The formidable Karin Kneissl, with Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner for Neighbourhood policy and enlargement (left) and Foreign Relations Minister of Belgium, Didier Reynders at the EU Foreign Ministers Council in Brussels, 22.01.2018. Wiktor Dabkowski/Press Association. All rights reserved.In lucid and compelling prose, Edmund Fawcett, the leading historian of liberalism, has set out a case for socialists, social democrats, greens and liberals like himself, along with all of us who believe in the rule of law and democracy, to combine against the rising forces of the right. Indeed his argument could almost be set out as a chant:
In order to defeat the Hard Right/
Left and liberals must now unite.
I, for one, am persuaded that cross-spectrum cooperation is needed to frustrate the forces he describes. In particular the left has to embrace the defense of the rule of law and human rights – an argument also made recently from the left by Paul Mason. But is Fawcett’s case sufficiently robust? In this response, made in a positive spirit, I want to query whether Fawcett goes far enough.
Let’s be clear about the strengths of his analysis. He is exceptionally lucid on the international nature of the enemy. After Hitler came to power some of those who fled immediately to Paris called home to ask when they would be able to return. Naively, they believed that the arrival of the Nazis in office was the beginning of the end of their threat. One of the refreshing and well argued aspects of Fawcett’s article is his demonstration that the Hard Right are not fascist (but are plural), so I hope he will excuse this example. But across the centre-left especially there is a long and disabling history of believing that right-wing successes and advances are merely temporary and about to fail.
In America, many hope that Trump’s wild tweeting signals a coming decomposition of his White House and they will soon enjoy a sigh of relief as normality is resumed. In France, whatever they think of Macron, those on the left and centre delight in the defeat of Le Pen, as if a third of French voters have left the stage. In Germany, the AfD is seen as being frustrated by the renewal of the coalition between the Social Democrats and Merkel government, even though the same coalition instigated its rise in popularity. In the UK, many are also in denial so far as Brexit is concerned. Seeking its reversal is one thing, hoping that it can simply be frustrated assumes that the politics which drives it will abandon its claim on the steering wheel.
Fawcett will have none of such wishful non-thinking. This makes his call refreshing and his argument immensely important - if it is true, as it almost certainly is. He observes that the forces of the Hard Right are just starting to reshape North Atlantic politics and society. We face years of their rise and influence – unless the fight back is fast, effective and international. This means we have to analyse what the Hard Right shares in common, across the different national variations, not caricature them as neo-Nazis. Above all we need to see that the challenge is not confined to the periphery (even if this now includes England) but is central and redefining.
Furthermore, the ‘periphery’ is not unimportant. I am writing this in Vienna where the Austrian government has given the Ministries of Defense and of the Interior to politicians from the FPO, the Freedom Party whose lineage goes back to actual Nazis, while the new Foreign Minister, the formidable Karin Kneissl, is its nominee. Just across the border in Hungary, Victor Orban, the swashbuckler of openly anti-Semitic, illiberal democracy, has won a third term with a super-majority of two-thirds of the parliament, enabling him to amend the constitution at will. While in India, which in global terms is certainly central, the poison of Hindu nationalism generates intense polarisation in what is still a parliamentary democracy. Then there is China, Russia and Turkey. We have entered an era of reaction – escaping from it and minimising the damage demands a huge and, above all, concerted effort.
Fawcett advances his argument against both self-proclaimed liberal Brexiteers as well as a general sense of complacency. David Goodhart, for example, believes Trump’s ‘bark is worse than his bite’, sees Polish and Hungarian illiberalism as “a worry” but one that is confined to their unique location and recent history, and concludes we are witnessing what he holds to be a mere ‘legitimate rebalancing after a long period of liberal technocratic domination’.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (R) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meet to discuss 'the ongoing migration issue', in Vienna, Austria, on Jan. 30, 2018. Pan Xu/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Hard right appeal
A second important contribution is Fawcett’s description of the attractions of the Hard Right - free from snide asides and belittlement. He takes it seriously. He shows how in Germany, France, the US and the UK, Hard Right ideology appeals simultaneously to the very rich and the hard-done by: offering tax cuts and popular benefits at the same time. Obsessed with the economic, not to speak of intellectual, incoherence of this appeal, critics fail to appreciate the vitality of its toxic alliance. One held together by simple, appealing tropes.
Fawcett singles out ‘decline’ and the need to ‘reverse’ it along with the claim that self-serving elites who are not like us and immigrants who are foreign to us have penetrated and ‘captured’ society. An ethos of ‘victimhood’ threads through such claims, reflecting and intensifying insecurity. Anyone reading or listening to Brexiteers in the UK will immediately recognise how apt this observation is, as they obsessively re-fight the referendum as if they are the losers.
But Fawcett underestimates the strength of Hard Right politics. He agrees that liberal democracy conceded too much to the market and the primacy of profit. He accepts that the loss of trust in those who govern America and Britain especially was to some extent justified by the slackness and complacency of the governing liberal democratic elite. He acknowledges what he describes as the need for traditional liberal democracy to be ‘repaired’ as he appeals to the left to join in the defense of its legacy.
This is a very important and welcome part of his analysis. It recognises that the governing caste who claim to rule in the name of democracy and liberalism are complicit in the rise of the Hard Right. They embraced not only the joys of borderless capitalism, but also the rise of inequality, the unravelling of social solidarity and trade unionism, the privatisation of the public realm and the technocratic depoliticisation of government. By so doing they opened the hatches to the growing influence of bigotry, corporate media and the nativist polarisation.
As a consequence there is a dreadful kernel of truth in the arguments of the Hard Right. Fawcett is justified in scorning the many vile mystifications of Hard Right discourse. For example, western societies have not ‘declined’. We have witnessed a transformation in levels of health and education and communication. The US, far from ‘declining’ has created a new form of ‘platform capitalism’ whose young corporations now exercise an unprecedented global reach. The notion of decline that Trump rode so hard and successfully, functions to arouse fear, feeds a longing for ‘strong leadership’ and is exploited in bad faith.
Yet at the same time the falsehood offers an explanation for something real. American power, assisted by its side-kick the UK, did not decline, it suffered an utter strategic and military defeat. The aim of the conquest of Mesopotamia was eloquently articulated by Tony Blair in his memos to President Bush. These have now been published thanks to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. The strategy they describe was to create a single, Washington-centered world order. Instead, the decision to go to war, the highest calling of the state, unleashed an immensely expensive and draining humiliation for Washington and Westminster - when military triumph remains an essential component of popular support for their institutions and leadership.
I discuss this in The Lure of Greatness, where I argue that the ruling order of the CBCs - Clinton (Bill), Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron and Clinton (Hilary), lied about an immensely expensive war; then even more important lost it; then went bust as the financial system they had embraced crashed, and then bailed themselves and the bankers out ,thanks to quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the rest of us are paying with flat-lined incomes and precarity. The combination of these factors led to the downfall of the trans-Atlantic liberal order for which Fawcett grieves. The Hard Right’s vile, exclusivist and nativist ideology that he rightly condemns, exploits a deserved repudiation of the disastrous way our countries have been governed.
Two ‘guilty’ verdicts
However opportunist, the politics of the Hard Right includes within it, therefore, at least two judgments: two ‘guilty’ verdicts on the last thirty years. First, liberal democracy failed to impose its leadership on the world in the way its Anglo-Saxon leaders assured voters that they would; and, second, that they have created a system that proclaims itself to be unaccountable while its leadership profits from it.
The punishment – rule by the Hard Right! – will hardly make things better. It is certain to make matters much worse. But we need to distinguish between the punishment that now faces our countries and the two verdicts that precede it.
The verdicts are justified. Defeat in war, for example, did not lead to a ‘loss’ in trust in the historic institutions, as so many commentators complain – as if the people are to blame for abandoning faith in fundamentally wise leaders. Popular trust was cynically betrayed by callous leaders who have undermined the legitimacy of the institutions they represented – through illegal war and, above all, by the reckless way they abandoned the responsibility of government as they assigned precedence to the market.
This was not a question of degree – of merely granting too much power to ‘the market’. It meant the financialisation of human and political value – as public service was subordinated to competition. Those who governed us sought to excuse themselves of their duty to be answerable for the outcomes of their policies, not least when it came to migration. Popular anger about this is not wholly irrational.
Even though their desire is being exploited, it is understandable that voters want to ‘take back control’. A popular refusal is under way to reside any longer in the house of what can be called Neo-liberal post-democracy. Replacing the rotten window-frames, modernizing the central heating and giving it a new coat of paint will not persuade voters to willingly reoccupy it and call it home.
For it is an abode of permanent precarity not secure ownership, where the government and landlords collaborate to say that it is not their responsibility to secure the infrastructure and environment that makes a house a home. Voters may feel obliged to stay because they have no choice, as it is the only roof over their heads. It is not surprising that many who do so vote for revengeful opportunists.
The necessary alliance against the Hard Right has to offer more than mere repairs, therefore. I am not saying that no alliance can be made that does not commit itself to the replacement of capitalism. We are miles away from that and the continued rule of the Hard Right postpones it even further. Rather, in the spirit of Fawcett’s call, I think we need to dig deeper to find the basis for the alliance he demands so urgently.
For, if all that is offered is a return to the way we were, no re-grouping of forces at the top will persuade voters to recoil from their support of the Hard Right. Fawcett does not argue that it should. But nor does he go far-enough in persuading me that he would not settle for a reversion to the 1990s with some repairs.
Why won’t this do? Because if, indeed, the Hard Right is as significant an international phenomenon as he says, the partners in any counter-alliance to it are themselves going to be changed by the experience of reversing its challenge. It is not going to be a short-term, tactical coalition of convenience, from which participants can emerge in pretty much the same shape, strength and spirit as they entered. Rather, in a strategic alliance of an epochal kind that Fawcett advocates everyone is bound to be altered inwardly by the ongoing effort and collaboration.
A defining issue here is the question of what openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler terms the ‘National-Us’. The Hard Right appeals to a monocultural National-Us. Something sought after by those who feel humiliated, smaller and less influential than they want to be, and who seek a knockout blow to achieve power – stimulated by fear of the other. A classic example has just been provided by Prime Minister Orban and his ludicrous claim to preserve the purity of Hungary from Asiatic hoards funded by George Soros working in tandem with the European Union.
Too often the liberal response has been simply to assert a better ‘National-Us’. This concedes the terrain to the Hard Right who thrive on monoculture. In the UK, for example, Remainers assert that another referendum will give them the required 4% majority to re-claim the singular ‘National-Us’ they feel was stolen from them when they lost by that margin in 2016. Or as A.C. Grayling recently tweeted, if Brexit “is stopped, it will have been a nasty temporary hiccup, soon forgotten”. This is delusional.
I support another referendum to stay in the EU even at the risk of losing, which at the moment is more probable than not. But a vote to remain will inflame not asphyxiate the Hard Right in the UK, and the whole of British politics will continue to suffer until the core issues of representation, democracy and accountability are confronted and worked through, not least in terms of the nation question and the British being a plurality of many peoples.
Above all, we have to rediscover the richness of difference, across and within nations. This doesn’t mean sacrificing cultures. It does mean forgoing the emphasis on a singular cohesion, which still seems to lurk in Edmund Fawcett’s compelling call for us all to join forces to save liberalism, fundamental rights and the rule of law.
Anthony Barnett is the co-founder of openDemocracy and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.
The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett
“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind inprint, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman
“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times
“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism. Cutting across a range of themes from the power of the press to the problems with the political establishment and manipulative corporate populism, this is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications