#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#64: The Illusion of Brexit

Brexit is not possible. That is, Brexit in any meaningful sense of the word. Whatever meaning may have hidden in the idiotic phrases and jingoism of “Brexit Means Brexit”, behind empty cries for sovereignty, taking the country “back” to wherever, whatever the original intention: A complete and clean break with the EU is simply not possible without seriously bad compromises.

Let us remember. The promise of those promoting Brexit – the exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union – was that finally, the UK would be outside the influence of the allegedly ever-more meddling EU, and able to trade globally, use the money they would have sent to the EU for the National Health Service instead, and finally “take back control” over their national fate.

Let us also remember: Brexit started as a dare and was never something that was seriously presumed to happen. Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to play the old game that the UK has always played in the EU – be part of it but not too much – and used the threat of a Brexit vote as a scare tactic to demand concessions from the continent, reminding everyone that British EU membership was not a matter of deep political and historical conviction, but that it came about due to pressures from the United States, the ignoble end of the Empire, and the cost of not being part of the single market. It was a business deal.

To be fair, to most other European members of the EU, it is a business deal as well – but there are also historical, cultural, geographical and other ties that make the European project necessary. The EU exists, after all, as a correction to the rampaging nationalism that ended up in the ethnic cleansing and genocides committed in two World Wars. The containment of Germany as the main perpetrator of these crimes could and can only happen if the historical fallacy of borders alongside clean ethnic or national lines was corrected.

But British exceptionalism was about to have its day, and Brexit was it. Before the vote happened, in 2014, Scotland had its referendum on whether to stay in the UK – based on the assumption that the UK would stay in the EU. Scottish voters dutifully obliged, and were betrayed later by a referendum that should never have happened; after all, there had been a referendum before in 1975 when entering the EC, and subsequent treaty negotiations happened with the people’s support through the representative democracy. The 2016 referendum was a political ploy, and Cameron – who agitate against Europe before claiming to argue in favor of membership – is ultimately responsible. The referendum, after all, was non-binding, but Parliament decided to act on it anyway.

Theresa May knew Brexit was not possible and did what she could to prevent the greatest of damage. Labor, under Jeremy Corbyn – always living in the shadow of accusations of antisemitism and extreme left-wing radicalism – was no help either. It fell to the Boris Johnson, an assumedly well-educated politician who enjoys playing the clown, and who seems to enjoy games with the highest of stakes.

According to Johnson, Brexit means to take back control. But to what degree is that even possible?

Firstly, let us look at the Irish border problem. Ireland is in the EU, Northern Ireland in the UK. Without Brexit, the border had become meaningless. Membership in the EU is a key component to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. If the rules in all three parts (Republic of Ireland (A), Northern Ireland (B), United Kingdom (C)) are the same, then we could simplify this as A=B=C. The Irish border problem is solved if A=B (rules in Ireland the same as in Northern Ireland). UK unity is maintained if B=C (rules in Northern Ireland same as in Great Britain). Brexit means that B changes, and that cannot anymore equal A. If Northern Ireland cannot comply by single market rules anymore, then there needs to be a border regime on the island – or Northern Ireland complies with rest of the island. Johnson has categorically denied any distance between the UK and Northern Ireland. It’s an equation that will prove to be impossible to solve.

There either is or is not a single market, and any fudge solution will not work. Ireland will become the English-speaking voice in the EU, and will immediately be receiving support from the United States. England keeps forgetting that it is not really the “mother country” to the US that it thinks it is. Amongst Euro-Americans, 14% identify with Germany, 10% with Ireland, 7% with England, 5% with Italy, 3% with Poland. Joe Biden is Irish-Catholic. The Supreme Court is largely Catholic-Jewish by now. England is fading in American cultural memory. If Brexit Britain wants to retain its special relationship with the US, that may work within NATO and the Five Eyes, but economically, the EU (meaning, Ireland) will be a more important partner for American business interests.

Secondly, as mentioned before, Scotland agreed to be part of the UK only because of EU membership. Contrary to the Ireland case, there might actually be a cultural desire to indeed have a border between Scotland and England emerge. If Brexit happens finally, Scotland can leave the union and apply to become a member of the EU as an independent state. This is categorically different from the Catalan case (which is often brought up as a scare tactic), and more in line with the Czechoslovakian case. Czechoslovakia split up into Czechia and Slovakia before applying for EU membership. Catalonia seeks independence from an existing EU member, and to – assumedly – stay with the EU as an independent member state. This is a completely different scenario than the Scottish case. Scotland is forced out of the EU by an act of Parliament (remember, the referendum was non-binding originally till its decision was accepted by Parliament), and it only seeks to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Europe.

Thirdly, the dreaded promises. The NHS will not be receiving the money that used to be going to the EU; that promise (which probably was key to the success of the referendum) was canned already. Support for regions like Cornwall and the North will now rely on Westminster, not Europe. In global trade, the weight of the UK outside the EU will be significantly smaller, and its negotiating power reduced. The empire is gone, and outside England, Australia and New Zealand, memories of the empire are not necessarily positive.

In the end, Brexit will mean reliance on the EU without the possibility to shape EU policy. It will mean being at the mercy of rising global powers, of Ireland, and the US. It will mean the threat of secession not just of Scotland, Northern Ireland, but maybe even Wales and Cornwall. Maybe there is a solution here. If Brexit has to happen, England leaves and the rest stays. Maybe India will offer Britain membership in its union as a crown colony?

Let us come to our senses. The time for nationalism is over. We’re all interconnected, for worse, but also for better. Whatever will come out of Brexit will not be the magic solution to all the problems for which the UK government has successfully blamed the EU. Britain is not leaving the continent geographically. It remains where it is. Joining the EU was the logical choice in the past, and it will still be there once Brexit has been revealed for what it really is: an illusion of the outdated concept of national control in a global world.