It's a well accepted narrative on the left that neo-liberalism has provided the perfect terrain for the reactionary right to flourish. Young activist Jack O'Neill provides a broad overview of how we reached this point and argues that democratisation at all levels needs to be a key focal point in the fightback going forward...
There has been an undeniable rise in reactionary anger across the Western world. It’s been characterised by dangerous demagogues winning power and dangerous ideologies becoming normalised within political institutions. In an era of populism, politics based on policy, principle and ideology is virtually meaningless.
This was evident in Donald Trump’s victory of an election that over 92 million Americans didn’t vote in. It’s evident in France, where Marine Le Pen was runner up in the French presidential election. It’s evident in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders has run a campaign of hate against Muslims for over a decade.
Most readers will know all this, but it’s important to break down context before investigating the solutions to these interconnected crises from an anti-capitalist perspective. While it’s easy enough to identify and criticise these movements, it’s worth considering that most of the population still feel they have no influence on politics and that this is where much of the unfocused anger towards the establishment stems from.
As with other western countries, anti-immigration and anti-globalist sentiments in Britain have been orchestrated by the far right. This sentiment is visible in prominent newspaper columns to the country’s UKIP-tailored Brexit to the Westminster government’s dangerous coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Here in Scotland, the common counterargument is that our anti-establishment sentiment has been moulded into a largely progressive and outward looking movement, designed to seek democracy and autonomy from outdated institutions. Our government is supported by socially liberal progressives and socially liberal economic conservatives alike.
But it must be acknowledged that such exceptionalism only works so far in a country where a Scottish Conservative party bereft of serious policy or ideology is riding a populist wave in defence of the union. Despite their leader’s perceived liberalism, this has led to the election of several racist and sectarian Tory figures.
Like most socialists, I’d propose the root cause of this rising populism is neoliberalism. It’s a system where corporations rule markets, backed to the brink by debt-laden governments who take a laissez-faire approach to the very institutions the public relies on. The reactionary political world we find ourselves in is rooted in the ideological framework laid down by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
But today, we’re beginning to excavate these foundations and reflect more clearly on how they’ve shaped western society today. Their purpose was not just to allow markets to flourish at the expense of government institutions or public services; it was to erode what democracy exists in the world, concentrating and cementing a power system that’s as unsustainable as it is unequal. It’s this, on top of everything else, which has emboldened the far right over the past few decades.
Globalisation hasn’t just undermined government and state power in that time; it’s disempowered workers. Workers’ organisations have been systematically attacked for a prolonged period. These attacks have been backed by large companies fearful of strikes and organised staff democratising their workplace.
Over generations, anti-trade union legislation has weakened the movement, demoralised workers and led to a dramatic fall in memberships. We now see the effects of these attacks with the proliferation of undemocratic and exploitative workplaces throughout our society. Hand in hand with this, young people have been deliberately depoliticised – as the band The Libertines famously put it, we are the “doomed youth”.
This is a key point when it comes to analysing why people turn to far-right demagogues in protest against the establishment. Young people’s interests have become diametrically opposed to those of political institutions that operate hand in hand with corporations and multinational companies. Our generation has little protection and our rights are under attack. Under neo-liberalism, we queue to work unskilled jobs with dozens of applicants.
As a result, workers feel powerless and alienated from our political and economic system, and subsequently ostracised for speaking out. International solidarity among workers isn’t a utopian idea – it used to be strong (see the IWW) – but the age old argument of wages being undercut by foreign migrants has gained more traction due to the way our economy evolved.
Countries once pursued mercantilist economic plans, trading only within empires and manufacturing their own products. These countries mostly imported raw materials as opposed to finished products, meaning workers were not in direct competition. Technological advances and industrialisation of poorer nations allowed companies to source their labour elsewhere. This was only aided by the widespread abolition of trade tariffs, allowing for the free movement of goods.
Unsurprisingly, this led to a race to the bottom with the offshoring of production pushing workers against one another and gives bosses complete control. This is evident in the service industry, with staff in workplaces like call centres required to work under meticulous controlling methods due to fears of outsourcing. Bosses have fostered a culture where workers are discouraged to educate themselves or agitate for better because they feel effectively replaceable. This has been exploited relentlessly by the xenophobic right.
Consider the plight of the migrant worker in this situation, who’s unfamiliar with labour laws and often lacks support networks. Politicians calling for British jobs for British workers only exacerbates divisions and plays on these fears.
But it’s not just the economy that’s been redesigned by neo-liberal politicians but people themselves. Markets are apparently supposed to be a self-regulating equilibrium subject to the will of rational beings. But, if anything, neo-liberalism has created irrational beings by fabricating ‘consumers’. It’s a society influenced by marketing and advertising, where rational people’s consciousness has shifted from looking out for one another towards achieving material fulfilment.
We all do this, within our means and outside our means, leading to a debt-driven economy where we are consumers of not only material wealth but also debt and financial services. Tying us down and in debt, it’s a means of control, a type of authoritarianism. Depoliticised young people fill the abstract voids in their life in shopping centres rather than libraries. I use this example as it’s a classic example of market v local government, where the market always wins due to our government’s laissez-faire approach to managing public services.
Brits increasingly form their political identities through consumer choices, and this feeds into how we vote in actual elections. With referenda aflow in the UK, people use binary plebiscites as part of their branding whether they realise it or not. Our cultural values and environment impact this, too. In Scotland, most of the electorate now vote for the party that best represents their interests on the constitutional question rather than along class lines.
And so, in our individualist society, is it a surprise that this absence of ideology feeds support for the right as opposed to the left? Our consumerist electorate are effectively bought with vague promises on central issues like immigration. It’s given the right an upper hand across world politics, and only compounded by a coercive and even supportive media.
Through all these examples, authoritarianism and suppression of democracy has been a common feature, and this should be reflected on by the radical left if we are to fight back in a meaningful way. Despite the lessening of rights and the unchallenged power of the multinationals, people are still massively unhappy with the current system. There is still much that can be done by the radical left on this.
Firstly, we need to rigorously challenge the notion that Third Wayism (or Blairism) is any kind of solution. The economic crash demonstrated this clearly. As discussed earlier, this lack of imagination and servitude to the free market has had hugely damaging implications. It was the political class who brought us to this juncture.
This point is important when it comes to combating the far right. The working class are still being impacted by and paying for the financial crash of 2008, and yet another crash is seemingly already looming. It’s easy enough to say we must be organised and provide a radical opposition, but the reality is that to be prepared and counter the opportunistic far-right we must win the democratic arguments now.
To win back democracy we need a serious shift in public consciousness, from identitarianism towards reinstating ideology as a salient of politics. The struggles of women, people of colour and the working class can’t be separated and must be treated intersectionally. Democratisation of our workplaces and political institutions is impossible without this approach. The first step towards this is education.
Under neo-liberalism, even education has become a commodity. That’s why it’s imperative it be at the forefront of the movement. The perpetuation of tuition fees and private education must be opposed at every opportunity. Working class people must be the ones with the agency to imagine change and implement it, and so we can’t let it be the responsibility of global company-backed institutions.
Grassroot popular education networks will become imperative in creating a critical evaluation of society and give people the opportunity to imagine an alternative based on democracy and equality.
Radical education in working class communities is particularly key if we are to win ideological battles in the long run. These networks are so important because they’re inclusive and participatory – in other words, democracy in action. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr: “When you begin to question why there are so many poor people in our society, you begin to ask a question about the economic system, about the broader distribution of wealth. You question the structure of the whole of Western society.”
There are also concrete areas where we can be pursuing an agenda of democratisation. We need to lobby elected officials and campaign for them to reveal their vested interests and the companies they’re courted by while in office. We need to campaign for business donations to political parties to be limited. We need to argue against the idea that companies have as much right to free speech as ordinary citizens, who don’t have the luxury of investing in political parties to platform their ideas.
Whilst it’s important we fight for better rights and well-funded services, we should also take steps to hold existing institutions accountable for lack of transparency if we are to truly democratise society. The introduction of term limits for politicians is a necessity if we are to diminish the influence of the rich and powerful. By restricting individual power, we can ensure the calibre of political representatives improves.
Democratising our economy is another huge challenge we need to face up to. A central investment bank, which could provide low-to-no interests to local start-up companies, workers co-operatives and social enterprises should be established, and backed by public money. Labour, who proposed this policy in their 2017 election manifesto, should be pushed to implement this if in power. It would allow the economy to become localised and help workers gain control over their lives, keeping production local in the process. Campaigning against regressive anti-union laws also factors in here.
Creating a movement against globalisation should also be global in itself and rely heavily on international solidarity. Anti-globalisation groups, as it stands, are disorganised, so it should be a priority of trade unions to build bonds with grassroots organisations and unions around the world. As well as undermining the far right’s efforts to divide the working class, it’s an important step that challenges multinational companies’ predatory operations in Africa and Asia.
Wages, which have dropped in real terms by 10% since the financial crash, must also be a huge incentive in this process. By raising the top two rates of tax and increasing the minimum wage, we can reduce inequality in our society and in effect also increase democratic participation by reinstating a sense of worth and representation in politics.
These aims are all valuable and necessary in their own right, but they should be pursued as part of a wider democratic agenda on the left. The rise of the far-right has not just come about due to a drop in living standards and a shift from Keynesian economics – it’s benefited from a disturbing erosion of democracy at every level.
We can’t revert to the centre in the event of another crash – their time has come and gone. At every level, the radical left needs to pursue policies and actions that benefit people on a grassroots level. We do this through popular education and mobilisation of workers. If we are to overthrow the failed neo-liberal order and defeat resurgent fascism simultaneously, we can only do so if our radical alternative is coherent and democratic.