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23 November 2018

This isn’t how we defeat the far right, Hillary Clinton – this is how they win

The former Democratic presidential candidate said that stopping populism would mean curbing immigration. No.

By Eleanor Penny

Two years after failing to defeat the far right, Hillary Clinton has appointed herself an authority on how to defeat the far right. Two years after a humiliation of global proportions, which delivered the infrastructure of the world’s most militarised state into the hands of a despotic sociopath, she has concluded that her damp squib of a campaign would have been enlivened by a promise to build an even bigger wall. Maybe with a COEXIST Mural splashed across it.

She was joined by Matteo Renzi and Tony Blair, all of whom agreed in a recent Guardian interview that controls on immigration were needed to fend off the advance of the far right. This trio have something in common besides an unfathomably cast-iron conviction in their own right to govern: they all presided over an era of “Pasokification”, which has seen centrist and centre-left parties collapse under the weight of their own dogged allegiance to old economic truths which consummately crumbled in 2008. Their grasp on electoral power has been loosened by the mounting forces of the far right, in parliaments and on the streets.

To this, they have found a solution: to deflate the appeal of the far right by proving that the sensible centre can offer much more efficient and humane stewards of the border walls, prison camps, home raids and charter flights which cart people off in the middle of the night.

To fend off the threat of an ever more rabid contingent of race-baiters and unabashed white nationalists in the electorate, they haven’t recommended that we confront their ideas head on, that we oppose their organisation, that we try heal the economic wounds in which far-right ideas fester. There is little attempt to win the political and moral arguments against the politics of hatred, division and hard surveillance; little attempt to oppose their organisations. No, their winning tactic is to immediately concede ground to the most egregious of their demands – to build the walls higher, to deport people to their deaths, to tear families apart, to let thousands more migrants drown in the Mediterranean.

There’s just one problem. History has equipped us with a word for when governments bend to the will of fascists in order to temporarily secure their hold on power: that word is “collaboration”.

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This is exactly what the endgame for fringe far right movements looks like: to pressure a political centre, unable or unwilling to genuinely combat their ideology, into accepting their ideas to fend off the double threats of electoral defeat and social upheaval.

In other words, this isn’t how we defeat the far right – it’s precisely how they win. The liberal centre eagerly swallows whatever poison the far right offers them, and metabolises it into the bloodstream of the state.

This is neoliberal centrism at its core: politicking without the political, an attempt to govern without an attempt to win people over with arguments, economics or emotional appeals. Instead, they dole out sops to what they what they see as the untrammelled bigotry of the unwashed masses – keeping the plebs happy to keep a grip on power.

It isn’t just a shockingly short sighted tactic, it’s also a spectacular failure to diagnose their disasters. Their reign as impresarios of the declining centre have been characterised by a slow creep rightwards on immigration – which utterly failed to salvage them from electoral defeat/irrelevancy.

Where the self-titled “mainstream” adopted the language and policies of the far right, far right ideas become ever more normalised, an ever more acceptable part of our political discourse; a pattern which paved the way for Trump. Whilst the centre will happily flog some alt-lite dog-whistling lines – promising like Blair to “deal with the legitimate grievances [on immigration] and answer them” – they also attempt to triangulate against the concerns of a more left-wing, diverse electorate, leaving space for candidates unhampered by progressive loyalties to bait far-right sympathies with extreme policy promises. The centre has signed off the right-wing diagnosis of the problem, whilst failing to offer a muscular enough solution. Enter Trump.

Just ask Ed Miliband, who carved “CONTROLS ON IMMIGRATION” into what turned out to be the gravestone of his political career. Indeed, Hillary’s own talk of ‘super predators’ helped manufacture popular fears of black and Latino gang members terrorising streets of inner-city America, something Trump uses in his own anti-migrant rhetoric. The centrist collaborators set up the pins, far right radicals bowl a strike.

It’s not just a matter of rhetoric, either. The legal and practical infrastructure of mass deportation currently being used by tooth-gnashing anti-immigrant caucuses was set up by apparently enlightened leaders of the centre right, now dazzled that they are being used for purpose. Blair’s government saw the start of Charter Flights, immigration detention, PREVENT legislation and the legal precedents for the Hostile Environment. Matteo Renzi has been one of the champions of policies buttressing the legal and literal walls of “Fortress Europe”. When Trump was sworn into office, he inherited a terrifying machine of mass immigrant surveillance and deportation perfected under Barack Obama – who quickly earned the nickname “Deporter-In-Chief”.

If enacting controls on immigration and kowtowing to racist policies stopped the far right, then there would be no far right problem. But the ordinary operations of a racist state and the excessed of the far right aren’t set in opposition, they feed off one another.

So here’s my question: if Clinton is prepared to concede to their demands, why does she care so much about defeating the far right? What would defeat look like to her?

The answer to this doesn’t lie in the realms of policy, or ideas – clearly those are up for grabs. And it certainly doesn’t lie in securing safety for the migrants and people of colour on whom the far right have declared open war. Clearly, Renzi, Blair, Clinton, and the smug convocation have deemed themselves the best stewards of white citizenry, and are prepared to sacrifice migrants and people of colour in order to secure their place at the helm.

Clinton seems rather to be invested in the restoration of a white, liberal idea of normality, to which the far-right’s open racism is an affront. From this lofty vantage point, Trumpism is unpresidential, not because a racist lives in a house built by slaves and occupied by slavers, but because he doesn’t have the decency to be politely embarrassed about it. Build a wall, sure, but ask nicely first. Keep the Mexicans out, but don’t talk about it.

Clearly, the threat the far right pose to her politics isn’t strictly ideological, but more prosaically practical. The Democrats are losing. The political and economic elites cramming the upper echelons of the party, the parasitic lobbyists, the financiers who bankrolled the Clinton campaign – they are all terrified that they will cede power for several generations to the enemy hawks. So they search around for policies they think will prove popular enough to bolster an election bid, whilst not compromising their own economic interests. (This incidentally, is why migrant-bashing is up for grabs whilst consistently popular economic policies like universal healthcare remain “unthinkable”.)

This is what happens when politicians try and mop up the fall out of their own economic disasters, whilst trying to preserve the interests of the “caring capitalists” they represent. This is what happens when they try and heal a broken society whilst without committing to economic transformation. This is what happens when they try to combat the rise far right whilst unable to understand their own historic complicity and unwilling to offer any substantial political opposition. God save us from the moral bankruptcy of our centrist saviours.

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