeared to be enjoying the proceedings, seeing enough of it stick to Labour to help a little.

When Class War continued stamping and whistling into the next speaker — “how many houses!?” to the Tory, a buy-to-rent enthusiast, a simple “racist” to the UKIP lady — the beaky-nosed headmaster turned his eye on them. “We heard you in silence,” he said, and couldn’t help himself adding “whatever you had to say. Now extend the speakers the same courtesy.” They calmed down a little. The UKIP lady, a small woman in her 60s, and a flaming red-and-black dress, cleared her throat and began again: “I–”

“Raaaa-cist!” Class War yelled.

Class War in Croydon South. You couldn’t make it up, as the papers who hate people like them say. The venerable class-struggle group, formed in the depths of the ’80s, as Thatcher gained a second term, and the Trot-left disappeared into political vodka cheesecake fantasies — ”world socialism in five, 10 years at the most,” leaders of the major UK Trotskyist group Militant said — Class War had sparked a hundred campaigns, small and big, and prepared the way for the aggressive resistance of the anti-poll tax movements. Now after many diversions and regroupings, the original core had reformed to contest nine seats, some of the choices based simply around where members lived now.

Thus were we at Croydon High, a fee-paying school, nestled amidst an outer-outer London circle of large pseudo-Tudor and Swiss Cottage houses; Ruislip, but larger, stand-alone piles. Croydon proper is a fraught line-end burb, a focus of the 2011 riots, being turned into a satellite city by the mass demolition of anything in it people could have felt nostalgic for, replaced by glass and metal towers not high enough to be striking. But the outer-inner city peels away quickly, I noticed in a black cab, which kindly and without request took us the scenic route (m’colleague Charles Richardson was along for the ride). The houses got very big, very quickly. A sign flashed past “Selsdon”. The Class War hustings in Selsdon. You couldn’t make i- … well, we’d used that.

Croydon South, home of Homo Selsdonus, Selsdon Man.

Selsdon Man? He was an early attempt at aspirational politics, or a record of its earlier failure. In 1973, angered that Ted Heath had turned the Tory government to the centre, a group of Tory free-marketeers met locally to come up with the first post-Keynesian free-market proposal. The politics that would dominate the next 30 years from ’79 on were defeated at the time by Harold Wilson dubbing them the ideal of “Selsdon man”, held to be selfish, greedy, outside of British collective life.

Thirty-five years later, Tony Blair would advance the idea of new type of Labour subject, a striving upwardly mobile family, whose identity was shaped not around their house, but their nifty, smooth family car. Selsdon Man had given way to [Ford] Mondeo man. It was greeted with some derision, as another Blairite gimmick, but the principle that underlay it was held to be unremarkable. Which was remarkable, the journey from a collectivist culture to one of such individualism that individualism could not even be seen for what it was. That was one reason why things were so tough for those in Labour who wanted a more vigorous politics to achieve one: people, even many of the poor, simply did not think anymore in the collectivist terms that would allow them to act en masse (and one reason why nationalism was succeeding so well — because it’s a collectivism of symbols, of the imaginary).

This couldn’t be illustrated better that by the Labour candidate for the seat, one Emily Benn. Yes, that Benn. The granddaughter of Tony, onetime aristocrat, who gave it up to sit in the Commons, and moved leftwards throughout his career (last seen, by me anyway, sitting between Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger in the visitor’s gallery of Woolwich crown court, at one of Julian Assange’s extradition hearings, snoozing and waking for the best moments) had inadvertently started a Commons political dynasty: his son Hilary, currently a Labour MP and former international development secretary, and now Hilary’s niece Emily, here.

This was not her first play for a seat, having stuck her hand up and got the unwinnable East Worthing, at the absurdly early age of 21. Now she had been preselected again the age, and I had wanted to come along and see Labour at its most absurd, a caste the purpose of whose existence appeared to be to dispirit anyone who had ever thought Labour might be a focus for talent without privilege.

Class War v the Benn dynasty in Selsdon. What could be better? I thought as we were ushered through the vestibule down corridors by a phalanx of adult schoolgirls, the year 12 equivalent class it was later revealed, having been pressed into service to run the show as some sort of civics exercise, which is reasonable enough, but at the time it seemed clear to me that there was only one possible explanation: I had been hit by a car crossing the road to the hustings and was now in a coma in an ICU having an Ashes -to-Ashes moment, convening a fantasy hustings in my head. Jesus, I mean Class War in a girls’ school in Croydon? Come on. I’d even supplied myself with Charles Richardson, the way old friends suddenly appear in dreams, so we could talk major pseph during the boring bits (“Surely a four-party contest like Bristol West requires a modified poisson distribution …”) like before a bunch of ’80s anarchists walked in to reserved seats, ushered by girls in tartan skirts. It was like Tarantino was remaking O Lucky Man! in my head. “Vodka cheesecake!” I yelled to myself, which always seems to work in dreams — if one suddenly appears floating before you, it’s a coma. Otherwise, it’s real.

No vodka cheesecake, but the feeling of unreality did not lift. Emily Benn proved to be impossibly posh, in pearls and fine silks — but courtesy of an Indian grandmother, golden-brown, like a subcontinental friend of Virginia Woolf’s. “Labour is a party of values, and one of its values is delivering real improvements to people’s lives.” She was great in her opening statement, wiped the floor with everyone, articulating a Labour vision, and promptly fell apart in the questions, even the pretty easy ones being lobbed at her: “well, gosh, we … no one would want us to run up the deficits we did and to square spending with, errr …”

The content dropped out, the vowels squeezed wider. Class War had heckled her from the off — “Toff! You’re a toff” — but even they’d gone quiet, as it started to look mean. Bizarrely, the entire hustings was arranged left to right in degrees of skill. Class War, Tory — a smug young man who had “started a business with one van!” he had said (“yeah for three months until his uncle gave him a whole franchise,” Class War said later), the Green, a former IT public servant whose cogent good sense got regular rounds of applause, and then the fall-away: Benn, a Lib-Dem of the new breed of candidate, i.e. absolutely anyone who sticks their hand up to be hated, an idiot for “Put Croydon First” who couldn’t even put nuisance value to good use, and finally the UKIP woman, who had chosen tonight of all nights to dress in the colours of communist anarchism, red and black.

The seat is, of course, a Tory stronghold, their candidate slipping into the place vacated by a Tory grandee who managed, as a South London MP, to pay off a house nine miles further south of his constituency, on his expenses. Philp can look forward to decades in the House while building his businesses, fattening out, getting a country pile, joining a hunt, etc. So he almost relishes the Class War challenge:

“‘ow many ‘ouses have you got?”

“None of your business my friend, that’s the private enterprise system!”

Without them, he would have been going up against the Green de facto. There were few local issues here, none of the “my mother lay in her own piss for nine days, what are you going to do about the orthopaedic emergency unit?” Everyone goes private health. It was all economy, economy, economy, and propriety, propriety, propriety, here — the health of capital was a local issue. Here, more than anywhere, people believed in the idea that a national economy is like a household economy, and the path to prosperity lies through unending thrift, exercised in other people’s lives. Emily Benn might have given the contrary point here — but as she worked for an investment bank, she seemed rather inclined to a rather similar view.

It was a curious double-play. Hustings in safe seats are unreal in any case, democracy panto, pretending that a difference could be made in a single-member electorate. Their politeness and courtesy arise from their ineffectuality, and the closer you get to a marginal — especially a real existential wrench like Glasgow NW, between Labour and SDP — the rawer they can become, though it is often a turf war rather than a genuine political struggle.

Class War’s appearance as a raucous, chaotic, often funny encounter — “we want to hear the candidates,” one woman said to them, “then shut up,” they replied to her, which got a guilty laugh — had the appearance of panto, but it was the only real encounter on offer. The crowd there knew it, which was why they refused CW applause from the start, but they could do nothing about it. To exclude was to acknowledge a division; to include was to bring a rejection of the common ground of the other candidates into question. One suspects that was part of the reason why the Green candidate got such effusive applause — he was the acceptable communist wrecker.

Emily Benn got more than respect, gaining the faintest touch of deference — she is the daughter of a viscount, after all, her father having retaken the title that Tony Benn had abdicated. Like DNA, the individual iteration can be killed, but the damn thing won’t die. The whole thing ended with a nice twist by Class War’s Bigger, who used his summing-up time to stage a minute’s silence for those killed in the workplace (it being the international day of that). What could the buggers do then? They had all but jeered when he had spoken of the suicides and deaths under the new “fit to work” system applied to the disabled, but if they spoke through this … well they were just as bad as Class War! It was a small victory for the unrepresented, manifested there in silence, a move that took poise, and the particular type of courage required to teeter on the edge of ridicule, harder in some ways, than getting biffed.

There were tea and cakes afterwards, of course, brought by the hostesses. Vodka ch– well, that’s not going to work, is it? CW didn’t stay for that, thank God, they went to the pub, O Lucky Men. I tried to find the courage of the ridiculous to ask Emily Benn about her background etc, and half got it. She was immediately defensive, in a way that hadn’t improved with practice — “look he was just my grandad, OK, I loved him but it’s not a huge thing politically,” she said of a towering figure of the English postwar left. But that was true, too. She was born in 1989, still a teen when he retired, at a school up the road. She was running in an unwinnable seat where someone had to, she had her own agenda, which was that of Labour as a largely technocratic party, drifting right of Red Ed, back into Blairism.

“I do get sick of these questions,” which was fair enough, except it was said “yah, now eye do get sekov deezkesdions” and I didn’t ask what I should have, which was whether it was simply better for some people to stay out of politics as a positive anti-dynastic act. But there was a dream-like quality to the whole campaign by now, with the increasingly bizarre pretense that someone might get a majority, and thousands of hours of reality cued to that agreed-upon fantasy. Croydon South was simply joining the wider movement.

Round the corner, on the Selsdon road, we found Class War in the lounge bar of the Sir Julian Huxley, a pub of the chain named J D Wetherspoon, a name invented by the large drinks corp that owns it, to give a Victorian modern feel. Vodka cheesecake. They had set up like some court of wanderers, the renegade mediaeval monks and nuns of the Carmina Burana, in their ragtag finery.

Ian Bone, the most prominent co-founder, in his late 60s, sparky in a punked-up striped cricket blazer and three-day growth — “you’re Ian Bone, are you?” to general groans — reasonably happy with the state of play of resistance. “There’s no big things because there’s a hundred small things. Occupy’s become the student occupations, the squatting movement’s restarted …” True, but whether it’s enough is another question. The anger at coalition cuts spawned militant occupying movements like UK Uncut — but they rose and fell, never passed onto the next level of confrontation. I wondered if he was being mellow in later middle years, or whether I was guilty of false nostalgia. It hadn’t taken much to bring the hustings to a pitch, to make an unmoored and perfunctory process something suddenly at stake. Facts, however small, are better than dreams, the moments when the possibility of implosion is resummoned. At the bar of the Huxley near Selsdon, Charles was talking to Class War about Nozick. Vodka cheesecake.


Apr 9, 2015


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.

Comments & corrections

Jan 9, 2014


Giving up cigarette fight

Paul Hampton-Smith writes: Re. “Australians still smoke 21 billion cigarettes a year. Why?” (yesterday). As someone who has only ever smoked about a dozen cigarettes as a kid, who thoroughly dislikes the smell, and is delighted with the ban in pubs and restaurants, I say “enough”. We’ve done enough!

I know that smokers occupy hospital beds more frequently, but they could hardly be accused of not paying for it. No, wait, let’s ban cigarettes altogether, doubling a black market that shouldn’t be there for other drugs either.

Fact-checking the fact-checkers

Kevin Tyerman writes: Re. “Get Fact: will more expensive booze cut binge drinking?” (yesterday). Callum Denness, while fact-checking about whether price increases will reduce binge drinking makes the claim that “For all the concern about young people and cask wine, less than 1% of 20- to 29-year-olds actually drink it.” To back up this claim he has highlighted the figure of 0.9% of respondents in the age group, in a table titled “Favourite Drink Disaggregated by Age Group”. While it is the favourite drink of less than 1%, the figure does not indicate what percentage of 20-somethings “actually drink” cask wine. There is even a chance that some people in that age group would drink cask wine at times when they can’t afford their “favourite” drink.

It seems like a pretty shoddy way of backing up such a statement in any media article, doing so in a fact checking article surely undermines the credibility of the whole fact-checking exercise.A

Are the Solomon Islands sinking?

Bill Lambert writes: Re. “‘Now it is too late’: bracing for climate displacement in the Pacific” (yesterday). The Solomon Islands lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Pacific plate is subducting the Australasian / Filipino plate. Lateral tectonic plate movements of millimeters per year are normal; the Australian plate is moving northwards at some 55 mm per year.

It is not clear from the article whether or not the satellite measurement of ocean rise was measured against a datum on the Solomon Islands themselves, or some other reference point. It is possible that some of the additional “ocean rise” may actually be “island sink”, caused by tectonic plate movement. I am convinced that climate change is real, but not convinced that all “ocean rise” is a simple manifestation of the changing climate and temperatures.

On fighting for a cause

John Penny writes: Re. “We had to bring it in’: defending conscription, 50 years on“. I would have no objection to conscription if Australia were genuinely in danger; being 80 rather than 18 may have something to do with that! But Dr Forbes’ apologia for conscription makes it timely to review the lies told by his government at the time of the Vietnam War.

When my son and his wife recently visited Vietnam, they found it a friendly and decidedly capitalist state.  At the time of the war, we were told: “We have to stop them up there before they get down here.” I have news for Dr Forbes. We lost the war. We didn’t “stop them up there”, but they didn’t “get down here”.

Another piece of fiction was the “domino theory”. If Vietnam fell to the Communists, the other south-eastern nations would fall one by one. That didn’t happen either.

Then, there was the 1966 federal election. I have a vivid memory of a leaflet put in my letter box. It showed a map of east Asia, with a sinister Oriental figure above a red mass covering the whole of China. Red tentacles were reaching down to envelop Australia. I put the map on my fridge door, but upside down, as there is no reason for north always to be at the top of a map.

It was oddly reassuring, as gravity was no longer aiding The Reds in their downwards march to Australia. And of course, the new Vietnamese government within a year or two fought a border war against the Chinese.Vietnamwas if anything a buffer against supposed Chinese expansion.

Fear-based lies like those are the tools of trade of those eager to go to war. Or, more accurately, those eager to send young people off to war.

The Rest

Oct 15, 2013


Ah, the 1980s, the decade that taste forgot (which used to be the ’70s, until that became chic). It was an era of leg warmers, neon pink and dirty wars in Latin America. For decades, the US had run the region as its own fiefdom, crushing any attempt by locals to gain even moderate representation in trade unions or popular political parties. The juntas and the dictators were largely defunded after the end of the Cold War, at which point they collapsed, after which the era was forgotten, in a world consumed in globalisation, and then the war on terror.

But not in the place itself, which now elects the leftist governments they always would have, had they been allowed. And in Guatemala, one of the most obscure yet significant places in the region, memory is clawing its way out of the shallow earth, and walking around. And it’s not stopping at the border.

Thus, in a California court recently, a would-be US citizen Jorge Vinico Sosa Orantes has been convicted of falsifying information while trying to gain citizenship. Orantes is now facing 15 years’ imprisonment for this otherwise minor crime, because the lie concerns his membership of the Guatemalan army in 1982, and his participation of a massacre in Dos Erres, where up to 200 villagers were killed after the army raided the village looking for stolen weapons. Killed doesn’t really cover it — Guatemalan “Kaibile” special forces raped and murdered the villagers over two days, separating the children and killing them with hammers, cutting open pregnant women, and keeping teenage girls alive for days of rape before strangling them.

The event has suddenly become known in the US media as the Dos Erres massacre as if it were as singular and famous as My Lai. It is simply one of the better documented, with four soldiers and officers involved sentenced in 2012 to die in jail serving their terms of thousands of years. In fact it was simply one of hundreds of exceptionally brutal massacres conducted by the Guatemalan military in their repression of guerilla campaigns — referred to as a civil war, it was more one-sided than that — over a period from 1960 to a final truce in 1996.

More than 250,000 people were killed in the conflicts, in which a string of US-backed dictators and fraudulent presidents forced people towards armed struggle for basic rights, and then reigned brutal repression on whole regions. Ninety per cent of the dead were killed by the military, and 90% of those were civilians, many of them indigenous people.

The military relied on US arms and funds, which only paused — partially — during the Carter era, and were expanded to include helicopters and air-to-ground missiles during the Reagan era. Barely covered in the Western media, the years of repression — initially at the behest of local landowners and the United Fruit Company, and then for military and oil interests — made the country about as lethal for its benighted population as anywhere on Earth.

The Guatemalans never forgot, obviously, and many of the years since have been consumed with investigation and reconciliation. In May this year, former president Rios Montt was convicted of genocide, though it was sent for re-hearing by a (politicised) court of appeal. Montt was leader in 1982-1983, when the Reagan administration supplied hardware that allowed Montt to turn low-level reprisals into systematic massacres of whole areas, taking the death toll into the tens-of-thousands per quarter — overwhelmingly, the dead were Mayan-descended people in the north of the country. Indeed, it was in this period that the country was flooded with CIA advisors and trainers — including for the Kaibilie forces — playing an active and knowing role in the killings.

The massacre at Dos Erres occurred on his watch. But it was only one of more than 1100 documented massacres, in a country roughly the size of Tasmania. Such reminders of another era will continue to come out of the ground. And they pose a challenge to the received wisdom of the era — that such dictatorships, however brutal, were not of the same order as the Communist dictators of eastern Europe at the same time. Principally, they pose a historical challenge to the anti-communist movement in the US, Australia and elsewhere, in the judgements it made and the priorities they chose.

“… teams of forensic archaeologists work over the dusty hills, disinterring and distinguishing skulls and bones centuries old, from those only decades old.”

By the 1960s, conditions in the eastern bloc countries that the anti-communist focused on substantially, were no picnic — but nor were they anything like the charnel house that a place like Guatemala had become. The same goes for other slaughters such as the wholesale evisceration of Vietnam, neutral Cambodia, and the 1965 massacres in Indonesia. Indeed, the killings had much in common with the genuinely atrocious communist killings of the time. In Guatemala, the CIA-trained death squads sought out teachers, graduates, anyone capable of organizing literacy, union representation or similar. Eventually, they arrived at the simple expedience of killing anyone wearing glasses (when they were not massacring villages tout court). Sound familiar?

Yet such events gained either no criticism, or actual approval, from the anti-communist movement. Comparison of life in, say, Poland in the 1970s and Guatemala, shows that many of the moral priorities of anti-communists were simply grotesque. Yet a movement founded overwhelmingly by European exiles could not free its moral focus from a personal and historical focus, which saw the sufferings of white Europe as meaningful, in a way that the mere killings of brown people elsewhere could not be. Nor do they have much defense in the claim that they did not really know what was going on. Simply, they should have looked harder. The documentation was plentiful, far in excess of that available on Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s.

The Latin American front touches every aspect of the Cold War and anti-communism. In 2004, with the revelations of US torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the world became aware of what anyone paying attention to Latin America knew — that torture has been intrinsic to US operations for a long time. Who was the US ambassador to Iraq in 2004? John Negroponte. And what was his previous experience? US ambassador to Honduras, 1981-1985, enthusiastically directing dirty wars in Central America. Suddenly, Abu Ghraib, a product of indiscriminate arrests, indefinite detention and brutal, racist US soldiers. Quelle surprise.

But it goes further back than that. It was Guatemala where, in 1954, the US had toppled an elected leftist reformist government, led by Jacopo Arbenz, at the behest of United Fruit. Arbenz’s government had drawn hundreds of leftists to Guatemala City, among them Castro and Guevara, and its fate made it clear to them — and to those further afield — that the US would not permit a reformist process in the hemisphere, shaping their strategies accordingly. The coup against Arbenz was organized by CIA director of plans Frank Wisner. Following the coup, Wisner’s agents organised the first death squads within the Guatemalan military, and Wisner ensured they received CIA funds. At the same time, he organized something on the Western front — a group called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (older readers will baulk at my presenting it as obscure; younger readers will never have heard of it).

The CCF was charged with waging cultural war against leftism, sponsoring everything from abstract expressionism painting (as opposed to figurative art, documenting social conditions) to small magazines around the world. The most famous was Encounter. The local one was Quadrant, which swapped CIA funding for Australia Council funding some time ago. Grandees such as Peter Coleman are still around from that era. They like to claim that whatever the shortcomings of CIA involvement in their projects, at least they “chose the right side”. They are yet to acknowledge how fatally and totally entwined were the CIA’s Cold War operations. Quite literally, the cheques that went to support Quadrant and others were signed by the same hand that signed what were effectively death warrants bound for South America.

Rather more has been forgotten than mere taste, especially in the US. But someday there will be a reckoning and a full moral assessment of the era, devoid of propaganda. It is beginning in Guatemala, where teams of forensic archaeologists work over the dusty hills, disinterring and distinguishing skulls and bones centuries old, from those only decades old.