In this latest piece, Hedges does the same job of asking uncomfortable questions. Though he’s writing for a website which, in the main, is a straight-down-the-line mouthpiece of the American liberal left, Hedges challenges the accepted views and values of his audience more than he challenges the Tea Partyers and angry Sarah Palin fans. Instead of simply condemning them, or laughing at them, he wants instead to listen to them.
This interests me a great deal, because I have seen, and written about, a similar kind of liberal blindness here in the UK, particularly in regards to the rise of the BNP over the last year. We are experiencing, in the UK as well as in the US (though in different forms – ours is both more ineffective and strangely more genteel) a rise in disaffection and alienation, which is birthing a new kind of ‘far right’ politics. I put ‘far right’ in quotation marks, because this kind of notation is increasingly misleading. The BNP, for example, is like many of its European sister parties in that it combines the kind of statist economic policies associated with the old manifestation of the Labour party with a racist authoritarianism. This recent interview with Nick Griffin is quite revealing on this score (as well as being amusing, to his detriment).
Situations like this are always specific, but at the root of all of this, it seems to me, is the historical big picture of the decline of the West. Our economies are tanking and our populations are ageing. Immigration is changing the face of nations, political parties are increasingly identikit and ineffectual, and post-banking crisis it is apparent to more people than ever that in any case the people who run politics are not the same people who run the economy. Flexible labour markets and demographic changes shear people away from places, hyper-capitalism sets the terms of engagement by which we live, and states become increasingly authoritarian in order to deal with the challenges posed by atomised populations.
Add all this up and you get a deep insecurity which manifests itself as a fury aimed at anyone seen to be part of an ‘elite’ which is screwing people: politicians, most obviously, and bankers, but also journalists, civil servants, businesspeople – anyone who seems to be lording it over ‘us’. This anti-elitism manifests itself in support for the BNP here, the Tea Party in the US and far right parties across Europe – they are surfing a wave of unfocused, popular anger which is only going to grow.
What confuses the liberals and the left is that this anger is also directed at them. For a socialist, anti-elitism is supposed to lead to disaffection with capitalism and rising support for the radical left, even for revolution. For a liberal, it’s supposed to lead for a support for leftish political parties which will enact ‘reforms’ to the constitution and the economy to make things fairer for everyone. What’s happening instead is that the comfy liberal establishment is being targeted by the anti-elitists just as much as the bankers and the fat cats. This is in part due to the fact that the left has no popular base anymore, which in turn is due to the fact that it has no clear programme after the failure of both statist Marxism and capitalist democracy.
But it’s also because the liberal left, in particular, is unwilling or unable to listen to those who express grievances it doesn’t agree with. ‘Our educated elite,’ writes Hedges, ‘wallowing in self-righteousness, wasted its time in the boutique activism of political correctness as tens of millions of workers lost their jobs.’ This is certainly the impression one gets in Europe today. Complain about homophobia or racism and you’ll get onto the front page of the Guardian. Complain about street crime, immigration, unemployment or the collapse of ‘family values’ and you’ll be written off as dinosaurs or worse. But there are a lot of dinosaurs out there now, and the demagogues know how to speak their language in a way that metrovincial progressives don’t. Witnessing the bemusement of the liberal establishment here at the rise of the BNP was grimly amusing. They really had no idea what was going on, and still don’t. It seems the same is happening in America. If you don’t listen, you won’t understand – and those who do listen will end up winning.
Where Hedges falls down, for me, is in his apparent attachment to the idea that ‘radicals’ (the Green Party, say) have any useful answers to this paralysis, or that ‘the system’ can respond to what he thinks ‘needs’ to be done (how, for example, is a near-bankrupt US expected to ‘immediately reincorporate the unemployed and the poor back into the economy, giving them jobs and relief from crippling debt’?) What is telling about these times is that no-one seems to have a programme – and that includes the far right and the populists, who know what they hate but not what to do about it (except in cartoon terms – see that Griffin interview again). This is why it’s important to be cautious about comparisons with what happened in the 1930s, when the failure of liberal democracies to deal with a crisis of capitalism led to the first wave of fascism. Fascism like that could never happen again, for the simple reason that it happened then: it’s a stark warning. Don’t expect to see jackboots and flags. On the other hand, don’t expect this to go away either.
There is plenty of time, after all, for authoritarian anti-elitists to develop a programme, and plenty of reason for them to do so. Back in the 1930s, quotes Hedges, there was ‘a yearning for fascism before fascism was invented.’ Perhaps we are again seeing a worrying yearning for something which is not yet clear but could become so, to the detriment of all of us. Clinging to daddy is a natural reaction to a fear of the dark; it may also be the reaction of many to the converging crises we face.
Those crises will only become clearer. To the decline of the West, a historical arc from which there is no escape, we need to add the decline of the fossil fuels which support our lifestyles, converging ecological disasters, a rising population, growing economic inequality and a failure of our old cultural narratives. We could also throw in a wild card: collapse in the East too. The fashionable narrative at present is that China and India are ‘rising’ as the West falls. But they are rising by following the same fossil-fuelled development path as we did, and that goes nowhere, fast.
We are already seeing a steady ramping-up of authoritarian rhetoric and a steady tightening of authoritarian politics in many ‘developed’ countries. In the UK, with our recent slew of anti-terrorist legislation, police brutality, ID cards and security cameras, this is already advanced, and I expect it to continue (and if Gordon Brown remains prime minister even after losing our forthcoming general election, we could see an explosion of popular fury: it would top even MPs’ expenses as a focus for hatred of ‘them’.) I have long believed that the authoritarianism of the right is likely to be increasingly popular as our descent becomes increasingly obvious.
Six years ago, at the height of the economic boom, I remember attending a session at the European Social Forum on ‘life after capitalism.’ It was full of hopeful young turks planning the revolution and the utopia which would follow. Up on the stage, though, a sober note was sounded by the brilliant economist Susan George who, at 70 years old, had seen more of the world than most of us. I can quote what she said because I wrote it down; it seemed so obviously worth listening to even in those halcyon days:
There is a serious possibility that this unstable global economy could actually collapse. We could then be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover. Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than what we have now.
I don’t think many people took this on board at the time, but today it seems prescient. We are in a period of global narrative failure: nobody’s stories have convincing plots, and none of them knows how they end. Marxism, conservatism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, environmentalism – none of them has legs. New stories will come, because new stories are needed. In the short term, though, I’m not sure we’re going to like what they have to tell us.