Over the past two years, my colleagues and I have developed a disturbing verbal tic when we appear at public events. We reference, without fail, “these troubled times”. And, in response, the audience gives a fearful sigh of recognition. No matter what the event is about – party politics, grassroots activism, the arts or identity and belonging – the conversation always circles back to a shared sense of worry about what the future might hold.
Last week, I gave a keynote lecture at a major university about “these troubled times”. I said that I felt that the mainstream political rhetoric around me has become divisive and insular, and that the tenor of discussion itself has become aggressive. I wondered how I might regain a feeling of clarity and stability.
I thought the students, academics and university support staff in the audience would put up their hands and tell me about all the projects and initiatives they’re involved in that prove my despondency wrong. Instead, we were all in sober agreement. We joked that the lecture was to be a kind of blood-letting where we released our sense of anxiety and tried to analyse what fed it.
So, what has caused this sense of malaise? At its heart, I think the prognosis is so frightening that we don’t want to face it. I think we are edging towards a third world war. It doesn’t look like the previous two world wars. There are no big blocs of allies sending tanks against a common enemy: the liberal democrats against the authoritarian fascists.
There is no single front. Instead, there are a dozen different points of fracture and crisis: cyber warfare and climate change are ushering in an unknown future; a new generation of technocratic power-holders such as Facebook and Amazon seem to be above the law and wield more influence than individual nation states; networks of vested interests (think of men such as Steve Bannon and Aaron Banks) are allegedly able to skew public opinion and sow political division.
Ordinarily, the battle lines would be clearly drawn: pluralistic, progressive and open societies would speak out against militarised, repressive, heavily controlled and regressive (say, in terms of attitudes to LGBT people and women’s roles) states.
But ideology no longer offers certainty: we see such counter-intuitive overtures as Trump’s admiring comments about Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. We notice centrist and Left-leaning parties absorbing the concerns and kowtowing to the interests of the far-Right – such as their “admission” that immigration, multiculturalism and plurality of faith, heritage, colour, language and culture are to be interrogated and resisted instead of fostered.
Across Left and Right alike, public debate has been corrupted by aggression, sloganeering and macho posturing. I have voted Labour all my life, except in protest after Iraq and Brexit, when I voted Lib Dem. But in this new aggressive world, to criticise Jeremy Corbyn is to receive vicious abuse from his cult followers, along with the accusation of being “a Blairite”!
So even Labour, supposedly the party that champions feminist values and racial diversity, is governed by a macho principle. I hate Corbyn’s thug army of tight black T-shirted footsoldiers just as much as I hate any boys’ club. Yet their aggressive mode of action has become normalised, leaving me feeling alienated both from governing party and opposition alike.
At a much wider level, we are seeing the frightening manifestation of this macho principle in global rulers: men such as Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump, Orban, Edogan, Salvini, Duterte and Bolsonaro. They share the same qualities, values and demeanour, despite differences of historical context, geographic location and political system.
Brexit and Trump are a part of this new worrying world, but they are both signs of a broader tendency. It is suggested, by some, that the Brexit vote was racist and the 2016 US election result was propelled by misogyny against Clinton and a whitelash against Obama, and that both represent a self-righteous philistinism. But that would be to avoid the hard fact that some of the grievances which led to these results had been incubated by decades of under-investment in basic services, education, infrastructure and healthcare; by stalled social mobility, painful inequality and the destruction of workers’ rights, benefits and job security.
As a result, we see, in England, people who can’t afford a home, even if they work all hours. We see people who have to visit food banks in order to feed themselves. Ordinary people no longer believe that anyone at the top is advocating for them. And it’s happening the world over as infrastructure, mobility and ordinary people’s safety net dissolves around them.
There’s a tendency towards insularity, self-righteous monoglot ignorance, xenophobia, nativism, white supremacy and jingoism. Ugly hate crimes and racist violence against anyone who looks or sounds ‘different’ are out in the open and increasing. It’s online, sure. But it’s also on the streets. I’m experiencing comments and insults and the kind of casual racism that my mother heard 45 years ago, but that I had been spared, until now.
On a train to Hull, City of Culture, in 2017, the chatty woman next to me was regaling the carriage with dreams about her forthcoming retirement in Spain. Then she lowered her voice, gave me a long sidelong glance and said, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate other races or anything, but,” then she began snickering, “I’m getting the hell out of this country!”
A half-Pakistani but fair-skinned friend of mine was in a taxi, also in Hull, and commented, “This looks like a nice town.” “That’s because there’s no foreigners in it,” retorted the driver.
At an everyday level, there is an underlying feeling of aggression and self-righteousness – as a woman of colour I have a fine-tuned sense for latent prejudice, having dealt with it all my life – and I have seen multiple times how petty arguments, say in a shop queue or on the street, end with me or another person of colour being told, “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.”
What happened to so affect public rhetoric and to empower this kind of self-righteous, philistine aggression? It’s the result of the conflation of several issues: the fear of terrorism, Islamophobia, scepticism about multiculturalism, aversion to immigration and immigrants and scare-mongering around refuge and asylum.
People are afraid and state action is doing nothing to dispel these fears – if anything, it’s making things worse, much like Theresa May’s “hostile environment” speech did back in 2015.
We’re seeing the steady normalisation of detention, invasive control in the name of security, imprisonment, internment, militarisation, surveillance, police violence, forced family break-ups and state brutality.
Donald Trump’s camps for migrant children are a repulsive new low in this dark tendency, as are China’s camps for its Uighur minority and the ghettoisation of Syrian refugees in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
It beggars belief that barely a decade ago we were watching the pan-Arab revolutions. With its hopeful young populace taking to the streets, building on previous generations of pro-democracy activism to protest against Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad and other authoritarian leaders, the so-called Arab Spring shimmered with potential and optimism.
The region has now devolved into a horror show of fragile states, unaffiliated militia, terrorist death cults like ISIS and razed homelands from which millions are fleeing – in addition to those escaping extreme poverty, political persecution, authoritarianism and climate change from Afghanistan. Iran and Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.
My fear is that once Angela Merkel – the last grown-up in the room and a woman I admire for her stance on refuge and asylum – has left political life, we will not be able to turn things around. We will be over-powered by the fascist tendency. The signs are loud and clear: even where they have not ascended to outright power, the far-Right have made significant election gains across the world.
At my university talk, a woman asked me what a solution could be, if our unease was just making us ill and grassroots activity (such as the large rallies in favour of a People’s Vote) weren’t making much impact on those in power, at the top of the hierarchy.
We agreed that the system itself didn’t need to be smashed up and reconfigured; indeed, there is no time left for that. Instead, we need a cohesive, strong and distinctive opposition, one which boldly stands against what is happening now and faces contemporary issues head-on.
If we do not get it together, we are handing the world over to society’s worst tendencies. A macho, violent race war is exactly what both ISIS and the white supremacists want.
Social breakdown, with the spoils up for grabs, is exactly what rich and powerful vested interests want. Division, escapism and isolation is exactly what the technocrats want, the better to monetise all those clicks and maintain the flow of entertainment and fake news keeping us hooked to our screens.
And a loss of faith in institutions and organisations of justice, government and culture are what the philistines want, so that they can seize power and rule by mob force and the threat of violence.
As a political analyst, I dislike overblown reactions, passive fatalism or the tabula rasa, shock-doctrine death-drive that welcomes catastrophe in the desperate hope of building a better world in the ruins. But if we look at the facts and observe what is going on, it is worrying.
The fascist tendency crosses vast differences of language, region and culture and has infiltrated mainstream discourse. It is difficult to find a united bloc of international allies who will work together to fight it. As such we are in a worse position than during 1914-1948. If my worst fears are true, anyone born this year will inherit a broken world and a decimated earth.
I hope that I’m wrong. I hope I laugh about this essay two years from now. I hope I am being hysterical, paranoid, misguided or any other word a troll could throw at me. But I am worried. Not by the negative factors I’ve outlined but by the lack of effective, unified and powerful opposition to this atrocious thuggery. We need to find our voice, unify our forces, defend our beliefs and wield our power before time runs out and trouble comes to our door.