Culture wars and Pyrrhic Victories

In recent years, Australia’s track record in the pursuit of justice for the First Nations People of Australia has been characterised by a somewhat contradictory range of circumstances.

On the one hand, there have been some developments which seemingly provide encouragement that Australia’s capacity to recognise the historical injustices inflicted on Indigenous Australians is improving. For example, there has been a significant increase in media interest in the ‘Change the Date’ campaign, which seeks to change the date of Australia Day from January 26 – the date when Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove in 1788 – in acknowledgement of the reality that, for Indigenous Australians, that date has greater relevance as ‘Invasion Day’, a day when the genocide of Indigenous Australian began. In addition, there is growing recognition of the troubling legacy and symbolic meaning of the prominently placed statues of such figures as Lachlan Macquarie and James Cook. The calls for, at the very least, additional plaques contextualising the existing plaques with ones reminding viewers of such facts as that James Cook did not actually “discover” Australia, received significant media coverage. Despite predictable opposition from the obvious opponents, the media attention demonstrated there was at least active discussion and consideration of these issues.

When we step away from culturally symbolic issues however and examine more structural issues, we can see that the amount of newspaper ink expended starts to rapidly diminish (and with it, the basis for encouragement). An example of a report that received comparatively limited coverage was the finding that the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007 (backed at the time by both major parties and for which the Racial Discrimination Act had been suspended) had been based on incorrect evidence. As The Australian reported: the royal commission into youth detention had heard that “claims of high child sexual abuse rate in remote Aboriginal communities that prompted the 2007 emergency intervention in the Northern Territory have not been backed up by data collected in the decade since.” Another issue that attracted relatively limited mainstream and social media interest is the revelations in John Pilger’s 2013 film ‘Utopia’. The film examined the abject material conditions in the Northern Territory town of Utopia and detailed how little had improved since Pilger’s last documentary on Indigenous poverty in 1985. The broader reception from Australians was so limited that Adam Goodes was moved to write an aricle in Fairfax, stating that “I find the silence about Utopia in mainstream Australia disturbing and hurtful”.

Recognition.jpg

(credit: SidKid)

If one were to take these events and form a conclusion about the state of Australia’s progress in Indigenous affairs, it would seem to be that: over time, the capacity for white Australians (particularly on the left) to recognise culturally symbolic issues confronting Indigenous Australians is increasing, while the capacity for white Australians to meaningfully confront and improve the material conditions of Indigenous people is either static or decreasing. To state this is not to deny that there are media publications and (generally Indigenous) writers who regularly highlight these issues, but rather that for progressive Australians, stories relating to cultural representation tend to set social media abuzz and draws the greatest amount of digital ink. Nor is it to deny that issues relating to cultural representation or the date of Australia Day are unimportant or undeserving of attention. There is a growing sense however, that improvements in our symbolic recognition of Indigenous Australia seem increasingly disconnected from the capacity to systemically and materially advance reconciliation and social justice for First Nations people.

I do not doubt that most Australians sympathetic to the cause of Indigenous Australians are unaware of the insufficiency of such cultural gestures in terms of pursuing meaningful justice. However, the number of articles written about changing the date as compared to the number of articles written about the disproven premise of the Northern Territory Intervention does reveal a deeper truth about the left, in Australia and elsewhere. As the writer Fredrik Deboer has written in a different context; “the left has almost no political power, but it has cultural power, so it obsesses over cultural spaces.”  In other words, ‘we’ (the Australian left) can’t meaningfully influence the Australian Government’s (regardless of which party) social policies towards Indigenous Australians, but we can potentially succeed in getting new plaques installed on statues. We can’t compel the federal, state and territory governments to actually implement the recommendations of the thirty-year-old Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, but we can change the date of Australia Day. In fact, we can’t even really change the date of Australia Day, but we can try and change the date of the Triple J Hottest 100. One might contend that we can try and change both material and cultural conditions, to which another Deboer quote seems relevant: “I always want to ask not if we can do both but if we are doing both.”

It is not an unreasonable hypothesis that advancing symbolic recognition can act as a vehicle for further change and, considering it’s been nearly a decade since the national apology to the Stolen Generations by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, we have a useful reference point to test this hypothesis. Accordingly, if there’s one area in which the national apology could be considered to raise consciousness and awareness among White Australians, it could be in relation to the removal of Indigenous children from their families. As the academic Larissa Behrendt has pointed out however, the percentage of Indigenous children in out-of-home care placed with their own Indigenous family has reduced from 45.3 per cent in 2007 to 35.9 per cent in 2016. In other words, the number of Indigenous children removed from their families is higher than at the time of the apology. This appears to indicate that the advances in cultural recognition of the injustices inflicted on First Nation Australians do not act as a vehicle for broader change, but seem to take place independently of it.

Kevin Rudd.jpg

The National Apology to Stolen Generations (credit: KMJ Photograph)

If the achievements in relation to cultural symbolism can take place without having any impact on the material conditions, then can they really be considered to be symbolising progress or are they rather just substituting for it? As Celeste Liddle has observed: “I can only conclude from all this that changing the date [of Australia Day] would be little more than celebrating the invasion and genocide of Indigenous people on another day.”

At a certain point, it is almost worth considering whether the repugnant symbols of colonialism represented in the 26th of January Australia Day and in the statues counter-intuitively serve a useful function of reminding Australians of how far they have to go in regards to justice for Indigenous Australians. It is certainly not a pointless exercise to advocate for the reform of these cultural symbols, but the more energy that is focused on them by non-Indigenous progressive Australians at the expense of focus on other elements of Indigenous affairs risks obscuring what is necessary with what is simply possible. The risk is that a future Australian Government might calculate that agreeing to change the date of Australia Day would reduce the political and media pressure on it to take other meaningful actions, particularly in areas that may involve significant expenditure and systemic change. Ultimately, for a victory in the culture wars to not be phyrric, it must either reflect or be a vehicle for the advancement of justice for Indigenous Australians at a material level.

Advertisements

When Obama accidentally saved neoliberalism

obama1.jpg

You remember him (Photo credit)

It has been almost a decade since the most spectacular economic crisis of the last half century – the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In approximately a fortnight, it will be exactly nine years since the collapse of the major American bank Lehmann Brothers (which constituted the most dramatic event of the crisis) put into perspective the extent to which the entire global financial system was at risk of collapsing. What is particularly striking about this historical event is that it could have constituted the beginning of a new era of political dominance for the Left but, due to the political miscalculations made in the immediate following months by leaders such as Barack Obama, it can in retrospect be seen as the beginning point for the rise of the populist Right, culminating in Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory.

The GFC demonstrated in dramatic fashion the extent to which the global banking system (including the credit rating agencies) was incapable of governing itself. The event seemed to my eyes (as, at that time, a first year uni student) to also present an opportunity for a new political era. The GFC provided solid empirical evidence that the doctrines of neoliberalism and free-market economics constituted an inherently flawed framework for administering economies in a globalised world. This was, after all, not a crisis caused by an unpredictable external event like a war, but rather was fundamentally inherent to the system itself.

lehmann brothers.jpg

The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was the largest in US history (photo credit)

The free-market advocates appeared to have been defeated and voters would consequently be won over by the inherent value of social democratic parties (who prioritised the importance of intervention and regulation of economic markets). My confidence in this outcome was reinforced by the knowledge that, by the end of 2008, the Democrats controlled the US Congress, Senate and the Presidency. It felt like the beginning of a new era.

If future-me was to tell uni-student me that, only two years later, the Republicans would recapture a majority in the Congress and that, in a further eight years, they would control the Congress, Senate AND be led by a President Donald Trump, I would have assumed future-me had become insane. Considering the way that the Global Financial Crisis had played out  – how could this outcome have occurred?

In retrospect, it’s clear that much of the responsibility for the resurgence of neoliberalism and the emergence of right wing populism across the Western world lies at the feet of Barack Obama. Indeed, it’s striking how little criticism the former US President attracts from the Left for his strategic errors and political misjudgement in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

Obama, at the direction of his (heavily Wall Street connected) Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, implemented two key responses. The first was a program where the Government purchased the ‘toxic’ worthless loans (ie. the mortgages that couldn’t be paid) from the banks. The second was to implement an $800 billion stimulus program to make up for the huge loss in economic demand (and jobs) caused by the banking crisis.

To be fair, these actions did much to prevent the ensuing recession from becoming a depression (although some economists had argued that the stimulus package was far too small to adequately stabilise the economy). However, the true shortcoming of this approach was that it only addressed the technical aspects of the crisis. This economic focus was, of course, necessary, but it was not sufficient. The political issues presented by the GFC relate to the question of how to pursue justice for the taxpayers that had bailed out the banks and for the people who had lost their jobs. These political issues were not properly dealt with by the Obama Administration and the consequences have reverberated ever since.

There was a fundamental need on Obama’s part to articulate a political narrative of the crisis that illustrated the moral failings of the banking industry and compelled the financial sector to demonstrate meaningful contrition. This was a period in history where the financial class had not only required being bailed out by the taxpayers due to a failure to adequately do their jobs, but the broader public were the ones being punished for it through job losses and wage stagnation. The capacity for this crisis to tear divisions through different sections of American society (as with much of the rest of Western society) was almost inevitable. Accordingly, it was not a time for the language of compromise, stability and unity (which was Obama’s preferred political vernacular) but a time where fingers needed to be pointed and justice had to be seen to be delivered.

Obama’s failure to demand justice is personified in a memorable quote he delivered to a room full of banking CEOs in the months following the crisis: “My administration” he told them, “is the only thing between you and pitchforks.” An obvious question, both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight was; why stand between them? This is not to advocate for actual violence or the sacrifice of economic recovery for the sake of political scalps, but rather to point out that, despite the huge damage the GFC unleashed on millions of lives, no one has ever faced criminal charges. The Obama Administration’s willingness to act as a shield for the banks allowed the public to develop the impression that the state and the banks were one in the same.

obama

A great orator without a great narrative (photo credit)

Obama could have demanded that the bankers resign or at the least pledge to rescind any future bonuses for a number of years. He could have requested the Department of Justice investigate members of the banking industry for criminal culpability (even if no laws had been technically broken, the message sent to the public would have been clear). These actions should have been communicated through journalists, but also delivered in major public addresses to hallrooms packed with the crowds of grass-root supporters he had amassed in the 2008 election.

It is almost certain that large sections of the Democrat Party (let alone the Republicans) would have been moved to criticise his response as populist and unhelpful and it is similarly likely journalists would have criticised his actions for causing division in his political party. As we have seen from Trump and Bernie Sanders in taking on their respective political parties in 2016 however, this would have been a savvy political move. The public would have been able to see Obama as distinct from both the political and financial establishment that they were so justifiably suspicious of.

An immediate consequence of addressing the policy-side of the banking collapse without balancing it with a demand for justice was that other figures took the opportunity to nominate villains and point the finger. Most famously, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli delivered a fiery TV interview from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange blaming poor people who took on mortgages that they couldn’t afford on the one hand, and the Federal Government for “rewarding their bad behaviour” on the other hand.

Santelli’s neoliberal framing of the issue might seem spurious, but it fit with the prevailing narratives about free markets that had informed US politics up to that point and, in the absence of a moralistic counter-narrative from the Obama Administration, it was the only real narrative on offer. The Santelli interview is now seen a major step towards the emergence of the populist right Tea Party Movement which directly led to the Republicans retaking Congress in the 2010 midterm elections.

CNBC.jpg

There’s basically no images of Rick Santelli labelled for re-use, so here’s an image of the CNBC instead (photo by Kevin Action)

It is certainly possible that no amount of advocacy from Obama could have prevented this outcome in a country wedded to certain notions of free enterprise, but, based on the comments of a President who apparently saw his role as standing between the banking executives and the “pitchforks” of the public, it is also clear that he never really tried. As the writer David Bromwich observed of Obama early in his presidency, he tended to adopt a technocratic position of assuming that his actions would justify themselves: “He expected a gratitude he did not get. His choice of tactics could never have been easy to explain in a climate where so many bankers survived and so many ordinary people lost their homes and jobs.”

From this point on, the Left had lost the capacity to frame the debate and we have seen the following ten years characterised by austerity and the rapid growth of the far Right and nativist politics. It is only recently, through such figures as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Jean Luc Melenchon that we are seeing the revival of Left political movements advocating for a larger role for government in society. Indeed, it is notable that these individuals couch their arguments in highly moralistic language that identifies specific culprits for the prolonged recession and subsequent wage stagnation that have characterised the last ten years.

To point out Obama’s political errors in the aftermath of the GFC is not to discount the fact that he was a savvy and talented politician. One cannot help but think however, that his brand of soaring rhetoric and progressive technocratism would have made him the perfect candidate in a 1996 or 2000 election when economic growth was consistently high and advocacy for a major program such as healthcare reform would have been consequently easier to make. Indeed, one can only imagine how valuable Obama’s relatively measured decision-making processes might have been in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

On this ninth anniversary of the GFC however, as the prospect of at least four years of a Trump Administration remains and populist movements across the globe show no sign of declining, we can see that Obama was not the right person for the times in which he found himself. While, in retirement, Obama is still largely feted by the Left and retains a ‘cool guy’ persona (which other figure on the Left could receive such a warm reception while kite-surfing with Richard Branson?) it is likely that history will see him as one of the primary factors in why the Left failed to capitalise on the event that posed the greatest threat to the primacy of neoliberalism in a generation.

The Gig Economy is WorkChoices by Stealth

The rapid growth of the gig economy in the past five years through businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo has raised fundamental questions about the nature of economic justice and working conditions in the 21st century. To frame these questions and contextualise the challenges, there is value in looking at them through the lens of one of the most infamous industrial relations fight in Australia in my lifetime –  the WorkChoices debate.

WorkChoices’ was the package of industrial relations reforms controversially introduced by the Howard Government in 2005. Two of the most important components of the package were the replacement of collective bargaining agreements with one-on-one individual employment agreements and the modification of the minimum legal standard that had to met for such agreements (such as in regards to penalty rates and minimum annual leave).

WorkChoices reflected the philosophical views of many on the Right. To them, collective bargaining reduced the ability of workers to negotiate agreements that were ‘flexible’ and suited their individual needs. It also reflected a conviction that labour unions stifle economic growth and reduced the potential productivity of individual workers.

The outcry from the Australian Left was immediate and emphatic. The resistance to the changes stemmed from a sense that the bargaining power of any individual worker was greater when negotiating was done collectively (ie. set by negotiation between major businesses and the labour unions responsible for the sector). Conversely, the power balance is tipped in favour of the employer if negotiation is done individually – particularly regarding workers in low-skilled jobs – because businesses could devote more resources to negotiate and, particularly in a tight labour market, offer a take-it-or-leave-it deal to prospective workers.

The opposition to WorkChioces was expressed through huge public rallies across Australia and when the Howard Government was defeated in the 2007 election, there was consensus across the political spectrum that WorkChoices had been a significant factor, leading to its ultimate demise a year later.

309866553_a5762c2c10_z

The Australian Council of Trade Unions campaign ‘Your Rights at Work’ was hugely influential in the fight against the WorkChoices legislation (flickr)

Now let’s fast forward roughly a decade to the introduction of ‘gig economy’ businesses to Australia.

The gig economy has emerged from the idea that each piece of work (say, a taxi ride or food delivery) is an individual ‘gig’ which can be doled out on an individual basis to to ‘self-employed’ individuals. The growth of the leading gig economy businesses (Uber/Deliveroo/etc) has been spectacular. One in four Australians are now regular Uber rides and Deliveroo has been expanding significantly year on year.

While there are technical differences between being a low-skilled self-employed worker in the gig economy and being a low-skilled worker on a WorkChoices-style individual workplace agreement, the two modes of employment are, on a practical level, strikingly similar.

Take for example the idea that these agreements give greater flexibility to workers. This had been a major benefit to WorkChoices for the Business Council of Australia, who had previously praised WorkChoices for giving employees the flexibility to trade off or vary conditions in a way that may suit them. Similarly, gig economy businesses promote the flexibility they give their ‘employees’ (for want of better word) as a major drawcard. The ‘join us’ sections of the Deliveroo and Uber websites promote how you are “free to work to your own avaibility” and “set your own schedule” respectively. Furthermore, the business model operates on the basis that the workers are – at the outset -’cashing in’ benefits such as sick pay and annual leave for a higher upfront pay. Deliveroo, for example, notes that you can “earn up to £120 a day and Uber promotes how you can “make money on your own terms”.

These purported benefits of flexibility for the employees break down upon closer examination however. One Deliveroo rider explained the catch in conversation with The Guardian: “you can work anytime you want. But the reality is you have to do the evening shifts to make enough money to survive.” For Uber drivers, the catch that comes with the higher pay is that the driver must foot the the cost of providing one’s own vehicle, paying for the private hire insurance and accounting for the vehicle’s depreciation costs. When the hidden costs are taken into account, the actual rate per hour often drops far below the minimum wage.

34496853100_e00554d35c_z

Deliveroo workers must supply their own vehicle, phone and foot the associated costs of any accidents or theft they experience (Flickr)


A common trend is that the workers earned more in the first few years of the gig economy business starting (“a year ago there were fewer drivers and a lot more work on the road… now it is much slower”). This trend is not accidental but rather the logical consequence of a business model that, in order to provide the high level of responsiveness that their customers value, necessarily flood the market with a high quantity of worker supply to guarantee an immediate response to any individual customer demand.

The concerns of being self-employed in the gig economy are, therefore, fundamentally similar to the concerns of individual workplace agreements; the sense of trying to negotiate with a powerful company without a union or under the guarantees of a government-enforced safety net. The gig economy is, in effect, WorkChoices by stealth.

The idea that an individual worker has significant bargaining power may apply where there are a limited number of skilled private contractors offering high end goods and services (such as consultancy services or plumbing) but it is unrealistic to presume that low-skilled workers have the same capacity for negotiation. Even the term ‘WorkChoices’ dovetails neatly with the premise on which the likes of Uber and Deliveroo base their appeal.

It has been therefore surprising that, considering the passionately critical response to Howard’s Workchoices in 2005, the response by Left has been relatively positive. While the gig economy in Australia has hardly been free of criticism, the overall reaction has been in no way comparable to the reaction to WorkChoices.

The clearest indication of this is the ease with which state and territory Labor Governments – which were at the forefront of the opposition to WorkChoices – are leading the way in terms of deregulating taxi industries.

There has also been a relative lack of solidarity from the broader labour movement towards these sectors when they do protest. This has been perhaps most acutely displayed recently in London where Deliveroo and UberEats workers have faced a targeted wave of theft and acid attacks by groups stealing their mopeds – thus depriving them of the means of earning an income (and for which Deliveroo has no legal obligation to compensate them for). These attacks have occurred in a highly progressive area (within Jeremy Corbyn’s seat of North Islington) and come at a time when the limitations of the gig economy have great media prominence (following a recent UK Government review on the gig economy). Hundreds of delivery drivers descended on Parliament Square to call for a crackdown on acid attacks and motorcycle theft. If there was ever a time for the Left to protest in solidarity at the injustice of their predicament, this was it. Instead, the protest was limited to the workers themselves (thus ensuring the protest was limited to a few hundred when it could have numbered in the thousands) and the opportunity to make the issue a watershed moment for the treatment of gig economy workers (or at least to demand that Deliveroo compensate those workers who need to purchase new vehicles) was missed.

33539966531_5b2630191a_z

Parliament Square, London (flickr)

This is not to deny that the gig economy has been free of controversy or criticism – the founder of Uber Travis Kalanick has, after all, recently resigned after months of public outrage and the #deleteuber hashtag attracts dozens of mentions every day on Twitter. These concerns however, have related largely to issues of sexist corporate culture, sexual assaults by Uber drivers and anger over inappropriate use of surge pricing. When it comes to concerns about exploitation and worker conditions, it is largely only those directly affected (such as the taxi drivers, or the gig economy workers) that take to the streets, with limited backing from the broader labour movement (with the honourable exception of British Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey).

When such a visceral example of injustice forces itself into the media and fails to attract significant support outside of the sector, it raises the question of what *would* provoke greater outrage and bring people to the streets and why the issue of worker exploitation in the gig economy does not motivate people in the same way that WorkChoices did.

The political context is undoubtedly a factor. It’s easier for the Left to know where to stand when a Conservative or Liberal Government is introducing industrial relation laws. Furthermore, the unprecedented nature of mobile app-facilitated economic activity also means there is no existing Right/Left political dynamic in which to situate the new gig economy – especially when it’s made up of predominately young ‘disruptive’ entrepreneurs.

However, in an era where greater attention is paid to the ethical standards of the supply chains that bring goods and services to the consumer, it is odd that the concern seems to ebb away at the point at which the link in the chain is a gig economy worker.

This does not mean that we can put the genie back in the bottle and go back to the pre-mobile app era of business and nor does it mean that old taxi services constituted some virtuous standard of ethical business. Yet a concern about economic justice and the legacy of the fight against WorkChoices should imply a need to advocate for better worker standards in the gig economy. After all, why should we boycott businesses that no longer pay penalty rates but be delighted about the introduction of UberEats to Canberra?

The Left’s broad ambivalence to the gig economy can surely only be temporary, as it is only a matter of time before it expands and swallows up the jobs and industries of tertiary-educated knowledge workers bringing the supposed benefits of flexibility very close to home. Yet the broad acceptance of the current terms of the gig economy will undermine any effort to fight back in the future.

Progressives accordingly find themselves at a crossroads – either the current terms of the gig economy are fought with the same ferocity with which WorkChoices was fought, or we acknowledge our implicit acceptance is allowing the implementation of WorkChoices by stealth.

barricades.jpg

To the barricades, comrades! (google)

 

Postscript:

It seems rather relevant to this essay to mention that, on the day I wrote it, I also caught an Uber. I have drawn my personal red line at the point of not personally getting an Uber account but I am also choosing to not make an issue of my friends and family utilising it to get us to our preferred destination quickly and cheaply. While I am entirely sympathetic to any critique that this action renders me an insufferable hypocrite, I consider that there’s an inherent and unavoidable tension between acknowledging and trying to change the injustices of society while also having to live in society. The elements within the Left (described by the writer Guy Rundle as the ‘social market’ strain which operate on the basis of “letting the market run things, regulate it to a degree, and supplement what it cannot do”) that seek to address the injustices through improved individual consumer decisions can only achieve so much (but that’s a whole other blogpost).

My concerns about the limitations of the social market approach restrain me from advocating that readers ‘boycott Uber’. Instead, I advocate that we demand the State – through the existing framework of the labour movement and existing left-of-centre parties – to see addressing the economic injustices of the gig economy as a top priority industrial relations political issue (just like they did with WorkChoices) and force it to address the issues that all sectors of the economy will soon be confronted with.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 8.33.09 pm

Fake news and ‘post-truth’

Following the unexpected victories of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump in the US election, media commentators have been scrambling for an explanation. The search for an explanation stems from both the unexpectedness of the results and the fact that it took place despite the overwhelming majority of major media publications recommending against it.

A prevailing explanation across many parts of the media and political spectrum is that the results were largely driven by the phenomena of ‘fake news’. Some major examples include one of the central claims of the Brexit Leave Campaign – that 350 million is sent to the European Union every week (which, as The Guardian has written, does not stand up to the facts. The New York Times has written about “Fake News Sausage Factories” based in Eastern European countries churning out deliberately fake pro-Trump news stories with the purpose of influencing the US election.

I do not seek to dispute the veracity of the investigative journalism in the above articles or deny that there are partisans who are self-consciously propagating factually incorrect stories. What I am interested in however is the notion that ‘post-truth’ is a relatively new concept and the implicit assumption of many articles decrying fake news – and, indeed, of most mainstream media publications – that, had those fake stories not existed and people were instead exposed to ‘real news’, they would not have voted either for Brexit or for Trump.

To appreciate why this is a poor prism through which to understand the changes that have taken place in the media landscape over the last few years, it is worth asking not why people find ‘fake news’ believable, but rather why the value of ‘objective facts’ – and, by extension, fact-checking – has plummeted in public discourse.

The focus on fake news perhaps reached its zenith with the Oxford English Dictionary announcing ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 Word of the Year – which it defines as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

However, the real question is why Oxford English Dictionary might have waited until 2016 to declare it the word of the year, when the process of ‘objective facts’ being subsumed into ‘emotion and personal belief’ has been gathering momentum for decades.

Take, for example, the phenomena of human-induced climate change. This is a process which has been established to a high degree of certainty since the early 1990s. It has been the overwhelming consensus of national scientific organisations and reflected in each of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change reports. The scientific nature of the issue was also expressed in economic terms in the landmark 2006 Stern Review, which found that “the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting.” If there is any public policy issue that has significant expert consensus (and would therefore meet the articulated standard of ‘objective fact’), it is Anthropogenic Climate Change.

Despite this, significant sections of the media and political class have never truly accepted its veracity. From right-leaning media organisations who reject it outright to organisations such as the ABC and BBC who have in effect downplayed the issue through the promotion of ‘false balance’ in its reporting.

Climate change ‘critiques’ sometimes take the form of disproportionate coverage of a tiny minority of scientist ‘climate skeptics’ (usually from outside the field of climate science). More often however, climate science is rejected on the basis that the scientists are biased by their desire to implement communism or, more typically, through a vague religious devotion to environmentalism or groupthink. While this line of attack appears in all the usual suspect right wing media outlets, it is perhaps noteworthy that it also came from Bret Stephens from the New York Times – a reporter and newspaper which sees itself as a vanguard against the ‘war on truth’ just earlier this year, in his article warning against “overweening scientism” in the climate change debate.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 9.57.41 am

The NY Times’ insufferably sanctimonious advertisment – photo credit

Given the extent to which major media publications across the political spectrum have promoted the idea that public science institutions (originally established to provide objective policy guidance on issues requiring scientific-expertise) are either incompetent or motivated by political bias, it should not come as a shock that populist political leaders extend that critique to other institutions with ease.

That task has undoubtedly been made easier by the fact that many prestigious economic institutions have allowed themselves to be drawn into politics. The US Federal Reserve, through its former chairman Alan Greenspan promoted a vision of economic management that had significant consequences in terms of defining the policy options of governments (through, for example, a deference to market-based solutions to public policy issues). Following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), he was forced to admit that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was at the forefront of the post-GFC push to implement austerity policies in countries such as Greece to boost “market confidence.” In 2013, the IMF admitted these policies had not worked and instead resulted in a “deeper than expected” recession.

In an era where scientific institutions have been discredited for political ends and economic institutions, through their political ends, have discredited themselves, is it any surprise that significant sections of the public identify with the now-famous observation that “people have had enough of experts”?

The dilution and politicisation of objectivity explains why ‘fake news’ as a phenomena is not going anywhere and why many of the proposed antidotes are likely to fail. The interest in Facebook fake news filters or greater proliferation of ‘fact-check’ articles, for example, assumes that there is an organisation or set of statistics that somehow floats above the political partisan debate – but the media have, over the past few decades, methodically dismantled any such possibility.

In light of the above, it seems that the only difference between the ‘fake news’ of the past few years and the fake news of the past few decades is that traditional media organizations have lost their gatekeeper status and monopoly on its dissemination. The major media publications may not like the fact that Trump denies ‘objective facts’ but he is only taking advantage of a phenomena that they have created.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 10.05.29 am

Many thanks to the BBC for debunking this fake news story before something serious happened. photo credit

The trope of the Ex-Muslim Native Informant

On 25 June 2017, a group of LGBTQI+ rights activists of Muslim background took part in the Toronto Pride March and marched through the streets carrying posters focusing on homophobia in majority Muslim countries such as Iran. As they tried to march, a number of progressive activists (from Antifa Toronto among others) formed a circle around the group, accused them of Islamophobia and prevented them from marching. A comment from one of the Antifa members succinctly summarised the cause of their grievance: “anti-Muslim racists look at you guys and they are enboldened.” (the video can be found here)

Whilst the Toronto Police eventually intervened and allowed their march to go ahead, the incident reflects a growing trend within progressive circles to accuse Muslims (including secular, ex and atheist) of ‘Islamophobia.’

Other recent examples include the gleeful response to the news that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was cancelling her talk in Australia last April and the decision by the Southern Poverty Law Centre to designate the UK writer Maajid Nawaz – who identifies as Muslim – as an “anti-Muslim extremist.

The Left critiques of secular and ex-Muslims usually takes two forms. The first could be described as the Useful Idiot argument. It centres on the notion that the ex-Muslims are unable to realise that their critiques of Islam validate and embolden the arguments of right wing reactionaries and racists which ultimately works against their own interests. This is the tack taken by the Antifa Toronto activist at the LGTBQI+ activists, as quoted above.

The second form (directed more commonly at figures such as Ms Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz) takes the form of the ‘native informant’ argument. The native informant is a concept originally developed by Franz Fanon to refer to a “Black Subject” who “will try to appropriate and imitate the culture of the coloniser.” In contemporary use, it is a racial slur* directed at Muslims who are assumed to be selling out their ethnic community by expressing an opinion (purely for personal financial gain) which is assumed to validate the assumptions of right wing reactionaries and racists.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 10.20.03 pm.png

Maajid Nawaz (photo credit)

To understand how we have arrived at a point where anti-racist campaigners are accusing non-white intellectuals and academics of racism, we have to explore the framework through which we perceive diversity and multiculturalism to operate within society.

In any critique of the Left’s approach to race issues, it is important to note that it is well-intentioned. We can safely assume that the Left critique comes from a desire to inclusively accept different cultural practises and non-white people (as opposed to a Right critique which comes from a desire to enforce a monoculture and exclude all others). It’s also reasonable to assume that the LGBTQI+ activists of a Muslim background want a world free of racism (I assume that even Ms Hirsi Ali’s most vigorous critiques on the Left would accept that she does desire an end to racism). It can be established therefore that ‘we’ want the same outcome – the disagreements center on how we get there.

The conflict over how to reach a racism-free outcome is ultimately dependent on the framework through which one believes society is structured and that political change can be implemented. The British academic Kenan Malik has argued that the belief that a particular member of a minority can ‘betray’ their commnunity by acting as a ‘native informant’ requires an attachment to a particular political framework which can be termed ‘multiculturalism’. In this argument, it’s very important to distinguish the lived experience of multiculturalism whereby one encounters diversity and lives in a cosmopolitan society (which is obviously a good thing) from multiculturalism as a political process where policies are designed and implemented in an attempt to “institutionalise diversity.”

Conceiving of society as the sum of a range of different cultural groups living harmoniously has many advantages for the Left in that it establishes the principle that communities that constitute a minority in a particular society have an inherent right to live in the West. Furthermore, it is a useful response to the common refrain from the Right that migrants should “assimilate”.

The disadvantages however – especially for those who are ‘minorities within minorities’ – are also evident. A view of society dependent on cultural rights leads to a view of minority communities as distinct, ‘authentic’, homogeneous and bounded with interests that can be represented by a community representative or even ‘leader’. As a consequence, conflicts and diversity within a community are not noticed or are actively downplayed. Through this framework, the treatment of the Muslim LGBTQI+ activists in Toronto and Ms Hirsi Ali is justified as these individuals are – in some way – seen to be betraying their community’s interests by taking a position that is contrary to the majority.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 10.14.43 pm.png

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (photo credit)

As Malik notes, the problematic consequences of this view of multiculturalism do not result from an emphasis on diversity per se but rather from a reliance on “too rigid a notion of what diversity entails” which distorts “the right to be treated the same despite one’s differences of culture, ethnicity or faith to meaning the right to be treated differently because of them.”

So, how can a white person be a good ally not just to minority communities but to minorities within minorities? Being a good ally does not require one to believe Ms Hirsi Ali speaks for all Muslim women (has she ever claimed to?) but it does require one to acknowledge her right to speak for herself. Being a good ally does not require one to focus exclusively on homophobia in Muslim-majority countries, but it does require one to not block Muslim LGTBQI+ activists in the streets and imply they are too dumb to realise they are emboldening racists.

Indeed, rather than embolden racists, such acts may be have the opposite effect, as the acceptance of a plurality of views in minority communities can encourage the idea that one cannot judge a person’s political beliefs based on an assessment of their ethnic identity markers (just like how we do not assume two white people – say, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Abbott – would agree on any particular issue because they have the same ethnic heritage).

Ultimately, any anti-racist campaign that seeks to cast secular or ex-Muslim activists as part of the problem is, at best, a regressive view of racial identity and, at its worst, a mirror reflection to the racial bigotry found on the far Right.

* it is worth noting there is nothing inherently racist about the idea as originally conceptualised and developed by Franz Fanon, however its contemporary use towards Muslims invariably is.

Happy Hottest 100 day

At your Hottest 100 party today, you may feel like bringing up what has become the quintessential music debate in Australia – is Triple J homogenising Australian music or is this suspicion a function of the listeners’ subjective bias?

This argument, while always bubbling under the surface, has been particularly prevalent in the lead up to this year’s hottest 100.

This is largely due to a recent article in The Age which interviewed a number of Australian artists who were frustrated at the feeling that there is a specific style or sound that an artist must adhere to in order to get national airplay. This article was followed up by a series of searing op-eds at prominent Australian music blogs, found here and here.

In response, Helen Razer has come to Triple J’s defence, critiquing the “institutional bias” argument by pointing out that the perceived inadequacies of the Triple J playlist – which have been argued about repetitively for decades – are largely a function of the listener’s subjective bias. When Triple J was playing Soundgarden, Silverchair and Rage Against the Machine, Razer points out, the editorials were criticising Triple J for not being “indie” enough (ie. not playing more Pavement and REM) – fast forward to 2014, the names change but the general theme remains the same.

I’ve also written an anti-‘Triple J sound’ article, in the lead up to last year’s count, but with a caveat that I think pre-empts Razer’s main argument. I agree with Razer that the ‘Triple J sound’ isn’t a function of institutional bias or due to the dictatorial hand of Richard Kingsmill, but I disagree with her belief that means that there is no bias whatsoever.

Triple J’s bias is not culture-driven but it is a consequence of the fundamental fact that, as I argue, “a single radio station can’t possibly cater for Australia’s highly fragmented and diverse music scene and that attempting to do so simply leads to an unfair system”.

My hottest 100 article, first published for Lip Magazine, is pasted below:

I used to think that the Triple J Hottest 100, like Western liberal democracy, was the true embodiment of pure democratic will. The best band had won, the people had spoken. Over time, however, as I began to see how in a Western democracy, a candidate’s chance in an election was contingent on a myriad of factors other than their meritocratic ability ­– such as whether they had an endorsement from a major political party or whether they were able to gain electoral funding – I also began to see how the Hottest 100, and the Triple J playlist in general, is contingent on factors beyond that go beyond an Australian artist’s meritocratic ability, and instead rest in the institutional nature of Triple J.

The fundamental truth that slowly extinguished my belief in the Hottest 100 was the realisation that a song is only going to do well if it has been heavily promoted and played on Triple J. This puts a significant amount of decision-making power in the hands of Triple J’s playlist producers who have the power to make or break an artist. This is a problem, because Triple J is increasingly projecting an impression of the Australian music scene which is falsely homogenous and based principally around three-minute pop single variations of folk, Aussie hip hop and indie rock, with other genres consigned to midnight airplay.

Triple J has a lot of influence in the Australian music scene and the promotion and support they can give bands can be crucial in determining whether a band “makes it” or not. The problem is that for every Australian band they promote that does make it, there are others with large underground followings, critical acclaim, and breakout potential that lack the same level of support. One gets the impression that, despite Triple J’s claims to be reflecting meritocracy and potential popular appeal, their producers cannot help but subjectively favor certain tastes over others.

Triple J producers usually raise two main counter-arguments to these sorts of critiques; one, that the concept of a “Triple J sound” is anillusion formed due to the subjective bias of critics who interpret every Triple J song they dislike as validation of their belief that Triple J is getting objectively worse; and two, that Triple J simply reflects the popular will of their broader listener base which is greater in numbers than the critics. It is hard to deny that a subjective bias exists among many critics of Triple J, and that for some, music is always getting perpetually worse, but the idea of there being a “Triple J sound” has been validated by industry figures.

The publicist Stephen Green, for example, has lamented to Rolling Stone that ‘the problem of Triple J being so dominant is that it skews what bands are coming out with’, and, in the same feature, the drummer from the Unearthed Brisbane band Millions described how his band got together to specifically ‘[go] towards that Triple J sort of sound’, which quite evidently resulted in Triple J success. The second counter-argument, that popular will dictates Triple J’s playlists, ignores Triple J’s public ownership and responsibility as a promoter of all Australian music, as opposed to a chaser of commercial ratings. It also ignores the increasingly growing success of independent radio stations such as FBi in Sydney, and RRR in Melbourne, which give greater prominence to a wider range of Australian music, providing an alternative to listeners who don’t feel catered for by Triple J.

The solution to this problem is not to fire “the King” Richard Kingsmill and hire someone with “better” tastes, as some critics seem to imply, because Triple J are justified in pointing out that there will always be critics regardless of what musical direction they take. But they should also recognise the fundamental fact that a single radio station can’t possibly cater for Australia’s highly fragmented and diverse music scene and that attempting to do so simply leads to an unfair system were some artists receive recognition and exposure while other artists miss out.

The solution is to restructure Triple J so that it reflects the diversity of the music scene. This means breaking Triple J up into several channels that specifically cater to the genres that are currently left to languish on weekly midnight airplay. If Triple J also restructured the Hottest 100 so that it combined the listener base and votes of all the different Triple J stations, then it would surely be a huge improvement on the current measure of determining the country’s favourite alternative song, and it would give artists from non-folk or indie rock backgrounds a better chance of having their true popularity reflected in the national exposure that comes with Hottest 100 success.

Until we see a change in the structure of Triple J, the Hottest 100 will remain on par with shammed democracies, where only a select number of candidates even have the opportunity to win.

On a slightly different subject, here are my:

HOTTEST 100 TOP 10 PREDICTIONS

1. Lorde – Royals (not only is she a worldwide star who released her album at the strategically advantageous (for Hottest 100) of the Sep/Oct period, but her Oceanic origins bequeath her a massive fan base among likely Hot 100 voters)

2. Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Get Lucky is a massive pop/alternative crossover hit in the vein of Outkast’s Hey Ya, although it’s undoubtedly huge, it’s doubtful as to whether it’s sufficiently huge among likely hottest 100 voters)

3. Vance Joy – Riptide (This song will be carrying the banner for the folk scene and as there haven’t been too many big folk songs this year, this song’s pop-crossover status should see it cultivate a large voter base.)

4. Lorde – Tennis Courts (Lorde’s had one of those years where you expect two entries in the top 10. Tennis Courts is a strong candidate because it received heavy airplay for months during the period (June-October) when she was transitioning to full-flung stardom)

5. Disclosure – White Noise (feat AlunaGeorge) (the UK garage revival has had mainstream success via the output of Disclosure and Alunageorge in recent times, so a collab between the two will be doubly popular, one would imagine)

6. Haim – Falling (Haim are the big-time heavyweight newcomer of the year, and while they haven’t had any particular single that would force its way to no.1 in of itself, their brand and musical consistency should see at least one of their songs creep into the top 10)

Between 7 – 10 – London Grammar/Rudimentals//Illy track (this year’s ‘unpredictable’ track is either going to be out of that rnb pop London scene eg. London Grammar/Rudimentals, or it will be the Aussie Hip Hop star of the moment which currently appears to be Illy (or Seth Sentry).

8. Flume – umm (I don’t know much Flume but his ARIA success indicates that he has hardcore momentum behind him and that one of the album tracks from his Holdin On album, or a more recent collar, should make it into the top 10.)

9. Arctic Monkeys – Do I wanna know (this’ll be their biggest Hottest 100 year yet I think – they’ve reached the perfect balance between popular new album and established heavyweights to produce a high hottest 100 ranking)

10. Duke Dumont – Need you 100% (Although Duke Dumont is a relative unknown, the huge mainstream interest in UK Garage and the relative success of this single means it should poll strongly)