In the Netherlands a movement based on paranoia and the fleecing of the poor looks set to join the government. In the United States one of the biggest exercises in false consciousness the world has ever seen - people gathering in their millions to lobby unwittingly for a smaller share of the nation’s wealth – has become the playmaker in Republican primaries. The radical right is seizing its chance. But where is the radical left?
Both the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Tea Party in the US base their political programmes on misinformation and denial. But as political forces they are devastatingly effective. The contrast to the leftwing meetings I’ve attended over the past two years couldn’t be starker. They are cerebral, cogent, realistic – and little of substance has emerged from them.
The rightwing movements thrive on their contradictions, the leftwing movements drown in them. Tea Party members who proclaim their rugged individualism will follow a bucket on a broomstick if it has the right label, and engage in the herd behaviour they claim to deplore. The left, by contrast, talks of collective action but indulges instead in possessive individualism. Instead of coming together to fight common causes, leftwing meetings today consist of dozens of people promoting their own ideas, and proposing that everyone else should adopt them.
It would be wrong to characterise the Tea Party movement as being mostly working class. The polls suggest that its followers have an income and college education rate slightly above the national mean(1). But it is the only rising political movement in the US which enjoys major working class support. It voices the resentments of those who sense that they have been shut out of American life. Yet it campaigns for policies that threaten to exclude them further. The Contract from America for which Tea Party members voted demands that the US adopt a single-rate tax system, repeal Obama’s health care legislation and sustain George W Bush’s reductions in income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax(2). The beneficiaries of these policies are corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Those who will be hurt by them are angrily converging on state capitals to demand that they are implemented.
The Tea Party protests began after the business journalist Rick Santelli broadcast an attack from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on the government’s plan to help impoverished people whose mortgages had fallen into arrears(3). To cheers from the traders at the exchange, he proposed that they should hold a tea party to dump derivative securities in Lake Michigan in protest at Obama’s intention – in Santilli’s words - to “subsidise the losers”. (I urge you to watch the broadcast – it is the most alarming example of cheap demagoguery you are likely to have seen. It continues to be promoted by Santelli’s employer, CNBC(4)).
The protests which claim to defend the interests of the working class began, in other words, with a call for a bankers’ revolt against the undeserving poor. They have been promoted by Fox News, owned by that champion of the underdog Rupert Murdoch, and lavishly funded by other billionaires(5). Its corporate backers wrap themselves in the complaints of the downtrodden: they are 21st Century Marie-Antoinettes, who dress up as dairymaids and propose that the poor subsist on a diet of laissez-faire.
Before this movement had a name, its contradictions were explored in Thomas Frank’s seminal book What’s the Matter with Kansas?(6) The genius of the new conservatism, Frank argues, is its “systematic erasure of the economic”. It blames the troubles of the poor not on economic forces – corporate and class power, wage cuts, tax cuts, outsourcing – but on cultural forces. The backlashers could believe that George W Bush was a man of the people by ignoring his family’s wealth. They can believe that the media is a liberal conspiracy only by forgetting about the corporations (CNBC, Fox etc) and the conservative billionaires who run it. The movement depends on people never making the connection between, for example, “mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore” or “the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into the red-state dust.”
The anger of the excluded is aimed instead at gay marriage, abortion, swearing on television and latte-drinking, French-speaking liberals. The working class American right votes for candidates who rail against cultural degradation, but what it gets when they take power is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party performs a similar conjuring trick, persuading working and middle class voters that their real enemies are Muslims, while demanding tax cuts, abolition of the minimum wage and reductions in child benefits(7). It is only because of the general political doziness of the British electorate that such movements – despite the UK Independence Party’s best efforts – have not yet taken off here. Give them time.
Though most of what they claim is false, one of the accusations levelled by both the Freedom Party and the Tea Party rings true: the left is effete. This highlights another contradiction in their philosophy: liberals are weak and spineless; liberals are ruthless and all-powerful. But never mind that: the left on both sides of the Atlantic has proved to be tongue-tied, embarrassed, unable to state simple economic truths, unable to name and confront the powers that oppress the working class. It has left the field wide open to rightwing demagogues.
The great progressive cringe is only part of the problem; we have also abandoned movement building in favour of Facebook politics. We don’t want to pursue a common purpose any more, instead we want our own ideas and identity to be applauded. Where are the mass mobilisations in this country against the cuts, against the banks, against BP, unemployment, the lack of social housing, the endless war in Afghanistan? In the US the radical right is swiftly acquiring ownership of the Republican party. In the UK the left is scarcely attempting a reclamation of the Labour Party, even as opportunity knocks.
Bogus and misdirected as the Tea Party movement is, in one respect it has an authenticity that the left lacks: it is angry and it’s prepared to translate that anger into action. It is marching, recruiting, unseating, replacing. We talk, they act.
It strikes me that in the US the greater opportunities lie not in confronting the Tea Party movement but in turning it. As its mixed responses to Sarah Palin and Ron Paul show(8), it remains fluid and volatile. There’s an opening here for trades unionists to move in and agree that an elite is indeed depriving working people of their rights, but it is not an intellectual elite or a cultural elite or a liberal elite: it is an economic elite. The radical right has something to teach us on this side of the Atlantic as well: the world is run by those who turn up.
2. http://www.contractfromamerica.com/Idea.aspx It’s interesting to note how the language has been changed to make these policies sound more acceptable. The original text is here
6. This was published in the UK with the title What’s the Matter with America. Secker and Warburg, 2004.