Sunday, 21 August 2011

Populist authoritarianism - and its limits

Dietrich Wagner, victim of police use of water cannon
There's a good post at Latte Labour called 'The Carnival of Reaction' about political and public responses to the riots. This is a slightly developed, edited version of a comment I posted there.

The results of polling in recent days are grim, but I don't think public opinion is as bad as it may initially appear. There is, as ever, a difference between attitudes when things are at a very abstract/general level and when it is more human.

It's like when someone is hostile to immigration in a survey but defends a family threatened with deportation in their own area. It's easy for people to say 'bring out the water cannon' or 'send the troops on the streets', but if these things actually happened many of them would soon be horrified. The more real something becomes, the more attitudes shift (see HERE for the background to the picture above).

It's also worth noting that the latest polling on cuts and the economy is good news for the left. There's also been a general shift in polls against the Tories and government, with falling approval ratings etc - a pretty steady curve for a year now. It's not like there's a broader shift to the right or in support of the government.

A key factor in public support for ludicrously disproportionate measures is a widespread view of an underclass which is a 'feral mob': something different to ourselves, apart from society. It's roughly what Owen Jones writes about in 'Chavs'. Most people don't see the rioters as being like themselves. It's thus far easier to support brutal measures against them, and not give a damn if they're jailed, evicted or have their benefits cut.

This reflects how some of the right-wing attitudes about class and poverty have become embedded in popular consciousness. Many people don't appear to be thinking 'That could be the lad next door getting banged up just because of what he put on facebook', or 'it could be one of my family getting their benefits cut'. Instead they perceive such people as 'other', as 'them' not 'us', as a threat.

This is a problem for the left, but fortunately such prejudice co-exists with more progressive instincts. There are a number of key responses, it seems to me. 
Firstly, we need to articulate a clear class-based politics that cuts through the scapegoating, rejects writing off a small minority as 'undeserving', 'sick' and 'feral', and reasserts shared class interests.
We need to re-direct the fire against the real enemy. A number of good arguments are currently being articulated by many socialists, such as noting the gulf between draconian sentences for rioters and the light touch approach to MPs who fiddled their expenses or senior News International executives, or drawing attention to the hypocrisy of old Bullingdon boys like David Cameron and Boris Johnson demanding tough sentences for behaviour no worse than their own youthful escapades.
It is also a matter of re-focusing attention on the social and economic conditions - poverty, inequality, racism and austerity - which give rise to social unrest, and calling for action to tackle them instead of a punitive, authoritarian backlash.  
Furthermore, we need a mass anti-cuts movement to embody those arguments and to fight for that kind of class politics. It needs to unite different sections of the working class, including those living in the most deprived communities (thus undermining attempts at divide and rule), and ensure there is broad-based political resistance to channel the widespread anger at injustice and inequality in our society.

1 comment:

  1. A very good post indeed. The point about people being able to hold contradictory ideas is an important one. I also think that as unnerving as they might be, some of the more reactionary responses - send in the army, bring out the water cannons - are quite soft. Although hardly scientific evidence, I have found some of the very same people who expressed such ideas in conversation immediately after the riots may be alarmed at the thought of people being evicted from council flats or the length of many of the sentences. A more difficult one is the view that torching properties or looting small businesses is, as Lee Jasper put it at the London meeting, 'shitting on your own doorstep' or 'hurting your own'. Lee got it spot on in arguing that the Left's responsibility is to channel the anger that fueled the riots into a political response and take aim at the real enemy.