I'm probably not alone in being slightly taken aback by the extent to which the election of Donald Trump as US President has brought forth agitation and protest, not just in the USA but elsewhere across the world. I've also been struck by the manner in which events such as Trump's election, the UK's vote to leave the EU, and a reinvigorated cultural right in universities have resulted in the radicalising of people who we previously characterised as 'soft left'.
It remains to be seen whether this radicalisation persists in the way that similar forces in the 1960s did in response to civil rights and the Vietnam war - Jeremy Corbyn's generation. What strikes me, however, about the current situation is the extent to which a youthful centre left has taken to the streets in response to their failure at the established game of democracy. Above all else this is the lesson we should take from Brexit and Trump - the established left has little to offer the public beyond that tired, familiar 'we know better' rhetoric wedded to a desire to close down debate, cut off argument and, using the left's word, demonise other opinions.
Yet the left remains astonishingly unaware of it's problems or of the extent to which it is trapped. Here's Nick Cohen presenting that unawareness as a considered position:
Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.To understand what we mean by unawareness, we should ask two things: who are the liars and what we mean by liberal society. And when we've done this we will realise that it isn't the false bogeyman of a new fascism but the lies of the left about liberalism that are the problem. First though let's agree with Cohen about Trump and Brexit not being about Fascism:
How you see the believers determines how you fight them and seek to protect liberal society from its enemies.
The temptation to think it a new totalitarianism is too strong for many to resist. Despite readers reaching for Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, strictly speaking, the comparison with fascism and communism isn’t true. When I floated it with the great historian of Nazism, Sir Richard Evans, he almost sighed. It’s not just that there aren’t the death camps and torture chambers, he said. The street violence that brought fascists to power in Italy and Germany and the communists to power in Russia is absent today.Dwell on that final sentence for a minute. And then consider what this might mean:
Fires that were deliberately set, one outside the campus Amazon outlet; Molotov cocktails that caused generator-powered spotlights to catch fire; commercial-grade fireworks thrown at police officers; barricades pushed into windows and skirmishes within the crowd were among the evening’s violent acts.An organised group using street violence to secure a political end (in this case preventing someone from speaking). And we saw plenty more of this violence following the election of Donald Trump and after his inauguration. Is this not something akin to "street violence" that brought fascists and communists to power in Europe? And what about giving yourself permission to punch anyone who you and your friends decide is a Nazi?
The masked agitators came to campus eastbound on Bancroft Way, and fire damage and other destruction to the Stiles Hall construction site, where a new residence hall is planned, was reported. The group entered campus and immediately began throwing rocks at officers. In an effort to avoid injuries to innocent members of the surrounding crowd who might have been caught in the middle, police officers exercised restraint and did not respond with force.
The problem for the left is that it is at best targeting a pretty small group or, and this is more concerning, seeking to define anyone who challenges its definition of liberal society as 'alt-right', Fascist or Nazi. As Nick Cohen discovered from a peek at history there are no National Socialist marches, there aren't Fascist gangs forcing opponents to drink cod liver oil and there isn't a rising new politics that seeks to destroy that liberal society. The new fascism or whatever you want to call it is something summoned from the left's mind, they are fighting an illusion.
That lie of a new fascism brings us back to the first of our two questions: who are the liars? Nick Cohen is clear about this - Donald Trump, Brexit campaigners, conservative columnists and business leaders. The alt-right. But is he right? Or rather are there not a whole load of other liars out there? Liars like the ones who predicted inevitable economic doom following a vote to leave the EU. And the liars who continue to promote a thing called socialism despite it repeatedly cause suffering, sorrow and even death.
"The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth."You want to know what Trump's biggest lie is? It's the lie that he can bring those jobs back, can by stamping and shouting do what Canute showed couldn't be done, turn back the tide of the world. But when the newly radicalised centre left agree that Trump's protectionism is a lie, they compound it with another lie. The left pretends that somehow globalisation had no role in the steelworker losing his job, the textile worker losing her job, or the miners looking at reserves of energy untapped because of decisions made in Washington, Rome, London or Paris.
Instead the left talks about inequality when what the listener wants is a job. The left talks of rights when what those hearing this cant desire is a better roof over their head and clean water. And the left points at wealthy business people crying another lie: that somehow their lack of a job and their crappy house is down to those business people. "Vote for us and we'll sort it" the left said all those years and delivered nothing. So what remains for the voter: carrying on electing wealthy left wing politicians - Elizabeth Warren, Ed Miliband, Francois Hollande, Yanis Varoufakis, Hillary Clinton - and getting no change or buying a different lie from someone like Trump or Le Pen?
What makes all this worse is that the left then tell people who want a better job, a nicer house, a happier future for their children that it's about defending something called the liberal society. But what exactly is this liberal society we're defending? Is it getting people arrested for saying stuff on Twitter? Is it privileging group characteristics and in doing so creating a sort of equalities tops trumps? Or maybe it's telling folk that black people can't be racists and women can't be violent?
A liberal society isn't one that smashes and bullies to stop Milo Yiannopoulos speaking. A liberal society is one that listens politely to Milo, tells him he's a preening dickhead and then moves on, smiling. A liberal society doesn't stop people going to an event by blocking the streets, it's one that argues and engages with folk we disagree with. A liberal society is one that rejects the bullying of the mob even if it does get John Wilkes into parliament.
My two questions perhaps aren't answered in full but it does seem that the left should consider whether it has a beam in its eye that results in that frightening degree of unawareness. Yes Trump and the alt-right are liars but so is the radical left. Now, as the soft left makes common cause with the anti-democrats of street anarchy and communism, we see that the left as a whole is tearing down the principles of liberal society because it fears an illusory monster will do that if they don't.
The left's biggest lie is that they now own the word liberal, that their state-directed dystopia is that liberal society we should defend. For me a liberal society is one that doesn't make ill smokers stand in the street because you don't like them. A liberal society is one that does tax people to change their behaviour. A liberal society is one that thinks politeness is important but doesn't lock people up for being rude, dumb or offensive. A liberal society is one that values enterprise and encourages it in everyone. A liberal society is a place where people can speak freely, do business, succeed and fail without that society's opprobrium. And a liberal society is, above all, one that doesn't place one set of people - experts, aristocrats or celebrities - above others.
We do not live in a liberal society. The left do not and never have believed in a liberal society. Why the hell should I believe that their marching to defend that liberal society against Trump, Brexit and other demons is anything other than a big, fat stinking lie?