How far are we willing to go?

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RECAP SESSION 3 – Across the world, the spread of right-wing nationalism has caught a lot of people off guard. This has been particularly obvious in the reaction of liberals and neoliberals who have lost at the ballot box, but also, just as importantly, those us on the broad left. If one issue epitomises the pessimism of our times, and the challenge of galvanising hope, this is surely it. Perhaps inevitably given the subject matter, yesterday’s afternoon session ‘We Have More In Common’ saw some quite vocal debate and disagreement. Our common ground was most evident in a shared, respectful, acknowledgement that while we all reject the politics of hate, building alternatives is a phenomenally complex issue, and we do not have a consensus on how to move forwards. Yet.

By looking at the situations in Poland and Greece together TAOH took the vital step of re-framing this problem in transnational terms. Since 2015 Poland has had a far-right government, led by the Law and Justice party, PiS. They and their extra-parliamentary support are fuelled by an explicit Christian-Catholic apocalypticism, often augmented by the rhetoric of Slavic exceptionalism. Nationally, the idea of a ‘culture war’ is gaining traction, with migrants and demonic leftists playing the role of ‘enemy’. Greece, on the other hand, has witnessed the growth of a smaller, but equally dangerous oppositional force in the form of the Golden Dawn, a self-defining neo-nazi party. Or, as Thanasis Kampagiannis described it, “a nazi criminal organisation masquerading as a party”. Of course the two have parallels – most obviously their appeal to nationhood and use of violent tactics – but, at the same time, as the conversation showed, they differ greatly in terms of their institutional affinities, historical reference points and organisational structures.

Do we want to dialogue with people involved in movements like these? With the supporters or even the leaders? Would such a thing even be possible? Igor Stofkiszewski was keen to dispel the idea of today’s right-wingers as an angry, impoverished mob. “Recently there was a big investigation in Poland into the far right and the results were shocking,” he told me, “these are not poor people, but mainly those who did well in the 90s after communism and who are afraid of losing their position now. They support the far-right because they are willing to have power dominating them, just so long as it excludes others.” Meanwhile, in the Greek context, Kampagiannis insisted on the importance of distinguishing between fanatics and the broader base. “The perpetrators of violence, but also the enablers, must be recognised as and tried as criminals. But many far-right supporters are there for us to reach out to,” he suggested.

This remark divided the room. Dialogue is one thing, but making arguments that resonate is something else. What would the cost of this be? And how far are we willing to go? Might culture be a weapon to challenge the mentality that attracts people to these parties? What about the courts and legal system? Going back a little, how much should we support or blame social democratic parties for our current situation? Have we arrived, once again, at Socialismo ou Barbárie?

Two hours were too few come up with answers. But a few points were developed that are worth keeping in mind over the next days, and also beyond the summit. Firstly, in contrast to many simplistic portrayals, the session worked hard to recognise the far-right as a heterogenous force (the clerical right, populist right, neo-nazi right, Eurosceptic right and so on). Often we need to be clearer about who we are talking. Secondly, the idea that the far-right ascendency is the result of scapegoating in the face of economic crisis is by no means a law. This is important not only for understanding Poland, but for Greece as well, where, for now, the Golden Dawn support has been contained and over 80% of citizens believe it is the state’s responsibility to provide support for refugees. Finally, in a darker twist, all the national contexts recognised a common strategy of attacking migrants as a prelude to assaults on traditional left activist groups, and unions. Solidarity, in the face of such violence, is becoming ever more necessary.

A final uncomfortable fact surfaced at the end of the session. In the past couple of years, many right-wing movements have started co-opting ‘progressive’ tactics and aesthetics, including the kind on show at TAOH. In the UK organisations like Britain First are creating blogs and social media profiles that mimic millennial fashion trends and ‘hipster’ graphic design. In Greece, the far-right has even occupied squares, and on more than one occasion. All across Europe these groups, which arch-Trumpian media mogul Steve Bannon has called ‘the sovereigntists’, are organising meetings, summits, and, while it might seem paradoxical, transnational alliances.  And so, as our own international meeting progresses, we are left with an unavoidable question. What is it that we are doing that they cannot imitate? What do we possess, together here in Ghent, that they do not? (JM)