The rise of the far right has nothing to do with economic policy, and the left needs to accept that

People are voting based on identity, not class. Only by understanding their motivations can the left offer a legitimate alternative

Sunny Hundal
Saturday 06 May 2017 18:22

There is a small but very real chance a far-right nationalist could be elected president of France by tomorrow, yet the leader of the Left Party Jean-Luc Mélenchon and many of his supporters are abstaining.

The left-wing philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that Macron is as bad as Le Pen, and former Greek minister and socialist Yanis Varoufakis stepped in, urging leftists to back Macron on the tenuous justification that he took on Greece’s side when the country needed help from the EU.

Many French people from ethnic minorities who face being governed by a party founded by a convicted racist (Le Pen’s father) would ask: “What is wrong with you people? How can you be so oblivious to something so obvious?”

Keeping Le Pen out should be the number one priority, and everything else should take a back seat. The left’s prevarication over Macron goes to the heart of why it’s unable to halt the rise of far-right populism.

Modern politics are being driven primarily by identity. From Brexit to Trump, today’s voters cast their ballots based on the tribes they associate with. Identities based on race, religion, class, gender and nationality form our identity and help determine our views. Terrorism and religious extremism are about identity.

Obama: We have to stop rise in 'crude nationalism'

But the left seems to forget this, and works on the assumption that the economy and our place within it are the primary factor in determining our politics. It wants to focus foremost on overhauling our economy and sees everything else as a distraction. This type of “economic left” believes that politics revolves around class.

But while our economic system determines much of our politics, it doesn’t explain everything, especially not the rise of modern far-right “populism”. The economic left says the far right is gaining so much traction because (white) people are “left behind” and are angry at a failed system.

Backed up by a wealth of data, Mehdi Hasan recently pointed out that “Trump supporters were more motivated by racism than economic issues”. Vox made the same argument, showing that areas with increased Latino populations were much more likely to support Trump.

Brexit was driven by the same motivations. An extensive analysis by Eric Kaufmann of the London School of Economics found it wasn’t the economy but social and cultural values that led people to support the Leave campaign. Data shows that the EU referendum was very much about immigration.

In France, Germany and the Netherlands the main themes of the new far right have been similar: opposing immigration, demanding assimilation and promoting xenophobia.

Yet in the face of all this evidence the economic left remain unmoved and dogmatic. It sticks to its belief that people are (and should) only be motivated by economic policies. It doesn't understand someone who votes against their economic interests because it cares more about identity issues; it cannot comprehend why Jeremy Corbyn, despite an economically popular programme, is so unpopular in the polls. “The polls must be rigged,” it says. I wish it were so, but they’re not.

For many on the left, identity and cultural issues are a distraction from the real matter of the economy. They cannot fathom why people would rate intangible issues like leadership, strength, cultural and social values over, say, policy proposals. It’s almost like they have forgotten the point of politics.

There’s no doubt our economic order needs shaking up in light of the financial crisis of 2008. but if voters don’t trust the left on a gut level, why should they vote for us? You’re not going to entrust your finances to someone who looks incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery, no matter how good their policies are. Corbyn might mean well and have the right policies on the economy, but he is culturally out of touch with Britain.

The result is complete intellectual and electoral paralysis. Voters are abandoning the left in droves and anyone who raises issues other than the economy is branded as a “neo-liberal” or a “red Tory”. In defeat the left is retreating increasingly inwards in anger.

The far right communicate in a language of culture and identity that much of the left simply cannot understand anymore. Worse, the far right has weaponised the left against itself by adopting our language and policies. Trump, the Brexit campaign, Le Pen and even Farage (at times) railed against the elites and pledged to protect social security.

Many on the economic left fall for this trap, and expend their energy attacking centre-left candidates as Goldman Sachs stooges. They did it with Hillary Clinton and they’re doing it now with Macron.

If you tell voters the centre-left candidate is as awful as the far-right candidate, you can’t act surprised when they end up abstaining. The economic left needs to realise there is more to people than simply class. I don't expect it to stop holding the centre-left's feet to the fire on the economy, but if its attacks play into the hands of the far right, we all lose.

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