Consider this as a precise and emblematic moment in history. With Saudi Arabia’s oil plants still smouldering, the Israeli prime minister takes to the streets on election day. He tells supporters that, should he lose power, Israel will be ruled by “a dangerous anti-Zionist government”, including parties who “glorify blood-thirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children”. He means Israeli Arabs, of course.
Spin the globe to Italy, where the right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini has just been ousted by a presidential coup. He’s called for his supporters to “march on Rome” next month — a direct echo of the 1922 coup which brought Mussolini to power — telling them to “keep your phones on in case we need to take to the streets and squares”.
Spin the globe again to London, where outside the Supreme Court, deranged English nationalists spit venom at the most senior lawyers and judges in Britain for daring to consider that Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliamentary rule might be unlawful.
What you are watching is far-right populism losing its grip on power. Its twin global figureheads, Putin and Trump, also look cowed and confused. For men like Salvini, Johnson and Netanyahu had become pistons in a chaos engine, whose purpose was to disrupt the global order. But the pistons have misfired.
If things go right we are about to learn how fragile this global racist revolution is when not co-ordinated from ministries whose civil servants acquiesce in the abuse of power. But it’s a big if.
Because modern states have massively asymmetric power. For an ideology hinged around the idea of the small state, neoliberalism has proved remarkably at ease deploying big government.
Every advanced democracy now has a militarised corps of riot police — despite the almost complete absence of class struggle. Every state bristles with surveillance agencies, supplemented in the shadows by third-party private intelligence agencies prepared to do what the law says cannot be done by official spies.
And the levers of power, which we thought were neutral, turn out always to work better in the hands of people prepared to throw away the rule book. Who can forget that activists from Netanyahu’s Likud Party activists placed surveillance cameras in the polling stations to deter Arab voters? Who can forget Salvini’s attempts to defy international maritime law in order to drown African refugees off the coast of Italy?
In Britain we have a Prime Minister prepared to suspend parliament, use civil servants as extras in bizarre politicised propaganda videos, and question the impartiality of the most senior judges.
But what these pound-shop populists have run into is the rule of law, which turns out to be — for now — pretty resilient. It was the Israeli courts who stopped Netanyahu repeating his ballot box surveillance stunt this time. And whatever the Supreme Court rules on Johnson’s prorogation scam, the professional ethos of the lawyers left in the Tory cabinet is restraining his hand.
I don’t want to overstate this, because we’ll be fighting authoritarian conservative populism for the rest of our lives, but right now its initial surge looks to be weakening. Trump, Salvini and the rest achieved power through chutzpah, and then ruthlessly exploited the flaws in supposedly neutral systems of governance for their own partisan ends.
But there’s only so much you can achieve that way. So the next phase is to summon mass movements. Salvini already had one, in the shape of the Lega and its fascist allies such as CasaPound. Trump has one too, at the mass rallies where activists are prepared to chant for the deportation of Congresswomen with the wrong skin colour.
But mass movements are a game the left and centre can also play. And the left’s mass movements are growing. Witness Bernie Sanders’ rally in Denver, Colorado — where he wowed a large, diverse crowd, describing Trump as a pathological liar and a threat to democracy. Witness our own #StopTheCoup movement, which put people onto the streets of more than 80 towns and cities during the prorogation crisis. And get ready to witness the Climate Strike, which will be a global expression of hope during the next seven days.
When I speak to people from the progressive majorities that exist in Europe and the US, the most prevalent emotion is anxiety. How could this have happened so fast, and so decisively, with clowns and charlatans able to capture the commanding heights of democracies and dilute the rule of law? How can we, the weak and law-abiding citizens, match fascists and football hooligans prepared to shout into the faces of politicians and journalists they don’t like?
The anxiety is justified — because when we lost the coal mines, factories and shipyards, we lost the kind of person the far-right populists fear most: working class people for whom every workplace is a political meeting, people who live and breathe solidarity, adept in taking the arguments against ignorance and prejudice into the heart of blighted communities.
But we can overcome this problem. The Extinction Rebellion protest, like the Hong Kong rebellion, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, represents a new stage in the revival and rebirth of mass action.
The occupation of the squares movement in 2011 was the first phase, in which — as sociologist Manuel Castells put it — people imagined an ideal society on the internet and then recreated it in tent camps, from Manhattan to Cairo. Those in power — the doomed and befuddled neoliberals — worked out, eventually, what to do. Smash up the camps, impose austerity by force, and flood the world with so much cheap money that the anger subsides into a kind of sullen hedonism.
But now the victors of 2011-13 are the victims. The Murdoch media empire, which once smeared and slandered only anarchists and eco-warriors, now attacks judges and chief executives. No institution, no matter how anodyne, can escape the right-wing media’s demand to join in the hate. Simply for teaching Muslim girls in Africa to swim, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is vilified in the Times and the Mail.
So the current wave of progressive protest is drawing in much wider layers than in 2011. And it is becoming about hearts not tents: changing the microlevel assumptions and behaviours of millions of people.
As the centre and the left find ways — however tentative and limited — to defend democracy in this hour of danger, the ultra right’s response will morph. They will construct an anti-Iran, anti-China narrative, money will flood into the social media channels to support it.
As I looked into the faces of the fascist activists on Whitehall — which were at times quite close to my own — I realised that, for some of them, this is existential. Their revolution against multiculturalism, law, tolerance and democracy will deepen before it breaks.
That’s why, despite all the messy tactics and inconvenient alliances needed to achieve them, the constitutional checks on arbitrary power we’re seeing in Israel, Italy and the UK are important. Understand this moment: the authoritarian right is beatable, even if our allies have to be people we loathe.