A Snag of the Democracy Sausage: Political Participation and Dissent for Non-Citizens
Srishti Chatterjee


for kraanti, revolution, the place and the person, for hope, solidarity, outrage, and because we’re so lucky: love.

It is election year—and there is but one axiom, repeated by every ‘progressive’ mouth: Vote the Liberals out.  I’ve lived in so-called Australia since the 2019 Federal Election, and in this time have been witness to and experienced the Coalition Government’s absolute, pardon my immigrant anger, clusterfuck. I couldn't agree more: Vote the Liberals Out. If I could vote, I would.

Elections are a nation-building exercise wherein citizens of democracies celebrate their most cherished freedom bestowed by a democratic nation-state:the freedom to elect who governs their bodies and borders. In the age of increasingly globalised markets, every ‘global power’ wants migrants—a large group of people who contribute their labour to the country’s economy, pay taxes, and get no representative say in the rules that govern their bodies. Non-citizens of a nation-state establish their lives within borders etched through violence and colonisation, and are consequently expected to be perfect, law-abiding ‘citizens’—with no real benefit of ‘citizenship’. You can’t complain, go back home if it’s so bad.

We do all love democracy, but electoral change is not the only valid political way to make change for various reasons. For one, it locks non-citizens of a nation-state out of political agency, and two, it finitely confines change, resistance, and dissent to electoral terms, rather than recognise the continuity it exists in. Emancipation, equality, freedom, and the like, takes years of sustained community work, campaigning, and shared solidarity in the forms of rallies, protests, occupations and strikes. These actions profoundly affect and challenge the nation-state, rather than attempt to subtly shift it to a different, ‘greater’ good within the same system.

Democracy is often spoken of as a grandiose structure that is held by its many salient pillars: free speech and expression, a free press, a Constitution, free and fair elections, the right to assemble and protest, and more. For something that is spoken of in the metaphor of pillars, democratic nation-states have often (deliberately) ignored one of its biggest pillars: assembly and protest. During her US Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2020, (now Supreme Court Judge) Amy Coney Barrett was asked, interestingly, by a Republican senator, to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. She was expected to answer with ease. She seamlessly named freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly, and couldn’t remember the fifth.

“What else am I missing?”

“Redress, or protest”.

Whether ACB’s forgetfulness was intentional or not, the ‘pillar’ of democracy often forgotten is one of protest. The recently passed Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 in the NSW Parliament is a testament to the increasing infringements upon a democracy’s real or implied rights to protest, which theoretically impacts people across the political spectrum. As a law, it comes from the nation-state, and is therefore automatically considered ‘free and fair’, although its real implication will disproportionately impact protesters that critique or dissent to the government.

While the infringement upon the right to protest impacts all bodies within a nation-state, citizen or not, residency and citizenship status feature importantly in the conversation about these rights. Because the guarantee of human rights are so closely tied to citizenship, non-citizenship often impedes legally further into the right to assemble, redress, or protest. Culturally, any dissent or protest from an immigrant is met with “if you hate it here, why don’t you go home.” Refugees and asylum seekers are also asked to be grateful to live in a democracy and simply be allowed to speak, since they are often fleeing impacts of more apparent violence, tyranny and war. Since we are not allowed to vote, dissent and protest are actually one of the only ways in which we can hold the nation-state accountable to our indisputable humanity and consequent rights. There are obviously many reasons why accountability to immigrants is not a desired goal for Western democracies like Australia.

In an electoral system of politics with a term of three years, it is a natural response to perceive every problem as a three year plan that you get to hit refresh on, giving rise to a common theme in the politics of the Australian nation-state: short term goals, and good, old-fashioned political indifference. Nothing matters, we’ll refresh this in three years. Migrants, asylum seekers, and immigration, in this system, get classified into ‘border security’ conversations rather than human rights, upholding the rights of the border over the rights of bodies. We can’t vote, and when we’re a voting issue, we’re counted as ‘problems’ to be solved in the three year election term, rather than our right to be protected from precarity as humans.

Elections Upholding the Nation-State

Electoral systems make long-term change like liberation and emancipation of marginalised people rather impossible as they become divided into term limits of three-four-five year term periods, as each government plays racquetball with a few electoral issues and liberation becomes bottom of the barrel stuff.

Amidst the already existing political apathy within voters, both of Australia’s main parties—Labor and Liberal, have strong nation-building psyches, a subtle (or not) way of putting ‘Australia first’. Built upon colonial genocide and massacres of the First Peoples of this continent, ‘Australia’ as a nation-state has been politically curated to be by, of, and for white people of European descent. The very basis of this nation-state is white Europeans, in solidarity with and proximity to other white people, in a homogenous, monolithic way. In his work on collective memory titled What is A Nation? historian Ernest Renan defines a nation as “a spiritual principle of solidarity”, whose existence is perpetuated by its actors. Voting, and an overall participation in the electoral spectacle, is a reasonably universal experience of this perpetuation. To build the homogeneous hegemony of whiteness, a replica of Western ‘democracy’ is seen as the only suitable, fair, and equitable way to organise (and govern) people. Voting is an act of democratic accountability (and sometimes dissent and disapproval of the nation-state) that is deemed sufficiently ‘civilised’, ‘non-violent’, and aesthetic. It upholds the nation-state as supreme, and amidst the multicultural presentation of most liberal democracies. It is an action to legitimise what in Australia’s case is a settler-colonial nation-state, and its leaders. Voting is a celebrated civil right, but it is also a reaffirmation of a specific hierarchy of ‘leadership’, which is often a nation-state whose idea of the nation is so homogenous that it requires the erasure of its many - for we are ONE [and free].

Malcolm X famously entreated African-American rights in the US to human rights over civil rights, because he felt civil rights was an appeal to the confines of the nation-state, rather than a liberation from a nation-state that has actualised itself by colonisation, genocide, and coercion. In his 1964 speech ‘Ballot or the Bullet’, he quipped “civil rights means you are asking Uncle Sam to treat you right…Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood…imagine him posing as the leader of the free world.”  The reaffirmation of hegemony by the democratically elected nation-state posits elected leaders as the only legitimate governance, and the exertion of their power and authority is then guised as protection from precarity. Hannah Arendt affirms this in The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man, where she argues that human rights such as the right to be protected from precarity, are closely tied, not to the fact of being human, but to citizenship to a nation-state.

Within the current governance structure of the world, the nation-state is almost the ‘wish granting factory’ of human rights, in that human rights are granted and guaranteed by the nation-state, rather than by the simple, indisputable fact of being human. That’s the thing about wishes: they are granted (as easily as they are taken away) on whim, and uphold the power of the granter as magical, divine, and all things supreme.

Immigration and Protest

The curation of whiteness in Australia’s citizenship since Federation was tangibly altered after the abolition of the White Australia Policy in 1973. Today, Australia prides itself as a postcolonial, multicultural liberal democracy, where ‘everyone gets a fair go’. In reality, Australia's curation of whiteness has simply manifested in more subtle ways. For example, migrants are unable to vote, and our visa applications require us to commit to never participating in a protest. While we are subject to abiding by the same laws as a citizen, we a) get no say in choosing the lawmaker, and b) are held to more stringent standards of abiding by the law. Student (and other migration) visa applications to Australia require a response to this question -

“Has any applicant ever been associated with an organisation engaged in violence or engaged in acts of violence (including war, insurgency, freedom fighting, terrorism, protest) either overseas or in Australia?”

There is much to unpack in that question - like the uncritical positioning of ‘war’ and ‘freedom fighting’ in the same category of ‘acts of violence’, or the rather intentional positioning of protest and terrorism as similar activities. Protests do terror-ise, with the intention of critiquing authority/power, and it is a technic of accountability in a nation-state, different from ‘terrorism’—often used to denote acts with great civilian casualties, like a bombing or mass-shooting. Often, protests and terrorism have legal and disciplinary intersections that are influenced by the actors and their positionalities, and insofar as people perceive protests as acts of terrorism, the protestors are likely to be marginalised people who experience conditions of precarity from which the nation-state does not protect them. Demands of accountability are then portrayed as acts of anti-state insurgency and terrorism, and any critique of the nation-state becomes an act of terrorism.

Even before decoding the question as a text, we must view the sheer act of asking that question as an exertion of power by the nation-state, a carefully worded threat to coerce migrant bodies to not behave in and as (real or perceived) dissent. Migrants must conform, must court the nation-state, must coerce our bodies to not dissent, and must perform the ‘hustle’; run those food shops and do the underpaid labour and never protest. It is a violence of the global political economy, to require our bodies and our labour to unquestioningly advance an Australia that is not fair to us. Having us sign a decree to denounce a civil, democratic and universal human right to protest, which happens to also be one of the only ways in which we can participate in democratic accountability, is severely dehumanising. It is a ringing reminder of Arendt’s aforementioned argument that human rights are ultimately tied to the nation-state, and not to the fact of humanity.

In Who Sings the Nation-State? Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak and Judith Butler bring up an example from 2006 protests in Californian streets, where ‘illegal immigrants' sang the US National Anthem in Spanish, building national furore. In their field-defining work on citizenship and protest, Spivak and Butler discuss who the nation-state’s emblems belong to: flags, anthems, and other patriotic paraphernalia. By using words like “we” and “our”, the nation-state projects a unified image of its people, but cultural understandings of  an unified group - the “our” - redefine the violence of borders that erase migrants into conforming/assimilating to the idea of the nation-state.

In Australia, the recently changed national anthem replicated this refrain of ‘oneness’: for we are one and free. Yet, in the aforementioned example, we see how freedom and oneness are both disputable for non-citizens, and the very process of immigration affirms our humanity after we denounce war, insurgency, freedom fighting, terrorism, and protest—all in one breath. Two German students were recently deported for protesting for climate justice in NSW. While citizens are definitely impacted by infringements upon rights to protests, non-citizens are subject to deportation—losing the nation-state of locality. In and of itself, this is a re-enactment of the violence of borders.

Further, in Can the Subaltern Speak, Spivak talks about how in the Western world, the nation-state and the hegemonic social group is tasked as a saviour of ‘human rights’ for everyone else, or ‘the subaltern’. Spivak discusses the many ways in which communities considered ‘subaltern’ to the ‘default’ of whiteness, find ways to ‘speak’ that are co-opted or unheard by the hegemonic community. Drawing parallels to human rights of non-citizens, it is heavily implied that we must be grateful to our saviour: the white, Western nation-state, rather than redress, protest, and dissent for our own protection from social precarity.

Protest Against Precarity, Precarity of Protest 

In the early onset of the pandemic, in 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Jobkeeper support for citizens, whilst international students and migrant workers who were experiencing the same circumstances of lockdowns, job insecurity and isolation were kept out of the support systems. Morrison also asked us to “go home” if we couldn’t support ourselves. Sure enough, three years later (with insurmountably more cases now), at the behest of business owners who cannot function without migrant labour, he has called back migrant workers and international students: a wonderful election gimmick.

In Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics, Judith Butler discusses the role of social and political institutions as being designed to minimise condition of precarity, which she designates as “politically induced conditions in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to … disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, [and] violence without protection.” She then problematises this ‘duty’ of social and political institutions to protect people from precarity in tandem with Arendt, in that the responsibility is then dependent on (real and disputed) citizenship, rather than (indisputable) humanity. Citizens in Australia received Centrelink benefits (albeit inadequate) that non-citizens trapped within similar pandemic-induced social, political and economic realities, did not receive.

A better characterisation of ‘precarity’ by Butler is “that [of a] politically induced condition of maximised vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection.” For all that migrants do to declare we will not “commit acts of terrorism and protest”, we are subjected to disproportionate acts of state violence, from invasive medical strip searches to enter the country, to being routinely dehumanised and scapegoated for the mistakes of the nation-state. Refugees and asylum seekers are further dehumanised in detention, where they are imprisoned in inhuman conditions and used as political pawns, all for fleeing violence and precarity and seeking protection. The ‘duty’ of nation-states is a tangible arm of the violence of etching borders to divide people: rather permanently. Every human right, like life of dignity, faith, freedom from discrimination, is tied to this border, to the fact of the nation-state, rather than to being human.

In light, one of the only ways in which we can take our right to be protected from precarity is to protest. As a non-citizen in Australia, I’ve found the most community, faith, support, and solidarity from political organising. These have been the only times I have felt like I’ve held agency and power without courting the nation-state that deeply dislikes me.

Protests are hopeful. While portrayed negatively for the unbridled anger and rage a protest holds, the anger has been kind to me. The 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Narrm was in-between our prolonged, pandemic induced lockdowns. People, especially people of colour, were holding in feelings of hurt that compounded all the horribly isolating impacts of the lockdowns. It was cold and rainy, and yet people looked at each other in hope, with love and solidarity. We slipped in a mask to someone whose mask broke, quietly passed around bottles of hand-sanitizer amidst the outcry of “Black Lives Matter.” The sheer, indisputable fact that Black lives matter to people, more than they have ever done to the nation-state, that anger was held in love and kindness, and more than an election—that is change; and hope.

Elections are often romanticised as ‘hope.’ As an immigrant, I feel very little hope in outcomes for me, and that is not to say I don’t believe in elections. It means that I place hope in my protection from precarity in the strengths and weaknesses of my communities. When the nation-state makes my body an issue of border security—my disabled, trans body that is the centre of political culture wars—I’m nourished and cared for by my communities. That is redress, dissent, and protest: the will to remind me I am human, and that this makes me deserving of love, dignity, rest, healthcare, and so much more.

Dissent is diverse. Our existences are organising: we hold hands and infodump on Tiktok and make placards and go on strike.

I don’t place much hope in the nation-state. I’m a trans disabled immigrant, and I’ve clearly read too much Spivak. All I know is that the most love I’ve felt when I’m routinely betrayed by the Australian nation-state is my communities who hold space for my dissent and rise with me in protest: whether we make a meal or attend a rally, or softly etch tattoos onto our skins on a Sunday afternoon. I know which human right I don’t forget:

Redress, or protest.

Srishti Chatterjee is a writer, unionist, and political organiser. A resident mum friend and bonafide chef, Srishti is also a 30 Under 30 Out For Australia awardee, and is currently writing a thesis on the experience of dissent and solidarity on digital assemblages.

(Dis)solution creates and publishes work to unravel the knots of injustice in the post-end-of-history Anthropocene(s). It turns a critical eye to the machinations of exploitation at the intersections of the political, cultural, and ecological, and the crisis and contradiction that follows. (Dis)solution believes in work that analyzes our world without insularity, work that informs our everyday-political movement through the eroding topographies of the 21st century—not merely to understand it, but to change it.

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