On the face of things, liberal democracies present their electorates with an enticing array of political choices. Yet in their fundamental political commitments, the political parties are essentially identical with one another: with only minor policy deviations, all support nationalism, imperialist wars and immigration control; as capitalist parties, they could hardly do otherwise. In what some see as today’s ‘post-political’ moment, the parliamentary parties differ not on the basis of any ideological difference, but merely on how best to manage or administer a capitalist social arrangement that is presented as the natural order of things.
While news and current affairs programming reflects this capitalist consensus, the illusion of political variety is a valuable thing. Accordingly, representatives of the parliamentary parties criticise one another in the media (Britain has recently joined other countries in staging televised pre-election candidate debates), each presenting her own party as more progressive than her rival’s. By providing an arena for such debates, television news discussion programmes like Newsnight and Question Time play a crucial role in promoting a view of Britain as a thriving democracy in which diverse viewpoints can be expressed and debated. The reality, however, is that for all their considerable cultural cachet as platforms for open debate, these programmes systematically exclude proletarian political perspectives. While the parties heatedly debate their policies on imperialist war, immigration or wages, the legitimacy of a system based on war, immigration and wage labour is not to be questioned and alternatives to capitalism – if they are ever mentioned at all – are quickly denounced as absurdly utopian or unspeakably brutal.
The role of the news and current affairs media in sustaining the myth of political diversity is illustrated by the appearance of the ‘fascist’ British National Party leader Nick Griffin on BBC1’s flagship live political discussion programme Question Time on 22 October 2009. Before the broadcast, the prospect of Griffin appearing on the programme provoked furious demonstrations by a congeries of liberals, Trotskyists and other anti-fascists outside BBC buildings and incensed the liberal media. In The Independent, Steve Richards called the BNP ‘a bunch of fascist outsiders’, while The Guardian warned that by inviting Griffin onto the Question Time panel, the BBC was running the risk of ‘normalising’ the BNP and of providing the party with its ‘best-ever platform for its poisonous politics’. The Guardian’s assumption of the BNP’s fundamental difference from the other parties was also expressed by a cross-section of parliamentary politicians (witness the embarrassment caused when this myth of difference is exposed, as in 2009, when the British National Party raised its slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, a phrase which, while originated by the BNP, had been used two years previously by Labour’s Gordon Brown). Griffin’s appearance thus presented a golden propaganda opportunity. For both The Guardian and the political establishment, Griffin had become a highly serviceable scapegoat and the designation of the BNP as a uniquely ‘poisonous’ party diverted public attention from the repressive practices and policies of the political mainstream.
Predictably enough, on the evening of Griffin’s appearance, the Question Time studio was transformed into a bear pit in which the live audience – and by extension the viewer at home – was encouraged to jeer and mock the BNP bogeyman (the ‘two minute hate’ in George Orwell’s novel 1984 provides a clichéd, but not inaccurate literary analogy here). Question Time’s presenter, David Dimbleby, under orders from BBC managers to put Griffin under pressure, relentlessly attacked Griffin, even asking him at one point why he was smiling. Griffin, as many commentators have pointed out, seemed ill at ease in the ‘debate’ and his racist and generally preposterous arguments were easily countered and denounced. Yet the representatives of the other political parties on the panel managed to out-Griffin Griffin, vying to out-do one another with their ‘tough’ lines on immigration. When Griffin claimed that his party was heir to the legacy of the genocidal imperialist Winston Churchill, the other panellists – each of them sporting the patriotic symbol of the red poppy on their lapels – quickly objected, only to claim the same distinction for themselves.
From the establishment’s perspective, Griffin’s appearance was highly successful. The audience had been given its pound of flesh, the BBC had got to look tough (thus placating at least some of those liberals who had feared that the broadcast might ‘legitimise’ the BNP) and the mainstream politicians had exploited the occasion for maximal advantage, parading their patriotic credentials. In the tabloid press, meanwhile, reports about Griffin’s appearance adopted a carnivalesque tone. On the day of the broadcast, The Mirror’s main feature article on the subject, entitled ‘Question Slime’ was accompanied by an unflattering photograph of Griffin and contained furious denunciations of the BNP leader written by a former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp. Underneath the article, a scatological cartoon entitled ‘Nick Griffin Gets Ready for Tonight’s Show’ showed Griffin aiming his posterior towards a microphone in the Question Time studio as a technician reassures him that the microphone ‘should pick up everything you say’. Yet the knockabout triumphalism of the politicians and the tabloid press smacked more than a little of hypocrisy.
During the broadcast, Griffin’s fellow panellist Labour’s Jack Straw – who in 2006 denounced Muslim women who wear the niqab veil – proclaimed that his party, unlike the BNP, was guided by a ‘moral compass’. Yet nobody who has read Robert Clough’s Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism can doubt that the Labour Party is a racist and imperialist political party of long standing. Today’s Labour Party, meanwhile, enforces a panoply of measures for violently controlling immigration and immigrants, such as dawn raids on the homes and workplaces of ‘illegal’ immigrants and unregularised workers, citizenship tests, detention, deportation and the violent dispersal of immigrants from makeshift camps by riot police. The BNP could only dream of implementing such oppressive measures, the human consequences of which can be appalling. Attempts by migrants to avoid detection by immigration officials, for example, often result in dangerous and sometimes lethal ‘people trafficking’. To take just one example, when Labour’s Jack Straw was Home Secretary in 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in a truck at Dover after they had been smuggled into the UK. In fact, despite Straw’s abstract claim to ethical superiority over the BNP, Labour at the time of the Question Time broadcast was the more dangerously racist party, if only for the simple reason that it was in power and actually implementing oppressive anti-immigration policies. It should be added that Labour instigated the genocidal war on Iraq, which the BNP opposed.
Not everybody who denounces the BNP as a threat to democracy, of course, is as cynical as Jack Straw – and the BNP, like its rival in racism, the English Defence League, is clearly a malignant force. Yet scaremongering over such parties also serves to buttress the existing political order, often by raising the spectre of fascism. Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model posited ‘anti-communism’ as a news media ‘filter’. Yet while communism retains its mythic threat long after the end of the Cold War, Western powers also invoke the demons of historical fascism in order to boost their own credibility and justify their military ‘interventions’. In the British news media today it could even be argued that fascism, rather than communism, has become the foremost ‘anti-ideology’ – that is, an ideology whose supposed threat to liberal values can be exploited in defence of the current power system.
However that may be, the widespread notion that the ‘fascist’ British National Party poses a threat to democracy rests on historical ignorance and political naivety. For one thing, in the years since fascism posed a real political threat, the word has undergone significant semantic weakening. Orwell noted this trend as early as 1946 in ‘Politics and the English Language’, while today, as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri observe at the beginning of their book Commonwealth, many leftists see signs of fascism wherever they look:
"Many refer to the U.S. government as fascist, most often citing Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Faluja, and the Patriot Act. Others call the Israeli government fascist by referring to the continuing occupations of Gaza and the West Bank, the use of assassinations and bulldozers as diplomacy, and the bombing of Lebanon. Still others use ‘islamofascism’ to designate the theocratic governments and movements in the Muslim world."
The US and Israeli states, like ‘Muslim’ jihadists, are undoubtedly terroristic and brutal; yet as Hardt and Negri point out, they are hardly fascist. The BNP, for its part, is a populist nationalist party rather than a fascist party in the sense that, say, the German National Socialists were in the 1930s and 40s, or other tiny parties in Britain, such as the British Federation of Fascists, are today. Fascism – the unification of capitalist economics and politics – was the response of specific national capitals to the organisational weaknesses of the state in the period following World War I; but it is not a useful mode of capitalist organisation under present political conditions. Indeed, for as long as immigrant labour is profitable to capitalists, the BNP, in order to stand any hope of winning political power, would have to abandon those of its policies, such as repatriation, less congenial to the functioning of capitalist accumulation. In any event, it is highly questionable whether the proletariat has the power determine the form – democratic or fascist – that the capitalist state will take; as Gilles Dauvé starkly observes in his essay ‘Fascism/Anti-Fascism’, ‘the political forms which capital gives itself do not depend on the actions of the working class’.
These historical and political considerations are conveniently overlooked by liberal anti-fascists. By invoking the threat of bogeymen such as Nick Griffin, anti-BNP campaigners reinforce the capitalist status quo while preserving their supposedly ‘progressive’ credentials. But, at the very least, those who campaign against the BNP should protest equally vociferously against the far more powerful, liberal factions of the state. Here Max Horkheimer’s famous aphorism – ‘he who does not wish to speak of capitalism, should also be silent about fascism’ – seems as relevant today as it was in the middle of the twentieth century and perhaps even more so, given that fascism, especially in countries such as the UK and US, does not currently pose the threat that it once did.
The exhibition of fascist bogeymen for propaganda purposes is neither new nor confined to the British and US contexts. Ever since the Second World War, the spectre of a fascist threat has been mobilised in the media in order to rally the working class behind the ‘defence of democracy’ in almost every liberal capitalist state. It was a putatively socialist president of France, François Mitterand, for example, who insisted in the early 1980s that the anti-immigration politician Jean-Marie Le Pen be granted television and radio airtime. A lynchpin of capitalist ideology, anti-fascism even permeates fictional media forms: television dramas such as the BBC’s fawning Winston Churchill biopic The Gathering Storm (2004) and hip feature films such as Quentin Tarantino’s anti-Nazi romp Inglourious Basterds (2009) all contribute to the belief that liberal capitalism, for all its faults, is preferable to fascism – a belief that may take some bolstering among the relatives of those massacred and maimed, from Dresden to Hiroshima, by the allied forces during the Second World War. In many democratic countries and across many forms of media, fascism has become the ultimate scapegoat for the horrors of capitalism.
Liberal academia plays its part here, too. In a History Today article about Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance, historian Gavin Schaffer traces the history of debates within the BBC about the extent to which it is appropriate to give airtime to ‘racial extremism’. Schaffer’s article is carefully researched, but the premises and conclusions of its arguments are all too comfortably aligned with the propaganda values of the BBC and the wider anti-fascist campaign of the British state. Schaffer argues enthymematically: designating parties such as the BNP as ‘racial extremists’, he implies a suppressed premise: that the views of the ‘mainstream’ political parties are moderate. As suggested above, it is not difficult to demonstrate that Labour, the Conservatives and the other parliamentary political parties practice ‘racial extremism’, yet for Schaffer the legitimacy of their appearance on the BBC’s premier political discussion programme is not a matter for debate.
Schaffer concludes his article by applauding the bravery of the BBC’s decision to extend a platform to the BNP. The BBC today, he argues, ‘maintain[s] its long-standing belief that it has a duty to present British society “warts and all” and does not have the right to suppress views that are odious but legal’. It is worth reiterating here that all of the capitalist parties – not just the BNP – have policies on immigration that could be described as ‘odious’. Moreover, Schaffer’s endorsement of the notion that the BBC presents British society ‘warts and all’ accepts at face value the BBC’s cherished self-image as a neutral political arbiter. But the BBC has never been a neutral organisation; on the contrary, its news and current affairs broadcasts systematically exclude working class perspectives and viewpoints critical of the British state and its allies. From this perspective, Griffin’s appearance on Question Time can be seen not as an index not of the BBC’s long-standing commitment to neutrality, but as a confirmation of its age-old political biases. By parading Nick Griffin as a scapegoat in order to deflect attention from the oppressive immigration policies of the mainstream parties, the BBC once again proved its credentials as the servant of the British state – a role it has performed with impressive consistency since Reith offered his organisation’s support to the British government during the 1926 General Strike.
The political and media exploitation of the BNP certainly did not begin in 2009. Mike Wayne and Craig Murray’s recent research on British political television news broadcasting in May 2006 suggests that the BNP attracted far more attention than the minority left-wing Respect Party in that month’s local elections, although both parties enjoyed a roughly equal level of electoral success, suggesting that the BNP was ‘made visible precisely to underline that the mainstream parties constitute the only sensible political discourse’. A number of unsympathetic television documentaries, meanwhile, such as Sky’s mocking and salacious BNP Wives (2008), have also kept anti-BNP sentiment running high. Yet the Griffin affair channelled these pre-existing currents into a high-profile political row in a way that proved highly serviceable to the ruling class and the capitalist media. In the lead-up to the British general election in 2010, journalists were able to present the BNP as the dreaded Other of bourgeois democracy and thus to frame the election as a struggle for freedom and democracy. On a Radio 4 news item about the election (14 April 2010), for example, the BBC reporter James Landale wondered: ‘can the BNP win a breakthrough, or can the other parties keep them out?’ – a question he repeated in the BBC’s 10 O’Clock News television bulletin on the same evening. For working class people, however, the putative choice between the ‘fascist’ parties and their democratic counterparts, like anti-fascist discourse in general, constitutes a dangerous mystification.