“A radically evil Third Reich operative living inside the deceptively normal shell of a bland bureaucrat.” This was how Thomas White, writing for aeon.co in April, summarised a historian’s view of Adolf Eichmann, responsible for sending millions to Hitler’s concentration camps.
I thought of this as I read the outpouring in the liberal press of dismay, shock and disbelief that government senators voted for a fascist-inspired motion by Australia’s best-known racist declaring “It’s OK to be white”. I thought of the controversy that raged around Hanna Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” after watching Eichmann in his 1961 Jerusalem trial.
The Guardian’s Jason Wilson wrote, “The far right lies, sows confusion, and hides its intentions in order to mainstream its messages. Careless, ignorant or actively sympathetic politicians help them.” Careless? Ignorant? The debate in the Senate made it clear what was at stake.
Bernard Keane of Crikey felt insulted, trying to unpack the illogical, inane claim by the top law maker in the land, Christian Porter, that it was a mistake caused by an “administrative process error”, asking “Do they take us for fools?” The Saturday Paper stood out with the headline “Government votes for racist motion”. Others denounced it as a ploy to maintain Hanson’s votes. Labor’s Penny Wong, in a monumental failure of understanding, called them “sheep”.
But the most senior of these bland politicians tweeted afterwards that they opposed all forms of racism, code that they support the offensive far right idea that there is “anti-white racism”.
So, for a day, 23 government senators stood openly with white supremacists around the world bleating about white victimhood. Their vote against the resubmitted motion the next day cannot erase the truth of their sympathy with fascistic white supremacists. These are our elected representatives living inside the deceptively normal shell of bland politicians.
This is the end point of over 20 years of culture wars, of policies that promote racist hate – which demonise and jail Indigenous people, victimise Muslims, torture refugees and embolden immigration ministers to promise special refugee visas for South African white farmers. So why the shock among journalists?
Arendt’s critics wanted her to say that Eichmann was evil personified, something outside the comprehension of decent citizens imbued with Enlightenment (i.e. Western capitalist) values. A horror, not of capitalism, but alien to it. I once taught a subject at university in which the highly regarded lecturer argued that fascism was so evil, it could not possibly be understood as the logic of capitalism.
What? Genocide of indigenous peoples, demonisation of refugees incarcerated in concentration camps by those who perpetrated the wars and destruction from which they flee, hungry children in the richest countries, the colour of your skin can determine whether you are honoured, reviled, live or die. This is the banal evil of everyday capitalism.
But fascism, which goes a few steps further and dispenses with the facade of democracy, exists outside the system? For one thing, anti-democratic regimes are hardly uncommon. But the liberal assumption that capitalism can be humane, that politicians are at worst bumbling fools including perhaps a few closet racists, seriously limits the ability to understand neoliberalism and its consequences.
To rule in this system of crisis, chaos and inhumanity, you have to be prepared to strip away the veneer of decency and pummel the oppressed into submission. As the crisis of neoliberalism deepens, increasing numbers of those in power accept this as a looming necessity. Shocked outrage is good, but we also need understanding.
The right of the Coalition government are increasingly prepared to give the nod to fascists, following in the footsteps of their heroes like Robert Menzies, who as attorney general and prime minister openly admired Hitler.
This was a rare moment when their deceptively normal mask slipped. Every such moment normalises ever more extreme racist attitudes and encourages and fuels the confidence of growing fascist movements everywhere.