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A society yearning for security divides along lines of liquid fear

The ominous ‘other’, almost invariably drawn from the underclass, is forever lurking in the shadows, threatening us and our way of life. Roland IJdema/Shutterstock

The Conversation is running a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. Here, Camilla Nelson looks at how perceptions of a threatening underclass are shaped by films, TV and popular culture.

You only need to switch on the television at primetime to see who the “villains” are: asylum seekers who “throw children overboard”, Aboriginal people who live in remote communities, petrol sniffers, Lebanese crime gangs and bikies, intergenerational welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed.

The class divide has changed. Nobody is “working class” in the old sense any more – you are excluded. And it is personal.

Goodbye Jolly Swagman. Welcome to the underclass, the new spin on traditional notions of the undeserving poor.

The myth of the underclass is that poverty is self-inflicted. You are no longer impoverished due to structural disadvantage, but because you are vicious, quite possibly violent, and you have exercised a choice.

It is the fiction of choice that links the otherwise disparate figures of the underclass together. The smackheads who “choose” to take drugs, the single mothers who “choose” to have children, the jobless who “choose” not to work, the asylum seekers who “choose” to embark on long and perilous journeys in leaky boats. They make bad choices.

We, of course, make good choices. The figures of the underclass are not presented as objects for our compassion but as figures of threat. They deflect attention from the more real and obvious causes of social anxiety – namely, an economy in which more and more jobs are converted into fleeting forms of casual and contract work.

In a society in which people’s lives have been rendered increasingly precarious, nothing sells like fear.

The government deliberately ignites hysteria over asylum seekers. Elements of the media are not above supporting popular myths that connect refugees to terrorism. Ethnic groups are perennially linked to crime. Disability pensioners, single parents and Newstart recipients are presented as precipitators of budget blowouts and national economic crisis.

In the looking-glass world of the global media, each figure of threat appears virtually interchangeable with any other. The American fear of the teenage mother blurs into the British fear of the festering inner-city slum, which is indistinguishable from the peculiarly Australian fear of the refugee. They are sketched in the same rhetoric of terror.

The cultivation of fear does not stop with the nightly television news. In melodramas, a dark-skinned mugger or people smuggler is equally useful to shore up a failing story or propel a faltering line of plot.

Though crime dramas like The Wire have a strong tradition of dealing progressively with social issues, it often seems as if the socially conscious crime drama is becoming passé. The more standard fare of the tedious CSI variety combines anxiety-inducing narratives, abnormal murder and detailed forensic gore.

Dexter, despite its trendy glamour, falls into this category. Meanwhile, torture porn is packing cinemas worldwide.

Nor is the diffusion of fear essentially new. It has merely changed form. Wolf Creek 2 has recently given the serial killer narrative another outing. But the serial killer narrative has largely given way to the home invasion narrative of the kind that featured in Panic Room and a litany of other forgettable movies.

The figures of threat and terror are not just stalking you down dark alleys any more, or across the semi-rural outskirts of the city. They are right on your doorstep. They are inside your house.

In movies like The Panic Room, the cinematic figures of threat and terror have come as close to home as possible. AAP/Channel Nine publicity

This is the form of social terror that films like The Purge attempted to subvert.

Take, for example, the noticeable increase in melodramas that feature dead children, figures of slaughtered innocence placed at the centre of increasingly murky and even ethically questionable plots. This is not because we have become morally more complex, but exactly the opposite. It is because our ethical systems have become so shaky that melodramas must constantly reach for figures of extreme emotion — slaying children, cheaply — in order to demonstrate the mechanics of who is good and who is bad.

It is also noticeable that television dramas increasingly feature supernatural themes. It is as if to suggest there is something not quite real — or more precisely something monstrous and occult — in the working of the society around us. Cities are laid waste by alien viruses emanating from sub-Saharan Africa. Human bodies are dissected and sold as marketable parts by dark-skinned doctors with accents, or members of strange mystical cults.

There is a reason why the spectral figure of the zombie became the quintessential monster of the global financial crisis. With its origins in Haitian Voodoo, the zombie or soulless slave is a figure for a society rotting from within, but is also a consequence of the outsider come among us. Hence, when then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi declared war against the “army of evil” everybody clearly understood the reference was to migrants and refugees, not to flesh-eating ghouls.

Silvio Berlusconi’s talk of an ‘army of evil’ was readily understood as meaning refugees and migrants. EPA/Alessandro di Meo

If popular culture has posed the problems of our society in a certain way, it also presents us with a solution. We live in an age in which the vigilante drama has come into its own.

The Korean grocers scene in Falling Down shocked some audiences by featuring an allegedly ordinary guy giving vent to ugly anti-social rage, but it also struck a chord with many and set the tone for some increasingly retrograde films.

For example, The Brave One exploits social paranoia with a fairly uncomplicated message: get yourself a gun and, if you feel frightened, don’t hesitate to blast away. The Jodie Foster character says:

I never understood how people lived the fear, and then it touched me.

Dexter, alternating between the comic, the cheap and the merely shocking, does a strangely similar thing. The Dark Passenger is the fear.

The new breed of vigilante drama is not a simple or straightforward recyling of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson in Death Wish. Admittedly, both are films in which dehumanised members of an urban and mostly black underclass get what they allegedly deserve through spectacularly violent means.

The new style of vigilante drama not only entrenches social divisions, but also sanctions a form of social violence that leaves an acrid aftertaste. It is not just that the vigilante has been legitimated. It is that they no longer seek anything that looks remotely like justice, however deranged. They are motivated by hatred and revenge. Or in Dexter’s case by pleasure.

The vigilante doesn’t descend into the underbelly of society in order to set things to rights. The vigilante descends into the underbelly in order to exterminate the brutes.

Being underclass is not just about being poor. It is about being cut off from society. It is about being deprived of the means to participate.

It is fear occasioned by a pervasive sense of instability that is entrenching these divisions. Zygmunt Bauman calls it Liquid Fear. The problem is that our pervasive sense of terror is causing us to regard some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community as less than human beings.

See the other instalments of the series Class in Australia here.

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