We seem to be on the brink of having a government that shares the assumptions of the alt-Right. Peter Dutton’s challenge to Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership (with Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop now also waiting in the wings) is the high point after weeks and months, and indeed years, of incitement by alt-Right media figures and of course lengthy destabilisation by Tony Abbott and his parliamentary supporters.
The campaign has seen any number of calculated campaigns and attacks in recent times. Turnbull appalled any constituent still sympathetic to his plight as ‘liberal’ heart amid the conservative hardheads with his emphatic endorsement of Dutton’s assertion that Melburnians couldn’t go out for a meal without fear of assault by Sudanese youth. Really? That this obvious political manoeuvre might incite racial acts and foster violence itself, not to mention wound Victoria’s black communities—our fellow workers and friends—was of no concern—indeed quite the opposite. Andrew Bolt’s infamous Herald Sun piece generalised the message a few weeks on with the observation that the problem was ethnic and religious ‘tribes’ of all sorts. Were we to see this as any less racist than Dutton’s comments? Now the South Caulfield ‘tribe’ of Orthodox Jews might be added to the list of ‘ghettoised’ communities—bravely ‘outed’ in this gesture of balance (for their obvious marks of difference?). And then there was Fraser Anning’s speech to parliament that carried forward the Right’s attack on ‘cultural Marxists’—supporters of multiculturalism, Islam, refugees, same-sex marriage, Labor and who knows what else—embedded in a paean to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and to settler-colonial nation-building (Queensland was terra nullius, by the way). Here, we were told, a vast engineering project to turn back the rivers would, together with many more coal mines, ensure jobs and prosperity through direct state involvement: the alt-Right’s partial vision of a guided economy. Peter Dutton is also promising coal mines and infrastructural developments—anything brought home to Australian soil for Australians to ensure a closing of the borders around an Australian way of life.
The assumptions and messages of this grouping are hardly novel. They replicate in form, content and tone those of alt-Right conservatives across the Anglophone world and beyond. As we have seen in the Trump ascendency and in Brexit, racialist accounts of social decline, the targeting of visible minorities for taking jobs and for undermining common values, and supposed challenges to established authority structures, not least the authority of the nation state to delineate its borders absolutely, are the triggers for alt-Right indignation and the stuff of its inflammatory strategies. The references are to the value of a common identity, of a common culture, though clearly not that celebrated by small-‘l’ liberals and democrats, who see Australian culture in terms of the civic values of a democratic and pluralistic nation.
If many of us are not just rationally opposed but also spooked by the Dutton ascendency, and the populism of media figures like Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin and the Sydney shock jocks, it is because historically, too, there are forerunners to our alt-Right. There is plenty in the unfolding political culture of the present—it is certainly retributive, perhaps malevolent—that is unnervingly redolent of cultural-political crises of the past. The answers to the social problems of the mid-twentieth century in many countries in the West were that a place of strength and action outside the established polity needed to be established; that retrieving a certain purity of culture or common identity would fuel the people’s strength; that firm lines would need to be drawn and hard decisions made; that offending categories of people would be identified; that modernity would deliver technical progress—even while appeals to some mythical past would drive that onwards. While certainly not all of these factors are present today, as Guy Rundle in this issue of Arena Magazine makes clear, the appeal of the alt-Right is increasingly to a construct of an ethno-religious grouping—Anglo and Christian. Peter Dutton’s ‘priority refugee’ in the figure of the South African farmer (see Jeremy Baskin’s article in Arena Magazine no. 154) is illustrative of these various points.
It was of some interest that in Fraser Anning’s speech, Antonio Gramsci, a mid-twentieth-century Italian Marxist, emerged as the apparent key to grasping who the ‘cultural Marxists’ are and what their program is. Unbeknown to this supposed group, it is Gramsci’s notion of culture that informs their views and activities. Languishing in a fascist prison and preoccupied with why then-contemporary worker revolutions had failed and no lasting change in people’s consciousness had been achieved, Gramsci had looked to a notion of cultural hegemony to explain the hold of the status quo, a major element being the deep-set influence of the Italian Catholic Church, together with other aspects of ‘culture’. But of course the contemporary setting is nothing like the one Gramsci was relating to—pre–Second World War capitalist nation-state polities, societies with the obviously delineated class divisions of a manufacturing economy and ‘backward’ peasant life, the Catholic Church a singular and all-pervasive moral authority in the lives of the poor.
We know that the moniker ‘cultural Marxist’ is a scare word meant to condense feelings of insecurity into the figure of some militant, organised leftist vanguard. But the idea that radical cultural politics today conforms to any such view is ridiculous. The alt-Right’s ‘cultural Marxists’ are not a group, and they certainly aren’t Marxist (LGBTI groups, climate-change activists, refugee-rights advocates), and it is only by a postmodern adaptation that anyone who calls themselves Marxist today propounds the programs of those various social movements and identity groups. Indeed one of the vastly different aspects of anything that can be considered cultural politics today is exactly its expression as identity politics, and as pointed out by others, the alt-Right itself fits this description. If it now projects its base as first and foremost an ethno-religious value grouping, it is at the expense of other Australians seeing them as the ‘farmers’ or ‘Queenslanders’ who would once have sought representation and redress as regional and economic entities within the terms of a ‘commonwealth’.
It is exactly the universality of the arrangements and logics of a notion of a commonwealth that are now in question. Identity politics of any stripe shifts the emphasis away from social structure or relations onto subjectivity, and thus onto feeling, ‘authenticity’ and perspective, fuelling and giving a certain political shape to demands and grievances. It suggests difference from the outset in a positional battle rather than similarities or likenesses across groups—which would provide a ground for well-intentioned exchanges—and it does not look to broad social developments that might underpin the emergence of new social actors and relations. In other words, this kind of politics reacts to an emergent sense of change rather than examining what might be a general cause of unease or a sense of loss, and certainly not the complex means by which such feelings are mediated, as in the case of climate change and its denial.
If the right wing really wanted to understand the cultural emphasis in much of today’s politics, including its own, it would ask what has shaped that general movement towards identity politics rather than focus on the particular claims of various groups. Why does identity emerge as a key element in political consciousness today? Why can’t it be taken for granted as once it was? What are the social springs of this form of politics? As these are social questions, a social answer, rather than an overly ideological reaction, might emerge.
Of course this would be to ask the Right to understand something of the nature of the type of capitalism it has, at least until very recently, aggressively championed, and in large part still will, despite some forms of protection being reintroduced, as in the case of Trump. None are willing to address how the processes of economic globalisation that have been unleashed over the past thirty years have transformed how economies work, how banks work, how the relatively stable social relations of a nation have been undermined, and how in such circumstances the nature of personhood and the experience of self are set in motion. In other words, they have no convincing conception of the underlying processes causing the upheaval so many feel, instead blaming only what seems at some obvious level to challenge the familiar past—like taking climate change seriously.
History, if there is one, will look back on this period and the contortions politically around climate change, which again is at the centre of the political crisis, as surely a deep psychological effect, not primarily the result of rational or ideological contestation. How can any of us bear to imagine that that familiar world—of beloved place, of nature, of embodied and sensuous existence in relation to a given world, to the taken-for-granted ‘backdrop’ of all our lives and of life—may disappear? It doesn’t have to be part of a catastrophising imagination to see this possibility. Quite apart from the science being there to support this scenario, it could be the kind of question that would open us all, as part still of something like a commonwealth—an imagined framework for the welfare of all—to an assessment of the things that matter most, and of the forces that skew and undermine them.
Neoliberal capitalism has delivered the precariousness that so many people experience today: in work and employment, in families and mental health, in relation to place and climate, in relation to war and displacement. That liberal democracies as our representative form of government have presided over these developments is a crucial observation, made often in the pages of Arena Magazine, but any critique of that form of government is not limited to the grievances of the alt-Right or the constituencies it seeks to represent.
As the major political parties lose legitimacy among the people, and we look ahead to upheavals on a scale not seen before, we must ask what form of democratic polity might yet be created to face those challenges in a truly representative way. The alt-Right thinks it has the solution, but, being unable to address the question of the nature of late-capitalist life and its deep structures, it can only resort to authoritarian solutions. If the attacks on liberal democracy in the mid-twentieth century were serious, what is to be said when liberal democracy is unable to address the profound challenges of the present? Will it—will we—be able to come to terms with the fact that high-tech capitalism does not offer a stable world with a place for all and a living planet for us to inhabit?