Border anxiety and the assault on hope in contemporary society
Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for hope in a shrinking society (Sydney: Pluto Press, 2003).
University of New South Wales
1. In this book, Ghassan Hage argues that the dominant mode of expressing one's attachment to the nation in the contemporary Western world has become a form of nationalism obsessed with border politics and a general anxiety about the state of the nation itself. In particular, Hage posits that this "paranoid nationalism is primarily the product of the 'decline of hope' in an era where the dynamics of capital accumulation no longer produces mere inequalities within society, but endangers the very idea of a national society" (47). The idea of national societies as mechanisms for the production and distribution of hope follows Bourdieu's conception of the society as "a mechanism for the generation of meanings for life" (16). Hage explores dynamics of this process with reference to the ways in which modern societies have gradually narrowed boundaries of ethical responsibility internationally, and have reduced their capacity to be instruments for the "production and distribution of hope" domestically. The absence of such hope in contemporary Western societies is central, he argues, to creating an anxiety about the nation that manifests itself in the denial of ethical responsibility or caring for others. Debates concerning Australia's colonial history and multiculturalism, and dynamics regarding Australia's White Australia Policy, its recent treatment of asylum-seekers, the 'fundamentalism' of Prime Minister Howard's conception of Australian identity and the phenomenon of Palestinian suicide-bombers are all explored as a means of pointing to the conditions that have given rise to the overall climate of worrying in the Western world in general and Australia in particular.
2. Hage is arguably at his vitriolic best when railing against the Australian conservative government's manipulation and deployment of Australian identity, history and 'insecurity'. He notes that this government has simultaneously created among the populace a significant concern for the security of Australia whilst undermining the value of the society in need of being secured. As he argues, "paranoid nationalism sets in when… the aggressive politics of the border takes over the very interior it is supposed to be protecting" (32). Hage grounds this dynamic in the metaphor of the 'fatherland' and the 'motherland'. The former guards the society within from external threats in a 'protective' way, while the latter 'nurtures' or provides hope for its citizens from within, providing the foundation of that society itself. Examples of the Australian government's approach to asylum-seekers and terrorism are both used here to illuminate the dynamics wherein the quality of domestic society is undermined by the paranoid and belligerent defence of territorial boundaries. This point, and in particular the politics of fear implicated in the 'security' project, evokes elements of Anthony Burke's important work, In Fear of Security (Annandale: Pluto Australia, 2001).
3. The reduction of the 'mothering' role of Australian society has also been reinforced, for Hage, by the forces of neo-liberal capital expansion, in which the desire to attract investment has involved an abdication of some of the central responsibilities of the government to its citizens. The government's willingness to position itself as desirable for international capital flows has often involved, for Hage, a reduction in the core ethical functions of the national society itself. He identifies such dynamics in the government's language of 'mutual obligation' concerning recipients of welfare, for example, in which the government wants "to leave us with an impoverished enterprise bargaining-like concept that conjures up ideas of contractual rather than ethical compulsion" (146). Indeed, for his attempt to systematically scale-back the ethical obligations to the most vulnerable inherent in the idea of the welfare state, Hage argues, Prime Minister "Howard…should be remembered as - among other things - the man who wanted to introduce God into the constitution and take Him out of our daily lives" (4). He further depicts Howard as a fundamentalist, based on Howard's essentialist readings of Australian history (with his rejection of the 'black-arm band view' of the past, p.74) and Australian identity (with his positing of a timeless conception of what it means to be Australian).
4. Like Hage's earlier work, Against Paranoid Nationalism is frequently confronting. While clearly opposed to the politics of the right, he also frequently takes issue with the intellectual left, for its condemnation of Palestinian suicide-bombers (136-137) and its failure to come to terms with the inherent contradictions in Australian history (90-97), for example. Indeed, this capacity to challenge the reader is one of Hage's greatest strengths; although leads to the obvious point that few will not take issue with at least some of his assertions.
5. Seven of the nine chapters of this book have appeared as separate articles in a range of journals. As such, and as may well be expected, the text itself appears somewhat disjointed at times, with attempts to demonstrate the relevance of some of the empirical issues and societal dynamics identified to the central focus and argument of the text appearing somewhat tenuous. The chapter dealing with Palestinian suicide bombers (PSBs), while illuminating in terms of the ethical complexities of conceptualizing and addressing 'terrorism' in general and PSBs in particular, appears particularly out of place in a text that focuses almost exclusively on the Australian context. In general, this book certainly lacks both the cohesion and empirical depth of White Nation. Further, Hage frequently struggles to walk the fine-line necessitated by the goal of public intellectualism to which he aspires: his tendency towards polemic may be a source of critique for academics while the theoretical complexity and subtlety of much of his analysis may undermine readership in the broader populace.
6. These criticisms or limitations notwithstanding, this book constitutes an important contribution to contemporary debate about Australian society. Hage's sophisticated treatment of a range of topics central to the problems facing contemporary society makes this an important text in critical analyses of the relationships between the state, society, political economy, ethics, hope and anxiety. Indeed, his argument that the reduced capacity of national societies to distribute hope, in turn contributing to a paranoid nationalism, could hardly be a more appropriate focus for analysis given the contemporary climate of fear associated with the threat of terrorism in the Western world, and asylum-seekers in Australia. While at times the attempt to sustain this theme throughout, and in particular to establish linkages between the complex issues addressed by Hage in a cohesive way appears a little stretched, few could have come closer to realizing such a difficult goal than this author. His frequently passionate call to recognize and redress the seemingly inexorable reduction of national societies' ethical inclinations and capacities is particularly refreshing at a time when a politics of fear and a narrowly defined conception of 'national interest' permeates political discourse in Australia.
Matt McDonald is a Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales. His recently completed PhD thesis explored the relationship between environmental change and conceptions of security. His most recent publications have addressed theories of security, Australia's approach to asylum-seekers and the relationship between environmental change and security. Email: email@example.com
© borderlands ejournal 2003