The Guardian is still seen by many to be a ‘paper of the left’. A force for good with its finger on the pulse of the international progressive movement, and a solid, hefty counterweight to the forces of regression that wait ever-patiently on the sidelines, eager to disrupt our fragile civilisation with hate.
In reality it is a steadfastly capitalist, establishment-friendly institution, quite right-wing by any real-world standards of political alignment. It is a paper eager to set subtle but hard limits on how far left any discussion of politics can go by positioning itself as a voice of the ‘sensible’ left and painting by contrast anything further than it as too radical. It is an entity with a good number of skilled people in its employ but it is withering away in the face of its own inability to understand the world around it and for its refusal to see beyond its narrow ideological framework. If The Guardian was a politician it would be Tony Blair: Occasionally saying the right things to appease the socially progressive left, but firmly believing in the dogma of the free market, managerial democracy, and ‘benign’ Western military intervention. It is, in other words, a neoliberal institution, holding fast to the tenets of the orthodoxy that dominated the world for four decades but which since the great crash of 2008 has begun an irrevocable slide towards demise.
How fitting then that for its latest set of features The Guardian has corralled a trio of figures who in many ways represent so well that dying zeitgeist: Tony Blair, ex-PM of Italy Matteo Renzi, and Hillary Clinton. In a series of pieces on the shadowy demon stalking the nightmares of all good liberals, ‘populism’, The Guardian has been trying strenuously to understand this strange, unknowable phenomenon sweeping the globe.
One tragically hilarious thing about The Guardian’s series on populism is nobody there seems to actually understand, or agree on, what the term ‘populism’ means. One of their features is a quiz designed to gauge how populist a leader a reader might be—and in what political direction. You answer a series of policy-based questions and it places you on a plot of populism, with the y-axis denoting the level of populism your answers reflect and the x-axis showing how your answers align you with the left and right wings of international politics. There are some world leaders on the plot as reference points. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos. Angela Merkel. Hungary’s fascist Orban. To understand The Guardian’s dizzy viewpoint all you need to know is that the plot has Barack Obama to the left of Evo Morales of Bolivia. Barack ‘Drone Strike Happy, Bank Bailout Friendly’ Obama to the left of Evo ‘Second Most Prominent Leader Of Latin America’s Leftist Pink Tide Of The 2000’s’ Morales. Populism can be a rather hazy term. There is a great Jacobin piece which details its etymology, historical roots, and its differing meanings around the world, but the sum of The Guardian’s pieces reveals a truly confused, bitter, and nigh-on meaningless use of the word. According to The Guardian’s view of the world, anyone who isn’t Emmanuel ‘Smash The Unions, Subjugate The Workers’ Macron is basically a foam-flecked raving populist.
In fact The Guardian’s use of the word reveals a lot about their attitude to democracy overall. In their reporting—and this is a thing that has been replicated across the mainstream press around the globe—anyone who challenges the status quo is a ‘populist’, regardless of their actual political stance, or methods. It’s how you get shockingly ignorant think pieces and headlines comparing lifelong democrats and social justice campaigners like Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn to billionaire white supremacist demagogues like Donald Trump. It is a facile comparison born of desperation. The professional pundit class—including commentators, polling agencies, and other establishment figures—were so dumbfounded by the quick succession of political upsets that was Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of Corbyn that in their scrabbling for a lens through which to understand things they have revealed themselves to be shallow thinkers and analysts capable of operating only within a narrow centrist framework, judging only neoliberal orthodoxies to be legitimate ‘grown up’ political movements and everything else—especially leftist democratic insurgencies—as a symptom of a panicked herd of commoners, lashing out against the system and making rash decisions. There is an element of truth to that last point when it comes to right wing authoritarians but we will get to that later.
Like a confused granddad trying to piece together what the kids might mean by ‘meme economy’, something being ‘lit’, or the existence of fidget spinners in general, The Guardian’s articles on populism have been, for the most part, laughable. Occasionally, thanks to some aberrantly insightful writers there, a vein of truth has been struck. Mostly, however, we’ve gotten gibberish. Perhaps the worst of the bunch has been an interview with Hillary Clinton—a piece which it is easy to imagine The Guardian preening with pride over, yet the results of which look like this:
‘In order to defeat the far right, we must accomplish all of the far right’s goals for them!’
Twitter, predictably, was not pleased with that headline.
Yes Hillary Clinton we really need your advice telling us to cave in to xenophobia and racism. Thanks but no thanks https://t.co/pgoikjlw8k— Faiza Shaheen (@faizashaheen) November 22, 2018
The common enemy is racism and xenophobia. Hillary Clinton is suggesting we capitulate to it in the interest of preserving a neoliberal consensus which has already disintegrated. https://t.co/n4TiOEm0BV— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) November 22, 2018
Anat Shenker-Osario fought and won in Minnesota using a narrative that exposed the real enemies of the people: elites attempting to sow division amongst the US’ diverse working class population.@HillaryClinton this is the only way forward for the lefthttps://t.co/itOaleJJyV— Grace Blakeley (@graceblakeley) November 22, 2018
Indeed the headline, with its apparent kowtowing to racist rhetoric and far right appeasement, looks appalling.
The piece is even worse. The more times I read it the more convinced I am that it is the worst possible take on this issue, revealing a quite terrifying depth of privileged ignorance—especially if it is, as some suspect, all a part of the long prelude to Clinton announcing her Presidential campaign for 2020.
As per the piece:
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, speaking as part of a series of interviews with senior centrist political figures about the rise of populists, particularly on the right, in Europe and the Americas.
“I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
By all accounts, Hillary Clinton is a very smart person. She is certainly a very strong person, who has managed to deal with decades of horrific misogynistic abuse that would make a stone wither. But her statement there is nonsense. Actively offensive, racist nonsense. One could argue that she is trying to make a pragmatic point to aid in the battle against the rise of the racist far right, but there is an incredibly thin, fine line between saying ‘This is what the far right is using as a weapon, we must push back against that rhetoric in this way’, and ‘This is what the far right is pushing for. If we do it first, we deprive them of support’. Do the latter, and who cares why you did it—you still accomplished a far-right goal. Clinton’s statement is on the bad side of that line. Because:
Migration is absolutely not what ‘lit the flame’ of populist insurgencies. A crumbling and politically bankrupt and corrupt neoliberal orthodoxy that has disenfranchised the vast majority of people around the world while enriching a select few more and more is what lit the bloody flame. The mass movement of refugees that the world has seen over the last few years is two things:
2) A scapegoat used by the far right in their efforts at gaining support and turning millions of desperate people whose lives have been blighted by decades of neoliberal economics—a worldview championed by, again, Hillary Clinton—against an even more desperate group of people. History—in some cases depressingly recent history—shows us again and again that in times of dire economic straits, people are easily manipulated to blame The Other. Jewish people, refugees, gypsies—whoever happens to be the most convenient target at the time.
Refugees didn’t light the flame, Hillary. Establishment politicians in the pocket of big business did. By virtue of your place in the neoliberal ruling class it is, I imagine, difficult to see that.
And then there’s this:
‘It is fair to say Europe has done its part’
Unless that’s referring to the amount of bombs that Europe has dropped on the Middle East, or the number of corpses or ruined neighbourhoods left behind by those bombs, then that is one of the most offensive, far-right appeasing statements that has left the mouth of a ‘mainstream’ politician in some time, and it shows just how eager they are, so desperate for power, that they will abandon any notion of principle if potential votes might be had—who cares if they’re racist votes. A good reminder to anyone who thinks Europe has ‘done its part’ for refugees: the vast majority (84%) of refugees are housed in developing countries, not in fortress Europe, which lets babies drown in the sea trying to reach its shores. Of the 7 million people displaced by the war in Syria by the end of 2016, 5 million of them were registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Over 3 million of those were in Turkey alone. This is Camp Zaatari in Jordan, currently the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, with 83,000 inhabitants:
Clinton’s interview doesn’t just show how shockingly ready she is to absorb the rhetoric of the demagogue who defeated her in the election and to allow that movement to move the Overton Window, it also shows a complete misunderstanding of why people might be upset with the status quo that they have been forced to live under for decades. The Guardian piece goes on to say:
Clinton said rightwing populists in the west met “a psychological as much as political yearning to be told what to do, and where to go, and how to live and have their press basically stifled and so be given one version of reality.
“The whole American system was designed so that you would eliminate the threat from a strong, authoritarian king or other leader and maybe people are just tired of it. They don’t want that much responsibility and freedom. They want to be told what to do and where to go and how to live … and only given one version of reality.
“I don’t know why at this moment that is so attractive to people, but it’s a serious threat to our freedom and our democratic institutions, and it goes very deep and very far and we’ve got to do a better job of shining a light on it and trying to combat it.”
People are not voting for right-wing despots because they are hungry to be told how to live and what to do, Hillary. What’re you, Loki of Asgard? They’re voting for them out of desperation. This desperation can be channeled negatively—as in the rise of Trump or the xenophobic elements of the Brexit campaign—or, if given a real alternative, positively—as in the rise of Corbyn. Crucially, given the lack of a viable alternative, desperate people will sooner or later kick against the status quo.
‘I don’t know why at this moment that is so attractive to people’.
Because the cross-party neoliberal orthodoxy championed by exactly the type of politician that you are has left the populace a hollowed-out husk subsisting on ever-shrinking wages, living under the shadow of a looming climate apocalypse, and having long lost the hope that anyone in the halls of power gives even the tiniest fuck about them!
Yes, there are racists and other despicable people ecstatic that their strongmen suddenly have a chance and a voice and are being elected. But those strongmen do not get that chance in a vacuum. The Establishment gave the world Trump and Orban and Bolsonaro. They didn’t come from nowhere. They sprouted from the ground that the Establishment made toxic. Hillary Clinton’s apparent inability to see this is terrifying, though somewhat expected. Her capitulation to far right rhetoric is even worse. The idea that kowtowing to racist demands will win over far-right votes is fantasy. Between 2016 and 2018, the ruling party of Italy, Renzi’s PD, desperate for votes, capitulated in a similar fashion. It cut ‘the number of people arriving from Africa on Italy’s shores […] dramatically, from more than 180,000 in 2016 to fewer than 120,000 in 2017, and under 6000 so far this year [March 2018].’ How did this affect the party’s vote share? ‘The PD’s electoral dividend from this moral capitulation was nil (at best). People obsessed with immigration didn’t vote for the PD; they voted for the [far right] Lega.’
You don’t stem the tide of fascism by appeasing it or by adopting its rhetoric. You do it by providing a viable, hopeful alternative. The fact that Hillary Clinton seems to have learned the exact opposite lesson to this should horrify anyone who thinks she might give the presidency another run in 2020. Thank god for a younger, more radical generation of Democrat outsiders now rising through the ranks.
Image sources (in order of posting): The Guardian, Wikipedia