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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

white populism in Australia « Previous | |Next »
October 20, 2009

The Coalition's hostile response to the recent boatloads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia got me thinking. The Liberals are in the wilderness and they will seize on anything to cut through by whipping up a populist storm to destroy Rudd's program of reforms and rational liberal mode of governance that seeks to strengthen institutions of governance.

The Coalition's paranoid rhetoric on illegal immigration is one of getting angry at imaginary stuff--eg., the Asian hordes swamping Australia. This anger taps into an emotional economy of resentment about their lived plight amongst the conservative base. So I wondered: 'Is white populism a foundation stone in political conservatism's desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order in Australia?

My bearings are taken from here. This is a white populism that works in terms of fear and loathing towards the Asian hordes, a white backlash against decades of radical economic and social change, and a form of nostalgia about a sense of the past that imagines a social and political order that at once simplifies and “restores” a way of life based in community in the face of the rapidly changing relationships between the national and the global. It is also a form of nationalism premised on an Anglo-British Australianness that forms Australia's core culture.

Many in the conservative base feel under attack from the rapid social and economic change--eg., battlers caught up in the re-structural shifts of global capital that make their jobs ‘post-industrially’ redundant, depressing already basic living standards---- but they can't form a coherent definition of where the attack on their way of life is coming from. They are angry, and their "whiteness" operates like an ethnicity that has no other name, but is often expressed as assimilation.

I appreciate that there are many kinds of populism (people vs. the powerful", ordinary Australia's vs educated "elites,") and many kinds of issues that populist movements form around its oppositional qualities to corporatism, and that white populism is one way of cutting the cake. For instance, Jeff Sparrow describes the cultural politics thus:

Remember Katherine Betts’ The Great Divide? Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians? Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class? Mark Latham’s From the Suburbs? The decades worth of columns in The Australian; the reports churning out from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies?

The narrative was always the same. A chasm separated ordinary, decent Howard-voting Australians from an arrogant tertiary-educated, intellectual elite: a clutch of sneering know-it-alls who wanted to overrun the country with immigrants, make everyone guilty about Aborigines and brainwash the youth with Parisian post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.

This downplays the differences within a conservative populism that relies on nationalism to hold itself together, but it does describe one foundation stone of political conservatism in the last decade. The underground structures of feeling were anti-bank, anti-Canberra, anti-immigrant, anti-global, and this nationalism functioned to support the status quo to defend "the people" against a perceived threat by internal elites and subversive outsiders.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:11 AM | | Comments (13)


it's no longer "populism with pitchforks" --an agrarian-based popular mass revolt against Canberra that sweeps across the regions--eg., that of a Bjelke Peterson.

This populism is one that says immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our core culture and it distrusts academics in their Ivory Towers. So it functions to undercut rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of emotional appeals and prejudice.

racism has served as the underlying thread that has woven together the different strands of right wing populist movement in Australia. These strands---see here are:

1. a ‘neoliberalism’ strand that pushes for ‘weak state’ and strong market; ‘privatise’ and downsize public infrastructure, reducing corporate tax ‘burdens’ by cutting funds
in schools and other civil institutions; principles of ‘competitive efficiency', managerialism

2. a ‘social conservative’ strand that seeks to create a strong state’ with central regulatory mechanisms for sustaining social cohesion based on ‘traditional culture’, mainly in ‘moral’ dimensions of civic-social life; evangelical Christian strand with its apocalyptic concerns about how ‘liberal-progressive’ or ‘secular humanist’ values debilitate the Judao_Christian moral fabric of God’s chosen country;

4. the strand of technical administrative fractions of ‘the professional and managerial new middle class’ who tilt right due to career interests that articulate with the ‘expertise’ needs of neoliberal ‘efficiency’, competition and ‘performance’ agendas.

These different strands are elements of ‘power-bloc’--to use Gramsci's phrase--that has exercised powerful leverage in our political institutions. It targets educational sites as crucial to its tactic of ‘identity politics' that ‘circulates new ways of understanding our identities’ so as to ‘radically alter who we think we are and how our major institutions are to respond’.

For instance, the neoliberal words are freedom’, and ‘choice’, with ‘ democracy
redefined in terms of need for choice in an unfettered market’. Murdoch is doing this around media politics. His idea of 'common sense' is to do away with the ABC.

I need to modify the phrase in the post about " political conservatism's desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order".

‘Conservative’ does not mean resistant to change. A good deal of the right's politics has been involved in radical transformations that destabilise the material, cultural and ideological infrastructures of ‘liberalism’ on which capitalist social order has been based in the past.

Further to what GS-T says at 10:38am... the populism we are seeing here, is about letting a bunch of misinformed whites feel superior while simultaneously striving to make them powerless.

The irony is that the greatest threat to our future and "way of life" comes from a bunch of white, educated, well-groomed thugs on Wall Street.

The neoliberal and socially conservative strands have been able to tap into the strong undercurrents of populist resentment that exist among many segments of the (especially) white population.

Interesting piece. Sadly this insular reaction to 'others' is not new in Australia and politically speaking, has been the resort of many parties through history. As an aside though, in reference to the "whiteness" comments, anecdotally, I often find the shorter someone has called Australia home the more vociferous is their opposition to immigration - for whatever reason.

@Annon I disagree with your pt 3. I think it misses the subtlety of this group. While not denying that there would be an element of racism in some quarters, as indeed there is clearly a fear of 'others' running through too large a proportion of this young nation - I believe the true driving force, in this case, behind "Evangelical Christians" is religious bigotry. It comes from a narrow interpretation of the Bible from which they draw all meaning and all truth. They believe that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus. Therefore, all other religions are anathema and maybe even evil/sinful.

All of the above is true enough for me to broadly agree.
But for once I find myself in optimistic mood about the issue of our 'betters', the media and the broad public.

For a week or so we have had the rightists bashing the airwaves and print with the usual racism which has included some truly awful statements.

And the public has specifically repudiated them.

ALP 59 :COALition 41

Lib primary only 30%
Nats down cf election
Greens at 10%
Best ALP 2PP this year.

That is a smack in the face for racism and a few other nasties.

I see that John Pasquarelli in an op-ed in The Australian--One Nation voters can look to Joyce"--- returns to a return to Howard era dog whistling. He refers to:

today's forgotten people, Australians of all generations who know their history and are embittered as they see their heritage, values, institutions and way of life devalued.....A new Australia is in the making, where our ethnic minorities will become majorities, aided by people running Malcolm Fraser's line that we need a population of 50million plus, no doubt to be fed by the spring of taxpayer-funded multiculturalism.

Pasquarelli goes on to say that the mainstream Australians---true blue Aussies?--- have no one in politics with the courage to become their flag-bearer in these challenging times. The fear of violent reprisal and being ostracised by the political elite is a reality that tarnishes and denigrates the sacrifices of past generations.

This is the "common sense" that conservatives go on about so much when they decry the experts.

Tim's aside on newer Australians is backed up by Scott Poynting and Ghassan Hage, Poynting on the masculinity involved and Hage on the relationship between economic and cultural insecurity. It's telling when being more Aussie than Aussie involves xenophobia expressed in heavily accented English.

I read that Pasquarelli thing several times trying to see the connection between the obvious fear of immigration and Barnaby Joyce and remain puzzled. I wonder what Joyce would make of it.

what you say about the evangelical Christian strand is true. But Annon's four strands are very diverse, even contradictory. So what ties them together as an assemblage?

Or rather what tied these contradictory strands together under Howard? They have gone their separate ways under Nelson and Turnbull, have they not?

one explanation for the astounding success of anti-elitism discourse can be explained as a backlash against the ‘new social movements’ of the 1970s which displaced the ‘white working class male’ as the centre of national cultural policy.

It focuses attention on the white battler's cultural marginalization, turning his attention away from his economic marginalization. The manouvre works because tertiary educated and professionally employed members of the former marginalized groups are indeed economically better off than the insecurely employed information poor working class members of our society.

Elites are held to be superior to ‘ordinary’ Australians, ‘lecturing’ them on issues such as environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism.

Good Grief!

This nation was founded on anti-elitism!!! Convicts and Irish refugees. Not really the sort of people who would be fond of the ruling class, eh?