The Australian Prison Experiment

Cell-Block Frontier: Covid-19 in Australia

Australia’s Covid-19 response has evoked terror across Western nations. Mass demonstrations protesting the world’s longest lockdown – in Melbourne, Victoria under Labor Premier Daniel Andrews – were criminalized, leading to crackdowns which produced ugly images of police jailing pregnant women for inciting protests, pepper spraying and brutalizing old ladies, choking young women for not wearing masks, and firing rubber bullets into crowds of retreating protesters. In Australia’s Northern Territory, and in the state of Western Australia individuals refusing the vaccine are subject to severe fines. After weeks of protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Victoria recently passed a pandemic bill that grants the government powers to issue huge punitive fines for refusing to wear masks, and jail sentences for business owners refusing to abide by “health orders.”

Even more ominously, Australian states have been building mass “quarantine facilities” for the future. While Australian state governments have been quick to dismiss civil rights concerns associated with detention in such facilities, recent incidents have seen individuals who test negative being held against their will and the camps being used for punitive measures against individuals who do not abide by health orders.

The Australian government continues to insist that a much greater catastrophe would have surely struck the country, were it not for its draconian policies by comparing what’s happened with hyperbolic projections of what supposedly could have happened. By comparing domestic numbers with European and American numbers, in fact artificially inflated by including deaths with Covid, excess care home deaths (probably themselves due to lockdown measures) and dubious hospital treatments such as invasive mechanical ventilation and treatment with nephrotoxic drugs like Remdesivir, Australian policies are claimed to have worked. This approach, now common everywhere across the West, could be termed counterfactual medicine

The country, or really the de facto agglomerate of Australian states in which emergency powers have been centralized is now embracing quasi-mandatory vaccination. Initially implemented at the beginning of spring after the end of the flu season with case numbers waning, at the peak of the vaccine rollout, hospitals were overwhelmed. This was explained both as the consequence of missed medical appointments, and the pandemic management situation deteriorating… both at once. The continuation of this reality today seems to be partially mitigated by the fact that the Southern hemisphere is moving into the summer season, normally a time of low infection and fatality rates for respiratory viruses.

Australia should not be considered in isolation from other Western states, but perceived instead as the forefront of a broader Western policy revolution which has set technocratic convergence governance against a tradition of liberal rights. These rights have now of course become more or less eclipsed from official public discourse, and come to constitute the normative demands of an increasing number of protesters challenging the brutal policy response.

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The Australian political context is nonetheless specific in other ways. Due to its abundant resource and mineral wealth, the country did not suffer an economic recession in the last thirty years, thus setting it apart from the trajectories of other Western states heavily impacted by both recession and financial crisis. Instead, the country emerged as a seemingly successful ‘Oceanian Third Way’ of governance somewhere between Singaporean Law and Order on the one hand, and Western individualism and Anglo-European legal and political traditions on the other.

For a European immigrant like myself, Australia stood out as having surpassed most European states in terms of living standards, with remarkably clean, well-kept, and secure inner cities, a striking contrast to contemporary European capitals like London or Paris with their increases in crime, homelessness, and veritable immigrant ghettos, particularly since the 2015 refugee crisis. By contrast, immigration into Australia has been tightly regulated. Immigrants are required to pass through the hurdles of a restrictive, expensive, long and bureaucratic process to obtain one of the much sought-after visas selecting for highly qualified newcomers. Illegal migrants meanwhile run a significant chance of being indefinitely detained in one of Australia’s brutal offshore “immigration detention facilities” in Nauru and Manus Island which have become the focus of activists in recent years.

Successful immigrants pursuing the legal pathway used to be able to expect decent wages and a well-governed country with low tax rates particularly for those used to oppressive continental European standards. Despite the country’s exploding real estate prices due to skilled immigration and East Asian and particularly Chinese investment in real estate, securing a middle-class lifestyle had until recently been attainable due to comparatively high wages and a strong tradition of unions and labor rights. Sociologically, the big Australian cities are still largely composed of property-owning real estate millionaires, a middle-class aristocracy of sorts which despite decreasing living standards globally compares favorably to their Western peers. This relative socioeconomic comfort overdetermines political attitudes: For most Australians, government has worked reasonably well, and there has been no reason to question government policy. Prevalent European and American experiences of decades of decline and demoralisation is mostly unknown to Australians. 

The comparative comfort of living has created a significant gap between Australian middle-class mental representations of politics, which are naively provincial, and expect policy to be decided at the ballot box, and the reality of global governance which is focussed on geostrategic and techno-economic imperatives. Global forces explicitly plot a subordinate role for the country which is too small, and too technologically, industrially and militarily dependent to ‘weigh’ on the international scene. Over the last decade especially a growing contradiction has begun to develop between Australia’s traditional Five Eyes intelligence partners and rapidly expanding Chinese political influence.

China has long become Australia’s most significant trading partner, heavily drawing on its vast resource wealth while at the same time supplying growing flows of immigration, tourism, retail, commodity, and education sector revenue. Before 2020, Australian inner cities especially were being rapidly colonized by well-off Chinese students with seemingly limitless disposable incomes supporting a burgeoning retail, real estate, and luxury sector. But the pandemic shutdowns and reset of international relations have seen a drastic change of tone. China was stung by Australia calling for an “international” inquiry into the origins of the Covid pandemic: an unambiguous pivot of Australia’s National Security establishment back towards its traditional Anglo-American partners. Australia’s recent announcement of the AUKUS pact and its acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines, a privilege thus far only accorded to the nuclear UN Security Council powers and India, was perceived as a sign of aggression by China and responded to accordingly. 

From this point of view it makes sense that Australia acquired its role as a laboratory in the global pandemic policy revolution to redraw the relationship between individual, community, and the state in the West. Australia’s features of hosting a small anglophone population have gained it a reputation of a testbed where technologies can be trialed “without risking […] reputation in core markets.” The draconian measures which have been deployed in the country are now likely to be rolled out this winter in Europe and the US.

These measures have been accompanied by the almost total destruction of Australia’s legal system. Despite the country’s comparatively liberal common law constitution, Australian courts have now asserted that mandates may be imposed without oversight due to the fact that Australia has no Bill of Rights. The main legal challenger of the vaccine mandates, solicitor Nathan Buckley, has been tenuously suspended, while Lyndall Dean, a dissenting voice in the country’s influential Fair Work Commission, has been put on restricted duties for challenging the mandates.

Post-hoc punitive actions like these show how shaky the rule of law has become in the country. In addition, potentially disputable and unlawful lockdown fines can now be unilaterally withdrawn from bank accounts in the state of Queensland thus shortcircuiting the courts as an intermediary between financial and government institutions: an unambiguous step towards installing a social credit and digital currency system enabling governments to directly control private assets and seize funds — a relative novelty considering the historical quality of Western countries as safe havens for capital.

Retaliatory actions have also been clearly visible on the medical front: Medical body AHPRA is distributing gag orders with legal threats for medical professionals speaking against vaccine mandates. Doctors who grant vaccine exemptions are targeted and have their private medical records seized by the state in punitive raids. As elsewhere, these measures prevent any reasonable discussion of medical policy in the public sphere which is retreating to Telegram channels like the group “Frontline Workers Speak Out” in which anonymous but verified testimonies by now more than a hundred whistleblowers bear witness to the carnage of the so-called vaccine rollout.

Although these measures are sometimes interpreted as a result of a local and idiosyncratic overreach, the geopolitical perspective and the globally synchronised rollout of Covid measures suggest they are more systemic. Ever since the miraculous appearance of the so-called omicron variant, it has become clear that Australian-style measures are going to be imposed on the Northern hemisphere. Already, Austria and Germany have announced vaccine mandates and draconian fine regimes, once again, for the end of flu season, despite promises made by the government just a year earlier.

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Western elites have made their decision. After a brief intermezzo of Trumpist stalling of the American imperial project and a rekindling of the Jacksonian tradition of containment, the scene is now set for a global technocratic convergence. The Covid crackdown and the Great Reset must be interpreted as a renewed mobilization which aims to eliminate all legal and cultural roadblocks impeding the Fourth Industrial Revolution which has been announced as a new economic supercycle at the intersection of digital and genetic technology.

Just like the first industrial revolution, the fourth industrial revolution means accelerating the enclosure of the commons. Where previously it was only land, resources, and labor power that was appropriated by the state, this time a nexus of state and industry intends on expropriating individual bodies directly. The aim is to set a cultural, legal and logistical precedent for the injection of IP-protected, largely untested biotech into citizens’ bodies while eliminating recourse to political and legal protection. “Surplus” populations which have become useless to capital will be used as collateral to build a new biopolitical system directed towards the total administration of life.

At the same time the new infrastructures will double as those of a wartime economy including heightened biosurveillance, military censorship, re-shaped supply chains, crowd control, and concentration camps: here also Australia reveals its strategic significance in the light of the recent multiplication of bellicose discourses with China over Taiwan.

Covid-19 is a part of a wider crisis of Western imagination at the intersection of geopolitics and ecology which construct populations above all as dispensable and subordinate to technical domination. Ultimately, mass populations and also the intermediary class of administrators have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Conceived by an elite which already sees itself as a species apart what we are living through is the apex of an instrumentalist form thinking already sufficiently articulated by 20th century intellectuals. Being is mutilated into the essence-less mass of a global technological enframing. Yet the current hysterical signaling and accelerating brutality of this complex points to the anthropological limits of its reach. Growing mass resistance to the global Covid-19 dictatorship signals its incoming demise and limitation. While this class and its ideology may not be able to conceive transcendence, everything indicates that it will inexorably produce it. 

Nicolas Hausdorf is a German writer living in Melbourne, Victoria.


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