Nobody gets up one morning and suddenly thinks I’m going to choose racism and xenophobia over unity and community.
As a newly emboldened right-wing movement sweeps the globe, not many people look at the economic conditions that incubate such a blinkered view. Populist politicians have used those conditions to divide, rule and appear relevant but however you split it, the rise of the right is inextricably linked to zombie economies.
For professor Simon Winlow, the current state of political and economic affairs in British society in which the Right are on the rise, is illustrative of a fundamental historical impasse with the future yet to be determined. In the view of Winlow, the mainstream narrative is one that identifies a similar set of problems that beset the nation.
When those who are already economically disenfranchised become desperate, they’re susceptible to populist leaders who apparently have a solution. But the scapegoating of “another” means that we lose focus on the real source of the problem.
So why don’t we call out the exploitative economic conditions that always foster the rise of the right?
The director of the Institute of Race Relations, Liz Fekete and one of the co-authors of The Rise of the Right, Professor Simon Winlow, joined Renegade Inc. to discuss the failure of mainstream politics and the rise of the far right.
With the establishment seemingly fighting for the political centre ground, alternative ways in which to organize the economy that are inclusive to everyone, have been sidelined by mainstream politics. “I think for the most part, the political left in Britain has abandoned the failed political economy and chosen instead to wage a war on the field of culture”, says Winlow.
The co-author of The Rise of The Right, clarifies his position:
“It used to be that the traditional Labour Party or the broad left would offer the multi-ethnic working class a story of the problems that they face. The fundamental cause of the problems faced by ordinary men and women were rooted in the political economy of capitalism. So the Labour party, the political left and all the institutions of the left, took ordinary working people’s frustrations, drew upon them and then articulated a new politics that offered a promise…that we would build an inclusive economy in the future.”
“However, from the 1980s onwards”, says Winlow, “Thatcher was broadly considered to have won the economic argument. Tony Blair agreed and thus chose to focus on the cultural implications of the policies enacted. So what the Labour Party is not doing now – but needs to do – is offer ordinary people…not just a zero hours contract, but a job guarantee that means something, that gives them a chance to feed a family, clothe their kids and look positively towards the future.”
Liz Fekete takes a slightly different historical view to Winlow:
“I would attach the blame for culture wars on the right, not the left”, says Fekete. “Where I share the perspective, is that all the political parties from Labour, Lib Dems, Conservatives, have acquiesced to this neo liberal model of advanced capitalism. So we see at this point all of that played out in the Labour party where you have a leader who’s trying to break with neo liberal model but you have local authorities that are totally attached to [this model].”
For Fekete, narratives that critiqued de-industrialization have to a large extent given way to the politics of identity centred on culture wars and issues around race where the dominant view was that of a white working class culture perceived to be a victim of political correctness – notions which, contends Fekete, have been deliberately manipulated by the Right. “Why”, says the director of the Institute of Race Relations, “are upper middle class thinkers like Douglas Murray and Roger Scruton actually starting from positions which are culturally conservative or racist using the white working class as the mouthpiece for their views?”
“The starting point has to be that our working class is multicultural and that actually there are huge elements of the working class in our country who live in multicultural societies, who live happily and contentedly and well together. However, the divisions are constantly stoked, I think, by the right”
The stoking of these divisions and the rightward drift towards reactionary political forces have, in turn, been facilitated by the absence of an alternative left-wing mainstream narrative to help fill the void currently dominated by the politics of racism.
“Racism”, says Winlow, “exists as a timeless narrative to explain any problem you might encounter. I think the working class people who have drifted to the right have used and dipped into…the language that is offered by the far right as a means of explaining their downward mobility in socio-economic terms.”
The engendering of false consciousness within the working class, is a cynical ploy on behalf of the right to maintain power. Professor Winlow rejects the notion that the working class have been inculcated into racist ideology by some shadowy far right figures, but rather, views the situation in terms of a general ideology. “Racism always exists in the background. It can always be used and dipped into when you’re frustrated with your socio-economic position…You can dip into these narratives to explain any problem”, says Winlow.
“It’s the absence of a more progressive account of those problems which allows narratives to come to the fore. If you look at the Labour party from the 1980s onwards, it’s the acceptance that this is just a depoliticisation of capitalism. It’s just the economy. The only thing that we can do is manipulate interest rates or perhaps tax wealth to a greater extent. Those are the only tools we’ve got. It was a myth then, it’s a myth now. We need to broaden out this debate and utilize the tools of the state to try and address some of those problems which are really quite extreme in particular communities.”
For Winslow, the political vision required in order to address a situation in which the working class are pushed towards the right, is multi-faceted:
“Firstly, I think the Labour party should be unequivocally a party of the working class – the multi-ethnic working class. It should seek to defend and advance their interests as order number one….I think we’ve been losing for so long we don’t know what victory looks like. And because the institutions to the left, the Labour party and whatever else have accepted neo liberalism, people generally look at the politics of the left and assume they’re only interested in cultural agendas and they’re very middle class. The Labour party still is very middle class and in a very basic way they look at the Labour party and the institutions of the left and say, ‘Well, where do I fit in? Where were my people in this story? When are people gonna talk about the issues that are important to me?”
It is easy to see how working class voices have been lost from Thatcherism onwards in the context of a neoliberal era conducive to an appeal by the establishment to the centre ground indicative of the philosophy of Third Way triangulation embodied, politically, in Blairism. It’s therefore no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher once said of Tony Blair that New Labour was her ‘greatest achievement’. The aim was to obliterate the concept of the working class as an objective category in society. The attempt to reduce class to a subjective category predicated on lifestyle choices, explains Blair’s comment, “we’re all middle class now.” But as professor Winlow infers, the notion that the working class have been supplanted by a burgeoning ‘middle class’, in an era in which “the gap between rich and poor has never been wider”, is plainly nonsense.
So underlying the growth of the far right, inequality and neoliberalism, is class which, in turn, is tied to real existing material conditions framed by economics.
“People need a stake in the future… This is the basis of progressive politics…We can improve by enacting these policies, by following these claims and ideas. And then you gradually absorb people from across the political spectrum into your project of social betterment where people can see a benefit for themselves and their communities. People like me will do better if I vote for this party and engage in these political debates”, says Winlow. But the positive approach outlined by Winlow must be seen within a context in which neoliberalism is ravaging economies and societies.
Liz Fekete has recently returned from Greece which has been hit particularly hard by the neoliberal project – something which she envisages a major city like London not being immune from. Indeed – as Fekete suggests – if we continue down the neoliberal track, there’s a very real possibility that what happened to the Greek economy could happen to the British economy. Fekete spent five days in Athens as part of a project to observe the trial of Golden Dawn – a neo-Nazi electoral party, which actually became the third largest political party in Greece. “In terms of the homelessness and people on the streets, it’s just as bad in London”, says Fekete, adding:
“The way that the far right have been successful in most countries has actually been by offering an economic program to the working class. I think there’s a contradiction here [in the sense that] if we follow a class politics that isn’t linked to wider progressive politics around strengthening democracy, progressive values and human rights, we have the danger of actually following a nativist political program.”
Nativism – the notion of British jobs for British workers, no healthcare entitlements for immigrants, a national preference in terms of welfare policies etc – is the key ideology that underpins Brexit. What were once widely regarded as the kind of political demands and socioeconomic policies set by those on the fringes of the far right, are increasingly becoming the mainstay of social democratic parties across Europe.
Fekete reminds us that Golden Dawn in Greece were a violent, murderous, racist party before their PMs and their members were arrested and were arguing precisely for these economic policies around protecting Greek people. The argument was that the problem was immigration and migrants who were getting all the privileges. So they pursued policies that had blood banks and soup kitchens for Greek people only. Fekete was in one square where they burnt down the local church hall which had been welcoming refugees. They padlocked all the playgrounds so that migrant children couldn’t use them.
Fekete points to the contradictions involved in terms of advocating and pursuing a straightforward class politics that doesn’t also deal with educating and advancing a progressive politics around the issue of immigration, welfare, foreign policy and human rights. “So I think the gains that we made from the ’80s onwards in terms of gender rights, anti-racism, rights for sexual minorities, also do have to be defended”, says Fekete.
Religious identity has also, according to Fekete, been inculcated in the kind of contradictions highlighted above. The attempts by Western politicians, it is argued, to equate one specific form of religious freedom (ie Christianity) as being worthy of protection, feeds into the wider notion of Western exceptionalism. In particular, Fekete posits that European leaders are using Christianity and its symbolism in order to further the narrow political ambitions of governments’. Matteo Savini in Italy, for example, often uses religious symbolism in order to hitch Christianity to the far right cause, whilst Viktor Orban in Hungary – leader of the far right Fidesz party – conflates Christianity with political nationalist ideas. “And he also talks about being almost like the captain of this drowning European ship and that it’s Hungarians mission to protect the borders from the advancing Muslim hordes. So this opportunistic hitching of Christianity to the far right and hard right cause is also linked to the potency of Islamophobia and political debate”, says Fekete.
The director of the Institute of Race Relations believes that both this and the fact that sections of the hierarchy of different churches are, apparently, allowing religion to be used by governments’ as a diversion from their right wing policies, is however – according to professor Winlow – not a fair depiction of what’s going on:
“I think the whole issue about Christianity is a red herring….What people miss is not the importance of Christianity, it’s rather the vitality of their own traditional culture and this is the very stuff that energizes the far right, the sense of loss that something that was valuable to them is falling out of view”, says Winlow.
That “something”, is the sense of community which feeds into a growing sense of justifiable frustration. Using Christianity or anything else to give people hope is a logical step if the aim is to divide and conquer these communities.
“What you see when you see a Golden Dawn rally or an EDL protest or something like that, is an inverted mirror image of our own political failure. The left should be addressing…socioeconomic inequality, the failure of the jobs market and the failure to provide a platform on which people can build a good life…Because they’re not responding to that, the political right and working class people are dipping into the language of racism in order to explain their problems”, says Winlow.
The result has been the scapegoating of individuals and groups for reasons of political expediency – a major problem, says Liz Fekete – that stems from the top down:
“People like our prime minister talk about Muslim women as looking like letterboxes and bank robbers. If we have our prime minister talking about betrayal, treachery and surrender is so much an EDL idea. It was in the National Front and British National Party ideology going back years. If this kind of deficit language is coming from the top down, it’s not surprising that it’s embedded in ordinary popular culture and working class communities.”
“And then we get the alternative to that where you do have sections of what I would describe as a hate crime industry that actually spend all their time denouncing white working class people as uneducated and ignorant when actually the ignorance comes from people who are highly educated. But how do we end this scapegoating? Personally, I’ve never been one to have faith in political parties…I think this has to start from the grassroots up. I think we have to rebuild community, bring people together over issues like housing, access to welfare and employment. Those politicians at a local level who are finding it difficult to find their powers of hearing will hear because the momentum will be so huge that they can’t turn their hearing aids off.”
Professor Winlow takes a slightly different approach to Feteke by emphasizing the importance of universal politics and universal values that transcend the idea that liberal multiculturalism will eventually address these problems. “You build a progressive, universal politic that makes cultural identities superfluous and unimportant”, says Winlow.
The common ground for Winlow and Fekete is the notion of a politics rooted in community and political parties that have to reflect the views of those communities. “I don’t think it’s about changing the narrative. It’s about changing the reality. We’ve had since Tony Blair onwards and David Cameron and Clegg and all these people, this idea that political power is won by giving us a better narrative. The narrative comes out of reality. We have to change the reality and we need to go back to the basics, which is revitalizing local democracy”, says Fekete.
“People on the far right…don’t talk about Boris Johnson or whatever else. They don’t care about any of that. They focus on local issues – joblessness, dissolution of communities, a sense of rootlessness that they’re missing out on – everything that’s good about the way that we live today. We need to address those issues. This is how you make a fundamental change. As Liz said, you change the reality not the language around it.”
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