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Tony Abbott’s Australia: Madness or Design?

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‘Abbott Completely Loses The Plot, Orders “Urgent” Government Inquiry Into The ABC’ was the headline of a recent article from the website Pedestrian.tv. In some important respects this article appeared typical of popular attempts to articulate criticism of Tony Abbott and his authoritarian style of government, particularly given the seeming difficulty the page’s creator was experiencing in nailing down its meaning.[1]

Indeed, putting words to the certain knowledge that the Abbott government is a characteristically negative force, seemingly articulating no positive policies of its own and driven by no desire other than to roll back policies enacted by others while utilizing the politics of scapegoating at every impasse to avoid having to ever admit anything less than utter perfection is not always a straightforward task. In explaining this state of affairs, much less to say its origin and meaning, it is by no means a straightforward task to ascertain whether it prevails by madness or by design.

In a certain sense, it is certainly more comforting to assume that Abbott’s style of misrule is a manifestation of his personal madness. Abbott certainly manifests numerous idiomatic elements, from his militantly ignorant three word sloganeering, a ‘Big Lie’-style strategy straight from the propaganda playbook of repeating a lie endlessly until it takes on the appearance of truth, to the patronising mannerisms of speaking slowly, taking numerous pauses and using contrived umm’s and ahh’s and big hand gestures to explain his ideologically-driven, self-serving rationalisations clearly, as if the rest of the world is just too dumb to get it.

If the problem is simply one of personalities, then all that needs to be done is to try to minimise the damage of his government, wait for the next election and hope to Christ that somehow it’s possible to get him booted out. The obvious benefit of this way of coming to terms with the issue is that the strategy for dealing with it is relatively uncomplicated and relatively convenient. The Abbott problem is an anomaly, a freak circumstance that can be corrected by conventional means, at which time things will revert to some semblance of sanity.

Unfortunately for this approach, the problem of Abbott and the misrule of his government is greater than one of personalities. It is certainly greater than Abbott himself. If the problem of Abbott is principally one of design rather than madness, and if we have to assume that Abbott is in fact basically rational, even if he is essentially evil, then we are confronted with a far greater set of problems. We might eventually get rid of Abbott, but his spirit will live on, and the pathological culture of narcissistic, militant ignorance and cruel, despotic indifference to the consequences of his political choices he has promoted throughout his reign will fester on in the national unconscious for others to take up upon his eventual departure from the spotlight.

For better or worse, however, history provides us with precedents from which to draw insight in defense of values of respect for ourselves and others, and concern for things other than our own advancement like the wellbeing of our communities, and a future in which a person with self-respect and the ability to remember the difference between survival and living would still want to live.

When confronted with the problem of an Abbott, the student of history is faced with a similar quandary to the one she or he faces when confronted with a Hitler or Stalin, monsters whose record-breaking demagogic abandon, apportioning of misery and general bloodletting dwarf anything of which the amateurishness and underachievement of a relative mediocrity like Abbott is capable (so far, anyway; we ride the ragged edge perhaps in potentially giving him ideas).

Initially the temptation in this instance is to make the assumption to which we refer above, that these monsters of history are of a different order to regular human beings, who for all our other follies and foibles are at least capable of some modicum of empathy and compassion for others. We assume that it is something in their psychological makeup that made them incapable of seeing the rest of the world as anything other than objects put there for their own personal use and abuse, the same way a small child does before the infantile ego begins to break down and the child learns to respect the fact that others exist in the world and that they too have rights.

As far as assumptions go, these are certainly amongst the more comforting. If a Hitler or Stalin were not like regular human beings on those counts due to some biological aberration, then they were not likely to reappear, and the totalitarian regimes they lead died with them. The most horrible and in more ways than one terrifying fact unfortunately about these monsters of history is that they were every bit the same as the rest of humanity — the immediate implication of which being that within each of us rests the seed of their ilk.

For the majority of us, however, our inner Hitler rarely gets any further along than launching a ‘Blitzkrieg’ over the spade in the sandpit at playgroup before meeting our ‘Berlin bunker’ moment at the hands of a parent infuriated by the phone call they just received. We might scream and howl that it was our spade and that Malcolm stole it from us despite knowing that we used it all day at the end of last week, and that it was his fault for getting hit because he refused to respect our proprietary rights to the plastic toys, but being sent to bed without dinner and not getting to go to Wally’s Water World this year after all on the off chance we keep it up is usually enough to bring about a more reasonable attitude.

As Wilhelm Reich pointed out in his classic work The Mass Psychology of Fascism, however, one of the potentially more terrifying aspects of fascist regimes is the fact that many of their defining traits were, in broader society, evident at best, and at worst widespread. Not least of these were the collective, ideologically driven narcissism and militant ignorance of the ideological spearhead or vanguard (the Russian Bolsheviks, considered with justification as little better than red fascists by the time it became evident that the dictatorship of the proletariat was a dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, and then of the leader of the personality cult over the party).

In the German context, this ideologically-driven narcissism and militant ignorance fed and was fed in turn by a characteristically defensive, hoity-toity moral panic over what was said to be a Jewish plot to control the world, one that explained the diabolical state of German capitalism far better than the viciousness of the Treaty of Versailles, the state of the world economy in general and the shortcomings of capitalism in particular, and the future demise of the Aryan race were decisive action not taken. Such appears to be the substance of Mein Kampf, the extended attention-seeking tantrum that constitutes Adolf Hitler’s self-indulgent, megalomaniacal screed around the subject. To the Nazi mindset this justified a campaign to conquer the world though global war, a bizarre double standard that appeared to suggest Hitler didn’t have a problem with the world being dominated, only when it was people not under his control doing it.

Pervasive and systematic self-contradiction and double standards were likewise characteristic features of the Russian experience with state communism, where Stalin’s personality cult gave rise to the phenomenon of dissidents, contradicters and doubters being jailed, exiled and shot by the millions in the name of defense of the revolution. The alternative to this, according to the logic driving the Red Terror and the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, whirlwinds of reaction identical in every way to fascism except for the hammer and sickle livery that reached their pinnacle in the Moscow Show Trials, was the return of the Tsarist police state. That Stalin demonized enemies of the state as petit-bourgeois Trotskyists, counter-revolutionaries and terrorists is often well remembered, though the fact that Trotsky, in the days before Stalin’s accession to power drove him into exile, demonized enemies of the state as petit-bourgeois White Guardists, counter-revolutionaries and terrorists somewhat less so.

It is this commonality between Stalin and Trotsky that illustrates to us the point Reich was trying to make in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Despite all the ideological differences between them, they remained united in spirit by their defiant defense of collective, ideologically driven narcissism and militant ignorance — manifest in this instance as the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, degenerated in practice into the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, and finally the dictatorship of the dictator over the party. Trotsky and Stalin found common ground on the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, as the former’s remarks at the Tenth Party Congress in the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion (1921) demonstrate:

“They have come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy !” Trotsky spoke of the “revolutionary historical birthright of the Party”. ”The Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship . . . regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class. . . The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy. . . “[2]

Acknowledgement of this fact leads inexorably to the conclusion that it was again not a matter of personal madness but particular design to which both Trotsky and Stalin were committed that begat the Soviet police state, one that exposes the Trotskyist myth that Stalinism was a matter of personalities and the personal madness of Stalin, rather than design.

In place of this myth is the observation from Wilhelm Reich that authoritarianism and fascism appears as a tendency as much as a result, an insight Umberto Eco built on by elaborating on the phenomenon he referred to as ‘Ur-Fascism.’[3] This ‘Ur-Fascism,’ Eco argued, had 12 main characteristics; (1) The cult of tradition; (2) The rejection of modernism; (3) The cult of action for action’s sake; (4) The treatment of disagreement as treason; (5) Racism; xenophobia and appeals against outsiders; (6) Exploitation of individual or social frustration; (7) Nationalism, identification on the basis of an accident of birth; (8) Humiliation by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies; (9) Worship of sacrifice, of life lived for struggle; (10) Elitism and contempt for the weak; (11) Idealization of heroism as glorious death and worship of heroism on that basis, death worship; (12) Machismo; (13) Selective populism; (14) Destruction of language at the hands of propaganda, Newspeak.

Many or all of these phenomena were certainly evident in German Nazism; they were likewise evident in Russian state communism. Indeed, as variations on the theme of the logic of ‘those who are not for us are for the Jewish Communist / Trotskyist Capitalist conspiracy to subvert and destroy our way of life’ they manifest the blame-shifting processes social psychologists refer to as moral disengagement. It is by no means coincidence that such processes, characteristic of the metaphorical witch hunts we know as the Nazi and Red Terrors, are also characteristic of the literal kind; as the historian Norman Cohn has pointed out, ‘The stereotype of the witch, as it existed in many parts of Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is made up of elements of diverse origin . . . some of these derived from a specific fantasy which can be traced back to Antiquity.’

The essence of the fantasy was that there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti human . . . The fantasy changed, became more complex, down through the centuries. It played an important part in some major persecutions; and the way in which it did also varied. Sometimes it was used merely to legitimate persecutions that would have occurred anyway; sometimes it served to widen persecutions that would otherwise have remained far more limited. In the case of the great witch hunt it generated a massive persecution which would have been inconceivable without it. In pursuing its history one is led far beyond the confines of the history of ideas and deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution.’[4]

This fantasy, as Cohn points out, formed the basis of the ideological pretext the Pagans used to justify their persecution of the Christian minority, specifically on the grounds that the Eucharist was a form of cannibalism that became the interlude to group orgies including family members that signified a complete rejection of moral restraint. Paradoxically enough it was also a fantasy or trope the Christians learnt well and deployed in turn back against the Pagans once Christianity was coopted into the Roman Empire, whereupon it was to become a device to create a pretext for the persecution of the Templars, before being turned against the Waldensians and other so-called heretics by means of the Inquisition, and the Cathars and Muslims by means of the Crusades. One would face an uphill struggle indeed to try to argue that any of the above campaigns were a matter of individual pathology in the part of the persecutors, as opposed to politically motivated ones of consciousness and exceedingly malevolent and vicious design.

Indeed, it seems the fantasy has had ample time throughout history to develop, shift, transform and adapt, much less to say the design that fuels it. Anyone familiar with the history of orthodox thinking, say someone who might have had theological training in a seminary, would likely be more familiar than many with the ideological incarnations of this fantasy, particularly where they were used to rationalize the exercises of power in the demonization and persecution of political enemies. One would not necessarily have to read the handbook of witch hunting from cover to cover to pick up the threads of this fantasy; in positing a binary logic of absolute good versus absolute evil, St. Augustine’s City of God invites regression to victim-blaming and victim-playing as a means of saving the belief system and the very material and earthly hierarchies of power it supports from the evil of doubt.

For anyone wrestling yet with the sin of not being able to buy a cock and bull story about the sky falling, Matthew 12:30 clearly attributes to Jesus of Nazareth the statement, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’ If Jesus invited us to love our enemies, he apparently also said that if we think for ourselves, the Devil wins. One can well imagine how this logic might be applied to Pagans, then to dissident religious sects declared heretical, then to rival religious movements, before taking on further incarnations throughout the medieval and modern periods. As a tradition of management of dissent and reproduction of political, social and economic relationships of domination and control it would appear to have many of the elements of a design with an ancient vintage.

This seems something to keep in mind when considering the actions of a Tony Abbott, if not for all of the above then for the conduct of his predecessor, who as we will remember was no less keen on employing the fantasy Norman Cohn describes to maintain his grip on power. We find a textbook example in John Howard’s use of the border as a kind of national safety value for all the harmful consequences of three decades of neoliberal policies he didn’t feel like being accountable for, not least of which being the rising gap between rich and poor.[5] The Tampa Crisis (August 2001), in which Howard responded to the rescuing of 428 refugees by a Norwegian fishing vessel by refusing to allow it to enter Australian water while he stirred up the ancient fantasy, no doubt demonstrated for his then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations the power of the fantasy for shifting blame for crises away from power.

Indeed, his declaration that ‘We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ while conflating a threat to the integrity of the border with his lack of compassion for the refugees, who languished on board the ship with few provisions or protection from the elements, was particularly popular with the Australian mass media, who fed on the drama and sensationalism. The Howard Government used the lesson to its advantage again in October of the same year in passing lies to the media about refugees threatening to throw their children overboard from a sinking fishing boat; a 2004 Senate report criticized it for knowingly exploiting “voters’ fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers.’[6] That fact withstanding, Howard’s ability to invoke the ancient fantasy, play on popular fears of the unknown and play the strongman to save the country from danger as it regressed collectively into fight or flight mode won him that year’s election.[7]

These were lessons clearly not lost on the current Prime Minister. The rise of the three word slogan and the endless repetition of the ‘Stop the Boats’ mantra is an obvious ploy to maximize the motivating power of the fantasy; the design in that respect has been as conspicuous and shameless there as it has in various other episodes, the response of the Abbott government to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 being another good example. Here again, faced with massive turmoil domestically as a result of his first, deeply unpopular budget, Abbott resoundingly ignored the major protests involving hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians to fixate obsessively, even doggedly on the purported threat posted to global stability from an intransigent Russia, in line with his US allies. This came despite the downing of Iran Air Flight 665, a heinous crime resulting in the deaths of 290 people, including 66 children, and one that elicited from then-US President George H.W. Bush only a comment to the effect that ‘I will never apologise for the United States, I don’t care what the facts are.’

In a practically identical tenor, the latest campaign revolves this time around banal comments made by an audience member in the flagship ABC programme ‘Q&A’ to the effect that military aggression by the West tended not to defeat terror by virtue of the fact that, as comedian Steve Hughes points out, in War on Terror you’re generating what you claim to be against in the process of waging it. As Zaky Mallah pointed out, “the Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight [by supporting military aggression in the Middle East] to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him.”[8]

Purposefully misrepresenting these comments to raise a hue and cry about the national broadcaster being soft on terrorism and giving a platform to recruiters for Islamic State is no more an act of madness on Abbott’s part than any previous exercise in invoking the ancient fantasy; the truth of this fact becomes apparent again in recalling that immediately previous to this latest tilting at windmills, Abbott was losing steam in the polls after attributing to himself the right to determine citizenship as per his policy of stripping it from Australians deemed to be supporting terrorism, an approach that to many seemed to reveal a contempt for the boundaries placed in the absolute power of the national leader by the Magna Carta in 1215. Previous to that Abbott was (and likely still is) in deep trouble with the Indonesian government diplomatically for making payoffs to the tune of AU$30,000 to a group of Indonesian people smugglers.

This strategy, in addition to turning people smuggling into an even more lucrative prospect than it was already, renders the Australian Government liable to criminal prosecution for people smuggling, though this fact seems to have disappeared down the memory hole — along with Abbott’s support for the notorious ‘Ditch the Witch’ campaign during the Gillard era, complete with commentary from Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones that she be stuffed into a chaff bag and thrown out to sea. Such blatant sexism and misogyny demands nothing in the way of an urgent enquiry, even if its fruit in things like domestic violence are of ‘epidemic proportions’ and ‘a national emergency.’[9] As always Cohn’s ancient fantasy is there to expedite blame shifting and scapegoating of some convenient target according to the traditional pattern, which by now is so exceedingly well-worn that no less than the Australian Financial Review can meditate at length on Abbott’s use of the ancient fantasy to wedge the opposition[10]—a strategy confirmed into the bargain by a briefing paper leaked to the media instructing ministers on how to implement it.[11]

Suffice it to say then that to mistake Abbott’s calculated use of the politics of fear for madness is to fail to understand the very clear-cut witch hunting strategies that have kept him in power despite the ineptness of his government and the cruelty of his social policies, and his Ur-Fascism — specifically, his traditionalism, his contempt for science, enlightenment values, and the boundaries set by the Magna Carta, his championing of ‘Direct Action’ without reflection on the shortcomings of his ascientific approach, his equation of criticism with treason as in the continuing Zaky Mallah incident, his ‘stop the boats’ xenophobia and his appeal to white skin privilege and male privilege, his extreme nationalism and exaltation of sacrifice (ie. death) at the Centenary of the Gallipoli landings, his worship of the false idol of infinite growth, his sporting machismo complete with ‘budgie smugglers,’ and his general abuse of language to serve his own purposes — the tendency common to all authoritarians to invoke freedom as an absolute, rather than something limited by the equal freedom of others, such that he regards any check to his class, gender, or racial privilege as a challenge to his rights being a prime example.

Add this Abbott’s general inability to demonstrate compassion, remorse, the ability to reflect on his conduct or a willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of his behavior, and one can only come to the inevitable conclusion that transgression and malfeasance by design in invoking the ancient fantasy is the only thing keeping him in power. The madness in this situation is of those who continue to vote in a process that produces leaders like Tony Abbott despite the resulting disappointment as acute as it is inevitable.

Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is researching moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau

Notes. 

[1] Abbott Completely Loses The Plot, Orders “Urgent” Government Inquiry Into The ABC, https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/abbott-completely-loses-the-plot-orders-urgent-gov/d73d8262-1e4b-4739-b199-be38df809ce6.htm

[2] Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control. https://libcom.org/library/bolsheviks-workers-control-solidarity-1921

[3] http://www.thephora.net/forum/archive/index.php/t-91353.html

[4] Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, London; Paladin, 1976, ix.

[5] See for example http://www.theage.com.au/national/rich-and-poor-divide-underestimated-20110514-1enk1.html; http://www.executivestyle.com.au/gap-widens-for-mega-rich-rsaw; http://www.theage.com.au//breaking-news-national/gap-between-rich-and-poor-widening-20110527-1f6s1.html; http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/06/21/inequality-rise-australias-richest-increase-wealth-and-income-report

[6]http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/maritimeincident/index

[7] http://www.futureleaders.com.au/pdf/Julian_Burnside.pdf

[8] http://www.theage.com.au/nsw/requiem-for-a-lightweight-20150626-ghyh4s.html

[9] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-05/domestic-violence-reaches-epidemic-proportions/5426214

[10] http://www.afr.com/news/politics/the-coalition-has-found-that-fear-is-a-powerful-weapon-against-labor-20150626-ghxk2r?stb=twt

[11] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/leaked-briefing-paper-shows-divisions-in-tony-abbott-cabinet-over-cancelling-citizenship-20150615-ghokwi.html

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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