While Norway mourns and attends to matters of justice, across Europe the left would be wise to pause and reflect upon the mixed responses to the worst case of child murder in northern Europe since the Second World War. We can only hope that Anders Breivik is a lone operator and that we will not see this kind of politically motivated mass murder repeated in the UK or anywhere else, but in showing how right wing ideology is formed and disseminated through increasingly international networks, the Utoya massacre has lessons for us all.
Although globally oriented ‘lefties’ may like to think this is a contradiction in terms, it is the far right who are pioneering the way towards a new form of internationalism. This is not to say that they have lost their attachment to the nation – for all that vigilantes like Breivik may think in civilisational or European terms, “small state” nationalism remains the bedrock of their politics. Those that see the blurring of boundaries between European and national perspectives as a sign of incoherence which will diminish the power of these ideological beliefs are mistaken. In an age of network politics it's a strength, and one that the left needs to understand if we are to reverse the electoral successes of the centre-right and the populist rise of the far-right across Europe.
EDL at Dutch rally: Getty images
So far, the left has struggled to match the way far-right networks have learned to scale seamlessly from the local to the civilisational through the conceptual space of the national. The English Defence League, for example, explain local opposition to their marches as stemming from the malign influence of the SWP’s campaign, Unite Against Fascism; cite the welfare state as evidence of leftist domination in national politics; and see in the European Court of Human Rights the imposition of socialist, multicultural values across the entire continent. This sense of multiple scales allows the EDL to create a language that reflects their politics at every level, and to communicate their message across local and national boundaries. They create a unified rhetoric that the left, with their suspicion of the national, cannot replicate.
Ironically, their ability to do this is largely a product of the collapse of social democracy as a dominant force in European politics – a collapse caused in part by the left’s evacuation of the nation as a location of ideological struggle in favour of technocratic, statist governance. The result is that the right has started speaking to people that politicians on the left have lost the ability to communicate with. To counter this, the left needs to accept the return of explicit ideological positions, and engage with the lived experience of people and their emotional understanding of the political at local, national and European levels. That was at the heart of the junked Blue Labour project, and it is critical that the left take on board the important work that Glasman et al did in terms of listening to voters and building a politics which incorporated the nation within its value system.
What Blue Labour did lack, however, was recognition of the networked nature of social change. Although the nation and the network have had very different intellectual histories and are often described as conflicting – ‘the stronger the sense of network, the weaker the attachment to the nation’ – it is our contention that the current crisis of social democracy in Europe can only be overcome through an appreciation of the way these concepts are starting to connect. This is not techno-fetishism: the technology does not determine the outcome, but it does transform the realm of what is possible. So to understand how this European shift to the right is happening we must look at what has become overlapping political terrain in both the nation and the network.
The ideological position as laid out in Breivik’s paranoiac manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence is a case in point. One of the peculiarities of the text, for example, is that it was written in English under an English pseudonym to protect Breivik’s identity before the massacre, and contains numerous references to British journalists and issues specific to the UK. Yet it seems unlikely that his desired audience would see any kind of contradiction between a Norwegian man adopting a different nationality in order to make a plea for the sovereignty of Norway – Jeremy Clarkson's comments about the St George flag are understood as the same argument and same cause. This is a form of cosmopolitanism that lets the far-right talk to pan-European networks while violently asserting the defence of their individual nations against dangerous others. And not only does it move without seeming contradiction between European and nationalist perspectives, it does so using the language and invoking the values of the network age, with open source politics twisted to serve the author’s ends:
As such, the intellectual property of this compendium belongs to all Europeans across the European world and can be distributed and translated without limitations. Efficient distribution and circulation will be possible if those who agree with at least some of its content, principles or ideas contribute to spread the information...
Please help to make this book available through various torrents, blogs, websites, on Facebook, on Twitter, on forums and through other arenas. It is truly a one-of-a-kind, unique and great tool that can and should be used by all cultural conservatives in the decades to come. (p. 6)
While intellectual debates on the left have framed the battle for the internet around issues such as privacy, commercialisation, intellectual property and net neutrality, the right have simply been using the tools available to organise. Breivik tapped into existing networks to send his book to 250 English Defense League supporters. The EDL, in turn, organise much of their activity through Facebook, and EDL supporters have actively attempted to disrupt left-wing activists operating on Twitter.
The critical links, therefore, from the left's point of view, are those currently being forged between leftist and liberal intellectuals celebrating the role of new media in the revolutions across North Africa, online campaigners of various breeds including open source techies and hackers, and anti-fascist groups embedded in local communities like Hope not Hate. The battle for a better internet is not simply the battle for geeks to rate kittens in private, or even about corporate dominance of a potentially public space. It is not simply about democratic process, it is about ideological content.
We risk a return to a bad old politics of blood, race and nation that sits beneath the surface waiting to emerge from increasing economic turmoil across Europe. That we should be concerned here in the UK is confirmed by a Hope not Hate poll earlier this year showing that 48% of British people would vote for a nationalist party if they were demonstrably non-violent. (See the Searchlight report, Fear and Hope, for more detailed figures.)
If we are not vigilant, organised and willing to engage with this battle for the political identity of the nation, in ten years voters might have become more sanguine about the non-violent part. There is a threat, but the opportunity is also there to forge a radical politics at the intersection of the nation and the network, as groups like UK Uncut have been demonstrating is possible. Tragedies like the Breivik massacre show that there is an urgent need to seize this moment for a new national politics. The question is whether it can be done in a democratic way, and a way that defends people’s agency against the forces of financial capital that produce the alienation in which the far right can flourish.