“If we can see the present clearly, then we shall ask the right questions of the past.”
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Emerging Narratives: Right-Wing Resurgence
That right wing populism and anti-immigration rhetoric is in ascendancy is no surprise. Already, in the 1990s, the signs that right wing activity was emerging began to create discomfort in the accepted political order, which had embraced globalisation as fundamental to the new global political and economic order.
Right wing sentiment has been growing in response to increased immigration, and inter-cultural and racial integration within the cities, towns and metropoles of the – white, Western – developed world (UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Norway, Australia, USA, Russia, etc.). It has also taken root in some countries of the developing world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who heads up the Hindu nationalist BJP in India – and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stand out. In South Africa, left wing populism has facilitated the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under the leadership of the firebrand Julius Malema, who has led the party to around 8% of the national vote in record time. The former all share right-wing ideologies and values that define their worldviews and politics. Trump’s victory has proved an inspiration to them all.
And so the Trump victory in America has on the one hand – rightly, but partially – been explained by racism and white supremacism, and a resurgence of a right wing agenda. On the other hand it has also been explained by the rise in anti-establishment sentiment all over the globe, a profound distrust of traditional and existing political and economic systems. What is of particular concern, is that these narratives are being posed as binary in relation to each other, that they are somehow mutually exclusive from each other seems – to me at least – and intellectually lazy interpretation of what is transpiring. It is important to acknowledge that the rise of the right has been mirrored by an equal rise in populism and socialist rhetoric on the left, and that these sentiments appear to have peaked in post-2008 global financial collapse world.
The most common accusation is that the emphasis on anti-establishment sentiment is a deflection away from the underlying white supremacist core of these movements (i.e. notwithstanding that right wing populism is surging in non-white countries as well). Yet to lapse into this kind of reductionism – i.e. to accept that it is just plain racism and white supremacy at work, and that anti-establishment sentiment has nothing to do with the rise of populist rhetoric and fascist posturing (to repeat; which is evident on both the left and right wings) – is a fatally flawed analysis. In this emerging narrative, the establishment, as accounted for in simplistic terms, is a racist one, hence racists cannot be anti-establishment i.e. meaning that Trump supporters are just plain reactionaries harking back for a 20th Century status quo, and not a true anti-establishment phenomenon. Let’s unpack that narrative a bit further.
Left-Right Polarisation: It’s Global!
Firstly, this narrative conveniently relegates all Hillary supporters to the ‘non-racist’ camp, a problematic consequence of the prior assertion itself. Can anybody seriously argue that Hillary supporters are devoid of racism, and still uphold the argument that their pro-establishment stance is not de-facto showing support for a racist system? Many contradictions reside within that perspective, not all of which are necessary to expound upon at length here.
Of course, it is possible to be racist and anti-establishment at the same time, as it is possible to be racist and pro-establishment. Conversely, it is also possible to be non-racist and anti-establishment, or non-racist and pro-establishment at the same time. That is reality; simple boxes do not adequately capture human nature and/or society, no matter how tempting it may seem to relegate people to them. Racism is both inter-sectional and situational; it is not ever-present, it rises up under certain conditions, and polycrisis – which is undeniably the current global post-2008 condition, characterised by fast rates of change, and high levels of uncertainty and insecurity – provides the ideal conditions for fear and racism to thrive.
Secondly, it ignores the emergence of profoundly anti-establishment rhetoric on both the left and the right of centrist establishments. Indeed, it ignores that there has been activity at both ends of the political poles. On the left, we’ve seen the dramatic rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – a self-avowed anti-establishment figure – and the rapid ascent of Bernie Sanders in the US elections. What are these movements about, if they are not anti-establishment, a product of frustration, not just with the neo-liberal consensus, but the actual establishment itself, which precedes neoliberalism? Are not the global calls for decolonisation, and movements such as Black Lives Matter and #FeesMustFall, expressions of profound discontent with the political establishment, as well as the societal institutions that depend on it?
On the right, anti-immigration sentiment, protectionism and isolationism has arisen across the developed and developing worlds. Whether the US, UK, Netherlands, Austria, France – or India, Burma and the Philippines – there is a clear rise of right-wing, conservative rhetoric that is profoundly nationalist, separatist, anti-immigration, Islamophobic and socially conservative.
In Africa, postcolonial liberation era establishments are also coming under scrutiny. These establishments, more than any others, have entrenched inequality, sowed division and exercised totalitarian and authoritarian power, supporting dictatorships and minority-led governments that echo and mirror colonial era elites and oppression. It is unclear how left or right these anti-establishment movements are at present, however. Speaking from the South African context, it may well prove that the centre-right opposition may win out over the centre-left ANC over time (albeit in coalition with far-left and left parties).
It is worth remembering that Obama also originally ran on an anti-establishment ticket. He was the outsider, and also ran against Hillary, who promised that “change has come to America”. And while he did bring changes, they were incremental, tagged on to a system that is undeniably a source of great frustration. Obama promised change in 2008. In turn, US society sensed that change was possible – and necessary – but he delivered very incrementally on those changes, with the exception of Obamacare. He also failed to adequately tackle systemic racism, working and middle class insecurity and marginalisation from opportunities for advancement, as well as the extraordinary unaccountability and power of Wall Street and global elites, multinationals and corporations. Even Obamacare – viewed as a major change in the American system – is largely a norm in first world developed countries; even though it drew major opposition within America, it is essentially a moderate reform.
By comparison, the Trump presidency threatens to be an unmitigated disaster. He’s a bigot, he’s sexist, he’s politically illiterate, and he thinks protectionism and isolationism are the answers to America’s problems. He sees the purpose of leadership as a business and managerial one, and sees the public good as deriving from that premise i.e. he does not view the public good as the essential and primary duty of public service; instead running the country as a business is his prescription for public leadership. This central irony – that his prescription still fits within establishment norms, only deviating in respect of economic globalisation – was lost on his followers. Indeed, it is not his economics, but his bigotry and disregard for political conventions and norms that has made him appear to be anti-establishment.
As the resentment and ire towards his presidency grows, it is not unforeseeable that he will manufacture a series of wars to “unite” Americans behind. He’s already stoked Islamophobic fears beyond the pale, and adopted an adversarial stance towards Latin American neighbouring countries such as Mexico. His tough rhetoric also threatens to alienate an important key player in the new global order i.e. China, which the American economy is strongly coupled with, and cannot survive without. He’s aligned himself with Putin, a move which poses a threat to Western European security. And after he’s stoked all fears and resentments, his demands that NATO allies pay up or lose protection (i.e. simply put a global protection racket in the making) seem calculated and cynical and is bound to embolden NATO’s adversaries.
When one considers the global upset the Trump presidency is sure to spawn, amongst both allies and adversaries, as well as the widespread discontent at home (remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 200,000 votes) it is not inconceivable to envision a new “axis of evil” declaration emerging from the lips of President Trump. Indeed, stoking fears and making declarations of war – and demanding unity behind his leadership thereby – is a well-worn route for superpowers such as America and Russia.
Globally, the rise of populist politics and fascist rhetoric, has a lot to do with general disenchantment and active disregard for traditional establishment politics. And the ‘establishment’ in this sense, does not only refer to the neoliberal consensus, it refers to 20th century modes of leadership, governance, policy and decision-making that has persisted from the post-War, cold war period into the new, more complex socio-political and economic territory of the 21st Century.
There’s no doubt that the left – and the liberal centre – now has a major fight on its hands, but that fight is not – and should not be – for an establishment that has dismally failed people of all political persuasions all over the world, and benefited only the wealthy elites and private sector global pirateers. It should not be simply an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic campaign. It should be a campaign to dispel (or radically reform) the entire economic and bureaucratic system – replete with its systemic privileges, racisms and prejudices – from the general polis of the 21st Century.
A New Left Consensus: Challenging the Establishment
The world needs a left politics that serves the purposes and the context of the 21st Century. It should be a campaign that makes a serious effort to generate a new left body of thought and practise – one that draws on everything from sustainability (environmental protection, climate change, etc.) to new modes of local production, decentralised infrastructure, technology and modes of governance, the revival of grassroots activism(s), a new trade union philosophy (one that is appropriate for the changing nature of employment and work), as well as identity politics and indigeneity, and emerging new economies in the knowledge and informational ages – to formulate or sow the seeds of a transition to wholly new societal vision.
The challenge of this era is not one-dimensional, and one dimensional diagnoses will lead to inappropriate one-dimensional prognoses. Polycrisis and global hegemony are serious, intractable challenges that characterise this century, and any response to the rise of populist forces that fails to grasp this reality is bound to fail. The key to dealing with the complexity of the 21st Century is to go beyond reductionism and the false dichotomies that political philosophy lapses into so regularly and predictably. This century requires more consideration of the “and”, and less consideration of the “or”. The reason is simple; emergence (i.e. outcomes that are unpredictable beforehand) and catastrophic failure, results most often from unforeseen combinatorial effects; they are rarely the outcome of single causes or single variables.
Acknowledging that, is key to understanding how to prepare for, cope with, and harness complexity. As long as reductionism and dualism win out in how we diagnose the problems we are facing we will only ever be dealing with singular dimensions of a multi-dimensional problem; the head will always elude us; as we cut off one, another will pop up elsewhere, and we will grow exhausted and eventually be defeated. There is a system that underlies the seething discontent that has exploded on both the right and the left. That system is in the centre, and it has proven itself to be one that fosters inequality and uncertainty, threatens the sustainability of the natural environment and the ability of future generations to live in comfort and security.
So if the response to Trump is solely a moral cause, one that targets only his bigotry, I’m afraid little will be achieved in the global struggle to establish new models of society, ones that accommodate the multi-dimensional nature of society and carefully considers how systemic reproduction of gross inequalities and a fractured polis is engendered by the system itself. Indeed, I don’t think it is possible to address the moral imagination of society through one set of filters alone. It is not just race, but xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, the persecution of indigenous peoples, environmental destruction, climate change and a global economic system that need to be addressed at its root i.e. the system that produces and reproduces all these phenomena.
I would argue that the great failing of civil society in the late 20th Century was to divide itself up along funding channels and advocate specific causes without adequately addressing the intricate linkages that sustain each great injustice through a set of others. The plight of indigenous peoples cannot be separated from that of environmental justice, the plight of the working and lower middle classes cannot be separated from the economic systems that are now ‘glocal’ in nature, just as the plethora of prejudices that prevail in societies across the world cannot be dealt with from a non-intersectional perspective.
To be clear, I think that an antagonistic and direct confrontation to the new right-wing Republican ‘consensus’ – if one can all it that – is warranted and necessary. However, the left is going to have to fight like hell on a number of fronts, and if it cannot make the links between the various struggles that require support, the danger is that it will amount to nothing more than an uncoordinated set of antagonisms that fizzle out, effectively remaining divided and conquered. There needs to be a coherent way – or set of ways – of making the links between these struggles, and addressing the core systems that underlie them. I see no other intelligent way forward but to acknowledge this, and to act from it.
That is, the economic system that produces and reproduces inordinate wealth amongst urban elites while generating gross inequalities – i.e. highly indebted households, large-scale unemployment and job insecurity, and poverty and near-poverty conditions, especially within the poor, working and middle classes, and entrenches marginalisation, limiting mobility and accessibility to those who do not possess the means to navigate the new economy and changing employment trends – needs to be revised.
The Threat of Fascism
However, it has to be clearly stated that waiting for medium and long-term changes that can result in a more desirable, equitable system that distributes wealth and opportunity more fairly is important, in the short term it is important to acknowledge and recognise the dangerously divisive forces that are in play. The socio-cultural threat that has arisen – accompanied by alt-right rhetoric and misinformation – may very well result in the targeting of minorities such as Hispanics, Jews, Asians and Muslims, as well as people of colour and immigrants, to the detriment of long-term societal cohesion. The forces of division are never easily assuaged, and once entrenched, take a long time to overcome.
It is not enough to hope for the best. Concerted, clear action is necessary from the outset, action that confronts the forces of racism, neo-colonialism and xenophobia head on, and to refuse to give an inch to it. There should be no “appeasement”, no “wait-and-see”.
We must always take the racists, xenophobes, misogynists, homophobes and supremacists by their word; it is folly indeed to attempt to read deeper into their rhetoric in the hope of deciphering a more palatable sub-text. For this kind of racism – according to Hannah Arendt – is banal, superficial and has no roots. Rather it spreads as a fungus, attaching itself easily to whatever surface it can grow on. It is not radical, because radical implies having deep roots (i.e. if one considers the etymology of the word).
It is one thing to hope for the best, it is quite another to allow the conditions for a murderous society and regime to emerge in one’s midst. It is necessary to fight it directly – and unrelentingly – from he outset, that way it will be forced to show its true face, and if its face is that of true ultra-fascism and hope soon begins to dwindle, you will know that it is time to leave that society and begin life elsewhere. Too many have suffered disastrous loss under fascist regimes that are emboldened by popular support to ignore this reality, and anyone who does so, does so at their peril.
And even those who may think that they are safe from harm, because they ‘fit in’ with fascist movements should think again, because pure is never pure enough, and it is the way of fascists to devour their own young once they’ve feasted on the flesh of others. Where fascism appears, war is never far off. This much is always guaranteed whenever fascism raises its ugly head, irrespective of whatever society it does so in. Fascism is totalitarian in nature, it seeks absolute control and endures in its quest precisely to attain the kind of power that allows it to achieve this. It is not a system that can survive the globalised world we live in, and the question that we should all be concerned with is whether globalisation can survive the rise of a global right-wing crypto-fascist consensus that masquerades as a conservative agenda.
In conclusion, the dichotomy between the emerging narratives – i.e. it is either right wing resurgence or an emergent anti-establishment sentiment – is false. Clearly both phenomena are emerging, and both require appropriate responses i.e. according to their weight and significance. Merely focusing on one, without paying adequate attention to the other, constitutes a partial strategy that – in the end – may do more harm than good. It is not enough to address one and not the other. The complexity of the 21st Century is revealing itself, and we must respond to it with all the tools we have, if we are to bring about a world where everyone has a place, and all can thrive within it without fear of hate and socio-economic insecurity.