Fighting Back Against National-Populism
Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar consider what the progressive Left can do to counter dangerous hard-right thinking on the great social issues of our era
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Brexit showed the Right the potential for new cross-class coalitions in British politics.
Both Theresa May’s Government – with its appeal to ‘citizens of somewhere’ – and the Johnson Government with its ‘levelling up’ rhetoric – sought to cement this alliance.
The return to a brutal Thatcherism with the Truss-Kwarteng administration disrupted this agenda, but proved a short-lived interlude.
In their various ways Kemi Badenoch, Michael Gove and Suella Braverman are all signalling their wish to return to the national-populist ‘culture wars’ agenda. Like their counterparts in Europe and the US, the national-populists want to roll-back the advances that have been made in the past 50 years.
As we have written previously in these pages, the likes of Spiked and Unherd are crucial propagandists in this battle. In particular, these two sites have mounted a consistent assault on progressivism on the major social and cultural issues of the day: climate justice, feminism and anti-racism.
In the run-up to the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow last November, both sites ran material unremittingly hostile to the climate change agenda.
They each ram pieces by the same US author denying the existence of any problem. In Unherd, Michael Shellenberger blithely claimed that a global temperature rise of 3°C would be no big deal. Later, Shellenberger gave an interview to Spiked in which he maintained that “using gas and nuclear is really all that matters on climate change”.
Earlier this month, the lead story in Unherd was a piece by Thomas Fazi celebrating the arrival of the world’s eight billionth resident and critiquing the “degrowther” tendency, with its “unescapable Luddite, anti-industrial bias”.
At root, then, both the libertarian Spiked and the communitarian Unherd believe in unrestrained economic growth and see any movement that places limitations on that growth as a negative influence that undermines capitalism.
More recently, Spiked promoted an article titled ‘Why Rishi Sunak Should Snub COP27’. Heir to a productionist interpretation of Marxism that sees the unrestrained development of the forces of production as the way for “man to conquer nature”, Brendan O’Neill sees “environmentalism as the revenge of the aristocracy against modernity”. It’s unclear how the 3,500 scientists engaged in drafting the latest International Panel on Climate Change report relate to the aristocracy but O’Neill makes no attempt to address their findings. Instead, we are left with the crude economic reductionism of an old Trotskyist born again as a laisser-faire libertarian.
A second key battleground is feminism.
Unherd presents itself as a modern publication with plenty of female writers and, at times, recognises the women’s movement and sometimes uses its language. Yet, one of its main female staff writers, Mary Harrington, along with regular contributor Louise Perry, makes clear Unherd’s opposition to modern feminism.
Harrington’s essay ‘The Sexual Revolution Killed Feminism‘ asserts the standard right-wing trope that “feminism today is mainly driven by bourgeois white American women… and serves their class interests”. This theory ignores the popular mobilisations around equal pay, girls’ education, free nursery care and available contraception that marked the 1970s women’s movement.
Bewilderingly, Harrington argues that “modern feminism ended in the 1960s, killed by the twin technology shocks of contraception and abortion” and claims it has now “moved into a radical, individualistic bio-libertarianism”. This is an attempt to empty feminism of its substantive content as a collective movement created to address the structural inequalities and obstacles that women experience in their everyday lives.
Harrington doesn’t believe in patriarchy, which she caricatures as a belief in “an eternal conspiracy against women”. Instead of such “fairy tales”, she looks to the traditionalist thought of the American arch Republican campaigner Phyllis Schlafly and calls for “an older relational feminism that can make common cause with conservatives”. A clue as to its precise content comes in her piece ‘The Feminist Case Against Abortion’ and in the articles of Unherd’s Blue Labour-supporting columnist Paul Embery, with his call for Labour to make the return of the “family wage” a mainstay of its economic policy.. In other words, send women back into the home.
The disdain for addressing the structural inequalities that shape women’s lives fits with the obsessive attacks on Black Lives Matter, and anti-racist movements more generally, that are a dominating presence within the Spiked/Unherd stable.
George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white policeman in 2020 sparked the largest ever protests against racial injustice in the United States and across the world. It prompted society to discuss racism in ways it has not done for more than a generation. For many, it exposed the depths of racism within America and challenged others to consider the extent of racism in their own countries. Unherd and Spiked offer a different account: a constant diet of sniping which continues two years on.
For Unherd, Kat Rosenfeld argues that well-off communities with no black people started putting BLM signs on their lawns as a way to assuage white guilt – a claim echoed in Spiked. Apparently, the movement was unnecessary since, by the time of Floyd’s death, there was bi-partisan agreement in the US on the need to reform the police and respond to the unfair treatment of black people.
More generally, both sites either deny or downgrade the extent of racial discrimination and inequalities. They shared the joy with which the right-wing commentariat greeted the Government’s Sewell Report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Established under the tutelage of Munira Mirza and chaired by black consultant Tony Sewell, it minimised the impact of racial discrimination in the UK in explaining disparities between different groups.
In Unherd, Matthew Goodwin complained that Labour Leader Keir Starmer had “rejected a nuanced report on racial and ethnic disparities and instead implied that Britain, and by extension the British people, are inherently racist”. In the Mail, he repeated the point, insisting that the Sewell report “dismantles the woke mob’s central claim that we are living a fundamentally racist society that needs to be deconstructed”; while Spiked’s effusive response to the report demonstrated the site’s newly-found attachment to communitarianism.
So on three of the great social issues of our era – climate change, women’s inequalities and structural racism and discrimination – the editorial lines of Spiked and Unherd are marching in lockstep, deploying similar arguments and even phraseology, to minimise the issues or to deny that there’s any problem.
After the pre-meditated murder of 10 people by an 18-year-old white supremacist in Buffalo in May, activist Aysan Hirsi Ali wrote that America remains the land of opportunity for black people and that systemic racism is exaggerated: “Despite the fact that some racism does still persist, America remains the best country in the world to be black.” Really?
Weaponising the Workers
Spiked/Unherd‘s battle against the new social movements is supplemented by an almost comical deference to the supposed virtues of an unchanging working class.
In a book review, O’Neill claims that “working-class universalism poses an existential challenge to the cynical divisions of identity politics” and invokes “the traditions of working-class solidarity”. This could imply that workers of all backgrounds have more in common than divides them. Instead, most of O’Neill’s piece consists of an attempt to denigrate what he terms “the petty issues” of race and sex. For O’Neill, the working-class is not an economic but a cultural category: he asserts that “a narrow focus on the material issues of class… exaggerates the difficulties of working-class life (most working-class people have nice lives)’”.
This rather comfortable – dare one say elitist – complacency is belied by decades of wage stagnation and, now, a major cost of living crisis.
In his critique of the “valorisation of victimhood”, O’Neill repeats a constant Spiked theme: that individuals should be willing and able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, thereby ignoring the structural discrimination on top of wage exploitation experienced by working-class women and ethnic minorities.
This attempt to define the universal working-class as essentially mono-cultural – a project of Unherd‘s Matthew Goodwin – is theorised by Paul Embery, who insists that the “divide in our society (is) between a rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle-class… and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working-class”. It echoes David Goodhart’s distinction between people from ‘somewhere’ and people from ‘anywhere’. For all its ‘universalism’, this vision is essentially exclusionary – using the code of ‘identity politics’ to define the working-class not by what it is but by what it is not.
For Spiked/Unherd, the working-class appears not to have changed since the 1950s.
Spiked’s O’Neill contrasts a universal (implied white) working-class with disparate communities of colour, while Unherd’s pundits promote the apartheid-era concept of the “white working class”.
In his Mail piece on the Sewell Report, Goodwin proposed no less than a conspiratorial “alliance between white elites, corporations and minorities against the white working-class”. Such rhetoric seeks both to divide the actual working-class and to promote the far-right conspiracy theories which are so central to the national-populist ideological agenda.
The reach of the conspiracy theory is demonstrated in the piece in Unherd this month by Thomas Fazi, in which he identified an unlikely alliance between “Davos-attending, private-jet flying” corporate elites at the “peak of the global capitalist power pyramid” and the “radical anti-capitalists known as ‘degrowthers’”.
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Following Clinton and Blair in the 90s, socialist parties moved to the right, embracing neoliberal policies which have fuelled inequality. This has pushed alienated working-class voters into the arms of the national-populist right.
A faltering recovery in the Left’s fortunes has started in some countries. However, the changing composition of the working-class, alongside broader social changes, makes creating these alliances more complex.
Building any coalition requires compromises, yet all too often it is sectarian postures and absolutist stances that predominate. Different parts of the progressive spectrum seem to prefer attacking their own side to focusing on the opposition.
In politics, sections of the Keir Starmer leadership are more pre-occupied with decrying the previous Corbyn era than articulating their own vision of 21st century social democracy.
On climate change, rather than building on the potential of Europe’s €750 billion Green Deal, some prefer to stress its shortcomings. On women, academic feminists like Kalwant Bhopal echo Mary Harrington in insisting that “feminism has only ever been concerned about fighting for the rights of white middle-class women”, while Rafia Zakaria expands the polemic in a book Against White Feminism. As Sonia Sodha argues, this stereotypes feminism beyond recognition serving only to undermine female solidarity and deepen divisions and fractures within the Left.
Similarly, there are some within the anti-racist movement who propose a narrow, exclusionary kind of identity politics where solidarity is impossible because only direct, personal experience counts, making broader alliances on social justice all but impossible.
We live in dangerous, disorienting times. For the Left and progressives, the stand-out lesson from the dangerous national-populist eras of the past is crystal clear: unite against the main enemy, campaign to bring together all those suffering disadvantage, and don’t abuse the people you need to win over.
To define sections of that alliance as ‘privileged’ is divisive and makes creating that unity harder. The term is being weaponised by the cultural conservatives to win over sections of the working-class, who are antagonised by being called privileged when they often work for low wages with little job security or live in places scarred by decades of underinvestment. Goodwin’s articles show how the national-populist right is relentlessly exploiting a category error perpetuated by some progressives. As Kenan Malik argues, we should stop giving them a helping hand.
The superficially bizarre overlap of far-Left and far-Right is continuing to expand.
The former Trotskyites of Spiked are now consciously collaborating with the new ‘nationalist international’. When one of the world’s biggest gatherings of the right, the US-based Conservative Political Action Conference, held its annual conference this May in Budapest, it was addressed by Donald Trump on video and Tucker Carlson, the far-right Fox News host, along with representation from all the main neo-fascist and national populist parties in Europe.
Less noticed was the presence and speech at the conference given by former Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) guru and Spiked columnist Frank Furedi, talking of the importance of tradition, nationhood and the defence of historic statues. Furedi’s presence confirms the extent of the journey of the RCP/Spiked project from the revolutionary Left to the white nationalist Right.
Little wonder that Furedi has now been appointed director of a think-tank in Brussels devoted to promoting the values of Viktor Orbán. Little wonder, either, that Spiked’s lead story earlier this month was a piece by Furedi claiming that “the EU wants to bring Hungary to its knees”.
Not all Unherd columnists would accept that they are the tribunes of national-populism. Those such as Peter Franklin and Adrian Pabst are anxious to claim a clear dividing line between their post-liberalism and the authoritarian, illiberal Right. However, as is evident from the trajectory of the US Republican Party since 2016, once you collapse the boundary between orthodox conservatism and the racist, neo-fascist right then anything can happen.
To date, the most dramatic example has been Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 US Presidential Election result – an endeavour to which Unherd reacted with ambivalence.
National-populism has its own logic. Mobilising ethnic nationalism; arousing fears about race and religion; attacking social liberalism; overtly or covertly promoting the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory. All lead in just one direction.
This is a moment for liberals, progressives and the Left to wake up.
It’s time for them to draw on their own history and re-build the alliances that have led to so much social and economic progress in the past. In the more variegated, less homogenous world of 21st Century capitalism, finding the ways to navigate common ground between movements and build cross-class alliances is more important than ever.
The provocations of Spiked and Unherd stand in the way. At a moment when the hard-Right is showing a readiness to indulge in racist and nationalist politics reminiscent of dangerous eras of the not-too-distant past, it is time for progressives to prioritise unity, rebuild alliances which have done so much good in the past, and direct their firepower at their main opponents.
Jon Bloomfield is a writer, environmental practitioner and author of ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’. David Edgar is a playwright and commentator, whose recent work includes an autobiographical solo show ‘Trying it On’. In the 1980s, both were on the editorial board of ‘Marxism Today’