The second coming
The politics of rage won’t let us listen to one another
It is 1984. I am just shy of 19, Reagan is about to be re-elected in the US, Thatcher is administering shock treatment to the UK, and our new prime minister, Bob Hawke, along with his treasurer, Paul Keating, is planning his own quiet revolution in Australia. And I thought the world was about to end.
On community radio one night I hear a song that I find I can’t get out of my mind. Its woozy, lazy reggae beat has me swaying from the first listen. But it is the lyrics that come to obsess me. The lead vocalist is male, the incantation of the verse almost emotionless, but very soon he is accompanied by a powerful and direct female voice, the great Rhoda Dakar. Once her vocal comes to dominate, the power of the song kicks in.
If you have a racist friend
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end
Be it your sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover.
The urgent simplicity of the song is such that it’s as if I have known the lyrics all my life. Once the song finishes I wait impatiently for the back announcement. All the time I am mouthing the lyrics back to myself, confusing the order of the words – is it brother first or sister, uncle, cousin or mother? – the tracks playing on the radio now just white noise after the electrifying thrill of that song. The wait seems interminable. I pick up the phone, dial the studio and timidly ask for the name of the song about “racist friends”. The volunteer DJ informs me that it is by the English band The Special AKA.
I already know their previous incarnation, The Specials, from the singles ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘A Message to You Rudy’, a cover of the old rocksteady classic, and probably, in that admixture of adolescent vanity and self-doubt, I would have kicked myself for not guessing that it was them straight off the bat.
The next morning I awake with ‘Racist Friend’ still playing incessantly in my head. It remains one of those songs that floods back into consciousness at the most unexpected moments. It is now close to 35 years since I first heard it and I can’t shake it off and still don’t know how I feel about it. I love it and it troubles me. I love it for its bolshie defiance, how wrapped within a cheerful pop melody there is an uncompromising and radical insistence. And it is that insistence, that declaration of righteousness, that unnerves me. I think I must have known from that first time I heard it that I wasn’t prepared to pick up the gauntlet.
The song came flooding back when I heard that the British had voted to leave the European Union. In part it was because of the ire that was feeding through the emails and texts from friends in London who were horrified and angered by the result. The Specials, though formed in Coventry, north of the capital, always seemed a quintessentially London band: multicultural, avowedly political and owing as much allegiance to reggae as they did to punk. My English and Scottish friends, aware of my antipathy towards the EU, an institution I was ambivalent about even before the Great Recession, had in the past tolerated my cynicism and hostility. But straight after Brexit their patience was shot. “It had nothing to do with economics and class,” wrote one friend. “It was all about immigration and racism.” Another made it clear that if I were even tacitly to justify Brexit they’d prefer I didn’t discuss politics with them for a while. Even through email and over the telephone, I could sense the rawness, the bafflement and the rage. I kept my mouth shut.
It is clear that after the GFC, after the European asylum-seeker crisis, after Brexit, after the poisonous cultural civil wars revealed by the US election, and, closer to home, after the revolving door of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Abbott–Turnbull leadership crises and, more recently, the resurrection and electoral success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, stark divisions are emerging in Western democracies. These divisions are compromising both the ideal of political consensus, that there is a broad centre in democratic polities that mitigates the extremes of both left and right, and the hope of social cohesion, that there is a shared and again consensual agreement on the kind of society we all desire to be part of. Across traditional and social media, in the rehearsed speeches of politicians and in the published output of academic think tanks, we still hear calls appealing to the “centre”, but when it comes to defining what this consensus might be, in terms of actual policies and political aspirations, all seems to be built on shifting sands.
In a sense, this was the brilliance of Donald Trump’s pitch for the US presidency. Realising that the centre has been smashed, he dared speak in partisan language that has been anathema in Western politics since the end of the Cold War. In contrast, Hillary Clinton maintained a rhetoric of cohesion and appeasement. But for me, her most telling mistake was defining a large core of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” at a private fundraising dinner. Her apology was swift but it revealed how strained a politics of consensus now is. We all know how thoroughly those speeches are checked and double-checked for any controversy. The fact that this insult was overlooked indicates how out of touch the Democratic Party is with working-class America. Trump’s partisanship was evident from his damning statements about immigration and race even before the primaries. In her slip, Clinton also made clear that whomever was going to win the election would only be governing for a segment of the US population. She wasn’t interested in talking to the “deplorables”.
If you have a racist friend / Now is time, now is the time for your friendship to end.
The force of the word deplorable – to be lamented, despised and abhorred – suggests a moral condemnation that can be denied or ignored when we use such terms as “white trash” or, in the Australian context, “bogan”. The latter terms have even entered the lexicon as terms of self-identified working-class pride. In one way, Clinton’s slip can be understood as the frustration of a politician who has committed her political life to feminism, civil rights and social justice, and who has been frustrated by the onslaught of misogynistic and racist language used by some Trump supporters, particularly across social media. Her moral indignation indeed makes visceral sense to many of us here in Australia who have glumly watched the poisonous unfolding of our asylum-seeker policies. The expression of virulent racist hate is deplorable, and I suspect that I’m not alone in finding myself venting my spleen in injudicious and unforgiving contempt when I see the faces of Reclaim Australia protesters on television. It is a hatred that mirrors their hate. I want to see them annihilated.
Rage seems to be everywhere. On the tram into the city, in conversations with friends and with family, scrolling through comments online, and listening to talkback. There is road rage and cycle rage, “Ditch the Witch” and “Hang the Mad Monk”. There is outrage at the building of a mosque and a furious despising of the Catholic Church. Safe Schools will corrupt the children, and Germaine Greer should never be allowed to lecture again. The Murdoch press denounces the inner city and the Fairfax press scorns those living in McMansions. Anger at Brexit, fury that Trump is president-elect. Everyone is so fucking angry.
There is a narrative of this anger, one that has now become dominant: that the rage festers in the disenfranchised white working class of the globalised capitalist world. The story goes that the fury is the dying gasp of the dead white male, resisting his vanquishing by history and economics. We fear it, of course: it is quixotic and rudderless; we are fearful of the expression it will find through the ballot box or through social media. But the story also goes that demographics will ultimately suffocate the beast. The future belongs to multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. This is the dying howl of the walking dead.
Except that the poison and fractious heat of such expression resists simplistic summation. In a suburban mall in the north-west of my city, a Turkish-Australian man sits beside me on a bench outside Target and we begin a conversation. I try out my terrible Turkish and tell him how much I loved Istanbul. He scowls, tells me how the “filthy Arabs” have destroyed the city. In a hipster cafe a young woman adroitly manages to check her emails on her laptop while talking to a friend on her phone, and suddenly her voice booms out, a righteous declaration: “I am sick of the uneducated ruining my country. Those fuckwits shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” From a neighbouring table a young man gives her the thumbs up. I want to speak out, to say something about how nervous such elitism makes me – partly because I too understand the anti-democratic frustration that gives rise to it – but I don’t dare. I don’t dare risk their possible dismissal of me as just another middle-aged dead white guy excusing the misogynists, the racists and the homophobes. So again I shut my mouth and let another form of privilege, that of class, pass without comment.
We are fooling ourselves if we believe the rage is only misogynistic or rural, only white and right-wing, baby-boomer and not millennial. It screeches across the spectrum of left and right politics, no more so than on the internet, which allows for a lubrication and indulgence in wrath just as much as it does so for lust. And just as the abandonment to the endless stream of pornography is ultimately wearing and enervating, so it is when we chase the interminable comment feed that now attaches itself to any journalistic or political enquiry. Politics, performed in front of a computer screen, with the individual sitting alone in their room, has become masturbation.
A constant emerges from within this raucous din, this righteous spray. There is a symbiosis that links the outraged liberal to the furious conservative, the radical activist to the enraged reactionary. It is the subtext that seems to define the contemporary moment: my rage is grievous and justifiable, and yours is ignorant and selfish. An analysis of misogyny or racism or the poisonous impasse of our asylum-seeker policies is met with a howl that women and immigrants and refugees have never had it so good. When fears of globalisation and unemployment are raised as reasons for voting Brexit or Trump or One Nation, they are hurled back from this maelstrom as a charge that such economic concerns and such fears are illegitimate and unsubstantiated. Tradies earn more than doctors and any bogan can get on a Jetstar flight to Bali. You too, you racist pricks, you have never had it so good.
But I have become increasingly wary of morality disguised as politics and of our reversion to a language redolent of sin and shaming, certainty and righteousness. This is the unease occasioned by ‘Racist Friend’, a disquiet I couldn’t name when I first heard it as a teenager but that I think has to do with the Manichean simplicity of its division of the world. In a terrific essay published online recently in New Matilda, ‘Understanding Pauline’, Nelly Thomas points to the bind that confronts many of us from working-class backgrounds when we witness our cosmopolitan, tertiary-educated peers pouring scorn on the ignorance of this class we were born into. “Educated people do routinely talk down to the uneducated,” she writes. “This is probably true in all cultures, across all time, but I think it is a particular marker of the experience of the English colonisation of Australia.” The phenomenon has a flip side, too. Working-class Australians, she notes, “have a deep-seated suspicion and dislike of The Snob. Being belittled or patronised by The Snob is not a nice feeling.”
I think Thomas is right to trace the roots of Australian anti-intellectualism to our colonial history, but my sense is that similar suspicions and resentment are now being expressed across the globe through anti-immigration, anti-globalisation and anti-metropolitan rhetoric. Whatever I might think of the more toxic and ugly of such politics, it is clear that many working people no longer feel that the traditional parties of the left and of social democracy speak to them. And they’re not wrong. Insular and unintelligible theory dominates identity politics and the student left, while the rhetoric of social justice and human rights trades in bland universalisms that have absolutely nothing to say about economic exploitation within the nation state. The progressive vocabulary is shaped by academics, technocrats, inner-city professionals and the media, and, of course, it prioritises their concerns. What is shocking is that the insularity of this language has been blithely unquestioned by the left.
One of the reasons that the outburst by the young woman in the cafe disturbed me – those fuckwits shouldn’t be allowed to vote – is that I know she is wrong. My political education owes a great debt to the working-class people – many who never finished high school and some who never finished primary school – who took the time to teach me about trade unionism, history, and the centrality of justice. Some of it was communist- and socialist-inspired, some arose from religious faith, and all of it from lived experience. These labourers, cleaners, secretaries, bricklayers and painters were often migrant – but not always – and our conversations were not always measured. We did argue, and continue to argue, over feminism and ecology, about immigration and asylum, about same-sex marriage and drug policy, about welfare and globalisation. But these are issues I argue about with everyone, including friends from university and the literary world. When I translate my beliefs and commitments into an often-rudimentary Greek, I have to use a simple language that is dependent on a limited vocabulary, and upon interpretation and translation. But something similar occurs when I am on a public stage. I am trained in the language of political and civil correctness, though that too is different to the shorthand I use over a coffee table or in a pub. None of us always and in every situation speaks the same language.
When the Occupy protests began in 2011, the ubiquitous chant of “We are the 99%” annoyed the shit out of me. Certainly I sympathised with the protesters’ outrage at the obscene inequities of capital, and at the venal and destructive workings of the global financial markets. The regeneration of activist resistance was powerful and necessary. But the translation of politics into a battle between the 1% and the rest of us revealed a woefully naive understanding of economics, and a paranoid and self-serving interpretation of class relations among the student and activist left. If only it were so easy: we could round up the usual suspects and walk hand in hand into a glorious socialist utopian sunset. Such simplistic analysis can’t provide answers to the inequities of geography, schooling and status in my city, let alone address questions of complicity and responsibility when it comes to global and transnational exploitation.
Many of those involved in Occupy – in the US, Canada, Europe and in Australia at least – were energised as much by identity politics as by their antipathy to capitalism. On first hearing the catchphrase it struck me that such crude sloganeering would never be acceptable in public expressions of feminist, anti-racist and LGBTI protest. Imagine a rally against women’s exploitation, for example, founded on an assertion that the most egregious female oppression is conducted by misogynists, who are, let’s say, 10% of the population. And that the rest of us are “the 90%-ers”. Can we conceive of an equivalent declaration at a street march supporting same-sex marriage?
In its worst and most regressive manifestations, identity politics has become a weapon to punish any ambivalence of thought and expression, any incorrect use of gendered, racial or theoretical nomenclature, and to launch accusations of bad faith. I find myself getting into trouble over the right order of adjectives to explain ethnicity and on which letters now constitute the alphabet of queer sexuality. It is a joke, but a ghastly one, and the egg is on our faces when we are so fixated on the purity of our language and our virtue that we can no longer speak beyond ourselves. We are cautioned to always “check our privilege”. Except when it comes to class.
He is a beautiful young man, dreadfully pale and dreadfully thin, huddling in a doorway in a threadbare polyester jacket, trying to escape the Melbourne cold and the Melbourne rain. But every time someone drops a coin into his upturned baseball cap, he raises his head to smile. It is this smile that makes me overcome my middle-class timidity at striking up a conversation with a homeless person. He is eager to talk and I sit next to him, offer him a cigarette, and over the smoke he tells me how he has been on the streets since he was 18, two years after he left school and a year since he lost his job when a factory in northern Victoria closed down.
He has concrete ideas on how the situation for the homeless could be improved, how he would prefer an allotted area to be created, a tent to which he could return every night after begging and searching for work. While grateful to those who work and volunteer in services for the homeless, he is also cynical. “They make their living off of us, that’s just the way it is, they need us.” He doesn’t offer and I don’t ask the reasons why he can’t rely on family. Instead I ask him whether he is trying to get into public housing and he returns a wry smile. “I’m registered,” he answers glumly. “But they say it’s a 13- to 15-year wait. If I was a refugee or Aborigine, I’d be in. But for someone like me there’s nothing.” Then, abruptly, firmly, he says, “Don’t think I’m a racist.” And I answer, “I don’t think you are.”
And I don’t think he is. What we now have in Australia, and it has been the case for a long time, is not public housing but emergency housing, and stop-gap attempts to deal with social and economic breakdown in a political landscape where neoliberalism has triumphed. The welfare state is being slowly dismantled. The premise on which it was founded, a contract between labour and capital safeguarding access to housing, education and health for working-class people, has been consistently chipped away at for the past 30 years.
The increasing disparities between public and private education and the damage to technical and vocational training have betrayed the commitment to state education. Even professional and cosmopolitan parents who express avowedly progressive and left-wing views are sending their children to private schools or jostling to live in inner-city suburbs where “select” state schools offer opportunities denied to children born to less-privileged families.
The cost of housing has become prohibitive in Australia’s biggest cities and the public health system is under constant siege, whether from privatisation or funding cuts. And there is an increasingly ominous focus on the notion of “responsibility”, where an unhealthy lifestyle is seen as a factor that might in the future deny someone’s access to state-funded healthcare. The implication being: you better live somewhere close to parkland and bicycle paths, organic grocers and boutique bars, you better not gamble, smoke or drink too much – not at all would be best – otherwise you’re fucked. And you deserve to be fucked.
Some of us are born into wealth and privilege; some of us accrue economic security through fortune or opportunity or work or a combination of all three; and those of us who are tertiary-educated accumulate a cultural capital that gives us options and access to institutional power that are simply not possible for the majority of Australians.
We are not 99% and we never have been.
Working-class people understand when they are being talked down to. The young homeless man I spoke to may be using language and expressions that contravene the boundaries drawn around speech by present codes of political correctness, but his experience gives him insight into the politics of housing, perhaps greater than those employed in the sector.
Like many others, he has a deep suspicion of an educated language of care and benevolence, and this is why the resentment towards the “do-gooder” has such power. Working-class people are not dumb, and know that any political currency they might have increasingly comes from asserting themselves as “victims”. Or what used to be called, to similar deleterious effect, “the deserving poor”. It always has been and continues to be a shit game to play, one that destroys pride and foments contempt. In an economic system where access to social security and jobs is increasingly precarious, divisions are exacerbated and amplified. In a dog-eat-dog world, people by necessity are going to assert any ethnic, racial, identity or conditional experiences that will allow them a slice of the pie. This is the result of the erosion of working-class communities – indigenous and white, migrant and Australian-born – through the globalisation of labour and the corruption of the welfare state, which now is more properly to be understood as the “poverty state”. National, social and familial bonds get sucked into the centrifuge of globalisation, and people are spat back out into the world as atomised, disconnected units.
To be working class is not necessarily to be white and European. That hasn’t been true for over half a century now, not in Australia and not in the US and not even in Europe. The great crisis for multiculturalism is that it is identified as being synonymous with globalisation. The shockwaves of the GFC exacerbated racist tensions and fears that were already present but could be elided in the euphoria of post–Cold War hyper-capitalism. The dislocations and in some cases total eradication of older forms of community and of social cohesion are real, and it is this breach that right-wing nationalist parties, from One Nation to the UK Independence Party to the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Front National in France, have stepped in to fill. For very good reasons, advocates, activists and bureaucrats for multicultural, ecological and cosmopolitan policies and ideals have for a quarter century privileged ethnic, racial and religious identification over local, national and, most pertinently, class identities.
We – and I include myself here, as someone who has consistently written in defence of multiculturalism for over two decades – have been slow to realise how traumatic the loss of communal, familial and national bonds and self-respect has been for working-class people. I should have been listening; members of my family and their peers have been voicing these concerns for years. That pride matters: in place, in community and in work. In my bubble, in the progressive inner city, such concerns seemed old-fashioned, traditional, even reactionary. Identity politics, and the cultural politics that arises from it, has little or nothing to say about the destruction of opportunities brought on by the end of the manufacturing sector. It ignores the increasing poverty in many of our rural communities. It blithely underestimates the cost of family breakdown and intergenerational poverty occasioned by unemployment, underemployment and welfare dependence. Such economic anxieties have been acceded to the right wing, and in part this explains the crisis that labour and social-democratic parties across the world now find themselves in.
Multiculturalism is not the same as globalisation. This is evident in the cogent and very real differences between multiculturalism in Australia and in the US or Canada, in India or the various nation states of the EU. The success and the positive transformative energy of Australia’s multiculturalism are things to be proud of, to defend and assert. It is almost breathtakingly easy to turn to moralism and righteous anger when confronted by the lunacy and cruelty of our recent asylum-seeker policies and the wretched degradation of our parliament over the past decade. Easy to exclaim in frustration, “We are parochial and ignorant and totally fucked.” But such a response is also a return to a deep-seated colonial cringe in Australia that has historically belonged to the intellectual and culturally privileged classes who always identify progress and sophistication as being elsewhere, in the centres of the old colonial world. As a child of the peasant detritus that Europe shat out in the 20th century, I am deeply suspicious of this preference for “elsewhere”. It always turns out that this desire limits itself to the boundaries of the Métro grid or the Tube map, that it never ventures out to the housing estates or slums.
“Just as socialism is no remedy for capitalism, capitalism cannot be a remedy or an alternative for socialism … The contest is never simply over an economic system … For the rest, it has to do with the political question: It has to do with what kind of state one wants to have, what kind of constitution, what kind of legislation, what sort of safeguards for the freedom of the spoken and printed word; that is, it has to do with what our innocent children in the West call ‘bourgeois freedom’. There is no such thing; freedom is freedom whether guaranteed by the laws of a ‘bourgeois’ government or a ‘communist’ state.”
– Hannah Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution: A Commentary’
We have to relearn listening and we have to relearn argument, to free both activities from the indulgent wrath of the new digital age. I am not making a Luddite argument against new media and espousing a return to forms of traditional community that have been smashed in the fiercely individualistic and amoral economic transformations of capitalism in the last quarter century. I like living in a multicultural metropolis and I am happy to do so. But in the complex dance between the ideal of liberty and the ideal of justice that should be central to progressive and democratic politics, we need to take seriously the perspectives of people who are fearful of their economic future and that of their children.
The “straitjacket of political correctness” is not that it doesn’t allow the deplorable to be expressed, but the expectation that we must all use a language governed by academic and bourgeois forms of expression. This presupposes a knowledge and a dexterity in the use of such language, and in its most elitist forms silences conflict and cannot recognise humour. It is not necessarily anti-immigrant to pose the question of how Europeans are to maintain a sophisticated welfare system with a concurrent commitment to massive migration, when the original consensus between labour and capital has collapsed. The concerns that working-class people have about the entrenchment of generational poverty, and the resulting breakdown of family cohesion in their communities, are not always anti-feminist. And to be proud of one’s ethnic and cultural background is not always to be racist, just because that history might be “white” or “Anglo” or Celtic. To cede such questions, concerns and desires to the most virulently xenophobic and right wing of politicians and parties is disastrous.
I have returned again and again to ‘Racist Friend’ in writing this essay, and once more I am galvanised by its fierce politics and troubled by the ruthlessness of its conclusion. When I was a younger man being introduced to anarchist and socialist politics, I met mentors and friends who shared such ruthlessness. They were staunch in their commitment to reconstituting the world and slicing off family, friends and community who could not follow them in their radicalism. Be it your sister / Be it your brother / Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover. I learnt that there was a long legacy to such ruthlessness, arguably one that was birthed from the radical Jacobinism of the French Revolution and blighted the left when it led to gulags and Cultural Revolutions. It is also reflected in a more comic vein, though equally self-defeating, in the separatism and sectarianism that have all but destroyed the cultural left. I now believe that its history stretches even further back, forged in the Messianic traditions of late Second Temple Judaism, gleaned in the declaration of Jesus that he has come “to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother”, and is evident now in the apocalyptic language of contemporary radical Islam. The ecological crisis confronting humanity makes such apocalyptic fervour attractive. And sinister.
I have racist friends and racist family. Sometimes the malevolence of such expression has created a separation between us. And sometimes with strangers I have faced the hateful punch that declares any conversation and any communality impossible. There have been times when I wished to deliver that violence. But my racist uncle is also the man who educated me in social justice and the importance of trade unionism. My sexist friend is the youth who introduced me to James Baldwin and hip-hop. My xenophobic cousin is the woman who challenged the misogyny and acquiescence to domestic violence that characterised elements of her migrant community. We still argue, we still debate, we still listen, across different expressions and experiences of life, and in different languages. To be working class is not a synonym for being white. Neither is being a racist. And to be educated and an intellectual doesn’t mean having a tertiary degree. It is such simplistic dichotomies and moralistic precepts that have helped cede ground to the right, here and in Europe and in the US. Working-class people aren’t “dumb”, “ignorant”, “uneducated”. They know, they understand, and they certainly get it. They know that the rest of us haven’t been listening.
“They voted for Trump,” a friend texts. “Buy gold. This is the end of the world!”
Except I’ve been here before.
In 1984, when I first heard ‘Racist Friend’, we also believed the world was going to end. Reagan was in the White House, Thatcher in Downing Street, and the only logical conclusion to the Cold War appeared to be nuclear Armageddon. It was also the year I first came across WB Yeats’ astounding poem ‘The Second Coming’. In particular, the lines “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” resonated with me as speaking to a world hell-bent on destroying itself, where compassionate reason seemed drowned out by materialism and war-mongering. Recently, many friends have referred to the Yeats poem – post Brexit, Trump’s victory, and the bitter return of One Nation to our parliament – again as a warning for our times. They foresee another apocalypse, now one where ecological disaster takes the place of the bomb. And I understand their rage, and I understand their fury, and, more often than I would want, I share them.
Many of the activists I admire most would also argue with me that politics is not possible without anger. I think that’s true, but I have also grown to distrust rage no matter how passionately or sincerely held. If climate change matters, if a more compassionate and just treatment of asylum seekers matters, if economic justice matters, and if human liberty and freedom of expression matter, and I sincerely believe all of them do matter, we have to find other ways of communicating our convictions. In our parliament, at our work, online and in print, with our friends and with our families. Outside our bubbles. Of course, we can’t be silent and we mustn’t shut up, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult that might be at times, but this rage and this pornography of wrath, it is proving dangerous.