Sunday, 7 July 2019

Normalising Extremism

One the axioms of twentieth century political history is that the far-right can only come to power with the support and facilitation of the establishment right. The most famous example is Hitler's promotion by Hindenberg and von Papen in Germany in 1933, at a time when the Nazis enjoyed little more than a third of the electorate's support and appeared to be losing ground. The same pattern was visible in the rise of Mussolini and Franco, suggesting a widespread determination by the right to ally with radical reactionaries rather than cede any ground to the left, whether Bolshevik or not. Much of the contemporary liberal angst over the rightward drift of establishment parties like the US Republicans reflects this history. According to taste, flirting with the far-right is the result either of conceited miscalculation ("We will box him in", as von Papen said of Hitler) or simple stupidity. While such interpretations appeal to our appetite for tales of hubris and human fallibility, they ignore structural imperatives and the extent to which conservatives are fully aware of what they are doing. The current "populist moment" is perhaps a good opportunity to consider these other perspectives.

An example of a structural imperative can be seen in the normalisation of the far-right by the BBC. While it would be easy to assume the Corporation is over-run with sympathisers, or perhaps just reckless poshos who have ignored the warning from history, a better explanation for this can perhaps be found in the concept of balance. The biggest change to the political practice of the BBC since the 1980s has been its willingness to allow the press to drive the current affairs agenda, a development exacerbated by the Birtian reforms and made visible in the amount of political coverage now devoted to opinion. As the press's position has typically been further to the right than the Conservative party leadership, finding advocates for this agenda - in order to present a "balanced" argument - has led to a greater reliance on both media provocateurs and far-right organisations, from "insurgent" political parties to opaquely-funded think-tanks and lobby groups. The problem this gives rise to is that the fulcrum of debate in the BBC is then much further to the right of its actual location among the general population (as evidenced by the widespread support for Labour's policies).

This bias to the right is apparent not just in the subjects the BBC picks for debate, or in the personnel it selects to provide commentary, but also in the speed by which fringe opinions become acceptable within mainstream discourse. For example, in three years Brexit has gone from a debate over whether we should leave the EU, in which advocates of departure assured us that this would mean exiting the "political project" but not the single market or customs union, to one in which the debate pivots on the relative merits of walking away without a deal on future trade. This "all we need are WTO terms" extremism has been mirrored by the emergence of the "hard remain" position - revoking Article 50 and thereby annulling the 2016 referendum - which has allowed the BBC to present a "balance" comprised largely of two positions that are supported by only small minorities of the population.

The normalisation of the far-right has, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out, gone hand-in-hand with the demonisation of the current Labour leadership. This isn't coincidence but the result of an attempt to redefine the boundaries of acceptable political opinion. Labour is now "too far left", while Nigel Farage and the vague but menacing Brexit party are "not so far to the right" when contrasted to the remnants of UKIP, Tommy Robinson and crypto-Fascist imports such as Generation Identity, though equally dubious individuals and groups, like Steve Bannon and Turning Point, are still considered to be just about on the acceptable side of the outer boundary. The heavy work in achieving this reframing of acceptable politics has been done not so much by the established right as by the centre, which is where ideologically the BBC assumes that it sits. The "if both sides criticise us, we must be doing something right" defence is not just smug self-satisfaction, it accepts a polarisation that centrism supposedly deplores.

But where I disagree with Wren-Lewis is in his attribution of the Conservative party's connivance in this rightwards drift to miscalculation (or "overreach"), specifically pursuing policies such as immigration targets, an EU referendum and austerity for short-term gain, with insufficient heed to the trouble they were storing up and the encouragement they provided to the far-right. It is important to remember that the party's fetishisation of immigration targets was not just done at the behest of the press and lobby groups such as Migration Watch, but also in response to the strong feelings of its own backbench MPs and membership. Though the targets were always likely to be unachievable, Cameron accepted their political necessity as a signal of intent. The problem was not that the party was duped into adopting an extreme position by the far-right, but that too many party members and MPs were sincere in their desire to radically reduce net immigration, not least the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

The folklore around the EU referendum decision has focused on Cameron's de haut en bas reluctance and his expectation that coalition with the Liberal Democrats would provide an excuse to drop any commitment to a public vote. But again this ignores the strength of feeling within the Conservative party. While the Bruges Group and latterly the ERG have always been a minority interest in Parliament, they were clearly much more in tune with the views of the party membership, not to mention significant parts of the press. Cameron couldn't put the referendum off for ever, and it's likely that in a counterfactual where he completed his term in office without conceding one, the subsequent leadership contest would have been dominated by the issue, as has in fact been the case now on two separate occasions. The one thing that has united all the contenders in the current contest is the belief that Brexit must be "put to bed". A failure to do so would represent an existential threat to the Conservative party, not because it would lose voters to the Brexit Party but because it would lose MPs and members.

Likewise, austerity should be seen less as a clever manoeuvre by George Osborne to blame Labour for the financial crisis and more as a conscious strategy, in line with a consensus elsewhere in Europe and the developed economies (what Wolfgang Streeck referred to in Buying Time as the "consolidation state"), to rehabilitate a policy framework ("expansionary fiscal contraction") that had been in bad odour since the 1930s. That the policy has continued to be rigorously pursued despite both the evidence of its practical failings and the embarrassment of it theoretical case (the infamous Reinhart-Rogoff spreadsheet error) tells us that it is more than an electoral tactic. The aim is not merely to shrink the state or hive off more public services to the private sector, it is to re-establish a sound money convention strong enough to constrain any future administration (a trap the pre-2016 Labour leadership foolishly walked into). Osborne's austerity was about ruling out a future Labour government, not just using a former one as a scapegoat for capitalism's ills.

A common element that runs through this analysis is the role of the press in pushing political discourse to the right - shifting the so-called Overton Window (Joseph P. Overton, who developed the concept, was in the business of advocating free market policies initially deemed radical or even unacceptable by public opinion) - whether done directly through slanted news and partisan comment or indirectly through pressure on the BBC. Boris Johnson's march to the leadership of the Conservative party and Number 10 Downing Street has been emblematically marked by a revival in the power of newspapers. The initial sidelining of TV debates was explained as Johnson's "fear" of being shown up as a charlatan, but a better explanation is simply that he is consciously cultivating the press, first as a more reliable medium for securing the votes of party members and second as a critical future support for his administration when the shit inevitably hits the fan. He has been predictably well-served by the Telegraph and, with the response to his "domestic" in which the neighbours have been vilified, the other papers that might have given Hunt a sympathetic hearing, such as the Times and Daily Mail, have fallen into line.

This revival is not limited to the papers that habitually support the Conservative party. The Guardian broke the Camberwell story and remains committed to inserting Johnson into its long-running saga on Steve Bannon and Russia. It has also done its bit to shift the discourse rightwards, running positive articles on Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, and even trying to see the merits of Jeremy Hunt. Again, that the Guardian and Observer have become even more critical of Jeremy Corbyn over the last six weeks is not a coincidence. As the media once more tries to define the likes of Philip Hammond and David Gauke as the sensible centre-ground, so it is necessary to recalibrate the toxicity of the left. The revival of the Liberal Democrats is down to a number of contingent factors, but the chief one is the failure of the Independent Group aka Change UK to provide a new vehicle for the liberal media's hopes. Following that damp squib, the party whose performance in coalition with the Conservatives caused so much lasting damage (from austerity through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to facilitating tax evasion) must now be rehabilitated. It is not just the extremists of the far-right who are being actively normalised by the press.


  1. Surely the circle that the centrists must square is less sound money in the face of democratic demands for government spending, but keeping a loose labour market in the face of democratic demands for social protection. Sound money is easily done inside a Neo-keynesian Wren Lewis approach by maintaining the consensus assignment towards monetary policy, in which unconvential policy remains sound provided the CB remains in control, even when appropriating fiscal powers. Hence an unprecedented balance sheet expansion remains sound. Labour market are really the place where the contradiction of the Tory electoral alliance hits hard, and results in this pure signalling of intention to limit immigration, with a performative aspect (hostile environment) but with net figures running annually at a city the size of Newcastle. I cannot see a way out for them electorally which will allow them to hold their coalition of economic liberals and social conservatives? Can you ?

    1. The point I was making in this post is that the current normalisation of the far-right by the establishment is not an ill-judged reaction to novel political and social forces unleashed by war and revolution, as was the case in Germany in the 20s. Rather it is a deliberate plan, led by the rightwing press but enjoying extensive support among Tory party members and MPs, to escape the contradictions of their politics by shifting the discourse away from social protection towards a divisive "culture war". Whether it will work is another matter.

      That's not a particularly original observation, but what I thought was interesting was the way that the normalisation dynamic, and in particular the way it coarsens debate and promotes belief over evidence, has also been employed by centrists keen to rehabilitate the Lib Dems and the discredited centre. The deference shown to Blair has its parallel in the deference shown to Bannon; the lack of scrutiny of Lib Dem policies ("Bollocks to Brexit") has its parallel in the indulgence shown towards outfits like the IEA and "thinkers" like David Goodhart.

      If we're fighting a culture war then, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, it's pretty clear which side is winning. This is because the war has been designed to play out in a particular way, and because the self-identifying "good guys" of the centre, who are trying to muscle their way into command of the progressive forces, are actually saboteurs.

    2. 'the war has been designed to play out in a particular way'
      You mean we eventually get the Brexit party folded back into the Tories facing off against a coalition of LD / Greens / SNP et al. with Corbyn either sidelined or labour taken back by the Blairites? Would you advise Corbyn to fold now and join the centrists, or continue to hope that after Brexit sonehow happens and the smoke clears there will be space for a really existing social democratic Labour party?

    3. I mean the war has been designed to produce the impression of struggle and then be resolved by a compromise that shifts politics further to the right, repeating the pattern of the 80s (Kinnockism), the 90s (New Labour), and the 00s (unapologetic Blairism).

      Corbyn should stick to his guns. Labour's support is far more resilient than the media allow, the Tories have created a ceiling on their own support and left themselves more vulnerable than Labour to LibDem erosion, and the Labour right have vocal support in the media but relatively little sway with Labour members or voters.