Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Searchlight and "bolstering the mainstream middle"

The Searchlight Educational Trust (SET) has just released a report called Fear & Hope. It has gained a lot of headlines, and claims that "There is a new political spectrum and dynamic that explains attitudes to culture, identity and nation." It is interesting reading.

SET is, of course, closely connected to Searchlight Magazine and to the Hope not Hate campaign. Whereas Unite Against Fascism are a front for the Socialist Workers' Party and have styled themselves as almost apolitical in their efforts to get politicians and mainstream liberals on board - not to mention some disturbing Islamist allies - Searchlight have a definite set of politics. Albeit that these are the politics of mainstream statism, with an unsavoury history of working closely with the intelligence services.

With that in mind, it is no surprise that the report's main point of reference is "extremism." This false dichotomy between "extremist" and "moderate," with the status quo thus being the acceptable norm, informs the perspective of the entire document. To see things in other terms, and reject the status quo, thus undoubtedly puts me in another camp of "extremists" along with most of the working class.

A case in point on this is the definition of the "new 'tribes' of British identity politics." They range from "confident multiculturalists" to those with "active enmity" to outsiders, the former obviously being the best position and the latter the worst. Thus, there is a sliding scale between being pro-multiculturalism (good) and nationalistic/anti-immigration (very, very bad), with absolutely no room for those who don't fit on the scale anywhere. You either accept multiculturalism, or are sliding to fascism.

This isn't to say that there isn't some insight provided by these rather facile divisions. For example, it points out that "graduates or post graduates" who are "predominantly professionals and managers" are more likely to "think Britain has benefited from immigration." Whilst "the unskilled and the unemployed" and those "most disengaged from traditional political processes" will be "most hostile to immigrants and what they think immigration represents." Even though Searchlight goes further and offers often quite banal stereotypes around this class divide, it does back up my argument that fascism is a class issue and its rise is connected to the alienation and atomisation of ordinary people under capitalism.

However, Searchlight has taken the traditional liberal approach to these findings. Rather than acknowledge the clear class issue, the report goes on to waffle about the "squeezed middle" and the "swing vote." This is, after all, about pulling people who might support fascists back to mainstream parties.

This is equally clear from the report's recommendations on "what's next." Economic security takes a back seat to buzzwords and more cheap identity politics. The report derides "the dismissive attitude of some towards the importance of national identity," citing Benedict Anderson's suggestion that "nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love."

The onus for changing attitudes falls not on organised communities and ordinary people, but on "politicians, the media and even the leadership of Muslim community organisations" and, more broadly, "the Government." For all that he insists it must go beyond such a thing, Lowles is essentially arguing for "shared identities, local as well as national," to be imposed from above. The state dictates what we should hold as "generally accepted universal values," and how they are exercised. After all, as he finally and explicitly spells out in this last section, "by linking seemingly-opposite extremes we are bolstering the mainstream middle."

The only problem is that many people are as fed up with the "mainstream middle" as they are with the "extremes."

Both fascism and Islamism are violent ideologies which play on in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, using race and religion respectively as ways to divide and dominate the working class. But the mainstream is capitalism. It is that society wherein a tiny minority control the vast majority of the wealth, and an increasing number of people are struggling to make ends meet. It is, as Lowles and his co-author spot but gloss over early on, the world which inspires "economic pessimism."

And when there is no other alternative, because the left are seen to have either failed or sold out their core constituency, then why not be an "extremist?"

For politicians and the state, galvanised by Searchlight, the task is to contain and appease that growing discontent. Not by pulling people out of the blind alley of nationalism, but by taking it over and making it suit their purposes. Hence why the report "throws down a challenge to the political parties to really understand what is happening in the body politic and then do something about it." The point is to maintain the integrity of the status quo, not build a more positive challenge to it.

For anti-fascists, the task is somewhat different. Class is the great injustice that lies at the heart of our society. We need to reject those who would divide us by race, religion, and shallow identity politics - to physically drive them off the street where necessary. But we should give no succour to those who stand for the status quo, and the capitalist system.

The working class has to stand for the self-defence of its own communities against all enemies. Made to choose between the "mainstream middle" and the "extremists," there is no reason we shouldn't reject both. And if, to Nick Lowles, that makes me an extremist, so be it.