By Luke Alexander
Amongst the Australian bourgeois left commentariat, on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, a form of consensus seems to be emerging – that of the compliant Australian. The story goes that, contrary to the myth of the iconoclastic larrikin, Australians’ response to the pandemic indicates that we are instead a nation of compliant, law-abiding citizens. This was a theme I first heard on the ABC’s ‘The Party Room’ podcast, and which has been picked up and extended by Waleed Aly in his op-ed piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘‘Carefree larrikin is a myth. Australians are obedient to authority’’. Let’s look at the Aly piece as an example of this counter-myth of the compliant Australian, as it is the most developed version of the story.
Aly contrasts the USA’s burgeoning COVID caseload with Australia’s successes in restricting the virus, and attributes this to differing elements of national psychology. The USA, we are told, loves freedom and hates government intervention, which is why the virus has spread so quickly there. In contrast, Aly asserts that the Australian national psychology can be characterised by the facts that “we love a closed border, we’re a surprisingly anxious people in the face of immediate threats, we’re very obedient to authority and we have a deep belief in the role of government to solve our problems”. It is these elements of national psyche, he asserts, that have made the lockdowns here successful and kept the COVID caseload low. These elements, however, stand in contrast to the myths Australians tell about themselves, such as that of Waltzing Matilda, which see them as anti-authoritarian larrikin types.
This is the kind of seductive, vaguely contrarian commentary that seems to be a feature much of the media landscape. And like so much of this kind of commentary, it is based on common myths and tropes, that on closer inspection are at best insubstantial and at worst fundamentally flawed. No doubt many of you can already see the faulty assumptions at work – that lockdowns are the best or perhaps only way to address the pandemic; that most Americans love freedom, hate the state, and don’t care about COVID-19. However, it is the notion of the compliant Australian that I would like to address here, because as a political fiction it is particularly potent.
The notion of the compliant Australian works firstly by erasing struggles in our country to the nation-state. In a flick of a pen, Aly restricts his focus to the Australian nation-state, erasing the ongoing struggle by the Indigenous inhabitants of this country against the racist settler colonial project that seeks to displace them. Current historical work by the likes of Callum Clayton-Dixon and others shows that there was an ongoing frontier war conducted by Indigenous groups against white settlers for many years. This struggle continues through the 20th century and to the present day. Aly also glosses over conflicts amongst white and other settlers over the past 200 years – the Eureka Stockade, the conflicts over conscription during the First World War, the Vietnam war demonstrations, and more. These examples are just the more overt demonstrations of resistance to the capitalist nation-state. In addition to these more overt examples of resistance there is the constant low-level resistance to authority in all societies, even the most brutal regimes, that anthropologist James C. Scott points out. This form of resistance in Australian history has recently been explored by Babette Smith, who identifies how low-level convict struggles in the workplace characterised the colonial state and modern notions of Australian egalitarianism.
It is not just the notion of compliance that is problematic, but also the very notion of an Australian identity. In analysing and troubling the notion of ‘compliance’, we can see the limits of sweeping notions of national psychology and identity. While particular cultural practices may characterise some groups of people in certain times and places, to generalise these to an essential and uniform ‘national identity’ is fairly lazy form of thought. Notions of national identity such as that put forward by Aly are examples of what Michael Billig terms ‘banal nationalism’, the ongoing formation of notions of nationhood through everyday discourses and practices.
This notion of national identity is one that is commonly promulgated by bourgeois ideological apparatuses such as governments, media, and schools. One important reason for this promulgation of nationalism and national identity is that it glosses over social conflict around class, race, and gender. Society is viewed very simply and holistically as united around a uniform national identity, ignoring very real differences that exist. This notion of national identity is common across the mainstream political specturm too, and is an idea that oddly unites the likes of Andrew Bolt with Waleed Aly. While there are differences between right-wing and left-wing commentators over what defines national identity, neither side questions nor troubles the notion itself. National identities, whether they be of larrikins or compliant citizens, are invariably political fictions designed to serve certain class interests. It doesn’t matter whether the national identity serves the interests of the pro-business right or social democratic left, the notion of national identity must be abandoned in the creation of a better world for all.