A conversation I had with members of my family in the late 1980s has become vivid in my mind over recent weeks. We were living through the height of Thatcherism, when the right had a seemingly unshakeable grasp on politics and culture, a period when the gains of progressive politics were under attack. My relatives wanted to ride this wave of reaction and see the death penalty restored. They were confident Margaret Thatcher would make this happen for them.
I took a deep breath and argued with them coolly and reasonably. But what I told them was that even under such a government, our political leaders would not dare to bring back the death penalty, because they knew it would unleash a level of fury amongst the population that would rock the foundations of society – people would rise up in opposition, and that opposition would know no bounds.
My basic message was: if you think you’re angry, bring back the death penalty and I’ll show you what anger looks like.
They were taken aback, because they really did think all the anger was on their side, and that the ‘woolly liberals’ they opposed had no emotion invested in any of their politics. They seemed to have no idea of the depth of passion their opponents might have in their commitment to certain fundamental values.
One of the characterisations of the Brexit campaign is that while the Remain side used reason and evidence to make their case, the Leave campaign appealed to people’s emotions, specifically to a level of resentment and anger about immigration and the remoteness of government. All the anger, so the story goes, was on the Leave side.
In fact there were appeals to reason and emotion on both sides, but undoubtedly many supporters of Brexit were irrationally angry with people who were not like them. The polling evidence shows that the majority of Brexiters also disliked feminism, multiculturalism and environmentalism. The dominant narrative seeking to explain the Referendum result has been that large sections of the electorate felt that they were ‘left behind’, and I think this is true, but not in the sense meant by that explanation.
These people had been left behind, but not only by economic factors to do with globalisation, but also by political progress. Their reactionary world view – framed by misogyny, homophobia and racism – was not being listened to anymore. It had been squeezed out of politics, as even the Conservative Party under David Cameron sought to divest itself of its ‘nasty’ elements, and out of popular media and culture as well. The dramatic rise in hate crime post June 23rd provides evidence for this reading of the ‘left behind’ narrative, as many people felt liberated to openly express their prejudice against those they saw as ‘strangers’ in their midst.
To characterise this form of anger as only a symptom of economic marginalisation is to suggest that if such people had prospered under the neoliberal order these attitudes would have disappeared. But recent events have shown us what was always beneath the surface. The racism, sexism and homophobia we are seeing have not been caused by the Referendum – they were already there, waiting for a cause to unite behind, and Cameron, unwittingly, supplied them with one. While some sections of the liberal media and political class may be surprised by their re-appearance, for other sections of the community these prejudices never went away – they were not that far below the surface and those communities have had to deal with them close up for decades.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Election and the rise of the alt-Right tells the same story, not of the economically left-behind but of those who felt excluded from power, influence and significance during eight years of a black Democrat President. This is a politics of resentment, in Nietzsche’s sense of a grudge-filled hatred, and the misogyny, homophobia and racism during the Trump campaign and since his victory tell us what to expect in the coming months and years – not an attack on globalisation, but an attack on whatever gains progressive politics has made over the past few decades.
We now realise how fragile those gains were, how the politics of hate many naively thought had been defeated had never gone away, and how powerful those who champion that politics now believe themselves to be – and how far they may be prepared to go. We also realise the weakness of explaining reactionary prejudice in terms of economic deprivation, as a good slice of the American population who are doing very well threw themselves behind Trump with enthusiasm, and there is little doubt that the wealthy political elite behind Trump actively share those prejudices rather than simply exploit them.
So how do we fight back? We must not lose our commitment to rational argument and evidence as it is this that marks us out, but we have seen that they are of limited use against reactionary resentment. There are two others things we must do.
The first is simply to learn once and for all that victories in progressive politics are always fragile, that tolerance has never been a dominating characteristic of British political and social life, and that these gains always need to be actively defended. What we have here is not a radical fracture with the past, but the continuation of a long struggle that stretches back through our collective history.
Throughout that history there has always been only a very thin layer of Enlightenment which a small part of the population bought into. When it comes to political progress, the truth is that a large section of the British people were left untouched by the liberal consensus around gender equality, gay rights and multiculturalism which emerged over the decades.
But the second thing we must do is remember that the gains progressive politics made over the decades, or further back in the United Kingdom’s history, were never achieved through rational argument and evidence alone. Those victories were won by angry people. Those of us who campaigned against racism, sexism, imperialism, for gay rights, rarely did so through trying to reason with our opponents – we marched, we shouted, we picketed, we demonstrated and sometimes we rioted.
That is why that conversation all those years ago has come back to me. Although I kept my cool, I remember the deep, incandescent rage I felt inside that enabled me to draw a clear line which my opponents crossed at their peril. I feel that same rage now.
And so those of us who believe in equality and justice for all people wherever they are in the world and whatever their history have to rediscover our anger and our passion, to push back against the politics of resentment. We must remember that we and our predecessors only won our battles against reactionary politics through passion, commitment and a burning anger at injustice. It’s time to bite back.