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The Mainstream and the far-Right


We all know the famous aphorism by the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” And yet Heraclitus’ favourite metaphor doesn’t seem apt for public discourse on the far right as the recent hype surrounding the electoral victories of Javier Milei in Argentina and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has shown one more time.

This hype is quite problematic, and potentially dangerous, as some observers have noted in the immediate aftermath of the elections. The strong electoral showings of Milei and Wilders came on the back of a long process of mainstreaming and normalization of far right politics, a process which includes the platforming and legitimizing of reactionary views by the mainstream media, often through the use of the more innocuous term “populist”. This is not a random editorial choice, political scientist Aurelien Mondon argues in a recent article, for “it lends these parties and politicians a veneer of democratic support through the etymological link to the people and erases their deeply elitist nature”. What is needed is “a reckoning on the part of “elite actors with privileged access to shaping political discourse”, Mondon tells us, for fence-sitting is no longer an option: “self-reflection and self-criticism must be central to our ethos”.

He is right, of course, but his thoughts on how to break the cycle raise more questions than they answer, and expose the limits of what we may call, for want of a better term, “the mainstreaming theory”. Would exposing the instrumental use of such terms as “populism” to lend a veneer of respectability to reactionary ideas curb their appeal in the eyes of voters? How does getting rid of euphemisms help them to discover structural inequalities, or the systemic racism they may themselves benefit from? Is it possible to blame it all on opportunistic elites, be it academics, pundits or politicians, depriving the wider population of any agency? And what about elite actors like Mondon and others who subscribe to the mainstreaming theory? Shouldn’t we also engage in some process of self-reflection and self-criticism? What is our alternative? How do we propose to combat the hegemony of reactionary politics?

Beyond the mainstreaming theory

I would argue that we cannot answer these questions without moving beyond the overly descriptive, analytically reductionist and politically hollow mainstreaming theory.

From an analytical point of view, it would not be wrong to say that the mainstreaming theory is a victim of its own success. As a result of a global tectonic shift to the right to which liberal elites have contributed, what we used to call the mainstream, or the political center, is already captured by illiberal forces and reactionary ideas. It is no longer suprising to see once respected “far right experts” to publicly cheer for Wilders’ victory which they present as an inevitable outcome of voter discontent with “mass immigration, the refugee crisis, creeping influence of Islam”; best-selling pundits calling Britain as “the new capital anti-Israel hate”; (former) ministers describing pro-Palestine demonstrations as “hate marches”; or politicians calling for the demolition of mosques. In many ways, then, it’s already too late. No amount of wishful thinking or alarmism could undo the damage that has been done, especially in a profit-driven mediascape which continues to reward polarization and sensationalism.

But let’s assume for a moment that mainstream outlets mentioned by Mondon miraculously come to their senses, and start calling a spade a spade — “the Dutch racist” instead of “the Dutch far-right figurehead”, or “the Islamophobic politician” instead of “the anti-Islam politician”. Leaving aside the various legal problems that such a move might entail, what would this “anti-racist” approach achieve? Would the 2,442,318 people who voted for Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) change their mind and recant? It is true that tropes such as the “left behind” are exploited by bad faith elite actors who claim to speak for, or even as, the people, but this doesn’t mean that bread-and-butter issues and (perceived or real) anxieties related to identity and belonging don’t matter to average voters. Put another way, the fact that the far right is whipping up a moral panic about the “legitimate grievances” of a mythical, monolithic people doesn’t make these grievances any less real. The question we need to be asking ourselves is why majorities keep turning to far right impostors to vent their frustration with the system (unless they decide to boycott the elections in the first place).

No salvation without self-flagellation?

And this brings us to the politics of the mainstreaming theory, or rather the lack of it. First, words do matter, but it’s not clear how the Equality-Diversity-Inclusion (EDI) approach proposed by Mondon could help us counter reactionary politics. For one thing, the anti-racist strategy of calling out far right politicians for what they are, that is, racists and/or Islamophobes, implies — if implicitly — that those who vote for them are also racists and Islamophobes, which may in turn lead them to close off, and close ranks. Research shows that these kinds of interventions don’t change people; on the contrary, they may activate stereotypes, and leave those at the receiving end singled out and excluded. That’s also why the growing industry of EDI trainings fail to achieve their objectives, for it is not possible to change the way people think without dismantling the structural conditions that allowed that particular way of thinking in the first place.

Second, this strategy of “naming and shaming” is very similar to far right politics of dismissal and straw manning, and ends up diverting attention away from the systemic problems that the proponents of the mainstreaming theory purport to address. As I argued in my book Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke, in the absence of a historically based critique of late-stage capitalism and its uneven impact on various class formations, “populism”, “racism” or “Whiteness” are nothing but empty signifiers without a referent and a commonly agreed upon meaning — much like far right’s bête noire, “woke”, deployed lavishly to discredit their critics and the broader social justice struggle. It is ironic that both sides blame a vaguely defined, almost conspiratorial, “elite” without reflecting much on their own complicity in culture wars, and the Manichean simplicity of their take on the complex dynamics that underlie the popular resentment with what passes as the establishment.

This is particularly worrying in the case of the progressive critique of far right politics for we know that the practitioners of the latter are invested in the preservation of the status quo which nurtures them. So why don’t the proponents of the mainstreaming theory propose us anything other than a semantic make over and a call for accepting our privileges — no doubt, the first step of the fight against systemic injustice? “We recognise both our ideological standpoint and our privileged positions. We are clearly and unashamedly anti-racist researchers”, write Mondon and Aaron Winter in their 2020 book Reactionary Democracy. This doesn’t make them “more biased than those who refuse to acknowledge their ideological standpoint or privilege”, true, but it does make them look like “the elites” they seem determined to decry — more so in the eyes of the people whose support they seek, in particular considering the scope of their definition of “racism” which also includes fellow progressives who disagree with their inordinately strict understanding of reactionary politics.

I cannot elaborate on what I believe to be a more effective progressive strategy here (I have already written about it, and other alternatives such as the race-class narrative, elsewhere). But one thing is certain. The mainstreaming of the far right is complete. Challenging the hegemony of reactionary politics requires much more than conceptual rigour and self-flagellation. We can either act now and come up with a political programme that would appeal to the largest number of people possible, or continue swimming in the same river, pointing finger to “reactionary democrats” while the global far right rejoices at the victories of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.