An(other) age of renewed authoritarianism

An(other) age of renewed authoritarianism

Gargi Bhattacharyya

Across Europe and beyond we are experiencing a frightening renewal of the electoral and street presence of authoritarian movements, arguably ignited by the turbulence of the economic crisis. Much of this mobilisation revolves around long-standing nationalist and racist narratives. However, in this moment, we also witness a renewal of authoritarian movements across the world, with political platforms which reflect local histories and antagonisms.

In the folklore of the anti-racist left, Southall holds a special place. Alongside the battle of Lewisham, it marks an important site of community-level resistance, a non-elite mode of anti-fascist mobilising that lives in and through the street, a politics of space, of the body, of anti-fascism as a cry for the right to life. Of course, the precursor is Cable Street.

After a period where the street activism of communities in resistance has been commemorated, offering a much-needed corrective to late neoliberalism’s insistent inculcation of passivity by any means necessary, it seems timely to remind ourselves of the interplay between street and state in the moment of Southall and in other subsequent anti-fascist eruptions.

But first, let us remember the 1970s …

In the late 1970s, Asianness (by which I mean the particular UK categorisation of brown-skinned people assumed to have roots in the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring spaces) was very distant from the representation of the nation. Some racist energies were devoted to the official demonisation of Caribbean youth and the law and order multiculturalism arising with Scarman is testament to this. Asians, on the other hand, remained the stuff of funny accents on painful sit-coms, not yet even visible as repressive patriarchs and certainly not yet as purveyors of religious extremism. That all comes later.

The National Front, in my child’s memory, enjoyed a folk notoriety at the time. Not yet, either, any sign of an official discourse that demanded disavowal of fascist tendencies. White people of my acquaintance, young and old, would shout their support for the National Front in the street. My mother returned to her desk in the day centre for the ‘mentally and physically handicapped’ to find an NF leaflet. Every public and school toilet I ever used in that time had NF scratched into the doors. We were here on sufferance.

In retellings of that period, I never see any mention of this casual incorporation of the Front and its message into everyday life. Despite the insistent consciousness of the Second World War, a conflict that seemed still recent in the 1970s, the Britain of that time seemed more than comfortable with extreme and organised racisms. As has been pointed out before, the take-up of the term ‘Nazi’ as a shorthand slur for violent racisms relied, ironically, on a xenophobic framing. British racists would not want to be associated with foreign ‘Nazis’ – not being bloody Germans after all.

So we understand that the moment of confidence in which the Front imagines it can march through Southall is also a moment of economic and political crisis massaged by a reliable turn to old-fashioned white supremacism. The National Front at that time seemed a continuation of mainstream political life – and both they and mainstream parties knew it. What was unexpected about Southall was the resistance of communities who had been considered, until then, to be silent, passive and pretty much invisible.

Fast forward to Bradford 2001 and the events misnamed ‘the Bradford Riots’. By 2001, before 9/11 but already twelve years after Rushdie, antipathy to Asianness was in the process of becoming morphed into fear of Islam. The British National Party was gaining confidence at the turn into the twenty-first century, over-shadowing the National Front despite many interconnections between the groups. Combat 18, a street fascist group, also was gaining notoriety. These contrasts enabled Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, to concoct a public persona as ‘gentleman fascist’ and be ushered into mainstream public life by a media class unable to distinguish between debate and sensationalism. This was not an ascendance based on economic crisis, or, at least, not at an economic crisis for all. This is the height of New Labour, cool Britannia, economic expansion. Or so a person would think if they read the papers and inhabited only the select geographies of the new middle class and the regional affluence built around financial services.

Elsewhere, the elsewhere that has always been most of the country throughout my lifetime, boom-time was less apparent. The landscape of ‘northern towns’ was, I suggest, imagined as a temporal lag – deindustrialisation was a state not yet escaped and fascism a temporary blip before the spread of (finance-led) prosperity. In the long aftermath of Rushdie, state responses to fascist marches in summer 2001 reveal how established the demonisation of young Muslim men had become by this time. Infamously, then Home Secretary David Blunkett ensures that Asian arrestees are convicted of offences that carry long prison terms.

A summer of far right mobilisations in Northern towns in 2001 lead to an altered repertoire of racist framing. From the state, we have some years of concern about alleged ‘parallel lives’. This shift fed the already established adoption of cultural identity claims by the far right – confirming the sense that the role of the state is to mediate between competing ‘identities’

We might consider this expanding interest in supposedly suppressed white identities as one element of the rise of UKIP. In the seemingly interminable aftermath of the EU referendum, we see the far right return to the street – with campaigns of guerrilla attacks (including the murder of MP Jo Cox) by Britain First, new groups organised around extreme street violence such as the Democratic Football Lads Alliance and the unexpected renewal of the English Defence League. The renewed confidence of both the EDL and Britain First reveals, it seems, a return to terror at a time when mainstream parties have colonised the terms of authoritarian nationalism. At the same time, both Britain First and the EDL have regained the ability to mobilise a large street presence through organising around ‘non-racial’ issues such as Brexit and grooming for sexual exploitation.

This shift has led to an amended geography of far right gathering and an expanded frame of address. The narratives of British anti-fascism have focused on the occupation of the street, with good reason. The symbolism of marching, neighbourhoods, and confrontation in the spaces marked as home by migrant and racialised communities has demanded response, both to defend against attack and to assert the right to space and voice. However, at the very least, mainstream illiberalism as a cover for state racism has accompanied each moment of far right mobilisation since 1979. It may seem obvious to say – but it is never about the street alone.

Political space has been characterised by a dance of covert cooperation between authoritarian tendencies among electoral parties and street organisations operating through the terrorisation of communities. We have learned from scholars of authoritarianism in other contexts that this partnership between the power hungry and the street thug is all too common, perhaps sufficiently common to be identified as a characteristic of the incorporation of authoritarian aspects within so-called liberal democracies. This may be an almost formal alliance, such as the reliance of India’s BJP on the Nazi-inspired RSS or the longstanding cooperation between the Philippines’ Duterte and vigilante death squads.

Street fascism is in dialogue with state authoritarianism, if not always, then often. In Britain we have seen over the decades varying accommodations to the ‘entitlement’ of the far right to march and to choose where it marches. State policing of local residents in these instances reveals a changing landscape of official racisms – from invisible communities whipped up by ‘outside agitators’ to those living parallel lives to the demonisation of anti-fascist resistance as the real extremism.

As we witness again, with trepidation, a new moment of resurgent right populism, we should remember this strange dance of accommodation between the street and the state. Since 1979, parts of the Indian diaspora have become celebrants of the exclusionary and authoritarian nationalisms of back home. More bafflingly, others have become entwined in the nationalist nostalgias of the UK. We know that the EDL has sought to gain from communalist divisions . We know also that the state has adopted increasingly authoritarian techniques in the name of security, including the rapidly escalating use of citizenship deprivation.

On 15th March 2019 the world learns of the murders of at least 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch. The only suspect arrested has assembled a ‘manifesto’ – echoing so many elements of twenty-first century racisms familiar from both so-called mainstream parties and media and from the street far right – and I have run out of clever points to make. The interconnection between official and street racisms is so obvious, it barely requires analysis.

Racist killings make other state racisms appear ‘moderate’.


Gargi Bhattacharyya is Professor of Sociology at the University of East London.