The liberal hegemony is crumbling
On the 23rd of March, as the UK finally went into lockdown, much later than its European counterparts – to the dismay of many experts and a rightly concerned population – the reactionary libertarian right was at it again, with its contrarianism and pseudo-radicalism, as if a global pandemic was nothing but another opportunity to exploit. Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked!, a website part funded by the Koch brothers, called for ‘Dissent in a time of Covid’, criticising the ‘chilling’ and ‘dangerous’ ‘witch-hunting of those who criticise the response to coronavirus’. This was no surprise and in fact before the article was even published, experts in the field were already joking about what catastrophising and self-aggrandising headline the online magazine would choose: over the past few years, Spiked! has made a name for itself by creating narratives of martyrdom and heroism on the back of real societal crises and injustices, all in the name of twisted versions of democracy and liberty, and in the interest of the powerful.
O’Neill and Spiked! are only examples of this reaction, albeit with disproportionate access to popular mainstream platforms and attention from the media and government, particularly in respect to their free speech campaigning, as part of a broader trend towards (far) right-wing politics. However, recent events, from Brexit to Trump’s election and more recently the debate over how to respond to Covid-19, really drive home that reactionary ideas have become part of mainstream politics, but this may have its limits.
Drawing the line between illiberal and liberal reaction – fuzzy borders
In this context it is interesting to see where the mainstream draws the line. In 2017, it took his condoning of paedophilia for Milo Yiannopoulos to lose his status as rising star of the US far right and access to mainstream platforms such as Bill Maher’s Real Time. Until then, his rabid Islamophobia and sexism amongst other forms of reaction had been worthy of a platform. It is often argued that giving countless invitations to reactionaries and engaging in spurious debates based on false equivalences is necessary, as evil can only be defeated by better alternatives in ‘the market place of ideas’. As Nesrine Malik convincingly argues in her brilliant book, We need new stories, this is both lazy and irresponsible: ‘the problem with the marketplace of ideas theory (as with all ‘invisible hand’ type theories) is that it does not account for a world in which the market is skewed and not all ideas receive equal representation, because the market has monopolies and cartels’.
Similarly, until Covid-19, Spiked!’s extremely reactionary stances on questions like race, gender or transgender rights had become broadly considered as worthwhile debates in a society the right believes to be controlled by some PC elite. In ‘normal’ times, O’Neill’s use of pubs as the symbol of the true people qua white working class would have been welcome in much of the mainstream, where this racialised and paternalistic view of ‘the people’ is now taken for granted. On this occasion, it seemed to have gone too far though, with some fellow travellers, usually happy to indulge the reactionary libertarian right’s attacks on minorities, the marginalised and their allies, denouncing O’Neill’s stance as ‘irresponsible and wrong’ when he compared the closing of pubs to North Korea, no less.
What O’Neill had done was simply push the argument to one of its logical conclusions. But that meant turning against a government which had so far been the best ally of our reactionary class, despite their alleged anti-elitism, as well as putting at risk its main constituency, found in older voters. Even though austerity and the action or inaction of the government will impact far more on those at the bottom, the merchants of inequality and injustice are also at risk, and this risk cannot be downplayed, mocked or questioned: it is beyond free speech. This may be why they finally criticised O’Neill who had, with Spiked!, until this point served the cause well, legitimising and mainstreaming reactionary and far right ideas. O’Neill was joined by other, more mainstream, figures, such as Peter Hitchens, Heather MacDonald and Toby Young, as the lockdown gave reactionaries another opportunity to rehearse well-worn arguments on the libertarian right: our society is shackled by a culture of fear and safe spaces, where elite experts are in cahoots with nanny state authoritarians, denying our most basic freedom and liberties (but really mostly that to be racist, sexist and reactionary in a free market). We can see this discourse at its most explicit in the anti-lockdown protestors emboldened by Donald Trump in the US.
In an attempt to deflect criticism, O’Neill has since argued that the lockdown threatens the health and lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised. This reboot of the Brexit ‘left behind’ argument is really just a free market economic argument dressed up as a culture war and democratic imperative, as lifting the lockdown would no doubt leave those most vulnerable and marginalised more exposed and at risk. Toby Young, who claimed to have been ‘cancelled’ for dissent (confirming O’Neill’s fears), made it explicit by asking ‘whether it was worth spending £350 billion and destroying the economy to slow the rate of infection’. The game is up. This crisis could be a watershed moment when the veneer of reactionary respectability and mainstreaming success finally cracks.
This is central to our forthcoming book, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, which explores the way some ideas travel from the extreme to the mainstream, how some become the norm, while others remain reviled and can even be used to justify the centre’s rightful hegemony, if only when compared to more radical alternatives: in a nutshell, things are bad but they could be worse. Our aim is to map the way in which reactionary ideas and racism in particular have made their way back into mainstream discourse, under the guise of pseudo-progressive tropes such as free speech and liberalism, where freedom is understood solely as the freedom of the privileged, represented as victims, to defend said privilege and stifle any demands from those suffering from real and systemic injustice.
While our elite, in control of much of public discourse – being through politics, the media or even academia – has shied away from the most outrageous claims proffered by the most reactionary right, they have come to accept their broad tropes as increasingly normal and acceptable. This is a clear break from what was at least until recently accepted as a necessity for public actors to pay lip service to what was considered progress (albeit moderate, unequal and precarious).
The idea that those in charge of our democracies, whether through elections or media scrutiny, could openly oppose racial or gender equality, express racism and sexism or that some should die so we can gain ‘herd immunity’ or save the economy would have been considered shocking until recently, in terms of public relations, if not ideology. Of course, the line between extreme and mainstream is fuzzy, and must be tread carefully by reactionaries. Only a few weeks ago Andrew Sabisky, a supporter of eugenics (as well as race science), and one of Dominic Cummings’ ‘weirdos and misfits’, was forced to resign after his political beliefs caused outrage. Yet his appointment was only the tip of the iceberg, a sign of how bold reactionaries have become, having witnessed how mainstream other ideas such as austerity, the Hostile Environment and Go Home Vans to name a few have become. With Covid-19, it did not take long for eugenics and Malthusian politics to rear their ugly heads.
The populist hype, the enemies of the people or the people as enemy
Covid-19 sweeps the world at a juncture where a populist hype, combined with the collapse of the neoliberal system, has led those who used to pay lip service to mild attempts at redressing imbalances to increasingly give support to reactionary ideas and voices. ‘Populism’ provides our elite with the perfect excuse for enacting deeply reactionary politics and policies: they argue they are merely following the people’s wishes. This of course ignores the simple fact that power is not distributed equally, and that the existence of systemic racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression and inequality, likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, are far more likely to impact on the 99% than on the 1%. Ironically, ‘the people’ these reactionary elites claim to represent are also the herd, many of whom will be sacrificed by such inaction and strategies. Therefore, instead of being bottom-up processes, led by the people, as the reactionary right would like us to believe, we argue that these trends must be understood as a top-down process.
As political discontent and alienation has grown since the end of history in the 1990s, and as mainstream parties have converged, leaving out of representation increasingly big chunks of the population, the right and far right have been far more reactive to these trends and more able to turn them to their advantage, through media coverage in particular. Indeed, it has become common for the reactionary elite to claim to represent the will of the people, even when they hail from extremely privileged backgrounds – read Trump, Johnson or Farage.
As women, racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community have wrestled certain rights and recognition, and as the system has become increasingly and obviously unable to cope with necessary changes required for a just, democratic society, we have witnessed a return of more illiberal and even violent behaviours on the part of the privileged elite. To add a democratic and justice orientated veneer to their reaction against the fall of privilege, the reactionary elite has turned to the working class, seen to have been abandoned by the centre left as it turned towards aspirational cosmopolitan middle classes and so-called identity politics.
Such narratives have allowed the reactionary right to imagine and portray itself as standing as a bulwark against elite dictatorship, bent on providing favours to minorities at the expense of hard-working ‘natives’, often a code or euphemism for white. Of course, this fight against some murky, all-powerful elite in ivory towers is self-mythologising as radical and brave. This anti-elitist and anti-intellectual culture war can take many forms: in the context of Covid-19, attacks have been aimed at experts and scientists demanding that drastic action is taken to reduce the toll caused by the pandemic. They can be easily represented as part of the same ‘experts’ who criticised Brexit. Ironically, last time they were economists threatening democracy and this time they are scientists threatening the economy. In the reactionary imaginary, these demands are fascistic, while acting carelessly and selfishly is considered freedom. In their neoliberal utopia, work is indeed always a choice and duty, rather than an absolute necessity and burden for the many in our society paid a pittance in usually poor and precarious conditions. Fascism is the real anti-fascism. The left are the real authoritarians.
Of course, the elite targeted by these brave reactionary martyrs are rarely those with control of our economy and media. Rather they are scientists, academics and other experts, particularly those demanding change, no matter how moderate, to tame the negative effects of white patriarchal capitalism. This was made very clear in debates about the impact of the climate crisis, which delayed awareness and action greatly, with the support of poor media practices buying into the false equivalences created by the reactionary right, often selling the ‘diversity of ideas’ while serving corporate interests. Other targets are commonly found in a fantasised PC anti-racist, feminist and pro-trans hegemonic elite, revolutionary minorities and Social Justice Warriors (who are also snowflakes, go figure). You would be forgiven for thinking that it is Labour and not the Conservative Party which has been in power for almost a decade.
Such a blatant and unrealistic take could only work if the claims of reactionaries could be couched in democratic terms. It is thus argued that their aim is not to protect the interests of the powerful, but rather in the name of the fantasised ‘white working class’ ‘left behind’. This move was particularly clever as it is hard to deny that vast sections of the population have not been forgotten as advanced democracies turned into neo-liberal technocracies, as the safety net developed gaping holes and as communities became ever more alienated through precarious work and growing poverty. However, the trick for the reactionary right was to turn what were clearly economic and structural issues, into cultural ones: to turn what could have been a class war, into a race war.
The imagined demographic of the white working class is absolutely essential in the reactionary mainstream struggle as it lends a democratic and even a justice-orientated veneer, as if the right were the real radicals and defenders of the salt of the earth, rather than heirs to Thatcherism or Reaganism. Of course, this is based on spurious data, willingly peddled by some complacent and complicit media, including liberal broadsheets, too happy to splash headlines on populism being ‘all the rage’ or Trump and Brexit as ‘working class revolts’ or even the ‘revolt of the masses’.
These narratives have become accepted by much of our mainstream elite, even though research has convincingly shown that a) Trump and Brexit were not voted in by the working class, and b) the ‘white working class’ is in and of itself a reactionary construction. It pits those most likely to suffer the brunt of reactionary politics against each other. It also ignores that the working class is also the most diverse section of our societies. The trick is justified in part by a convenient ignorance of abstention, widespread in the poorest sections of the population, thus skewing dramatically the results of those who vote in these sections: if 1/3 of the working who vote votes for reactionaries, but 2/3 of the working class abstain (as is often the case), then it is only one out of ten of working class people that voted for reactionaries – hardly anything to shout about, and certainly not a democratic mandate.
Yet, in a media landscape where ownership is spread between few hands, with many supportive of the reactionary trend, and others unwilling to consistently and forcefully challenge the reactionary hegemony, these elitist interests have been given huge platforms. As with reactionary politicians and their cowardly opponents who claim that they are merely following the people’s wishes in their turn to authoritarian politics, journalists have too commonly claimed that they have no responsibility in current developments, as if editorial choices were given directly by ‘The People’ or some Public Opinion Oracle. This can be witnessed in Fiona Bruce, the presenter of BBC Question Time, being surprised at the ‘level of toxicity’ in her programme. Who would have thought that having reactionary discussions with reactionary panel members and questions from extreme right activists of the vetted audience could lead to a toxic debate? If only the BBC or Bruce had their say (shrug emoji). In recent elections, we have also witnessed a trend whereby senior political journalists have become the mouthpiece of the government, citing unnamed ‘official sources’ to test the impact of potential announcements, all of this with no scrutiny or accountability, while anti-Corbynism has been both rampant, rabid and wholeheartedly accepted across the board.
‘The people’ reactionaries speak for are not only few, but they are predominantly well off and self interested – much like their leaders. The media we have is not that which we deserve in a democracy; it merely acts as stooges to power, blaming us for their cowardice and lack of imagination.
Solace and solidarity in dark times
In the aftermath of the 2019 UK election, where another elite white male reactionary affirmed his power and privilege, despite countless lies and the avoidance of scrutiny, often aided by a complacent and complicit mainstream media, and with Covid-19 sweeping the world, things can seem pretty grim. Yet there is solace in the fact that this backlash exists, as it demonstrates that the hegemony may be crumbling and that the structures and narratives of the normality and inevitability of privilege and oppression are increasingly laid bare and threatened: this degraded system shows that it cannot sustain the pressure and that progress can no longer be argued to be an inevitable outcome. ‘It will take time, but we will get there’ no longer holds. Nor does the idea that we will, or should, return to ‘normal’ at the end of this. What was ‘normal’, that is the austerity, racism and reactionary politics, is precisely what has exacerbated the current situation of crisis.
The multiple crises we are facing, from Covid-19 to climate breakdown, are very likely to both exacerbate inequalities and lead to a rise of illiberal tendencies amongst the elite and their base, but they create the possibility of an opening for radical change and the demand and urgency for it. As denial, which has made many comfortably passive, is becoming increasingly untenable, sitting on the fence will become less of an option as inaction will be increasingly akin to complicity. This does not mean that people will choose our side, but they might and it is our responsibility to ensure that the left proposes powerful narratives and visions to allow them to make this choice.
These narratives and visions cannot repeat the same old mistakes and try to compete with the right on its own turf. At a time when reactionaries openly return to the crudest forms of racism, sexism and classism to entrench western hegemony, left-wing alternatives cannot be bound by antiquated and innately reactionary ideas of patriotism or nationalism, and their associated borders, exclusions and inhumanity. Inequalities and injustices transcend the nation, international conflicts displace people globally and the climate emergency will require increasingly global responses. In this setting, the left must remain attached to its internationalist outlook and an intersectional approach.
Democracy is not necessarily progressive, and will only be if we make it so. What Mondon and Winter call “reactionary democracy” is the use of the concept of democracy and its associated understanding of the power to the people (demos cratos) for reactionary ends. The resurgence of racism, populism and the far right is not the result of popular demands, it is the logical conclusion of manipulation by the elite of the working class to push reactionary ideas. These narratives portray racism as a popular demand, rather than as something encouraged and perpetuated by elites, exonerating those with the means to influence and control public discourse through the media in particular. This has legitimised the far right, strengthened its hand and compounded inequalities.