How to stem the rise of the far right

How to stem the rise of the far right

What unites:

  • those voting for Reform in the hope of net-zero immigration;
  • advocates of a 3-day week;
  • those forced to work on a builiding site outside Manila in 47.7 degree heat, burning their hands on metal beams;
  • kids addicted to mobile phones; and
  • victims of the opioids crisis in USA?

At first glance, not much. But my contention is that if you dig a little deeper they are all linked by excessive commodification as a result of neo-liberal policies pursued at least since Reagan and Thatcher.

The result of these neo-liberal policies? An inability to live well and prosper even in the midst of national and global economies that are richer than ever.

We can learn from each of these groups:

1. Reform voters: some at least recognise that the cultural dislocation that arises from large-scale immigration isn’t worth the economic benefit that such migrants bring, especially in marginalised communities. People are not commodities to be used and traded for maximal economic gain.

2. Advocates of a 3-day working week: our current employment model often requires, for example, both parents in a family to work full-time in order to afford monthly living costs, making it all but impossible to run a household.

3. Construction workers in Manila: in the UK we are still insulated from some of the worst excesses of commodification. But unless we grasp this nettle we’re heading the same way as those who are forced to grasp burning hot metal to keep their jobs. In the UK that means rejecting as false solutions the abandonment of worker protections, leaving the ECHR etc.

4. Kids and their phones: according to Ofcom 20% of children own a smartphone at age 3-4. It’s hard to imagine a better, or rather worse, form of commodification of a child’s attention in as addictive a way as giving them a phone aged 3.

5. Opioids addicts: the Sackler family, aided and abetted by McKinsey, continued to leverage incentives to doctors to prescribe Oxycontin even as the damage it was doing became more evident. This was driven by a desire for profit that excluded any consideration of the human cost ie the commodification of addiction.

Aside from the deeply unethical nature of some of this stuff, why does it matter?

In part, because the economic efficiency of neo-liberalism leaves us less wiggle room when things go wrong. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian academic, writes persuasively that as we seek out ever more markets to continue to grow our economies, our economic interconnectedness makes us more brittle in the face of dislocations. For example we can’t stop buying oil and gas from one particular murderous dictator without ravaging our economy.

But it also matters because neo-liberalism is becoming a rather well camouflaged elephant in the room when it comes to elections. Neither Labour nor the Tories are even asking the right questions about this stuff. By contrast, whilst I revile the AfD and National Rally, they are drawing voters in because they are prepared to challenge the crime that arises when we deny human beings the basic dignity of a job that allows them to live well, or the atomisation that occurs when communities don’t share  a common language or cultural mores.

Back in the UK, both Reform and Corbyn under Labour are attractive to voters because they are both a protest against the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy that has been unchallenged in the past forty years. Reform might choose to challenge the commodification of labour that says we can simply import social workers from the Philippines rather than training and rewarding our own. Corbyn might choose to challenge the commodification of basic human  needs such as access to clean water.

Both in their way are challenging the undignified, exhausting and powerless experience of working a minimum-wage job in an economy that sees you and your needs as markets to be exploited for maximal efficiency. But neither response is particularly economically literate.

Unless those who are economically literate are prepared to address the elephant in the room that is neo-liberalism, voters will continue to either disengage from democracy entirely, or to vote for either far left or far right voices that do talk about this stuff.

Mainstream solutions that don’t scapegoat the powerless and don’t rely on magic money trees are hard to come by. However, a good base to build on is a system of stakeholder capitalism* backed by a second chamber of citizens assemblies to replace the House of Lords. The former empowers workers and users of a service and draws them into the capitalist system (the best method of driving prosperity that humans have yet devised). The latter allows those who are pointing at that big leathery grey thing in the corner a voice, but also scrutinises their proposed solutions so that the rest of us can decide whether they are a cure or a sticking plaster.

We must do this, or be faced with France’s current election woes in five or ten years’ time. Which leads me onto the Cleitophon criterion: I don’t think we will grasp this particular nettle. Even writing this post I can appreciate how hard it is to grasp; by contrast how easy it is to continue to scapegoat immigrants, the feckless, CEOs, bankers. So what odds on a far-right PM in the UK in 2029? Perhaps even from a party that doesn’t exist yet. I can’t find odds on the PM after Starmer being from none of the parties contesting this election, but would put £10 on if I could.

Max H

This is Max H’s debut piece for PB

*The classic text on this is The Modern Corporation, and Private Property by Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means

Comments are closed.