Signs Lit in the Night
Between the Last Oasis and the next Mirage
by Guy Rundle
Melbourne University Press
If Australia were invaded, should it be defended? This is the question at the heart of a short essay by Guy Rundle published in Arena in July 2020. Responding to the release of the Morrison government’s last defence strategy paper, the essay began by re-hashing some common left-wing critiques of Australian foreign policy. Australia, Rundle argued, is wrong to see China as aiming for world dominance, wrong that other Asian nations view China in this way, and arrogant in thinking the rest of Asia does not notice Australia’s failure to create genuine links with the region. Such arguments are familiar enough, but for Rundle they only invited larger questions. In an increasingly unstable world, and taking into account ‘the asymmetrical ease of our annihilation’ by nuclear-armed states, ‘the Left’, argued Rundle, is obliged to consider not only ‘what a defence policy should be’ but also ‘what degree of national defence it would be committed to at all’ – to ask, in short, ‘under what circumstances, both morally and practically, Australia should be defended’. Either this ‘continent-polity’ should – and Rundle is doubtful it could – engineer ‘a culture of defensive militarism and readiness, drawing on a civic patriotism’. Or Australians could simply make ‘the realistic admission that if East Asia wants this continent – a desire that may well be driven by climate change – it will take it, and it would be bloodily futile to resist’. And this admission would give rise, for Rundle, to an even wider question, namely:
how would we preserve the channels and dimensions of a distinctive Australian culture and lifeway under conditions in which the polity of this continent was no longer something called ‘Australia’ – in which life went on, but the British settler-colonial project had been decisively abolished?
This bracing piece was unlike anything else written in response to the strategy review. In its rapid movement from standard discussion of recent news to a frank consideration of the most fundamental questions posed by such, it is characteristic of Guy Rundle’s singular writings over the past thirty-odd years.
As correspondent-at-large for Crikey, long-time associate editor of Arena, and frequent contributor to a huge range of other Australian news publications (he may well be the most prolific writer in Australia today) Rundle has cultivated a distinctive mode of analysis. On an almost daily basis, in essays rarely longer than 1200 words, Rundle submits current affairs to ‘a process of politicised reflection going ever deeper’, as he put it in a recent piece. The output of this process, a fraction of which has now been collected in Between the Last Oasis and the Next Mirage: Writings on Australia (Melbourne UP, 2021), has proved some of the most original and uncategorisable theorising of contemporary Australian life. Though most of his work has involved detailed political reportage, Rundle is not exactly, or only, a journalist: his approach, which takes the news cycle as an access-point to profound layers of cultural and political meaning, is out of phase with the more modest ambitions of ‘straight’ journalism. His intellectual scope is peripatetic and non-specialist, and neither is his learning or wit assimilable to the masses of banal, festival circuit ‘commentary’ produced by Australia’s countless self-styled ‘public intellectuals’. Some have described Rundle as a practitioner of ‘gonzo’, which is sometimes right, though this author-as-protagonist genre doesn’t capture the objectivity at which articles like the one above aim. There’s clearly something of the preacher to him, launching off from text to sermon, and he’s also learned much from his time writing TV sketch comedy, whose little jokes bust, as he’s put it, the illogic of the given world. Marx had the concept Disseitigkeit or ‘this-sidedness’ – and perhaps that is the way to describe what Rundle goes for: how in essay after essay he breaks open the narrow terms of conventional debate to bring into view a fuller sweep of ‘this side’ or this world, of everyday life, its small battles and scraps of news, and then shows up their hidden, larger significances.
Filling in a picture of Australia as a sort of nowhere-place, where social relations are deeply adaptable to policy direction, and where a thin cultural life is supported only by a low content of habits and customs, many of Rundle’s essays figure the nation as a zone where ‘the continuity is discontinuity’, and ‘regimes of life are created and then folded up, more easily than we care to admit’. Australia, after all, is a world-historically weird place. Its establishment through genocide as a penal settlement without citizens – the first gulag – gave rise to an obsessional anxiety around the integrity of borders internal and external, as well as, paradoxically, an absolute dependency on greater foreign powers. Such conditions of politico-cultural contingency, according to Rundle, have meant that it is in Australia that certain global processes have been able to reach, uninhibited by any dense national tradition, hyper-advanced stages. Australia on this view is a ‘laboratory’ (a word to which Rundle often returns) in which our age’s manifold horrors – such as, to name some of Rundle’s main concerns, working-class decomposition, distracting identity politics, sadistic refugee policy, bureaucratised colonialism, Western imperialism, brown energy addiction, soul-maiming suburbanisation, cultural philistinism, and on and on – are tested and refined.
And yet as Rundle’s final twist in his response to the defence strategy paper makes plain, this is not the whole story: if the polity called ‘Australia’ may be indefensible, there is nevertheless something worth preserving about ‘a distinctive Australian culture and lifeway’. For if Australia’s provisionality, its lack of a deep historical sense, means it is a place where very little impedes the exploration and development of novel forms of evil, it also suggests to Rundle, in his most hopeful moments, the possibility for the trying-out of alternative, more fully human ways of life.
That is why for every essay in the Crikey and Arena archives documenting the death-dealing forces growing in the Australian lab, there is one that makes clear the richness of the lives led in defiance of them, and the collection features several moving tributes to (mainly, as Rundle emphasises, communist) activists, from the feminist Zelda d’Apprano to the BLF leader Jack Mundey. Rundle is a master of the bravura closing line, and the final sentence of the obit for the latter is magnificent (even its grammatical slippage is inconsequential because of the superb cadence and Wordsworthian echo):
[Mundey’s] work is done and achieved and complete, and he is committed to roll in the diurnal course of the planet he fought for, and the principle on which such politics is based, scorning the cynicism of dead capital piled in steel and glass – that the fight is worth it because the world is a beautiful place.
At the theoretical heart of this politics, which can balance hostility to an abstract construction like ‘Australia’ with a sensual attachment to the concrete life practices hosted there, is the concept of ‘constitutive abstraction’. The term belongs to the (often dense) vocabulary of Arena, the post-Marxist publishing collective founded in Melbourne in 1963 under the leadership of the social theorists Geoff and Nonie Sharp, and which Rundle joined in the late 1980s (part of the story of that era is recounted, replete with a New Order-led soundtrack, in the extraordinary 2018 essay ‘Every Time I See You Falling’). The Arena line – pioneered by the Sharps (who drew on the German philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel), and elaborated by figures such as Gerry Gill, John and Melinda Hinkson, Simon Cooper, Paul James, Alison Caddick, and, in a recent New Left Review, by Timothy Erik Ström, as well as Rundle himself – was that, during the last decades of the twentieth century manual and repetitive labour played a decreasingly central role in national economic life. Now, according to Sharp, ‘new technologies operated by differently trained personnel have moved toward the forefront’. These personnel are often called in Arena the ‘intellectually trained’, and the collective has done a lot of work tracking how this new class’s expertise in emerging technologies has increasingly divided them from the old working class, itself decomposing. And so, for instance, Geoff Sharp could say in 2009 of the move away from copper cabling that:
The switch to fibre-optic cabling and its implications … profoundly break with that expression of a reality within which common sense operates. The appeal of the virtual works within a different register. A ‘reality’ which beckons as if from the entrance to another place, the post-human condition.
Against such a future, the collective proposed:
to rebuild a society within social forms constituted at different levels of abstraction, where the immediate relations of direct presence are set within institutions of family and community that can ground, even while not fully embracing, the course of a whole lifetime.
On the level of its own practice, Arena pitched itself against the division of manual and intellectual labour which its theory described. Building up cooperative, face-to-face association in its city and country bases, in Fitzroy and Malmsbury, the group, shunning Keating-era state funding for (and industrialisation of) the arts, operated their own printing presses, made their own delivery runs, and constructed buildings to host their activities. While the collective split its analysis of current affairs and more technical social theory between different publications – Arena Magazine and Arena Journal –Rundle bridged the divide, and the virtue of a ‘collected’ presentation of his work is that his athletically responsive news analysis and more far-roving theorising appear side-by-side, clarifying the organising themes of an output which it can be hard to see as a whole when read on a subscription basis.
Perhaps Rundle’s major theme, at least in this collection, is the extending influence of the ‘knowledge-culture class’, whose early emergence Arena had theorised. The thesis is simple. Our economy is growing increasingly automated, policy-driven, and oriented toward cultural production. In this context, the people who do that kind of work – for example, managers (in corporations, unions, political parties, and elsewhere), scientists, lawyers, engineers, medical specialists, cultural producers, advertisers, or the academics who train all these people – have emerged as a distinct class. ‘At home’ in worlds of abstractions, from images to mindsets to statistics to texts, their class politics and class culture is likewise abstract and non-materialist. Events in language, gesture, and culture take on, for such people, huge political significance (Rundle pointed earlier this year to Grace Tame’s news cycle-dominating glare at Scott Morrison), while concrete political questions (e.g., ‘how should we counteract rising mental unhealth?’) are framed less as opportunities for contestation and more as problems solvable by the application of specialised intellect through technocratic bodies (‘Beyond Blue’). Unique to this class formation is that even though some of its members are salaried/waged workers, and some are business owners, their economic interests are increasingly converging, since more and more of their work is directed toward the elimination of manual or repetitive labour and toward the construction of a society ever more dominated by skilled brainpower.
Above all, as this emergent class consolidates its elite status it changes in turn the mode in which elite power is exercised. Political parties, for instance, once embedded in the wider population, are now run almost entirely by these types, and Rundle is the sharpest analyst around of the post-mass-membership political party. In his coverage of internal party manoeuvrings (as in his detailed summaries of Victorian Labor’s recent branch-stacking scandals, or his reporting on the Kimberley Kitching saga, which exposed claims that the senator was ‘bullied to death’ as rooted in hawkish, Labor Right factionalism), or his indispensable election coverage, Rundle consistently points out how the organisation and platforms of party politics are being differently shaped by their increasing domination by the knowledge class (sections of which have now attached to ‘teal’ candidates).
Take refugee policy. Australia’s immigration regime has always been cruel. But Rundle insists, and in language which shows up the influence of this rising class of scientists and policy wonks, that the establishment of places like Manus and Nauru as zones for the torment and social death of refugees marks a new era: Australia is a ‘laboratory’ for ‘new forms of managed, bureaucratised human cruelty’, since ‘having abandoned manufacturing, we have put all our energy for innovation into the containment and psychological cowing of human beings.’ Whereas European governments, thinks Rundle, will deliberately allow refugees to drown at sea, they cannot bring themselves to ‘the slow application of despair that we have now calibrated, benchmarked and KPIed into standard operating procedure’.
Foreign affairs is a similar story. While the Australian state lethally ‘manages’ its borders it also flings them open to the multidimensional influence of American empire, and Rundle is one of the country’s most dependably anti-imperialist writers. Having spent much of the Obama years in America for Crikey (earlier books, Down To The Crossroads and The Shellacking, documented the 2008 election and the 2010 mid-terms, and later essays were collected in Practice (2019)), he has an acute sense of how deeply America’s culture has mutated the form and content of Australia’s own. Sometimes the account of these mutations is eccentric: one essay in the collection recounts Rundle’s search for the Californian origins of the Marco Polo pool game which he played as a child in the suburbs of Melbourne, and the story of which he takes as characteristic of:
the mid 1970s, [when] the relationship between Australian everyday life and American mass culture was transformed so that the latter crawled into the heart of the former, and took it to become a rapid replicator, as a virus will a host cell.
But mainly the essays on imperialism are deadly serious, as in one from 2015 (and Rundle has recently returned to this subject), which makes the case for understanding Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as a CIA-backed coup executed in the Cold War context of America’s ‘global power structure guarding against an insurgent global populace’. And this collection comes before Rundle’s many recent interventions over mounting panic in Australia about the rise of China, the Allied retreat from Afghanistan and the unfolding mass starvations there, the establishment of AUKUS, with its corollary investment in nuclearization, and the almost total media adoption of the NATO line regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Writing across these events, Rundle, pretty much alone among Australian commentators in the mainstream press, is blunt about the racism which underpins Australia’s sycophantic willingness to participate in world-spanning American-led ‘forward defence’.
Here again Rundle detects the hand of the knowledge-culture class. Australia, as a ‘sub-imperial’ lieutenant to America, has always prosecuted its foreign relations on the basis of shared whiteness. But the rising class of the intellectually trained now project their social progressivism onto geopolitics, revesting American imperialism in the more approvable discourse of human rights. In this position the knowledge-culture class, for Rundle, join, despite themselves, an openly bloodthirsty right-wing, who only prefers to express its racist imperialism in older appeals to religion or ‘civilisation’. Against these twin chauvinisms – with their pliant representatives in Australian media – Rundle keeps an eye to the wider, non-Western world. ‘For Westerners,’ he writes, in an essay on the militarist commemorations of the Vietnam War, ‘the lesson has to be learned – the history of the second half of the twentieth century is not about you. It is the story of the south and the east and its liberation from imperialism, at an incredible cost.’ In Australia, this kind of Western self-centring in history takes the specific form of a compulsive framing of every conflict, no matter how far away or disparate, as a cosmic struggle for national survival. What explains this? The answer is obvious. ‘We do not want to be reminded that the one war for national survival on our own soil was fought against whites, not by them.’
Despite such pronouncements this collection does not thematise Aboriginal history or politics (though his reflections on Black Power in the obituaries of the activists Denis Walker and Sol Bellear are worth returning to). The reason for Rundle’s relative silence on this point may be, as he puts it mordantly, again skewering the ascendent knowledge economy, ‘because [he has] nothing to offer yet except cliché, and the manufacture of cliché about Indigenous Australia is what we now have instead of a car industry’. And yet Australia’s foundational massacres and land thefts – those committed during that one and only ‘war for national survival’ – go to the very heart of the provisionality and cultural thinness which Rundle finds characteristic of Australian life. As his response to the defence paper makes plain, Rundle thinks it is at least an open question whether Australia could cohere as a nation by reaching back into its own past, since doing so would mean running up quickly against the state’s basis in extermination. The failure to resolve settler relations, then, is fundamental to why Australia could fail to defend itself in a crisis such as invasion. And ‘anyone who believes that proposition to be science-fictive’, Rundle concludes, ‘should remember that the society that would be ended by such an event was begun with, for someone else, exactly that sort of catastrophe.’
Of course, a growing minority of Australians now recognise the state’s origins in the catastrophe of European colonisation. But such ‘progressivism’, for Rundle, often issues less in solidarity than in ‘shame’. And shame, as he writes,
is an invitation to withdraw from collective national life altogether, into a class/group narcissism. The energy that would flow into politics is then reflowed into art, private life, self-cultivation. I suspect we have already seen the beginnings of this, and it explains various disjunctive events: many thousands of people marching down from their million-dollar homes in Northcote and Brunswick to a 26 January Abolish Australia Day rally, and cheering someone to ‘burn Australia down’, before going off to a $30 breakfast and a film at the Nova, would be an example.
There is no question that Rundle is caricaturing types that are all too real. The problem, however, and this goes to the core of his theory of the ‘knowledge-culture class’, is that the caricature may miss important distinctions and divisions within that grouping. For one thing, Rundle sometimes smooths over economic differences. For instance, some white progressives attending the rally might own their own homes – but many others will be struggling with the increasingly severe rental crisis. In the form and content of their lives, these two imaginary groups closely resemble each other; they may have similar values, similar tastes, are probably known to each other, maybe they work together. And yet the prospects of the asset-owning class are far rosier. At the same time, Rundle’s setting together of ‘knowledge’ and ‘culture’ workers also has its limitations. What does a software engineer, whose very thoughts constitute IP sought after by major firms, have in common, to put it bluntly, with a sessional lecturer in literature, whose peculiar skills are valued only in specific institutional contexts, failing which they often need to re-train, even for jobs which they would nominally have requisite skills for (such as high school teaching)? In fact, isn’t knowledge work – especially of the techno-scientific bent – increasingly antagonistic to cultural production?
Rundle also writes on the ‘identity politics’ of this class: although not collected in this book, many essays have argued that particular oppressed subjects – the trans person, the refugee, the Indigenous person – have been fetishised by a progressivist elite class just as it has become increasingly disconnected, as the twentieth century retreats from view, from older subjects of history, like an organised working class or an international proletariat or peasantry. Even more, this class’s cultural views – on, say, gay marriage or trans identity, on which issues Rundle has set himself provocatively at odds with many progressives – have transformed into both a rigid class morality and support for creeping state intrusion, non-adherence to which is less and less forgiven, thus imperilling the possibility of long-term cross-class coalition and solidarity. Some of Rundle’s readers will disagree with him on these issues.
If Rundle disavows any commitment to the settler Australian nation-state he does not also call, in the manner of some decolonial thinkers today, for the ‘abolition’ of the lifeways which have flourished inside that state. Instead, Rundle sees – and this is where the bulk of the collection is preoccupied – the contingency and emptiness of Australia as having generated both monstrous horrors as well as creative and rich forms of life. On this view, Australia’s lack of any delusion about a ‘national destiny’ has opened political possibilities unavailable to other, older, more entrenched polities. And in attending to this side of the country Rundle is at his best, selecting details from Australian social life – such as, chosen pretty much at random, and not just from this book, the ending of the Holden line, the demolition of a big Sydney gay pub in favour of a hospital expansion, the closure of a community garden, or the death of a Richmond shopkeeper – and joining them up to the interchanges and flows of culture, politics, and meaning. The wind up of Holden is symbolic of the Right’s opposition to the ‘basic principle that a society should produce the means of its own life’. The Green Park Hotel’s replacement by a suicide prevention centre is part of the ‘tale of modernity: the conjunction of capital and discursive power, and the war of institutions against life’. The bulldozing of the Collingwood Children’s Farm is an assault on ‘the messy, untidy, rich, various, grounded, earthy, spontaneous pursuit of life – the uneven way’. And the passing of Soner Kurtoglu, owner of the Ni-Sa Deli, was a loss, in a city of franchises, of ‘the real encounter, that says this place is here and nowhere else is quite like that’: beginning with a moving account of the memorial flowers left by mourners where the fruit and veg was once sold, Rundle ends with a concrete call for government to protect such shops, and make ‘an act of faith toward the world that Labor once sought to make, when the flowers are cleared away, and the vegetables and fruits return once more’.
The stakes in all these cases are, for Rundle, mortal: they are conflicts of life, in all its layers, commonplaceness, and uncertainty, against death, the only certainty. ‘Australia’ in general may not mean much, ‘Australian’ multiculture may be confected and thin. But specific Australian people and places are endowed in this collection with dignity and depth – and nowhere and no one more so than Melbourne and its denizens. Rundle is obsessed with the place, knows it intimately, and while, when he speaks about the many vandalisms committed on it by government or developers, he is capable of a cool downrightness, his natural mode is romantic, tending often to a self-aware nostalgia for the city’s many lost pasts, and above all for when it was ‘Grim City’, in an ‘interstitial’ era. This was the Melbourne of the 1980s, which – the Victorian splendour of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ having frayed, and its post-war stolidity and sense of purpose fading into post-post-war boredom – found itself at a loose end, not falling apart, not up to much at all, just drifting along to the end of the millennium. ‘Grim City, Mon Amour’, Rundle declares. He must have written this description a hundred times:
My Melbourne gone by, I miss it so: cappuccinos at the Classic coffee lounge, pubs breathing beer and dead carpet as you opened the door, a hundred-page Age with 2000 words daily on a businessman’s trial, 12 teams playing each other twice across a winter laced tight as a cleated boot, the great dome of the State Library, echoing with darkness and silence, punk and punks swarming Fitzroy Street in the salty Saturday afternoon air, Barry Humphries spooning up Russian salad from a footpath outside Myer, 10,000 suits and ties passing the Herald boys to Flinders Street station in an evening, and Fintona girls climbing down from green wooden trams in thin dresses on summer mornings, in a small city a long way from the world. Bear it out on the bier and beers, we will not see its like again…
Near the end of the book there is an essay on the 2018 Bourke Street terror attack, which took the life of Sisto Malaspina, the owner of Pellegrini’s, a Rundle haunt, whose neon sign has pointed a way in for customers to sit before espressos and granitas in an unchanged interior of zinc countertops, hissing coffee machines, and mirrored walls for decades. Writing his obituary only two days after the killing, Rundle asked whether the act constituted ‘an attack on the West?’ No –
It barely seems limited to an attack on society in general. It’s an attack on Being itself, wrapped in particularities. The arc of its reach, this nothingness, found a man whose decades’ work, modest in appearance but ramifying endlessly, was in untold thousands of us, part of our becoming and our shared life. To mourn a man like this more than we would someone unknown to us is not to say that the tragedy or wrong is greater. Perhaps we can say that evil discloses itself through such events, reveals its anti-purpose, propagating loss to turn us away from the chance and risk of love, and thereby from life itself.
Noticing that among the mourners there had ‘been no recourse to simple hate’, Rundle then declared that fact:
a victory of sorts, one invested in what was attacked: the common, small life, the table we lay out before us, the cup we share, as we have done since we pushed villages together to make cities, before the temples and the statues and the half-billion dollar war memorials started to speak to us, and persuade us of evil’s absurd root equation, that death (death!) could somehow supply a meaning which life could not – its arch aroma and sweetbitter taste, its noise of talk and machines, its flashing mirrors and zinc, its signs lit in the night.
If Rundle’s essays are often situational and of the moment, the very best of them will be among the most enduring and distinctive pieces of Australian writing from any era. A final note: If Rundle is the only writer in the mainstream national media who could contemplate calmly the termination of ‘the Australian project’ it is because he remains a revolutionary socialist, if one whose politics begins from places smaller, more knowable, more concrete, than anything like ‘Australia’. Crikey’s laugh-a-minute funnyman, then, is also the country’s finest eulogist, whose picture of the local is most vivid as it is enclosed by the global, and who best evokes the spirit of a place in its passing; of life, in its loss.