#shutdownRSD, progressive activism and the border – a historical perspective

Wendy Brown, in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty argues that globalisation has not seen the dissolution of national boundaries, but rather the reinvigorated imposition of technologies of exclusion. Governments have responded to the loss of their practical powers with what the author terms the “theatricalized and spectacularized performance of sovereign power”. In the Australian context, being ‘girt by sea’, this has meant enforcing technologies of immigration restriction and exclusion against unwanted migrants and visitors.

In the 1970s, those being barred were new leftists, black militants and women’s liberationists, and activists responded with public calls for the open movement of people and ideas across borders. Today, however, it seems the opposite is the case. Recently a host of individuals have been excluded, at least partially at the behest of Australian progressives, mobilising through friendly members of the political class and social media.

Activists mobilising through the #shutdownRSD hashtag, for example, put pressure on Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton to use his discretionary powers to revoke the visa of ‘pick up artist’ Jeff Allen, an acolyte of sexist pig Julian Blanc, who was kicked out of the country in similar circumstances a few months ago. The success of this campaign was then presented as a victory for progressive forces, with Green’s spokesperson Larrisa Waters calling it a victory of people power. For a moment, the man who locks women and children up in Nauru was ‘on our side’.

But, the Australian government has historically only rarely excluded individuals in a manner that has met Leftist praise. Looking back a few decades, we instead see ourselves on the receiving end of government border policies. The early 1970s were in many ways a different era, of course. White Australia was still technically on the books, only to be abolished completely in 1973 by Gough Whitlam’s government. And ASIO – the political police – had a big say in who was let into the country.

ASIO vetted visitors from socialist states invited by progressive organisations in the 1950s and 1960s, like the Communist Party of Australia and the Union of Australian Women, and most of these were blocked on grounds of potentially undermining Australian society. However, the advent of new forms of social movements and left activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw ASIO and immigration authorities presented with new threats, and a diverse group of activists with new opportunities to challenge the State’s racism, philistinism and parochialism.

ASIO prepared a list in late 1970 of those it called ‘Black Panther Party leaders’, including Huey Newton and Angela Davis, which was communicated to Australia’s Washington embassy. Staff were instructed to deny these individuals a visa, instead referring their requests to ASIO. While none of these illustrious leaders of America’s black revolution ever sought entry to Australia, it does show just how much Australia’s conservative government was fearful of radical activists, particularly African-Americans.

A lengthy ASIO report commenting on the invitation of overseas speakers, including British-Pakistani Trotskyist Tariq Ali, to attend a Vietnam Moratorium conference in 1971 reveals something of ASIO’s nervous disposition towards ‘New left’ and black power activists. The report noted how “revolutionary and radical groups” in Australia “have close and developing links with radical and revolutionary organisations overseas.” Allowing the visit of representatives of such dangerous groups who, ASIO realised, were eclipsing the traditional Communist Party in influence, “would facilitate this process as well as contribut[e] towards the development of new alliances and forms of revolutionary activity”. Equally, ASIO feared that connections between overseas black activists and Australian progressives were part of a communist plot “to classify Australia amongst the imperialist countries by reproaching it with colonialism and racial discrimination”.

As such, the border was “weaponised” by the Australian government as a means of policing social order and cohesion. With race no longer an appropriate reason to exclude a person, social traits and threats to cohesion were instead mustered. One particular example worth exploring is that of Richard ‘Dick’ Gregory. A well-known African-American comedian, civil rights activist and unsuccessful 1968 presidential candidate, Gregory was set to undertake a student union-sponsored national comedy tour and speak at the September Vietnam Moratorium in Sydney on connections between the African-American and Vietnamese struggles for liberation.

dick gregory.png

Gregory applied for a tourist visa, which was granted, only to be revoked shortly after under then Immigration Minister Phillip Lynch’s special powers. Lynch explained the conservative government’s position on this by rhetorically asking “why the Government should allow aliens to come to Australia for the purpose of interfering with political matters”. In so doing, the government sought to paint those organising the Vietnam moratorium as equally foreign and alien to Australia.

Uproar was, however, immediate and fierce. Then-opposition leader Gough Whitlam, in a press release horribly titled ‘Gregory lynched’, sought to make political capital from the saga, accusing the government or racism and philistinism. Activists equally had a field day, with an article in the national student press pointing out that

“The Prime Minister’s “aliens” approach looks a little hollow when you look at his Government’s record at having Australia’s politics interfered with by aliens from the White House, or from Vesteys, or from CRA, or the oil companies”

Another article put the case bluntly: “Maybe they just kept Gregory out because he is BLACK”. Even the (then-progressive) Australian lead editorial after Gregory’s visa ban was condemnatory

“Banning books is bad enough [but] banning people is preposterous…Surely Australia’s national interest is not threatened by a comedian who advocates full civil rights for black people and a cessation of the Vietnam war, The country doesn’t need to be protected from men like that, but from the whims of people who try to keep our minds closed.”

The ban then became a political disaster for the government. This incident only confirmed the widespread feeling amongst Australians that the conservative government was incompetent and philistine, and ASIO later reported that “there had been little national publicity for the moratorium” before the Gregory controversy, which rather than driving people away, served to “promote more support than was expected” for the rallies. Similar cases of attempted exclusion have occurred recently, including the 2005 campaign to deny a visa to Marxist thinker Antonio Negri.

So, how do these historical case tell us anything about the recent spate of progressive-inspired political exclusions? Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, that banning people often has the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of Gregory’s visit occurring with minimal media fuss, the government and conservative citizens (dozens of letters petitioning the government to block black activists like Gregory from visiting are preserved in the then-Department of Immigration’s archives) ensured that his visit had full media coverage, and his causes received significantly more airplay than they otherwise would have. There was good reason that Trotskyist Denis Freney told the Age in 1971 that overseas visitors were ‘proven newsmakers’ for Australian progressives. Might denying airplay to misogynistic creeps such as RSD be more effective than elevating them to the centre of national media attention (a sort of ‘no-platforming’ in and of itself)?

Secondly, let’s take some lessons from the past in terms of tactics that do work. The aforementioned tactic of no-platforming, has a long and proud history amongst the left. My friend Evan over at Hatful of History has recently written a history of No Platform in the UK, as it emerged in the 1970s to counter increasing white supremacy. Part of a broader constellation of protest tactics, from forging alliances with communities targeted by fascist attack to physical confrontation of their rallies, this form of radical politics is effective in suffocating the voices of reactionaries while also mobilising and potentially radicalising large groups of people. They are also, as Simon Copland points out, infinitely more fun tactics. Most importantly, this form of politics places the onus on us – our movements and our forms of social solidarity and organisation – as the agents of change. For instance, Vibe hotel groups cancellation of RSD’s bookings after significant activist pressure are just one example of how these tactics can be successfully employed.

This leads into my last point. Van Badham, a supporter of #shutdownRSD’s appeal to the Minister of Immigration argued that “If rape & rape culture is unacceptable to us, we should use the means we have to communicate that standard.” A sentiment no progressive could disagree with. But who is the ‘us’ and ‘we’ of this comment? It isn’t ‘us’ who are revoking these visas. It is the brutal racist Australian state – the same state that locks up people without charge indefinitely in offshore gulags.

This might be part of certain sections of the Left’s broader infatuation with the State – seeing it as simply an empty vessel that can make change, positive or negative, depending upon its contents. But the State is not that – it is the means through which capital attempts to regulate and control Australian society. The state does not represent ‘us’ – only the interests of capital and the increasingly isolated, socially irrelevant political class. By calling on the State to act on ‘our’ behalf, we perpetuate the myth that it works to our benefit, and potentially work to excuse its grotesque abuses.

 

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