The Abyss Stares Back

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

2016 has demonstrated that right-wing populism is no longer a reactionary force that rears its head precisely when people are at their most vulnerable – in the aftermath of political and economic crises.

In 2016, it has become a creative force. And a titanic one at that. Donald Trump and Brexit are two of its very real, and very potent, products. And that is just counting two of the obvious (and apparently only newsworthy) ones. Right-wing populism is no longer just a spike of vented racism and bigotry that emerges in the brief interval between a crisis and return to things-as-usual. It is now an organized and anticipatory force that can not be dismissed either as frustrated racism or opportunistic politicization of legitimate public concerns.

The rise and persistence of this phenomenon has confounded many observers; the traditional forces of centrist rationalism are scrambling to respond.

It is academically satisfying to discern the wrong turn that is Trump and Brexit from the absolutely correct starting point, which is the growing understanding of the absolute incompatibility of neoliberal elitism with wider, sustainable socio-economic wellbeing (Glenn Greenwald has a good take on it).

But it is saddening (and I am actually, truly sad) to witness the absolute shambles that is the American Democratic and British Labor Party’s response to what would typically be a window of opportunity to move towards a radical reform of the economic system.

The Democrats, in their blind obsession with the Presidential elections are oblivious to the long-run consequences of ignoring the legitimate concerns of Sanders and Trump supporters. Hillary Clinton, in declaring herself the successor to Barack Obama’s legacy, fails to realize that the current forces of “irrational populism” emerged and consolidated during the latter’s eight years in office. Is this an aberration? Or is it evidence of a legitimate critique of neoliberal policies that Obama has encouraged, at the price of widespread immiseration of the working class, the youth and the pensioned? As Corey Robin argues, Democrats use multiculturalism as a shield against criticism of economic policy. And that multiculturalism may yet help Clinton defeat Trump in the Presidential election. But then what? If you believe that this current triumph of right-wing populism is just a surge of confused racist outrage that will dissipate like old times, then the Democrats are right. And if the Democrats are right, don’t expect any substantive change.

The Labor Party, on the other hand, was better placed than the Democratic Party to accomplish a modicum of radical reform. At the time of Brexit Labor was primed to appeal to a thoroughly disgusted and insecure population with a progressive agenda. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has repeatedly highlighted issues of child poverty, income inequality and falling living standards; issues that resonate with both Remain and Leave voters that are fed up with the global economic climate. And yet, when the opportunity was presented on a golden platter, Labor MPs were too busy instigating a coup to care. Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Labor MPs were never happy that Corbyn, a virtual outsider and critic of the Party’s neoliberal economics, had been voted in by the rank-and-file or that since the day he stepped into office the media coverage he received was so negative and vile that it became the subject of research. And also that Corbyn delivered just as many votes for Remain as Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP (around 64%) but was scapegoated by his own party for Brexit. Let’s instead focus on the fact that when presented with an historic opportunity to repudiate the right-wing barbarians at the gates, Labor MPs chose to let their kingdom burn so they could rule over the ashes. Corbyn may have been an ineffective leader that failed to unite the party behind his progressive agenda, but let’s not excuse the MPs who used Brexit as a opportunity to cynically depose a leader they have hated and sabotaged since day one, leaving the people in the welcoming arms of Nigel Farage and his ilk.

In his biography of Stalin, Stephen Kotkin quotes Lev Tikhomirov:

As a rule, a regime perishes not because of the strength of its enemies but because of the uselessness of its defenders.

If you would like to read more on the media’s coverage on Corbyn, here’s the Guardian in a rare moment of self-awareness:


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