• Where Did the Far-Right Come from?

    Many observers, myself included, have been both concerned and puzzled at the rise of “far-right” movements in democracies across the world. Trump’s America is of course the prime example, but the covid pandemic and the government measures introduced to deal with it have apparently stimulated the rise of similar sentiments in many other countries, New Zealand included.

    Where have these movements come from? we ask. Who are these people, who believe in conspiracy theories, who distrust elected governments, who assert their own individual “sovereignty”, who oppose “authority” on principle, who treat those who are different as enemies, who scorn science and expertise, and who assert that they are “libertarians”?

    So far as we can tell, they are not traditional right-wingers, striving to protect and defend the advantages and privileges brought to them by their social status and economic power. On the contrary, they seem to come from the fringes of society and to feel a sense of resentment against those who would exclude and disrespect them. They like to gather and demonstrate, to flex their muscles and make their voices heard, and to feel that they count for something.

    They seem, in other words, to be outliers – even outsiders – those whom (and whose interests) society as a whole has traditionally neglected. So why do they not tread the path that, hitherto, so many of their predecessors have trodden – the path to left-wing politics? Why have they not seen the need to challenge the power structures in society – those power structures that have ignored and marginalised them? Why would they instead choose apparently to align themselves with them? Why have they not followed the path trodden by their predecessors but instead have become the acolytes and defenders, not to say the most extreme form, of those who have oppressed them?

    The answer to this mystery is that the right – the powerful in society – have succeeded in pulling off a conjuring trick.

    Whereas the dispossessed have, as in the past, identified the powerful – that is, those with the real economic, social and economic power in society – as the barriers to their fulfilment, the powerful have succeeded in transferring that resentment away from themselves and on to those wielding political power. They have succeeded in distorting the traditional political analysis by deflecting attention away from the social and economic power of wealthy and powerful corporations and individuals, and on to the machinery of government. For the dispossessed, the most significant and obvious manifestation of power in society is government, and it is government (or authority) that therefore attracts and seems to deserve their hostility.

    The right have succeeded in this because democracy has failed in its purpose. Instead of being seen as an agency of liberation, empowerment and social justice, political power (or democratic government) has become just another weapon in the hands of the elite that allows and enables them to maintain their advantage. The powerful in modern democracies, more often than not control the government; and, for that reason, the winners remain winners and the losers stay losers.

    The left have no one to blame but themselves. They have, with few exceptions (Labour governments, pre-war in New Zealand, post-war in the UK), regularly failed when they have achieved political power to make an appreciable difference to the power imbalance that disfigures most democracies. Sometimes that failure has occurred through a simple lack of competence or infirmity of purpose; but on other occasions, it has occurred because the standard-bearers of the left have sold out and chosen, as in the case of Tony Blair, to throw in their lot with the privileged and have striven instead to join them.

    The dispossessed cannot be blamed, in other words, for seeing no difference between government and other manifestations of power. Political power and governmental authority are just another weapon, like social privilege and economic advantage, that is used to do them down. And, because of their own individual powerlessness, their relationship with government is likely to be even more one-sided than it is for others. They are are even more likely to see government, not as helping, but as telling them what to do; they are even more likely to have a relationship with government characterised by dependence and supplication.

    The right, concealing the fact that government is largely their creature, and identifying it instead as the oppressor, have succeeded in using the anti-government resentment of their most defenceless victims to turn them into committed but unwitting allies. Let us all unite, say the powerful, against government, the real tyrant. Hey presto! Let me introduce the “far-right”!

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