In Europe, the United States and Brazil, authoritarian nationalism is sweeping to power through a mixture of negative emotion and elite connivance. But this is no mere re-run of the 1930s. In the first place, unlike in Germany, Italy and Spain at the incipient moments of their dictatorships, the existing elites neither want nor need fascism. Their problem is that they don’t know how to fight it.
Over the past 15 years political science has engaged a well-evidenced but unfruitful debate over what caused the rise of parties such as Ukip, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, or France’s Front National. In general, I think it is proven that cultural rather than economic insecurities are what’s driving politics to the right. But it does not follow from this that action at the economic level can’t stem the tide of plebeian racism. In order to get the actions right, though, we have to understand that the political narratives of the centre are failing due to the way the free-market economy was designed.
Probably the best short definition of neoliberalism as a system rather than an ideology comes from the Goldsmiths University academic Will Davies, who calls it “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. By this, he means the introduction of market logic into all forms of social life by force, which has severely limited the scope for political choice.
If I want to save Port Talbot steelworks, for instance, I cannot legally do so on grounds of national security, or preference for British goods, or sentiment, or because the town will die without the blast furnaces. I can only do so if I present a chop-logic argument that meets various national, European and global rules on trade and investment. If I just want to save it because I feel good driving past a giant piece of human ingenuity on the way to the surfing beach, the emotion is effectively blocked by the rules-based coercion states have signed up to.
Another way of phrasing Davies’s definition, then, could be the evisceration of politics by economics, or more simply the surgical removal of emotional reasoning from political decision-making.
At the most basic level – and this explains the rise of both the left and right opponents of neoliberalism – people understood that emotion, and with it feelings of identity, place, nation and class, could only reinsert itself into decision-making if the system were disrupted.
A second driver of this emotion-driven revolt is what’s happened in the workplace. Neither political science nor economics has been very interested in the workplace as a political arena. Forty years ago, in my first factory job, I found myself in a permanent and highly educated political meeting; it lasted from the morning tea break to the end of overtime. Comparing that time with this, two changes stand out.
First, modern managements demand a high level of performativity, especially from the least powerful: employees are required to wish us a safe journey, or a nice day, or to upsell us Toblerones at the till. Second, work is far more explicitly coercive for those with low skills and low incomes than it was before the neoliberal era. The threat of the sack is not implicit; it is in your face, daily. With it come the bullying, favouritism and sexual harassment cases that are the bread and butter of trade union activists. At the sharp end, in professions like taxi driving, truck driving, security and cleaning work, the threat of actual violence is often close. And in daily life, at the bottom end of the income scale, everybody knows someone involved in low-level organised crime.
This has to be contributing to the strong but unacknowledged feelings of insecurity and frustration that pour out on the doorstep, once people have got over listing all the races and religions they would like to eradicate.
The first lesson from this for liberal centrism, if it wishes to survive, is that it needs an emotional narrative with an inspirational core offer. And that core offer has to be economic hope: there is nothing that says the far left has to own policies of fiscal expansion, redistribution, state aid and high wages. It’s just that the neoliberal economic textbook says they can’t be done. The “fear of the future” reported in much qualitative research on supporters of the nationalist right is, for many of them, rational. People are reacting as if scared, depressed and angry because the world created by precarious employment, poor housing and rising inequality is scary, depressing and annoying.
If you can’t answer the question: “How does life get rapidly better for me and my family?”, no amount of communicative power will help. Secondly, the centre has to make a strategic choice: to side with the left against the right. All discussions of populism that avoid that conclusion are worthless.
If you Google the words Sajid Javid and fascism, you will see he has called Momentum, which I am a member of, a “neo-fascist group”. I can find no comment by Javid about the Whitehall rampage by up to 10,000 supporters of Tommy Robinson, among them actual sieg-heiling Nazis, in which they bricked and bottled the Metropolitan police. The duplicity and denial phase among centrists has to stop.
Because I don’t think the crisis of democratic consent in the west will abate; rather it will peak like a wave, and break in a series of national crises whose choreography is already predictable: a swing to the right by the CDU post-Merkel; a run-off between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen in the next French presidential election; a full-blown Matteo Salvini government in Italy; a showdown between the Falange nostalgics in the Spanish elite and Catalan separatism; Hungary and Poland sliding deeper into the grip of demagogues.
In the face of that, the parties labelled “left populist” in the Guardian’s “new populism” series are destined to play a decisive part in the resistance. They need to learn to fight intelligently, not run, as Alexis Tsipras did in Greece, headlong into the lights of the oncoming train. They need above all to learn to construct alliances – as Podemos and Barcelona en Comú are doing in Spain.
If things get worse, we will all be grateful that the radical left has crafted a narrative of hope. At the battle of Jarama in 1937 at Suicide Hill, the men who marched into a hail of bullets to stop Franco taking Madrid were a mixture of British socialists, communists and former IRA men. If you read the memoirs of survivors, the common currency is hope for the future, pride in the act of resistance, and a belief in agency. Actively promoting such a conviction is one of the strongest weapons we possess against the soul-draining negativity of the authoritarian right.
• Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice