In the run up to London’s Mayoral election, HOPE Not Hate have published and distributed a free paper to spread their message of anti-racism, specifically in opposition to the British National Party. It is an unconvincing response, however, and is riddled with its own prejudices and rampant nationalism. Moreover, it typifies a number of current responses to fascist racism, which fail to consider the root causes of these problems.
“Vote for OUR Britain Not Theirs”
Rather than seeking to counter the BNP’s nationalism, HOPE Not Hate seek merely to replace it with their own – they find nothing objectionable about the notion of articulating and defending a national identity, they just want it to be done on their terms. HOPE Not Hate are, rather than opponents to the BNP’s nationalism, merely rivals to it. Much of this nationalism currently focuses, perhaps inevitably, on sport (as we have observed before), and the paper is saturated with contrived slogans and cliches of nationalist rhetoric; “We Are All Team GB”, “come together behind the Union Jack”, etc. The emphasis on defending British national identity extends into society though, with the quasi-nostalgic fetishisation of “Great British Street Parties” (an increasingly common expression), and the somewhat unsettling vision that “we believe we can change Britain neighbour by neighbour”. Of course, HOPE Not Hate claim only to oppose racism, but we argue that turning to nationalism is an inherently flawed response. The approach of HOPE Not Hate is encapsulated in the claim that:
“For racists, the Olympics must seem like a nightmare, all those athletes of different ethnic backgrounds united behind our flag. Because it’s not their flag – it’s ours.”
In this approach, racial diversity is instrumentalised as a sign of the superiority of one nationalist agenda over the other: the increasingly hostile claims to ownership of the flag betray the same attitudes of division and ‘in groups’ & ‘out groups’ which are inherent in racist, nationalist and fascist thought. The ideological opposition to an external ‘Other’ (ethnic, religious, etc) that forms a linchpin of fascist thinking is reproduced here in national terms.
Focusing on the BNP
One article opens with:
“IMAGINE A BRITAIN run by the British National Party (BNP). It’s hard and it’s frightening and it’s probably unlikely.”
Here is, perhaps, one of the most important issues with current centre left responses to fascism. The BNP are not going to win this London Mayoral election, and are not about to start running the country. This paper, and HOPE Not Hate as a group, are (because of being almost entirely focused on the BNP) not addressing urgent concerns. Fascism, nationalism and racism are not phenomena which exist among small sections of society who helpfully identify themselves by joining certain groups. Rather, they are political forces whose influences can be detected in every official and unofficial political channel and power structure. This is one of the impulses behind our own project; to recognise that to be anti-fascist is not simply to counter the BNP (or similar groups) but rather to critically consider and repudiate fascism as an ideology, no matter who espouses it. HOPE Not Hate wishes to oppose racism and violence at the Mayoral elections and beyond, and yet fails to address the inherent racisms and violences of our current political processes. In responding to the BNP’s divisive politics it presents an impression of unity which is otherwise starkly non-partisan. Perhaps a more useful document, for those who believe that racism can be combated at the ballot box, would have addressed the racial politics of the candidates who actually stand a chance of winning, and accepted that rather than being the unacceptable ideology of an unpopular fringe party, racism is the endemic condition of our society, and must be tackled as such. A country run by the BNP is frightening and probably unlikely; a country which is still firmly in the grip of white hegemony is a frightening reality, and while local electoral politics are not going to change that, it would be appropriate to address the issue.
“HOPE NOT HATE speaks out against all extremism.”
HOPE Not Hate dogmatically occupies the centre ground (and, perhaps, seeks to attract a more conservative audience) with frequent declarations that all forms of extremism are wrong, seeking to counterpose ‘far-right extremists’ and ‘Islamist extremists’ as though there exists an equivalence between the two. This is, obviously, a view which allows for no nuance, no understanding of the nature of violence and bears no relevance to racial antagonisms as they are experienced in people’s daily lives, as it continues to relegate the causes for concern to the peripheries, rather than the core, of our social existence.
HOPE Not Hate assures us that “We will campaign against all extremism and we believe in this we are in tune with the vast majority of society”. Claims to represent the will of the majority in objecting to minority political opinion do not have a particularly noble history, and while we want to avoid any glib comparisons, the overlap between this rhetoric and notions of the ‘silent majority’ and the language of the BNP itself is unavoidable.
It is worth considering the word ‘extremist’. In a political moment marked by protest and civil unrest, the branding of ‘domestic extremist’ is being applied ever more liberally by the state and the media. By echoing this, and by reinforcing the notion that all ‘extremist’ politics are inherently wrong, and equivalent to the EDL or Islamist terrorists, HOPE Not Hate are allowing the continued dismissal of dissenting voices. This is an inherently conservative document; it instructs us that “you do not fight one form of extremism with another”, but its calls for moderacy can do nothing but preserve the status quo, and while the BNP won’t be elected, we are also under no threat of having our existing power structures challenged. Without wishing to be unfair to HOPE Not Hate, any response to racism which is based on a majority’s superiority to a minority is entirely inappropriate, any response which resorts to competing forms of nationalism is dangerous, and any response which locates racism in the extremes rather than addressing it in our own politics is futile.
If we are to critically evaluate the state of fascism in the UK today, we must look at the role played by ‘anti-fascist’ groups. Functionaries of united opposition against fascism serve their capacity in a purely performative sense. In this way, as far as groups such as UAF represent the antithesis to the EDL, BNP and no doubt the newly formed British Freedom Party, they are more rightly termed ‘counter-fascist’ than ‘anti-fascist’ as this is the role that they in fact perform. The primary activities of the UAF, and those with a more militant critique, are composed of reactive responses to fascist demonstrations (though some acknowledge the inherently reactive nature of their tactic). The fascists move first, and the allied opposition move to counter. In a very real sense, like a match day scrap between rival firms, they meet their enemies in the streets to perform a duel, a battle that has been played out many a time before, and each time, just as the last, is merely a battle re-enactment that both sides know well.
No re-enactment would be complete without the appropriate regalia. The aesthetic of modern day fascists, just as that of their historical predecessors, is a caricature; whilst the trope of the past may have been jackboots, fascist costume of today (at least in terms of the EDL et al) is very different, but equally recognisable. Yet, this is a highly naïve form of recognition where class prejudices betray themselves: the ‘Chav’ is demonized far beyond what Owen Jones may imagine. Tracksuit bottoms, a football shirt, the St George’s flag and, above all, the white working class stereotype become the new black shirt. Not only is this popular perception of the modern fascist naïve in its plain prejudice, but also in its failure to recognise a true popular fascism of our time. Nevertheless the aesthetic is there and conceptualised as stated.
The various counter-fascisms have their uniforms too. Some recall the radical history of scuffles between anarchists and fascists and employ the Black Bloc look, while others wear items such as keffiyehs, appropriating the cultural symbols of prominent targets of fascism out of a sense of solidarity. Other costumes are less antagonistic, attempting to present a ‘respectable’ face of anti-fascism – one which reduces it to bland, non-confrontational sloganeering, concerned more with absolving oneself than genuinely tackling fascism.
Beyond the literal costumes of counter-fascists, there is a wider issue of presentation. Counter-fascism is presented as a broad coalition of everyone who is not part of a recognised fascist group; a coalition ranging from the ultra-left to David Cameron (whom UAF can count amongst their founding signatories). This presentation is useful to certain actors within counter-fascism, as it allows the belief that fascism is an aberration, the practice of a small group that can be neatly contained within a police cordon, and not something that permeates into respectable society.
Presented with the costume, stage and protagonists, we of course cannot help but chose sides in this narrative, and of course the only true option is to appoint the counter-fascists as our hero – one we see the flaws in, but nevertheless, the hero. This leaves the fascists with only the role of villain to play. And what a sinister sort they are too. But, it still remains that in this performance, just as in any other, we see the humanity in our villain. Even as it tries to destroy everything that is popularly held to be human, we recognise something that is worthy of understanding – never worthy of a modicum of compassion, but understanding nonetheless. We try to understand why such evil came to be because we must, if only for our own sake, but perhaps also in the hope that a morsel of understanding may rub off onto our villain.
Yet, we have the sense that this performance is now simply a script being animated from memory, never diverging from an extremely formulaic narrative. As each encounter comes and goes we know that only a third protagonist, the state, represented in the performance by the police, continues to gain anything from the rehearsals and re-rehearsals. Whilst encounters between fascists and counter-fascists simply serve to negate one another, for the state each new meeting is a purely creative force that provides the necessary conditions for a continuing extension of its power. When the much anticipated meeting between the EDL and UAF in Tower Hamlets provided Theresa May the pretext to ban protest marches in five London boroughs for an entire month, we saw that the state’s ability to intervene does not represent a victory for either side, nor in fact the communities that counter-fascists suggest they are protecting. Similarly, street mobilisation gives the police their own pretext to extend their power on the ground: the Tower Hamlets protests provided the Met with the opportunity to employ a prefigurative Total Policing, and more historically the Battle of Cable Street lead to the introduction of the Public Order Act 1936.
With this understanding our task becomes abundantly clear: to break out from a iterative process that simply reflects a cyclical exchange of performances and no real victory for combating fascism; to stage a coup de théâtre where a true anti-fascism that recognises that fascism does not manifest itself in the entirely predictable form currently being rehearsed can be developed. We shall not see another Cable Street, a situation where fascism can be defeated on the street, and so there is little point in returning to this physicality that is stuck in its time – beyond the immediate protection of communities.