On “The System is Brokenism”
A few scattered thoughts as I wake up again to profound depression.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned (although “we” probably haven’t) over the past disgusting year of 2016, it’s that celebrating and encouraging “anti-establishment” thinking can have terrifying consequences.
Right now Russia, the USA and the UK are now in the grip of dangerous ethno-nationalism. Poland and Hungary have horrible xenophobic governments and France and Austria may have far-right presidents before too long. You can argue about whether or not ethno-nationalism is the same thing as fascism, but you can hardly deny that ethno-nationalism is one of the main things that fascism is made of.
Ethno-nationalists have both stoked and exploited “anti-establishmentism” in order to gain power, not on behalf of “the people” (however conceive) but in order to exploit them more ruthlessly than ever before. As a result the global threat of fascism is stronger than at any time since the end of World War II.
Yet fascism remains as resistible as Arturo Ui. There was no national majority for Hard Brexit in the UK, and no popular majority for Donald Trump. What is needed, more than ever, therefore is a genuinely popular front against fascism – of a kind that fatally failed to cohere in the 1930s – when social democrats felt contaminated by alliances with communists and communists were under orders from Moscow to regard social democrats as no different from and no better than the Nazi party. History has not forgiven the Left for its blinkered purism then and will not forgive the Left now.
Defending democratic socialism means defending democracy. It also means affirming the idea of the rule of law. Defending these things is what legitimates and popularises socialism. Clement Attlee’s government created a more humane and equal society that deserves everybody’s admiration. But Attlee fought fascism first – he joined a coalition against the Nazis first – he defended democracy first.
And so – poor, insignificant little rhetorician that I am – I’ve a bit of advice first.
Any new coalition of anti-fascists needs to eschew the language of saying “the system has failed us” or “people feel the system has let them down”. We have overwhelming evidence that this kind of inchoate anti-establishment rage leads nowhere productive. It leads to fascism. It leads to people trusting in messiah figures rather than institutions of politics and law. From now on, sane and decent people should only slag off “the system” if they have specific proposals to reform the system. Nobody should be saying “the system has failed us” without a very faint comma introducing a clause demonstrating ways in which constitutional reform can strengthen civil society.
When I hear people exclaim “I like Donald Trump because he doesn’t play by the rules?” I think … “what ‘rules’ are you thinking of? The Constitution of the United States? The Rule of Law itself?”
This week we reached a point where a critical mass of people in the world’s most powerful nation decided that they preferred to entrust their liberties to a mentally unstable sexually abusive race-bating sociopath rather than structures of legal and constitutional protection collectively to be disparaged as “the system”?
As for ultimate rights of resistance and revolutionary violence – that’s a more philosophical topic. Successful revolutionaries have, however, made sure that they wanted to replace one legal and constitutional framework with another. The notion that “the system cannot be reformed” logically demands the description of a system which can be reformed. To rail against “the system” without any kind of positive programme – merely to exploit political capital leads not to freedom but thuggery and a subsequent concentration of executive power with fewer restraints than ever before.
Now nothing shows more respect for the Rule of Law than seeking to reform laws and constitutions. But without Rule of Law, without a civic culture that inform people of how they are seek redress from the Law, can be protected by Law, and can influence the making of Law… what you get is not Utopian anarchism but “tough guy” ethno-nationalism of a kind that will morph into Peronism at best or Nazism at worst. Denunciations of “the system” without a reformist agenda with a measure of detail attached lead to state-backed paranoia in which vulnerable minorities are victimised and persecuted.
Which means that nobody is safe – because everybody is in a minority sometimes.