The early years of the 21st century are beginning to take on shape and meaning. On the one hand the unchallenged dominance of a global order centred on the dominance of neo-liberal economic structures and the elites who govern them. On the other hand the tendencies towards a crisis of legitimacy of this same political order. This developing crisis has several inter-related aspects:
- · The declining rate of voter turnout in first world Western countries
- · The fact that traditional mainstream “left” parties have all adopted neo-liberal policies
- · The fact that voters are becoming disillusioned more than ever with the choice between two flavours of the same ‘TINA’ politics
- · The consequent rise of third parties, and ‘maverick’ politicians like Donald Trump
The economic drivers behind this democratic crisis are familiar:
- · The economics of globalisation, rapidly changing the domestic economies of first world western economies – in general a move away from industrial manufacture and an associated growth in less tangible aspects of the economy.
- · The problematic twin of the free movement of capital across borders: the not-so-free movement of labour across those same borders
- · The rise of international bodies which control these massive and consequential flows of capital, and treaties and arrangements which relate to these: the European ‘troika’, the TPPA and TISA agreements, the IMF, the World Bank etc.
These international economic and political systems put massive pressure on nation states to adopt neo-liberal economic policies or suffer extreme consequences. The recent example of Greece standing up to the EU and the banks is an example of this. The tragic surrender of Syriza to the dictates of the EU demonstrates a fundamental truth for other nation states: even if you vote in a government which promises radical changes, nothing really significant will change. All of the big decisions have been made in advance by big international players – The EU, corporates, banks and so on. Democratic processes take place in a system where the limits have been decided in advance, to suit the interests of these big players.
This developing democratic crisis of the first world nation states is of course intimately tied up with the fallout from other parts of the world. The break up and dissolution of states in Africa and across the middle east, the civil war in Syria and the ongoing devastation within Iraq – these unseemly and bloody consequences of Western imperialism and neo-colonialism have a very human reality, in the shape of thousands of refugees and migrants from those regions, attempting to find safety in the same countries responsible for setting the stage for the catastrophes they have had to endure.
This twin flow of populations across borders, of refugees escaping failing states and war, and economic migrants following the global flows of capital and the dictates of neo-liberal economic imperatives constitute the focal point of a resurgent right wing populist politics: immigration.
Donald Trump points the finger at Mexicans and Muslims. Nigel Farage from UK’s UKIP party points the finger at a variety of foreign invaders, they could be Polish, Estonian or Syrian or some virtually any other non-English nationality. Pauline Hanson has many fingers, which have pointed at Aboriginal Australians and Asians in the past but now tend to point to anyone who has anything to do with something called “islam”. Here in New Zealand our very own Labour party point its finger at people with Chinese sounding surnames.
This racism of what I will term “right wing populism” is of course only the dark and negative side of the phenomenon. There is a ‘positive’ aspect of each of these ideologies, something to inspire hope and grand feelings as well as just prejudice and hate. Trump hooks into the imperial legacy of the superpower and urges us to help him “make America Great again”. Farage sells us a kind of English nationalism which harks back to the golden age of 1950s Britain, basking in postwar virility and stiff upper lip goodness. Hanson wants to embrace and promote some kind of Christian Australia.
It’s tempting to mock the stupidities and noxiousness of these demagogues and the vile racism they employ and incite. It’s also tempting to point out the very clear connections these movements have with much more sinister and extreme far right groups. The British National Front in the UK, the Klu Klux Klan in the US, and fascist elements in Australia –these groups can be seen as the logical conclusion to right populist politics, and undeniably profit from its success. The Brexit victory has led to a fivefold increase in the number of racist assaults in the UK. Trump incites and legitimates racist violence. (rise of far right in Europe, etc )
Without denying the vileness of this racist politics, and without downplaying the links to outright fascist groups, I want to refrain from this line of thought here for two reasons: firstly, the racism of right populism is not extreme and ‘stupid’, it is ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’. We need to pay careful attention to this distinction between outright fascist racism and “reasonable” anti-immigrant sentiment. Secondly, right populism is a mass phenomenon, and is not completely reducible to its undeniable racist tendencies.
The question of how right wing populism relates to fascism is important, but for now I want to put this to one side and concentrate on what is really a very mainstream political current. I want to examine
- 1. Its social content – who supports right wing populism, and what motivates those supporters?
- 2. The question of its ‘anti – establishment’ credentials: does right wing populism really threaten neo-liberal global capitalist elites?
- 3. The question of how right populism can be countered by a left internationalism.
1. Social content
The recent ‘Brexit’ result in the UK provides some good data. (Of course, it’s potentially dangerous to generalise BUT …). In the aftermath of the Brexit result, the “Leave” voters were castigated as a group of racist, uneducated, working class goons who had fallen for the propaganda of the nationalist right. In fact, the actual demographics paint a more complex picture. ‘Leave’ support was in fact a cross class group, with lots of middle class voters choosing this option alongside poorer voters. They tended to be older, whiter and more provincial. They also tended to endorse conservative values.
A widely referenced poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft asked both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters questions about whether they thought things like feminism, multiculturalism and immigration were a “force for good” or a “force for ill”. The results of the survey appear at first glance to paint a very extreme picture: of the people surveyed who identified feminism as a “force for ill”, 74% were ‘Leave’ voters. Similar percentages resulted from other progressive labels such as ‘the green movement’, social liberalism and of course immigration. We need to be careful here though: the “of” is very important. The result does not mean that 74% of Leave voters identified as anti-feminists, it means that OF the people who identified as anti-feminists, 74% were Leave voters. So while it is undoubtably true that the Brexit result has been a massive boost for the anti-immigrant right, it is not correct to identify the 52% of people who voted ‘Leave’ with uniformly racist and reactionary views.
Trump support in the US is of course a different phenomenon, and although I have not read up on any similar sort of statistics, they would probably paint a much more reactionary and conservative picture than the Brexit stats. Nevertheless the apparently curious fact that a significant group of Bernie Sanders supporters switched their allegiance to Donald Trump tells us something about the volatility and complexity of support for right populism.
2. Anti - Establishment?
There can be little doubt about the fact that right populism is a form of resurgent nationalism. The fact that a large chunk of its support comes from an older generation familiar with the more comfortable and apparently secure world of the post WW2 boom years is obviously linked with a backward looking politics. This nostalgia for a pre- neo liberal era is informed by policy positions which overlap with progressive positions: many socialists oppose the EU as it is a bulwark of neo-liberal austerity across Europe for example, and Donald Trump opposes the TPPA and advocates an isolationist foreign policy.
There are at least two contradictions here. One of them is the fact that while right wing populism is driven by the need of the elites in first world countries to maintain and encourage mass support for their continued rule, the policies they promote actually do run against the logic of 21st century global capitalism. Mobile and frequently desperate populations of people seeking employment across the globe fit in quite nicely with the needs of capital, rampaging across borders constantly on the lookout for the cheapest and most vulnerable sources of exploitable labour. The stated goals of people like Trump and Farage would put a massive brake on economic growth, with potentially disastrous results for the national economies of countries who embrace their policy prescriptions. The de-valuation of the British pound, and the mad scramble to counter or mitigate the more extreme effects of Brexit illustrate this point.
The second contradiction is the fact that progressive political positions against things like the EU and the TPPA have been taken over and framed by right populist thinking. To put this in very crude general terms, ‘internationalism’ has become more and more associated with the interests of neo-liberal global capitalist elites. The right wing populist response is nationalism. The absent factor is a left progressive internationalism. An example of this is the tiny, ineffectual and embarrassing ‘Lexit’ or Left Exit campaign. Opposing the EU for very good socialist reasons, the Lexit supporters helped usher in a disastrous result framed almost entirely by a vicious anti-immigrant nationalist discourse. They had good principles and progressive alternatives, but these tiny voices were drowned out by the dominant nationalism.
3. Left internationalism?
Socialists oppose the politics of racism and nationalism. We promote class solidarity across borders, and stand with refugees and migrants against all forms of discrimination and abuse. We promote the concept of open borders, and seek to establish bonds of unity and solidarity with workers and oppressed peoples across the globe.
These principles were widespread and motivated significant social change in the early years of the 20th century. These very same principles and ideas are distinctly lacking from mainstream debates around major political issues today. The question for socialists is: how do we re-introduce and propagate these principles and ideas?
Without the influence of these crucial principles, a vacuum opens up and allows right populism to flourish. This is not always the province of clownish orange haired billionaires or racist ‘Little Englanders’. I want to conclude this talk with a quote taken from a recent Metro magazine. (This is an Auckland based magazine aimed at the coffee drinking Ponsonby crowd …). The topic is the housing crisis in Auckland, and the issue of immigration:
“And Brexit has made it clear that questions such as high levels of immigration can’t be swept under the carpet forever. Key can insist all he likes that we’re getting high-skilled immigrants but, as Bernard Hickey has pointed out, it’s not “doctors, filmmakers and software engineers” who are pouring in. The figures show we’re mostly importing a high number of lowly paid chefs, retail managers, tour guides and hospitality workers.
And so the game is finally on and national politics has suddenly become dynamic rather than plainly dispiriting. Instead of being told: “There, there, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it…,” National is going to have to change its tune and come up with some meaningful, effective policies in time for the election — not least to head off the spectre of Winston Peters, long-time opponent of unfettered immigration, holding the balance of power.
The government has got itself into a mess over the interrelated issues of immigration, house prices and housing the homeless by denying for years they are a problem and then not coming up with a coherent or plausible plan to solve any of them.”