It’s somewhat sobering to read Jake Bilardi’s final blog post—less manifesto, in parts, more expository essay—and find oneself agreeing with many of his views and opinions on the state of the world. He was revolted with the Israel–Palestine conflict, which he—echoing the title of Max Blumenthal’s latest book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel—characterises as ‘the ultimate David and Goliath story, where the world was wanting so desperately to turn the victim into the oppressor and the oppressor into the victim, with much success’.
He also had a sense of history, writing about the destructiveness of imperialism around the world and referring to the slaughter of Indigenous Australians as ‘genocide’—a case that the Left has long made and has been best expressed recently in Henry Reynolds’ book Forgotten War.
His ‘research’ was also internationalist in flavour: in a common aside made by many on the Left, he made reference to the other 9/11—the ‘day in 1973 the Americans supported Pinochet’s coup and subsequent iron-fisted rule, during which thousands were killed and many more tortured and disappeared on allegations of dissent—and riffs at length ‘about economic and military support for brutal rebels and dictators throughout Latin America simply because they were anti-Communist’.
One could go on. But ultimately, the conclusion he reached from years of reading and study was that liberal democracy is a sham:
The reality of democracy became clear to me, place in people’s mind the idea of freedom and convince them that they are a free people while oppressing them behind the scenes. On top of this the Western world throws celebrities and false reality into the spotlight to distract the people from what is really going on in the world, hence the widespread political ignorance among Westerners.
The only way one can respond to this ‘deception of democracy’, he posits, is to destroy it by way of ‘violent global revolution’. What Bolshevism! A generation ago he would likely have made a good socialist or communist or anarchist, organising, educating and agitating for change.
Instead, disillusioned and looking for a viable ideology to challenge the status quo, he asks: ‘What would replace [liberal democracy] though? Socialism? Communism?? Nazism??? I was never quite sure’.
Unable to find a home for himself on the Left, he converted to Islam and eventually joined Islamic State. It may seem an anomaly that someone whose politics were of the hard Left ended up joining a group that espouses puritanical religious views and calls for the return of a time long past. But it’s hardly uncommon for the hard Left to converge with the hard Right. The best-known historical example is the Midnight of the Century: the Hitler-Stalin Pact. More recently, one only has to look at the number of so-called leftists—ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens the best known among them—that climbed into bed with the neocons to support the invasion of Iraq.
Jake Bilardi had a cause but no way of channeling it. It speaks to the impotence of the Left, which since the fall of the Soviet Union has been unable to provide a vision to rival global capitalism. Jake was looking for an alternative and he should have found it on the Left, but, from his perspective, there wasn’t a viable one.
The essence of his thinking was sound, but, as one would expect from an eighteen year old, it lacked a depth of understanding and nuance. What, I found myself thinking, would have come of him if he had read more Noam Chomsky, or Slavoj Žižek, or Tariq Ali, or Patrick Cockburn, or Robert Fisk? Would he have converted to Islam, which he seems to have done initially more as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims being persecuted around the world than out of any deep-seated belief?
It’s impossible to know, of course, but it struck me that the Right has been arguing the inverse of this question since time immemorial: that those on the Left are allies of the enemy—agitating from within. Who could ever forget President George W. Bush’s injunction that ‘you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists’?
For the Right, Jake’s journey presents few intellectual problems—the progression from leftist to jihadi is a seemingly natural one. Quadrant—a journal not above using the death of a child to score political points and from whose pages Sharri Markson last week rejoiced in the torture of David Hicks—joked that ‘[b]efore detonating himself in the cause of Allah and his notion of a better world, beardless youth Jake Bilardi’ should have been recruited as a journalist by the ABC or Fairfax. He had all the credentials, the piece claimed: Muslim ‘diversity’ fodder, anti-American, anti-Catholic, anti-semitic, cheap to hire, strong sense of mission and parrot-like regurgitator of toxic tosh.
This contemptible piffle, which conflates anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, opposition to the Iraq War with anti-Americanism and atheism with anti-Catholicism is hardly new. And it highlights a tendency of the Right to project its values onto a set of circumstances to provide a reading favourable to its politics, rather than taking the information and examining it at face value.
What the Right’s unable to see is that Jake was not unlike a lot of other young people out there. The 2014 Lowy Institute poll showed that only 42 per cent of Australians aged between eighteen and twenty-nine see democracy as a preferable form of government to any other. It’s not that the other 68 per cent like the idea of kicking back in downtown Pyongyang, but it’s a reflection of the endemic disillusionment with Australian liberal democracy.
In his essay Jake pointed to the celebrity culture—a ‘false reality’, he called it—that seems to fill so many people’s empty lives and provide them with meaning. And, in a sense, he was right: neoliberalism inevitably gives rise to a vacuous culture because it provides no framework beyond turning a profit. It emphasises and facilitates a Randian ethos of selfishness, with the promise of wealth for those who succeed. But when that fails to instill any sense of meaning in people’s lives they have nowhere to turn for answers.
It’s a void that was once filled with religion, but without that to give one’s life ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ many are left feeling all at sea. That’s why right-wing pundits like Miranda Devine see no apparent contradiction in declaring that atheism gives rise to ‘cultural nihilism’, which in turn pushes disaffected youths into the arms of religious extremists. This leap of logic is beyond parody, but she does hit upon a kernel of truth in her diagnosis. The Right is incapable of understanding that atheism is not to blame; rather, it’s the neoliberalism it has championed that leaves so many people feeling enisled. Religion—by which Ms Devine means Christianity—may have obscured the reality that a culture that privileges profit above all else is a hollow one, but it’s never been more than a fig leaf.
Jake was a child of the neoliberal generation who, for all the flaws in his thinking, believed that there must be a better way for society to operate. The tragedy for the Left is that he saw no hope there either.
(This was originally published in issue No. 136 of Arena Magazine.)