Crossing the Border of Australian Social Democracy—a roundtable discussion

Australia is a laboratory in the future of global border control systems, with deep investment by parties of the social democratic left. Here, xBorder discuss its operation and opportunities for disruption.

Tom Lynch : In destination countries the transformation of the politics of migration over the last decade has been seen as symptomatic of faltering “social covenants”. It’s truer to say this change was inaugurated by the choices of millions to cross between the great enclosures of the world economy. Domestic political debate has been supposed to offer a route toward justice, but the infrastructure and procedures of border management expand unchecked.

In Europe the “migrant crisis” of 2015 saw millions of people displaced in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Iran crossing the central and eastern Mediterranean—leading to the operationalisation of Frontex. Among many changes at the EU border, Frontex switched the posture of Mediterranean operations from rescue to surveillance, and established a cynical “one in, one out” arrangement with Turkey.

Before this, from 2008 in Australia, the choice made by tens of thousands of people to try to claim asylum in Australia renewed a long history of exclusionary border policies. A brutal endgame of this phase began in July 2015 at the Australian Labor Party’s national conference, when a negatively framed “vote not to reject turnbacks” brought a new equilibrium into sight resting on bipartisan support for militarised border violence under Operation Sovereign Borders. The ALP’s pivot foreclosed any substantive right of asylum in Australia. As both Labor delegates and Church-aligned conservatives argued, it meant accepting the problem of human displacement lay beyond the remit of Australian solutions. They wanted to pull in the horizon of debate: “given that the boats have stopped and will stay stopped, there is no need for continued warehousing on Nauru and Manus Island” … but it was clear then and now this would mean the opposite of help to those interned in Australia’s black sites.

Three years of failed resettlement deals and reckless profiteering offshore later, the limits of the Australian union movement continue to manifest. Weeks ago two powerful ACTU affiliates, the AWU and CFMEU moved at the Victorian Labor conference to end any debate on offshore processing. John Setka subsequently tweeted a Federal Labor government was “our best chance of a more humane approach.” Approach to what? Change to policy on maritime turn-backs, mandatory detention and offshore processing are now explicitly ruled out. There is a slew of contradictory editorials on the feasibility of opening borders. But such fundamental questions remain over the horizon for national left movements: how can they, constituted in territory and citizenship as much as they ever were in labour, relinquish border violence?

Claire White : We have described elsewhere the financial and moral investments of sections of the “refugee movement” in the detention industry and the “fetish of asylum seeker passivity”. It’s also worth outlining that the insistence on the right of asylum and to be called refugees, cuts against the actual interests of asylum seekers. This right hasn’t effectively existed in Australia since at least 2001 for boat arrivals, there is no legal protection against refoulement and, since December 2014, Immigration Ministers are prepared to just refuse to process asylum applications.

Some are now campaigning to keep asylum seekers brought from offshore (but no one else) in forms of detention and pressuring those from Manus to seek refugee recognition from PNG authorities while in Australia. Are there some who would prefer community detention, or who would risk return to PNG for a shot at the US? Certainly. But just as with the demand to find the not-so-missing “1500 kids at the US border” let’s not get confused: refugee status or registration is, for the vast majority of asylum seekers globally and an ever-growing proportion in Australia, nothing more than the first step on the pathway to removal.

In Pakistan and Iran, Afghan refugees blended into existing semi-urban settlements rather than registering or residing in camps upon arrival, over the last four decades. Millions actively resisted attempts by the UNHCR and NGOs to register them as refugees. As Pakistan and Iran increasingly withdraw or restrict the right to remain, the undocumented have the best chance of avoiding authorities and surviving the round ups and mass deportations into Afghanistan supported and actively facilitated by the UNHCR and IOM.

Passports are designed to keep people in, as the Australian government and IOM-funded Afghanistan electronic passport project and Home Affairs data-matching projects demonstration. With the new passport roll-out, surrounding borders have been heavily fortified against Afghans without papers and Pakistani border authorities receive Australian government training to racially-profile and intercept potential asylum seekers, with papers, en route to Australia. Within Australia, Home Affairs data-matches information from its own records as well as the passport and national identity registration information provided by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior to frustrate family reunion applications and citizenship applications a project specifically targeting those already recognised as refugees in Australia. The grant of refugee status turns out to be a booby prize of value only to the refugee industry, NGOs and citizen refugee campaigners.

Matthew Kiem : As previously discussed on xBorder, social democratic politics recapitulates the terms of nationalist perspectives as a condition of its electoralism. This has implications for how the Australian border is considered vis-à-vis the UK, an issue that Walter Mignolo characterises in terms of the colonial/imperial difference1. Angela too has addressed this issue as one of situated and unevenly distributed stakes2. As Claire indicates in her discussion of passports, and Angela elsewhere, the question of ‘the Australian border’ is not something that either migrants or the state view as distant or ‘horizonal’, a point lost on ‘left’ nationalists.

Both UK and European fascists have been inspired by the Australian Labor Party’s racism. This includes positive references to the White Australia policy by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and Carl Schmitt3. Schmitt’s Right-wing critique of ‘liberal democracy’ has also influenced the work of ‘left populist’ theorists such as Chantal Mouffe4. Moreover, the British Imperial economy spread concepts of a ‘white working class,’ as racist labour activists moved from the mining fields of stolen Aboriginal land to the UK via South Africa5 —a detail that is materially significant to the sympathy that Australian politicians have recently expressed towards white South African farmers. An additional contemporary expression of this dynamic can be seen in cases of European Nazis, far-right politicians, and anti-refugee activists recycling the policies and branding of the Australian border.

Carolina Lee : Further to Claire’s point on data matching, as part of the Australian Government’s recent wide-ranging changes to temporary and permanent work visa programs, the Immigration Department will expand measures to share visa holders’ details, such as records of international travel, with the Tax Office. Aimed at identifying non-compliance under tax laws, it is estimated to impact 20 million people over the next 3 years.

As discussed previously by Angela and Sanmati Verma, this is another example of the intensification of processes of data collection and surveillance that form part of border control systems. Their piece explains how asylum seekers are a key target of experimental, destructive and highly-profitable border control techniques for checking and compliance. Angela has also written extensively on processes that seek to transform border movements into value. The issue here is not one of ‘first them, then us’, drawing upon any feelings of affinity that citizens in Australia and the UK may feel towards lighter-skinned migrants. Rather, a key aim of recent xBorder discussion and action has been to identify the roles that citizens play in border management, and the potential to disrupt detention supply chains. We must specifically call out ‘progressives’ who perpetuate the terms of left nationalist politics.

Example 1: citizen activists for refugees often appeal to racist, nationalist and settler-colonialist ideas in order to look to mobilise support for limited policy change.

Example 2: many Australian unions have long promulgated the idea that workers on temporary visas are ‘stealing Australian jobs,’ undermining wages and conditions and local training. Any concern with exploitation of temporary visa holders is undercut by unions’ racialised and nationalist discourses, carving out temporary migrants as a less-deserving segment of the workforce which should be reduced. Unions regularly fail to account for asylum seekers as workers, and are often key stakeholders in the financing of the detention industry. To be clear, any social democratic project that excludes the border as a pivotal mechanism of exploitation is nationalist, and not a genuine project of class struggle.

Angela Mitropoulos : Australia is a laboratory in the history and future of global border control systems. It is also difficult to overstate the emotional, financial, policy and religious investment of the Australian Labor Party in racism, borders and settler colonialism. For those who claim to be Marxists but who hold fast to Labourism and the labour theory of value, might I recommend Critique of the Gotha Programme, which begins: “Labor is not the source of all wealth.” Marx’s point is that labour has no godlike powers of creation, that such a view assumes the appropriation of nature and imbues wage labour with a false virtue expedient to interminable exploitation. As it happens, the labour theory of value is derived from Locke, who drew on the bible to justify colonisation as a divine right derived from the cultivation of land6.

At the edge of English empire and in its shaping of global border controls, this is not a trivial point that has faded with time. It gave rise to the doctrine of terra nullius, the white men’s land rights movement of the Eureka rebellion, the ‘White Australia’ policy, the hallucination of autarchic nationalist self-creation, the hyper-exploitation of a ‘naturalised’ unwaged and low-waged work beyond and within Australia’s borders that—as Carolina and Claire discuss—is liable to infinitesimal degrees of control through visas, rules of conduct and de facto criminalization through deportation and internment. Nor is it a trivial point where a resurgent fascism draws on a Schmittian rendering of Locke to dream its geopolitical nightmare of a global order of ethnonations. Schmitt, the national socialist jurist, of course credits Locke: “land appropriation” and cultivation is the first principle of inter-national law7.

Parallel to this is the pernicious influence of population theory in galvanising an obsession with controlling the movements of populations, with no plausible evidence, but nevertheless in powerful sermons that trade on the fantasmatic oikonomic purchase of biblical eschatology. From the Malthusian cranks—as Marx suggests: “the brutal viewpoint of capital” expressed with a “clerical fanaticism”—to Polanyian social Catholicism, biblical catastrophism and concepts of moral hazard have long given rise to cautionary tales of economic calamity that would inevitably result if poor people were not compelled to ‘productive’ labour and were able to move freely across presumably natural boundaries8. Borders exclude; they also give rise to a racial welfare state that manages shifting zones of hyper-exploitation in extended global production and distribution chains, convert refugees into an asset class, and so on.

These combinations of geopolitical and economic theologies—even leaving aside the growing influence of white evangelicalism from the US—and associated oikonomic systems pivot on borders as the mechanism which ensures the preservation of heritable wealth and property, including that of race understood as a heritable and unique property, and sex understood as that which reproduces race. Borders are not a protection against capitalist exploitation, they are a crucial means of its preservation, and an effective obstacle to any movements for change that matter.

  1. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2011), 77-117. 

  2. Mitropoulos, ‘Encoding the Law of the Household and the Standardisation Of Uncertainty’, in A. Bove, et al (Eds) Mapping Precariousness, Labour Insecurity and Uncertain Livelihoods (London: Ashgate, 2017), 210-226. 

  3. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 9. 

  4. Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London; New York: Verso, 2005) 

  5. Hyslop, “The Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White’,” Journal of Historical Sociology (12:4, 1999), 398-421. 

  6. Mitropoulos, Contract & Contagion (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2012), 70–71, 108–9, passim. 

  7. Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth (New York: Telos, 2003), 42–49. 

  8. Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 605; Polanyi, Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, 2001), 85; Mitropoulos, Contract & Contagion, 151–62.