Opinion

The state of radical dissent

Over the past week, I have spent many hours at a gallery in Redfern, in inner Sydney, at an exhibition called Tharunka to Thor: Journalism, Politics and Art 1970-73.

The exhibition charts the story of a group of students, writers, artists and other radicals who produced the 1970 issue of the University of New South Wales student newspaper, Tharunka, and then, after printers withdrew their services, secretly printed the underground newspapers Thorunka and Thor. Over three years, we were part of a campaign that blasted through the repressive Australian and NSW censorship regimes. When charged by the police for the publication of allegedly obscene material, instead of attempting to wriggle our way out of the charges, we took the campaign into the heart of the justice system itself, parading in court wearing nuns’ costumes exhibiting slogans from an offending poem. We printed and held festivals of banned works. Author Frank Moorhouse called it “being free by acting free”.

During this period, I was jailed twice briefly when convicted of exhibiting and distributing obscene publications. But the significant aspect of the campaign was that others, including lawyers, distributed similar publications on the streets while hundreds more signed statements asserting that they were publishers of offending publications. Ultimately, the futility of the existing law was demonstrated, scores of charges were withdrawn and a new, even more repressive censorship bill was defeated. This is just a sliver of Australian history in a period of political and social ferment underpinned by opposition to the Vietnam War, defiance of conscription, student unrest and fledgling women’s and gay liberation movements. 

The exhibition, which I have curated with my partner, Chris Nash, is being held at 107 Projects – a gallery, cultural hub and social co-working place with free wi-fi for those who cannot afford it or prefer not to use a conventional office or studio. It’s also a relaxed open space in which I’ve talked to a hugely varied range of people, from local residents in fear of eviction from nearby high-rise social housing, which the NSW government wants to replace with privatised, even-higher-rise apartments; to art students who were part of last year’s occupation of the Sydney College of the Arts, which Sydney University wants to close; to a young woman reporter who with others is using a blog aiming for more open discussion of sexuality; and experimental artists who are pushing the boundaries of conventional art. Now fresh from two years of involvement – and two arrests in recent months – in the campaign against Sydney’s massive WestConnex tollway system, including a protest camp in Sydney Park, I have inevitably reflected on radical dissent, old and new.

A characteristic of radical dissent is that it takes its demands beyond the protest rally, drawing on old civil disobedience tactics such as seizing space via sit-ins, occupations and blockades, and disruptive tactics such as boycotts.

I am acutely aware that as a comparatively privileged white woman living in inner Sydney, I might be the last person to know what dissent looks like on the social margins. My views are also skewed by my own life’s trajectory.

Half a century ago, the mood was one of optimism about the future. Even older libertarians, who had been satisfied with ideas of permanent protest and an unconventional lifestyle in the 1950s and early 1960s, were swept along by a mood that the future could embrace more justice, freedom and equality. Today right-wing commentators wrongly tag most leftists of the 1970s as “totalitarians” who favoured authoritarian socialist states. In fact, most radicals drew on a critique of authoritarian socialist governments and favoured traditions of the left that emphasised collective forms of organisation rather than mere representation.

After the Whitlam Labor government was elected in Australia, a period of substantial reform began. Conscription was ended, as was Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. Women’s, migrant, Aboriginal and community legal services were funded. Key Indigenous land rights battles were won. Planning laws offering some protection to communities and the environment were passed. A progressive generation who had benefited from expanded tertiary education entered the workforce as community workers, public servants and unionists or became part of the arts, journalism, law or teaching. Others left the city, joining communes and rural environmental movements that developed in the 1970s. 

But in the 1980s, a long period of increasing conservatism and neoliberalism began and continues today. The Australian Labor Party moved to the right, eventually opening up a more progressive space on its left to the Greens. Despite the Vietnam War fiasco, our foreign policy became more deeply embedded in the United States alliance and implicated in its wars.

Through all this period, radical dissent movements survived but the terrain got tougher in a number of ways. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, radical dissent had strong roots in the environmental movements, with thousands being arrested in the NSW forests, at the Franklin dam and elsewhere, and some even jailed. But in the environmental movement, although there are many exceptions, radical dissent tended to be attached to issues rather than an explicitly broader framework of social change. Greenpeace, for instance, uses spectacular radical techniques but is not a democratic organisation.

In 2003, hundreds of thousands took to the streets against the war in Iraq. These were the biggest demonstrations in Australian history. The Howard government faced them down, leading to a sense of futility among many young people who had protested for the first time. Today, while many do not support American bases and marines practising for war in Australia, protests are very small.

The state also got more repressive and is increasingly backed up by extensive private security forces. In the 1960s and early 1970s, police as now could be brutal in demonstrations, as well as in disadvantaged communities, but nevertheless in the 1970s, for example, hundreds squatted for months, even years, in urban areas marked for demolition for expressways and high-rise developments. Feminists took over buildings for women’s refuges without being evicted. Protest marches did not need permits and often took over roads.

I thought about these earlier protests last year as we watched scores of houses standing empty waiting for the WestConnex bulldozers. Symbolic occupations have still been a good way of capturing media attention but were quickly over as the security guards called riot police who carted away the protesters. Secret squatters get met with brute force by security guards who don’t necessarily bother to call the police.

Last week, labour historian Rowan Cahill, who was a publisher of the Sydney University paper Honi Soit in 1969, told the story of how he and others discovered secret policeman Sergeant Fred Longbottom in his Mini Minor spying on students. The tyres were
let down and sugar added to the petrol. He was held for a few hours. Today such an event would be met by a heavily armed riot squad, tasers and even helicopters.

While many radicals came from middle-class backgrounds in the 1970s, there was strong support and alliances between unionists, residents and students. Most famously, the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation used green bans to halt developments and project an active social role for unionism beyond wages and conditions. Today, those traditions survive but bans and even strikes have been made illegal and far more risky. The furore that greeted Sally McManus’s declaration that unjust laws could be broken by unionists was a sign of how much times have changed – but also that dissent survives. 

The change in universities is striking. Forty-five years ago, academics publicly debated each other and berated university authorities in the pages of Tharunka and Honi Soit. Some joined students who were occupying buildings and going on strike to demand a say in university governance and the content of courses. They warned of the rise of the corporate university, which has now arrived. Students are saddled with debt, work and study and are expected to swallow assurances that despite shrinking hours, the quality of their education is not affected. Academics dare not publicly criticise their institutions in case they fall foul of codes of conduct that infringe free speech. Casual teachers with no security take on onerous contracts. Locked doors separate academics from students so that they can get on with their “real work” of measurable research outcomes. Institutional walls are adorned with shiny photos of students spouting corporate speech bubbles of praise for their “learning experience”.

Luckily for those of us who don’t support this vision of education, radical dissent is not entirely extinguished on campus. This week marks the first anniversary of when UNSW students occupied their administration building, calling for the university to disinvest from fossil fuels. A year later, the students have not won but they are pressing on, addressing the council and holding a teach-in. One student told me that even though they have not yet been successful, their occupation gave them a sense of empowerment. This is a sentiment that resonates through radical dissent actions, whether or not they achieve their immediate goals.

There is no denying earlier gains lost as neoliberalism took hold and more public services were cut or privatised. Two years ago, a number of NSW feminist women’s refuges founded through radical action lost government contracts and were handed over to various religious organisations. Like many other older radicals I was jolted by how smoothly the transition happened. A few younger radicals offered to occupy refuges but the workers were reluctant. They feared the services would be lost altogether or for their jobs and future employment.

Yet recently women’s marches are growing. Small groups of grandmothers around Australia, some of whom are actual grandmothers and some of whom are just in the right age range, are occupying politicians’ offices, protesting about the treatment of refugees. Others are linking with farming communities protesting against coal seam gas and occupying rail tracks to stop coal trains. Our efforts might seem puny, but then so did the peace movements of the early 1960s that only a few years later became a roar. The issue of climate change is certainly just as urgent.

It is facile to predict the future. But today, as we stand on the cusp of even more global destruction facing power structures that seem even tighter and more punitive than those of our own youth, it is hoped that we are witnessing a new generation of young radicals emerging. We must take heart and continue to dissent.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "State of the radical". Subscribe here.

Wendy Bacon
is a writer, activist and former professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.

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