Increasingly extremist politics are finding their way into the British mainstream and are being treated as legitimate positions on the democratic spectrum. This is not only a crisis of one major democratic party but of both and so is also a crisis of UK democracy as a whole.
The concept of ‘populism’ can help us to understand the similarities between the challenges to democratic thinking within both the Labour and the Conservative traditions.
That these radical challenges are rising on both the left and the right helps to prevent either from being defeated internally, as they might have been in what we hoped were more normal times.
Challenges to democracy come from a number of directions. What I mean by democracy here is not simply the rule of the majority, but a whole system and culture of democratic life: the democratic and secular state; the rule of law; the principle that all human beings are in a profound sense of equal value; the deepening of international co-operation, law and trade; freedom of speech and association.
Of course all of these elements are open to critique, but what is happening more and more is that the critique becomes the whole, and that which is critiqued gets completely devalued.
The populist challenge to democracy in this sense is by no means a solely British phenomenon but is gaining strength all over Europe and America. The challenge says that these principles by which we live are really ‘fake news’.
They are pretences of decency which dishonestly manufacture the consent of those who are complicit with their own subordination.
Democracy and human rights, according to this view, only serve to hide the reality of illegitimate power, exploitation and alienation; they are worse than useless because they are the tools which allow oppression to persist.
More and more we are seeing antisemitism, xenophobia and racism being interpreted as passionate cries of the oppressed against faux-democratic society. And antiracism, as well as democratic thought more generally, is portrayed as a discourse of power, mobilized by the ‘elites’, the ‘establishment’, the ‘cosmopolitans’ and the ‘one per cent’.
Antisemitism is visible in the resurgence of a post-Stalinist left, most clearly in the Corbyn faction, but also on the left in France, in the US and in a number of other countries.
Xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia, are important parts of the emotional mix within the Brexit and Trump movements, as well as the AFD in Germany, the Front National in France, the new Italian Government and the Orban Premiership in Hungary – which mixes them with antisemitism into a full-house of bigotry; as does, of course, the Islamist variant.
None of these movements proudly embrace their own antisemitism or racism; rather they angrily deny any suggestion of it and often proceed from denial straight to counter-attack against those suggesting it.
The Jew who raises the issue of antisemitism on the left for example, is accused of being part of a Zionist (read racist) conspiracy to silence the voice of the Palestinians and to smear their supporters as antisemitic; a disgraceful mobilization of Jewish victim-power
The ‘cosmopolitan’ who raises the issue of xenophobia in the Trump or Brexit movement for example, is accused of being part of an elitist disinformation campaign to silence the legitimate grievances of the so-called ‘white working class’.
Of course the working class is emphatically not white, it is diverse; and while there is surely some working class support for populist resentment, these are also movements of the middle classes and the rich.
On a number of occasions recently I have had people contacting me, saying I am an ‘expert’ on left antisemitism and asking me whether it is time, yet, to leave the UK.
I am scandalized by the fact that this question is being asked. When my mum, a refugee from Germany, was granted British nationality, she thought she was safe forever. She was so proud of her British passport.
I answer the question with an emphatic ‘no’. But it is not quite as emphatic as it used to be.
I do not know what concrete and immediate dangers might flow from having a Prime Minister who is antisemitic in the sense that Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic: that is, one who stands in a Stalinist political tradition of antisemitism, one who has spent decades cultivating political alliances with antisemites, one whose instinct is to jump to the defence of antisemites against Jews, one whose tenure as leader of the Labour Party has seen it become what Chuka Umuna called an institutionally racist party, a space which is not hostile to certain kinds of antisemitism.
But it is not the immediate and concrete dangers of this or that scenario that I am really afraid of. What I am really afraid of is the rise of populist movements of furious individuals which may be influential in events to come.
I am afraid of the cadres of future leaders who are currently being educated to believe that the Jews are the enemy of the left (at least those Jews who refuse to disavow what is called, with a venomous spit, ‘Zionism’).
I am afraid of the future leaders who are currently being educated that the ‘globalists’ and the ‘cosmopolitan elite’ are organising a coup against the ‘will of the people’.
I am afraid of those who will embrace the narrative that good British people will have been betrayed by the supra-national ‘establishment’.
Populism is a pre-totalitarian movement, in the sense described by Hannah Arendt. It is defined above all by an ultra-radical critique of all that exists and an immediate appetite to tear it all down and start again, as though nothing which exists has any value and as though we have nothing to lose.
It seeks to create the ‘new man’, unsullied either by self-interest or by false consciousness and for whom nothing is to be done for its own sake; everything is subordinated to the big project, the thousand year Reich, the higher stages of Communism, the Caliphate.
Family, love and friendship and the pursuit of happiness are strictly prohibited – each individual loves only the leader. Civil Society, the sphere in which people are free to follow their own interest, is abolished.
It cultivates contempt for any politics of concrete advantage. The enemy, the Jew, the Kulak, the bourgeois, is objective; they are not hated because of something they do, but because of who they are; and they stand between “us” and the good life.
Labour antisemitism, on its own, does not pose an existential threat to British Jews or to democracy in the UK. But the rise of a left wing totalitarian movement might; and the rise of a right wing totalitarian movement might.
There is a serious risk that Britain could be heading into significant economic and political crisis, as fervent hopes for Brexit and/or in Corbynism are eventually dashed. That is when British democracy might face formidable threats.
Jews are not leaving Britain because of Corbyn. But Corbyn, and Brexit, and the rise of anti-democratic politics, are leading Jews, and not only Jews, to think about plan B and plan C, should things become more frightening.
By Dr David Hirsh, senior lecturer in Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. David is author of the book ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism‘.