In Britain, right-wing policies and reactionaries are on the rise. But progressives, wrongly, still think these belong on the scrapheap of history.
From subjects as far-flung as gender discrimination to the seemingly interminable state of war, it has become a commonplace for bloggers, tweeters, journalists, and scholars to point to the calendar. Metaphorical diary in hand, finger stabbing repeatedly at the four embossed numerals… “For God’s sake,” they plead, “it’s 2014! Haven’t we dealt with this already?”
Of course, pointing to the date is not so much an argument as it is a rhetorical strategy, most effective as an expression of despair. Nor is it new. Whenever expectations are frustrated, whenever we are consumed by utter disbelief, we simply direct attention to the anachronistic nature of the problem: “What century is this guy from, after all?”
Unfortunately, however, as much as we try to convince ourselves that these attitudes belong on the scrapheap of history, the prevalence of this calendar pointing only indicates how far we are from having these issues resolved. It is too easy to think of Nigel Farage as just another ‘reactionary throwback,’ Marine Le Pen as a political dinosaur, Golden Dawn as a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs — too easy to deny reality.
On the surface at least, what is at stake in such name-calling is a teleological view of history — perhaps one which conflates temporal and humanitarian progress, some variation of the Hegelian ‘end of history’ thesis maybe, seeing the present as necessarily superior to the past. Reality scoffs at these assumptions, however: there is nothing anachronistic about political reaction.
Historically speaking, the origins of the present crisis are traceable to the unholy alliance of Thatcher and Reagan. Since the decline of the so-called ‘golden age of capitalism’ (circa 1945-’70), the political elite has focused its powers on making ordinary people pay for economic recession. Union-busting, privatization, ‘fiscal restraint,’ inflated interest rates, capital account liberalization, whatever tools come to hand are deployed with great and horrible sophistication.
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of neoliberal ideology has been a certain vindictiveness, its open declaration of class war. More than blaming the poor for their poverty, the object has been to punish them, to make them pay for their stupidity, for believing that the world could be a better place.
These shackles define our current predicament.
In this radical context, where conservatives no longer conserve, but chop savagely at the tendrils of equality, it is the progressive that appears anachronistic, as the driftwood of a bygone era. Through this inversion of opposites, it is the liberal apologists who appear as the true conservatives, seeking to maintain the legitimacy of a rotten parliamentary system.
Though there have undoubtedly been many occasions to point to the date with pride, now is no such occasion. We are living in a time when the ruling class is on the offensive — and have been for many years — dismantling the NHS, labor rights, and social welfare. A time, in other words, when most evidence points toward the degradation of the present. What is it exactly about contemporary Britain that makes us think that reactionaries belong to another age? The food banks? The zero-hour contracts? The popularization of far right policies?
And yet, although history’s supreme indifference to the struggle for human emancipation is painfully evident, we persist in pointing to the date.
Our expectations of history have clearly come into contradiction with the conditions of reality. The sooner we wake up to this and begin fighting back, the sooner we will truly be able to realize our desired present.
As Frederick Douglass once said, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” History owes us nothing: we must fight!
Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Musicology.