First the Brexit vote, then Trump, and now…..the real possibility of two right-wing populist mainstream European governments within a couple of months of each other. I’m referring of course to the upcoming French elections and the ‘surprise’ British general election that Teresa May called yesterday. ‘Surprise’ to whom, one wonders? Presumably to the liberal commentariat who have been wrong-footed yet again.
Some of the same commentariat appear to be drawing parallels with the Thatcher years of the 1980s, in the sense that the anticipated landslide victory on 8 June could be heralding a return to those halcyon days of…..what exactly? Depending who and where you were in the 1980s (and depending of course if you were even alive and politically conscious at the time) Thatcherism was either a liberation from the shackles of the (broadly) liberal-democratic post-war consensus with its (broadly speaking) managed economies, and the strangle-hold of the trade unions who were wedded to outdated modes of production and working practices; or it was a savage attack on all the positive gains of that self-same liberal democratic post-war consensus, which opened the door to neo-liberal economics and a form of globalisation which benefited the rich few at the expense of the poor and exploited many.
Of course, in many ways both views were right and wrong at the same time. Yes, Thatcherism was part of a much wider attack on the post-war consensus and its broadly liberal-democratic values. But was it really the dawn of a new era of individual freedom and enterprise, which is how many of the inheritors of the Thatcher legacy like to portray it? Or was it, in fact, the first act in the still unfolding slow death of liberalism and liberal values, and was Thatcher leading one of the first mainstream right-wing populist governments of the post-war era? Looking at it from this perspective, the Blair and Cameron years start to look like a last ditch attempt to salvage something of the legacy of the liberal democracy.
As I argued in a previous post on right-wing populism, it was actually in the 1990s that ideas about right-wing populism started to be seriously debated, and this might appear to refute the argument that Thatcherism was an expression of right-wing populism at all. However, it could equally be argued that such ideas were a response to the right-wing governments of Thatcher, Regan and others. In other words, such governments made it legitimate, opened-up up a space, for such right-wing discourses to start circulating, for the unthinkable to be thought. However, it took another twenty or so year ‘interlude’ for such ideas to start being translated into hard political reality, which is what appears to be happening now. Looking at it this way, Thatcher and Regan were just a taste of things to come.
And just as there is often a long delay between the ideas and their ‘translation’ into political reality, perhaps also there is a similar delay in the cultural expression of such ideas and their political manifestation. What made me start thinking about this was that a few months ago I started to revisit Death in June, who in various incarnations have survived from the early 1980s to the present day. This is a band that has been dogged by controversy for years, mainly because of their use of Nazi imagery and what often appears to be a rather unhealthy admiration for all things National Socialist, including the themes of many of their songs and albums. Certainly in the earlier years at least, songs such as Heaven Street, and albums such as Nada!, The World That Summer and Himmel Strasse have a very strong National Socialist ambience.
At the time of course, and perhaps even up until more recently, such a fascination with extreme-right wing ideology and iconography could have been dismissed as either artistic license to be controversial or simply a bunch of naïve individuals who didn’t know any better – although the Germans took a much dimmer view and banned Death in June from performing in their country for years. Now, however, in the wake of Brexit, Trump and soon, perhaps, Le Penn, May as a born-again Brexiteer, and who knows who else, such ‘artistic license’ takes on a very different meaning.
I’m not suggesting for one minute that Le Penn, May, Trump or any other populist right-wing leader waiting in the wings is a Nazi or another Hitler – far from it. Rather, what I’m getting at here is that such ideas and cultural expressions (i.e, ideologies) only become serious (and potentially dangerous) when they can find expression in the political mainstream. If they get to the political fringes or even find expression in mainstream opposition parties (e.g. Corbyn’s Labour party) they can still be dismissed as irrelevant or simply ‘crank politics’. However, once they start to frame government policy then they have to be taken seriously.
But, of course, this then begs the question of where are such ideologies are coming from in the first place. The key point to remember here, perhaps, is that right wing ideas have been around for a long time – at least since at least the end of the First World War, and some of them, for example those relating to anti-Semitism, a lot longer. In recent times, the liberal establishment has managed, generally speaking, to keep the lid on such ideas, in the sense of not allowing them to find expression in the political mainstream. Now, however, the lid seems to have been well and truly blown off.
It may well be, as suggested in a number of recent posts on this blog, that such a right-wing populism is an expression of a disaffected and possibly traumatised section of the population (both in the UK and in the US, as well as in other European countries) who have failed to ‘buy into’ the liberal narrative of economic and cultural globalisation. Rather, they feel far more comfortable with notions of ‘Englishness’ (in the case of Brexit), strong, authoritarian leadership, and a deep distrust of ‘outsiders’ (as an embodiment of the Other) and liberal ideas and values.
It’s probably too early to say how exactly the political expression of such right-wing populist ideologies will manifest themselves, but we only need to take a closer look at the history of Europe over the last hundred years or so to have a pretty good idea of what might be coming back down Heaven Street some time very soon.