Coronavirus killed populism. Now the only choice is between left and right

‘The people’ that reactionaries have claimed to speak for are not only few, but they are predominantly well off and self-interested – much like their leaders. Now the 99 per cent know this

Aurelien Mondon,Aaron Winter
Wednesday 29 April 2020 09:08 BST
Coronavirus: Beaches packed with thousands of people due to Californian heat wave

On 23 March, as the UK finally went into lockdown, much later than its European counterparts. And to the dismay of many experts and a rightly concerned population, the libertarian right was at it again.

With his contrarianism and pseudo-radicalism, as if a global pandemic was nothing but another opportunity to exploit, Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked!, condemned the closing of pubs and called for “Dissent in a time of Covid”, criticising the “chilling” and “dangerous” “witch-hunting of those who criticise the response to coronavirus”. This led to a backlash from mainstream commentators and even his fellow travellers.

O’Neill and Spiked! are only marginal examples of this reaction – albeit with disproportionate access to popular platforms and attention – operating as part of a broader trend towards (far) right-wing politics. However, recent events, from Brexit to Trump’s election and now the debate over how to respond to Covid-19, are driving home that, though such ideas have become part of mainstream politics, they may have met their limits.

It is interesting to see where the mainstream draws the line. In 2017, it took a series of remarks on paedophilia for Milo Yiannopoulos to lose his status as rising star of the US far-right and access to mainstream platforms such as Bill Maher’s Real Time.

Until then, rabid Islamophobia and sexism, among other forms of reaction, had been deemed worthy of a platform. It is often argued that giving countless invitations to reactionaries and engaging in spurious debates based on false equivalences is necessary, as evil can only be defeated by better alternatives in “the marketplace of ideas”. As Nesrine Malik convincingly argues in We need new stories, this is both lazy and irresponsible: “[...] it does not account for a world in which the market is skewed and not all ideas receive equal representation, because the market has monopolies and cartels.”

Similarly, until Covid-19, extremely reactionary stances on questions such as race, gender or transgender rights had become broadly considered as worthwhile debates in a society that the right believes to be controlled by some PC elite. In “normal” times, the use of pubs as the symbol of freedom, self-determination and the true people, who are identified as white working class, would have been welcome in much of the mainstream, where this racialised and paternalistic view of “the people” is now taken for granted.

As women, racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBT+ community have wrestled certain rights and recognition, we have witnessed a return of more illiberal and even violent behaviours. To add a democratic and justice orientated veneer to their reaction against the fall of privilege, the reactionary elite has turned to the working class, seen to have been abandoned by the centre-left as it turned towards aspirational cosmopolitan middle classes and so-called identity politics.

Make no mistake, the elite targeted by reactionaries are rarely those with control of our economy and media. Still, they claim that their aim is not to protect the interests of the powerful, but rather in the name of the fantasised “white working-class”, “left behind”. It’s a clever move. As advanced democracies turn into neo-liberal technocracies, it’s hard to deny that vast sections of the population have been forgotten. The trick for the reactionary right was to turn what were clearly economic and structural issues, into cultural ones: to make what could have been a class war, into a race war.

These narratives have become accepted by much of our mainstream elite, even though research has shown that a) Trump and Brexit were not voted in by the working class, and b) the “white working class” is in and of itself a reactionary construction.

Still, they pit those most likely to suffer the brunt of reactionary politics against each other. They also ignore that the working class are also the most diverse section of our society. Yet some complacent and complicit media, including liberal broadsheets, have been too happy to splash headlines on populism being “all the rage” or Trump and Brexit as “working class revolts” or even the “revolt of the masses”.

This crisis could be a watershed moment when the veneer of reactionary respectability and mainstreaming success finally cracks. Our forthcoming book, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, explores as much. It aims to map how reactionary ideas and racism in particular have returned to mainstream discourse under the guise of pseudo-progressive tropes such as free speech and liberalism, where freedom is understood solely as the freedom of the privileged, represented as victims, to defend said privilege and stifle any demands from those suffering from real and systemic injustice.

The idea that those in charge of our democracies, whether through elections or media scrutiny, could openly oppose racial or gender equality, express racism and sexism or that some should die so we can gain “herd immunity” or save the economy would have been considered shocking until recently, in terms of public relations, if not ideology.

Of course, the line between extreme and mainstream is fuzzy and must be tread carefully by reactionaries. Only a few weeks ago Andrew Sabisky, one of Dominic Cummings’ “weirdos and misfits”, was forced to resign after his political beliefs (which include an interest in eugenics) caused outrage. Yet his appointment was only the tip of the iceberg, a sign of how bold reactionaries have become, having witnessed other mainstream ideas such as austerity, the hostile environment and “go home” vans. With Covid-19, it did not take long for eugenics and Malthusian politics to rear their ugly heads.

“Populism” provides the reactionary elite with the perfect excuse for enacting deeply reactionary politics and policies: they argue they are merely following the people’s wishes, even when they hail from extremely privileged backgrounds – read Trump, Johnson or Farage. It also ignores the simple fact that power is not distributed equally, and that the existence of oppression and inequality, likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, are far more likely to impact on the 99 per cent than on the 1 per cent.

“The people” reactionaries speak for are not only few, but they are predominantly well off and self-interested – much like their leaders. The media we have is not that which we deserve in a democracy; it merely acts as stooges to power, blaming us for their cowardice and lack of imagination.

In the aftermath of the 2019 UK election, where another elite white male reactionary affirmed his power and privilege, and with Covid-19 sweeping the world, things can seem pretty grim. Yet there is solace in the fact that opposition exists, as it shows the hegemony may be crumbling. This degraded system cannot sustain pressure. The idea that progress “will take time, but we will get there,” no longer holds.

The multiple crises we are facing will likely exacerbate inequalities – but as inaction becomes increasingly akin to complicity, they could create an opening and demand for radical change. This does not mean that people will choose our side, but at a time when reactionaries openly return to the crudest forms of racism, sexism and classism, and the climate emergency requires increasingly intersectional and global responses, they might. It is our responsibility to ensure that we propose powerful visions to allow them to.

Aurelian Mondon is a senior lecturer in politics and international studies at the University of Bristol. Aaron Winter is lecturer at the University of East London

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in