We underestimate the rise of the far right at our peril

Unity over divisionBrendan Ogle: Almost inevitably the day that Britain will not leave the European Union (EU) has arrived. Westminster is in chaos and our nearest neighbour is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. A general election there may not be far away. Maybe the contempt the Irish establishment has shown for the very idea of Jeremy Corbyn as British PM will be tempered by the thought of Boris Johnson in Downing Street.

But, intriguing as these questions may be, there are more fundamental matters at hand. The far right is on the rise across Europe, and in the coming elections up to a third of seats could well go to these extremists. In Italy, Austria and Sweden serious far right movements have arisen and taken – or come extremely close to taking – power. The Brexit debate itself was disproportionately influenced by UKIP, while France has long had a strong National Front. During recent visits to Germany, I have been surprised to see in practice just how quickly the AfD has arisen and become influential, particularly among the working class. These events do not happen in a vacuum.

The EU itself, and the stifling consensus that sustains it in its current form, is directly responsible for creating the conditions within which these threats are arising. Moreover, the complete failure of a progressive left to form a continent-wide movement insisting on fundamental EU reform adds to the impending sense of crisis.

The EU has become the biggest single club of neoliberal hegemony on the planet. It is anti-democratic, featuring a close to powerless ‘parliament’, a council made up of heads of member states or governments, and a powerful commission of unelected ‘commissioners’ all of whom are faithful to the neoliberal textbook. What does this textbook involve? The pursuit of ‘economic growth’ as the sole measurement of human progress, irrespective of its often disastrous social consequences, for a start. Add to that the erosion and then privatisation of high-quality public services in keeping with a dogma of minimalist ‘state intervention’, and the complete eradication of meaningful participative democracy in its institutions. Oh, and low taxes. And the richer you are, the lower those taxes get.

These unbending tenets informed the decision to place the welfare of citizens, and even entire countries like Ireland and Greece, well below the needs of financial institutions when those very institutions crashed the economy in 2008. The resultant chaos will be repeated when the same thing inevitably happens again (quite soon I suspect), given the complete absence of reform and the massive underlying debt in these ‘pillar institutions’. This week President Michael D. Higgins again called for systematic reform stating ‘…if the intellectual contribution of the union’s members is simply one of reaction and adjustment to a wild unregulated globalisation. The prospects are poor.’

The massive social inequalities within the EU are not accidental. The poverty, homelessness, precarious employment, low pay, lack of social mobility and much more are the inevitable consequences of an economic model, slavishly followed, that puts extreme ideology above the concerns for Europe’s citizens.

There should be room for a debate on these matters. TV shows and radio programmes, feature articles and editorials, should facilitate respectful debate and discussion. But not a bit of it. The traditional media, in general, is now no more than an ‘ideological sect’ facilitating the unquestioned pursuit of the only currently permissible economic model. It’s like propaganda, but on an incessant and grand scale. And it has worked. As my friend Stephen Nolan of Trademark Belfast often says, ‘people can now readily imagine the end of the world, but they are incapable of imagining the end of capitalism’. It’s a kind of economic ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.

Reasonable critical voices in the national conversation were first isolated, then lampooned, and finally strategically targeted to clear the way for a stifling consensus. Listen to the names, the voices, and the agendas on the panels even the largest publicly-funded talk shows have these days discussing these vital issues. Balance? Yeah, Right!

The result is the reaction that is now emerging unchecked, for the present, through social media. It is pandering to people’s legitimate concerns about their own isolation. Words like ‘corruption’ – something that has concerned many of us for years – are put out front and centre first. Support is then garnered from people who opposed recent social changes in areas such as abortion, gender rights and sexual freedoms. Concerns about vaccination and fluoridation are added. Conspiracies abound, tapping into people’s understandable distrust of an establishment that has indeed ‘conspired’ against them. And to this mix of individuals a number of strategically organised, funded and inter-linked groups then do two things: firstly, wrap a green flag around those listening to them (nationalism), and then blame their real target for all these ills. The ‘others’.  ‘Them’.

Yesterday public billboards were launched by a party that has no significant membership yet, cast in the image of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, called the ‘Irish Freedom Party’. This expensive and co-ordinated operation uses the Irish language and Fine Gael hero Michael Collins while talking about lower taxes (a key alt-right fundamental) in the same breath as more houses, and of course ‘borders’. Think Trump in a tricolour and you have it in one. At the lower end we have an ‘award winning journalist’ who could be accused of inciting hatred against the Muslim community, progressive activists including vaccination advocates, and even dead women. She does so with an indecent and fanatical zeal. A recent disgusting tweet about the slaughter of 50 innocents in New Zealand was followed within days by this conspiracist trivialising the death of a young woman from cervical cancer by describing her passing as an ‘alleged death’.

Those who want to live in a better world that isn’t full of hate while underestimating these threats are playing with fire. Whether within political circles, the media or the legal system, those of us seeking progressive reform based on wealth re-distribution downwards, better public services, tax justice (higher taxes for corporations and those who can pay them), debt forgiveness and basic humanity applied to border control need to find new ways to reform our society in our people’s interests.

Continued failure to do so may well mean that the 2020s are not that dissimilar to the 1930s. Think I am exaggerating? Yes, people keep telling me that. I hope they are right. But interestingly, on recent visits to Berlin and Hamburg nobody felt I was overplaying the danger.

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