When far Right nationalists organize a series of relatively small anti-Muslim protests simultaneously in 16 locations around the country – their biggest such “show of strength” since the height of Hansonism – it is not a reason for complacency.
But it would also be mistaken to exaggerate their strength, to make unwarranted inferences about what reach their politics has in society, and to presume that simply organizing counter-protests will be of much use in preventing or minimising any threat they may pose.
Yet much of the radical Left response so far has done exactly those things, for example this article on the Solidarity website. Let me take each issue in turn.
How strong is the far Right?
The fact that only in Melbourne and Hobart did counter-protesters clearly outnumber the Reclaim Australia (RA) participants must’ve been profoundly unsettling for the radical Left. Yet this anxiety reflects the socially marginal position and minimal mobilizing power of the far Left, rather than any qualitative advance for the hard Right.
Because of the shadowy nature of the far Right and its problems in gaining a serious toehold anywhere in the country over the last 25 years, it is difficult to be 100 percent certain how much of this was just existing forces making a propaganda splash (and attracting a few new faces) versus how much it represents the fruits of a somewhat more successful growth strategy.
Regardless, even the biggest RA events only numbered in the hundreds. The far Right — as a political force independent of the mainstream conservative parties — remains marginal in Australian society on any sensible account (which you can judge for yourself by following the Slackbastard blog of fascist-watcher Andy Fleming).
How open are Australians to anti-Muslim politics?
There is a more widespread argument on the Left that the Australian public is generally open (or even sympathetic) to anti-Muslim or racist politics. Similar arguments have been around the refugee issue for years, usually expressed in the mistaken belief that bashing asylum seekers swings federal elections.
Then, last year, Abbott’s ramping up of the national security agenda and warnings about ISIS terrorism led to claims he had unleashed a “wave of Islamophobia” or “torrent of hate” in Australian society.
By the time of the Lindt Café siege, the Left was so keyed up it predicted a massive rise in attacks on Muslims in civil society. Yet, despite an increase in mainstream and social media reporting at the time, there was no evidence of such an uptick, and instead even critical commentators noted the “outpouring of support for the Muslim community”.
Attempts by the far Right to cash in on a terrorist action (carried out by a Muslim, refugee and self-proclaimed ISIS sympathizer) fell utterly flat. What’s more, after trying to position himself hard against Muslims during the siege, Abbott quickly fell in behind the tolerance and harmony approach of NSW Premier Mike Baird after the siege ended — when it became obvious that there was no public appetite for Muslim-bashing.
It’s not even clear if there has been a generalised shift towards more anti-Muslim stances within the political class. For example, Baird has not only preached tolerance but also called for a softening of Australia’s stance towards asylum seekers, making him unpopular with the far Right, and Labor MPs were tweeting against the RA rallies on the weekend.
Despite his frequent rants against Islam, even Andrew Bolt was reduced to defending the RA rallies’ right to free speech and not their political content.
Of course, there is prejudice against Muslims (as well as certain other ethnic and cultural groups) among some Australians. Social attitude surveys repeatedly confirm this. But the idea that when politicians blow their dog whistles, voters stand to attention is untenable when issues typically thought of as winners for the Right repeatedly fail to give it a boost.
My argument is also not intended to downplay how homegrown Jihadism has been used as a pretext for more repressive powers for the police and other security agencies, which they have often exercised in a discriminatory and hamfisted way. But at a time when ordinary people feel increasingly detached from the political system, what politicians and the state do will not necessarily translate into changes in social attitudes or behaviours.
Finally, I am not trying to deny that anti-Muslim attacks occur at a frequent rate in our society. They do, as more recently tracked by Facebook pages like Islamophobia Register, and none of them is acceptable. But perceptions of a rise in attacks (no doubt heightened by federal government anti-Muslim rhetoric) have not yet been backed by clear evidence of such a rise, with journalists, police spokespeople and Islamic community leaders mostly drawing on anecdotal reports; e.g. claims of a “rise in unreported attacks” in Victoria after Numan Haider’s death.
Even if there has been a rise in such attacks, only a tiny minority of very motivated people holding anti-Muslim prejudices engage in abusive or violent actions. Again, the key thing is to not confuse the actions of a small number of perpetrators with wider social shifts.
Is a strategy of confrontation the key?
A national day of gatherings organised by a still-marginal far Right is not necessarily a reason for the Left to start, in veteran socialist blogger John Passant’s words, “to confront the racists and their fascist bed fellows every time they poke their slimy necks out from their sewers of hate”.
The anti-RA protesters may be stinging that they were mostly outnumbered, but repeated confrontation will most likely leave the radical Left just as small and socially isolated as it is now. Currently the main motivations for the radical Left to confront the ultra-nationalists seem to be moralistic opposition to racism (“something must be done”; “a message must be sent”) and capitalising on an opportunity to recruit (by being the ones who are “doing something”).
Some might be motivated by a genuine belief that physical confrontation will be enough to defeat the far Right.
Such approaches will be utterly inadequate if the far Right starts to break out of its tiny ghetto, because they start from a misunderstanding of what the far Right is, and how and why it can sometimes build serious forces — even if only at a local level.
One mistaken view is in seeing fascist Right politics as an uncomplicated expression of wider racism or Islamophobia in society. It is not.
Far Right groups are made up of conscious political actors who try to take advantage of social and political circumstances to build their own distinctive projects. Just as anger at the inequality and suffering caused by capitalism doesn’t automatically lead to the growth of the revolutionary Left, neither does anti-Muslim prejudice in society lead to a successful Islamophobic far Right.
To be effective, to present themselves as a political alternative, and to get away with attacking oppressed communities and the Left, fascists must build a social base for themselves — one they currently don’t have. Such a base cannot be built simply by calling some demonstrations and meetings. It also requires a social context in which fascist politics can be a credible and relevant alternative.
It is significant that, despite 15 years of politicians tormenting asylum seekers and waging the War on Terror abroad and at home, the fascist Right has not grown significantly in Australia, unlike its counterparts in some parts of Western Europe. But even then, in many places where fascists have built electoral support (such as the Front National in France) they have had to water down their core politics, hold off on street violence, and rely on appealing to vaguer anti-political, anti-Europe and anti-immigration sentiment.
Two attempts to revive fascist organisations in the UK over the last 25 years – the British National Party and the English Defence League (EDL) – have floundered because of a mix of internal problems and organised opposition, and UKIP mainly represents not a revival of such forces but an anti-EU, anti-immigration split in the Conservative Party voter base.
One disturbing exception to this trend is Greece’s Golden Dawn. Storming to around 7 percent of the vote in 2012, it still managed to score just over 6 percent this year despite its leader and several MPs being in jail!
The success of Golden Dawn is underpinned by a coming together of certain social factors important for fascist success: a deep economic and social crisis driving people to despair; collapse and fragmentation of the established political class (including the Right) implementing austerity; a nationalist cause made more plausible by European institutions demanding Greek sacrifice; a workers’ movement mounting significant resistance to austerity with over 30 general strikes; a relatively large and well organised radical Left; and the collapse in support for the other main hard Right party (LAOS) because it helped implement austerity.
Despite decades on the margins, Golden Dawn was able to take advantage of these events and grow electorally, as well as grow in confidence to carry out more daring violence against immigrants and Leftists.
The tide turned after Golden Dawn operatives murdered popular anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, which unleashed a series of events that led to them being prosecuted as a criminal organization.
However, their recent electoral performance is deeply worrying. Understanding the differences between Greece and Australia can help clarify why the far Right has found circumstances in which to pose a significant threat in one country, and very little in another.
Nevertheless, Greece also shows how progressives can respond to a serious fascist threat. The main coalition of organisations opposing Golden Dawn has been KEERFA, initiated by sections of the Greek radical Left. While KEERFA protests have at times faced off against Golden Dawn, KEERFA’s most important work has been coalition-building within those parts of society most threatened by fascist activity.
Rather than having a perspective of the Left coming in to fight the neo-Nazis on behalf of their victims, KEERFA has facilitated the self-organisation of migrant and other social groups, as well as backing the exposure and prosecution of Golden Dawn as a fascist party opposed to democratic rights and acting in a systematically criminal manner. It has also built solidarity for social groups directly affected by Golden Dawn among the wider Greek population.
On a smaller scale, the pushing back of the EDL in the multi-ethnic London borough of Tower Hamlets in late 2013 proceeded on a similar basis, with a focus on local community self-organisation against the prospect of violent marches of ultra-nationalists through their neighbourhoods.
In each case, the key is not a Left-Right stand off, but helping ordinary people put themselves on the line to defend their own direct social interests.
It is worth looking at the classic writings of Leon Trotsky on the rise of Hitler, and what could have been done to stop it, to grasp their central theme. Trotsky made clear that the issue then was not whether the radical Left mobilized to confront the Nazis — the German Communist Party did all the time, often with bloody results — but whether it would fight to win over the majority of workers (meaning especially non-Communist workers) to activity defending their own interests against the fascists. Trotsky argued that while the social base and organised thuggery of the Nazis was enough to force their way into government in a period of crisis, it would be no match for a still-powerful workers’ movement.
Tragically, that movement remained divided and was never mobilized effectively.
So what to do?
To date, all the far Right here has shown is that it can outnumber a series of hastily-called counter-protests by the radical Left. It is not clear what threat it actually poses beyond this, so the far Left mobilizing against RA rallies would be no more than a mix of symbolism and recruitment exercise (much as the RA rallies are for the fascists).
The point is not to “do nothing” about Reclaim Australia, but to actually do the hard work of figuring out what is happening and what impact the far Right is or isn’t having. This is a concrete question. Unless the fight against the far Right is tied to actual social needs (eg. of Muslim communities under direct attack, of trade unionists facing violence, etc.), then it is destined to have little impact beyond some messy scenes on the TV news.
The work of patiently building a serious opposition to any actual social threat posed by the far Right is much less immediately exciting, but essential.
Just as much of the Left (in its mainstream and radical variants) exaggerated Abbott’s ability to get away with laying waste to society, and then found itself stuck on the sidelines – not having expected that his government could unravel despite the lack of major social resistance to it – there is a danger it will do the same with Reclaim Australia.
In each case it means that the Left makes a lot of noise but doesn’t achieve much in terms of what it was historically supposed to be about: the mobilization of ordinary people in their own interests.
The danger here is that if, and when, the far Right does get its act together the Left will respond in a way that prevents it from being effective — or even being taken seriously.
Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism & Europe (now available for free download). He tweets as @Dr_Tad.
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