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Behavioural neoliberalism in the Australian outback: The quest to alter Indigenous subjectivity

27th November 2017

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At the broadest level Professor Altman’s research focuses on social justice and human rights for minority groups globally. More particularly, appropriate economic development and associated policy for Indigenous Australia

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This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

It was the writings of Loic Wacquant in Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) that first alerted me to the theoretical notion of the Daddy State of neoliberalism that has replaced the Nanny state of the late Keynesian/Fordist era.

The Daddy State deploys a new set of coercive instrumentalities that highlights duties over rights, sanctions over support, the obligations of citizenship, and deploys new technologies of surveillance for dealing firmly with the poor and the marginalised, while conveniently overlooking past social injustices.

Wacquant was writing about the punitive turn of penal policy in the USA, the carceral state’s wedding of restrictive workfare and expanding prison fare and an emerging moralistic and moralising philosophy that conceptualises poverty as a product of the individual failings of the poor.

In Australia remote living Aboriginal people were partially insulated from this neoliberal turn in social policy by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), hence perhaps the urgent aspiration for the return of an Indigenous representative body with ‘a voice’ articulated in the Uluru Statement.

But with the calculated dismantling of ATSIC—as protector against state excesses—by the Howard government, from 2005 we have witnessed a race-based shift in social policy, the problem of Indigenous poverty in remote Australia previously explained in structural and historical terms was suddenly redefined as a problem of Aboriginality, the incapability of tradition to properly adapt to late modernity and the asserted failure of the self-determination era.

This shift was aided and abetted by the influential writings of Noel Pearson in Our Right to Take Responsibility (2000) and Peter Sutton in The Politics of Suffering (2001, 2009) welcomed by political and bureaucratic elites keen to garner Indigenous and expert support for their emerging trope of Aboriginal culture as the problem.

A crude experimental state project of moral restructuring was launched in the Northern Territory (NT) a decade ago, with so-called ‘prescribed’ communities turned into carceral communities where state officials, including the federal police, were granted extraordinary powers over Indigenous citizens. With a flick of the statutory switch they were turned into mere denizens.

This experimentation was justified by an engineered representation of Aboriginal men as primitive and savage, alcohol-fuelled, out of control and violent against women and children. They were even represented as running sophisticated, and as it turned out imagined, paedophile rings. The Australian national leadership represented themselves as having to step in to protect the innocent from this fearful situation, a representation which was sympathetically promoted in the mainstream media, who were suddenly attuned to the ‘unfolding tragedy’ in remote Indigenous Australia.

Indigenous communities in the NT were powerless to stop such a race-based national emergency intervention because the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which should have afforded them protection, was suspended; and because section 122 of the Australian Constitution allows the federal parliament to make laws for the NT.

And make laws they did, after 24 hours of parliamentary scrutiny, over 500 pages of complex and exceptional statute were drawn up that targeted Indigenous behaviours with an unparalleled array of draconian measures. These measures go beyond ‘punitive neoliberalism’ (William Davis’s term in ‘The New Neoliberalism’, 2016) because they are augmented by a behavioural economics approach (of the Richard Thaler/Cass Sunstein form) that Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge and others in the federal parliament believe to be the ‘cure-all’ for ‘abnormal’ Indigenous behaviour.

Behavioural neoliberalism aims to create new forms of Indigenous subjectivity: the hard working, individualistic, educated, sensible-spending, nationally mobile and materially acquisitive subject. Regulators argue that what is needed is rapid exposure to the market in the form of marketized program delivery to ‘participants’ via ‘providers’, privatised home ownership, and preparation for work in the capitalist labour market. The Daddy State wields the ‘sticks’: income management, work for the dole, penalties for school non-attendance, and heavy policing of behaviour; but the ‘carrots’ are hard to identify: escape to mainstream work (though often none is available) and escape to private housing (even though none is usually available). Fear of punishment in the form of loss of welfare is the main stick, but also fear of loss of children for ‘failing to thrive’ and fear of incarceration for an escalating range of over-policed minor misdemeanours.

Bureaucrats in Canberra were charged with implementing this ‘banality of evil’ (in the sense of the political theorist Hannah Arendt) demanded by the political masters, in an openly racist and reactionary manner, with the hope (unrealised) of increasing popularity with voters. Then, with a change in government in 2007 devious routes were charted around the RDA — a few non-Indigenous people were included in measures so as not to attract too much international opprobrium or too much centre-left electoral backlash. In the latest manifestation of Daddy State, most evident in the punitive Community Development Program, we have seen 300,000 no show penalties in two years since 2015; and expanding Cashless Debit Card arrangements with no evidence of success. The centre-right has quickly learnt from the centre-left how to dress up race-based policy as non-discriminatory place-based policy. But the images of the drunken violent mayhem of unmanaged alcohol expenditure in Andrew Forrest sponsored promotional footage, seeking to shift public opinion in favour of income management, shows black people only.

Bureaucrats, who position themselves as experts, diagnose and correct the perceived deficits of performance of others in remote Australia, usually without any lived experience or understanding of those communities. The technical solution based on a trope so eloquently captured by fear-mongering Tony Abbott’s mantra ‘kids to school, adults to work, safe communities’ come easily to such officials. But how is this new Daddy State approach experienced on the ground where there may be no jobs, no adequate schooling and no issues with safety?

The Kuninjku-speaking community that I have worked with since 1979 in Western Arnhem Land that I would have previously described as highly adaptive and fearless, increasingly articulate their experience of this escalating punitive approach deploying idioms of fear: fear of losing their connection to country; fear of losing their cultural ways including an inability to properly respond to requests for food from hungry kin; fear of losing their children to distant child protection; fear of seeing family locked up; fear of losing the modicum of autonomy that they had created for themselves with the assistance of their local representative and advocacy organisation, fear of the emotional energy and financial cost of the next funeral; fear of not having enough to eat, of being hungry in rich 21st century Australia; fear of hope-less futures.

This year I have used two new frameworks to analyse what I observe as a direct consequence of the Daddy State deploying techniques of behavioural neoliberalism that correlate with the narratives of my interlocutors: intentional cultural genocide that is eliminating any realistic chance for on-country living; and modern-day forms of slavery that see many people required to work for the dole in ‘bullshit’ work-like activity. The result is ever deepening poverty that I am regularly observing and that is now being statistically verified by the 2016 census.

Increasingly I am experiencing my own fears: fear of defamation battles as I strive to expose the violent and destructive impacts of behavioural neoliberalism and sheet its workings home to powerful individuals; fear of the next phone call telling me of the latest premature death of a member of the Kuninjku community with whom I have had four decades of relationality; fear and anxiety that I am not doing enough to stop this destructive project.

How are we, as a nation letting this happen? How have we become so immune to suffering both domestically in relation to remote living Aboriginal people and relatedly in offshore detention centres? How can critical analysis take the next step to outline what should be done about this situation? Remote Australia desperately needs ‘voice’ to challenge the settler state imposed solutions before the Aboriginal problem is solved by a ‘final solution’ of elimination.

Jon Altman is an Emeritus Professor at RegNet specialising in social justice and human rights for minority groups globally. More particularly, appropriate economic development and associated policy for Indigenous Australia. Jon is also a research professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University, Melbourne.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet