If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build a third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness. (Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 1994)
It’s possible that we never grow up in the world we imagined. Certainly, I did not expect to live through a year like 2016. Or at least, I did not anticipate the full extent of the reckoning it has represented.
Like countless other millennials, over the past year I have watched a generation of totemic figures, some of them a constant presence since childhood, go the way of all flesh. With the significance of mass recorded culture still a novel experience, at points it has felt as though we have all become cultural orphans.
We inhabit a culture of infinite content that we can consume endlessly, but with that access comes the tantalising glimpse of the initial naivety and spark that made the first flowering of youth culture possible. The intervening years of decadence and disillusionment form an insurmountable barrier, which warns us these moments can never be recaptured.
Such is the trauma at the heart of every coming of age story. But the anguish felt at the number of idols who departed the scene last year was also born of a deep anxiety: in the coming political struggles that 2016 made inevitable, we will have to stand alone.
Similarly, in trying to get a grip on the numerous political shocks that defined 2016, there has been an inevitable attempt to cast about for allegories and comparisons from the past.
This initial desire to find some kind of precedent to anchor our experience has seen Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ quoted to death on social media. Whether or not the centre can hold, the new ferocity of political change, does indeed seem to have created a situation in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.”
However, this fixation with Yeats’s poem and the wider context in which he was writing in 1919, demonstrates a certain self-indulgent defeatism. Writing in an era of immediate post-conflict trauma, the magnitude of suffering endured by those in the first half of the last century is of a different order to our own. Therefore, the “mere anarchy” that Yeats and many of his contemporaries identified on the horizon is not a fitting prognosis for the crisis we now face.
The threat we now face
To rely too heavily on any precedent risks misreading the nature of the coming storm and shaping the wrong responses. The left appears content to adopt a complacent and smug approach based on its allegedly deeper sense of history. The scramble to prove that Trump and his followers are fascists, in this era of insatiable self-reflexive reaction on social media, might feel like a moral victory. In reality, such grandstanding is both irrelevant and hopelessly naïve.
A far more prescient point is to understand that the current disease of authoritarian nationalism doesn’t care about how it is identified. It will spread its own novel brand of poison regardless of what we think of it or how we choose to name it. Today it is manifestly clear that the breakdown of solidarity, the ostracising of the weak, and nationalistic triumphalism, can be achieved without the obvious trappings of a totalitarian state.
The right’s current insurgency is effective because it has no interest in backward glances, knowing full well that these would compromise the simplicity of its cast-iron narrative. That narrative, invariably, goes like this: something was taken from you (land, jobs, pride, security) and we will give you it back.
This story transcends ideology and is built to deflect rational analysis. The declarative power of telling millions what they want to hear, in whatever terms and across whatever media is prepared to carry it, smashes the notional fidelity to public values that liberal mainstream politics still carries within its gut.
We should also understand that authoritarian nationalism will behave in a deliberately unpredictable and hypocritical fashion. The apparent idiocy and carelessness that marks out its key exponents simply cloaks their brutal and uncompromising intent. The movement’s novelty and strangeness is its core strength.
The logical endgame of authoritarian nationalism (if it can be said to have one beyond oligarchic self-enrichment) is something akin to a global apartheid state. Rather than mass deportations, with the kind of potent imagery that could sway popular opinion, a deeper and more explicit erosion of common rights and a uniformly hierarchical re-ordering of global labour flows seem like the most credible outcome.
The apathy of the centre
But the overarching ethic of authoritarian nationalism, “to the victors the spoils,” could never have brought the circus to the corridors of power on its own. However bizarre and contradictory their platforms might have been, the victory of the nakedly unscrupulous in Britain and America was premised on a laser-like focus on the falsehood at the heart of the order it sought to depose. Namely, that diverse multicultural societies are sustainable without economic justice or redistributive policy.
Playing on fears about immigration, insidiously coupled with anti-elitist messaging and a willingness to exploit the trauma of post-industrial communities, propelled Brexit and Trump to the narrowest of victories.
Both victories were made real because the liberal centre was incapable of understanding the threat it faced. As the frantic search for historic references attests, there was a deep failure to comprehend the novelty of this authoritarian nationalism.
Though it borrowed from models of leadership already present in Russia and Turkey the strength of civic institutions in America and Britain, with their secular doctrines of continuity, were supposed to be hardwired against populist demagoguery.
Beyond the inadequacy of unreformed democratic institutions the collapse of the public sphere, of shared truths, commonly accepted norms and a legitimate public interest, reflects a failure to adapt to wider fragmentation. Yet, without these concepts, there is no basis for complex societies to operate on anything like a cohesive basis. We need to step back and realise that a new order is taking shape and that old appeals to unity and togetherness already belong in a different era.
The post-modern apathy of the centre-left has a lot to answer for here. It proved remarkably indifferent to the grassroots erosion of the community cohesion that was built up with such effort in the previous century in the form of autonomous working class institutions and culture. In Britain, it helped to validate the toxic narratives of a right-wing press, but also perpetuated the process of hollowing out public institutions, particularly within the media and the universities, in order to instil neoliberal practices and cultures that were entirely foreign to core aims of public service.
New forces, old struggles
With trust in key institutions broken, mainstream politics is inherently unable to mount the kind of resistance that the experience of 2016 has made so urgent. In their desperation not to speak of their own crisis of legitimacy, the centrists have shown that they were prepared to risk the safety of the civic foundations that we’ve learned to accept as the norm for half a century.
As a result, the campaign against authoritarian nationalism must now fall to a radical coalition of interests. An atrophied political class brought about 2016 precisely because it could not comprehend that the historical forces ranged against it were partly the product of its own failure.
The true shape of current events is a re-intensification of the culture and class wars that were supposed to have been decisively concluded in the latter half of the twentieth century. In cultural terms, the 1960s were supposed to have established an unshakeable progressive consensus in favour of equality, permissiveness and tolerance. In class terms, the 1980s were seen to represent a final, conclusive, victory for capital in the form of neoliberalism.
But the truce established in the aftermath of both decades was fragile and skin deep. Perhaps these struggles, rather than reaching points of conclusion, were only just getting started. Certainly, we are now witnessing the complete unravelling of these points of consensus.
This process of unravelling mirrors the millennial’s own life experience. In 2017, I will enter my thirtieth year. In contrast the main tenets of the “new world order” with its very certain conclusions about globalisation, liberal democracy and neoliberal economics, barely made it into their twenties. Making sense of the bitter realities created by certainties we have outgrown is at the heart of the task that now falls to us.
The basis for resistance
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? (Martin Luther King, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ 1963)
Firstly, we have to accept there is no ‘mainstream’ to defend. In this new age of extremes, no one has the luxury of impartiality. Authoritarian nationalism is determined to show that no one can stand above the fray. So any progressive movement must understand itself as radical too. Free movement, universal rights, entitlements and equality, were radical concepts when first brought into the mainstream. They remain so and should be defended as such.
Secondly, there needs to be a practical attempt to move beyond social media and the practices it encourages. We’re already a world away from events like the Arab Spring, when social media networks were presented as an inherently liberating space.
The past year has revealed the significant failings of political debate in the regulatory wild-west of digital media. Twitter is already the favoured tool of the next POTUS, who managed to troll his way into office: it has become the site of a zero-sum game. The urge to be content with “calling out” the evil that has found a voice in such spaces simply plays into the hands of those who have weaponised it. Real political change requires unmediated spaces.
Thirdly, it has to be made abundantly clear that the right does not have a monopoly on popular insurgency. There is still a majority that can be mobilised in favour of openness, tolerance and solidarity. At its root it is younger, more adaptable and better educated than any previous generation.
Finally, we will need a broad coalition stretching far beyond politics and taking in artists, civic society and non-aligned activists – to demonstrate the tangible qualities of diversity and tolerance. The old civic institutions – the universities, the liberal press and cultural organisations – need to join an effort to mobilise against these new and impending threats or they will be picked off one by one. The values that underpin these institutions are threatened as never before: their transnational links and traditions of independence pose an inherent threat to the new authoritarian politics.
If 2016 was the year in which millennials realised that they had to confront the true reality of their meagre inheritance, 2017 must be a year in which resistance to authoritarian nationalism takes definite form.
The awful questions that the past twelve months have posed can only be answered if we first understand this moment as a generational coming of age.
Faced with this daunting prospect, we do at least have one source of comfort: a knowledge that the best, and their convictions, will be standing alongside us, one way or another.