Saturday, November 7, 2009

Asylum as risk-management

Perhaps one of the prisms through which many Australians see asylum seekers is that of risk. The management of and investments in forms of risk were at the heart of the Global Financial Crisis, where the collapse of an exponentially multiplying viral network of arcane financial instruments dumped the risks avoided and insured against onto the budgets of nation-states.

In our everyday lives we experience forms of risk management: on a general level these involve the physical and mental hazards we choose to avoid or engage in, while more concretely the management of risk can involve the decisions made about investing in a new set of brakes for the car or whether or not we can afford to visit the dentist. With the increasing financialization of the economy over the last 30 years, the rewards that can result from speculative risk-taking have also entered everyday discourse. For most Australians this form of risk-taking has been directed into housing: buying and selling not only the primary place of residence, but moving into investment properties. Taking up the multiple forms of credit, and financial derivatives, was regarded as a low-risk activity until the collapse of Lehmann Brothers last year.

While one way to think about asylum seekers is to consider them to be taking life-risks, their precarious passages are more impelled than chosen. The hazards faced are not chosen under the same conditions as a middle-class Australian might choose to lock-in a fixed mortgage interest rate, or whether to invest in their child’s education by sending them to the local Anglican school.

A significant amount of the vitriol directed at asylum seekers is displaced onto the drivers, bookers and owners of the boats the refugees travel on. The people smugglers are cast as the evil profiteers who tempt the refugees with promises of a supine Australian welcome. Such a narrative, with its stock characters of innocents and evil, helps to provide a target for what is fear and resentment.

I think this is displaced fear and resentment, which originally derives from how the asylum seekers project back an image of the risk-managing citizen to the neoliberal citizens of contemporary Australia. For the ‘ordinary’ Australian, risk-management is now embedded in everyday calculations. You rise or fall on the basis of how willing you are take risks, and on the basis of how hard you are willing to work to support those investments made. Asylum seekers who are cast as queue-jumping, and seen as having the savings to invest in the hazard of seeking Australian citizenship, reflect back an image of the risk-managing citizen, but it is an image whose conditions of risk-taking have to be kept out of the frame. One way to keep these too difficult worldly and global risks from interfering with the containable imaginary aspirations of neoliberal citizenship is to decouple asylum seekers from the events that are impelling them away from their homelands.

For once these more troubling events enter the frame of the movement of peoples in and out of Australian space and time, the neoliberal image of the risk-managing self starts to decompose. The edges are what need to be kept invisible and silenced, so that the image of the ordinary Australian rewarded for risk-taking and hard-work is not complicated by the social, world-systemic dimensions of the hazards. The fear of the asylum seeker is driven, in part, by a fear of the risks that can’t be managed or chosen in a bid to seek returns on our investments, and by a resentment about the artefactuality of Australian citizenship.

Perhaps then, the recent de-intensifying or this fear and resentment is a corollary of the small movements away from the heights of neoliberal financial capitalism. The Australian government responses to the GFC have, to some extent, socialised risk. The link between border and financial security appears tight. It remains to be seen whether the recent movements in the governmentality of these elements of security will be matched with a similar response to global warming and climate change.

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