Article: Stopping the boats is about smashing social solidarity by Max Lane

(This article was first published in RED FLAG newspaper on June 18, 2015.)

It seems fairly certain now that Australian Customs and Navy personnel paid the captain and crew of an Indonesian ship carrying 65 asylum seekers, including children and a pregnant woman, to take the Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Burmese back to Indonesia.

Sixty-five desperate people, all from situations of misery and repression, who had no doubt spent much of their little cash on the boat ride to New Zealand, were put on two new boats and turned around. This is despite requests by the refugees to be taken on board the Customs and Navy ships.

The Australian state paid the crew to betray their desperate customers and take them back to a society with a per capita income of only US$4,000 per year and mass poverty. No offer was made to bring them to Australia, one of the richest countries in the world (whatever the unjust distribution of that wealth).

Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention. Then Liberal PM John Howard escalated the propaganda about “border security”. His government told the disgusting lie in 2001 that children were “thrown overboard” by asylum seekers in order to force the Navy to rescue them. And it instituted the notorious “Pacific solution”.

Since then, “stop the boats” has become a central platform in the Australian ruling class’s ideological agitation, articulated by both the Liberals and the ALP. It was Rudd’s ALP that came up with the cruel policy that no refugee arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia, but instead be sent to Papua New Guinea. Abbott added to this with the criminal and inhumane tow-back policy.

But why?

Neither party is opposed to receiving refugees in Australia. In 2012-13, 20,000 visas were issued under Australia’s humanitarian program, according to the Department of Immigration. This is nowhere near enough, but it indicates that the elites here have no in-principle objection to refugees settling in Australia. People arriving in Australia on tourist visas by plane who then seek asylum also face minimal obstacles to their settlement.

Neither are the numbers of arrivals by boat huge: in 2009-13, the average was around 10,000 per year. This is an easily absorbable number of people in a population of 24 million. And it is only a fraction of the total annual migration to Australia (around 200,000 people). So why is the hysterical agitation of “stop the boats” and “illegal arrivals” (they are not illegal) so central?

The idea that it is about “defending sovereign borders” is, of course, a joke. Most boats aim only to arrive at Christmas Island, which is a huge distance from the Australian continent and hardly within real borders. The same is true for Ashmore Reef.

As a huge island continent, Australia has always had porous borders. Until Howard’s Tampa agitation, it was considered only a minor problem to do with small numbers of smugglers. Furthermore, the refugees coming by boat are not trying to sneak into Australia – they report directly and as quickly as they can to Australian authorities.

So why?

There is only once conclusion: the issue fulfils a propaganda need for the Australian ruling class. It uses the issue to undermine any philosophy of collective solidarity. The policies legitimise cruelty and inhumanity towards others in the name of “defending sovereignty”, which has become a code word for an illusory “what we have”. This helps legitimise the idea that the world’s have-nots should “wait their turn” in a “queue” that is policed by the haves. This is the reason that “both sides” of bourgeois politics agitate around this issue.

In one sense, it is a good sign that the elite feel that they need such an issue, and that they have to make it so central to their politics. The need indicates that they fear the Australian public’s sense of solidarity with others would otherwise come to the fore. In a society where the trend is for wealth to be redistributed upwards, while cutting back on the level of social services and culture for the majority, an awakened sense of solidarity among people would be a disaster for the ruling class.

“Aspiration”, the cry, is legitimate – but the rich want aspirations fulfilled only for themselves and their close associates. “Defend our borders” is their code word for defending self-interest, even if it means cruelty to others.

This is an existential issue for late capitalism and its escalating upward redistribution. In a rich country like Australia, with a per capita income of $40,000 per year and already advanced infrastructure, which is in a situation of serious relative abundance, where can society be taken?

There are only two choices: more and more redistribution upwards as we head for some kind of technologically advanced barbarism of walled elites, or using that abundance to improve the quality of life for all human beings.

“Stop the boats”, and similar cruel, anti-human slogans, are one of the ruling class’s weapons to defend their choice. Systematising cruelty is laying the foundation for barbarism.

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