On allies and mandatory detention.

Over recent months I have been involved in several debates in which a critique of an organisation over its border politics has been met with defensive claims over the status and proper treatment of “allies.” “These organisations are our allies,” the argument begins, “so we shouldn’t be seen to critique them in public or use tactics that might harm their reputation or operations as a means of achieving change,” is what is then more or less explicitly implied. The primary intention of such a move is not so much about tone policing (even if this may be an element of what is at play) but defining and enforcing preconceived notions of legitimate political action. In effect it amounts to drawing a protective boundary around certain political actors for whom attribution of the status “ally” is deemed a warrant for a moderated treatment. The consistency with which such a claim has been made provides good cause to examine the concept of the ally, particularly with respect to how it is used to shield relatively powerful and well resourced parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against critique from an anti-borders position.

From the outset it is worth stating that neither myself nor xBorder have any strong investment in the concept of the ally. The focus of the xBorder collective’s work is on ending all forms of mandatory detention and in this respect its central concepts include the border, sovereignty, the colonial and the autonomy of migration*. The issue at stake in this discussion relates to the way lines of social conflict, struggle, and solidarity are articulated and understood. In this respect ally discourse is merely one way of framing this conversation and it is certainly not beyond reproach or critique from different positions or perspectives. The relative emptiness of the term in particular leaves it open to co-option as simply the latest way to brand a salvation or charity approach to political work. That said, my interest here is not to expand on what has already been said about those who adopt the term for themselves but, rather, to address  the particular issue of how the term mobilised to defend institutional political formations against anti-border critique. What follows here, therefore, is a brief examination of two ally discourses on their own terms followed by a discussion of the problems, not simply semantic but political, that arise when the term is used to moderate or deflect anti-border critique.

Within the political spaces I’m familiar with there are two major discourses of allyship. They tend to blur and overlap in practice but can nevertheless be distinguished and traced back to different discursive contexts. The first of these can be located in theories of strategy that circulate amongst activist groups, NGOs, unions and professionalised campaign organisations. Within this discourse the ally is generally defined along the lines of a stakeholder that a person or group can work with in order to achieve a shared set of interests. Depending on the context this understanding of allyship might be distinguished more or less clearly from the concept of a coalition partner or constituent groups. A further distinction may be made between strategic and tactical allies, that is, an alliance to achieve a long term goal compared with a short term interest in the outcome of a particular campaign.

It is important to observe that this is an instrumental rather than political theory of alliance. By this I mean that the discourse itself has no inherent political affinity and can be usefully applied to any variety of causes, not simply those that might be considered “progressive.” This instrumentalism makes the theory comparable to theories of strategic alliance within business management or international relations (it is worth noting here that the ASRC, whose board is composed of experienced corporate analysts, auditors and strategists, actively markets itself as a corporate partner. Until recently, due to public pressure from the xBorder collective, the ASRC promoted National Australia Bank as a partner despite the bank being a substantial investor in Transfield Services, the major contractor for the running of Australian offshore detention centres).

The point to emphasise here is not that this kind instrumentalism renders this concept of ally useless — it clearly does (the) work (it is intended to achieve). Rather, the point is to acknowledge that an instrumental concept is no substitute for a coherent politics, anti-border or otherwise. However, as versions of the discourse across activist, corporate and diplomatic milieus make clear, alliances have meaning and definition only to the extent that those involved in the alliance share some level of political or economic interest. Within this discourse the terms under which organisation could be considered allies ought to be based on an argument of shared interest, a criteria that must be assessed by reading position statements (if they exist) or, and often more importantly, observable patterns of behaviour. Given such facts as the Greens’ support for a detention policy,** the ASRC’s checkered history of corporate alliances and practice of celebrating politicians in parties that continue to support detention, and Amnesty’s glossing of Australia’s history of border violence, the claim that such organisations are allies to an anti-detention movement must clearly come under question.

The second discourse on allyship emerges from the work of feminist, anti-racist, LGBTI, disability and other communities of struggle who theorise the place of privileged constituencies in relation to those who are disempowered along different axes of domination. The theory of the ally in this sense examines and expands upon issues relating to the role of men with respect to feminist struggle, white people with respect to anti-racist struggle etc. Much of the discussion and debate within this discourse turns on the question of the “good” ally, of how a person of privilege committed to ally work must acknowledge and reflect upon their privileges and do the intellectual and practical work to divest themselves of the illegitimate power such privilege affords. These discussions may be directed at a generalised concept of e.g. the white anti-racist ally as well as questions of what it means to develop specific and personal relations of trust between individuals and groups involved in anti-oppression work.

This conception of the ally calls to attention the place of power within relationships, structures, practices and processes, not simply the content of particular demands or objectives. In this respect, while the ally can still be thought of as someone who commits to a political objective, this conception of the ally is specifically organised with, by and in relation to the group affected by an issue. The white person and people of colour (POC) are not allies who share the same interest in anti-racist struggle. The white person is positioned as an ally to POC precisely because anti-racist struggle demands that power inequalities, or the inequalities produced by power, are to be acknowledged and addressed as a concomitant part of struggles for freedom and equality, or the freedom to be both different and equal (the concepts of freedom and equality are neither simple nor unproblematic and in this respect call for more complex reading than I will give here, save to say that a decolonial interpretation that can be set in contrast to Eurocentric universalisms comes from the Zapatista movement who state that “we are equal because we are different”).

The commitment of the ally to relinquishing the power of social privilege, including the power to unilaterally determine what such a divestment means or looks like, is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this discourse relative to instrumental theories. The contrast here is between a theory that pictures preformed parties coordinating actions with respect to a shared but separately formed set of interests and, on the other hand, a relation formed on the basis of a commitment by the ally to divest themselves of the illegitimate social power they hold over the communities they claim to support. The white anti-racist ally cannot coordinate “their” interests with POC because, insofar as they are white, such interests are not “theirs” but those of POC. For an ally to align themselves with anti-racist movements in an honest way they must do the work that leads to changes in identity and social practices. At its best the commitment of the ally in this respect is an ongoing commitment to change the self precisely as a means to produce social change. This may be more or less effective in particular cases but as a theory it entails a more distinct politics that could be described in terms of a commitment to supporting struggles for freedom, equality, or social justice. At its worst the discourse offers a language by which to re-brand persisting patterns of abuse or to facilitate what has been named the ‘ally industrial complex‘.

While the relation between instrumental and social justice theories of the ally could be discussed with more complexity my interest here is to address the issue of attributing the title to groups as a means of policing anti-border critique. In light of the social justice theory of the ally it is worth noting that within each of the debates I have been involved in neither myself, those who attribute the title, nor the groups they attribute the title to are in fact (organised by) ex-detainees or people currently in detention. Signals of opposition to the kinds of policies supported by the Greens have come from the refugee lead group RISE but theirs remains one voice in a field otherwise crowded out by larger players.

The challenge with respect to elevating the voices of those impacted by mandatory detention reveals not only the suppression of such voices themselves but the extent to which a crude interpretation of the social justice ally presupposes the construction of the essentialised other as a badge of authenticity. The politics of refugees themselves are of course plural, not singular, but such plurality is not “freely” available to re-presentation by citizens. The border is a medium that sets the terms of communication along the lines of the citizen/foreigner relation. The performative dynamics of the border structures the conditions under which refugees are solicited for information and what responses they may give. The desire of the citizen savior to find validation in the figure of the refugee thus presents itself not only as a tactical opportunity for those on either side of the border, but as a market for the extraction and circulation of a specific form of political capital — “what refugees really want” — that remains dependent upon the existence of the border itself.

The tactics deployed by those whose fortunes are tied to the benevolent sovereignty of citizens should not, therefore, be either automatically conflated with or set against a politics that aims at dismantling the detention industry as a whole. Unequivocally, this is not to suggest that refugees bear responsibility for the structural conditioning of the border, nor is this about questioning the tactics they choose to adopt. Rather, the complication to identify here is that the question of who is or is not an ally to a political cause cannot be resolved by deferring questions of politics. The task of articulating a politics that is able to learn from the work of identarian critique while also being able to think and act beyond the delimitations of “authentic identity” (particularly those identities which are delimited by the logics of the border itself) remains pertinent.

The question of the “ally,” therefore, involves a complex tension between articulating the politics at stake while remaining responsible to those who must navigate the material consequences of an issue in order to survive. It is in this respect that the work of anti-border critique, decolonial thinkers, and theories of autonomy, including that of refugees themselves, remains invaluable to an anti-border praxis. In the end, however, any decision on the part of the privileged to not decide on the question of political allegiance due to its complexity alone can only be read as a decision to align with the default status quo.

Secondly, it is important to note that borders require a mode of analysis that is inseparable from but irreducible to anti-racist, feminist, LGBTI and other positions of critique. This is to say that borders have a materiality to them which if left untheorised within a political praxis tends to permit the citizen/foreigner distinction to cut through and divide political solidarities.

An example of this problem was played out in debates about the Greens within Students Thinking Outside Borders. In response to calls for action against the Greens a claim was made that this would be a diversion from a campaign against the federal budget, a campaign in which the Greens were heavily involved and stood to earn significant political capital. Overlooked in this claim was the division made between the budgetary interests of citizens and the interests of those who are not citizens. The argument for a diminished form of action against the Greens was based on a citizen-centric conception of political priorities that prefaced and conflated the electoral interests of the Greens and the economic interests of citizens. The question of the border in general and the Greens detention policy in particular was thereby demoted as a priority of the group.

The danger here is that such an argument can be made in the context of any campaign that centers the interests of the working class, women, POC, LGBTI people etc. only in so far as they are citizens who constitute a voter constituency. The claim that the Greens warrant a certain kind of treatment because they are “allies” thus takes the form of a perverse inversion of the social justice conception of “ally” in the sense that citizens defer action against a party that promotes detention as a means of defending a particular interest in (overlooking) the divisions of the border. In this context, the move to make an issue of this deferral is an attempt to re-center the discussion on the border and its effects, to insist that this is not an issue that can wait because, simply put, there will never be a time in which it is convenient for citizens to confront their complicity in a structure that exclusively benefits them.

This example reveals what is particularly damaging in the use of the term “ally” as a means to defend parties and NGOs against anti-border critique. The protective boundary drawn around such groups represents an attempt to enforce a sense of unity amongst people and groups with otherwise serious and distinct political differences. What is really being called for in such cases is for an anti-border politics to subordinate itself to a dominant opposition so as to represent an image of a broad and united “pro-refugee movement.” Such empty signifiers as “pro-refugee” are used to collect positions as diverse as those who argue for onshore detention compared with those who argue against all forms of detention. At a stretch the term could be used to encompass arguments for the “no disadvantage test” on the grounds that it facilitates the (eventual) settlement of refugees as opposed to turning them away. In this way the emptiness of terms such as “pro-refugee” is used to level the plural but distinctive expression of an anti-border position so as to make political spaces amenable to the inclusion of racist humanitarians, “progressive” nationalists, and pro-detention advocates.

The point being made here is that the liberal pluralistic demand to include at all costs anyone who nominates themselves as “pro-refugee” leads to an endless deferral of the need to draw distinctions and take action on the basis of who does or does not support detention specifically, or the border as a whole. The problem is not the metaphor used to describe this move — whether that be the ‘banner’, the ‘tent’, the ‘team’, the ‘movement’, the ‘Left’ etc. — but the effort to prevent or police political contestation within a boundary that is so arbitrarily drawn as to include those who uphold the legitimacy of the border.

People and groups should not be told by others who their allies are. That is, surely, a matter for them to decide. To expect that smaller groups or networks modify their tactics with respect to larger and politically problematic organisations is a move that sacrifices the refusal of political pragmatism in favor of a dishonest and debilitating spectacle of unity. Within such political contests, those who appoint themselves to mediating positions in order to police the form of contestation, rather than addressing or taking sides on the issues at stake, become increasingly indistinct from those who benefit from the smooth continuation of the current order of things.

With respect to the discourses, practices and debates discussed, the concept of the “ally” clearly has a meaning that is of both instrumental and political significance. However, this meaning begins to break down and distort if the term is used to police political contestation between groups who have been meaninglessly linked together despite not sharing the same goals, interests, or commitments. If the concept of the “ally” is to remain meaningful it is important that individuals and groups are given room to define for themselves who their political allies are and the form that such an allegiance takes.

The argument being made here is in no way intended to suggest that there is one way to oppose mandatory detention. Remaining open to and defending plural forms of political praxis is not the same as the liberal pluralist project of managing (and thereby suppressing) political difference. Rather, the argument being put is that opposition to mandatory detention does not equate to using “allyship” as grounds for defending those who help sustain detention against those who are prepared to take up political contestation on these terms. The use of the term ally as a means to foster a false unity or to subordinate the work of an anti-border politics to the interests of mainstream political parties and NGOs can only undermine the meaning of the term and push individuals and groups who practice an anti-border politics into refusing its imposition.

Simply put, those who, in their differences, are opposed to mandatory detention cannot be unified with those who are not. If the meaning of allyship relates to shared goals or a commitment to divesting oneself of the privilege of citizenship it makes no sense to try and yoke divergent positions together and expect them to get along. Doing so not only suppresses political difference in a general sense but raises a specific form of reactionary opposition to the demand that (support for) mandatory detention be fully and utterly dismantled.


* The following links are provide for an overview of xBorder’s approach to anti-border politics since 2000.

** The official Greens policy makes an ambiguous statement on the question of detention before detailing provisions for holding people for “checks” for up to 30 days. In November 2014 the Greens published a press release declaring support for a plan to provide the Tasmanian government with a $1billion incentive package to re-establish a “processing” centre in Tasmania and an economic program to place people undergoing processing in rural areas. This follows support by Tasmania Greens leaders for a similar proposal in 2013.

On allies and mandatory detention.


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