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May 20, 2014

Rundle: politics keeps it simple, stupid in global shift to outrage

Outrage is sweeping the world. But it's more complicated than a rightward push. Crikey's writer-at-large examines Turkey, the UK Independence Party and nationalism abroad.

“Erdogan plans to restore Haga Sophia as mosque” … “UKIP leader Farage says people would be uncomfortable with Romanian neighbours” … “Senior BJP figure calls for revenge against Muslims for ‘insult'” … “Donetsk separatists proclaim: ‘we will destroy Kiev junta and the Euro-gays'” … “Danish People’s Party polling number one for euro elections” …

The news is coming from all over the world, not much of it is good, and it is all the same: whether through religion or nationalism, whether fused with neoliberal economics or statist populism, people across the world are reaching for simplistic politics — a politics that superficially looks like the old-fashioned hard-right politics, but is in reality something more complex.

Key moments in this global movement? One might suggest that the cycle began with the election of Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey in 2003. Proudly provincial and hickish, conservative and Muslim, but not Islamist, nursing a barely concealed hatred for the louche, rotting, riotous city of Istanbul and the secular legacy of Ataturk, Erdogan promised Turkey a path out of the economic slow lane where it had found itself for some years.

Deregulating, demolishing, fast-tracking, while turfing up military coup plots real and fabricated, jailing journalists wholesale, Erdogan got the runs on the board. Light industry booms, exports are up, a tech sector is growing, apartments and shopping malls are going up all over the country. The latter might not be open in five years — or even standing — but the building activity alone has put real wages in the pockets of many hitherto dirt-poor country people.

In return and with the support of the country’s east, he has edged out Turkey’s republican, secular official culture, and reviving a continuity with the Ottoman empire, reopening mosques, revising textbooks, nipping away at alcohol drinking in the western part of the country. In the wake of the Soma mine catastrophe, he has pushed a slow-burning plan to return the great Hagia Sophia — first a Byzantine cathedral, then a mosque, since the 1920s a museum and a site promoting coexistence — to function as a mosque (the place is metres from the equally great and equally unfillable Blue Mosque).

Erdogan offered a simple religious identity, one that would bring people together, as neoliberal economics began to divide them between winners and losers, city and country, suddenly rich and still poor. Religion was essential to this, because Ataturkist nationalism no longer gave a sufficient blast. People now identified it with torpor — borne of its protectionist and statist economics — and of not really giving a sense of transcendental oomph, to make a communal project worthwhile.

Elsewhere, this appeal to nationhood still works, because it has been so subdued for so long. Thus in the United Kingdom, as the European Parliament elections loom (they’re on Thursday), UKIP — the UK Independence Party — looks set to become the largest UK representative of a body it would like the country to withdraw from. The party is currently polling at 38% — that will fall, as people come out to vote against UKIP — a figure it has achieved by treading a fine line of populist “democracy”, little Englandism, and hint-hint xenophobia.

It’s a tough enough balance to hold while fielding an all-comers list of obsessive candidates who produce “gaffes” faster than they can be catalogued, from telling British-born black people to go home, calling for pro-EU candidates to be hanged as traitors, doing photo shoots to show off their Nazi-themed tattoos, claiming that Brent high street looked like “war-torn Helmand province” — and that has just been the last 48 hours.

But it’s made tougher when the leaders themselves share these views. Thus leader Nigel Farage, having done his level best to project a non-racist air, told a radio interviewer that most people would feel uncomfortable living next to a Romanian family. Not a German one, the interviewer asked (Farage’s wife is German)? “Well, it’s a question of quality versus quantity,” Farage replied. Soon, his minder tried to finish the interview on-air.

Farage’s remarks — UKIP took out a full-page ad to “clarify” — gave the lie to the party’s image, for it was not merely racism, but actual racialism, the north European/Aryan ideal that lies at the lower depths of the party’s being. Romanians have been an easy target since they and Bulgarians gained full EU mobility rights at the beginning of this year. They’re darker and often shorter (the latter due to near-starvation in the latter Ceausescu years) than western Europeans or Slavs, and they arrive even poorer than most — perfect for the role of “untermenschen”.

“In the West, the capitalist leap has already been completed. There is no scale of mass, life-changing improvement to offer.”

It’s a measure of how ill-disciplined such right-wing identity politics are, a giant raging id of resentment and obsession, that they infect even their allegedly intelligent leaders. Such id is present in the east Ukrainian separatist movements, their genuine concern that a Ukraine-EU deal would benefit the western half of the country submerged in fantasies that Brussels is poised, waiting to send armies of homosexual educators eastwards. Predictably, the sexual paranoia that grips eastern Europe has exactly the same theme as was deployed in the ’70s: that homosexuals somehow recruit and convert people to homosexuality. This confused doctrine — homosexuality is both abhorrent and irresistible apparently — fits perfectly with the same contradictory fears of old east Europe, about vampires, Jews, etc.

The world is now waiting to see whether the election of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party government in India represents nothing more than an exasperation with decades of ineffectual Congress rule, or the most striking example yet of this turn towards an identity politics. Modi, known as a somewhat ascetic political workaholic, is alleged by many to be a member of the ultra-Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, placed in the BJP at an early stage of his career.

His national success has turned on staging rapid economic growth in the state of Gujarat, of which he is governor — success he has extended nationally with a campaign that largely avoided Hindu nationalist themes, and emphasised his role as a problem-solver. The question, based on example such as that of Erdogan, is whether a religious/nationalist identity politics is essential to the success of such a right-wing program, with the cultural and identity themes eventually taking over from the economic ones.

It is one thing for Turkey to be taken over by such politics. For it to be in control of India is another matter entirely. Such a politics is part of an enormous and decades-long arc of failure — the failure of any system whether Soviet socialism, Indian village socialism or Turkish socialist nationalism, to deliver community and meaning through a degree of economic equality and growth. Determining that only capitalism can deliver such growth at this stage, its atomising effects are being regrouped through culture, patriotism and the like.

The question we now face is this: what happens when everyone is doing this, in large states bordering each other, and with overlapping areas of claim for influence, historical right, manifest destiny, etc, etc? In the West, such groups are largely comical and chaotic — from UKIP to the Tea Party, and including the Tony Abbott/Joe Hockey government to a degree — because there is nothing that such parties can offer to their peoples, apart from fantasy. In the West, the capitalist leap has already been completed. There is no scale of mass, life-changing improvement to offer.

Yet one mildly depressing development in the West is the seeming resilience of such parties. The current Euro elections have resulted in the revival of the Danish People’s Party, the twitchy, neurotic group, worried about halal school lunches, etc, who had seen their support collapse when the Left returned to power in Denmark three years ago. The move leftwards was seen as confirmation that the DPP couldn’t deliver for a country that still wants a social democratic state.

But now they’re back — leading the polls for the European election. The DPP were the first such new right party to enter coalition government. Does their recovery indicate that this cycle will go round again and again, as perpetually dissatisfied publics seek easy answers to the problems of modernity? And what happens when the Chinese Communist Party decides that their light mix of nationalist state capitalism requires a lot more of the former to compensate for the effects of the latter? What happens if that has already begun …?

You need a lot of energy to keep up with the outrages these days.

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25 thoughts on “Rundle: politics keeps it simple, stupid in global shift to outrage

  1. Ellen O'Gallagher

    It would be interesting to know what Rundle thinks will happen in Europe and elsewhere when Climate Change hits with even greater force and frequency. For example the floods in Bosnia, the disastrous mud slides caused by extreme rain storms, fires, etc. Governments will have to come up with programs to assist populations affected. How is this likely to influence political parties, nationalism and decision making?

  2. AR

    Unlike the Continent, Britain clings to the iniquitous 19thC FPtP electoral system (as does India & the US)except for the EU parliament which is PR – the only reason that Ukip is scaring the bejasus out of the Establishment.
    Even Farrago wasn’t crazy enough to stand in a recently proffered bye-election (caused by the departure of yet another disgraced tory grifter)because he knows that in a General Election he will be gravel under the wheels of the Con/Lab behemoth.

  3. Kevin Herbert

    Ellen Gallagher:

    And when exactly do you predict that CLIMATE CHANGE will hit?

    For the record, the floods etc to which you refer are weather events, unless you know something that we don’t.

  4. Carr Daniel

    “Erdogan offered a simple religious identity, one that would bring people together, as neoliberal economics began to divide them between winners and losers, city and country, suddenly rich and still poor.”

    Gini coefficient has fallen over Erdogan’s term. I know Rundle loves to lay into ‘neoliberal’ economics, but opening up the Turkish economy has made the country more equal.

  5. Sean Duckworth

    I was going to say that these groups will end up like the Tea Party here in America – the butt of many jokes with an inability to deliver on their promises or platforms.

    But then I realized that, in so many cases, these groups actually have a much better chance of getting things accomplished. And that’s terrifying.

  6. Andrew Dolt

    Kevin Herbert, you apparently don’t know that climate change is making extreme weather events, like the floods in Bosnia (and the UK) more likely, more destructive and more frequent. This is something that the world’s climate scientists know, and have been warning you about, for many years now. It is about time you paid attention, unless you know something that 97% of the world’s climate scientists, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Metereology, NASA. the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, NOAA, in fact every reputable scientific organisation of any standing, don’t.

  7. Kevin Herbert

    Andrew Dolt:

    Your source data clearly doesn’t confirm your motherhood claim that climate change is making extreme weather events. Your data source includes the following statement:

    “Extreme weather events do not have a single cause but instead have various possible contributing factors – and human-induced climate change is now one of those factors.”

    Clearly you certainty about climate change making extreme wether events is not shared by your source data e.g. “…various possible contributing factors…”

    You need to learn how to assess data, rather than repeating views that smack of cultural atavism.

    For the record, I unreservedly support the long held fact of climate change but am sceptical of the current mass hysteria & its associated self serving data promoted by the ‘publish or perish’ academic gang.

    Finally, if climate change research outcomes were assessed without the individual
    research institutions credentials in view, I expect the so called 97% of the world’s climate scientists you quote as being in agreement, would drop by at least 30%…but of course that’s only a “possible contributing factor” at this stage.

  8. Kevin Herbert

    Sean Duckworth:

    The term ‘Tea Party’ is regularly appearing in Crikey comments of late.

    Can you tell me which US politicians are formally TP members…and please, don’t quote the Wiki entry which explains virtually nothing.

  9. Sean Duckworth

    Kevin Herbert:

    Depends on which branch of the Tea Party you’re talking about, since it’s rather balkanized. As one self-described Tea Party member, Jason Chaffetz, said “Structure and formality are the exact opposite of what the Tea Party is”

    Realistically, the Tea Party are a branch or subgroup of the Republican Party here in the US. Michele Bachmann, Jim Demint, Rand and Ron Paul, the aforementioned Chaffetz…those are the people who come to mind when one mentions the Tea Party. It’s like an unholy mixture of Katter, DLP, FF, and One Nation.

  10. James

    The tensions brought about by the wholesale importation of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East in to European countries (including Australia other European descendent countries) can’t be so quickly dismissed as simple racism. Guy wants to talk about the atomising effects of capitalism, well how about the atomizing effect of being an Englishman in the city of London which now is majority Non-English? Huge immigration is causing this “atomisation” that leads people to turn to parties like UKIP.