In September last year Mike Stanton wrote in Critical Mass: “We are not on the brink of Nazism. I may be wrong, but I do not think we are even at the stage of creeping fascism in this country.” One of his criteria was that, if a party can be voted out of office, then we are some way from fascism. At the time I found his arguments reasonably compelling, and even now I think some people on the left spectrum throw the word ‘fascism’ around whenever they disagree with somebody without any real understanding of what it is their opponents are saying.
That said, I am increasingly concerned about the state of political discourse. Not just in the UK, but throughout the world. In the past few years we have seen a creeping authoritarianism accompanied by a growing denial of voices from the left. Whilst the UK can trace this back, broadly, to the Corbyn years, it is not a uniquely British problem.
Fascism is a notoriously slippery concept with a stronger emotional pull than its lack of precision possibly deserves. Fascists are generally organised around a strong leader (Mussolini, Hitler, Napoleon, Caesar), and expect public shows of allegiance to the state often embodied in the leader. Fascist states tend toward total control of the economy but in conjunction with, and not as an alternative to, big business. Racial purity is often a feature of fascism, and the unity of the state against a dangerous ‘other’ plays a key role in their ideologies.
However, these features are not a checklist. The main feature of fascism, though not the one that appears in most academic literature, is a hatred of the left. This drove the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. In some ways it was just as pervasive as their hatred of the Jews; though in the 1930s many of the intelligentsia in Europe were both left wing and Jewish, making the conflation of the two really easy.
Modern fascism, if indeed that is what the new authoritarianism is, far from being driven by antisemitism, has found in the language of antisemitism one of its most powerful ideological tools. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders were slandered using allegations of antisemitism which were unproven and, for the most part, entirely unfounded. It did not matter too much whether they were true or not. By repeating the slander time and again the claims were able to be reproduced ad infinitum and, more importantly, used as justification for a larger assault on human rights.
The political lie, as a political weapon, was most fully developed by Goering who allegedly once said: “If you are going to lie, it might as well be a big one.” The Nazis were masters of the propaganda machine and were able to use it to turn neighbour against neighbour in the pursuit of their total domination of public life. Goering did not have social media as a means to propagate lies about enemies of the state, but introduced across Germany and its occupied territories an adherence to Nazi ideology so that it became nigh-on impossible to mount any meaningful resistance.
Those who value justice and tolerance in recent times have found the corollary of the big lie in the big silence. The mass media, rather than telling lies about people, simply ignore any counter truths to the dominant narrative. Marx once described how “the ruling ideas in every epoch are those of the ruling class”, so this is hardly a new phenomenon. Whilst Marx described the importance of controlling the means of mental production in his day, this meant mainly printing presses. These days mass media is ubiquitous in every sphere of social life, making its influence all the more pervasive — and it is not just what the mass media tells you but what it omits that is relevant here.
In recent times we have seen an almost total news blackout on the incarceration of Julian Assange for telling the truth about America. If the hallmark of a democratic society is a free press, the failure of his fellow journalists to raise a voice in his defence suggests we are a long way from democracy.
More chilling is the way in which the media in most so-called western democracies have swung behind Ukraine. There has been barely a voice raised to suggest that Ukraine is anything other than a victim of Russian aggression. The very idea that maybe Russia was doing no more than seek to defend their borders from NATO incursions has been effectively removed from public debate.
The recent Israeli destruction of Gaza has similarly been treated as if Israel has had no role in provoking the Hamas attacks. To put it in broad terms, the idea that the west has a free press is, frankly, laughable. Most of the mass media is owned and controlled by a handful of billionaires who are happy to allow some issues to be debated, but also very capable of introducing a blanket ban on some topics without ever having to actually introduce a blanket ban.
I wonder whether this is a new variant of fascism altogether for which we need a different label. If there are strong leaders, they certainly are not in the political sphere. Vain, narcissistic individuals beguiled by the idea of power are not powerful men or women, they are of the same personality type that exists in every workplace — the talentless person with no personality who is always willing to do whatever management wants. Just look around your workplace and cast an eye over the management. I can guarantee that most of them are the least talented individuals in the place.
Democracy is usually a casualty in the fascist state. Fascists use democracy merely as a stepping stone. Once in power the Fascists generally demonised and outlawed the opposition. The goal is to make the very idea of resistance to the all-embracing state appear futile. The “problem” of plurality is solved by getting rid of democracy altogether and destroying the last vestiges of opposition. Old fascism was absolutely brutal, using violence and intimidation to maintain control. The new authoritarianism maintains the illusion of a society founded on democratic principles; elections in which, ostensibly, anybody with any policies can stand remain the cornerstone.
This is evolution. Fascism, in its raw form, served a purpose but was difficult to control. The Nazis got ideas above their station and threatened the existence of the British empire, which was already in decline. It had to be stopped. This is why I think Mike Stanton was essentially correct that we are not living in a classic fascist state — but neither are we living in a model democracy either.
As the economy has declined, so the authoritarian tendency of those with political power has deepened. The denial of voices which challenge, in any meaningful way, the existence of the global capitalist order means that democracy has become a case of choosing which pro-capitalist, anti-democratic party gets into power; and, of course, their power, such as it is, will be entirely constrained by those with economic power.
We saw a good example of an out of her depth Prime Minister in Liz Truss. As a Conservative, she would normally have taken the support of big business for granted, but it was the money markets devaluing the pound that made her the shortest lived PM in modern UK history. She had clearly not read the small print. She thought she had power, but what she clearly did not understand was that the power was only hers provided she did precisely what she was told. To be fair, in Liz Truss’s case, the depth of her ignorance on most subjects could fill a library or two.
If the supposedly liberal democratic state is no longer democratic, it is not a question of altering the counting method. It does not matter how you count the votes if those you can elect are simply identikit politicians keeping the system ticking over. Democracy is not well served if politicians and a compliant mass media collude in ensuring so many issues are kept as far from the ballot box as possible.
It is hard to imagine what drives the need for authoritarianism. To understand it we have to realise that the vast majority of politicians are self-serving. They care little for their constituents, rarely engaging with them except in very controlled situations. Politicians’ allegiance is not to you, the voter, but to themselves, followed by the big business interests, without whose financial support they would be unable to campaign.
Even more worrying is that most politicians seem genuinely unaware that they are in the pockets of big business. People who are handed every advantage you can imagine often will say that they got where they are by hard work and talent. A whole plethora of media exists to make sure that, not only politicians but all those people who, in one way or another, prop up the system, have no idea that this is what they are doing.
That is why, when people on the left ‘expose’ the truth of what is happening, there is either outrage at the very suggestion of elitism, or a closing down of the debate.
We should never forget either that the left is a broad term embracing all forms of liberals, social democrats, revolutionary socialists and anarchists. It is therefore an imprecise term. The left does not think collectively or take a collective view. It is, also, a tiny minority of the population.
The weakness of the left is not simply numerical because, in truth, the right, an equally amorphous term, is tiny too. The difference is that, whilst our side has a rich history of intellectualism, the right has control of the means of production and all the levers of power. That does not make them unbeatable, it makes beating them an uphill struggle.
If the left were entirely powerless, the new authoritarians would not need to close them down, or bring in ever increasing restrictions on our right to organise. If the social system is so fragile that holding up a blank card at a monarchist event, or waving a Palestinian flag, are seen as threats to the stability they crave, then that system is nowhere near as secure as their propaganda would have us believe.
What of ordinary people? They are ‘the many’. They are highly susceptible to what Chomsky described as “the manufacture of consent”. They can appear as enemies of “the left” because of the tendency of many of them to repeat, without thinking, what the mass media are telling them. Most people care little for politics. They simply want to live their lives with as little disruption as possible. They can find the left ‘tedious’ in their demands that we treat all people with respect. Recently, I met two very affable men who told me, in matter of fact terms, that refugees entering the UK were given £3,000 and a credit card. Neither of them had ever met a refugee or lived in an area containing refugees, but they had read or seen this information in a credible source (not that the Sun can be regarded as a credible source). Although they agreed with me that if we stopped having wars we would have fewer refugees to worry about. I’m not sure this had much of an impact on them because it is easier to blame an ‘other’ than to realise that the way you vote is having the exact opposite effect from that intended.
Contrary to what I’ve just said, ONS reported that 82% of people had taken part in at least one political event in 2022. However, the majority of those had either signed an online petition or voted in a local election.
As an aside, the most popular petitions in the UK last year, according to the Parliament petition website were:
- End child poverty, no child should be going hungry (1,113,889 signatures)
- Call an immediate general election (906,623 signatures)
- Make verified ID a requirement for opening a social media account (696,955 signatures)
- Prevent gyms closing due to a spike in Covid 19 cases (621,440 signatures)
- Reduce University student tuition fees from £9250 to £3000 (581,287 signatures)
- Prioritise teachers, school and childcare staff for Covid-19 vaccination (508,830 signatures)
- Reclose schools and colleges due to increase in Covid-19 cases (428,789 signatures)
- Introduce sanctions against Israel (388,519 signatures)
I am in no way suggesting that petitions do not matter, but I’m not sure any of these actually resulted in a change. The new authoritarianism appears to encourage this type of passive engagement almost as a pressure valve. For most people, signing a petition is as far as their political engagement goes. During this same period, the UK government was busy introducing some of the most draconian legislation outside of (and possibly including) North Korea — but since the ONS reported that only 4% took part in a demonstration, that legislation would have meant little to the majority of people. Whilst they might get very animated about their right to drive at a certain speed, or to flout Covid regulations which they see as an interference with their right to do as they please, most people do not care that the weirdos (who march and take part in disruptive activities, often disrupting those ordinary lives people so crave) are having their right to protest severely restricted.
Rights are like keys — you don’t notice they are missing until you need them. The new authoritarians, rather like the old fascists, have been careful to maintain the illusion of equality whilst at the same time targeting those who threaten them: the anti-semites, most of whom were simply asserting the right of Palestinians to live a dignified life; the environmentalists, who often care far more for the planet than their own well-being; the anti-monarchists, who simply refused to bow to a man who had the good fortune to be born into extreme wealth and a now useless title. Easy targets. People who were different. People who, at times, are a little too intense. But crucially, people who not only oppose the status quo but often have the imagination necessary to conceive of a better way of life.
The new authoritarianism uses the law in a fairly ad hoc manner to harass its opponents, but has shown with the way it handled the withdrawal of Europe, the policy on sending refugees to Rwanda, and its entire dealings with Gaza that it has no regard for international law. Unfortunately for the UK, neither does the main opposition party.
Of course, laws against protests and against industrial action are not aimed at a 4% they can safely ignore. They are aimed at preventing the 4% becoming 8%,12%, 16%. The harsh treatment of protesters, going back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, is to discourage the ‘many’ from threatening the position of the ‘few’. That is why the polarisation of society into an elite who rule and live a life of luxury, and a compliant mass who struggle to make ends meet, is an ongoing project. If times were good, or expected to be good, they would not need to contain outbreaks of mass discontent.
The Conservatives in the UK, like their counterparts around the globe, have no answer for the economic misery they have created. They are anticipating trouble — and consequently they have put in place the measures to protect their privilege and their wealth. Will it work? That’s the billion dollar question. Populations who have been brought up to believe they live in an open society. Who have grown up with the belief that hard work brings rewards. Who may have a twisted view of justice, but nonetheless believe in a world where justice is a possibility. Those populations may just balk at being told that all they can expect is less and less, and the only thing they can expect more of is pain — and, when they do, they need those with a clear-headed view of the political terrain to engage with them, listen to them, channel their concerns, and guide them toward solutions which work for the majority.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.