Vacarme 34 / manières

Exceptional Times, Non-governmental Spacings, and Impolitical Movements


At the border, politics risks exposing itself to the impolitical, to a sense of movement beyond its conventional socio-political definitions, and to an expression of the political without a sovereign tone. One might say that it is this risk-which is also to say, this chance for a life otherwise-that a migratory politics seeks out. And yet, just as the prospect for movement seems to become ever more limited, such limits are reinforced by nostalgic repetition no less than through the proliferation of borders. In late April 2003, around 500 people travelled to the newly constructed Baxter detention centre in the South Australian desert for a three-day protest. At the time, Baxter held some 300 detainees, including migrants from Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision to build this highly fortified structure had been made just days after an earlier action, precisely a year before, in which some 50 inmates had escaped from the detention centre at Woomera. In retrospect, it is no exaggeration to claim that Woomera2002 and the September 2000 protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne were the most significant local expressions of that congeries of non-governmental actors that, at the turn of the century, composed the so-called movement of movements. Not only did the images of the Woomera2002 protest circulate globally, but the whole pattern of the dismantling of fences and escape would be echoed in distant locations, including the action against Italy’s Bari-Palese in July 2003. As in this latter instance, Woomera2002 would have, as its consequence, the closure of the camp. Yet, between the protests at Woomera in 2002 and those at Baxter in 2003, little would remain the same. Not only would the new camp involve advanced technologies of surveillance, biometrics and isolation, but during the intervening period, there would occur an increased militarisation of the policing of protests paralleled by the Australian government’s willing participation in the war in Iraq.

Despite these shifts, the protest at Baxter was explicitly organised as a repetition of Woomera; just as, it might be noted, an anti-summit protest in Sydney in 2003 was billed as a repetition of the one in Melbourne in 2000. What, then, is this urge to repeat in non-governmental politics? Why this inclination to, as some put it, complete unfinished work or, as others insisted, return to the site of a prior achievement? Perhaps the very iterability of protests, the combinatory that would inflect any given protest as a constitutive index of ‘the movement of movements’, was already put into play through the calendrical, quasi-serialised codifications of J18, S11, and so on. Even in Genova, after the bloodbath perpetrated by the Italian state in July 2001, there would be the compulsion to return un anno dopo. Nevertheless, as with Hollywood, the sequel is inevitably disappointing. So too with Baxter2003: smaller numbers, harsher policing, electric fences, constant and futile manoeuvring, debates about organisational form divorced from the issues at hand, the absence of surprise and evolution of police control. The point here is not to dismiss Baxter 2003 out of hand, which had its own logic and point of intervention, not least in the attempt to breach the isolation of those interned at Baxter. Yet, it is undeniable that the convergence marked the end of, as some might say, a particular ‘cycle of struggles’, perhaps due to the very inclination to engineer a cyclical recurrence.

From this point on, it became clear that non-governmental struggles against the camps had been absorbed by an anti-war mobilisation that, with the actual deployment of troops in Iraq, would become increasingly bound to nationalist agendas. To some extent, this was a continuation of tendencies that had already beset the diverse factions opposed to Australia’s border regime: ethical posturing would outweigh a regard for political effect; the fracture between pro-civil society and anti-neoliberal activists would be accentuated; and the question of labour (as a question of the role of the camps in the formation of labour markets) would be all but subtracted from the ensuing polemic. In one sense, these were local manifestations of a wider recomposition due to the regime of global security imposed after September 2001. Even so, they unfolded as a result of specific events related to Australian migration policy, and with changes that were made tangible with the appearance, in August 2001, of a red ship on the horizon.

Before we detail the events surrounding the Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, let us backtrack to note that the Woomera breakout in 2002 was not the first time escapes had occurred from camps in Australia. Indeed, the camp is a constitutive feature of Australia as such, which began its existence in the form of British penal colonies and missions or reserves for the internment and forced labour of the continent’s Aboriginal peoples. And so, from the time of these first missions and prisons, the figure of the fugitive tapped into deep anxieties about the possibility of establishing political control over a land deemed to be terra nullius: empty, godless, and unsusceptible to the kind of cultivation that, most clearly in the writings of Locke, provided the basis for landed property and sovereign possession.

Therefore, the deeply racialised character of the camp, and its constitutive place in Australian history, is a critical point of departure for any analysis of recent struggles against the camps. Many of the original convicts of the penal settlements were Irish, regarded at the time as from a different ‘race’ to the British, and deported from Britain under the policy of-as it was then known-transportation. Following the end of transportation in the mid-19th century, the camp remained as an institution not only of Aboriginal internment but also of indentured labour, drawn for the most part from China and the Pacific Islands. In 1940, a shipload of over 2,500 people fleeing Germany, many of them Jewish, were sent by the British to be interned in the Australian outback for the duration of the war. And, four years later, the escape of some 400 Japanese prisoners-of-war from a camp in Cowra resulted in a machine gun massacre that left 234 dead and 108 injured. This history of racial confinement, continued in more or less institutionalised forms during the entire period of the so-called White Australia policy (1901-1973), hangs over the current internment regime. Almost immediately after the establishment of the first of these more recent facilities at Port Hedland in 1992, there has ensued a long series of riots and breakouts that culminated, most notoriously, with the escape of 500 people from Woomera in June 2000 and a prolonged hunger strike of 39 detainees (five of whom sewed their lips together) at Curtin in August 2001.

In any consideration of non-governmental politics surrounding the camps, it is paramount to recognise the importance of the struggles conducted by detainees themselves. Too often their actions are subtracted from the political field, perhaps because they do not accord the imperatives of civil dialogue or public debate which, in the liberal democratic imagination, are held to delineate the sphere of political relation and expression. Indeed, criminalisation and incarceration removes the bodies of those who are interned from the domain of ‘public space’ and, in so doing, shows how the ideal of rational dialogue and communicative exchange that supposedly undergirds this sphere is founded not by reason but by force. To put this more emphatically, when this sphere is imagined as national in foundation and extent, the tendency to attribute political action to ‘citizen-activists’, as it were, but not to migrants, serves merely to reaffirm the boundaries of state that, in turn, seeks reinforcement through the exercise of migration controls.

Therefore, it is not only the struggles of detainees that need to be understood as politically significant but also the momentum of migration as such. To understand these transnational trajectories as strategies undertaken in and against the workings of the global political economy is neither to homogenise all motives for movement nor to romanticise them as necessarily transgressive. Undoubtedly, the motives for migration can be varied and shaped by disparate factors. Moreover, as numerous studies have shown, reasons for migration are irreducible to aggregate economic forces of push and pull, demography and so on. At the same time, migratory movements have a definite impact upon aggregate economic performance, which is one reason they are subjected to such stringent geopolitical control. As Yann Moulier Boutang argues, the attempts of capitalists to control the mobility of workers form an enduring thread in modern economic history.[1] The current system of borders and camps is one in a long line of means for controlling this mobility, building on techniques such as slavery and indenture. The attempt to violate or evade the border, whether conceived in this frame or not, is thus a politically significant act. Involving complex relations between heterogeneous agents, not all of whom act for beneficent reasons, it signals a politics of potentiality or of what might be in the face of, and despite, existing geopolitical divisions and territorialisations.

To be sure, there is also a pro-capitalist politics that advocates the erasure of borders under the auspices of free-trade protocols that ease the circulation of goods and capital about the globe, and according to a logic in which labour is a commodity like any other. And yet, the contemporary world system is marked by a system of control that promotes the free passage of money and other commodities while increasingly scrutinising and restricting the movement of human bodies and the potential for labour inherent in them-precisely because it is this potentiality which distinguishes labour from all other commodities. And so, as a kind of mirror of the capitalist version of a borderless world, much of the non-governmental politics developed within the initial wave of post-Seattle protests contested this neoliberal order as a struggle against capitalist free trade, without posing the question of migration as a question of the specificity of labour in the world of commodities. The famous victory against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments was won (first in 1998 and then again at the WTO meetings in Cancun in 2003) on the basis of a nationalist rhetoric that asserted the right of elected national governments to adjudicate investments in their area of sovereignty.

Therefore, without denying the analytical importance of the concept of neo-liberalism, it should be noted that this framework tends to depict those who suffer the consequences of capitalist globalisation in the global South as mere victims, denying them a position as active social subjects within current processes of global transformation. Moreover, such an account distinguishes state from capital so as to cheerfully offer the former as either the ground for, of principal agent of, resistance to the latter-as if the operations of the world market do not presuppose differential labour markets, and vice versa. To stress the active role of migrants in the contemporary global order redresses this oversight, signalling the importance of opposing the operations of capital from something other than a nation-statist position whose terrain is the management and administration of the flows of things.

Questioning the existence of the border as such is thus not to accede to neoliberal free trade orthodoxies but, instead, to contest the exercise of sovereign powers as much as those of the market, and to the extent that they are inseparable. It would simply be incorrect to suppose that capitalism, left to its own devices, would lead to the erasure of borders. The current world system involves increasingly flexible means for policing labour mobility, often resulting in the displacement of borders (outwards or offshore) from the territorial boundaries of the state. And, this is complemented by a micro-multiplication of borders within the supposedly homogeneous space of the state. In metropolitan contexts, incidents like the revolts in the French banlieues or the ‘riots’ at Sydney’s Cronulla beach, to name just two episodes of urban unrest that unfolded in late 2005, result from the supposed transgression of borders that divide the metropolitan space, according to more or less racialised criteria. In both cases, the upshot was to reinforce these borders, through emergency laws and police lockdowns, to block the movement of people to certain parts of the city where they were deemed not to belong. Moreover, we would suggest that there remains a crucial sense in which the self-managed exploitation that post-Fordist forms of work solicit depends on the border. The border and its various techniques of racialisation function here as a way to distinguish those who can manage their own exploitation from those who must be exploited (or worse) by direct coercion, conditioning the experience of work in and through this persistent threat and/or identification. Or, to put this another way: the rationalisation of violence that the border is remains pivotal to the semblance of the utopia of contractual freedoms that post-Fordism is said to be. [2]

In any case, questioning the eternity of the border, or its necessity as it is posed in anti-neoliberal analyses that distinguish state and capital, is to refuse both the anti-political fetishism of a world ruled by uncontrollable economic forces and the unrealisable dream of a politics that would ‘once again’ master the world. Politics is not determined by that which lies beyond its borders but remains limited only by what it is. In other words, it is to declare an end to the ‘end of the political’. There is a need to acknowledge that at stake in every politics of border control is an attempt to control the borders of the political. In the case of struggles surrounding undocumented migration, the very notion of movement fractures along a biopolitical or racialised axis: between movement understood in a political register (as political actors and/or forces more or less representable) and movement undertaken in a kinetic sense (as a passage between points on the globe or from one point to an unknown or unreachable destination). To keep these two senses of movement separate not only denies political meaning to the passages of migration but, also, fails to think through the complexities of political movement as such, not simply as the incompleteness and risk of every politics but, more crucially, as the necessarily kinetic aspects of political movements that might be something more, or indeed other, than representational.

In this sense, the depoliticisation of migratory movements, their presentation as bereft of political decision and action, functions as a means by which politics is bound to a sovereign space and recapitulates its bearings. Nevertheless, it is in this nexus of ‘movement as politics’ and ‘movement as motion’ that the non-governmental struggles over undocumented migration take shape as challenges to the demarcations that define politics as always, inexorably, national and/or sovereign. In the most felicitous moments of these struggles, there is a meeting and indistinction of these two senses of movement.

Thus, as is often commented of the Woomera2002 protest, it is unclear who pulled down the fences: the detainees on the inside or those on the outside, even if it can be said with some certainty that those on the inside initiated the escapes. At stake here is not merely some ethos of collaboration, which observes that force was applied to both sides of the barrier, back and forth, to bring the fences down. More radically (and disturbingly for constituted powers), there is a certain elimination, however provisional, of inside and outside, of the lines between the migrant interned and the dissident who belongs, between motion and politics. Perhaps this is why the techniques of control instituted at Baxter2003 aimed above all to keep those inside separate from those outside. Indeed, the very siting of the camps in remote locations has been premised on the political necessity of just this division. By 2003, however, the technologies of decomposition and partition introduced by the state had already far exceeded any routine efforts at crowd control, extending way beyond Australian territorial boundaries and involving new methods of excision and exclusion.

How to conduct the struggle against border control when power violently intervenes to separate and disavow the connection between the two senses of movement? That is the question that has haunted non-governmental politics around the issue of the camps in the past five years. It is a condition marked by a constant deferral of the emergency or, better, by the fact that an emergency cannot be formally declared when it has already become the norm. The arrival of the Tampa in Australian waters in August 2001, just weeks before the obliteration of the Twin Towers in New York City, is the iconic event that marks this turn. Carrying some 436 migrants rescued from a sinking boat, the freighter was refused entry and then stormed by crack special troops (the same unit that would soon be deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq). The aesthetic impact of a floating red hulk on the horizon facilitated the televisual modulation of mass sentiment as the government pressured Pacific neighbours-Nauru and New Guinea-to establish internment camps in return for monetary payments.

That sovereignty should be up for sale is no surprise. Nor does it shock to learn that Nauru, a former money laundering haven for the Russian mafia, would eventually change its constitution to allow for the long term detention of the Tampamigrants. But just as these people were hurriedly taken to a makeshift camp in Nauru to avoid a writ of habeas corpus, the Australian parliament passed new border legislation that, among other things, facilitated the excision of key territorial outposts from the so-called ‘migration zone’. While, formally, the right to seek asylum remains, these laws remove the ability of migrants who arrive on certain islands and reefs to seek asylum. Which particular islands, reefs or territories might be thereby excised is a matter of ministerial decision whose force can be retrospective. Combined with the redoubled effort of border policing known as Operation Relex and the offshore camps on Nauru and New Guinea’s Manus Island, these excisions formed the cornerstone of Australia’s new border technologies that, in many ways, would become its primary export in the subsequent ‘war on terror’.

What matters here are not simply the deaths and deceptions that, in the final months of 2001, would come to characterise the long season of repulsion of boats from Australia’s shore-of the drowning of those aboard the ‘SIEV X’ or the so-called children overboard affair. Despite extensive investigative journalism, the circumstances behind these operations-and, in particular, the extent of complicity between Australian and Indonesian police-remain obscure. There can be no doubt, however, that the Australian government used these moments to indulge in the most sly electoral chicanery, among other things by doctoring photographs to create media images that reinforced race-laden slanders about migrants throwing children from a sinking ship (a vessel quite possibly sabotaged by Australian forces). Nevertheless, the pursuit of this deception, which many campaigners (both governmental and non-governmental) would take up, left unquestioned the regime of border control as such.

In uncovering and protesting the alteration of truth-as if only this, and not the collective purchase of affect is what matters in contemporary representative politics-what was put at stake was some notion of proper or civilised repulsion and not the practice of border policing itself. This points to a division that goes to the very heart of the struggles against Australia’s migration policies. On the one hand, there are those who advocate what we might call ‘gentle detention’ or ‘gentle repulsion’-that is, the notion that border policing remains a necessary means of controlling population and labour flows in today’s world. Adherents of this view tend to hold a number of common assumptions; most pointedly, they believe that the status and fate of undocumented migrants should be decided by the rights-giving state. They also tend to campaign around issues presented as scandalous, such as the detention of children or, more recently, the increasing, but deemed ‘accidental’, internment of citizens-albeit those identified by migration officials as racially other or, in one particular case, a woman living with mental disability. Finding its major expression in groups such as the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) or ChilOut (Children Out), this ‘gentle detention’ position is often framed in explicitly nationalist terms: as the claim that Australia is sullying its ostensible former reputation as an upholder of human rights or through the affective vector of national shame. Here, there is also a tendency to appeal to transcendent moral imperatives and to fashion arguments against internment in registers more often ethical than either political or economic.

On the other hand, there is a much smaller network who, as with European noborder groups, call unequivocally for the abolition of the camps and the erasure of borders as such. Here, the emphasis is on the role of migration controls in the contemporary neoliberal global order, the ways in which borders constitute distinct zones wherein labour attracts different costs, facilitate the patrolling and, in some cases, elimination of populations that resist proletarianisation, and distribute capitalist speculation and labour competition through geographic demarcations. Moreover, here, the scandalousness of the internment of citizens or children is regarded as the inevitable, rather than accidental, outcome of the camps-in other words, of the institutional manifestations of the exception.

In Australia, these positions began to emerge around the time of the September 2000 protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. And, while they developed in tandem and, often, in direct dialogue with European analyses which subscribe to an ‘autonomy of migration’ position, they have assumed a specific character that, in many respects, is an index of Australia’s position and history as an outpost of empire, in the ‘South’ but not of it.[3] There are at least three aspects to this: opposition to the explicitly nationalist demeanour of rights-based migrant advocacy in Australia; the colonial heritage of penal confinement (which makes racism a salient and unavoidable issue); and, perhaps most importantly and not least, the nature of the border regimes that have emerged in and beyond Australia since the time of the Tampa.

It is perhaps unnecessary to reiterate here the conflicts between rights-based ‘refugee’ activism in Australia and noborder positions. Suffice to say that there have been a number of skirmishes, both in the shape of RAC criticisms of actions such as Woomera2002 and more theorised debates (some of which we have participated in) conducted in small journals.[4] The terms of these disagreements are similar to disputes in other parts of the world. Those who hold to a rights-based position tend to characterise the proposition of a borderless world as dangerous and idealistic, venturing a decline into anarchy and petty fortresses; while those who oppose borders as such find their agonists to equivocate on whether the camps should be abolished, to leave the analysis of global capitalism out of sight, and to buy into statist and sovereign logics that vouchsafe the very concept of rights. Some of this debate has turned on whether the very terms of refugee advocacy strike a sovereign demeanour in conferring a propriety to the conditions and classifications (refugee, migrant, and so on) of migration policy. And, it is worth noting that the persistence of the demand by some to ’Free the Refugees’ becomes somewhat incongruous for most detainees at a time when an increasing proportion of those who are interned in Australia are undocumented migrants who overstay or contravene the conditions of their visa, and who make no claims for refugee status.

Arguably, there is scope for conceiving of rights outside the normative logic of the state, emphasising their use as ‘strange attractors’ in political struggles or the invention of practices that traverse the borders erected by standard critiques of civil society as neoliberal. And thus some liberal/civil society activists understand their struggle as tactical: a series of incremental claims that aim to gradually persuade their addressees that what appear to be abuses of the rule of law are in fact symptoms of the bordered world. Linked to this, is a tendency to consider the noborder position as merely rhetorical and heuristic: a ruse to expose contradictions within rights-based advocacy rather than a serious attempt to eliminate the camps and borders. Noborder struggles are viewed as a kind of radical gesture, at once intransigent and idealistic, rash and counterproductive. Yet, it is precisely this impolitic aspect, we suggest, that makes the noborder position coherent and powerful. In making a claim that is seen as outrageous and unacceptable, at least to a certain sense of the political, noborder perspectives expose this sense for what it is, revealing its grounding in a tradition that takes political fact as value, equates power with the good, and understands justice as reducible to law and calculation. At stake here is not the surreptitious re-imposition of an alternative border on the political, its determination by that which is apolitical or anti-political. Rather, it is the refusal of any valorisation of the political-that is, the refusal of the auto-legitimating logic of modern politics, both in its contractual and representative moments, as well as its politico-theological modes of legitimation.[5]

Whatever the complexity of these relations, the disagreements between civil society and noborder perspectives attest to the fact that the space of the non-governmental is not one. The schematism of this division is admittedly and to some extent a caricature of complex and nuanced positions. However, there remains an acute sense in which the very existence of the border obliges a similarly sharp political decision: either it should be there or not. And, this decision can, in an affirmation of the border, however gentle, mime the sovereign decision, thus leaving the non-governmental to exist in the shadow of the state and its exceptions; or it can be refused, thereby enacting an opening, a break for freedom that remaps the non-governmental outside the affective and tangible strictures of the existing inter-national state system.

To be sure, these alternatives do not present a fork in the road. They intermesh and clash as much as they diverge. And no more so than at the border itself. But, where is the border? The question has been chewed over enough with respect to European borders, particularly in the context of EU integration and constitutional debates. However, Australia presents a quite different geographical and political situation. As modernity’s original Gulag continent, and notwithstanding the internet and jet travel, it remains surrounded by a kind of moat: vast expanses of ocean that stretch to all points of the compass-and replete with a matching affective map. In a technical sense, policing these borders is a more feasible proposition than blocking mountain passes, scrutinising road and rail crossings, or rolling out electric fences. The exclusion of islands and reefs from the ‘migration zone’ has been one method of pre-emptively blocking migrant passages. And, almost paradoxically, this pre-emption functions in a post hoc or just-in-time manner.

Consider the case of 14 Kurdish migrants from Turkey who, in November 2003, landed on Melville Island, one of the Tiwi Islands to the north of the city of Darwin. Upon learning of this arrival, the Australian government rushed legislation through the Lower House to retrospectively excise almost 3,000 islands around the main continent, including Melville Island, from the migration zone. This was done with full expectation that the Upper House, which the government did not control at the time, would overturn the legislation, as it had similar regulations introduced twice in the previous year. Nonetheless, the Immigration Minister boasted that the migrants would never be able to seek asylum in Australia since, by her advice, even if the regulations were struck down they would ‘be valid for the time period during which they were valid’.[6] An exception was thus declared not only in a spatial sense-through the excision of the islands and the placing of the migrants beyond the rule of law-but also in a peculiar temporal sense. In other words, the laws would function only in the time of the future anterior.

The challenge, then, confronting the non-governmental struggles against Australia’s border regimes-and, we would argue, increasingly the global organisation of border controls-is not only how to operate in the space but also the time of the exception. In this latter regard, the strategy of repetition, so rigorously pursued at Baxter2003 (and elsewhere), begins to fail. The logic of return and iterability cannot possibly deactivate the time of detainment that is so crucial to the institution of the emergency. It is perhaps not only war that, as Gertrude Stein once noted, ‘makes things go backwards as well as forward’[7], but the very sense of the exception that suspends time itself in an attempt to correlate to and confine, both pre-emptively and post hoc, the aleatory moment of border crossing-the encounter with difference, if you will-which no amount of control can prepare for.

Such a peculiar temporality pertains not only to the sovereign mechanisms by which the emergency is declared, as in the case of Melville Island. It also inflects the daily experiences of migrants whose lives are held up, formally and informally, through border technologies. Lan Tran, who arrived in Australia from Vietnam via a camp in Malaysia, remarks:

For me, my ordeal has become an adventure because over the years it has lost its element of danger and profound sense of uncertainty of what the future may hold. From where I’m speaking right now, I am at one point in that future of my past. I can see from my experience that the ordeal wasn’t the journey itself. It was how we were received by the community at large. And that is an on-going process. I am conscious of now and again, beyond my experience as a Boat Person, a refugee, an Australian citizen living in Australia, I am Asian and because of that I would have to continually justify my place in this society through a full admission of my history that was elsewhere (our italics).[8]

Although Tran exists ‘beyond’ her experience as a ‘Boat Person’, what she describes here is nothing less than a process of ‘detainment’-of living in the future of her past. It is the same insistence of the future anterior that animates the sovereign decision and finds its material embodiment in the physical experience of detainment or incarceration. And, just as one might say that there is no going back for those who experience such detainment, no return to origins or possible repatriation for those who have risked their lives at sea and cut their ties with a ‘history that was elsewhere’, so it is also impossible to go back to Woomera, to the joining of the two senses of movement in that moment of escape. By far a more creative action in this regard was the so-called flotilla2004, which involved a group of protesters travelling on a boat from Sydney to the offshore camp on Nauru. Tracked by satellite communications and blog entries, it involved diverse groups along the way and, importantly, declared that ‘closing the camps is a method, not just an aim’. The notion of setting protest in motion, or of rejoining the two senses of movement in time, distinguished this action from the merely spatial manoeuvres of Baxter. As it happened, however, the removal of the boat by force from Nauru, while it paralleled the forceful interdiction of boats from Australia’s waters, imposed a similar spatial division to that enforced at Baxter: the violent partition of movement from movement.

By the time of the flotilla, however, non-governmental struggles had largely been absorbed by an antiwar campaign that culminated on 15 February 2003 and, from that point on, could never quite recompose themselves-even in the form of further antiwar protests. There are, of course, good reasons to see border policing regimes as an integral part of the ongoing global war, most notably in the centrality of internment camps to the operations of war, combined with the importance of the pre-emptive logic of racialisation to the configuration of the enemy and the distribution of violence. However, these links were never made in an antiwar campaign that, at a certain point, swept away the entire trajectory of radical movements from 2000 to 2002, primarily under the seductions of fleetingly swelling numerical ranks. Indeed, the unprecedented turnouts for initial antiwar protests were stoked by prevalently nationalist agendas-’Bring our troops home’ or don’t follow the USA-that were in no way immune to the sovereign imperatives that animate the border control regime. The prevalent disposition of the antiwar protests inclined to, if not entirely overlapped with, the civic nationalism that favours ‘gentle’ detention and repulsion, and they quickly collapsed under the weight of the nationalist imperative to ’support our troops’ once they had entered Iraq.

Furthermore, in Australia there was nothing like the take-up of precarious labour issues that facilitated a degree of recomposition of movements in Europe, beginning with the EuroMayDay protests of 2004. While in Europe a diffuse campaign around precarity reassembled some elements of the flagging antiwar movements and even, in some instances, forged productive (if tense) links with noborder groups, in Australia there was no comparable articulation. This is despite the introduction of industrial relations ‘reforms’ in which the issue of precarious labour is certainly relevant. One reason for this is the entrenchment of a centralised trade union culture in many sectors of the social left-one that, it might be noted, no longer has the material base of compulsory, centralised bargaining from whence it emerged in the early 20th century.

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the difficulties which confront non-governmental politics with regard to the Australian camps, there is something exemplary about their development, if only because they operate in the most difficult of circumstances and confront methods of control that find themselves replicated elsewhere. It is no secret that Tony Blair’s proposal of March 2003 to establish ‘Transit Processing Centres’ outside EU borders was inspired by the precedent of Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’ of offshore internment camps. By the end of the same month, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands had endorsed a version of the Blair proposal and, by October, Italy had already begun to send migrants to camps in Libya financed by the Italian Government, to prepare them for deportation. But this export of the Australian model should not be taken as license to imagine that struggles in this part of the world might offer advanced or particularly effective strategies of resistance and escape. To the contrary, it is in Australia that the defeat has been most brutal. Nationalism is no less dangerous when it is mediated by shame than by pride. And the expression of activist enthusiasm for locally or nationally-based struggles can all too quickly modulate into statist occupations of the same affective position, particularly insofar as it grounds itself in the dialectical circle of ‘national shame’-which, perhaps, explains something of the compulsion to repeat.

Indeed, the urge to repeat has structured the logic of much non-governmental politics in the last three years, particularly that which seeks to relaunch those mobilisations that seemed so promising at the turn of the millennium. Moreover, this urge to repeat inflects the way non-governmental movements understand the operations of governmental power and its relation to sovereign forms. In her essay on Guantanamo, Judith Butler explains the emergence of this new war prison as the reappearance of sovereign prerogative power within the diffuse networks of a governmental regime. Foucault left open the possibility that sovereignty and governmentality might coexist in various ways, and yet, according to Butler, what he could not predict is ‘the form this coexistence would take in the present circumstances’, ‘that sovereignty, under emergency conditions in which the law is suspended, would reemerge in the context of governmentality with the vengeance of an anachronism that refuses to die’.[9]But can the time of detention be reduced to the time of repetition, to a chronology in which it appears as anachronistic? Furthermore, what does an insistence on the motif of repetition tell us about the non-governmental that, while it might emphasise the non in relation to governmentality, nevertheless holds a more ambiguous regard for sovereignty.

To be very clear on this, the time of repetition cannot be remapped onto the linear time of chronology or progress. This much we have known since Marx’s lessons on tragedy and farce, not to mention Kierkegaard’s discussions of anamnesis and movement. But the kind of retrospective pre-emption that has come to characterise current border regimes does not merely interrupt history presented as chronology. It is not simply the return of an anachronism-of the re-appearance of sovereignty in governmentality-but also a temporalising strategy that structures the relationship of potential to act. We have described this temporal ordering as the separation of movement from movement, or, in other words, as the sundering of the potentiality of kinesis-bearing in mind that Marx described labour power as potentia-from the sphere of action that has traditionally constituted the political. Here, the errancy of movement extricates the differentialities of potentia and of the political from the time of detainment and the labourious tempo of repetition.

Understanding the time of detention in this way allows us to understand how non-governmental politics can operate within, or despite, this separation. While, by definition, the non-governmental asserts itself in a negative relation to the governmental, its associations with sovereignty remain open to question. Thus, it is possible to identify, on the one hand, a sovereign non-governmental politics which demands of exceptional powers only that they are ‘gentle’ and, on the other hand, a non-sovereign non-governmental politics which calls for the erasure of borders. Only the latter, we would argue, can comprehend the temporalising as well as the temporalised logic of detention. The former, in observing the anachronistic return of the sovereign in the governmental, has neither the will nor the means to oppose it. In this condition, there is a reluctance to construe both the movements of migration and the call for the elimination of borders as inherently political. Consider the following, emphatic remarks which, in deploying much of the concessionary rhetoric and optic of Australian ‘refugee’ advocacy, erases the materiality of those who oppose borders in much the same way that exceptional sovereign powers relegate the bodies of the undocumented to the status of non-persons:

No refugee advocate - repeat, nobody ... has EVER seriously argued that the Australian system for handling any refugee/illegal arrival/queue-jumper etc. should be that ‘...their word has to be taken on face value and they are received with open arms and no questions or challenge’. No-one. No-one. No-one has ever advocated an ‘open door’ policy.[10]

In another sense, such an erasure-the presentation of no body, if you will-parallels the circumvention of habeas corpus through the jurisdictional dislocation of the offshore camp, as well as reflecting the continual refusal by ‘refugee’ advocates to consider the role of border controls as they act to segment labouring bodies and to filter them from those deemed to be superfluous in the global economy.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing that ought to be heeded in the Australian experience it is how the institution of the camp, with all its implications for the control of labour under global capital and the policing functions of global war, builds on the colonial experience of racialised internment. The persistent spectre of a racialised difference throws itself up just as emergency conditions are matched by a ‘colonialisation’ of the world’s metropolitan centres-the appearance, if one can be excused redundant terms, of the third world in the first and the first world in the third. If, as Achille Mbembe writes, the colony is ‘the site where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of civilisation’, the peculiar insistence and appearance of the colonial camp in the metropolitan context (think of Milan’s via Corelli or Roissy’s Zapi3) must be reconceived against the rhetoric of civilising mission that haunts the making of the world as war.[11] If alternative ways of being in the world are to be derived-and what else is politics if not the creation of the world on the cusp of human relation-there must be some understanding of how colonialism insinuates itself in the emergency and vice versa.

Neither optimism nor pessimism are useful substitutes for this kind of working through. Nor, as we have suggested, are mere repetition and displacement good strategies for dealing with technologies of detainment that play themselves out across time and space. Moreover, it remains to be asked whether iterability, in a political-economic register, is perhaps nothing more than the kind of interchangeability which constitutes the indifference of commodities. In any event, to seize the moment for what it might be, to rejoin movement and movement, there must be an encounter with the contingent and the other, with the cut, in other words, of difference. This can only occur in that fluid and trans-subjective space that is the very sense of what it means to experience the world, in that dimension prior to the partition of meanings and relations and whose co-appearance might be glimpsed in their incipiency and untimeliness.

In this sense, what is unrepeatable about Woomera2002 was precisely what was important about it in the very context of the detainment of time that marks the exception. In other words, it was exceptional in its own way, a tangible proximity to the other of politics that cut through the ossified senses and divisions of the political and of movement. As the event it came to be seen and circulate as, it was a surprise, as much to those who were there to protest as to the authorities. Proffering neither succession nor iterability, here, there is a kind of total risk. Yet it is not one that can be shirked or deferred. Rather it must be followed at precisely that point or moment where now meets not-now, and here meets there, where the experience of indistinction erases the borders of politics, both affective and geopolitical, and with it the camp. This is the impolitical imperative of the times and the disjunction through which time can flow. To go looking for guarantees steeped in nostalgic reminiscences, because the times seem so grim, not only avoids an engagement with what has changed and how might one respond. More deeply, it gives up on the promise of a migratory politics that borders are fashioned against.


1. Yann Moulier Boutang (1998), De l’esclavage au salariat: Economie historique du salariat bridé. Paris: PUF

2. See Angela Mitropoulos, ’Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire’, Mute (2006).

3. For an example of this direct dialogue see Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson (2003), ‘Né qui, né altrove: migration, detention, desertion’, borderlands 2.1

4. See for instance Arena, volumes 65, 66 and 68 (2003-2004); and Overland, 2002.

5. On the impolitical tradition in political thought see Robert Esposito, Categorie dell’ impolitico. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1988.

6. Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone quoted in Meaghan Shaw, ‘Islands excised to head off boat’, Age, 5 November 2003.

7. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. London: Penguin, 1966, p2.

8. Lan Tran, ‘Panel Discussion-Morning’, Boat People Symposium, 15 October 1996, Centre for Research in Culture & Communication, Murdoch University.

9. Judith Butler (2004), ‘Indefinite Detention’, in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 54.

10. Jack Robertson (Amnesty International), Sydney Morning Herald Webdiary.

11. Achille Mbembe (2003), ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture 15(1): 24.