For the past year or so I’ve been exploring the significant growth of nationalism in the de-industrialised zones of northern England. I have spent a lot of time in the company of men who support, or once supported, the English Defence League. It’s been the most difficult research project I have ever been involved in.
It was quite easy to get my contacts to talk about immigration, the religion of Islam and the vacuity of contemporary parliamentary politics. I was exposed to a lot of racism, but what really bothered me was the sense of sadness, anger and loss that clouded many of the conversations I had with these men. Many believed that, for them, the best days were gone. Things were getting worse. Their neighbourhoods were dilapidated, and their communities had disintegrated. Their jobs were insecure, and their lifestyles diminished year after year. Long established families were drifting away and immigrants were moving in. The older men, now well into their forties, displayed an entirely understandable nostalgic attachment to times past. They believed that they had been raised in well-organised communities of genuine, open and caring people who could be relied upon when times were tough. They believed that they had once enjoyed the earthy reality of common culture. They had once felt immediately at home and comfortable in their neighbourhood. It was theirs. Now all of that was gone.
These men were angry that so much had been taken away from them, and they believed that, without concerted action, everything of value they had managed to retain would soon be wrenched out of their hands. They felt assailed by powerful and determined forces dedicated to their destruction. They felt set apart from the world. They couldn’t see how, or where, they fitted in. They knew that their skills were redundant, and they worried greatly about what lay in store for the next generation. They looked at the sphere of politics, and they concluded that it was, in its entirety, utterly bereft. Who spoke up for the white-working class? Certainly not the Labour party. For these men, the Labour party was simply a party dedicated to defending the interests of minorities. The Labour party was composed of weird metropolitan liberals, hippies and pacifists. The Labour party, my contacts were sure, found the white working class regressive and distasteful. They had once been at the very core of British society and integral to its post-war economic growth. Now they felt surplus to requirements, cut adrift and forgotten.
I often felt great sympathy for these men. Their sense of redundancy, and their sense that there exists, somewhere out there, a force that will eventually strip them of their dignity and the last vestiges of supportive community life, is entirely reasonable. The truth is that things do not look good for the old white working class. They are without a committed, intelligent and vocal advocate on the field of politics, and virtually all talk of the deep interventions necessary to transform their collective destiny appear to have disappeared from our political and cultural life.
It should go without saying that these men have misidentified the true enemy. It saddens me greatly that they have returned to politics carrying the flag of nationalism. They have fallen under the spell of a scapegoating narrative that encourages them to direct their righteous indignation at a minority population that have had nothing whatsoever to do with the collapse of traditional working-class labour markets, the disintegration of community life or the disappearance of robust political representation.
Perhaps what made this research project particularly hard for me was the sense that it didn’t have to be this way. Things could’ve worked out so much better, for all of us. Of course, there once existed a steadfast vanguard on the political left utterly dedicated to incorporating the anger of the proletarian class and directing it at its true cause. Once there existed a genuine sense that we could force the system to change. There was even a sense that we could together move beyond capitalism to create a positive and inclusive social system less scared by competition and profit-seeking. Now, to speak of moving beyond capitalism is to invite popular derision. In our sanitised and stage-managed political system, even to suggest that we tax wealth to a greater extent prompts guffaws of laughter from the neoliberal pragmatists at the system’s core. We are told that what we have must continue, and that what we have is the least worst of all political systems. All that lies beyond the borders of parliamentary capitalism is totalitarianism and brutality. Stick with what we have. If you’re dissatisfied, vote to change things.
Walter Benjamin once said that every fascism references a failed revolution. We should keep this in mind as we move further into the twenty-first century, and as we watch new nationalisms grow. Nationalism will soon enter the mainstream. Already it is dispensing with swastikas and cladding itself in tailor-made suits. But as we mobilise against the rise of the right, we must also acknowledge the decline of the left. The left in Britain has, in the last decade especially, failed to speak for the working class.
The Labour Party capitulated to the logic of neoliberalism. It accepted utterly the restrictive political framework that was forced upon us as communism fell apart and as all alternatives to capitalism disappeared from view. The English Defence League and movements like it are the result of these processes. Nationalism can arise to fill the void created by the disappearance of the left from the lifeworlds of the working class. It is forever capable of equipping anxious communities, usually suffering from declining living standards, with the symbolism they need to (mis)identify a culprit who can then be blamed and sacrificed. Can’t find a job? Angry that your community is falling apart? Worried about what lies in store for your kids? Blame Muslims and immigrants. It’s not a complex ideological operation.
It’s not difficult to imagine these men using the symbols of the traditional left as a means of identifying and coming to terms with their anger and anxiety. I imagine they would’ve once got behind forthright working-class labourist politicians who promised to squeeze the capitalist class until the pips squeaked. But they see nothing on the left that’s of any value to them. They have learnt to hate the left, but the left that they hate is a liberalised left that discarded the traditional politics of class. The left they hate is a liberalised left immobilised by identity politics. When we turn up to protest against the EDL, Pegida or any of the other fascist movements currently operating in Britain we should keep in mind that these working-class men might have once been recruited to the cause of equality and social justice. They have misidentified their true enemy, but they have done so because the left has failed to fulfil its role of ideologically incorporating the working class and using its anger to drive forward a politics of significant structural change. We have failed to direct the contemporary working class towards the true cause of their anger and dissatisfaction. Criticism of the amoral exchange relation that lies at the core of capitalism is now restricted to the university campus. What we see at EDL protests is an inverted and distorted mirror-image of our own ideological failure.
It’s now time for leftist academics to begin a thorough intellectual stock-check. We need to identify and speak honestly about the mistakes that have been made. In my view placing identity politics centre stage has been a colossal mistake. The injunction to ‘tolerate difference’ always had an air of defeatism about it. Instead the left should’ve pushed a positive account of universality, a politics of equality and sameness rather than difference. Instead of obsessing about our own freedom we need to build a new politics based upon obligation and the rejuvenation of the commons.
So, the rise of the right is directly related to the decline of the left. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn is certainly a positive development, but we should not assume that at election time he will command the support of the silent majority of working class men and women across the country. Now is certainly not the time for leftist triumphalism. A quick look at the political situation on the continent makes it abundantly clear that it is the political right that is really beginning to make ground. We must also keep in mind SYRIZA and the ongoing crisis in Greece. SYRIZA was genuinely committed to dragging Greece clear of European neoliberalism. Its leadership were dedicated social democrats who wanted to redistribute wealth and contain capital’s most destructive affects. However, once in office, all of global capitalism’s diverse armaments were trained upon them. SYRIZA were compelled to fall into line. Podemos will face a similar test if they make it into office in the years ahead. Can the left rise again, reattach itself to the working class, and begin to drag us free from a destructive free market system currently crumbling into the dust of history?
Simon Winlow is Professor of Criminology at Teesside University. Rise of the Right: The EDL and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics, by Winlow, Hall and Treadwell, will be published this month by Policy Press.