Free speech and convergence on the centre- and far-right

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For some time, I have been writing about a dynamic which I see as key to explaining the success of the right in global politics since 2015. I characterise that process as convergence. In other words, the centre right has been able to grow by reversing its previous attitude of hostility (“gatekeeping”) to the far-right. Instead of keeping out far-right people, money and ideas out, they are allowed. The centre and the far-right converge (i.e. form alliances) over issues of culture, over issues of long-term political positioning (eg. opposition to Islam, free movement, a partial rejection of austerity), and over short-term goals (e.g. the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, etc)

Convergence is not just an alliance between the centre-right and its immediate outliers, it is an alliance often on the latter’s terms (think of Trump’s ascendancy over the never-Trump Republicans who were compelled to vote for him, or Marine Le Pen’s ability to persuade an ever-growing proportion of French centre-right voters to support her, should she make the final round of the Presidential elections).

Convergence is a very sharp break with the previous electoral wisdom of the centre-right, which held as recently as 15 or 10 years ago that a right which moved too far way from the centre-ground would be punished. Just think of the way that the British centre right turned in 1940 against Mosley (“the only living Englishman who is beyond the pale”), the defeat of Enoch Powell in 1968, the mainstream Republican refusal to support David Duke in his campaigns to be elected to the Senate.

If convergence is the ideal way to build a political party in conditions where voters reject austerity, but our political system has seen no clean ideological break with neoliberalism, why hasn’t the left practised it too?

The best answer is that it has. You can look at Greece and the relationship between Syriza and its allies epitomised by the promotion of the left independent Yanis Varoufakis. You could talk about Britain in c2017, Corbyn’s populist turn, Labour’s willingness to have its manifesto drafted by people and groups beyond the party. Convergence won the left votes. But convergence has specific problems for the left of adaption to an ideologically labile and depoliticised milieu of what Gramsci termed “subversives” who can smuggle in to the left all sorts of unwelcome habits.

Meanwhile, convergence on the left was fiercely contested by the party bosses: Sanders lost to the Democratic machine in 2016. Corbyn’s inner-party compromise resulted in permanent internal faction war.

All of this is a prelude to what I want to talk about, which is to identify some of the dynamics by which convergence takes place.

It can take place through formal alliances. In a very few countries (eg Austria) we have seen a simple electoral pact between centre- and far-right. That didn’t happen in either Britain or the US, essentially because under conditions of established two-party competition there was no institutional space for a second party on the right. If you recall, in the 2019 election: the Brexit Party was desperate to offer the Conservative terms, but all offers were rebuffed. (The Conservatives calculated, rightly, that UKIP/Brexit could win referenda, even European elections. But, without help, the party couldn’t win and hold so much as a single seat in Parliament). Eventually the Brexit party had no option but to offer the Conservatives on the latter’s terms. The Brexit party would start against Labour candidates but not against the Conservatives. It’s 600,000 cotes helped to ensured that the latter won the election. The deal was in institutional terms, an extraordinarily bad one for the far right. If, perhaps, Nigel Farage was awaiting a peerage it hasn’t come, nor presumably will it.

But, convergence takes place more through short-term, unacknowledged agreements.

To give an example, imagine a Republican student group wants to hold a meeting. It may be that the politics of the students are electoral and centrists in their orientation, but they want to get an audience and appear to be a growing force. The most popular speakers on the right are provocateurs who straddle the centre-right / far-right divide, who enthuse for the Trump coup etc. So the students invite – in 2016-17, Milo Yiannapoulous, or today it would be Tucker Carlson.

Convergence in this context means giving a platform to someone further to their right, allowing them to speak, welcoming a battle with campus leftists, then insisting when the event is challenged that it is protected by the first amendment.

What I am describing is a local version of the Trump coalition in the dying days of the Presidency. However serious Trump was about his march on Washington or not, he knew it was in his interests to flatter people further to his right – the Proud Boys for all their willingness to take to the streets and carry out punitive acts of violence, for all their similarity to movements in history such as the fasci di combattimento, the freikorps etc. An electoral politician worked with people to his right, let them lead him, then relied on free speech as his defence to impeachment proceedings.

Returning to Britain, for all the many differences between Trump and Johnson, much the same calculation is being made here. So, when the Conservatives justify their proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the cases they rely on are of isolated individuals – the likes of Noah Carl, the postgraduate student and contributor for Mankind Quarterly, who was dismissed from a research post at Cambridge.

Previous generations of Conservatives would have laughed at such activists, considered them an active nuisance, the chaff of right-wing politics. Today the party constructs legislation around their defence. It notes whenever far-right speakers are refused an audience, blames the left for no platforming them. The Bill insists that universities and students’ unions must welcome all speakers without exception and write into their rules academic freedom as a constitutional virtue.

The Bill looks to create the conditions in Britain for something like the campaign Turning Point USA, which publishes list of left-wing lecturers to be sacked, and insists on its own right to speak. The Bill creates a legal right under which a Turning Point UK or similar corporation could sue in the court for damages or an injunction if they were refused a platform. The Bill looks at Noah Carl’s case and asks why couldn’t he just bring a case to the Employment Tribunal against his dismissal? It solves that problem by allowing anyone to sue if their contract is terminated: not just an employee (which is the rule in any other sector of the British economy) but a postgraduate, a phd student, or even a mere undergraduate.

Can the left then do anything back? Or must free speech be from here on forever a process that helps the right to recruit news supporters and win elections?

As a matter of general approach; both the left and the right are, I’d argue, in a constant state of ideological ferment. Each side develops tactics for some time, which succeed or fail, then goes through a period of change – evolving towards new opportunities. The party which sticks to a single set of tactics, and applies them always, even beyond their creative moment, dies. There is no left-wing tactic against the right which assures the left’s ascendancy for all time, nor is there any similar tactic which works for the right in all circumstances. Rather, one or another tactic works for some time, is shown to have outlived its usefulness, and something else replaces it.

One strategy for left renewal might be to take back the slogan of “free speech,” and for the left to say – we demand to speak, too.

The contemporary right supports free speech narrowly. They oppose free speech rights of many different people – pro-Palestinians, advocates of trans right, workers criticising their employers, opponents of empire, advocates of race equality, etc etc etc. For them, it is a simple case of partisan advantage – for the left is of central value.

The whole point about free speech, is that you only get to be credibly its partisan if you support the speech rights of people you disagree with. A conservative calling for more chances for conservatives to speak, is not a champion of free speech. They are simply championing the right.

The left does in fact have a pretty long history of consistency on free speech going back to Milton with his vision of free speech for everyone save only “to suppress the suppressors themselves”, or Mill and his “infidel book” On Liberty, Marx, etc, up until and including the activists of the 1970s whose vision of no platform was meant to be that absolutely everyone could speak, save only for the small exception of Britain’s fascist and other political forces standing so close to fascism that they were on fascism’s toes.

Centre-right discourse around free speech is by contrast of recent origin. It dates back, in Britain and America, no further than the 1960s onwards (and the right’s slow, acceptance of the outcomes of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chicago 7 and Oz trials). After many years of seeing free speech as a limited good, something which the right was obliged to accommodate to, conservatives began to use free speech discourse actively. Then, from 1989-90 onwards, the right began to treat free speech as an indicator of which side you belonged to: George Bush supported free speech, while “politically correct” students were accused of abandoning constitutional principles.

If we see this through the prism of innovation, in other words – whether from 1989 or from 2015, the right has experimented with new tactics which have brought it success. The left needs, but has not yet gone through, a similar period of tactical creativity.

That does not mean that the left has kept still.

If we focus on the activist left, I distrust the significant political shift that has taken place between two-similar sounding words “no platform” (the 1970s slogan) and “deplatforming” (that is, the idea that it is a sensible use of activist time and effort to lobby the large social media platforms and seek the removal of – initially, open fascists, and latterly the likes of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon)

You can trace the difference between these two approaches, it seems to me, around two questions; the first is who should be banned, the second is, who should do the banning? If you revisit, for example, the speeches at the 1974 congress of the National Union of Students, it was plain that two different ideas of no platform were operating in temporary and uneasy alliance: one, as I’ve indicated, cast the ban narrowly – only for fascists and their immediate allies. The other proposed the ban broadly, on any inegalitarian movement that actively promoted racism. And since 1974, we can add to racism, sexism, homophobia, disability discrimination, etc.

The second was who should do the banning, should it be the students themselves as part of a project to take control of the university and manifest their own counterpower, or should it be the managers, the employers, albeit on the students’ request.

No platform was a narrow exception to the general principle of free speech; deplatforming discards the principle altogether. No platform was about insurgent social movements in conflict with capital, while deplatforming has a markedly more gentle relationship to the likes of Twitter, Facebooks, etc.

The widening of no platform into deplatforming, and the discarding of a sense of insurgent movement’s counterpower were, in both cases, a strategic error. They contribute to the circumstances under which free speech has become a right-wing partisan signifier.

To reverse that trend would require – will require – a very significant change of approach.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge today. It can be ordered here.)

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