Freedom News

The triumph of beige

A social-liberal tinge on a green nationalism, the new normal is a mixture of centrist and fascist politics for a scared state in crisis.

I’m old enough to remember when there was ‘no alternative’ to globalisation. Do you remember? It was going to create a seamless market across borders? Corporations were going to become the new centres of political power? An international ruling class was going to ascend beyond the petty needs of the nation-state? These tropes were popular both in the mainstream and with radicals in the 1990s and 2000s. Since then we’ve seen the state, and its use of political and above all military power, take centre-stage again.

Maybe the pendulum will swing the other way? Will the war on terror, or the Russia-Ukraine war, one day be over? I don’t see any prospect of that, given the shrinking energy system that the state and capital have depended on for the last 300 years.

As climate change tightens its grip on human society, it’s making everything harder. The available sources of energy, so abundant since coal started to be mined on a massive scale, are going to contract, leading to world-wide austerity for the foreseeable future. This means the state (as an institution) is going to go through rapid and extreme changes. What kinds of changes? It’s impossible to predict exactly – but we can sketch out a few trends and tendencies that can help us adapt, and anticipate the hard times ahead.

I’ve already mentioned the first tendency: times are going to get harder. Few still hope that a scientific breakthrough will soon unleash unlimited clean energy and come to the rescue of normality. There’s no real evidence this is going to happen. In the absence of a cold fusion deus ex machina, society is going to get poorer overall as available resources and energy shrink. This will happen no matter what policy choices are made – either because of governments’ self-imposed limits on fossil fuels to halt carbon emissions, or because of warming and catastrophes that lay waste to resources. Almost certainly a mix of both. Whether or not the oil monarchies of the Gulf really want to move towards solar power, Dubai will still face flooding.

The modern state has emerged during a time of growth; for the last 300 years all the numbers have gone up. The amount of agricultural production, available energy, population. Even during times of temporary economic crisis, overall productivity and population have still been rising. So how will the State react during a time of contraction?

I suggest that the state will fall back on its bare-bones purpose: to protect itself and its power, and that means we should expect a rise in coercion and violence. Since the state can no longer rely on a rising tide to distribute food and employment, it will have to step in and become the arbiter of who gets parts of the shrinking pie.

I suggest that we have already seen the signs of what this could look like. As financial institutions crumbled, the state stepped in and substituted pure political will because financial credit had evaporated. If climate change contributes to another sector collapsing, for example the insurance industry or the fossil fuel industry, then the state will also step in and reorganise that sector on the basis of pure coercive power (military gets first dibs). Likewise, as corona halted business as usual, Some states stepped in to put the economy on life support and directly control people’s movement and behaviour. For better or worse, these kinds of interventions are going to become more common.

Some may say this kind of state-led social development is what we need during times of crisis. I think a socially just transition led by the state is a pipe-dream, especially during global permanent war. During World War 2, it was social movements, especially unions, who forced allied governments to use means like rationing, which imposed a more fair restriction on all classes. Since we are in a period of far weaker social movements, states will be free to choose the easiest and most cost-effective means of control. This implies the working class and marginalised will be treated the worst.

The browning of liberalism

As we see this drift towards greater state control and restriction, we also see a rise in governmental authoritarianism for parallel political reasons. In Europe, the established political parties have been double-dipping into the hot sauce of nationalism to spice up a bland political process that has been numbed by neoliberalism. The vote for centrist parties is collapsing so racism and authoritarianism have become the main meal for a culture war diet. This kind of demagoguery is an attempt to jump-start the decaying body of liberal democracy. As social movements and social cohesion have been destroyed by the last two generations of harsh neoliberalism, there are no longer traditions and practises of solidarity that keep people loyal to political parties. In the UK, we are likely to swing from Labour wipe-out to Conservative wipe-out (and possibly back again). Drawing on deep and nasty nationalist tropes is what political parties are doing to try to ride the storm of angry, alienated and dispossessed voters. Conclusion: in nominal democracies, the rising forms of state power are wielded by states that both operate in a decimated social fabric, and are headed by politicians already wielding the weapons of culture war.

Right now, things are uncertain. The drift towards ‘culture war’ could dry up as the racist/transphobic boomer white voters decline as a key constituency in the West. The failure of culture war politicians to carry out effective governance could also mean that every crisis pushes them out, in favour of the centrist wonks. The model here is a Joe Biden/Kier Starmer state, based on managerialism and getting votes from the less racist and nationalist and more educated voters. However, the other model is that of Italy, Sweden, Finland, and others, where racist nationalism with outright fascist roots has instead become normalised into a general political consensus. Fascists are de facto in government in those countries and have become ‘sensible’ politicians, concerned with governing the state instead of longer seeking to overthrow it for a White Power revolution. It is this ‘browning’ of liberal democrat centrism that I think is most likely to become dominant. Even social democratic politicians in UK and USA embrace racist and nationalist rhetoric, and in Sweden and Italy and Finland the centre-left is firmly in the ‘stop the boats’ camp.

I would suggest this shift towards a more nakedly nationalist state is here to stay, not just a momentary aberration. Boomer-Brexit racism and nationalism will likely be replaced by more polished and ‘efficient’ technocratic racism that seeks to shut borders and penalise immigrants as a matter of cutting costs as well as keeping tight control over the state’s resources. In the short term, we might see some kind of ‘green new deal’, which will inevitably involve more industrial and social policies. Partly for economic reasons, partly to keep the masses onside as the pie shrinks, and partly because infrastructure has always been key to state survival. But what emerges is a social-liberal tinge on a green nationalism, where closing borders is justified for both ‘national security’ reasons or for ‘reducing emissions’, while pandering to nakedly racist and nationalist sentiments.

This is what I call the triumph of the beige, the new normal of a mixture of centrist and fascist politics for a scared state in crisis.

I think this messy mix of a return of state control ruled by beige politics is the overwhelmingly likely scenario. The fact that it is ushered in by so many separate but converging factors means it is a very likely tendency no matter who wins the individual elections, or whether particular armed conflicts die down or flare up. While news media may keep on saying we face knife-edge choice after knife-edge choice, the truth is the future has already happened. That means we need to be already thinking about how to organise and survive in this kind of context, because the only way that has ever worked to oppose or restrain the naked control of the state has been through independent organising.

~ Loukas Christodoulou

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