With our minds & bodies on the line: Democracy v fascism in Breivik’s shadow

by · April 22, 2012

Friends or enemies? Police corral an EDL rally in Tower Hamlets

Later this week Left Flank will be looking at the controversy over the reporting of Breivik’s trial in a post at our regular blog at Overland, asking if the media has handed him an effective platform for his fascist ideological arguments. In the meantime, today we post the second of two parts of an extract from our e-book On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe, looking at the how the Left can develop a strategy to combat the rise of far Right extremism. This version was originally prepared for the Greek magazine Re-Public. If you haven’t yet done so, buy and download the book via the Amazon stores in the United Kingdom or the United States.

In the face of far Right intransigence, should the Left go further and demand some kind of state action against the Right?

In Australia the rise in right-wing rhetoric has come at the same time as the Murdoch press has campaigned hysterically against the left-wing Greens party. Its flagship broadsheet declared it wants the Greens ‘destroyed at the ballot box’ and has run opinion pieces suggesting the party has an agenda akin to fascism or Stalinism. In response, Greens leader Bob Brown has called for tough media regulation, in part to curb such rhetorical excesses and partisan bias.

However, one doesn’t have to be a Spiked-style libertarian to see how such calls can play into a culture of greater state regulation that could easily be turned against the Left and social movements.

Such a problem emerged in the Northern autumn of 2011 when some anti-racist campaigners called for a government ban on the English Defence League marching through the multiethnic London borough of Tower Hamlets. Clearly the near-unanimous desire to stop the EDL was a healthy one, and yet how this was to be achieved led some to (inadvertently) invite restrictions on the Left also. Not only did they get a ban but the minister also banned all street marches for a period of 30 days, including the planned anti-fascist counter protest. Luckily anti-racists were able to mobilise a significant protest in contravention of the ban, despite the arguments of some that the campaign had achieved its aims and so should stay at home.

How, then, can the problems inherent in these various responses be overcome?

Any workable Left strategy must reject the simplistic notion that there is no link between right-wing ideology and violence, but also the idea that there is a simple and direct causal chain connecting them. The fact Breivik was impressed by the policies of former Australian conservative Prime Minister John Howard doesn’t mean that Howard was directly responsible for the massacres in Norway.

To understand what connections there may be between the two, it is worth reflecting on the ‘media effects’ debate. In the second edition of their authoritative account of the controversy, Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, Martin Barker and Julian Petley argue that studies purporting to show an measurable link between media representations of violence and violent offending invariably start with the wrong question. By focusing on the chosen commonality between the two — the presence of ‘violence’ (usually imprecisely defined) — they reduce both sides of the problem to a single factor. This approach presupposes what it seeks to answer.

It is in the complexities of context and meaning, of how consumers of media actively interpret its form and content, and of how particular circumstances (personal and historical) come together to shape this dynamic process that any understanding of the links can start to be teased out.

The same is true of ‘hate speech’, and of the militant ideologies disseminated by the anti-multicultural Right. Not everyone who hears or reads their words will interpret them identically, and not everyone will be moved to taking action as a result. The coded anti-Muslim words and actions of mainstream politicians may provide legitimacy for more extreme ideas, but they are not the same as far Right calls for eliminationist policies or fascist arguments to organise street violence. Each has to be understood concretely in its connection with social circumstances.

Such ideas are more likely to outgrow their fringe position in circumstances of economic and political crisis, when ‘normal’ institutional supports start to hollow out and fragment, and sections of the middle class and ruling elite develop worldviews around reinstating national unity on the basis of exclusion and elimination of contaminants, whether ethnic, religious or political.

The hard Right is not just engaging in a polite back and forth but seeking to build its own strength through a mixture of cohering the confidence of its supporters and intimidating opponents via invective and extreme assertions, a natural complement to the physical force used by groups like the EDL. Engaging in a ‘civil’ debate with the far Right only gives such ideas respectability. This is not to say that debating anyone who holds racist or nationalist ideas is futile, but that the hardened ideologues of the Right have no interest in settling matters through polite discussion. The Left should ruthlessly expose the true nature of the Right and its authoritarian project. The far Right must be confronted and isolated, robbed of its respectability and legitimacy, its confidence and coherence broken.

For some such an approach will seem anti-democratic, but the opposite is true. The far Right and fascists have a project explicitly aimed at undermining the democratic rights of the social groups they target. The defence of democracy relies on the marginalisation of reactionary forces that seek to bully their opponents into submission.

Standing up to real social power relations and structures means confronting not just the far Right but the role of the state in perpetuating hierarchies, inequalities, injustices and discrimination. The problem of the far Right is not that it is too ‘extreme’ — as if some notional middle ground is always best — but that it wants to intensify already existing oppressions. Thus it is dangerous for the Left to seek an alliance with forces responsible for those oppressions. It is the state that turns asylum seekers away at its borders, the state that carpet bombs Muslim countries and the state that restricts ordinary people’s legal and political freedoms.

To refuse the far Right or fascists a platform thus requires a radically different agency, one that seeks to unite ordinary people to rob the reactionaries of space to organise. It is a policy that must be enacted by people themselves, as real democracy depends on ordinary people putting their minds and bodies on the line. At times that will expose the Left to claims that it is being ‘extreme’ or that the Left are just as bad as the fascists. At times the police, as they have done so many times in the past, will intervene to defend right-wing thugs’ democratic ‘rights’, in stark contrast to their treatment of left-wing protests.

But any serious strategy to deal with the far Right must be based on breaking the nexus between their theory and practice, of isolating their words to the margins and making it impossible for them to be organised into violent actions. Only through a strategy of refusing to appease the Right, exposing it for its reactionary, anti-democratic nature, and mobilising ordinary people to confront it can those links be broken.