Fascism in Australia: An interview with slackbastard

Andy Fleming, aka slackbastard is a minor internet celebrity with a range of platforms promoting radical politics, particularly focusing on anti-fascism. Fightback’s ANI WHITE interviews him about fascism, anti-fascism and politics in Australia today. This interview appears in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

Ani: Your online platforms cover a range of issues, but particularly focus on anti-fascism. Is there any reason you consider this work to be particularly important?

Andy: I began blogging in earnest in late 2005, while the Facebook page went up in 2010 and I’ve been Twittering away since 2009. Since I began, the primary focus of the blog has gradually evolved into anti-fascism, which in this case means monitoring the activities of various far-right actors, mostly of Australian origin, and with a particular focus on Melbourne (where I live). One of the main reasons for this is the relative absence of other forums in which this discussion might take place. Basically, there are very few public resources dedicated to monitoring fascism and the far right in Australia, and over time the blog has become a (I hope useful) resource for those wanting to explore this world. Certainly, anyone who jumps online and searches for information about fascism and the far right in Australia will sooner or later (generally sooner) stumble upon the blog. As a result, particularly since the emergence of ‘Reclaim Australia’ in early 2015, but also preceding it, I’ve been contacted by numerous journalists, researchers, students and so on, who want to be backgrounded on and seek orientation towards the contemporary antics of the far right. In a sense, it’s developed its own momentum, and the blog’s contents reflect what it is that others identify as being especially interesting and useful about it in its coverage of this domain. Beyond this, I identify as an anarchist, and from this perspective fascism is deeply antithetical to my own political commitments. Further, I suppose I’m one of those who believes that there is actually scope for a fascist or proto-fascist movement to develop in Australia. This is informed by the country’s status as a British penal colony which, at the beginning of the twentieth-century and its establishment as the Commonwealth of Australia, formally adopted white nationalism as state policy, a policy abandoned only relatively recently. In other words, I think Australia is relatively fertile ground upon which a fascist movement might develop, and historically-speaking, its relative absence is in large part due to the role of the state in already having captured that political territory. This essay covers more of this territory.

Ani: What are the defining traits of neo-fascism?

Andy: Well, that depends: in one sense, neo-fascism may be traced back to the immediate post-WWII era, in which the defeated forces of fascism in Europe were forced to reassess, regroup, and rearticulate their politics. But I suppose in the more immediate historical and social context, I’d suggest that the ‘newer’ expressions of fascist doctrine and movement are shaped, in critical ways, by the inauguration of the (seemingly endless) ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 and attendant spike in Islamophobia, neoliberal crisis and, in the Australian context, the punitive measures adopted by both major parties with regards the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees: ‘Fortress Australia’ (see below). This is the political and social backdrop against which newer fascist political formations have arisen, and whose political expressions are variations on older and generally familiar themes: racism and white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, the cult of masculinist violence, and so on. (For what it’s worth, I think Roger Griffin’s concept of ‘palingenetic ultra-nationalism’ remains a key reference point for understanding generic fascism.)

Ani: What neo-fascist groups are operating in Australia today?

Andy: There’s a small number of formally-constituted groups — political parties like the ‘Australia First Party’, neo-Nazi grouplets like ‘Antipodean Resistance’ and ‘Nationalist Alternative’ and so on — but by my reckoning, most of these groups operate on a more informal level, as part of wider social networks which have as their chief platform social media (especially Facebook). In other words, while documenting the moments when groups formally constitute themselves as groups is important (see A (very) brief guide to the Australian far right (December 2016 Edition)), it’s also important not to lose sight of the political undercurrents which generate such moments. This, I think, is what gives rise to things like the Cronulla pogrom (see Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire’, Angela Mitropoulos, Mute, February 7, 2006), helps to explain the sudden emergence and eventual collapse of ‘Reclaim Australia’, and other such events. Further, the same kinds of ideas that motivate neo-fascists are also present, to a greater-or-lesser degree, in mainstream politics, and it’s useful to examine, for example, the ways in which various mythologies about ‘Cultural Marxism’ have moved from the political margins to the centre. (See Martin Jay, ‘Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe’).

Ani: Can you tell us about the new group Antipodean Resistance, which appears to be more militant than the existing groups?

Andy: Antipodean Resistance (AR) is a relatively new grouplet which is neo-Nazi, mostly composed of young men in their teens and twenties, and which specialises in provocative propaganda. It’s claimed to have a membership in the hundreds but this seems doubtful. To date, its militancy is confined to its rhetoric. The group emerged in late 2016 and has gained some media attention as a result of it targeting schools, University campuses and political offices with its posters and stickers. It has its origins among a handful of ‘United Patriots Front’ (UPF) supporters in Melbourne but has subsequently extended its reach to other cities and towns in Victoria and to other states. It’s also connected to and models itself upon a handful of other neo-Nazi groups: the banned organisation ‘National Action’ in the UK, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’ in Scandinavia, and ‘Atomwaffen’ in the US; this networking took place via the now-defunct neo-Nazi website ‘Iron March’. National Action was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in December 2016; a number of its members have been arrested and charged with preparation of terrorist acts, while the group notoriously celebrated the assassination of British MP Jo Cox in June 2016. Members of the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden have been convicted of carrying out bombing attacks upon asylum seeker refuges and a left-wing bookshop, while members of Atomwaffen are currently on trial for a string of murders, the most recent being that of Jewish student Blaze Bernstein in January 2018. Currently, the group is linked to members of the UPF and something called ‘The Lads Society’, which describes itself as a fraternal organisation and which, in October last year, opened up a social centre in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham. The leaseholder is ex-UPF member Tom Sewell and in January the centre served as the venue for a joint meeting with another racist gang called the ‘True Blue Crew’ based in the Victorian town of Bendigo and the suburb of Melton. (The meeting was called in order to discuss the formation of a vigilante gang to confront an alleged African gang crime-wave.) Outside of neo-Nazi skinhead groups like Blood & Honour and the (Southern Cross) Hammerskins, AR is one of relatively few grouplets that doesn’t bother to disguise its commitment to Nazi doctrines. For those interested, you can read more about AR in the following: Who are Antipodean Resistance?; Jacob Hersant : An Antipodean Resistance Lad; Julie Nathan, “Antipodean Resistance: The Rise and Goals of Australia’s New Nazis”.

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Brigada Anti-Fascista, a Melbourne antifa crew. Photo from the slackbastard blog

Ani: Pauline Hanson’s racial populist party One Nation has had a resurgence recently. What is the relationship between One Nation and more explicit neo-fascist groups, if any?

Andy: In its earlier iteration, this subject was explored by Danny Ben-Moshe (see: ‘One Nation and the Australian far right’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol.35, No.3, 2001). They concluded that, while neo-fascist and other (racist) right-wing actors joined the party and sought to obtain influence within it, this endeavour was largely unsuccessful, and in the end their presence proved to be simply destabilising. One Nation’s return has been accompanied by similar manoeuvres. In terms of policy, fear of being ‘swamped by Asians’ has been replaced by fear of being ‘swamped by Muslims’ — so hey, you can’t say that Hanson isn’t adaptable (though you might also say that she’s a rank opportunist) — but even a cursory examination of its candidates for office reveals an often bizarre amalgam of all kinds of fears and resentments, and the party is, perhaps not surprisingly, still beset by internal ructions. Still, it’s my impression that Hanson is now better able to exert control over the party as a whole, and it exists as a kind of permanent shrine to her endless — and I do mean endless — whining. Naturally, racists have welcomed her and the party’s return; to date, however, the party has failed to break out of its chiefly regional and rural base in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, where it competes most keenly with the Nationals (the junior ruling Coalition partner) for support. Race and immigration remain key issues for the party and its supporters, whose views on other matters and voting record in parliament otherwise reflects that of the Coalition.

Ani: While neo-fascists seek an escalation of violence against refugees and visible minorities, the Australian state is already exceptional in its brutal Mandatory Detention policy. Can you tell us about Australia’s refugee policy, and about the refugee solidarity movement?

Andy: It’s certainly the case that the Australian state does a good job of brutalising asylum seekers, but its exceptionality may be rather short-lived, sadly, as governments and parties in Europe now look to Australia for cutting-edge methods of controlling population flows. These policies and programs have proven inspiring to the continent’s far right. In general, the policy of mandatory detention, inaugurated in 1994 under the Keating Labor government, has enjoyed bipartisan support ever since, and the Australian public largely supports the measures adopted to penalise those asylum seekers who arrive on Australia’s shores by boat. Occasionally, some noises in opposition will emanate from back-benchers, but it seems as though there are no real cracks in the parliamentary facade, and so the policy will remain in place for some time to come. Of course, some Australians celebrate the state’s cruelty, and workers in the detention industry — which, like other government services, is now semi-privatised — notoriously posed with Hanson at a Reclaim rally in 2015. On the flip side, the relocation of the concentration camps from the cities to rural areas and then to other islands — and the various, generally crackpot schemes hatched in conjunction with regional governments for them to accept some portion of Australia’s inmates — could be read as being a reaction to resistance within the camps, as well as a rational desire to keep torture out of public sight. Currently, the refugee solidarity movement is largely confined to the conduct of periodic rallies and protests, the effects of which are generally minimal outside, perhaps, of keeping the abuse of refugees and asylum seekers in the public mind. Other, related campaigns have sought to attack the underlying infrastructure of the detention industry, especially through divestment campaigns, and specifically by seeking to have union superfunds withdrawn from the industry. This has met with some limited success and lukewarm support from the labour movement, which remains dominated by the ALP. A relatively recent project is called ‘Can’t Stand Buy’, which seeks (or sought) to harness acts of civil disobedience to escalate the economic and social costs of maintaining the regime. It generated some media attention, but not mass public participation. In general, the XBorder blog is a useful resource — one which also attempts to situate the regime within a global complex of institutions and political arrangements — and the ‘RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees’ organisation in Melbourne is a unique presence in the ‘refugee solidarity’ movement, with both it and the imprisoned journalist Behrouz Boochani continuing to be important voices of protest.

Ani: Melbourne cops have recently made headlines for police brutality. What do we need to know about our mates in the Victorian Police?

Andy: The short answer? They’re not your mates! More seriously, there’s a handful of different organisations that monitor police activity in Victoria, one of which is the ‘Police Accountability Project’: I recommend that those interested read its publications. The ‘Melbourne Activist Legal Service’ (MALS) is another interesting and worthwhile project. Of particular relevance to anti-fascists, in early 2017, the Victorian state government introduced a bill to parliament — the ‘Crimes Amendment (Public Order) Bill 2017’ — which, inter alia, criminalises the wearing of clothing which obscures one’s appearance. MALS has critiqued the introduction of these and similar laws. Oh, and ‘Sisters Inside’, an organisation based in Queensland, is holding a Prison Abolition conference in Brisbane in November, which readers may find of interest.

Ani: I recently read a mainstream Australian opinion piece which promoted the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, a far-right theory that Marxist elites are dismantling Western civilisation. While it’s very flattering to imagine Marxists have anything like that influence, it was shocking for me to see this in a mainstream opinion piece. I recently came over from Aotearoa/New Zealand, and while we certainly have conservative media, mainstream promotion of these kind of outright far-right ideas seems particularly extreme. Can you tell us about the mainstreaming of these ideas in Australian media?

Andy: To begin with, I think Martin Jay’s essay is required reading on this subject; further, I’d recommend ‘‘Cultural Marxism’: a uniting theory for right-wingers who love to play the victim’ and “Chris Uhlmann should mind his language on ‘cultural Marxism’’ by Jason Wilson, which helps to situate the idea in contemporary Australian political discourse. In terms of how this theory has assumed some mainstream prominence, I’d suggest that this is no accident, and demonstrates that the far right is able to produce ideas that, over time, can reach a much wider audience. Much the same can be said of the ‘White Genocide’ meme, especially as it applies to South Africa. In just the last week, the Australian attorney-general, Christian Porter, has urged white South African farmers seeking asylum in Australia to contact his office for specialist advice; previously, the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, had publicly expressed support for the proposal to bring ‘persecuted’ white South African farmers to Australia under a special visa arrangement. (See also: Jon Piccini, “Peter Dutton’s ‘fast track’ for white South African farmers is a throwback to a long, racist history”, and John Marnell, “South Africa: where ‘Australia’ is code for racist”)

I’m unsure how Australian mainstream media compares to that in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but outside of state media, it’s my understanding that private ownership is exceptionally highly concentrated (even for a Western democracy), and Rupert Murdoch (via Newscorpse) rules over a very large chunk of this private kingdom. The only national daily newspaper, ‘The Australian’, has been running at a loss basically since it first began publishing in 1964, but serves as the flagship for conservative politics, a useful political tool for elites. If you examine the proliferation of the term in the pages of ‘The Australian’ (print and online), it seems to have undergone a sharp increase over the course of the last two to three years, and where previously it was closely-associated with the ravings of someone like Anders Breivik (or to be found only in an especially apoplectic ‘letter to the editor’), it’s now considered part and parcel of respectable discourse. The relative popularity of the term is partly attributable, I would suggest, to its flexibility, and each and every ‘progressive’ idea or movement of the last several decades has been attributed to the influence of ‘Cultural Marxism’.

Ani: In recent years some liberals and leftists have bought into the idea that the ‘white working class’ was left behind by multiculturalism. What is your take on this?

Andy: For various reasons, I’m not especially convinced by this line of argument, but I should say at the outset that there’s a wealth of literature on the subject of ‘multiculturalism’ and its meaning for Australian society, and I’m unable to do much more than make a few notes regarding it. In which context, in practice, ‘multiculturalism’ typically means ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multinational’ and/or ‘multiracial’, and ‘culture’ is understood to be synonymous with these terms. Thus there is ‘British culture’, ‘Irish culture’, ‘Italian culture’, ‘Black culture’, ‘Asian culture’ and so on; further, these are typically assumed to be unitary (which is, in my view, not the case). In other words, I think that there are some conceptual issues with the uses to which this term is put, and addressing these is necessary before the matter can be discussed more sensibly. In the Australian context, ‘multiculturalism’ can refer both to: a) demographic changes, especially in the post-WWII era, in the ethnic composition of an overwhelmingly British and Irish-derived settler-colonial population and also; b) changes in state policy following the abandonment of both the White Australia policy and the assimilationist doctrines which replaced them. More generally, it seems fairly obvious that the ‘(white) working class’ has not benefited from a whole range of state policies, because the purpose of those policies is not to benefit the working class as a class: generally-speaking, the state remains the instrument of the ruling class, and reflects its interests and the interests of those forces which dominate the economy. If there is some truth to the notion that the ‘white working class’ has been left behind by multiculturalism, it’s the proposal that, as state policy, multiculturalism has tended to promote the advancement of an ‘ethnic’ middle class which may/not advance the interests of the specific grouping of which it purports to be the representative. But again, it makes most sense to discuss such matters in their specificities. It’s also, of course, worth remembering that the working class, especially in a country like the US, is disproportionately comprised of non-whites (‘people of colour’) and that, while Trump attempted to pose as a champion of workers, his main support base is drawn from wealthier classes; further, that given the dispiriting alternatives on offer — Trump versus Clinton — a very large proportion of working-class people didn’t bother to vote at all: a similar pattern of working-class abstention is evident in many other electoral contests, in many other countries.

Ani: In the USA, the so-called ‘alt right’ has brought neo-reactionary ideas into the mainstream. Does the alt-right have a coherent presence in Australia? Has it boosted existing groups?

Andy: It’s a rather tired cliche, but yes, as with many other things, the development of an ‘AltRight’ in the United States has encouraged the development of something similar in Australia (and in other countries subject to US cultural hegemony). In this context, I think George Hawley’s recent book ‘Making Sense of the Alt-Right’ is useful, especially for the ways in which it discusses the political recomposition of ‘conservatism’ in the US, and there’s some evidence to suggest that similar developments are or may be taking place in Australia. But it seems to me that if the US AltRight is coherent, the Australian AltRight is rather less so. Otherwise, the far-right has often aped elements of the left, and the AltRight is often interpreted as being evidence of a ‘culturalist’ turn by these political forces, and a response to the supposed dominance of something called ‘Cultural Marxism’. It’s a political nonsense, of course, but it does provide a useful bucket into which reactionaries of all sorts can pour their resentments. Otherwise, the election of Trump has provided a minor fillip to neo-fascist groupings in Australia, but this has yet to really translate into something politically significant. This may yet happen, but perhaps an example of the influence of the AltRight may be found in the political degeneration of someone like Mark Latham. Once a Labor leader and potential prime minister, he’s now largely confined to the fringes of mainstream media, and has even been an honoured guest — twice — on a local neo-Nazi podcast. ‘Sad!’

Ani: What are the international links of neo-fascists in Australia, that you are aware of?

Andy: International linkages are sometimes formal but more often informal. So there are a number of neo-fascist groups in Australia which are franchises (for example, Blood & Honour, Combat 18, Hammerskins) and there are various ‘ethnic’ fascisms (Croatian, Greek, Serbian and so on) which are part and parcel of various diasporas. But in the contemporary era, most of these linkages tend to be informal and conducted by the way of the Internet, and especially social media. (It may be relevant to add that, closer to home, Kyle Chapman’s ‘Right Wing Resistance’ groupuscule has found a few boneheaded adherents in Australia, but as in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s basically a shambles.)

Ani: What tactics have proved most effective in smashing fascist groups?

Andy: If by ‘smashing’ is meant effective disruption, I’d say: constant political pressure. So as a general rule, if fascists go marching hurrah hurrah, it’s important that they be countered. If, as sometimes happens, they are gifted a platform by mainstream media, or attempt to weasel their way into some institution, it’s important to be able to expose their real agenda and their actual political commitments. Exposing fascist lies, ridiculing their pretensions to mastery, and presenting life-affirming alternatives to fascist dogmas — alternatives based on other political and ethical principles, such as commitments to equality, cooperation, mutual aid and conviviality — is also necessary. So too, the promotion of critical inquiry and structural analysis as opposed to conspiracist mentalities and political scapegoating. Finally, the following observations by Ken Knabb are germane:

Irrational popular tendencies do sometimes call for discretion. But powerful though they may be, they are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Reich himself showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism.

In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfil them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air. In any case, even if we don’t prevail, there is at least some satisfaction in fighting for what we really believe, rather than being defeated in a posture of hesitancy and hypocrisy.

Ani: Socialist Sue Bolton recently criticised militant antifascist presence at a broader rally. Could you briefly comment on this?

Andy: I wrote about the event on the blog and some further criticisms were made by Andy Blunden and Lynn Beaton on the ‘Arena’ magazine blog, to which I also later responded. Sue’s account of the events of the day is largely correct in its essentials: there was a rally in the Victoria Street mall in Coburg, and fascists held a rally several hundred metres away in Bridges Reserve. Otherwise: I can’t speak to or for Socialist Alternative’s actions on the day as I’m not a member and was not part of their contingent; I think it was a difficult situation, but my basic position is/was as follows: I think that it was important for Sue’s rally to go ahead without being disrupted by fascists and for the fascist rally to be contained. (In this context, it should be noted that, while the bulk of the fascist rally consisted of members and supporters of the ‘True Blue Crew’, it was supplemented by a handful of ‘United Patriots Front’ members and a scattering of (other) neo-Nazis belonging to ‘Combat 18’ and several boys who later went on to found ‘Antipodean Resistance’.) As it became apparent very early on that Sue’s rally would not be disrupted — both because of police saturation and the distance between the two gatherings — it then seemed to me to be a priority to contain the fascists in the reserve, and to not allow them to march through Coburg as they intended. This was accomplished, despite police action. I suppose it should be added that Coburg is a suburb with a relatively ‘diverse’ population, with about 40% of residents being born overseas (largely Italy, Greece and Lebanon) and a relatively large proportion of Muslims (between 5 and 10%), whereas the vast bulk of those attending the fascist rally came from outside Coburg and the northern suburbs (many journeyed from outside Melbourne and even interstate). In summary, despite a media and police scare campaign, many hundreds of locals, including many younger folks, joined the grouping that directly confronted the fascists to keep them penned in and unable to march — and they’ve not been back since.

Ani: What do you say to those who assert anti-fascism goes too far, or replicates fascism?

Andy: I say, ‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on’. More seriously: more often than not, I think this arises from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of fascism, one which applies the term to any instance in which someone or something is thought to be ‘authoritarian’ or ‘overbearing’; this reflects the debasement of ‘fascism’ as a sensible political term. That said, I do think it’s incumbent upon anti-fascists (as well, of course, as other political actors) to think seriously about matters of political principle, strategy and tactics, and to be vigilant in terms of not seeking to reproduce in its organisation and activity the forces which it opposes.

Ani: What sources or groups would you recommend people follow to keep up with the anti-fascist movement, in Australia or abroad? (In addition to your own channels!)

Andy: Within Australia, there’s relatively few good sources of information on the far right, but occasionally there will appear some media reportage which is useful. In Melbourne, the ‘Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’ is a campaigning group which is worth following, but I’m unaware of any comparable project outside of Melbourne. There are also several Facebook pages which document fascist and promote anti-fascist activity, for example Anti Fascist Action Sydney and Antifascist Action Brisbane. In the UK, the Anti-Fascist Network is useful, and in the US there are a number of similar, local and regional groupings and projects, for example, New York City Antifa and Rose City (Portland) Antifa. Political Research Associates has published numerous accounts of fascist and far right politics in the US, and Mark Bray’s book ‘Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook’ is recommended reading. Readers may also be interested in the titles being published in the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right series, especially ‘Anti-Fascism in Britain’. In Europe, of course, there are numerous anti-fascist groups and projects; there’s also beginning to emerge an anti-fascist community in places like Indonesia. Links to these and many other, related items of interest are available on my blog.

 

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