The Trend to Extreme Right in Europe and the USA is Explained by the Fact that the Left and Progressives are Failing to take Seriously Needs and Worries of Poor and Middle Class
By Kevin Stoda
In a recent Democracy Now interview, I came across a fairly salient explanation of what is wrong with Kansas, America, and any progressive movements world-wide. In an interview with Amy Goodman, the Slovakian philosopher Slavoj Zizek noted that condemning the far-right and criticizing so-called country bumkins and xenophobic fringe groups is not the way to go. Zizek stated that so-called neutral-legal frameworks are enough to promote tolerance. Instead of an abstract liberal model of tolerance (I live my life—you live your life—we ignore each other), we need to have some common ideals and beliefs. Sadly, until now progressives have capitulated this domain to the right-wing extremists and anti-immigrant parties.
Zizek emphasizes this point further, “[I]t’s absolutely crucial [to note] how this anti-immigrant explosion is linked to the withdrawal of leftist politics, especially in the matters of economy and so on. It is as if the left, being obsessed by the idea that we shouldn’t appear as reactionary in the economic sense, that is to say that ‘No, no, no, we are not the old trade union representatives of the working class, we are for postmodern digital capitalism’ and so on, [that] they don’t want to touch the working class or so-called lower ordinary people.
CRUCIAL FOCUS ON BELIEFS & REAL INTEREST IN THE MASSES
“And here right-wingers enter” Zizek explains. “Do you know, the horrible paradox is that, apart from some small leftist fringe parties, the only serious political force in Europe today which still is ready to appeal to the ordinary working people are the right-wing anti-immigrants? So you see, we, the leftists, we have no right, absolutely no right, to take this arrogant view of offended tolerant people who are horrored—no, we should ask the question, how we enabled what is going on.”
As a result of this exit of the left and progressives in defining beliefs and ideals in the economic arena against the status-quo in Europe and the USA over the last decades, Zikek points out, “The extreme right [has] imposed their topic [thesis] onto everyone. . . . I think there is a failure in this standard, liberal, multicultural vision, which means every ethnic group, whatever, to itself, all we need is a neutral legal framework guaranteeing the coexistence of groups. Sorry if I shock someone, but I think we do need what Germans call Leitkultur, leading culture. Just it shouldn’t be nationally defined. We should fight for that. Yes, I agree with right-wingers. We need a set of values accepted by all. But what will these values be, my god? We neglected this a little bit. You know that it’s not just this abstract liberal model: you have your world, I have my world, we just need a neutral legal network—how we will politely ignore each other.” Zizek’s analysis thoughtfully explains why the TEAPARTY and right-extremists movement have been functioning well in the USA since the 1970s.
BEHIND EVERY FASCISM IS A FAILED REVOLUTION
Zizek then explains how he came to his theory less than a year ago: “I was sitting in a hotel room, jumping between two channels on TV. One was Fox News—you must know the enemy to fight it. The other one was PBS. On Fox News, it was a live transmission of a tea party in Texas where a singer, kind of a fake folk singer, was singing anti-Washington, anti-state-expenditure song. On PBS, there was a documentary on the great leftist icon Pete Seeger. I was shocked at how the words, although the political meanings of it, were almost the same. Both were singing about we small, ordinary people are exploited; big bad guys, bankers in Washington, and so on, Wall Street, and so on. This is the tragedy. This is the tragedy at its purest. You must know better than me. I don’t know whether—as far as I can judge the situation, it was after Carter, with Reagan, when this grassroots movement and so on were more taken over by the right, like, no, the time of left, leftist, radical mass mobilization has passed now. When somebody tells you, ‘Oh, tea party, oh, out of a local grassroot protest,’ your first assessation [sic]is, are right-wingers again doing it, or what? This is a very sad moment. . . .I think, part of a global process of what I call the disappearance of the—what philosophers like Kant called the public use of reason.”
Zizek summarizes his main point of view on the needs for Europe and American leftist and progressives to really reach out to the breadth of the masses once again—and to listen to what really worries them. “We should ask more fundamental questions. . . . To cut a long story short, . . . one big left-of-center party, one big right-of-center party—they are the only two parties which address the entire population—and then [we have] small fringe parties. Now, more and more in Europe [as in the USA], another polarity is emerging: a big liberal capitalist party, which can even be in social matters like abortion, women’s rights, relatively progressive—pure, let’s call it, [the] capitalist party—and the only serious opposition is the immigrant—anti-immigrant nationalists. It’s something horrible that has happened. The anti-immigrants are establishing themselves as the only authentic—of course, they are not authentic politically, but in the sense of really experienced as authentic—voice of protest. If you want to protest, the only way to do it effectively in Europe is this. [Politically Correctly, etc.] So, I think it’s a matter of life and death for a slightly more radical left to emerge.
Zizek concludes, “You know what? Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt School fellow [inaudible], he said something which we should always bear in mind today. He said, ‘Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.’ It goes, more than ever, for us. Like, take—let’s take your own country, Kansas, which is now the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. As Thomas Frank demonstrated in his book, my god, ’til twenty, thirty years ago, Kansas was the breeding ground of all radical socialist, and so on, mass movements. The same in Europe. This should worry us, not this arrogant—which always has a negative class connotation. When people attack common people’s racism, it’s always like we upper-middle-class liberals dismissing ordinary people. We should start asking ourselves what we did wrong.”
KANSAS EXAMPLE: AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN TRAGEDY
Naturally, Zizek is wrong about the timeline. Kansas shifted away from progressive prior to the mid-1930s. Although Zizek fails to get the historical timeline straight on Kansas (my home state), he does understand how Kansas—and most of the USA—came to turn from progressivism to conservative and rightwing extremism over the decades of the 20th Century. Moreover, Zizek rightly states that a similar trend has occurred in Europe in recent years.
William Allen White was a famous Kansas progressive who at times also wrote about and criticized progressives. However, White asked the more fundamental questions in his local newspaper in the 1890s when the Progressive movement rolled out of the American West into Washington and New York City. Here are some lines from his 1896 editorial from The Emporia Gazette: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
In his writing he reveals the play or ploys made by Teaparty and right-wing extremists to fight against anything that is good or descent—i.e. from (1) getting banks to behave half-way morally and fairly to (2) a national health care coverage.
What’s the matter with Kansas?
By William Allen White (published in The Emporia Gazette August 15, 1896)
We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the state house; we are running that old jay for Governor. We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that “the rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner”; we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state. We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop-skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large. He will help the looks of the Kansas delegation at Washington. Then we have discovered a kid without a law practice and have decided to run him for Attorney General. Then, for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the people that Kansas is raising hell and letting the corn go to weeds.
Oh, this is a state to be proud of! We are a people who can hold up our heads! What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment, and more of those fellows who boast that they are “just ordinary clodhoppers but they know more in a minute about finance than John Sherman”; we need more men who are “posted,” who can bellow about the crime of ’73, who hate prosperity and who think, because a man believes in national honor, he is a tool of Wall Street. We have had a few of them, some hundred fifty thousand — but we need more.
We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about the “Great Red Dragon” of Lombard Street. We don’t need population, we don’t need wealth, we don’t need well-dressed men on the streets, we don’t need standing in the nation, we don’t need cities on the fertile prairies; you bet we don’t! What we are after is the money power. Because we have become poorer and ornerier all and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we, the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.
“There are two ideas of government,” said our noble Bryan at Chicago. “There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, this prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”
That’s the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffings out of the creditors and tell debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money “per capita” was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.
Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pay his debts, on an altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing.
Oh, yes, Kansas is a great state. Here are people fleeing from it by the score every day, capital going out of the state by the hundreds of dollars; and every industry but farming paralyzed, and that crippled, because its products have to go across the ocean before they can find a laboring man at work who can afford to buy them. Let’s don’t stop this year. Let’s drive all the decent, self-respecting men out of the state. Let’s keep the old clodhoppers who know it all. Let’s encourage the man who is “posted.” He can talk, and what we need is not mill hands to eat our meat, nor factory hands to eat our wheat, nor cities to oppress the farmer by consuming his butter and eggs and chickens and produce. What Kansas needs is men who can talk, who have large leisure to argue the currency question while their wives wait at home for that nickel’s worth of bluing.
What’s the matter with Kansas?
Nothing under the shining sun. She is losing wealth, population and standing. She has got her statesmen, and the money power is afraid of her. Kansas is all right. She has started in to raise hell, as Mrs. Lease advised, and she seems to have an over-production. But that doesn’t matter. Kansas never did believe in diversified crops. Kansas is all right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas. “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile.”
In short, although William Allen White was a great critique of extremism, he also was occasionally against rationally discussing the pain of the great majority of Kansans who suffered in pre-progressive America (i.e. prior to about 1910). Liberals and progressives in modern America have done the same for too long. At other times in his life he did defend them. This is the time for the latter type of progressivism.