There is a theory of race which argues that the concept is a myth, created to justify imperialism as it looted global resources and enslaved entire populations. People had to be categorised as less human and civilised to make the horror of colonisation possible.
The idea that race is a falsehood created to serve broader economic interests has never really entered mainstream political thought nor has it featured prominently in anti-racism work. I suspect this is partly due to the theory’s failure to adequately speak to the violence, harm and suffering that the construct of race has inflicted, and continues to inflict to this day.
However compelling one finds this theory, it communicates a fundamental truth: racism is always purposeful. Racism is a way of organising our society and not simply an isolated visceral human reaction to someone who is different.
Racism is about achieving and maintaining a racialised social and economic order. It is about organising power or its lack thereof.
Like every other society, Australia’s use of racism ebbs and flows, but there are some unchanging truths about us and race. Most important is the fact that power continues to be distributed along the myth of racial difference. Also true is the fact that Australian racism is both omnipotent and omnipresent. What Muslims experience is its amplification, they are not the sole targets.
In the past 30 years however, like many other countries, there has been an emerging pattern to Australian racism, one that has now been noted by many commentators. It is that conservatively inclined politicians and commentators appear to be over-represented when it comes to the public expression of racism. It would be foolish to assume that racism belongs exclusively to the domain of the social and political right; the forms of racism on the left simply look different.
Looking at media personalities, politicians and commentators’ contributions to public space and policy, it appears that stoking fear and racism is becoming fundamental to who the conservative class are. Racism is both financially and ideologically lucrative; newspapers and public commentators increase their reach, and conservative politicians ensure votes.
All these realities are uncontested. Equally uncontested is that racism is necessary, nor indeed that it is the most efficient and guaranteed method to increase newspaper circulation or to secure votes. Nonetheless, conservatives in their pursuit of success appear at ease with continually putting race on the agenda.
Racism is not a necessity, it is a strategy of choice for some. The question is why the conservative class and its political elite have become so dependent on the politics of race. The recourse to fear and division is not about loss of power. White Australia has lost none of its power and talk of the white establishment feeling threatened by our changing population demographics and the increasing number of non-white residents misunderstands how power works.
Conservative ideology does not require racism and yet it is increasingly being viewed as part of its intellectual framework, and it’s certainly become part of its branding. Something of this pattern can also be seen in its handling of the global warming. Denying global warming has come to be seen as part of its ideological commitments. It is unclear why this should ever have been the case. There is a broad consensus that our capacity to stop the planet warming relies on our capacity to shift our economy, reconfigure aspects of the market and invest in innovation and new industries. All complex challenges – but economic challenges are where the Australian voter sees conservative governments at their most capable. What should have been an issue that played to their strength has increasingly come to signify their antipathy for this world and everyone in it.
The political and cultural right and their tribe of commentariat appear committed to keeping race on the public agenda and using racism to distort public discussions about change, freedom of speech and national identity.
Given that there has been no meaningful dissent against the political or media elite in this nation, it is hard to see the race preoccupation as being anything other than a loss of political and cultural vision of what it means to be a conservative in Australia.
Currently, all conservative Australia seems to be promoting as our national identity is some muddled version of themselves: affluent or aspiring, male (although exceptions will be made) and white. It seems that they have nothing to offer other than division, fear and occasional threats of violence and deportation.
Eventually, societies will come to see the promotion of these ideals as antiquated absurdities. This has been the fate of conservative religious forces who have reduced religion to a narrow set of anxieties and political battles over sexuality and identity. Recently, conservative religious groups have been most prominent in their campaign efforts against same-sex marriage. An absurd preoccupation based on an absurd notion that marriage can only be between a man and woman.
Like religion, ultimately, people leave conservative traditions if they feel they have nothing to offer. Offering outdated notions of who we are, offering a vision of society or the world that is essentially about the marginalisation and vilification of others hasn’t worked for the conservative religious forces who have tried it. In fact, it has driven people away from the profoundly expansive and morally complex nature of religious tradition and thought. It has rendered much of the positive and meaningful contribution religion does make to society invisible.
Cultural and political conservatism is doomed to the same fate if it cannot recalibrate its vision and purpose. It cannot allow its political vision to be hijacked by those committed to maintaining a decrepit social order based on the delusion of race.
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