The New Authoritarians: revisiting the argument

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A year has passed since the publication of The New Authoritarians; and it’s even longer since I sat down to write it.

Like Never Again, it received some detailed and enthusiastic reviews: notably from Jeff Sparrow and Shane Burley. Jacobin also ran an extract.

The argument of The New Authoritarians’ was that the right was winning because it had found a strategy to grow – by taking on radical and anti-systemic politics that distinguished it from conservatism but without lapsing into fascism.

Contrary to the argument that Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, etc, were the successor to Mussolini or Hitler, my book argued that few growing movements of the contemporary far-right should be seen in this light. Most disavowed violence, accepted the legitimacy of normal elections, and did not mobilise their supporters in a war against their political or racial enemies or against the liberal state.

How had the far right found this strategy? The book explained this development both historically and politically. Historically, in that a certain liberal narrative about WWII had lost its appeal, being overridden by the experience of the War on Terror and of the 2008 economic crisis. Politically, in there were convergence dynamics each of which served to legitimise the far right;

  • a conversion of earned cultural influence, ie successful positioning on youtube, fourchan etc, being turned into more conventional political support;
  • a circulation of far-right ideas, money and people across borders; and
  • an alliance between parties of the right which had previously been hostile (ie conservatives had given up on “gate-keeping” their parties to exclude outsiders).

Although my argument was that we weren’t in a fascist moment, I did say that politics was tending to shift ever further to the right, and that there was a similarity between the crisis and the crisis of 100 or 90 years ago.

One friend summarized the argument as: “people need to talk about fascism a bit less but also take it more seriously,” which captures what I was getting at nicely.

Two years have passed since the book was written, and a year since the book was published: how does the argument hold up?

Voting: the centre-right recovers

For most of 2019, it felt as if the global far right breakthrough in 2015-16 had given birth to something else, more like politics as usual. So that it wasn’t the far right which was doing well so much as softer forms of right-wing politics.

A year ago, there were European elections and the story of them seemed to be the revenge of electoral right-wing parties. In Britain, the Brexit party won more votes than Theresa May’s Conservatives. But what was really noticeabe was that the “leave” vote went there rather than to UKIP, which had all sorts of advantages over the Brexit party: an established brand, and the support of online celebrities such as Tommy Robinson or Carl Benjamin. UKIP might well have expected to be re-energised by its members’ recent involvement in street protests in 2017 and 2018 (the perhaps largest right-wing social movements in British history), but gained almost nothing from this activism.

Outside Britain, the votes of centre-right parties held up while the parties which were associated with violence and closest to the 1930s fascist model (Golden Dawn, Jobbik, the Freedom Party) did worst. Even Vox and the AfD stagnated.

Breaking the link between the online and offline right

Part of the reason for the growth of the right in 2015-16 was that a “right Gramscian’ way of doing politics going back to the New Right in France, or the rise of skinhead music scenes in Britain and the US in the 1970s, had paid off. The far right had established a presence in online culture, out of proportion to its presence anywhere else.

One moment which seemed to capture that better than anything came when Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant told the people viewing the live feed of the killings, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.” The latter is of course one of the world’s most popular video bloggers, with 76 million followers on youtube. Although most of his material is non-political, has used his platform to promote much more political far-right youtubers and to post anti-semitic content. His relationship to the right is not altogether different to the relationship that the far left once had with the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Clash.

Yet by the end of 2019, the highest profile figures on the right were losing their social media platforms with twitter, facebook and youtube becoming increasingly fed up of the accusation that they had enabler the right to grow.

In the words of Shane Burley, “deplatforming … was a death sentence for key players in the Alt Right” (i.e. Mike Enoch and Richard Spencer). In Britain, we could add Tommy Robinson, who lost twitter and facebook pages on which he’d recently enjoyed followings as large as those built up by the leaders of our two main parties.

Britain

The 2019 general election here could easily be fitted into a general pattern in which the right and the far-right were growing indistinguishable. Habits which we associate with the latter were taken up by the Conservatives: systematic lying about other parties, and the use of dark money to circumvent election spending rules.

Brexit, The New Authoritarians argued, has been from its origins a route back into power for a generation of Thatcherite Conservatives who had chosen the political wilderness after the defeat of their leader in 1991, and who believed that their party could be revived only from without. Johnson’s rise to leader of the Conservatives marked the ascent of this cohort, and their capture of that party.

Yet one of the ironies of the British election was that although the Conservatives had won by shifting their party further to the right ideologically than that party had been in decades – the non-Conservative far right gained very little from this move.

In Italy and France, far right parties have eclipsed previously dominant parties of the centre right. In Austria, convergence brought the Freedom Party into government. In Britain, the Conservatives’ wholesale copying of positions previously held by the Brexit Party and UKIP hasn’t won a peerage for Farage or still less a Blue-Blue pact analogous to the one on the left that brought Labour into Parliament in 1906.

The right and the far-right by December 2019

Fitting all the above together, the overall picture seemed to be that the right’s breakthrough in 2015-16 had required certain hot-house conditions. Since, however, that the breakthrough had been achieved we appeared to be in a time of consolidation rather than movement. The people coming to the fore were managers, bureaucrats, spin doctors – conventional right-wing politicians.

India

The first sign that this impression of stability was misleading came right at the end of 2019 in India with the passage of a Citizenship Amendment Bill which was intended to deny citizenship to millions of Muslims. When millions of people protested against the bill, the state responded by sanctioning attacks on protesters and the country’s Islamic minority. In Delhi in February, these attacks saw 53 people killed.

To those who know the history of the BJP, its predecessor’s admiration for European fascism, and the involvement of Narendra Modi in pogroms in Gujarat, these events may seem merely a reversion to the violence of the past.

But there were a radicalisation of right-wing politics compared to the situation in India in the first years of Modi’s role – or compared to what I described in my book. There I argued that the successful politicians of the past ten years did not seek to abolish political democracy, and did not mobilise their supporters in a war against their political and racial opponents. But the bill would have the effect of disenfranchising millions; while the BJP was using massive violence, for the first time, in power.

Life itself appeared to be invalidating my analysis.

Coronavirus as war of position

The politics of the Coronavirus lockdown varies enormously from country to country. In India, Modi has tried to present himself as a pragmatist: a lockdown suits him, it has dispersed the people who were resisting his regime. It is a similar story in Hungary and most of Eastern Europe.

The Western European far right has argued for a lockdown and greater border controls. But in a moment where even prominent liberals and socialists are calling just as keenly for a tightening of the borders, this message has been neither distinctive nor effective.

Other parts of the global right have called for an end to the lockdown. This is particularly clear in the States, where Trump has called his supporters onto the streets in an attempt to face down state governors. There they have been joined by Alex Jones fans, white supremacists, etc.

It is hard to do justice to the paranoia, the stupidity or the sheer malice of the people who’ve answered his calls. They have threatened doctors with guns, used up scarce stocks of pharmaceuticals which, even if they don’t cure Coronavirus, are certainly needed to treat other conditions for which they are the best remedy.

As with Modi earlier the year, in Trump right now we seem to be seeing a far-right leader overstepping the bounds of the previous politics. He is creating, from the top down, a mass movement of his personal supporters. They are being mobilised to frighten elected rivals and with the real prospect of violence.

Moreover, this only to speak of the world in April or May 2020. When thinking about how Coronavirus will continue to change our world, you need to keep alive to the risk that the disease won’t simply end in Britain or America or anywhere else in May 2020, but might just as easily be spread through the Global South in our summer and return to the richer countries – when we are most vulnerable – this winter.

You need to consider the chance that the rich won’t simply tolerate higher taxes and inflation as the means to pay off the huge debts acquired as the lockdown began, but will continue to demand that the poor pay off the crisis. And that, if they do, the result will be another decade of polarisation, no doubt with millions of people challenging the system from the left and others being attracted to violent forms of rightwing politics.

While The New Authoritarians insisted that fascism remains a despised tradition, the book considered the risk that politics would continue to radicalise to the right. Fascism, I argued, has a functional utility to the far right, which motivates people to revert to it. I described how even in the more peaceful conditions of 2017 and 2018, the right was turning back to ideas such as anti-semitism that had recently been beyond the pale.

As the international far right has grown in strength since 2016, its participants have shown a greater willingness to use violence.

Nothing developed by the far right in the past decade, I argued, offers the same coherence as fascism. This is why fascism may yet return; because unlike the non-fascist far right, fascism has a clear goal; and because the Right will increasingly need one.

In the actions of Modi and Trump over the past four months, it’s hard not to feel that sense of history settling back onto familiar lines. Violence is being exhorted against political and racial enemies. And this in a world which is rapidly losing any restraining sense of what constitutes normal politics and normal life.

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