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Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria

26 Aug

The murder of an anti-fascist protestor (and the less-noted deaths of two National Guardsmen) at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has gripped the United States and many observers elsewhere. It has revived claims about the rise of a “fascist” threat in the West. This is simply hysterical, and symbolises the US left’s incapacity for reasoned political analysis, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

The most striking aspect of the left’s hysteria over Charlottesville is its failure to understand that it won the US culture wars, not the right. By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009, suggesting that campaigners for equal rights now find themselves kicking at a largely open door. The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”, while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.

The rise of the “alt-right” does not signify some grave reversal of this trend, requiring massive societal mobilisation to counter it, but a rather sad, ineffectual backlash from the side that has already lost. The fact that the “Unite the Right” rally managed to draw only 500 protestors from across the entire US (population: 323 million) speaks volumes. A “free speech rally” in Boston a few days later drew only about 100 attendees, whereas the counter-protestors numbered around 40,000, with smaller counter-protests in many other US cities. The situation is identical in Britain, where far-right rallies typically draw crowds of one or two dozen, dwarfed by “antifa” counter-protestors (and the police). Trump’s mealy-mouthed, inconsistent criticisms of “both sides” are profoundly out of step with wider social attitudes, reflected in his total isolation even amongst Republican leaders and military chiefs.

The left is hardly alone in profoundly misreading this situation – the Western media have also responded with a flame-fanning hysteria as part of its relentless campaign against Trump.

But the left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.

Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven “privilege” of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks “implicitly” in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on “privileged” groups – notably “cisgender” white men – and a politics of “calling out” prejudicial behaviour. That “whiteness” masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor “white” category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of “wokeness”, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.

The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace “whiteness” not as a spur for shame and “wokeness”, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming “black lives matter” and “white lives matter” at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the “alt-right” are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting “dank memes” from their parents’ basements.

That these losers are now depicted as a serious threat to democracy reflects a twofold deficit on the identitarian left. The first is its failure to bring much of the American working classes with it. The loudest practitioners of identity politics are (privileged) students on university campuses, not fast food or factory workers. The left’s growing divorce from material considerations, and the self-flagellation demanded from millions of impoverished whites, has left most people baffled or cold. Attempts to build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of material interests have often faced outright hostility from identitarians. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was derided for its “race problem”, while Bernie Sanders’ attempts to mobilise the “99 percent” met denunciations for his (mostly mythical) misogynistic “Bernie Bros” and for neglecting black people. Tellingly, the identitarian left preferred Hillary Clinton’s cynically assembled “rainbow coalition”.

This led to a second failure: the lumping of anyone who did not embrace this agenda into a unified “basket of deplorables” motivated exclusively by vile prejudice. Viewed through the prism of identity, the rainbow coalition’s failure to win power could only be understood as a “racist whitelash”, signifying the existence of a terrible counter-force, prompting widespread denunciation of “white people” and truly hysterical claims that a fascist regime was now in power. In reality, as we explained at the time, there is no way that a “whitelash” could explain Trump’s election, and the administration’s subsequent disarray and disintegration – the only legislation Trump has signed being additional sanctions on Russia, which he had opposed prior to his election – signify gross ineptitude, not an authoritarian regime – still less a fascist one. In this fevered atmosphere it is easy to see how 500 losers are hysterically misinterpreted as representing a much bigger force in American society.

A hysterical campaign against “fascism” is not only a major distraction, it will only compound the left’s problems. All the objective evidence shows that there is actually no need to persuade the vast majority of Americans of liberal principles of equality. They already agree. When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agree with you, you are kicking at an open door, and that suggests you are in the wrong house.

The real question is how the left can win over a majority to a programme of radical social, political and economic change that addresses both economic disparities and the gross inequalities suffered by minorities. Both are required because they interact, producing vast disparities in household income, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates among ethnic groups. But this cannot be tackled by setting identity groups against one another, turning the struggle for equality into a zero-sum game. Telling white citizens that unless they practice self-flagellating “wokeness” they are “fascists” is no way to persuade people that the left is capable of solving both their economic grievances and advancing the rights of minorities simultaneously. Already, large numbers of Americans feel they have no dog in this fight: only 10 percent of them support the alt-right but 41 percent have “no opinion”. The identitarian left has not only failed to win over the so-called “white working class”, but even a plurality of black Americans disagree with tearing down Confederate statues, the main flashpoint at Charlottesville. A phoney war against “fascists” – especially one that depicts “ordinary people” as “white supremacists by default”, as one CNN editorial put it – will likely alienate many people already perturbed by the authoritarianism and illiberalism of a group increasingly being dubbed the “alt-left”. The Democratic Socialists of America are rightly trying (yet again) to rally people around a shared agenda of economic change and social justice, but despite making major concessions to identitarianism, even they face internal challenges from an influx of young agitators steeped in identity politics.

Moreover, history shows that anti-fascist campaigns only hobble the left and empower the state, because they urge the expansion of authoritarian powers that are inevitably deployed against progressives and minorities. In the mid-1930s, supported by anti-fascist campaigners, Congress convened a Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. After World War II, under Senator McCarthy, this committee turned its sights on the left. Similarly, under pressure from anti-fascists, Britain adopted the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, which was subsequently used more frequently against the left than the right, including Sinn Fein marches in the 1970s and striking miners in the 1980s. Today, American leftists urge tighter restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, asking both government and employers to intervene. There is already evidence that growing regulation is targeting progressives and minorities, and over 250,000 people have petitioned the government to declare “antifa” a “domestic terrorist group”. Germany, meanwhile, has just shut down and raided popular leftist website IndyMedia for “sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country”.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call, alright. But not in the way the American left thinks.

 

Lee Jones

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