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The role of the state ... Steve Wright and Angela Mitropoulos extend the discussion. (letters and debate).

Recent issues of Arena Magazine have hosted a useful -- if at times oblique -- debate about the role of the state. This is no idle discussion. What is at stake here can easily be discerned by noting, as one example, the federal government's recent efforts to criminalise dissent through so-called counter-terrorist laws. How best to respond to this situation? Jenny Hocking argues that it is necessary to uphold `our civic traditions', defend the rule of law, and so on (Arena Magazine no. 56). This is echoed in Guy Rundle's editorial for the same issue. Here, Rundle adds that such a defence has been impeded by `a Marxist interpretation of the state', one which he sees as having underestimated the importance of the `liberal political sphere'. In a version of the Arena editorial for The Paper, Rundle reproaches `the crude Marxist idea that the state is the mere representation of the ruling class' (30 November 2001). There, he goes on to suggest that the failure to defend `the liberal political sphere' will lead to `the darkest possibility' `that some of us will end up in prison sooner rather than later'. It is here, in the grammar of belonging, that Rundle reveals the limits of both `the liberal political sphere' and his approach. We will come back to this.

First, let us note that there is no argument from us about the pressing need to ward off these latest efforts to repress dissent. But to understand the recent anti-dissent legislation via the prism of the `liberal political sphere' or `our civic traditions' actually means conceding the basic terms of the debate to advocates of the new legislation. In particular, it means denying that the rule of law embodying such `civic traditions' and delineating the `liberal political sphere' is intimately connected with those exceptions from the rule of law that have already imposed that `darkest possibility' upon internees at Woomera and elsewhere. If we escape the grammatical enclosure of the nation-state, those interned in Woomera, Port Hedland and Maribyrnong are `some of us'.

Therefore, while Hocking can take comfort in `our civic traditions' (the presumption of innocence, trial, etc.), she by-passes the fact that these cannot be accessed by those in the internment camps while they are under the jurisdiction of `our civic traditions'. Not having had citizenship conferred on them by the state or via the enduring doctrine of `blood and soil', they are non-persons from the perspective of the state. Similarly, while Rundle cites the US Patriot Act as an instance of the assault on the `liberal political sphere', he does not grant any particular meaning to the fact that this law targets immigrants and non-citizens. As for the state's treatment of citizens, under the terms of `our civic traditions' all that is required to violate their rights is to redefine them as `foreign' or acting under a `foreign influence'. S11 protesters were `un-Australian', as were communists during the McCarthyist period and IWW members during World War I. Moreover, citizenship can be conferred but also (as Agamben shows) revoked by the state as, for instance, the prelude to the internment of German Jews in the camps. The rule of law and the state of exception are intimately connected -- one presupposes the other. In Australia, a state founded on the twin principles of invasion and penal servitude continues to oscillate between the rule of law and the state of exception, generally along a xenophobic axis. Envision the nation-state as the supposed guardian of freedoms and one concedes the essentially xenophobic form and outline of `our civic traditions'.

Secondly, counterposing a defence of the `liberal political sphere' to `crude Marxist ideas' might rhetorically provide the former with the demeanour of forward motion, but it does not quite conceal the sense of a strategy based on defending something that is past, or passing quickly. For if, as Rundle contends, we are witnessing the `beginnings of the shutdown of the liberal political sphere', then surely the call to defend this sphere is outdated. Because far from being a free-floating notion which can be chosen or abandoned at will, the so-called liberal political sphere and its accessories (the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, the separation of powers, etc.) are premissed not only on a deeply xenophobic logic as noted above, but also on elements that no longer exist.

What is different today? Money moves more freely; people are increasingly confined. Far from being a paradox, it is the logic of enclosure which binds together these two apparently inconsistent processes within the Fortress Australia version of `actually-existing neo-liberalism' -- just as the enclosure of the commons underlay its original foundation. Nevertheless, certain elements have altered dramatically: for instance, the jurisdictional demarcations of the Cold War, which (much like the conflicts between Church and State or King and Parliament of previous times that inaugurated the `liberal political sphere') placed determinate limits on jurisdictional authority and provided the space in which the separation of powers was enacted. Today, the international state complex has no limits, and (juridically at least) no outside. Escape from this is -- as the movement of millions of undocumented migrants shows -- less a strategy to be proclaimed by intellectuals than a reality that is already occurring.

Finally, therefore, and however isolated they may currently be, struggles to challenge the twin pincers of enclosure are something other than the expressions of a `liberal political sphere', which by definition is always constituted through the tyranny of citizenship, that is, the mutual indifference characteristic of market relations and the exclusion of all those who do not belong to the nation-state. To put it another way: it is only by moving beyond efforts to `protect the state from itself' that we can begin to glimpse those other practices that, even within the apparent banality of daily routine, already gesture towards an emerging `non-state public sphere', one wherein bodies can be something more, and other, than things.

Guy Rundle replies:

The central point of contention would appear to be whether the exclusion of certain groups from civil rights is constitutive of the liberal political sphere, or an incomplete application of it. I can see no reason why the liberal political sphere could not be extended indefinitely, so that everyone within a given community -- whether member, visitor or stranger -- could not be under its protection from other elements within the community.

Exclusion is contingent, not necessary to the existence of a liberal political sphere. (This does not cut across the rights of groups to close their borders, as, for example, Indigenous groups do at various times.) The idea that the particular historical exclusions of people from a liberal political sphere somehow undermine the concept of the flawed institution -- actually existing liberty, so to speak -- is in a similar vein to the shortcomings of the Marxist approach, which fudged the question of what sort of political institutions a transformed society might have, either by assuming that they would simply emerge, or that they would simply be unnecessary. The same could be said about the idea that a nation represents nothing more than an enclosure, when that is merely one dimension of its double character. As it happens I think refugees should enjoy substantially the same liberties as we do, and the ALP's introduction of preventive detention is part of the attack on the liberal sphere, not outside of it; and nothing in the articles suggested otherwise. The authorial `us' was directed to the likely readerships -- predominantly activists.

In fact the response seems an example of the sort of Extremely Late Marxism that I was criticising, in its reliance on what is ultimately a base-superstructure model which cannot take political institutions on their own terms. The conflation of every political event from political rhetoric -- being called `un-Australian' to being jailed or shot as the IWW were -- is exactly the sort of rhetorical self-blinding that I was arguing against. At its root it presupposes some unitary machine of repression -- whether it be capital or something else -- of which everything from name-calling to death squads are mere reflections, of little interest in themselves, and with little need to distinguish between them.

Yes, such institutions as the separation of powers are limited, flawed, corrupted and can be used to legitimise repression. Yes, the liberal political sphere can obscure different levels of media power. But the failure to articulate the difference between liberal and reactionary political regimes is a theoretical error that undermines an effective political response. The idea that a `non-state public sphere' (something of a tautology in any case) can exist in isolation from the prevailing state conditions seems to be obviously contra-indicated by the highly constrained nature of political activity in places such as China or Burma, where `non-state public sphere' activities are usually rapidly curtailed. In that respect the idea that the liberal political sphere should merely be allowed to pass over as if it was some naturally occurring event seems to me -- when coming from people with some sort of materialist political position -- simply amazing and wrong in the most elementary manner. But to a degree it is of a piece with the manner in which the global movement of refugees is held to be some sort of undifferentiated or uncontradictory political movement, beyond interpretation or discussion, while any other interpretation is merely the games of `intellectuals' -- a move worthy of Paddy McGuinness. Such a mixture of argument, assertion and political metaphysics is the sort of discredited left tradition we need to move beyond, because it allows no scope to talk about what sort of political institutions we could or should have. The result is inevitably irrelevance or political disasters. Given that, and the existence of real ones around the place, the charge of being `xenophobic' for arguing the need to defend such partial liberties as activists currently work within, is not only ludicrous, offensive and counterproductive, but perhaps to be expected.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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