Bordering on the absurd: How the government mixes its ‘sovereignty’ message

It may surprise you to know (but then again it may not) that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were in favour of free trade. For them it was one of the glories of capitalism that it could move across the globe at will – transforming everything in its path, ripping up the past and tearing down tradition – and to this extent the free trade model was preferable to the protectionist one, which they suspected of trying to dupe the workers with appeals to vulgar nationalism. In the long term, of course, they expected capitalism to yield to the higher synthesis of communism. But in the meantime free trade would do the work of history, or rather the work of History. As Marx put it in 1848, in a speech to the Democratic Association of Brussels, ‘[free trade] breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the extreme point’.
 
Listening to the way modern conservatives speak, it is necessary to conclude that in this respect (as in others) Marx and Engels were wildly overoptimistic – that they greatly underestimated the facility with which the defenders of capitalism would learn to talk out of both sides of their mouths at once. For the fact is that in many parts of the world conservatives have no problem at all combining a rough-and-ready nationalism with the priorities of ‘economic freedom’. There are, it seems, two kinds of ‘border’: one to be transcended by trade, the other to be policed by power.
 
It is the special achievement of the Abbott Government to have raised this plonking double standard to the level of a bad opera, to have brought together in a single spectacle the insistent march of globalisation with the crashing notes of nationalism. Thus, as Andrew Robb and his team conduct secret talks about the TPP, the effect of which will be to lower trade barriers between 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, the Prime Minister and his deputies boys get all hairy-chested about everything from immigrants to foreign fighters to Johnny Depp’s dogs. On the first issue we are given sober lectures about the need to work with our regional partners, while on the second we are given hot rhetoric and photo ops with military brass. Australia, it seems, is ‘open for business’ but closed to just about everything else.
 
Notice, as well, that whereas the trade talks are too important for the public to know about, the rhetoric of betrayal and banishment, of Them and Us, is given the megaphone treatment. ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ boomed John Howard in 2001, a sentiment now so close to the Liberal Party’s heart that it would take a major operation to dislodge it. But who will decide whether corporations can seek financial restitution for profits lost as a result of regulation? Or whether it should be more difficult than it is now to introduce generic drugs onto the market? These decisions will be made behind closed doors, in the interests, we are told, of all Australians, though without their input or even their knowledge. Again, the double standard is conspicuous.
 
Some may object – some will object – that I am confusing a metaphorical boundary with a political and geographical one – that there is really no contradiction involved between the government’s ‘open for business’ shtick and its desire to secure Australia’s borders. But this is too easy. For one aspect of ‘economic freedom’ that you won’t find the Abbott Government advocating is the freedom of people in poor parts of the world to come to Australia in search of a better life. The demonisation of the ‘economic migrant’ is evidence that for most conservatives economic freedom only cuts one way – that the free movement of capital and the free movement of people, far from being two sides of the same coin, are tied to entirely separate currencies.
 
Essentially what we have in Australia at the moment are the politics of Donald Trump, who in the weeks since announcing his presidential candidacy has managed to combine a pro-business message with a proposal to build a gigantic wall along the US-Mexico border and force the Mexicans to pay for it. It is a politics that combines openness to corporate interests with cruelty and indifference to the plight of non-Australians. And it’s working like a bloody charm.

 

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First published at The Monthly (Blogs).