Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Shame and Backlash: The rise of Brexit, Trump, and the AfD

The rise of right wing politics in the US and Britain has been greeted on the left with bewilderment, derision and despair. Left wing comedians have delighted in deriding the apparent hypocrisy, contradiction and ignorance of their foes while simultaneously reminding us that the right wing in the thirties did not look significantly different.
But while the left has been mocking this significant change in the political landscape it has been too insulated by it's own innate smugness to understand what it means. Yes, the connection between right wing values and working class fortunes has long been made, but that doesn't explain what the left is doing wrong, and why the left is actually the side with the problem.
In a word the problem is shame.
For the left shame is a key emotion. People who hate illegal migrants should be ashamed of their lack of empathy. People who burn down rainforests should be ashamed of destroying our children's future. People who mistreat workers should be ashamed of their bullying. People who are racist should be ashamed of their attitudes. People who are misogynistic should be ashamed of themselves. The boundaries of political correctness are high walls of shame.
Shaming is also a key part of the left's social control reinforcement mechanisms. In communist countries political weaknesses could be exploited by political shaming exercises. Once politically shamed an office holder was toast and their office was ripe for the picking. In the west shaming involves "hard hitting" documentaries but also comedy. The butt of left wing jokes is the person who brings shame on themselves. Pointing that out is just shooting fish in a barrel. It gets a laugh, it reinforces the core values.
What the right wing have done is thrown off shame.
It's not the first time they've done it either. The shame of poverty and defeat that followed World War One was a field of opportunity for the right in the Weimar years. While some wallowed in shame the Nazis rejected it. They were proud and anyone who didn't like it could be punched in the face.
Trump too rejects shame. He has shafted a lot of people in his business career. Is he ashamed? Fuck no. He's been appallingly misogynistic and his failure to distance himself from the KKK speaks volumes but is he ashamed? No, he isn't.
The Brexiteers (Johnson, Farage et al) similarly stood on a platform rejecting shame. Poor Syrians? Fair play with Europe? Fuck them! Let's make Britain great again! Subtext: "Let's make you great! We will take away your shame". The migrants in the UK who voted anti-immigration weren't really voting against their younger selves, they were voting against the fact that their lives were not as great as they expected them to be. The Brits who voted Brexit were voting against the shame they had been made to feel for being poorer, for the sense of self disappointment they secretly harboured.
The same goes in Germany with the AfD. Merkel says "Give us your poor, your huddled masses..." and the average Osti (Eastener) says fuck off. Like the Nazis before them they reject shame. Just as the Russia's Trump, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, already tried in Russia until Putin realised he could appropriate his political appeal by 'making Russia great again".
So here's the thing. Shame is not working for the left.
I'll say that again because it's a big deal: shame is not working for the left. Why not?
Because most of the people who could do with the kind of support the left is meant to bring are not alienated Bolsheviks. They are pissed off, certainly, but they don't see a conspiracy of nobles, millionaires and billionaires. It wasn't capitalism the Russian revolution fought, it was an entrenched monarchy which has almost vanished throughout the world (though ironically not in hardline communist nations). Most people know that many of today's billionaires didn't inherit their wealth. They fought for it themselves. That doesn't make poorer people feel better, though. It makes them feel worse. The system isn't against them, so it must be their own inadequacies that let them down. They are less alienated than they are ashamed.
Letting go of shame and shaming for the left is sort of like letting go of Catholicism. You think you've done it and then you find you haven't. It isn't about letting go of ideals of social justice, sustainability or anything else but it is about letting go of a form of communication about those things. It's about not shaming others. It's about accepting humanity and it's contradictory and even animalistic nature. It's about having a party not obeying the party. It's about a kinder, looser, more relaxed left wing who forgive each other the less than pristine parts of their hearts and minds. Who accept that, yeah, stock cars have a kind of grindhouse fun to them even if they aren't that great for the environment; that making good money honestly isn't a terrible thing; that males and females really are very different in terms of sexuality, social expectations of each other, and ways of operating etc etc.
It's basically about recognising the truth that Trump and others are bringing: that political correctness is a burden to ourselves and others which is ultimately failing it's own objectives. Accept that and the right wing backlash can be abated. Ignore it and it will only get worse.

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