The Banality of the March in March

[Note: It’s annoyingly necessary in Australia to repeatedly point out that for the purposes of all my writings, ‘liberal’ refers to a broad ideology of liberalism which encapsulates most mainstream thought in its various guises, from Greens social democrats to right-wing conservatives. The capitalised ‘Liberal’ refers to the party.]

[Note #2: There’s a lot I wish I had time to clarify or otherwise explain. A lot of this, particularly toward the end, is heavily based off my research and writing for my Honours thesis, and undoubtedly some of the complexity I hoped to have demonstrated there is lost within a 1500 blog. If anybody feels I’m being dismissive or glib, please let me know and allow me to elaborate.]

So somehow, unknown to a lot of people, the March in March became a ‘thing’. It’s confusing, relatively nondescript, and genuinely surprising. It wasn’t here, now it’s here, and we need to think about it.

The March describes itself with delightfully vague language:

A peaceful, non-partisan citizens’ march and rally at Federal Parliament to protest against the current government’s policy decisions that are against the common good of our nation. This signifies the people’s vote of no confidence in policies of the government that go against common principles of humanity, decency, fairness social justice and equity, democratic governance, responsible global citizenship and conserving our natural heritage.

As far as I can work out from puff pieces and from its very strange Facebook-imitation website is ‘grassroots’ – as in lacking any real organisational structure, as opposed to being democratically organised – as well as being for social justice and against the direction with Tony Abbott is taking Australia. Okay so vague and self-important, but not uniquely terrible. Besides it does appear to be a very real ‘awakening’, at least in the sense of people getting off their behinds to get up and make some noise – what’s the problem Angus?

The issue with this is that, as awful as Abbott’s government has been, attempts to ‘react’ to it come off as relatively insincere. While the Tory cronies have certainly wasted little time in gutting public services, preparing privatisations and appointing terrible people to important positions, there is very little that conjures a visceral reaction, outside of the asylum seeker issue. You can point to Tim Wilson being appointed the Human Rights Commissioner, you can argue that all these royal commissions into unions are political attacks to undermine the Labor Party and the working class, and certainly the discussion surrounding Qantas and other public institutions is disquieting.

In this sense, it’s admirable that people are to protest what they see oncoming. A deeply radical right-wing overhaul of the Australian public service is in the wings, and the Coalition is looking to institute it as soon as is electorally plausible. Certainly, is this not the time to stand up and prevent, even reverse this right-wing revolution?

There is certainly a place for generalised protest. Shit ain’t right and shit needs fixing. And a lot of shit is shit. And it’s certainly much better that people do something about it, no matter how meaningless, rather than reinforce their own passivity. Baby steps are important, and rallies are highly important for their social functions and their ability to get the base mobilised – if you don’t preach to the choir they’ll never sing. But the issue comes when this becomes a mere replacement of actual action, or even clarification of message. For instance, while Occupy’s lack of hierarchical structure was in some senses its greatest strength, its lack of any real message was also an issue. Yes, the message of income inequality and corporate and political malfeasance rang loud and clear – despite the pantomime act of Democratic politicians – “what do you want? we can’t hear you! we’re so confusion!” – but there could’ve been at least some general list of demands or even political values – raise the minimum wage, pass an immigration bill immediately, abolish private campaign finance, etc. are all ideas that liberals and anarchists alike can get behind. Yet beneath the veneer of a stationary movement, little was done, and all the state had to do was lean a little to wipe away the entire edifice – see Norman Finklestein for more.

I get the same vibe from these movements and protests. Abbott is bad, okay. We get that, and we’re all worried about the future. The Australian public are as well – he’s never been a popular opposition leader or Prime Minister. But the fact is that for all our hand-wringing about what might or will occur, Abbott’s period of leadership has not been altogether so entirely different from Labor’s. Different in tone? Undoubtedly. Radicalisation of some policies, and moderation of others? You got it. Entirely different in policy outlook… I’m not so sure. As far as commitment towards free trade agreements, minimalist climate change policy, civil liberties, foreign policy, taxation, etc., there is substantial and historically unprecedented overlap between Liberal and Labor. To claim to seek significant redress for the harm he has done rings hollow and fundamentally misunderstands the dynamic of the Australian political system. Indeed it buys into the greatest lie of any two-party system, that either of these two parties are that different.

In this capacity, I’ll be blunt. What I see is a significant group of individuals who, long silent during Labor’s period of governance, if not completely content with their policies, now suddenly find themselves with a voice and with a social conscience. Abbott is disliked by many Australians, and so his leadership is an easy one to pick on. Indeed I’ll be even blunter. I think this has less to do with protesting government policy than more out of an instinctive distaste for the phrase “Prime Minister Tony Abbott”, a man whose Catholicism, machismo and boorishness is a massive turn-off to the many WASPs and city folk who would much rather a PM of culture, class and respect (ie: the warm plutocratic arms of Turnbull). And now, bastions of Democracy and Freedom™ that they are, they are using their democratic rights to Make Their Voice Heard, that Not In My Name Tony, I Will Not Stand For What You Are Doing To Australia.

In this sense, I am unsure what is different between these people and the protesters in Egypt. They don’t particularly want democratic decision making and action as much as they want to be ruled by their team. If this seems like a bold statement, then keep in mind: at no point are the failures of the Australian government as a whole ever articulated. At no point is there reference to systemic issues, asides from the fact that the Bad Government is doing Very Bad Things. Despite how Bad these Things are however, it is decidedly relevant that they appear to have relative bi-partisan consensus.

But it is not simply that is dishonest, but that this blind-spottedness renders their main argument relatively meaningless. If Abbott and whatever other villain is the issue, than what’s the cure, asides from ‘vote Labor’? It’s not always fair to ask for an alternative from protesters – they’re just indicating what they dislike, and that’s very fair in a democratic society. Yet this is the crux of the point – there’s no real focus point of disagreement here. Again, to give these people credit, reacting against neoliberal policies is difficult due to the vagueness and all-encompassing nature of neoliberalism – as expressed in this excellent piece by Rafi Alam. But this reaction is not a broad rejection of government policy of the last thirty years, instead it is a “Get Out Abbott Now!”. It’s regime change, not policy change, let alone a policy revolution.

In this capacity they’re akin to Tea Party protestors, who themselves were unfairly maligned at least in their initial phase. Many people have real grievances, and are deeply worried about the future of their own lives, and their own country. That’s to be understood and their efforts to speak out to be applauded. And well it’s easy to affix a lot of problems to a figurehead or to a government as opposed to an overall systemic issue, particularly one that encompasses your own complicity in a variety of issues. Yet pity and understanding do not a good political message make. As I quoted MLK in my last blog: love without power is sentimental and anaemic. He could have also added ‘confused’.

Ultimately the most striking issue is that such protests completely lack any understanding of solidarity. It is not the joining of the battle of the social democrats with the far left against our common enemy. It is not a sudden instance of solidarity, an attempt to ‘reverse neoliberalism’ (a phrase incidentally that I loathe using), and a realisation that we must all fight this good fight, as much as an expression of communal contempt for part of the population an the government. In this sense it’s the opposite of solidarity. It is the active disowning of political responsibility. It is the attempt at a legacy of “Well I wasn’t for it and I made my voice heard!”, before going back home and carrying on business as usual. This is the political attack that does fade into the night, that does wither away. It is the act of cognitive dissonance, to swipe aside our own complicity in the system. You can’t disown what you’re fundamentally a part of, and it is only until we understand how we ourselves turn the cogs of the system that we are able to get anywhere.

So this Sunday I’m going to 4 Pines and I’m going to get drunk. It’s pretty much the same degree of mental annihilation as the March in March.