Despite the rallies and Channel 7’s broadcast of an “in-depth” interview with the founders of Reclaim Australia, the disintegration of the far-right populist movement appears imminent. Unlike their American cousins, The Tea Party, they do not have significant financial backing and the poor showing of “patriots” at the Parramatta rally last month suggests that this grass-roots movement lacks organisation and/or a critical mass of people willing to get out on the streets to call for “non-patriots” to get out of the country. However, the devolution of this movement is not a victory of Australian multi-culturalism or common-sense.
Reclaim Australia gets small numbers to their rallies because they are unnecessary. Why spend a Sunday afternoon shouting in the streets when the political and economic system is silently re-asserting the normal order of things?
The normal order of things is maintained through symbolic and systemic modes of violence. Unlike physical violence directed at specific subjects, the symbolic and systemic violence operates in the background. For example, the violence inherent in the production cheap consumer goods that benefit the lives of some while exposing factory workers to physical harm when making our flat-screen TVs in Mexcio or iPhone’s in China.
Most of us do not see this violence because it isn’t directed at us. We only see the subjective violence of shootings or physical aggression. The subjective form of violence overshadows the systemic and symbolic forms of violence that allow the normal order of things to continue smoothly (for some). This is the violence inherent in fierce border protection policies or laws that target racial and religious minorities. It is the violence embodied in language that strips subjects of their humanness (e.g. illegal maritime arrivals) and makes the violence that they suffer either excusable or somehow deserving.
Systemic and symbolic violence tends to be invisible to those who benefit from the normal order of things that those modes of violence sustain. It is like a trompe l’oeil or the duck-rabbit illusion. For those who benefit these policies and arrangements look like caring necessity – “we need to protect ourselves” or “It is prudent to monitor Muslim boys because they are prone to radicalization”. However, to those on the other side, these policies and arrangements are experienced as exclusion and brutality.
In this context, Reclaim Australia will wither away, not because there is insufficient support for their message, but because Australia is already well and truly claimed. This claim is sustained by the long history of violent colonisation and occupation, the effects of which persist today. However, it is a claim that needs to be continually reasserted on the bodies and lives of non-white migrants.
In her recent book The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes this “claim” as a white possession. White Australia’s existence as sovereign possessor is derived from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. As Moreton-Robinson notes, there is a deep anxiety that ‘racial others’ will in turn dispossess white Australia. The main utility of Reclaim Australia is as a warning that the normal order of things is being challenged. It is like a “flare-up” of the appendix in the body of white Australia, or to use another metaphor, a canary in a mine. Reclaim Australia is an expression of the anxiety that white Australia’s sovereignty is challenged.
The fear associated with a challenge to white sovereignty is seen in Native Title disputes. There is a deep fear that Indigenous claims will dispossess white Australian sovereignty over cities, suburbs, parks, beaches, arable lands, and natural resources (see Kerr and Cox’s ‘Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy‘). Yet, the reality does not lend credence to the anxieties and fears of white Australia – ‘the majority of Indigenous people in Australia do not have land rights, nor do they have legal ownership of their sacred sites.’
In the case of Islam, the fear of dispossession is also unfounded. According to the 2011 census, 2.2 % of the Australian population indicated they were affiliated with Islam. Of course the debates over Australia, radicalization, extremism, Islam, citizenship, borders and all the other nodes connected to this assemblage are not about evidence or facts. But control over who is admitted into white Australia, and the form that admittance takes. Some are wholly absorbed, while others remain in permanent parenthesis (asylum seekers).
While those attending Reclaim Australia rallies (and those sympathetic to their narrative) may feel that Islam is an existential threat to the white claim to Australia, the terms and conditions of political and social reality are established by and for a white Australia. The challenge is not to reclaim Australia, but to place the current claim in the context of historical and contemporary forms of violence that privilege those who possess whiteness and its associated symbols and markers.
In the words of Stan Grant, we need to challenge that violence and our own attachment and benefit from it.
Australians who so laudably challenge the bigots among them need also challenge themselves. What are they prepared to give up? Land, history, flag, anthem, myth or identity – all of it is on the table if we are truly serious. Other countries fight wars over these things: we can do it in peace.