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  Issue No 118 Official Organ of LaborNet 02 November 2001  




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Security - Who Needs it?

What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.


Surely we know that security is one of the most fundamental human needs: an irrefutable guarantee of safety, economic possibility, sociability and order; of a life lived freely without fear or hardship. That security is a universal good available to all, and a solemn pledge between citizens and their political leaders, to whom their people's security is 'the first duty', the overriding goal of domestic and international policy-making.

In the wake of the Asian crisis, the fall of Soeharto and the deployment of 6000 Australian troops to East Timor, we may no longer be so sure. Bitter recriminations followed the Timor tragedy, as commentators denounced thirty years of foreign policy for failing to prevent or prepare us for such a crisis. The Australian editorialised bitterly that 'what the events in East Timor have shown is that we are militarily weak, politically naive and strategically alone'. Among the fallout has been the Howard Government's release of a glossy public discussion paper on defence, and the unprecedented formation of a 'consultation team' which will travel the country asking for public input.

As important as such a process could be, I wonder if it will do more than scratch the surface of the debate we really need. Are we willing to think deeply about what our security means, and how it dominates our lives for the worse? How is it that Paul Keating could declare so confidently in 1995 that 'A Prime Minister's duty, his first duty, is to the security of his country', or that the ALP's 1998 platform declared the party's central values as 'security and opportunity'? What does it mean when John Howard says he wishes to give Australians a sense of security and 'home' amid otherwise sweeping change, and what connection is there between this and the harsh refugee regulations Philip Ruddock introduced last year as he declared that we faced a 'national emergency' from a wave of illegal immigrants from the Middle East? What links this desire for security and the Government's approach to welfare, or its response to Mabo and Wik?

Menaces and Contagion

This book finds this link in the search for what Manning Clark called the 'enemy without and the enemy within'. We may find it surprising that throughout Australian history security required the shipping of 180,000 convicts from England, the murder and dispossession of Aborigines, a racist immigration policy, the terrible sacrifice of the Great War, the confrontation of communism within Australia and in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, and an amoral embrace of Asian dictators such as Marcos and Soeharto. Security has been central to the construction of powerful images of national identity and otherness, and a potent, driving imperative throughout Australian history. As we celebrate the Centenary of Federation in 2001, this ought to give us pause when we look backwards with an eye to what we are, and forwards with an eye to what we might become. Amid the congratulations we ought to be asking about the price we have paid, and asked others to pay, so that we could be secure.

If to be safe from cultural strangeness is one historically powerful meaning of security, Newscorp Chairman Rupert Murdoch last year offered another. Speaking to the Asia Society he lectured Australians against allowing their international policies to be 'driven purely by humanitarian or moralistic concerns, divorced from attention to the national interest'. He warned, alarmingly, that the 'pursuit of a foreign policy based on moralism can lead to a massive loss of sovereignty'. Murdoch's specific target was Australia's deployment to East Timor - which, having strained relations with Indonesia and cost over $1 billion, he hinted was made at an excessive cost to the 'national interest'. No doubt he was also concerned about Newscorp's interests in China, whose leaders he had appeased by censoring Star TV, blocking the publication of a book by the former Governor of Hong Kong and praising China's brutal rule in Tibet.

Both Murdoch and Ruddock make the same rhetorical ploy: just as refugee flows are a 'national emergency', Murdoch invokes the vulnerability of the nation in his ridiculous claim that humanitarian intervention could lead to a 'massive loss of sovereignty'. They imagine security on the basis of a bounded and vulnerable identity in perpetual opposition to an outside-an Other-whose character and claims threaten its integrity and safety. Ever since Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin began to argue for the formation of an Australian Federation in the face of the threats posed by the populous and threatening civilisations of Asia, such an image of security and identity has been a constant in Australian life. The community imagined in such claims is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power which seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who are thrust outside its protective embrace. This is the clear implication of the former diplomat Richard Woolcott's argument, as late as 1995, that 'sentimental notions of self-determination for East Timor or Bougainville...threaten our national security'. Likewise Keating, after signing a mutual security agreement with Indonesia's President Soeharto the same year, stated that: 'We are not going to hock the entire relationship on Timor. A Prime Minister's duty, his first duty, is to the security of his country'. How many must die, we might ask, so that we should be secure?

Imagined in such terms, security is a practice of exclusion: a practice of identity and being through exclusion. After Murdoch's comments and the tough new refugee laws, we are forced to ask once again whether an 'Australian' community will be thought on the basis of a walled and insecure identity, or a generous and outward-looking diversity. Should we accept that Australia's 'national interest' and 'sovereignty' would have been better preserved by not antagonising Indonesia as its army and militias perpetrated genocide in East Timor? This was certainly the Howard Government's approach until September 1999, when the scale of the killing crossed even their threshold of indifference. Should we likewise accept that our security demands the suspension of the human rights of one class of refugees over another?

If we do not, and the overwhelming popular support for the deployment of peacekeeping forces to East Timor suggests we do not, we have a lot of work to do. This work, at least in a small way, is the task of this book. The great obstacle it encounters is that Australia's political, media and bureaucratic elites consider a need for security axiomatic, as do many of us. The book asks what it means to be secure in two ways: by interrogating the concept of security itself, and by weighing the price of its realisation through Australian history and its impact on the possible forms of an 'Australian' culture and community. It asks whether things had to be this way-what other forms of being, identity and interrelationship might be imagined once the suffocating political embrace of security is escaped.

Security Has No Truth

Yet how are we to understand a security which, in the mouths of diplomats and political leaders, appears like a perversion of language itself? Because the clear implication of their arguments is that 'our' security-our very existence-is to be wagered on the death and suffering of the ten thousand who perished in Bougainville during ten years of war, the more than two hundred thousand Timorese victims of the twenty-four year Indonesian occupation, or the millions who died during the West's thirty year war on Vietnamese communism. What of their security? Wouldn't such a contradiction render security meaningless?

This is a very real problem. The history this book describes takes us into an Orwellian universe in which truth is often a cynical device, in which concepts appear to mean their opposites, and in which our civilisation's grand dreams of progress and enlightenment are drawn aside to reveal an underlying structure of baseness and horror. To live, as we do, in the linguistic universe of our leaders and bureaucratic elites is to live in a place where the oxymoronic slogans of George Orwell's 1984-'Freedom is Slavery', 'Ignorance is Strength', 'War is Peace'-appear as a new principle of reality. No doubt, we have created some of our own: 'Prosperity is Want', 'Security is Fear'.

Yet the European political theorist R. N. Berki sees no contradictions. For him, security is fear: Seeking after security for oneself and being a cause of insecurity for others are not just closely related; they are the same thing, with no chance of either logical or existential separation...when the chips are down, and to a certain degree, they are always is my life, my freedom, my security versus the rest of the human race.

As important as it is to struggle against such dilemmas, they will not be easily escaped, and not by simplistic appeals to truth. Security has no truth. This is something East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo knows well-after the murder of a youth by Indonesian security forces on the eve of the 1991 Dili Massacre, he exclaimed: 'The news put out by TVRI was false! False! The truth turned upside down. We live in a country where bad is good, light is dark, and there is no justice!'

Security has no truth. What could I possibly mean by this? While security is always spoken about as a universal, commonsense value, I wonder if security's power instead lies in the very slipperiness of its significations, its ironic structure of meaning, its ability to have an almost universal appeal yet name very different arrangements of order and possibility for different groups of people. Spoken like this, claims to security receive consent based upon the thinnest pretence of common understanding-a common understanding which does not in fact exist.

Thwarting Security

Thus, it may be more useful to worry less about what security is than how it operates as a form of power. My view is that security is a particularly sweeping and insidious form of power that runs through the entire social body. It is what Michel Foucault called a 'political technology', one that is able to construct and influence subjectivity, national life and geopolitics-often all at once. In this way security has been crucial to the cultural, political and economic contours of both an 'Australian' nation and a post-war 'Asia-Pacific' modernity. When we see the Current Affairs Bulletin describe the Cold War in 1952 as less a strategic contest than 'a struggle for the hearts and minds of men', or John Howard say in the 1999 Federation Address that 'the success or failure of a nation essentially begins in the homes of its people', we are witness to a technology which seeks to tie our bodies and hearts into a transnational circulation of power, money and resources - too often without our full understanding or say. There are countless other examples, from figures as diverse as Henry Parkes, Billy Hughes, John Curtin, Paul Keating and Mahathir Mohammed. Differences between Labor and conservative, east and west, democracy and autocracy mean little when contrasted with this common injunction to work, consume, identify and consent. Within such discourses division and dissent - whether in the form of strikes, protests, mutinies or guerrilla wars -- appear as illegitimate threats to security rather than valid forms of expression and struggle.

Despite its undoubted historical force, and its ability to insinuate itself into our bodies and dreams, security is not unassailable. We can undermine its power by identifying the concrete practices and strategies that lie beneath its promises of safety and being. Against security's constant injunction to 'discover what we are', we could explore Foucault's intriguing challenge to 'refuse what we are' -- to discover ways of being, and of social, cultural and economic organisation that disrupt its entire discursive imagination. But that perhaps is another story, one we can all help tell.


Anthony Burke has published widely in cultural theory, politics and international relations, and is a published author of fiction. He currently works as a researcher in the Senate.


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*   Issue 118 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Flying High
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
*  Corporate: Howard's List of Shame
ACTU President Shaharn Burrow runs through the litany of corporate collapses and down-sizes that have cut a swathe through the Australian community.
*  Campaign Diary: Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
*  Industrial: Desperately Seeking Solutions
They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.
*  Economics: Manufacturing Prosperity
Neale Towart looks at the hidden debate of the election campaign - the degree of intervention government should take through Industry Policy.
*  History: War And Politics
The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say itís a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.
*  International: Globalising Labour
On the eve of the International Metalworkers Federation Congress general secretary Marcello Malentacchi argues all nations need to retain a manufacturing base.
*  Review: Security - Who Needs it?
What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.
*  Satire: Locksmith Promises "Greater Security" If Elected
A Melbourne locksmith has agreed to run for federal parliament, campaigning on the key issue of security.

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