It is rare to live through a year and to know, with some degree of certainty, that it will be a marker in scholarship and memory for generations. Rarer still, perhaps, to know this while also doubting whether coherent and truthful public reflection on politics will be possible for much longer.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election, it is nearly impossible to overstate the extent of the peril. We are facing a virulent, networked neo-fascist International, which now has roots in Silicon Valley, the Kremlin, the White House and many European capitals, including our own. Wherever this achieves access to the awful resources of post-9/11 security states, liberals, greens and socialists may rapidly find themselves numbered among the 'enemies of the people'. The process is already underway in Poland and Hungary. Nascent left populisms are currently too weak to prevent this, although they could plausibly benefit in the short-term from increasing political polarisation (here, America may still offer some hope). Media organisations are commercially crippled and often enjoy less popular legitimacy than the politicians they scrutinise. Whatever their constitutional settings, judiciaries are too easily bypassed to be relied upon. In short, there is no reason to believe that advanced capitalist societies are rendered immune to authoritarianism by virtue of superior institutions, economies, or 'national characters'.
All this should not be as terrifying as it sounds. It is only in the contemporary liberal west that it has become habitual to regard politics as a genteel, limited set of consensual procedures, insulated from matters of life and death. What is surprising is that, despite the glaring evidence of twentieth-century history, so many thought this way for so long. An older political generation, now passed into death or retirement, knew that the fragile gains of the post-war order demanded constant, vigilant protection against the twin dangers of market fundamentalism and nationalist revival. In more recent decades, this perspective has been sorely lacking.
The immediate danger faced by the British left after the European referendum and Trump's victory is irrelevance. Overcoming this danger, and taking some worthwhile stands for democracy, pluralism and social transformation, requires an understanding of the current politics of both the mainstream and the radical right. As Alan Finlayson argued in a previous editorial, committed left activists have a tendency to substitute introversion for analysis: to talk about who 'we' are, and what 'we' should be doing, without acknowledging the dynamic context within which politics occurs or the peripheral relevance of our decisions. (1) In this context, the Labour leadership's ongoing attempt to portray Trump's victory as a boon for outsider politicians everywhere has been unedifying, shallow, and irresponsible. (2) It is depressingly representative of the solipsism of a left that has forgotten how to identify and challenge its real opponents; indeed, the threats to its very existence.
In Britain, as in the US, the most urgent conflict of the current moment does not involve the left at all. It lies between the contradictory neoliberal and social-conservative impulses of the 'New Right' formed during the later twentieth century; the 'alt-right' techno-fascists increasingly feature as a rising spectre at the feast. In what follows, we set out our analysis of this conflict as it plays out in the politics of Brexit, and explore how opposition parties might intervene to influence the situation for the better in 2017.
Faultlines on the Right
In a final blow to David Cameron's historical reputation, the 'Leave' vote has clearly deepened, rather than eliminating, the Tory division over Europe. On one side stand the libertarian Brexiteers who viewed the European project as protectionist and parochial. These Conservatives see Brexit as an opportunity to let the harsh winds of global competition blow more heavily than ever through Britain. 'Hard' Brexit will, in their eyes, be a strong tonic for the British economy, even if rights of entry are restricted to carefully chosen members of the global plutocracy and an exploited guest worker class. For the left, this looks like nothing less than a turbo-charged race to the bottom: a recipe for gated communities and Special Export Zones, tied to the nineteenth-century race ideology of the 'Anglo-Saxon world'.
By comparison, the Osbornites, pitted against the libertarian Brexiteers seem a lesser, familiar evil. As representatives of the mainstream of British business opinion and promoters of the 'National Living Wage', the Northern Powerhouse, and NHS ring-fencing, they recognise (at least rhetorically) that some aspects of our social and economic settlement cannot be trashed without political consequence. It is no secret that Osborne and Cameron, the architects of the referendum, ultimately found the EU of Schauble and Sarkozy to be a relatively congenial place. They want Brexit...