Monday, May 10, 2010

Bogeymen at the BBC: The ‘Fascist Threat’ and the Defence of the State

SOYMB occasionally posts articles from non-members that generally reflect the ideas and principles of the WSM. This is a guest blog by sympathiser Stephen Harper.

And they’re resurrecting Churchill… – XTC, ‘War Dance’

In British politics today, a handful of political parties compete for power at elections. Liberal democracy promises the electorate an enticing range of political choices. Yet the political parties are essentially identical with one another: with only minor policy deviations, all support nationalism, imperialist wars and immigration control; indeed, as capitalist parties, they could hardly do otherwise. In today’s ‘post-political’ moment, especially, the parliamentary parties differ not on the basis of any ideological difference, but merely on how best to manage or administer a capitalism that is presented as the natural order of things.

For its part, the news and current affairs media reflect this general consensus around capitalist values; yet an illusion of a certain degree of political variety is a valuable thing. Accordingly, representatives of the parliamentary parties criticise one another in the media (Britain television has recently joined other countries in staging 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 the illusion that Britain is 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 working class 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 any alternative to capitalism must be denounced as absurdly utopian or unspeakably brutal.

The role of the news and current affairs media in sustaining the myth of political diversity within the boundaries of capitalism is well illustrated by the appearance of the supposedly ‘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 an assortment of liberals, Trotskyists and other anti-fascists outside BBC buildings and incensed the liberal media. The Guardian newspaper, for example, 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 that the BNP is fundamentally different 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 the nationalist slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, a call first uttered by the Labour politician Gordon Brown two years previously). Griffin ’s appearance thus presented a golden propaganda opportunity. For the both The Guardian and the political establishment, Griffin had become a very valuable scapegoat and the designation of the BNP’s views as uniquely ‘poisonous’ diverted public attention from the illiberal 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 attack 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, who had been instructed by BBC managers to give Griffin a tough time, relentlessly attacked Griffin, even asking him at one point why he was smiling. Griffin , as many commentators pointed out afterwards, seemed ill at ease in the ‘debate’ and his racist and often 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 patriotic legacy of the racist, genocidal imperialist Winston Churchill, the other panellists – each of them sporting the patriotic symbol of the red poppy – quickly objected, only to claim the same distinction for themselves.

From the establishment’s perspective, all seemed well. 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 played the occasion for maximal advantage, parading their patriotic credentials. The tabloid press also had a field day. The Mirror’s main feature on the subject on the day of the broadcast, for example, 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 this feature, 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 self-satisfied triumphalism of the politicians and the press smacked more than a little of hypocrisy.

During the broadcast, Griffin’s fellow panellist Labour’s Jack Straw proclaimed that at least 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 have the slightest 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 can only dream of implementing such oppressive measures. The consequences of these measures can be appalling. Attempts by migrants to avoid immigration laws, for example, often results in dangerous and often lethal ‘people trafficking’. To take just one example, when Labour’s Jack Straw was Home Secretary in 2000, 58 Chinese migrants died in a truck as they were smuggled into the UK. Yet Straw – who in 2006 denounced Muslim women who wear the niqab veil – declared that his party, unlike Griffin’s, possessed a ‘moral compass’. This abstract claim to ethical superiority was the strongest contention that Straw could make; after all, the most superficial analysis of immigration policy would have quickly exposed Labour as the more dangerously racist party, if only for the simple reason that Labour at the time of the Question Time broadcast was in power and actually implementing oppressive anti-immigration policies (although all of the other British parliamentary parties, to be sure, propose broadly similar policies of what is euphemistically termed ‘immigration control’). It should be added that Labour instigated the ongoing war on Iraq, which the BNP actually oppose.

It is certainly true that not everybody who denounces the BNP as a ‘threat to democracy’ is as cynical as Jack Straw. In the face of a barrage of propaganda, many workers have in good faith come to see the BNP as a sinister threat to social stability, rather than a means of perpetuating the present chaos. Yet the widespread notion that the ‘fascist’ British National Party poses a threat to ‘British democracy’ rests on historical ignorance and political naivety. For one thing, the BNP is an extreme 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. Secondly, a little more care should be taken when using the term fascist. As Michael Hardt and Toni Negri point out at the beginning of their book Commonwealth, many leftists today 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 U.S. and Israeli states, like ‘Muslim’ jihadists, are undoubtedly terroristic and brutal; yet as Hardt and Negri point out, these examples must be considered misuses of the term fascist. Fascism is perhaps best seen as the response of capitalism to the specific configuration of the class struggle in the 1930s; it is certainly not a useful mode of capitalist organisation under present political conditions. In the unlikely event that the BNP were to come to power, capital’s requirement for immigrant labour would require that the party quickly ditch its repatriation policy; indeed, the party would have to abandon those of its policies less congenial to the smooth functioning of capitalist accumulation in order to stand any hope of winning political power. These basic historical and political verities 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. At the very least, those who campaign and protest against the BNP should campaign and protest equally vociferously against other ruling class factions. 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.

The exhibition of fascist bogeymen for propaganda purposes is hardly an original ruse. Ever since the Second World War, the spectre of a fascist threat has been whipped up in the media as a means of rallying the working class to 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 neo-fascist anti-immigration politician Jean-Marie Le Pen be granted television and radio airtime. In Britain and the US , too, anti-fascism has become a lynchpin of capitalist ideology, permeating fictional as well as factual media forms. Television dramas, such as the BBC’s fawning Winston Churchill biopic The Gathering Storm (2004), and ‘cool’ feature films, such as Quentin Tarantino’s infantile anti-Nazi romp Inglourious Basterds (2009) all contribute to the belief that liberal capitalism, for all its faults, is at least 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.

Liberal academics, too, often contribute to the scapegoating process. Reflecting on the Question Time case in the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association newsletter (April 2010), Sarita Malik notes the alacrity with which anti-Griffin protestors were ‘mobilised’. Referencing Anstead and O’Loughlin’s research on the ‘emerging Viewertariat’, Malik rightly notes that ‘such responses (or interactions) are now taking place across media formats, almost instantaneously and demonstrate a more fluid “structure of participation”’. Malik is on shakier ground, however, when she rebukes the BBC’s for its supposed failure to criticise the claims of the far-right English Defence League: ‘When the BBC repeatedly reports, as it has, that the English Defence League “describes itself as a peaceful, non-political group”, what message is it giving regarding the ethical codes of British broadcasting? “Balance” at what cost?’. Malik’s comment here contains two implications. The first assumption is that parties other than the EDL are ‘peaceful’. This is challengeable in very simple terms: since they pursue imperialist aggression abroad and preside over austerity and oppression at home, none of the mainstream parliamentary parties can scarcely be described as more ‘peaceful’ than the EDL. Malik’s second assumption is that the BBC’s commitment to impartiality sometimes results in reporting that is neutral to a fault. Yet it is hardly ‘balanced’ of the BBC to note that the English Defence League ‘describes itself’ as a peaceful group, since the BBC’s phrasing clearly indicates a degree of scepticism towards the EDL’s claims. In fact, contra Malik, it should not be assumed that the BBC ever aims for ‘balance’ in its political reporting; were it to do so, its news and current affairs programmes would surely be obliged to cover extra-parliamentary political activity – something the BBC never does.

Yet the assumption of BBC neutrality runs deep in liberal academia. In an article in History Today about Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance, historian Gavin Schaffer explores 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. Like Malik, Schaffer argues enthymematically: designating parties such as the BNP as ‘racial extremists’, he implies that 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 are all parties of ‘racial extremism’, yet Schaffer does not question the legitimacy of their appearance on the BBC’s premier political discussion programme.

Schaffer concludes his article by praising the BBC’s brave 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 from the radical perspective, all of the capitalist parties have policies on immigration that could be described as ‘odious’. Moreover, the notion that the BBC presents British society ‘warts and all’ is a capitulation to the BBC’s cherished self-image as a neutral cultural arbiter. 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. In allowing Nick Griffin to become the scapegoat for the oppressive immigration policies of the capitalist state, the BBC once again proved its worth as the faithful servant of the British state – a role it has performed with impressive consistency since Lord Reith offered his organisation’s support to the British government during the 1926 General Strike.

L’affair Griffin has proved highly serviceable to the ruling class and the capitalist media. In the lead-up to the British General Election in 2010, journalists have been 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 repeated in the BBC’s 10 O’Clock News bulletin the same evening. For working class people, however, the choice between the ‘fascist’ parties and their ‘democratic’ counterparts is not a choice at all but, like all anti-fascist mystifications, a deadly trap.


danny said...

Excellent, well researched.
The SPGB would challenge the BNP on the corrosive nonsense of nationalism, something that the capitalist parties wouldn't touch with a barge pole. It would be like sawing though the branch the are sitting on.

Howard said...

A socialist can't disagree that the BNP serves as a scapegoat for the other capitalist parties, but there are parts of this article that almost make you think that the author wants us to feel sorry for Griffin and Co. There is something to be avoided here as well, that is the kind of argument that some 'left' and 'anarchist' groups started to develop a number of years ago that you can't trust any information at all on matters like the holocaust or the Pol Pot exterminations on the grounds that what the propgandists of the sysytem are perpetually trying to do is to show, by exaggerating what the 'extremists' do, that we shouldn't complain about that what the system itself does in 'normality'.

Howard said...

A socialist can't disagree that the BNP serves as a scapegoat for the other capitalist parties, but there are parts of this article that almost make you think that the author wants us to feel sorry for Griffin and Co. There is something to be avoided here as well, that is the kind of argument that some 'left' and 'anarchist' groups started to develop a number of years ago that you can't trust any information at all on matters like the holocaust or the Pol Pot exterminations on the grounds that what the propgandists of the sysytem are perpetually trying to do is to show, by exaggerating what the 'extremists' do, that we shouldn't complain about that what the system itself does in 'normality'.