Euro elections: the onward demise of centrism and rise of the populist right

John Wight
May 22 · 5 min read

Assuming the polls are accurate, the European elections on May 23rd will be historic for both good and alarming reasons.

The onward demise of centrism as the dominant current of British politics — in a process set in train by the 2008 global financial crash and economic recession, passing a death sentence on neoliberalism as a viable economic model — can only be a cause for celebration. This particular creed, after all, is the political equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray; engaging in happy talk about spreading human rights abroad and meritocracy at home, an ugly reality of the projection of hegemonic power abroad and class oppression at home

The resurgence of the far right, on the other hand, and the rise of right wing populism as a political force, filling the space created by the contraction of the political centre ground in line with the crisis of neoliberalism, its economic reflection, is most assuredly not a cause for celebration. Instead it should ring an historical alarm bell and wake us up to the danger which is now in our midst.

The possibility of a high number of abstentions and/or spoiled ballots on May 23rd cannot be dismissed either, what with the abject failure of Theresa May’s government to negotiate a deal with Brussels of sufficient merit to pass muster with her own hopelessly divided party, much less Parliament as a whole, and thereby failing to effect Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on March 29, as originally scheduled under the rubric of Article 50.

But though under the circumstances,abstaining from voting or spoiling ballot papers in may be understandable in this election, the astonishing and alarming political momentum of Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party dictates that this election is less about the principle of democracy with respect to the 2016 referendum result and more about the growing traction of xenophobia, nativism, and nationalism— in Britain and across Europe — to an extent not seen since the 1930s.

Staying with Britain and nine years of Tory austerity in response to the 2008 economic crisis have been tantamount to the economic battering of millions of the most economically disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, to the point where in 2019 the victims of this battering are impossible to miss.

If honest, for many of us desensitisation has become a necessary defence in order to be able to go about our daily business without being consumed with anger and angst in response.

In his 1928 musical play, The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht describes this process of desensitisation with customary evocation: ‘A man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll have him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police.’

Those whose ability to survive was dependent on the state, who had been just getting by on an already truncated social wage, have over the past nine years of Tory government been lined up as sacrificial lambs in service to a strategy of deflection from the underlying causes of the crash and resuslting economic recession. Those causes were private greed and an unregulated financial and banking sector, which the Tories with the considerable aid of the right wing press managed to present a crisis of public spending.

Central to this political conjuring trick was the scapegoating of the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, benefit claimants of every stripe.

Scapegoating also played a central role in the lead up to the EU referendum in 2016. The only difference is that the demographic being scapagoated was migrants, refugees, and by extension existing minority communities, particularly the Muslim community. The righteous class anger cultivated by six years of Tory austerity was successfully diverted from London onto Brussels and EU migrants living in the UK, who all of a sudden found themselves being derided as interlopers and the enemy within, responsible for stealing British jobs, driving down the wages of British workers, and placing a strain on public services and the NHS.

It saw the legitimisation and unleashing of xenophobia, nativism, and bigotry, which was reflected in a toxic and rebarbative atmosphere in the lead up to the referendum and a spike in hate crimes against migrants and minorities after it.

Brexit represents the exaltation of the national sovereignty of a colonial imperialist state, one that’s underpinned by semi-feudal institutions and whose dominant cultural values arise from the legacy of an empire the history of which should be a source of national shame rather than pride.

Class anger and class politics are not the same thing, and neither is sociology and socialism. The distinction separating both is crucial for the left, with the failure to make this distinction and act upon evidenced in the dimunition of class consciousness throughout deindustrialised England and Wales and its replacement by a national consciousness which Nigel Farage, more than any single figure on the right, has shaped and benefited from. If as appears likely his Brexit Party succeeds in achieving a seismic breakthrough on May 23rd, it will be the most grievous defeat of class politics in Britain since Thatcher came to power in 1979.

Farage claims to oppose free movement, which is a lie. A creature of the City of London, Nigel Farage is an avid champion of the free movement of capital, of which the City is a massive beneficiary. What Farage and other anti-migrant free marketeers on the right of the spectrum fail to acknowledge is the free movement of capital is a major driver of economic migration, as workers gravitate to richer economies from economies impoverished by to a large extent the outflow of surplus capital to the City of London and other financial and banking centres across the world.

Nigel Farage ain’t no man of the people. On the contrary, his religion is finance capital and his God is financialised capitalism. He’s a snake oil salesman tout court, a man for all seasons, depending on his audience.

Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin it was who made the point,“Behind ever rise of fascism lies a failed revolution.” On May 23rd it looks very much as if we shall forced to confront a similar hard truth — namely taht every rise of right wing populism comes at the expense of class consciousness.

End.

John Wight

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