A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s

R e v i e w


August 26, 2001: Two or Three Things Australians Don’t Seem to Want to Know About ‘Asylum Seekers’ …

by Ian Buchanan

© all rights reserved.

To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II



This structure of exception is, according to Agamben, the defining feature of contemporary politics, or what he prefers to call ‘biopolitics’, and he suggests it is this, the binary between bios and zoe, that is a more useful matrix for thinking through the complex relations of today’s many political conundrums than the standard friend versus enemy model. In day to day politics, the determining relation between ourselves as ordinary citizens and the government as the seat of sovereignty cannot adequately be thought in these terms. The fact is, the government is neither of a friend nor enemy to us, nor are we in any meaningful way either a friend or enemy to the government. Our more pressing concerns have to do with the issue of franchise, are we a part of the citizenry or not, are we amongst those whom the government is supposed to protect and serve, or are we outsiders in some way? We are confronted with questions of this type on an almost daily basis - when tax thresholds are raised or lowered, or when means-tests are adjusted, we are arbitrarily shunted into this or that strata which arbitrarily determines whether our kids can go to university or not, whether we can afford a single room in a hospital, and so on. It doesn’t matter whether you are a metropolitan middle-class white male or an indigenous woman on a remote outback station, these being the clichéd extremes of social inclusion and social exclusion (to use third way rhetoric), the arbitrariness of these policies confronts us all with an abysmal truth: insofar as sovereignty is defined by a structure of exception, none of us can feel fully secure. Certainly it is true that this feeling of insecurity is unevenly distributed, but that shouldn’t distract us from the abstract point being made here, namely that none of us can ever feel completely secure. So, when we look at the faces of the asylum seekers we cannot help but wonder why them and not us? The more we look at them, the more we want reassurance that it will always be them and not us.

Political scientists cite the irrational fear of inundation as the driving force behind Australia’s xenophobia.30 This, it seems to me, is a rather too simplistic reading of the situation. What it leaves out is the question of the relation between existing Australian citizens and the government of the day. The fact that a government is a populist one and is confidently acting out what it perceives to be the will of the people doesn’t disclose the whole story because it doesn’t explain why by and large the populace seems to will that particular action. More to the point, it falsely represents government policy as an instrument of the people’s will, which could scarcely be further from the truth. It would be nearer to the truth to say that policy is the means of buying the will of the people. Xenophobia, in this regard, should be treated as a symptom, not an explanation - it describes a structure of feeling, but doesn’t explain how it came into being, nor why it came to be so strongly felt. If xenophobia has any explanatory power at all, then it is as a ‘libidinal apparatus’: it soaks up inchoate fears and frustrations and gives them a name and a purpose, but it doesn’t create them.31 It substitutes a clearly defined and well structured feeling, for an unclear and confusing one; or, to put it another way, one might say it swaps fear for anxiety. We are programmed to be anxious about a great many things - are we too fat or too thin, are our clothes hip or not, will property values rise in our area, will our superannuation fund maintain its rate of growth?32 But having said that, the anxiety supposedly generated by the asylum seekers can scarcely be actual, at least not in the strategic sense of posing a ‘clear and present danger’. In effect, we have to be seduced into fearing them: politics preys on our anxieties and banks on the fact that we’d sooner be fearful than anxious.

What possible threat can a few hundred bedraggled refugees pose to the average Australian citizen? They are hardly going to form a posse and march on Canberra (however much we might want them to), so what is it we imagine they are going to do that is so threatening to national security we have to keep them detained? The standard, knee-jerk response is that there might be terrorists mixed in amongst the genuine asylum seekers, no matter how tactically illogical the idea is. If terrorists wanted to get into the country unnoticed they would simply fly in posing as rich tourists, or students; once here they might do something unobtrusive like flying lessons, or perhaps a short course in inorganic chemistry. What they wouldn’t do is chance an extremely hazardous voyage on a leaky boat across the Indian Ocean, which not only risks sinking, but also faces interception either by pirates or the coast guard (Indonesian or Australian), and therefore offers what one would think to a military mind is an unacceptably low possibility of success.33 This myth of the ‘sleeper’ terrorist got an unexpected boost when these poor souls grew tired of the terrible living conditions they are forced to endure and decided to do something about it by protesting in the only way they knew might force the government to act, namely by setting fire to the detention centres. The government’s response, predictably enough, was to label the protesters as ‘organised’ and ‘militant’, or, in other words, a terrorist cell in the making, even though, as it was later revealed they were probably not responsible in any case. In yet another shameless exploitation of the ‘answer of the real’, it turned a protest against its actions into a justification for those very actions.34

If fear is, at bottom, what effectively legitimates the government’s inhospitable treatment of the refugees, then it is a fear that is more imagined than real; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying anxieties that are genuine. The real concern is not that the asylum seekers might be terrorists in disguise, but on the contrary, that they won’t be. For if they are not terrorists then on what earthly grounds can the government’s continued lack of hospitality actually be justified, let alone legitimated? If they really are exiles from their homelands with nowhere else to go, then how heartless and brutal are we to turn them away? And bear in mind, the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa were fleeing the Taliban, a regime so bad in the eyes of the Australian government we sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to do our bit for the ‘War on Terror’. So it would be much better for the government, politically, if the asylum seekers were terrorists; one can safely assume then that whatever can be done to distract attention away from the just humanitarian position will doubtless be done in order to keep people properly focused on the threat of terror scenario. It must also be said there is good reason to suppose that the majority of the Australian population want the asylum seekers to be terrorists in disguise too; that way, they can continue to turn their backs on their cries for help with a clear conscience.

There is a strong perception that every new batch of asylum seekers is that little trickle you get to warn you the dam wall is about to burst. What we have been taught to fear above all is inundation, hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding in, crowding out the cities, soaking up all the welfare and stealing all the jobs. In reality this fear is not all that well-founded. Historically, most migrants to Australia received some kind of an incentive, usually an almost fully subsidised passage - in other words, most migrants have had to be paid to come here.35 In the first years of the colony, the majority of the migrants were condemned to come here! Yet, since Federation, the immigrant as job-theft cry has been a very potent call to arms for politicians looking to shift the blame for a stagnant economy onto a likely scapegoat.36 This is despite the fact that all the economic evidence we have to hand suggests that migrants increase the wealth of the nation and lead to the creation of more jobs.37 Inasmuch as this attitude is typified by hostility toward the needy, it is of a piece with the anti-welfare rhetoric which similarly blames the unemployed, mentally ill and so forth for placing an insupportable drain on the economy. Helping the poor is said to be counter-productive because it impoverishes the rich, which in turn deprives society of its entrepreneurs, who in this scenario are its principal employers.38 Some even say that cutting back on welfare is good for its erstwhile recipients because it will foster self-reliance and help them kick their shameful dependency habit.39

The reality is of course somewhat different. These days, very few employers are actual entrepreneurs, that is, investors risking their own capital; they tend rather to be managers working for shareholders and for their most part their interests appear to be best served by reducing the number of employed. The direct consequence of this, as Tom Frank has pointed out, is chronic rent-seeking behaviour at the senior executive level, the ultimate example of which is of course Enron. Wall Street stockbrokers reputedly regard December 2, 2001, the day Enron filed for bankruptcy as a blacker day than September 11, 2001. And though the pundits of the financial pages like to speak of ‘Enronitis’ and the need to increase the powers of the corporate watchdogs to prevent it from happening again - which, of course, it did when WorldCom melted down a few months later - there are no plans in the pipeline to change the structure that induced this behaviour in the first place.40

The attitude towards asylum seekers is undoubtedly influenced by the state of global markets and the generalised perception that things aren’t quite as good as they were. The Australian government has certainly always keyed the intake of migrants to the relative health of the economy; in good times, the numbers have crept up, but in stagnant times the numbers are rapidly scaled back. This scaling back has both an absolute and a relative dimension to it: the total numbers are reduced by excluding or minimising migrants in selected categories. Because there are always more applicants for entry into Australia than there are available visas, the process of selection itself has come to be thought of as a waiting line. Accordingly, anyone not going through proper channels, especially (but not restricted to) those who make use of the services of ‘people smugglers’, is labelled a ‘queue jumper’. Mandatory detention for all unlawful entrants into the country, which began under the Hawke Labor government in 1989, was justified in precisely these terms - the government said it would not permit anyone to evade its regulations and instituted a zero tolerance policy for those who did. That this legislative ‘intolerance’ is directed precisely at people risking life and limb to escape intolerance is not even deserving of the label ‘irony’. By appealing to the supposedly Australian ethos of the ‘fair go’, what is essentially a control issue is stealthily transformed into a moral issue and effectively depoliticised. The image of the ‘queue jumper’ not only serves to cloak an inhuman policy with an aura of respectability, it also helps to restore the ailing myth that Australia is ‘the lucky country’ by fostering the idea (which times being what they were many people had come to doubt) that Australia is really worth living in.41

I guess on a superficial level it may even strike some people as perfectly obvious that letting more people - read either job-thieves or welfare-sponges - into the country when the economy is in such a parlous state is a bad idea, a soft-hearted gesture which in these hard times we can no longer afford (not everyone reads economic history); but while that might explain a certain nervousness about accepting more people into the country, it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm expressed for the harsh way the asylum seekers are treated. There is a big gap between worrying about whether one can afford to be hospitable and outright hostility and it is precisely that gap that is in urgent need of interrogation. My general claim has been that ‘xenophobia’ is not adequate to the task, we need new concepts. In spite of the fact that asylum seekers are extremely unlikely to be ‘sleeper’ terrorists, the notion that illegal entry into Australia by whatever means is a pipeline for terrorists has widespread currency; although we are unlikely to be inundated by immigrants if we give shelter to a hapless few, the fear of invasion persists; the simple fact that migrants do not burden the economy but boost it seems incapable of being understood. The mortgage these three ‘myths’ appear to have on common sense requires more explanation than the standard response that Australians have an inborn fear of the other. It is not enough to expose the irrationality of these myths - as I have done above, and as others have done before me - to dispel them, since in a sense that is their normal condition: they do not have to be logical to be meaningful to the people who believe them. The question is thus not why do people fear the other as such, but why do they want to?

Return to Part I of 'August 26, 2001: Two or Three Things Australians Don’t Seem to Want to Know About ‘Asylum Seekers’ …

Ian Buchanan is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature & Cultural Studies, Monash University. He is the author of Deleuze: A Metacommentary (2000) and Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist (2000).

30 Cf McMaster 2002 ; Mares 2002 ; Jupp 2002
31 Jameson 1978: 10.
32 For a detailed analysis of the hold anxiety has over everyday life, see Ehrenreich 1989.
33 ASIO was quick to make this point (Mares 2002: 134).
34 Mares 2002: 50.
35 Jupp 2002: 16.
36 It is more than a little disheartening to note that the founders of the Australian Labor Party rallied support to their cause with precisely this argument at the time of Federation (Jupp 2002: 8).
37 McMaster 2002: 148.
38 I would wager that if BHP Billiton’s outgoing CEO, Brian Gilbertson, didn’t get his golden handshake of $30 million (that is $5 million per month of service as the chief executive) and it was instead distributed to the needy citizens of Australia, the world wouldn’t end nor would Mr Gilbertson find himself on a welfare queue.
39 As Stephanie Coontz points out, the fabulous post-war economic boom that made America the superpower it is today was largely state-sponsored. It was cheap housing loans, free college education for G.I.s, the massive spending of the so-called military-industrial complex, the federal highways project, and so on that made middle America prosperous, not self-reliance, rugged-individuality, community spirit nor good old-fashioned values. Coontz 2000: 80. Adherents of Robert Putnam’s disarmingly simple ‘bowling alone’ thesis would do well to recall this before blaming a lack of ‘social capital’ for the ills of the world. Cf Putnam 2000.
40 Interestingly, though, in order to restore investor confidence, Bush proposes to boost the SEC’s budget by 73% (against its 2002 budget) for 2004 - a real dollar amount of $US842 million. Thus an administration whose platform is built on the idea of reducing government and government spending finds it has to increase both in order to keep business in check. Likewise, a business culture that claims it needs to have a free hand if it is to prosper finds it needs regulation to continue to do business.
41 When the inhumanity of this policy began to register in opinion polls, the government changed its tack and started to say it was in fact a protective measure designed to stop people smuggling.


Agamben, G 2000 Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Agamben, G 1999 Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans Daniel Heller-Roazen, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Agamben, G 1998 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Coontz, S 2000 [New Edition] The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trip, NY: Basic Books.
Ehrenreich, B 1989 Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, NY: HarperCollins.
Freud, S 1993 [1919] “A Child is Being Beaten”, Penguin Freud Library Vol 10, trans Alix and James Strachey, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Goldhagen D 2002 A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, NY: Little & Brown.
Hardt, M & A Negri 2000 Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jameson, F 1978 Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jupp, J 2002 From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
MacCallum, M 2002 “Girt by Sea: Australia, The Refugees and the Politics of Fear”, Quarterly Essay 5: 1-73.
McMaster, D 2002 [New Edition] Asylum Seekers: Australia’s Response to Refugees, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Mares, P 2002 [2nd Edition] Borderline, Sydney: UNSW Press.
Putnam, R 2000 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Rundle, G 2001 “The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction”, Quarterly Essay 3: 1-65.
Tyler, H 2003 Asylum: Voices Behind the Razor Wire, Melbourne: Lothian Books.
Zizek, S 2002 Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso.
Zizek, S 1991 Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zizek, S 1989 The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.

Return to Part I of 'August 26, 2001: Two or Three Things Australians Don’t Seem to Want to Know About ‘Asylum Seekers’ …

In Australian Humanities Review, see also