France’s Transient Centre

France’s Transient Center

This is an article I wrote in the lead up to France’s presidential election earlier in the year. Although it relates to events past, I think it has ongoing resonance given Macron’s growing unpopularity, and the deepening crisis of the political centre.

Emmanuel Macron as he appeared in the Melenchon campaign's videogame, Fiscal Kombat

Emmanuel Macron as he appears in Fiscal Kombat, a videogame made for the Melenchon campaign

The victory of outsider candidate Benoît Hamon in the French Socialist Primary expresses a rejection of the party’s right-ward shift. Although in practice it has improved the chances of moderate presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, it nonetheless reflects a deeper shift in industrialized countries that leavemes Third Way tactics of accommodation out of step with economic reality. Macron has a reasonable chance of winning the coming elections against François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. But in the longer term, the centrist politics he stands for will be incapable of addressing the conditions favoring the radical right’s ascent.

Under François Hollande, the Socialist Party has governed in difficult times. But its leaders made things worse by misreading the historical moment, shifting to the reformist center at a time when politics across Europe are polarizing. Pundits often blamed Hollande’s unpopularity on personal qualities and on a French public unwilling to contemplate necessary reform. After Hollande declined to run for a second term and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, resigned his post to declare his own candidacy, the latter was widely touted as the Socialist Party’s sensible option—a necessary modernizer of an archaic system, whose tough stance on law and order could win back votes from a swelling right.

But the results of the Socialist Primary show that voters do not simply spurn Hollande or change as such, but the ideology that informed his policies. Valls was defeated by Hamon, a marginal candidate from the left-most wing of the PS, who had resigned from his Ministerial post as part of the frondeur rebellion against the party’s rightward turn.

Socialist voters’ rejection of Hollande’s and Valls’s vision for the Socialist Party and for France is justified. Their shift to the right was not only disastrous on its own terms; it was also strategically senseless. By responding to the terrorist threat with rhetoric of war and a state of perpetual emergency, the Hollande government gave credence to the right’s foreboding narratives of an enemy within. By taking a top-down approach to reform and failing to stand up to EU creditors, it allowed the far-right to harness anti-elitist sentiment. And by moving towards market liberalism, it has delegitimized itself as an alternative to liberal capitalism precisely at a time when this system is in crisis, and low growth, outsourcing, and automation are obsolescing the compromise between capital and labor on which Europe’s centrist, social democratic politics were built, returning distributive conflicts to the foreground of public life.

Against a backdrop of pessimism and the threat of a Thatcherist or far-right presidency in the form of François Fillon or Marine Le Pen, it may have been tempting to shift further right to avoid greater calamity. But in the long-term, centrist caution leads to the shadowing of right-wing parties, and consequently to ideological marginality. Voters in the primary have rightly rejected it.

On its own, having a left-wing presidential candidate is not enough to make the Socialist Party an emancipatory force, as demonstrated by Hollande’s about face mid-term, and that of François Mitterrand three decades earlier. It does, however, give the party an opportunity to escape Hollande and Valls’s toxic legacy.

The Hollow Center

Hollande’s shift to the right was initially incremental, but became obvious when he forced the resignation of most of his cabinet, replacing them with centrists like Valls and Macron.

Valls presented himself as a modernizer. We can gain a general picture of what he took this to mean when we consider the starting point he suggested in 2009: changing the Socialist Party’s name. A self-declared admirer of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, he applied their policy prescriptions at a moment when inequality was rising, further austerity and deregulation were unlikely to deliver economic results, and low growth, high unemployment and poverty were polarizing politics to the far left and right. His political career is, for the time being, finished.

Macron has likewise presented himself as an ideologically neutral voice for progress, taking the best ideas from both the left and the right. Part of Valls’s defeat by Hamon likely owed to the Socialist Party’s centrists jumping ship to join Macron’s camp. Those who haven’t already are bound to do so with Hamon as the Socialist leader.

Prior to his recent entry into politics, Macron was an investment banker. He is often presented as the best hope for sober-minded French progressives, as against the extreme positions of Fillon and Le Pen.  On economic questions, he represents a similar trend to Valls. As Economics Minister, he was responsible for the Macron Law, one of the government’s unpopular, pro-business labor reforms that (along with the El Khomri Law) was forced through the parliament through the use of Article 49(3) of the Constitution. Mid-2016, Macron abandoned the ship he helped scuttle to declare a centrist “political revolution” in the form of his own presidential candidacy.

His coupling of centrist and faux-radical discourse has thus-far been quite successful, allowing him to ride the populist wave of anti-establishment discontent while presenting middle-of-the-road, neoliberal policies. Since a recent scandal regarding Fillon’s use of public money, at least one poll has predicted a Macron victory. Moreover, the elimination of Valls from the contest gives Macron a monopoly on the centrist vote. But what kind of platform can centrists offer in the present environment?

To be sure, Macron’s use of radical rhetoric is easily identifiable humbug. Yet his alternate self-presentation, more typical of centrists, as a sensible pragmatists seeking the middle ground, is also misleading, since the center is not determined by fixed, objective parameters, but by the political mood of the day. As has been pointed out elsewhere, “the center is a moving target”. The aura of moderation surrounding the idea of the center often serves as a substitute for reasoned positions. A centrist argument cannot depend on this appearance of rationality, but must be tested, like any other, on its own merits.

In practice, Europe’s centrist politics have generally entailed mediation between opposing values and interests to ensure a social truce. Their justification has been the stewardship of a stable and growing economy, in which gains are shared between profits and rising living standards. Yet such mediation can only function if emancipatory values and the interests of labor are properly represented. When adopted by left parties, shifts to the center are often not so much a position as a strategy for winning over voters from the right, undergirded by a confident monopoly on left voters. The greatest danger of such a strategy is making excessive sacrifices, permitting the entire spectrum to shift to the right, achieving power at the cost of principle.

Whereas Tony Blair and Bill Clinton sacrificed left ideology, worker interests, and loyal party bases for medium-term electoral gains, the Socialist Party performed the pivot with no popular mandate. As a result, the centrist leadership alienated traditional supporters and the wider public, divided the party, and strengthened the narratives of their conservative, liberal, and nationalist opponents. Their approach was exemplified by the undemocratic means they used to push through labor laws against their own party’s will, and by their use of police powers – expanded by the state of emergency – to repress the widely supported Nuit Debout movement against these same reforms.

Given that triangulation had little merit as an electoral strategy, the most generous conclusion we can reach about Hollande’s rightward turn and appointment of Valls and Macron is that, overwhelmed by circumstance, caught between the left and the right of his own party, and unable to achieve an emancipatory exit from France’s politico-economic impasse as a member of the EU, Hollande fell under the sway of Third Way ideology: principally, the notion that the best way to improve the lot of a State’s workers in a competitive, globalized world is to create a business-friendly environment that attracts investment and jobs—precisely by reducing the rights of workers. Liberal reform is presented as the tough medicine needed to restore growth, and those who oppose it as the rearguard of “entrenched interests”.

A recurring line of argument adopted by proponents of liberalization in France is that rigid protections for one group of workers reduce opportunities for others, creating an inside-outside dichotomy: security at the cost of opportunity. This leaves no openings for young and upcoming workers, particularly since employers are reluctant to expand their workforce when they are afraid they won’t be able to shed workers should times get hard. While this account is not wholly untrue, the argument that it must be remedied through increased flexibility bears unspoken implications.

One is that we should open up opportunities for the unemployed by firing existing workers. How this—or, for that matter, lengthening the work week, as the El Khomri Law has done—is supposed to reduce unemployment remains unclear, though such zero-sum approaches may persuade the desperate or resentful.

Another is that it is not possible or not desirable to extend the same protections to all workers—presumably because it would make France still less competitive for business. Absent a convincing class analysis that provides a means of shifting power from capital to workers without driving industry elsewhere, such intra-class and inter-generational resentments bear a grim, Spenserian logic.

Where such liberalization must lead as other states reciprocate the beggar-thy-neighbor competition and social dumping remains unspoken, while the more ambitious approach of pushing for raised social standards through inter-state cooperation and democratization of the EU is dismissed as unfeasible.

As a democratic project, centrist politics is in decline across the West, dependent as it was on nurturing a continual growth in GDP that could forestall the question of distribution by enabling a simultaneous rise in profits and living standards. Valls’ coupling of liberal economics and authoritarian methods exemplified this decoupling of liberalism and democracy. Since ecological scarcity, the newly industrialized States, and the world’s present financial system make rapid, sustained growth unlikely in post-industrial countries, political polarization will continue.

Macron, though vastly preferable to Valls, Fillon, or Le Pen, is ill-equipped to deal with the ruptures ahead. Though there are many paths forward, an unavoidable choice is resolving into focus: inter-class redistribution, authoritarian repression, or the explosion of the conflicts that Europe’s postwar order has deferred.

Filling a vacuum

Absent a convincing left narrative on economic issues that kindles the hopes of dislocated workers and unites them around a common project, they will seek other explanations. While France’s anti-establishment feeling has raised the profile of left-wing populists of substance, like the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in isolation the latter’s organizing capacity is limited, and the rejection of traditional parties often manifests along paranoiac, identitarian lines.

An increasingly popular response is the flight into conspiracy theory, into visions of cultural apocalypse and social decay. This millennial gloom infuses the novels of Michel Houellebecq, is legitimized by conservative public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, and finds its apotheosis in the bilious ravings of doom-mongers like Eric Zemmour.

While not unique to right-wing authoritarians—Tony Judt has observed the predilection, in the 60s and 70s, of Jean-Paul Sartre and French Communist writers for images of decay—necrotic fixations have, of late, tended to favor them. Recycling the tropes of the nativist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories embraced by Acción Francaise in the 1930s and 40s, the National Front has long thrived on fears of decadence and foreign contagion:

Under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the late twentieth centuries, the basic components of [an anti-Semitic, nationalist conservative] rhetoric of exclusion (conspiracy, national decadence, the marginalization of ‘native’ French by foreigners) were appropriated by the Front National, which added two overlapping elements to the Maurassian confederacy: immigrants and Islam.

Marine Le Pen and her cohort have since airbrushed anti-Semitism, homophobia, and biological racism out of the party’s official image while retaining much of the underlying mythos, populated with a new caste of demons. The National Front and its fellow travelers attribute France’s problems, real and imagined, to the debasing influence of mass-migration, to a self-serving political caste, to an insidious collusion between mainstream politicians, Islamists, and the European establishment. It is easy to subsume the real disconnect between the ruling classes and ordinary people into such a narrative, and the National Front is thus more than happy to spread and inflame a popular belief regarding political elites: “tous pourris”: they’re all rotten.

The National Front was further strengthened by the Socialist Party’s tepidity regarding social protections. Upon cuts to the welfare system in 2014, Valls declared that “For 40 years, we have lived beyond our means”, echoing the austerity narrative on Europe’s crisis. This retreat allows the National Front to left-flank the Socialist Party by appropriating left and anti-globalist discourses, presenting itself as the only party capable of protecting the welfare state—but on a “French-first”, protectionist basis, proceeding from the premise that the shortage of resources owes to political graft and a surfeit of immigrants.

This melding of left-wing and nationalist discourse aids the FN’s expansion beyond its traditional base of Pétainists, empire nostalgics, and disgruntled petit-bourgeois in France’s south-east to workers and former Communists in areas of industrial decay in France’s north and east (important in this re-brand has been the FN’s deputy-leader, Florian Phillipot). This does not imply that the National Front genuinely stands for left-wing values or social justice; rather, the etiolation of left narratives allows it to fill a discursive hole and batten on working class anxieties.

The pervasive pessimism that feeds the far-right has less to do with reality and than with political psychology. A demographic and cultural study of France from 1980 to 2010, helpfully summarized by Sudhir Hazareesingh, shows that, contrary to narratives of decay, there has been “a decline in suicide and homicide rates, rising levels of fertility, higher educational achievements […] a growing trend towards the emancipation of women and the successful assimilation of immigrants.” According to this study, the “social underpinnings of contemporary French pessimism […] lie instead in the sense of economic and cultural fragility of the middle classes, and in the disappearance of the secular faith presented by communist culture.” All this implies the importance of the left presenting a positive, empirically-grounded narrative of the present. And, while it must never return to the Stalinist dogmas of the French Communist Party (PCF), the left would do well to build once more towards visionary politics that give hope for the future.

Absent such hope, there is a retreat into nostalgia; the ground is laid for the National Front to present itself, and its leader, as a force of providence, a righteous vanguard to purge corruption and restore France to its former greatness.

No enemies on the right

A significant factor favoring the nationalist, authoritarian turn is a pervasive fear of terrorist attacks, and a growing, nativist dread of cultural replacement by Islam. Aside from the influence of right-wing discourse and France’s troubled relation with its own colonial history in Algeria, this exaggerated reaction may owe in part to a conflation of culture and democratic institutions in France’s concept of “the Republic”, and an underlying anxiety as to these institutions’ fragility. There is a plausible argument that France’s history of “political upheaval and collapse” has fostered “a sort of permanent defensiveness, a siege mentality that treats criticism as treachery and the admission of failure as an “anti-Republican” threat to the nation’s very survival”.

The possibility that the country’s particular approach to Islam, or the integration of its post-colonial underclass, or the poor concrete neighborhoods of the banlieues, might contribute in some way to this sad phenomenon has not been the subject of any serious political debate since the start of the Syrian conflict.

On certain of these issues, Valls had enough in common with the National Front to lure away some voters driven by fear, giving him a margin of strategic appeal for poll-fancying strategists. For the same reason, he was badly placed to slow the xenophobic drift in French political discourse. Over the course of his political career, Valls fought in France’s culture wars over the meaning of laïcité, taking a consistently hardline, exclusionary stance on matters from Halal supermarkets through to burkinis on beaches.

He was something of a law and order enthusiast, having announced the construction of 33 new prisons, supported the stripping of French citizenship from dual national citizens convicted of terrorism, declared France to be in a state of war after the November attacks, claimed that Europe could not “accommodate any more refugees”, and pioneered the expansion of police powers under the state of emergency. Valls offered little to address the underlying causes of radicalization, such as the socio-economic disadvantage and cultural exclusion of France’s Muslim and Maghrebi population. Incarceration statistics foreground the problem in stark terms. At around 8–10% of the total population, immigrants from Maghreb and their descendants represent approximately 60% of the prison population. While there is much commotion over the role France’s prisons play in politico-religious radicalization, less emphasis is placed on the bleak prospects pushing marginalized young men towards crime and into the prison system.

As long as the French State adopts the right’s tactics of force and exclusion in its response to radicalization, the situation will continue to escalate. Valls’s reflection of Le Pen’s exclusionary rhetoric might have been expedient for an election overshadowed by fear, before which “four-fifths of non-left voters told pollsters they backed tougher immigration and penal measures”. But, moral bankruptcy aside, this uncritical acceptance of the right’s terms of discourse ultimately works in its favor, leading to the impression that the center-left is no more than the right’s ersatz imitation.

Unlike Valls, Macron does not attempt to compete with the right in the culture wars or on questions of law and order. Indeed, his stance on social issues seems genuinely liberal: he advocates fulfillment of Europe’s duty towards refugees, shows rather less zeal than Valls for authoritarian measures, and supports the expansion of European sovereignty. In this respect, he appears to argue convictions rather than drifting with the mood of the moment, giving him greater plausibility at a time when voters are anxious about political decay.

However, one cannot entirely separate social, cultural and economic questions. Any viable attempt to stem the growth of nativism in France must address the insecurities generated by a global capitalist economy, and promote a sense of a shared life that does not depend on the assimilation of smaller groups. Whatever his intentions on social and cultural issues, in the longer-term, Macron’s liberal economic policies are unlikely to address the insecurity, rising inequality, and social fissures that feed both politico-religious extremism and France’s ethno-nationalist turn.

Europe – between liberalism and social democracy

In dealing with questions of economic insecurity, a key consideration for any left movement in France will be its relationship to the European project. Several issues arise:

  • the role of the EU, Berlin, and the stability pact in enforcing austerity.
  • the compatibility of strong labor protections and industrial competitiveness within the Single Market (and its prohibition on independent tariff policies) if other States are not willing to coordinate social policies.
  • the present use of the EU by national cabinets and third parties to circumnavigate democratic accountability, and the resulting mistrust this generates, contributing to the perception of politicians as corrupt and out of touch.
  • the role of the single currency and European fiscal paradises in facilitating tax evasion (e.g. Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Monaco etc.)

With these factors in mind, the French left faces the question: is it viable to have strong and inclusive social protections, large-scale redistribution, and viable industry while embedded in a neoliberal EU? If not, it will be necessary to renegotiate the terms of union in a way that Hollande was unable to: success will likely depend on building a coalition with other governments opposed to austerity, particularly in Southern Europe, and the ability to push for a fully federalized and democratic EU. (Britain’s recent exit, though a reactionary move, may provide some additional leverage.) Though he is at least in favor of more complete European sovereignty and fiscal policy as against nationalist revanchism or endless austerity, there is reason to be skeptical that a centrist like Macron, and the interests he represents, is any more capable than Hollande of leading such a coalition.

Although leaving the EU would bring problems of it’s own, and for many internationalists is difficult to contemplate, it is clear is that present arrangements are unlikely, in the long-term, to be compatible with social democracy.

The Coming Election

Hollande and Valls’ divisive government has left the Socialist Party deeply unpopular. The presidential and legislative elections draw close, in April and June respectively, and after a single term in power, the party faces electoral obliteration.

The left presidential vote is split between Hamon, Mélenchon to his left, and Macron to his right. Polls predict the election’s leading contenders to be Macron, the Thatcherist–cum-Catholic Conservative, François Fillon, and the hard-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. While Fillon has sometimes been presented as a last resort bulwark against Le Pen’s extremism, he too deals in fear and nationalist myth-making, having proposed to replace schools’ critical approach to history with a “national story”, and declared that “the bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could herald a third world war”.

Given the division of the left vote, Hamon’s chances seem slim; polls are certainly not in his favour. Yet his nomination was similarly unexpected, and Trump, Brexit, and Macron’s ascent have made it obvious, if it was not already, that polls have little predictive power. Hamon’s victory in the Primary brings some hope of a genuinely left-wing Socialist Party. And while a Socialist victory in the coming election remains improbable, with renewed ideological coherence and the offer of a real alternative, the party may yet shift public discussion and turn the tables.

Important propositions in Hamon’s platform include the annulation of sovereign debt in the EU, a goal of 50% renewable energy by 2025, a reversal of the El Khomri Law, and constitutional reform that includes a provision for citizens to propose laws to parliament, the placement of restrictions on the use of Article 49(3) by the government to force through laws, and a general shift in power from the president to parliament. In addition to promising to return the party to its socialist and social-democratic tradition, Hamon is unusually forward-looking with regard to economic automization; he advocates, for instance the introduction of a universal income, a tax on the robotization of industry, and measures against the Uberization of employment.

Any success for the left in the coming election will depend on union between its presently fragmented groupings. This is unlikely to occur. In a hopeful sign, Hamon sought to open negotiations with Mélenchon, as well as Yannick Jadot of the Greens, to form an electorally viable alliance. Mélenchon and Jadot have expressed sympathy with Hamon, but were skeptical. In response to Hamon’s proposal for a parliamentary alliance, Mélenchon declared that Hamon must choose between “us and them… between the anti-establishment wave (vague dégagiste), and the rescue of the old world”, pointing to the continuing significance of centrists in the Socialist Party.  For now, it looks unlikely that the left will present a united front.

It would be quixotic for Mélenchon to reject cooperation out of hand, but his wariness is partially justified. Hamon’s defeat of Valls has not concluded the fight to decide what interests and values the Socialist Party will represent. Nonetheless, it confirms that there is still appetite in France for a left alternative, and that there is no safety in casting one’s fate with a vanishing center.

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Stop Calling Bigots Bogans

Published in Spook Magazine, July 2015

Whenever Australians are reminded of our government’s ongoing abuse of asylum seekers or other vulnerable groups, the country’s self-declared progressives look for an alibi.

In every curio-bedecked sitting room and artisanal food store there are mutterings about the easily-fooled masses who don’t deserve the vote – the tinnie guzzling, singlet-wearing, immigrant-hating philistines who brandish their southern cross tattoos with idiot pride. On each one’s V8 ute a bumper-sticker reads: Love it or Leave. Nearly choking on his or her liquid-nitrogen ice-cream, the compassionate cosmopolitan splutters, “why don’t the bogans leave?”

Anger and grief are healthy responses to realising that your compatriots are happy to see vulnerable people broken. But blaming it on the nebulous category of “bogans” is classist and counterproductive. Like ‘chav’, ‘white trash’, ‘redneck’, or ‘hillbilly’, the word ‘bogan’ implies an essential connection between bigotry, poverty, and a lack of education, evoking a stock cultural character whose poor breeding and stupidity ensures they will always sport a mullet and brutalise immigrants. Among white people especially, such words project the worst of our heritage onto the “undeserving poor”, as though vulgarity were responsible for a history of racism and subjugation, and fear and hatred were absent from polite society. In short, the way middle-class progressives use bogan blames bigotry on the working class and unemployed – even, strangely, when this bigotry is directed at people on welfare.

Of course, drunk xenophobes sporting “we grew here you flew here” tattoos and equally charming bumper stickers do exist (as do workers who live in jealous fear of dole-bludgers seizing their taxes). And their toxic views are more obvious than the insidious prejudice that threads through more sophisticated circles, or the opportunistic tactics of political elites. But why are they the main focus of ire, and why do they get lumped into the same category as their neighbours and workmates? Perhaps this projection is linked to the middle-class’s cherished ideal of education – the belief that the school’s and the university’s disciplinary systems will uplift their charges beyond cruelty or selfishness, as though it were only ignorance that prevented kindness and unity.

While knowledge of the world is important to making intelligent political choices, and education can help with this, such examples as Barry Spurr, erudite fascists, and the racial views of the founder of the Rhodes scholarship should be sufficient to make it clear: being “cultured” does not always make us nicer or less prejudiced people. Recall too that Ricky Muir and Jacqui Lambie, often maligned as two of the most bogan senators in Australia, showed more signs of conscience about the fate of asylum seekers under unprecedented Ministerial powers than the educated blue bloods filling the Liberal bench. While neither are political role models – indeed, Lambie has been styled as a new Pauline Hanson – nor do they exemplify the deeper sickness in Australian politics.

Of course, no one shares quite the same definition of bogans, and any bogan-hater charged with classism will protest: “Being a bogan’s not about money, it’s about attitude and culture” – and the way people talk and the way they dress, that just so happen to be associated with being born in the wrong suburb and working with your hands or being stuck on welfare. Being bogan may not be about money, but it is about the cultural markers of class. The much-despised figure of the “cashed-up bogan”, far from proving that being bogan isn’t a question of class, fits the aristocrat’s vision of the newly rich, the upstart who’s gotten beyond their station. The very term implies a contradiction, as though something went wrong in the natural order to give rise to this monstrosity: a rich person, but without the right breeding or education.

As a consequence, when “progressives” blame injustice on bogans, they slot smoothly into the story the likes of Abbott, Bolt, and Murdoch want to tell: it is the story of an Australia divided between hard-working, true-blue Aussies who vote for the major parties, and out-of touch cultural elites who snigger at ordinary people. Meanwhile, the Tories who pulverise work rights and social services are portrayed as every men with the common touch. In this warped morality play, the hater of bigots takes on the character of the champagne socialist, the smug and self-righteous radical who holds Australian culture in contempt.

Such paranoid fantasies about a scheming culture elite, while not unique to Australia, are particularly successful here in obscuring the realities of wealth and power for four reasons: first, they tap into people’s profound fear of being laughed at. Second, they draw on Australia’s special hatred of wankers and attendant suspicion of intellectuals. Third, they allow the privileged to feel like underdogs – and this is particularly important for Australians, given that on average we are among the richest people in the world. And fourth, they have a grain of truth to draw upon: the temptation among moderates to treat questions of social justice as an opportunity to feel superior and gain cultural capital through excluding unbelievers, cleansing themselves of responsibility with the ritual mantra: what a bunch of bogans. In doing so, they alienate themselves from the people whose support they need, and whose struggles they in turn need to support.

Anyone hoping to protect the rights of asylum seekers and minorities cannot take these issues in isolation. The right is winning on this front because its fever dream of a country overrun with inner-city hipsters and suspect newcomers fits into a broader narrative, and resonates with real fears. While rabid nationalism can grow anywhere, it feeds on insecurity, on people’s sense that their world is not their own or could be taken away from them. Among working people, this could come in the form of the erosion of industrial rights, and the resulting precariousness that makes the thought of an immigrant “taking” jobs seem plausible. Among small-business owners and professionals, it is the ideology of merit, the fixation on “hard-work” and competition, and the fear of losing what they believe they have won of their own accord: I earned what I own and to share it is robbery. What moderates and leftists must do is build an alternative vision that is so compelling and inclusive as to eclipse the prevailing one – a vision that acknowledges and exorcises socioeconomic anxieties, rather than disowning their outgrowths as alien.

Until we do this, the best would-be allies of the oppressed can do is retreat into a sense of defeated goodness. Words like ‘bogan’ offer lazy comfort, something we can reach for to remind ourselves that tyranny is stupid, that it’s not in our name. Letting go of these illusions is difficult. To help, remember the following: every time you call a bigot a bogan, or sneer at someone’s literacy, you become a little more like Barry Spurr, and it becomes a little easier for other people to treat your voice with reciprocal disdain.

Corporate Hippies Own the Future

steve jobs

At the start-up company a friend once worked for, they believed in health, happiness, and alternative spirituality. The founder, Aaron, was a nice guy. He talked a lot about creativity and making the workplace fun. He encouraged everyone to listen to music while they worked. He decorated the place with plants, a fish tank and abstract paintings.

The design and IT groups that shared the building left around magazines with Steve Jobs’ and Richard Branson’s heads on them. The director, Sheryl, had been a partner at a giant financial company. She was sharp, pragmatic, and enjoyed calming New Age music. She tried to balance Aaron’s flights of fancy with discipline and efficiency. On the whole, it was a cushy position. The work itself involved a lot of spreadsheets. It was repetitive, isolating, and made my friend miserable. The fish and plants kept dying, and the fish tank was removed.

The truth was, no matter how much incense they or uplifting bromides they used for passwords, the work remained boring, amoral, and aimed entirely at profit. Some would say that the New Age guff wasn’t sincere, was just a gloss to hide the corporate reality and make things more bearable. They’d be missing the point.

Read the full article at Spook Magazine

The Price You Pay For Online Services

mark-zuckerberg-5

Perhaps you mentioned to a few friends on Facebook that you’re taking a trip to Amsterdam to visit your sick grandmother. Ever since, you’ve been afflicted with endless sidebar ads for vaporisers, travel agents and funeral homes. If you feel like you’re being watched, you’re not quite wrong.

Regardless of your privacy settings, everything you do on sites like Google and Facebook is tracked and gathered, grouping you with others who share your interests and attributes. Though it’s encrypted, the resulting data helps marketers target their advertising. An average Facebook user is worth just over $7 per annum, generating profits each time they log in or interact; a Google user is worth around $45. Although, in the long term the data will likely be worth much, much more. Your friends may insist that nobody cares what you think of Ms. Cyrus, whether you prefer sloths or meerkats, or what you ate for breakfast this morning. But Facebook is fascinated.

Read the full article at Spook Magazine

The Body You Pay For

Duck_of_VaucansonDuck of Vaucanson

Published as ‘After Humanity‘ in Right Now, Technology and Human Rights Issue

Little has been keen to show me his wireless neuroheadset for a while. It’s his latest gadget, and this is one of many nights we will stay up late talking about new technologies.

It is perched on my head: two of its plastic tentacles press against the cartilage behind my ear lobes, another six curl around each hemisphere of my skull. On the screen is a schematic of a brain with 16 dots at various nodes; some are black and grey, others traffic light green and red. Little adjusts the headset to reposition the contact buds against my scalp, and the dots change colour. More parts of the brain light up green now, others remain a dead grey.

The headset detects brain signals and passes them on to the computer via Bluetooth, to be interpreted by software presumably designed by a gaming company or some shadowy paramilitary organisation. On screen, the cursor follows my gaze.

Little leans over my shoulder with a grin.
“The contact’s not perfect, but I reckon you’re good to go.”
“Do you think my hair’s in the way?”
He laughs, “Scott, why do you think I shaved my head?”
Little opens the game that came with the headset, called Spirit Mountain. It’s got polygon graphics, New Age music, and dubious Orientalist overtones.

The game’s spirit guide tells me to move boulders, pull down reeds, raise a temple and gather the mountain’s spirits in an urn with my mind by focusing on pushing, pulling, lifting, and trying to think about nothing – but not before I have to growl at some mischievous spirits to scare them away. Little loses his shit laughing. I struggle badly. Soon my neck and brain are too sore to continue, and we leave the headset alone to go outside, have another drink, and talk cyborg politics.

Little is tech-crazy: he assembles his own computers and works in IT, and though he used to study psychology, he quit on the cusp of completion and took up computer science. Computers, he tells me, are easier to fix than people. Though in Little’s mind, the two goals aren’t so far removed.

He is a proponent of transhumanism, a movement united by the belief that humans can, and should, transcend biology through technology. As humanity merges with ever more advanced machines, they say, we will evolve into a new species that blends human and technological traits – the posthuman. In Little’s view, this is just swell, and he wants to become a cyborg as soon as possible.

Transhumanists believe that the coming posthuman species will be smarter, live longer, and overcome many of our present, all-too-human frailties. Their dreams of silicon ascent lead critics to suggest that transhumanists hold the human body in contempt. Indeed, many transhumanists disparage the body and its failings, and Little is no exception, often joking that he deems his body a poorly functioning appendage to his brain.

Little’s desire to transcend natural limitations can be partly explained by his fascination with science and computers. Surely though, we’re not going to turn ourselves into machines just because the idea of it is sort of interesting and cool. True, our relationship with technology is more intimate than it has ever been, and it may be that technologies for enhancement will soon exist. But who would use them? What are these cyborg fantasies if not products of corporate brainstorms in Silicon Valley, of overstimulated minds, warped by too much screen time, caffeine, and an excessive love of gimmicks and novelty?

Surely though, nobody’s going to turn ourselves into a machien just because the idea of it is sort of interesting and cool. True, our relationship with technology is more than it has ever been, and it may be that technologies for enhancement will soon exist. But who would use them? What are these cyborg fantasies if not products of corporate brainstorms in Silicon Valley, of overstimulated minds, warped by too much screen time, caffeine, and an excessive love of gimmicks and novelty? Yet the promise of overcoming the weakness bears more than mere novelty value for my friend.

In 1995, when Little was five years old, he ate some mettwursst from the supermarket. Days afterwards, he became ill and was soon admitted to hospital as, one by one, his internal organs shut down. The mettwursst was tainted with an antibiotic resistant variant on E. coli bacteria. Little’s kidneys, pancreas, and digestive system stopped working, and he was put on a drip for nutrition. His brain, heart and lungs kicked along; though they did not escape unaffected, and he was subject to a number of seizures. After four weeks of total organ failure and constant dialysis, Little began recovering and was released from hospital two weeks later.

Life returned more or less to normal until he hit puberty. During the summer of 2002, just before he entered Year Eight, Little noticed strange things happening to him. He was drinking more water, becoming sweaty and clammy; he needed to piss more often, lacked energy, felt unusually tired. He presumed it was due to the heat wave, but after he lost ten kilograms, he and his mum realised something was wrong. He went to the doctor and took a blood test; the doctor came to his house that night and informed him that he must go to the emergency room immediately.

The test had revealed that Little’s blood sugar level had risen to 82.1. Given that people can go into comas with levels between 20 and 30, doctors were astonished he was alive, let alone conscious. They put him on an insulin drip straight away. Flippant, Little tells me “They thought I was the golden child or something.”

Though fortunate to be alive, Little was by no means lucky. He was admitted to hospital again, and told that the additional stress on his body caused by puberty had finished off his already-weakened pancreas; though the organ still had partial function, it could not produce sufficient insulin to keep him alive.

Little was one of many who suffered from food poisoning from the tainted batch of Garibaldi Mettwursst. A four year old girl died, and at least 23 others suffer from severe health problems to this day. Little is one of the 23 victims who joined in a class action against Garibaldi Small Goods, which spanned 16 years and eventually won a settlement. The class action confirmed that Little’s condition was caused by his food poisoning when he was five, making him the first person in Australia legally determined to suffer from diabetes as a result of criminal negligence.

Little was forced to quickly overcome his phobia of needles. Like many people who suffer from diabetes, he has to manually compensate for his organ’s malfunction; to stay alive, he must constantly monitor his blood sugar levels, keeping them stable with carefully timed meals and injections of insulin. Little talks about his experience openly and without a shred of a self pity. “People kind of struggle to understand it,” he says. “If they ask me what it’s like, I tell them to imagine their lungs didn’t work automatically, and they had to always remember to breath. That might overstate things, but it gets the idea across.”

*   *

It is not so surprising, then, that Little should be unimpressed with the natural body and its failings, or that he should look to posthuman technologies for hope. For Little, they offer the possibility of a cure. The most significant of these technologies can be loosely divided into four areas – nanotech, biotech, information technology (IT), and neuroscience.

Nanotech is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular level, and gives rise to nanorobotics. Basic nanomachines have already been created, and this technology is advancing fast as researchers, corporations and medical professionals rush to get involved.

Biotech encompasses innovations that could modify us on a biological level, like cloning, genetic engineering, life extension, and organs grown from stem cells. Biotech includes technologies already in common use, like pharmaceuticals and genetically modified foods.

Like biotech, IT has been around for a while, and includes anything used to store, transmit or manipulate data. Computers and the internet are the poster children of IT, but it arguably includes much older tools like printing, writing, and language itself. IT already plays a part in insulin delivery implants, controlled via Wi-Fi; and as time goes on, they may help in the creation of fully functioning cybernetic organs. Further, IT may lead to the creation of artificial intelligence that rivals or surpasses humanity’s. This may seem hard to believe, as at present, computers, however powerful, have a limited range of thought processes, and are distinctly lacking in areas like emotion and creativity.

This is where neuroscience comes in. For the time being, it allows for such IT gadgets as the neuroheadset. Soon, however, neuroscience and related disciplines may allow humans to map the brain well enough for it to be used as a model for computer designs. As it happens, scientists are already creating simulations of human brains using networks of computers, akin to the networks of neurones that make up our grey matter. These networks have demonstrated the ability to learn independently. And, like humans, when one was given the chance to access the internet, it spent most of its time learning about cats. It formed its own image of a cat based on what it had seen, demonstrating a nascent form of imagination. Another network was used to simulate schizophrenia to test a psychological theory of how the illness works; the AI became confused about its identity, began referring to itself in the third person, and (falsely) claimed credit for a terrorist attack.

As they advance, these technologies tend to converge; scientists are already experimenting with biological computers, and DNA could become just another medium for information technology. And nanotech may one day be used to inject tiny machines into the bloodstream which help prevent ageing, fight cancer or monitor insulin levels. In coming years, these technologies will keep feeding into one another, mutually accelerating their progress.

It is tempting to dismiss such developments as sensationalist exaggeration; they sound too strange, too unsettling, too much like science fiction. Yet there is danger and naïvety in unconditional scepticism. Many works of fiction are created not as pure escapism, but as thought experiments, warnings of the future, warped mirrors of the present, echo chambers of our very real anxieties. We risk missing the fact that we are already living in what, several years ago, was considered the stuff of fantasy.

Battered with novelty and commercials, strangeness and fiction, we become numb to the realities unfolding. A sense of detachment can creep over us as we hear of new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, involving electrodes placed in the brain; when we hear claims of cyborg hate crime, as when a man with enhanced reality glasses surgically attached to his head was allegedly assaulted by the staff of a Parisian McDonald’s. We know that drone warfare is real, yet those of us lucky enough never to have been bombed by flying, remote control robots struggle to believe in something so perfectly absurd, let alone debate its merits, stage a protest, or seek means of resistance.

Some theorists worry that these new technologies may dehumanise us, endangering the foundations on which we build meaning. After all, if the human individual is universal, and the basic building block of values, then rapidly changing it would lead to chaos: if you’re uploaded to a computer, are you still part of the moral community? Is a genetically enhanced person still human? Are other humans still equal with them? Confronted with these problems, maybe we would prefer to simply reject such technology and go back to being plain old humans. The trouble is, it has never been that simple.

Since our ancestors starting using tools and fire hundreds of thousands of years ago, technology has been a part of us and defined us. Tools like language have shaped us throughout history, and it’s difficult to make any clean distinction between technologies and the humans they use – the lines have always been blurred.

Still, there is a difference between technologies which exist outside of us, and ones which are inside us, plugged into our brains and reshaping our bodies. Though this difference may not be so definitive as it seems. Belief in this difference is based, in part, on the idea that we are separate from the world around us. If this idea is false to begin with, if we and all we experience are just pieces of the surrounding world, then we are already creations of technology and social relations. Posthuman technologies would not be a rupture in our identities, but the next phase of perpetual change.

While such ideas may be common among scientists, sociologists and stoned teenagers, people living in late capitalist economies rarely carry their implications into daily life. In Western culture especially, we think of ourselves as individuals who inhabit bodies and environments, rather than bodies which are part of these environments. Many of us implicitly believe, on some level, in a soul – even if we are secular, and don’t call it that or think it exists. Coupled with the faith that such human essence is universal, this belief forms, in many people’s minds, the foundation of human rights. In this sense, posthuman technologies are unsettling not because of what they might do to a previously universal and shared humanity, but because of the questions they raise about its existence.

These questions aren’t altogether new: they just become harder to avoid. After all, what often passes for human nature is far from universal. In a society like ours, denying universality awakens the fear of difference, never truly overcome in liberal cultures, but lulled to sleep by the poets of assimiliation. Worse still, we risk revealing the structures of power lurking just below the surface of formal equality.

Better they come to light. Although its disappearance will create new challenges, belief in a homogenous humanity should not be mourned; such a denial of complexity should not be necessary for us to treat other feeling, thinking beings with kindness and respect.

*   *

For those attached to traditional ideas about personhood, such assurances aren’t entirely comforting. And the truth is, even for those who don’t believe in a sacred, unchanging humanity, there are legitimate concerns about posthuman technologies. The turmoil of the past century and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made it pretty clear that new technologies can be abused; arms races, our struggle with fossil fuels and the reshaping of our minds by the internet highlight that technology can take on a life of its own.

Of course, the question isn’t merely whether humans retain control of technology; it is also – which humans? Even if business, government and paramilitary groups prove less dangerous and opportunistic than we’ve learned to expect, a global market economy ensures posthuman tech will be unevenly distributed. The rich will have disproportionate access to life-extension, brain enhancements and genetic engineering, leading to biological entrenchment of financial inequality. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s worth considering that even the medical treatment available to the rich at present is a form of radical life extension, giving them more time to accumulate vast power and wealth.

Many transhumanists aren’t exactly at pains to calm their critics’ fears. Having assumed a name fit for a super villain, the prominent transhumanist Max More also speaks like one: “No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back,” he declares. “Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity.

For all this, it is difficult to imagine my friend Little as a megalomaniacal overlord, cyborg or otherwise. Laid-back and blessed with incisive, self-deprecating wit, he seems closer to a cartoon sloth-man than a scheming HAL 9000. And really, can any of this paranoia really justify denying him, or those in similar situations, the best medical treatment available? It seems heartless to dash someone’s hope of a cure, even if it involves technologies that challenge our understandings of what it means to be human.

Perhaps we should just to leave it to individual choice, allowing those who don’t want to change to take a conscientious stand and refuse to be enhanced. And in doing so they would consign themselves to servitude or the dustbin of obsolescence, as others without such scruples race ahead. In a competitive market society, leaving it to individual choice leaves no choice at all. Though we should not simply reject these technologies, leaving it to the market to decide would be madness.

In the present global order, it will be almost impossible to prevent these technologies from spreading. This leaves us with two options: change the world economy altogether, or settle for trying to regulate them and provide equal access; when it comes to public healthcare, we could draw the line at artificial organs, and other treatments that bring people to normal functioning rather than enhancing them. Though as the public sector grows smaller, the second option looks almost as improbable as the first. At any rate, our concept of normal functioning is relative in nature, shaped by the abilities and expectations of those around us. And why stop there? And how? These questions demand urgent answers, for we are poised on a precipice, if indeed we are not already falling. Any adequate response will require an excavation and reassessment of the values, rights and responsibilities underpinning our cultures and economies, and a new way forward in making decisions as a collective. Because the question of how we distribute posthuman technologies returns us to older questions: what it means to be human, and how we are to distribute wealth and capital – only the stakes have been raised, and the answers we choose may be irrevocable.

Back at Little’s house, the night has grown old, and we’re no closer to agreeing on solutions. Before I go curl up on the couch, our conversation turns back to Little’s hopes. A while ago, after he won the court case, it looked like there was a stem cell cure available in Germany. The news proved premature: further scrutiny revealed that for the time being, the cure was more dangerous than the disease. With a grin and a shade of irony in his voice, Little tells me, “All I want is for my functions to be automated again. I mean, is that so much to ask?”

Two Letters – José Donoso

candle-mirror

Candle Mirror – M.C. Escher

Translated by Scott Arthurson from the original Spanish ‘Dos Cartas’. Published in The Nose, March 2013. The present version has undergone additional editing.

These are the last letters written between two men, Jaime Martínez, a Chileno, and John Dutfield, an Englishman.

They met as classmates in primary school in Santiago, and remained in the same class until they finished school. But they were never friends. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for their interests and personalities were marked out as antipodes from early on. All the same, the Chilean would bring the English boy sandwiches, because Dutfield was a boarder, and like every boarder in every school, suffered constant hunger. This was no cause for their relations to become more intimate. In a boxing tournament held at the school, John Dutfield and Jaime Martínez found themselves obliged to confront each other. For a moment, the cheers of the Chilean’s comrades inflamed his normally timid fists, and he gave his opponent a blood nose. Nevertheless, the English boy emerged the victor. This didn’t surprise anyone, given that Dutfield was a sportsman by vocation, whereas Martínez was given more to books and conversation. Afterwards, the Chilean boy continued to bring the English boy sandwiches.

Having finished high school without any particular distinction, they went to a graduation dinner. That night, alcohol and effusions flowed freely, cementing old loyalties while new loyalties were forged in the name of a recently discovered manhood. Dutfield was to leave soon. He belonged to one of those wandering and colourless English families, commercial nomads, impelled by the omnipotent voice of the firm that the father represented in various countries, changing their place of residence every few years. They were moving now, following the all-powerful mandate, to Cape Town, in the Union of South Africa. At the end of the meal, stories and reminiscences exhausted, Dutfield and Martínez exchanged addresses, promising to write.

And they did, from time to time, for more than ten years. Dutfield settled for a while with his parents in Cape Town. But he had nomadic blood. He crossed the veldt and the jungle, passing through to Rhodesia, alone, in search of fortune, and ultimately set down roots in Kenya, where he married and acquired land. The rest of his life took place there, close to the sounds of the jungle, caring for his acres of corn and watching his children grow, together with the trees and the natives, sharing the ideals and prejudices of those like themselves.

The Chilean, by contrast, stayed in his country. As the years went by, he found himself alone, found that little by little he had become distanced from all those who had been his friends in school, without making, in the mean time, new friends worthy of the title. All the same, never ceasing to be troubled by the irony of the situation, he maintained his correspondence, very remote of course, with John Dutfield.

Jaime Martínez studied law. As a Chilean lawyer his life passed quietly, surrounded by comforts of every kind. From the outset, he began to distinguish himself in his profession. Almost always darkly dressed, he kept his hands, perhaps too expressive for a man of his position, well monitored. The letters which he and the farmer of Kenya exchanged once a year, sometimes twice, contained humorous recollections of their days in school, news about superficial changes that both men’s lives were accumulating with the years, questions and responses about the changes undergone, with time, by the city in which they were both educated. Nothing more. And why would there be? How to begin, after so much time and from so many miles, an intimacy which, in any case, had never existed?

This is the last letter that John Dutfield, the farmer of Kenya, wrote to Jaime Martínez, the Chilean lawyer, more or less ten years after having left the school in which they studied together.

“Dear Martínez:

“Here you have me answering your letter from months ago, making the most of a minor illness that’s kept me in bed a few days. I hadn’t written earlier, because, as you know, a Kenyan farmer’s work is no easy thing, not as a Chilean lawyer’s must be.

“The other day something strange happened to me. I think that’s why it’s occurred to me to write to you. We’d gone out, my wife and I, to look at the farm animals in the late afternoon. When we came to the pigs, we saw a white-haired one, which seemed to regard the sunset with a sad air, apart somehow from the rest. So imagine my surprise when my wife said: ‘Look John, that pig looks as though he were inspired.” Imagine! You remember the ‘Inspired Pig’? I suppose not. He was that teacher fresh from Cambridge who we had for a semester, that fat blond one, remember, who spent his time admiring Chilean sunsets and reading us odes by I don’t know who. The day after his arrival, we boarding kids wet the sheets of his bed, assuring him it was a traditional welcome ceremony. He saw through our lie, but to ingratiate himself he refrained from denouncing us. He didn’t last long in the school. Melancholy got to the poor fellow, nostalgia for his country, and there was no remedy but for him to return to England. He was about twenty-five then, younger than you or I are now.

“I don’t understand how anyone can feel nostalgia for England. Of course I was very little when I left, and we were in Jamaica for some years before going to Chile, so I can’t judge. But when I was discharged from the army—because of my leg that was wounded in battle, which continues to give me pain every few months—out of curiosity more than any real interest it occurred to me to travel to England. I found it ugly, dirty, crowded, old and afflicted with an intolerable climate. It made me claustrophobic and I returned to Kenya as soon as I could. But curiously enough, something similar happened to my parents as to the “Inspired Pig”. Some years back, my dad retired from the firm he’d represented for so long in Kingston, Valparaíso and Cape Town. Here he had a splendid situation. My parents were respected by everyone, had a marvellous circle of friends, and a lovely house overlooking the ocean in one of Cape Town’s good neighbourhoods. But instead of staying to enjoy life’s pleasures after retiring, it occurred to them to buy a cottage in a Yorkshire village, where they were born, met each other and married. Now they’re living there, happy, as though they’d never left. I know the village, because when my parents found out I’d been discharged, they invited me to spend several days with them. If you could see what an ugly little town it is. All the people are so very poor, my relatives too. I couldn’t live there, with those boring and provincial people, in that dirty, ugly little town, near a mine and surrounded by stinking factories. I still can’t understand how my folks are so satisfied.

“I don’t know if it’s on account of my illness, but just last night I was thinking I wouldn’t know where to go if the moment arrived to retire, like my father. I was very little when I left Europe, I don’t feel any ties with it. Kingston is out of the question, all I remember was a black nanny I had, the rest has been erased. In Chile I wouldn’t know what to do: I’d feel, no doubt, out of place, now that all my friends have dispersed. Besides, my wife is from these parts, and the idea of America frightens her. Maybe Cape Town would be a solution. Buy myself a little house by the sea, join a club where I have friends and the whisky isn’t too dear.

“Really though, I’m barely thirty and the moment hasn’t yet arrived to think about this seriously. In any case, I think that circumstances permitting, I’ll finish my days here, on this farm, in this house that I built myself and to which we’ve just made significant improvements. You should see how nice it is! My wife takes care of the garden and the orchard. Though I must confess, the fruit doesn’t prosper—the trees are still new—because Pat and John, my two boys, climb them like natives and eat the fruit green. If you could witness their indigestion!

“Well, I’ve prattled on and told you nothing. If some time it occurs to you to take a safari for these parts—my old joke again—you have your home here. Write. Don’t let the year pass without sending news of yourself and Chile.

JOHN DUTFIELD.”

This letter never reached the hands of its intended recipient. Somehow or another it went astray in the mail, and was received by a Jaime Martínez of Chile St in Santiago, Cuba. The swarthy fellow opened it, reading with bemusement. Upon ascertaining that it wasn’t for him, he closed the letter with the intention of sending it on to the Chilean layer it mentioned. But those days his wife was about to have her ninth child, and the missive was lost amongst a thousand other things before the fellow remembered to send it. When he remembered, he couldn’t find it. And he decided it wasn’t worth worrying about: the letter contained nothing of importance. It may as well have never been written.

The fact is that John Dutfield never wrote to Jaime Martínez again. The years passed, and the Kenyan farmer’s existence continued peacefully on his land. The work and the struggle were hard, but they had their compensations. Each day the dark line across his brow deepened, marking where his pith helmet protected his head from the sun; each day his eyes paled and his hands grew ruddier. From time to time, but only distantly, he regretted not receiving news from Chile. Then he ceased to worry about it. Some years later, John Dutfield, his wife, and his children were murdered by the Mau-Mau, their houses and crops illuminating a clear African night.

The last letter from Jamie Martínez was written around the same time as John Dutfield’s. The Chilean lawyer had just published a history on an ancestor of his who had played a fleeting role in one of the groups that helped cement the independence of his country. The book met with minor success in elite circles: its language was precise, and its evocation of the epoch free of sentimentality. It seemed that in his book, he had given credence to whatever dignity resided in his roots. But only he knew, and without great clarity, that these roots imprisoned him without giving him stability. He had not sought his profession or way of life, but had been swept into them, and thus lived prey to anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Without knowing how or why, one winter’s night when the cold pressed against his window, and after having drunk his customary cup of hot tea, he took his pen and wrote the following letter to John Dutfield of Kenya, to whom he had not written for nearly a year, and from whom he had not received news for a long time:

“Dear John

“I don’t know why I’m writing to you tonight. Maybe because nothing has happened in a while. The melancholy tone with which I begin this letter surely unsettles you. But don’t worry: they aren’t going to throw me in prison as a cheat, nor am I going to commit suicide, nor am I sick. On the contrary, because nothing has happened, I am better than ever.

“Maybe that’s why I’m writing to you. Should it interest you, let me tell you that I continue rising in my profession, and that I’m bringing in loads of money. Within a few years, and I’m barely thirty, I will be, without a doubt, one of the greatest lawyers in Chile. But immediately upon assuring someone of this, I feel the need for a drink of whiskey, so as not to doubt that in reality it’s all worth it. It’s worth it (I just had a large drink). No doubt you will laugh at me upon reading these lines, and not without reason—you, with your great external problems resolved. But wait, do not laugh. It is precisely because you are so different from me, and because you are so very many miles away, and because I do not see your ironic smile, that I am writing you these things. But in truth I do not know what I am telling you. Maybe nothing.

“Clearly nothing. But nothing provides grounds for much. Do you remember school from time to time? I imagine you never do. Or, if you remember, it would be as a grand old country club, where everything was big and easy and pleasant. And you’re right, since you have not had to go on fighting, like I have, with the terrible ironies it permitted. I do remember. Now above all, in recent times, I remember it often. Do you remember those last years, when we would go to those places we’d resolved to get to know from way back, and those audacious binges on the eves of various exams? Remember that time Duval told us he’d invited a stunning woman to the school’s annual ball, and then made his rotund appearance, arm-in-arm with one of his cousins? Duval’s cousin has married and has four children.

“I don’t know why I keep such an indelible image of you: I see you perched on a wall looking to see if any of the girls from the girls’ school on the other corner were passing by. One time, it was in our final year, my great friends of that time, Lozano and Benítez, wrote a love letter, for the most part quite scandalous, to a girl from that school. Olga Merino she was called. One time we saw her walk past, you said that she was the most gorgeous girl you’d seen in your life. She was petite, with smooth fair hair. I was very much in love with her, although I hadn’t spoken to her more than two or three times. But I never told her anything. And that love, like so many of my loves, died quickly. I see a lot of her now, because she married a colleague of mine. If you could see her, she’s very different. She’s famous for her elegance and beauty in this corner of the world. But she’s another person now. She retains nothing, nothing, of that which made me crave her so terribly for the course of a month, over ten years ago now. It’s only natural, logical. But it’s also unbearable. And to all of us the same has happened, we no longer recognise ourselves, no longer recognise the only things that mattered to us then. Will I too become, do you think, a being so unrecognisable, so different? Olga isn’t significant in and of herself, I name her to you only because you saw her once. She is of no significance because, naturally, I have loved again many times in my life. And nor did those loves dominate me. I turned my back on them and they didn’t dominate me. Nor have my vices dominated me, nor my desire to make a fortune, nor my friends. I suddenly think that nothing of what I have done has any significance. I think it is because one forgets. And I haven’t wanted to forget! I’ve never accepted that a single atom of my past life, nor the things and people and places that I’ve loved or hated, should lose their significance and be extinguished! And all has lost significance. Which shows that I only have the capacity to scratch at the surface of things.

“By the way, I remember when you were in the war. You recounted the horror of a world undone. And I comforted myself that I was here, in this never-never land, on the margins of that miserable ordeal of humanity. I read the papers, informed myself meticulously, followed the unfolding of the battle. But nor did that move me. Why? Maybe you will know the solution.

“Don’t laugh too much on reading this letter. Also, I beg you not to answer me in the same tone. Answer me as though you’d never received these lines from:

JAIME MARTÍNEZ.”

When the author reread his letter, he found that his problems had cooled off notably in the  writing of it. He found it incoherent, sentimental, literary, revealing of a part of himself which, looked at clearly, had had little importance in shaping his fate. He tore it up and, upon throwing it in the bin, promised himself to write another one soon. What’s more, he remembered that John Dutfield was a man of somewhat blunted sensibilities, and he didn’t wish to baffle[1] him.

The years passed and the Chilean lawyer didn’t write again to the Kenyan farmer. As though he were embarrassed by the letter he’d written and discarded, he postponed and kept postponing the moment to write to Africa. Jaime Martínez soon arrived at the pinnacle of his profession and no longer had time to remember his debt to Dutfield. Only sometimes, in the passing of the years, browsing the paper in the silence of his library or his club, at random he’d read the name of Kenya in an article. Then, for no more than half a second, something paralysed within him, and he thought of his friend who was no longer his friend, who never had been and now never would be. But it was only half a second. The tea they’d just brought him and the copper mining problem discussed in an article next to the one casually naming Kenya arrested his attention completely. After that half a second, he would go years, two or three, or four, without thinking again about Dutfield—unknowing that the African winds had long ago scattered his ashes across the skies of the world.


[1]               The word used in Spanish is “paralogizar”, which has no English translation. It is loosely defined as “To try to persuade with fallacious reasoning; to mislead or produce perplexity.” It bears connotations of confusion and deception. http://que-significa.com.ar/significado.php?termino=paralogizar

No Refuge From Hypocrisy

Published in Farrago, Issue 5 2012*

Generally, public anxiety surrounding nautical arrivals has been easy to dismiss as a hysteria-driven beat-up, driven mostly by misinformation and thinly veiled racism. More recently, the boat panic has centred on a seemingly philanthropic justification. Far from an expression of xenophobia, the strong desire to repel leaky vessels from Australian shores has been framed as a humanitarian concern: we must deter refugees from seeking asylum via boat to save them from drowning and to stop their exploitation by people smugglers.

Mass media outlets condemn politicians for failing to agree on an offshore-processing solution, whether in Malaysia, Nauru or elsewhere. The choice is portrayed in stark terms: implement offshore processing or take responsibility for the deaths of the people who drown at sea. But are these really the only options we have? And is a newfound sympathy for those seeking refuge the real motivation for such policy?

The human loss in the recent tragedies at sea is appalling—of that, there is no doubt. But this does not make offshore processing the solution. The rationale of humane deterrence simply doesn’t stand up. Its supporters reason that a “tougher policy” will prevent asylum seekers from making the dangerous boat journey, thus saving them from drowning. Aside from the lack of evidence for such a position, it also fails to account for something essential: just what is it that made these people desperate enough to make this journey in the first place? A common misconception is that ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees and are attempting to cheat the system. On the contrary, over 90 percent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be refugees.

Refugees typically flee their homelands because they are persecuted for reasons including their politics, ethnicity or religion. Generally, the risk of the journey is less than the perils they face at home. They have no option but to leave their lives behind, fleeing danger by any means and as quickly as possible, often not knowing where they will end up.

Likewise, some flee refugee camps in transit countries because the processing can take years and conditions are often deplorable. In many such camps, supply shortages, violence, and various forms of abuse are commonplace. In short, that which they are fleeing tends to be even worse than the terrible boat journey they must make. Logically, the only way a “tougher policy” could deter refugees from dangerous voyages is by making the prospect of the journey worse again than staying at home. Following this line of reasoning, the most effective way of “stopping the boats” would be to treat refugees more atrociously than their oppressors, or to deny them any hope of asylum and of escaping persecution in their present location.

Yet removing the option of travelling by boat will not save refugees from danger, nor ensure that they join an orderly queue; such queues do not exist. Instead, it will increase the likelihood of people being trapped, oppressed, incarcerated, and in many cases murdered.

Moreover, a tougher policy is unlikely to prevent people from seeking asylum in any case. Contrary to popular rhetoric, there is little if any causal relationship between immigration policy in developed countries and the number of people seeking asylum. The Coalition has blamed rising numbers of boat arrivals on softer Labor policy compared to the golden era of draconian laws under Howard. Yet such a view reflects either cynical political posturing or wilful insularity verging on solipsism: according to the UNHCR, asylum seekers numbers decreased under the Howard government because they also decreased around the world. In this case, the evidence confirms common sense: the primary factors driving people to seek asylum lie in the conditions they face in their own countries and regions.

All this being the case, it seems possible that the humanitarian rhetoric for offshore processing veils less philanthropic motives, such as media hype, political opportunism and populist exploitation of public fears and prejudice. Indeed, humanitarian concern commonly keeps discursive company with outright prejudice: all too often, concern about deaths at sea and resent against outsiders are expressed in the same breath. For instance, in an article otherwise centred on Christmas Islanders’ concern regarding asylum seekers’ deaths at sea, one local is quoted calling boat arrivals “‘queue jumpers’” who “‘take spots away from genuine refugees.’” He says that: “‘There’s bad feeling towards them – not much sympathy. We’re second-class citizens on our own island.’” The two sentiments have something in common: they are both mobilised into a call for harsher measures, designed to punish asylum seekers and keep them out.

Given politicians’ propensity to draw on such bile, the humane rhetoric surrounding offshore processing may simply be a mask, allowing major parties to feed on public prejudice while holding moral criticism at bay. If this is so, their hypocrisy must be condemned. Yet, it may also be a strange sign of hope: the fact that these draconian positions are now framed in humanitarian terms shows a shift in the discussion. It may even be a sign that it is no longer considered acceptable to justify policy purely in terms of cold and ruthless national interest. This provides an opportunity. By defending their policy on the ethical grounds of saving refugee lives, policymakers open the door to arguments as to what would better serve the interests of refugees.

The hypocrite in this sense is a monster in retreat, giving fresh credence to the maxim that “hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue”. The chance now exists to shift the question from “How do we keep these people out?” to “How can we help prevent further tragedy?” As such, it becomes possible to trap more cynical politicians between doing
what is right and having the emptiness of their hypocritical words exposed. Moreover, many adopting such rhetoric and policy may have genuinely good intentions that are merely misdirected. Either way, this could be a key moment to push for a more humane policy on asylum seekers.

*I wrote this article in the middle of 2012, prior to the reopening of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, as hysteria and ill feeling crescendoed on the issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. The situation has worsened since then, and this article’s conclusion looks rather optimistic in retrospect. Still, I’m inclined to stand by most of its arguments.