“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.