Leave no one behind.

25 years ago the extreme right( burst onto the Belgian political scene. The election of Donald Trump reminds us that we no longer have the “luxury” to look the other way. There is anger, there is fear. How do we answer the expectations of people who don’t belong to the succesful cosmopolitans?

  • CC Paul Sableman (CC BY 2.0) CC Paul Sableman (CC BY 2.0)

On 24 November 1991, Belgium awoke to what still reverberates through the political class as “Black Sunday”. With a pair of boxing gloves “for self defense” as campaign posters, the anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-feminist Vlaams Blok scored an historic electoral upset. No one saw it coming. The sitting prime minister mused aloud: “Have we not done a decent job at it?” vowing, along with the other traditional parties, to never govern with the anti-democratic opposition and basically ignore their existence.

Twenty-five years later, Americans, Brits, Hungarians, and soon perhaps, France, no longer have that luxury.

Just because a demagogue indicates false culprits for an issue, scapegoating vulnerable groups, doesn’t mean the problem itself doesn’t exist

It’s one thing to refute a racist’s claim that people who don’t look like him set the house on fire. It’s quite another to ignore the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you ought to start looking for a bucket of water. Attribution, soul-searching, and a civics course on prejudice, power dynamics and race, come a distant second. Just because a demagogue indicates false culprits for an issue, scapegoating vulnerable groups, doesn’t mean the problem itself doesn’t exist.

Towering inequality can only be blamed on, Hispanics say, if towering inequality exists. The politicians who were shocked and awed at this year’s electoral finale, seem to have forgotten that the expression of discontent and fear, the orange light blinking on the dashboard, is not a by-product or a bug of democracy, it is the main feature. Ignore it at your peril.

Progressives don’t spend enough time making the case that populists in the mold of Trump, Le Pen, Farrage, and others don’t represent the interests of the common populace, that they are in fact beholden to the same corporate and financial interests. Arguably, they are failing to make that case because a certain old guard of western left-wing political parties have, over decades of pragmatic leadership, fallen victim to the same conflicts of interest. Perhaps the only way to distinguish between rightwing global capitalism and leftwing global capitalism has become: do you want salsa with that?

If racist populists are guilty of premeditating to set one group of people against others, effectively bisecting those parts of the electorate that will bear the brunt of anti-social policies, the left mirrors that act by castigating the other group for being racist. This way they can continue cold-shouldering their complaints. Rather than ignoring, then attacking the manipulated, progressives ought to aim their arrows at the manipulators. They shouldn’t feel obliged to choose between the white members of the hollowed out middle class and downtrodden who are merely aspiring to the middle class on the one hand, and the minority members of the hollowed out middle class and downtrodden who are merely aspiring to the middle class on the other.

Assailing ideas, not people, is as difficult as it is easy to point fingers

Engaging with victims of social exclusion who after decades of crumbling schools and food-stamp jobs happen to harbor animosity against other groups in society, to whatever degree, shouldn’t mean echoing said bigotry. Engaging with social exclusion with the same respect and compassion as you’d like your interlocutor to show immigrants; assailing ideas, not people, is as difficult as it is easy to point fingers.

At the core of center-left socio-economic ideology is the idea that people can make something out of themselves and that society has a duty to enable that process or at least remove any obstacle arresting self-development. Progressives believe that, yes, society as a whole can be made better by enhancing collaboration among individuals. But rather than seeing their electorate as subjects to be conquered and molded in their own image, liberals need first and foremost to establish a true emotional human/humanistic connection, not just to a socio-economic amalgamate, but to actual individual human beings who’ve been thrown by the wayside, by right and left-leaning governments.

Meeting people halfway shouldn’t mean pandering to racist sentiment as many on the left have done and are doing –looking at you, Francois Hollande. ‘Halfway’ means, yes, people are in a bind. But no, Mexicans or Muslims or sentient garden gnomes are not responsible for this. A meanwhile notorious graph shows how, since the early seventies, worker productivity has increased sharply while wages largely stayed the same, or even decreased as prices rose.

In the US and other Western democracies, this shrinking of the middle classes, the erosion of social mobility was first felt by the most vulnerable. In a society’s pecking order, minorities, and the poorly educated –those who are easiest to dismiss or ignore- felt it first. Today, educated whites are also feeling the brunt of an increasingly unfair system. And they are being told to blame those who have been feeling the pinch for a very long time. So yes, whites are losing out. But they are only the most recent arrivals to relative penury.

So yes, whites are losing out. But they are only the most recent arrivals to relative penury.

So where do we go from here? If progressives in the US and in Europe harbor any hope of rolling back the riptide of economic polarization, they need to bring together all the different groups facing the business end –pun intended- of the baton.

Meanwhile the reaction against seventy years of human rights, emancipation, decolonization and equality advances. The audacious, anti-politically correct pay lip service to social issues (that their own forebears have caused), all the while blowing the dog whistle of race politics. Whites aren’t more or less entitled to decent education, decent-paying jobs, or affordable healthcare. The problem is that over the course of the past sixty years, they went from more deserving to equally non-deserving decent government. Others have been hurting far longer, but that doesn’t lessen the pain.

So now, the backlash is upon us. In this winter of discontent, the losers are having the wool pulled over their eyes by what might charitably be labeled tribalist anti-humanism. What other motive can there be behind the breaking up -they are not interested in reform- of the European Union than to unleash a free-for-all, a struggle for power, at the fulcrum of which, in their rabid dreams, the strongest will vanquish, subject and/or destroy all other groups. What some call ‘new nationalism’ really presages a renewed survival of the fittest, against the hordes of the steppes, Africans, Jews, Muslims, and the socially unfit.

Fascism, for that’s what it is, has always been around. It is an ideology, remnant of the reptile brain, that isn’t necessarily left or right, but that in recent times has mainly piggy-backed on other, slightly more mainstream movements like the US neocons plotting a century of world domination, the Tea Party, the ‘Alternative’ für Deutschland, the French Front National, and the swashbuckled misnomer that is the ‘alt’ right.

‘Alt’ is German for ‘old’. Case closed. Their social blueprint is that of an extremely stratified society, led by a nouveau-feudal duck dynasty, currently in the process of overthrowing the old ruling class that’s lost touch with the peasants –I mean Walmart greeters. The left –and by ‘left’ I mean people who believe in human rights, equality and dignity for all- will either be galvanized or quashed. We leave no one behind, or everyone. The time is now.

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Over de auteur

  • Schrijver, publicist & vertaler

    Tom Kenis heeft een achtergrond in Islamstudies en Internationale Betrekkingen. Hij woonde en werkte vier jaar in het Midden-Oosten en in Berlijn.