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9 November 2018

The midterms show the far right has been normalised. To beat it, the left must be bolder

The campaign to “abolish ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was prominently endorsed by many figures on the new American left.

By Michael Chessum

The results of the 2018 midterms erect a roadblock against Donald Trump’s legislative agenda, and will allow the US Democrats to initiate federal investigations into Trump’s conduct and links to the Russian state. They also saw a handful of breakthroughs in terms of the diversity of Congress, with the first native American woman and the first Muslim woman, as well as the election of America’s first openly gay governor.

But really what these elections delivered was final proof, if any were needed, that the far right is the new normal. A huge proportion of the American population gave a vote of confidence to a President whose policies include locking migrant children in cages, banning Muslims from the country, and denying the existence of climate change. The results also showed a continuing political polarisation from which a new left is emerging. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the most prominent successful candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, but she was not the only one.

The collapse of the centre is nothing particularly new, and is common across western democracies. But every passing election confirms that the only political force capable of beating the far right is the emerging new left. Turning back the tide that has brought us the Trump administration (or Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Alternativ für Deutschland, Law and Justice, Golden Dawn, Viktor Orban, Jobbik, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage, Brexit, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Sweden Democrats, Tommy Robinson) will take much more than celebrating symbolic wins for equality, no matter how many glass ceilings are shattered. We will need to be able to disrupt the politics and activity of the far right and present meaningful alternatives.

On one level, the insurgent left – especially in the movements built around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – understands quite well what must be done. We need to address the conditions of deprivation, falling living standards and social crisis that underpin much of the new far right surge. Whether by creating alternative parties, or within the existing institutions, the left must defeat the centrist establishment of New Labour and Clintonism, and assert its radical programme as the electoral alternative to the far right and as a solution to the conditions on which it thrives.

On another level, however, the emerging left often fails to understand the scale of the ideological battle that lies ahead, and to be coherent in its own ideas. The far right is making this moment a battle over big politics and whole worldviews, not individual policies. Rather than a constructing its own bold vision, the left is often, at best, responding with a list of good policies and rhetoric. Much of the debate still takes place on terrain defined by the far right or the political establishment, especially when it comes to questions of flag, faith and borders.

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In Europe, the far right has set the agenda on immigration. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t believe that migration causes social problems, or that pandering to anti-migrant sentiment is what will make Labour electable. And yet, far from breaking with the politics of triangulation, Corbyn’s acceptance of the end of free movement in the 2017 Labour manifesto is a classic example of progressives accepting the right’s premises. The politics espoused by Jean-Luc Melenchon in France and Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany go much further, and are an active attempt to marry economic leftism with a barely coded appeal to anti-migrant and nationalist sentiment.

In the US, the policy of the Trump administration makes the dividing lines on immigration clearer, and there is a much bigger tradition of self-organised migrants’ rights movements. There, the insurgent left has taken up migrants’ rights in a much more prominent way than its UK counterpart, with the campaign to “abolish ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) prominently endorsed by many figures on the new American left. But in Europe and the US, the frame of the debate is still largely being set by the right; immigration is a problem needs to be controlled, and the left is presenting a different solution as to how. 

The global new far right is not uniform. The form of racism it adopts – anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-indigenous – varies with the context in which it operates. Its economic politics range from protectionism and public investment, to free market fundamentalism. Its social base is everywhere wealthier than it would have us believe, but it varies. Some of them want gay marriage, others want gays in prison camps. This is not especially surprising; Hitler and Salazar were at odds on a number of important political questions.

What the new far right shares is an authoritarian domestic policy aimed at minorities and the left, and a vision for the future in which emboldened nation states inherit the world from the ruins of neo-liberalism, erecting razor wire as they go. It addresses questions of identity, community and disenchantment – not just material concerns. And it is staggeringly organised, connected and conscious of itself.

Against this onslaught, the left needs to fight back with a big and consistent political vision. Solving immediate material needs is essential, but is only the start. Populist rhetoric and appeals to community are also needed, but are only meaningful if they come authentically from the left rather than as an echo of right wing nationalist politics that have seeped into the mainstream. To a great extent, the task of beating the far right will not be a new politics, but getting the basics right. We must assert class over nation, and say what we really think.

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