No Thanks: How the white art left launders the carceral state

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

Anwen Crawford’s ‘No Document’ purports to pay tribute to rebellion, but instead spirals off into a narcissistic vortex of white possession.

What, if anything, does the imagination have to offer liberation movements? How can one person’s private grief sit amidst the grief of the whole world? Joy James’s theory of the ‘captive maternal’ describes how those bound by love to persons hunted by the state can either stabilise the systems which produce this violence or turn against them in revolt. Writers who take as their theme the depredations of racial capitalism face a similar choice. No Document, a lyric memoir by the ‘Australian’ writer Anwen Crawford, purports to pay tribute to rebellion, but instead spirals into a narcissistic vortex of quasi-profundity and white possession. Every word of it is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.

No Document takes the form of a loose collage. The central narrative is that of Crawford’s friendship and artistic partnership with the artist Ned Sevil, who died young. This is interspersed with fragments drawn variously from the ‘Australian’ history of border and other violences, details of the depredations of industrial agriculture, references to mostly white European and USian visual artists, and reminiscences of Crawford’s participation in anti-capitalist and anti-border movements in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The text is periodically interrupted by redactions, white squares and insertions of blank space. These juxtapositions hint at a richness of thematic and affective connection between such subjects as capital, migration, animal suffering, memory, and art, while the redactions gesture towards meaning which has been either deliberately withheld, or which is so profound as to transcend the written word. Crawford’s grief for her dead friend is movingly evoked, with specificity of feeling and a tender, very physical presence: “for a moment [I] consider you in desire, but the moment passes and I never return to it.”; “I got sunburnt at your funeral; I thought I saw you sitting in the distance at your funeral”.

The trouble is that for the rest of the book, which is most of it, Crawford has nothing of interest to say. Violence piles upon violence—a dead migrant, a brutalised horse—but beyond observing that this is bad, I was at a loss as to what conclusions I might draw. In No Document, resistance is continually situated either in the past or in some undefined and imaginary future: “Other versions of us have existed and will again, in time.” Where Crawford describes her participation in social movements, the focus is on affect, not effect. We learn how flares lit up the sky at the Woomera detention centre breakout of 2002—a striking, beautiful image—but not about the organising that led to this moment, how it failed or succeeded, nor how anti-border movements have evolved since then, or might evolve in the future. The real subject here is how Crawford felt, whether physically (a crushed foot on a picket line) or in the private experience of a moral conflict (“how does the settler betray/ herself”). Dilemmas are raised then immediately dropped, their function rhetorical rather than investigative. What happened to the escaped migrants? How does the settler betray herself? That is not No Document’s concern.

Where Crawford does risk a statement of tangible intent, it is related to the value of art and the imagination. If this sounds vague, so is the book. Art, irrespective of its content, is offered as a salve to brutality—one example is a painting of a blue horse—but even this is not committed to. “Making things could be enough … I think I still believe it,” Crawford writes. Later, she asks herself, “Do I think art can change the world? No and yes.” Time and again, Crawford moves towards words that might actually say something, then retreats back to the same self-protective hedge. The only claim made outright is negation: “I redeem nothing, not in words, not in any way”. In the use of this trope, she joins a pantheon of literary women—Sally Rooney, Olivia Laing—who perform ambivalence about the value of their art in a world of climate change and other violences. The effect is not to renounce any cultural or financial benefits (none of these writers lack access or plaudits), but to create the impression they have grappled with these issues, when in fact they have only mentioned them.

Like Crawford, Laing and Rooney’s characters prefer to reference past participation in social movements. In Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, a character remarks: “When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me.” In Laing’s Crudo, the narrator reminisces: “Back in the day she’d done her time in the black bloc”; later, a lethal clash between Nazis and anti-fascists is described as “a game on both sides”. These author-surrogates seem less concerned with the movements themselves than with how this rhetorical political consciousness can be used to mediate one’s evolving sense of self and interpersonal relationships. Even real and courageous struggle is transformed from a living commitment into a badge, a token swapped between whites of different cultural shades. In the TV adaptation of Rooney’s Normal People, Connell (the good love interest), tells Jamie (the bad love interest), not to say bad things about Asians, thus distilling anti-racism down to what for these authors surely lies at its very heart: which white man should the white woman fuck? I’ll do a No Document here: my critique serves no purpose. My motivation is pure spite. I hope their ice cream falls on the ground.

Actually I don’t hope that for Rooney, who withdrew translation rights for her latest novel from Modan Publishing in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Here, Rooney showed integrity, as well as understanding that the content of one’s art may be less important than the financial, (geo)political and cultural conditions under which it is exchanged.

The same cannot be said of Crawford, who was music critic at The Monthly from 2013 to 2021. This magazine is part of the Schwartz Media group, which markets itself based on a veneer of social justice—“journalism that makes a difference”—while deploying “racist smears” against Palestinians and censoring their struggle. This was an open secret as early as 2014, when it was reported in Overland magazine—to which Crawford has also been a contributor, even covering pro-refugee artistic boycotts. Did she not know?

These authors seem less concerned with the movements themselves than with how a rhetorical political consciousness can be used to mediate one’s evolving sense of self. I hope their ice cream falls on the ground.

I don’t wish to overstate the centrality of the individual act of refusal, which can have the effect of diverting blame from the institution as a whole. There is no ethical publishing under capitalism; Schwartz is not the only media outlet complicit in colonisation, and Crawford is not the only writer at Schwartz. It’s quite possible that if Crawford had walked out of The Monthly in, say, 2018, the effect would have been akin to a tree falling in an unpopulated forest. And yet.

A brief timeline: on 2 May 2021, 13 Palestinian families in the occupied Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah were evicted as part of the ongoing settler-colonial project of the Israeli state. On 7 May, cops stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque. Over the next two weeks more than 250 Palestinians were killed and 94 buildings destroyed under Israeli bombardment, including homes, hospitals and the offices of the Associated Press. In response to these events, a wave of writers started to publicly withdraw their work from Schwartz Media, calling on others to join them. Meanwhile on 14 and 23 May, Crawford was launching No Document in Melbourne and Sydney. Her work for The Monthly was, and is, extensively referenced in promotional materials surrounding the book and the Schwartz group more broadly. More of her writing appeared in The Saturday Paper, another Schwartz flagship, on 28 and 29 May. No Document itself is described as “a model for how we might relate to others in sympathy, solidarity and rebellion”.

I don’t mean to assume that Crawford’s political life is co-extensive with her literary career, nor to negate the challenges she undoubtedly faces as a precariously employed artist. Yet the harm she did—crossing a picket to reputation-launder for a racist institution, while others, no less precariously placed, were organising against it—was done publicly, via her profile as an artist. And that harm continues. I am at a loss to imagine what private restitution could be commensurate.

But yes, craft. I suppose there is a risk in responding to poetry (or its attempt) with the admission that you failed to be moved. Maybe it’s you who is insensitive, a philistine—you just don’t get it. Let me, then, run that risk: I don’t get it. Take, for instance, this passage, in which Crawford directly addresses Alya Satta, a two-year-old migrant who drowned en route to ‘Australia’.

“Dear Alya,” it begins:

I call myself into this space with you … What is this space? Our movement through it is a falling without landing … I call myself into this space but I am always in this space, or will have been; I call myself to the attention of being in this space…. And we have fallen together in our separateness … though you have passed from falling with me… and everything is possible and will remain so in the space that creates you and me …

What is Crawford saying? That Alya is dead, but she, Crawford, is alive? That they are the same but also different? Of what two beings would this not be true? Here we are looped around a verbal circuit, creating the impression of distance traversed when in fact we are being hit on the head, and repeatedly. I’m aware that these calls are aesthetically subjective. One might say the repetition intensifies the loss, as it draws attention to the inherent hollowness of words in conveying loss. See, literature!

What goes beyond the subjective is the fact that we are speaking of a dead migrant child. It’s here, in my view, that No Document does not cross a line so much as it vaults right over it. Alya Satta did not ask to be a public figure. What permissions did Crawford seek—to address her personally and by name; to deploy metaphors of bodily closeness; to conjure up a fantasy of affinity? What permission could possibly be granted—not just for the act of referring to the events of Alya Satta’s death, but the assumption of intimacy? “I call myself into this space with you …”

Leave me my flippant rage, its real substratum of disgust. I question the ‘radical’ circles who have chosen to celebrate this extractive and contemptible work, the dynamic of power which this choice reveals.

All writing borrows from real lives and people; there is an inherent imbalance of power between perceiver and perceived. I don’t pretend to infallibly judge where this is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. All I know is that for a woman of the imperial core, who is both documented, and, by global standards, rich, to mine feeling from the Brown migrant dead; for her to draw on tragedies in which Palestinians have drowned at the same time as she trades clout with an institution that censors Palestinian struggle, is just fucking obscene. Reading that passage, I recalled a friend’s Facebook status: ‘SLAY AND DEFEAT THE WHITE WOMAN!! REMOVE HER GRASPING HANDS!!’ Leave me my flippant rage, its real substratum of disgust. I question the ‘radical’ circles who have chosen to celebrate this extractive and contemptible work, the dynamic of power which this choice reveals.

Let’s turn back to Joy James’ concept of the captive maternal—a person or organisation who is “tied to the state’s violence through the non-transferable agency they have to care for another”. This concept moves in stages. In Stage One, captive maternals nurture the private realm of family and community, enabling social life to go on in the face of crisis. This isn’t always, or entirely, good. Think of the volunteers who clean up after fire and flood— valorised and ultimately exploited by the same governments whose policies produce disaster. By preserving a form of life while neglecting to oppose the state’s predatory violence, the Stage One captive maternal ultimately stabilises that state and its capacity for violence.

In Stage Two, the captive maternal enters the zone of protest. She might hold a placard against police brutality. She might enter negotiations with the state. In Stage Three, she joins with others as part of an oppositional movement—“we’re going to take over territory, we can burn something down”. But she does not yet engage in full revolt, which would involve claiming autonomy outside of state auspices.

I thought of these stages while reading Charlotte Shane’s remarkable essay, ‘Can We Be Kind?’. Like Crawford, Shane is a white woman; like No Document, her essay correlates animal abuse, border violence and personal loss. Rather than relying on vague indirection for the reader to draw links, Shane explicitly argues that different oppressions share a common root, that of commoditised sadism. She also suggests that the strength to resist can be drawn from a shared source, that of love. She does not envisage victory: one thing she and Crawford have in common is an emphasis on the likely futility of most acts—towards the end of the essay, Shane writes, “The gesture means nothing to anyone but myself.”

Yet in contrast to No Document, I was struck by Shane’s willingness to make promises. She does not situate resistance primarily in the imagination, in the past or in a condition of heightened affect. Her renunciation of animal products is not “the welling up of great emotion, but a boycott: rational, directed, calm”. The essay ends with an affirmation whose unabashed commitment stands in stark contrast to No Document’s oscillating averrals: “I want to be in solidarity with that which suffers … it is an honour to turn the heart again and again, as many times as is needed, to face the ones who look for you.”

No Document is a skilful bait and switch, with art as the bait. At each point where there might be a generative expansion of empathy for persons who do not share the author’s subject position, Crawford instead competes with and eclipses them. At each point where the book might uplift diverse struggles for freedom, it chooses instead to re-route our investments back to the least interesting figure in the world, the ‘Australian’ artist.

Take the question of violence. This appears in two forms: either deployed by the bad guys (cops, “the market”), or by Crawford engaging in self-harm (cutting, eating disorders) as an emotional response to her awareness of oppression, a secular re-enactment of a Christian dynamic. The artist rends her flesh in public spectacle; the audience gasps. She steps from the cave bearing a book; audience applauds. I don’t doubt the veracity of Crawford’s pain, nor the vulnerability inherent in sharing it. But the effect of these confessions deployed in tandem with the Iraq war, migrant drownings, et cetera, is to set up a transitive relationship whereby the significance of other people’s deaths accrues to the artist, and from her to the reader. What is produced is not genuine connection, but a vicarious indulgence in faux-sacrifice. It also makes tapping out to draw horses seem comparatively reasonable. (George W. Bush draws horses.)

At each point where the book might uplift diverse struggles for freedom, it chooses instead to re-route our investments back to the least interesting figure in the world, the ‘Australian’ artist.

The prospect of force directed outwards—of militant uprising by the colonised, or by undocumented migrants—doesn’t enter the equation. Nor does their activism, scholarship or art; their agency doesn’t register on any level. In No Document, the subaltern suffers, but doesn’t get to speak, except from a position of dependency and gratitude: “I will forget everything and look to the future in Sweden.” It’s true the book makes no claim to be a comprehensive archive of resistance. Still, it’s odd how in a work ostensibly about colonial borders, a newsletter from the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in 1917 is considered a more relevant source than, say, RISE, the advocacy group of detained and ex-detained migrants; or Aileen Moreton-Robinson, the Goenpul scholar whose concept of the ‘white possessive’ brilliantly elucidates how whites in ‘Australia’ define knowledge itself as their exclusive property. When I say Crawford’s citational choices are odd, what I really mean is that they are of a piece both with this white possessive principle, and with the ‘Australian’ left’s tendency to glorify unions as the leaders of resistance, notwithstanding the actual political functioning of those unions.

In ‘No Document’, the subaltern suffers, but doesn’t get to speak, except from a position of dependency and gratitude.

It’s not that ‘Australian’ unions offer nothing of value; I think that most have been thoroughly integrated into the state, that they act as moderators of worker demands rather than an oppositional force, and that workers should be ready to act for their rights outside of established unions. ‘Australian’ unions are not an anti-colonial or anti-border movement. Just months ago the Public Service Association of NSW (PSA-CPSU) supported a 5,000 worker strike in defence of a prison guard who shot Dwayne Johnstone, a handcuffed, fleeing Wiradjuri man, in the back. The guard now faces prosecution; the PSA-CPSU is paying his legal fees. It’s not the first time the principle of “touch one, touch all” has been invoked not in defence of those murdered by the state, but in solidarity with the murderers. From a member of RISE: “Union is the biggest servant for the Labor party providing enough cues to keep up their xenophobic rhetoric & white supremacy.” But hey, why cite speaking adult detainees when you can monologue at their dead kids? (‘Dear Alya, The property relations embedded in language…’)

It might seem like I’m attributing a lot to a few lines of No Document. (I am, and we’ll come back to the context for this.) I do note that Pat Grant1 and Sam Wallman, members of trade unionist circles who have praised and promoted Crawford’s work, and been promoted in their turn, have also distinguished themselves by making art that gives voice not to incarcerated migrants, but to the guards who cage and abuse them. Their award-winning comic ‘At work inside our detention centres: a guard’s story’ tells the story of an ex-Serco employee who ostensibly took the job to “listen to” incarcerated migrants. Yet it contains precisely no words from said migrants, instead recounting at length the self-justification of one their jailers. He and his colleagues are “good people”, apparently. Who should art humanise, the face or the boot that stamps on it? It would seem a simple question.

To be fair, No Document’s unwillingness to countenance militant modes of resistance doesn’t just apply to coloured peoples.2 The book doesn’t seem to envisage whites getting stuck into it, either. “I write this for us to assemble …”: alright, and then what? Do we subscribe to The Monthly? There is an elision between cause and effect, whereby the book goes directly from “writing or painting or playing” to “the rubble of London’s palaces” without intermediary steps. Perhaps, and reading generously, these are meant to be implicit. But when Crawford repeats: “I felt a kind of craziness that nothing could be done to stop the [Iraq] war”—was there nothing to be done, or did existing movements lack the will and the capacity to do it? The elision is all the more puzzling given Crawford’s description of her art-making practice from that era. “MUTINY, our banners read: TURN THE GUNS AROUND”. How to reconcile the gap between the rhetoric of artistic agitation, and what the artist thinks is really possible? We are supposed to understand that “art can change the world”—but also that what goes on the banner, stays on the banner.

Who should art humanise, the face or the boot that stamps on it?

You might think this reading unkind. One writer can’t encompass the entirety of radical experience: a writer might choose to foreground feeling over strategy, not as a rejection of the latter, but because this is a lyric memoir and there is value in evoking the feeling of collective joy and of transcending the state, however momentarily. And some caution is needed: I turned to contemplating No Document’s political analysis only after experiencing a visceral response to the passages addressing Alya Satta. (Which must also inflect my response to the book’s aesthetic qualities. How frustrating, when people you disagree with turn out to be good at art.)

As a sort of cross-check, I turned to Crawford’s own commentary on No Document:

That was a war that tens of millions of people marched against across the entire world, and it still happened. I’ve never felt such despair and helplessness over a political issue as I did in the lead up to the Iraq War, when it was clear that it would happen no matter what. And that no matter the scale of the protests, that nothing could be done… I feel a certain shift, and a renewed hope, and a sense that at least some of these mass [Black Lives Matter and climate] protests are having a material effect upon those in power.

Again, the “no matter what” we are offered is a spectrum of tactics encompassing marches and… more marches. Successful actions are couched in terms of an appeal to “those in power”, rather than the movement constituting power in itself.

Later, Crawford contemplates revolution:

When you’re 19, you have all that revolutionary fire which is the prerogative of youth, because you’re too young to know that anything came before you, really … And then like a lot of people before me, and maybe more people who will come after, you get older and you start to adjust yourself to the fact that radical change won’t happen in your lifetime.

I am puzzled by Crawford’s certainty. How can she know? Here revolutionary sentiment is posited as an emotional response borne out of youthful naivete, rather than rational appraisal of the change which is needed in a planetary catastrophe. What of those of us who are moved to radicalism precisely because we have lived, and have experienced the failure of reformist and liberal approaches? What is more counter-revolutionary than insisting revolution cannot happen; than saying, in effect, “you’ll grow out of it”?

Where No Document does touch (briefly) on the question of tactics, it is either to insist that they don’t exist—“let’s face it, the left didn’t have any strategies”—or, in the book’s most insightful moment, to gesture towards “confrontations with … the ruling class … in the workplace, or at the distribution points of trade (docks, rails, roads, warehouses).” This is a powerful vision of struggle, undermined by the author’s attempts at self-distancing. An artist with elite credentials is in a unique position relative to other workers, no matter what precarious jobs are experienced. On a scale of global wealth, Crawford is the ruling class, as is almost anyone reading this review. Reflecting on the loss of her youthful idealism, she writes: “what about our plan to take over the world”. There doesn’t seem to be much awareness that her ilk already did.

Here revolutionary sentiment is posited as an emotional response borne out of youthful naivete, rather than rational appraisal of the change which is needed in a planetary catastrophe.

This elision between cause and effect scales to the book’s broader analysis. The wage relation, yes; but whither the plantation, the colony, the land itself? Maybe naming these flows of wealth would implicate, and therefore be too demanding of, No Document’s readers. Or maybe Crawford just forgot. (The word white in its racialised sense is used in the book for historical but not contemporary figures.) I don’t mean to invoke the reductive, “stay in your lane” tendencies of privilege discourse. Anyone can, and should, support a revolutionary movement; this is what distinguishes a ‘movement’, with mass and transformative potential, from a ‘scene’. But it is not possible to build real solidarity across difference—as the book purports to do—without recognising what those differences are. Who consumes the goods distributed from “docks, rails, roads, warehouses”? As early as 1971, the white communist Diane di Prima wrote: “even the poorest of us/ will have to give up something/ to live free”. No Document misses a chance to help us face that.

Where Crawford does acknowledge her position as a settler, this is flanked by the insistence that a) “nothing living can make me less culpable”, and b) “everything is possible”. Here I thought of a pie chart. What if some things are possible and other things are not? Both positions—the settler is innocent, the settler is so guilty as to be beyond redemption—end up letting Crawford, and by extension the reader, off the hook.

In typical rhetorical fashion, Crawford asks who constitutes a revolutionary “we” and then does nothing with the question, except to reassure the reader that this category holds a space for them too. Where parameters are hinted at, they describe the realm of artistic production rather than behaviour that is oppositional to the state: “I believe in all of us … writing or painting or playing.” Just as the artist’s suffering jostles aside that of the (global) worker and drowned migrant child, so too does the rebellious affect of art supplant actual rebellion. No Document ends up being an exemplar of the worst caricature of “identity politics”, whereby the identity being evoked is that of having a politics.

There is another flow of value here, between the social movement and the artist, and it goes entirely the wrong way. I found it distasteful to see Crawford reminisce about undercover cops and “hiding places for when we are fugitives”, without acknowledging that there are actual political fugitives whose confrontations with the state have not faded into reminiscence and who may pay an awful price. Typically, such individuals do not get access to the kinds of resources reflected in a book like No Document. When Crawford writes, “Still I believe I must stumble towards we”, this seems less to me like stumbling than stepping over the bodies to get to the top.

Everyone knows that things are bad; there is a popular hunger for works that confront capitalism, colonialism and planetary disaster. But books are too long; no-one wants to read them. Thankfully we have Twitter.

I’m aware of the risk that by coming so hard at No Document, what is achieved is less a righteous takedown than yet more noise around a small-press work that is, after all, an insult rather than an injury. Even the most efficient dismantling risks a dynamic where I dunk on an author, their friends dunk on me, everyone gets encouraged by the collective ‘oooooh’ of social media and may God have mercy on our souls. To render the exercise less like a snake sucking itself off, let’s use this book as an example of dynamics which are not the sole responsibility of No Document: how ostensibly radical art comes to be diverted into the accrual of value for the artist and their associates; and ostensibly radical circles, to extract from broader struggles which they claim to be in solidarity with.

Artists tend to exist at the interface between communities. This can be exciting and generative: where self collides with other, something new can be born. It also offers an opportunity for the artist to mine value by interpreting the niche to the mainstream. Much has been written on the failings of liberal ‘representation politics’, where a few (say) yellow Asian elites become elevated as avatars of Asian people as a whole. While some of their output may be beautiful, and while the odd radical work may sneak in at the margins, those uplifted will, by and large, align with capital and the state. Something similar is happening now with the radical left. Everyone knows that things are bad; there is a popular hunger for works that confront capitalism, colonialism and planetary disaster. But books are too long; no-one wants to read them. Thankfully we have Twitter.

There is a gap in the cultural market for figureheads who interpret radical causes to the mainstream. This gap is filled by subsets of left artists, who build profiles via work which is distributed by capital and state-adjacent institutions—publishers, universities, NGOs—and, in an ‘Australian’ context, highly institutionalised unions with access to both funds and an inherited position as the default signifier of resistance. Interpersonal networks cohere around these. Largely through social media, these artists and networks take on an informal role as political educators for (especially) young and newly politicised people. Yet the bounds of possibility they are willing to materially support are shaped by the relations underpinning their artistic success.

Let’s consider No Document in parallel with another successful and talented left-wing ‘Australian’ artist, the cartoonist Sam Wallman. I’ve already mentioned the strike organised by the PSA-CPSU, to defend a guard who murdered a shackled, incarcerated Aboriginal man from prosecution. This was widely reported on 11 August last year. Over the next few weeks, Crawford and Wallman tweeted dozens of support-your-union messages. On 23 August, Crawford launched Wallman’s book, Our Members Be Unlimited, a comic which argues workers should more or less unconditionally join their unions. The title seems appropriate, since being a murdering fascist is not a limitation on membership. I haven’t seen a word from either of them on the strike or on the killing.

This meme is based on a cartoon by ‘Australian’ artist and former union delegate Sam Wallman, who has also produced work for the Trades Union Congress (TUC). In October last year, the TUC voted for more spending on the arms trade.

I don’t mean to suggest that every member of a coalition is wholly responsible for every other. But if deploying fascist violence is not a line beyond which one may consider some material withdrawal of support, then there is no line, and that is foul. My point is that this silence has consequences. The PSA-CPSU is a large organisation, also representing teachers, nurses and public servants—a stark illustration of how the state’s disciplinary and nominally caretaking functions are intertwined. While one may argue, in a no-true-Scotsman way, that cops and guard unions are not real unions, the fact remains that they access the same funds and are represented under the same umbrella as organisations which Crawford and Wallman encourage their readers to join. It’s quite possible that someone heeding these authors’ guidance will pay dues that help secure the state’s killing power, enforcing “zones of terror” against colonised and incarcerated peoples.

These elisions also shape our political horizons. I spoke to a young writer, a remarkably brave and well-informed person who attended an (in my view, excellent) union rally for bookstore workers, which Crawford had helped to organise and promote. She had no idea ‘Australian’ unions are directly involved in deploying state repression. If she and those around her knew, I think they might seek ways to organise against both workplace exploitation and carceral violence.

Diane Di Prima wrote:

If what you want is jobs
for everyone, you are still the enemy …
You can have what you ask for, ask for

These extractive loops are structural, not personal. Yet a political ecology cannot function without individually collusive acts. How better to exemplify this than the spectacle of Wallman and Grant3 winning a human rights award for their comic amplifying words from a detention centre guard—a work which couches the act of getting paid to jail migrants as unpleasant, yes, but also justifiable, praiseworthy even; a means to “help people from inside”.

Described as the “breakout” moment of Wallman’s career, this comic was published at a time when the centres were running short on staff; exacerbating that shortage might have helped detainees to actually break out. Wallman has spoken insightfully of the chains of institutional complicity securing the ‘Australian’ border-industrial complex. Mainstream unions might have called on members to withhold their labour from these fascist facilities, in solidarity with detainees and in recognition that state violence will ultimately be turned against workers. They might have removed cops and other enforcers of the repressive state apparatus from union representation, and from facilities they share with artists such as Wallman. They might have turned off the endless tap of member funds flowing to the Labor Party, architects of mandatory detention.4 Under pressure, they might do these things still. Instead, they used the occasion of detainees breaking free as a chance to lobby for more staff at the centres, all the better to hold people in cages.

Now Wallman promotes his celebratory book about unions—also available in Britain, the US and New Zealand—which conveniently leaves out these collaborations with cops, jailers and state-fascists. Crawford flogs it too, while also boosting her own art—available in ‘Australia’ and the US—which draws on her proximity to a detention centre breakout. Just as the techniques of ‘Australian’ border violence are exported overseas, so is the culture-washing. These artists are distinguished by their talent, not any particular opprobrium. There is nothing they have done which is not routine amongst settler activists. I have access to copious left and far-left media. Yet it was the mainstream news and some principled lawyers—not the myriad feeds, podcasts, blogs, Patreons, zines et cetera—who chose to cover the PSA-CPSU’s role in Dwayne Johnstone’s murder. While there is randomness to what individuals pick up on, everyone can’t have been asleep that day.5 Muhib Nabulsi has described the wrestling-with-smoke impossibility of trying to ‘prove’ censorship of Palestinian struggle, which at Schwartz Media functions tacitly rather than overtly. I think the left-wing blackout on how organised labour upholds carceral fascism is at least as violent as anything done by Schwartz Media. By a deft sleight of political mythology, unions become more worth protecting than actual workers—workers turned into forced labour in jail, workers harmed by the class suppression enacted through the prison system. Meanwhile, the feeds, podcasts, blogs, Patreons, zines and etcetera continue to assert the value of Black lives, and to revel in an ‘ACAB’ aesthetic, thus accruing a ‘radical’ persona which draws social and financial resources—even as they enable the organisations repping screws and cops.

The left-wing blackout on how organised labour upholds carceral fascism is at least as violent as anything done by Schwartz Media.

I am not Aboriginal; nor am I currently incarcerated. But I relate to words from a poem by Wendy Trevino: “We’re all living like that—not even knowing who our friends are.” What a daily insult, an ongoing experience of dehumanisation by attrition, to know that people are pretending to be on your side but are actually not.

From Joy James: “How can the incarcerated check our power and the use of their stories and narratives? … What is good faith if it is not disciplined by a political code of resistance?”

A still from a United Workers Union video. Prison guards represented by the UWU march in Alice Springs. Screws at this jail regularly teargas the mostly Aboriginal inmates, including when they revolted over the murder of Kumanjayi Walker, a Black man, by the cop Zachary Rolfe. The UWU also represents many deserving workers and sponsors Overland literary journal.

Where art straddles two worlds, the artist may occupy a liminal position where they are accountable to no-one. In the case of No Document, readers from literary circles become excited by proximity to a world of cops and flares of which they know very little. It is this very exoticism which attracts them—offered in a safe context where, far from demanding radical sacrifice or indeed any sacrifice at all, the work congratulates them. (“All who have imagined … the act of remaking a street or a room through some gesture of their hands.”)

Meanwhile, readers from self-identified radical communities get excited that their friend just wrote a book. They didn’t know you were allowed to just do this. Of course, it is right to be proud of your friends and hype their art. But books like Crawford’s and Wallman’s are two of very few entry-points to radical ‘Australian’ thought and history outside of circles which are tiny, subcultural,6 and almost wholly socially impenetrable. Insofar as such ‘scenes’ are right in their analysis, this rightness occurs in a vacuum, where it makes no sound. (I include myself in this dynamic.) For all of Crawford’s (and my) subtle analysis of the connections between writing and resistance, a key function of the technology is to tell people things they didn’t know. If you have access to a broader platform, it is your responsibility to share relevant information held by those who are ‘in’ with those who have been kept out.

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies,” wrote the anti-colonial revolutionary Amilcar Cabral. I have often been exhausted by a certain nudge nudge, wink wink dynamic—a sense that of course, we of the far-left know the condition of ‘Australian’ unions is not what one might wish. Yet somehow this is not communicated to the normies, who are assumed unable to distinguish between principled critique and anti-worker attack. ‘The masses’—or rather, anyone who isn’t part of a pre-existing radical milieu—are invoked, not as people who deserve detailed and accessible political education, but as an excuse for withholding information they are assumed incompetent to process. Their role in movements is to supply a mobilisable chain of bodies, not to be potential friends, critics and comrades in struggle. Uncoincidentally, this also preserves the unique status of those who hoard political knowledge, who can justify all kinds of bad behaviour on grounds they are the only radicals and there is nowhere else to turn.

The role of ‘the masses’ is to supply a mobilisable chain of bodies, not to be potential friends, critics and comrades in struggle. Uncoincidentally, this also preserves the unique status of those who hoard political knowledge.

I’m not arguing that trade unionist and anti-colonial movements have nothing in common. There is capacity for mutual uplift, and people may participate in both. But where a coalition comprises relatively more and less powerful members, and where some of the priorities within that coalition are compatible with capital and the state, while others are not, the state-aligned predominate. There are trade unionists and union funds in publishing, and in the political and social spaces through which activist and literary types circulate. There are no incarcerated people or undocumented Palestinians. This dynamic is egregious when one considers that No Document is billed as a book about ‘Australian’ colonisation. Yet on every level of solidarity—be that uplifting voices, securing networks and relationships, mobilising popular support, or straight up cash—it is not the colonised who derive value from this work, but colonisers.

Thus the relationship between privileged and less privileged within social movements, which might have been an equalising transfer of value, instead becomes vampiric. And the relationship between the radical and the mainstream, the artistic and the political, becomes one of mutual titillation rather than shared growth.

A few words on myself: I am not like Alya Satta. I am more like Anwen Crawford. I am an artist with an elite education, raised middle class. There has not been one day of my life where I have lacked access to food, shelter or medical care, the consumer pleasures of the imperial core. I didn’t get to this country because my ancestors fought the coloniser. I got here because they didn’t. While I hate white people, and with excellent reason, I am at most lightly oppressed.

How do persons in this position—diasporised, comfortable migrants in the Global North—develop a politics that is informed by positionality, but not reducible to that positionality? How do we act from our position of simultaneous complicity and marginalisation within the colony, to move towards a world beyond that colony? Here I want to do what No Document doesn’t and bring the book into dialogue (collage, if you will) with colonised peoples, including those of the Global South—not as the hapless dead to be puppeteered for our artistic purposes, but as our primary solidarity and source of radical potential. Specifically, Cabral, leader of the successful anti-imperialist movement against the Portuguese colonialists in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.

Who comprises the revolutionary “we”? Cabral’s answer was simple: anyone willing to materially support liberation. He did not elide the fact that he himself was an elite, educated in colonial institutions and with access to far greater wealth than most Africans. Instead, he sought to theorise the contributions different social classes could bring to the struggle. The “popular masses”, largely peasants, suffered the most under colonialism through their experience of fascist violence and the expropriation of their labour. They were also the heart of anti-colonial resistance. It was they, and only they, who possessed the productive and military capacity to comprise “the principal force of the liberation movement”.

Vital support could also be drawn from elites like Cabral himself, who lived out day-to-day the “drama of colonialism”, enjoying privileges via their adjacency to Europeans but also suffering ‘frequent if not daily humiliation’ at their hands. Members of this class were well placed to articulate the nature of colonial oppression, the first step towards mobilisation. But they would need to commit “class suicide”, renouncing opportunities for personal advancement based on collaboration with the oppressor.

As a young person, Cabral was influenced by Claridade, a journal where diasporised Africans found political awareness and poetic voice. While acknowledging the value of cohering a sense of identity through these works, Cabral came to think that a literature of resistance didn’t mean very much if detached from actual resistance. He critiqued Claridade for what he saw as its oscillation between the twin poles of unfounded resignation and unfounded hope, a dynamic he thought stultifying. (Sound familiar?) Instead, he thought artists should more clearly articulate aspirations for “another land within our land”—the necessity of anti-colonial liberation.

For Cabral, writing and fighting were part of the same ouroboros: the fight gave life to the culture, the development of culture galvanised and made worthwhile the fight.

Cabral saw cultural resistance as critical, observing that armed movements for liberation tend to be preceded by an upsurge in cultural expression: “an attempt to affirm the culture of the oppressed against the culture of the oppressor”. But not all culture is resistance. Art might act as a psychological salve, but unless this could concretise support for the liberation movement, such works would be merely exploitative. He did not, in other words, believe in “all of us … writing or painting or playing”.

Cabral said: “the armed struggle for liberation … [is] the major expression of our culture and of our African essence. In the moment of victory, it must be translated into a significant leap forward of the culture of the people who are liberating themselves.” For him, writing and fighting were part of the same ouroboros: the fight gave life to the culture, the development of culture galvanised and made worthwhile the fight.

A personal theory of political risk: if a thing needs to be done, and if the shit consequences which are likely to accrue to you are less than, or equal to, the median level of shit which would accrue to someone else, you might as well just do it.

Joy James: “I never said I had the answers.”

In Stage Four, James’s theory of the captive maternal enters a zone of full rebellion. She claims the right to determine her own future, and that of those she loves, outside of state auspices. And James is ominous in naming the likely result: “If you ever think your agency registers to change your reality, the material conditions and the world towards freedom, [the state has] a bullet for you.”

The state certainly had a bullet for George Jackson, the Black USian theorist, writer and anti-fascist, who died in a hail of gunfire during an attempted prison breakout in 1971. In this situation, what use are words? Do they “redeem nothing”, as in Crawford’s formulation? Here we can turn to Black Panther Huey P. Newton’s eulogy for Jackson, which appears as the afterword to Blood In My Eye, a collection of Jackson’s prison writings:

Even after his death, George Jackson is a legendary figure and a hero. Even the oppressor realises this. To cover their murder they say that George Jackson killed five people, five oppressors, and wounded three in the space of thirty seconds. You know, sometimes I like to overlook the fact that this would be physically impossible. But after all George Jackson is my hero. And I would like to think that George Jackson had the strength because that would have made him superman. (Of course, my hero would have to be a superman). And we will raise our children to be like George Jackson, to live like George Jackson and to fight for freedom as George Jackson fought for freedom.

I am thinking of the interplay between reality and desire, of image and imagined image, of fantasy and truth. I am thinking of how Jackson’s words, upon releasing twenty-six prisoners from their cage, echoed Ho Chi Minh’s: “The dragon has come”. The power and poetry of struggle in the imperial periphery, reverberating back to fuel rebellion in the core. After Jackson’s death, poems by Palestinian liberation writer Samih al-Qasim were discovered in his cell; he had copied them out by hand. You do not have to agree with all that Jackson or Newton did to observe that these are words which have caused movement in the world, movement which is not confined to the artistic, the imaginary, or to personal solace.

W.H. Auden’s insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen” is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

I’m not suggesting that I, or anyone I know, share positionality with such revolutionaries. But No Document’s refrain of “I redeem nothing” recalls English poet W.H. Auden’s insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen”, which is demonstrably false. It is the soft bigotry of low expectations, applied by whites—though by no means only by whites—to themselves.

Newton, quoting Jackson quoting Marx, said: “The unjust would be criticised by the weapon”. Here he draws from the same well of thought which Cabral used to draw continuity between cultural and other forms of resistance: “political, economic, armed”. Maybe di Prima circa 1971 understood the necessity of sacrifice, even as Crawford does not—not because “literary” culture was better or white radicals, inherently wiser, but because di Prima wrote at a time when anti-colonial movements were claiming their land back. The coloniser understood that they, too, could be killed.

Newton dreams the dead Jackson back into life, imagining Jackson both as a legendary figure and human being. He lets himself believe in a fantasy; he holds onto that dream and accepts its lack of truth, even as it moves him towards deeds which reshape the living world. At its height, the Black Panther Party newsletter had a weekly circulation of over 300,000, featuring authors such as Jackson, Newton and Di Prima. The Gumbainggir activist Gary Foley recounts how Aboriginal radicals in the 1970s were inspired by global and especially decolonisation struggles, from the Panthers to Cuba to China to Vietnam. Young Koori activists used to shoplift Panther writings from Gould’s bookshop in Newtown, on a street where both Crawford and I have walked.

But revolutionaries aren’t meant to be venerated behind glass. While some of Newton’s fantasies came true, others didn’t. From Foley: “In the late ’60s and ’70s we rejected the political strategies and tactics of the older generation because they had failed, and pretty much the same thing could be said about my generation… The younger generation has to find a new way.”

I think, too, of Cabral’s words in his speech, “National Liberation and Culture”, itself a memorial for an assassinated poet and liberation fighter. Note the willingness to state intent, to make claims, to have tangible goals:

If Portuguese colonialism and imperialist agents can still liquidate with impunity a man like Dr. Eduardo Mondlane, it is because there is something rotten in the heart of humanity: imperialist domination. It is because men of good will, defenders of the culture of peoples, have not yet accomplished their duty on this planet.

Cabral, like Jackson and Newton, died of a bullet, allegedly at the instigation of Portuguese agents and just months before the formal liberation of Guinea-Bissau. From James: “Without the sacrifice, you don’t have real allies.” Of Cabral she says: “He was, to my mind, incredibly disciplined by love … I think he knew the inevitability, that there would not be longevity for him.”

There is another role for art, one that is not, to my knowledge, articulated in Cabral’s capacious writings. People make commitments, and words can either concretise these or undermine them. Turning again to Shane’s essay:

Whether I recall an image of him when he was dead or when he was alive feels no different to me. He is gone but I look for him. Any vision of him is beloved.


This is the loyalty of true love, the absolute loyalty that shares a seam with responsibility,
and the stitching of the two creates courage.

I have come to believe that most comfortable whites are both spoiled and deprived. Spoiled in the sense they think that everything is about them; deprived in that they can’t imagine a world where this is not the case. Like everyone, they witness death and experience grief. Yet they cannot derive meaning unless, vulture-like, they get to feed off the whole world’s grief.

A writer loved her friend, who died. She could have used her great gifts to write beautifully of that and left it there, but it was not enough. Nor was it sufficient for a publisher to commission and promote, and so on.

Art, like love, can create bonds that outlast death. And art, like love, can be as real as anything living or as fake as fuck. If my experience of reading No Document has had value, it is because it has forced me to delineate between the real and the counterfeit, thus clarifying my notion of what it means to be real: to pay the cost that it costs, to wear your actual heart and not just a simulacrum of it on your sleeve. The book asks “how love, kinship and resistance echo through time”, and, “how we can create forms of solidarity that endure”. It answers neither of these questions. But there is an implicit answer: not like this.

With thanks to JPK for getting me past the paywall to read about Claridade. I’m also grateful to Millennials Are Killing Capitalism, whose beautiful interview with Joy James deeply influenced this piece, and to New Socialist for picking it up. (The original ‘Australian’ commissioner fell through due to some differences over Schwartz Media.)

It seems likely this essay will upset people, including some I know. I’m a little harder to reach than usual, but open to chats in good faith—if you get in touch I’ll do my very best to reply.

  1. Pat Grant is also responsible for a graphic novel in which immigrants are represented by silent, tentacled, blue-skinned aliens who are always eating noodles. They look like unironic modern versions of the Mongolian Octopus, the infamously Sinophobic cartoon used to garner support for the White Australia policy. The title of this masterpiece, which shares a publisher with No Document, is Blue (2012). Perhaps it’s a precursor to Crawford’s “blue horse” principle. A Goodreads review unwittingly summarises the white possessive overtones: “People have a hard time with immigrants in their communities. [my italics]”. 

  2. The term ‘coloured people’ has the same archaic, racist connotations in Australia as it does in Britain. In using it, I am implying that the literary choices in No Document suggest a denial of political agency as exercised by people of colour, which is itself racist and archaic. 

  3. Somewhat hilariously, Grant has praised Wallman’s skill in depicting race without resorting to stereotypes: “Look at the way black people are drawn in Tintin or Asterix comics. You can’t do that anymore.” I suppose if your own mode of illustrating racial difference was to colour the Mongolian Octopus blue and give it a sign that says “Lucky Time Noodle”, not doing this might look like genius

  4. What if every dollar of this was diverted to funds for striking workers? In 2020-21, the United Workers Union gave $1.2 million to the Labor Party; last year they ran a crowdfunder to support striking workers at a pastry factory. It raised $22,000. 

  5. I have no desire to single out individuals – it’s perfectly possible that any given person just missed that particular news item. The question then becomes why it was marginalised to the extent that it was easy to miss. A point of loose comparison: Padraic Gibson, to his credit, was one of very few white and settler activists to draw any attention to the murder and associated PSA-CPSU action. At time of writing, his tweet on the issue had garnered seven retweets and eleven likes. By contrast, when Gibson tweeted about an attempted home invasion by a neo-Nazi, which caused damage to his front door, screen and window, this garnered 995 retweets and 3091 likes. By the metric of attention, then, Gibson’s door, screen and window are worth between 142 and 281 times as much as Dwayne Johnstone’s life. Of course, attention isn’t the same as material resources - $15,000 was raised for the fortification of Gibson’s home, whereas I haven’t been able to find a fundraiser for Dwayne Johnstone. You could say there are negative monies being raised, since funds are being channelled to the orgs that protect his killer. My intention is not to be flippant, nor to suggest that settler activists don’t deserve solidarity – nor is it to blame Gibson, who has shown principle here – but to illustrate the profound devaluation of Black life which occurs when it comes into conflict with settler political priorities. I also acknowledge that reproducing the facts of Dwayne Johnstone’s death and its aftermath is inherently an echo of trauma. From his mother, Kerry Crawford-Shanahan: “My son, my love. No one will replace him.” 

  6. I only recently learned of some interesting reflections on this in a USian context. In 1971, Huey P. Newton critiqued what he saw as the insularity of some allies – “Our hook-up with White radicals did not give us access to the White community because they do not guide the White community” – and, sometimes, of the Panthers themselves. “The Black Panther Party defected from the community… we became, for a while, revolutionary cultists… instead of acting to bring the people to that level.” In 2011, Lorenzo Ervin critiqued similar dynamics in anarchist organising: “Radicals need to break away from so much close identification with Punk rock and the white youth culture that supports it… Progressive groups as a sub-cultural white youth milieu… It is cultural suicide and political chauvinism.” 


Pitaya Chin